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First Sight

I was given a review copy of James Carpenter’s First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life some time ago, and I found it fascinating, but not one to knock off in an afternoon. When I got to the end I started to read it again, and have been dipping into it ever since.

A big complaint about parapsychology is that it lacks a theory. First Sight goes a long way towards filling the gap, at least from a psychological perspective. In the 1930s Joseph Rhine introduced the idea of psi as a universal feature of human functioning. But that notion has jostled uneasily ever since with the rival, and still probably more widespread view, that it’s something rather rare, an exotic appendage possessed by a few freaks. Professional mediums and healers seem to have it in abundance. A lot more people experience occasional psychic ability, or think they do. However the vast majority of us have never experienced anything of the kind, can’t imagine what it’s like, and may suspect it doesn’t exist.

Counterintuitively, Carpenter argues that psi is a fundamental element of human psychology, something that happens all the time. He sees it functioning smoothly, but for the most part invisibly, among all of our other mental functions, including memory, perception, motivation and creativity. The active component we call psychokinesis, the receptive aspect is ESP.

This idea is revolutionary, Carpenter says, because it turns so many things on their heads.

Are you being contained within your skin and confined to the present moment of experience? First Sight says that you are not. Are the paranormal lightning bolts and the parapsychological findings odd anomalies that don’t fit in with normal experience? First Sight says that they are not, they are only a handful of visible expression of processes that are going on all the time and that we unconsciously use with exquisite efficiency. Are we ultimately alone within our spheres of personal experience, with no real bridge to others? First Sight says that we are intimately entwined with others, and we swim in that unconscious sea each moment of our lives. Do your thoughts and feeling express only what you know about and remember? First Sight says they often show traces of things that haven’t even happened yet. Does this make the world bizarre and disorienting? We have all been living with it comfortably from the moment of birth.

In particular, Carpenter sees psi intimately involved in the process of subliminal perception. This concept is now a pillar of modern psychology, but interestingly was once almost as hotly contested among psychologists as psi has been, and for similar reasons. As he says, ‘it seems an insult to common sense to think that something so brief or faint that it is not consciously experienced can act as if it were a kind of experience by arousing meaningfully related responses.’

Yet experiments have shown over and over that people’s attitudes and behaviours can be influenced by exposing them to subliminal primes, a fact that is universally exploited in marketing, whether of products or political parties. We’re not aware of the concealed influence, but it nevertheless directs us. If ESP is like subliminal perception it might work in the same way, Carpenter suggests, affecting our experiences and behaviours but without being consciously available.

Having stated the thesis in some detail, Carpenter then looks to see how this relates to areas such as creativity, fear, and extraversion, with detailed reference to research findings from psychology and parapsychology. There’s a particularly interesting chapter on how the theory can be applied retrospectively to actual psi experiences, featuring Mary Craig Sinclair and Joe McMoneagle.

McMoneagle makes the point that a lot of training is required to access psi-based intuitions and make sense of them. They come in many forms, a vague sense of movement, a flash of shape, the hint of an odour, a feeling that raises goose bumps. Understanding the meaning behind such things involves a lot of practice, and learning how your unconscious mind works.

A great deal of this training has to do with a disciplined process of consulting fragmentary inner experience and writing it down as it is, with no interpretation at all for a long while. [McMoneagle] expects this fragmentary material to be made up of feelings, pictures, and words (more pictures for most men, more words for most women). Like Sinclair, McMoneagle insists that the material be consulted in the raw, not construed, and laid down as bits of nonsense only to be compared later with the actual thing.

This is hard to do, Carpenter comments.

The mind reflexively interprets experience, even the barest fragments of light or shadow or mood. It will look like a snowman or feel like a certain song. Like the meditator practicing detachment, move away from these interpretations and then move away again and again. Stay with the fragments and do not interpret them. If you work at this, you will get a little better. Then see if you are hitting targets. Tolerate lots of failure and you may get better at that too.

There is also a chapter on psychotherapy, where the theory predicts that psi information is likely to be more heavily weighted if it is highly relevant to a person’s unconscious goals and intentions. That will make it observable, as it will express itself in dreams, moods and accidents.

Carpenter relates how a patient of his, a middle class white male, one day delivered a vigorous lecture about the ‘foolish arrogance of America and our illusion of safety’.

Many people hate us, he said, much more than we imagine, and our smug isolation would soon be shattered. According to my notes, he said, ‘Our oceans won’t protect us. Remember the World Trade Center bombing in ’93? That was just a shot across the bow. Believe me, a shot across the bow. It was the tip of an iceberg. Things will come down in a fiery ruin!’

The patient had previously mentioned that he considered himself to be somewhat psychic and in the habit of making prophecies, which people were often unhappy about. On the other hand he had previously shown no interest in subjects relating to politics and terrorism. Carpenter chalked his rant up to his anger at some family members. However this session occurred a few days before the 9/11 attacks, and it was when he read back his notes at the start of the next session that he realised the coincidence, one of several such that he noted with this patient.

I have to say honestly, I have found this book curiously hard to review, which is probably why I have been putting it off for so long. This puzzles me because I actually rate it very highly. It’s an absolute treasure trove of insights, and persuasive in promoting a new way of thinking about psi. Quite apart from that, it provides an excellent overview of contemporary parapsychology, with an unusual richness of detail. Some of it would make more immediate sense to a psychology graduate than to a lay reader, and indeed, I can imagine it one day being read in universities as a text book. But none of it is inaccessible; on the contrary, the ideas are clearly and elegantly expressed. It’s the sort of book that one could pick up anywhere and dip into to get a sense of the mechanism working in different contexts.

In fact nothing I can say here will really do justice to it. I’d rate it along with Irreducible Mind as a major contribution to the field.

So what explains my hesitation? I wonder whether it might be because the book is so far ahead of its time. It looks forward to an intellectual climate where psi is seen to be integral to human functioning, talking in the present tense about something which, alas, is still firmly in the future.

I don’t mean at all that Carpenter does not recognise this. On the contrary, he sees the idea as revolutionary. But much work still has to be done to make it acceptable. Like many parapsychologists, Carpenter is entirely secure in the belief that psi has been demonstrated by empirical findings. He speaks on behalf a community that accept that psi is real and isn’t fixated on the uncertainties and ambiguities that reassure sceptics. The problem is, this community is still very small, at least in terms of qualified people who are prepared to discuss the matter openly.

Even so, this is surely where psychology is heading, part of the eventual paradigm change. When materialist models of consciousness have started to fall out of favour this way of thinking will become normal and natural. Anyone who wants a sense of what that future might feel like will enjoy reading this book.


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This idea strikes me as fitting with one I've observed, and expressed in the comments section here previously I think, that we appear to communicate on two levels simultaneously...the normal way of verbal or written communication and via some web or sea of consciousness (a fancy way of saying "psychically"): but that the latter means only becomes apparent when the former, normal, means are delayed or interrupted.

The two examples I gave that lead me to that conclusion occurred with 24 hours or so of each other. In the first I was corresponding with an exotically mixed race individual online and started to use the word "mulato" in relation to him, before deciding against it as I was unsure if its a politically incorrect or offensive term, so deleted that sentence and carried on with the email.

In his reply he referred to his next posting to Brazil and to the local mulatos.

The following day my brother was coming to house sit, texted ahead if I needed anything from the shop on his way, I asked for kitchen roll...oh and tinfoil..then thought better of it, as it sounded too much like a shopping list, so deleted the reference to tin foil and sent the text. He arrived at the house with the kitchen roll and asked me to confirm that was indeed what I'd asked for wasn't it? He was unsure he said, because "for some reason" he kept thinking the message had said tinfoil..

A theoretical mechanism immediately became apparent to me to explain these two incidents. The common link was interrupted intentions. What I had begun to write, in each case, had somehow reached them before my written words. If I had carried on and sent the remarks I'd intended they would be oblivious to the fact they were receiving them in any but the normal way. But because I stopped and altered my words at the last moment - it seems to me - this mind to mind version of my intended communication stood out like a sore had time to bubble up from some unifying unconscious into their conscious minds, and was there interpreted as their own thoughts.

Suddenly, with this theory in mind, an awful lot of the trivial day to day "psychic" stuff Joe Public universally reports made sense. The thinking of someone just before they phone? The short delay between their intention to phone you and picking up the phone to actually do so allows the intention to reach your mind and "bubble up" so you find yourself thinking of them just before the phone rings. Sitting in silence or watching TV with a loved one, when one of you makes a random comment or observation and the other exclaims "I was just thinking/going to say the same thing!"? Again the delay in deciding to open your mouth and express your thoughts to the other person allows the "psychic" copy of the information to be processed first before the verbal form is delivered.

It seems to me a fairly consistent theory that explains an awful lot of the trivial "psi". And if I've understood your review correctly it sounds like the author is suggesting something very similar.

Thanks for the honest review Robert. I've been looking for an excuse to buy this book, and I want the hardback, not the Kindle download. I get the feeling that something like this needs the tactile qualities of bound paper.

At around forty dollars USD (£30.16 for you), I certainly hope Carpenter is ahead of his time, but I'm not holding his feet to the fire. Parapsychology simply doesn't have the high-powered resources that the mainstream sciences do.
The fact that he's a professional Psychologist using a psychological framework looks promising. It has to be better than the usual quantum physic handwaving that all too often gets bandied about in psi explanatory models. You know the kind - where you walk away not having any idea of what the author was talking about, but you don't feel bad because you also figure the author doesn't know, either.
James Carpenter has been a respected psi researcher for several decades now, so he's had plenty of time to work this out, and I look forward to seeing what it is.
Off to Amazon...

That's just what a book reviewer wants to hear, Dawg. Don't suppose the author will mind either :)

The book's a bit pricey if you aren't lucky enough to be given it. But definitely worth the money.

Lawrence, excellent examples.I'll be looking out more for this sort of thing from now on.

A similar thing occurred to me (or, rather, emerged slowly over a number of years) regarding an apparent relationship between psi and 'normal' subliminal cognition. And, funnily enough, there was a good example on Friday last week, of subliminal cognition probably imitating psi, when I was discussing the conversation I've been having with Alan about Scole (on another thread here) with a work colleague last Friday.

We were sitting in one of the coffee bars near where we work and it occurred to me to mention the Scole Rachmaninoff recording which, to me, is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for paranormality outlined in 'The Scole Report'. The aspect of this that popped into my mind was the fact that Guy Lyon Playfair had noticed that there is an extra, repeated, cadenza (not in the original piece) that occurs in the Scole version. Just as the word 'cadenza' emerged from my mouth I glanced slightly upwards for some reason and realised that I was looking straight at the word 'cadenza' written on the front of a restaurant on the other side of the mall about thirty yards away.

So what happened? My take on it is that I took in the word 'subliminally' (and maybe, Lawrence's theory comes into play here, albeit in a slightly different context); that cued me to decide to mention Scole and the cadenza. I became momentarily distracted, 'forgot' consciously that I'd seen the word (even though it still wasn't far away from my field of vision), started on my account, and then 'noticed' the word written on the restaurant front over the way - as if for the first time. Or, it was just an extremely odd coincidence - but I feel that would be a rather facile copout.

The problem is that explanations for this sort of thing, such as with the forgoing, can sound rather far-fetched to a lot of people, rather more far-fetched than a psi explanation in some cases. Such 'normal' explanations like this, up to a point, are usually not very far fetched at all, though.

The science journalist John McCrone once wrote (in his book 'The Ape That Spoke') that attempting to understand the finer aspects of normal cognition is a bit like attempting to view one's own face without using a mirror. But it is possible to notice the cracks in the apparent consistency of normal cognition if you know where/how to look. A good example (one given by McCrone) is staring at a particular place on a blank wall a few feet away and slowly passing one finger across your field of vision. You will notice that, at a certain point, that the finger will appear to jump slightly as it passes over the visual 'blind-spot'. The blind-spot exists because the retinas of each eye are not light sensitive in a small area right in the middle, where the optic nerve emerges from the rear. You don't see a 'hole' in your visual field because the brain (ok, I know that might be an assumption) expertly 'paints' over it. When you see your finger 'jump', you're really just catching the brain 'at it'. And there are similar ingenious cognitive procedures at play with the other senses. The 'habituation effect' with hearing is a good example.

It seems apparent to me, though, that even 'normal' subliminal cognition cannot, at first (or even, second) glance account for some psi reports easily, or even at all - the ganzfeld, for example. If, outside of experiments where mundane cognition can be ruled out, there are various 'cut-off' points where normal subliminal cognition ends and psi takes over, then I've felt for a while that it may well be possible to identify the cracks. I suppose I'm talking about tricks similar to catching out the blind-spot covering routines of the brain. It could be that Lawrence has found one. If he has, then there will, more than likely, be others.

It's always struck me there's a very simple way to test my supposition.

You could do it buy co-opting Rupert Sheldrake's telephone telepathy experiments.

I don't know exactly his procedures but take it that it involves 4 individuals calling a mutual contact when they are randomly chosen by the throw of a dice to be the one to make the call..and the recipient having to guess which friend or contact is calling each time.

My assumption is that this is always an instantaneous they dial the number as soon as they are chosen to do so.

It strikes me that you could set aside a percentage of tests where (unknown to the recipient) there is a 5 or 10 minute delay between the instruction to call and the actual call. If my hypothesis is correct, that short delay might increase the hit rate in those tests over the hit rate in tests where the call is made instantly....because the intention has had time to rise up into the conscious mind of the recipient.

*by not buy

I purchased Carpenter's book a month or so ago when Amazon had a deal where you could get any real, bound book for up to $10 off - precisely because it is at the very upper end of my price range.

I myself am soon to graduate from a doctoral psychology program and have been steeped in psychodynamic and relational theory (I'm probably in one of the last accredited programs where you can receive education in such approaches to the extent we do). For me, reading Carpenter is a surreal experience mostly because he is a believer in psi (like myself) and a psychodynamically-informed therapist (like myself).

However, I find myself having a difficult time getting through the book - mostly because I get so excited by the ideas that I actually have to put it away and do something boring for awhile. I, like you Robert, find it way ahead of its time - I feel like someone from the future transmitted this thing back in time from somewhere 50-75 years in the future.

For me, I think it Carpenter's ideas will be heavily influencing my way of understanding my clients and I fear I will have to keep many of my impressions of how psi is operating in their experiences to myself - at least until time catches up with where Carpenter has already arrived.

'First Sight' is sort of the here-and-now application of what emerges from all the empirical bludgeoning of 'Irreducible Mind.' It's not a "here, I'll prove it to you!" book but neither is it a "here's how you use it" new age book, either. I think that makes it hard to talk about. Carpenter avoids packaging his work in the usual ways that these ideas are normally presented.

Philemon, my other half is, like you, a psychotherapist - but trained in the hard sciences, also. For her, psi-like intuitions are pretty common, and valuable, when interacting with clients. They're so common that she takes them for granted, although she doesn't necessarily label them as psi – just acknowledges that they do seem to occur and can’t always be easily attributed to normal cognitive processes.

And the idea that such interactions are possible, pretty much, informs the transpersonal approach already.

I have little doubt that therapy could be one area where a greater understanding of the possible relationship between subliminal cognition and psi could be incredibly valuable. As long as it's used sensibly, that is. I can readily imagine that using the idea of psi interactions in an inappropriate way could end up being damaging to many clients.

It sounds to me as though this book could well be worth getting hold of.

The idea that psi is universal or nearly so, and that we use it all the time, albeit unconsciously, has always been present in the philosophy of parapsychology.

It is pivotal to ideas relating to synchronicity. Namely Rex Stanford's PMIR and the similar Psychopraxia of Thalbourne and Storm. It also may account for runs of good and bad luck, in social and the economic/job sphere, and other aspects of life.

So-called primitive folk, aboriginal tribes around the world, took psi experiences for granted, as we do electricity and the wonders of the Internet.

To explain it all is another matter entirely of course! But then again so-called ordinary consciousness has not been explained neither, and is not so ordinary nor mundane, we just take the marvels of perception and cognition for granted. Perhaps so-called normal consciousness may be more than a little paranormal and vice versa. Perhaps modern Western rational man is caught up in a false duality, as shamans would insist upon. A good book getting to grips with this question is Lawrence LeShan's 'From Newton to ESP'.

PS I am not to be confused with Lawrence B. Since I haven't posted for a while, I just mention that.

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