Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer's book Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind was published last year, and recently came out in paperback (she herself died of a long-standing intestinal disease shortly after completing it). I'd heard a lot about the incident she describes, in which a psychic helped her recover a lost object. Mayer's natural scepticism was confounded, and she embarked on a journey to try to understand what was going on. Sceptics grappling with psi often makes for interesting reading, and although not quite what I expected I was not disappointed.
As psychic stories go, hers is in the five-star class. Someone had nicked a harp belonging to her eleven year old daughter. Having failed to get it back by conventional means, a friend suggested she try a psychic. What had she got to lose?
Mayer called up a dowser named Harold, who said: 'Hang on, I'll check to see if it's still in your neighbourhood.' Then: 'yup, it's still there, send me a street plan'. Two days later Harold came up with an exact address. Mayer couldn't simply knock on the door, so instead she posted flyers outside offering a reward. A man then rang to say he'd seen a poster outside his house about a harp, and the description matched one his neighbour had recently shown him - soon it was back in her daughter's room.
I'd imagine it's the sort of thing which, if it happens to you, you couldn't very well shrug off. It's not somebody else's lie or fantasy - it happened to you. A mere coincidence? Not really.
Before I bought the book I had somehow got the impression that Mayer was a militant sceptic who had difficulty accepting the event (rather as if it had happened to Susan Blackmore, say.) The story of that epic existential struggle I think has yet to be written, and I look forward to it - this is something else, although at least as valuable. Mayer was stunned - 'this changes everything' - yet at the same time she seems to have been quite fertile ground for a shift of worldview. It makes sense: as a widely respected psychoanalyst she combined scientific training - and the orthodox views that go with it - with empathy, flexibility and a willingness to listen. These are qualities one does not associate with militant sceptics, but which are ideal for understanding the source of the disquiet that she undoubtedly felt.
This psychological resistance to psi is surely one of the most important issues that parapsychology faces, yet there has been surprisingly little written about it. I seem to have read loads of boring journal papers over the years that explore the typical psychological profile of the 'fantasy-prone believer', implying that they are a race apart. But there has been almost nothing about what drives scepticism, which in many ways is far more striking and anomalous - the inability to see any evidence of psychism, the tendency to disregard logical challenges as if they didn't exist, the intense agitation expressed in the aggressive language, and so on. The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance is well-known, but there's little public awareness of how it may affect anyone's responses to paranormal claims and experiences.
This is the strong theme running through Mayer's book. She was shocked to discover a whole world of experience and research that corroborated the harp incident - the kind of surprise that I think awaits a great many people. She discovers the parapsychological journals, and reads about the Maimonides dream research, the ganzfeld controversy, talks to Hal Puthoff about remote viewing and Star Gate, and Robert Jahn about the PEAR research, and so on. She also has an interesting section on prayer experiments. But what especially fascinates her are the disturbed reactions that psi generates, from the notorious muzzling of psi proponents in the NRC report, to the peer reviewer who told a journal editor he could find nothing wrong with an article on telepathy, but still rejected it saying he wouldn't believe it even it were true.
It's not just militants who feel this way. She herself was unsettled by an incident in which, when hunting for a lost watch, she suddenly went onto automatic pilot, as it were, and found herself going directly to the back of a drawer where it had been hidden. She also has an interesting example from her clinical practice of a woman who, as a child, learned to intuit when her father was driving home drunk, giving her just enough time to hide herself and her younger sister in a closet so that they wouldn't get beaten.
During the late afternoons, I'd start listening for him. It was a funny kind of listening. It was like listening with my whole body, not my ears. I don't know how to describe it except to say I was tuned in, vigilant with every part of me. Suddenly I'd know - know he was fifteen minutes away and driving home drunk... My dad didn't drink all the time. So there was no predicting. I had to stay tuned in every day, be ready, and never trust any pattern.
But in later life this 'spooky knowing', as she called it, set off panic whenever it occurred. Here Mayer refers to Freud, who argued that the human psyche is organized to escape the experience of fear. We use an array of defences to suppress and regulate it - usually unconsciously. We don't even know that we're defending, must less what we're defending against.
It's perhaps to be expected that Freud should feature often in a book by a psychoanalyst, but in this context also slightly surprising. If I hadn't read anything else about it I would be left with the impression that Freud had a real interest in telepathy, whereas I guess few people would consider his views little more than a footnote. Conversely she makes no mention at all of Frederic Myers, who really did have something original to say about it. I speculated this might be because she wanted to stick to contemporary work, or because Myers was motivated by an interest in survival of death, which she says somewhere she wanted no part of.
But in a way, her preference for Freud over Myers is emblematic of a view that regards as psi as a threat and a danger, rather than as an integral feature of consciousness and a window to a wider world. In that sense it describes, not psychical literature itself, or the views of people who immerse themselves in it and understand its implications, but the outside world that regards it with suspicion and hostility. Where Myers saw psi as an element of the whole and healthful mind functioning at various levels, Freud seems to have associated it with that dark world of dreams, a way of gaining access to an unconscious brimming with suppressed anxiety. As Mayer points out, Freud also abhorred the idea of 'oceanic' experiences, which he regarded as an infantile regression - he fled from music apparently fearful of the emotions it would evoke, and which he needed to control. But of course, it was Freud who went on to dominate the world, while Myers remains virtually unknown.
What's interesting about this book is that it exhibits a highly-educated and scientifically literate professional taking psi research seriously. There isn't much of that about, but I sense we could start to see more of it - I found myself often comparing it in that respect to Damien Broderick's Outside the Gates of Science. These are writers who are not involved in parapsychology, and who are coming to it more or less cold. They can adopt an objective stance, but are nevertheless unafraid to go fully on record as being persuaded both by the experiences and the experiments. More than psychics or parapsychologists - who are seen perhaps as already embedded in that other world - readers will see them as guides, providing the reassurance that one can take this stuff seriously without going mad or turning into a figure of fun.
For others it will not be enough to see someone else making the journey - they will have to make it themselves. I don't just mean those shocking personal events which most of us may in any case never experience, so much as the experience of interacting with the research, of identifying all the potential 'normal' explanations, and deciding on their plausibility. That's rather missing here. Mayer's presentation of the ganzfeld and remote viewing, while generally fair, rather under-states the critical objections. It's right to point out that Ray Hyman couldn't find anything obviously wrong with the remote viewing and autoganzfeld protocols, but Mayer almost co-opts him as an advocate, or at least implies that he has thrown in the towel, both far from the truth. About the PEAR work, she mentions that she scrutinised all the sceptical objections and was not persuaded by them, but does not give the reader any opportunity to make an independent decision.
Still, one can always do that oneself, and perhaps the virtue of a book like this is that it will spark interest. As I say, it does also make a hugely valuable contribution in underscoring just what it is about this subject that makes it so different, in the way that it messes with people's heads. This is surely what parapsychology has to work on, for its only when the causes of resistance to it start to be understood that its claims can really get a wide and serious hearing.