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Review: Paranormality

Review: Paranormality


Title: Paranormality
Author: Professor Richard Wiseman
Publisher Info: Pan Books, 2012

Reality is magical.

That’s roughly the main point former magician, noted sceptic and Britain’s only Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology Richard Wiseman makes in this lean, wittily written treatise on how and why everyday folk believe in the impossible. The ethos is simple. Never mind mystics, mediums, psychics, prophets, haunted houses and the glut of other supernatural phenomena that all too often turn out to be fakes; it’s the processes in our brains that make us believe people can really bend spoons with their minds or talk to the dead that are really fascinating.

Beginning with a charming account of his own testing of a seemingly telepathic terrier named Jaytee, Wiseman sets off on a journey cataloguing all the major genres of the paranormal, from out-of-body experiences to mind control – by way of a pair of religion-starting twins, some troubled masters of the psychic arts, and a talking ferret from space that lived in the walls of a farmhouse on the Isle of Man – then not only disproves them in turn, but explains why and what is going on behind the scenes is way more interesting than the pretense up front!

Whether explaining what really moves the table at a sèance or exposing just how little a fortune-teller has to do when predicting your future, the book celebrates the complex systems at the centre of our existence that we take for granted.

Suddenly, the art of cold-reading proves far more impressive than the mystery of telepathy, and we’re shown how the gift of prophecy could actually just be a quirky side effect of normal, everyday brain activity. It’s all added to nicely with the inclusion of several tricks and illusions in the book that put to use some of the phenomena discussed in each chapter, illustrating Wiseman’s point particularly well, and will no doubt be a hoot at parties and a dandy way to impress your friends (some quick and simple tricks are included in the “Instant Superhero Kit” at the back of the book.)

It’s clear when reading that Wiseman is as interested in as he is knowledgeable about his subject matter, and this helps make the ideas, theories and factual stuff offered to the reader accessible and fun. Which, given some of the charlatanism and chicanery the book deals with along the way, not to mention some fairly deep ideas around religion and faith, is no mean feat.

A lot of times, discussion of these ideas turn into exercises in political tub-thumping or boring, impenetrable lectures, but Wiseman deftly avoids these pitfalls with a combination of humour – there is some gentle wit and the odd real belly-laugh to be enjoyed – and a neat efficient structure. There aren’t that many books that tackle the story of infamous cult leader Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre and not only avoid rampant, gory sensationalism, but leave you in awe of how powerful the skills Jones used, which many of us use unconsciously in daily life, really are. But it’s done here and it’s done well.

On the downside, the book itself is in a fairly bland package and there are some notable typos which distract from the good clip that the book flows along at, though these moments are fleeting. It’s also near impossible not to feel that there is an agenda behind what is being said in the book when reading, although as is pointed out by Wiseman, people generally see what they want to see in things like this and forget the rest, so it’s likely that everyone’s view on what that agenda is will be very different.

None of this really stops Paranormality from being a cracking read, though full of humour, inspiration and the honest-to-goodness insanity that is life in the real world. This book is guaranteed to have you spending your day trying not to think of a polar bear, failing miserably, and loving every minute of it. A must-own.