cover image The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal

The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal

Chris French. MIT, $29.95 (424p) ISBN 978-0-262-04836-1

This fascinating inquiry from French (coauthor of Anomalistic Psychology), a psychologist at the University of London, provides scientific explanations for such otherworldly phenomena as alien encounters, déjà vu, and ghosts. For example, researchers of near-death experiences have proposed that the frequently reported sensation of “moving through a tunnel toward a bright light” is likely caused by random neurons firing in the visual cortex as a result of physical duress; because “there are more cells devoted to the center of the visual field than to the periphery,” these firings are likely to be perceived as a bright, central light. Debunking ghost sightings, French cites a study that found subjects were more likely to report “physical, emotional, psychic, and spiritual experiences” after exploring a disused movie theater if they were told it was haunted beforehand, suggesting that paranormal perceptions might be biased misinterpretations of “creaking floorboards or cold drafts.” According to French, mediums take advantage of the Barnum effect, which describes the tendency for people to believe that such vague statements as “you have a great need for other people to like and admire you” are personalized and accurate. The science intrigues, though the scholarly prose somewhat saps the fun (“Absorption, dissociativity, and fantasy-proneness have all been shown to intercorrelate with each other as well as with paranormal belief”). Skeptics will feel vindicated. (Mar.)