Ghost and lantern.

Paranormal Blindness

This is the third in a series of four blog posts on science and the “paranormal.” Happy All Hallows’ Day!

I enjoy watching paranormal reality shows where a group of “investigators” stumble around in the dark, bounce around “theories,” and collect “evidence.” I often hear one investigator – who spends way too much time working on his chest and arms – refer to what his group does as “science.” Sorry to burst your paranormal bubble, but what you do is play haunted house and not science. Science involves the scientific method: pose a question; look at past research and theories; develop a hypothesis; test your hypothesis using the appropriate study design for your field of research (usually a controlled trial); analyze your data; conclude if your results confirm a new or past theory; and present your results to your scientific community for scrutiny. If you are presenting a potentially new theory, it has to be repeatable and pass repeated tests before it becomes an accepted theory.

The paranormal crowd often talks about theories: ghosts use heat to manifest so a sudden temperature drop indicates a spectral presence, or ghosts use electromagnetic fields (EMFs) to manifest so a sudden spike in an EMF also indicates the presence of a ghost. Not a single experiment has been conducted to support either theory. Therefore, not a theory, just speculation. Furthermore, paranormal investigators frequently avoid obvious explanations for their experiences. Recent research out of the UK might have an explanation for why paranormal believers miss explanatory information. Their research suggests that believers in the paranormal might have problems registering sudden visual events while they’re involved in other tasks (also known as inattentional blindness or IB).

Anne Richards and her team conducted two studies to investigate the relationships between IB, absorption (an extremely focused state), working memory capacity (abbreviated as WMC and it is the cognitive ability of an individual to store and manipulate information over a short period time), and paranormal belief or experiences.

Study One consisted of 91 participants (81 percent were female with an average age of 21 years). Absorption was measured using the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS); a modified version of the Australian Sheep-Goat Scale (ASGS) was used to measure paranormal belief and experience; and IB was measured using a specially designed computer program similar to a program used by Steven Most and his team in 2001 (the participant is asked to ignore black letters on the screen and count the number of times white letters hit the sides, while a red cross traverses the screen). Participants were tested in individual cubicles and first completed the ASGS, then the TAS, followed by the IB computer program. After they had completed the IB computer task, they were asked how many times the white letters hit the sides and if they saw anything else while they were completing the task.

The results showed that 43 percent of participants exhibited IB to the red cross. The IB participants also had higher absorption and paranormal belief scores. Richards and her team found that absorption was a predictor of IB and a significant relationship existed between paranormal belief and absorption. Furthermore, the researchers discovered that absorption facilitated the relationship between paranormal belief and IB; therefore, an indirect relationship existed between absorption, paranormal belief and experiences, and IB in IB participants.

Study Two consisted of 66 participants (44 percent female with an average age of 23 years) and replicated the methods and procedures of Study One, except that a WMC measure (the Automated Operation Span Task or AOSPAN) was added and a different version of the ASGS was used.

The results of Study Two showed that 32 percent of participants exhibited IB and their results were consistent with Study One; however, IB participants also scored low on the AOSPAN. Richards and her team discovered that WMC significantly mediated the relationship between paranormal belief and IB. The team also found significant correlations between paranormal belief and absorption, absorption and WMC, and paranormal belief and WMC.

The researchers concluded that IB combined with low WMC might blind a paranormal believer to causally related events because they are not receiving and fully processing all of the necessary information from their environment. The team suggests that this deficit in perception and memory of causally connected events may lead susceptible individuals to jump to paranormal conclusions when none exist.

You can easily test the conclusions of Richards and her team’s research by critically watching any one of the growing numbers of ghost hunting programs. YouTube is filled with astute viewers identifying inaccuracies and posing reasonable solutions to “undeniable evidence” touted as proof of the paranormal by these programs – not to mention the outright hoaxes. If you are a believer, my advice to you is to question everything you see and hear from the paranormal world and look for logical alternatives. Yes, it might shatter the illusion, but you’ll improve your problem-solving skills and, perhaps, open yourself up to a more interesting world.

Rodney Steadman 01 November 2014

Works Cited

Richards A, Hellgren M, & French C (2014). Inattentional blindness, absorption, working memory capacity, and paranormal belief. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice., 1 (1), 60-69 DOI: 10.1037/css0000003

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