From next month, potentially thousands of teenagers at schools and colleges throughout the UK will start lessons that deal with telepathy, psychokinesis, psychic healing, near-death experiences and talking to the dead. Surely the minds of the nation’s youth will be corrupted by all this mumbo-jumbo?
Don’t panic. I believe this is a development to be warmly welcomed, although I should declare a vested interest. From September, anomalistic psychology will be offered as an option on the A2 psychology syllabus for A-level students from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, the largest of the three English exam boards. For several years I have been teaching a course on anomalistic psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, as part of our BSc in psychology. I have also been trying, along with others, to raise the academic profile of the discipline through the work of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths and am therefore delighted by this latest development.
What exactly is anomalistic psychology and why should it be taught in our schools and colleges? This is the definition offered on our website:
Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those which are often labelled “paranormal”. It is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved. It entails attempting to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors.
Given its focus upon ostensibly paranormal events, it is important to distinguish anomalistic psychology from the closely related discipline of parapsychology. This is the scientific investigation of the “paranormal” – phenomena that cannot be explained in terms of currently accepted scientific theories.
Most parapsychologists focus on three main areas: extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis and evidence relating to the possibility of life after death. Alleged ESP includes telepathy (direct mind-to-mind contact), clairvoyance (picking up information from remote locations without the use of the known sensory channels) and precognition (foretelling the future). Psychokinesis is the alleged ability to influence the outside world by willpower alone – everything from subtle effects upon random events at a subatomic level through psychic healing to spoon-bending and levitation.
Anomalistic psychologists are interested in claims relating to all of these areas, but they are also interested in attempting to explain beliefs and experiences that fall outside this strict definition of paranormal, including alien abduction claims, astrology, the Bermuda triangle, dowsing and so on – in other words, all things weird and wonderful.
Another difference between parapsychologists and anomalistic psychologists is that, in practice, the former tend to focus most of their efforts upon trying to produce evidence in support of the existence of paranormal forces whereas the latter tend to be sceptical regarding the very existence of such forces, mainly focusing instead upon non-paranormal explanations of ostensibly paranormal events.
So why should psychologists expend any effort attempting to explain such experiences? The most obvious reason is that if psychologists cannot explain such phenomena, they will have nothing to say about an important aspect of the human condition. These beliefs are widespread and deep-seated. An opinion poll published by Readers Digest in 2006, for example, found that of 1,006 British adults surveyed, 43% claimed to have experienced telepathy, more than half said they had experienced precognition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost, and 29% believed near-death experiences were evidence that there was an afterlife.
Similarly high levels of belief and experience are found all over the world and throughout recorded history. To me, this can mean only one of two things.
It might be an indication that, contrary to accepted scientific opinion, paranormal forces really do exist. If this is the case, then the scientific community must learn to overcome its prejudice towards paranormal claims and embark upon the serious and sustained investigation of paranormal forces.
But what if conventional scientists are right to reject paranormal claims? If so, psychologists can learn much of value by exploring the ways in which people often believe they have experienced a paranormal event when in fact they haven’t. The challenge facing anomalistic psychologists is to explain the full range of ostensibly paranormal experiences in purely psychological terms.
It is important to realise that at this stage we cannot say with certainty whether paranormal forces exist or not. But until parapsychologists produce a robust and replicable demonstration of paranormal effects, it is perfectly legitimate for the wider scientific community to express scepticism regarding such claims.
Even if parapsychologists ultimately succeed in producing proof of such phenomena, anomalistic psychologists would still have performed a valuable service by helping them to sort the genuine psychic stuff from the stuff that simply isn’t. Personally, I’m not holding my breath. After well over a hundred years of systematic research into allegedly paranormal phenomena, I do not get the sense that ultimate proof of the paranormal is anywhere nearer than it was at the outset.
Chris French is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he heads the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. He also edits the [UK] Skeptic magazine