Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

Ouija Board in the Laboratory

Here's an interesting piece of recent research into the the decision-making influence of the unconscious mind, that uses a parlour game believed by many to allow communication with the dead. Hélène Gauchou, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia turned to the Ouija Board as a means of 'communicating' with the hidden side of our mind:

To keep things simple her team has just one person with their finger on the planchette at a time. But the ideomotor effect is maximised if you believe you are not responsible for any movements - that's why Ouija board sessions are most successful when used by a group. Ouija BoardSo the subject is told they will be using the board with a partner. The subject is blindfolded and what they don't know is that their so-called partner removes their hands from the planchette when the experiment begins.

The technique worked, at least with 21 out of 27 volunteers tested, reports Gauchou. "The planchette does not move randomly around the board; it moves to yes or no. It seems to move almost magically. None of them felt responsible for the movement." In fact some subjects suspected that their partner was really an actor - but they thought the actor was deliberately moving the planchette, never suspecting they themselves were the only ones touching it.

Goucher's team has not yet used the technique to get new information about the unconscious, but they have established that it seems to work, in principle.

For an excellent history of the Ouija, see Mitch Horowitz's article devoted to the topic in Darklore Volume 1 (Amazon US or Amazon UK), and also check out The Museum of Talking Boards website for a great collection of designs through the past century or so.

Awake Within a Dream

Our friends at Reality Sandwich have added a feature article excerpted from Paul and Charla Devereux's Lucid Dreaming: Accessing Your Inner Virtual Realities (Amazon US or Amazon UK), which Daily Grail Publishing released a couple of years ago. The excerpt is titled "Awake Within a Dream", and offers a few basic ways to access this neglected human talent for your own benefit:

You have to find ways to alert yourself within a normal dream that you are dreaming, but the level of consciousness that has to be achieved requires a fine balancing act between falling back into unaware dreaming, Lucid Dreaming Book Coveror waking up from sleep altogether. It is virtually a form of yoga that can only be learned through trial and error. Emotional control, even a measure of detachment, is necessary to maintain a lucid dream experience for any length of time. If you become too excited, you wake up; if too absorbed in the content of the lucid dream, there is a risk of slipping back into ordinary, non-aware dreaming. "Like crossing a narrow board, you must keep your balance to avoid falling one way or the other," Garfield advises.

...We have given each of the lucid dream induction "packages" described below a "brand name". Look at all these packages as if you were browsing along a supermarket shelf. Pick out those that have an initial appeal for you, and leave the others until another visit if necessary.

Go check out the full article at Reality Sandwich, and also take a look at another excerpt from the book posted here on TDG, "Introduction to Lucid Dreaming". Better yet, go grab a copy of the complete book for your continued personal reference from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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The Third Man Factor

In his book The Third Man Factor (Amazon US and Amazon UK), author John Geiger goes in search of an extraordinary phenomenon that has previously received little coverage: the oft-repeated experience of people at the very edge of death who feel the presence of an incorporeal being who encourages them and guides them to safety. Geiger tells the stories of 9-11 survivors, mountaineers, astronauts, explorers and prisoners of war who have reported the 'third man factor'. One of those who Geiger talked to is climber James Sevigny, who was caught in an avalanche which killed his friend Richard Whitmire, and left him with a broken back in two places, a broken arm, internal injuries and more. In the video below, Sevigny himself tells of what happened next:

The name of the phenomenon - "the third man factor" - may seem odd, given experiences like Sevigny's in which the presence was more a 'second man'. But Geiger explains that the label arose in the wake of the experience of the famed polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who reported the same phenomenon as Sevigny and many others. Geiger's retelling of Shackleton's experience makes plain the harrowing nature of the explorer's failed expedition, and is worth a read. Here's the abridged version:

What, exactly, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men encountered on their harrowing crossing of the south polar island of South Georgia is a question that has confounded historians and inspired Sunday sermons ever since. The apparition impressed Shackleton as being not of this world, a manifestation of some greater power. It made its appearance near the end of the explorer's grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16, at the very point when Shackleton stood to ensure his survival and that of his men - or to lose everything in the attempt.

...The expedition's ship Endurance had threaded its way through the freezing Weddell Sea, becoming trapped by ice even before Shackleton could disembark for his attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent.

After being carried in the ice for nearly ten months, the ship was abandoned on October 27, 1915. Shackleton wrote: "She was doomed: no ship built by human hands could have withstood the strain. I ordered all hands out on the floe"... As the retreating crew picked their way for five months across the rotting ice, dragging the Endurance's small boats, some were overwhelmed by their predicament: 'The men were not normal; some of them wanted to commit suicide and [Shackleton] had to force them to live'.

On April 9, 1916, fifteen months after the ship first became trapped, the men made an escape from the ice, launching the small boats on the open sea. Huddled in the boats, they were now tormented by the surging seas... Having spent three nights in the boats, Shackleton doubted all the men would survive a fourth. Then they saw the rugged cliffs of Elephant Island, a desolate outcrop off the Antarctic Peninsula, and landed, staggering to shore like a band of drunkards...

Knowing there was no chance a relief expedition would find them, Shackleton decided to leave the majority of his crew behind on Elephant Island and take five men with him in one of the small boats... His goal was a whaling station on the British possession of South Georgia, more than eleven hundred kilometres away.

In an astounding feat of navigation, the small team made it to South Georgia, battling severe dehydration, starvation, frostbite, and eventually having to land their boat in the midst of hurricane-like conditions. And yet at this point, they still found themselves on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station, The Third Man Factorand so faced a further journey of 38 kilometres (as the crow flies) traversing the island's two previously uncrossed mountain ranges.

A month after leaving Elephant Island, Shackleton and two others (Frank Worsley and Tom Crean) set out for the whaling station across the ice fields and glaciers, with just fifteen metres of rope and a carpenter's adze substituting for an ice axe. And somehow, against all odds, they made it across - and all of the Endurance's crew survived.

The odd part of it all is that afterwards, all three men claimed to have felt that there was someone else with them on that journey. When Shackleton came to tell the story of the crossing of South Georgia he revealed

...that he had a pervasive sense, during that last and worst of his struggles, that something out of the ordinary had accompanied them:

"When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snow-fields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-pace on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three."

He had said nothing to the others, but then, three weeks later Worsley offered without prompting: "Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us." Crean later confessed to the same strange sensation. Each of the three men had come to the same conclusion independently of the others: that they had been in company with another being.

...Strangely, history remembers Shackleton's visitor on South Georgia not as a fourth - Shackleton, Worsley, Crean and one mysterious other - but as 'the third man'. This is because T.S. Eliot referred to the phenomenon in 'The Waste Land', written in 1922 and arguably the most famous English-language poem of the twentieth century, but used poetic licence to alter the number.

You can read a more detailed excerpt from the book at John Geiger's website, or better yet just purchase the book itself from Amazon US (as of this writing, an absolute steal at $5.98) or Amazon UK.

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

Morpheus Mind-phu..

Not sure where I came across this one (apart from the tagline) - but pretty darn good! Wonder what percentage it works for? And does it mean you took the red pill or the blue pill?

Consciousness and the Double-Slit Experiment

A quick heads-up on a new experiment performed by parapsychology researcher Dr Dean Radin (with others) which could provoke debate with its publication in Physics Essays: "Consciousness and the double-slit interference pattern". Basically, the results may just put the consciousness aspect back into the quantum world. Here's the abstract (full PDF downloadable at the link above):

A double-slit optical system was used to test the possible role of consciousness in the collapse of the quantum wavefunction. The ratio of the interference pattern’s double-slit spectral power to its single-slit spectral power was predicted to decrease Double-slit interference patternwhen attention was focused toward the double slit as compared to away from it. Each test session consisted of 40 counterbalanced attention-toward and attention-away epochs, where each epoch lasted between 15 and 30 s. Data contributed by 137 people in six experiments, involving a total of 250 test sessions, indicate that on average the spectral ratio decreased as predicted (z=-4:36, p=6·10-6). Another 250 control sessions conducted without observers present tested hardware, software, and analytical procedures for potential artifacts; none were identified (z=0:43, p=0:67). Variables including temperature, vibration, and signal drift were also tested, and no spurious influences were identified. By contrast, factors associated with consciousness, such as meditation experience, electrocortical markers of focused attention, and psychological factors including openness and absorption, significantly correlated in predicted ways with perturbations in the double-slit interference pattern. The results appear to be consistent with a consciousness-related interpretation of the quantum measurement problem.

Dean also notes in his blog posting that his team has also "completed data collection for two replications of the experiments reported in this publication. Both were statistically significant and in the predicted direction."

Hope to cover this in a bit more detail to this in an upcoming post once I have the time to dig into it properly.

Daryl Bem Profile

Daryl Bem jumped into the headlines around 18 months ago after his research offering evidence of precognition made news around the world. Discover magazine profiled Bem for their March 2012 issue, and for those interested the article has now been posted online. The profile delves into Bem the man - a former magician/mentalist turned respected psychology professor, turned parapsychology researcher:

Over the years, Bem cemented his reputation as a rebel by floating other controversial theories on topics such as personality and sexual orientation. His own personal life was also decidedly unconventional. Despite being married to a woman, Bem never hid from his family the fact that he is gay. Dr. Daryl BemA few years ago, he explained this conjugal conundrum in an Internet posting (pdf) distinguishing between romantic love and sexual attraction, arguing that many individuals—like himself—fall in love with a person of the “wrong” gender.

Even in the context of a career of irreverence, there was little to suggest that Bem would end up defending the possibility of extrasensory perception, or ESP, which most mainstream scientists consider unworthy of serious inquiry. Through most of his career, he was as dubious about telepathy (mind reading) or precognition (seeing the future) as any of his colleagues.

Then data changed his mind.

Bem's article has created a storm of controversy regarding both the use of statistics in the field of psychology (as the WSJ vapidly says, "if you can use statistics to demonstrate that people are able to predict the future, there must be something wrong with your statistics"), as well as the failure of psychological journals to publish replications of controversial research (in this case, the negative replication by Ritchie, Wiseman and French). The latter point has escalated to such an extent that it is the cover story on the latest issue of The Psychologist, which features a debate over the replication controversy, including input from Bem himself. His article and others are available to read in the online sample of the mag, which I've embedded below (you'll probably need to fullscreen it to view properly). I've also extracted a couple of choice quotes from Bem beneath the embed, as I think they're worth pointing out:

The coverage of [the negative replication] has revealed many longstanding misunderstandings about replication - held even by those who should know better.

The first misunderstanding is the sheer overestimation of how likely it is that any replication attempt will be successful, even if the claimed effect is genuine.

...Second, it takes a long time for enough replications to accumulate to draw any firm conclusions. Wiseman set up an online registry for those planning to replicate any of my experiments. As he noted: 'We will carry out a meta-analysis of all registered studies...that have been completed by 1 December 2011.' The deadline was only a few months after my article appeared, and by then only three experiments other than those by Ritchie et al. had been reported. Two of them had successfully reproduced my original findings at statistically significant levels, a fact known to Ritchie et al., but not mentioned in the literature review section of their report...

...In mainstream psychology it takes several years and many experiments to determine which variables influence the success of replications.

...Finally, I believe that some major variables determining the success or failure of replications are likely to be the experimenters' expectations about, and attitudes toward, the experimental hypothesis. Psychologists seem to have forgotten Robert Rosenthal's extensive and convincing demonstrations of this in mainstream psychology during the 1960s. The same effect has been observed in psi experiments as well. Ironically, Wiseman, a psi-skeptic, has himself participated in a test of the experimenter effect in a series of three psi experiments in which he and psi-proponent Marilyn Schlitz used the same subject pool, identical procedures, and were randomly assigned to sessions. Schlitz obtained a significant psi effect in two of the three experiments whereas Wiseman failed to obtain an effect in any of the three...

...The existence of such experimenter effects does not imply that psi results are unverifiable by independent investigators, but that we must begin to systematically include the experimenters' attributes, expectations and attitudes as variables.

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'Going Native' with Paranormal Experiences

In a recent article here on TDG, Jack Hunter described some of the paranormal experiences of anthropologist Edith Turner, when working among the Ndembu people of Zambia (see: "Anthropology of the Weird"). Today I was browsing through a book I helped publish last year, Communing with the Gods: Consciousness, Culture and the Dreaming Brain, by Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D. (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK), and came across some quotes from Turner on what she sees as flaws in how anthropologists do their work:

Members of many different societies, even our own, tell us they have had experience of seeing or hearing spirits. Let us recall how anthropology has dealt with the question in the past. Communing with the Gods Book CoverMainline anthropologists have studiedly ignored the central matter of this kind of information – central in the people's own view – and only used the material as if it were metaphor or symbol, not reality, commenting that such and such "metaphor" is congruent with the function, structure, or psychological mindset of the society... the neglect of the central material savors of our old bete noire, intellectual imperialism. What is pitiful is the tendency of anthropologists from among the Native peoples themselves to defer to the western view and accordingly draw back from claiming the truth of their own religion. The mission of western anthropologists to explain the system in positivist terms at all costs, which thereby influences a new elite, is oddly similar to the self-imposed task of the more hidebound religious missionaries who are also sworn to eliminate their hosts' religion…

Laughlin discusses this problem in terms of the "don't go native" rule in anthropology - which, in many ways, comes from a foundation of staying objective and thinking rationally, which is a state of mind very far removed from the beliefs and practices of many non-Western cultures. But, as Laughlin says (and Jack Hunter's essay shows), "the simple fact is that these [transpersonal/paranormal] dream phenomena do seem to occur in the experience and data of ethnographers".

The danger for the 'scientific' anthropologist? "One's brain mediates one's states of consciousness, and one is only able to reach a new state of consciousness when the circuitry of the brain has transformed into a new configuration. Once the new configuration is developed, there is no going back." Scary stuff indeed for the committed rationalist...

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Communing with the Gods Reviewed

Lucid dream expert Ryan Hurd has posted a wonderful review of Charles Laughlin's Communing with the Gods: Consciousness, Culture and the Dreaming Brain (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK), a book that I'm proud to have released via Daily Grail Publishing in 2011. Ryan really nails my own feelings about the book:

Whenever I have had a spare moment for the past three months, I’ve been sneaking peaks at Charles Laughlin’s new book Communing with the gods: Consciousness, culture and the dreaming brain. Communing with the Gods Book CoverIt’s a tome, over 500 pages long, and because of its girth I have approached the volume each time with some hesitancy… and a little fear. But each time I’ve dived in, I’ve come away with big ideas, and also some unusual clarity.

This book may be heavy, but it’s really approachable for an academic text.

That’s an accomplishment for a book that essentially takes on the weighty task of summing up the topic of dreams in cross-culture perspective, including the evolutionary impact of the dreaming mind on our species, history, religion and art. Laughlin does this remarkably well, and he tells some great personal stories along the way.

There’s really only a few people in the world who have the personal experience and the scholarly prowess to single-handedly write an anthropology of dreams. In fact, no one has attempted this feat in a generation or longer.

Filled with the expert opinion of a life-long researcher of consciousness, dreams and shamanism, and wrapped in the perfect cover image courtesy of Adam Scott Miller, this is one book you need on your bookshelf. Grab a copy from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

Read the review in full here - thanks to Ryan for his thoughtful (and positive!) feedback.

The Psychic World of Stanley Krippner

A nice profile in SF Weekly of a legend of parapsychology, Dr. Stanley Krippner, covering everything from his involvement with the famous Maimonides dream telepathy experiments through to drum hypnosis sessions with The Grateful Dead:

For the better part of the past 40 years, Krippner, 79, has been a psychology professor at San Francisco's Saybrook University, a small graduate school near Jackson Square established in 1971 by the founders of psychology's humanistic movement. The Psychic World of Stanley KrippnerHe has penned close to 1,000 papers on subjects as far-reaching as childhood creativity, combating soldiers' post-traumatic stress disorder, and worldwide shamanistic rituals. He has won more laurels from more organizations than he can keep track of, including several lifetime achievement awards from the American Psychological Association — the world's largest organization of psychologists and the definer of mainstream thought in the field.

And yet, among Krippner's cavalcade of papers are the following eye-openers: "LSD and Parapsychological Experiences," "The Paranormal Dream and Man's Pliable Future," and "An Experiment in Dream Telepathy with the Grateful Dead." (That last one, perhaps the only scientific study undertaken at the behest of Jerry Garcia, was published in the incomparably titled Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine).

Krippner has traveled to every continent, save Antarctica, to participate in mind-altering tribal ceremonies or investigate "psychic claimants," and ventured behind the Iron Curtain to inspect "psychotronic generators" built to store and harness "psychic energy."

He has established a firm standing in the realm of parapsychology — the scientific study of psychic phenomena generally known as extrasensory perception — akin to the Dead's place in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll. Among both "advocates" and "counter-advocates" of ESP, his decade of meticulous experimentation with "dream telepathy" is viewed as some of the field's strongest and most methodologically sound work of the 20th century.

"Stan belongs on the Mount Rushmore of parapsychology," says fellow ESP researcher Charles Tart. James "The Amazing" Randi, perhaps the world's most prominent skeptic, also offers Krippner his benediction: "There are so few things in this field you can depend on, and there are so many people who are prejudiced and biased. But I can depend on Stan. And I don't think he's biased at all."

One of the best articles I've read on a parapsychology researcher in terms of balance, which may be an outgrowth of the calm and sensible manner in which Krippner himself approaches the topic. And make sure you don't miss the side-bar article on the "cartload of mind-blowing anecdotes that didn't make it into the final article.

Read: "The Psychic World of Stanley Krippner" at SF Weekly.

The Mathematical Brain Mystery

I came across an interesting passage from Prof. Paul Davies' book The Mind of God which I thought would be worth sharing. In this section of the book, Davies is discussing the apparent independent, stable, 'reality' of the landscape of mathematics - the so-called 'Platonic Realms', or what Rudy Rucker labels the 'Mindscape' - and the mystery of why and how the human brain has evolved extraordinary abilities that allow comprehension of seemingly useless (in an evolutionary sense) concepts such as abstract mathematics:

The mystery becomes even deeper when we take account of the existence of mathematical and musical geniuses, whose prowess in these fields is orders of magnitude better than that of the rest of the population. The astonishing insight of mathematicians such as Gauss and Riemann is attested not only by their remarkable mathematical feats (Gauss was a child prodigy and also had a photographic memory), but also by their ability to write down theorems without proof, leaving later generations of mathematicians to struggle over the demonstrations. The Mind of GodHow these mathematicians were able to come up with their results "ready-made", when the proofs often turned out to involve volumes of complex mathematical reasoning, is a major puzzle.

Probably the most famous case is that of the Indian mathematician S. Ramanujan. Born in India in the late nineteenth century, Ramanujan came from a poor family and had only a limited education. He more or less taught himself mathematics and, being isolated from mainstream academic life, he approached the subject in a very unconventional manner. Ramanujan wrote down a great many theorems without proof, some of them of a very peculiar nature that would not normally have occurred to more conventional mathematicians. Eventually some of Ramanujan's results came to the attention of Hardy, who was astonished. "I have never seen anything in the least like them before," he commented. "A single look at them is enough to show that they could only be written down by a mathematician of the highest class." Hardy was able to prove some of Ramanujan's theorems by deploying the full range of his own considerable mathematical skills, but only with the greatest difficulty. Other results defeated him completely. Nevertheless, he felt they must be correct, for "no one would have the imagination to invent them". Hardy subsequently arranged for Ramanujan to travel to Cambridge to work with him. Ramanujan unfortunately suffered from culture shock and medical problems, and he died prematurely at the age of only thirty-three, leaving a vast stock of mathematical conjectures for posterity. To this day nobody really knows how he achieved his extraordinary feats. One mathematician commented that the results just seemed "to flow from his brain" effortlessly. This would be remarkable enough in any mathematician, but in one who was largely unfamiliar with conventional mathematics it is truly extraordinary. It is very tempting to suppose that Ramanujan had a particular faculty that enabled him to view the mathematical Mindscape directly and vividly, and pluck out ready-made results at will.

Scarcely less mysterious are the weird cases of so-called lightning calculators - people who can perform fantastic feats of mental arithmetic almost instantly, without the slightest idea of how they arrive at the answer. Shakuntala Devi lives in Bangalore in Inida but regularly travels the world, amazing audiences with feats of mental arithmetic. On one memorable occasion in Texas she correctly found the twenty-third root of a two-hundred-digit number in fifty seconds!

Even more peculiar, perhaps, are the cases of "autistic savants", people who are mentally handicapped and may have difficulty performing even the most elementary formal arithmetic manipulations, but who nevertheless possess the uncanny ability to produce correct answers to mathematical problems that appear to ordinary people to be impossibly hard. Two American brothers, for instance, can consistently outdo a computer in finding prime numbers even though they are both mentally retarded. In another case, featured on British television, a handicapped man correctly and almost instantly gave the day of the week when presented with any date, even from another century!

We are, of course, used to the fact that all human abilities, physical and mental, show wide variations. Some people can jump six feet off the ground, whereas most of us can manage barely three. But imagine someone coming along and jumping sixty feet, or six hundred feet! Yet the intellectual leap represented by mathematical geniuses is far in excess of these physical differences.

I could post extracts from about half of Paul Davies' total output, he always has interesting things to say. You can pick up a copy of The Mind of God from Amazon US and Amazon UK.