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Psychic Prophecies

'Tis the season for natural disasters. Once-in-a century stuff. Much of Southern England is under water; hurricane-force winds have battered the coast. London has been spared so far. Even so, I may ask Santa to bring me some waders on his next visit - or perhaps a small inflatable boat.

Recently I got a phone call from Eric, a retired mining engineer in Yorkshire who also happens to be psychic. He’s been getting apocalyptic visions of disasters that humans are storing up for themselves by their irresponsible behaviour. A chatty fellow. He said he was 75 years of age and wanted to tell me a story - an hour later he was still going strong.

His spirit visitors are worried about plans to frack in the north of England. They showed Eric a vision of an abyss opening up under Manchester and half the city falling in. Eric thinks it’s up to him to warn the appropriate authorities. But will they listen? He described some of the conversations he’d been having.

Eric: City council? Eric here. Put me through to chief engineer.

Receptionist: What’s it about?

Eric: It’s about fracking. It’s a bloody disaster.

Receptionist: Well he’s very busy.

Eric: Never mind about that. Put me through.

Chief engineer: Hello, what’s this about?

Eric. It’s about fracking.

Chief Engineer: Well I’m very busy.

Eric: Is it true city council’s given permission to oil company to frack under Manchester?

Chief Engineer: Aye, what about it?

Eric: What about it? It’s a bloody disaster. Don’t ask me how I know, but if this goes ahead, a great big hole will open up under city, and thousands of lives will be lost.

Chief Engineer: How do you know?

Eric: Never mind that. Question is, what are you going to do about it?

Engineer: I don’t know. (Hangs up).

Eric then decides to approach the Anglican Church and goes to the local church offices.

Eric: I want to speak to head man.

Receptionist: What about?

Eric: Fracking.

Receptionist: Well he’s very busy.

Eric: Never mind about that. (Church official passes by). Here, are you head man? I want a word with you.

Official: How can I help?

Eric: It’s about fracking.

Official: Well I’m very–

Eric: City council’s gone and given permission to an oil company to drill under Manchester. Don’t ask me how I know, but if it goes ahead, a great big hole will open up under city, and thousands of lives will be lost. (Elaborates)

Official: Good heavens! That’s a scandal.

Eric: Yer what? A scandal? Look, if a man sleeps with a woman who in’t his wife, and it gets onto front page of newspaper, that’s a scandal. This is a bloody disaster!

I think even Eric realises he’s wasting his time. He drives his wife mad with his visions, he says, and none of his seven children will listen. (‘Oh Grandad, not this again!’). But it’s a real worry to him because what he sees is so realistic. For him, this future is going to happen unless action is taken to stop it.

Ominously, he added that ‘if you folks down there in London think you’re all right you’ve got another think coming’. The spirits think that ‘London is dying’, apparently, and Eric had quite a lot to say about the inadequacy of the flood defences. In fact expert opinion holds that, here at least, they’re quite robust, but I sensed there was no point arguing; he just wanted to talk to someone who would take him seriously. Which I do – up to a point. If one accepts the idea of individual consciousness surviving death, and being able to communicate with the living, then one is bound to have some interest in what it has to say.

But it’s surely wrong to take this sort of thing at face value. It doesn’t need supernatural intervention to suspect that using toxic chemicals to fracture the rock underneath a large population centre might not be a great idea. We can figure it out ourselves – as many people have. Despite the prosperity it can bring fracking is controversial almost everywhere.

Spirit ‘prophecy’ is one of the most dismal aspects of psychic activity. Take Edgar Cayce, whose readings were widely admired for their diagnostic accuracy but not so much for their apocalyptic warnings. They predicted, among other things, that parts of California would slide into the sea, and that earthquakes would flatten Manhattan and cause the Great Lakes to empty into the Mississippi, as well as wiping out Japan. One could argue these things could still happen - and on a geological time scale probably will - but that hardly counts as prophecy.

Psychics and astrologers make confident predictions about these things, but is there a single one with a successful track record? Not like Nostradamus, with gibberish that can be made to mean anything, but clear and intelligible statements about major events in the near future. Sure, for every natural disaster there’s someone in the world who can claim to have predicted it, but only in the sense that at least one out of ten tipsters will successfully identify the winner of the 2.30 at Newbury. As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Still, I believe Eric about his prophetic visions, and calling him a nutter doesn’t get to the bottom of the mystery. So what goes on?

One might say there’s nothing psychic going on at all. It’s simply one means – admittedly an exotic one – by which the mind brings buried anxieties to the surface, serving the same function as a dream or nightmare. There’s certainly something to be anxious about here, particularly for someone who has spent much of his professional life underground. The long term consequences of fracking are still unclear, and a lot could go wrong.

If the dead really do survive physical death, with all their memories, they might indeed be playing a part here, just not in the way that they think. Perhaps they’re sensitive to collective human insecurity on matters such as genetically modified crops, floods, earthquakes, fracking, etc. If what mediumistic communicators say is true, that their reality is so much more subjective than ours, then perhaps they amplify these fears and project visible actualisations of them, without realising what they are doing. In turn they scare the bejeezus out of people like Eric who are psychically in tune with them, and who they use to try to sound the alarm.

Swedenborg might be relevant here. He was very insistent that one shouldn’t pay any attention to what ‘spirits’ believe, because they’re so wrapped up in illusion they really haven’t a clue. One certainly senses that with Cayce, whose later readings validated all sorts of obviously terrestrial myths and imaginings – Atlantis, mermaids, unicorns and so on.

My point is, there’s a serious problem here for those of us who would like to see a more mature consideration of psi. We can’t detach the idea of it being genuine in a scientific sense from the social implications that follow from that. Secularism has created a very necessary protective boundary against superstition. We tinker with it at our peril.

So do we really want ‘spirits’ interfering in our world? It’s hard to imagine a functional human society in the machine age allowing itself to be directed from the outside in anything but a purely abstract, moral sense. The living can accept, and perhaps even appreciate, advice to cooperate, and be wise and moderate in all their dealings – it’s what they would tell themselves. But when it comes to the details they absolutely have to rely on their own judgement.

Children Who Remember on TV

I’ve been contacted by a US television company making films about children who remember a past life. The series is called The Ghost Inside My Child. Three episodes aired on the Bio Channel last autumn, and now they’re looking for more families to interview. If anyone out there has a story to tell, and would like to take part, the address to contact is 

American readers may be familiar with this series. I didn’t know about it, and I don’t think it has aired in the UK. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen anything of the kind on television, although I rarely watch paranormal shows anyway. But it seems absolutely the kind of thing that could become more common.

I watched one of the episodes which follows the stories of two families. A young boy from a white family remembered being ‘Pam’, who fell to her death in a Chicago hotel fire. An eighteen year old girl had traumatic memories of an ‘orphan train’. The other episodes, which I don’t think are available online, include children killed in 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing.

The film was slick, and squeezed a lot of drama out of few details. There was little in the way of actual investigation. The 18-year-old girl was delighted to learn one day in school that there really were such things as ‘orphan trains’ – in which orphans from the East Coast were shipped off to live with families in other parts of the country. It reassured her that her weird obsession had some basis in fact. When the film-makers caught up with her she was embarking on research of her own.

The mother of the small boy did an Internet search and found a record of a major hotel fire in Chicago in which a black woman named Pamela jumped to her death. She then casually asked him what colour his skin had been when he was ‘Pam’ . He answered ‘black’. On camera he correctly identified a picture of the woman.

Coincidentally I’ve been re-reading Stevenson’s books: first Twenty Cases and now Twelve Cases in Thailand and Burma (the last of a 4-volume series). They offer an incredible amount of detail, which was sometimes hard to follow for me, given the large extended families with unfamiliar names (eg. Samnuan Wongsombat, Mae Chee Chan Suthipat, Daw Aye Tin, etc). But one gets a real sense of depth, with a conscientious researcher determined to leave no stone unturned and every aspect closely scrutinised. There’s also the fact that most of the cases are ‘resolved’, as Stevenson says, with the (deceased) previous personality having been identified and his/her family being convinced the claim is true.

This is right at the other end of the spectrum, bare bones cases with little or no actual resolution. The films will have shocked viewers who have never heard of the phenomenon but hardly add to the academic literature. I can imagine serious researchers being sniffy about them. I myself wasn’t particularly convinced by the discovery of the previous ‘Pamela’.

That doesn’t mean the cases weren’t genuine, and I actually thought the film had real value. Reading Stevenson’s work one constantly feels the lack of ordinary emotion in his accounts. One knows, in a general way, that having a child suddenly announce she used to be your sister, or constantly begs to be allowed to visit her ‘other mother’ must be shocking for a parent, but that hardly comes through a narrative made up of dry facts. One has to sort of add it in for oneself.

This film filled the gap. For me, it wasn’t about the children, it was about the parents, and how they deal with an extraordinary event. The emotion was intense. The gender thing was extremely striking. The mothers were unsettled, but since it was their child making these statements were bound to be open-minded. The fathers were clearly struggling. One, even after having fifteen years to get used to it, was still obviously conflicted. The younger one, having to deal with it in real time, so to speak, was left agitated and speechless.

This says so much. It’s the stark difference between a Buddhist society like Thailand where everyone pretty much accepts that rebirth happens (although they mostly don’t like it when it does), and a Christian or post-Christian secular society like the US or Europe, which has had little serious exposure to the notion. If you don’t have a framework for understanding something that happens to you, how do you make sense of it?

But then on the other hand, how do you explain it away? My impression is that the sceptical literature is quite thin. Ian Wilson, a British historian, suggested that Stevenson had been taken in by greedy Asian villagers telling tall tales, a manifestly silly approach to anyone who has actually read his work. I’ve seen some more serious efforts to undermine Stevenson’s credibility by finding fault with his methods and judgements, and while I think they land some blows they fall far short of a complete demolition. Nobody claims he’s perfect, and anyway, he’s far from being the only authority on the subject.

What little sceptical response I could find to this series was along the lines of, it’s just greedy television people making stuff up for the sake of ratings. I somehow doubt that will fly with agnostic viewers. One can tell when people are being sincere about their experiences, and it would be beyond cynical for programme-makers to hire actors to put on a show. There are no mediums involved here, so no one to demonise.

So I see this documentary film-making as a promising development. The public is starting to grasp that Westerners have these experiences as well as Asians. And if they start coming forward with their stories, then who knows, perhaps it will eventually change people's ideas about what is and is not possible.

First Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is hard to do, Carpenter comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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