Mediumship - the alleged 'talent' of communicating with the dead - is as old as human history itself. But most modern scientists regard its manifestation in the modern world as a relic of times past, incompatible with our new and improved knowledge of the cosmos. For many, the only way science should interact with the claims of Spiritualism is to debunk it so that it takes its place "among the solemn absurdities in the history of thought," as one critic put it.
There are other scientists, however, who believe that the correct approach is to withhold judgement, listen to the claims made by mediums, and test them using science to see if they are valid, or at least worthy of further investigation. This approach is evident in a new paper just published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, titled "Prediction of mortality based on facial characteristics" (full paper currently available via the link on the side of that page).
Researchers from the University of California and the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Arnaud Delorme, Alan Pierce, Leena Michel and Dean Radin) began with the claim by some individuals that they are"adept at gauging mortality based on a glance at a person’s photograph" (see this 2011 story here on the Grail for background). To test the validity of this assertion, they invited twelve people who claimed this ability - i.e. 'mediums' - to see if they "could determine if a person was alive or dead based solely on a brief examination of facial photographs."
There are individuals known as “intuitives” or “sensitives” who claim to be able to predict mortality based solely upon a brief examination of a facial photograph. Various forms of intuitive counselling, including psychics, “fortune tellers,” and mediums, can be found in all cultures. This profession persists, even in modern times, due to the understandable desire to offset anxieties associated with health issues and a host of other uncertainties. Some counsellors may provide useful information gained through their experience in closely examining body language and other nonverbal cues. Others, with compromised ethics, are unfortunately only interested in perpetrating fraud.
The key question explored in the current study is whether it is possible for such alleged intuitive individuals to report accurate mortality information based on brief exposure to facial photographs under blinded conditions that prevent the exploitation of obvious non-verbal clues. A secondary question is whether there are electrocortical correlates associated with accurate predictions.
Each subject (medium) was shown 404 photos on a computer screen, one at a time for a maximum of 8 seconds each. For each photo, the participant was asked to press one of three keys on a key pad to indicate that they thought the person in the photo was “deceased,” “living,” or “do not know.” The 404 photographs were made up of three sets:108 images, originally taken about 75 years prior to the experiment; 126 images, taken about 50 years prior to the experiment; and 160 images taken more recently (about 10 to 20 years prior to the experiment).
(All of these photos had been previously rated by three judges on multiple characteristics: gender, age, gaze direction, glasses, head position, smile, hair color, and picture resolution. For each photo these ratings were combined, and two subgroups of photos - alive and deceased - were then created by a computer program, minimizing the differences between the two groups on all 8 characteristics.)
The results for each of the 12 subjects (% correct in each group, and combined for all three) can be found in this table taken from the paper:
As can be seen, some of those results are quite interesting (though to be fair, not exactly paradigm-shattering). The researchers note that:
Both behavioral and electrophysiological data indicated that individuals claiming intuitive abilities were capable of classifying photos of living vs. deceased people above chance levels, and under conditions
where the photos were balanced across 8 dimensions to reduce visual cues about the health status of the individuals.
In summary, the paper's conclusions is that the study "supports the hypothesis that facial photographs contain as-yet unidentified information predicting mortality", though they can't make any determination of how they did so: ie. by through as yet unidentified visual cues (normal means), or via "access to information in ways that are not currently understood by modern physics (supernatural means).
So, as a piece of exploratory research it's interesting. But I'm not sure too much can be concluded from it other than 'let's take a closer look' - and if it's the mediumship side of things that we want to investigate, perhaps a method similar to that of Emily Williams and Diane Arcangel's earlier paper, "An Investigation of Mediums Who Claim to Give Information About Deceased Persons", might be a better way forward.