Why do so many of us believe in the paranormal?

From ghostly sightings and Ouija boards to reports of alien abductions, Professor Christopher French talks to Sarah Freeman about our need to believe in the paranormal.

Television shows likeThe X Files fuel a belief in the paranormal.
Television shows likeThe X Files fuel a belief in the paranormal.

It’s not what it says on his business cards, but Christopher French is what you’d describe as a professional sceptic. Over the last 16 years at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit he founded, he has poured cold water on the ancient art of dowsing, disproved the claims of a succession of clairvoyants and shown stories of alien abduction to be less about UFOs and more about a phenomena known as sleep paralysis.

“Sometimes I do feel like I’m the one constantly bursting other people’s bubbles,” says French, who will be appearing at the Berwins Salon North event later this month, exploring the theme of magic. “The dowsing experiments where we concealed a bottle of water in one of six boxes are particularly illuminating.

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“For the first test we told the dowsers in which box the bottle was hidden and unsurprisingly the rods all started twitching furiously over the right one. However, the next experiment was conducted randomly - not even we knew where the water was - and guess what? The success rate was no better than chance.”

Professor Christopher French.

French, a psychology professor, says the movement of the dowsing rods is the result of the ideomotor effect, slight movements which the individual is unaware they are even making. It’s the same thing which makes the glass on a Ouija board move and French has an armoury of logical reasoning to explain away most paranormal events.

And yet despite all the evidence, many of us not only still believe in the paranormal, but will pay good money to clairvoyants and tarot card readers to tell us things about our past and future which may or may not prove true.

“For a lot of people an interest in the paranormal is a matter of curiosity, a bit of a laugh,” says French. “I suspect that most people who watch shows like Most Haunted don’t take it very seriously. I also believe that the vast majority of clairvoyants absolutely believe they are in touch with the other side. Of course there are charlatans who are trained in cold reading techniques and who wear earpieces so they can be fed information about the audience, but most genuinely believe that they can help people.

“However, out of all the psychics we have tested not one has been able to demonstrate they have special powers and yet they still go away believing they have. I have only seen one person genuinely gobsmacked and even then after a couple of days she had convinced herself that it wasn’t a fair test.

Professor Christopher French.

“I know a lot of people find comfort in seeing clairvoyants and if they aren’t causing any particular harm, then I guess the question is what’s the problem?”

French says he does try to be sensitive to those who use these readings to deal with life’s problems. It’s arguably less harmful than the bottle of wine or packet of cigarettes others reach for in times of need. However, it is an industry which has a more sinister side.

“There are cases when it is obviously doing more harm than good. If someone has a terminal illness and finds something like crystal healing brings some comfort towards the end of their life then it would be a very mean individual who robs them of that. However, there are people diagnosed with a treatable disease who are persuaded to reject traditional medicine in favour of some alternative treatment which will not make one iota of difference. It’s selling false hope and in the worse case scenario by the time they realise it’s too late.”

One of French’s specialist areas is the phenomena of false memories. For some it will mean a belief that in the past life they were Mary Queen of Scots, but it has also been linked to high profile allegations of child abuse.

“During the 1980s and 90s, people were going in for therapy for everything from eating disorders to depression and suddenly were coming out with memories of satanic child abuse. These stories were detailed and horrific.

“They talked of rituals where babies had been sacrificed and where children had been made to eat human body parts. It was nightmare stuff, but no bodies were found, there was no forensic evidence, but by the time the authorities realised there wasn’t a case to answer families had been ripped apart. Some people working in adult psychology are convinced that every problem in adulthood can be traced back to abuse in childhood and if some of these troubled individuals are asked again and again to trawl their past they will eventually uncover very detailed memories of events which in fact didn’t happen at all.”

It’s the same he says with cases of alien abduction which can often be explained by what’s known as sleep paralysis.

“Around a third of us will suffer it at some point. It’s basically where you wake up and you can’t move your body. It normally lasts a few seconds, but it can be accompanied by more involved symptoms. Some people experience hallucinations, which often involve a presence in the room, there’s a feeling of pressure on the chest and difficulty breathing. Add in strange lights and suddenly the tales of those who think they have been visited by UFOs suddenly start to make a lot of sense.”

French may now be the very definition of a cynic, but admits that for a long time he was on the other side of the paranormal debate.

“While it wasn’t an all-consuming passion, like a lot of teenagers I watched TV programmes about all this weird and wonderful stuff and gut instinct told me there was something in it. In fact I was a believer until I was doing my Phd in my early 20s and someone recommended a book by James Alcock called Parapsychology: Science of Magic? Reading that the scales fell from my eyes.”

French has provided a sceptical voice for countless documentaries and television shows and say there has only been a couple of occasions where he has been at a loss for a rational explanation.

“A few years ago I was involved in a Channel 5 series called Extraordinary People. One of the episodes called The Boy Who Lived Before was about a little lad called Cameron Macauley. He lived with his very down to earth mum in Glasgow, but since he was two he had talked of his previous life on the Isle of Barra.

“He was an incredibly bouncy five year old and I thought his memories could have been fed by things he’d seen on the television or internet. However, it was impossible not to be moved when they took him to Barra. All of a sudden his demeanour changed. He clearly wasn’t faking it and there were a lot of unanswered questions.”

French is a rational voice amid often wild claims, but even he admits that sometimes he has to hold up his hands and admit defeat, particularly when it comes to conspiracy theorists.

“If you don’t believe them you are either a sheeple, a big dumbass who can’t see through the lies or part of the conspiracy itself.It’s like nailing jelly to the wall.”

Professor Christopher French will be one of three guests speakers at the final event of this year’s Berwins Salon North series, which explores the world of magic. He will be joined by comedy performer Doug Segal, who is known for his award winning live mind-reading acts and award-winning science journalist Jo Marchant, who is also the author of Cure – A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body.

Berwins Salon North: Magic will take place on September 29 at the Crown Hotel, Harrogate. 01423 562 303, harrogateinternationalfestivals.com