BELIEFS: Ouija board, psychics and ghosts debunked by Science of Scams

Hollywood and advertising firms must have a real riot over how easily we’re duped. The generic formula in advertising is to convince us that we have something lacking in our lives, or possess some flaw that we never knew about, and then offer us the ultimate solution by way of a product or service. Hollywood films often pose the danger of showing us how the larger world or an aspect of it should be perceived.

But what’s not so funny is when scam artists begin to exploit human desires and profit off desperate people, such as the blind, the bereaved or the disabled. From ghosts to psychics to scientology to horoscopes — these have all become big business by profiting off those who can be convinced enough to believe in them.

If you are a believer in anything mentioned here this is by no means a mockery of your beliefs. We all hold our own and what should be encouraged is a shared understanding and acceptance of one another’s beliefs. What is vitally important, however, is that we are not suckered into supporting abuse of such systems by those with profit-driven agendas; who honestly don’t give a fig what you believe.

A belief in the paranormal can be traced throughout history, which comes from our desire to understand things we can’t yet explain. Human beings are hardwired to believe such things. It’s part of our brain’s desire to find cause and effect in everything. - Derren Brown

The human species used to believe in fairies, that the Earth was flat and that the sun was pulled up and down by a chariot. When new scientific evidence was brought to the table, we discarded those beliefs and superstitions. Unfortunately, we created more, and superstition is as alive today as it ever was. What hopefully has changed is that we are a lot better equipped to analyse supposed superstitions critically.

Science of Scams

Science of Scams has been developed by a team of people on a global mission to make the world truly question the paranormal (Image: www.scienceofscams.com)

Science of Scams has been developed by a team of people on a global mission to make the world truly question the paranormal (Image: www.scienceofscams.com)

I recently came across a fantastic website called Science of Scams that does just that. The website has been developed by a team of people on a global mission to make the world truly question the paranormal. They have released seven hoax videos to date which aim to explain and demonstrate particular paranormal phenomena. The videos­ are really interesting to watch and what follows is a basic synopsis of the sort of information they offer (adapted from the website).

SCIENCE OF SCAMS: GHOSTS

The “Ghost on Film” video demonstrates how easy it is to project a ghost-like figure using mirrors, correct lighting and a real little girl hidden from view. Our fascination with ghosts or spirits wandering the Earth has resulted in a plethora of books, magazines, websites, TV shows, and of course, people who claim they can contact the dead for a nominal fee. It is quite natural for a human being to experience feelings of chill and dread and to fear death itself. Combine this with particular atmospheric conditions and an active imagination and perceived ghost sighting become quite common.

SCIENCE OF SCAMS: PSYCHICS

The life force of psychics is what is known as “cold reading” — a technique employed by several industries today. It is often used by salespeople, hypnotists, advertisers, faith healers and con artists. At a basic level, cold reading utilises a linguistic skill known as “the Barnum­ statement”. These are phrases which could apply to anyone, but require a single person to supply the meaning from their own personal life. They all rely on their subject’s inclination to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is. Cold reading is a popular technique employed by psychic­ mediums such as John Edward and by those who write horoscopes.

SCIENCE OF SCAMS: OUIJA BOARD

A Ouija board (also known as a spirit board), is a flat board marked with letters, numbers and other symbols. It is theoretically used to communicate with the dead. The first historical mention of something resembling a Ouija board is found in China around 1100 BC. The word “ouija” is derived from both the French and German words for “yes”.

The unexciting truth behind Ouija boards is that the participants are sub-consciously moving the glass or pointer themselves. This is known as an ideomotor response, which can be encouraged through simple suggestion. Further evidence of this sort of response can be found in tests that have been carried out while the participants were blindfolded. Here the messages come out as nonsense, which is arguably proof that the participants need to see where they are pushing the glass.

Our emotions are deep and unconscious, and tend to have more power over us than our rational minds. Once an idea plays to our imaginations, it's hard to shift it, and then we look around for things to support it, happily disregarding things which don't fit the picture we have in our heads. – Derren Brown

The other videos available at Science of Scams examine brick breaking, chi energy, the psi wheel and telekinesis. There is also a test you can take to determine whether you are a believer.

At the end of the day, what all of this is trying to encourage is that we should always questions such concepts and beliefs and never blindly accept something without asking how and why. We need to look at the evidence and make educated choices, and never be afraid to re-examine what we believe and what we think.

Link: A Field Guide to Bullshit

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MEMORY TECHNIQUE: A step by step guide for creating a memory palace

If there is one person whom I could meet in this world, it would be Derren Brown. The BBC recently broadcast a one-hour special to celebrate 10 years of the psychological illusionist’s work. I personally endeavour to watch everything ever made by Derren Brown and I’m currently­ immersed in his latest book Confessions of a Conjuror. Great read.

Although Derren Brown is something of a trickster — making use of suggestion and misdirection to manipulate people and accurately predict their behaviour — his skills are something to behold. His newer TV shows also seem to be about helping people in areas such as self-improvement and increasing self-confidence.

Thousands of ‘ordinary’ people apply to be on his shows where he teaches participants some of his psychological techniques. In a recent Trick or Treat episode, an applicant in his mid-40s claims to have a very bad memory (as many people of that age might advocate).

After teaching said participant to speed-read and passing on various memory techniques, Derren Brown enters the man in England’s top pub quiz. After just two weeks of preparation, the participant single-handedly earns second place.

One fantastically simple memory technique that is mentioned here is that of the memory palace. This creative approach is not only simple, but it is highly effective in committing long lists of information to memory that can then be recalled at will. It has been used since ancient Rome and goes something like this.

A Virtual Memory Palace

Virtual Memory Palace

The memory palace technique is based on the fact that we’re extremely good at remembering places we know (image: web.science.mq.edu.au)

Step 1: Creating a Memory Palace

The whole memory palace technique is based on the fact that we’re extremely good at remembering places we know. So, the first step is to create a memory palace of your choosing in your mind’s eye. A memory palace is essentially a physical location that you are very familiar­ with — such as your home or route to work. So long as you can clearly visualise each room or landmark within your memory palace, it will serve you well.

Step 2: Define a route

The second step is to trace a clearly defined route through your memory palace and visualise particular objects along the way. If you are considering your home for example, your route may start with your front door. You may enter into a hallway and notice a mirror hanging on the wall. Start with one object per room and follow an easy path (such as from left to right) until you are back at your starting point.

Practice following this route in your memory palace — making an effort to remember each specific object in order. This shouldn’t be hard to do if you choose a place deeply embedded within your mind; perhaps the house you grew up in. Each object is generally known as a “memory peg”.

Step 3: Peg it to memory

Now think of something that you’d like to remember, such as a shopping list or your agenda for the week ahead. Place items in a particular order and integrate each with a memory peg (object) within your memory palace. It helps to conceptualise objects as being bizarre or perhaps cartoon-like at this stage. Memory does, after all, perform best when operating in a strong, visual way.

For example: your week could start by going to the post office. If you have chosen your home as a memory palace, visualise a letter box spewing out envelopes. Perhaps your child is playing a school cricket match on Tuesday. Visualise a school cricket match happening inside the mirror in the hallway. Animate­ things as best you can and they’ll be sure to stick in your head. You could even add smells and sounds to things to remember.

Step 4: Remember to practice!

The memory palace has proven to be a powerful memory technique that anyone­ can use to awaken the memory they already have. Your imagination really is the limit. Also, remember that you can have more than one memory palace for dealing with different kinds of information. There is also always the option of upgrading your palaces once you’ve got the hang of it.

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