AHP: How did you become interested in the history of extraordinary beliefs and the role of psychologists in supporting and challenging the existence of extraordinary phenomena?
PL: Well, I used to be a magician (but I’m alright now). As a history student, I funded my studies by working as a close-up magician. Later, I joined the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, based within the Psychology department, to work on the psychology of magic. Since then, I’ve combined my interests in history, magic and the paranormal, and since I now work as a historian in a Psychology department, it seemed only polite to discuss the role of psychologists in all this.
AHP: It seems as though psychologists have been investigating extraordinary phenomena – including mesmeric, spiritualist, psychic, and paranormal phenomena – since the very beginning of scientific psychology. Why did the discipline take such an early interest in the extraordinary?
PL: One reason, as others have long pointed out, is boundary-work. Psychical Research was an ideal Other by which scientific psychologists could construct their own scientific credentials and worth. But the same arguments were going on well before the birth of the academic discipline, and I think it makes more sense to see this as something with wider relevance, as an opportunity for people (including psychologists, because psychologists are people too) to construct their own expertise and worth. Continue reading →
On the 19th of February 2013, Dr Peter Lamont, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, presented an evening of magic, history and psychology to a packed house at the University of Surrey’s new Ivy Arts Centre.
The event was co-sponsored by the BPS Wessex Branch and the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey. Earlier that day, Dr Lamont was interviewed by the Psychologist Dr Peter Hegarty about past and present exchanges between psychologists and magicians.
Hegarty’s interview with Lamont is shown in the video above. In the course of just three minutes Lamont briefly touches on not only the relationship between psychologists and magicians, but also the importance of historical work for psychological understanding. If you like the video, it may be time to go out and buy the book!
A new book by historian of psychology, and magician, Peter Lamont has just been released. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem offers an account of the continuing appeal of the extraordinary. As described on the Cambridge University Press website:
Since the early nineteenth century, mesmerists, mediums and psychics have exhibited extraordinary phenomena. These have been demonstrated, reported and disputed by every modern generation. We continue to wonder why people believe in such things, while others wonder why they are dismissed so easily. Extraordinary Beliefs takes a historical approach to an ongoing psychological problem: why do people believe in extraordinary phenomena? It considers the phenomena that have been associated with mesmerism, spiritualism, psychical research and parapsychology. By drawing upon conjuring theory, frame analysis and discourse analysis, it examines how such phenomena have been made convincing in demonstration and report, and then disputed endlessly. It argues that we cannot understand extraordinary beliefs unless we properly consider the events in which people believe, and what people believe about them. And it shows how, in constructing and maintaining particular beliefs about particular phenomena, we have been in the business of constructing ourselves.
The just released December 2010 special issue of the British Psychological Society‘s general interest publication, The Psychologist, is dedicated to 150 years of experimental psychology, as this year marks the 150th anniversary of Gustav Fechner’s Psychophysics (see AHP‘s previous post on this anniversary here). Included in this issue are a number of short pieces by prominent scholars in the history of psychology, as well an interview with AHP‘s own Christopher Green. Authors, titles, and abstracts follow below.
“The experimental psychologist’s fallacy.” Geoff Bunn introduces a special issue marking the 150th Anniversary of Gustav Fechner’s Elements of Psychophysics. The abstract reads:
Considered by some psychologists to be the ‘founding father’ of experimental psychology, Gustav Fechner (1801–1887) was, to some extent, an uncompromisingly hardnosed materialist. Yet there was also a more conciliatory and spiritual side to his thinking. In 1835, for example, in his Little Book on Life After Death, Fechner argued that consciousness can be sustained by different ontological systems. The work of many of the great psychologists has subsequently incorporated similarly antagonistic dualisms. But these ineradicable tensions are ultimately a function not of the idiosyncrasies of individual biography but of the highly ambiguous nature of psychological knowledge itself. Continue reading →