Recent revolutionary advances in science, particularly neuroscience, have profound implications for paranormal research. It is obvious that many apparently paranormal experiences can be explained by the way our brains work. Clearly, the current model of paranormal research, almost unchanged for over a century, having delivered very little, is overdue for its own revolution. This page is an index into more detailed discussions of what is wrong with current research methods and the way forward - please follow the links for details.
It is ironic that, over the last decade or so, much paranormal research has reverted to old fashioned, assumption-led methods, no doubt inspired by the media. These could be described as Victorian techniques with better cameras! They have failed to deliver a testable theory of the paranormal or reproducible paranormal effects.
Here are some examples of the current research methodology problems (read the links for full description):
The challenge of new science
Neuroscience, the study of how the brain and nervous system works, is currently a fast moving field driven forward by technical advances like fMRI scanning and TMS. These allow researchers to watch the brain performing tasks in real time and even temporarily manipulate the way it works. These, coupled with other methods, have revealed astonishing things about perception that profoundly affect how paranormal experiences are interpreted.
For instance, we know that the 'picture in our heads' is not simply the raw output from our eyes. It can also include objects from our visual memory. Paranormal researchers have always accepted that a tree might be misinterpreted as a human figure (ghost) in poor viewing conditions. Now we know that our brains can actually substitute such a tree with a human figure from our memory, with details including limbs, head, clothes, etc. Because this is done before it enters our consciousness, we literally 'see' the human figure instead of the tree! It is little wonder that witnesses insist they really saw a ghost and not a tree!
Here are some examples of scientific advances that affect paranormal research:
- Visual substitutions - seeing one thing which is really something else
- Formant noise - how we hear 'human speech' in certain ambient sounds
- Misperception - how all our senses regularly deceive us
- Magnetic ghosts - how certain magnetic fields cause ghost-like hallucinations
- Mind tricks - how certain normal 'brain states' can make us experience things that aren't real
- Corner of the eye phenomena - peripheral and night vision that deceive us
- Confabulation - how memories are altered and exaggerated with re-telling
A new way
It is clear that science has 'raised the bar' for the standard of evidence required to demonstrate the paranormal. Paranormal research needs to rise to that challenge and abandon the old fashioned methods that have failed us for decades.
The way to demonstrate the paranormal remains the same as it always has - you first need to eliminate all natural causes. It is clear that assumption-led techniques fail to do that. Many paranormal investigations fall short because the researchers present are not aware of all the possible mundane causes for any particular incident. Thus, many incidents labeled as 'paranormal' are later challenged because possible prosaic explanations were not explored at the time of the investigation. By that time it is usually too late to go back and do more tests.
Even with existing methods, we have found that most paranormal reports are either definitely, or probably, explainable by natural causes. If you add in those that cannot be demonstrated to be paranormal because not all natural causes were explored, few if any old cases remain unambiguously paranormal.
The way forward is obvious - we need to know much more about possible 'mundane explanations' that cause so many apparently paranormal reports. The advantages of this approach are huge. For a start, unlike conventional paranormal research, progress is guaranteed because we know the things we are studying are definitely real!
An important concept in this approach is the xenonormal - the unfamiliar masquerading as the paranormal. When paranormal reports are found to have mundane explanations, it is almost always a case of the witness experiencing something they did not recognise - either entirely new to them or something previously known but in an unfamiliar guise. An example might be people, who've never noticed a planet before, mistaking Venus for a UFO. Xenonormal studies can provide a diagnostic toolkit for identifying such natural causes, even when they are apparently unlikely.
Here are some examples of how this new approach to paranormal research works:
- Xenonormal - how experiencing the unfamiliar generates apparent paranormal experiences
- New house effect - how an unfamiliar environment is a predictable source of xenonormal experiences
- EVP analysis and gallery - a scientific approach to electronic voice phenomena
- Culture - how it affects the way we interpret unfamiliar experiences
The aim of the new approach is to produce tests for the xenonormal and/or to reproduce its effects using only what was around when someone had their paranormal experience. Only by eliminating the xenonormal can we detect the truly paranormal.
* There is an over-emphasis on vigils in current research which generates a lot of 'phenomena' reports, most of which are probably the result of psychological suggestion or misperception.
© Maurice Townsend 2009