The power of suggestion is not always obvious, but it is there
As investigators we speak often about how much the power of suggestion can influence a person. Not just in a paranormal investigation, it happens in every day life. Sometimes we don’t even realise it is happening. Personal experience is not something that we can use as evidence, but it is still an experience. If we didn’t have personal experiences, most of us probably would not be out there investigating. Legitimate evidence is few and far between if at all, so sometimes all we have to go by are our personal experiences. What if though, someone unknowingly tricked you into thinking you were having a personal experience?
The brain creates meaning
It is part of human perception in that your brain will always be looking for meaning. We look at pareidolia. We know that if we look at random shapes, if our brain cannot make sense of it, it will interpret it as something that we can recognise. This is why we see elephants in the clouds or faces in the steam on the shower glass. It happens audibly as well and often in jumbled noise our brain tries to make a word out to something we can understand. What you may not realise, is that the same process applies in almost everything that we do. When you have a conversation with someone for example, you are both putting forward your opinion and your thoughts on the matter. Parts of the conversation may be missing or somewhat vague, but your brain fills in the gaps without you even realising it because it is a subject you know about. A conversation will quite often end with one person completely changing their perception on a matter all through the influencing words of the other person.
Dr Myron L Fox
The book ‘Paranormality’ by Professor Richard Wiseman talks about a famous case study conducted in the 1970’s at the University of Southern California. Donald Naftulin and his colleagues wanted to demonstrate the power of suggestion by writing a fake and incorrect lecture which was carefully worded on the relationship between mathematics and human behaviour. An actor was hired to deliver the talk to an audience made up of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. He was introduced as Dr Myron L Fox and had as much knowledge on the subject as I do - not a lot! While a script was easy for the actor to delivery for the presentation, the hardest part to pull off of course would be the 30 minute question and answer session after the talk. He had to make it seem that he knew what he was talking about. He could not anticipate the questions and would have to think on his feet which is difficult not knowing anything on the subject. He would have to somehow convince the audience that they had received the answer they were looking for while he seemed like he knew what he was talking about. The actor was coached using methods that ‘cold readers’ use such as double talk and statements that contradict themselves to answer the questions to make people believe they had received a satisfactory answer. These techniques tricked the brain into thinking it got the information it was looking for when in fact they were delbrately being deceived. After the session, a survey was given to all of the audience to complete. 95% of the people found the talk to be stimulating. 70% enjoyed the use of specific examples and 85% felt the material was presented in a very well organized way. They concluded that they successfully exposed amongst academics the brain’s ability to make something out of nothing.
Here is a symbol.
It can be interpreted as 2 different things. If I tell you that it is a B, you will see a B. If I tell you it is the number 13, that is what you will see. It is for reasons like this for example that when analysing EVP, we don’t tell people what we think we hear. If I was to say to you, this is an EVP that says Hello, then I have pre programmed your brain to interpret what you hear as Hello. While this is a direct suggestion, it can also be done in a subtle way. For example, if we put an A and a C on either side of the symbol, you brain fills in the gap and interprets it as a B.
If I put a 12 and a 14 on either side of the symbol, your brain will automatically interpret it as a 13. While I am not directly telling you what it is, making subtle suggestions such as putting the letter either side nudges your brain to go in a certain direction.
The misinformation effect
Do you ever have a conversation with someone after an event only to find that you both have very different ideas about how things went. The way you end up describing what has happened can influence the way that someone else remembers what happens. When I look back into a study I researched called the Misinformation effect, it talked about how easily our brain can be manipulated with false memories just by the use of a simple word. This experiment set out to prove that the type of questions a person is asked after an incident could actually influence the way they remember the details of the event. In this experiment, participants were shown the footage of a car collision. The subjects were then asked a series of questions similar to the type of questions you would be asked by an emergency services worker after being in an accident. One of the key questions asked was 'How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?'. Some of the participants were asked this question, while other participants were asked 'How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?'. A very subtle difference but it is making a subtle suggestion to your brain without you knowing it. From the study, the researchers found that by changing the word hit with the word smash, the participants remembered the footage they had seen differently. The were questioned again a week after being shown the footage. They were asked 'Did you see broken glass?". Some of the participants answered 'no', however most of the people who had been fed the 'smashed' word a week ago seemed to be more inclined to answer 'yes' even though there was no broken glass in the footage they had been shown. One word has created a completely false memory of something that did not happen - (the window smashing). The results proved that the power of suggestion and subtle hints through wording changed the way a person remembered an event.
What has this got to do with paranormal investigation?
Quite a lot. Luckily as investigators we are very much aware of the power of suggestion. I can be in a room with other people and I can stand there and start swaying. 'I feel a bit uneasy and unsteady on my feet I would say. It is quite common for this to happen in this room' Soon you would see others start rocking feeling the same sensation. Is it paranormal? No it isn’t. The brain is being influenced because I have told them that is what happens in this room. When you are aware this is happening, you can force yourself not to fall for it. But what about the little subtle suggestions? The way we talk to each other and the specific wording that we use when we have a conversation can have an adverse affect on how we interpret a situation. Especially after the fact. Keeping all these things in mind, can we actually trust our brains? It is for these reasons that skeptics don’t believe in hauntings. The evidence for them is within the points raised above. Combine it with all the other psychological things that can mimic a paranormal experience and they have a field day! It is for these reasons that we cannot use personal experiences as evidence of the paranormal. People want to see the data. Most investigators don't use their personal experience as proof anyway. We don't need you to prove to you that it happened, because we believe it did. As I have said many times before, a personal experience is something that is personal to an individual. Is it possible that it is made up by the brain? Absolutely, but what if it isn’t. Who are we to tell someone if something did or did not actually happen, because at the end of the day, they believe that it did and for them, that is probably enough for them to keep searching for their answers. We are looking for different things and our own answers anyway. When all is said and done though, sometimes there is just a gut feeling that it was something more and that may be all they need.
What tips do you have for fellow investigators to avoid the power of suggestion?
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