Review: Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

So I’m going to start writing some quick reviews again, because I like to and it gives me something to do.  I’m starting with a non-fiction just because it was the last thing I read.

So Richard Wiseman is a psychologist.  Before he was a psychologist he was a magician, and it’s really no coincidence that magicians, like Harry Houdini, James Randi, Penn & Teller, are the most skeptical people in the world.  It’s of course because they know that human senses and memory are not always very reliable and they use that knowledge all the time to fool you. Even so, it seems Professor Wiseman was always fascinated by the paranormal, and this book is basically a collection of all the genuine scientific research into from the nineteenth century to now (give or take a few years.  I’m not sure exactly when this book was written).  We’re asked questions like, did Abraham Lincoln forsee his own death? (No).  Can a team of financial astrologers be outperformed by a little girl just picking stuff randomly? (Yes. But, the girl was a pisces, so…) Can you hypnotise a chicken?  (Yes… kind of.  But why would you even want to?)  And many more.

For the most part, it’s pretty funny, partly because many of the experiments themselves are funny, but mainly because Wiseman is a pretty funny guy.  I particularly enjoyed the episode about a priest interrogating a turning table, which I would like to see turned into a movie.  There are some handy lessons on How To Be A Psychic Superhero, and links to web content where you can watch videos about the topics (which is an interesting thing you don’t see in books too often).

But although these things are mostly just fun and harmless whether you believe in them or not, he does touch on some serious topics like cults and brainwashing.  He recounts the tale of Jim Jones, the cult leader responsible for the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, and in 1978 convinced over 900 of his followers to commit suicide.  Wiseman goes on to describe the research that followed into how cults and charismatic individuals can control and brainwash people.

His conclusion at the end of all this is that yes, human senses are extremely fallible, but that’s actually the price for being so amazing.  Our brains are so good at things like pattern recognition that sometimes we see patterns that just aren’t really there or finding meaning in things that are meaningless (which I guess is why some people can watch The Phantom Menace and come away from it thinking they’ve gained new insight into life).

All in all I’d say it’s a good book, and written in such a way that it’s very easy and enjoyable to read.  If you’re looking for proof of ghosts or out of body experiences then no, you won’t find it here.  As a writer myself, I find it fascinating to gain insight into the psychological mechanisms of the human mind and things that occasionally cause it to trip up.

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