Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

The Deeper You Go - A Documentary on the Mystery of Consciousness

"The Deeper You Go" is a half-hour documentary, available freely online, that looks into the mystery of consciousness:

Is consciousness a byproduct of the brain or is the brain a vehicle for consciousness? Preeminent minds debate the nature of consciousness in this 30 minute documentary. Featuring: Eben Alexander, Susan Blackmore, David Chalmers, Deepak Chopra, Patricia Churchland, Stanislas Dehaene, Daniel Dennett, Stuart Hameroff, Dean Radin, John Searle and Rupert Sheldrake.

The documentary was self-funded, so if you enjoy it please consider dropping some coin in the creators' PayPal account. For more information about the documentary, visit the official website.

Horses Can Communicate With Symbols, According To Science


People may never talk with the animals like Dr. Doolittle, but scientists are hard at work trying to communicate with critters. The Wild Dolphin Project has already proven dolphins understand symbols. Other researchers at Georgia State University have created a symbolic language called 'Yerkish' to talk with primates. Now the noble horse joins the roll call of smart animals who can understand, and use, symbols to make humans aware of their needs.

A new study at Applied Animal Behaviour Science shows how twenty three horses learned to tell trainers if they wanted to wear a blanket or not. Subjects were shown three symbols: a horizontal bar to say "I want a blanket", a blank square for "No change", and a vertical bar for "I don't need a blanket". They learned the meanings in a day or two and using them to convey if they were too warm or too cold, building the case for self-awareness.

Previous studies have shown horses enjoy learning for the sake of learning, a decidedly 'human' trait. Positive reinforcement and consideration for the horse's temperment reduced their anxiety for punishment if they gave a 'wrong' answer. In fact, the horses's behavior changed for the better during training because humans could finally understand them.

When horses realized that they were able to communicate with the trainers, i.e. to signal their wishes regarding blanketing, many became very eager in the training or testing situation. Some even tried to attract the attention of the trainers prior to the test situation, by vocalizing and running towards the trainers, and follow their movements. On a number of such occasions the horses were taken out and allowed to make a choice before its regular turn, and signalled that they wanted the blanket to be removed. It turned out that the horses were sweaty underneath the blanket.

I'm not surprised by their intelligence. About a year ago my wife dragged me to Pennsylvania for an overnight at her friend's house. Her husband shared some Kunkletown lore. Some time ago a local carpenter kept horses to pull lumber to job sites. These beasts knew where to get hitched up, how to reach the job sites, and when to return for more lumber without human direction. Eventually the carpenter bought a truck then shot the horses because he didn't need them anymore.

The hubris of human superiority clouds our understanding of animals, and our approach to the touchy topic of their intelligence. I maintain this conceit's cultural, based in deep-seated guilt over humanity's exploitation of animals and the challenges which may arise should they be considered our equals.

Making a huge leap here, what could our treatment of animals say about humanity's prospects in a first contact scenario? Any sufficiently advanced intelligence could find humanity indistinguishable from the animals we eat or experiment on. Aliens may deem us sufficiently clever, having tamed the atom and thinking smartphones are a pretty neat idea, but not being in their league when it comes to sapience.

Yet if we could talk with the animals, grunt, squeak, and squawk with the animals, and vice versa, maybe aliens would be less inclined to dismiss us.

Or our four-legged friends could make a compelling case on our behalf for clemency.

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The Psi Encyclopedia: An Alternative to Overly Skeptical Articles on Wikipedia

Psi Encyclopedia

I have remarked previously here about how much of a dumpster fire Wikipedia is when it comes to topics at the fringes of science and history (ie. the topics we like discussing here). Due to both organised groups of, and 'lone wolf', skeptics, most pages on these topics communicate the skeptical point of view, without leaving barely a trace of the information or data that makes the topics interesting in the first place. As such, I've often recommended that people do *not* go to Wikipedia to find out more information on fringe topics.

But now, finally, a new resource has emerged that offers more comprehensive, balanced information - at least on topics related to 'psi' and afterlife research. The Psi Encyclopedia has been created by the well-respected Society for Psychical Research as an antidote to the biased information being presented on Wikipedia and elsewhere:

There is now a vast research literature that validates the existence of psi as an anomalous, fleeting and little understood aspect of human experience. Psi researchers believe that it has been demonstrated many times over, and in a variety of contexts. But this remains controversial, since psi appears to contradict long-accepted scientific principles. In particular, accumulating evidence of links between mental experience and biological brain functions lead many to believe that the brain is the sole source of consciousness. Some scientists are known to sympathize with psi experimentalists, who use well-established statistical methods and robust methodology: the possibility of psychic experience has been seriously considered by an impressive number of Nobel prize winners and other eniment people. However, a vocal minority of sceptics – often active in sceptic organisations – campaign in books, articles and in the media against psi research, disparaging it as 'pseudoscience' and disputing its conclusions.

In recent years this conflict has spread to the Internet, notably the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, where editors hostile to ‘fringe science’ routinely edit articles on psi research to make them conform to their view. As a result, articles that were originally written by knowledgeable experts have become adulterated with misleading claims and assertions.

The Psi Encyclopedia is being created by the Society for Psychical Research, funded by a bequest, to provide a more informative view of psi research (also referred to as ‘psychical research’ and ‘parapsychology’), one that reflects the findings of experimenters and investigators.

The writing project has been underway for a couple of years, but has only just now launched to the public with 110 entries written by around thirty authors and experts. (I was kindly asked to contribute a piece on James Randi's 'Million Dollar Challenge' (likely based on my previous essay on the topic here at the Grail.)

The SPR notes that readers "are asked to bear in mind that this is a work in progress, a multi-year project that will see numerous additions, changes and improvements" - so if you feel like something is missing, please be patient, and feel free to contact the SPR with your suggestion.

Link: The Psi Encyclopedia

ESP in EEG? Study Finds That People's Brains Show a Neural Spike When a Friend's Brain is Stimulated


Find more fascinating articles like this one by liking The Daily Grail on Facebook, and by following us on Twitter.

Recent research into the neuroscience of social interactions between humans has revealed fascinating details of how the brains of friends and family (in scientific terms, brains that "operate at least in part on shared information content”) can synchronise and 'align' with each other. So, given the (controversial) results from parapsychology that suggest telepathy and other 'psi' talents might be real, is it possible that this 'neuro-resonance' can be detected even when two people attempt to mentally interact despite being blocked from doing so via normal sensory means?

That is the question asked in a recent paper titled "EEG correlates of social interaction at a distance". Subject pairs were included based on criteria of (a) mutual friendship of more than a decade, and (b) experience in meditation, in order to maintain prolonged, focused concentration.

The members of each pair were placed in two separate rooms approximately five meters from each other - with appropriate measures taken to block any sharing of sensory information - and their brains were monitored using electroencephalograph (EEG).

The 'Sender' was told to relax, think about the 'Receiver, and simply "mentally transmit what you perceive". During a 10 minute session, the Sender was given 128 'stimulations' of 1 second duration each, separated by pauses of random length lasting 4 to 6 seconds (in order to avoid predictable rhythms). These stimulations were "from a light signal produced by an arrangement of red LEDs, and a simultaneous 500 Hz sinusoidal audio signal of the same length."

The 'Receiver', sitting in their isolated room, was told to relax and be prepared to "receive stimuli" from their partner: "Your task is to mentally connect with him/her and try to perceive the stimulus he/she is receiving".

Over three days, data from 25 pairs of subjects was collected. The result: "a weak but robust response" was detected in the EEG activity of the 'passive' Receiver, "particularly within 9 – 10 Hz in the Alpha range...this signal was found to be statistically significant".

EEG evidence for ESP?

The researchers concluded that, while the study was clearly explorative... is in agreement with the results observed in three different experiments by Hinterberger (2008) who observed an increase in the ERPs in the Alpha (8–12 Hz) band only in the related pairs of participants. If further confirmed, these findings would be of huge scientific importance because they provide neurophysiological evidence of a connection – or social interaction – at distance.

I have to say I get a little concerned when I see papers on these sorts of controversial topics say the positive results showed up only "when a new algorithm was applied to the EEG activity". But certainly an interesting study all the same, worth more detailed and careful investigation.

Link: "EEG correlates of social interaction at a distance"

(via Dr Carlos Alvarado)

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Paranthropology 7:1

Paranthropology 7:1

The latest issue (Vol 7, Number 1) of the free PDF journal Paranthropology ("anthropological approaches to the paranormal") is now available to download - here's the complete rundown of features in the latest issue:

  • "Paranormal Experience, Belief in the Paranormal and Anomalous Beliefs", by Neil Dagnall, Kenneth Drinkwater, Andrew Parker & Peter Clough
  • "Religious Flows and Ritual Performance: East Asian Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy", by Matt Coward
  • "Shamanic Initiation by the Trickster", by Juan J. Rios
  • "A Quantitative Investigation into the Paranormal Beliefs of the Contemporary Vampire Subculture", by Emyr Williams
  • "Edith Turner and the Anthropology of Collective Joy", by Paul Stoller
  • "Hearing the Dead: Supernatural Presence in the World of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) in Reference to the Balikligöl Statue", by Alistair Coombs
  • "The Uncanny and the Future of British Quakerism", by Ben Wood
  • "On Mental Travel, Remote Viewing and Clairvoyance", by John R. DeLorez
  • "Intermediatism and the Study of Religion", by Jack Hunter
  • Review: Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond by Beatriz Caiuby Labate & Clancy Cavnar - Gerhard Mayer
  • Review: "Do we need the paranormal to explain the UFO phenomenon? A Review of Illuminations: The UFO Experience as Parapsychological Event by Eric Ouellet - Jean-Michel Abrassart
  • Review: First International Colin Wilson Conference, University of Nottingham, July 1st 2016 - Colin Stanley

In case you haven't read this great resource before, all of the previous issues remain available to download from the site as well. I know from experience the work that goes into doing something like this, so if you get something out of the journal make it your mission to throw some money their way with a PayPal donation. Even small amounts help!

Do We See Reality As It Really Is?

The nature of reality is one of our abiding fascinations here at the Daily Grail, so I'm sure many readers will enjoy the TED talk above from Donald Hoffman:

Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman is trying to answer a big question: Do we experience the world as it really is ... or as we need it to be? In this ever so slightly mind-blowing talk, he ponders how our minds construct reality for us.

New Book: The Power of Ritual

The Power of Ritual

In my late twenties I sat - for the very first time - through a Catholic Mass. As a rather non-social person who, when put into a group situation, often finds myself studying the behaviour of those around me 'from afar', I was surprised when - despite not being an active participant in the ritual - elements of the Mass seemed to have intriguing effects on my consciousness. Alternating passages swapping from droning vocals to the ringing of a bell felt like they were breaking the door to my mind down, one strike of the bell at a time.

Having already studied the consciousness changing rituals of 'magick' in previous years, I did afterwards chuckle to myself that the Catholic Mass seemed to be an occult ritual of the highest order. But it also did make clear to me how malleable our mind can be when subjected to ritual elements, and I have had a growing interest in this topic since.

So it gives me great pleasure to announce that Daily Grail Publishing has just released a new book on this very topic: The Power of Ritual, by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Charles Laughlin (available now from both Amazon US and Amazon UK). The beautiful cover was once again put together by our good friend Mark Foster, of Artifice Design.

Here's the blurb:

This book is about ritual itself - what it is, how it works to influence human belief and behavior, what makes it powerful, what makes it dangerous, and most of all, what makes it useful to contemporary humans. The authors draw often on their own personal experiences with ritual to illuminate its potential for generating and perpetuating group belief and individual transformation, making the book an engaging read. Professors teaching about ritual will find this to be a useful resource, while students and scholars seeking to study ritual will find much to interest them, as will all those interested in designing and performing rituals, and understanding the rituals they choose to participate in or perform.

If you're at all interested in the human mind, and especially its relationship with ritual and belief systems, then I highly recommend that you add this one to your bookshelf.

I've just posted an excerpt from the Preface of the book in which co-author Robbie Davis-Floyd describes the origins of her own interest (and expertise) in ritual, from her anthropological studies - which at one point even led to her indoctrination in a cult - through to personally finding ways to work through the tragic passing of her daughter Peyton in an automobile accident at 20. It's an amazingly raw and honest piece of writing, which I hope you'll take time to read.


The Power of Ritual

The Power of Ritual

The following is a modified excerpt of the Preface to The Power of Ritual, by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Charles Laughlin. The Power of Ritual is available now from both Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Preface to The Power of Ritual

by Robbie Davis-Floyd

The Power of Ritual has grown out of my thirty years of research on ritual and technology in American childbirth, and in particular, out of a workshop I have often presented on “The Power of Ritual” to diverse groups around the country. Audiences for this workshop have included priests, psychotherapists, physicists, female professionals, social scientists, health care practitioners (nurses, midwives, physicians, childbirth educators), men’s movement participants and workshop leaders, business managers, New Agers, university students, drug and alcohol addicts, members (or former members) of cults, and aerospace engineers. During the course of these workshops, I have often noted a high level of confusion among people who are designing and performing rituals on a regular basis as a part of, for example, religious or spiritual retreats, psychotherapy intensives, men’s movement weekends-in-the-woods (popular in recent past decades), and self-help seminars. They tell me that they “intuit” what ritual is all about, but their sense of it is vague, unformed. They come to my workshops to find out what they themselves are actually up to! I am always delighted when such people show up in my audiences, as one of the major reasons why I started teaching these workshops was my concern about the uncritical use of ritual that has characterized the explosion of interest in the new spirituality, alternative healing, and self-help movements, to name only a few. Ritual is an extraordinarily powerful socializing tool that can be just as easily manipulated for ill as used for good. The naiveté of many contemporary ritual practitioners has worried me for a long time, and these workshops—and now this book—serve as my way of combating that naiveté. I often receive letters of thanks from such practitioners for “raising their consciousness” about precisely how ritual works, about its very real benefits, and about its equally real dangers. This information enables them to be more conscious and more responsible about the way they use the rituals they create.

My interest in ritual developed both from personal experience and from my anthropological studies of American childbirth, midwifery, and obstetrics. My childhood in Casper, Wyoming was punctuated with ritual events, many of which focused around the local rodeos that happened during the summers, and the seasonal celebrations of Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. But my deepest ritual imprinting came from growing up in the Presbyterian Church. Although I moved away from that religion in later years, the hymns we sang in church every Sunday, the vivid memory of the light streaming through the stained glass window showing Jesus’ ascension, the feeling of peace and completion that would descend over me as the minister raised his arms to give the final blessing—all these still resonate in my being and provide me with a sense of stability. In particular the words of the Doxology, which I must have sung at least 500 times during my childhood churchgoing years, still give me the goose bumps I used to get as I rose as one with the whole congregation, to sing joyously:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be
World without end, Amen, Amen

As I typed those words just now, singing as my fingers moved over the computer keys, that same uplifting feeling surged inside of me, goose bumps popped out on my arms once again, and I was right back in memory inside that beautiful church staring at the light shining through that stained glass window. Such is the power of ritual to affect our emotions, even decades after the fact.

But now as I reread the words of the Doxology, my critical faculties come into play: that song, which purports to be so timeless and so universal, does not encompass certain facts that I accept as reality. Things are not as they were in the beginning—in fact, change is the one constant of both human and universal experience. Our world is not “without end” —one day, billions of years from now, the Earth will be swallowed up in flames when its sun turns into a red giant. And there are no females and no “female principle” in that song, only a father, a son, and an androgynous spirit which is the closest the Presbyterianism of my youth could get to acknowledging that males are not the only gender. So I can’t even find myself in its words—they do not charter my existence, like a good myth should. As an experiment, I sing the song once more and note that in spite of my intellectual objections, the goosebumps and uplifting sensation return. As we shall see throughout this book, rituals primarily affect our emotions—through triggering a powerful emotional response, ritual can get people to believe or at least resonate deeply with ideologies that they might intellectually reject.

In my early years as an anthropology student during the 1970s, I studied shamanism and ritual healing in Mexico, and worked for a time with two Mexican shamans, one traditional and one thoroughly cosmopolitan. Those experiences, which involved both anthropological observation and personal participation in rituals of various sorts, taught me a great deal about ritual’s flexibility as I saw it stretch to encompass the contrasting realities of the pre- and postmodern worlds. I watched with amazement as the people participating in the rituals that the traditional shaman had been performing for decades suddenly began to include American New Agers seeking connection with the earth and with traditional cultures—in Don Lucio, the traditional shaman I worked with, I guess these seekers found at least a facsimile of Castaneda’s Don Juan. And I was equally fascinated by the postmodern shaman, Edgardo Vasquez Gomez. A wealthy upper class Mexican gentleman, he had studied traditional shamanic techniques all over Mexico, and was eclectically combining them with a European esoteric spiritual system based on the works of Gurdjieff, which invited individuals to “wake up” to a greater awareness of everyday life. His use of ritual to stimulate this kind of awareness in his followers was masterful; watching him manipulate people’s states of consciousness was a lesson to me in the intentional use of ritual to achieve instrumental (practical) ends. (Both Don Lucio and Edgardo are now deceased.)

Perhaps my deepest engagements with ritual came during my participation, in later years, with a New Age healing group that evolved, over time, into a cult. I got involved in part because I wanted to do an anthropological study of that group. I watched and participated and took notes as their at-first tenuous belief system crystallized into an intensely tight and cohesive worldview. For the first two years, I didn’t believe a word of it—it was just a story, albeit a fascinating one, and my anthropological detachment remained intact. But the ritual process, as we will demonstrate in this book, can be overwhelming. Embarrassing as it is to admit, against my will I eventually got fully converted to that worldview. The moment of conversion was a devastating experience (described ... Read More »

Quantum Mind: Can Experienced Meditators Influence the Movement of Atomic Particles?

Quantum Mind

One of the key mysteries in the realm of quantum physics is the role of the observer, or more precisely, consciousness. As Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner once explained, when this relatively new branch of physics came into being, it was found that "it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness."

Very few physicists, however, give this mystery much thought (at least publicly). Bruce Rosenbaum and Fred Kuttner, in their book The Quantum Enigma, note that many of their colleagues "are under the impression that it has been resolved by one or another of the 'interpretations' of quantum theory." Even though, they point out, "most developers of those interpretations...still see a mystery."

In a recent talk at the 'Science of Consciousness' conference in Tucson, Arizona, parapsychologist Dean Radin noted that when it comes to the (quantum physics) 'measurement problem', "everyone offers theories about consciousness, but nobody does anything about it." So Radin and his team decided to see if they could find experimental evidence of consciousness influencing quantum effects.

Radin's project was a fairly simple, though left-field, extension of the well-known double-slit experiment:

The only new element in this experiment, is that we asked people - in this case, a meditator - to keep the double-slit in mind, and to imagine in their minds eye, that they could see which of the two slits the photon went through. This is, as far as we could tell, the only way of directly testing whether consciousness is collapsing the wave function.

In the experiment, 137 test subjects - consisting of both experienced meditators and non-meditators - took part in sessions lasting 20 minutes each, made up of alternating sets of 30 seconds of observation with roughly 30 seconds of rest (the 'roughly' was intentional, to avoid any artifacts on strict 30 second cycles of repetition). And, after analysing the data from this pilot study of 250 sessions with 137 people - Radin and his team found a significant effect size...and especially so with the meditators in the group.

Encouraged by these results, the researchers ran a number of further experiments, including an internet-based version which ran for 3 years, with over 5000 sessions completed by human subjects, and over 7000 done by a 'Linux' robot as a control. Again, they found a substantial effect.

No independent replications have yet been carried out to their conclusion, although Radin did note in his talk that shortly before his presentation he had been contacted by a physicist at the University of Sao Paulo who is currently carrying out an independent replication, who explained that the results so far have led to "an intense mixture of feelings... I'm oscillating between OH MY GOD and wait, something must be wrong."

For those interested in listening to Dean Radin's complete talk on these 'quantum consciousness' experiments, I've embedded it below.

For another look at the 2016 'Science of Consciousness' conference, take a read of this four-part article by attendee (and speaker), science journalist John Horgan. Note: Horgan comes at nearly all topics from a skeptical viewpoint, including skepticism itelf (his critique of organised skepticism recently got plenty of attention), so much of the article feels rather negative in tone - and his mention of Dean Radin's presentation is no different. Unfairly so, in my opinion: making statements such as "[Radin] is like a caricature of an old-fashioned scientist, an image no doubt cultivated to boost his credibility" is an accusation that I find difficult to square with my own interactions with Dean, and a rather crude way to write off what is, I think, an interesting presentation of some fascinating research.


The Mystical Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Stories about mathematicians are, perhaps surprisingly, the fodder for a number of critically acclaimed movies - from the fictional Good Will Hunting to the John Nash biopic A Beautiful Mind. And now, another film about a mathematical genius has arrived: The Man Who Knew Infinity (trailer above).

It tells the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian self-taught prodigy, who credited his brilliant insights to visions given to him by a goddess.

Though he had almost no formal training in pure mathematics, he made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation; it was quickly recognized by Indian mathematicians. When his skills became obvious and known to the wider mathematical community, centered in Europe at the time, he began a famous partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy, who realized that Ramanujan had rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new ones.

...Ramanujan credited his acumen to his family goddess, Mahalakshmi of Namakkal. He looked to her for inspiration in his work, and claimed to dream of blood drops that symbolised her male consort, Narasimha, after which he would receive visions of scrolls of complex mathematical content unfolding before his eyes. He often said, "An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God."

Beyond the mystical manner in which he made his breakthroughs, what is also extraordinary about Ramanujan's work is that, as one mathematician has put it, "there is a seeming reversal of cause and effect. No one can write down a formula with deep, hidden properties unless they first know what the deep properties are that they are trying to encode. This is the way mathematicians understand math to work; it is the only way they—we—know to approach the subject. But the significance of the tau function—the reason to write it down—wasn’t discovered until Ramanujan had been dead for sixty years":

"There’s no way Ramanujan knew all these intermediate things,” says Ono. “The concepts [encoded in the tau function] didn’t exist when he was alive. That’s the mind-boggling part: Ramanujan anticipated the work of people who would live long after him. He had visions that said there were going to be some theories in the future. Somehow. He didn’t need any intermediate steps for him to anticipate that there would be all these subjects, and that he would find the first examples of them, and that they would go on to be the prototypes that we desperately needed to build our subjects. Whether he’s in fashion or out of fashion has more to do with us, with where we are in coming to grips with him.

So what was the origin of Ramanujan's genius? Hidden abilities of the human brain? A conduit directly plugged into the back-end of mathematics? Or truly visions from another realm?

Sadly, Ramanujan died at the age of just can only wonder what other breakthroughs he might have made given a long and prosperous life.