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Eusapia Palladino online

Today I'm starting to fulfill a long-held ambition.

I've always thought that one reason for the confused and heated conversations we have about the existence or otherwise of psi phenomena is that some of us know the research and others don't. Sceptics can't see why the rest of us take it seriously, because they haven't read the sources that we're familiar with. Regular readers on Paranormalia have constantly complained about this - and with good reason.

This is one of the themes that runs through my book Randi's Prize, which with a bit of luck will be in the shops in September.   The title is slightly misleading, in that the book is not specifically about James Randi, or the Million Dollar Challenge - I'm just using it as a handy symbol of sceptical thinking. What I'm really trying to do is introduce the subject of psi research to people who know nothing about it, and convince them that, at the very least, there's something there that merits their attention. That involves looking closely at the counter-arguments of people like Randi, Hyman, Wiseman and Blackmore, who insist it doesn't.

My own conviction came through reading the primary sources. Years ago I was unemployed for quite a long spell, and spent much of it in the library of the Society for Psychical Research wading through the Journals and Proceedings, starting right back in 1882. Later the SPR commissioned me to write an abstracts catalogue of all 120 volumes, which gave me a very full understanding of just how much documented material there is in support of psi's existence.

I always thought that, at the very least, if the sceptics had read some of this stuff they would find it hard to talk about the subject in the casual way that they do. I don't mean it would change their minds, but it would mean their arguments would have to be more complex and convoluted. Of course that's a powerful motivation for them not to read it, as it makes their job harder.

These aren't the people I'm talking to, however. It's the people who hear them, and tend to take them seriously who I'm interested in reaching. In their different ways, the professional debunkers are very convincing - Randi forceful in his sarcasm (and admired by Dawkins, who has an enormous audience), Wiseman and Hyman persuasively reasonable. After all, disbelief is a natural default position in view of claims which seem incredible, both in absolute terms (dead humans materialising from ectoplasm) and in relative terms (the idea of surviving death in a scientific-secular society that views the brain as the sole origin of experience). 

And it's not enough just to argue. Randi's Prize mainly consists of arguments, but I know from my own experience that conviction comes gradually, from deep immersion in the research, to the point at which disbelief is overwhelmed and some new kind of accommodation has to be made. The research is referred to in the book, but only in a quite topline way, using examples to make points. I did toy with the idea of putting longer extracts in appendices, but this turned out to be impractical - the notes and bibliography already take up almost a quarter of the space.

Thankfully there's an obvious solution, and it's great that I'm writing at a time when the Internet has fully come of age, and is easily accessible to most people. I'm working on a companion site to the book, and my plan is for visitors to be able to download some of the research that has made such an impression on me. While I'm doing that, I thought I'd make some of it available here.

Here's the first: the Feilding Report on Eusapia Palladino, the famous series of eleven sittings carried out by three researchers on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research in Naples in 1908. As far as I know this has never been freely available before, in contrast to out-of-copyright books such as the SPR's Phantasms of the Living, Richet's Thirty Years of Psychical Research and Oliver Lodge's Raymond, which can be downloaded in various places. It's a Word file, and the scanning unfortunately introduced a lot of typos, so I've had to go through it to clean it up. I had to do it quickly - it's 90,000 words, so book-length - andI won't have got them all. But it's 99.95% accurate, which should do for general reading.

I'm tempted to pull some extracts out and discuss them, but there's no substitute just for browsing it.

What I will say is this: the report provides a detailed picture of three men - articulate, alert, highly intelligent and experienced in the dodgy medium business - shut up in a locked hotel room for hours at a time, on eleven different occasions, with a short, stout, middle-aged woman in long skirts, whom they have firmly controlled, and at times even tied up, watching all kinds of weird stuff happening: hands and faces appearing, the sensation of touches and grips on their arms, musical instruments playing themselves, tables and stools levitating, objects gliding around, raps sounding from the furniture. The disbelievers' position, by and large, has always been that this is explicable if we accept that Palladino got a hand or foot free here and there. My view is you have to read the report to see just how untenable this is.

Download Feilding Report (Palladino in Naples)

There's a handy biog of Eusapia Palladino here.

Mysterian thinking

Rees_portrait.small Humans may be incapable of solving the ultimate mysteries of the universe. So says Martin Rees, cosmologist and president of the Royal Society, in an interview with the Sunday Times yesterday - a view that the paper treated as headline news.

Rees thinks problems such as the existence of parallel universes, the cause of the big bang, or the nature of our own consciousness are just too difficult for our puny brains to resolve. He points out that the discoverers of relativity and quantum mechanics were able to use mathematical models developed by mathematicians decades earlier, whereas the maths does not yet exist which could unify the two.

The Times wheeled in BBC science presenter Brian Cox to provide the more 'optimistic' view, that the idea that some things are beyond us to understand is too bleak, and history does show we can eventually overcome the most difficult of problems. And my sense is that a lot of scientists, likewise, despise 'mysterian' thinking. People like Rees, they think, just want there to be something rather mysterious about the universe, something that is beyond us to figure out, that makes it altogether more grand than if we brought it down to our level.

I'm with Rees on this, but not at all for the reasons the despisers give, which I think is just their way of explaining the paradox to themselves. With the Big Bang it's the old question: how does one explain how something comes from nothing. With consciousness, how does one explain how chemical reactions generate a sense of awareness. Specifically, what would the explanations look like? Would they be expressed mathematically, in terms of equations? What would that explain, exactly? 

The boundaries of rational thinking as a means to understand everything seem too obvious to be worth stating.  But it's not at all the done thing to point them out, and I can sort of understand why. After five centuries of breathtaking advances in human thinking, science can't afford to impose limits on itself; if it could see the barriers ahead it would slow down and lose momentum. Better to hurl itself headlong at the problems, and only admit defeat if the mysteries are still unresolved - when? By the middle or end of the century?

Rees's remarks stimulated a couple of other reflections. One is how closely the universe he describes matches the model in spiritualist literature, for instance when he talks about other 3-D universes embedded alongside ours. "In theory," he says," there could be another entire universe less than a millimetre away from us, but we are oblivious to it because that millimetre is measured in a fourth spatial dimension and we are imprisoned in just three."  This echoes the idea, which seems to derive from channelling, that the deceased inhabit exactly the same space as ourselves, a world of their own superimposed on ours.

Then we might remember that, for some, mystical contemplation has been regarded as the true way to complete knowledge. Mind control and spiritual practice - or in the case of people like Meister Eckhart - just being born with a certain kind of consciousness, can bring - so they tell us - insights into the ultimate nature of Being and Reality. An understanding that is intuitively felt is clearly different from one that can be written down on a piece of paper, but I wonder if it would seem, to those who experience it, any less meaningful. My guess is that, on the contrary, it would seem a lot more so.

Science 'solves' mysteries

A couple of scientific studies caught my eye recently. One claims to have found the cause of the near-death experience - all in the mind, and nothing to do with angels and afterlife, apparently - while the other finds a partial confirmation of the claims for acupuncture, and again, this has a purely physical explanation, nothing to do with yin and yang.

Pretty strong stuff, then. I'm always fascinated by newspaper headlines that science has 'solved' this or that paranormal mystery, especially when it's something as complex and extraordinary as the near-death experience. I approach these articles with a feeling of intense anticipation, as if, in the next few seconds, the mystery that has had researchers scratching their heads for decades, will finally all be cleared up, and I'll be left gasping - so that's what all that was about! A sort of Darwin-Wallace moment. I know the claim is going to be exaggerated, if not actual nonsense, but I still feel a bit cheated when that turns out to be the case.

This was research carried out by Lakhmir Chawla, an intensive care doctor at George Washington University medical centre in Washington. Chawla had terminally ill patients rigged up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure brain activity, as a means to regulate their pain killers. He noticed that at the moment of their expiration, their brain showed full conscious activity for a period of between thirty seconds to three minutes. He surmised that this surge of electrical energy, released as the brain runs out of oxygen, could be the cause of near-death experiences:  "As blood flow slows down and oxygen levels fall, the brain cells fire one last electrical impulse," he says. "It starts in one part of the brain and spreads in a cascade and this may give people vivid mental sensations."

It's a fascinating finding, and has interesting implications. For instance, it correlates with the claim of some hospice nurses that dementia patients sometimes show full lucidity at the moment of death. But it doesn't really explain anything. Why those particular sensations?

For me, the inferences that Chawla makes underline the rough-and-ready nature of much scientific thinking about the relationship between mind and brain. Scanning technology has uncovered all kinds of correlations between mental states and brain areas, and this tends to give heart to sceptics and atheists. It proves that psychic and religious experiences are 'all in the mind'. But where else are they going to be? In the leg? The small intestine?

The acupuncture study, by contrast, is potentially quite significant. Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, tested her theory that the painkilling effect of having needles inserted close to the source of pain is caused by the stimulation of adenosine, a natural pain killer which works like a local anaesthetic and is released whenever a small injury occurs (like a needle being inserted).

Nedergaard used mice with a sore paw, comparing the effect on normal ones with those who lacked the gene to produce adenosine. The normal ones showed significantly lower pain after the treatment.  The mice had no expectations, so the result can't be dismissed as a placebo effect, the currently fashionable explanation. 

Simple and elegant, so why did no one think of it before? It's interesting that Nedergaard's colleagues bitched about her investigating acupuncture.  I'd have thought that they would have welcomed a purely physical explanation - or was that not what they were expecting from a scientific experiment?