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anomalistic psychology

"...the self is hardly a neutral observer of the world." --Daniel Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory

Anomalistic psychology (AP) is the study of extraordinary experiences, including those that are labeled paranormal or supernatural. AP studies such things as experiences of apparent telepathy or clairvoyance, experiences of UFOs,  experiences of ghosts or angels, and experiences of healing touch. AP does not assume that a bizarre experience is paranormal or supernatural. AP attempts to explain extraordinary experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors, including frauds and hoaxes.*

Chris French, who has taught AP for many years, thinks that AP is "a fantastic way to teach critical thinking skills."* I once taught such a course and can vouch that it is a fruitful and interesting way to teach critical thinking. By studying extraordinary experiences as a way of understanding fundamental imperfections of the human mind, one can explore such topics as the nature of perception, memory, eyewitness testimony, and other factors that hinder accurate cognition.

Anomalistic psychology is an effective way to study the unreliability of personal experience as a guide to truth. It is also an attractive way to draw students to the study of critical thinking: just about everybody has an interest in extraordinary experiences.

Topics that would be studied in anomalistic psychology include the following:

alien abduction
altered states of consciousness
alternative medicine
cognitive biases
cold reading
communication with the dead
complementary medicine
crystal power
dissociative identity disorder
false memories
integrative medicine
near-death experiences
out-of-body experiences
placebo effects
psychic healing
sleep paralysis
subjective validation

further reading


Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.

Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Vyse, Stuart A. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (Oxford University Press 2000).

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1989).

articles on the WWW

Spoon-bending for beginners: Teaching anomalistic psychology to teenagers by Chris French

Anomalistic psychology, Lesson One: Seeing is not believing by Chris French

Evaluating Personal Experience by Robert T. Carroll


What is Anomalistic Psychology? Goldsmiths University of London

Critical Thinking About the Paranormal - course syllabus

Last updated 21-May-2012

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