An Interview With Richard Wiseman

11 September 2014

By Pan Macmillan

How did you first become interested in the psychology of the paranormal? What inspired you to write Paranormality?

Ever since I was a kid I was interested in magic and puzzles. I used to go to my local library and look through the books they had on conjuring, and the paranormal section just happened to be on the next shelf. I started to read the books on Bigfoot, ESP, reincarnation etc., and found it all fascinating. However, I was always rather skeptical about the existence of these phenomena. Then I studied for a psychology degree and became interested in why people reported strange experiences, and our need to believe in the unexplained.

I have always wanted to write about this aspect of my work, and after 59 Seconds I had the idea for a very interactive book that explores the relationship between seemingly supernatural phenomena and our beliefs, brains and behaviour.

Why do people believe in the paranormal? And why is it important to understand why we see what isn’t there?

People believe in the paranormal for lots of different reasons. Most people believe because they have had an experience that they can’t explain. So, for example, they might think that they have seen a ghost, had a dream that predicted the future or had an out of body experience. Paranormality explores the psychology behind these experiences, and it is important that people consider these other explanations for their experiences.

However, many people believe even though they have not experienced anything unusual. Sometimes they have been convinced by a television programme or heard about the experiences of friends and family.

Finally, some people really want to believe because it makes them feel better. If they have recently lost a loved one then it is comforting to think that you they can still communicate with them. Or if they are ill, it is nice to think that a psychic healer can magically sure them. I am skeptical about the evidence for both mediumship and healing, but it is easy to understand why people are attracted to both ideas.

What is the most interesting story you have come across while investigating the psychology of the paranormal?

I have had lots of interesting experiences. In Paranormality I describe my work investigating a psychic dog, spending nights in supposedly haunted houses and investigating gurus in India. It has all been lots of fun and I am reluctant to single out any one adventure.

Paranormality contains activities that allow readers to experience the impossible. What is the best trick that people will take away from the book?

Again, very tricky. The book contains lots of activities, including how to have an out of body experience, give a psychic reading and appear to move objects with the power of your mind. I guess if I had to choose one it would be the ‘numb’ finger demonstration. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves holding hands with someone and making them believe that their finger has gone completely numb. It is a really odd sensation and is very easy to perform.

You used to be a magician. Why did you decide to become a psychologist?

In a way, magicians are psychologists. They have to understand how people think and feel in order to be able to deceive them. However, unlike fake psychics, they are honest deceivers because they tell their audiences that they are watching a magic trick. Psychologists have been interested in studying magic for over a century in an attempt to understand how conjurers manipulate attention and influence perception. However, magic is very complicated and it is very early days yet!