My trip to Camp Quest: Engaging with children

I was invited to give a talk at Camp Quest about the things that make us mistakenly think we’ve seen a ghost. I approached this subject by talking about the two things that often make eye witness testimony impossible to trust as a true account of what took place.

When I was Ten nobody asked me what I thought about politics and the influence that it has upon personal identity and freedom. I like to think that if they had I would have provided them with answers or ideas that were as brilliant and as insightful as those I heard offered today in the ‘Philosophy for Children’ session I was allowed to sit in on at Camp Quest UK.

I was invited to give a talk at Camp Quest about the things that make us mistakenly think we’ve seen a ghost. I approached this subject by talking about the two things that often make eye witness testimony impossible to trust as a true account of what took place.

‘What we remember isn’t always what happened’ and ‘What we see isn’t always what was there’

I used various examples and ways of looking at these two problems and offered the audience examples of cases I’ve worked on in the past that show how the way in which we process that which we’ve experienced can leave us thinking we’ve experienced something completely different than what we actually experienced.

It was one of the more interesting talks I’ve delivered because this audience were really switched on and really open minded about what it was we were discussing. I didn’t have anyone interrupting the talk to suggest that ghosts were caused by Quantum Mechanics or to tell me they thought ghost research was absurd, and they were really open about the things they had experienced or things their families and friends had experienced that were considered as paranormal, and they weren’t afraid to ask me questions about it.

It was a really positive environment that encouraged questioning. When someone asked what might be considered a silly question there was no condescending laughter, just children beating me to it by answering the question for their fellow camper – sharing their thoughts and ideas. It was beautiful, really.

Professor Chris French had spoken at Camp the day before me and he had used songs played backwards to demonstrate audio illusions. I used a memory game to implant false words in the minds of the campers – and it is these hands on demonstrations that really stuck in the minds of the children in the audience. They even asked if I had any backwards songs I could play them as they’d enjoyed the effect it had had on their minds the day before.

When I had been asked to speak to the children at Camp Quest I was a bit apprehensive because I’ve never spoken to a younger audience before and wasn’t entirely sure what the best way of approaching my subject was. I figured that it was probably best to use interactive demonstrations – such as the memory game – to demonstrate my points rather than just speaking about psychological causes.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that some of the children already knew about things like the ideomotor response and how involuntary muscular movement could cause a glass to move when doing a Ouija board. I was also delighted when, during the Q&A session after my talk, the subject moved to monsters and the children started to recall news coverage of various monster sightings and the logical causes behind them. Suddenly I wasn’t the speaker in a Q&A anymore – I was a speaker in a group discussion about whether a plesiosaur was in Loch Ness, or whether the people on Lake Windermere were cashing in on the monster phenomena like those at Loch Ness (not my suggestion, this all came about completely unprompted by me or the camp leaders.)

It showed me that the uncritical media coverage of these subjects was reaching a younger audience, and that these kids in front of me were well equipped with the critical thinking skills needed to assess the claims such coverage makes because of things such as Camp Quest. Yet there are children out there that probably don’t have those skills. There are probably children out there who are like the younger me, getting terrified at the idea than panthers are prowling in the wild and that ghosts lurk in the shadows.

Camp Quest is a wonderful, beautiful thing and does something very important. I am really pleased that I got a chance to visit camp and to engage with such a wonderful group of children and young adults. I am thankful for being allowed to sit in on the ‘Philosophy for Children’ session and being able to see that the youth of today… they’re okay, if you just show them how to think for themselves.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the organisers and volunteers at Camp Quest. It was a great experience and I hope you carry on doing what you do for years to come. We need you. Also, thanks for the t-shirt – I love it!

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