Believers and Skeptics: a large-scale test

I was recently browsing Google Scholar and came across an interesting publication. Titled Paranormal psychic believers and skeptics: a large-scale test of the cognitive differences hypothesis, the article was written by Stephen J. Gray and David A. Gallo, both affiliated with Department of Psychology, University of Chicago.
The essence of the article is this (taken from the abstract):

Why do some people believe, while others are skeptical? According to the cognitive differences hypothesis, individual differences in the way people process information about the world can contribute to the creation of psychic beliefs, such as differences in memory accuracy (e.g., selectively remembering a fortune teller’s correct predictions) or analytical thinking (e.g., relying on intuition rather than scrutinizing evidence). While this hypothesis is prevalent in the literature, few have attempted to empirically test it. Here, we provided the most comprehensive test of the cognitive differences hypothesis to date.

The Brain from a Paranormal PerspectiveI was intrigued, so I pulled up the full article and read more. The primary goal of the study was to conduct a comprehensive test of the memory distortion hypothesis; they achieved this by testing the prediction that there would be individual differences in memory accuracy and distortion between those who believed in paranormal/psychic phenomenon and those who did not. The researchers also looked for potential links between psychic beliefs and measures of analytical thinking and personality characteristics.

The test was done through a combination of laboratory and online tasks and through multiple memory measures. They included both episodic memory and autobiographical memory tasks. Working memory was also tested, as it’s been linked to the belief/disbelief in other studies.

Rather than drone on and on about the testing process, etc, I’ll simply link you to the article (pdf here) and give you their summary of results (emphasis mine):

Our cognitive testing showed that there were no consistent group differences on tasks of episodic memory distortion, autobiographical memory distortion, or working memory capacity, but skeptics consistently outperformed believers on several tasks tapping analytical or logical thinking as well as vocabulary.

These findings demonstrate cognitive similarities and differences between these groups and suggest that differences in analytical thinking and conceptual knowledge might contribute to the development of psychic beliefs. We also found that psychic belief was associated with greater life satisfaction, demonstrating benefits associated with psychic beliefs and highlighting the role of both cognitive and noncognitive factors in understanding these individual differences.

Rather interesting results. I hope to see a continuation of their research; perhaps examining those who score equally on these tasks on a believer/nonbeliever basis to see if there are any other differences between the two groups.

What do you think?

That’s Not Paranormal Evidence—Its Your Mind Playing Tricks On You!

Investigating Our Perceptions of the Paranormal

If you’ve ever spent time researching the paranormal, you’ve probably noticed that much of the discussion surrounding the topic can be summarized as nothing more than opinions being debated among believers and non-believers alike. While this statement might not sit well with those of us who dedicate our time to the field of paranormal research, the truth we must admit to ourselves is that nearly every premise we operate under is unproven; they are merely surmises generated by a collective of individual perception and personal belief.

For those who have never been involved in a lively debate on, for example, the types of paranormal activity, this concept might not make sense at first glance, but you’ve probably seen at least one television show peppered with the term ‘personal experience’. This term is the key to the entire field of paranormal research. Everything we do is affected by our personal experiences, and those experiences are all based on our individual perception of the world around us. This long-standing situation has allowed those outside the field to target our research as pseudoscience.

All of this begs the question: Should the ‘data’ collected through paranormal research—photographs of orbs, video of strange shadows, audio recordings of what most interpret as a voice—which relies on individual perceptions be considered evidence? Its a difficult question to answer. The collection of data might seem to be science-based as it makes use of technology, yet even with modern recording devices, it all begins in the mind.

What Do You Hear?

The easiest way to understand just how much perception affects our evidenceis to test your own skills. Listen to the audio clip below, then challenge your friends to listen to it. Compare what you each think you’ve heard.

Just a tip: clicking on the link above will navigate your browser to If you’d like to open the sound file in a new window, right click on it and choose to do so; if not, just hit your browser’s back button to return to the article once you’re done listening to the file.

Evidence: What It Is and What It Isn’t

While it might seem natural to begin by digging further into the actual data itself, the first item of issue that must be addressed is the definition and concept of evidence. Ask anyone on the street if they know what evidence is and you’re certain to hear a resounding yes. Then ask them to give you the definition. You might just be amazed at the variety of responses you receive. I recently surveyed a group of family and friends, asking them this question: Without looking it up, can you define evidence? Here are two of their responses:

“I would say, ‘that which supports a claim’. I’m certain that there is some Latin involved which would explain the exact word.”

“Physical props that confirm a theory?”

Who has the right answer? Do you know? Here’s the definition for the word:

1. that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.

2. something that makes plain or clear; an indication or sign: His flushed look was visible evidence of his fever.

3. Law. data presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts in issue and which may include the testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.

Instead of helping to clarify the point, the alternative definitions for the word merely confuse the issue—and that is before we have even added in modern philosophical debate to the mix. There are two well-known quotes on the topic of philosophy and evidence which sum up the problem quite well. The first is from the book Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, written by A.J. Ayer, who observed,“For my own part, I think that if one were looking for a single phrase to capture the stage to which philosophy has progressed, ‘the study of evidence’ would be a better choice than ‘the study of language’.” This concept is further expounded upon by R.G. Collingwood in The Idea of History, where he wrote,“And when we try to define ‘evidence’ … we find it very difficult.” Difficult indeed!

This philosophical mire is exactly what the paranormal investigator wades into each time he or she uses the term evidence. Do they define that evidence as something which they believe proves or disproves the existence of ghosts, or is it ‘hard evidence,’ like that we’d find in a courtroom? And if they do indeed speak of that ‘hard evidence’ variety, does it not follow that it should be physical evidence or material facts that can not be debated or disproved?

The most frustrating factor of this confusion over the actual meaning of evidence is that it is only one facet of the larger debate surrounding paranormal research. If we accept that evidence is a reference only to a data set that is convincing to those who do not currently believe in the existence of paranormal activity, we’re excluding scientific research from the field on a wholesale level. If we instead choose to embrace the ideal of evidence as data which offers proof of fact, we bring the data itself into question, which in turn leads us back to our question of perception.

Data and Perception: Interpretation of Stimuli

At this point, you’re probably wondering exactly what perception has to do with a photograph or video. The answer is surprisingly simple: not everyone’s brain will interpret stimuli in the same manner. therefore, many ‘paranormal’ experiences are actually just normal experiences interpreted differently. This concept applies to everything from a ghostly encounter to a digital photograph.

These altered perceptions are often described by professionals as mistaken or illusive. Examples of this type of alteration abound, such as a situation when a coat rack is mistaken for a man due to low lighting and indistinguishable shadows. Altered perception can also be explained as plain imagining, such as when the shadows appear to be something they aren’t, taking on a shape and substance of their own. As an example, let’s revisit the picture below, which we discussed in our blog post Psychology of the Paranormal Pt. 1:

optical illusion

It’s all in the perception. It is for this reason that all data collected through a paranormal investigation not issuing from a scientific implement is suspect, even those seemingly-irrefutable videos and photographs. In fact, even when dealing with exact measurements such as time, temperature, pressure, etc, your collected data can be refuted if you’ve used the equipment improperly or failed to be exacting in your documentation. Yet those numbers are still removed from interpretation by an individual, whereas photographs and audio or video recordings are still external stimuli that our brain has to interpret.

As a community, paranormal investigation teams need to accept that no individuals perception of experiences will ever be credited as being scientific proof for an encounter with the paranormal. Science is much more likely to accept that those shadowy ghosts or that whispered response you’re perceiving are merely a trick of the mind is known as pareidolia. Pareidolia is, “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features.”

To learn more about how our mind works to interpret the stimuli around us, you can research both pareidolia and the fusiform face area, a region of our brain where we process faces and possibly other stimuli that we are extremely familiar with.

At The Threshold of Personal Belief

All of this information leads one to wonder if perhaps our inability to understand paranormal experiences is due to a lack of ‘belief’ in the experiences, or a deeper inability to understand the workings of our own minds. If we are unable to develop a research methodology that is removed from the acts of perception, how will we ever be able to scientifically quantify what occurs during a paranormal event—or if those events even happen to begin with? With the understanding that our mental processes are affecting each piece of data we collect, how do we, as investigators, separate the personal experiences from the evidence? At this point, there are no obvious answers, but we are certain that, through the dedicated efforts of research teams across the country, the puzzle of these investigation methods will be solved.

Einstein once said,”Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Though unintended, this statement sums up the current situation in field of paranormal research. The most effient way of achieving our end goal of understanding is to find a common ground between accepted science and paranormal research. Without scientists to help guide our research, the field investigations that paranormal teams conduct will never offer real evidence; without teams to carry out the field research, scientists will continue to miss out on opportunities to find an explanation for phenomena that are reported across the globe. Until we truly accept one another and embrace a new partnership, we continue to simply debate our personal beliefs.

Have Scientists Isolated Evidence of Psychic Phenomena?

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that in her land, “memory works both ways.” Not only can the Queen remember things from the past, but she also remembers “things that happened the week after next.” Alice attempts to argue with the Queen, stating “I’m sure mine only works one way…I can’t remember things before they happen.” The Queen replies, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Oh Alice, How Does Your Memory Grow

This is the opening paragraph from a really interesting article published over at the Psychology Today blog The Social Thinker, written by Melissa Burkley, Ph.D.  The idea invokes an interesting discussion of what memory is, what precognition might be and how the two are related.  Imagine, just for a moment, being able to ‘remember’ the future.  Consider the idea of being able to improve your mid-term final grade, business dinner or even that conversation with your mother-in-law simply by thinking about them and perfecting them in your own mind after they happen.

The implications of this possible evidence within the paranormal community could be far reaching; it introduces almost as many questions as it provides answers for.  Here is a bit more information on the research:

Dr. Bem, a social psychologist at Cornell University, conducted a series of studies that will soon be published in one of the most prestigious psychology journals (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). Across nine experiments, Bem examined the idea that our brain has the ability to not only reflect on past experiences, but also anticipate future experiences. This ability for the brain to “see into the future” is often referred to as psi phenomena.

I would love to hear everyone else’s opinion on this study.  How do you think it will affect the paranormal field? Do you believe the findings (based on the original article) are valid proof that we are (or can be) psychic?