Ghost Studies and Lightforms: A review of two paranormal research books

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. 

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Perhaps you can never organize paranormal research

I am enjoying my latest read. It’s George Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001). George and I met years ago at a parapsychology conference in Gettysburg. Even though he is a critic of organized skepticism, he’s just as much a critic of shoddy paranormal research. And, his criticism of CSICOP is not unjustified, for the most part. I can’t yet outline everything I found intriguing with this book because I’m not through yet. He might chuckle when he hears that I could not skip around but had to read it cover to cover – it’s my thick-boundary personality. But, I believe I am loosening up! And, thus, perceiving and understanding the bigger picture much more clearly via stepping outside of the skeptic and believer tribes. I may be actually in the betwixt and between, as they say. At least it feels like that these days.

The major theme of the book is the trickster elements tied to supernatural claims and to those who are involved in some way (for or against). Of particular note, I had to copy this quote into my notes and am eager to share it here, especially with UFO researchers who are trying to forge a new structure to the field:Read More »

Psychical Research President states scientific disbelief in psi is “pathological”

coverPNRWhat a very strange “President’s Letter” is in Issue 77 of the Paranormal Review published by the Society of Psychical Research (Winter 2016). I read and re-read it trying to make heads or tales out of Dr. Poynton’s meaning and assertions. He seems to despise the application of reason and questioning, wishing the stodgy “pathological” scientists and skeptics would just BELIEVE already since the evidence for psi is as plain as day.

Fortunately, you can view the letter here (scroll down a bit past the editorial). Take a read and see what you think.

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The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

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Parapsychology continues to fail to impress reviewers

A correspondent clued me in to what he called a “devastating commentary on parapsychology.” I agree. The review on the Magonia Review of Books meshes with what I had written in June 2014 when I looked into parapsychology, comparing then and now. It’s helpful to see an independent critique that notes the same flaws as you did. I’m not the only one who notices that the standard-bearers of parapsychology are unhelpful to their own cause. 

I enjoy the Magonia Blog review of books because the review are often in-depth and I typically learn something new whether I read the highlighted book or not. I also love to learn about what’s cooking with publishing these days, what is out there for people to access, and I’m often left to wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to publish THAT!

In the review entitled Believing Impossible Things, Peter Rogerson examines Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited byEtzel Cardeña , John Palmer, and David Marcusson-Clavertz (edit: names fixed). It’s not a book I would read since it’s not aimed at me, since I’m not parapsychology expert, but for PhD level students of parapsychology. (I’m thinking that must be a pretty small audience.) Rogerson describes it as a “large, 400-plus page work [that] presents 31 papers under nine headings, which seeks to update the original Handbook of Parapsychology… devoted to experimental parapsychology and is highly dependent on statistics.”

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The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.

Anomalies

In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.