Previous month:
November 2012
Next month:
February 2013

Sources of Evidence?

A reader has got in touch to ask me the following question:

Does there exist somewhere on the net a comprehensive list (from a reputable source) outlining all the published papers (peer reviewed and such) that provide evidence (greater than chance results, etc.) of what we've taken to call the paranormal ?

Well, I've seen lists of 'good evidence' but I don't know how comprehensive they are. So I thought I'd throw this one out to you good folks out there. If anyone knows of any useful links that might fit this description I'd be glad to hear about them, either in the comments or by email.

My view is that making the existing psi-research better known is at least as important now as carrying out new work. It's frustrating how easy it is for hostile sceptics to insist that there's no evidence. It's there, it just isn't as accessible as it might be.

As it happens, there are moves afoot at the Society of Psychical Research in London to create a database with the best cases of every kind of anomaly, as an aid to researchers. It's been planned for a long time, but the funding has now materialised. There could be more than 3000 cases, not just relating to psi but 'boundary science' generally.

This is a serious, heavyweight project and could take years to complete. However it's just what's needed to raise the profile of psychic research and in time it could have a real impact.

The Windbridge Research on Mediums

Still on the subject of mediums, I heard recently from Dr. Julie Beischel at the Windbridge Institute. She has a new e-book out describing her ten years of research: Among Mediums: A Scientist's Quest for Answers. She has published journal articles (eg here), but this is more for a lay audience,

people who are interested in what science has to say about modern mediums ... who have seen what television producers imagine appeals to the public and who now want the real story.

It's a little gem - short and succinct, highly readable, and packed with interesting insights. It's also very accessible - £3 for Kindle owners ($4.99 in the US).

Beischel studied at the University of Arizona where she gained a PhD in pharmacology and toxology. There she joined the VERITAS program of mediumistic research. When the funding for her position dried up she started her own venture, the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential. She says she has only ever sought one reading with a medium for herself, which she describes in some detail. Her mother had killed herself during this period, and she rated the statements relating to her as 93% successful.

As a result of her research Beischel 'definitively' concluded that certain mediums are able to report 'accurate and specific information about discarnates without using any normal means to acquire that information'. She doesn't give much detail about this, but is good on the issues involved: that is, the need for fully blinded conditions, optimal environments and maximum controls. She also stresses the need for skilled participants. Windbridge has around twenty mediums who have all been put through an extensive screening, training and certification procedure. They are part of the research team, and donate four hours per month or more.

They assist in protocol development, participate in research readings, and perform demonstrations during public events. They are willing - for the good of science - to attempt experimental protocols that go well beyond their comfort zones and, in an upcoming hematological and psychophysiological study, some of them are even willing to let me poke them with needles to draw their blood. Therefore, we want them to be kind, honest, trustworthy, compassionate, humble, and respectful: the kind of people we want to be around (a characteristic that many mediums I have met do not share). Mediums who do not follow the ethics guidelines are (and have been) removed from the program.

No money changes hands at any point. Ninety percent of the team are women, which Beischel thinks accurately reflects the general mediumistic population, at least in the US (interesting, as I've always believed it was more around the two thirds mark). It's quite costly to test mediums, apparently: up to $10,000 each. But the sample is big enough, she says, to be confident that it represents American secular mediums as a whole.

Windbridge focuses on three areas: the content and accuracy of the information; the process; and the practical social applications. Psychic research has been big on the first of these, but less on the second, so it was good to see that covered. (I have wondered about what mediums actually experience, how the perceptions seem to them, as mental experiences, but for some reason psychic researchers seldom ask, and mediums themselves rarely bother to describe it.)

It's interesting that there are important differences between what mediums and psychics experience. Beischel reasonably argues that this helps to throw light on the difficult question of where the information is coming from - discarnates, the sitters' minds, or some psychic reservoir of information - which is hard to determine conclusively from the statements themselves (she herself 'leans towards' survival).

In just the mediumship readings, the [mediums] reported the presence of signs that contact had been made. These signs included sounds like rings or whines, light flashes, or feelings of vibrations or heat. They also reported the mediumship experience as involving independent autonomous communicators who could surprise and even frighten the medium with their presence and who had opinions with which the mediums didn't always agree. Another difference between the mediumship and psychic reading descriptions was that while the mediums actually experienced the emotions of the discarnates during mediumship readings, they were merely aware of the emotions of the living clients during psychic readings.

The emphasis on physiological changes is important; Beischel notes, as it 'may help show that mediumistic communication is a normal human process...' Such data has been gathered, and there are plans to include fMRI scanning data, if funding permits - details to be published later. As regards psychological profile, 83% of the mediums were categorized by Myers-Briggs indicators as being strong on intuition and feeling, a potentially significant finding as this is true of only 16% of the US population. The category with the lowest representation of these qualities are police and detectives, who score only 4% on these two personality features - perhaps one reason why the relationship between the two groups can be tense, Beischel suggests.

As regards applications of the research, Windbridge doesn't have the resources to investigate the value of 'forensic' mediumship - the help mediums can give in police investigations of murder, missing persons and suchlike - although the book includes some links. But Beischel has quite a lot to say about its potential therapeutic value in treating grief caused by bereavement. She points to a meta-analysis of studies of conventional grief counselling, which concludes that it provides little benefit. This contrasts with studies that show that after-death experiences, whether spontaneous or induced can dramatically reduce grief. Examples are Allan L Botkin's work with traumatised war veterans; also Raymond Moody's mirror gazing procedure.

Beischel would like to see credentialed mediums working together with licensed mental health professionals to help the bereaved cope with grief. She has designed a clinical trial to analyse the effects and see whether reading accuracy correlates at all with changes in levels of grief. (She is having trouble funding it, however, so if anyone is interested in getting involved in a planned crowd-funding initiative, join the email list at

Beischel also thinks that there's a role for mediums in the context of hospices and palliative care, helping to make the prospect of transition easier to deal with.

I am regularly saddened by the fact that we in Western cultures spend so much time, energy, and resources to train pregnant women on what to expect and how to best deliver yet we don't give the dying even a hint of what to expect or how to prepare. Perhaps mediumship readings may be part of a new training system for the dying.

There are many questions still to research, such as whether mediumship is something that can be taught, and if so, who are the best candidates and what is the best method. Is there a genetic component? Who can mediums communicate with? Can they provide medical information? How does mediumship differ across cultures? What are the social implications of belief in an afterlife?

It's encouraging that this research is going on, and did not simply disappear with the closure of the VERITAS programme in 2008. Considering how much attention it got, I'm curious that Beischel skates rather quickly over her involvement with it, and avoids even mentioning Gary Schwartz by name. Perhaps she didn't want to get sidetracked into discussing what became a rather controversial episode. Still, I'd be interested to hear her views about that work.

I'm glad, too, to see that someone is starting to think beyond the business of proving mediumship to be genuine, towards what this new knowledge might mean for society in the long term. My view is that the difficulties here are underestimated. It's easy to see how mediums might help in the way Beischel describes, but not hard either to imagine the controversies that this sort of activity might create in the medical and healthcare community - of the kind that has long existed in the realm of police investigation.

If two-way communication ever becomes scientifically validated, then mediums will come to hold some kind of authority that they do not now possess. In that case, potentially the recently-deceased become active agents in human affairs, and not necessarily always in a good way. Just to take one example, Beischel throws out the possibility of discarnates one day being able to finger crime suspects - but do we imagine they will always tell the truth? The miasma of suspicion such a thing could create hardly bears thinking about.

But perhaps this is unduly pessimistic. There's certainly little prospect of it happening in the near future. In the meantime, there's no reason why we should not start seeing local initiatives in which mediums co-operate with healthcare professionals who are convinced by what they do in order to help alleviate human suffering. If that happens, it will be largely thanks to pioneering scientific investigations like Windbridge, and the example it gives for other researchers to follow.

Michael Tymn on Leonora Piper

I've been working on an e-book transcript of Leonora Piper sittings, with a view to making this material more accessible (although it's probably still a few months away). It's been on my mind, as a large body of credible research that tends to make sceptic views of mediumship untenable.

So I was delighted to see Michael Tymn's new book Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife. In principle I'd recommend to open-minded people - those who really do want answers - that they check out the Piper material, but if I haven't often done so, that's because there's no obvious source for them to go to. Thanks to Tymn that's no longer the case.

I'm also gratified by what a good job he's done. In other hands the story might well have been told as a conventional biography, covering the whole of psychic research in the context of the thought of the day. In other words, it would have been diluted and hedged about with the sorts of qualifications that tend to make this sort of thing invisible. Tymn's achievement has been to hammer home a shocking and still largely unknown fact: a human being has lived who was repeatedly observed by scientific investigators to possess supernormal knowledge - and far beyond the ability of pseudo-explanations such as cold reading to account for.

To do this, Tymn has compressed a 25-year programme into 200 pages, focusing closely on the research and its implications. He tells the story chronologically, from Piper's 'discovery' (it seems a maid employed by her husband's family mentioned her doings to a maid employed by William James's in-laws); the three main 'control' phases: Phinuit, George Pelham and Imperator/Rector; the conversion of SPR investigator Richard Hodgson (who had begun with the expectation of exposing her tricks); the trip to England to hold sittings with Frederic Myers and Oliver Lodge; the later involvement of James Hyslop; and so on.

Some of the most interesting chapters are around particular episodes, for instance a series of conversations between a 17-year old boy who died in a boating accident in 1898 and his parents; a Boston public figure describing his new environment; Hodgson himself, following his death at age 50, communicating with James and Hyslop; and finally the deceased James himself communicating. The book deftly works in summaries of key passages with enough verbatim speech to give a good sense of the interactions. Wherever possible it highlights evidential exchanges, for instance those that show knowledge of little things known only to the communicator and the sitter, and again which could not remotely be explained in terms of fraud.

The impression left on my mind - as someone who knows a bit about mediumship, and Piper in particular - is amazement at just how easy, fluent and detailed this two-way communication can be, and also how much highly veridical material the investigations produced. There's a powerful sense that people who once lived are excited to find they can, after all, communicate with loved ones left behind, and reassure them of their continued existence, which they do with varying levels of skill - just as we would expect.

Sceptics will dismiss the book as a partisan account by a writer who accepts the reality of spirit survival. Some might argue that the material has been cleaned up, removing the errors and distortions that give a quite different impression, for instance showing the medium groping for information. It's impossible of course to counter these objections completely, although it might help if some sitting transcripts were given as appendices, so that readers can make an independent judgement. The economics clearly don't permit this in a printed book, but it might be possible in a future Kindle edition? Failing this, the transcripts can be made freely available on Kindle and elsewhere- as I am hoping to arrange.

Since I largely share Tymn's conviction about the reality of spirit communication, his presentation seems to me to be true to the material, and his conclusion entirely reasonable. There's no intelligent way that the supernormality of the Piper material can be denied (there are of course many unintelligent ones - like Martin Gardner's transparently false claim that the investigators were ignorant of fakers' methods - but Tymn rightly wastes no time on them). However it is also true that some investigators preferred to view the communicators - particularly the 'controls' like Phinuit and George Pellew who acted as go-betweens - as secondary personalities, or what they called 'dream creations' of the medium's unconscious mind.

A prime mover in this was William James himself, as Tymn records - in a recent post he laments James's fence-sitting as showing mere lack of courage. But James was not alone: the SPR's Eleanor Sidgwick also argued at length that the whole thing was largely a phantasmagoria in Piper's brain - a view that coloured much SPR thinking in the twentieth century and has informed subsequent debate. In Mediumship and Survival, Alan Gauld states that he does not see 'how it is possible to dissent from Mrs Sidgwick's conclusion that the Piper controls were one and all aspects of Mrs Piper's own personality'. Phinuit, he states firmly, was 'quite certainly fictitious'.

The 'Imperator' band of controls were never able to establish their identity, but hazarded all kinds of incorrect and contradictory guesses as their own 'real' names. Even the most life-like and realistic controls, such as GP, show signs of being impersonations . . . they break down at just the point where Mrs Piper's own stock of knowledge runs out. Viz. when they are required to talk coherently of science, philosophy and literature (which the living GP could readily have done).

In view of the quantity and quality of veridical statements Sidgwick couldn't reject the idea of spirit communication completely. So she talked instead of a sort of spurious drama being enacted by secondary personalities, that in some sense might sometimes be directed or 'overshadowed' by genuine spirits at a distance. Gauld's subsequent elaboration of this idea influenced my own thinking for a long time, even while I struggled to make sense of it.

I wonder now whether the idea of 'overshadowing' was ever coherent. It certainly never caught on. My impression now - from having recently read transcripts of hundreds of sittings, and reinforced by Tymn's book - is very much to the contrary. The sense is overwhelmingly of a channel of communication having opened up, and being taken full advantage of by real people, despite its imperfections. Yes there is some dud stuff - names given that were wrong; facts alluded to that didn't check out; and so on. Some sittings were a complete write-off. But much of this, as Tymn stresses, is accounted for by the very real difficulties involved, and which some of the communicators - particularly the deceased Hodgson and James - talk about at length.

I've come to I believe that fence-sitting by commentators like Sidgwick, James and Gauld should be seen less as an effect of ambiguities in the material than of the huge difficulty experienced by the twentieth century intellectual of stepping outside the secular-scientific consensus that there is no such thing as spirit survival. It's an inner struggle of which they may only be partly conscious. Their solution? Let it all be a subconscious dramatic production - something the secular mind can relate to - while the real dead, if they exist, remain remote and unknowable, pulling the strings from some way off.

This seems an odd phenomenon, to those of us who don't experience it. But it's surely something we should expect. We see it dramatically in the behaviour of militant sceptics - emotional, angry, desperately uninformed - but also in psychic researchers themselves. These rationalising manoeuvres represent themselves as objective analysis, and influence generations. The conclusion is that science will never get a grip on this slippery subject until it understands how it can affect the very minds that contemplate it.

Spiritual Not Religious

Here's an alarming finding: people who are 'spiritual but not religious' are more likely to suffer poor mental health than either atheists or religious folk (both these are equally less vulnerable). So says a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, based on more than seven thousand interviews. It concludes: "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]."

Does this make sense? It seems counterintuitive, considering how much spirituality supposedly has to do with healing, harmony, finding inner peace and so on. Does it mean all this practice - the meditation, affirmations, etc - doesn't really work?

I learned about this from an article by the Guardian's Mark Vernon, who offers some speculations.

The spiritual itch is a deep one in the human psyche, for those who feel it. To scratch without the support of others might lead to an inner obsession that spirals out of control. It is possible, too, that personal crises drive people to seek spiritual solace that of itself does not address the underlying psychological distress. Then again, the resources of a healthy spiritual tradition, not pursued in isolation, should provide or point to the means of addressing psychological problems. The ground is then gradually cleared for genuine spiritual growth.

Bishops and theologians complain that spirituality without religion is lazy, and insist that to be meaningful it must be pursued in a community, not privately. I've always thought that at least some of that was sour grapes. Clearly one can pursue spiritual goals privately and in one's relationships. Are not prayer and meditation intensely private? As an occasional church-goer myself, I can easily see how a religious framework might help, through the ritual and sense of belonging to a spiritual community, for instance. It's not so obvious that accepting Christian dogmas will do the trick. Still, this study clearly gives their argument some heft.

But it still seems odd, so could there be other explanations. Perhaps it has something to do with the way people identify themselves to pollsters. SBNR, as sociologists call it, is apparently skewed to young people - as many as 72% in a 2010 American poll - and if that's true in the UK too, then this study might actually have as much to do with demographic factors as with religious and spiritual beliefs. One could argue that the young as a group are more vulnerable to drug dependence and anxiety, etc, while the fact that they self-identify as 'spiritual not religious' is merely because they exclude themselves from the other two groups, believing in 'something more' while never having had any contact with religion.

The point is, for such people, spirituality could well be just a category, an idea, not a journey that they commit to. One might even argue that they more deserve to be called 'non-believers' than do atheists, many of whom are deeply committed to their belief and find comfort in the certainty it gives them.

So the study could simply be an aberration. Interestingly, this article in The Psychiatrist says that although some studies confirm the connections between religious involvement, neurosis and mental illness, the vast majority do not.

In fact, of the 724 quantitative studies published before 2000, 476 reported statistically significant positive associations between religious involvement and a wide range of mental health indicators. Studies published since 2000 have largely confirmed these findings, extending them to negative and positive emotional states, across geographical location, and demographic and clinical characteristics

Another rather different thought: genuine spirituality seeking involves opening oneself up to new ideas, a step into the unknown. It can mean identifying and facing up to inner conflicts that were previously unacknowledged - getting stuff out into the open, in other words, just as happens when a person goes into therapy, as Vernon points out. To make any progress at all a spirituality seeker might at some point experience - and probably should experience - a dark night of the soul. But I'm not sure that's what the study means by anxiety and neuroses.

As it happens I'm not doctrinaire about the alleged superiority of spirituality over traditional religion, or vice versa. Horses for courses. I can see that spirituality-seeking for some people may in fact be a sort of precursor to full-blown religious commitment, as part of some established communal worship. That's not to deny that a lot of the traffic is in the opposite direction, as people flee the dogmas that have been imposed on them by parents and teachers. But non-theist spirituality-seeking can also lead to traditional theism.

The case of a friend from my student days, dead for some years now, is much on my mind. I can't recall she had any religious interests when I knew her. However when I briefly caught up with her twenty years later I found her immersed in all kinds of New Age books. She then became a devotee of Meher Baba, and I thought she'd found her spot. But by the time she died - as I learned some time later - she had become a convinced Christian, to the extent that she'd even converted members of her own family.

Since at one time we seemed to be travelling on the same spiritual path I found her sudden conversion quite shocking. It had taken her somewhere I could not imagine following: would I one day be confronted with a similar choice? How would I respond? As I say, I can't reconcile myself to it. But perhaps that's where at least some people in the SBNR camp are headed - a final surrender in the context of the traditional theism they think they've outgrown.

Hello Again

There's been a bit of a hiatus at Paranormalia while I attended to some professional and family issues, but hopefully these are sorted now, and with a bit of luck I should be back to posting regularly. Thanks to those who got in touch in the meantime - all correspondence welcome!

I've been stirred into action by Sam Harris's controversial views on gun ownership (below). I also look forward to reviewing Michael Tymn's excellent book on Leonora Piper, a striking new view of psi by psychologist James Carpenter, and other books that authors and publishers have kindly sent me. A happy new year to all my readers, and all the best for 2013!

Atheists and Guns

I'm intrigued to learn that Sam Harris is a gun nut. Not just me, there's been a lot of comment about it (see this excellent piece by the Guardian's Andrew Brown). His passionate defence of gun ownership reads like a PR piece for the National Rifle Association, and his solution to schools killings is the same as theirs - to post armed guards in schools. He demands that people show 'greater responsibility' in dealing with public violence, which for him means encouraging gun ownership.

Harris's high-profile opposition to Islam potentially makes him a target, so he has an excuse for taking drastic precautions. But he candidly admits that he's always loved guns, and can't understand why other people don't see the need for them. He owns guns and trains with them regularly, with the ever-present worry that his home may be invaded by gunmen who he needs to be ready to deal with.

Most of my friends do not own guns and never will. When asked to consider the possibility of keeping firearms for protection, they worry that the mere presence of them in their homes would put themselves and their families in danger. Can't a gun go off by accident? Wouldn't it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.

Like most gun owners, he adds, he understands the 'ethical importance' of guns and cannot honestly wish for a world without them.

Ethical importance? This is baffling to Europeans, as it must be for many Americans as well. We take the need for strict gun control absolutely for granted - it just isn't an issue. The dangers arising from such lethal weapons being kept in homes are surely too obvious to need stating. As for their uses in fending off an attack, we aren't so naïve as to assume that coppers will magically show up in seconds, wrestle the weapon from the mugger's hands and march him off to jail. But we do think that strong gun laws minimise the likelihood of our ever being in that situation in the first place.

The arguments on both sides have been fully aired since the recent Sandy Hook school shooting, so I won't add to them (except to mention that I don't in the least accept the equivalence Harris proposes between deaths caused by guns and the far greater number caused by the infections that allegedly result from doctors and nurses not washing their hands). What interests me here is the idea of such notions being supported by a leading atheist and an admired rationalist thinker.

The religions which Harris so heartily despises - in their teachings if not in their practice - hold in common an aversion to aggression and violence. In Christianity it's about turning the other cheek, not even trying to resist attack. In Asian philosophies to inflict physical harm upon someone else is to incur karmic debts. In real life this is quite impractical, however, and like most people I guess I'm somewhere in the middle: if attacked, I'm sure I'd defend myself, and might even degenerate into a homicidal frenzy if I saw family members being harmed. But I dread to think what would the consequence would be in such cases if I happened to carry a gun, or could easily grab it from a drawer. It would make it so much worse of a disaster. And I don't think one has to be religious to be concerned about having the death or maiming of a fellow-human on one's conscience.

If morality in a spiritual perspective is about not playing the violence game, it should perhaps not be a surprise that a convinced atheist allows himself to flirt with it, in the name of some supposedly more obvious ethic. (This, as I understand it, is that gun ownership makes it possible for upstanding citizens to respond to aggression on their helpless neighbours, whereas the lack of them makes them passive wimps.) All the more so if - as is so strongly the case with Harris - his idea of religion is coloured by its historical tendency to violence, to the extent that its underlying moral message is rather overshadowed. If he considers that morality is a utilitarian, human invention - and that there is no future state, and no karmic debt - then he is free to make his own decisions about how he makes himself secure.

But this is a highly individualistic position, and not one that is generally shared by other atheists (see this sensible piece defending gun control by a colleague of Richard Dawkins.) It's hard to escape the sense that Harris's moralising is at least partly driven by a deep fascination with the object of the gun itself and the unnatural power that its ownership confers - at least that's how American gun worship looks to Europeans. It utterly fails to acknowledge the deeply destablising effect of gun ownership on human society, one that far outweighs the threat from knives and other potential weapons.

It also attests to a deep personal paranoia. As I say, Harris would have special reasons for being afraid, but this seems to be a general undercurrent in American, typically rightwing thinking, one that is purely emotive. Somehow that's all of a piece with his angry tirades against Islam. Harris is famous as a rationalist, and I've always admired his clarity, passion and candour. But his insistence that a society becomes more ethical and secure by making guns more accessible is not obviously the thinking of a rational person.