Sunday, 26 September 2010

Up, up and away*

We finally made it into the skies with Virgin Balloons! Rachel had originally bought this as a present for Valentine's Day in 2008, and this was our fifth attempt. We were to due to take off yesterday evening but, despite it being a glorious afternoon, the winds were still a little on the strong side and so the decision was made to reschedule for early this morning. The weather held and we met at 7am to unpack the balloon.

Of course, a beautiful clear morning at this time of year is likely to be preceded by a very cold night. Something we discovered during our overnight stay in the tent we had brought with us! But it was worth it to finally experience drifitng above the treetops at sunrise. It was an amazing experience.

Thank you for a wonderful present Rachie! Happy Valentine's Day! x

*Oh come on, it's a blog post about a balloon ride. What else was I going to call it?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Fifth time lucky?

The last time we tried for a trip in a hot air balloon, it didn't happen. That was our fourth attempt. It didn't matter too much as we had a great weekend anyway, but it would be nice to finally see what it feels like to drift over the countryside in a big red balloon.

Today will be our fifth attempt. At least the weather's looking good.

Friday, 17 September 2010

A-Z of Strange Experiences

One of my last tasks before leaving my academic post at Liverpool Hope University was to edit a collection of essays on anomalous experiences. The title of this collection is, quite cleverly, Anomalous Experiences (you see what I did there?). As is often the case with academic texts, there is also a subtitle: Essays from Parapsychological and Psychological Perspectives. This is because the essays are, indeed, from both a parapsychological as well as a psychological perspective. (If there is one thing I can do it is to give something an honest title.)

The contributions are from a one day conference held a few years ago at Liverpool Hope and cover such varied topics as psychic phenomena (like telepathy and precognition), hauntings and apparitions, hypnosis, and out-of-body experiences. There are also chapters on alien abduction experiences and the kinds of experiences people report in seances.

Contributors include Daryl Bem, Etzel Cardena, Jezz Fox, Chris French, Craig Murray, Ciaran O'Keeffe, Chris Roe, Simon Sherwood, Christine Simmonds-Moore, Paul Stevens, Caroline Watt, Richard Wiseman and Robin Wooffitt. 

As the editor, it would be unfair to pick out a favourite chapter, but I think it has to be said that we saved the best till last. Yes, the index is, quite frankly, superb. Not only is it in alphabetical order (as all good indexes should be), but it also gives you a flavour of the range of fascinating topics covered in this scholarly tome. Just take a look at these tantalising excerpts:

"apothenia  192...
animal magnetism  93...
Carroll, Lewis  5...
crisis telepathy  65...
Crosby, Bing  146...
daydreaming  39, 42...
EMF see electromagnetic fields...
Fayad, Dodi  149...
hypomania  183, 186...
kundalini  200...
mediumship  178...
nightmares  100, 191...
pink noise  34...
QiGong  187...
reincarnation  178...
sacred sites  76...
shamans  200..."

I could go on. Anyway, you can read a brief review of the book here (although it does not mention the index even once!). If you want to buy the book and see the index in its full glory (along with the essays themselves), it is published by McFarland, and is available from Amazon.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Am I going GaGa?

That is the question I have been asking myself ever since receiving an email from the man who runs a website called BadPsychics*.

As its name suggests, BadPsychics is largely dedicated to exposing ‘psychics’ and ‘mediums’ as nothing more than frauds and conmen (or conwomen); or at the very least as individuals who are deluded into thinking they might have paranormal abilities. The website also hosts a collection of forums on which members debate (or perhaps debunk) the latest psychic to grace our television screens.

The email was to inform me that someone had posted to one of the forums asking if Dr Matthew Smith had gone gaga as they had read that I had been quoted as describing a particular medium as ‘one of the most impressive mediums I have seen’.

You might wonder why anyone would care if I had gone gaga. Well it all stemmed from the fact that the good folks at BadPsychics knew me as a voice for the ‘sceptical community’ through my involvement on a TV show called Most Haunted. My role, as a psychologist and parapsychologist, was to put forward alternative explanations for apparently paranormal occurrences that took place during an investigation of an allegedly haunted location. As far as this programme was concerned, I was the ‘voice of reason’ who did not believe in ghosts and was there to ensure that the rational explanation for any apparently ghostly phenomena was heard.

So to be quoted as describing a medium as one of the most impressive I’d seen clearly raised a few eyebrows. But being sceptical doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, rule out being open to apparently paranormal phenomena. It is more to do with having a questioning approach to unusual and extraordinary claims.

Mediums claim to communicate with spirits of the dead. By anyone’s account, this is quite a remarkable claim and so it is reasonable to be sceptical. But I am also intrigued. Many mediums give messages that are rather vague and likely to apply to quite a few people, and so they do not provide compelling evidence that they really are receiving messages from the dead.

However, on the several occasions I’ve seen this particular medium perform, he has given messages that seem to contain both accurate and specific details such as names (first and last), dates, even addresses. He has even been known to provide such information under conditions that seem to rule out some of the more obvious non-paranormal explanations like cold-reading. So, yes, I am happy to be quoted as regarding this medium as one of the most impressive mediums I have seen.

The question I am now asking myself is, how does he do it? Is he really communicating with spirits of the dead? Is he drawing upon some other as yet unexplained power of the mind like telepathy? Or is there some other non-paranormal explanation for his apparent abilities?

These are the really interesting questions to ask. And sceptics should ask questions – they should seek to find answers – not make assumptions.

*The BadPsychics website has since closed down. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Paranormal Magazine. You can view it in its original format using the widget below!

Know thyself

The unexamined life is not worth living.
Socrates (469-399 BC)

Monday, 6 September 2010

Why am I doing this?

The start of another week, and the doubts are getting stronger. I keep asking myself why am I doing this? Why did I give up a perfectly good academic post (I was an Associate Professor, don't you know!) in order to learn to become a psychic? I'm putting it down to a mid-life crisis. It seems to be the only reasonable explanation.

I actually have two main reasons for pursuing this project. (Yes, if I call it a 'project' it doesn't sound so crazy...). My first focuses around my life-long fascination (well, since my early teens) with the 'paranormal', especially psychic phenomena. Around the same time, I was developing a keen interest in magic (as in conjuring, not the occult). I was equally fascinated with the possiblity that people who claimed to be psychic might actually be using techniques to make it look like they were psychic even if they weren't. I say equally fascinated, but if the truth be told, I found the idea that some people might be able to do it for real to be more captivating!

I went on to study for a degree in psychology, and was then fortunate enough to land a job with Dr Richard Wiseman. He has since become a Professor, and a best-selling author, and a world-renowned skeptic regarding claims of the paranormal, but back then he was newly doctored (as it were), and had just taken up a lectureship at the University of Hertfordshire. During the fours years that I worked with Richard, I got involved in a range of unusual and exciting research projects such as reconstructing dark-room seances, experiments designed to investigate the feeling of being stared at, and testing a psychic dog (we concluded he wasn't psychic). During this time I even studied for a PhD on the psychology of luck, of all things. (But that's a different story!)

Working with Richard I became more and more convinced that many psychic claims could be explained by conventional psychology, with people misinterpreting experiences (or even experimental data) as suggesting something psychic going on. But there was still a part of me that couldn't dismiss genuine psychic phenomena completely. This project represents an attempt to allow this part of me to explore first hand the possibility than psychic phenomena just might be for real.

But all that explains just one of the reasons I'm giving this a go. And it's quite personal to me. But my other reason is one that would apply equally to anyone reading this now. It has something to do with the feeling that there has to be more to this life than getting a job, a house, a car, and all the rest and passing the time until the day comes when you drop down dead. That surely isn't what it is all about. Is it? At least I hope not.

This project represents an opportunity to do things differently. To discover what else might be out there. Or in here. Of course, there may be nothing, but at least I will have looked. I will be able to put my hand on my heart and say I tried. For me it happens to be about discovering any hidden psychic abilities I may have. More generally, it's about discovering whatever it is that may be hidden inside you.

Or it's just a mid-life crisis.

The Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness was on TV tonight. A very inspiring film based on the memoirs of self-made millionaire Chris Gardner. The movie follows the story of Gardner during a period of homelessness with his young son. A key scene in the film is when Gardner impresses a guy from the stockbroker firm at which he's hoping to get an internship by solving the Rubik's Cube during a cab ride:

As a fan of the ol' Rubik's Cube, I'd love that scene to be based on true events. On a separate note, watching that film reminds me that my old friend and PhD supervisor Richard Wiseman took part in an advert for Volvo with Chris Gardner some years ago as part of their 'Life on Board' project. Turns out an extended version of the film is on Vimeo:

VOLVO V70 from Lance Bangs on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Talking heads

Two interviews that may (or may not) be of interest... First, last week I did an interview for The Polite Skeptic blog. Second, last night I did an interview with Ron Kolek and my old sparring partner Richard Felix for their internet radio show Ghost Chronicles International (with guest appearance by my daughter towards the end!). You can listen to it here (look for the show dated 31st Aug 2010 on the 'Recent Shows' list on the right).