Sleep paralysis, YouTube, magic and more

Ella Rhodes reports from the European Skeptics Congress.

Imagine waking in the middle of the night, unable to move or breathe, but still seeing. Feeling a presence in the room, seeing its form emerge in the darkness, pressure on the chest, fear. The terrifying symptoms of sleep paralysis, possibly one of the best explanations for seemingly paranormal phenomena such as alien abductions or ghostly goings-on, were brought to life in a short film shown at the European Skeptics Congress, held at Goldsmiths, University of London. Filmmaker Carla MacKinnon, who has experienced sleep paralysis herself, worked with sufferers and psychologists, including Goldsmiths’ Professor Chris French, to create her short film.

MacKinnon’s frightening film was followed by a talk by postgraduate psychology student Dan Denis (University of Sheffield) who has looked into the scientific basis of the condition. He explained that sleep paralysis was quite separate from bad dreams – people are fully awake and conscious and it feels like events are unfolding in their bedrooms. Denis said that some of the most common symptoms of sleep paralysis were a pressure on the chest, feelings of a presence in the room, seeing an apparition and even feelings of floating above the bed. He said many paranormal phenomena can be traced back to sleep paralysis – hardly surprising when hearing accounts of such episodes. He went on to explain that sleep paralysis is not a culturally specific phenomenon: although the types of presence people see can vary depending on local traditions and folklore, the symptoms remain very similar across cultures. People with panic disorders, PTSD, anxiety or depression and those who have been exposed to trauma are most likely to experience sleep paralysis, he said. There is a strong link, Denis added, between REM sleep and sleep paralysis – when the mind is at its most active but the body remains paralysed to prevent the physical ‘acting-out’ of dreams. This also explains the feeling of not being able to breathe that many experience – Denis explained the airways become constricted during REM and people may not be able to take voluntary control of their breathing. Despite the terrifying nature of sleep paralysis, and the fact it may affect up to 30 per cent of people, little work has been carried out on preventing it. Avoiding sleeping on one’s back, and attempting to disrupt an episode by trying to move, can be slightly effective.

Psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman aimed to give the gathered sceptics inside information about how to disseminate their theories through YouTube. Wiseman’s highly successful YouTube channel Quirkology, which now has nearly two million subscribers, presents illusions, interactive experiments and ‘science stunts’. He explained the keys to running a successful YouTube channel and said in a saturated market it was important to focus on making many videos rather than the odd one here and there, as YouTube is focused on channels, related videos and content. He suggested people should make videos about things they are genuinely passionate about, as this authenticity is attractive and very plain to see on YouTube. As well as giving videos that will intrigue people enough to click on them, Wiseman said it was important not to compare one’s first couple of videos with a more successful channel’s 20th video. He concluded that YouTube gave people a unique opportunity to present content to people worldwide, across age groups, in a democratic system, and all for free.

A special Skeptics in the Pub event was also held at the Goldsmiths Students Union which opened with a magnificent magic show by Dr Gustav Kuhn (Goldsmiths). He then gave a fascinating talk exploring the role of magic in studying psychology.

Rob Teszka, also from Goldsmiths, gave a talk on the same topic on day two of the conference, reflecting on what magic can reveal about human attention. He said that while the mid-1800s was a time of extensive inquiry into the unknown, there was a hundred-year gap until psychology began looking into magic again. The use of illusions in experiments revealed that we are context-driven animals who ‘second guess’ what is most likely to happen in our visual environment to create a fuller picture of the world. Change blindness, the propensity for humans to focus on individual things in the environment while missing larger changes, is also at the heart of magic. Deception and misdirection are also key in any good magician’s work, the ability for a magician to focus one’s attention in the wrong direction, reveals how limited human attention is. Teszka gave a brilliant demonstration of this – while doing a card trick that involved turning one card out of a group face up, he insisted the audience attend to his hands rather than his face. However social cues are irresistible to humans and for as long as he was talking many in the audience missed how he carried out the trick, despite repeatedly telling people to look at his hands. He went on to say that although a person may be attending to something, they may be seeing something entirely different. In eye-tracking experiments, if a participant is told a magician is going to trick them, they will look more at the magician’s hands, but 50 per cent still attend to his face. It appears we have two different attentional systems: ‘We don’t see things as they actually are. We build an image of the world that doesn’t really match the real world,’ he concluded.

Among the other excellent talks at the conference was investigative journalist Rosie Waterhouse’s extensive work on the spread of satanic panic through the mass media in the 1990s. Goldsmiths Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit’s resident artist Alasdair Hopwood presented some of his fascinating work inspired by false memory research. He has collaborated with psychologists to revisit key experiments, reflecting on the history and consequences of this field with Professor Elizabeth Loftus (University of California, Irvine) and Chris French.

There’s a conspiracy theorist in all of us, or at least such theories, often dismissed as the babblings of deranged and lonely people, are far more widely accepted than we think. Christopher Thresher-Andrews, a Goldsmiths PhD student, opened his excellent talk with some startling statistics on the levels of belief in conspiracy theories. More than 50 per cent of people in the UK think the government is hiding the truth about the numbers of immigrants living in the country, around 34 per cent agree there is a secret group of powerful individuals who have control over world events and 33 per cent think Princess Diana was assassinated. However, he argued, conspiracies do happen. Testing the sceptical audience with a true or false quiz Thresher-Andrews asked whether the KGB was involved in Kennedy’s assassination. Although no one in the audience agreed this was true, he revealed the security agency was responsible for disseminating misinformation about the assassination. However, although most of the audience agreed that Apple releases software to purposely slow down older iPhone models, forcing people to upgrade, there is no real evidence for this. But what can psychology reveal about beliefs in such conspiracy theories? Thresher-Andrews pointed out that a belief in one theory can predict belief in others. He said the proportionality bias could go some way to explaining them: this cognitive bias makes people think that big events (such as 9/11) should have big explanations, or that something else must have been behind disasters on a large scale. Confirmation bias is also often at the heart of conspiracy theorists’ ideals – they will often only read evidence that backs up their already held beliefs. People who believe in the theories also often have higher levels of powerlessness and lower levels of self esteem-and trust. Experimentation has shown that a feeling of losing control increases a belief in conspiracy theories. Although some may ask how harmful believing in these theories can be, Thresher-Andrews said it can make people less likely to vote and lead to general societal disengagement. Also looking to the prolific anti-vaccine movement, he said the implications of this could be obviously very harmful if these groups’ conspiracies spread further. 

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