Dowsing in the News

I’ve taken a break from blogging because I haven’t felt the urge to write for a while. But just now I’m intrigued by the row about British water companies using ‘divining’ techniques. It’s the kind of thing that interests me: an example of the great gulf that exists between science and experience – or theory and practice – in matters of this kind.

It started when a couple in the Midlands needed to identify the path of the mains pipes near their home for a building project, and got the local water company to send a technician. They were surprised to see him walking around with ‘divining’ rods. As it happens, their daughter is an evolutionary biologist and blogger, Sally Le Page. She tweeted the company to ask what on earth it was thinking, using occult techniques when there is ‘zero evidence they work’. It tweeted back that in fact it finds some of the older methods are just as effective as the new ones, although it also uses drones and satellites.

This got someone else hot and bothered, and he contacted his local water company, which confirmed that yes, some of its technicians still used dowsing rods when they needed to. Le Page then tweeted the UK’s other water companies, and most of them said the same. A total of ten out of twelve confirmed that they use dowsing.

All this then got into the mainstream press. I first saw it in the Guardian, which has now run several pieces, essentially crying ‘witchcraft!’ As with homeopathy, the outrage is about people resorting to superstitious practices, along with high-minded complaints about wasting taxpayers money, risking damage to lives and property, and so on.

The water companies naturally took fright, and ordered their PR people to do an about-turn. As a result, some companies now say they don’t actually equip their technicians with dowsing rods, but they understand some use them on their own initiative. Others have decided they disapprove of the practice, and blame ‘rogue engineers’.

As it happens, I went into this subject recently when the Psi Encyclopedia (which I edit) uploaded an entry on dowsing, the preferred term to ‘divining’, as its author points out. The article mentioned some interesting evidence in its favour, but didn’t give much detail, so I expanded it somewhat, and in view of the current brouhaha I now think it should be presented in much more depth in a separate entry. It comes in two lengthy articles by a German geophysicist named Hans-Dieter Betz, published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1995.

Betz starts by describing a 1980s water-drilling project in Sri Lanka carried out by a German development agency, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), and funded by the German government. Using conventional methods to locate potable water sources for rural communities in Third World countries is time-consuming and costly, especially as they often come to nothing. This applied here, where the aim was to provide drinking water for the town of Vavuniya and poor rural villages in the north of the island. So the project manager, Hans Schröter, used dowsing techniques to identify promising sites, and in most cases drilling revealed usable water strata that, it’s claimed, could not have been identified by means of conventional geo-electrical measurements.

Betz writes:

The value of this result has to be highly appreciated: in a terrain largely unknown from a hydrogeological point of view, proving to be particularly difficult on account of its principally crystalline bedrock of variable and mostly light fracture intensity, 654 wells have been successfully constructed within a short time and without any noteworthy precursory studies, partly under very difficult imposed conditions, and with a small staff and two relatively simple and medium-capacity rigs… Within the final evaluation of the entire program, only 27 of the 691 drillings can be considered as classical dry holes; that constitutes a failure rate of 4%. Not only for that particular area, a success rate of 96% must be considered as being untypically high; no prospecting area with comparable sub-soil conditions is known where such outstanding results have ever been attained.

But was Schröter’s dowsing really the cause of this success? To try to find out, GTZ carried out a simple field experiment near Vavuniya. Two bore holes had been drilled in a school yard by in a separate project funded by Norway; both turned out to be dry. GTZ asked Schröter to dowse for alternatives in the same area. There was no vegetation, and no other visual clues to enable intelligent guessing, as confirmed by sceptical hydrologists. Betz writes:

After a short time, Schröter found, thanks to his subjective dowsing reaction, a place where he supposed that drinking water could be found at a depth of as low as 35m and with a yield of at least 10 l/minute. The allegedly productive spot was located some 30m from the one and 80m from the other dry borehole. A light mobile drilling rig could immediately carry out the test drilling and finished it by dawn of the same day. The result was unequivocal: water was found just as predicted. In this case, the value of the dowsing technique was confirmed, regarding not only the location but, to general surprise, also the depth and deliverable water quantity.

In a second test, Schröter was asked to reverse the process and identify a dry site near to a successful borehole, one that would yield less than 5 litres per minute at a comparable depth, ie 50 metres. Drilling at the site he indicated produced water at 13 litres per minute near the surface, but none in the hard rock below, which was the target area. (Betz makes the point that skilled dowsers seem able to distinguish the depths at which water can be found.)

In a third test, in rural villages in Sri Lanka, a direct comparison was made between conventional methods and dowsing. The aim was to identify drilling sites in a particular area that would provide at least 100 litres of water per minute. Fourteen sites were identified by conventional methods – mainly geo-electrical procedures, supplemented by the study of geological maps and aerial photographs, and information supplied by local experts based on previous explorations. This took several weeks of intensive work. Schröter was then asked to inspect the same area and identify drilling sites by dowsing alone, without benefiting from any of the available data. Within a few days he had come up with seven positions.

Drilling then began on all 21 sites, carried out by the same team using the same equipment and to the same depth. Of the fourteen sites identified by conventional methods, three were found to be above the target, producing 300-400 litres per minute; the rest were below. Of the seven identified by Schröter by dowsing alone, six were above the target (150-400 l/m); one was below.

For practical purposes, this was a clear win for dowsing over conventional methods – 86% compared with 21% - and you can see why GTZ were so keen to persevere with it. (Betz goes on to point out that the company’s success was far greater than that achieved by a Norwegian company in the same area a couple of years earlier.) The rest of his first paper documents similarly successful activity involving dowsing in other countries: the Philippines, Dominican Republic, Congo, Niger, Yemen, Verde Island, Kenya, Egypt and Namibia.

In his second paper Betz describes three other high performing dowsers in Germany (briefly summarised in the Psi Encyclopedia article). He goes on to report in detail on two scientific studies which he carried out at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian’s University, with Schröter among the subjects. One was in a barn, and involved trying to trace the path of concealed water pipes. Most of the subjects performed at chance, although there were significant results in a few cases, but nothing spectacular. A second similar experiment was carried out outside in fields. Here too the results were poor in most cases, but highly significant in a few (naturally including Schröter).

The first of these experiments was scrutinised by Jim Enright, a sceptical behavioural physiologist. Enright rejigged the stats used by Betz in order to get an insignificant result, and larded his piece with the usual sort of polemic to drive home his point, reassuring those who feel insulted by the idea that something as crazy as dowsing might actually work. In his rebuttal, Betz rejected Enright’s cleaned up stats as ‘crude and illegitimate’, which Enright in his turn dismissed ‘feeble’.

As is often the case in these sorts of quarrels, I have no idea who’s in the right – once researchers start fighting over stats, it’s hard to follow. Of course there’s a history of sceptics doing this to discredit findings they don’t like, and there have been notable instances when professional statisticians have sided with the researchers. I’m also curious about the earlier ‘failed studies’ listed on Wikipedia. As Guy Lyon Playfair points out in his book on twin telepathy, early, supposedly negative experiments in that area were found to be positive on later reinterpretations, and here it would be interesting to know how the research was carried out, with what assumptions, and so on.

But as far as I can tell – and I still feel woefully uninformed on this topic –the large-scale double blind experiments in controlled conditions that would validate dowsing to doubters just don’t exist. So I can’t blame the critics for being snooty about it. At the same time, there does seem to be at least some evidence that dowsing works in real-life situations. Clearly, the phenomenon applies to certain gifted people, and therefore isn’t likely to show up in controlled studies carried out with multiple subjects. But in that case, I wonder, if something like dowsing really is true, how would we know?

One way is simply to trust the experts, which brings us back the water companies, and their (initial) airy admission that some of their engineers use dowsing because it works. They get results from it. The technician who was seen using ‘divining rods’ to find buried water pipes presumably did so because it had worked on previous occasions, and at least was worth a try. There’s a strong business rationale, too, if it means getting a quick result with a minimum of expense, in what is a costly and time-consuming activity.

In a situation like this, it seems to me, something that works, and that saves time and money, is at risk of being prohibited because of the prejudices of a few people, who rage against the idea of solutions being applied for which they can think of no conceivable explanation. If it really was down to guesswork and subconscious clues, as they argue, it surely wouldn’t be adopted in professional situations.

This dynamic is repeated over and over in different contexts. US government security agencies in the Star Gate program didn’t keep spending money on remote viewing in the hope that it might help them find bad guys, locate enemy activity, release hostages, and so on, but because it actually did so. It’s also why some detectives sometimes work informally with psychics, because it gives them leads and helps them locate bodies. Businesses use dowsing to find oil and minerals. They don’t need to know how it works, or take fright at the lack of a meaningful theory, or the absence of validation by controlled double blind studies. They’re driven by profit and just get on with it

None of this interests sceptical scientists, who focus on their own agenda as evolutionary psychologists, behavioural physiologists or whatever. But surely if they started to ask why some professionals persist in ‘superstitious practices’, with genuine interest – and listened to the answers – some meaningful science might eventually come out of it.

Bruce Siegel's 'Dreaming the Future'

Regular readers know Bruce Siegel, who’s often commented here and in other forums. He guest posted here a few years back, about how he shifted from being a militant skeptic to a belief in psi and afterlife. Now he’s written a book about precognitive dreaming, which he’s kindly sent me, Dreaming the Future: How Our Dreams Prove Psychic Ability is Real, And Why It Matters. It’s written in the chatty accessible style that’s more common with ‘how-to’ teaching books than paranormal topics, but works rather well here. I was expecting something like Andrew Paquette’s Dreamer, containing lots of descriptions of odd dreams and startling matches with real life events and observations, and actually to some extent that’s what this is too. But what makes this book especially interesting is the forensic analysis, with a commentary aimed at persuading us that – as Bruce has come to understand it – this is a process that is going on all the time. If we start to pay attention to it, we’ll see it for ourselves. As a one-time militant skeptic, he understands the rejection mindset better than most, and confronts it head on. He wants to persuade us that there really is something going on here, ‘to help you prove the unbelievable to yourself’. He’s ‘into logic, numbers, repeatability, and controls’ and has ‘a passion for looking at the facts, however odd or unpopular, to see where they lead’.

And where many years’ worth of facts have led me is this: precognition is real. Such a large percentage of my dreams (and I’ll bet yours) point clearly and inexplicably to future events, that insisting coincidence works as an explanation is silly. How such a momentous truth can remain hidden from so many of us is one of the most compelling parts of the story, and a main theme of this book.

Having once aggressively rejected claims of psi phenomena, Bruce underwent something of a mid-life transformation, among other things paying attention to the fact that some of his dreams seemed to correlate with later events in ways that were difficult to explain. He’d seen hints of this before, but always dismissed it as the effect of coincidence. Following JW Dunne, author of An Experiment With Time, he began to record every dream he could remember, documenting those that contained unusual imagery and plot lines. Of a total of 241 recorded dreams he reckons that one in four ‘came true’, usually within hours. More specifically, 39% came true within an hour, and six took just a few minutes. This, he argues, counts against the ‘law of large numbers’ theory – that dream matches are bound to occur by pure coincidence from time to time. Typically, the match is with something he sees in the media the following day (something Dunne also experienced, for instance a dream containing details described in next day’s newspaper headlines.) In one example, he’s watching a TV news item that documents an unusual approach to the maintenance of high-voltage power lines, the engineer being lifted up to them sitting on the skids of a helicopter. This instantly made him think of a dream he’d documented earlier in the day:

It’s 7:10 AM. I just woke up from a dream with an unusual image in it. It’s this small flying machine that consists of kind of like helicopter-type blades… There’s not really much to this contraption – the blades spinning overhead and you sitting below them.. I was amazed at how close the blades were coming to like telephone poles on the side[s]… I was thinking how can he maneuver this down the center of the street without touching occasionally?’

The space constraints caused by the power lines on either side of the helicopter are represented in the dream by telegraph poles in a street. This match seems pretty convincing to him, and to me too. But he dwells heavily on the reasons we might reject such things as coincidence. By way of a ‘control’ experiment, each morning for a week he reviewed seven dreams that all came true between one and three weeks earlier, and looked out for potentially matching events. Of 49 opportunities for dreams to come true (7 dreams multiplied by 7 days) only one produced a match. For him, the phenomenon hides in plain sight. If we dream of the future night after night, why are most of us unaware of it? Obviously, we forget nearly all our dreams instantly. Bruce says that when he’s recording his dreams regularly, he may average a psychic dream per day, but when he’s not, he can go months without noticing a single one. He also points out that psychic dreams feels pretty much the same as ordinary ones. In his skeptic days, he’d assumed that psychic experiences, if real, would have a certain ‘aura’, something that made them unusually vivid and stand-out. Not all the matches are that obvious, and in some of his ‘garden-variety’ examples finding them involves effort and discussion – potentially slippery ground. If you have to go looking for them, the skeptic in all of us asks, aren’t we trying to give artificial substance to something we believe to be true – an active form of confirmation bias? On the other hand, unless we apply that sort of focused examination, it’s something we may never notice. And none of this will sway someone for whom it’s vitally important that it isn’t true. A book like this is for people who are interested and curious, and prepared to experiment, for whom its insights provide essential information. I particularly liked the chapter on what Bruce calls ‘lead-up’ dreams, a phenomenon that I’m vaguely aware of, in fact may even have experienced myself, but haven’t seen discussed head on. A famous example was described by Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, a nineteenth century French scholar, who dreamed a series of events set in the French revolution: he’s arrested and tried by Robespierre and other villainous prosecutors, argues with them in vain, is condemned to death, led to the scaffold in front of a huge crowd, bound to the guillotine by the executioner, then the knife falls. He wakes to find that a rod from the canopy of his bed (an old-fashioned type, obviously) has come loose and fallen onto his throat. So the physical sensation matched the dream image of being guillotined. But according to his mother, who happened to be in the room at the time, this accidental occurrence is what woke him. In that case, how could all the earlier imagery, an absolutely coherent introduction to the event, be explained? Either it was dreamed in an instant – and the events only appeared to him to be extended over time – or the dream precognised an event that was about to occur. I grew up believing – I suppose having heard expert opinion somewhere – that dreams do actually happen in a flash, not in real time according to our perception of it. Later, I understood that this idea was a myth, and dreams do run in real time. I’m actually rather hazy about the current thinking on this. But as Bruce points out, it fits with our observation of people (and dogs, for that matter) who are obviously dreaming – it appears extended over a period of minutes. So this could be a rather intriguing class of precognitive dream – one in which the precognised event occurs immediately on awakening. In sum, a rather satisfying book, and well worth getting, for anyone who wants to know more about this strange phenomenon. There's also quite a bit about it in the Psi Encyclopedia, for instance this piece by David Saunders, which includes mention of the Maimonides research in the 1960s and 70s.

Annie Jacobsen’s ‘Phenomena’

A new book has just been published in on ‘psychic spying’. It’s by Annie Jacobsen, author of best-selling books about the secret doings of the US military based on declassified documents, including Operation Paperclip and The Pentagon’s Brain, for which she was a Pulitzer prize finalist. This one is titled Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. It contains a lot about the Star Gate remote viewing program, which is now likely to get a lot of new exposure.

Oddly, that’s a concern to some of the key people involved in it, who to judge by their reviews on Amazon are pretty disgusted with the book. They complain that it’s full of errors, ignores the science behind the program, and presents a ‘distorted and selective’ view of it – Russell Targ’s words, and he can claim to know what he’s talking about, since he and Hal Puthoff set the whole thing off with their early work with Pat Price. Jacobsen hardly mentions him, and instead gives the impression that the man behind it was Andrija Puharich, who had a lot to do with popularising Uri Geller, but nothing to do with remote viewing research. The driving force, arguably, was Edwin May, the nuclear physicist/parapsychologist who ran the scientific side of the program for ten years. Yet apparently he’s hardly mentioned either. Jacobsen also exaggerates the role of Uri Geller, and elevates other peripheral, largely unknown figures to central roles.

(Interestingly, Geller himself has also posted a short review, worrying that Jacobsen has exposed the depth of his ‘involvement with secret agencies’, when he would prefer to be remembered ‘as an entertainer and the originator of spoon bending’.)

More specifically, Ben Goertzel (futurist, AI expert) writes:

Having participated in discussions of the project with Ed May, Joe McMoneagle, Russell Targ and others who were directly involved with it over a long period of time, I can tell you that the story as Jacobsen tells it, is not the story as they tell it. So something is wrong here. This book is a well-crafted sensationalist half-truth, rather than any sort of definitive history. A shame, as the experiments done and results obtained in Star Gate are important stuff for everyone to understand and think about. (For one thing, the Star Gate project described here showed that psychic remote viewing can really work, if done with the right people. Wow. This is a dramatic sort of discovery, and a piece of history that very much deserves to be recounted accurately as well as artfully.)

Sonali Bhatt Marwaha, an associate of May’s in the research program, complains that Jacobsen

perpetuates the myth of psi research as a fringe “woo-woo” science, and does great disservice to the science of psi, and the serious psi researchers from a variety of academic disciplines, who have made substantial progress in understanding the phenomenon.
Obviously I haven’t read the book, and with my present schedule am unlikely to in the near future, although if it makes it to my local Waterstones I look forward to skimming it to see what the fuss is about. On the plus side, Jacobsen gets credit for drawing attention to the subject with her racy page-turning style. She knows she’s struck a rich seam by focusing on the secret doings of our masters, especially at a time when people are becoming profoundly sceptical about established authority. She’s also open-minded about psi’s existence. So arguably the book could do good in attracting a wide readership and encouraging people to investigate further.

(Guy Playfair was dismayed by the way two recent films about the Enfield poltergeist –a three-part series by Sky and a feature film – were presented as being based on his book about his and Maurice Grosse’s investigation, This House Is Haunted, since neither had much to do with the book at all. But they gave a big boost to sales of the book, which means a number of people are now well informed about the episode who weren’t before.)

I think the scientists worry that Phenomena might be a runaway bestseller, and establish forever the historical record about remote viewing, or at least the Star Gate program. In that case, the reading public will hold in its collective mind an erroneous view that’s impossible ever to correct. But surely such books get written all the time. Who now remembers Jim Schnabel’s twenty-year old Remote Viewers: The Secret History of America’s Psychic Spies? That didn’t set the historical record, and neither will this.

I believe the idea readers will actually be left with is that hard-headed US military agencies – or at least credible individuals within them – were (and remain) convinced that psi is a real thing. That contradicts the sceptical narrative that the project was terminated because it didn’t work, which arguably is the mainstream view right now.

But there is a larger issue here about how psi research is best presented to the public, and by whom. It’s amazing to me how many books do get written about the subject - book reviews seem to make up the larger part of its scholarly journals these days - attesting to a large and interested readership. But the books seldom get noticed in the mainstream media, or contribute to public conversations. For that to happen requires a particular alchemy, which arguably Jacobsen provides: a first rate writer who’s established her credentials – and an enthusiastic readership – and having tasted success is prepared to push the boundaries to a place that few mainstream writers dare to tread, in the expectation of cashing in on the public fascination with secrets and mysteries.

The downside is that she’s a journalist, and journalists need to understand the subject if they’re to do a good job. (Steve Volk’s Fringe-ology is an example of one that works – based on interviews more than library research, but nevertheless, clearly informed by background knowledge, as well as being beautifully written.) You can't succeed at that without being prepared to put in some serious time, which an ambitious writer in a hurry won’t do – by all accounts Jacobsen put Phenomena together in less than a year.

I can claim some insights here from writing Randi’s Prize. To start with, I thought I’d give myself six months to research and write a book. At the end of six months I realised I’d only scratched the surface, so I decided to extend it to two years. Even that wasn’t enough: I’d written a complete book, but in my heart of hearts didn’t feel sure I knew what I was talking about. Now in a state of some frustration I felt obliged to press on until I did.

By the end of three years I’d written a very different sort of book, one based on a more or less settled idea about psi phenomena that has stayed with me ever since. Then later, I completely rewrote it.

So now I can easily recognise a two-year book about psi matters, one that authoritatively describes issues that I suspect the author is personally clueless about. It never really seems to get to grip with the material. If it also contains errors it’s most likely a one-year book, at best. Getting names even slightly wrong – for instance ‘Frederick Myers’ – is to be expected in an article by a journalist tackling the subject for the first time. But in a book it’s a sign that the author hasn’t often seen the name in print – and therefore can’t have done much research.

Jacobsen apparently refers to JB Rhine as ‘James’, a tip-off to the well-informed that her background knowledge is shallow. But that’s not surprising, since by all accounts she spent less than a year researching and writing. You could say she's pulled off a tour de force, considering the amount of ground she covers and the skill she apparently shows in presenting her research. But she may not understand how being in such a rush leaves her vulnerable to individual views and agendas, and readers certainly won’t.

Those of who know something about the subject also know how challenging and complex it is, and how much detail there is to master. But that’s not generally known because of its outlaw status: the paranormal is considered marginal at best, or at worst tacky and trashy. Clever people stoop from a great height to consider it. No wonder they’re so complacent.

I’ll be interested to know what other people think about the book. Speaking for myself, I may end up with a different view once I’ve looked at it, and I’m sure I’ll groan at the inaccuracies. Even so, on balance I think the effect will be positive. I believe Edwin May is planning shortly to publish a book detailing the CIA’s recently declassified documents, and the interest raised by Phenomena will surely help to extend its readership.

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If you're in the Manchester area you might like to know about talks being given on Thursday April 13 by near-death researcher and author Penny Sartori, Kelly Walsh, a near-death experiencer and Steve Taylor, an author and lecturer in spirituality and psychology. See here for details.

Inner Light

I’m in touch with a Chinese professor of physics who’s written an entry for the Psi Encyclopedia on parapsychology in China. His English is quite limited, and the article needs a fair bit of work. But it contains some rather remarkable claims about work with children, which I’m keen to find out more about.

In one project, he writes, blind children were taught to ‘distinguish different colours by touch on the nose or ear, and even recognize the outlines of simple figures and numbers, thus improving their quality of life’. In another, blind children were taught to ‘see and read’ through skin contact.

Some children can now ‘skin read’ the colour, number and figure (animal shapes) on separate cards in some cases at up to 45 cards per minute, often with 100% accuracy. Blind children can be taught to telepathically communicate with each other and have even been taught to get together in a ‘virtual space’ and move objects by virtual PK. Most sighted children can be taught to develop their PK abilities to fold strips of paper or break matchsticks held in transparent sealed containers, and even write a few tiny words such as ‘Mother I love you’ and a figure of ‘love’ on a sealed match stick by using a mind controlled ‘virtual pen’.

Startling stuff. There are no references as yet, and I’m non-committal until I can find out more. But at the least, it seems like an interesting avenue for research. And I’d be curious to know what cultural differences might make it easier to do this sort of thing in China than the West, as I suspect is the case.

This brought to mind a detail in another Encyclopedia article, one that’s already published, on Extraordinary Light Phenomena, by a German philosopher Annekatrin Puhle.

She mentions the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman who lost the sight of both eyes in a freak accident at the age of eight, but who, far from being devastated, was excited to discover an inner world bathed in brilliant light. This not only engaged his attention, it also helped him to continue to interact normally with the external world. Puhle quotes from his autobiography And There Was Light, and I found it so intriguing that I bought it, also a later book containing short articles in which he expands on the theme. Definitely worth checking out.

By his own account, Lusseyran enjoyed something of a charmed life growing up in Paris in the pre-war years. His parents sound quite enlightened, and they dealt with his blindness in what he considers to be an ideal way, ensuring as far as possible that he wasn’t treated differently from sighted children. They made him learn Braille at once. He recovered quickly, went back to the same school and was reading, walking, running and playing with other children within two months.

Lusseyran found that being blind was not as he had imagined, nor as other people seemed to think.

They told me that to be blind meant not to see. Yet how was I to believe them when I saw? Not at once, I admit. Not in the days immediately after the operation. For at that time I still wanted to use my eyes. I followed their usual path. I looked in the direction where I was in the habit of seeing before the accident, and there was anguish, a lack, something like a void which filled me with what grown-ups call despair.

Then he realised he was ‘looking in the wrong way’.

I began to look more closely, not at things but at a world closer to myself, looking from an inner place to one further within…

Immediately, the substance of the universe drew together, redefined and peopled itself anew. I was aware of a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about, a place which might as well have been outside me as within. But radiance was there, or, to put it more precisely, light. It was a fact, for light was there…

I saw light and went on seeing it though I was blind. I said so, but for many years I think I did not say it very loud. Until I was nearly fourteen I remember calling the experience, which kept renewing itself inside me, ‘my secret’, and speaking of it only to my intimate friends…

The amazing thing was that this was not magic for me at all, but reality. I could no more have denied it than people with eyes can deny that they see. I was not light myself, I knew that, but I bathed in it as an element which blindness had suddenly brought much closer. I could feel light rising, spreading, resting on objects, giving them form, then leaving them.

Withdrawing or diminishing is what I mean, for the opposite of light was never present. Sighted people always talk about the night of blindness, and that seems to them quite natural. But there is no such night, for at every waking hour and even in my dreams I lived in a stream of light.

Without my eyes light was much more stable than it had been with them. As I remember it, there were no longer the same differences between things lighted brightly, less brightly or not at all. I saw the whole world in light, existing through it and because of it.

Light threw its colour on things and on people. My father and mother, the people I met or ran into in the street, all had their characteristic colour which I had never seen before I went blind. Yet now this special attribute impressed itself on me as part of them as definitely as any impression created by a face.

Lusseyran experiments to see if he can block out the light, but he finds he can’t do that by willing it – it’s not something he imagines, but is objective, outside himself. But he does discover that it will disappear if his mood darkens: if he either starts to become narrow and calculating, or angry and impatient. Then he loses his bearings and crashes into things.

He talks in a similar way about sound, to which he has become super-sensitive, and which now seems to emanate from objects in a characteristic way that he learns to recognise. More than that, he seems to sense objects like walls as being present, as though they press in on him.

What makes Lusseyran’s story so riveting is what came next. Growing up in the 1930s he became very aware of what was happening in Nazi Germany, and took the trouble to learn German. During the Occupation, aged 17, he started a youth resistance group, which specialised in printing and distributing an underground newspaper based on BBC bulletins and other clandestine sources. This sounds fantastically dangerous. Yet his blindness, far from being a handicap, seems to have helped him. He took responsibility for recruiting, and a special ability to recognise a person’s inner nature ensured that he got people who were reliable and committed – some six hundred eventually. His group later merged with a much larger underground publication that eventually became France Soir, one of the country’s highest circulation newspapers in the 1950s and 60s.

Inevitably, Lusseyran and his colleagues were betrayed to the Gestapo, and he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. He made it to the end of the war, about eighteen months later, one of only a small handful of survivors of the thousands of French people imprisoned there. Afterwards he had to struggle because of a law passed by the Vichy regime that prevented blind people from teaching. But he prevailed, and eventually went to the US to teach French literature. He gave lectures about his experience of blindness (reprinted in his second book Against the Pollution of the I) and was on his way to deliver the last of them when he was killed in a car crash, aged 46.

As a European growing up in the post-war era, I’ve always been impressed by these sorts of heroics. Often I’ve found myself wondering how I personally would have measured up if I’d been in such circumstances, and to my great regret, feel certain I’d have been one of the masses who kept their heads down, hoping to get to the end in one piece. So it’s hard to put myself in the position of someone like Lusseyran.

I kept coming back to the inner light thing, reading the relevant passages over and over. Did he really mean he could see, in the sense of making out objects in his vicinity, both nearby and at a distance? How could that be? There certainly seemed to plenty going on in his internal vision that conveyed information to him, and some of this information helped him to move about. And he does sometimes seem to suggest that, in a literal sense, he could make things out, for instance the presence of a wall, or the line of distant mountains, and that, conversely, these shadows (as I think of them) disappeared completely when he was in a depressed or scheming state of mind, obliging him to maintain a cheery disposition.

But if he’s grateful, it’s not because he’d been left with a scrap of what he once had, that in some strange way survived without any sensory basis, but because he’d been gifted with something more. What one absolutely gets is his intense satisfaction with it all, as though he was privileged to experience something out of the ordinary, and pitied we ordinary mortals who merely see in a superficial way.

Wondering about this, I recalled that sometimes I’ve experienced a sense of illumination while meditating, with eyes closed, of a light field beginning to bloom. It doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t actually illuminate anything – it’s more a brightening of the darkness. And although it feels interesting, and potentially a portent of something meaningful, it doesn't lead anywhere.

I also remembered speculating in a similar away about the discarnate experience, trying to make sense of what’s said about it in NDE testimony and mediumistic texts. Clearly, this is not seeing with ocular apparatus, yet light and colour and visual beauty are pervasive characteristics, and there’s also a strong sense that they’re felt or experienced, subjectively, as much as observed in an objective way. Similarly suggestive descriptions are also found in narratives of mystical experience and psychedelic drug visions. So perhaps what Lusseyran was experiencing is essentially this, a way of relating to reality that’s obscured in the incarnate state, but starts to become evident when the physical mechanisms break down. What we think of as sight is merely a mechanical analogy of the real thing.

His experience might be described in psychic jargon – the colour emanations from people as ‘auras’, for instance, and his inner reality as the ‘astral’ – but I don’t think he’s familiar with this literature, and clearly doesn’t think in these limiting terms. He does occasionally talk about God, though, in a confident, unpreachy way, as the foundation of reality:

By the time I was ten years old, I knew with absolute certainty that everything in the world was a sign of something else, ready to take its place if it should fall by the way. And this continued miracle of healing I heard expressed fully in the Lord’s Prayer that I repeated at night before going to sleep.

But what does this mean: ‘everything in the world is a sign of something else?’ It’s obscure, but also potentially meaningful, if we grasp for it. He’s very aware of the limitations of language. He says that what he describes is ‘not magic but reality’; nevertheless, most people, I think, will fall back to supposing that this is how a blind person copes: he makes some kind of involuntary adjustment, a reordering of the neurological apparatus that enables him to continue to interact with the world – albeit in his case, in a rather exceptional way. It’s a very private experience, with no other relevance beyond his particular circumstances.

For others, like me, Lusseyran convinces that, on the contrary, his experience is important, and worth striving to understand. In a rather good introduction to Against the Pollution of the I, Christopher Bamford describes him as a ‘secular saint’, which is what I too found myself thinking: someone whose inner world is reflected in the exemplary moral courage of his outward actions, and whose testimony acts as a sort of beacon for the rest of us.

Thoughts on Mind and Matter

It seems to me that a lot of people in the spirituality business positively embrace the idea that mind and matter are intimately related. In principle, I go along with that. In practice, though, I’m bound to say that my ideas about the relationship between mind and the external world are quite conflicted.

At the end of a busy day last week, I thought I’d squeeze in an hour clearing up loose ends on the Psi Encylopedia. One chore was to update a particular page. When I went to it, I found a new draft had been created. I’d no recollection of having made it, and in this instance no one else could have done it. So I decided to get rid of it.

Just as I was hovering over the delete button I heard a stentorian voice in the street outside shouting ‘WAIT! WAIT!’ I knew it was my neighbour shouting at his dog, but it crossed my mind that this might also have some relevance to my current circumstance. Then, as often happens, I rebelled against the thought. The idea that external events might have neatly coordinated themselves in order to send me a message hardly bears thinking about. I prefer to rely on my own judgement, make my own decisions.

So I went ahead and hit delete. I quickly discovered that, having misunderstood the function (which is one I don’t generally use) I’d deleted not only the draft but the entire original page. I hunted around, but it was gone. I couldn’t fish it out of the recycle bin, as there isn’t one. I had to contact support and get them to recover it from the backup, which was time-consuming and costly – and embarrassing.

So yes: ‘Wait!’ would have been good advice to follow. I should have put it off until the next morning, when I’d have been fresh, and would have taken the trouble to check before taking action.

In that case, I could say the mechanism – whatever it is, and however it should be described – is essentially benign – at least in this case. So why resist it? There doesn’t even have to be a metaphysical dimension: my subconscious mind wants to tell me something, and opportunistically takes account of something in the external world to bring it to my attention.

And to be sure, accepted this way it can be useful. I recall a morning at work many years ago being utterly frustrated by a seemingly intractable problem. Then I had to go out on an errand, which involved a short journey on the underground. As it happened, just days earlier new ticket barriers had been installed, the kind that are still in operation in London today, where ‘exit’ flashes up in green when you present your card, and ‘seek assistance’ in red comes up if the card isn’t working. On this occasion, there must have been something wrong with my card, and I got ‘seek assistance’. Given my current preoccupation, that seemed like good advice. So when I got back I consulted a colleague, and between us we soon figured out a solution.

I’ve seen ‘seek assistance’ hundreds of times since, without attaching any special significance to it. So I could say, it’s all in the mind. If you experience something that seems meaningful in a special way, it’s because your subconscious is trying to tell you something.

Fair enough. But there are times when the externals seem to order themselves in a very particular way, combining with my inner world to bring about a result that could not occur simply by random. It can even seem like a joint operation: a mysterious outside influence co-operating with my subconscious – almost as if two people are conspiring to attract the attention of a rather obtuse third party.

One day about a year ago, I stepped into the street and was startled to see a hearse parked outside. Right by my front door. It seemed odd, but I thought no more about it, and the next day it was gone. But two days later, there it was again! I was spooked – it felt like a visit from the Grim Reaper. I did a quick mental scan: a distant relation was seriously ill, but I didn’t feel a connection there; my own family were all fine. Then I caught what I was doing. Looking for a rational explanation I recalled that a funeral company had recently started up two blocks away. Perhaps it owned the hearse, and for lack of a parking space was obliged to share the residential parking. In this way I put it out of my mind.

I recalled the incident again six weeks later, when I saw the same vehicle parked in a neighbouring street. Two things immediately struck me.

The first was that it wasn’t a hearse at all; it was a Mercedes Benz E350 estate car, sleek and black and shiny, with lots of chrome and a square rear-end, but nothing out of the ordinary, and not remotely big enough to carry a coffin. So what on earth made me think it was a hearse?

The second thought was that, just a day or two after my second sighting of the ‘hearse’, our twelve-year-old Staffie, on a trip to the vet for his annual jabs, was unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal cancer, and three weeks later had to be put down. He was a much-loved family member, and his passing threw the household into uproar.

Putting all this together, I reasoned as follows: On a subconscious level I had some premonition of a coming tide of emotional turbulence related to a death. To bring it up to the surface, some part of myself subtly altered my conscious perception of an external object in such a way as to create a particular meaning, which did indeed lead to the desired result. That done, I could make of it what I would – which in my case was nothing, since I prefer not to pay attention to such intimations. And surely I was right not to. It would have been no great help to precognise this sort of event, on the contrary, it would have caused needless anxiety. If stuff’s going to happen, it will.

But in my heart of hearts I can’t really accept that there’s nothing going on here that isn’t entirely explicable in terms of everyday psychology. In the case of the dog-walker telling me to wait, it’s true that he goes out every day, also that I’ve heard him shouting like that once or twice before. But to explain why the shout came at the precise second that it was needed, and not ten seconds before, or ten seconds after, or at any other time, one has to resort to the Argument from Pure Coincidence, which sometimes works, but at other times looks transparently like a means to avoid what one finds unsettling.

Again, it’s true that my misidentification of a car precipitated an internal drama that uncannily matched a subsequent event. But it’s also true that an appropriate vehicle was parked in the only place where it’s presence would force itself on my attention, and when this didn’t happen, got parked in exactly the same place a second time, as if whatever organising principle was at work was having another attempt (I’d never seen it there before, and never saw it there again.)

So I’m left with the idea that a part of myself psychokinetically interacted with my external reality in order to bring about a physical event, perhaps with the additional involvement of some other agency.

This shocks me, but then I consider: shouldn’t I also be equally shocked by the idea of precognition? To many minds that’s so destructive of common-sense notions as to be hardly worth thinking about. Yet for some reason precognition doesn’t disturb me in the same way, I just take it to be an indication that our reality is not as we take it to be, and that one day perhaps far in the future it will be understood in a different way. In another sense, of course, precognition fits into the current evolutionary framework as an adaptation that confers a potential advantage on animals seeking to evade predators. That helps create the comforting illusion that it can, after all, be explained from a naturalistic perspective.

Precognition is essentially passive, a channel for information that one can act on or disregard, or in most cases simply not be aware of. Certainly, if one thinks through the implications it can be terrifying.

But psychokinesis is on another level altogether. The idea that humans may actively influence their environment at a distance by the power of thought has a terrible history. It would be equally disturbing, whether it goes on unconsciously all the time or can be employed as a deliberate means to manipulate. And it must surely be obvious that for science to validate psi would introduce a dangerously destabilising factor into social relations. Looked at from this perspective, surely, no one can reasonably complain about psi phenomena being taboo, or denounce ‘psi-deniers’ for standing in the way of reason.

Some Past Life Memories

There’s quite a bit of new activity in the reincarnation research category of the Psi Encyclopedia. This piece by Jim Matlock discusses patterns that can be found in the research. Karen Wehrstein has contributed an entry on adult memories, and another on claims to have lived as a famous person.

There’s also a fascinating case study about detailed memories of a life as a sixteenth century Spanish woman, written by Stephen Braude, who for once finds it quite impressive, even though being a regression case it wouldn’t normally be considered particularly evidential. Karen is working on case studies, including two well-known and unusual Indian cases: Sharada-Uttara and Sumitra-Shiva, which will be uploaded shortly. And Erlendur Haraldsson has contributed an entry on a particularly detailed Lebanese case that he investigated, Nazih Al-Danaf, and plans to write other articles in the coming months.

I should also mention that Matlock and Erlendur have co-authored a new book, I Saw A Light and Came Here: Children’s Experiences of Reincarnation, published by White Crow. I ordered it from Amazon, and it came just today, so I can’t talk about it in detail, but it contains a number of unfamiliar cases, and a lot of what looks to be interesting analysis.

That’s the bulletin part of the post over. I’m going to hand over now to a lady called Adri D, who got in touch recently to describe her own past life memories as a child. I quite often hear from people about their experiences, and am always glad to get them, but I thought this was especially interesting, and she’s happy for it to be shared here. Thanks Adri.

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Adri D writes: When I was a young child, from about the age I could start talking until I started school (approximately), I spoke frequently about my "other family", especially my other mother. I often commented when seeing my mom do something that my "other mommy didn't do it like that" - for instance, things she did around the house, the way she prepared food, and really all matter of things. Also, I couldn't accept my name – I was insistent that my name was Jennifer.

Extended family thought it was quite funny, definitely chalking it up to imaginary friend-type talk, and admittedly I was a bright and imaginative child. However, I would often become frustrated and annoyed with the way things were done in our household and the rules my parents lay down; at other times I expressed benign surprise. My parents tolerated it and took it lightly, but did not encourage the talk.

As I got older and, I suppose, more used to being a member of my own family, the talk and references faded. However, it took me a very long time to accept both my first and last names, and I despised revealing the information to people as a child. It just felt so wrong to me. I still have vivid memories of feeling that I had another family, (even though I don't actually consciously feel that way any longer), and somehow knowing things about them. I also remember feeling that I was from someplace else, and indeed belonged somewhere else – and in fact I still feel that way, at age 38! I had cousins from Alaska who would come down and visit every couple of years or so, and Alaska became in my mind the place where I might be from. This is definitely something that I may very well have made up – I don't think it’s Alaska itself that is very significant, or perhaps even the name Jennifer, but rather this very strong feeling that I was from somewhere else, that I had another name, that I WAS someone else! 

(I do still very much want to visit Alaska, and I'm preparing for a spiritual journey there.) 

I fully admit this could all be the workings of my imagination, and have never really made a big deal out of it. I learned about the eastern belief of reincarnation when I got interested in Buddhism and certain New Age concepts as a teen, but never made any connection to my own experience and memories until I first heard of children who remembered past lives via a book I had found in my university library while searching for books on Theosophy, (I was a philosophy major, it was VERY dry) and immediately I thought to myself in a very calm way, "oh my God, that explains it."

I told my mom about it the next time I was visiting. Although we are Catholic (at least in upbringing) she has an open mind to these things, and so do I. It truly sobered her to hear the stories of the kids who'd been studied, and she revealed that she had found my talk of another life and family very creepy, and it disturbed and hurt her. She said she never encouraged it, and was relieved when it stopped. My mom is a very content woman spiritually and doesn't feel the need to research things and get too philosophical. But she definitely thinks that if anyone came out of womb yammering on about their past life, it was me.

Another perhaps odd thing about me is that I was always prepared for disaster, especially in the night. I had significant insomnia and night fear as a kid, and would lie awake for hours, listening. I would also sometimes sleep in my shoes, and sometimes my school uniform, and I would be very worried that someone would find out, but it helped ease my anxiety that I would be able to escape the house all ready to go, in case the need arose. One night when I was about 9, we actually did have to evacuate, because our next-door neighbour's car port had gone up in flames for some unknown reason. When I heard my parents shuffling around before coming to get my sister and I, I was calm and ready for action. 

Reincarnation has never fascinated me all that much – one might think it would, but in fact I can't even get through books or television programs about these kids who feel that they remember a past life- they just can't hold my attention! Not entirely sure why. (I have no qualms about accepting the possibility of reincarnation on anecdote alone, though my favourite after-life possibility is post-death survival of personality leading to a transition into complete union with God).

That being said, plenty of other topics that you address on your blog do interest me very much. I have always been a keen seeker, and consider myself to be quite psychic, intuitive, and sensitive. I’m a very late bloomer, evolving into each new stage of life very slowly and cautiously. I feel that if my memories really are indicative of a past life, it was a life in which I died young. In my most transcendent moments, and in certain dreams, I even feel sometimes that I can actually remember things from OTHER lives – it’s just a quality of feeling that arises when I think of certain dreams or visions.

I had this very strongly once when some military planes in formation flew over our city in salute, the morning of our suburb's annual air show - when those planes flew overhead I had a terrible, transcendental dizziness, and I actually peed my pants I was so scared. I was shaking for hours afterwards. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life, but I cannot explain why, and obviously I never thought consciously that I was in any danger. A very strange experience indeed.

I’ll conclude by saying that it's not anything I feel I'll ever need an iota of "evidence" for, and certainly I would never feel I had to convince anyone of this. I have opened up about it with different people and everyone has found it very easy to accept. For other friends of mine and people I know that feel that they have experienced stuff like ghostly and alien encounters, precognition, telepathy, and communication or contact with the dead, there also seems to be this calm acceptance and not a hint of needing to prove it to oneself or anyone else.

In terms of "dyed in the wool skeptics" and people who have a very materialist view of reality, I think that this might have a lot to do with their spiritual constitution. Some people are just not cut out for experiencing the world this way, and they get intensely annoyed whenever anyone starts talking about anything that they term "woo" because it's like everyone is speaking a language they know they'll never understand.

I deal with a lot of people from Taiwan in my work, and they have a complex spiritual worldview that I find very interesting. One girl was explaining to me that whether or not you will have any kind of sensitivities or aptitude for spirit communication is something you are marked with at birth, and that's just who you are or are not. I thought that was very interesting. 

Animal Psi

The Psi Encyclopedia needs an entry on telepathy, and since I couldn’t immediately think of someone to write it, I thought I’d have a go myself. So I’ve been having a look through the literature. One particularly interesting read is Rupert Sheldrake’s Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. I bought it when it came out in 1999 but it got ‘borrowed’ (I can’t complain, I’m a terrible borrower of other people’s books), and it was good to be reminded of the sheer variety of unexplained connections, and contexts in which they appear.

Perhaps the best known phenomenon, and the easiest to test, is the anticipatory behaviour shown by many dogs and cats to the return of a person they’re bonded with. There was a lot of public discussion about the famous Jaytee case, which I devoted several pages to in Randi’s Prize, but this is no anomalous outlier – it’s a very commonly described experience. Sheldrake collected 580 reports of dogs that know when their owners are coming home, and 359 of cats. This is a typical example:

I first noted Poppet showed restlessness, excitement, ears pricked up, tail wagging, wandering between front and back doors, and she developed a special type of bark which I always called ‘a yipping’ – and surely within minutes my mother arrived. No special times or routine to her visits, but Poppet’s reaction was always the same – morning, noon or night. I gradually got to notice that I could tell whether my mother was coming via the front or back door, as Poppet would position herself at the right one. I also noted that when the telephone rang, although Poppet would look at it, she did not particularly bother, but I always knew when my mother was on the phone, as Poppet appeared all excited standing by the phone and using her special ‘yipping’ call.

The obvious explanations are that the animal responds to a regular routine, or that it receives warning by sense of smell or hearing. But, as in this example, it happens when the returns are at irregular times. The case collection includes more than twenty cases of pets alerting the parents of young servicemen to their imminent (unannounced) arrival on leave, hours or even days in advance. Smell could not be the explanation over distances of more than a mile, and even then, the wind would need to be blowing in the right direction. In fact the anticipatory behaviour often starts when the owners are much further away. Dogs do not have particularly good hearing, and even if they could distinguish the sound of a particular vehicle approaching from a distance, it would not explain their awareness of a particular individual returning by public transport.

Cats’ hearing is exceptional. But the same applies. In one case, a cat that habitually responded to the return of his teenage owner was watched by the boy’s father one night when he was expected to arrive quite late. On three separate occasions a taxi stopped in front of the building, but the cat paid no attention to any of them. The father says, ‘Some time later, he jumped down and went to the door. Five minutes later I heard the taxi arrive in which my son was travelling.’

There are a few similar examples with other pets: parrots, horses, sheep and monkeys. There are also other types of connection, although less frequently reported and not easily testable. Pets who provide reassurance to people who are stressed or ill might simply be responding to changes they pick up, but there are cases of animals said to have prevented suicide by, for instance, alerting other family members with their frantic behaviour. Signs of stress have also been observed in pets coinciding with a death or accident at a distance of a person they are bonded with.

Many pet owners are convinced the animal can sense what they are thinking. For instance some guide-dog owners believe their animal picks up their thoughts about where they want to go. Here there is an obvious explanation: the dog responds to subtle body movements that give away their intention, and it would be hard to disprove this objectively. But the owners are quite aware of this, and discount it:

I am totally blind so I cannot see the dog, and I wouldn’t be sure about direction of travel. Under those conditions I wouldn’t be making any indication as to direction or stopping or starting. I am just walking along thinking, and that is why I started to believe he is picking up something other than visual cues or other physical indications.

I mentioned here some time ago a friend who lives alone with two cats, who was offered an opportunity to sell up and live abroad. An immediate concern was that a home would need to be found for the cats. The move was just an idea in her head, something that might or might not take place some time in the future – she made no actual preparations and did not change her routine. But the cats suddenly became frantic: they followed her around, mewing piteously and wouldn’t let her out of their sight. When a few days later she decided definitively not to leave, the cats resumed their normal behaviour. That’s a one off, but many owners are convinced there’s an ongoing telepathic connection. Cats in particular are notorious for disappearing on the day of a planned trip to the vet – even in the absence of obvious preparations like getting out the cat basket.

Experiments have been carried out that suggest telepathic connections between bonded animals, in situations where there is no channel for sensory communication. In one instance, a pair of horses who lived as close companions were separated and kept out of sight and hearing of each other. One was fed at irregular times which were found to coincide with times when the other became excited and demanded food. The same reaction occurred when one was taken out and exercised. Of 119 experiments, the results were positive in 68%. In control experiments, with horses who were hostile to each other, there was only one positive result out of 15.

A related topic is the connected behaviour of certain fish, birds and insects – flocks, swarms, colonies. There’s still no clear indication of how, for instance, blind termites go about building complex structures with nests up to ten feet high, complete with galleries, chambers and even ventilation shafts. In one experiment, termites repaired breaches made in their mounds from every side, making structures that joined perfectly, even though the insects did not come into contact, and could not see each other, being blind. Even so, it’s hard to suppose they weren’t aware of what the others were doing, by some means. So in a second experiment, the mound was dissected by a steel plate, ensuring that the builders on either side had no sensory awareness of those on the other. Yet when the steel plate was removed, the structures on one side were found to match exactly with those on the other.

What about flocks of birds, the famous starling ‘murmurations’? It’s natural to suppose that each responds to moves by its neighbour, but for waves to be coordinated purely by visual stimuli would mean birds being able to sense, notice and react to waves almost immediately, even those that come from directly behind them, having ‘practically continuous, unblinking, 360 degree visual attention’. But an experiment with flocks of dunlins, a wading shorebird, found that the waves took an average of 15 milliseconds to move from one bird to the next, while in the laboratory the fastest reaction found in a dunlin, in response to a flash of light, was 38 milliseconds.

As we know, Sheldrake looks to morphic fields to explain these and similar phenomena. He sees morphic fields extending ‘beyond the brain into the environment, linking us to the object of our perception and making us capable of affecting them through our intention and attention’. In the case of collective behaviour in large groups, each unit is responding to a kind of gestalt that is available to all, instinctually playing its part to bring a form into being.

Another phenomenon that interests me is the homing ability of animals, which is well documented but remains absolutely mysterious. In the 1930s, an experiment was carried out in Bavaria with a sheepdog named Max, who was taken in a closed van by a roundabout route to a place he’d never been to before, then released, and observed by trained observers stationed along the route he was expected to take home; he was also followed by cyclists.

Max scanned the landscape in various directions, as if taking his bearings. After several trials he began to concentrate on the direction of his home, looking resolutely homewards, and after half an hour he set off. He avoided going through woods, hid from passing cars and circumvented farmhouses and villages. After travelling for just over an hour, he came out on the familiar road into his village, and galloped home. The distance he covered was about six miles.

In a second trial from the same place he took a short cut and arrived home in 43 minutes. He appeared to make no use of sense of smell, since he did not sniff at the trees or ground or try to pick up a trail, which would in any case have been pointless.

Another dog was released in the city of Munich, three miles from her home.

When she was first released, she behaved very much as Max had done; she spent about 25 minutes taking her bearings, looking principally in the direction of her home, and then trotted off in the right direction. All went well until she encountered a frolicsome dog in the Tassiloplatz who led her astray. After some time she took her bearings again, and once more set off in a direct line towards her home. The journey took 93 minutes, including the time spent taking her bearings, playing and straying. The second time, six weeks later, from the same place, she took only five minutes to get her bearings, took the same route and arrived 37 minutes later. Like Max, she was not sniffing and could see no familiar sights.

The same researcher tried similar experiments with another dog, which all failed – again, a reminder that animals, like people, differ in their abilities. The owner of two huskies observed that one had excellent navigational skills, but it was impossible to tell by watching the confident way he trotted home what clues he was following. He didn’t seem to be navigating by landmarks, since he might take different routes. But this dog’s mate often got lost: to get home she simply parked herself on someone’s doorstep and waited for the homeowner to call the telephone number on her collar.

There are lots of theories about homing pigeons, and every so often new research is declared to have cracked the mystery. But nothing definitive. One recent experiment claimed to find they followed geographical features in the landscape like roads and railway lines. This might be a partial explanation, for birds who make the same regular journey. But in another experiment, cited by Sheldrake, birds fitted with frosted contact lenses still reached their destination, so they couldn’t have been relying on sight (although they tended to crash land when they arrived.). Recently, there have been confident declarations that the sense of smell is key, based on pigeons’ loss of homing ability after having the olfactory nerve severed. But other experiments cited by Sheldrake appeared to eliminate the sense of smell, and in any case, it would not necessarily explain the ability of pigeons to home from unfamiliar places.

The phenomenon of mass bird migrations might be explained by Sheldrake's idea of a collective memory in morphic fields:

Thus when a young cuckoo sets off from England to Africa it draws upon a collective memory of its ancestors. This memory, inherent in the morphic field of its migratory path, guides it as it goes, giving it a memory of directions in which to fly, and an instinctive recognition of landmarks, feeding grounds and resting places. This collective memory also enables it to recognise when it has arrived at its destination, the ancestral winter home.

Sheldrake concedes that with homing pigeons, navigation can be aided by using the sun’s position, and perhaps even a magnetic sense, to help keep their bearings and stay on course. But he adds, ‘Without the directional pull through the morphic field connecting them to their home, they would be lost’

It struck me, while reading about all of this, how extraordinary it is to have all these curious phenomena on our doorstep, so to speak, and yet to pay them so little attention. Going back to anticipatory behaviour, the implication of Sheldrake’s research is that as many as half of dogs display it, an astonishing number, if one considers we’re talking about something that science says is flat out impossible. The fact that the other half don’t doesn’t invalidate its existence. Some dogs might simply lack that kind of sensitivity, like most humans. (I watched out for it in my own dog – now sadly deceased – but didn’t see any suggestion of it, or any other psi connections). And there could be other reasons: in cases where the owner lives alone, and there is no one to observe the pet’s behaviour, or where the bond is not particularly strong, for instance.

Even if Sheldrake’s figures are an overestimate, taking into account the number of pet owning households (nearly half in the UK, two thirds in the US) the research indicates that tens, possibly hundreds of millions in the developed world have experience of telepathy through this phenomenon. And this is not a single event – it’s observed regularly, in some cases almost daily. This is perhaps one reason why so many people in surveys say they believe in telepathy – typically a third to half. It’s not because they’re naturally superstitious, or credulous, or ignorant of science (although, sure, some of them may be). It’s just that – quite reasonably – they trust the evidence of their own repeated experience in preference to remote abstractions about what is and is not possible in nature.

A related but equally curious mystery is the paucity of research in this area. Sheldrake mentions quite a few experiments, but most seemed to be one-offs, carried out by people who had a lot to do with animals, and wanted to test their observations, but typically weren’t followed up. If one day it’s considered to be in our interests to find out what’s going on, animals will be a rich field for scientific investigation.

Geller Again

Uri Geller is back in the news, which will please him. His name stands out in the CIA’s mass online release of classified documents last week, relating to the testing of him by Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff at Stanford Research Institute in 1972-3, and I’m interested to see how the media is reacting.

In fact there's nothing particularly new here. The documents themselves were declassified some time ago – it’s just that they’ve been placed online where they can be seen without having to go to a library. As for the Geller ESP tests, they were described in Targ and Puthoff’s Mind-Reach (1977), and in any number of other books since. The significance is that we can now see the original drawings, which in a few cases show how exactly Geller was able to reproduce images that had been drawn by the experimenters at a distance. The Daily Mail shows several of these.

What struck me especially is that the headlines are all about Geller, and (on the assumption that he’s a faker) the remarkable – and allegedly hitherto unknown fact – that the hardboiled CIA itself was convinced he was genuinely psychic. The Stargate programme is mentioned here and there, but the impression given is that Geller was the original ‘psychic warrior’, as some of the reports describe him. This is quite wrong. The positive tests may have played some role in the initial assessment by the US military intelligence, and encouraged it to give serious funding. But the long-term remote viewing at SRI was carried out by people like Ingo Swann, Pat Price, Hella Hammid and Joe McMoneagle, some of whom are said on many occasions to have provided actionable intelligence. Their collective contribution is far more significant in this field than Geller’s and yet, not being world famous, they’re hardly ever mentioned.

The sense I’m left with is how extremely primitive the public understanding of these matters is. None of the articles I’ve seen so far seem to have any sense of context. Some are overtly hostile –a particularly dinosaurish piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times stated, among many other untruths, that the psychics ‘never provided US intelligence with a single useful piece of information’. If that’s the case, why did it spend so much money for so many years? There must have been some reason why the viewers’ ‘customers’ in the intelligence community kept coming back for more.

A lot of this prejudice and misinformation, I’m afraid, has to do with Geller himself. When he came on the scene in the late 1960s it doubtless helped popularise ESP research. But because he’s always seen himself first and foremost as a celebrity entertainer – aiming to fascinate and mystify – he’s regarded by many people as an especially talented conjurer with a twist, one who (unlike other conjurers) claims that what he does is real. So of course they’re puzzled to discover that supposedly tough military types were taken in.

I had some dealings with Geller a few years ago (a writing job for a friend of his, nothing to do with him or psychic stuff), and found him to be charming and empathetic. I think he takes the whole celebrity thing way too seriously, but OK, that’s how he makes his living. What’s so frustrating is the way his notoriety casts a shadow over psi research. Whenever I discuss it with people who know little or nothing about it – which is not often, being a somewhat unrewarding business – it’s always Geller they mention, and since he’s been so heavily targeted by the sceptic community, never in a good sense. People seem to think that those like myself who believe psi is real have been ‘taken in by Uri Geller’, as if he was the sole and single reason for taking it seriously.

The chapter in James Randi’s Flim-Flam! that purports to debunk Geller’s SRI tests is something that all sceptics know about, as will doubtless be confirmed later in the comments thread. I expect also we’ll hear a lot about the ‘peep-hole’ in the isolation booth that according to Randi could have enabled Geller to see the target drawings, had they also been placed in the line of sight. It may indeed be that the experimenters’ methods were less than completely secure, but I’ve always been sceptical that highly-intelligent physicists could not have spotted something so basic (yes, I know, scientists are supposed not to know about magic tricks, but there’s nothing especially magical about a peep-hole).

And why would there be a hole in an isolation booth? I can think of one reason, to carry audio cables, but that’s normally done at floor level. So it’s no surprise to learn from David Scott Rogo, who took the trouble to visit Stanford to check up on Randi’s claim, that that’s indeed where the hole is, which means Geller could only have benefited from it if he’d been tasked with divining the colour of the experimenters’ socks - if it hadn't also been covered by a metal plate.

Another ‘explanation ‘of the SRI results, aired in a 1974 New Scientist article is that Geller had implanted a miniature communication device in a tooth, that enabled him to get the details of the drawings from a confederate. But I don’t know how much we’ll hear about that, as it never really took off.

None of this is to defend Geller, who can look after himself, or the probity of his SRI tests, which could be proved to have been entirely faked without in the least affecting the results of the far greater and multi-faceted remote viewing projects that followed over decades. The Psi Encyclopedia has yet to include a piece on the Stargate project (although one is being written now). But at the weekend, by coincidence, I uploaded a general survey of remote viewing by Stephan Schwarz, one of its most dedicated pioneers. He gives details of projects carried out at his Mobius lab, which included some very striking archaeological finds by a team of viewers that at various time included Ingo Swann, Hella Hammid, and the novelist Michael Crichton.

The piece also includes the unequivocal statement by statistician Jessica Utts:

Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance. Arguments that these results could be due to methodological flaws in the experiments are soundly refuted. Effects of similar magnitude have been replicated at a number of laboratories across the world. Such consistency cannot be readily explained by claims of flaws or fraud.

Surely that’s the real story here – it’s just not one that’s likely to feature in the mainstream press.

The Science-Religion Continuum

This article in the New York Times ‘Stone’ column got my attention. It’s by science writer Robert Wright, whose 1996 book The Moral Animal I rather admired, while not agreeing with all its ideas.

Wright starts by quoting from an (unpublished) video interview he made years ago with William Hamilton, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose theory of kin selection helped make the field so influential. At one point Hamilton mentions casually that he’s open to the idea that evolution might not, after all, be the whole story about moral purpose. Perhaps, he muses, we should be open to the idea that ‘promptings’ about the ‘ultimate good’ might be coming from a different source. He would have left it that, concerned about getting off-topic. But of course Wright was intrigued and pressed him further.

I asked him if he meant that there was some kind of “transcendental purpose” that we humans are generally oblivious to.

He answered: “Yes, yes. There’s one theory of the universe that I rather like — I accept it in an almost joking spirit — and that is that Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extra-terrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. And this is the best, the most interesting experiment they could set up: to set up the evolution on Planet Earth going in such a way that it would produce these really interesting characters — humans who go around doing things — and they watch their experiment, interfering hardly at all so that almost everything we do comes out according to the laws of nature. But every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that.” So, he continued, these extra-terrestrials “insert a finger and just change some little thing. And maybe those are the miracles which the religious people like to so emphasize.” He reiterated: “I put it forward in an almost joking spirit. But I think it’s a kind of hypothesis that’s very, very hard to dismiss.”

Most scientists don’t like to think about extra-terrestrials because they think it means departing from the scientific worldview, Wright says. But it doesn’t. An ‘alien’ doesn’t have to be from another dimension, but rather inhabits our own universe – a physical being like ourselves, who in this particular context just happens to have a technological sophistication far beyond our own.

You may consider aliens spooky, but they’re not a spooky force. And they’re not supernatural beings. They’re just physical beings, like us. Their technology is so advanced that their interventions might seem miraculous to us — as various smartphone apps would seem to my great-great-grandparents — but these interventions would in fact comply with the laws of science. More to the point: If you ask how Hamilton’s aliens had initially imparted “purpose” to life, the answer is that they did so in concrete fashion: by planting simple self-replicating material on earth a few billion years ago, confident that it would lead to something that would keep them entertained (keeping them entertained being, in this scenario, life’s purpose).

Wright adds that it’s not intellectually disrespectable to hold that life on Earth is a cosmic computer projection, and that the history of our universe is the unfolding of an algorithm. That’s because it’s based on technology, not on metaphysics or any kind of supernatural conception.

You may scoff, but in 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University published a paper laying out reasons to think that we are pretty likely to be living in a simulation. And the simulation hypothesis has gained influential supporters. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and America’s de facto astronomer laureate, finds it plausible. The visionary tech entrepreneur Elon Musk says there’s almost no chance that we’re living in “base reality.” The New Yorker reported earlier this year that “two tech billionaires” — it didn’t say whether Musk is one of them — “have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”

But then, as Wright points out, the cosmic projection hypothesis is a God hypothesis: ‘an intelligence of awe-inspiring power created our universe for reasons we can speculate about but can’t entirely fathom … theology has entered ‘secular’ discourse under another name.

Exactly so. And once you strip away the cultural and historical accretions around religious thinking, and penetrate to the spiritual core teaching, one could construct a religious-type scenario that is close to thinking in the (entirely secular) AI and digital future communities. Here, we could view channelled ‘spirit teachings’ – Seth, Agartha, White Eagle, Silver Birch, The Course of Miracles, and all the rest – as the ‘promptings’, as Hamilton calls them, of those who set up (or who at least manage) the simulation. They’re in the lab, quietly murmuring instructions to us from their distant planet, in a way that emerges fitfully in our active lives in what we call conscience, but which on occasion – and if we properly clear the mind channel of extraneous noise – we can literally make out the words.

(Obviously, Hamilton's scenario requires some kind of mechanism by which the distant ETs can monitor us and communicate, but let’s assume, with their vastly more advanced technological capability, they’ve figured that out.)

But then what about the voices that plague the mentally ill, that taunt them and drive them to commit murder? Are they also distant ET technicians talking to us? In that case, why would they want to send messages calculated to cause harm?

Well, perhaps we could extend the idea in creative ways: the human life experiment is controversial, and perhaps some disaffected individuals on this remote controlling station have broken into the laboratory and are trying to sabotage it. Perhaps one could build an entire theodicy around the idea of extra-terrestrial hackers!

I don’t think in these terms myself, but it seems that growing numbers of people in the technological and gaming communities – people who consider themselves to be atheists – talk in language that lends itself to a sort of secular theology. In its extreme manifestation it’s what Robert Geraci, a religious studies professor, calls ‘apocalyptic AI’, the idea that by transmigrating to more efficient non-organic ‘bodies’ we can eventually attain to blissful eternal life.

The conclusion is that secularists are actually quite comfortable with the whole God thing – or certain aspects of it, as long as it lies within human comprehension. That gets confirmation of a kind from the Uber-Atheist himself, Richard Dawkins:

It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved by probably some kind of Darwinian means to a very, very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto, perhaps, this planet. Now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of our chemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer, and that designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe. But that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable, process. It couldn't have just jumped into existence spontaneously. That's the point.

So Dawkins gives us permission to believe in a higher intelligence than ours, just so long as we don’t invest it with ‘supernatural’ qualities.

Back to Wright, who calls himself a scientifically-minded agnostic (uncertain, but leaning towards secularism), is actively interested in mindfulness and meditation, and is disparaging of militant atheists like Dawkins and Sam Harris. It’s not the nuts and bolts of creation that interests him, rather the development of morality in humans, which he depicts as purposeful while striving to keep it within the bounds of scientific secularism, as a product of evolution. But flirting with teleology gets him into trouble with fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, who derides it as ‘creationism for liberals’. For Coyne, ideas like extra-terrestrials running a ‘human zoo’, or of life as a Matrix-style simulation, don’t deserve serious consideration.

For one thing, they are untestable claims and therefore unscientific ones. How would we know that we’re manipulated by aliens, or even part of a simulation? Further, it’s unparsimonious. What reason do we have for thinking that we are a gigantic real or virtual experiment rather than inhabitants of a real Universe? Adding those manipulative aliens just puts another layer on the hypothesis.

One answer, I suppose, is that humans have a powerful subjective sense of something beyond themselves, something significant that seems to demand the kind of explanation that scientific materialism can’t supply. But of course that’s not an issue for strict materialists for whom subjective human experience doesn’t merit consideration.

For his part, Wright shows signs of finding his self-imposed constraints irksome, as in this rejoinder to Coyne:

… some of the properties evinced by the system we’ve been discussing are the kinds of properties associated with “higher purpose” in the more traditional sense of a “divine” purpose. For example, there’s the aforementioned moral progress that has accompanied the expansion of social organization. And there’s the fact that sustaining history’s erratic but discernible drift toward a cohesive global community will almost certainly require more moral progress. Indeed, given the signs of backsliding on this project—given the growing prospect that humankind, having reached the brink of a global community, will dissolve into chaos—you could say that our species is facing an epic moral test. And God knows that kind of thing has traditionally been associated with divine purpose.

I find all this encouraging. It’s good to see a scientifically literate writer, who really knows his way around evolutionary psychology – one of the dominating explanatory paradigms of our age – engaging with a secular audience on matters whose importance that paradigm tends to obscure. A space is opening up, largely thanks to rapidly advancing digital technology, where one can potentially talk about metaphysical issues to secularists without sending them running for the hills. (Incidentally, Wright has a slot on, where he conducts video conversations with all sorts of interesting folk.)

That said, I also wonder whether one might extend this space, venturing further into metaphysical realms where the secular air is thinner, so to speak, but which is still nominally ‘safe’ in the sense that it remains attached to a secular base.

If we start from ideas of extra-terrestrials running the Earth project, or alternatively a Matrix-type scenario, would it be such a jump to locate these super-beings, not on some remote planet in a neighbouring galaxy, or even in another universe – both unfathomably distant – but in a different dimension altogether? A place, in other words, where we could never get to meet them even if we had suitably powerful spaceships, since their material reality does not interact with ours. Physicists do deal in extra dimensions, after all. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t conceive of them being inhabited by life forms, whose origin we can likewise attribute to impersonal evolutionary forces? How far can we stretch the envelope?

My point is that there’s a continuum here rather than a boundary. You travel from one state (science) towards an apparently antithetical state (religion) in a gradual way, certainly having to negotiate tricky gaps in certain places, but without being forced to step over a red line into a supernatural realm, where all bets are off no explanations are possible, and everything reduces to the idea of ‘God’. How far you’re willing to travel along this continuum depends on your tolerance of religious ideas, or your need to combine spiritual sustenance with loyalty to the scientific paradigm. A Coyne would not start the journey; a Dawkins might go a short distance, under protest. A Robert Wright would travel as far as he can take his audience with him.

Speaking for myself, having reached the boundary I could step over it without feeling personal discomfort. Perhaps that’s because, for better or worse, I seem to lack the need for mechanical explanations, that deep-seated, visceral appetite that drives the scientist. It’s also because I’m sceptical of the whole idea of ultimate explanations. You don’t have to envisage life in distant galaxies and alternative dimensions to bump up against the boundary, we’ve got one right here at home – even some materialists doubt that consciousness can ever be explained.

Indridi Indridason

At parapsychology events I sometimes come across Erlendur Haraldsson, the distinguished Icelandic psychology professor and psi investigator who, among many other topics, published a study of Satya Sai Baba (with Karlis Osis). I’m trying to get him to contribute an article for the Psi Encyclopedia on the Icelandic medium Indridi Indridason. I’m sure he will eventually, but in the meantime, here’s a look at his book on the subject that came out last year (co-written by Loftur Gissurarson).

Indridi indridason2Indridi was a farmer’s son with very basic education. Aged 21, he came to Reykjavik in 1904 to become a printer’s apprentice. He had no notion of becoming a medium, and got into it accidentally after being invited to take part in an experimental table-tipping circle that his sister had become interested in. Things really started rocking when he sat at the table, and from this time he sat frequently for sittings organised by the newly formed Experimental Society, in which a wide variety of strong effects were recorded. In 1909 he became ill, and he died three years later aged 28.

The phenomena were phenomenal, as one might say, rivalling the effects for which DD Home had been famous. Here’s a selection:

  • Raps, cracking sounds in the air; knocks responding to the sitters demands, some of them loud and heavy, and knocks heard on the body of the medium.
  • Gusts of wind, cold or hot, were common, strong enough to blow paper, sometimes far away from the medium.
  • Olfactory (odor) phenomena sometimes occurred: a sudden fragrant smell in the presence of the medium, sometimes other smells, such as seaweed. The odor would sometimes cling to a sitter after being touched by the medium.
  • Movements and levitations were frequent, of objects, small and large, light and heavy, and over short or long distances within a room or hall and sometimes quite high. Some of these objects moved as if thrown forcefully, at other times their trajectories were irregular. Sometimes objects were found to tremble. Curtains were pulled back and forth on request by the sitters.
  • Levitations of the medium. Many instances of levitation are reported, often with the medium holding onto another person. During violent poltergeist phenomena, the medium was dragged along the floor and thrown up into the air, so that his protectors had difficulty pushing him down.
  • Playing of musical instruments as if by invisible hands, and sometimes while they were levitating and moving around in mid-air.
  • Light phenomena. Fire-flashes or fire-balls, small and large fire-flashes on the walls. Luminous clouds as large as several feet across, sometimes described as a ‘pillar of light’ within which a human form appeared.
  • Materializations. The shadow or shape of materialized fingers were seen, or a hand or a foot, or a full human figure. Sitters touched materialized fingers, limbs or trunks that were felt as solid. Once a monster-like animal (mixture of a horse and a calf) was observed outside a séance.
  • Dematerialization of the medium’s arm. The medium’s shoulder and trunk was inspected through touch by several sitters, yet the arm was not detected.
  • Sense of being touched, pulled and punched by invisible hands, also of being kissed.
  • Sounds heard around the medium, laughter, footsteps, buzzing sounds, clatter of hoof beats and the rustling noise of clothes as if someone was moving.
  • Direct writing. Writing appeared on paper without human touch.

Unlike Home's, most of Indridi's sittings were held in darkness. The group tried red light a few times, but dropped it because it caused the phenomena to diminish. However, some violent poltergeist phenomena that occurred during the winter of 1907-8 took place in full light, as did some successful table tipping sessions.

Even Home did not produce some of the effects seen with Indridi, including direct voice – voices, that is, that were clearly independent of his own, coming from different parts of the room. Each had its own characteristics and manner of speech. Some spoke in foreign languages such as Norwegian and French. One frequent communicator, a French-speaking woman, often burst into song. Her identity was eventually revealed as Maria Malibran, a famous mezzo-soprano who sang leading roles in opera houses in Europe and America and died in 1836, and who no one in the circle had apparently heard of before.

More than one voice could be heard singing together, and not just in séances, but spontaneously outside:

Once in the middle of the day, as often occurred, Indridi was at my home. While he was there I played on the harmonium a melody by Chopin. Indridi sat to the left of the harmonium. I expected that Mrs. Malibran knew the melody that I was playing for I heard her humming it around Indridi. Then I saw him falling into trance… I heard many voices, both of men and women singing behind me, but especially to my right with Indridi being on my left. I did not distinguish individual words, but the voices I heard clearly, both higher and lower voices, and they all sang the melody that I was playing. This singing differed from ordinary singing as it sounded more like a sweet echo. It seemed to come from afar, but was at the same time close to me. No single voice was discernible except the voice of Malibran. I always heard her distinctly.
The group seems to be have been conscientious about establishing controls and writing up its results, but probably not to a standard that would carry much weight. What gives the claims about Indridi somewhat more authority is the energetic intervention by Gudmundur Hannesson, a highly regarded scientist who later became professor of medicine at the University of Iceland and founded the Icelandic Scientific Society. Gudmundur was known for integrity and impartiality, and also for a strong disbelief in the claims of mediums. To get to the bottom of the mystery he persuaded the group to let him carry out strictly controlled investigations, constantly increasing and varying them to try to catch Indridi out. His reports describe very detailed examinations of the séance room. Every item was scrutinised. The medium was stripped and his clothes examined. The doors were locked and sealed. He wrote: ‘Nothing seems too trivial to be suspected that it may in some way serve the purpose of the impostors. This is no joke, either. It is a life and death struggle for sound reason and one’s own conviction against the most execrable form of superstition and idiocy. No, certainly nothing must be allowed to escape.’

Gudmundur was especially interested in the movement of objects. He ordered from abroad some phosphorescent tape which glowed well in the dark (nothing like this was to be found in Iceland), and fixed it on some objects to enable him to track their movements in the dark. One was a zither, a rather bulky stringed instrument, which he saw move in an entirely unnatural way: at lightning speed or floating with varying speeds in different directions, in straight lines, curved lines, and sometimes spiral lines.

The investigations were interrupted by the medium’s illness, by which time, however, Gudmundur had seen enough. He was completely stumped.

Often I could see no conceivable possibility that anybody, inside or outside the house, was moving the things… the movements were often of such a nature that doing them fraudulently would have been exceedingly difficult, eg. taking a zither, swinging it in the air at enormous speed and at the same time playing a tune on it. This was, however, frequently done while I was holding the hands of both the medium and the watchman [controller], and there seemed no way for anybody to get inside the net.

What do we make of this? I should say, to begin with, that having once spent quite a long time reading up on physical mediumship – and getting horribly tangled up in the controversies – I no longer pay it much attention. I think the effects are real, having been described by enough credible people in circumstances of sufficient control to the point where they can’t be explained away as clever tricks. I’m also aware that those people who have directly witnessed these phenomena find them so totally convincing as to be baffled that anyone else could ever doubt it. Nevertheless, for those who haven’t, these sorts of psychokinetic claims defy belief, and it seems impossible to report them in a manner that lays scepticism completely to rest. It’s easy to get bogged down in claim and counter-claim. (James Randi’s confrontations with Uri Geller in the 1980s arguably helped kick-start the sceptics movement). So although I wrote about Eusapia Palladino in Randi’s Prize, I don’t think that now I’d waste time trying to convince anyone about her or any other physical medium.

That said, features of Indridi’s mediumship make it rather intriguing. One is the location. A thing about Iceland that’s easy to forget is that it’s very small. In 1905, when Indridi’s séance phenomena started, the entire population would have been not much more than 100,000, equivalent to a small city like Oxford or Cambridge. There was no tradition of spiritualism before Indridi. Neither Indridi nor anyone else would have had access to the kind of conjuring equipment needed to stage what would have been extremely complex tricks.

In addition is the fact that Indridi’s mediumship was so short, just five years. With other physical mediums the power of the effects seemed to fall off with time. You also find – often in the later years of the medium’s career – the involvement of a sceptic, who publishes a report on the basis of a cursory investigation (or pure conjecture) that becomes the received text for critics (Kathleen Goligher, Rudi Schneider and Ted Serios all come to mind). In Indridi’s case, the phenomena started strong and, far from falling off, were at their peak when he became ill and had to stop. And although the reports stirred up a great deal of controversy in Icelandic society – as is usual in such cases – by the time he died, of tuberculosis in 1912, no one with sufficient polemical skill had emerged to kill them off for posterity with some damning counter-evidence.

So we’re left with a virtually uncontaminated case that offers evidence of powerful phenomena, some of it witnessed under rigorously controlled conditions, and for which, as far as I know, there are no meaningful documented claims of fraud, or even plausible conjectures. Since Indridi was never on the radar of the sceptic community, there are no handy quotes that can be used to contaminate the Wikipedia article about him, of the ‘Ruth Brandon has written…’ variety. Of course, because most sittings were held in darkness – which sceptics treat as a kind of all-purpose ‘explanation’ – I don’t think Indridi Indridason’s story represents any kind of threat. But for anyone who’s interested in this kind of thing, it’s fascinating reading.

Erlendur Haraldsson & Loftur R. Gissurarson, Indridi Indridason: The Icelandic Physical Medium (Hove: White Crow Books, 2015)