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Seances demonstrate power of suggestion

Reconstructions of Victorian-era seances result in plenty of spooky experiences, but nothing genuinely paranormal, a researcher reports.
/ Source: Reuters

Suddenly the darkened room seemed intensely cold, some people felt a sense of presence and others were so terrified they had to leave.

But then, nothing.

Four reconstructions of Victorian-era seances, with people sitting around a table holding hands in the dark, at the Dana Center of Britain’s Science Museum failed to produce a single paranormal experience, a leading psychologist said Friday.

“I think we are looking at stuff which is more to do with suggestion and psychology than the paranormal,” Professor Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire in England, told Reuters. “A lot of it is due to the psychology of suggestion, a little bit to trickery, but we are filming in infrared to see if anything genuine occurs.”

Re-creating 19th-century craze
Wiseman tried to produce the same conditions that made seances, in which participants tried to get spirits to produce physical phenomena, so popular in the 19th century.

Some of the 80 people who participated in the 30-minute seances thought an object did move across the table, a popular feat in Victorian seances and taken as a sure sign of a connection with the “other” side.

But Wiseman said the objects had luminous markers on them. In a dark room there is no frame of reference, so the suggestion that an object moved could be enough for people to think it did.

“For some people, that is a very convincing experience. It can also be a very terrifying experience. We had some people drop out yesterday because it was getting too scary for them. It is quite edgy,” said Wiseman.

Experiential experiment
Thursday’s seances at the Dana Center, an adults-only cafe at the museum where visitors debate and discuss contemporary science, are part of an experiment Wiseman is conducting into unusual experiences and the power of suggestion.

“We have all this testimony from Victorian times saying these amazing things happened. The question is, can we give people those sorts of experiences nowadays,” he said.

He plans to conduct more seances in London and other areas of the country in his search for paranormal experiences.

“I think it is possible to get people, very quickly, into some strange states of mind, some of which might be akin to a light form of hypnosis, where they see and experience and feel things which are not actually happening. But they are actually convinced that they are,” he said.

The overwhelming reaction of most participants was disappointment that each seance lasted only a half-hour.

“People love doing this stuff. It was a complete blast. I can see why it was very popular before television,” Wiseman said. “From watching television at the moment, it may become popular again.”