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Cognition and perception

Ten books that shaped how I see our weird world

Christopher C. French is the author of 'The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal', out in March; plus an extract.

19 March 2024

Putting together a selection of books – old and new, fiction and non-fiction – that have influenced the way I think and feel about the world was not an easy task. There are many more that have had a great influence on me, including classics such as George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and pretty much anything by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, Jon Ronson, and Neil Gaiman. But the selection below is certainly representative of my fascination with the weird and wonderful.

Reflecting upon my choices, it appears that most of the chosen books fall into two distinct categories: the first focuses upon attempts to understand the weird stuff; the second focuses upon celebrating and enjoying it.

James E. Alcock, Parapsychology: Science or Magic? (1981)

Very few books, with the possible exceptions of the Bible and the Quran, can have had such a profound impact upon an individual's life as this book did upon mine. Up until reading this book in the early 1980s, I was myself a believer in various paranormal phenomena. This was the first sceptical treatment of such topics that I had come across. Not only did I enjoy the book, I found Alcock's analysis very convincing. This book also made me aware that there were sceptical publications out there if only you knew where to look. After reading this book, I took out subscriptions to the Skeptical Inquirer and the (UK) Skeptic magazine (which I subsequently edited for ten years) and devoured books by the likes of Susan Blackmore, James Randi, Ray Hyman, and others. When I started at Goldsmiths in 1985, I contributed a couple of lectures on the paranormal to a module on theoretical issues within psychology. A decade later I introduced a complete 22-hour module on 'Psychology, Parapsychology and Pseudoscience' (later to be renamed simply, 'Anomalistic Psychology'). Throughout this period, I was publishing the occasional paper on anomalistic psychology (including one in this very magazine in July 1992) but it was not until a couple of decades later that I completely abandoned my research in other more 'academically respectable' areas to devote myself fulltime to the weird stuff.

Martin Gardner, Fads and fallacies in the name of science (1957)

The subtitle of this book describes its contents as follows: 'The curious theories of modern pseudoscientists and the strange, amusing and alarming cults that surround them. A study in human gullibility'. This classic of the sceptical literature still reads well more than 70 years after publication of the first edition.

Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge (1962)

Sir Karl Popper's writings on the philosophy of science shaped my views on the so-called demarcation problem (i.e. how do we distinguish between science and non-science) from the moment I read them. I also took his views on politics, as discussed in his volumes on The Open Society and Its Enemies, to heart. I particularly admired the clarity of his writing.

E.H. Gombrich, Art and illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. 5th ed (1977)

Sir Ernst Gombrich was greatly influenced by discussions with his close friend Karl Popper and Popper's ideas shine through of every page of this ground-breaking book. Kenneth Clark described it as 'one of the most brilliant books of art criticism that I have ever read'. Who am I to argue?

Brian Klaas, Corruptible: Who gets power and how it changes us (2022).

I first encountered Brian Klaas by way of my favourite podcast, Power Corrupts. On his podcast, Klaas explores 'the hidden, and often nefarious forces that shape our world. Smuggling. Ransom. Election rigging, Assassinations. Heists. Money laundering. Disinformation.' What's not to like? A political scientist by training, Klaas draws on evidence from a wide range of other disciplines in analysing his chosen topics as well as first-hand interviews with world leaders, psychopaths, cult leaders, and terrorists (these groupings are not mutually exclusive), an approach which is also taken in his excellent book. [See also this interview.]

Stuart Ritchie, Science fictions: Exposing fraud, bias, negligence and hype in science (2020)

I have always had an interest in the topics covered in Ritchie's book but that interest was greatly amplified by the emergence of the so-called 'replication crisis' in psychology (which I wrote about for The Psychologist, with Stuart and Richard Wiseman, back in 2012). Our improved understanding of the factors that can and do distort the process of science in general, as clearly described by Ritchie, has profound implications for parapsychology. All sciences aim to separate the signal from the noise. What would a science look like that was all noise and no signal? Might it look a lot like parapsychology?

Douglas R. Hofstadter & Daniel C. Dennett (eds.), The mind's I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul (1981)

I absolutely love this book and it provides a nice segue from my non-fiction selections to my fiction selections being, as it is, a wonderful thought-provoking mix of the two. The reflections on consciousness and artificial intelligence within these pages include discussions of the Turing Test by Alan Turing himself and by Hofstadter, discussion of selfish genes and selfish memes by Richard Dawkins, Thomas Nagel's thoughts on what it would be like to be a bat, and John Searle's classic Chinese Room thought experiment amongst many other gems. There are also short stories by Stanislaw Lem and Jorge Luis Borges… which brings me nicely on to my next selection.

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths. Penguin Modern Classics edition (2000)

Borges was a writer like no other. In his short stories and essays, he imaginatively explored such themes as identity, chance, dreams, labyrinths, infinity, paradox, and mythology. Many of his stories provide profound psychological insights. To give but one example, in his story 'Funes the Memorious' he describes a fictional character, Ireneo Funes, who suffers a head injury which renders him incapable of forgetting anything at all. Every single detail of everything he experiences is stored in his memory. Rather than being a gift, this inability to forget is a curse that prevents Funes from living a normal life. Instead, he must lock himself away in darkness to avoid overloading his cognitive system. The famous real-life case of Solomon Shereshevsky, described in Alexander Luria's classic The Mind of a Mnemonist, describes how he suffered in a similar way.

Martin Gardner (ed.), The Annotated Alice. The definitive edition, Penguin (2001)

I have always loved Lewis Carroll's fantastic and, let's be honest, slightly creepy tales of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. There is an inherent risk that in the process of annotating beloved classics all of the joy and colour will be drained from them, but this need not be a concern when the annotator in question is Martin Gardner. His erudite analysis of the texts only serves to deepen the reader's enjoyment of Carroll's surreal creations.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004)

Susanna Clarke's debut novel is an alternative history set in a magical 19th century version of England. It focuses primarily upon the relationship between the two leading magicians of the day. It won a Hugo Award and was later adapted for television. Although this book is over a thousand pages long. I would quite happily have carried on reading about this world for another thousand or two. Clarke's second novel, Piranesi, published in 2020 is set in both the real world and an alternative, parallel world. It was awarded the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2021.

- The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal, by Chris French, is published on 19 March by MIT Press. 

The following extract is reproduced with their kind permission.

The Man Who Paints The Future

In 2002, I was approached by a television company making a documentary about David Mandell, a sixty-nine-year-old artist living in Sudbury Hill in northwest London, for the Extraordinary People series on Channel 5 in the United Kingdom. What was extraordinary about David was that he claimed that his dreams often foretold future events, particularly disasters and terrorist attacks. Being an artist, whenever he had one of his precognitive dreams he would try to fix an image of the dream in his mind as he woke up. He would then get up and paint or draw that image, sometimes with a few accompanying notes for clarity or extra detail. He would then wait, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years, for the events that he had dreamed about to occur. He never knew when this was likely to happen, but often, he claimed, he would see a news report in the media of the very event that he had witnessed in his dream, the level of correspondence between the dream and the event being so high that it could not possibly be explained, as far as David was concerned, as being a mere coincidence.

David was aware of one obvious objection to his claims. How could people know that he did not just paint his pictures after a newsworthy event had taken place and then simply claim that he had painted them in advance? In a charmingly amateurish attempt to rebut that accusation, David would often take his newly painted picture into his local bank and have his photograph taken as he stood in front of the date and time indicator on the wall. Of course, such photographs could have been faked even back then if David was nothing more than a clever fraudster, but for what it is worth, I felt then and continue to believe that David was totally sincere in his claims (while fully accepting that that is exactly what a clever con artist would want me to feel!).

We realized early on that it would not be possible, in the time available, to carry out any definitive test of whether David really was able to psychically foretell the future through his dreams. The main problem was that David himself had no idea when the events he had dreamed about would actually occur in the real world. So we could not simply take a sample of his dreams and then wait to see if the events occurred within some prespecified time frame. Instead, we took an indirect approach.

The most obvious nonparanormal explanation of the correspondences between David's dreams and future events was that they were indeed simply coincidental. After all, the aftermath of one earthquake is likely to bear a resemblance to the aftermath of many other earthquakes – or, indeed, to a dream of the aftermath of an earthquake. But some of David's dreams were much more specific than this. Perhaps his most striking prediction was the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. David had two dreams about this historic and terrible event – one of which occurred exactly five years before it happened.

Skeptics might object that what David painted in this notable picture does not correspond exactly to what happened on that unforgettable day. Although his painting is undoubtedly a depiction of the New York skyline, the tower on the left in his picture is depicted as toppling over into the tower on the right, whereas in fact both buildings collapsed vertically downward independently of each other. Furthermore, David himself had originally thought that the collapse of the buildings was the result of an earthquake, not of a terrorist attack. For all that, it is undeniable that the pictures do portray the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Although the collapse of the Twin Towers was arguably the most impressive of the predictions based on David's dreams, several other major news events were said to be depicted among the hundreds of other paintings and sketches that David had in his collection, including the collision on the river Thames of the pleasure steamer Marchioness with the dredger Bowbelle in 1989, resulting in the deaths of fifty-one people; an earthquake in San Francisco in 1989; a mortar attack by the IRA on Heathrow Airport in 1994; the Braer oil tanker running aground off Shetland in Scotland in 1993; the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, carried out by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, killing thirteen people; the suicide in prison of serial killer Fred West in 1995; riots in Oxford Street, London, in 1994; fifteen people injured in a mass stabbing in Rackham's department store in Birmingham, UK, in 1994; a train crash in Watford, UK, in 1996 that killed one person and injured sixty-nine others; the death of Princess Diana in Paris in 1997; the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996, in which sixteen pupils and one teacher at a primary school were killed; and Concorde crashing into a nearby hotel in Paris shortly after takeoff in the year 2000, killing all 109 people on board as well as four people in the hotel.

The task that my PhD student Louie Savva and I set ourselves was to see if we could find other reports in the news archives that matched David's paintings at least as well as, if not better than, those chosen by David himself. Forty of the pictures that David felt were good matches to subsequent real events reported in the news were selected from his collection of two hundred or so precognitive pictures. These were presented to thirty volunteers, each one accompanied by a brief description of the event that David felt he had predicted as well as a brief description of an alternative news event that we felt also matched the picture to some extent. Where available, copies of actual reports in newspapers were also provided, as David felt that some of the photographs that accompanied the articles contained details that clearly matched his pictures. Our volunteers were asked to take as long as they needed to carefully study each picture and then rate the degree to which they felt it matched the news events chosen by David as well as the alternative news events chosen by us on a 7-point scale (where 1 = no match at all and 7 = a perfect match).

To give the reader a clearer idea of what was involved in this task, here is a more detailed description of just one of the forty trials – but please note that not all of the news stories featured in this study were as horrendous as this particular example. The picture itself was not particularly gruesome. It appeared to show a hand hammering a chisel into something and a lot of red paint. The note written on the picture itself was considerably more disturbing:

Dream SATURDAY MORNING 11 MARCH 89 [dates were edited out of the pictures used in the study] of three women's faces covered with canvas type cloth with slashed slits for the eyes in it. Then a man with a large cold chisel and hammer smashed their faces in hammering the cold chisel several times in different parts of the faces through the cloth – it was awful dream!

David believed that this dream picture was a description of a particularly vicious crime that occurred some years later. Here is the description of that crime used in our study:

10th July 1996: The three female members of the Russell family were attacked with a claw hammer in a country lane near Chillenden, near Canterbury, Kent. Only Josie, aged 9, survived. Both Josie and her mother were blindfolded and suffered severe blows to the head. Meagan, aged 6, was hit at least seven times. The words hammer and hammering appear in the text.

A copy of the report of the crime from the Times accompanied the picture. Our suggested alternative news event, selected from the archives, was described as follows:

27th September 1986: Donna Jester (aged 37), her blind cousin Dalpha (aged 64), and Laura Lee Owens (aged 20) were discovered dead in Lancaster, Texas. All three died as a result of numerous chopping wounds to their heads and faces, which were inflicted with a hatchet. The text refers to three women.

For the forty pictures used in this study, our volunteers gave significantly higher correspondence ratings between seven of the pictures and David's choice of matching news event compared to our chosen alternative news stories. Or, to put it another way, there was no significant difference between the correspondence ratings of David's choice and our suggested alternative for 82.5 percent of the pictures. Having said that, a comparison of the average ratings for each participant across the full set of forty pictures did reveal a small but highly significant difference (just over half a point on our 7-point scale) in favor of David's choices.

What is one to make of these results? Given that these were, in David's judgment, the best examples of correspondences between his dreams and subsequent events, believers in precognitive dreams might be disappointed that our alternative news events were judged to correspond at least as well to the pictures as David's choices in the vast majority of cases. It should also be borne in mind that, whereas David had the luxury of selecting news events as they occurred over many years, our selections from the archive had to be made within a couple of weeks in order to meet the filming schedule of the program makers. Given more time, we may well have been able to come up with even better matches. I suspect that believers in the paranormal will, with some justification, be more impressed by the fact that David's choices were rated as better matches than ours for seven out of forty of the pictures and better matches overall. Personally, I'd be happy to class this one as a tie.

When going through the papers that I had stored relating to this study, I came across copies of eight pictures with brief descriptions, all with the words "Event has not occurred yet" written on them. I could not help but wonder if any of the foretold events had occurred in the two decades since David gave me these pictures. Here are the notes accompanying those pictures:

• CIVIL WAR NORTHERN GREECE (dream occurred around May 2002): This painting depicts a civil war in Northern Greece. Mr. Mandell thinks it is occurring on the border. The image shows hotels burning, and "military men," including a "little Hitler type Commisar telling us hotels were on fire on hills." Notes also state: "the Salonica threat."

• CHILD KILLERS (dream occurred 11 June 2002): The painting depicts a "gang of 5 or 6 children who are child killers" led by "a girl in a blue spotted dress."

• PLANE WITH PLASTIC STRIPS (dream occurred 28 April 2002): Mr Mandell envisioned this event happening at "Heathrow or City Airport."

He dreamt about a "plane with plastic type strips trailing behind the tailplane" which cause "very violent movement sideways of tail of airplane." The plane is "trying to crash land over water near to airport."

• ROYAL LONDON HOSPITAL—HELICOPTER (vision occurred 19 February 1995): This vision concerns the helicopter that operates from the roof of the Royal London Hospital, unable to make a safe landing (for further details see letter enclosed, form [sic] Mr Mandell to the hospital).

Notes on painting: "Descent too fast to stop or slow down"; "Top of building hiding landing ramp."

• EARTHQUAKE IN LONDON (dream occurred 28 April 1992): See notes on copy of drawing for details. [Notes on and accompanying this drawing indicate that the dream was in two parts. In the first part, buildings

viewed through a window were seen "moving sideways past each other" and then swinging back "to return to their original positions." In the second part, the building that Mr Mandell was in lifted up and down several times. "It was just like being on a seaside rollercoaster."]

• BEATLE SHOT (dream occurred 30 November 2001): The drawing shows a member of the Beatles being shot by a left-handed gunman.

• PLANE HITTING DARK GLASS BUILDING (dream occurred around May 2002): This painting shows a plane exploding, that has flown into the side of dark plate glass building that looked "like new towers side of Canary Wharf " [by the River Thames]. Mr Mandell's notes state that "tower collapsed just like NY tower did."

• PADDINGTON BRIDGE CRASH (dream occurred 11 January 2002):

This painting depicts a "bad accident" at "perhaps Paddington," caused by a "collapsed steel girder bridge." The word 'bomb' is also noted on the painting. Mr Mandell shows "devastation around bridge."

As far as I have been able to ascertain, none of these predicted events have taken place in the two decades or so that have elapsed between David giving me copies of these pictures and the time of writing. It may be, of course, that events will take place in the future that do indeed bear a striking resemblance to some or all of these dreams (although the earthquake dream sounds especially unlikely). If that is the case, it would certainly provide some support for the claim that dreams can sometimes provide a psychic glimpse into the future. But I am struck by the fact that David's hit rate appears to have plummeted over the last two decades compared to the years receding our test. One can only speculate regarding the possible reasons for this decline.