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Mind Without Body?

Spiritualism and Parapsychology


The third mind-body question may seem a little beyond the pale:  Can there be such a thing as a disembodied mind?  Your answer to this question, of course, will depend to a large degree on your ontological stance with respect to the mind-body problem and the Cartesian impasse.  If you're a substance dualist, you've got to accept that there can be minds without bodies.  Same if you're an immaterial monist.

One important source of interest in this question is, of course, religious.  If you believe in an afterlife, whether a traditional Christian view of Heaven or a Buddhist or Hindu notion of reincarnation, you've got to have a mechanism that allows mind -- call it soul, if you will -- to survive bodily death.  

DalaiLamaColgate.jpg (117125 bytes)The Dalai Lama has put the question of mind and body concisely in his book, The Universe in a Single Atom.  Buddhist doctrine views consciousness as "portable", not tied to the physical body (meaning the brain), and it's this portability that allows reincarnation to occur.  The Dalai Lama is, himself, the latest product of a series of reincarnations (and was identified as such by what amount to homemade tests of implicit memory).  But he is also a student of science, and believes that religious beliefs must be compatible with what science tells us about the nature of the physical universe.  This last point is, frankly, debatable: it seems to me that the whole point of religion is the belief in something -- call it God or gods -- that transcends the natural world.  But the Dalai Lama is quite clear on this point, to the extent that he is willing to change religious doctrine, if necessary, to accommodate scientific discovery.  If Buddhist doctrine is true, then the mind is separable from the body.  But if the mind is not separable from the body, meaning that consciousness dies when the body dies, then Buddhist doctrine is false on this point and must be revised.  



Outside of a formal religious context, beginning in the late 19th century an interest in disembodied minds gave rise to various spiritist or spirtualist movements.  

Although Descartes' dualism had proposed that mind is independent of the body, by the end of the 19th century virtually all scientists had adopted some version of materialism, which holds that brain processes constitute the biological substrate of mental life. Spiritualism revived dualism by postulating the existence of soul (or, in secular terms, mind) as a nonphysical entity which survived bodily death, and formed the basis for such fads as the Ouija board, Chevreul pendulum, mediums, and seances. 

              (87866 bytes)The deep roots of 19th-century spiritualism can be found in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), a Swedish physician and mystic who founded the Swedenborgian Church, a branch of Christianity (you can find Swedenborgian churches or chapels in many major cities -- there is a particularly beautiful one, built in the "Arts and Crafts" style, in San Francisco; and another beauty, this one Gothic, in Cambridge, Mass., opposite William James Hall, which houses Harvard's psychology department.   And if you think it's weird to name a religion after a person, think of Lutheranism -- or, for that matter, Buddhism).


Spiritualism in America and England

Spiritualism had its American origins in 1848, when two sisters, Kate and Margeret (Maggie) Fox, living in upstate New York, claimed that they were communicating with the dead via knocking sounds -- first with "Mr. Splitfoot", apparently an incarnation of the Devil, and later with "Charles B. Rousma", who claimed he had died in their house.  For the next 40 years, they pursued highly visible careers on the "medium circuit", demonstrating their powers and serving as intermediaries between the living and the dearly departed.  In 1887, an investigation by the Seybert commission debunked their claims (and those of several other mediums the Commission investigated), and in 1888 Margeret herself confessed that the knocking sounds had been produced by the sisters themselves, who had the ability to crack their joints very loudly (much like we might crack our knuckles).  Margaret recanted her confession in 1889, and died in 1893. 

The Fox sisters may have been inspired by the "Visionist" movement within the Shakers an American religious sect that had its origins in the Religious Society of Friends (the Shakers were sometimes known as the "Shaking Quakers" because of their actions during religious services; they are now remembered chiefly for their striking architecture, furniture, and music).  In the 1840s, several young Shaker girls began to speak in tongues and report other sorts of mystical experiences.  The publicity brought a number of new converts into the sect, but the practice made the larger community uneasy, and it gradually died out -- as did the Shaker sect itself.  Only one Shaker community survives in the 21st century, at New Gloucester, Maine.  Or maybe not, but the temporal coincidence is interesting.

The Fox Sisters ushered in an era of credulous and skeptical "ghost-hunting" by professionals and amateurs alike, with mediums who held seances featuring the Ouija board, the Chevreul pendulum, automatic writing, table-rapping, and table-turning as the vehicles for communicating with the dead.  Among the most prominent manifestations of this trend was the establishment of an entire community in Maine, known as Camp Etna, which served as a kind of center of the American spiritualist community.  Camp Etna still exists today (see The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna by Mira Ptacin, 2019; also Ghost Hunters: William  James and the Search for Scientific Proof by Deborah Blum).

MaryToddLincoln.jpg (287764 bytes)It HenriRobinSpecter.jpg (92058 bytes) also led to a vigorous business of "spirit photography", by which photographers allegedly captured the spirits of the departed.  The first spirit photograph was produced, pretty obviously through something like a double exposure, by William H. Mummler in 1861; here is a famous portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln (who conducted seances in the White House seeking contact with her recently deceased son, Todd) being comforted by the spirit of the recently assassinated president.  The practice of spirit photography was mocked by Eugene Thiebault in 'Henri Robin and a Specter" (1863), which really is a double exposure.  Mummler was eventually indicted for fraud.  Most instances of spirit photography are easily detectable physical manipulations, like double exposures, or even inserting objects into the camera lens.  The others probably reflect (sorry) physical conditions at the time of the photograph, like ambient radiation, that go undetected by the naked eye.  (See The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, catalog of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005; also The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost, by Peter Manseau, 2017.)

Mary Todd was a true believer in spiritualism, and her husband indulged her.  Interestingly, John Wilkes Booth's family also practiced spiritualism, and after Lincoln's assassination, and Booth's killing while on the run, some spiritualists concocted a story in which Lincoln and Booth met in the afterlife, Booth expressed contrition, and Lincoln forgave him.  See In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits (2022) by Terry Alford, reviewed by David S. Reynolds in "Throngs of Unseen People", New York Review of Books, 10/06/2022.

BlitheSpirit2009.JPG (185818 bytes)The fad was satirized by Noel Coward in his play Blithe Spirit (1941; shown at left, Jayne Atkinson, Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole, and Rupert Everett in the 2009 Broadway revival). 



ClearDayPoster.jpg (13550 bytes)Clairvoyance was the plot device in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), a hit Broadway musical that was made into a hit film (1970) starring Barbra Streisand.  A psychiatrist (Yves Montand) treats a clairvoyant (Streisand), and falls in love with the 18th-century Englishwoman his patient was in a past life.  In a 2011 Broadway revival starring Harry Connick Jr., the patient is a homosexual, who under hypnosis recovers a past life as a 19th-century woman.  The therapist falls in love with her.  Not the most scientifically valid theory of homosexuality, for sure, but a neat way of portraying the idea that minds have existence independent of the bodies that merely contain them.



SeanceWetAfternoon.jpg (26232 bytes)In Seance on a Wet Afternoon, a fraudulent medium kidnaps a child so she can demonstrate her powers (this scene from the opera by Stephen Schwartz, based on the 1967 movie, as produced at Opera Santa Barbara.

Mediumship provides a plot point in Woody Allen's 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight.  Set in the 1920s, it begins as Stanley Crawford, a stage magician (played by Colin Firth), determines to expose Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) as a fraud; and, of course, he falls in love with her.  Shown at left, Harnish Linklater, Jacki Weaver, Colin Firth, and Emma Stone at a seance.


In 1882, W.F.H. Myers, an English writer, founded the Society for Psychical Research in London; along with the American psychologist William James and others, he also founded the American Society for Psychical Research in 1884.  In this context, "psychical" refers to the dualistic notion of a disembodied mind -- to mental states, such as clairvoyance, which have no physical basis.  Both organizations promoted tests of spiritualist beliefs, if not the beliefs themselves.  

How did someone like James get involved in psychical research?

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet (and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) knew both James and Myers, and routinely engaged in seances -- with his wife, Bertha George Hyde Lees Yeats, serving as the medium via automatic writing.  .  Initially, "George" began by faking the whole thing, but later apparently came to believe that she was really being controlled by some invisible power from Beyond.  The results were presented in A Vision (1925, revised 1937), which offered a complex -- well, vision of history and metaphysics, based on "Willy's" questions, and George's answers.  It probably didn't hurt that George herself was a scholar of the history of ancient religions: when asked once, if she thought that the messages had really come from the spirit world, George answered, "We thought they were expressing our best thought".

In the early 20th century, Stanford, Harvard, and other universities administered funds (sometimes called "spook funds" in organizational shorthand) specifically established to study spiritualistic and psychical phenomena.  The Seybert Commission  was supported by such a fund, left to the University of Pennsylvania by Henry Seybert, a Philadelphia millionaire who thought that the claims of spiritualism might be true.  

Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes

Spiritualism was revived in the years after World War I, victimizing widows and mothers who wished to contact husbands and sons who had been killed in the conflict.  Harry Houdini (1874-1926, born Erich Weiss, son of a rabbi, in Budapest), the great magician, devoted the last years of his life to unmasking these alleged mediums as frauds -- based, in part, on the fact that he had used similar tricks in his stage shows.  Actually, Houdini's position on spiritualism was complicated.  He was careful to distinguish between fraudulent mediums, on the one hand, and the claims of Spiritualism as a religion -- of which he was respectful if skeptical (much as many scientists today are respectful of religious belief, even if they themselves are atheists).

FairyPicture.jpg (38626 bytes)Nevertheless, Houdini befriended Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the "Sherlock Holmes" mysteries, who was a fervent believer in Spiritualism -- so much so that he allowed himself to become the victim of an obvious hoax by two teenage cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths who in 1917 concocted photographs of "fairies" cavorting in a glen near Elsie's house in West Yorkshire.  Following an investigation, Edward L. Gardner, a leader of the British Theosophical Society, declared the girls' pictures as genuine, and evidence favoring the Spiritualist beliefs of his group.  And so did Doyle (whose son had died in World War I), who published an article on this "epoch-making event" in The Strand, an English magazine, somewhat analogous to The New Yorker, which also published Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  

The "Cottlingley fairies" remained a mystery until 1982-1983, when Geoffrey Crawley, editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Photography, wrote a series of articles examining in detail high-quality copies the photographs, which Gardner had commissioned from the original negatives.  Testing the girls' original cameras, he determined that they simply were not capable of producing such high-quality photographs, and further that the darkroom technician had, to put it bluntly, "Photoshopped" the girls' images to make them more convincing.  Later in 1983, the girls admitted their hoax -- although Frances maintained that the last in their series of five photos was not a fake.  Frances died in 1986, and Elsie in 1988.  The episode was portrayed in a book that Doyle wrote based on his Strand articles, and in not one but two 1997 movies -- Fairy Tale: A True Story starring Peter O'Toole, and Photographing Fairies, starring Ben Kingsley (see "Geoffrey Crawley, 83, dies; Gently Deflated a Fairy Hoax" by Margalit Fox, New York Times, 11/06/2010). 

The Doyle-Houdini's friendship was severely challenged when Doyle's wife arranged a seance in which Houdini was to receive messages from his deceased mother.  They came through, in perfect English -- even though Houdini's actual mother, born and raised in Hungary, had little ability to speak the language. 

That wasn't the last of Doyle's and Houdini's joint encounters with the spirit world.  In 1922, Doyle arranged with Scientific American to establish a $5,000 prize for the person who could offer convincing evidence of psychic powers (the prize was raised to $15,000 in 1941; it's not clear whether it's still on offer).  The panel of judges included William McDougall, then chairman of Harvard's psychology department (and, for good measure, president of the American Society for Psychical Research) and Houdini, among others.  All of the applicants failed the test, except for Mina Crandon, the wife of a prominent Boston physician who was interested in spiritualism.  After attending several seance "for fun", Mrs. Crandon herself began to demonstrate psychic powers, including rapping noises, table-movements, ringing bells enclosed in boxes, and possession by the spirit of her deceased brother.  She was soon on the international medium circuit, and entered the Scientific American contest under the pseudonym "Margery", to protect her identity.  after she has passed tests conducted by the other committee members, and was on the verge of receiving the prize, Houdini asked to investigate.  It took him a while, during which Houdini and Mrs. Crandon developed a close friendship, but Houdini was eventually able to detail the ordinary, physical means by which she was able to produce her effects.  In 1925, Scientific American declared that "Margery", too, had failed their tests.  But even Houdini had been unable to duplicate some of her feats of mediumship, and she continued public demonstrations of her psychic powers.  It was not until 1930, as the result of another Harvard investigation, that James Malcolm Bird, an editor at the magazine, admitted that he had helped "Margery" fabricate her most puzzling effects (it probably didn't hurt that Mrs. Crandon, whose marriage was failing, had been having an affair with another committee member, Hereward Carrington -- like Houdini, a prominent stage magician -- and that she had attempted to seduce McDougall and another committee member, and even Houdini himself!).   Still, Mrs. Crandon herself never confessed to her deceptions, even on her deathbed.  Doyle, too, remained convinced of her powers, and their disagreement ended their friendship. 

For details, see The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher (2016); also "She was Houdini's Greatest Challenge" by Cass Sunstein (New York Review of Books, 12/17/2015).  Sunstein points out that the real mystery was not so much how Mrs. Crandon achieved her effects, but why she did it.  The answer: her marriage was failing, she was she was bored, she had natural talent as a stage magician and considerable physical strength; the public at the time wanted to believe in spiritual powers --  and things got out of hand.  (Image above from Scientific American, 09/2020). 

Still, after Houdini's death in 1926 (on Halloween, yet!), Doyle asked his widow to be on the alert for messages from her late husband, transmitted from beyond.  And Houdini himself gave his wife Bess a secret message so that she could identify him if he tried to contact her from the spirit world after he died.  Despite many Halloween seances after his death, she never heard from him.  On the 10th anniversary, the seance was broadcast live on the radio.  It too, failed to yield any signs of contact, after which Bess discontinued the practice.  Her final message to the public was, as quoted by Clarke (2014):

"Houdini did not come through.  My last hope is gone....  The Houdini Shrine has burned for 10 years.  I now, reverently... turn out the light.  It is finished.  Good night, Harry!"

But Doyle himself was not finished with spiritualism.  In December 1926, Agatha Christie, the famous British mystery writer (Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, etc.) disappeared for two weeks in what may have been a sort of dissociative fugue state instigated by a troubled marriage.  Her husband came under suspicion, and literally thousands of police officers and civilians searched the area near where her abandoned car was found.  She was later found at a health spa, registered under a name closely resembling that of her husband's mistress -- but not before Conan Doyle enrolled a medium to help in the search.  For the whole story, see Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman (2022), by the British popular historian Lucy Worsley (catch her programs on PBS!), reviewed in "Agatha Christie's Nightmares" by Francis Wilson (New York Review of Books, 10/20/2022).

In the 1940s, a Scottish medium was actually tried and convicted under the English "Witchcraft Act" of 1735.  Not for practicing witchcraft, exactly, but for claiming to be a witch -- or, at least,for claiming to have magical powers of various sorts.  Before 1735, in the 15th and 16th centuries, charges of witchcraft were tried in proceedings where the rights of the accused were, shall we say, severely limited.  The 1735 law, which was intended to prevent witch-hunting,   applied only to those who actually claimed to be witches.  It was repealed and replaced in 1951 by a law against "deliberately fraudulent mediums", leaving untouched people who sincerely believed in Spiritualism.  Even that law was repealed in 2008.  But in 1944 the 18th-century law was still in effect, and Nellie Duncan, who had been raised as a Protestant Christian but had converted to Spiritualism, was charged with "pretending to conjure the spirits of the dead" and fraudulently engaging in other Spiritualistic acts.  Duncan attempted to defend herself by claiming that Spiritualism was, in fact, true.  Nevertheless, she was convicted and sentenced o nine months in prison.  Duncan's supporters claimed that she was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and dubbed her "the last witch".  For his part, Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, claimed that the prosecution was "obsolete (sic -- not absolute) tomfoolery".   Duncan's story is told by Marion Gibson, a historian, in Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials  (2024), reviewed by Rivka Galchen in "Witchy Women" (New Yorker, 01/22/2024), from which the quotations are drawn.  See also Gibson's earlier book, Witchcraft Myths in American Culture.

The Ouija Board and Modern Poetry

A number of poets have used the Ouija board as a source for their poetry, including William Butler Yeats, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Jack Spicer.  All of them seemed to work under the Romantic notion that the Ouija board conveyed messages from beyond, or at least from the unconscious.

Perhaps the most sustained effort along these lines was The Changing Light at Sandover, a book-length (some 17,000 lines!) poem composed at the Ouija board by James Merrill and his partner David Jackson -- with Jackson serving as the "hand" and Merrill the "scribe", editing the transcripts.  What may have seemed like a delusion, or at least a joke, to their friends and critics (the critic Harold Bloom called the poem an "occult splendor"), Merrill and Jackson seemed to find the experience subjectively compelling.  In James Merrill: Life and Art (2015), a biography of Merrill, Langdon Hammer writes:

When it works, the Ouija board produces a pleasingly double sensation of surprise and inevitability, like an effective rhyme or witty remark.

As part of his research, Langdon and his wife played with a Ouija board at the same table that Merrill and Jackson used, in Merrill's apartment.  He described the experience in an interview ("About that Ouija board: How Langdon Hammer Summoned a Poet's Spirit" by Dwight Garner, New York Times, 08/30/2016):

Frankly, I was surprised that we could make it work at all.  I mean, our hands moved the planchette in a way that felt like the planchette was moving our hands.  It pointed out letters that (admittedly, we had to touch up or sympathetically construe this or that odd spelling) turned into words thta neither one of us was 'speaking.'  That's an uncanny sensation.  If anything, the board had worked too well.

Based on his analysis of Merrill's Ouija-derived poetry, Hammer concluded that 

"There was no raw revelation, no oracular text, to which [Merrill] later applied his poetic skills and sensibility.   When he was transcribing letters from the board, makings sense of them, he was doing just what he did when he wrote poetry: turning signs and sounds - -the building blocks of language - -into voice, presence, meaning.  Like the Ouija board, poetry for Merrill was a word game" (interview with Dwight Garner, above).

Dan Chiasson, reviewing Langdon's book  writes that 

Merrill was at times a reluctant scribe, describing in "Mirabell" his wish to return to "private life, in my own words.  Instead", he wrote, "Here I go again, a vehicle / In this cosmic carpool" ('Out of This World", New Yorker, 04/13/2015).

For more on the composition of The Light at Sandover, see "The Genius and Generosity of Jimmy Merrill" a review of Hammer's biography by Edward Mendelson (New York Review of Books, 12/22/2016); also "New Light on Sandover", an exchange between Mendelson and Stephen Yenser (New York Review of Books, 01/19/2017).



And in the 20th century, these same movements gave rise to an interest in parapsychology.

Parapsychology is the branch of psychology which studies a group of phenomena collectively known as psi -- a term referring to the transfer of information or energy which cannot be explained by known physical or biological mechanisms.


Psi Phenomena

According to Tart (2009), psi phenomena fall into three major categories.

Most parapsychological research is focused on various aspects of ESP:

Parapsychology counts as a branch of psychology because the phenomena it studies are mental (e.g., perceptual) or behavioral in nature. It should be understood at the outset that psi phenomena might well be explained in terms of normal processes. Thus, what appears to be clairvoyance might simply reflect an individual's high degree of sensory acuity; what appears to be telepathy might reflect cues inadvertently transmitted by one person, and unconsciously picked up by another; what appears to be precognition might merely be coincidence; what appears to be psychokinesis might be a product of simple fraud. Most psychologists incline towards these sorts of explanations for psi phenomena (to the extent that they think about them at ail)..

Parapsychologists, however, argue that at the very least the phenomena of psi represent anomalies of experience, thought, and action -- statistical deviations from chance that cannot be explained in terms of known processes or established theories. While some parapsychologists believe that psi phenomena might be understood in terms of some hitherto unknown sensory modality or physical force, others believe that psi constitutes evidence for paranormal processes which lie outside the domain of normal science.

Thus, parapsychology comes in two versions:

The soft version of parapsychology isn't, actually, all that outrageous. The discovery of pheromones uncovered a new physical medium, previously unknown, by which animals (and maybe humans!) communicate with each other. And even in the time of Newton, some scientists thought that magnetism and gravity were "occult" powers, because they could produce "action at a distance", without any physical contact between the objects.

But under the hard version, the documented existence of psi phenomena would seem to require us to adopt some sort of dualistic stance, because they suggest that mental states can exist, and have effects on the world, independent of any physical medium.  Hence, if psi exists, then mind must exist independent of the body.  But before psi phenomena can persuade us that mind exists independent of the body, we have to be persuaded that psi phenomena are valid.  As it happens, there is no good scientific evidence for any alleged psi phenomenon -- or even for the kinds of "subtle energies" that are implicated in the soft version of parapsychology.  

That doesn't mean that the question of psi doesn't pique the interests of many people, both inside and outside the scientific community.  It does.  For that reason, debates about the existence and nature of parapsychological phenomena go on, and studies of parapsychology appear from time to time even in the best journals. 


Some History 

Rhine.JPG (65773
                    bytes)At Harvard, J.B. Rhine (1895-1980) conducted psychical research with William MacDougall; in 1927, he and his wife, Louisa Rhine, moved with MacDougall to Duke University. The Rhines eventually established the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, and ushered in an era of controlled, quantitative research on psi. Their research on ESP employed a deck of 25 "Zener cards", on which were printed one of five symbols: star, circle, cross, square, or wavy lines: the subject's task was to guess which card was being viewed by the experimenter. When statistical analysis yielded a success rate greater than would be expected by chance, Rhine claimed to have demonstrated ESP. Unfortunately, other laboratories generally failed to replicate these positive results, and research on ESP and PK fell into a decline.

Interest in parapsychology was revived in the 1970s by media attention to Uri Geller, an Israeli magician who claimed to be able to bend spoons by mere thought (though, famously, not in the presence of Johnny Carson, a television talk-show host who was himself an accomplished stage magician). Additional centers for parapsychological research were established at the Stanford Research Institute (now known as SRI International), Princeton, and other institutions. At SRI, Russell Targ and Harold Putoff conducted a series of experiments on "remote viewing", in which the "percipient" describes his or her clairvoyant impressions of a randomly chosen geographical site being visited by a "target team". Helmut Schmidt, at Boeing Scientific Research Laboratories, tested subjects' ability to predict the output of a machine which generated random numbers according to the emissions from a radioactive source. At Princeton, Robert Jahn examined subjects' ability to influence the output of a different kind of random number generator, based on electronically generated noise. All three researchers reported significant deviations from chance, and thus significant evidence for psi.  Even into the 1980s, U.S. intelligence and military analysts took a national-security interest in claims for ESP and PK emanating from the Soviet Union.  For the story of federal involvement in parapsychological research, see Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations Into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis (2017) by Annie Jacobsen, author of The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency, an account of the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, which funded much of this research -- and, by the way, invented the Internet (reviewed in "The Truth is Out There, and the Feds Paid to Find It" by Dick Teresi, New York Times, 04/25/2017).

                    (90015 bytes)Psi research has been criticized on a number of grounds.  Some purported demonstrations of psi effects are simply fraudulent.  But mAnnie Jacobsenore often, it seems that sincere investigators have conducted studies that are poorly designed, and contain serious methodological defects. In 1988, however, a committee of the National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the literature on psi at the request of the United States Army. The NRC committee determined that the remote viewing, random-number generation, and Ganzfeld paradigms reviewed were beset by major methodological problems, particularly inadequate randomization, sensory leakage, and the use of multiple tests for psi which spuriously inflate the probability levels associated with experimental outcomes. As such, the committee concluded that there was no scientific justification for claims about ESP, PK, or their practical significance. This remains the firm view of the scientific establishment.

But that hasn't prevented researchers from continuing to investigate various parapsychological phenomena.

HonortonGanzfeld.JPG (91013 bytes)A great deal of contemporary parapsychological research employs the Ganzfeld technique, devised by Charles Honorton, a noted psi researcher, which resembles Rhine's experiments with Zener cards. "Ganzfeld", a term derived from Gestalt psychology, refers to a homogeneous sensory field, without any imperfections or boundaries. In the Ganzfeld experiments, the subjects relax in a reclining chair, and translucent shields (like halves of ping-pong balls) are placed over their eyes and white noise is played over earphones. The general idea is that the Ganzfeld should increase psi effects by reducing distraction from the sensory environment (aka restricted environmental stimulation). And indeed, Ganzfeld experiments conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the late Charles Honorton (then affiliated with the Psychophysical Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey) and others did appear to yield above-chance levels of psi performance.

OldGanzfeld.JPG (93935 bytes)In 1985, Honorton reviewed a set of 28 studies using the Ganzfeld technique.  In 2001, Storms and Ertel identified an additional 11 studies published between 1982 and 1986 which had been missed by Honorton.  For reasons that will become clear later, these 39 studies constitute the "Old Ganzfeld Database".  Based on a meta-analysis of these studies, Storms and Ertel concluded that there was a statistically significant ESP effect.  They further calculated that the average effect size, across all the experiments, was d = .227 -- which counts as "small" by conventional standards.  But still, there seemed to be some evidence of  an effect of psi. 

Beginning in 1979, Robert Jahn, dean of the engineering school at Princeton University, established the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) project to examine purported phenomena such as psychokinesis and clairvoyance which, if confirmed, might interfere with the operations  of computers and similar devices.  The project, and the research it generated, was highly controversial, not least because it made elementary methodological errors, and was generally embarrassing to Princeton.  The project closed, at least as a Princeton-affiliated entity, in 2007, but continued under the independent auspices of the "International Consciousness Research Laboratories".  None of its few positive findings were ever replicated.

Chief among the academic critics of psi research has been Ray Hyman, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who is also an accomplished magician.  In 1986, Hyman and Honorton issued a "joint communique" setting out minimal methodological standards for future Ganzfeld research.

An obvious problem with evaluating research on psi is that most scientific journals prefer to publish studies which yield positive, statistically significant outcomes. Therefore, any review of the published research on psi is likely to exclude many negative studies which remain unpublished. To its credit, and in an attempt to rectify the "file drawer" problem, the Journal of Parapsychological Research actively solicits negative as well as positive studies. 

Still, it is somewhat disconcerting that failures to replicate psi effects have sometimes been interpreted as positive evidence for psi -- the argument being that the later experiments involved skeptics, whose negative attitudes paranormally affected the experimental outcomes. Of course, such a "Heads I win, tails you lose" position renders parapsychological claims scientifically untestable. Interestingly, comprehensive reviews indicate that experiments conducted with subjects who believe in psi are more likely to yield positive results than those with subjects who are skeptical. However, it is not clear whether this "sheep vs. goats" effect reflects individual differences in paranormal ability, or merely individual differences in acuity to subtle sensory cues. Claims that psi abilities are enhanced while dreaming, or during hypnosis or sensory deprivation are based on unsatisfactory evidence.


Recent Studies of Telepathy and Clairvoyance

Autoganzfeld.JPG (74237 bytes)In 1994, Daryl Bem, a psychologist who is also an accomplished stage magician, wrote a paper with Honorton defending the Ganzfeld experiments, and reviewing a new set of studies which apparently met most of the standards set out by Hyman and Honorton (the Bem-Honorton paper is one of the few instances where parapsychological research has been published in a mainstream psychology journal).  These are known as autoganzfeld studies because the selection of stimuli for viewing is automated by a computer, instead of being left to human devices.  Averaging across 11 studies, they obtained a combined hit rate of 32%, compared to 25% chance levels.  Statistically, this represented a fairly large average effect size of 0.59 -- much larger than the effect size (.227) that emerged from the Old Ganzfeld Database. 

Hyman.JPG (108228
                    bytes)In reply, Hyman (1994) found some persisting methodological difficulties, including inadequate randomization and the possibility that viewers could have been unintentionally prompted by the experimenters.  Hyman noted that the most methodologically problematic studies with the autoganzfeld procedure had a combined hit rate of .471 (compared to a chance hit rate of .25), but the least problematic studies, those that had the tightest methodological controls, yielded a hit rate of only .178 -- actually worse than chance!  Hyman's "best estimate" of the "unbiased hit rate" in the autoganzfeld experiments was .275 -- just about what we'd expect by chance.

A rejoinder by Bem (Honorton had died since their joint project began) discounted Hyman's criticisms, but the fact remains that most of the studies reviewed by Bem and Honorton had been conducted before the Hyman-Honorton guidelines had been announced.  Moreover, there had been no independent replications of the Ganzfeld effect, using the improved methodology, outside Honorton's laboratory. This leaves open the possibility that, despite Honorton's efforts to the contrary, some subtle bias may have contaminated the studies conducted in his laboratory.  

MiltonWiseman.JPG (93327 bytes)Milton and Wiseman (1999) reviewed 30 Ganzfeld studies which had been published since 1986, and so presumably adhered to the methodological guidelines set out in the Hyman-Honorton joint communique, and found no evidence of a psi effect -- specifically, an average z-score of 0.70 and an utterly trivial average effect size of 0.013, about as close to zero as you can get. 

Which illustrates a basic theme in parapsychology research: the best evidence for psi comes from the least well-controlled studies.  In contrast to every other discipline in science, tightening the experimental design, and thus eliminating noise, actually eliminates the effect.

Storm and Ertel (2001) responded with their own analysis of 79 studies, including both the Old Ganzfeld Database of 39 studies, and a new autoganzfeld database of 40 studies, which they called the New Ganzfeld Database, which yielded significant overall evidence of psi -- an overall effect size of .13.

However, as Milton and Wiseman (2001) noted in their reply, the Storm-Ertel analysis included many studies performed before 1987; therefore, their results may have been contaminated by methodologically inferior studies that did not adhere to the Hyman-Honorton standards.  

All of which is true, but let's take the Storm & Ertel meta-analysis at face value:

GanzfeldSecularTrend.JPG (50092 bytes)In other words, the earliest Ganzfeld seemed to yield significant effects, whatever effect there was has now disappeared.




One feature of parapsychology research is that it presents a moving target for critics.  One investigator will report significant results with one paradigm (like the original Ganzfeld paradigm) but then shift to another paradigm (like the autoganzfeld paradigm.  One study will make a claim that psi ability is correlated with extraversion, say; the next study will fail to replicate that effect, but claim that psi ability is correlated with neuroticism (or something). 

In what might be an example of this trend, Bem (2011) reported a series of studies that purported to demonstrate precognition

Anecdotal reports of precognitive experiences, especially precognitive dreams, abound in the annals of spiritualism, parapsychology, and transpersonal psychology. 

For example, Mark Twain had a dream in which his brother, Henry, was laid out in a metal casket, dressed in one of Twain's own suits, with a bouquet of roses resting on his chest.  A few weeks later, Henry was killed in the aftermath of a riverboat accident.  When Twain arrived for the funeral, he found that some local women had purchased a metal coffin for Henry, dressed him in one of Twain's suits (which Henry had borrowed earlier); and while he was there, a woman entered the funeral parlor and placed a bouquet of roses on Henry's chest in the open coffin.  (For details, see Twain's articles published in Harper's magazine: "Mental Telegraphy: A Manuscript With a History", 1891; and "Mental Telegraphy Again", 1895.)

But here's the question: How to study precognition empirically, under controlled laboratory circumstances?

In a typical study, Bem asked 100 subjects to view a computer display showing two curtains, and asked them to guess which curtain "hid" an erotically charged picture -- e.g., of two naked people lying in bed.  (As justification, Bem cited earlier studies that found evidence of precognition in emotionally charged contexts; he also does research on sexual behavior, and has published a provocative theory of the origins of homosexuality).  After the subjects made their choice, a computer would randomly select which curtain would hide the target.  Bem argued that, in this kind of experiment, any correspondence between the subjects' and the computer's choices would indicate precognition, because the subject's guesses had preceded the computer's action.  Put another way, the subjects had advance knowledge of a forthcoming event.  

The usual "control" in parapsychological experiments is the base rate -- that is, the number of hits that would be expected purely by chance -- 25% in the ganzfeld experiments, for example, or 50% in the case of the two-curtain experiment.  In addition, Bem very cleverly compared the computer's choices against a computer simulation of the subject's choices.  On the assumption that computers don't have mental states, Bem argued that this is the perfect control, because there is no cognition at all when one computer predicts the future performance of another computer.

Precognition1.JPG (46820 bytes)I wouldn't be going through all this if Bem hadn't gotten positive results.  In the experiment just described, subjects chose the correct curtain more often than would be expected by chance in the erotic condition, but not in other conditions involving emotionally neutral, negative, or nonerotic positive images, or nonerotic romantic images.  And, of course, the computer simulation performed at exactly chance levels.  So Bem claims he has evidence of precognitive knowledge of erotically charged events.  The magnitude of the effect in the erotic condition, d = .19, is small, but it's certainly bigger than we would expect by chance.

Precognition2.JPG (49644 bytes)In a follow-up experiment, Bem asked subjects to choose which curtain they did not want to open, so as to avoid an unpleasant image.  Here again, the subjects' choices corresponded with the computer's subsequent placement of the target image, d = .20.


Bem (2011) also reported a number of other experiments, all with results favoring precognition.  Of course, the same effects might be construed as an example of psychokinesis, in that the subjects' choices may have affected the operation of the machine.  But Bem argued that precognition would be a better interpretation of positive results.  

Bem is a highly regarded social psychologist, and also an accomplished stage magician, and he has a wicked sense of humor, and some of his colleagues have speculated that these experiments are part of an elaborate hoax.  But for the purposes of this course, I want to take them at face value as examples of a scientific approach to the question of whether we can have minds in the absence of bodies (or any physical medium).  These experiments have also been criticized on substantive methodological grounds, chiefly with respect to the details of Bem's statistical analysis.  On another level, Bem's experiments constitute another example of the moving target that is parapsychological research.  In contrast to the ganzfeld studies, all of which used essentially the same experimental procedures, none of the experiments reported by Bem constitute an exact, or even a conceptual, replication of an earlier one.  Each stands alone, employing a somewhat different paradigm.  

Precognition3.JPG (46785 bytes)It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens to precognition as more experiments are performed and published.  My guess is that precognition will suffer the same fate as telepathy and clairvoyance - -initially positive results will gradually disappear over time.  Comparing the overall size of the precognition effect reported by Bem (2011) to the secular trend noted by Storm and Ertel (2001), things don't look promising.  Bem's overall effect size, d = .20, is already smaller than that obtained in the Old Ganzfeld Database (d = 227).  Time will tell whether the effect eventually dissipates to the level of .013 observed by Milton and Wiseman (1994), or even the level of .05 noted by Storm and Ertel.

And as it happens, almost before the print was dry in Bem's published article, the criticisms began and several independent investigators began to report failures to replicate (Bem's findings had already been publicized through preprints).  Or, at least, tried to report it.  The journal where Bem's original precognition studies rejected the papers without review, on the grounds that the journal -- admittedly the most prestigious in personality and social psychology -- favored reports of multiple experiments reporting innovative findings, and, as a matter of policy, did not publish single-experiment papers or replications (successful or not).  

An early and trenchant methodological critique was published in Skeptical Inquirer by James Alcock, a prominent critic of parapsychological research, to which Bem responded, followed by Alcock's rejoinder.

In response to JPSP's editorial, Richard Wiseman, who had been involved in the earlier meta-analysis of the "Ganzfeld" experiments -- set up a registry of attempted replications, so you can follow developments as they emerge.  As of early May 2011, there were five such studies, all of which failed to replicate Bem's results. 

Appearance Versus Reality in Psi

Even if parapsychological research fails to reveal previously unrecognized sensory modalities, or to challenge established physical laws, the subjective experiences associated with psi are psychologically interesting. Many parapsychologists began their research careers because of some compelling subjective experience of clairvoyance, precognition, or the like which seemed to escape mundane explanation. Indeed, this was the source of William James's own fascination with spiritualism and psychic phenomena -- although it should also be said that James also conducted an experimental test, arranging with his friend Myers that whoever should die first should attempt to communicate with the survivor from beyond. The test failed. James also arranged a replication with his wife, which also, apparently, failed. Nevertheless, James felt that the experience of the paranormal was psychologically interesting, and should be studied for what it might reveal about normal mental life.

Psychometric surveys indicate wide individual differences in spontaneous paranormal experiences. Almost by definition, these subjective experiences occur outside controlled laboratory settings. It seems likely that some of these experiences are artifacts of biases and shortcomings that infect human judgment generally. Thus, we may be more likely to notice, and remember, the rare experience in which we thought about someone just before they called on the telephone, than the many experiences in which this coincidence did not occur. Moreover, it is possible that individual differences in the experience of ESP may be related to a cognitive capacity for absorption in sensory or fantasy experience, a facet of "openness to experience", a major dimension of personality. Similarly, individual differences in PK, as reflected in the Ouija board or Chevreul pendulum, may be related to normal suggestibility or to a capacity for dissociation, which allows people to engage in behavioral activities outside of conscious awareness. Absorption and dissociation probably lie at the heart of near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well. As William James argued a century ago, it is possible to take people's anomalous experiences seriously, without necessarily embracing claims about the paranormal origins of these experiences.

But one does not have to be a parapsychologist to study anomalous experience. It is enough simply to be a cognitive, clinical, personality, or social psychologist. The central claim of parapsychology goes beyond experience, and encompasses the hypothesis that the anomalous phenomena of psi are not mediated by the sensory or motor systems normally associated with sensation and action. In this respect, parapsychology confronts the scientist with a difficult conundrum. Science will not progress unless the investigator is open to new observations that might challenge established (and cherished) theories. At the same time, however, scientists must approach any startling new claim with an attitude of skepticism -- otherwise, society is left vulnerable to the ravages of "junk" and "pathological" science. Justice is done to both science and society when startling claims are evaluated according to the most stringent methodological standards. The evidence is not all in, and it is best to keep an open mind, but when one removes outright fraud, poor methodology, and capitalization on chance, there appears to be no little or no psi left to explain.


Parapsychology A to Z

Note: The above material is based on my article in the Encyclopedia of Psychology, edited by A.E. Kazdin, published in 2000 by the American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press.  The following entries on parapsychology and related subjects were written for the APA Dictionary of Psychology (2006).  Brackets ({}) enclose terms that are defined elsewhere in this list.  

agent In social psychology, the designation given to the individual who initiates a dyadic or other social interaction, analogous to the grammatical subject of a transitive verb; the object of the agent's action is the patient, analogous to the direct object of a transitive verb. In {parapsychology}, the designation given to the {sender} who instigates the action in {psychokinesis} or {telepathy); the person who is the object of this activity is designated as the {receiver} or {percipient}..

American Society for Psychical Research Scholarly society devoted to the scientific investigation of parapsychological and paranormal phenomena. Initially founded in 1885 by a group including William James, it became a branch of the British {Society for Psychical Research}, and then became an independent organization. Publishes the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (established 1907).

apparition in {spiritualism}, the perceived manifestation of a ghost or spirit.

apport in {spiritualism}, the alleged {supernatural} transport of an object by poltergeists or during a seance.

astral projection in {spiritualism}, a hypothetical psychic phenomenon in which influences from the stars are believed to control the actions, health, personality, and destiny of human beings. Also see {astrology}.

astrology a pseudoscience based on the belief that the movements of the planets and stars influence the lives of individuals and determine the course of events. As one example, Paracelsus applied medications derived from minerals, which were supposed to capture the beneficial magnetic forces emanating from the heavenly bodies. Even today many individuals believe that their horoscope, or map of the heavens at the time of their birth, can be used in determining their personal characteristics, tendencies to particular diseases of mind or body, and liability to good fortune or calamity. There is no evidence for this belief, except perhaps as a {self-fulfilling prophecy}.

augury in {mysticism} and {spiritualism}, the act of divining the future on the basis of omens, portents, or chance events.

aura in neurology, psychiatry, and psychology, subjective sensations that warn the individual of an impending epileptic seizure or migraine attack: strange tastes or odors, colored lights, numbness, weird sounds, feelings of unreality, stomach distress, or deja vu. Individual patients experience their own typical auras, which may or may not give them time to prepare for or abort a seizure. The term is also used in {parapsychology}, {mysticism}, and {spiritualism} to denote halos and emanations that some individuals claim to see.  (A. is a Greek word meaning "breeze.") Also see {epileptic a}.; {migraine a.}; {visual a.}

backward displacement ({parapsychology}) the ostensible phenomenon in {precognition} or postcognition} in which the {percipient's} "call", or guess, actually matches the outcome of the previous {trial} in the series. Compare {forward displacement}.

basic technique (BT) ({parapsychology}) the procedure in studies of {clairvoyance} in which the top card in a deck is removed from the deck (as opposed to being replaced in the deck) after a "call" or guessing {trial}.

biorhythms a pseudoscience based on the belief that every person is biologically programmed by three precise rhythms (physical, emotional, and intellectual), beginning at birth and continuing unaltered until death, and that good and bad days for various activities can be calculated accordingly. As with astrology, the predictions, however, do not differ significantly from chance. Until the term became pre-empted by this fad, biorhythm was a reputable synonym of BIOLOGICAL RHYTHM. See this entry.

BT = Basic Technique

bumps See {phrenology}.

change effect the effect on the physical structure of an object targeted by {psychokinesis}, as in the alleged structural changes to metal in the "spoon-bending" demonstrations of the psychic Uri Geller. (who some refer to as a {charlatan}).

characterology a branch of psychology concerned with character and personality; also, a pseudoscience in which character is "read" by external signs such as hair color.

charlatan in medicine, a "quack" who makes a pretense of medical or scientific knowledge; derogatory term sometimes applied to one who promotes or practices {{parapsychology}}.

cheiromancy see {chiromancy}.

chiromancy in {mysticism} and {spiritualism}, a form of divination in which an individual's character and fortune are read from the mounds and lines on the hand; palmistry; also {cheiromancy}.

chirosophy the pseudoscience of reading hands; see {chiromancy}.

circumthanatology the study of near-death experiences

clairaudience a {parapsychology} term for the alleged ability to hear sounds without use of the ears.

clairvoyance alleged extrasensory perception of external objects or events in the past, present, or future.

clairvoyant dream in {parapsychology}, a dream in which one has clairvoyant experiences.

confederate in research methodology, designation given to an accomplice of the {experimenter}, who may be employed as part of the "cover story" in experiments involving deception; see also {experimenter, subject}.

consistent missing in {parapsychology}, a phenomenon in which a subject's calls or guesses are consistently wrong, or worse than chance expectations.

cross correspondence in {parapsychology}, messages in automatic writing by one medium that are interpreted by another.

cryptesthesia the experience of clairvoyance, clairaudience, or similar forms of paranormal cognition that cannot be associated with any known sensory stimulus.

crystal gazing in {parapsychology}, a  technique in which a  subject is instructed to visualize significant experiences, or produce associations, while staring into a glass ball, light bulb, or mirror.  Crystal gazing is used also by mediums to produce what they claim to be extrasensory perception of events in the lives of their clients. Also called scrying.

crystal healing a pseudoscience which studies the alleged powers of crystals to heal illness; also a pseudoscientific medical practice which uses crystals for this purpose. See also {faith healing}, {psychic healing}.

dabbler in {magic}, person who claims competence in more than one magical technique for controlling nature.

decline effect in {parapsychology}, the phenomenon in which the accuracy of the subject's calls or guesses begins at above-chance levels, and progressively drops to chance levels; see {regression to the mean}.

demand characteristics in research methodology, refers to the totality of cues in the experimental situation that communicates the experimenter's hypothesis to the subject; demand characteristics may threaten the {ecological validity} of a psychological experiment. The term was introduced by M.T. Orne, based on the work of K. Lewin. See also {experimenter bias}.

differential effect in {parapsychology}, the finding of an above-chance difference in performance between two conditions of testing.

divination in {mysticism} and {spiritualism}, a paranormal process in which future events are alleged to be foretold, or hidden knowledge is discovered, by means of (a) a spiritualistic medium's {supernatural} powers, as in crystal-gazing, or (b) augury, that is, the interpretation of omens or portents such as the flight of birds or the entrails of a sacrificed animal.

down through in {parapsychology}, a technique for testing {clairvoyance} in which the subject guesses the order of a stacked deck of cards from top to bottom; see {up through}.

ecological validity in research methodology, refers to the extent to which the results of a laboratory experiment can be generalized to the real world outside the laboratory; the term was introduced by M.T. Orne, based on the work of E. Brunswik. Ecological validity may be threatened by {experimenter bias}, {demand characteristics}, and other sources of methodological artifact.

ectoplasm the outer layer of a cell or of a one-cell organism; also, a {parapsychology} term for a substance said to emanate from a medium's body.

effluvium in {parapsychology}, the ostensible flow of particles that is too subtle to be perceived by ordinary sensory mechanisms; the particles in such a flow.

electrodermal response (EDR) in psychophysiology, changes in the electrical properties (conductance or its obverse, resistance) of the skin as a function of emotional or cognitive activity, such as stress or orienting; these changes, in turn, reflect activity of sweat glands located in the fingers and palms; formerly known as the {galvanic skin reflex or galvanic skin response} (GSR), EDR is the preferred term because GSR implies that the skin itself generates electrical current although skin conductance, while the term "reflex" implies that the physiological change is always automatic in nature.

ESP = {extrasensory perception}.

ESP forced-choice test in {parapsychology}, a technique in which a subject is required to guess which of two or more possibilities is the target; see {ESP free-response test}.

ESP free-response test in {parapsychology}, a technique in which a subject's calls or guesses are not restricted to a predetermined set of targets; see {ESP forced-choice test}.

exorcism the process of driving demons out of the mind by means of certain rites and ceremonies, prayers and incantations. Some individuals believe these evil spirits are the major cause of mental disease or other aberrations.

experimenter in research methodology, designation given to the party who devises the task for the {subject} to perform, and determines the conditions under which the performance will take place; see also {confederate}.

experimenter bias in research methodology, refers to the unintended effects of the experimenter's expectations on the behavior of the subject; demand characteristics may threaten the {ecological validity} of a psychological experiment. The term was introduced by R. Rosenthal. In social psychology, experimenter bias is viewed as an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy (a term introduced by R.K. Merton), part of a wider class of expectancy-confirmation effects observed in social interaction. See also {demand characteristics}.

extrachance in {parapsychology}, test results that depart radically (e.g., one chance in a thousand or one chance in a million) from chance expectations.

extrasensory perception alleged awareness of external events by other means than the known sensory channels. It includes telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and, more loosely, psychokinesis. There is considerable difference of opinion as to the existence of these modalities. Abbrev.: ESP. Also called paranormal cognition.

faith healing in {mysticism} and {spiritualism}, the treatment of physical conditions by means of religious practices, such as prayer. See also {crystal healing}, {psychic healing}.

focusing effect in parapsychological studies of {extrasensory perception} and {psychokinesis}, the ostensible phenomenon in which performance is better for {trial}s in which the target is the object of special attentional focus (perhaps because it has special significance for the {receiver}).

forward displacement in {parapsychology}, the ostensible phenomenon in {precognition} or postcognition} in which the {percipient's} "call", or guess, actually matches the outcome of the next {trial} in the series. Compare {backward displacement}.

galvanic skin reflex / response (GSR) see {electrodermal response}.

Ganzfeld in {parapsychology}, a technique in which the subject is isolated from the sensory environment (e.g., by placing halves of Ping-Pong balls over the eyes and headphones over the ears); from the German meaning "total field".

gematria in numerology, the calculation of the numerical values of letters, rods, and phrases, and using these calculations to explore the relationships between ideas and concepts.

general extrasensory perception (GESP) in {parapsychology}, a paranormal outcome which cannot be attributed specifically to clairvoyance, precognition, postcognition, psychokinesis, telepathy, or some other specific paranormal process; extrasensory perception of any kind.

ghost images "{apparition}s" of disembodied individuals who retain some general bodily characteristics of previously living persons. Ghost images are rarely "observed" by more than one individual despite the presence of others and tend to occur in periods of emotional crisis. A ghost image often includes some implausible physical factors; e.g., the ghost wears clothing, rides a horse, or carries an inanimate object such as a heavy chain.

horoscope in the pseudoscience of astrology a diagram showing the relative position of the planets and the signs of the zodiac at the time of a person's birth or other event, used to infer the person's character and/or to predict the future.

independent phenomena in {parapsychology}, two or more observations, outcomes, or phenomena which appear to be unrelated, but in fact are related.

inhabitance in {parapsychology}, the idea that spirits dwell in nonliving things, or that one person's spirit can exist in another person's body.

Kilner goggles/screen in {parapsychology}, special lenses or screens that ostensibly reveal the "{auras}" emitted by objects.

Kirlian photography in {parapsychology}, a technique which ostensibly records on photographic film the "{aura}" or "life force" emanated by a person or other object.

language ESP in {parapsychology}, the ostensible phenomenon in which subjects are able to make above-chance calls or guesses about targets presented in an unknown foreign language.

lecanomancy a system of divination in which a medium looks into a basin of water and sees visions.  L. has been used in psychoanalytic studies to show relationships between the medium's supposed visions and his dreams and complexes. (The term is derived from the Greek words lekane, "dish, pan," and manteia, "oracle, divination.")

levitation the illusion of ascending into the air without support, that is, in the absence of any known cause. The term is mainly used in relation to dreams and parapsychological phenomena.

magic in anthropology, the practice (common in so-called "primitive" cultures) of manipulating and controlling nature by {supernatural} or {preternatural} means, such as rituals, incantations, and spells. Along with {mysticism} and {spiritualism}, it is the philosophical and religious counterpart to {parapsychology}.

majority vote technique in {parapsychology}, a technique in which the subject makes several calls or guesses about a single target, and the most frequent call is considered the subject's only response.

materialization in {parapsychology}, the alleged production of a body or its parts by supernormal or spiritualistic methods.

medium any agency through which something is achieved, including the air or a wire through which messages are transmitted. In {parapsychology}, a m. is the person who functions as the instrument of alleged communication between the living and the dead.

mental telepathy in {parapsychology}, a redundant term for {telepathy}: all {telepathy}, involving the transmission of knowledge and information from one mind to another without any intervening physical medium, is mental by definition.

metaphysics that part of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of physical reality; see {metapsychics}.

metapsychics in an analogy to {metaphysics}, that part of {parapsychology} that is concerned with the fundamental nature of mind; also in {parapsychology}, a designation given to a people who are exceptionally skilled in one or more paranormal abilities, such as {clairvoyance}, {telepathy}, or {psychokinesis}.

mind-reading a form of purported paranormal perception in which it is alleged an individual has access to the thoughts in the mind of another person by extrasensory means.

mysticism in religion, a spiritual practice intended to reveal hidden truth or wisdom, and unite the practitioner with the divine or the sacred. Along with {magic} and {spiritualism}, it is the philosophical and religious counterpart to {parapsychology}.

necromancy in {parapsychology}, the technique of conjuring the spirits of the dead for the purposes of predicting or influencing future events; sorcery.

numerology a study of the occult meaning of numbers, such as the date of one's birth or figures derived from the letters of one's name, as a means of interpreting their hypothetical influence on one's life and future. N. is sometimes considered a type of {parapsychology}.

observer in {{parapsychology}} experiments, a participant who is neither the designated {sender} or the designated {receiver}.

occult mysterious, incomprehensible, secret, especially as applied to a class of phenomena, or presumptive phenomena, that cannot be explained in either everyday or scientific terms, such as premonitory dreams, telepathic awareness, and clairvoyant communications. See {extrasensory perception}; {parapsychology}; {psi}; {pseudoscience}.

omen in {parapsychology}, an event which serves as a sign, or predictor, of a forthcoming event.

oneiromancy in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, the ostensible technique of divining the future from dreams.

Ouija board a trademark for a {parapsychology} device consisting of a board painted with numbers and letters. A movable pointer, allegedly influenced by {supernatural} forces spells out messages through the hands of the person holding the pointer. The process is often seen as a form of automatic writing. (The term is a contraction of the French and German words for "yes, " oui and ja.)

out-of-body experience in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, a dissociative experience in which the individual imagines that his mind, soul or spirit has left his body and is acting or perceiving on its own. It is a neurological phenomenon that may occur when death is imminent, and in some cases can be induced by the suggestion of a medium, or "sensitive," or by the use of hallucinogens, notably phencyclidine.

palmistry the pseudoscientific practice of interpreting lines and other skin surface features of the palm as signs of personality traits or for predictions of the individual's future.

parakinesis = {psychokinesis}. Also see {parakinesia}.

paranormal pertaining to any phenomenon that cannot be explained by existing knowledge.

paranormal cognition = {extrasensory perception}.

paranormal phenomena: See {parapsychology}.

parapsychology the systematic study of alleged psychological phenomena that cannot be explained in terms of presently known scientific data or laws, including CLAIRVOYANCE, TELEPATHY, PRECOGNITION, PSYCHOKINESIS, POLTERGEIST, MEDIUM, DOWSING, and other "paranormal" phenomena. See these entries. Also see {extrasensory perception}; {astrology}; {Rhine}.

percipient a person who perceives; also, in {parapsychology}, the alleged recipient of parapsychological messages; also known as the {receiver}. Compare {agent} or {sender}; also {observer}.

phantasmagoria the imagined process of raising or recalling the spirits of the dead.

phrenology a pseudoscience in which mental and character traits are inferred from patterns of {bumps} and depressions in the surface of the skull; modern cognitive neuroscience shares the phrenologists' view that certain mental functions are performed by specialized brain modules or systems, although the neuroscientists' list of these modules, and their locations in the brain, are quite different from those proposed by phrenologists..

PK = {psychokinesis}.

poltergeist an alleged paranormal phenomenon (from German Poltergeist, "noisy ghost") consisting of an unseen person who is believed to occupy a "haunted house," disturbing the peace with such pranks as slamming doors, rapping on walls, upsetting furniture, and breaking crockery. Investigations indicate that these events often are reported in homes where there is a preadolescent child.

position effect in {parapsychology}, the ostensible effect of the position of a target in a temporal series or spatial array on the accuracy of the subject's calls or guesses.

postcognition in {parapsychology}, the experiencing of a past event as if it is occurring in the present; see {precognition}.

precognition the purported foreknowledge of an occurrence or experience, supposedly through nonrational channels. See {parapsychology}; {extrasensory perception} {postcognition}.

prediction the foretelling of future events. In psychological assessment, personality tests and other psychometric instruments are often empirically validated by showing that they can predict subjects' behaviors or other characteristics. In psychiatry it may be possible to predict the general behavior or prognosis of patients whose personality pattern is known, but not their specific behavior, since so many factors are involved. In {parapsychology}, the term is essentially equivalent to PRECOGNITION. See this entry.

preferential effect in {parapsychology}, the ostensible finding that a subject's calls or guesses are more accurate for one set of targets in an experiment (e.g., die faces with high values) than another (e.g., die faces with low values).

preferential matching in {parapsychology}, the technique in which a subject's calls or guesses are evaluated by a judge in terms of their similarity to possible targets; see {ESP free- response test}.

premonitory dreams in {parapsychology}, dreams that give advance notice or warning of some future event.

preternatural in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, term describing phenomena that appear to be inexplicable in terms of known laws of the physical universe, though not necessarily the work of gods, demons, or spirits; compare {supernatural}.

pseudopsychology an approach to psychology that utilizes unscientific or fraudulent methods, e.g., palmistry, {parapsychology}, phrenology, physiognomy, or biorhythm. Also see {pseudoscience}.

pseudoscience a system of theories and methods that claims falsely to be scientific or that is falsely regarded as scientific. For examples and related entries, see {astrology}; {biorhythms}; {characterology}; {clairvoyance; dianetics}; {dowsing}; {exorcism}; {extrasensory perception}; {medium}; {numerology; obscurantism}; {occult}; {orgonomy}; {Ouija board}; {out-of-body experience; palmistry}; {parapsychology}; {phrenology}; {physiognomy}; {poltergeist}; {precognition; pseudopsychology}; {psi}; {psychokinesis}; {seance}; {superstition}; {telepathy}.

psi term denoting unspecified mental functions believed to be involved in telepathy and other parapsychological processes which at this time defy scientific explanation. Also, a generic term for the phenomena studied by {parapsychology}, including {extrasensory perception}, {precognition}, and {psychokinesis}. The term is usually explained as an abbreviation of psychic.

psi-hitting in {parapsychology}, term designating performance on a test that is significantly above chance; compare {psi-missing}.

psi-missing in {parapsychology}, term designating performance on a test that is significantly below chance; compare {psi-hitting}.

psychic a general term for all phenomena associated with the mind (Pavlov referred to conditioned responses as "psychic reflexes", because the idea of the physical stimulus evoked the reflexive response); in {parapsychology}, the term refers to immaterial or spiritual forces that operate outside the domain of natural science; also, as a noun, a medium (see {spiritualism}).

psychic healing in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, the treatment of physical conditions by means of parapsychological or spiritualistic means. See also {crystal healing}, {faith healing}.

psychic link in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, the direct connection between one mind and another, not mediated by any sensory channel.

psychic research an alternative term for {parapsychology}.

psychokinesis in {parapsychology}, the alleged ability to control external events and move or change the shape of objects through the power of thought, e.g., to influence the roll of dice or bend a piece of metal by exerting "mind over matter." Abbrev.: PK. Also called telekinesis; parakinesis.

random event generator in {parapsychology}, a device used in research on {psychokinesis}.

receiver in {parapsychology} experiments, the participant who attempts to receiver information transmitted by the {receiver}. See also {percipient}.

Reichenbach phenomenon a field emanating from crystals and other objects, discernable only to certain sensitive individuals, similar to the {aura} ostensibly detected by {Kirlian photography}; thought to be a manifestation of a physical life force called Od, distinct from electricity and magnetism, but similar to the animal magnetism of F.A. Mesmer; the phenomenon was ostensibly discovered by C.L. Reichenbach (1788-1869), an Austrian chemist and metallurgist who also discovered paraffin and creosote.

retrocognition = {postcognition}.

rhabdomancy the practice of divination by rod or wand, as in dowsing (from Greek rhabdos, "rod," and manteia, "divination"). See {dowsing}. [Also spelled rabdomancy]

regression to the mean in research methodology, a statistical artifact in which individuals with extreme scores on some variable tend, upon retesting, to have less extreme scores; the artifact occurs whenever the initial measure is less than perfectly reliable -- which for psychological measurement is all the time. In {parapsychology} research, it can be the source of some claimed effects, such as the {decline effect}.

Rhine cards/deck a standardized set of stimulus materials, similar to a deck of playing cards, designed by J.B. Rhine and K. Zener for use in experiments on {extrasensory perception} and other topics in {parapsychology}}. For more details on these cards and their use in research, see {Zener cards}.

Scientology a pseudoscientific and religious or quasi-religious movement, founded by the science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986); often classified as a "New Religious Movement", sometimes castigated as a cult. Scientology emphasizes the harmful effects of "imprints", essentially memories, of past traumatic experiences; formerly known as Dianetics, a form of psychotherapy practiced by Scientologists, in which interactions with a therapist-like "auditor" and the use of a device called an "E-meter" (essentially a measurement of the {electrodermal response}) lead to a liberated state known as "being Clear". Scientology is also associated with its own cosmology, in which humans are believed to be descended from "thetans" -- immaterial, divine beings who were trapped by the material world.

sciosophy any system of thought that is not supported by scientific methods, e.g., astrology or theology (from Greek skia, hade, shadow").

screened touch matching in {parapsychology}, a technique in which the subject points to indicate his call or guess concerning the top card in a deck held behind a screen; used in demonstrations of {clairvoyance}.

scrying = {crystal gazing}.

second sight in {parapsychology}, the ability to see the future; related to {clairvoyance} and {precognition}; also, in vision science, the term given to the neural system whereby visual signals are carried from "pacemaker" nerve cells in the retina, distinct from rods and cones, which play a role in circadian rhythms such as the sleep-wake cycle.

sender in {parapsychology} experiments, the participant who attempts to transmit information to the {receiver}

sensitive in {parapsychology}, a person who allegedly is capable of receiving supernormal messages or knowledge. As an adjective, the term means easily affected or hurt.

sheep-goat effect in {parapsychology} research, the term coined by G. Schmeidler to characterize the difference in outcomes between believers (the sheep) and the nonbelievers (the goats) in paranormal phenomena.

singles test ({parapsychology}) in research on (psychokinesis}, a technique in which the subject attempts to influence the throw of a single die.

sixth sense in {parapsychology}, {mysticism}, and {spiritualism}, the ostensible sensory modality responsible for mediating the phenomena of {extrasensory perception}. The term is derived from Aristotle, who (in De Anima) distinguished among the five "special senses" (vision, audition, gustation, olfaction, and the tactile sense) and a "common sense" in which information from the special senses was integrated.

Society for Psychical Research British scholarly society, founded in 1882 to promote scientific investigation of parapsychological and paranormal phenomena. Publishes the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (established 1884).

spiritism: See {spiritualism}.

spirit photography in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, the belief, popular in the late 19th century, that the spirits of deceased individuals left imprints on photographs of their loved ones; the first spirit photograph was produced by W. Mumler in 1862; in 1869, Mumler was tried for fraud, and P.T. Barnum testified against him, using the term "humbug" to describe Mumler's activity.

spiritualism the metaphysical belief that the universe is basically nonmaterial, or incorporeal; also, the belief that it is possible to communicate with the deceased through mediums. The latter is sometimes called spiritism. Along with {magic} and {mysticism}, it is the philosophical and religious counterpart to {parapsychology}.

spontaneous human combustion in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, the claim (commonly considered a classic {urban legend}) that the human body can spontaneously burst into flame, without the aid of any external ignition, and burn completely

subject in research methodology, the designation given to the participant in an experiment, whether human or nonhuman animal, who performs a task under conditions set by another participant, designated the {experimenter}. Subjects may also be called "observers", "respondents", or even "informants". The {American Psychological Association} Publication Manual insists that authors of research articles refer to subjects as "participants", but this requirement ignores the fact that there are at least two participants in every psychological experiment -- the experimenter and the subject, for certain, and perhaps a {confederate} and other personnel as well; see also {confederate}, {subject}.

supernatural in {parapsychology} and {spiritualism}, term describing phenomena that appear to depart from or transcend the laws of the physical universe, often taken to be the work of gods, demons, or spirits; compare {preternatural}.

table-tilting/tipping/turning in {spiritualism}, the movements of a table during a {seance}, ostensibly reflecting the efforts of spirits to communicate with the participants; in {parapsychology}, the same movements might be attributed to {psychokinesis}.

target in {parapsychology}, the thoughts or object to which the subject attempts to respond (in tests of {telepathy} or {clairvoyance}), or the object which the subject attempts to influence (in tests on {psychokinesis}).

telegnosis in {parapsychology}, a term for alleged knowledge of distant events without direct communication, as a form of clairvoyance.

telekinesis = {psychokinesis}.

telepathic dream a dream that is allegedly stimulated or influenced by the dream of another person sleeping in the same room.

telepathy the alleged direct communication from mind to mind, in the absence of any known means of transmission. It is a form of EXTRASENSORY PERCEPTION. See this entry.

teleplasm in {parapsychology}, a term for a hypothetical substance that emanates from a psychic medium in the form of a human being and is presumably capable of telekinetic activities.

telergy in {parapsychology}, the alleged ability of a {sensitive} individual to convey {paranormal} abilities via {telepathy} to a nearby person.

telesthesia in {parapsychology}, a term for the alleged ability to perceive objects or events beyond the normal range of human perception.

thought transference a form of alleged mental telepathy in which the mental activities of one person are allegedly thought to be transmitted without physical means to the mind of another person.

trial in {parapsychology}, the designation given to any single attempt by a subject to identify (in {clairvoyance} or {telepathy}) or influence (in {psychokinesis}) an object.

up through in {parapsychology}, a technique for testing {clairvoyance} in which the subject guesses the order of a stacked deck of cards from bottom to top; see {down through}.

urban legend in anthropology, incredible stories, usually containing a mix of horror and humor (such as accounts of {spontaneous human combustion}), widely believed to be true but generally poorly documented at best and hoaxes at worst; urban legends differ from myths and folktales in that they usually have a contemporary setting.

veridical hallucinations in {spiritualism}, an {apparition} that is witnessed by more than one person; not quite a contradiction in terms, the apparition is, almost by definition, a hallucination (it is a perception in the absence of a stimulus); but because it is shared by two or more people, the experience is believed to be veridical rather than illusory.

xenoglossy in {parapsychology}, the ostensible ability of a person to speak or write in a language that is entirely unknown to him or her.

Zener cards a standardized set of stimulus materials, similar to a deck of playing cards, designed by J.B. Rhine and K. Zener for use in experiments on {extrasensory perception} (ESP) and other topics in {parapsychology}; also known as {Rhine cards} or the {Rhine deck}. The set consists of 25 cards with printed symbols (star, wavy lines, cross, circle, and square) on them, with five cards in each category. In a test of {telepathy}, a {sender} or {agent} might shuffle the cards and then turn the cards over one at a time to inspect them, while a {receiver} or {percipient} would attempt to read the thoughts of the sender. Such an {ESP forced-choice procedure} constitutes the {basic technique} in parapsychological research. The receiver might also be isolated from environmental stimulation by means of a {Ganzfeld}. An {observer} might also be present in the room, to guard against the effects of {experimenter bias} and other methodological errors, or to perform some other function. Given the five symbols on the deck of cards, a hit rate significantly greater than 20% (1 chance in 5) would be classified as {psi-hitting}; a hit rate significantly less than 20% would be called {psi-missing}. Extremely high ({extrachance}) rates of psi-hitting might be taken as evidence that the receiver was {sensitive}; evidence of {consistent missing} might also be taken as evidence for ESP. If the receiver's call on a particular {trial} matched the outcome of the previous {trial}, this would be evidence of {backward displacement}; if the call matched the outcome of the next trial, this would be evidence of {forward displacement}. If the hit rate were significantly greater on early trials than on later trials, this would be taken as evidence of the {decline effect}. Alternatively, the receiver might be asked to predict the outcome of a future ({precognition}) or previous ({postcognition}) set of trials. If the receiver's calls were more accurate for some targets (e.g., stars) than for others (e.g., crosses), this might be taken as evidence of a {preferential effect}, {focusing effect}. If the rate of psi-hitting were greater for cards placed at a particular spatial location, this would be evidence of a {position effect}. If the rate of psi-hitting were greater when the Ganzfeld was used, compared to when it was not, this would be evidence of a {differential effect} between the two conditions. (Of course, with all these different effects, the likelihood of getting some ESP "effect" in any experimental run increases, which is why statistical analysis of ESP experiments is problematic.) In an experiment on {remote viewing}, the "sender" might be located a considerable distance from the "receiver". In an experiment on {clairvoyance}, the "sender" might attempt to identify the order of the shuffled deck, in the absence of any inspection of the cards by the "sender", proceeding {down through} the deck from the top, or {up through} the deck from the bottom. In an experiment on {psychokinesis}, the "receiver" would actually take the role of "sender", attempt to control the outcome of the shuffle directly. Because {psi-hitting} may be due to the "receiver's" perceiving the contents of the deck directly, and not receiving the thoughts of the "sender", it may be impossible to distinguish {telepathy} from {clairvoyance}. Similarly, because {psi-hitting} may be due to the effect of the "receiver's" thoughts on the outcome of the shuffle, rather than any perception of the deck or the "sender's" thoughts, it may be impossible to distinguish either {telepathy} or {clairvoyance} from {psychokinesis}; in this case, we would speak of {general extrasensory perception}.



In contemporary psychology, spiritualistic concerns with the soul, life after death, channeling and reincarnation are often represented by an area known as survivalism, which -- like 19th-century spiritualism, is concerned with the survival of the mind after bodily death.  Of course, religious beliefs of various sorts also lie at the heart of much of the current interest in these phenomena, but in this context we approach them as purely secular topics, amenable to scientific research.  

Of course, this "survivalism" is not to be confused with the "survivalist" movements that prepare for life after disasters such as nuclear holocaust.

Among the topics of interest to 20th- (and now, I guess, 21st-) century survivalism are:

Reincarnation, the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese Communist Party

Reincarnation is a central belief of many world religions, including Tibetan Buddhism.  Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was identified in 1937 as the reincarnation of Thubten Gyatson, the 13th Dalai Lama, who had died in 1933, based on various oracles and signs.  Among these was the ability of the 2-year-old boy to identify the belongings of the 13th Dalai Lama -- which, if you think about it, would count as a kind of implicit memory.  Especially since going into exile in 1959, as China suppressed a Tibetan independence movement, the Dalai Lama has emerged as political as well as a spiritual leader, and a thorn in the side of Chinese authorities as they attempt to consolidate their sovereignty (he does not dispute Chinese rule, but has pushed instead for greater regional autonomy). 

As the Dalai Lama has aged (he was born in 1935), he has publicly discussed his own reincarnation -- including the possibility that he won't reincarnate himself at all (apparently reincarnation is a choice, depending on whether the deceased still has things to accomplish).  This sent the Chinese government into a tizzy, claiming that the Dalai Lama must reincarnate (he actually is not required to, though, not least because the Dalai Lama is a social institution which dates back only to the 14th century, and can be abolished), and that the reincarnation must be supervised by the Chinese government itself.  So we have the spectacle of an avowedly atheist, communist government recognizing -- even demanding -- reincarnation, and whose State Administration for Religious Affairs has actually produced a manual of "management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism" and is prepared to issue an official "living Buddha permit".  Go figure.

The Out-of-Body Experience

The OBE is frequently reported by surgical patients, and others who are subjected to various kinds of stress.  ( Most psychologists think of the OBE as a kind of illusion, or as a temporary dissociative disorder similar to depersonalization or derealization.  As such, presumably, they are caused by as-yet-unknown physical processes.   Something similar seems to happen in the phenomenon known as astral projection, sometimes induced by certain psychedelic drugs, in which the person experiences himself as if he is floating in midair. 

Ehrsson and his colleagues (2007) were able to induce OBEs in normal subjects, not subject to any kind of stress, by means of a virtual reality induction.  But this OBE is clearly illusory: neither Ehrsson nor anybody else claims that, following the virtual reality induction, the subject's mind actually leaves his body.  

What makes the OBE relevant to this course, of course, is the proposition that people's minds can actually leave their bodies, so that they can see themselves the way they see other people (and, conversely, the way others see them).  In the spirit of William James, such claims are subject to empirical test.  For example, if surgical patients really experience a disembodied mind that floats above the scene in the operating room, then they ought to be able to read a message taped to the upper side of a hanging light fixture.  You get the idea (and as of 2011, I understand that just such a study is currently in progress).  

Of course, any such test would have to be very carefully conducted, so as not to be contaminated by various confounding factors.


The Near-Death Experience

Steve Jobs's last words, before he lapsed into unconsciousness and died, were OH WOW!  OH WOW!  OH WOW!  We know this from his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson, who was there -- and who added the upper-case formatting in her eulogy, published in the New York Times (10/30/2011).   Unfortunately, we don't know what he was talking about.  Maybe he was happy to be surrounded by his family.  Or maybe he was having a Near-Death Experience.  

James Moody (1975) described the NDE as "entering the light", ostensibly a precursor to the afterlife.  NDEs are complex, typically including:

In 2001, von Lommel and his colleagues published the first prospective study of NDEs, based on 344 patients.  All of them had been declared clinically dead, because of an absence of brainstem electrical activity following cardiac arrest, and then resuscitated.  As many as 18% of the patients reported experiencing at least some of the elements of an NDE -- chiefly an out-of-body experience, passage through a tunnel, and entering the light.

Of course, all of this could be a consequence of massive changes in cortical activity as the body shuts down.  Or it could just be some sort of illusion, perhaps created by expectations about the afterlife based on culture or religion (or, perhaps, influenced by reading the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, such as On Death and Dying).  And that would be the materialist view.  

As these books show, some people believe that the NDE reflects a tentative move from this life to the next, interrupted by the fact that they didn't actually die.  it's not clear how to test this, though Moody and others have argued that the similarity in self-reports, across a wide range of individuals and cultures, at least provides prima facie evidence that "something real" is going on.  In which case, NDEs become a modern expression of spiritualism, and relevant to views about the independence of mind from body.  

Among advocates of the new spiritualism, OBEs and NDEs represent the disconnection between the mind and the body.  According to the radio analogy, the brain doesn't generate consciousness.  Rather, it acts as a receiver of consciousness that exists independent of the brain, just as radio waves exist independent of a radio or television receiver.

Reports of NDEs have become a fixture of popular culture.

Dr. Alexander's account of his experience follows:

During that week, as life slipped away, he now says, he was living intensely in his mind.  He was reborn into a primitive mucky Jell-o-like substance and then guided by 'a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes' on the wings of a butterfly to an 'immense void' that is both 'pitch black' and 'brimming with light' coming from an 'orb' that interprets for an all-loving God ("Readers Join Doctor's Journey to the Afterworld's Gates" by Leslie Kaufman, New York Times 11/26/2012).

The Times article continues:

Dr. Alexander acknowledged that tales of near-death experiences that reveal a bright light leading to compassionate world beyond are as old as time and by now seem trite…. Still, he said, he has a trump card: Having trained at Duke University and taught and practiced as a surgeon at Harvard, he knows brain science as well as anyone.  And science, he said, cannot explain his experience."

Note the implication: a story told by a four-year-old might be just a fantasy, but a similar story told by a neurosurgeon -- now, that's real!

Which reminds me of a sort of paradox in psychology and neuroscience:

But I digress.

An excellent survey of the literature on NDEs and OBEs, focusing on the recent spate of popular-press books, was published by Robert Gottlieb in the New York Review of Books:

  • "To Heaven and Back!", 10/23.2014.
  • "Back from Heaven -- the Science", 11/06/2014.



Of course, you'd like to have experimental evidence -- something along the lines of the experimental evidence offered for telepathy, clairvoyance, and postcognition -- which could be evaluated according to prevailing standards of scientific evidence.  And some people are trying.

SchwartzMedium.JPG (79212 bytes)For example, Gary Schwartz (2002, 2005, 2011), a Harvard-trained professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, has begun an experimental study of some 15 "research mediums" -- people who claim to have the ability to communicate with the dead.  As of 2011, Schwartz had arranged for the mediums to attempt to bring approximately 50 "sitters" into contact with deceased loved ones.  The mediums are given the decedent's name and some other information, and if they make contact, obtain information that can be checked by the sitter.  The sitters, for their part, are tested blind: they are given communications obtained from their own decedent, and from some other sitter's decedent, and have to determine which is which.  Schwartz has reported that, on average, sitters correctly verify their own decedent's communication from 40-80% of the time, and falsely verify the control decedent's communication only 10-40% of the time.  

Schwartz has also begun a study of "medical intuitives", who claim to be able to diagnose disease "at a distance", in the absence of any physical examination or any other contact with, or information about, a patient.  He claims that, in an initial blinded study, a group of medical intuitives were more accurate at identifying patients with congestive heart failure than control subjects.

Of course, we've been here before.  The original claims for ESP -- whether Rhine's classic experiments with the Zener cards or the more recent Ganzfeld studies -- were striking, too, but close inspection revealed a host of methodological problems which, as they were cleaned up, apparently led the effects to disappear.  As with the precognition studies, the bet here is that something similar will happen with research on the survival of consciousness after death.  As with precognition, time will tell.  

For the present, though, mediums seem mostly to be fodder for television dramas -- like, for example, Medium, starring Patricia Arquette, which ran for seven seasons on NBC and then CBS between 2005 and 2011 -- thus attesting to the popular appeal of the idea.  

It Goes On, It Can't Go On

Here are some reviews, some sympathetic and others not, of the current literature on parapsychology and spiritualism:

  • James, W. (1902). Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Longmans, Green.  James's influential attempt to approach the experience of the divine from the standpoint of pragmatic philosophy and experimental psychology. Republished by Harvard University Press in 1985 as part of Collected Works of William James, now out of print; various editions are widely available in used bookstores. 
    • James's view of spiritualist and psychical phenomena is also represented in two books of James's lectures, reconstructed by the historian Eugene Taylor:
      • William James on Exceptional Mental States: The 1986 Lowell Lectures (1982).
      • See also Taylor's book, William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin (1996
  • Myers, W.J.H. (1903). Human Personality and Its Survival After Bodily Death. 2 vols.  The founding document of 19th century spiritualism, forerunner to both modern parapsychology and to contemporary studies of the "near death experience".  
  • Rhine, J.B. (1933). Extrasensory perception. Boston: Society for Psychical Research.  The first sustained effort to study ESP through controlled scientific experiments. Reprinted, in a revised edition, in 1973.
    • See also Rhine's New Frontiers of the Mind (1937).
  • Reed, G. (1972). The Psychology of Anomalous Experience. In the tradition of William James, Reed attempts to explain subjective experiences of the paranormal in terms of normal cognitive and personality processes.
  • A similar effort was made by L. Zusne and W.H. Jones in their book, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Extraordinary Phenomena of Behavior and Experience (1982)
  • Alcock, J.E. (1987). Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or search for the soul? Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 10, 539-643.  Skeptical review of modern evidence for psi. Accompanied by a more positive review of the same literature by K.R. Rao and J. Palmer (see below), critical commentary on both papers by more than four dozen writers on both sides of the dispute, and responses from the authors.
  • Rao, K.R., & Palmer, J. (1987). The anomaly called psi: Recent research and criticism. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 10, 539-643.  Two proponents review modern evidence for psi.  See previous entry on Alcock (1987).
  • Druckman, D., & Swets, J.A. (1988). Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories, and Techniques.  First report of the NRC's Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance. Chapter 9 presents the Committee's detailed (and skeptical) methodological review of experiments on remote viewing, random number generation, and the Ganzfeld. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the debate over parapsychology.
  • Baker, R.A. (1992). Hidden memories: Voices and visions from within.  Presents a skeptical analysis of psi, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and other paranormal beliefs.
  • See also M. Shermer's book, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions Of Our Time (1997).
  • Bem, D.J., & Honorton, C. (1994). Does psi exist? Replicable evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4-18.  Responds to the NRC's critique of the Ganzfeld (see below) by reviewing positive results obtained from more recent experiments which were, apparently, methodologically more rigorous than their forebears. Bem and Honorton's paper was followed by a critical commentary by R. Hyman (pp. 19-24) and a response by D.J. Bem (pp. 25-27). 
  • The Milton and Wiseman analysis appeared in 1999 (Psychological Bulletin, 125, 387-391), followed by a critique by Storm and Ertel (127, 424-433) and their rejoinder 127, 434-438).  The entire package vividly represents the debate over contemporary parapsychological research.
  •  A very comprehensive survey of all this literature was provided by E. Cardena, S.J. Lynn, & S. Krippner in Varieties of Anomalous Experience (2000; 2e, 2014).
  • An excellent survey of the literature on NDEs and OBEs, focusing on the recent spate of popular-press books, was published by Robert Gottlieb in the New York Review of Books:
    • "To Heaven and Back!", 10/23.2014.
    • "Back from Heaven -- the Science", 11/06/2014.
  • Michael Shermer, who writes the "Skeptic" column in Scientific American, has written an appropriately skeptical account of the separation of mind from body in Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (2018).
  • Casey Cep reviews a number of recent books on Spiritualism in "Kindred Spirits" (New Yorker, 05/31/2021).  Cep makes the point that Spiritualism lives on in such institutions as the Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, Ma., and the Golden Gate Spiritualist Church in San Francisco, and reflects a deep dissatisfaction with both orthodox religion and philosophical materialism -- as if to say, "I don't believe in God but there must be something else out there!".
    • Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism by Robert S. Cox, who also wrote the two-volume History of Spiritualism, traces the origins of Spiritualism not to Victorian England and America (Arthur Conan Doyle, etc.) but to Emanuel Swedenborg, a 17th-century Swedish mystic.
    • Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, by Emily Midorikawa, argues that Siritualism took such a hold on Victorian popular culture because bereaved parents seeking to communicate with offspring who had died as children.   It also played a role in the woman suffrage movement of the late 19th century (see the review  b Christine Leigh Heyrman,  "The Victorian Women Who Pierced Glass Ceilings by Speaking to the Dead", New York Times Book Review, 06/06/2021).
    • The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost, by Peter Manseau, focuses on spirit photography.
    • The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, by David Jaher, focuses on the Scientific American prize and Houdini's expose of Mina Crandon, who almost won it.
    • Ghost Hunters: William James and the search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by Deborah Blum, explains why William James continued to pursue the question of the afterlife even after all those successful exposes -- beginning with James's own medium, Leonora Piper, who was never fully discredited.
    • Radical Spirits, by Ann Braude, argues that Spiritualism was related to the social and political activism surrounding the struggle for woman suffrage.

Both the British and American societies for psychical research are still in existence, and both publish scientific periodicals: the Journal for Psychical Research and the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. They have their skeptical counterpart in the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and its journal, The Skeptical Inquirer.

The Million Dollar Challenge

One of the more interesting aspects of the contemporary debate over parapsychology is The Million Dollar Challenge, hosted annually by The Amazing Randi, a stage magician and co-founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (Csicop).  Randi (or, more precisely, his educational foundation) has offered $1 million to any individual who can demonstrate "any psychic, supernatural, or paranormal ability" under appropriately controlled conditions.  Since 1964, hundreds of people have applied, and dozens have gone so far as to complete a formal test of their ability -- including one presented on Nightline by ABC News.  But Randi still has his money.

For more, see "The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi" by Adam Higginbotham, New York Times Magazine, 11/09/014.

This page was last updated 01/31/2024.