Long ago, my interest in paranormal topics became jaded because popular books were repetitive, full of the same information and stories as the last one. For decades, books written on cryptozoology and ufology advanced no closer to definitively documenting or explaining these phenomena. Some advocates are persuaded that the many similar stories and imaginative speculation, often tenuously tied to scientific concepts, are sufficient to make remaining skeptics (those that have not been persuaded) or rejectors look absurd. I am not persuaded.
The history of serious ghost research spans even longer than cryptids and UFOs. Scientists have been trying to figure out ghostly experiences for centuries. Scientific-sounding concepts abound to attempt to explain ghosts.
One glaring problem with ghosts is that there are many definitions of ghosts/hauntings and various ideas about what they could be from spiritual to scientific (spirits of the dead, demons or other supernatural entities, psychic transmissions, trans-dimensional receptions, time-slips, environmental recording-playback). Where understanding of the natural world via science has advanced by incredible measure, ghost investigation has decidedly not. Therefore, I am justified in being skeptical of any book that claims to use “cutting edge research” and “new theories” to explain this eternal mysterious human experience.
Older books about ghostly episodes (and hauntings and poltergeists, as well) were frequently much better. Maybe that was because it was more difficult to write a book before the 21st century. To contract a publisher, you had to have some credibility, experience, and substance. Today, you don’t need to impress anyone but yourself, so the field of the paranormal is polluted with unreadable, useless volumes from part-time or celebrity paranormal investigators. Some of these authors truly believe they are doing something new but have failed to examine what has already been done. Many attempt to do science when they have zero scientific background – these are the topic of my book Scientifical Americans. Then, there are those that do have some science background but are outside their wheelhouse. These authors use abundant scientific jargon, analogies, and experiments to push their ideas. They may publish in parapsychology-related or minor journals. Their work might be heavily referenced by others because it is positive and seemingly impressive. But it often does not get wider scientific acceptance because it is flawed and/or has failed to be reproduced. Or, it just has not proved useful in the real world because it doesn’t accurately predict anything. I recently finished two paranormal-themed books that cited one author that could fall into that category – Michael Persinger. Of note, I no longer take Persinger as seriously as I once did and now find his work relating to paranormal experiences lacking. His ideas about the effects of weak, complex electromagnetic fields may be valid but not to the extent they are promoted. And, the tectonic strain theory was very much a house of cards that could not withstand scrutiny. Persinger is so frequently cited in scientifical paranormal books that he could be on a Ghost Hunters Bingo card.
The first book I’ll talk about was advertised as using the latest scientific research and new theories to provide scientific explanations for ghostly episodes. Promises, promises… Disappointingly, the research was tenuous or out of context, the ideas weren’t new (or logical), and the scope of ghostly episodes was ill-defined and narrow. Listen, everyone: you can’t revolutionize any field with a lightweight paperback for general readers. The Ghost Studies: New Perspectives on the Origins of Paranormal Experiences by Brandon Massullo landed far short of the mark. The author admitted this is a complex subject but then writes in a breezy, affected way with stories, much reiteration, and end-of-chapter summary paragraphs (which I personally find off-putting because it was only few pages and I just read it).
Curiously, this book was written in 2017 and touches on a few topics (popular ghost theories and use of technology) that were also in my own book published the same year. I found some agreement and was hopeful, but the content was too sparse. The major turn in this book happened when the author describes his version of “ingredients for a ghostly experience”. That is, his “theory” is that the following are necessary for a ghost episode: psychological aspects, changes in internal energy, and external acquisition of information.
Depending on what is meant here, psychological aspects are a given for any ghost experience. With “changes in internal energy”, the pseudoscience flag goes flying. He describes how a ghostly experience requires the energy of a person to be involved – their electrical field, which is powered by emotions. The author puts forward the idea (based on dubious research) that our emotions cause bodily changes that alter our human electric field, which then affects the earth’s electromagnetic field allowing for the transmission of information. Finally, a receiver taps into that frequency and receives the information. None of that is supported by good evidence, logic, or math.
There is the typical misuse of the conservation of energy law that energy can’t be destroyed so something of us must live on after we die. As expected, the entire chapter on energy is overly simplistic and the concepts misapplied.
Other chapters cite work by not only Persinger, but Sheldrake. The author repeats that this is scientific research to give it credibility. Unfortunately, he accepts that this research is perfectly valid and ignores the mountains of criticism about it. Science works as a community effort over time, building on what is confirmed. Persinger’s and Sheldrake’s ideas about electromagnetic fields and morphic resonance, respectively, are not accepted as confirmed. Not even close. But they are convenient to use to promote the author’s imaginative idea and those who aren’t specialists are not going to know that. This is how many people get away with promoting pseudoscience in general as it is hard to check and sounds impressive.
This unconfirmed research constitutes the “studies” of the title and is presented as amazing new results to inform the author’s theory of ghosts. The book quickly became tedious to read as Massullo admits possible weaknesses in the explanations but then cites the few studies as confirmation that we now “know” these things are real/true. By page 51, Massullo tells the reader that they now have “a strong foundation regarding research and possible explanation for hauntings”. I cringe when those making quick and shallow arguments assume they have done a fine job of instructing the reader.
I had a problem with the narrow focus of ghostly episodes. As a parapsychologist, his view is that psi events are the cause of ghosts. This is very much “phantasms of the living” category of ghosts. But this type ignores the much broader range of experiences people consider “ghostly” around the world and through time. The huge span of ghost literature reveals that the concept of ghosts is diverse and culturally-influenced. So, this narrowness of situation is limiting. Additionally, I am not convinced by the evidence of psi as it has not gotten better over time and no reasonable mechanism has been put forward.
Throughout, he repeatedly states he “believes” this or that is happening. Science-based work has no place for “belief”. You either have demonstrated something to satisfaction or not. The author is highly intelligent and probably a fine therapist. However, the volume fails to take seriously the very real effects of social suggestion and exaggeration of experiences for storytelling purposes. People frequently feel what they are told to feel in places they view as haunted. And, those who experience the death of a loved one have unique personal responses that have nothing to do with “biological radio” transmitted via the earth’s electromagnetic field. Books are difficult to write, for sure. I support expressing opinions and concepts about mysterious things but I do not support dressing up suppositions with sciencey language. This is deceptive and confuses the lay reader into thinking the ideas have more merit than they really do.
The second book was Lightforms: Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena by Mark Fox. This second edition, published in 2016, has been retitled from the first. The author promotes the term “lightforms” as a description of these experiences of light. It is deliberate that it sounds like “lifeforms”. This book is also called a “study” suggesting it is original research. I enjoyed the intro and Chapter 1. It was well-written and entertaining as well as effectively framing the previous research for this topic. Fox’s work was to distill 400 personal accounts of experiences with unusual light phenomena collected by the Religious Experiences Research Centre. I was hoping the experiences and analysis would not be constrained by the religious aspects, but, unfortunately, they were. There was very little on what is called “earth lights” that I am interested in. And an argument could be made for a crossover with UFO experiences. Yet, the author did note that accounts where “angels” were mentioned, other than a reference to NDEs, were nonexistent. Since the database used included accounts that were 30 years old up to relatively recent (I assumed, it’s not clear), the cultural aspects are muddled.
The accounts were categorized weirdly by some lesser characteristic: seen by many, seen alone, lights that embrace and fill, that illuminate landscapes or people, that penetrate (beams, rays, shafts), that invoke visionary experiences, brighter than the sun. I could not make any sense of this division. I quickly got bored with short account after account, chapter after chapter. As I noted at the start of this piece, that’s what turned me off to paranormal lit in general. I admit to skimming beginning around page 115 because the text was mostly anecdotes.
The author does very little with these accounts except to count them and call that a “statistical analysis”. Then he tries to be precise with this volume of highly imprecise anecdotal data by categorizing percentages of accounts that produced positive feelings, occurred during a personal “crisis”, those followed by positive “fruits” (outcomes) – a word the author overuses ad nauseam. Because the anecdotes do not follow a set structure, this is a flawed approach. He then presents a model of these experiences by mashing all of those most noted features together. There is no detailed analysis here.
Then, the author explores some possible explanations from psychology and neurosciences. Along with a decent array of other researchers, here is where Persinger is invoked regarding his work on Temporal Lobe Transients. Again, I see the word “cutting-edge” appear to describe the research. But is it? It’s fringe, but is it expanding our understanding, pushing the limits? Is it predicting anything? Is it paving the way for more research? I’m not convinced it did any of that. Fox does not consider Persinger’s work as particularly enlightening toward an explanation he seeks because of the difference in response by experiencers – Fox’s respondents interpreted a more fulfilling experience. While the book leans fairly heavily towards a Christian version of God, Fox ultimately fails to arrive at a solid conclusion for lightforms. It remains a mystery, he says, but they are “proof that this world is not all there is”. Well, I agree that people can certainly imagine another world that isn’t this one but, again, stories and speculation alone aren’t going to get all of us on board. I finished the book a bit more knowledgeable about the variety of personal spiritual encounters with light, but that’s it.
Meanwhile, I’m always hoping the NEXT book will leave me pleasantly surprised. Am I too critical? I don’t think so. Writing a book is tough but I expect an author to write thoughtfully, logically, and to do a good job of laying out a decent argument. Those qualities seems difficult to come by.
7 thoughts on “Ghost Studies and Lightforms: A review of two paranormal research books”
I’m always hoping to see something new in the “research” on these topics. The sad fact is that it always seems to disappoint, and rarely, if ever, is actual research. So I guess it’s not a surprise to read your (very good) reviews of these books and find that they are also lacking credibility and content.
I think your comment about older books being much better is accurate as well. The volume of self-published trash in the internet era is sadly overwhelming.
Regardless, thanks for taking the time to read the books and write the reviews. They’re helpful and may keep others from wasting both their time and money on these books.
Nice review Sharon, you nailed it with: “Additionally, I am not convinced by the evidence of psi as it has not gotten better over time and no reasonable mechanism has been put forward.”
I started looking at these kinds of thing way back in 1980 or so, and literally, nothing has changed since then…
I was just browsing through a psychological report of some kind (in these days of COVID reading using a borrowed Chromebook, I’m losing track of where I see things) and found what I thought was a reputable author referring to the human body’s electromagnetic resonance frequency…or some such thing. But I thought that notion had been debunked a long time ago. Or maybe it’s the case that we have different frequencies for different parts of the body.
Have you heard of such a thing?
Warning: long-winded post here. But I had to comment, since your post brings up some excellent and thoughtful points.
Are you familiar with the work of Prof. Walter Von Lucadou? He studied PSI effects in a laboratory setting for years and noted the tendency for PSI lab experiments that seem to confirm the existence of PSI would dissipate over time as others attempt to replicate them. However when results of multiple experiments are re-analyzed, researchers find odd patterns in the data that suggest something is at work, a variation on the effect they were looking for, but not exact, so the null hypothesis is considered to be confirmed (i.e., the conclusion is, no PSI). He proposes that the scientific method itself has limitations and may not be applicable to all fields of study.
You have noted elsewhere that, all too often, quantum mechanics is invoked by those without a science background to explain all kinds of “paranormal” anomalies. There’s a reason for that. QM, too, is notoriously difficult to replicate using classical scientific methods, due in part to the observer effect. Von Lucadou suggests that the field of PSI is also subject to the observer effect. Certainly Michael Persinger (and I agree with your assessment of his theories) would also confirm that the witness is part of the picture here. The PSI field is notoriously subjective (people see what they believe, and some don’t see at all).
You’re right to note that perception is influenced by culture, belief, psychology and brain wiring. These factors make it difficult to control for when studying PSI using the classical scientific method. Some (Chris French) have tried, notably in his attempts to create synthetic “haunted” rooms. They’ve failed to produce what he was looking for, although they did confirm the importance of the eyewitness and of prior belief.
Disclosure: I’m writing a book exploring eyewitness accounts of high strangeness in NYC using my background in statistics and database analytics to explore the issues raised by these tales. The work looks at the impact of geology, site history, pop culture, QM, psychology, and characteristics of the eyewitnesses themselves. It’s about halfway written (as you note, writing is time-consuming). But as von L. says, there are some odd patterns in the data that suggest that something non-random is at work. His work is not definitive (no one’s is) but of all the theorists (including some in QM) who are now exploring the field I find von L.’s work to be the most interesting.
Yes. I am familiar with Von Lucadou and the Decline Effect. While parapsychologists show that the results of meta-analyses are significant, and conclude that something unusual is going on, we remain at the edges of significance for these results. The field has a history of problems, and while many issues with experimental protocols were fixed, we’re still at those fringes of significance. In addition, serious problems remain most notably in the lack of mechanism and explanation. The QM ideas are problematic because we do not yet understand QM enough to use it to explain psi. So, it’s speculation to apply it. There are alternative explanations for poor results besides the observer effect. While I don’t fault researchers for looking to save their theory, in the bigger picture of psi results, a revolution in the field does not seem like a good bet.
Psi research should have made more progress by now. That it has not progressed does not bode well for its future. It could certainly be something non-random. But that doesn’t have to mean the cause is something scientifically new. See, The Elusive Quarry, Ray Hyman.
I understand your skeptical stance, but your arguments against the field show tremendous bias. To show how deep the bias runs and how unconvincing these opinions are, one only needs to turn your exact same arguments against another field, for example medicine.
There are many examples of drugs, for example, whose exact mechanisms are not well understood, but they are still clinically effective. The wakefulness drug modafinil (Provagil), acetaminophen (paracetamol) and lithium are three such examples. With drugs like opioids or antidepressants, we still don’t understand the mechanisms of the underlying molecules those drugs are interacting with.
Heck, we don’t even understand how the human brain works in terms of all the types of neurons and other brain cells there are, at the level of what they do. Jeez, with all the funding that’s been thrown into medicine for decades, you’d think the field would have made more progress by now, wouldn’t you? It certainly doesn’t bode well for future of the medical field now, does it? The medical field has a history of problems … etc etc.
My bias against psi is wholly due to the lack of strong evidence. It could be easily crushed with the production of that evidence. A large volume of weak evidence does not make a robust model.
The comparison to medicine is poor. Several foundations of medicine have been well-established and have spawned their own sub-disciplines: immunology, epidemiology, biochemistry… the list is long. These fields are robust and research shows progress. That a mechanism is not fully understood does not hinder research in these cases. And, I can’t even begin to list the examples of where a medical mechanism was discovered or, instead, determined to be bogus (placebo effect). That’s progress.
It appears your bias is towards promoting psi because you believe in it. I’m not interested in that approach. Thank you for your comments.
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