We often think of our identity in terms of our physical body, but is it just something that we – as only a consciousness – simply use as a vehicle? This is an interesting idea, and has been with us throughout human history, largely built into the religious beliefs of cultures around the world. But we should be careful of falling into the trap of thinking about an afterlife existence based simply on the religious or cultural models we have been brought up with. Most people who were exposed to some sort of religion in their upbringing are imprinted with the fairly simplistic idea that surviving death means a transparent, ethereal version of you floats ‘up’ to a heaven of fluffy clouds, and lives there for eternity in happiness. Who knows, perhaps elements of this are correct – some of near-death experiences and other visions of an afterlife actually do correlate in some respects with these ideas. But perhaps also these experiences are filtered through an overlay of our own expectations and cultural beliefs, and the ‘true’ experience could be fundamentally different. It’s fun to consider some of these possibilities.
The way our view of an external realm ‘beyond reality’ can change is illustrated well by the science fiction blockbuster The Matrix, with Neo taking the red pill and ‘waking up’ into the ‘real’ world, despite having thought until that point that the computer-generated Matrix was the real world. Before the age of computers the idea that we might be inside some sort of virtual reality, with the ‘real us’ residing in another realm, was barely known. Certainly, versions of this idea existed before the computer age, notably in discussions of the strange world of dreams. For example, the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once remarked on the difficulty of distinguishing where ‘reality’ lies with the following words: “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man”.
The influential 17th century philosopher René Descartes also wondered how we could actually know what reality is, given that our senses can be so unreliable, and yet it is only through these senses (and then subsequent interpretation by the brain) that we comprehend the world ‘out there’. Descartes deduced that all we can be sure of about ‘reality’ is just one thing – that if we think, then we must in some way exist, at the very least as just a mind. He summarized this view with his well-known maxim ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). Beyond that, for all we know, we could just be a ‘brain in a vat’ – a piece of meat hooked up to sensors that trick our mind into thinking it is undergoing experiences in a virtual world. The Matrix took all these older ideas and made them new again by making them the centerpiece of a movie about a false reality (spoiler warning for the young kids out there):
The fact that all of our sensorial experience of ‘reality’ must necessarily be filtered subjectively through the brain – and thus isn’t ‘reality’ at all (for example, we apprehend the world very differently to an infrared-sensing rattlesnake) – was enunciated in Hindu culture via the term maya (illusion): the idea that we can never identify or comprehend the actual truth or reality of the world, only (at best) a fragment of it.
But in the 21st century, the ‘simulation argument’ – the suggestion that all of what we think of as ‘reality’ is actually a simulation, and that until now we have been unaware of the fact – has gone mainstream. Not only through the popularity of The Matrix, but through first-hand experience: many computer gamers now spend several hours a day immersed in the virtual worlds of first-person shooters. As an example of how things are progressing in the world of virtual reality immersion, see this recent demonstration: ... Read More »
Christopher Laursen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia whose dissertation focuses on poltergeist phenomena. I first met him at the Parapsychological Association’s 2012 conference, and have been glad that his web magazine, the Extraordinarium, has allowed me to continue following developments in his research over the past few years. His PhD dissertation, titled Mischievous Forces, looks at the shifting perspectives on poltergeist phenomena in the 20th century, focusing on changing research paradigms in the United States and UK during this period. It’s with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to interview him via email regarding his work and recent developments in his studies, including an online survey of people who have experienced purported poltergeist phenomena (Click Here to take the survey).
DM: What is a poltergeist? How accurate is what we see in the popular media?
CL: Poltergeist refers to a strange phenomenon in which there are unusual noises, such as knocking or scratching sounds, and movements of objects, as if they were displaced or thrown by an invisible being. There can be spontaneous fires and appearances of liquids or objects among other things. These manifestations happen repeatedly, but they tend to be time-limited. They start happening out of the blue, and then just as mysteriously, they tend to disappear a month or two later. Sometimes the anomalous phenomenon lasts just a few days, and I’ve also seen reports in which manifestations stretch across years. It is something that has been recorded as early as the fourth century, and it is likely to have been experienced even earlier in history. Furthermore, the phenomenon has occurred all around the world, albeit under different names and interpretations that are culturally specific.
The historical reports I have read certainly have had their share of strange moments, but most of them are a catalogue of relatively mundane anomalous events. The tea cup slides three inches across the countertop. A bar of soap bends around a corner to fly from the kitchen shelf into the living room. A woman enters her bedroom to find the curtains aflame. Three knocks are heard from the ceiling at 11:40 p.m., but no one is upstairs. There isn’t anywhere near the level of paranormal fury that has been depicted in most TV shows and movies.
This isn’t to say that anomalous events do not bring tension to those who experience them; emotions and anxieties are heightened in many cases since no one really knows what’s going on or what’s going to happen next. In other cases, people are
The topic of 'spirit' mediumship has been so successfully marginalized by modern skeptics that, for many, the image conjured up by the word 'medium' is now a caricature of a gypsy-robed street hustler. The phenomenon of mediumship, however - regardless of your opinion on whether the results are 'real' or not - is a lot more nuanced and fascinating than that, and those that claim to have this ability are also very much human beings, rather than cartoon villains.
Daily Grail Publishing released a book earlier this year that discussed the intricacies of mediumship across cultures all over globe (Talking With the Spirits, edited by Jack Hunter and David Luke), and now a new ebook released by Dr. Julie Beischel also aims to help the public in better understanding mediumship. Julie (who blogs occasionally here on the Daily Grail) is the co-founder and Director of Research at the Windbridge Institute for
Applied Research in Human Potential, which actively researches the phenomenon of mediumship.
As a part of her role, Julie assembled a group of mediums (via a process of testing and certification) to utilise in experiments, and after many years working with them had the fantastic idea to release a series of short ebooks that discuss mediumship from their point of view. In Volume 1 of From the Mouths of Mediums ($3.99 on Amazon's Kindle store), 13 mediums share their person stories, talking about how they experience communication from the deceased, what suggestions they have for people interested in experiencing communication on their own, and why it might be that someone has not heard from their loved one.
As an example, here are a couple of the mediums discussing their sensory experience of mediumship:
Ankhasha: “Sometimes I see things in a movie format, an entire scene runs in front of me, other times I see only a flash, like a subliminal advertisement: They come through visually quickly and clearly; like a flash, but very clear, over in an instant. When that happens, it is very choppy, hard to get a hold of the entire picture. Sometimes I see them in kind of a fast blur, hear them loudly, but don’t really feel any emotion from them unless I spend time with them. It has been my experience that the ones who are able to stay around for longer times during the reading make their presence known by almost a building of energy, as if they are coming closer and closer as they communicate with me, until I can hardly hear anything, the sound is so high-pitched and loud and there is a buzzing, humming glow that becomes hard to look at. It almost feels like I am being lifted, levitating while I am communicating with them. I know that may sound wacky, but that is what happens to me. And to be honest, it feels really good!”
Traci: “Information comes to me via the gamut of senses: hearing (it may be a name, a particular ‘saying’ or accent, an animal, a cry, a speech idiosyncrasy, the wind, a crash); seeing (can be a symbol, a still as in a photograph, or a moving scene like watching a vehicle accident occur; also communication comes with words via a marquee, or in reading a page placed in front of my mind’s eye; the typeset can be significant, or the design of a letter: Victorian versus a technical-type of font can be indicative of a number of things); smelling (may indicate anything from a favorite or detested food; a perfume; or, if a flower such as a rose, either the name Rose/Roseanne/Rosalee, etc., or the discarnate loved or grew roses, for example); touching/feeling/being touched (too at times I experience shivering on top my head or down my neck or shoulders or back; this is an indication to me that the discarnate is letting me know I am on target); tasting; and ‘just a sense.’ It is important that I pay attention to first-thought as in: what comes to me powerfully, initially, and to not bypass it. Generally in readings, all of the above mentioned ‘senses’ come into play within each session. I also experience sympathetic pain particularly in regard to cause of death. Examples of this include an explosion of pain in my head indicates a gunshot to the head, whereas a sudden slap of movement with pain to the head may indicate a vehicle accident with head injury. In contrast, a sudden dart of pain may indicate an aneurism, or a throbbing pain or localized pain in head may indicate migraine, cancer, or tumor.”
From the Mouths of Mediums offers a fascinating insight into the processes and experiences of spirit mediums. Far from the shadowy figures demonized by outspoken skeptics, the Windbridge Institute-approved mediums interviewed for this book are shown to be caring, feeling human beings with as much curiosity about what they do as the scientists that are currently studying them. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the phenomenon of mediumship.
The ebook is available exclusively as a Kindle e-book rather than print in order to keep the price low - anybody can download and read Kindle books instantly on any computer, tablet or smartphone via Amazon's Kindle app. Heck, why not grab From the Mouths of Mediums and my own book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (which features a section on Julie's research) for less than $10 combined?!
(Full disclosure: I received a complimentary advanced reading copy of the ebook)
Amazon Kindle eBook Link: From the Mouths of Mediums
Last week Seriah started to release a series of 'videocasts' on the show's Youtube channel, in which he'll invite run-of-the-mill, ordinary folks to share their own extra-ordinary experiences. The first one starts with a guy named Dave, who shares a couple of rather odd encounters, including seeing a full-front apparition of his brother --who was at the time in a coma after suffering a terrible accident.
One of the reasons I personally loathe the term 'paranormal' is that it gives a (false) impression of extreme rarity an infrequent occurrence, which then skeptics use to claim that only 'cranks & weirdos' report things like UFO sightings or ghosts apparitions. Yet the fact of the matter is MANY folks have had an unusual experience at least *once* in their life, and most would opt to keep quiet (or share them only with their closest friends) for fear of ridicule.
With this initiative, Seriah is trying to prove to anyone who might be hesitant to come out of the 'Fortean closet', that they're more people who have had a brush with the Unknown than they probably realize, and I for one wholeheartedly support that goal.
As regular readers of this site would know, I think the topic of end-of-life experiences (ELEs) deserves a lot more attention than it has so far received, as there is a plethora of fascinating reports out there that have largely been ignored (see for example my posts on both George Harrison's and Steve Job's passing). I devoted a chapter to the topic in my own book on research into the afterlife question, but was recently happy to discover another new book out there that also discusses it in an intelligent manner: Opening Heaven's Door: Investigating Stories of Life, Death, and What Comes After, by award-winning writer/journalist Patrica Pearson:
What happens when we die? People have been guessing since humans first began to think. Spirituality and religion provided the answers in the past, but in the age of science we're thrown back into the dark. If science cannot 'prove' there is life - or something - after death, then it doesn't exist. And yet ordinary people continue to experience unexplained phenomena when a friend or family member dies. These are normal people, even sceptics like Patricia Pearson. Prompted by her family's surprising experiences around the deaths of her father and her sister, Pearson set out on an open-minded journey of inquiry as a journalist. She discovered that far more people were having uncanny and transcendent experiences than generally let on: roughly half the bereaved population, plus all those who observe the dying (nurses, hospice workers, soldiers, etc.). With many years of examination into current grief research under her belt, she concludes that we cannot simply deprive people the legitimacy of these experiences until there is more solid evidence that 'we inhabit a purely material and mechanistic universe'. Pearson points to new scientific explanations around how dying is experienced, giving these luminous moments credence and understanding. As she says, 'The dying may finally be able to convey to us what they are feeling, and where they glimpse themselves to be going.' Opening Heaven's Door recounts deeply affecting stories of messages from the dying and the dead in a fascinating work of investigative journalism, pointing to new scientific explanations that give these luminous moments the importance felt by those who experience them.
Pearson recently gave a wonderful radio interview exploring the topic, and how the modern world reacts to personal anecdotes about ELEs, which I highly recommend - you can listen to it here (I tried to embed it but unfortunately it autoplays).
For those with the vague feeling that you've heard Patricia Pearson's thoughts on this subject before, it might be because we posted a TEDx Talk she gave last year in which Pearson describes her own personal experience, and how it pushed her to research the topic in more depth - here's a repost of the video for those who don't have time to listen to the 53 minute radio interview above:
(thanks to Kat for the heads-up)
In April we pointed out that parapsychologist Alexander Imich had become the world's oldest living man. Sadly, Imich's tenure was a short one, with the 111-year-old Polish immigrant passing away on the weekend in Manhattan.
Imich had been studying various psychic claims since the 1930s, when he researched the séances of a Polish medium known as 'Matylda S.'. Eighty years on, the supercentenarian was still keen to research the possibility of an afterlife, this time though via direct experience. At such an advanced age, Imich was well aware of his mortality, noting to a friend recently that "the compensation for dying is that I will learn all the things I was not able to learn here on Earth.”
Interestingly, the New York Times obituary notes that Imich appeared to have deathbed visions in the days leading up to his passing:
Mr. Mannion said that Mr. Imich was highly agitated four days before his death, speaking Polish and Russian to spirits he felt were around him. He was treated with medication before his death.
As I noted in my recent book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, the fascinating phenomena associated with end-of-life experiences (ELEs), such as deathbed visions, aren't restricted to occurring in the minutes or seconds before passing...they can occur, days, weeks and sometimes even months before. And they are hardly rare: a recent British survey found that almost two-thirds of doctors, nurses and hospice carers reported witnessing ‘end-of-life experiences’ such as death-bed visions in their patients.
What does seem different in this case (though not unheard of) is that Imich was reportedly "highly agitated" during these final days, whereas death-bed visions are usually a helpful aid to the 'transition' between life and death, bringing the dying to a place of peace and contentment. It might depend on what Imich was saying to the 'spirits' though…was it agitation, or excitement, and if the former, was it because he didn't want to die, or rather due to other circumstances (e.g. the spirits weren't talking back to him).
In any case, farewell and godspeed to Alexander Imich...I hope the secrets have all been revealed to you now.
Spirit Mediumship: A Complex Phenomenon
I. Neuroimaging Studies
by Jack Hunter
Spirit mediumship is a complex, near universal phenomenon (see Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds for a cross-cultural snapshot of just a few of the world’s mediumship traditions), which, despite over 130 years of investigation from psychical research and the social sciences more generally, continues to evade scholarly attempts to pin it down and neatly explain it. Countless attempts have been made, however, from the debunkers who suggest that all mediumship is a mixture of fraud and delusion, to the social anthropologists who argue that spirit mediumship is a purely social phenomenon, performing specific social functions, and certain parapsychologists who suggest that spirit mediumship offers proof of survival after death. And yet, none of the theories that have been put forward quite seem able to offer a fully satisfying explanation for what is going on.
In this series of short articles I would like to highlight some of the reasons why spirit mediumship is such a difficult phenomenon to get a grip on through outlining some of the research that has been conducted, and pointing out gaps in our understanding of the underlying processes. This first article will present an overview of the, really rather sparse, neuroimaging data on spirit mediumship, and will briefly discuss what it does and doesn’t tell us about the phenomenon.
It was long suspected that mediums might exhibit unusual neurological activity, and yet despite countless studies of the neurophysiological correlates of other forms of altered consciousness, such as meditation, very few neurophysiological studies of spirit mediumship have actually been conducted. Altered States researchers Edward F. Kelly and Rafael Locke have suggested that despite the potentially fruitful use of EEG and other physiological monitoring devices for classifying and differentiating specific altered states of consciousness and their physiological correlates, there are unfortunate technical and social difficulties associated with attempting such studies in the field. Technological difficulties include the problems associated with trying to monitor and record brain activity naturalistically in the field setting using cumbersome equipment, while social difficulties include getting spirit mediums, and other practitioners, to agree to participate in such studies. Fortunately, since Kelly & Locke first published their research prospectus in 1981, technological advances have made it possible to measure EEG in the field (see Oohashi et al. below), but other forms of neuroimaging still rely on heavy-duty equipment which is impractical for field studies. Despite these difficulties, however, a small number of studies have been successfully carried out specifically looking at the neurophysiological correlates of mediumistic states of consciousness.
Even before the advent of neuroimaging studies of mediums, American psychologist Julian Jaynes, drawing on his theory of
Earlier this month Intelligence2 hosted a debate on the question of the afterlife, with ground-breaking near-death experience author Dr. Raymond Moody and neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander arguing for the statement "Death is not Final", while countering that claim were physicist Sean Carroll and neurologist Dr. Steven Novella. With the event being a sell-out, Intelligence2 graciously streamed the debate via video to the internet, and have since shared the recorded version on YouTube (see embedded video below).
I mentioned my concern over the choice of panelist arguing 'for' the proposition before the debate, and that concern was largely borne out. In my opinion, they failed badly and the negative side were worthy winners of the debate. Moody and Alexander seemed unbelievably badly prepared, given how obvious the arguments of the negative side were going to be. Neither seemed ready for the critiques, which certainly have vulnerabilities of their own which the positives could have responded with (see my examination after the video below). Both Moody and Alexander also seemed to be pre-occupied by their own personal interaction with the topic, and as such rather than surveying the whole landscape of the afterlife debate to bolster their case, they stayed within their own very narrow boundaries. Eben Alexander led off almost completely with his own, subjective (and not totally NDE-like) experience, which was no doubt profound for him, but is not a story which should win any logic-based debate. Raymond Moody - who is certainly owed a huge debt by us all for his contribution to the field with his seminal NDE book Life After Life - indulged in his predilection for deep philosophical musings, which may be fun over a casual drink, but in an hour-long public debate is an action doomed to fail. Moody got so lost in his musings in fact, that at one point he said point-blank "I believe parapsychology is a pseudoscience", and later was invited by the negative side to join their panel because he seemed to be arguing on behalf of their side!
You can watch the entire debate for yourself here:
I said before the debate that I would have preferred to see someone with the credentials of Dr. Bruce Greyson arguing for the positive, as he has a deep knowledge of these topics, understanding both the evidence for and the critiques against, and is a fairly unflappable character. Since the debate, I've thought of other possible candidates who would also have done a good job: Michael Prescott, Chris Carter, Janice Miner-Holden, Michael Grosso, Julie Beischel, Sam Parnia and Steve Volk. (Some of my Twitter followers suggested to me that I should have been on the panel (based on my examination of the evidence in my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife), but I am a poor speaker, and may have been a bit too ambivalent about certain aspects of afterlife evidence to be a powerful speaker for the positive side.)
Nevertheless, here's how I think Moody and Alexander should have conducted the debate:
The 'for' side needed to ... Read More »
Is there a life beyond death? It's a question that has been asked throughout human existence, but in recent times mainstream science has concluded that answer is a definitive "no". But many of those who have had a near-death experience tell another story, and claim that they have seen a realm in which consciousness persists after the death of our physical body. What is the truth?
An upcoming debate in New York on Wednesday evening seeks to weigh the evidence from both sides in order to get closer to an answer. In support of the statement that "Death is not Final" will be seminal researcher of the NDE, Dr. Raymond Moody, and neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, who has had an NDE himself and written a book about it (Proof of Heaven). Skeptic Dr. Steven Novella and physicist Sean Carroll will argue against the claim.
The debate is a sell-out, so the host (Intelligence2) are going to expand the audience by streaming the debate live to the internet:
If consciousness is just the workings of neurons and synapses, how do we explain the phenomenon of near-death experience? By some accounts, about 3% of the U.S. population has had one: an out-of-body experience often characterized by remarkable visions and feelings of peace and joy, all while the physical body is close to death. To skeptics, there are more plausible, natural explanations, like oxygen deprivation. Is the prospect of an existence after death “real” and provable by science, or a construct of wishful thinking about our own mortality?
The webpage for the debate has extra information, as well as a poll for viewer's opinions (already split 50-50 with 800 votes cast). I would have liked to see Dr. Bruce Greyson appearing on the 'For' side, given his extensive knowledge and unflappable manner, but it should be an interesting debate regardless - tune in if you get the chance!
(Shameless self-promotion: If you're looking to have some solid background information on your side going into the debate, grab my eBook Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife - only $5.99 - which has a good run-down of the latest research on these topics.)
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One of the things that surprised me most during the writing of my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife was the topic of end-of-life experiences (ELEs), and in particular death-bed visions (DBVs). I devoted an entire chapter to this fascinating topic – phenomena that occur in the final days and hours of someone's life, covering everything from DBVs to coincidences at the time of death, the room of the dying suddenly becoming illuminated, and sudden recoveries from coma.
And yet, while near-death experiences are often covered by the media, and have had many best-selling books written about them, ELEs are very much the poorer cousin, with very little coverage in books and media. And yet, once I dug into the topic, it was every bit as fascinating as the NDE literature. When I spoke to palliative care physician Michael Barbato about this strange disconnect, he suggested that the fundamental difference might be that with NDEs, we have a returned 'hero' (that is, as the subject of the archetypal "hero's journey"), while with end-of-life experiences the subject actually does pass away, unable to continue talking about what happened to them. From my book:
In a small study he carried out in the 1990s, Barbato found that about 20 to 30 percent of patients reported a death-bed vision. But he points out that this is “almost certainly an underestimation” of the number of experiences, as his study only included reports from the patient or next-of-kin. “I, like many, suspect the incidence of death-bed visions increases as death approaches, but loss of consciousness or sheer fatigue get in the way of these visions being shared”, Barbato notes. “This number may therefore be the tip of an iceberg, with many, and possibly the majority, of death-bed visions going unnoticed”.
Those who report a near-death experience, Barbato points out, live to tell their story. Those who have a death-bed vision though may not get the opportunity to report their experience, being too sick or unconscious in the lead-up to their death. But even if they do, Barbato says, many in the caring profession label it as delirium and the experience goes unrecognised. “The medical profession (including palliative care) has contributed to the ‘poorer-brother’ status of death-bed visions [relative to the NDE] by not acknowledging their occurrence,” he opines. “When I first submitted an article to an International Palliative Care Journal some 15 years ago on death-bed visions, their reply was ‘this is not for us’ – code for ‘it’s too fringy’.”
It is rather sad that ELEs have not had the same coverage as NDEs, because when you look at the literature, and listen to experiencer accounts, it is obvious that these are profound and deeply moving experiences. “For those who have a death-bed vision, the experience is very real, personally significant and almost always helps them as they transit from life to death," Michael Barbato told me. These experiences also have a significant impact on family and carers attending the dying, as this wonderful, moving selection of interviews with hospice nurses shows:
Those who have read my book will notice many of the factors discussed in the chapter on end-of-life experiences: how patients seem to straddle the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead, how patients' experiences are often embedded within symbolism of traveling or being assisted on their way, and the appearance of previously-deceased family members as guides to the next world.
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