issue 237 - November 1992
All in the mind
Experiences that seem paranormal may have very simple and
mundane explanations, argues Susan Blackmore.
Belief in the paranormal is Widespread and persistent. In many cultures it is practically universal and even in Europe and the United States about half the population believes in extrasensory perception (ESP). The most common reason they give is personal psychic experiences.
It might then seem stupid to deny that psychic experiences occur. Not so. We certainly cannot deny that people have the experiences, but we can question their interpretation. Perhaps they have misinterpreted as paranormal something which is actually quite normal.
I began research into the paranormal some 20 years ago, after having a long out-of-body-experience in which I seemed to float out of my body and travel across the world. Expecting to find evidence of the paranormal, my great hope was to show how fundamental it was to understanding the human mind.
My conclusion now is that there may well be no paranormal phenomena. The experiences are real enough but they are not paranormal. The way to understand the human mind is not to invoke spirits, souls, telepathic powers or psychic vibrations but to understand how our minds naturally lead us to misinterpret the world around us. Let's take the example of a dream that comes true. Suppose you dream that your favourite cousin is being buried in a coffin and the very next morning you get a call to say that she died in the night. What would you think? If you're human at all you'll probably think it must have been precognition (seeing into the future) or telepathy (mind to mind communication). You might try to calculate the odds of it happening just when you dreamed it. Could they be 1,000 to 1? 100,000 to 1? Surely they must be astronomical mustn't they?
No. And the reason is that we are asking the wrong question. After any event you can always imagine that the odds must have been astronomical - the number plate on your car having the same number as your theatre ticket; your thinking of a friend just as he rings; the falling tree which doesn't kill anybody. In retrospect any of these can look extraordinary, but could you have predicted any of them? With the thousands of things that happen every day, some coincidences are bound to appear extraordinary.
One way through this tangle is to look at the chance of a death dream coming true for anybody. One British statistician, Christopher Scott, has calculated how often death dreams should come true by chance. He assumes only that each person has one death dream in their lifetime and works out how often that should coincide with the death of the person dreamed about. Allowing for how many people die each night, even in a small country like. England, he concludes that this startling coincidence will happen to someone once every two weeks. Now each of these events is pure chance, but the people involved will almost certainly think it was psychic - and be wrong.
This is really the crux of the issue. When we call something paranormal we are implicitly saying that it could not have been chance. But how good are our judgements of chance and probability? The answer is 'terrible'. Psychologists have long known that people aren't like computers when it comes to estimating probabilities. They use a variety of short cuts to guess, relying on dubious things like how easily they can imagine different outcomes.
This leads to an interesting hypothesis. Perhaps people come to believe in the paranormal because they misjudge the probabilities of everyday events. If so we would expect the believers (often called sheep!) to make worse probability judgements than the disbelievers (or goats). Recently this has been confirmed in our own experiments at Bristol University in England and at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. When asked a variety of probability-based questions, the goats performed better than the sheep.
Memory can also create psychic illusions. Memory does not bring back a perfect copy of the past. It couldn't. Rather we reconstruct what happened and how. In the process, whether we are recalling the events of the Gulf War or reliving the sensual delights of last evening, we contract, expand, simplify and distort to produce a convincing and coherent account. We remember the things that fit in and forget those we would rather not accept. We fill in missing details to cover the bits we never paid attention to - often filling them in correctly, but also often not.
There is nothing wrong with this process. It is memory doing its job. No finite brain could hold precise information on everything that ever happened. It has to be simplified and pushed into shape. But the consequences are important. Of all the chance events that happen in our lives we are likely to remember the strange coincidences and forget the meaningless ones. So the strange ones appear to happen more often than they really do. We start to look for an explanation, cannot find one and so we call it paranormal. But actually no explanation was ever required. The perfectly normal processes of chance and memory led us astray.
Memory tricks us in another way. Every day thousands of fortune tellers, palm readers, clairvoyants, astrologers and New Age 'channellers' are peddling their 'insights' for big fees. Many people spend money they cannot afford; some spend literally fortunes on getting psychic advice.
And is it good advice? Memory is at work here too. Imagine you spend half an hour with a psychic. How many pieces of information will you be given? Perhaps a few hundred, a thousand? It is hard to say but you can be sure that you won t remember them all, and the ones you do recall will be the ones that fit - the ones that make sense, the ones you want to hear. The rest will be forgotten and you may not realize they were ever said.
US magician James Randi has long been the scourge of mediums and psychics and his book The Truth about Uri Geller claimed Geller was using standard magic tricks to do his feats. Randi recently transcribed a man's session with a psychic. He asked the man how many names the psychic mentioned and how many of those meant something to him. About halt a dozen was the answer, and they were all correct. When Randi counted there were actually 37 names in the transcript.
The point is not that the man was somehow incompetent. We are all like this. Our memories drop facts which don't fit in. For most purposes it doesn't matter - but one consequence is that it makes us believe in the paranormal when we really don't need to. Believing in the paranormal may give us a delightful sense of mystery, of being in control, of having access to special advice, but if it is a false sense the price we pay may be counted in more than just dollars.
All this implies that psychic events may be just an illusion. The obvious comparison is with visual illusions and the comparison is closer than you might think. We don't see visual illusions because our brains aren't working properly - quite the reverse. Visual illusions are the inevitable consequence of the way our visual systems work - a way which for most purposes is extraordinarily efficient, so efficient that no human-made computer vision system comes anywhere close to being able to 'see'.
In Figure 1 everyone sees the top line as longer than the bottom one. The reason is simple. Your visual system interprets the sloping lines as receding into the distance. If they were, the top line would be longer. The same effect is at work in Figure 2. It is the effectiveness of distance perception that produces the illusions - not something going wrong.
I suggest it is just the same with psychic experiences. Our natural tendency is to look for pattern and meaning in everything around us (can you see any pattern in Figure 3?). When we see patterns we cannot explain we look for explanations. If none is to be found we conclude it must be psychic - and we draw the wrong conclusion. If this view of psychic experiences is correct we might expect 'sheep' to see pattern in random shapes more easily than goats'. Our recent experiments in Bristol confirm this.
Another experiment concerned psychokinesis, or mind over matter, rather than ESP. If the same theory is applied we could see psychokinesis as an illusion of causality. We wish something to happen, it does, and so we conclude that our wishing was responsible - like driving up to traffic lights and willing them to change. If this too is an illusion then 'sheep' should be more prone to it than 'goats'. In experiments with a computer coin-tossing game we found that 'sheep' were more likely to think they had controlled the randomly flipping coin. We concluded that their proneness to this illusion of control may lead them in ordinary life to look for psychic explanations.
This way of understanding psychic experiences may underlie everything from precognition and telepathy to psychokinesis, but what about that out-of-body experience that first set off my quest for the paranormal? Or the dark tunnels that people close to death fly through to emerge into the light? These have little to do with probability but they may also have little to do with the paranormal.
Understanding out-of-body experiences means understanding our normal way of seeing the world. Normally we imagine that we are a self inside our heads looking out. In fact this is a mental construction. There is no little person in there. Rather our brains are constructing a model of the world from a viewpoint behind the eyes. The question then becomes: why should I suddenly seem to see the world from somewhere on the ceiling instead? The answer may be because I am dying and my brain can no longer construct a normal view of the world; because I am in terrible pain or am so relaxed that I feel I am floating. But why should even these experiences result in a bird's-eye view?
Ceiling with a view
The answer is that many memory models are in bird's-eye view anyway. For example, try to recall the last time you had to speak in public. Do you see the scene as though from where your eyes were? Or do you see yourself 'down there'. Many people see themselves as though in bird's-eye view. It is my suggestion that this view is simpler for the brain to construct when under stress and so this bird's-eye view takes over and seems real. This fits with recent experiments showing that people who have out-of-body experiences have better spatial imagery skills, are better able to switch viewpoints in imagination and are more likely to see themselves in dreams.
The tunnel too invites a normal explanation. In the brain's visual system there are far more nerve cells devoted to the centre of your visual field than to the edges of what you can see. Imagine now that the brain is dying. The first cells to be affected are the inhibitory ones which damp down the activity of other cells, with the result that there is widespread random activity in the brain. In the visual areas this means lots of activity in the centre and less towards the edges. And what will this look like? Possibly a bright light in the centre which gets bigger and bigger as the activity increases, in other words a light at the end of a tunnel.
If tunnels, out-of-body experiences and visions of various kinds can one day all be explained, doesn't that deny the very basis of spirituality? Certainly not. These experiences can have profound effects on people. Even if the light is a matter of brain activity, passing down that tunnel and feeling you have left your body can make you reassess the meaning of your life and glimpse the very fragile nature of the constructed self'. All this, it seems to me, is the true basis of spiritual experience and should not be ignored.
Hunting for the paranormal is not the way to understand the human mind; explaining our most puzzling experiences maybe.
Susan Blackmore is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England. She is author of The Adventures of a Parapsychologist and Beyond the Body.