The Internet vs. the Zeitgeist

Michael Prescott - Thu, 20/07/2017 - 1:14am

Many years ago I read an odd little book called The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain. It’s one of those desperately magisterial tomes like Julian Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness — an overview by a nonspecialist attempting to assimilate a raft of information from disparate disciplines into a new overarching theory — and like Jaynes’ book, it’s worth reading even if most of its conclusions are probably wrong.

Shlain’s theory is that the advent of widespread literacy, especially in alphabetic languages, brings about changes in brain function, shifting the dominant hemisphere from right to left. He believed that the right hemisphere is associated with “female”traits while the left is associated with “male” traits; thus, the switch from one hemisphere to the other precipitated societal changes that worked to the disadvantage of women. In the original period of alphabetic literacy, the old goddess religion, matriarchal and pacific, was suppressed and replaced by new god-centered, patriarchal, militaristic faiths. In the much later period after the invention of the printing press, when literacy was rapidly extended to much of the population instead of being limited to an elite, there were further reactions against women, including the witch-burning manias that flared up unpredictably around Europe. Finally, Slain speculates that the rise of movies, television, and the Internet — all of which place more of an emphasis on visual information — will cause a shift back toward equality of the sexes and a more peaceful world.

I am skeptical of the gender assignments given to the two sides of the brain, and even more skeptical when Shlain extends his thesis to the cells of the eye, distinguishing between “male” cones and “female” rods. I am also skeptical that the goddess religion, as he describes it, even existed; while fertility statuettes with exaggerated female features turn up in many prehistoric sites, it’s a bit of a stretch to infer a matriarchal society, much less a time of Edenic peace. We don’t even know if these female figures were goddesses or simply charms, perhaps used to ensure a favorable pregnancy.

Though Shlain’s thesis is far from proven, one aspect of it has stuck with me – the idea that changes in communication technology can rewire the brain, with destabilizing societal effects.

Which brings us to what’s going on today.

Throughout much of the developed world, and certainly in the United States, we see intensifying polarization between increasingly extremist and uncompromising ends of the political spectrum. On a daily basis we’re treated to public displays of hysteria – wild outrage expressed by both left and right, though for different reasons. No area of life is off-limits. Escapist movies about comic-book superheroes give rise to charges of racism and sexism. Twitter and Facebook have become ideological battlegrounds. Restaurants offering ethnic foods are flashpoints for controversies about “cultural appropriation” (as if all culture is not appropriated from somewhere). Sports shows and teams are boycotted for political reasons. Everything is a hot button issue.

Many explanations for this new intensity in our political life have been advanced. It is said that the middle class is being “squeezed”; yet statistics indicate that while both middle-class and lower-income shares of the population have shrunk over the past 35 years, the percentages of Americans defined as upper-middle class and rich have grown – suggesting the middle class is contracting mainly because some of its members are migrating to a higher tax bracket.

Source: Urban Institute study

Or it’s said that middle-class affluence simply has less to offer us than it once did. But this seems to be a case of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Recently, in doing research for a time travel novella that takes place in 1972, I was intrigued to discover how much lower the standard of living was for middle-class people in that era. Houses, for example, were significantly smaller and had fewer amenities, while many ubiquitous modern-day items would have been considered science-fiction. A computer you carry in your pocket, which connects you to databases throughout the world and incidentally serves as a videophone? Household robots that vacuum or mop your floor? Wall-size flatscreen TVs with hundreds of channels, many commercial free and uncensored, in high definition? Self-driving cars, prosthetic limbs almost indistinguishable from the real things, medical treatments using genetic engineering to target specific cells, an orbiting telescope that sees to the ends of the universe …?

No matter how you look at it, our opportunities for leisure, recreation, and discovery are greater than ever. And the average middle-class American today lives like a sci-fi character in a '70s TV show  

It is also claimed that people are frustrated by unchanging social problems such as race and gender discrimination; but again, this claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There is far less discrimination in the developed world today than in any previous generation. As an example, a newspaper article I came across from 1972 reported casually that the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks had just voted to reaffirm their policy of not admitting blacks as members, a policy that was only rescinded in 1976 under intense legal pressure. The same newspaper regularly published the names of divorced couples in what I took to be a sign of the social stigma attached to divorce. (Mary Tyler Moore's groundbreaking sitcom of that era was originally intended to depict her as a divorcée,  but the network balked at anything so controversial.) Interracial relationships were illegal in many states and virtually unheard of anywhere. Gays had to remain closeted or face ostracism and abuse, including physical attacks. And on and on. No matter how you look at it, society has grown much more open and tolerant. A black president, a serious female presidential candidate, gay marriage – all would have been completely unrealistic 40 years ago.

Crime is down, too. Way down. Parts of New York City that were virtual no-go zones four decades ago are thriving now. Remember the scene in 1973's Live and Let Die when James Bond nearly gets killed in Harlem? That's right - in 1973, Harlem was too dangerous for James Bond

And let’s not forget that in 1972 draftees were being sent to fight and die in Vietnam. The casualties that the US accepted in that unpopular war were far higher than US losses in any recent conflict (58,209 American deaths in Vietnam vs. 4,497 in Iraq and 2,356 in Afghanistan), yet the war dragged on for years, and those who opposed it were labeled traitors.

America of forty years ago often seemed to be spiraling into chaos, with assassinations, urban riots, war, Watergate, the energy crisis, sky-high homicide rates, skyjackings, rampant prejudice and closed-mindedness, cult movements, apocalyptic predictions of the End Times, and TV fodder consisting almost exclusively of mind-numbing pap ("the glass teat," Harlan Ellison called it) ... and if we think our present conditions are worse, we are only fooling ourselves. 

But if the external circumstances – the economic, social, political, and cultural climate – have not worsened, and have in fact improved by any objective standard, then why are people becoming so upset about everything, to the point where it can reasonably be argued that we’re experiencing a “cold Civil War”?

People often point to cable TV and the Internet, both of which feed news consumers a steady diet of inflammatory stories while encouraging people to confine themselves to channels or websites that reflect their own biases; as a result, people become trapped in an echo chamber or bubble that reinforces and amplifies their opinions. This is clearly true. But I’m not sure it’s the whole truth, and this leads us back to Leonard Shlain and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.

It’s at least arguable that the advent of the Internet poses as big a social and psychological challenge as the advent of literacy did for previous societies. I’m not sure anyone yet understands how the brain is affected and changed by the constant processing of online information – not only when one is sitting at a computer, but when one is using a smartphone or any web-connected device. It may not be too far-fetched to think that literacy altered brain function by making the left brain more dominant. Is it possible that the Internet is altering brain function in some new way?

What if the intuitive process of clicking on links and following one link to the next while chasing down snippets of information tends to activate the intuitive faculties of the brain, popularly supposed to reside in the right hemisphere? Perhaps this very process, endlessly and obsessively repeated, has the effect of deemphasizing or inhibiting those qualities associated with the left hemisphere — notably logical reasoning, goal-setting, and objectivity. There is a widely publicized claim that Internet usage correlates with a decline in attention span; though this study may be junk science, it’s hard to deny that the rapidity and convenience of the Internet can make it intolerably frustrating to plow through the pages of a book in search of information. There may be other, more subtle changes in neurological/psychological functioning that are not yet understood or even recognized. Could the surge in diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, autism, and Asperger’s syndrome be related to widespread neurological reprogramming?

Let’s suppose so. Even if most of us aren’t affected that profoundly, we may still feel as if things are somehow getting out of control. The changes in our mental processing may bring on the same kind of anxiety, confusion, mania, and hysteria (think of the witch burnings) that Shlain sees as the historical result of rapid advances in literacy.

In other words, it’s just possible that we are undergoing a massive transition from one mode of consciousness (developed as a result of general alphabetic literacy) to a new mode of consciousness (currently developing in response to the new technology of the Internet). And because we experience this change as something alien, we look for a cause outside ourselves, even though actually it is the inner workings of our mental mechanism that are directly responsible. Feeling confused and lost, we latch on to any convenient bogeyman to explain our chronic insecurity. We don’t hunt witches, but we do harass anyone who thinks differently than we do. Alt-right types mock and insult their critics and spread vicious memes. “Social justice warriors” define anyone who disagrees with them as racist, misogynistic, fascist, etc. The problem is always Someone Else.

By getting wired up to an endless supply of digital information, we may be rewiring our own brains – and experiencing all the unintended side effects that go along with a neurological remodeling job. The trickle of information from books and magazines that we perused in our spare time has become a spurting garden hose of facts, opinions, memes, urban legends, “fake news,” lies, distortions, slanders, and insults, illustrated with vivid images and sounds, 24 hours a day. And our beleaguered brains are melting under the strain.

Again, this is only a speculative hypothesis. It may be all wrong. It’s almost certainly at least partly wrong. But it just might be partly right. It could help to make sense of the rapid and baffling descent into hyper-partisanship, political polarization, and escalating demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings (on the left) and border walls and authoritarian crackdowns (on the right). In an era of relative peace and prosperity, when the West faces no true existential threat remotely comparable to the Axis powers of World War II or the USSR of the Cold War, it is truly strange that we find ourselves coming apart at the seams. We live in what should be seen as a Golden Age, yet we’re obsessed with apocalyptic visions and paranoid fantasies.

Instead of scanning the cultural and political trends of the modern world to understand our anxieties, perhaps we need only direct our attention to the softly glowing screen in front of our face.

Categories: Fortean

Dream a little dream

Michael Prescott - Sun, 09/07/2017 - 6:10pm

Here’s some big news: our own longtime commenter Bruce Siegel has written a book – and it’s a good one!

The book is Dreaming the Future: How Our Dreams Prove Psychic Ability is Real, and Why It Matters, and it recounts Bruce's longtime experiment in precognitive dreaming. (The printed book is available now, and a Kindle edition will be out on July 15.) 

Bruce begins by explaining that until he was in his mid-forties he was a knee-jerk skeptic, though not of the militant variety. He simply dismissed all talk of the paranormal as irritating nonsense. But in the early 1990s, his worldview started to change. He writes:

I found myself becoming interested in certain ideas, experiences, and phenomena I had long dismissed, even ridiculed.

For one thing, I began to pay attention to the fact that some of my dreams seemed to correlate with later events in ways that were difficult to explain .…

But despite my newfound openness, I wasn’t blind to the laws of probability. I reasoned that given a large number of dreams and the potential for matching them with an even larger pool of waking events, striking similarities were bound to occur from time to time.

Inspired by J.W. Dunne’s famous 1927 book An Experiment with Time, Bruce decided to document his dreams and see how well they matched up with future events. Ultimately he logged 241 dreams. Remarkably enough, approximately one in four of them came true – “usually within hours.” Some came true almost immediately after waking. This success rate is far above random chance, especially considering the decidedly out-of-the-ordinary subject matter in many of these dreams.

A large part of the book concerns the methods Bruce used to remember his dreams and record them in detail, and the ways in which he improved his methodology. For example, he found that a dream, in order to be worth recording, had to involve something specific and unusual. A dream about eating breakfast had no value in his experiment, because he ate breakfast every day. Recurrent dreams were not helpful, because it could be assumed that, if he dreamed of the same thing over and over, eventually it would have to correlate with something in real life, if only by chance. He also developed precise criteria for distinguishing among dreams of no precognitive value, dreams that might or might not have had precognitive value, and dreams that were definite hits. He explains how he tabulated the statistical results, and how the results might vary if different criteria were applied.

Though Bruce describes a number of his dreams and the real-life observations that correlated with them, he recognizes that the reader is not likely to be completely convinced by someone else’s experience. That’s why the main focus of the book is to encourage us to carry out the experiment for ourselves. He provides a great deal of useful advice on how to get started.

The book inspired me to begin my own experiment. So far, I can’t claim results as good as one in four. I would say I’ve had one likely hit, one "maybe," and the rest have been duds. But I haven’t been doing it for very long, and I’m not yet skilled at remembering my dreams.

Besides the important contribution Dreaming the Future makes to the literature on precognitive dreaming, the book also offers Bruce’s reflections on the wider meaning of it all. In a chapter titled “The Real Subject Here is Consciousness,” informed in part by his study of near-death experiences and related phenomena, he suggests that

time and consciousness are inseparable. Time, in this view, is actually a dimension of reality created by consciousness within itself, so that we might explore certain kinds of experience.

And the same is true for what we call “space.”

Time and space, in other words, are props devised by Mind for much the same reason that storytellers and game designers devise the rules and frameworks that characterize their creations: to spawn worlds within which epic adventures can unfold .…

[I]n recalling these deeper truths, in discovering that we are more than we think we are, we find reason to trust that the difficulties we face in this life aren’t the whole story.

The book closes with an extensive list of resources for further study and several appendices fleshing out the dreams covered in the main text. Full disclosure: my name crops up a couple of times in the book, once in connection with a precognitive dream described in Chapter 9, which was validated by a comment Bruce read on this blog.

Beyond all the other admirable qualities of Dreaming the Future, the book consistently addresses open-minded skeptics in a friendly, non-confrontational way. Unlike some pro-paranormal writers who stigmatize all skeptics or simply ignore them, Bruce wants to reach out and gently persuade people to open up to the possibility of precognition and try it for themselves. He takes care to consider alternative explanations for the hits he describes, and although he's personally convinced of the validity of his findings, he understands that the whole idea of foreseeing future events may strike some reasonable people as impossible or absurd.

His basic attitude is: see for yourself. He believes there's nothing special about his own precognitive abilities, and that similar results can be obtained by anyone who tries.

I liked this book a lot, both for its content and its tone. I highly recommend Dreaming the Future.

Categories: Fortean

Bruce Siegel's 'Dreaming the Future'

Paranormalia - Fri, 07/07/2017 - 7:17am
Regular readers know Bruce Siegel, who’s often commented here and in other forums. He guest posted here a few years back, about how he shifted from being a militant skeptic to a belief in psi and afterlife. Now he’s written a book about precognitive...
Categories: Fortean

Guest post: Why Skeptics will never accept the existence of psi

Michael Prescott - Fri, 16/06/2017 - 6:18am

Matt Rouge offers a thoughtful guest post on psi and dogmatic (capital-s) Skepticism. Take it away, Matt!


(Eric Newhill, who is a frequent commenter here and an actuary and analyst at a large insurance firm, was kind enough to review this post for accuracy on statistical matters. Also, Michael always provides significant guidance on my guest posts. Much thanks to you both!

I had been thinking about writing this post for awhile, and I begin to fight my standard inertia bit more when I saw this article on Slate, dated May 17, 2017: "Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which means science is broken."

Then, in the comments on this blog, Leo MacDonald referred to a related post on NEUROLOGICAblog: "Follow Up on Bem’s Psi Research."

We’ll be talking about these in a moment, but first my thesis:

Skeptics will never be compelled to accept the existence of psi because laboratory research involves difficult statistics that can be argued about ad infinitum, and exceptional individual cases of psi can be dismissed as “anecdotes” one by one.

Let’s look at both of these issues in turn.

Psi laboratory research

Here’s the money quote in the Slate article: “Bem had shown that even a smart and rigorous scientist could cart himself to crazyland, just by following the rules of the road.” Yes, folks, you’re cray cray if you believe in psi.

For the most part, researching psi under laboratory conditions means testing a lot of people and seeing if an effect is produced that cannot be explained by chance. One classic experiment is to have people guess which of four symbols is the target. The success rate across a reasonably large sample size should be 25%. If it is much higher than that, then one can in theory call it evidence of psi. One series of lab experiments that many believe showed evidence of psi is the ganzfeld experiments (Wikipedia is extremely biased against psi, but this will give you an intro to the facts at hand).

Skeptics can attack the design and conditions of such experiments, and they do so regularly, but there is a deeper issue at hand: there’s always the chance that the results of the psi experiment are due to, well, chance.

In a wide variety of fields, research is performed with the aim of achieving a p-value of .05. That means that there is a 5% chance (p = .05 = 5%) that the positive result achieved is due to chance. Experimental results within this predetermined p-value are often called “statistically significant.” Whether it’s medical research or the social sciences, p ≤ .05 is typically considered pretty good.

So, just do your psi lab research, get p ≤ .05, and you’ve proved psi, right? The world is changed forever, right?! Of course not. Because p = .05 is actually pretty lousy. It means there is a 1 in 20 chance that the experiment is, in effect, meaningless. I personally would not change my belief system based upon such a paltry stat, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do so, either.

But that’s fine, since we can get that p-value even lower, right? Eventually they’ll have to believe! Well, yes and no. One typically gets the p-value lower by increasing the sample size. The nature of statistics is such that, say, cutting that p-value in half can’t be done with double the sample size; the relationship is not linear, and for very small values of p, extremely large samples are needed.

Thus, getting p = .0001 (1 in 10,000 chance of being due to chance) would require a monumental sample size for one’s psi experiment, and even then Skeptics could more or less correctly say, “I’m not going to change my worldview based on this evidence when there is still a 1 in 10,000 chance that it’s nothing at all. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that still isn’t extraordinary enough!”

So, we just have to give up, right? Not so fast! There’s a thing called meta-analysis, in which we get that sample size and p-value to where we want them by combining lots of different but related experiments. Sometimes you will read about a meta-analysis of psi experiments that claim very small p-values indeed, and someone may say something along the lines of, “The odds of this meta-analysis result being due to chance are over 3 trillion to 1!”

That’s great, but here’s the rub: meta-analysis is quite complicated. Different experiments using different methodologies need to be combined, and how that should be done is to some extent a matter of opinion and judgment. The calculations themselves require expert knowledge—this is far from Statistics 101 material—and the experts themselves can disagree on both the methods used and the meaning of the results. And that’s exactly what happens. The pro-psi statistician argues with the anti-psi statistician, and only a tiny fraction of the population on either side is qualified to assess what they are saying. It ends up a lot like the climate change argument: “Trust our smart guys. They’re really smart and there are a lot of them and those who disagree ought to be ashamed of themselves.” When you hear laboratory research on psi has been “debunked,” that’s typically what has happened: some credentialed person has gone over the numbers and declared them unconvincing. Or some media Skeptic has declared the methods and conditions of the experiment unacceptable. Either or both.

Thus, to recap, any given psi experiment is not enough to sway opinion, and trying to combine multiple experiments leads to arguments over recondite statistics. There simply is no way around it.

Going back to the Slate article, Daryl Bem performed a variety of experiments under rigorous conditions and came up with what appeared to be statistically significant results. Instead of merely saying that he was wrong (which of course they do), scientists and other members of the cognoscenti have pointed out that, yeah, the kind of statistical reasoning that has held sway in many fields for over a century is actually pretty lame. Hence the subtitle of the article: “Which means science is broken.”

Hearing this kind of thing is gratifying to an extent, as we proponents of psi have been pointing out the double standard for a long time: “How can you call things like psychology and sociology science when the designs of their experiments are a joke compared to what parapsychology has going on now, and they’re often satisfied with p = .10 or worse?” Cognitive dissonance can take quite a long time to resolve itself, but it seems that Skeptics and members of the scientific elite will not be moving forward by recognizing psi (duh) but instead by trashing the social sciences. For example, here’s an LA Times article from 2012: "Why psychology isn’t science." And now the reaction to Bem.

Psi laboratory research: my take

When I discussed the article on Bem with Michael, he said:

I read it. Mixed feelings. On one hand, it would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as an example of knee-jerk skepticism that would rather reject established scientific methods than accept any evidence for the paranormal.

But on the other hand, they may have a legitimate point in saying that these methods are faulty, not only when practiced by parapsychologists but by conventional scientists, as well. I suspect there is a lot of bad science out there, and that statistical analysis can be badly flawed.

I think this is exactly correct. I’m glad to see some consistency finally being applied, and the reality is that it’s difficult to prove things like drug efficacy, human behavioral traits, the existence of social trends, and psi effects using statistics.

Eric Newhill had this to say:

The effects in any single experiment are just statistical probabilities. Usually the stat significance is not that strong. Skeptics like to bring up the file drawer effect (studies that showed no stat significance are filed away, not published, not talked about, etc.).

Your comments on meta-analysis are spot on ... very complicated to do it right. Much opportunity for disagreement even among experts and, IMO, should only be done when the different experiments are using the same design (though at least small differences can always be found and raised as confounds).

Eric brings up a good point about the so-called file drawer effect. With respect to a given meta-analysis, Skeptics will claim that the pro-psi side is hiding negative results that would otherwise weaken the effect of the meta-analysis. One response to this is to ask whether the number of negative experiments required to cause such a reversion to a theoretical mean could even have been performed. The pro-psi side will say that hundreds of such experiments would be required, and thus the meta-analysis is correct. And on and on the arguments go.

Eric also raised this interesting point:

One last thing, and is usually passed over by even the best researchers. I have read some of the details of some of these experiments. The p-value for the cohort may be a little significant (or not), but there are often individuals that score very very high, well beyond chance. Whereas there are usually not individuals in the cohort that score very very low. This is meaningful in itself. I have always thought that a series of experimental replications should be run, and the individuals in each cohort scoring the highest should be put together into a super cohort and tested. Basically, take the most talented people, those showing unique psi abilities, and focus on them only. This should demonstrate psi well beyond chance and should produce results that raise the eyebrows of many Skeptics.

Right, some of the individual results are mind-blowing, but these become invisible within the larger statistical picture of the experiment.

Personally, I have read a decent amount about psi laboratory research, and I think the experiments, in the aggregate, do provide substantial evidence that psi exists. Yet I most likely would not be convinced by that evidence alone. Rather, it dovetails nicely with exceptional individual cases of psi and my own experience of psi. Nothing in the laboratory research contradicts this other evidence but is congruent with it. It is quite similar to how various sources of information on the Afterlife (NDEs, ADCs, channelings) match up very well.

Exceptional individual cases of psi

This is much less complicated to talk about. In his original comment on this blog referring to the NEUROLOGICAblog, Leo MacDonald said:

I personally believe the stronger cases comes from the so-called anecdotal claims.

Michael, in the conversation cited above, said:

But the really convincing cases are the prodigies who score incredible remote viewing hits or have an obvious, dramatic telepathic link—like the famous ESP experiments carried out by Upton Sinclair and his wife. These cases don't rely on statistical analysis, with its inherent danger of data mining.

And in the comments of the NEUROLOGICAblog post, Ian Wardell (who also comments on this blog), said:

I’m not really interested in such [laboratory] research though. I’m more interested in the spontaneous cases of psi.

Indeed. These cases are compelling. They really leave no escape.

We talk about exceptional cases of psi on this blog all the time. They involve the transmission of information that simply could not have been obtained except through psi, as well as the manipulation of matter itself. When reading the reports, one is left with two choices: believe that psi has been proven, or believe that highly intelligent, observant, and respectable researchers were fooled (as by stage magic) or were themselves simply lying. To provide two examples we discussed here before, Eusapia Palladino and D.D. Home produced or mediated extreme physical phenomena in adequate lighting conditions right in front of the eyes of researchers. These phenomena cannot conceivably be dismissed as “tricks”; the observers could not possibly have been fooled. Either what they say happened actually happened, or they were lying.

But that’s OK, the Skeptics have the classic strategy of deny, deny, deny. It doesn’t matter who saw or heard what. Their approach to psi is the approach they use on any paranormal phenomenon: deny. A séance that produced amazing information? Cold and/or hot reading and/or lucky guesses. Deny. An NDE that produced veridical information? Explain it away. Deny. Physical phenomena captured as photographs or video? Faked! Deny.

It’s really that simple. They think they can “divide and conquer” by simply denying each and every paranormal report in the history of planet Earth. Each of these is merely an “anecdote,” and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”! They think that such an epistemological stance is self-evident instead of self-serving. They are untroubled by the double standard in which scientists who work in the materialist paradigm are capable of “observations” of individual cases, while those who are outside this paradigm are only capable of “anecdotes.” They find it reasonable to posit that people throughout history and in every location of the globe have reported psi phenomena of a consistent nature, yet they have all been mistaken. (I personally find it maddening that they dismiss this vast evidence from history yet remain incurious as to what caused such consistent mistakenness. Nothing to see here folks, move along …)

On rare occasions, a major Skeptic will have an experience that changes his or her thinking on the paranormal. Such happened to Michael Shermer. For his whole life, he was able to dismiss and denigrate the whole world’s paranormal experiences, but once something amazing happened to him, well, that’s totally different! And of course, the reaction of every “believer” to this conversion is smh

Exceptional individual cases of psi: my take

What I find interesting is that Skeptics will say that they have never experienced psi or anything paranormal in their entire lives, nor do they know anyone who has had such an experience. This is the furthest thing from my own world.

My guess is that, when most Skeptics imagine a psychic reading, they see a flaky if not creepy psychic sitting in a dimly lit den of fraud, receiving money with greedy fingers, then proceeding to cold- and hot-read the victim and pump him or her full of generalities, superfluities, and, of course, lies and false hope.

In contrast, I am a psychic with many psychic friends. I’ve given readings and gotten more than a few big hits. I’ve received readings and have witnessed more than a few big hits. To us, it’s nothing unusual, odd, or spooky. We trade psychic advice on virtually a daily basis, in fact. No special setting or mood is required; in fact, I give and receive most readings over Facebook these days. Further, I make no money off of psi at all (I give readings for free on a frequent basis, actually). About half of my psychic friends do charge for readings or other psi abilities, but they do a lot of pro bono as well, and absolutely no one is getting rich from these services. I can also observe that my psychic friends are extremely normal and down-to-earth, and none of them fits the stereotype of the New Age flake (OK, we mostly don’t fit that stereotype!). I can assert without equivocation that I have never heard a friend refer to doing anything psychic in a fraudulent or less than sincere way.

In short, psi works for us consistently and on certain occasions amazingly. What incentive would we have to make it a part of our lives if it didn’t? I’m not naïve: Skeptics could certainly cite a range of potential psychological and sociological causes for such experiences. Those outside of our world are free to observe and judge for themselves. But my point is that psi isn’t just about the extreme and the strange. It can be an ordinary and consistently present part of one’s life.

Further, as the comments on Michael’s recent and excellent posts on Leslie Flint demonstrate, we who believe don’t believe everything (pace the Skeptics who enjoy portraying as credulous idiots. Crazy, too.). Yet, on the whole, I find reports of exceptional individual cases of psi to jibe with my own experience, and I think they are strong evidence for psi.

In conclusion

Based on my reading of psi laboratory research and exceptional cases of psi, as well as my own experience, I am 100% certain that psi is real and materialism is completely disproved and an obsolete worldview. Skeptics, however, will never be convinced.

If I am correct, that puts the unstoppable force of the truth of psi against the immovable object of the Skeptics’ belief system. What will be the end result of such an interaction?

I am going to go with a prediction that I have heard elsewhere and found convincing: Individual people and society as a whole will be convinced of the existence of the paranormal once someone is using it to make money. I don’t mean for readings but in the form of a process, product, or service that consistently works and that people want. At that point, the Skeptics will be forced to move, since money talks, and you-know-what walks. My guess is that 100 years will not pass without this happening, and it will probably happen much sooner than that.


Categories: Fortean

Summerland, Dreamland, Disneyland

Michael Prescott - Mon, 12/06/2017 - 4:42pm

If we look at channeled descriptions of the afterlife, we observe a fair amount of consistency, but also notable omissions and anomalies. Even in the most detailed narratives, we get no clear sense of what people do all day. We are told about their pleasant lives spent relaxing in a garden, or attending a symphony, or visiting with friends in a parlor, but there is little indication of a daily routine. Occupations seem to be limited to caring for new arrivals in hospitals or sanatoriums, and engaging in creative or scientific work; but in neither case do we learn nearly as much as we would like. We are told of wonderful new inventions and artistic creations dreamed up by scientists and artists on the other side – scientists and artists who are apparently eager to share their work with the living – yet we are seldom privy to the details. Shakespeare may be writing his most glorious poetry in the afterlife, but no communicator sees fit to quote it for us. Edison may have come up with fascinating new inventions, but they remain unknown to us on earth. There are exceptions – the occasional medium who claims to receive symphonic compositions by the great masters, or someone who obtains a patent on an invention that came to him in a dream – but these are rare.

For the most part, our afterlife communicators seem unable to describe what they do to pass the time. They also seem curiously unable to describe their own homes. We are told that the houses can be quite large, yet the only rooms that are described, for the most part, are sitting rooms in which company can be entertained. What about all the other rooms? Is there a kitchen? Doubtful, since we are told that only the greenest of the new arrivals still feels the need to eat. A bathroom? Presumably not, since the astral body has no digestive system. A bedroom? Unlikely, since sleep is unnecessary and there is no nighttime. But what, then, are all those other rooms in those large houses? What purpose do they serve? What's in them?

Such omissions are explained by believers as resulting from difficulties in communication. But it seems odd that all the varied communications received throughout more than a century should suffer from the same difficulties. And it is especially odd that communications that are impressively detailed, even verbose, still fall short when it comes to describing major facets of the next life.

In considering this, it may be good to remember that almost all communicators who exhibit any intellectual advancement remark on this next phase of existence as, in some sense, an illusion. Perhaps the most notable example is the allegedly channeled F.W.H. Myers, speaking through Geraldine Cummins, who referred to the next plane as "the plane of Illusion," "Illusion-land," "Shadow Land," and "the Lotus Flower paradise."*

The lotus flower, it should be remembered, was said to be eaten by addicts who were transported into a blissful fantasy. defines the term "lotus eater" as:

1. Classical Mythology. a member of a people whom Odysseus found existing in a state of languorous forgetfulness induced by their eating of the fruit of the legendary lotus; one of the lotophagi.   2. a person who leads a life of dreamy, indolent ease, indifferent to the busy world; daydreamer.

Myers, a classical scholar with a deep interest in Greek mythology, would have known both meanings.

Most often, this plane of "dreamy, indolent ease" and "languorous forgetfulness" is called Summerland, a term suggestive of an endless summer, which in turn suggests the long, lazy, timeless days of childhood. A common theme of the more advanced communicators is that Summerland is a fantasy or illusion created by the common subconscious memories, expectations, and desires of its inhabitants. Myers: "In Illusion-land you do not consciously create your surroundings through an act of thought. Your emotional desires, your deeper mind manufacture these without your being aware of the process."

Summerland is, in other words, a kind of shared dream. Now, a dream has a certain internal logic, yet there are typically omissions and even absurdities. Dreams involve sequential events but no clear sense of time. In a dream, we may engage in familiar activity repeatedly, even obsessively. We may find ourselves dreaming of the same behavior or situation over and over again. Dreams feel real and meaningful, but if, upon awakening, we try to retrieve the details, they often prove elusive or  nonsensical or trivial. Insights glimpsed in dreams, which seem extraordinarily important in the moment, are almost always exposed as trite when we recover them in our waking state.

All of this is arguably relevant to Summerland, as described by communicators. It has its own logic, but also its omissions; remember those mysterious extra rooms in people's houses, which are said to exist, but which are never described. Or remember the vagueness with which people address the question of their daily routine. The people of Summerland, and of lower astral planes, are said to engage in certain kinds of repetitive activity: on the lower levels, alcoholics continue to seek liquor, while the argumentative and violent continue to quarrel and fight; in Summerland, gardeners enjoy their gardens, artists paint their pictures, scientists work in their laboratories. Great insights are claimed, yet for the most part, the insights that come through the communications are disappointing and often dissolve into vague abstractions. Here's an example, again from the channeled Myers via Cummins:

Our surroundings are of a metaetheric character … It contains atoms of the very finest kind. They pass through your coarse matter. They belong to another state altogether …

Actually, though I call them atoms, they would appear to you to be of a fluid character …

This world beyond death … consists of electrons differing only in their fineness or increased vibratory quality from those known to earthly scientists. These very subtle units are extremely plastic and, therefore, can be molded by mind and will.

As physics goes, this is pretty thin soup.

What we see, I think, is that our communicators are very much like our dream selves. They are sure they have marvelous insights, but for the most part these don't hold up very well in the light of day. They talk blithely about all the wonderful things they do, but their actual activities seem confined to a few habitual behaviors learned on earth. They inhabit beautiful homes, but can't describe them. They hear beautiful music and exalted poetry, but can't convey it. Their scientists work in vague laboratories doing vague things – much as the average person today knows, in a general way, that scientists are smart people in lab coats who are surrounded by test tubes and cyclotrons and who come up with new discoveries of some sort.

It is, perhaps, rather childish. This fact leads skeptics, understandably enough, to dismiss the whole thing as patent silliness. But there's another way to look at it.

Dreamland – the country of sleep – is the playground of the subconscious. If hypnosis has taught us anything, it is that the subconscious is tractable and compliant. It believes what it is told. It has limited critical faculties. It is childlike and trusting.

Summerland, to the extent that it is a shared dream or a kind of mass self-hypnosis, reflects the same qualities. It seems simplistic because the subconscious mind is itself simplistic. It resists critical analysis because the subconscious mind falters in the face of critical analysis. It is persistent, because the subconscious mind sincerely believes whatever it is told and takes at face value whatever it is shown. 

The most fluent mediums and automatic writers enter into a trance in order to make contact with communicators. It is said that they must match the communicators' "vibration." It is not clear exactly what "vibration" means in this context, but one possible implication is that the communicators themselves are in a kind of trance state, at least while they are communicating, and maybe even when they are not. The people of Summerland, we are told, do not need to sleep. Is this because they are asleep already? The dreamer, typically, does not know that he dreams. The dream, for him, is reality, vivid and immediate. It persists in a sequential but curiously timeless fashion, seeming complete and logical despite its lacunae and contradictions. 

Summerland may be a world of sleepwalkers. A fantasy world, created by the combined intelligence of the subconscious minds of its inhabitants, minds that are imaginative but limited, more sensual than intellectual, trusting and not critical. A world created for rest and recuperation, for amusement and recreation, for exploration and learning – a kind of Disneyland of the Spirit. Just as Disneyland has its sub-theme parks  – Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, etc. – so Summerland has its own geography, its various communities organized around different belief systems. There appears to be a Christianland, complete with pearly gates and choirs of angels; Englishland, a bucolic countryside with thatched roof cottages; Ozland, an Emerald City of gleaming skyscrapers; and many more. And there are lower planes – what we might call Suicideland, where despairing souls linger in a self-imposed purgatory; and Warriorland, where ignorant armies clash by night; and Boozeland, where the search for hedonistic thrills continues pointlessly and insensibly.

Among spiritualists, it is generally understood that the lower planes are illusions experienced by people in a state of something like self-hypnosis or unhealthy self-absorption. But the same may be true of our friends in Summerland, as Myers and other advanced communicators have actually said. The full implications of their statement have perhaps not been appreciated.

In short, we sometimes wonder why communicators cannot convey trenchant details, stunning insights, and dizzying creative triumphs. We chalk it up to a bad connection, a translation error, a glitch. But maybe the explanation is simpler. Maybe, as far as Summerland is concerned, there is simply nothing more to convey.


*All Myers-communicator quotes are taken from Chris Carter's Science and the Afterlife Experience, which in turn quotes Geraldine Cummins' books Beyond Human Personality and The Road to Immortality.

Categories: Fortean

Stranger things

Michael Prescott - Mon, 05/06/2017 - 12:37am

In the comments section of my recent post "A Close Shavian," Steve Hume recommended a turn-of-the-century investigation by magician and debunker David P. Abbott, who found himself at least somewhat at a loss to explain a direct-voice medium of his acquaintance. Happily, Abbott's book on the subject is sold by Amazon. The book is The History of a Strange Case, published by the Open Court Publishing Company in 1908.

Although available in book form, the piece is actually a monograph, originally printed in the magazine The Open Court in May and June 1908. It runs 50 pages and includes a postscript by Paul Carus, editor of Open Court. From Carus's remarks, it's pretty clear that Open Court was firmly devoted to debunking all spiritualist claims. Abbott himself, a confirmed skeptic, had used his deep knowledge of magic and mentalist tricks to debunk many mediums. But this case left him unsettled.

In 1906, Abbott received a letter from Mr. E.A. Parsons, later determined to be a well-known figure in the world of magic operating under the pseudonym Henry Hardin. The letter concerned a Mrs. Elizabeth Blake, described as "an elderly lady in a little town in Ohio" who offered her services as a medium. Despite his wide-ranging knowledge of magicians and the tools of their trade, Parsons was unable to determine how Mrs. Blake had fooled him – if indeed she was not the genuine article.

Mrs. Blake, Parsons recounted, "is the wife of an humble farmer and resides in an obscure country village [the town of Bradrick]. She has resided there all of her life and has reared a large family of children. She has never been over twenty miles from her home and has but little education. She is, however, very intelligent. She gave her sittings for a long time free of charge, and later began charging ten cents. She now charges one dollar, but does not insist on anything."

Her technique was unusual. She had the apparent ability to produce voices inside a sealed container. "She can use a glass lamp chimney or any closed receptacle … and I have heard the voices just as plainly coming out of the sound hole of a guitar that lay upon the table." But her usual mode of communication involved a special trumpet, or horn, that had been constructed for her. It was made of two metal cones attached at the large ends, with saucer-shaped pieces at the small ends.

"The trumpet is empty and can be examined by anyone," Parsons wrote. "The sitter takes one end of this trumpet and places it to his ear, while the lady does the same with the other end, placing it to her ear. At once the sitter plainly hears voices in the trumpet. These purport to be the voices of the spirits of his dead friends and relatives. They reply to any questions which he speaks out loud.… Now this is done in broad daylight, anywhere, even out-of-doors. I investigated this phenomenon seven hours altogether, giving it every possible test, but could obtain no clue to it.… The information which I received from the whispers was correct in every case. I had never seen the lady before, nor had I been in Ohio previously."

Abbott, intrigued, wrote to Mrs. Blake and invited her to visit him. In reply he received a letter from her physician, identified in Abbott's article only as Dr. X—. The doctor told Abbott that his patient had suffered an accident that left her crippled, making it impossible for her to travel. Abbott struck up a correspondence with Dr. X—, who was himself a believer in Mrs. Blake's mediumistic talents. In one sitting, the doctor, speaking to his purported father, asked about the time when the father took him off to college.

"When we walked towards the buildings, what was said to me by some of the students?"

"They yelled 'rat' at you."

"Spell that word," I requested, as I desired no misunderstanding.

"R-a-t," spelled the voice.

This was correct. As a young man, the doctor had attended a military school, where it was a tradition to shout "Rat!" at new arrivals.

Still more interested, Abbott decided to investigate in person. Discovering that Prof. James H. Hyslop,  Secretary of the American Society for Psychical Research, was also interested, he arranged to meet Hyslop in Ohio. Abbott also arranged, at the last minute, to have his cousin, George W. Clawson, accompany him. He thought it advisable to bring someone totally unknown to Dr. X— and to Mrs. Blake. Clawson traveled under an assumed name.

Abbott and Clawson had their first meeting with Mrs. Blake before Hyslop had arrived. Dr. X— swore that he had never mentioned Abbott's name to his patient, and that she knew of him and Clawson only as two friends from New York. The séance took place in daylight, and although Mrs. Abbott said that her recent illness had deprived her of power and she could "get nothing satisfactory any more," whispery voices did come through the trumpet. Much of the whispering was unintelligible, but there were a few meaningful exchanges. Abbott writes:

Mr. Clawson now took the trumpet. I may remark that although Mr. Clawson's parents, and also a little son who was never named, were dead, his whole heart was set on obtaining a communication from his daughter Georgia, who had recently died ... . This daughter had been very affectionate, and had always called her mother by the pet names of "Muz" and "Muzzie." She also generally called her father "Daddie" in a playful way. She had recently graduated from a school of dramatic art, and while there had become affianced to a young gentleman whose Christian name is "Archimedes." He is usually called "Ark" for short. Mr. Clawson had these facts in mind, intending to use them as a matter of identification.

A voice now addressed Mr. Clawson, saying, "I am your brother."

"Who else is there? Any of my relatives?" asked Mr. Clawson.

"Your mother is here," responded the voice.

"Who else is there?"

"Your baby."

"Let the baby speak and give its name," requested Mr. Clawson.

This was followed by many indistinct words that could not be understood. Finally a name was pronounced that Mr. Clawson understood to be "Edna." He had no child of that name; but in what followed, although his lips addressed the name "Edna," his whole mine addressed his daughter, "Georgia."

"Edna, if you are my daughter, tell me what was your pet name for me?" he asked.

"I called you Daddie," the voice replied.

"What was your pet name for your mother?"

"I called her Muz, and sometimes Muzzie," responded the voice.

As for Abbott, he received what could have been the name Grandma Daily, which was correct, but he wasn't absolutely sure he'd heard it right. He also heard the names Harvey, Dave, and then Dave Harvey, as well as the initials J.A., and possibly the name Asa. All of these names bore some connection to him, but the communications were so faint and indistinct that he couldn't be certain of what he was hearing. Overall, the sitting was intriguing but unsatisfactory.

When Hyslop arrived, the investigators returned to Mrs. Blake's cottage, this time holding a nighttime séance in the dark. Now the phenomena were considerably better.

We sat a very long time, and it seemed that nothing was to occur. Finally a blue light floated over the table between us, and another appeared near the floor close to where Mr. Clawson and Mr. Blake [the medium's husband] were sitting. The trumpet on the table was also lifted up over my head and dropped to the floor by my side.

Finally, the deep-toned voice of a man spoke. It appeared to be about a foot above and behind Mrs. Blake's head. The voice was melodious, soft, low in pitch, and very distinct. This is the voice that is claimed to be that of her dead son, Abe [serving as a control or spirit guide].

The voice said that the medium was too weak to provide good manifestations that evening. Nevertheless, the sitters continued to wait.

In a short time we heard a man's voice of a different tone entirely, which Dr. X— recognized as the voice of his grandfather. These voices were open,– that is, they were in no trumpet and were vocal. The tone of this last voice was that of a very old man, and the conversation was commonplace. Soon a much more robust and powerful man's voice spoke, and said: "James, we will give way to the others."…

I now took the trumpet. That the reader may fully understand what is to follow, I shall state a few facts. My Grandmother Daily, in the latter part of her life, resided in the country in Andrew County, Missouri. There my mother grew up. My grandmother died thirteen years ago. My mother's maiden name was "Sarah Frances Daly." She was always known to all as "Fannie Daily," and where she now resides is known to everyone as "Fannie Abbott." Even Mr. Clawson did not then know her correct Christian name.... She always called my sister "Adie" [short for Ada], and myself "Davey." This was many years ago.

A voice in the trumpet now addressed me, claiming to be that of my grandmother, Mrs. Dailey. [She conveyed her love to Abbott and to his mother and father.]

"You want me to tell my mother and my father that you talked to me?" I repeated, hardly knowing what to say.

"Yes, Davey, and tell Adie, too," replied the voice very plainly.… "Tell Adie, too," the voice again repeated. It certainly seemed incredible that this voice could manifest such intimate knowledge of my family's names, one thousand miles away. I thereupon decided to further test this knowledge.

"Grandma, what relation is Adie to me?" I quickly asked.

"Why, sister Adie, Davie. Tell sister Adie. You know what I mean – tell sister Adie."…

"Grandma, now if this is really you talking to me, you know my mother's first name. Tell it to me," I said.

"Sarah," answered the voice, quick as a flash. It was so quickly answered that the name "Sarah" had not entered my own consciousness at the instant.…

"What do you say it is?" I again asked.

"Sarah," again the voice plainly responded. 

[After this, a voice claiming to be that of Abbott's uncle David Patterson came through, calling himself Uncle Dave.]

One remarkable feature of the voice which claimed to be that of my Uncle David, was that it resembled his voice when alive, to an extent sufficient to call to my mind the mental picture of his appearance; and for an instant to give me that inner feeling of his presence that hearing a well-known voice always produces in one. I said nothing of this at the time. I may say that during all of our sittings, no other voice bore any resemblance to the voice of the person to whom it claimed to belong, so far as I was able to detect.

The next day there was another séance at the Blake house. Again Grandma Daily purportedly came through, this time communicating with Mr. Clawson.

"What is the name of Dave's mother?" now asked Mr. Clawson.

"Sarah," answered the voice.

"Yes, but she has another name. What is her other name?" asked Mr. Clawson.


"That is not what I mean. Give me her other name," continued Mr. Clawson.

"Abbott," answered the voice.

"That is not what I mean. She has another name. What do I call her when I speak to her? I call her by some other name. What do I call her?" insisted Mr. Clawson.

"Aunt Fannie. Don't you think I know my own daughter's name, George?" plainly spoke the voice, so that I could understand the words outside [i.e., without pressing an ear to the trumpet].

"I know you do, Grandma, but I wanted to ask you for the sake of proving your identity," continued Mr. Clawson.

"I want Davey to tell his mother and his father that he talked to me, that I am all right, and I don't want him to forget it. Davey, I want you to be good and pray, and meet me over here," continued the voice, speaking plainly so that I could hear outside.

When I used to visit my dear old grandmother many years ago, upon parting with me she would invariably shed tears, and say, "Davey, be good and pray, and meet me in heaven."…

With the exception of the words "over here" in place of the word "heaven," these last words spoken by the voice were the identical words which my grandmother spoke to me the last time I ever heard her voice.

Mrs. Blake switched to her other ear, saying that her arm was tired. She could evidently produce the voices regardless of which side of her head  was pressed to the trumpet. At this point, Abbott decided to let it be known that the name Edna, used in the previous séance for Mr. Clawson's daughter, was not correct. Shortly after, a whispered voice told Mr. Clawson, "Daddie, I am here."

"Who are you?" asked Mr. Clawson.

"Georgia," replied the voice.

"Georgia? Georgia, is this really you?" asked Mr. Clawson, with intense emotion and earnestness.

"Yes, Daddie. Didn't you think I knew my own name?" asked the voice.…

 "Georgia, what is the name of your sweetheart to whom you were engaged?" now asked Mr. Clawson. [The first reply could not be understood, so Mr. Clawson asked her to spell the name.]

"A-r-c, Ark," responded the voice, spelling out the letters and then pronouncing the name.

"Give me his full name, Georgia," requested Mr. Clawson.

"Archimedes," now responded the voice.

"Will you spell the name for me?"

[This was done, and the spelling was correct. Mr. Clawson asked where Ark was now.]

"He is in New York." This, Mr. Clawson afterwords informed me, was correct.…

Mr. Clawson was sufficiently overcome by the conversation that he had to leave the room. After ward, he was heard to remark, "I feel just as I did the day we buried her; and I have surely talked to my dead daughter this day."

That afternoon the group escorted Mrs. Blake into town where, Abbott tells us, "we conducted the most successful experiment of the end of our entire visit." Mr. Clawson asked Georgia for her middle name, which was correctly given as Chastine, which the voice spelled out correctly. He asked, "Where did you board when you went to school in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts?"

"With Aunt Burgess," responded the voice.

"Tell me the name of your schoolmate friend," Mr. Clawson asked.

"Nellie Biggs," instantly responded the voice.

"With what friend did you go to school in Kansas City?" asked Mr. Clawson.

"Mary," responded the voice. [All of those answers were correct. The voice was then asked for  the name of her mother's mother.]

"Grandma Marcus is here," responded the voice. I will say that Mrs. Marquis had died but recently, and that her grandchildren always pronounced her name is if spelled "Marcus."...

The loudest voice addressed another visitor, who is identified only as "the governor of a state, who happened to be present," but whose name Abbott was not at liberty to give. This voice 

first spoke apparently in Mrs. Blake's lap, just as I was placing the trumpet to my ear. The voice was very deep-toned, and reverberated over the large room so loudly that Prof. Hyslop, who had stepped out, our friend's stenographer, and others entered and stood around the walls listening.

Abbott then heard from somebody purporting to be his grandmother, who sent this message to Abbott's still-living father: "Tell him that I am all right, and tell him not to be a 'doubting Thomas'."

"Grandma, that I may convince him that it was really you talk to me, tell me his name."

"George Alexander Abbott," spoke the voice, instantly and distinctly, so that all could hear.…  [This was correct.]

The admonition against being a doubting Thomas was repeated. Dr. X— said, "That is the first time I ever heard that expression used in any of Mrs. Blake's sittings." Abbott notes that both he and his eldest sister clearly remembered their grandmother saying to her father, "Oh, George, don't be a 'doubting Thomas'!" He says they heard this expression many times, but at the time of the sitting it had passed from his memory.

After a few more communications, none of them very significant, the séance ended. This also was the end of Abbott's experiments with Mrs. Blake, although Hyslop stayed on for further sittings. Afterward, Dr. X— contacted Abbott to describe an experiment that he had conducted on his own. He  obtained eight identical boxes and packed in each one a different article that had belonged to his late father. The boxes were then mixed and stacked, and his bookkeeper was asked to draw a box at random while the doctor's back was turned. "The object was to select a box the contents of which the doctor would not himself know." The doctor carried the box with him in his coat pocket when he went to the séance. Abbott tells us:

During this time the doctor requested his wife to ask the voice [of the doctor's father] what was in the former's pocket.…

"I am very anxious to have you do this so that I can report it to Prof. Heslop, and if you say so I will take the lid off the box to enable you to see better," spoke the Doctor.

"That is not necessary. I can see the contents as well with the lid on as with it off," responded the voice.

"Well, what is in it?" asked the Doctor.

"My pass I used to travel with," replied the voice. The Doctor's father used to have several annual passes. Some of them he never used, but one he used almost exclusively. Upon examining the box it was found to contain this pass.

Abbott was clearly unsettled  by the entire experience, and he does not claim to be able to explain it completely. He does, however, advance certain theories or hypotheses, to which he attaches varying degrees of certainty. How convincing these are is a debatable.

He is quite certain that Mrs. Blake produced the voices herself. He writes:

I am satisfied that the whispered words originate in her throat, and that the vocal voices are produced lower down in the chest. These sounds I believe are conducted from the throat through an abnormal Eustachian canal, to a point close to the tympanic membrane. The office of this membrane is to transmit sound waves; so that once they are there, the sound waves are easily transferred into the outer or auditory canal. How these sounds can be guided into either ear at will, and how the nostrils can prevent their exit, I can only surmise.

In other words, he believes that "these voices came out of the lady's ears." I am no expert in medical science or anatomy, but this strikes me as exceedingly unlikely, especially when we consider that some of the voices were loud enough to be heard from some distance away. Remember that the voice that addressed the unnamed governor in broad daylight, in an office in town (far from Mrs. Blake's home), was said to be loud enough to be heard from an adjacent room. It is not at all clear to me how a voice produced deep in the chest and somehow channeled through the eustachian tube and out through the ear could possibly be that loud, even assuming it is possible to channel vocalizations through the ears in the first place. To be honest, I find this entire theory patently absurd.

Nevertheless, Abbott pronounces himself content with it. It leaves him, however, with the problem of explaining how Mrs. Blake knew so much about him and Mr. Clawson, especially since the latter was traveling incognito. He admits that he has no definite explanation, but suggests that Mrs. Blake might be part of a network of mediums who exchanged information about their clients. Abbott could have been known to the mediumistic community in his capacity as a debunker. Mr. Clawson had visited mediums on prior occasions.

Of course, this assumes that Mrs. Blake, who lived in an isolated village and had little or no known contact with the wider world (she herself said she had never traveled more than two and a half miles from home in her lifetime), was able to obtain such information. It also assumes that the information gathered by such a network was extraordinarily detailed and precise, and that it could be conveyed to her very quickly — presumably between the first and second séances, both held on the same day (since she could not have known Clawson would be there until the first séance, and she gave him good evidence at the second séance). When we consider that Clawson did not give his real name at first, though on a subsequent day he incautiously revealed it, the puzzle of how Mrs. Blake could possibly obtain any information about him only deepens. 

Here are some excerpts of Abbott's hypotheses, which he himself does not seem to be very confident in:

That the name "Brother Eddy" was a guess is quite improbable, but of course could be possible; while it would have been a possibility for the name "Grandma Daily" to have been secured in advance.…

In regard to the pet names, "Muz," "Muzzie," and "Daddie," given Mr. Clawson at the first sitting, only the possibility of a misinterpretation of sounds can be suggested. The names given me, "Dave Harvey," "Asa," and my own name, belong to those that could have been secured in advance.…

[At the second sitting] I secured the names "Sarah" and "Ada," together with the correct relationship of the latter. There was no misinterpretation of sounds. These names belong to those that it would have been possible to have secured in advance, but at the time I was so thoroughly convinced that such was not the case, that I was greatly startled.…

"The names "Lizzie" or "Lissie," and "Aunt Fannie," given Mr. Clawson at this sitting, are among those that could have been secured in advance. As to the names "Georgia" and "Archimedes," with the latter's correct location at the time, together with the correct spelling of his name, I can offer nothing satisfactory; for I do not think there was any misinterpretation of sounds.…  My grandmother's parting request may be a phrase generally used by the voices….

This last point refers to the words "Be good and pray, and meet me over here," which were almost identical to an expression Abbott's grandmother always used when they parted, and indeed used the very last time he saw her. To chalk this up as a "stock phrase" (Abbott's term) used by cheating mentalists strikes me as pretty desperate.

[In the afternoon sitting on the second day] the names "Chastine," "Aunt Burgess," "Nellie Biggs," "Mary," "Grandma Marcus," my father's correct name, and also my wife's first name, were given. In addition to this was the name "Dody," the request from my father "Not to be a 'doubting Thomas'" and the statement that my wife's mother is alive. Some of these things Mr. Clawson did not know, and a number of them I did not know. We must, however, consider as a possibility that [Mr. Clawson] might have imparted certain information to Mrs. Blake during his fifteen-minute ride [to the office in town]. He assured me that he did not, and he is certainly sincere in his statement.… In case he did so, the matter evidently passed from his memory very quickly, for he was positive that such was not the case.

In other words, the sitting can be explained only if Clawson acted like a complete idiot, blurting out reams of personal information, and then immediately forgot everything he had said, even though it all came up in the séance a short time later. 

Abbott concludes that he cannot assert that any fraud was used, at least concerning the information provided, and that he can only suggest possibilities. "I must still leave the case to a certain extent shrouded in mystery."

The book's short postscript is less open to the idea of mystery. Paul Carus tells us that the Blake case  is "not so extraordinary as to preclude probabilities which would reduce the mysterious facts to mere stultificaions without even throwing any suspicion upon the honesty of the main actors concerned." In other words, he feels the whole thing is pretty easy to explain, even though the actual investigator and confirmed skeptic, David Abbott, doesn't agree.

Carus concludes with an airy wave of the hand: "…it would not be difficult to point out several explanations which are possible and would dispel the faintest shadow of mystery." Sadly, he does not enlighten us as to what those simple explanations might be.

Categories: Fortean

In like Flint

Michael Prescott - Tue, 30/05/2017 - 4:55pm

As part of my continuing series on the controversial direct-voice medium Leslie Flint, I have a few excerpts from a 1980 book called Love after Death, by Victoria Stevenson. To be honest, I don't find this material very interesting or evidential, but for purposes of thoroughness, I've decided to include it.

After losing her husband Bob, Victoria spent a good deal of time trying to make contact with him via mediums, electronic voice phenomena, and other means. In 1972 she had her first of two sittings with Leslie Flint. She notes:

He is so much sought after by people from all over the world that I had to make the appointment months in advance .…

Seven of us gathered in his sitting-room, settled on easy chairs and settees, and one couple even sat on the floor at Mr. Flint's feet with their tape-recorders .… [I wonder if they were Betty Greene and George Woods? - MP]

The lights were turned out and we all sat in complete darkness. Mr. Flint gave the date of the sitting and introduced himself, saying that no medium could guarantee results. We might, he said, sit there for an hour with nothing happening. There was nothing one could do about it. The important thing was to be natural .…

"The voices vary," he went on. "Sometimes they're loud, distinct, clear, with a personality and characteristics. At other times they don't sound a scrap like the person they are. It's one of those things! One doesn't know what the answers will be .… But even if you don't recognize the voice let it realize you respond. It's not so much the sound of the voice but what it says that really is important, I think."

He went on to say he didn't go into trances. "It would be very unusual if I do. I'm quite normal, and if I think it necessary to talk to the voices I will, but I prefer to keep out of the picture."…

If anyone for any reason, he told us, was not satisfied with the sitting he didn't want a fee.

The sitters talked among themselves in darkness until Mickey, Flint's spirit control, started speaking. When he got to Victoria, he told her that her husband was there.

"He knew you were coming this afternoon," Micky [sic] said, "and … I don't know what he means by … changing your route … but he says you weren't quite sure whether that was the right way."[Ellipses in original.]

"You are quite right," I said. Mr. Flint's flat is in a part of London I didn't know well.

"And you couldn't quite make up your mind and he had to lead you because he didn't want you to get lost!" 

Since many first-time visitors to Flint might have had trouble finding his place, this comment is not necessarily very evidential.

Rather curiously, Mickey then turned his attention to another sitter, asking, "Are you Bobby?" She was not. "That's funny. Someone here is talking about Bobby. Is there someone here called Bobby?" Victoria's husband was Bob, so she identified "Bobby" as a message for her.

What's odd about this, if we assume that genuine communication was going on, is that Mickey was just talking to the husband a moment earlier, and yet now he seems to be hearing from a different person altogether – "someone here is talking about Bobby." Bobby is a pretty common name, and it's hard to resist the conclusion that Mickey was simply fishing in the expectation that one of the seven sitters would know somebody with that name or a similar name. It's possible, however, that someone else in the crowd of communicators was talking about the husband (we are told that a whole bunch of family members showed up on the other side). 

In any event, Bob himself was next to speak. Victoria tells us:

It didn't sound like Bob's voice – and I told him so. He sounded so grand.

"That's because I'm having to speak through this confounded box!" he said.

He spoke about voices that Victoria had recorded on tape – which might sound evidential, except that she and the other sitters had been talking about these voices before Mickey showed up. (The fact that she freely discussed these personal details in front of the medium does not speak well for her understanding of the protocols necessary to guard against fraud.)

She adds, "He talked of our home and put personal questions." But unfortunately we get no details, so it's impossible to know if Bob said anything specific or merely offered generalities that Victoria, who was clearly eager for contact, seized upon.

Then quite suddenly a voice called across:

"Doris! Doris!"

This is my first name, the one my family always called me by.

"This is Mother!" It was a light, bright, feminine voice. I recognized it at once as Mother's.

Well, she "recognized it" after it had been identified to her. The fact that the name Doris was used may or may not be significant, depending on how much Flint knew of his guests, and what name she used when making the appointment. 

She concludes, "It was a marvelous sitting and afterwards people crowded around me and congratulated me .…"

A year later, in 1973, she had a second sitting with Flint. Mickey came through as usual, asking one of the sitters, "Did you come with that lady, Vic? ... Are you with Vicky?… It's one of the names people call you, but it's not the name commonly used."

This seemed to me remarkable evidence: my Christian names are Doris Victoria, the first used by my family, and the second I use as my pen-name. I replied:

"Quite right, Micky [sic]. How did you know?"

"Because your Mum's telling me."

Again, it's unclear how much Flint knew about his guests. A year had passed, long enough that a fraudulent medium would have had time to find out that his sitter in 1972 used a pen name.

 Then, "Victoria!" came over the air, very faintly.

"Victoria!" A soft feminine voice whispered this a second time. "I'm not sure whether you can hear what I'm saying. Can you hear me? It's Mother."

"But – you never called me by my second name before!"

"I know." The voice was audible, but faint. "But I thought today I would, because it's not usual for you to use that name .…"

This doesn't make much sense to me. If anything, it seems counter-evidential. Assuming that the mother normally referred to her daughter as Doris, then calling her by the other name would seem like a "character error," as we say in the writing trade.

Victoria goes on to say that the voice did not sound "quite like" her mother's voice. The mother blamed "this box, I suppose. I don't understand much about it. All I know is that I could come and speak through – this box business – and I hope you can hear what I'm saying!"

She added that Bob was with her, as was Charles. Victoria didn't know anybody named Charles. Another very common name. Another fishing expedition?

Mickey assured her that "there was a Charles on your father's side of the family." There's no indication that Victoria ever confirmed this. Mickey then gave Victoria's married name, and a little later, a lady, "pushing herself in," introduced herself as Nell. Victoria tells us, "I'd recently lost a dear friend of that name." But she doesn't say whether the Nell communicator was specifically addressing her, or whether the name was simply thrown out there for any sitter to pick up on. Nor does she indicate that Nell said anything evidential about her passing, her relationship with Victoria, etc.

After this, Bob came through again.

He mentioned music and I asked him if it helped when we played it at home.

"That's what I mean. I try my utmost to draw near to you, and I must say I find music's a great help."

Without a transcript, it's impossible to be sure, but it sounds like Bob made a very general statement about music, which Victoria interpreted in a specific way – music that she played at home – an interpretation that Bob picked up on by saying that the music helped him to draw closer.

Following some other business with Mickey, the name Doris was again offered by a voice identifying itself as Bob. He said he was "so amused at Mother calling you Victoria," explaining that her mom "thought it would be interesting to let her know [she] hadn't forgotten [Victoria's] second name."

This doesn't help to clarify the character error. It sounds to me as if using the name Victoria was a mistake from which the "communicators" were still trying to recover.

At the end of the chapter, Victoria betrays her lack of knowledge of direct-voice mediumship in general, saying that for a long time she had no idea why the sittings were held in darkness or what the term "box" meant.

It was not until this book was about to be published that I put the question to Mr. Flint, who told me that Physical Mediums work in darkness as power and energy are drawn from the body of the medium and exude, as ectoplasm, a living substance which forms the artificial voice box.

It's hard to understand how somebody could attend two séances with Leslie Flint and even write a book about it without knowing these rather elemental facts.

Overall, as you can tell, I'm not impressed with this author or with these accounts. But there really isn't much to go on. Everything we've been told could probably be accounted for in terms of cold reading, warm reading (generalized statements that apply to most people), and hot reading (research into a sitter's background). The voices apparently did not sound much, if anything, like their living counterparts, and nothing that sounds particularly evidential was communicated. Victoria was obviously eager to be convinced and accepted whatever she was told (though she does say that she continued her quest, seeking still more proof), and she doesn't seem to have taken any precautions to protect her personal information. 

I don't think we can conclude much from this narrative, but there it is. The investigation continues! 


Categories: Fortean

A close Shavian

Michael Prescott - Tue, 23/05/2017 - 7:48pm

Continuing our ongoing discussion about controversial direct-voice medium Leslie Flint, I'd like to quote some material from Allan Barham's 1982 book Life Unlimited: The Persistence of Personality Beyond Death. The book includes two chapters on Flint, whom Barham knew personally. Barham says he attended many Flint séances, often bringing friends along.

In the first chapter, he quotes from Flint's alleged spirit control, Mickey, who explains why the voices don't always sound quite right:

What one must bear in mind is that all methods of communication, whether it is in this form or any other, is basically a mental thing. And therefore, when a person comes to speak to you – when the scientist whose job it is to build up the voice-box from the ectoplasm supplied by the medium [has finished his work]: when it is all arranged and built up ready for the communicator, the transmission of their thought into sound, via the voice-box, is quite an art in itself. One has to learn how to manipulate it, and you've got to concentrate the mentality on saying certain things – invariably things that really are evidential to the recipient.

And what one has to bear in mind most of all is that all communication is artificial – it must be. You see, the majority of people who go to a séance – to this kind of séance, that is – they say "If that voice speaks to me in so-and-so's voice I'll believe it." And the point is that it doesn't always sound like the identical voice, because what produces the actual voice is, and must be, artificial. It cannot be under any circumstances the identical voice, because they are not using the same physical body or the same vocal organs under the same conditions.

What is actually happening is that they are trying to convert their thoughts into sound via the voice-box; the voice-box being artificial; temporarily constructed from ectoplasm, and kept in being, as far as possible, by the scientist who produces it and utilizes it. And I don't see how you can get the identical voice, the identical tone. Occasionally the voice is reproduced; another time it takes a long time to get anything like the original voice.

Whether or not we find this convincing, it is at least an attempt to explain why the voices often do not sound like the originals and why they sometimes sound too much like one another.

Most of the rest of Barham's coverage of Flint concerns a tape recording allegedly of the deceased George Bernard Shaw, known familiarly as G.B.S. This tape was not produced under anything like controlled conditions. According to Flint, he was having tea with a certain Mrs. Creet, his landlady, in one of her rooms (not the room he rented) when he had the feeling that someone was trying to come through. Barham tells us that a tape recorder was switched on and soon after, Shaw showed up. Barham was not present – the only people there were Flint and Mrs. Creet – but he did go to the trouble of interviewing the landlady. He concluded:

Mrs. Creet believed implicitly in the phenomenon of Direct Voice. She could have been called gullible, but she was certainly a woman of integrity. She confirmed what Leslie had told us, and in particular she confirms that the questions which she had asked G.B.S. were entirely spontaneous.

Naturally, we will have to take Barham's word for this. A skeptic could reasonably assert that Mrs. Creet was in on the trick and simply pulled the wool over Barham's eyes. The transcript of the tape, however, certainly suggests that she was enthralled by the conversation and entirely convinced of its genuineness.

Barham went further in his investigations. He made an effort to play the tape for various people who had known Shaw in life.

The first really impressive evidence for the authenticity of Shaw's communication came from George Bishop, a former dramatic critic of the Daily Telegraph, who had been a friend of G.B.S. for a great many years. It was with some reluctance that he consented to listen to the tape; he had no faith in psychic phenomena of this nature. But as soon as he heard the voice on the tape his attention was riveted, and he sat unmoving for the thirty minutes of the recording. When it was finished it was apparent that he was deeply moved, and he told me, "The mind and the mood are Shaw's."

The only difference that he had noticed, he said, between the voice of Shaw post-mortem and the Shaw whom he remembered was that the latter had a faster delivery than that on the tape. But he was in little doubt that it was Shaw himself who had spoken.

Barham, however, was not quite satisfied with this testimony because "it was an old friend who was concerned, who might have been influenced by the mechanism of wish-fulfillment." To get around this problem, he arranged to have the tape heard by some people who had known Shaw but had not been particularly friendly with him.

Like George Bishop, the writer Lawrence Easterbrook had known Shaw for many years, but was not, I think, a close friend. After he had heard the recording he wrote to me, "I found the G.B.S. recording interesting indeed. The more I think about it, the more impossible it seems for anyone but himself to have been responsible. It brought back to me the sense of infectious gaiety one got with him when he was in the family circle and not showing off. You felt the world with all its follies was tremendous fun, to be laughed at with gentleness and understanding."

Dame Sybil Thorndike did not agree about the "not showing off." She told me, "It sounds like Shaw putting on an act for people whom he despised intellectually."

J.B. Priestley did not believe that the voice was that of Shaw, but he admitted to me that George Bishop had known G.B.S. better than he had himself.

Barham concludes that the reactions were mixed. As for his own personal view:

I don't know whether Shaw communicated through Leslie Flint or not. Nevertheless I have an opinion about it. First, as I have indicated, I do not believe that Mr. Flint has a mind which is capable of producing the spontaneous conversation that is heard on the tape. I refer here to his conscious mind, as I have learned to know it over the years. What the unconscious mind contains provides one of the largest question marks in the area of psychical research.

It is conceivable that some other mind in an earthly body, capable of Shavian expression, telepathically provided the material that emerged at the séance. It is also conceivable that a mischievous discarnate being personated Shaw deceased. Some people might even believe, I suppose, that the devil was responsible for what took place, in order to mislead the faithful and attract them to Spiritualism. All that can be done is to consider the evidence, and to decide, if you can, where the probability lies.

In the second chapter dealing with Flint, Barham includes the greater part of a transcript of the G.B.S. tape itself. This is too long to quote in its entirety (it runs about ten pages), but it does convey a definite sense of personality and what you might call intellectual joie de vivre. The excerpts below were mainly chosen to highlight the humor of the exchange. Following the book's practice, "Shaw's" remarks are italicized.

Well, my name probably will not convey very much to you. You may have casually heard it mentioned in conversation; or it may be possible that you were one of the very disappointed people who came out of the theater grumbling about wasted money, after having seen one – or more perhaps if you ever went to second time, that is, to one of my plays....

I am very grateful indeed for many of the compensations of the earthly existence; but I have no desire whatever to return, should it be possible, that is; to return to live it all over again, and become, as I believe some people say one does, someone else. The fact of having been George Bernard Shaw is enough for any one person for any time.

Mrs. Creet: Oh, your name will last everlastingly I should think.

What a dreadful thought that is....

Mrs. Creet: You were a wonderful old man, you know. You lived to a very great age.

I don't mind "wonderful"; I rather object to the "old."…

Well, I must admit [the afterlife] was a very great surprise. I think the surprise of finding that I was still alive, and yet I was dead, was in itself a very great disappointment to me.… I could see no point in continuing. After all's said and done, I could see no point in a life after death. I think that an earthly existence such as I experienced was enough for any one man….

Mrs. Creet: The continuation is very much more pleasant than it has been on the earth, isn't it?

You seem to know more about it than I do! May I be allowed to say, madam, since you have not yet arrived here, by what right can you tell me that it's better over here?…

Of course, I realize now that me – or I, if I should speak in the so-called correct English – that I was more than the body. The same as a lot of people said that the preface to my plays was more to the point and more important than the play itself.

Mrs. Creet: That's quite true.

Oh, you agree with that do you?

Mrs. Creet: Oh, I do. I think your prefaces are marvelous.

Well, it's a pity they couldn't act the preface, and just leave the play out.…

[As an aside, I find Shaw's pique at having his mock self-effacing remark taken seriously rather amusing and very much in keeping with the touchy egos of many creative types. - MP]

I've never been terribly keen to be a sinner. In fact, when I tried to be a sinner, I was never very successful – much to my great disappointment. I wanted to sin once or twice with several very charming ladies, but they would only sin by correspondence, which was no satisfaction to me at all!… I was a bit of a sentimental old fool, you know, but I wouldn't let people know it. At least, I tried to avoid them realizing it. I used to put on a brusque manner, you know, and try and waggle my beard and frighten them. I didn't always succeed; I did it much better by postcards. Now I come to think about it, I was much more successful with my pen than ever I was with my tongue.…

Mrs. Creet: When you were passing over… Tell us something about that. I'm always very interested…

I never knew a woman who was so anxious to know about death before! Why don't you wait until you come?… Surely, my dear, it's more interesting to know something about life rather than death.

Mrs. Creet: Yes, but then you can start with death, you see, and as you gradually go on, we will hear a bit more.

One usually starts with birth and ends up with death. But now I've had to reverse the procedure and start with death.… But I must admit that I was very much surprised, and very much perturbed … and at the same time very elated; if one can have three such different emotions all at once. I was elated because I realized that I hadn't lost the opportunity to do something which I had always wanted to do – and that was write a successful play. Because you know although financially my plays were successful, I was never really satisfied with them myself. But I'm just telling you that as a secret. You must never let anyone else know. Otherwise they might think that I wasn't so good as they thought I was!…

Well, I met my own parents, of course. I can't say I was exactly elated about that, but they seemed to be much more excited about it than I was.…

Where were we? Oh, I was talking about Oscar [Wilde]. Of course, you know he was a fool, but then again most of the best people are! Most of the most intellectually brilliant people, as far as the world is concerned, are considered fools; so there's hope perhaps for you!…

[Another rather clever jab at the happily oblivious Mrs. Creet. - MP]

The only people, I think, who really had any affection for me were the children, who were never really frightened of me like the adults. I think children are much more trusting; they have much more faith in human beings. Whereas as you get older you become suspicious; and children are very rarely suspicious, especially of old men, because I think that they realize that old men might be Father Christmas in disguise, and bring them a nice present at Christmas if they treat them nicely.… I probably would have filled the position very nicely, now I come to think of it. In fact I think I'd have made a much better Father Christmas than a playwright!…

I'm just joking; because I realize that you are in rather an invidious position, poor dears, sitting up here in this room in the dark, listening to a voice coming out of the void, and not knowing quite who, what or how. After all, I say I'm G.B.S. You haven't the faintest idea. I might be Jesus Christ for all you know. But there you are; that's a matter of opinion.

[Possibly another witticism, suggesting that it's a matter of opinion whether or not Shaw is the equal of Jesus Christ. If this is a joke, it passes completely over Mrs. Creet's head. - MP]

Mrs. Creet: Oh, but we know you're G.B.S. by what you say.

But you know, when you come to think of it, people do accept things too much on face value.…

I know Oscar's very interested [in producing more plays]; and as for that chappie friend of yours, Chopin, he's rounding us all up.

Mrs. Creet: Isn't he a wonderful soul, GBS?

He's a very fine fellow indeed; but you know there's such a thing as letting the dead rest! And if I know him, he's not going to let anybody rest!…

I don't think there are the artistes of the caliber of the old days [in the theater today]. I think that is partly because there are no great actor-managers. I think it is that in the old days they used to, as you know, tour the provinces; they use to learn their work the hard way. I mean they were trained; they knew every aspect of their art. They weren't fêted and courted by society like they are today. Today the theatrical profession seems more interested in the social register than it actually seems interested in "the boards," which I think is a pity. You can't divide yourself. There are exceptions, of course.

In [Henry] Irving's latter days he was very much courted and fêted; but he always kept his distance, more or less, from the general public. But then again, I think that he had the theater at heart; he wanted to make it respectable because, you know, in my early years the theater wasn't exactly a respectable place. No, it was the sort of place where one went to be entertained, and one admired the actors of the day. One went to see special types of plays and special types of theaters; and the orchestra-pit was put there to separate the public from the vagabonds. That was the only reason they ever had an orchestra-pit, because it wasn't particularly so much the musicians that mattered, because they were just put there with their instruments to keep the two apart. Usually somebody would blow on a trumpet to let people know there was a difference between the angels and the devils.

It can certainly be argued that there is nothing especially evidential in all this, apart from a few references to figures known to Shaw in his earthly days. Still, the quoted comments do not seem out of character or markedly below the intellectual level Shaw attained in life. There is an engaging blend of exaggerated self-deprecation and touchy vanity, a certain amused scorn for his interlocutor, combined perhaps with a touch of pity, and a persuasive nostalgia for the great old days of his youth, when men like Irving (a towering figure in London stagecraft) dominated the scene. If this is merely a performance – and an improvised one, at that – by Leslie Flint, a man of very limited education, then it is a small masterpiece.

Barham concludes:

It is doubtful whether any Irish intonation is discernible in the communication. If this is indeed what it purports to be, the reason for the lack of an appropriate accent may be the artificial method of the production of the voice, as was suggested earlier. Apart from this, I remember what one of Shaw's friends told me, namely that the Irish accent was put on when he spoke on public occasions.

Categories: Fortean

Natural born killers?

Michael Prescott - Fri, 19/05/2017 - 8:22pm

Some time ago we had a discussion about whether some people are just born bad — the "bad seed" idea. Here's a lengthy article from The Atlantic dealing sympathetically but realistically with this issue. (You may be required to disable ad blocking on that page.)

Starting at age 6, Samantha began drawing pictures of murder weapons: a knife, a bow and arrow, chemicals for poisoning, a plastic bag for suffocating. She tells me that she pretended to kill her stuffed animals.

“You were practicing on your stuffed animals?,” I ask her.

She nods.

“How did you feel when you were doing that to your stuffed animals?”


“Why did it make you feel happy?”

“Because I thought that someday I was going to end up doing it on somebody.”...

Samantha had just turned 6. Suddenly Jen heard screaming from the back seat, and when she looked in the mirror, she saw Samantha with her hands around the throat of her 2-year-old sister, who was trapped in her car seat. Jen separated them, and once they were home, she pulled Samantha aside.

“What were you doing?,” Jen asked.

“I was trying to choke her,” Samantha said.

“You realize that would have killed her? She would not have been able to breathe. She would have died.”

“I know.”

“What about the rest of us?”

“I want to kill all of you.”...

Four months later, Samantha tried to strangle her baby brother, who was just two months old....

Samantha was diagnosed with conduct disorder with callous and unemotional traits. She had all the characteristics of a budding psychopath.... Researchers shy away from calling children psychopaths; the term carries too much stigma, and too much determinism. They prefer to describe children like Samantha as having “callous and unemotional traits,” shorthand for a cluster of characteristics and behaviors, including a lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt; shallow emotions; aggression and even cruelty; and a seeming indifference to punishment. Callous and unemotional children have no trouble hurting others to get what they want. If they do seem caring or empathetic, they’re probably trying to manipulate you.

Researchers believe that nearly 1 percent of children exhibit these traits, about as many as have autism or bipolar disorder....

Researchers believe that two paths can lead to psychopathy: one dominated by nature, the other by nurture. For some children, their environment—growing up in poverty, living with abusive parents, fending for themselves in dangerous neighborhoods—can turn them violent and coldhearted. These kids aren’t born callous and unemotional; many experts suggest that if they’re given a reprieve from their environment, they can be pulled back from psychopathy’s edge.

But other children display callous and unemotional traits even though they are raised by loving parents in safe neighborhoods. Large studies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have found that this early-onset condition is highly hereditary, hardwired in the brain—and especially difficult to treat. “We’d like to think a mother and father’s love can turn everything around,” Raine says. “But there are times where parents are doing the very best they can, but the kid—even from the get-go—is just a bad kid.”

Still, researchers stress that a callous child—even one who was born that way—is not automatically destined for psychopathy. By some estimates, four out of five children with these traits do not grow up to be psychopaths. The mystery—the one everyone is trying to solve—is why some of these children develop into normal adults while others end up on death row.

There's a lot more. Read the whole thing.

Categories: Fortean

All rats go to heaven

Michael Prescott - Mon, 15/05/2017 - 11:41pm

Back in 2014 I published three blog posts on a study that showed a surge of electrical activity in the brains of dying rats. (First post, second post, third post.)

The surge was suggested as a possible naturalistic explanation of the near-death experience. Some NDE researchers countered that the electrical surge was so extremely minute (too small to be detected by a standard EEG) that it could not account for the complexity of the subjective experience reported by patients.

Recently a reader sent me two more studies on same subject. The first article, "Asphyxia-activated corticocardiac signaling accelerates onset of cardiac arrest," was originally published in 2015. Its findings: 

Asphyxia stimulates a robust and sustained increase of functional and effective cortical connectivity, an immediate increase in cortical release of a large set of neurotransmitters, and a delayed activation of corticocardiac functional and effective connectivity that persists until the onset of ventricular fibrillation.... These results demonstrate that asphyxia activates a brainstorm, which accelerates premature death of the heart and the brain.

The second article, "Neural Correlates of Consciousness at Near-Electrocerebral Silence in an Asphyxial Cardiac Arrest Model," appeared in April of 2017. It concludes: 

In summary, we found asphyxial CA [= cardiac arrest] to induce a period of near-electrocerebral silence that was marked by hypersynchrony in the frontal lobes and increased power in the visual cortices, which suggests potential markers of consciousness.

The material in both cases gets very technical, as would be expected of articles written by and for neuroscientists.

My first reaction is that the electrical activity reported still seems to be extremely minimal and restricted to narrow bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. This would (I think) make it hard to account for the persistence of consciousness according to currently accepted models of brain functioning, which posit widespread "global" information processing. In addition, the surge is very brief, yet some NDEs take place considerably later and last longer (as estimated by patients' veridical observations).

These points were part of the rebuttal offered by Bruce Greyson, Edward F. Kelly, and W.J. Ross Dunseath after the earlier rat study was published: 

[T]he activity observed following cardiac arrest represents a tiny fraction of the total neuroelectric power present just before arrest ..., and thus it is misleading to describe these rat brains as being “hyperaroused.” All that can be concluded is that activity of unknown functional significance occurred at a few places in the EEG frequency spectrum in the context of near-total obliteration of activity accompanying the waking state. The pertinent question here is not whether there is any brain electrical activity at all after cardiac arrest, but whether there is activity of the type currently thought to be necessary for conscious experience....

[M]any reports of near-death experiences include verifiable perceptions by the experiencer that are anchored to specific time periods far longer than 30 s after cardiac arrest, the duration of the electrical surge in this study.

There was also a response by Robert Mays, who, like Greyson et al., argued that the electrical activity post-cardiac arrest was too small to account for consciousness.

The original researchers responded forcefully to Greyson et al. in this letter.

I think the NDE researchers' objections would apply to the new studies also. But I'm no expert, and perhaps there is something new in these papers, so I'm putting them out there to see if anyone more knowledgeable than I am in matters of neuroscience would like to comment.

Categories: Fortean

More on Flint

Michael Prescott - Sat, 06/05/2017 - 7:35pm

I figured that before ordering another book about Leslie Flint, I would check my own fairly large collection of paranormal literature to see if he was covered in any of the books I already own. Admittedly, many of these books are too specialized to touch on Flint's mediumship; I wouldn't expect a book devoted to near-death experiences, for instance, to talk about a direct-voice medium. Even so, I was surprised to find Flint mentioned in the index of only one book (other than the Neville Randall book I discussed in my last post).

It would appear that Flint does not occupy a particularly prominent position in parapsychological studies, despite his own claim of being the most tested medium in history.

The one book I did find was Is There an Afterlife? by the late David Fontana. As the subtitle (A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence) suggests, the book is a compendium of cases relevant to the question of life after death. Pages 233 through 237 cover Leslie Flint. Here are some excerpts:

So strong and consistent were the voices that Flint soon attracted the attention of researchers, and three of the experiments set up by them to test him deserve mention. In the first of these, organized by the Reverend Drayton Thomas in 1948, Thomas closed Flint's mouth with adhesive surgical tape over which he secured a scarf, then tied Flint's hands to the arms of his chair. Another cord was tied at his forehead so that he could not bend his head an attempt to remove scarf and tape by rubbing his mouth against his shoulders. The sitting proceeded as normal, and Drayton Thomas reported that independent voices were heard with all their usual clarity, sometimes even shouting loudly. At the close of the sitting, it was found that everything securing Flint* was still firmly in place.

[*The text reads "Ford," an obvious typo.]

This appeared to dispose of the theory held by some researchers, that although Flint might perhaps receive genuine spirit communications, the supposed independent voices were not independent at all but came from his own lips. A few weeks later Drayton Thomas arranged for the Research Officer of the SPR, Dr. Donald West (subsequently Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and twice President of the SPR) and other SPR members to attend a sitting of Flint's circle. Donald West was invited to secure Flint's arms to his chair and to seal his mouth with both horizontal and vertical strips of adhesive tape, and to trace around each strip with indelible pencil to ensure that any movement of the tapes during the sitting would be readily apparent. Flint, entranced on this occasion, sat in the darkness of a cabinet as it was agreed that the lights would remain on in the room. Again voices were heard, and Dr. West was given permission by the communicators to raise the curtain of the cabinet briefly during the sitting, with the lights still on, to check that everything securing Flint was still intact. All seemed well, but on checking at the end of the sitting Donald West discovered that one of the pieces of tape was no longer in line with his pencil markings. Although no suggestion was made that this was Flint's doing (one of the tapes may have moved slightly with Flint's labored breathing) this invalidated the test .…

There was no claim that Flint himself was responsible, and no explanation as to how, bound as he was, he could have displaced the tape deliberately or of how, with only a small displacement, he would have been able to fake independent voices. Nevertheless, Donald West's concern was to close every loophole that might permit critics to argue a normal explanation for the voices, the matter how unlikely this normal explanation might be. He was also doubtful that the cords binding Flint were fully secure owing to the thick coat that Flint insisted on wearing even though the cabinet was hot and stuffy, and would have preferred that the medium's hands were held throughout the sitting by disinterested observers.

Donald West attended two other sittings of the Flint circle, both of which took place in darkness and both of which left him unable to reach conclusions as to the genuineness or otherwise of the phenomena; he then invited Flint to participate in a more thorough investigation at the SPR offices. The conditions he suggested for the test were that the sitters would include "a majority of sympathetic spiritualists," that the medium should have his lips sealed and his hands held by sitters on either side, and that he should wear a throat microphone. The sitting could take place in complete darkness if Flint preferred, but in this case he should be under observation through an infrared viewer. Disappointed that he had not already satisfied Dr. West that the voices were genuine, Flint tells us in his autobiography that he refused.

It is a pity that Flint did not agree to be tested under Dr. West's conditions, none of which was in any sense unreasonable (a decision that he tells us in his book that he subsequently regretted) .…

However, two years later Leslie Flint again agreed to be put to the scientific test, this time under the supervision of Professor Bennett, an electrical engineer from Columbia University, and under the aegis of Drayton Thomas and Brigadier Firebrace, another prominent researcher. This time, in addition to the usual taping and trussing, Flint was fastened to a throat microphone wired to an amplifier that would detect even the slightest attempt to use his voice; his hands were held by investigators, and an infrared viewer that detects movement even in the dark was trained upon him throughout. Once again independent voices were heard, though more faintly than usual, and Professor Bennett was able to confirm that Flint's vocal cords were not involved in their production. Very near the end of the sitting the infrared viewer failed, and immediately the voice heard speaking at the time increased in volume. Flint tells us that Brigadier Firebrace confirmed these facts in writing to him, and testified that the medium could have had no knowledge that the viewer had failed, yet the independent voice "immediately doubled in volume." Firebrace concluded from this that infrared may weaken mediumship in some way .…

Flint worked at a time when it was possible to tape record independent voice settings, and two of Flint's regular sitters, George Woods and Betty Greene, were able to put on record over 500 of their conversations with communicators. These were later transcribed, and a selection published by Neville Randall (Randall 1975). George Woods and Betty Greene were concerned primarily to investigate the experience of dying and the nature of the afterlife (Betty Greene's opening question to communicators was "Can you describe your reactions when you found yourself alive?"), and although this material carries its own interest, it is regrettable that once again no consistent attempt was made by investigators to obtain the kind of personal details from communicators that could be verified later. It also seems odd that communicators did not themselves offer these details, and request that contact be made with their surviving relatives and friends. As many of the communicators were what is now generally called drop-ins (i.e. unknown to anyone present, and thus immune to the charge that their details came telepathically from the sitters,), this failure to collect verifiable information is doubly disappointing.

Flint was never identified in fraud, and his mediumship further supports the survivalist argument that communications through at least certain mediums do not appear to be due to any psychic abilities in the living so far identified in laboratory experiments.

Fontana's references include Flint's autobiography Voices in the Dark and Randall's Life After Death.  It's not clear if he used any other sources, or if Flint's claims about the independent validation of these tests were confirmed by the other people involved. 

Categories: Fortean

Our man Flint

Michael Prescott - Mon, 01/05/2017 - 12:21am

As my first step in examining the career of direct-voice medium Leslie Flint, I ordered an out-of-print title called Life After Death, by Neville Randall, originally published in 1975. The book is based exclusively on tape recordings of over 500 conversations carried out by George Woods and Betty Greene in séances with Flint. Woods and Greene worked with Flint on a regular basis over 15 years to produce this large archive of material, which was said to have been transmitted by discarnate spirits using an ectoplasmic voice-box mechanism that materialized in the dark séance room. The voices preserved on these many audio recordings are purportedly those of the deceased persons themselves, as somewhat imperfectly reproduced by the pseudo-voice-box device.

Naturally, the first question that will occur to anyone is whether the whole thing was a fraud. Some people, like our own commenter Amos Oliver Doyle, have suggested that Woods and Greene conspired with Flint to produce the voices themselves. As far as the tape-recorded sessions are concerned, this would probably have been feasible. It appears that most of these sessions involved the three people alone – some of the communicators advised them to avoid adding other people to the circle – which means they could have simply sat in a fully lit room improvising conversations for the benefit of the tape recorder. I can't help but think, though, that the entertainment value of this hoax would have worn thin long before the 15th year and the 500th conversation had been reached.

Besides the question of motivation, there are other reasons to doubt this explanation. For one thing, Woods and Greene seem to have gone out of their way to invite people who knew the various deceased parties to listen to the tapes and judge for themselves whether or not the voices were genuine. For another, Flint was subjected to controlled testing long before he ever met Woods and Greene, and he appears to have passed those tests (though I admit I don't know too much about this phase of his career, which is covered only briefly in Randall's book). Here is what Randall has to say about these early tests:

Before Woods and Betty Greene began their long series of sittings, Leslie Flint had already undergone and passed the most stringent tests that objective psychic investigators could devise .…

One of his investigators was Dr. Louis Young who had worked with Thomas Edison … and had already exposed several doubtful mediums in the States. Flint was made to fill his mouth with colored water. The lights were turned on. Flint returned the water from his mouth to a glass. [That is, Flint apparently kept the water in his mouth throughout the séance, while the voices were heard.] 

In 1948 the Rev. Drayton Thomas, then a member of the Council of the Society for Psychical Research, carried out another test. He reported the result in Psychic News of 14 February.

“On five February I placed over his [Flint’s] tightly closed lips a strip of Elastoplast. It was 5½ inches long and 2½ inches wide and very strongly adhesive. This I pressed firmly over and into the crevices of his closed lips. A scarf was then tied tightly over this and the medium’s hands tied firmly to the arms of his chair; another cord was so tied that he would be unable to bend down his head. Thus, supposing he endeavored during trance to loosen the bandage, it would be quite impossible for him to reach it.

"Anyone can discover by tightly closing the lips and trying to speak how muffled and unintelligible are the sounds then produced. My experiment was designed to show that under the above conditions clearly enunciated speech and plenty of it could be produced by the direct voice. The experiment was entirely successful. Voices were soon speaking with their usual clarity and Mickey [Flint’s guide] emphasized his ability several times by shouting loudly. Some twelve persons were present and we all heard more than enough to convince the most obdurate skeptic that the sealing of Mr. Flint’s mouth in no way prevented unseen speakers from saying anything they wished. At the close of the sitting I examined the cords and the plaster, finding all intact and undisturbed. The plaster was so strongly adhering that I had considerable difficulty in removing it without causing pain.” 

In another series of tests a microphone wired to an amplifier was attached to Flint’s throat to record any sound he might make. His hands were tied by observers sitting on either side of him and his investigators watched his movement through an infra red telescope.

The voices still spoke. And the investigators actually saw the ectoplasmic voice box forming two feet from his head. [pp. 170-171]

All of this sounds convincing enough, although more information would be needed to flesh out these summaries. When it comes to the more current tests conducted to establish the authenticity of the voices, the results were somewhat mixed. Randall writes:

From the time he began his recordings, Woods has issued an open invitation to anyone who knew the people they claim to be when they were on earth to listen to the tapes and tell them if they sounded genuine.

One of the first voices claimed to be Michael Fearon .… Woods went to the sitting with Michael’s mother, Mrs. Fearon. The voice held a long and lively conversation with them both. Mrs. Fearon was convinced she had been talking to her son ....

On 19 April 1962, a voice claiming to be F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, one time Lord Chancellor, came through to announce that he had changed his mind about capital punishment, and gave his reasons for thinking it did more harm than good.

The tape was played to the late Charles Loseby, M.C., Q.C., who had been a student under Smith at Gray’s Inn. [Loseby later wrote that he was] “satisfied that I have heard the voice of the late F. E. Smith … I listened to the voice of Lord Birkenhead, still living, anxious apparently only to assist humanity.” [p. 172] 

A voice claiming to be that of Sir Oliver Lodge, an early psychical researcher and noted chemist, was positively identified by a certain Mr. J. Croft and his wife, both of whom had known Lodge. “We felt that the voice had the qualities which we had associated with the voice of Sir Oliver Lodge, we having heard him speak on a number of occasions. There was a characteristic sibilance, and easy fluency of expression, and a choice of the apt word and phrase which we remembered were a feature of Sir Oliver Lodge’s speech.” (p. 172)

When a voice claiming to be that of Lilian Baylis, founder of the Old Vic, came through, Baylis' goddaughter, who had lived and worked with her, attested to its genuineness. (p. 173)

On the other hand, "the most extensively tested tapes," which involved the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, could not be definitively authenticated. A certain Rev. John Pierce-Higgins, who had an interest in psychical research, believed that "it bears all the signs of Lang. Those who have heard this tape and Lang say the voices are very similar. It’s just the sort of thing he would say. When you take it in conjunction with a lot of other similar types of communications which can be more accurately corroborated, it seems probably true.” A family friend, Mrs. Herbert Lane, thought the tape was probably genuine: "As far as I could see it felt like him talking.” But when the tape was played along with a broadcast Lang made after the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, "the voice of the living Lang was stronger and firmer than the voice from the dead.” One of the listeners on that occasion, a bishop, said, “It might be Cosmo Lang. It might be anyone. I cannot prove or disprove.”

In a later session, Cosmo Lang again supposedly came through and explained why his voice hadn't sounded quite the same and why he had used some expressions foreign to the living Lang. Essentially he blamed it on difficulties in the communication process.

After all this, Randall concludes that "if the voices are not just making excuses," then it would appear the difficulties of using the ectoplasmic voice-box make it impossible to conduct a definitive test. (p. 178) 

The book's last chapter, titled "The Final Proof," is a something of a letdown. First we read a transcript of one of the voices describing the death of his ex-wife, which he purportedly witnessed. He says that her astral body rose out of her physical body and met with her mother, who was there in spirit to greet her. This account is then paralleled with the various narratives drawn from Spiritualist literature, including some out-of-body experiences at the point of death – the sort of thing that would now be known as a near-death experience. The implication is that Flint's communicator couldn't have known such details unless he had actually witnessed the dying process, just as he claimed. But of course, it could just as easily be argued that anyone familiar with Spiritualist writings and the works of, say, Robert Crookall, who compiled many such accounts in groundbreaking books in the 1960s, would have known the basic elements of the dying process as described by NDErs and mediums. So this "final proof" falls a bit flat.

The bottom line, for me, is that I need to know more about the conditions under which Flint worked, and especially the conditions of the formal tests that were conducted by qualified researchers. Randall's book, while interesting in its own right, did not settle anything for me.

With that out of the way, I thought I would present some excerpts from the various communications transcribed in the book. As is obvious from what I've just written, I can't say if these communications are genuine or not – or perhaps some mixture of authentic and garbled material. They are pretty reminiscent of certain allegedly channeled books such as Anthony Borgia's Life in the World Unseen. Whether this makes them more or less plausible is a matter for each person to decide.

A man who died in the trenches in World War I tells us:

I don’t know how long I must have been there [in the trench]. Anyway I must have fallen asleep or something, because the next thing I knew was that I remember I was seeing a bright light in front of me.

I couldn’t make this out at all. It was a sort of light I’d never seen before, just as if the whole place was illuminated, and it was so dazzling that, for a moment, I could sort of hardly look at it. I had to keep closing my eyes and having a look. And I thought, “Well, it’s a trick of the light.” I got a bit windy [i.e., scared].

Then, all of a sudden it was just as if I saw an outline – shape or figure appearing. It was the outline of a human being, and it was full of luminosity, and gradually it seemed to take shape.

I was in an absolute sweat. It was an old friend of mine who I knew had been killed some months before, named Smart. Billy Smart! [p. 12]

With regard to this communication, Randall tells us:

There is a record of every British soldier killed and buried in every theater of war. It is kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Maidenhead in Berkshire.

Pritchett is not a common name. A search through the files turned up only four. One of them was private 9023 A. Pritchett of the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry). He was killed in 1917. And buried in the Potijze Chateau Lawn Cemetery a mile from Ypres .…

Smart is a common name in the British army. There were hundreds of Smarts killed in the Great War and dozens of them had the Christian name of William.

One, and only one, fits the story told by the voice claiming to be Pritchett. Private 20394 William Smart, also of the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry). He was killed near Arras in 1916. [p. 19]

Randall doesn't say that his discovery of matching names proves anything, though I suppose that if no matching names had been found, it would have counted against the credibility of "Pritchett's" narrative. The bright light and appearance of a deceased friend are, of course, common features of NDEs. 

Another communicator recounts his first impression upon meeting his guide:

As a matter of fact, quite frankly, I thought at the time that he looked just like Jesus. At least what I’d seen pictures of Jesus. But I realized of course it wasn’t afterwards. [p. 42]

I found this interesting, given the many statements of NDErs about meeting Jesus. How many of them would have "realized of course it wasn't afterwords" if their NDE had become a full-fledged death experience?

Several communicators refer to telepathic communications in the next life:

She was nattering away to me. Funny thing I said she was nattering. It was as if she was nattering, yet she wasn’t opening her mouth. It suddenly dawned on me I could hear her speaking to me, and yet she wasn’t saying anything. That is she wasn’t speaking. So I stopped still.

“Come on,” she said.

“But I don’t understand it. You’re speaking to me, and yet your mouth’s not moving. It’s like a ventriloquist,” I says. “Funny, isn’t it?”

“Oh you’ll soon learn over here to speak by your thoughts, and, after all,” she says. “You’re receiving what I’m saying. You are hearing me aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I says, “but you’re not actually speaking. At least it don’t look as if you are.”

“Oh you’ll get into the habit,” she says. “Come on, don’t let that worry you. You’ll understand a lot of things ere long.” [pp. 54, 55]

Randall notes an annoying gap in the information the voices seem willing or able to convey:

Thanks to Woods’ and Betty Greene’s insistent questioning, the transition from this world to the next is an experience we feel we know from A to Z. The voices can remember it as though it happened yesterday. They seem to have total recall. But when it comes to describing what they’ve been doing ever since, they seem to have lost either their memory or their powers of description. Or it’s also different that they find it impossible to put into words that earthly mortals can understand. [p. 91]

Even something as basic as the layout of a person's house remains vague:

“It’s got four rooms, quite enough for me to look after.”

What are the four rooms? She doesn’t say. The only room that is ever described is the sitting-room. Do they have bedrooms, dining-rooms, kitchen, bathroom and lavatory? Or, if usual offices are unnecessary, library, billiards room or study?

No one ever says. [p. 123]

There is also some confusion, it seems, about such things as weather and daily cycles.

If there is no sun, does it ever get dark, and do you go to sleep?

The voices disagree.

“Do you have night and day there?” asked Woods.

“Yes,” said George Harris. “The same as you do. Night and day. Of course we do. I go to sleep and go to bed, wake up the same as you do on earth.”

So, soon after his arrival, did Mr. Biggs .…

But Mr. Biggs was newly arrived from Earth. And George Harris was at the stage where he still felt compelled to lay celestial bricks. [He had been a bricklayer in his earthly life and continued this occupation, rather pointlessly, for some time after arriving in the next world.]

Rose, who had been in Heaven rather longer, replied differently: “Oh yes, you can sleep if you feel so inclined.”

“But it’s not necessary?”

“It isn’t necessary .… If you’re mentally tired you just sort of mentally relax, close your eyes, and you rest. And you re-open your eyes after a time. You don’t feel tired no more.”

Ellen Terry, a more advanced old inhabitant, explained: “There is never darkness. There is a kind of what you might call perhaps a twilight, and yet this is something which is so unlike yours. There is a time for quietude with us, and rest. And yet there is never any need for rest, or sleep, but a peacefulness that comes upon us when we feel the need.”  [pp.124, 125]

As for the weather, George Harris – the stubbornly persistent bricklayer – insisted that it does rain, while others said it doesn't. These disputes may have something to do with varying perceptions of the environment on the part of people who have not yet made the adjustment versus people who are fully settled in.

Speaking of night and day, how is the passage of time experienced by those on the other side?  

“You say you don’t measure time and space. How do things go by? How do you measure at all?” [asked Betty Greene.]

“Well, I don’t know. There isn’t any measurement of time as I understand it. We are not conscious of time. I know you can’t realize – I mean you think oh well, afternoon, evening and night. Well those things don’t affect us. We don’t have time as you have it, at all. Time after all is only man-made to a point, isn’t it?”

“Do you have night and day over there?”

“No. Although you can have a fall of night, inasmuch that if you feel the need for rest, if you close your eyes, you can sort of go into a condition which, I suppose, you can call a kind of twilight. I don’t know how to put that.” [p. 96]

Famous people purportedly came through Flint. One of them was Lionel Barrymore, one of Hollywood's top actors in the 1930s and 1940s. Barrymore informs us that he is still active in the theater on the other side, as is William Shakespeare. 

“Have you met Shakespeare?” asked Woods.

“I have met Shakespeare, and I can settle the argument once and for all. There is no doubt about it. He wrote his own plays. It does not mean to say he didn’t sometimes use old plays and refurbish them. But you can take it from me that when you have a Shakespeare play, it’s Shakespeare’s.” [p 112]

As an anti-Stratfordian myself, I can't say I found this communication particularly convincing. I also can't help wondering why Shakespeare himself couldn't come through, reciting some of the poetry he has allegedly written since shuffling off this mortal coil. According to Barrymore, the Bard's new works, written in a more modern idiom, are even greater than the ones he left behind. Surely old Will ought to be able to recite some of these immortal verses to us; or, if he lacks the power to control the ectoplasmic voice-box, then Barrymore ought to be able to perform the recitation. (He says he is still acting.)

Yet we never hear so much as a smidgen of the remarkable new works produced by departed geniuses. Even when Oscar Wilde or the poet Rupert Brooke is chatting with us, he doesn't recite any passages from the new works that have occupied his time since passing over.

The communicators are capable of passing along thoughts about the nature and progression of life, however. One of them, a Mr. Ohlson, has this to say:

“I mean it’s quite obvious to me that consciousness of an individual was in existence before birth. I mean you only come into awareness of things as you gradually develop. As you become a little older on earth you gradually take a conscious awareness of things going on around you – shapes and forms, and color and sound. And these gradually began to mean something when you’re infant. But there’s no getting away from the fact that life existed before birth.

"I don’t think for instance, I was just born any more than I just died. I mean I was obviously there before birth, not necessarily in quite the same sense. I developed and evolved my own personality, and people called me so-and-so Ohlson. But the point is that it’s infinitesimal in time itself. I mean it’s pretty obvious to me that none of us are what we think we are. The whole thing is so complex I agree, but it’s also fascinating.” [pp. 126, 127]

 If there are stages of life before earthly incarnation, there are also untold stages of life beyond the initial phase of postmortem existence. A communicator named Rose, who appears at several different points in the book, was initially content to rest in her modest home and garden. She resisted moving on, even when other discarnates gently suggested that she should. But eventually even she felt the urge to progress:

“No one’s content for long. You give them everything that they want. You give them all the things they thought they needed. And after a time it palls on them, and they want a bit more of something else. They find that it isn’t what they thought it was going to be. I thought I’d be content with all the things that I had, but I soon began to realize that although in a way I was doing things for others I wasn’t doing enough. I was finding that these things didn’t mean as much to me as they did before, and that there was something else I had to strive for. I had to find out what it was.

“It’s like in your world. You go through life. You possess things. You create things and conditions for yourself. You get yourself a nice little house, and you furnish it, and you’re happy. But the point is, that if you lived for centuries, you’d soon get fed up with it.

“The things that really count of course are the things of the mind and the spirit.” [pp. 147, 148]

What does this continuing progress consist of? One communicator recounts a conversation he had with his guide shortly after passing over:

“Well,” she says, “actually of course everybody has many lives. You’re having an extension of your life. But you’ll find you have an extension of this life, and so on.

“You’ll grasp it later,” she says. “You mustn’t think just because you’re dead so called, that you won’t have an extension of life to a degree whereby you will eventually be able to extend it into another condition of life. For the time being don’t let it worry you, son. You’ll find that all life is really an extension of previous life. In other words you go on and on ad infinitum.

“You’ll exhaust this place or this sphere or this condition or of life in which you are now. Eventually you’ll realize that there is nothing more that you can learn here, or nothing more that’s necessary to you here, and you’ll find the urge and the need to extend your experience. And you will pass into a different existence in a higher sphere or place where you’ll be able to appreciate and learn and experience all sorts of things that you couldn’t possibly experience on this. But that may be a long time yet.” [p. 148] 

And there's this about the process of materializing on earth:

“There is this idea that persists among Spiritualists that you just think of a dress and you’re clothed in it. Well, that, in a sense, is true. But it’s only true from the point of view when one comes back to earth, and wants to re-create an impression of probably oneself as one was. One would be remembered by perhaps certain wearing [sic] apparel, and so on. And one has the ability to re-create, in a mental thought force or form, oneself in a particular, shall we say, dress. But only temporarily. It’s only for a fleeting second or two of Earth time that we can hold on to that thought sufficiently for it to be impregnated and picked up by a sensitive or a medium.” [p. 131]

A communicator informs us that not all mediums are created equal:

“There are innumerable people in the Spiritualist movement who are not mediums, but who consider themselves as such, and who are accepted unfortunately as such, often by people who one would have given more credit for their intelligence. And the lack of it – the intelligence – in the Spiritualist movement – at times causes us great concern. We do not ask you to accept everything that comes as gospel. We ask you to use your common sense, but more important to use your uncommon sense.

“We ask you to realize that there must be, because of the very nature of communication, some discrepancies, because of the manifold difficulties.” [p. 163]

These difficulties are illustrated in amusing fashion by Alfred Higgins, who fell to his death from a ladder. He recounts his travails in trying to impress a message for his wife on a not-very-talented Spiritualist medium:

“She kept getting a ladder. Of course she got it all mixed up. ‘I don’t know, my dear,’ she says, ‘if you’re going to have a bit of luck, but I see a ladder with you.’ I thought, ‘For crying out loud, this is getting on fine, this is!’

“'Well,’ says my missus, ‘I do place the business of the ladder.’

“Of course the medium got it all confused. ‘I think as how there’s going to be something very good for you, my dear,’ she said. ‘I see you rising, going up this ladder towards success.’

“Of course this wasn’t what I was telling the damn silly medium, but it’s her interpretation. I thought, ‘Oh blimey!’ But eventually I was able to get a few bits over.” [pp. 164, 165]

The direct-voice communications courtesy of Leslie Flint, we are assured by one of the communicators, are far more precise and reliable than those of garden-variety mediums, because Flint's communicators are able to control the ectoplasmic voice-box themselves, rather than relying on a medium's dubious interpretations. In other words, his communications are basically the gold standard of postmortem messaging.  

I'm not quite ready to accept this conclusion, but I'm sufficiently intrigued to read on. 

Categories: Fortean

Vonnegut on writing

Michael Prescott - Thu, 13/04/2017 - 7:45pm

To commemorate the tenth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007, the website Literary Hub posted excerpts from advice he offered  writers over the years. It is wise and sensible advice, well worth reading if you have any interest in the craft.

For me, Vonnegut's most important point, which he repeats for emphasis, is this one: 

When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

It seems like such a simple thing, yet it's so easy to overlook. Many aspiring writers seem to think that telling a story consists of saying that first this thing happened, and then this thing happened, and then the next thing happened ... But a mere sequence of events is not compelling. It gives the reader no reason to keep turning pages. What's needed is a motivation, a desire, a need. Our characters must yearn for something – something they can't get, at least immediately.

Nor is it enough to introduce this want or need later in the story. It has to be there from the beginning. Consider the typical "cozy" mystery of the type perfected by Agatha Christie. The characters' major need, ultimately, is to solve the murder. But the murder ordinarily doesn't take place until the book is well underway. How to hold the reader's interest in the meantime? Give the characters a variety of other, lesser wants and needs.

Sir Reginald Fotheringay wants desperately to marry the chambermaid, but knows his elderly Aunt Edna will disinherit him if he does. Aunt Edna's butler, Soames, is in desperate need of 100 pounds to replace the money that he stole from her purse and lost at the dog track; if she finds out it's missing, Soames will be sacked and ruined. Heyward Graspinghard, Edna's upwardly mobile neighbor, wants desperately to acquire Edna's property so he can expand his home into the showcase he craves, but the old girl sturbbornly refuses to sell. 

And so on.

These mundane motivations are sufficient to carry the story forward until the bigger issue of Aunt Edna's murder is introduced. They also serve the ancillary purpose of providing the various characters with possible motives for doing away with poor Edna.

As a general rule, if a story is boring or seems to be going nowhere, it's because the characters don't have any urgent desires or needs.

Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut also makes this related point:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. 

It has become fashionable for sophisticates to disparage plots as formulaic. The late Siskel and Ebert both chronically complained about standardized Hollywood plots and how boring they were. One reason they waxed enthusiastic for My Dinner with Andre was its absence of a plot. Their favorite scene in Fargo was a dialogue exchange that had nothing to do with the plot; they singled it out for this very reason. And I can understand their frustration with predictable plots. I've gotten mighty tired of "the hero's journey" as the basis for pretty much every action/fantasy/sci-fi/historical movie of the last twenty years. 

But in fact, plots really do serve a legitimate purpose. They give the reader (or viewer) some sense of where the story is going and therefore an additional reason to stick around. If the reader can't figure out where the story is headed, she may very well decide it's headed nowhere and give up.

Recently I did just that – gave up, I mean – on the TV series Better Call Saul, because as it begins its third season, it still seems to be heading nowhere in particular. The show is a prequel to Breaking Bad, and it features the attorney who, in that series, represented criminals and was essentially a criminal himself. The idea behind the prequel is that we meet this guy before he went over to the dark side. 

I liked Better Call Saul when it started, because I thought I knew the general structure it would follow. In the first season, as I saw it, the main character would try to make it as a legitimate attorney, fail, and decide to pursue a shadier path. And in fact, the first season did seem to play out this way. When season two began, I expected to see the beginning of his transformation into the darker and more interesting character we'd come to know in Breaking Bad

But it didn't happen. In season two, our character was still trying to make it as a legitimate attorney. No transformation yet ... Now it's season three, and guess what? He's still basically the same guy he was in season one. As Milhouse on The Simpsons might say,  "Aren't we ever going to get to the fireworks factory?"

By this point in Better Call Saul, I have no idea what the structure is, and I suspect there is no structure, no master plan. Some will call the show "subtle" or "nuanced" or "realistic," but to me, it's just dull.

A story can tread water for only so long before sinking. If there's no destination in sight, the whole thing begins to feel like a pointless exercise. That's why plots – yes, even formulaic, generic plots – are usually necessary. And if you don't like formula, you can play with it. You can surprise the reader by upsetting his expectations. You can kill off the protagonist halfway through, as Hitchcock did in Psycho, to the great distress of the audience in 1960, who were totally unprepared for it. You can upend the stupid "hero's journey" by changing the rules. You can be creative and think outside the box – but first you've got to have a box, a plot. Without some kind of plot, you are likely to lose your reader very quickly.

I don't agree with everything Vonnegut says. There's this, for instance:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I think I know what he's getting at here. Some writers have a tendency to withhold so much information that the reader is left at sea, unable to figure out who the characters are or what situation they're mixed up in. The trouble with Vonnegut's advice is that it could lead the unwary writer to make the opposite mistake – to dump a big pile of exposition into the story right at the start, when the better approach is to deftly weave background material into the story as it goes along. Excessive exposition in the early stages of the story is one of the most common and most easily avoided errors that inexperienced writers commit.

And naturally I have nothing against suspense as such. I write suspense novels, after all. Not all writers employ suspense as a technique – Shakespeare didn't – but most do, because most of us aren't Shakespeare.

Of course, most of us aren't Kurt Vonnegut either.

I also have nothing against semicolons, when used judiciously. Vonnegut seems to have despised them for idiosyncratic reasons. I've used a couple of them in this post, and I have no regrets.

Vonnegut was a world-class writer and, if I can judge by these excerpts, one hell of a teacher as well. Read his advice and take it to heart. Maybe you'll never write Slaughterhouse-Five, but your next letter to the editor will pack a punch!

Categories: Fortean

Annie Jacobsen’s ‘Phenomena’

Paranormalia - Tue, 11/04/2017 - 10:23am
A new book has just been published in on ‘psychic spying’. It’s by Annie Jacobsen, author of best-selling books about the secret doings of the US military based on declassified documents, including Operation Paperclip and The Pentagon’s Brain, for...
Categories: Fortean

The mark of Zoroastrianism

Michael Prescott - Mon, 10/04/2017 - 12:54am

First, I want to thank the many readers who contributed ideas on my last post about the future direction of this blog. Right now my inclination is to follow Bruce Siegel's suggestion and post less often, while still keeping the focus on the paranormal. I also think Roger Knights had a good idea about reposting older material, though I don't plan to do so on a regular basis. Julie Baxter had good thoughts about Leslie Flint and other psi phenomena that have not been treated thoroughly, or at all, in this forum. I think Eric Newhill is right in saying that political discussions become too contentious; and there are plenty of political sites already.

I'm no doubt overlooking a lot of other people who made valuable contributions. The bottom line is that I appreciate all your input.

And yes, I am open to guest posts. This has been my policy for a while, so please don't be shy about taking me up on it.

This new post is on a subject that I admittedly know little about. Until recently the only thing I'd read about Zoroastrianism was Gore Vidal's historical novel Creation, which takes place during the so-called Axial Age and features Zoroaster's (fictional) grandson as the narrator. It's a good book, but I read it years ago and don't remember it very well. Recently, however, I did some online research into Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, and the religion he founded, which predates Christianity by at least 500 years and which was a major belief system in the ancient world. Zoroastrians practice their faith to this day, though in greatly reduced numbers.

Two things in particular interest me about Zoroastrianism. The first are certain obvious similarities to Christianity, and the second are parallels with modern spiritualism, including some of the speculations that I've offered right here.


The mark of Zoro ... aster?

I'll start with the Christian parallels. I should point out that I'm deriving most of this information from the Wikipedia entry on Zoroastrianism, which seems to be well-sourced. As always when dealing with Wikipedia, some skepticism may be advisable, since the quality of the entries varies tremendously, and the content is constantly changing.

According to Wikipedia, Zoroaster was drawing water from a river for use in a ritual when a spiritual being appeared to him and allowed him to see God. In Matthew 3:16, Jesus was undergoing baptism in a river when the spirit of God descended on him like a dove.

Afterward, Zoroaster encountered six other spiritual beings who taught him the rest of what he needed to know; only after this did he begin his ministry. After his baptism, Jesus is said to have gone off into the desert for an extended period, during which he saw visions and overcame temptations, before commencing his ministry.

Zoroaster acquired only one follower in his homeland and found success only after traveling abroad. Jesus acquired no followers in his home village and reportedly said (Mark 6:4) that a prophet is without honor in his own town.

Zoroaster taught that there is only one God, that God is entirely good, that the various pagan gods are inferior heavenly beings (many of them demons), and that man's free will is (at least partly) responsible for his pain and suffering in what would otherwise be a paradise on earth. All these views are consistent with Christianity and also with Judaism, which was developing into its modern form during the Axial Age.

Zoroaster taught that the forces of chaos and order were perpetually in conflict, and that our free will allows us to choose which side to take. It is the individual's responsibility to choose rightly. The darker forces will eventually mount a final assault at the end of days, but will be decisively defeated by a savior-figure who will be born of a virgin. After their defeat, the dead will be raised and restored to earthly life, this time with immortality. Needless to say, all of this is strongly reminiscent of Christianity.

The parallels I've selected may make it seem as if the two belief systems are virtually identical, but that's only because I have cherry-picked the most interesting similarities. I could have selected other details highlighting notable differences between the two faiths. For instance, Zoroastrianism emphatically rejects asceticism and monasticism, insisting that the purpose of life on earth is to participate in life and gather experiences, not to shut oneself off in a monastic cell or to deprive oneself of any experience, including physical pleasure. Zoroastrianism also rejects spirit-body dualism, conceiving of both earth and heaven in similar terms. In these respects, Zoroastrianism is arguably similar to Gnostic Christianity, but not to Christianity as generally practiced today.

Still, it would be hard to argue that even orthodox Christianity was not, at the very least, influenced by Zoroastrianism in its formative centuries.

What about modern spiritualism? Zoroastrianism holds that the individual soul preexists earthly incarnation. During this pre-birth phase, the soul is joined with its guardian spirit. While incarnated on earth, the soul is separated from its guardian, which watches over it and attempts to protect and guide it when possible. After death, the soul is reunited with its guardian spirit, achieving wholeness again.

This is pretty similar to the spiritualist idea that the individual soul is an extension of a higher self or oversoul, from which it detaches during its period of earthly incarnation and to which it returns after the incarnation is complete.

After death, Zoroastrianism tells us that souls are judged according to their thoughts, words, and actions while on earth. Souls that pass the test will enjoy paradise, but with the caveat that continuing spiritual struggles can be expected even in postmortem existence. The ongoing battle between order and chaos is apparently not limited to this physical plane.

Souls that fail the test of judgement are relegated to a hellish sphere of existence – but not for purposes of punishment and not for all eternity. Instead, the sojourn in hell is temporary, and the purpose is to reform the soul. Ultimately this process must prove successful; it is the destiny of every soul to be reunited with its guardian spirit (= higher self) and with God.

The Zoroastrian concept of God transcends gender. God is called Ahura Mazda, a name that connotes both male (Ahura = Lord, masculine) and female (Mazda = Wisdom, feminine). It can be translated as Wise Lord. Yet God, for all his/her power, is not omnipotent. This idea of a less-than-omnipotent God has led some commenters to classify Zoroastrianism as a form of pantheism in which God/consciousness emerges from a self-creating universe, although this seems to be a later interpretation and probably not the original idea.

I find it interesting that as we go back in time to a comparatively early stage of religious development, we find a number of ideas that match up quite well with spiritualist teachings today: a pre-incarnational existence for the soul; separation from and reunion with a higher self; a division of the spiritual world into heavenly and hellish spheres, with the hellish spheres intended as temporary way stations for the moral improvement of the soul; a God that is neither male nor female, is not omnipotent, and may be immanent, not transcendent; a universe that is still a work in progress, with the balance between systemic order and chaos determined by the choices of individual incarnated beings.

Again, I don't want to exaggerate the parallels. There are certainly differences. For example, many people in the spiritualist community embrace reincarnation, but Zoroastrianism rejects reincarnation except in the limited sense of the resurrection of the dead after the final judgment.

Even so, the similarities are at least worth looking at.

Oh, and for the dog lovers out there: the dog is sacred in Zoroastrianism. This in itself strikes me as a pretty good recommendation of the religion.

Categories: Fortean

Radio Rennessence ends

Rennessence - Wed, 21/10/2009 - 11:44am
Radio Rennessence is closing down for business. The three interviewers Philip Coppens, Corjan de Raaf and Andrew Gough can no longer combine the podcasting station with their many other individual engagements. It is with a sad heart that they have therefore chosen to stop publishing audio interviews. The site will remain online. The RSS News Service will also continue as it has for the last three years.
Categories: Fortean

Video clip of City of Secrets

Rennessence - Wed, 14/10/2009 - 2:44pm
Researcher & singer-songwriter Corjan de Raaf has published the video clip for his single "City of Secrets (the Grail in you)". The song was inspired by Patrice Chaplin's bestseller "City of Secrets" and deals with her relationship with the keeper of the Grail Josep Tarres.
Categories: Fortean

Saunière drawings discovered

Rennessence - Wed, 14/10/2009 - 2:41pm
Researcher Ben Hammott has published some original drawings by Abbé Saunière, whose life and dealings are at the heart of the Mystery of Rennes-le-Château. The drawings were discovered inside the priests Atlas. They tell us a lot about Saunières fascination with the French royal line and as such confirm the suspicions he was a legitimist, in favour of making France a monarchy again.
Categories: Fortean

Andrew Gough's Arcadia 2.0

Rennessence - Sun, 27/09/2009 - 5:08pm
Andrew Gough's Arcadia website has been fully re-styled by artist Mark Foster who applied a radical and very colorful new design. As an opening gift, Andrew Gough is offering a full chapter by author Patrice Chaplin from her book 'The Door', sequel to 'City of Secrets'.
Categories: Fortean

Masters of Deception

Rennessence - Sun, 27/09/2009 - 10:02am
Guy Patton's Rennes-le-Château book 'Web of Gold' was already a good book. Now available as 'Masters of Deception', the completely overhauled book is probably one of the best available today. It can be considered as the missing part three of the 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' & 'Messianic Legacy' trilogy that never appeared.
Categories: Fortean