Scientists show that Ouija works! (Not)

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Take a Break Fate and Fortune OuijaCanadian scientists have proven that Ouija boards have mysterious properties, according to Take a Break’s Fate and Fortune magazine of July 2014. In their “Spooky Science” section they reported that ‘Scientists investigating Ouija Boards have come up with some fascinating findings. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, sat two blindfolded participants down at a board and asked them to place their fingers on a glass. Unbeknown to one of them, their ‘partner’ was asked to silently leave the room. The remaining person was then asked a series of questions, which they’d previously been unable to answer. Strangely, when asked the questions again, they were able to answer them via the board. 

Student Ashwin Krishnamurthi, who took part said: ‘I thought the other person was trying to move the glass, but he wasn’t, because he’d actually left the room.’ Proof that Ouija messages really could be coming from the spirit world? We like to think so…’

Proof, more like, that Take a Break either didn’t read the study properly, or misinterpreted it so that it would please their readers who, by large, believe in ghosts, psyhics, crystal healing, witchcraft and other similar fringe beliefs. Have UBC really proven that Ouija boards communicate with ghosts? No… but their research suggests something even cooler…

A feature on the UBC research in the Smithsonian Magazine reveals what actually takes place in the study (as well as providing an interesting insight into Ouija), while the Inner Intel Project, run by the UBC Visual Cognition Lab describes the research on their website as follows:

Ouijas have long been advertised as a means to communicate with the supernatural, which may be an easy misconception. The movements ouijas make have been studied in the past by psychologists, and are classified scientifically as ideomotor movements. This is the phenomenon we investigate at the lab, in order to see whether a connection between these involuntary movements and our subconscious really does exist.

In the abstract of their published research the UBC researchers explained that they were studying whether ideomotor actions could help participants express non-conscious knowledge. The abstract goes on to explain:

Results show that when participants believed they knew the answer, responses in the two modalities were similar. But when they believed they were guessing, accuracy was at chance for volitional report (50%), but significantly higher for Ouija response (65%). These results indicate that implicit semantic memory can be expressed through ideomotor actions. They also suggest that this approach can provide an interesting new methodology for studying implicit processes in cognition.

The UBC research may be on the way to demonstrating that Ouija boards can provide insight into the unknown, it’s just not the unknown that Take a Break would have you believe. Ghosts are quite boring in comparison to what research like this may be showing about consciousness.

Suggested reading:

How People Are Fooled By Ideomotor Action, Ray Hyman
Science of Scams: Ouija Board, Derren Brown and Kat Akingbade

Take a Break photo: Laura Thomason

 

Slenderman: Myths, Murder and Humanity

Slender-Man-Artistic-Wallpapers

In her book The Biology of Violence, Neuroscientist Debra Niehof, after twenty years of studying whether genes or the environment make people violent, explains that both biological and environmental factors are influences and that particular types of stimulation – such as films, News coverage, or other sorts of media, are not going to provoke violence in every consumer. It’s the individual person that is the catalyst.

Yet we have a tendency to focus on these casual links formed between the criminal and what “influenced them” rather than considering other factors that may have been at play in their lives, factors that we may have also been exposed to in our lives. Violent video-games, horror movies, heavy metal music, gothic culture, and online communities have all been labelled as bad influences in the past when violent crimes have been committed, but are these links really justified?

In 2011 Dr Kathryn Seifert wrote for Psychology Today that in her Thirty years of experience and research as a psychologist working with high-risk youth and their families she had identified numerous factors that determine whether a person is at risk for developing violent tendencies, including  biological traits, family bonding, intelligence and education, child development, peer relationships, individual characteristics, cultural shaping and resiliency. She wrote

When the accumulation of negative factors (such as maltreatment, chaotic neighborhoods, or psychological problems) and the absence of positive factors (such as opportunities to be successful, adults who provide encouragement, or a resilient temperament) reach a threshold, that’s when violence is more likely to erupt as a means of coping with life’s problems.

When two Twelve-year-old girls attempt to murder a friend because they allege they believe in ‘Slenderman’ and wanted to become his Proxy’s (human servants under hiscontrol) why are people asking if we should ban or close horror related websites rather than asking how young girls can get to the position in which a belief leads them to try and kill another child?

For some it is enough to resort to headline reactions that are “Just Asking Questions” while forging unsupported casual links between criminal and inspiration, but really it’s the underlying factors that need to be explored, and it is these that are may be revealed as the investigation unfolds.

It’s easy to blame myths and to suggest that myths are dangerous and delusional, but in reality myths reflect us humans and our cultures, while Horror genres explore our most basic fears. It isn’t the myth that is dangerous, it isn’t horror that is dangerous, it is the humanity that they explore that is dangerous. You, me, everyone around us… in the right bad conditions we can all do horrendous things. It’s this, I suspect, that people find difficult to accept.

We must blame them and cause a fuss
Before somebody thinks of blaming us!

 

So, Most Haunted is coming back…

ghost costume

Lots of people have been asking me what I think about both Most Haunted making a return, and many cast members leaving the Ghost Hunters (TAPS) team.

To cut a long answer short:

To elaborate, these shows have nothing to do with paranormal research. I’ve written about why in more detail before, but ultimately these shows are created to appeal to those interested in pop-culture paranormal. Thrill seeking ghost hunters that don’t know what science actually means, for example, or those who believe in ghosts and are actively looking to confirm their beliefs are right.

Although I first became a ghost hunter because of Most Haunted, I soon grew up and realised what a prick I had been for those years that I thought that show was something to aspire to. Most Haunted is an entertainment show that was most probably inspired by Ghostwatch which was written by the profoundly talented Stephen Volk. Watch Ghostwatch and then Most Haunted and you’ll have your mind blown at how similar the formats are (other than one being fictional and one presenting itself as factual.) Yet, despite this – and despite the numerous times that Most Haunted (and it’s American cousin Ghost Hunters) are accused of faking stuff on their shows, the majority of ghost hunters treat the episodes as training manuals.

As a result of hyping up something quite mundane to meet with growing audience demand they create false expectations for those who have no real experience of paranormal research, which in comparison to an episode of one of these shows, is pretty boring and tame when done properly (but worth it when your research pays off).

The legacy of shows like Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters and their many clones is one of unethical practice and pseudo-scientific conduct from hundreds, if not thousands of amateur ghost hunters across the globe. The shows have inspired a generation of ghost hunters who do not research their methods before applying them to cases because if it’s good enough for their heroes on television it’s good enough for them.

People who experience weird things are often vulnerable and deserve to have ethical researchers handle their case with scientifically sound protocols, but instead they often end up with Yvette Fielding clones or Zak Baggins macho-wannabe’s who tell them their house is, like… totally haunted. Their EMF says so.

The 5 Weirdest Things People Have Said To Me

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I recently read a Cracked feature called ‘5 things I learned as a Ghost Hunter’ and, although I don’t agree with everything (e.g. EVP are not evidence of ghosts) I was filled with relief to discover that I am not the only ghost researcher to have had the “I’ve got bugs crawling out of my vagina” phone call. When I told a friend this in an IM they were shocked and, when they recovered, asked what other weird calls I’ve had. So, without further ado…

The 5  Weirdest Things People Have Said To Me As a Ghost Researcher

#5 – ‘I was viewing a house I wanted to buy and my son said he was speaking to a man when there was nobody there. Will you come to Manchester to see if there is a ghost in this house for me before I buy it?’

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#4 – “Hold this crystal. Feel it?”
Me: “er…”
“-feel the earth, feel the heavens *sueezes my hands really hard* FEEL THE DEAD! TRY HARDER!”

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#3 – “There is a ghost dog that is trying to communicate. If I go into a trance will you ask it questions?”

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#2 – “Aliens implanted a tracker device in my tooth, they also gave me the ability to teach children how to be telepathic.”

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#1 “Giant spider ghosts materialise in my house and try to crawl inside of my vagina”

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I Bought My Psychic Powers Online

Psychic Readings Sign

Magicians can spot tricks a mile off which means that for decades they have been the rationalists right hand man when it comes to exposing phoney psychics for the tricksters they are. 

Using simple-yet-effective tricks to make people think you have psychic abilities when you don’t without disclosing the fact that you are using these tricks and not a paranormal ability isn’t new. The most common trick used is a technique called cold reading where vague statements are made that seem personal to the sitter, convincing them that the message from the psychic is unique to them. In reality it would seem unique to a whole host of people. To see this in action you just need to look at the amount of hands that go up at a psychic stage show every time the psychic is looking for a new person in the audience to read.

At QEDcon in April, a science and skepticism conference held annually in Manchester, US based mentalist Mark Edward spoke out against psychic tricksters. For decades Edward had worked as a professional psychic but he revealed all the tricks used by modern mediums and psychics in his book ‘psychic blues’ in 2012. During his talk he told the audience that they should “get up on [their] feet and take out the garbage!” Garbage meaning fake psychics who prey on those who are vulnerable and desperate.

Yet, despite this, he still occasionally works as a medium or psychic without disclosing to his audience that he is using trickery to achieve his results, preferring to allow them to “make up their own minds”.

“There is wiggle room” he claimed in defence of this during the ‘Skepticism and Magic’ panel session at QEDcon while fellow panellists, Professor Richard Wiseman and Paul Zenon looked on unamused. If he used a disclaimer, he explained, the effect would be ruined, but the others didn’t agree. Edward met a similar reaction at another skeptic conference, The Amazing Meeting, held in Las Vegas in 2013 by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

So, why does Edward afford himself the privilege of using this so-called “wiggle room” to not reveal his trickery to his audience yet get angry when other people do the same? Is he alone in this approach? 

I wondered, does this so-called “wiggle room” actually exist at all? I wanted to find out if it was a common held view with magical communities and so I signed up to online magic websites and began asking other members how I could convince people that I was using paranormal abilities to read their future and communicate with the dead.

‘I am not a shut-eye’ I wrote on a forum, assuring the other members that I haven’t fooled myself into believing I am actually psychic (which is what a shut-eye does), ‘I want real work. How can I learn to do this convincingly?’

I expected to be called out as a fraud and as unethical but this never happened. Instead the other members of these magic communities sent me suggestions and tips despite the clear indication that my intentions were not completely honest.

When I used to think of magicians and psychics I would think of Harry Houdini, James Randi or Derren Brown cleverly revealing the tricks you should be wary of while well known psychics got angry in response. Now, following my brief introduction to magic communities I think of people like Paul Voodini instead. I was linked to Voodini’s website several times by magicians who assured me I could convince anyone of my non-existent abilities if I were to buy the pre-packaged tricks I found there.

One particular trick on Voodini’s website called Reader of Minds boasts ‘having worked for many years alongside the UK’s most popular “shut eye” mediums and clairvoyants, he has studied their performance techniques and is now able to present to you the subtle art of ungimmicked mind-reading’ all for the sum of just £18. Bargain.  

He isn’t the only one who sells tricks like this. Elsewhere I was offered routines that would teach me how to deliver convincing tarot card readings, zener card readings, gemstone readings, fortune telling, palmistry and more. Services that are regularly on offer at psychic fairs up and down the country every weekend.

These out-of-the-box tricks make fooling people an easy task for those with no imagination and creativity of their own and, although in a lot of cases they’re purchased by people who just want to be the next Derren Brown or Dynamo, there’s no knowing how many people who claim to have genuine paranormal abilities are actually customers on these sites. I don’t think you have to be psychic to predict that it’s probably quite a few…

It is difficult, then, to imagine how anyone can defend the idea that “wiggle room” should exist when it comes to disclosing or not disclosing the use of trickery and illusion to read minds and more. I wish I could say that Mark Edward and his fellow tricksters were just fooling themselves when they claim it exists for them, but sadly they’re probably fooling countless other people too.

Beware the Wiggle room…