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October 2014

ISHAR and Open Sciences

I mentioned these two projects in a recent post. A crowd funding appeal is now underway for ISHAR, the Integrative Studies Historical Archive and Repository, and although still ‘under construction, the Open Sciences web portal has quite a lot of stuff to poke around in.

According to its website, also still under construction, ISHAR is a project created by the mind/body community to provide a ‘world-collection of cultural and scientific knowledge, research and discussion with an emphasis on integrative medicine and consciousness studies, including all notable subjects therein’.

The project is led by Deepak Chopra, and has support from the likes of author Bernardo Kastrup, parapsychologists Dean Radin and Marilyn Schlitz, various scientists, medical directors, healers, etc. I spoke a while ago with Rome Viharo, an experienced web media professional who is closely involved in building the website. He says that as well as providing a comprehensive database of scientific research, the plan is to run themed discussions on different areas on a quarterly basis.

ISHAR’s appeal is asking for a $20 donation (or however much folks can afford.) I think this project is going to get traction and I urge readers to donate.

Rupert Sheldrake’s Open Sciences is also worth watching (although as far as I know it has not asked for donations). Rupert describes it as ‘a portal for open-minded scientific research, listing open-minded scientists, linking to relevant web sites, books and journals, containing a selection of videos and essays, and with a series of blogs on open questions in the sciences.’

I sense a more directly confrontational approach, and on a wider front, than ISHAR. The mission statement begins:

We believe that the sciences are being constricted by dogmatism, and in particular by a subservience to the philosophy of materialism, the doctrine that matter is the only reality and that the mind is nothing but the physical activity of the brain. We believe that the sciences would be more scientific if they were free to investigate the natural world in an un-dogmatic spirit, following the scientific methods of data collecting, hypothesis testing and critical discussion.

The site has also published a detailed Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science, an outcome of the summit of scientists that took place at the University of Arizona in February. Sample extract:

... the nearly absolute dominance of materialism in the academic world has seriously constricted the sciences and hampered the development of the scientific study of mind and spirituality. Faith in this ideology, as an exclusive explanatory framework for reality, has compelled scientists to neglect the subjective dimension of human experience. This has led to a severely distorted and impoverished understanding of ourselves and our place in nature.

Both projects are scheduled for launch in October, at which time I expect there will be a fair bit of publicity. The SPR’s Encyclopedia continues to make good progress, and hopefully will appear next spring or summer.

Talking With Jenny Cockell

At the weekend I drove up to Northamptonshire to interview Jenny Cockell, author of Yesterday’s Children. She turned out to be a delightful lady, and very forthcoming about her experiences - as one might expect from the author of three books.

Yesterday’s Children describes her memories of having been Mary Sutton, the mother of several children in a village north of Dublin and her successful efforts to trace the family. Past Lives Future Lives describes the life of a Japanese girl in the nineteenth century, which ended aged seventeen by drowning. Journeys Through Time, which I have been reading recently, is a sort of complete retrospective of all her memories and the very considerable research she undertook to verify them, along with descriptions of other types of psychic experience.

It turns out that Cockell remembers quite a number of past lives. The Mary Sutton memories were the most detailed, perhaps because of the guilt occasioned by having to abandon several young children to fend for themselves. (It turned out that most were sent to orphanages, as the father was deemed unfit to look after them.) The Japanese girl was never identified by name, largely because of the inadequacy of record-keeping at the time. But she thinks she managed to trace the likely family, being the owners of the house and land which, after a good deal of effort, she and other researchers identified as being a good fit with her detailed memories.

Mary Sutton was not even the most recent life – she also remembers having been a small boy named Charles Savage during the Second World War, who died aged six after being run over in the street. She says she often wakes up in the morning with the feeling of her lower legs having been crushed. Relatively recent investigations led to the discovery of the boy’s younger brother, who accepts her story (as by-and-large did Mary Sutton’s children.

There were brief lives in eighteenth century France, one which involved being sold into service aged eight, another as the young son of aristocrats (the clothes were stunning, she says). There was one as a young girl who ran away from a troubled home and expired of cold and starvation in a stable, and another as a deaf boy in the middle ages. And there was a Neolithic one as a young hunter, which she says was a happy existence.

As we learned from Ian Stevenson’s research, children who have memories of a very recent life are, if not exactly common, not that rare either – especially in south and south-east Asia. But these memories almost always fade by around age seven. It’s also quite common for adults to ‘remember past lives’ under hypnosis, and while these images seem realistic - and often conform closely to historical details that the person is unlikely to have learned anywhere else - there’s seldom much in the way of verification. Cockell must be almost unique in having – and retaining throughout adulthood – spontaneous memories of past lives, many of which have been found to closely match actual circumstances.

That might be held to encourage scepticism. A common tactic is to argue that past-life memories are imagined and the matches spurious (this is the basis of Joe Nickell’s critique of Cockell). It’s said that if you search hard enough – as she did – you’re bound to turn up an exact match sooner or later. But this takes no account of the rich texture of some of the memories, as is often the case in many instances of children’s memories, and is also true here. For instance with regard to Mary Sutton, Cockell had a strong memory of standing on a wooden jetty looking out across the water and shivering in a threadbare shawl. It was an isolated fragment, and although it was persistent she had no means of understanding the circumstances. When she finally met one of Mary’s sons he explained that he had occasional employment on an island that had to be accessed by boat, and in the evenings his mother had often waited on the jetty for him to return.

I asked Cockell how she felt about the memories at first. Did she know that they were unusual? She said that as a child she assumed everyone had them and you just put up with it. No one spoke about them because you just didn’t, she supposed - it was a taboo subject. When she first started to mention them, and heard her mother referring to them in the context of ‘beliefs that some people held’, she had no idea what her mother was talking about. It was a big shock.

Although her past life memories were the ostensible reason for my visit – I shall be talking about the topic next month (see below) – I was just as interested in her general psychic experiences. Psychics are often frustratingly bad at conveying what this actually feels like, but Cockell is highly articulate in this regard.

She talked about the ‘imaginary friends’ that children sometimes describe. In her case they were two young men in Second World War army uniform. One chattered incessantly, and could be quite annoying. The other was quieter, and ‘listened’. She sat on the wall in the playground and talked with them - not out loud, it was a sort of mental thing. But the figures themselves weren’t in her head, they seemed to be actually there in the environment, she says. She found that to make them come she needed to get into a calm, meditative state of mind.

Then one day they said they wouldn’t come any more, as she needed to grow, and focus on this world. Today she finds it rather sad that these companions disappear as you grow older.

How is one to say that these invisible people aren’t really imaginary? She reckons there are two types. If the child says the friend sits on her arm and talks to her, it’s probably made-up, performing the same function as a doll. If the child says, ‘He’s a very old man, and he’s quiet, and sits in that armchair over there in the corner’, then he’s likely to exist on some objective level. (A young grandson once complained about ‘the man in your garden’. Asked for more detail, he said the man was old and grumpy. Cockell told him not to worry about it, as she’d seen him too when she first moved in.)

I was curious about her experiences of seeing the future. She said it happens a lot, but she tends to lack the confidence to accept that’s what it is, a presentiment of something that will happen later, and only accepts it when it happens.

She also talked about time-slips. On a visit to the Blue John Cavern in the Peak District she watched men on high ladders chipping away at the rock face. It looked dangerous, and she wondered vaguely how they managed to square that with the health-and-safety regulations. When she mentioned the scene to the tour guides they said there were no men on ladders. Nothing of the kind. No one else was aware of them either. She'd seen pictures of this activity in the tour literature, and found it interesting that the old ways were still being followed.

I asked about her descriptions of the state between death and rebirth. She has a seemingly vivid memory of dying as Mary Sutton, which she described as a very sudden separation, like someone cutting the elastic. What happened then? I’ll end with the description she gives in Journeys Through Time, which is rather good:

I was still looking back at my now vacant body when I seemed to be drawn from behind - almost sucked - into a long narrow tube, like a fold in space, a dark vortex that wrapped round me and drew me into another dimension. Through it I travelled backwards, feeling somehow folded as though in a loose foetal position. Slowly the hospital room drifted away from me, growing smaller and smaller until finally it faded completely.

Now, intensely bright beams of light began to emerge on either side of me, like the shafts of a rainbow, though much, much brighter. To describe them as light seems somehow insufficient: the rainbow colours were much more vibrant than normal light, just as a real rainbow is much more vibrant than one drawn in crayons. The shafts of light passed by me at different angles, then spread out as though radiating from the central focus.

I don't remember the actual moment when I emerged into a different place, but I know that I did emerge into somewhere very gentle and peaceful, far beyond any normal understanding of the words. This part is not clear in my memory, although it seems to be the stage remembered most clearly by people who have had near death experiences... All I can remember at this time is that for a while there was a lot going on, some of which was perhaps to do with other people and some to my adjustment to my new state of being. What remains most clearly with me is the stage that followed: it is still crystal clear.

I found myself floating inside something like a soap bubble. Above, below and all around me were other bubbles that I knew to be people. I was bodyless, and this didn't matter at all, since there was no need for a body. The other bubbles seemed to have the peaceful energies of other people, also without bodies yet seemingly complete, and I felt a total, peaceful empathy with them.

The sensation was of being almost like a single cell within a whole constellation of cells, yet also of being far too much of an individual entity to be contained in one small unit. I was still aware of being myself, an individual soul. Every bubble glowed brightly with an energy that I took to be the basic life force that is ourselves, and they pulsated at rhythms that varied from slow heartbeat to a steady vibration.

There was a great deal of background light all around, as though the whole life energy was expressed as light. It was difficult to see beyond it – it seemed to be reflected a little like the reflection of headlights in fog. Some of it took the forms of strands like energy bands, mainly white through to blue in colour. The overall feeling was of white light energy.

Enveloping everything was a feeling of calm in which nothing seemed to matter or hurt or cause anxiety. Here the existence I had left behind seemed no more than a vague memory. Perhaps it simply became less important as time passed – though the notion of time itself had almost no meaning. There was no demarcation between day and night, just constant, peaceful light.

I shall be talking more about Jenny Cockell during the SPR’s Study Day ‘Reincarnation in the Western World’, in central London on October 25. (I’ll also describe two children’s cases: James Leininger and Cameron Macauley. The other speakers are Erlendur Haraldsson, Guy Playfair and Matthew Colborn.)

When I get round to it I’ll post an edited video of the interview here.

Journeys Through Time is £8.08 (paperback) £5.49 (Kindle) in the UK and $13.04 (paperback) and $8.94 (Kindle) in the US.

Online Encyclopedia Update

The reason I haven’t posted until recently is that I’ve been busy getting the SPR’s online encyclopedia going – as I’m sure regular readers understand. At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself.

The truth is that I did manage to find pockets of time for writing blog posts, but nothing came out. I’d sit down, wanting to share some dazzling insight, and ... zilch. Couldn’t get my thoughts together. It was like being fifteen again, sucking my pen and trying to write an essay. Made me realise how much I take this writing thing for granted.

In the meantime a few people have suggested I do an update on progress with the encyclopedia. That’s something I can do, as it’s what I spend most of my time thinking about these days. So here goes.

To date I’ve commissioned about forty articles, of which half are completed. They’re in no particular order – topics are as various as Children’s Memories of a Past Life, Twin Telepathy, Photography in Psi Research, Meditation and Psi, Leonora Piper, the Million Dollar Challenge, the Enfield Poltergeist, etc. Everything will get covered eventually.

I originally planned for articles to be about 2000 words, 3000 tops. But then I thought, if we’re going to do this properly we can’t be superficial, we have to try to give readers an in-depth view. So several articles – mainly big topics like Children’s Memories, Ghosts and Apparitions and Leonora Piper – come out at around 5000 words, which I reckon gets about the right balance between comprehensiveness and online readability. It means fiddling with the budget, but I think it was the right decision.

After a lot of humming and harring I opted to follow the Wikipedia format, with intro, list of contents, and then various aspects treated under separate headings. It’s not that I think we should mindlessly imitate our main rival, far from it – I’m all for coming up with creative new approaches. But there are at least two good reasons for following Wikipedia’s example. One is that the format is tried and tested in an online context. Text needs to be broken up to be readable, particularly with longer articles. The other is it’s what readers expect. We mustn’t put barriers in the way, like obliging them to become familiar with a different format.

Some articles have required very little editing. Others need reworking, and that’s keeping me busy. In general, I’m determined to ensure that articles are clear and easy to read. I’m also including extra material where I think it’s needed. By the year’s end I hope to have around fifty articles ready to go to an editing forum where suggestions for improvements and insertions can be made. That should expand to about eighty by Easter, and double that by the end of next year.

The subject articles are just one element. There will also be around two hundred case studies, accessible summaries of key episodes in the literature of psychical research. Where possible I’ll include the original reports, something I think will be especially useful with older poltergeist cases, where witness testimony is most convincing in its original form. That’s not possible with NDE and past life memories research, for copyright reasons, but I’ve drafted summaries of some of Ian Stevenson’s cases, which I think works pretty well, so there will be more of those. Apart from that, I haven’t made much progress with case studies, partly as I have yet to find the right kind of writers. But I’m going to start focusing on this more.

Then of course there will be short biographies of deceased researchers and subjects (although the more significant will of course be described in much longer articles, such as Frederic Myers and Leonora Piper). I daresay we shall include brief biogs of living researchers, which I shall encourage them to provide. There will also be short reviews of key books – eventually perhaps two hundred in number – which will consist of a paragraph of description followed by a paragraph of comment.

As I say, I’m keen to include quite a bit of early archive material. (Ideally there’d be some of the later stuff as well, but there are likely to be copyright issues, and there is at least some good material online already, which of course we will link to.) It’s one thing to read a second hand summary of research relating to, say, Leonora Piper, but quite another to hear Oliver Lodge and Richard Hodgson lay out their reasoning in detail, then to follow up by reading verbatim reports of sittings.

This is not at all straightforward, however. PDF scans exist and can be made available. But if we want to encourage casual readers to dip into them – and we do - we need to reformat them in an accessible modern format. Again, files of automatic transfers to digital text already exist, but they are corrupted – quite badly in some places – by errors such as where the computer has read an ‘s’ as an ‘8’ or an ‘i’ as a ‘1’ or even ‘!’. It’s laborious work to correct, but it will be worth it.

Something I hadn’t originally planned, but have been becoming quite interested in, is the idea of lists. For instance I think we should have a ‘dictionary’ that lists items alphabetically with just a line or two or description and an appropriate link. That’s something I’ve started on, and it’s fun to do. I’m particularly pleased with an article one contributor has given me that lists eminent people – scientists, philosophers, politicians, authors, artists and writers, etc – who took the idea of psychic phenomena seriously. There are as many as two hundred of them. Reading through the list would surely make all but committed sceptics start to wonder why on earth the subject attracts so little mainstream interest.

I’ve also started to create a list of past life memories cases, each with a single paragraph summary, which I expect to get up to about a hundred. Ditto poltergeists. The point here is to give people a sense of the scale of these occurrences. It’s easy enough to dismiss one or two bizarre stories, but when you see how widely reported such things are it forces you to think about it differently.

So when will all this see the light of day? I’ve set a tentative launch date of Easter, by which time I reckon I should have around eighty substantial articles, and perhaps a similar number of case studies, with a bit of other stuff to fill it out. That’s a fraction of the eventual total, which I reckon will reach around 800-1000 items, although that may take three or four years to reach. There are arguments for waiting until we have a more substantial amount of material. On the other hand, there’s a certain urgency to do something about the Wikipedia problem, which is turning people off the subject in large numbers, so we don’t want to hang around.

Also, I think it’s important to put the project on the map, so to speak. There’s bound to be a certain amount of scepticism about our level of commitment, and our ability to produce something that will make a difference. Showing we mean business will help build momentum in all sorts of ways.

That said, an Easter launch is not very likely. I still have to set up the editing forum, and it would be surprising if new challenges and complexities did not start emerging at that point. It’s in the nature of things that people have radically different views, so there are likely to be some quite candid discussions about the way subjects are being presented, whether we’re taking a strong enough, or too strong a line with sceptics, and so on. The SPR historically is quite relaxed about members presenting opposing viewpoints, but this is a rather new kind of endeavour, and we may find ourselves in uncharted territory.

Other questions remain to be decided. Oddly, perhaps, we have not yet fixed on a name. Various suggestions have been made, generally around the word ‘psi’ – Psicopedia, Psiclopedia, Psipedia, and so forth – which may seem obvious but which I’ve come to think won’t work , as ‘psi’ is not a recognised term outside our field (unlike ESP). At worst it will cause confusion. That would be fatal. Most people will come to the resource via Google, and they won’t spend more than a couple of seconds deciding which link to click. My own preference is to use the word ‘encyclopedia’, which I think is a value-word that people trust. But I’m in no rush about this, because it’s a crucial decision and needs to be got right.

There are also important questions to be decided about the delivery platform. As it happens, key people who have been involved with setting up and running the SPR’s website are leaving, so we are having to recruit new experts to advise us on this. This is not just about the encyclopedia; there is also work to be done redesigning the website, and turning it into a hub for comment and dialogue, as well as the events and administrative stuff.

So even if I get sufficient material ready at an early stage, the launch date will be determined by the progress we make in other areas. But I’d ideally like to see it up and running in the first half of next year, and would be disappointed it got pushed back much further.

I’m off now to the SPR’s annual conference, which this year is being held in York. (Anyone who’s interested might like to see my short vid about last year’s conference in Swansea.) I shall be giving a talk titled ‘The Wikipedia Problem’, which I think is self-explanatory.

However, as I shall say there, I think we could also view this as The Wikipedia Opportunity. Why? For one, it’s taken the lunatic pseudosceptic editing on Wikipedia to finally get the psi-research community off its backside and start pushing back.

But the real opportunity lies in this strange new habit that millions of people around the globe have adopted. Like lab rats trained to press a lever, they have learned that the Google-click-Wikipedia-click reflex satisfies a sudden craving for information. If we’re smart enough to manipulate that reflex, we can divert many of those casual readers to a different destination, one where they can learn true facts about psi-research.

Over time that could have quite an impact. What the SPR – and several other individuals and organisations too, I should acknowledge – are doing here will help to change the way that psi-research is perceived, by the public, the media, and perhaps eventually even by mainstream scientists themselves.

The In-Betweeners

I read a great story in a private forum recently about Marcello Truzzi, the sceptic who co-founded CSICOP with Paul Kurtz and others, but fell out with them over their militancy. I don’t suppose anyone will mind if I retell it, but I won’t reveal the source.

Truzzi was seated next to a parapsychologist at a conference dinner, and the two were arguing about whether or not remote viewing had been proved. The parapsychologist challenged Truzzi to try it then and there. Truzzi grudgingly agreed.

It was decided that the viewing would be precognitive, with the target selected after Truzzi’s experience. Truzzi was taken through the protocol, then asked to describe what imagery he saw.

He said he saw a circle. It was hard and smooth and probably metallic, possibly yellow, but at one point in the circle there was something with texture. I asked him to make a drawing. He drew a rectangle with a bird on a branch in it.

A waitress was called over and asked to write down objects in her field of vision. She chose a salt shaker, a pearl necklace that one of the women was wearing, a fork, a wine glass, flowers in a vase, and the parapsychologist’s signet ring. A second waitress was handed the list and asked to select a single object. She chose the ring.

This was an exact hit. I can’t publish the images here, but it’s a rectangular bloodstone, dark green with flecks of red, set on a gold ring. The stone is engraved with two heraldic images, one of which looks like a bird on a perch (described as a ‘kingfisher atop a bar of bunting’).

The incident was witnessed by several other people at the dinner. Truzzi found it embarrassing and insisted on being given the session data, including the order tickets on which the waitresses had created the target set and target selection.

Later the parapsychologist reminded Truzzi about the episode and challenged him about his scepticism.

There was a moment of silence as we both sat there remembering this experience. Then Marcello said, "I am much more effective and influential as a reasonable skeptic than as a convert."  We never discussed it again.

Truzzi was surely right. He filled a rather important role, that of the moderate sceptic who was prepared to confront the militants. Psi advocates see him almost as an ally in that respect. But how useful would it have been for him to express conviction about the reality of psi? In that case he would have been one of many, his influence diminished, a necessary task neglected.

People who straddle the boundary are rather rare – and intriguing. Another example is William James. In his recent biography Michael Tymn is critical of James’s ‘fence-sitting’ with regard to survival. Considering the strength of Piper’s phenomena, which was sufficient to convince Oliver Lodge, Richard Hodgson and James Hyslop, why did James continue to be so ambivalent? Tymn considers this a lack of courage on James’s part.

A reviewer – Alan Gauld in a recent issue of the SPR Journal – disagrees. He points to the ‘brilliant’ attack that James made on materialist view of consciousness and his ‘forthright’ declaration of acceptance of psychic phenomena, almost alone among professional psychologists of the day. Far from being a fence-sitter, Gauld argues, James had fundamental doubts about survival, based on genuine dismay at the state of the departed as ‘a vacancy, triviality and incoherence painful to think of.’

In a later issue Tymn pushes back. He points out that reference to his experiences with Piper are glaringly absent from The Varieties of Religious Experience. Hodgson, having seen the proofs, was perplexed that James never once addressed the survival issue, the very crux of religion. So in a hastily added postscript, apparently added to justify the omission, James concedes that although religion means immortality for most people, facts are lacking for ‘spirit return’, despite his admiration for the efforts of psychical researchers, and being ‘somewhat impressed by their favourable conclusions’.

Yet James often in his writings referred obliquely, and sympathetically, to the idea of survival. At the end of Varieties he states:

I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W.K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bears the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds.

For all this, James ‘continually beat around the bush’ on the survival issue, disguising it in such terms as ‘the eternal’. Tymn writes:

He said that a person should be content in his or her faith that there is a higher power, even if that higher power does not promise life after death... In effect, he was saying that the blind faith of religion is enough, whereas the goal of psychical research was to move from disbelief or blind faith to conviction through scientifically-developed evidence.

In short, James deliberately took the point of view of the ‘rigorously scientific’ disbeliever, on the grounds that tactically it is better to believe too little than too much. Tymn takes this to mean that he preferred the ‘safe’ approach, one in which he didn’t have to put his reputation on the line.’

Is this criticism of James justified? Tymn’s assessment did confirm my sense that James was deliberately ambivalent about survival. And it’s natural to feel that this was a lost opportunity. If James, a pioneering psychologist with enormous influence, had swung behind the survivalist convictions of other credible people who investigated Piper – notably Hodgson, Myers, Lodge and Hyslop - then perhaps the academic world would now be taking mediumship and the concept of survival more seriously.

To be fair, Tymn doesn’t go this far. But I’m sure some people think this, and it’s almost certainly false. The only effect of James’s espousing a belief in survival would have been to weaken his intellectual standing – he would have been a sadly diminished figure, both in his own lifetime and in posterity. But as a pioneering scientist, James’s dedicated interest in religious experience has helped generations of people to think about it in ways that might not otherwise be possible.

It’s certainly possible to imagine both Truzzi and James going further down a path towards conviction. Psi-advocates might wish it for their sake, believing that it’s better for anyone to understand the truth, or in order to have influential people in their camp (not understanding that such influence would vanish they moment they crossed the border). Conversely, it greatly irritates sceptics that someone of James’s stature should have dabbled in woo, and they make excuses for him, for instance that he was ‘bamboozled’ by evil charlatans.

So of course they get attacked from both sides. But I don’t believe they, and others like them, are insincere. They just happen to grow into a particular view of things - by an unusual combination of temperament, experience and circumstances – and the debates about science, psi and religion are all the richer for it.