Most of the people who follow what I write are of a skeptical inclination and can be admittedly dismissive of any hint of paranormal ideas. My position is that it’s crucial to be aware of what those involved in these topics firsthand are doing, thinking, and promoting. This is why I follow the fringe and sometimes get quite mired in it. Seriously, we can’t ask people to explore the skeptical literature if we have not explored their niche as well. There is much to learn across the spectrum whether you buy the speculative and paranormal or not.
I became a member of the Society for Psychical Research a few years ago. The SPR was “the first society to conduct organised scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.” Based in London, it’s been around since 1882. This post is a glimpse into the January 2016 Journal of the SPR; it mostly pertains to out-of-body experiences (OBEs).
A paper by Dr. Carlos Alvarado points out that research into OBEs may have overlooked the important aspect of reported events that occur during physical activities. OBEs traditionally are said to happen to experiencers when they are in a state of quiet mind and body, such as meditative states, trances, sleeping, or close to death. The speculative concept of “OBE-ology” (from review of Minero’s new book in same issue) is that consciousness is a separate thing from the body, a distinct, self sustaining entity that controls and animates the body. When the “astral body” or consciousness leaves the person, her physical body remains motionless. However, Alvarado cites several cases of OBEs that were said to occur during physical activity. 9-11% of cases in studies he cited have been during activity, not inactivity, where the experiencers kept doing what they were doing and saw themselves from another perspective. There are not many documented cases though. He summarizes 22 cases of OBEs during physical activity and adds 4 more. Activities undertaken while these people reported seeing their body from a secondary position include speaking, playing an organ, gardening, walking a dog, and running. It is suggested that relaxed conditions provide better opportunity to achieve and maintain an OBE, whatever its cause, but altered states may be achieved through relatively automatic activities as well. The repetitive nature of some tasks may result in a lack of cognitive demand and thus free up the brain to take a side trip. Curiously, Alvarado thinks that the association of OBEs with near death experiences (NDEs) have reinforced the idea that you have to be deathly still to have one. A frequent NDE scenario is of the ill person looking down at their body from above, even as hospital personnel attempt to revive them.
Alvaredo is interested in knowing how common it is for people to have OBEs in difference circumstances. What is the cause of these experiences? His paper does not preclude a normal explanation. Noted in the Minero review, until there is replicable evidence of remote viewing during OBEs (these experiments have not been successful), an explanation as a brain-induced dissociation illusion seems to be the best one. Regardless of the unorthodox ideas behind OBEs (and NDEs), they remain an interesting human experience that deserves investigation.
To follow up a bit more on the book review I mention, I’m not going to read an entire book on the study of OBEs for several reasons, but some of my favorite parts of journals and publications are the book review sections. I love to know what’s new out there. This review, which isn’t yet up on the SPR website, explains that Minero’s book is about the fields of “Conscientiology” and “Projectiology” and proposes that strong emotions, “thosenes” (thought, sentiment and energy constantly being generated by the consciousness), can imprint objects, buildings and rooms. Something like psychometry. Thosenes were proposed by Dr. Waldo Vieira. These related ideas have connections to the pop paranormal ideas of stone tape or water tape theories proposing that emotional energy can somehow be recorded into rock or water. I’ll not go into how unsupported those ideas are but it is interesting to see how they evolved and are still trotted out today by ghost hunting paracelebs who I’m sure don’t know how they came to be. I often wonder how many of them read JSPR.
Transliminality is the subject of the new paper by A Parra and JC Argibay which has as its basis that the immediate sources of our perceptions come not from our normal senses, but our subliminal consciousness. Percepts are received first at a subconscious level, then cross the threshold to consciousness. High-transliminality individuals implies they have more paranormal or mystical experiences, creative personalities, fantasy proneness, and hyper sensitivity to stimuli, especially via subconscious means. While this suggests an unorthodox process, again, it does not preclude a normal explanation of people who are just “wired” different and perceive the world in a different way than the rest of us. Another speculative idea in parapsychology is that there is “beyond-physical” information being transmitted all the time. Most of us don’t perceive it at all. Can we ever learn how to perceive it? (The body of research suggests this is not a worthwhile path since no good evidence has supported it.) But parapsychologists wonder if we can tap into this and what sort of filter prevents us from it. To me, this does not seem like the right question but I enjoy listening to the discussion.
The main contributor to paranormal belief is spontaneous experiences. I haven’t had any. So, I’m admittedly a hard sell. Speaking of hard sells, Eric Ouellet proposes UFOs are psi phenomena. I’d previously saw him present this idea at the Exploring the Extraordinary conference in 2014. Eric’s new book is out about this topic. He suggests that UFOs are produced by human ability, which is not a new topic. The reviewer, Peter McCue, tells us Coleman and Clark promoted this idea in 1975 (but no longer appear to support it.) Ouellet invokes Radin and Sheldrake’s work supporting collective psi to explain the Belgian 1989-91 UFO flap. This “collective psi” is a fun idea but is without merit. McCue, who isn’t sold on the idea, still plays with it: if a location has a reputation for being haunting or having UFOs, the psychic “internets”, or collective network of thoughts, would engender these experiences, thus adding to the sightings and reputation. He cites crisis apparitions as an example that psi-based interactions occur at a subconscious level. I expect these kinds of ideas will appear in mainstream paranormal research if they haven’t already. I wouldn’t know, I don’t keep THAT close track. But, as I said, I do like to get the inside view, and I’d rather get it from the best sources. I find I’m hardly judgmental while reading the JSPR. It’s presented in a readable form, not from an obnoxious POV, I enjoy hearing about these topics.
Finally, the letters section provides even more interesting insider views. What does the greater psychical research community think of the ideas presented in this Journal? One great letter by JSPR board member Donald West takes a stance that most fans of the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge would agree with. He says that “if agents cannot produce their effects under conditions that favor research while conforming to their declared requirements, it is a waste of time to pursue projects that lead only to further unproductive controversy.” This immediately triggered memories of what happens after every MDC or test of psychics or dowsers. They come up with excuses for why they failed when they seemed confident prior to the test that all would go well for them. West is proposing that “researchers and mediums need to trust each other and aim for a common goal to discover important truths.” See, the sides aren’t so different. We just want to uncover important truths. Our assumptions will not match but it doesn’t seem impossible to address each other’s work. I may have a more cynical view of psychics but I still contend that they have an obligation to soundly demonstrate their claims instead of just make money and publicity off them. If they don’t, they are defrauding society.
Another letter that resonated with me stated in no uncertain terms that some studies or exposes are too much of a challenge to one’s way of thinking and, since they are threatening to the preferred view, they get ignored rather than addressed. Sound familiar? The best examples I’ve ever seen apply to cryptozoology proponents who can’t even read past the first chapter of books by Naish, Radford, or Loxton & Prothero because these books say what they don’t want to hear – that the animals they seek are NOT really out there, they have an down to earth explanation. Yet, this brush-off also applies to scientists who dismiss anomaly reports or strange experiences out of hand. We must confront these uncomfortable ideas in order to progress whether we like them or agree with them, or not.