Sunday, 31 January 2016

Ghost Brain: Why we THINK we see things

I used to have an excellent memory. Never forgot anything. Now I forget things several times and you’ll be lucky if I remember your name. Thankfully, the Daily Mail has informed me these brain changes are age-related. Panic over! But it did remind me (get it?) that memory is both fallible and (re)constructed. This has implications for how we perceive anomalous experiences and recount them to others. 

There are many cognitive mechanisms and biases (short cuts) we use to processes the available information to understand the world in a ‘good-enough-fit’ model. Our ancestors wouldn’t have lasted very long if they’d contemplated everything before reacting. Here’s a small selection of the salient ones in relation to paranormal phenomena:

Confirmation Bias – tendency to favour and recall information that confirms our existing beliefs and not searching for enough alternative evidence. I think this is why I always feel ‘dirty’ reading the Daily Mail.

Hindsight Bias – “I knew it all along!”. The sense that an event was predictable despite having no basis for predicting it. Memory becomes reconstructed, i.e. forget contrary evidence. We tend to remember the hits not the misses. 

Pareidolia – seeing something significant (i.e. a pattern) in random information. This can be both visual and auditory. Common examples include Faces in Places and Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). 

Agency Detection Bias – tendency to falsely believe phenomena are explainable in terms of an active conscious agent. Closely linked to anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits, emotions, intentions to non-human objects and entities, e.g. weather, animals. Animals of course have emotions, intentions but dressing them up, giving them birthday parties and marriage ceremonies says more about us than them.

Type 1 Error – a false positive (incorrect rejection of the null hypothesis). It’s safer in evolutionary terms to assume a perceived threat is real than false (Type 2 error, false negative/incorrect acceptance of the null hypothesis). 

False Memory – recall of memories that did not occur. Most of us have experienced this in some small way but it has had big implications for criminal cases. 

So it’s worth being critical of our own perceptions and the testimony of others. How many times have we heard people say “I know what I saw!”. Can we fully know what we’ve seen? Paranormal experiences are usually in ambiguous conditions, i.e. night time, peripheral vision, fleeting etc. I often qualify my evidence with “This may be a false memory or a dream but…”. This may be extreme but it appears we can’t always trust our own perception.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Derren Brown – Good or Evil?

Much controversy has surrounded Derren Brown’s latest TV show: ‘Pushed to the Edge’. Here a member of the public is seemingly coerced to committing murder. Many took to Twitter to complain (as they always do!) that the show was cruel. Whilst it’s true such a psychology ‘experiment’ would not get ethical approval now, there is a great deal of research behind it looking at obedience to authority and social compliance.
The most famous example is a series of studies by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in 1960’s. These looked at whether a participant would deliver a life-threating electrical shock to a stranger under the guise of an experiment. As in Derren Brown’s show, stooges and a character in authority were used to lead the person through a series of small dishonest tasks until they were asked to take the ultimate step. In Milgram’s early studies the majority of people (average of 60%) pressed the button to administer a fatal electric shock.

Unsurprisingly, these results have been brought into question. The research can be seen as a response to the horrors of the world wars and a desire to ask why people may follow a cruel regime and commit atrocities. We like to think the past is a different world. Surely people are not that gullible now? Aren’t we more likely to question authority? The rise of extremism in certain areas of the world proves otherwise. It is chilling to note in ‘Pushed to the Edge’ the participant pushed a real life person off a rooftop. In the Milgram experiment the participant did not see the person they were ‘killing’.

It is heartening that not all the participants took this ultimate step. But don’t we all submit to authority without question in our lives? When we visit the doctor, follow orders from the police etc. Social conformity is a trait we all have to some degree. Studies by Solomon Asch in USA showed that people were more likely to give a wrong answer when this was proposed by others in the group (stooges). Whilst these human traits are characterised as ‘bad’, what is defined ‘good’ or ‘evil’ depends on the situation we find ourselves in. Something deemed bad may be adaptive in a different scenarios, e.g. zombie apocalypse (my favourite example!).

It is certainly true we should promote critical thinking to avoid the consequences of following evil people and ideologies but without the ability to conform humans would not have survived in social groups. We need to bear in mind our psychology has evolved for a reason – it served us well in the past!

Derren Brown’s replication of the Milgram experiment

British Psychological Society special issue on Milgram

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Harry Price: Ghost Worrier

Like a few others, I watched the ITV drama 'Harry Price: Ghost Hunter’ on Sunday night.

I knew it was an adaptation of the book ‘The Ghost Hunters’ by Neil Spring (an account of the Borley Rectory investigation) but hadn’t considered it would be a total work of fiction. We learnt nothing about Harry Price or the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). 

However, it was a good ghost story. Atmospheric and nicely shot. I particularly liked the scene where the woman of the house threw a sheet across the bedroom and it landed on the ‘ghost’ forming a human shape. 

Maybe this was the best account we could expect of the (in)famous psychical researcher. Price almost defies our need to categorise him as a ‘believer’ or ‘sceptic’. His behaviour was confusing - both (allegedly) faking and debunking paranormal phenomena. 

As explored by the programme the loss experienced by families during and after the war fuelled the rise of Spiritualism. The expectation of contacting loved ones, and the desire from others to provide comfort, must have been overwhelming. As Price explained “Give the people what they want!”

Post-war Women’s rights were also explored in the programme. The feminist perspective on Spiritualism itself is interesting, i.e. the role of ‘medium’ provided a position of power not afforded to women elsewhere in society. The lingering look from the female character during the final scenes to Harry’s request to join him suggests there may be a follow-up.   
My main thought after watching was one of disappointment. Not that it wasn’t a documentary but that people who do psychical research are not more prominent or well regarded as they were back then.

Whilst I am a sceptic and don’t think there is anything to find I don’t want to stop people looking. If they don’t find something they’ve only wasted their own time but if they do we all benefit! 

I remember watching programmes from 1970's and 1980’s when there seemed to be a real momentum to their research. Maybe it's my own nostalgia or that we’ve all become too cynical after Uri Geller, Psychic Sally and Most Haunted etc. 

Ultimately, I think it was a missed opportunity to learn more about this fascinating period.