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!

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.

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).

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

I feel silly, Billy!

“Lam… Vam… Ram… Yam... Ham... Sham... Om”.


"Lam...! Vam...! Ram...! Sham...! Yam...! Ham...! Om!"

Again, clapping your hands.

"Lam...! Ram...! Vam...! Sham...! Ham...! Yam...! Om!"

Am I doing this? Am I really doing this? I am sat in a room of people I have never met before chanting out loud a series of what are to me random-sounding (but rhyming!) words.

"Lam...! Sham...! Ram...! Ham...! Vam...! Yam...! Om!"

We repeat the mantra a few more times and then stop. "Now close your eyes and place your hands on your solar plexus." I do as instructed and rest my hands on my tummy. I'm thinking I need to go on a diet. Perhaps do a few sit-ups now and again. Now that the chanting has stopped I can hear the rain outside, and I'm wondering how I got here. As part of my attempt to learn to become 'psychic', I have been invited to attend Billy Roberts' psychic development workshop at Burton Manor in Cheshire in the North West of England.

Strangely enough, this isn't the first time I've been to Burton Manor. The last time was for a Departmental Away Day when I was a University lecturer. Even if I'd had fully developed precognitive skills back then, I don't think I could have foreseen that the next time I'd see this room would be at a psychic workshop.

But now that I am trying to discover and develop my own psychic abilities, then this is precisely the type of thing I need to be doing. Even if I'm not yet convinced that I have any psychic skills, or that they can be developed, or that such skills even exist! For me it's like trying to learn to speak French but not knowing if there is even a place called France where people speak this language!

This whole project is requiring a significant amount of suspension of disbelief on my part. I need to be willing to have my preconceptions challenged and I need to be open to seeing the world in a completely new way. I also need to be prepared to feel just a little silly as I chant a series of what are to random-sounding (but rhyming!) words in a room full of strangers. I guess it's all just part of the process. So, if you'll excuse me...

"Lam...! Vam...! Ram...! Yam...! Ham...! Sham...! Om!"

Monday, 16 August 2010

Last week...

Thank you to those of you who posted interpretations of my tarot spread for the week ahead last week. I thought I'd quickly reveal what my trusty little book tells me are the 'official' meanings of the cards, and see how well these interpretations related to the events of last week.

The central card, the Eight of Swords, is supposedly the Significator. This is meant to represent the dominating influence in the spread and, therefore, in my week ahead. The Eight of Swords, according to the book, represents:
Denial. A relationship or project is falling apart and there's little you want to do, or feel you can do, to prevent it. You're in denial and can't yet work out how to go forward, or face up to what's happening. Consult others, focus your thoughts, and drag yourself from emotional lethargy. Break the spell.
Hmmm. This doesn't bode well. It seems as though it's all going to fall apart this week and there's sod all I can do about it. Bummer. I think I'll have a look at the other cards to see what might be salvaged.

The card in the one o'clock position in the spread, in this case the Ace of Pentacles, foretells Monday's events. According to the book, the Ace of Pentacles relates to:
Material success. This card indicates financial gain in terms of growing investments or unexpected gifts, from bonuses to royalties or competition wins. The Ace expresses complete material security, and brings reassurance after a period of uncertainty. The card also signals success for business start-ups and new relationships, so this is a happy, comfortable, and prosperous time.
Cool. As you can imagine, I was therefore really looking forward to Monday! However, whilst Monday was a very enjoyable day, it did not bring financial gain or unexpected gifts. Perhaps Tuesday would bring this success? Indeed, Tuesday's card, the Six of Wands, predicts:
Triumph; Reward. After hard work comes a breakthrough, with fantastic news about a long-awaited award or the ending of a dispute. The Six is favourable for resolving legal matters, delayed contracts, or a work issue - whatever the situation, you succeed and receive a special reward for your determined effort. It is time to feel proud.
It is true that Tuesday was one of the more interesting and, indeed, eventful days of the week. In the evening, I was invited to join a psychic development circle being held in a nearby town. I learnt a lot and met others who were equally keen to develop their psychic faculties. But, surprisingly, neither my tarot cards, nor any of the readings I received from others that evening, predicted my minor disagreement with a tree on my drive home. In retrospect, I should have gone home the way I had come, via the Motorway. But I didn't. Instead, I thought I'd go the more 'direct' way via the back roads. Not, I now appreciate, a good idea when you are unfamiliar with the back roads and it is the middle of the night. Let me just say I arrived home one and a half hours later with one less wing-mirror than I had when I had set off from home that afternoon. From now on I'm not going to put quite so much trust in Google Maps. Six of Wands, my arse.

Wednesday... and the Six of Swords: 
Peace restored. Finally, harmony prevails, and you are able to take time out now that everything is in order. There may be an opportunity to travel abroad for rest or career, and return to the demands of your everyday life with more verve. While the Six does not indicate that a project or problem is resolved, it advises that you will enjoy a little distance from it.
Whilst the wing-mirror was enjoying a little distance between itself and the car it belonged to, the only travel form me today was between various car-repair centres to see who could give me a new one for the lowest price. Moving swiftly on, Thursday's card, the Two of Swords referred to:
A truce. Peace returns after a time of discord and turmoil. You may not trust this truce, but it could present a valuable opportunity to gain perspective on a problem partnership or another troublesome association. Be cautious and factual, and consider every aspect. You will need to balance carefully your needs with those of the other party if you are to come to an agreement.
This card seems to follow on from yesterday's card, the Six of Swords, which also talked of 'peace restored'. But all I was keen on restoring was the car to it's full complement of wing-mirrors!

Friday's Ten of Swords predicted:
Endings. In the suit of Swords, endings are dramatic, and may be shocking. However, on closer inspection of the facts, it's likely that this ending was predictable. A relationship or other arrangement is cut out of your life. The closure is harsh, but necessary; you will recover and be open to new opportunities sooner than you think.
Friday was the day I got the car fixed. I don't think anything was cut out of my life (apart from a broken wing-mirror, etc., etc.). By now I have lost any faith that the cards are going to would provide any insight, no matter how vague, into the events of my week. Saturday's card, the King of Wands was reversed. This means its usual interpretation (if it were the right way round) changes quite dramatically. The King upright means honour and compassion. Reversed it means:
Prejudice. The reversed King has been embittered by bad experiences in the past or he has simply never bothered to question his intolerant attitudes. He is no moral compass for others and is unable to listen to their opinions or deviate from the safety of his stubborn ways. As a symbol of a situation, this card can reveal that negative thoughts are brewing.
The only negative thoughts that are brewing today are about the usefulness of tarot cards! The final card, for Sunday, is the Ten of Pentacles:
Inheritance, happiness. The Ten is often a fortuitous card for families, favouring existing generations and those to come, so it can literally predict a happy marriage and children. In monetary terms the Ten, as the ultimate card of the Pentacles, reveals wealth accrued through generations, so there may be benefits from share dividends, an inheritance, or a gift from a generous friend or relative.
Well, at least it all ends on a very positive note! Sadly, but perhaps not too surprisingly, there was no inheritance nor were any dividends heading my way.  Perhaps, as the Eight of Swords (my 'significator' for the week) indicated, I am in denial. Maybe this project is falling apart before it's begun? Do I need to break the spell?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Zone Unknown

Roy Basnett's Zone Unknown show on City Talk FM featured a discussion of the Million Dollar Psychic project tonight. Thanks to Mark Rosney for providing a recording for me to post here. Can you tell that I'm stood outside the Gents' toilet in a pub in Wycombe town centre? Thought you might.

Monday, 9 August 2010

The week ahead...

As a little 'experiment' (using the term in its loosest sense) I thought I would use my new(ish) tarot cards to tell me a little something about what lies ahead for me this week. According to the little book that came with the deck of cards I bought (The Golden Tarot by Liz Dean if you're interested...), I can do an eight card spread for the week ahead:
For fast insight in the near future, this popular spread uses a central Significator card. A Significator sums up the meaning of a reading, so in this spread it reveals the dominant influences in your week ahead. The other seven cards each relate to one day of the week. To begin, shuffle and cut the cards. Lay down the Significator card first, followed by seven cards clockwise as shown. Interpret the Significator first, then the cards for each day of the week in any order you choose. (p. 8)
So. It seemed like a reasonable thing to try! My eight-card spread is shown in the picture (right). In case it's not clear to make out each of the cards, the 'Significator', the card in the centre is the Eight of Swords. Then, starting with the card in the one o'clock position relating to Monday and going clockwise, we have the Ace of Pentacles (Monday), Six of Wands (Tuesday), Six of Swords (Wednesday), Two of Swords (Thursday), Ten of Swords (Friday), King of Wands [reversed] (Saturday), Ten of Pentacles (Sunday).

Now, I have just read with interest what the book says these cards are supposed to mean. But I wondered if any of you folks with more experience of reading tarot cards might have some thoughts?

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Happy Birthday Mr Zwinge!

On this day in 1928, a boy was born who would go on to become the world's most prominent 'skeptic'. Randall James Hamilton Zwinge would later change his name to James Randi and become the scourge of psychics around the globe. Happy birthday Mr Zwinge!

Friday, 6 August 2010

One million dollars

If I am going to win the one million dollars offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) to anyone who can demonstrate genuine psychic (or other paranormal) abilities, then I am clearly going to need some help. Especially given that, right now, I don't profess to have any psychic powers! The whole point of this project is to see if someone who is skeptical about such things (i.e., someone like me) can learn to develop psychic ability.

So perhaps a little positive thinking is in order. To help this along I have printed off a cheque for one million dollars, made out to me:


There. That should do the trick.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

What are the odds?

We are filming on a cold January morning in Oxford. The plan is for me to stop people on the street and try to guess their mother's first name. The idea being to see if I had any signs of hidden psychic abilities before I start my attempt to learn to become psychic! We'd film, say, three or four different attempts and see me getting it wildly wrong time and time again. At least that was the plan.

The first person I approach is a young woman whose name, I quickly discover, is Helen. Not through psychic means; she tells me. I briefly explain what we're doing, and ask her if she would mind helping us for a couple of minutes. Hesitantly, she agrees.

As she's thinking of her mum's name, I close my eyes to see if anything comes to mind. Nothing. So, instead I try gazing off into the middle distance, and I notice a sign at the entrance to the college behind her. "Balliol College."

"Does your mum's name have a B in it?" I ask

"Er, yes..." she replies

"Does it begin with B?" I ask again.

"Er... yeah..." I think I'm more impressed than she is. She eyes me up suspiciously.

I just go for the first female name I can think of beginning with B, "Barbara?"


I'm completely flummoxed. Helen walks away as I'm left open-mouthed. She no doubt thinks it's some kind of trick. But there's no trick. It was just a lucky guess. Or was it? Could I have tapped into some hidden psychic ability?? Just in case, later in the day I buy a lottery ticket for this weekend's Lotto draw... well if I'm on a roll I don't want it to go to waste!

Monday, 2 August 2010

What is the Million Dollar Challenge?

That is a good question. Which is, of course, why you asked it. The Million Dollar Challenge is offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation, or JREF, to anyone who can demonstrate genuine paranormal abilities under controlled conditions. Nobody has ever claimed the million dollars. Detailed information can be found on the JREF website.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Scientist turns psychic in bid for million dollars

Can a scientist become a psychic and win a million dollars?
Dr. Matthew Smith has left behind the safety of academic life to pursue a unique and rather ambitious project. After more than fifteen years of researching ‘paranormal’ experiences from a scientific perspective, Matthew will set aside his scepticism to see if he can discover and develop his own hidden psychic abilities. In a year-long project, he will work with some of the world’s leading mediums and psychics to discover if he has any hidden psychic talents. Leading parapsychologists will monitor his progress by subjecting him to scientific tests along the way.
At the end of the year he will take the million dollar challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) for anyone who can demonstrate genuine psychic abilities.
'It’s one heck of a challenge, but I’m really looking forward to delving into the world of the psychic. There’s only so much you can learn from conducting experiments on other people. Sometimes you just have to get in there and try it for yourself!', said Matthew.
Matthew left his post as Associate Professor of Psychology at Liverpool Hope University after ten years at the University. Shortly after he arrived at the University, he was asked to be the resident parapsychologist and sceptic on Living TV’s Most Haunted Live to pass a critical eye over the ‘paranormal’ activity experienced by the investigation team.
Matthew added, ‘This challenge takes me outside of academia, and out of my comfort zone, to explore these topics from a very different perspective.’
Matthew is writing about his experience for a book, Million Dollar Psychic, to be published next year.