Uncovering the paranormal

Tales from a scientist investigating haunted houses, ghostly recordings and self-proclaimed psychics...
03 November 2014

Interview with 

Chris French, Goldsmiths University of London


Do you believe in the supernatural? Whether you think you've seen a ghost, or have visited a psychic who seemed to have the edge, these beliefs are far from rare. Psychic crystal ballChris French and his team at Goldsmiths University of London investigate these paranormal claims, looking at the psychology behind these beliefs. He explained how your mind can play tricks on you, with a little help from some 'ghost recordings' and an impossible musical scale.

Chris F. -   Anomalistic psychology is basically the psychology of weird stuff.  It's everything from people who think they have seen ghosts, people who think they've been abducted by aliens, people who think that they have psychic powers, and my general approach is, I'm not convinced that any of those things are really true.  So, I'm interested in the psychology behind it.  What makes people think...

Chris -   I'm disappointed now!

Chris F. -   I'm sorry.  We do actually spend quite a lot of our time also directly testing paranormal claims.  So, we'll get psychics in, say, "Do your stuff under properly controlled conditions and guess what?"  No, they're not...

Chris -   What fraction of the public claim to be psychic?

Chris F. -   It's probably not an awful lot who would actually claim to be psychic.  A sizeable minority I'd say, but in terms of how many people believe in the paranormal, then you're typically looking at; at least half the population believe in at least one or rather paranormal claim.  So, it's really interesting to us.  The question, what is it that's going on when people think they've experienced something psychic and can we explain it in kind of normal psychological terms?  I think very often, we can.

Chris -   Can we do a quick test?  Hands up here if you believe in ghosts.

Chris F. -   You're a sceptical bunch.

Chris -   Just so everyone at home knows, there's about a hundred people here and I can count about 5 hands up.  Hands up if you're a liar.  There'd be more hands going up.  So, not particularly...

Chris F. -   That's very, very atypical.  For example, on the question of ghosts, you would typically find about 40% of people would say that they believe in ghosts and of those, quite a lot of them would say they have personally experienced a ghost.

Chris -   What about if we phrase the question slightly differently?  Who here has had an experience - they can't explain that you think might have some kind of bizarre reason behind it?  So, a few more hands are going up.  Is that more reflective, Chris?

Chris F. -   Bear in mind, we are at the Cambridge Science Centre and this is probably not a typical audience.  We've got an audience of people who probably are quite into science, probably have a different attitude to lead to the general public.  So, that's not very representative at all.

Chris -   So, when you put these sorts of psychic phenomena to the test, what sorts of things do you test and how do you test them fairly?

Chris F. -   Well again, it very much depends on the specific claim.  If we test a psychic for example, the kind of thing we'd do would be - I mean, psychic explain that they can tell you all about yourself, just using their psychic powers.  They don't use any of the normal senses.  It's not just guess work.  They just use their psychic powers.  So, what we would do might be for example, to get a number of volunteers in to have a reading done by these psychics.  But we'd do it slightly differently than the way they usually operated.  We'd have the people sitting behind a screen so they couldn't see them.  We would have a situation where they don't actually ask them any questions.  There's no conversation.  They just use their psychic powers.  They write down their reading.  We'll then take those readings for say, 5, 6 volunteers, get the volunteers to come back and read through all the different readings and choose the one that was done for them.  Now, if the psychics can really do what they say they can do then there ought to be one reading there that is all about you personally -lots of personal details and guess what?  It just doesn't happen.  They actually come out, just at what you'd expect on the basis of chance, guess work.

Chris -   ...a tabloid newspaper sacked their man who did the stars and then they said, the next after they'd said they sacked him, they wrote, "He didn't see it coming."  Anyone here been to a psychic reading or anything like that?  Anyone had that experience?  Would you mind just telling us why did you go out of interest or something?  Can I just ask you?

Female -   Yeah, so I was working in Thailand at that time on malaria and it's really, really big in Thailand.  And so, it was partly to get involved with the culture and understand why people go.  There was a bit of a language barrier going on but it was an interesting experience to see why so many students and these were based in universities.  So, people would go to universities.  The students will go to where they're based and talk about it.  It was interesting to see.

Chris -   So, big cultural differences, Chris?

Chris F. -   Yeah, there'll be huge cultural differences.  But what you will find is that across any culture, any society you care to look at either historically or geographically, there will be people who claim they have these special powers, there'll be lots of people who believe that these claims are true, and there'll be lots of people who claim they have had personal experience of the paranormal.

Chris -   Anyone like to ask Chris any questions about actually how he does his research?

Sophie -   Sophie from  Blenheim . Do you think that ghosts are real?  Do you think that even if it doesn't prove that they're real, do you think they're real just because it would be cool if they're real?

Chris F. -   I think it would be cool if they're real.  Certainly, when I was your age, I was absolutely convinced that ghosts existed and I couldn't sleep without a night light.  I was terrified.  But the more psychology I learn, the more I realise that there are ways that your mind can play tricks on you.  You can think you're seeing things and hearing things that aren't really there.  You can get yourself worked up into a state.  I mean, we can actually kind of demonstrate these kinds of effects under controlled conditions where we can setup situations where people see things as like I said, that aren't actually really there.  I've actually got one kind of quite nice example of that if you let me demonstrate that to you.  This is not actually something where people are seeing things that aren't there, but one of the things that a lot of paranormal investigation groups do, when they go in with all their bits of equipment to investigate a haunted location, there's something called Electronic Voice Phenomenon or EVP.  What these people claim is that if you go into these locations which are supposed to be haunted and you have a recording device on, that if you record just all the background noise and then play it back, you can actually hear spirit voices.  Now, it's interesting that when the people who do this do it, they like to use really old bits of equipment.  They don't like modern equipment that gives you never nice, clear, crisp recordings.  They like stuff that gives you lots of background hissy noises and then when they play it back, yeah, you kind of think you can hear something going on.  Now, the explanation of what's going is that sometimes you probably are genuinely recording real people, voices.  There are really voices there.  I mean, I did a daytime TV show a couple of years back and one of these investigators was playing this EVP and it was, without a doubt, someone singing Celine Dione songs.  It was absolutely terrifying, I have to admit but I don't think it was a ghost.  If you went on to various websites, you can play this stuff.  So sometimes you can hear voices, sometimes you just get speech-like sounds.  The interesting thing is, if you go on these websites, you typically can't figure out what the message is until you read what you're supposed to be hearing and then you kind of think, "Yeah, I can kind of hear that."  So, what I'd like to do is play you some examples.  These are genuine examples of EVP and you see if you can figure out what the spirits are supposed to be saying.  I think that you'll have difficulty, but these are fairly typical kinds of recordings.  So, here we go.  Here's the first one... (recording) Anybody?  Hands up if you think you can hear it.  Somebody at the back there...

Male -   Barry.

Chris F. -   Barry, okay.  That's not too far away from what it says on the website, but it's not quite right.  I'll give it to you again.  (recording).  Anybody?  Anybody else?  Put a hand above your head now.  Somebody here...

Female -   I'm sorry.

Chris F. -   That's very good.  It's actually, "We're sorry."  I'll play it again so that you can get it.  Here we go, "We're sorry."

Recording -   "We're sorry."

Chris F. -   Maybe.  I'm going to give you one more example.  See if you know what this one says... (recording).  Any offers?  What do you think a ghost would say?  Think about the kind of thing that a ghost would say.

Male -   I think that time I heard, "I am a ghost" possibly.

Chris F. -   That's an interesting one, but I'll tell.  I mean, what would you expect a ghost to say - it's, "Come and find the cake."  Okay, so I'll play it again and this time, see if you can hear it.  It's, "Come and find the cake." (recording) Yes, it's "come and find the cake" isn't it?  Except, I played a little trick on you there because according to the website that we took that from, that's not the message.  The message is supposed to be, "Someone's in the way."  Now I must admit, to me, whenever I hear it now, I always hear, "Come and find the cake".  But I'm going to play it to you again.  See if you can hear it, "Someone's in the way" because that's how some people hear it.  (recording).  Now, it's "Come and find the cake".  It is.  I mean, what that illustrates is the way that when we've got kind of very ambiguous, very degraded stimuli, you're not quite sure what any of that is.  You can read meaning into it.  I think that explains an awful lot of the time when people think they've seen a ghost in the shadows or they think they've heard something, think they've heard a voice, etc.  there are lots of other things that can come into play as well.  Well, that's one example.

Maria -   Hello.  I'm Maria from Cambridge.  I'm just really curious.  The psychics you work with or people who think they can see or hear, when they finished working with you, does anybody ever say, "Oh my God!  Maybe I got it wrong"?

Chris F. -   You'll be amazed to know that on one occasion when we tested a psychic, we did the test, she got the results.  She said, "Well, I should have been able to pass that test.  I'm gobsmacked!"  That was her term.  "I'm gobsmacked!"  We thought, that's unusual because usually, they start making all kinds of excuses.  We always bend over backwards to make sure that they're happy with the test before we start.  No point in doing it otherwise.  We get them to sign something to say it's a fair test.  Afterwards, when they fail, they typically say, "It wasn't a fair test after all."  This woman actually, it looked like she was going to be the first one ever to say, "Well, I should've been able to do that."  Within a day or two, she changed her mind and decided it wasn't a fair test after all.

Hannah -   There's a question that's come in via Facebook. Steven Quill has been in touch saying, "What's the most spooky experience one of the panel has ever encountered?"

Chris F. -   I have spent very, very many nights in supposedly haunted houses and I must confess, it's about as exciting as watching paint dry.  I find myself sitting there thinking, "Why am I doing this?"  And then I remember - it's usually for a TV programme - so I remember, "Ahh!  It's because they're paying me."

Chris -   Ginny and Hannah.

Ginny -   So, we're going to show you that you maybe can't always trust everything that you hear.  I want everyone to listen to this and think about what you can hear, what it sounds like...(audio).  It's quite spooky, isn't it?  So, what does it sound like?  Can anyone describe it for me?

Harry -   I'm Harry.  I'm from Caldecott.  Is it someone playing the piano?

Hannah -   It might be the piano.  I don't know what instrument it is.  It could be the piano.  What does it sound like?  Is it going up or down?

Harry -   Isn't it the same few notes played over and over again?

Ginny -   What did everyone else think?  does it sound like it's staying the same?

Male -   Sounded like it was going up a scale, up a spooky scale.

Ginny -   Give us a cheer if you agree.

Audience -   Yes!

Ginny -   Did anyone think it was going down?

Audience -   No.

Ginny -   No.  So, it sounds like it's going up.  Let's have another listen.  I think it sounds a bit like someone creeping upstairs, going up and up and up.  Would you all believe me if I told you that's not actually going up and up forever?  It's all an illusion.  So, we're going to need someone to help us prove that.

Hannah -   What's your name?

Malcolm -   Malcolm.

Hannah -   Malcolm, will you come and join us on stage?  so, in front of Malcolm, we've got a big a speaker and surrounding the speaker, a little kind of almost like piano keys which - Malcolm, we're going to get you to hit each one of the piano keys, in turn, going around the speaker.

(Malcolm playing)

Hannah -   And now, Malcolm is right back at the beginning and he's continuing going around.  What's happening, Malcolm?

Malcolm -   It's just getting higher.  The notes are just getting higher.

Hannah -   Even though you're hitting same keys of the piano almost, the notes sound to you like they're getting higher.  But how can that make sense?

Malcolm -   I'm not sure.

Ginny -   A round of applause.  (applause).  So, this is a really clever illusion because it felt like you could've just kept playing them over and over again and it would've got higher and higher.  But actually, when you think about it, that ending note...wasn't actually any higher than the one we started on...  So, what's going on here is they're not actually one single note.  You've got lots of different frequencies, lots of different pitches being played together.  Each time you move one note along, each of those notes goes up a step, but the one at the very top disappears, and you add a new one below.  So, you can imagine it like a whole load of lines moving up on a page, but when they get to the top of the page, they fall off, and you add an extra one below.  So, although each individual note within that chord is going up every time you play the next one, the whole overall thing isn't getting any higher.  It's kind of like - I don't know if anyone seen the drawing of Escher's staircase?  It's this really cool illusion where it looks like you could just keep walking up and up the staircase forever but it actually goes around in a circle.  You can think of this as a kind of auditory version of that visual illusion.  But it just shows that we can't always trust our brains and we can't always trust what we think we hear.


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