Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

Dreaming While Awake


by Mike Jay

(excerpted from Darklore Volume 8, available from Amazon US and Amazon UK)

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In February 1758 the 90-year-old Charles Lullin, a retired Swiss civil servant whose sight had been progressively failing since a cataract operation five years before, began to see considerably more than he had become accustomed to. For the next several months he was visited in his apartment by a silent procession of figures, invisible to everyone but him: young men in magnificent cloaks, perfectly coiffured ladies carrying boxes on their heads, girls dancing in silks and ribbons. These visions were recorded and published in 1760 by his grandson, the naturalist Charles Bonnet, after whom the syndrome of hallucinations in the elderly and partially sighted would much later be named.

This celebrated case is one of the founding studies in the science of hallucinations, and frames the subject in distinctive ways. Most significantly, it has no link with mental illness: Lullin’s eyesight may have dimmed but his cognitive faculties were perfectly sharp, and he had no difficulty recognising his hallucinations as unreal. His experience was clearly different in kind from those experienced in psychoses such as schizophrenia: rather, it highlights the remarkable range of organic conditions, from neurological disorders to drug effects, of ‘hallucinations in the sane’.

Much has been learned in the intervening century about the brain states and optical processes that lie behind such experiences, but the old question remains: what, if anything, do such hallucinations have to tell us? They cannot be dismissed as symptoms of insanity, and nor are they purely random sensory data: on the contrary, their content is curiously consistent. Miniature people, for example, are a common sight for those with Charles Bonnet syndrome: Oliver Sacks recalls a patient who was accompanied for a couple of weeks by ‘little people a few inches high, like elves or fairies, with little green caps, climbing up the sides of her wheelchair’ 1. These little folk are also witnessed in many other circumstances: by sufferers from migraine, epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, those on mind-altering drugs such as DMT (dimethyltryptamine) or magic mushrooms, or in withdrawal from alcohol or sedatives. These are wildly different causes, but the miniature people they generate are strikingly similar. They share many curious but consistent qualities: a tendency to appear in groups, for example, or arrayed in phalanxes (‘numerosity’), to wear headgear or exotic dress, and to go about their business autonomously, paying no attention to the subject’s attempts to interact with them. Who are these little people? Do they have a message for us? And if not, what is the meaning of ... Read More »

New Study Offers Support for 'Telephone Telepathy'

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Have you ever heard the phone ring, and somehow knew the identity of the caller before you answered? Many people have reported so-called 'telephone telepathy', but skeptics generally write if off as selective memory (you remember the few times you were correct, forget the many times you were wrong) or pattern-based intuition (certain people call at certain times, or for certain reasons, which you unconciously recognise). But could it be that these experiences really do offer an insight into some sort of anomalous mind-to-mind communication?

There has in fact been some scientific testing of this idea, most notably by British scientist Rupert Sheldrake. Five experiments from 2003 onwards have all shown positive results, with hit rates above what would be expected by chance (see the video above for a short video about an experiment by Sheldrake involving 'The Nolan Sisters' - text summary here).

And now, a new study led by Sheldrake, created to explore the new possibilities of 'telephone telepathy' testing afforded by advances in digital communication technology, has reinforced those results. Here's the description of the experiment:

Participants registered online through Rupert Sheldrake's (R.S.) web site, The subjects entered their first and second names, sex, age, mobile telephone number, and email address, and also entered the names of two or three contacts (first names only) together with their mobile telephone numbers. The subject was told, “During the test, when you receive a call you will be asked to guess whether it is from contact 1, 2, or 3 (or 1 and 2 in the case of the two-caller test) so you will need to remember the order of your contacts. It will help if you put them in alphabetical order.”

There was also a field on the registration form for a group name, so when participants were part of a specific group, they all entered the same group name when registering, enabling their data to be retrieved as a group. The subject then received a welcome SMS message saying, “Thank you for entering the Telepathy Test which will start shortly. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Good luck!” The personal identification number (PIN) was a four-digit number, specific to this test. The contacts also received an SMS message saying, “Your details have been submitted by [SubjectName] as part of the Telepathy Test and the test will start shortly. Your PIN will be [nnnn].” (The subject was also told that she could stop the test at any time by calling the (landline) telephone telepathy test number (which was given at the bottom of the registration form) and pressing the star key on the keypad.)

Thus all participants' tests were pre-registered, and hence there were no data from this test in “file drawers.” The test proceeded as follows:

  1. After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, the system selected one of the contacts at random and sent a message saying, “This is the Telepathy Test. Please call [landline number] to be transferred to [SubjectName]. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Do not attempt to contact [SubjectName] directly.”
  2. The contact person then called the telephone telepathy test landline number and was asked to enter the PIN number, identifying which test the contact was part of. A voice message asked the caller, “Please stay on the line while we attempt to contact the subject.” While on hold, the subject heard music.
  3. The computer then telephoned the subject, whose caller ID display said, “Telephone telepathy test.” When the subject answered the phone, a message said, “ One of your callers is on the line. Please guess who it is by pressing 1, 2 or 3 (or 1 or 2 in two callers tests).” As soon as the guess was made it was recorded automatically, and the line opened up so the caller could talk to the subject, thus receiving immediate feedback. After a minute, the call was terminated.
  4. After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, this procedure was repeated, and then repeated again until the subject had completed six trials, at which stage the test was complete. The subject then received an SMS message saying “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. You scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.” The contacts also received SMS messages saying, “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. Subject scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.”

In tests with three callers, there were 2080 trials altogether, with a hit rate of 41.8%, well above the 33.3% hit rate expected by chance. In tests with two callers, there were 745 trials, with a hit rate of 55.2% - again, above the 50% chance hit rate. According to the researchers, the experiments "showed that it is possible to do tests for telephone telepathy using an automated system involving mobile telephones under real-life conditions", and that the "overall hit rates were positive and significantly above chance, as in previous research on telephone telepathy using landlines."

It's worth noting though that the researchers involved make clear that these tests were not 'air-tight' experiments given the ability of participants to cheat. "We did not film or supervise the participants, and hence it was possible that some were cheating", they note. "Therefore, we do not claim that positive results in these exploratory experiments are compelling evidence for telepathy". Instead, the main aim of these tests was exploratory: to point at new ways of investigating telepathy experimentally, to note problems that needed to be overcome with future tests, and also to investigate if the sex and age of the subjects had any noticeable effects (no differences were discovered on this latter point).

Link to Paper: Automated Tests for Telephone Telepathy Using Mobile Phones

Kickstarter: "Am I a Psychic" App Uses Science and Statistics to Tell Whether You've Got Psi Abilities


Research into 'psi' abilities (telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, etc.) remains on the fringes of science, with common arguments against such phenomena often coming down to the unscientific nature of how people come to believe in them - skeptics say that people often fall into the trap of selective thinking, making note of the times that something strange happened to them, and forgetting the many times that something did not.

The best way around such concerns is to do scientific testing of any suggested psi abilities, though sometimes that can be a little tricky if you're on your own. Enter a newly proposed mobile app - "Am I a Psychic?" - created by college student Dominic Parker, who is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter to complete the project:

This app is the first mobile application in the history of psychical research that is actually fun to play and actually tests your ability! There has never been anything like this before in science, which is what makes it so exciting and fun to be a part of. "Am I Psychic?" is the fruition of almost two years of planning, development and marketing.

The user can choose to play our games using either the extra sensory perception (ESP) mode or using the psychokinesis (PK) mode. Each offers the user a different and unique approach to proving their psychic ability. The ESP mode allows the user to choose between 6 options. Using psychic ability the user attempts to guess the future. Once the option is chosen, let the PRNG do the work and afterward the user can check a mathematical (but not boring) graph and see if they're psychic. The PK mode has the user choose a time limit and one of six options. Then the user attempts to mentally influence the PRNG to pick the chosen option. Once the time limit has expired the user can view a mathematical (did I say not boring?) graph and both visually and scientifically see if they're psychic.

In this 'big data' era, another upside of the app is that it will allow users to consent to allowing the results from each of their tests to be collected and analysed as part of a larger set, with possible later publication of the results in an academic research paper. (I'm hoping this consent query will be done pre-test, otherwise the 'file-drawer effect' would make the results totally unscientific).

Link: Kickstarter for "Am I a Psychic?" App

Documentary Explores the Possibility of Gaining 'Superpowers' Via Meditation and Focused Breathing

Here's a fascinating Vice documentary on the possibility of much greater conscious control of our bodies, using meditation and focused breathing to allow direct modification of our autonomic nervous system, cardiovascular system, and immune system.

Such abilities are of course part of a number of ancient Eastern traditions, but it was interesting to see it through the prism of a modern European practitioner:

Wim Hof first caught the attention of scientists when he proved he was able to stay submerged in ice for one hour and 53 minutes without his core body temperature changing. Since then, he's climbed Mount Everest in his shorts, resisted altitude sickness, completed a marathon in the Namibian Desert with no water, and proven—under a laboratory setting—that he's able to influence his autonomic nervous system and immune system at will.

Almost everything Wim has done was previously thought to be impossible, but he's not a freak of nature; he's a master of meditation.

To demonstrate that any human can learn his methods, Wim offered to teach VICE hosts Matt Shea and Daisy-May Hudson how to climb a freezing cold mountain in their shorts without getting cold. But when Matt and Daisy signed up for the training, they had no idea that the so-called Iceman was planning to lead them on a psychedelic journey across Europe that circled the chasm between science and spirituality.

Transmitting Thought: A Documentary on the Famous Maimonides Dream Telepathy Experiments

Transmitting Thought Documentary on Stanley Krippner

There are few investigators of anomalous phenomena who have contributed more to the field than Dr Stanley Krippner. From dream telepathy experiments, through anthropological investigation of psychic claimants in cultures around the world, to researching links between LSD and psi experiences, the 82-year-old psychologist's work has gained the respect of nearly all who have studied his work, even skeptics such as James Randi.

For those who'd like to learn more about one of Krippner's most influential pieces of work, a new short documentary by film-maker Ronni Thomas, titled "Transmitting Thought: The Maimonides Dream Lab" (embedded below), provides a fantastic introduction:

It is easy to subscribe to a set of rules when those rules are set by science rather than religion. But science lives with a bias -- that in order for an idea to be explored it must be observable, measurable and repeatable. Yet the irrational is part of our world, especially when it comes to the subject of human consciousness. Current scientific thinking brings an almost religious devotion to debunking anything that appears "irrational" or outside the rules and norms of core science.

But such an approach leaves tremendous gaps in our understanding -- especially in questions of ESP, precognition, and other queries into non-physical intelligence. But this was not always the case. For a brief time, from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s, the field of academic parapsychology flourished in the United States. And at the forefront of the field was the American psychologist Dr. Stanley Krippner. In this film, Krippner discusses his research at the Maimonides Dream Lab in Brooklyn, NY in the 1960s. There, he and his colleagues conducted studies that explored the use of telepathy within the altered state of dreaming.

Through numerous experiments, including one with the rock band The Grateful Dead, the Maimonides team produced substantial scientific research on the topic of ‘dream telepathy,’ until the demise of the lab's funding. Learn what we know -- and what we lost -- in Transmitting Thought : the Maimonides Dream Lab.

Link: Transmitting Thought: The Maimonides Dream Lab: A New Film by Ronni Thomas for Morbid Anatomy Museum Presents!

(h/t David Pescovitz at Boing Boing)

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RSA Animate: Iain McGilchrist & the Divided Brain

We've all heard the meme of "Right Brained=Creative vs Left Brained=Analytical." We've also heard how it's become a favorite 'punching bag' topic for popular science writers, who are always fond of reminding us how the left/right hemisphere dichotomy is as fallacious as the notion that we humans only use 10% or less of our total brain capacity --sorry, Lucy.

British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of 'The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World' [Amazon US & UK] does not intend to refute those arguments. What he proposes instead is that our current civilization has favored the 'focused and descriptive' faculty of the left brain, while disregarded the more 'holistic' view of the right brain --something we might want to restore into a more balanced state, which he explains in this lecture brilliantly illustrated by RSA Animate:

“The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilant alertness, whereas the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to detail. People who lose their right hemispheres have a pathological narrowing of the window of attention.”

Further Reading:

Experiencing the True Horror of Sleep Paralysis

Fuseli - The Nightmare

As with many strange phenomena, much of the conversation about sleep paralysis tends to come in the form of the debate between skeptics and believers as to whether these bizarre experiences are 'real' in any way, or just odd tricks of the brain. But what that discussion often lacks is acknowledgement that - to those who 'suffer' from sleep paralysis - the experience feels real. Which makes the often-terrifying aspects of these experiences just that much more visceral and traumatic.

In a post on sleep paralysis here early last year I noted that Rodney Ascher - director of the acclaimed Stanley Kubrick-related documentary Room 237 - was seeking sleep paralysis experiencers for a new documentary he was beginning work on.

I've been obsessed with it ever since it used to happen with me (in my case, I saw sort of a living, 3D shadow looming over in me in judgement)... The film is going to be largely built on interviews with people who've had vivid, first-person experiences with it (and have given some serious thought to what's really happening to them).

Ascher has now finished his documentary, simply titled The Nightmare, which is being released this week in selected cinemas as well as on iTunes and other 'Video on Demand' outlets. And, as befits a director whose last documentary was about The Shining, by all reports the new release manages to capture well the horror experienced by people upon waking in the dead of night:

In a recent interview with Vice, Ascher tells how finding a community of experiencers, and scientific explanations, helped him cope with his own bouts of sleep paralysis - but still left nagging questions that continue to fascinate him:

I was convinced it was a supernatural experience—I thought I was in danger of demonic possession, and it took a long time before any alternate explanations offered themselves up to me.

...this had happened to me when the internet was in its earliest days, so there wasn't really anything that I could use to research what I had experienced. I think if I did, I wouldn't have looked it up as a sleep disorder. I would've been researching something about, like, ghosts and the supernatural, which is how it felt to me. When I decided to research it a little bit, and see if I could find other people sharing their experiences or find scientific explanations for what was going on, I was astonished to see the sheer number of people out there who had gone through it; who were telling the details of their stories, some of which were even more bizarre and frightening than my own, in a way that they were starting to understand what had happened to them. That was fascinating to me, and made it clear that there was a bigger story here.

But none of that stuff gets at questions of, well, why do different people see the same thing? Or if people are all dreaming similar things, should there be a clearer understanding of what dreams mean? The questions I'm interested in about why people see what they see and how they struggle to make sense of this stuff are questions that aren't strictly scientific.

You can keep up with the latest news and release dates for The Nightmare via the documentary's Facebook page.

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Science Claims OBE's Solved, Yet Again! But Is It Really?

out of body experience

So here we go again; popular science media outlets are declaring the phenomena of Out-of-Body Experience to be solved, based on a study of what can only be described as a proximal experience in the laboratory.

I’m talking about the way science news journalists like to spin the results of any experiment involving OBE’s or NDE’s (near-death experience), so that the conclusions seem to fit the mainstream narrative that such experiences are simply illusory products of brain activity.  To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that they aren’t illusory experiences, nor am I saying that they’re factually genuine.  What I am saying is that the quoted studies do not, cannot support that specific claim.  This is an old complaint from me, but I’ll happily illustrate why yet again.

A group of neuroscientists from Sweden published a paper on April 30 in the journal Current Biology, which explains a set of experiments they undertook to image brain activity using an fMRI machine, of patients who were experiencing an induced out-of-body illusion.  The stated goal of their research was to identify and study the areas in the brain that are responsible for or are related to body-ownership and spatial awareness.  As they note in the abstract, no one has ever looked at how those concepts, and the brain structures involved with those concepts – parietal and medial temporal cortices – might be involved in experiences similar to OBE’s.

According to their paper, they were able to identify activity in certain structures, namely the hippocampus and intraparietal cortices, among others, that bears a strong correlation to our sense of body ownership, and spatial cognition.  They specifically claim that the posterior cingulate cortex plays a key role in the integration of spatial awareness and body-ownership.  This research could potentially be significant in the treatment of certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia and certain forms of epilepsy.

But there is a very important part of this study that’s being misrepresented by news outlets, specifically by Live Science.

In order to achieve a brain-state in their tests subjects that can be thought of as similar to that which is present during an OBE, the researchers had to create a perceptual illusion using cameras and mirrors, which caused the subject to perceive their body in abnormal spatial orientations.  Admittedly, that seems logically similar to what OBE reporters claim to be their experience.  However, these researchers, and those reporting their findings are glossing over the very real and very important assumption that lies at the heart of that similarity.

Is the brain activity associated with the induced illusion of an abnormal spatial orientation the same as the brain activity of someone who is undergoing an Out-of-Body Experience?  It’s conceivable that they are, but that connection has not been proven by this paper.

To make matters worse, the Live Science writer in question didn’t even provide a direct link to the paper in question so that readers could, and would be encouraged to, go look at the results themselves, rather than taking that one writer’s word for it.

If you’ll recall last year, the science magazine Frontiers published a story about the “study” of a Canadian woman who claimed that she can, in the manner of an OBE, leave her body at will.  The story painted the picture of a clinical trial involving fMRI scans of her brain while she thought she was out of her body.  Though, as I pointed out in that case as well, the assumption that what she was experiencing, or claimed she was experiencing, was in fact the result of an OBE was completely overlooked in the story.  To make matters worse in that case, the story was actually just a story.  It was the anecdotal telling of how one researcher put this self-proclaimed OBE’er through a single fMRI scan and then interpreted the results of that scan as they saw fit, with no controls, methodology, or clear goals in mind.  And, predictably, science news reporters lapped up the narrative and ran with it as though this is how science is done.

In light of these two cases and the clear bias they highlight in science reporting, is it really any wonder so many people don’t trust this entity, this persona called Science, any further than they can throw it?  Don’t get me wrong, I loath science denial as much as unfounded science worship, but this kind of blatant bias, which at times seems to be calculated and deliberate, is almost enough for me to change sides, at least for a little while.

The Adventures of Daredevil & his Sidekick… Uri Geller?

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” ~Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

In an age in which Science is regarded as the new god and scientists as its appointed priests, artists will turn into heretics spawning new myths by which to speak of greater truths. The myths of the XXIst century are not to be found in temples.

On his book Mutants & Mystics [Amazon US & UK] --a book we've promoted at the Grail on numerous occasions, and will continue to do so-- Jeffrey Kripal explores how paranormal phenomena have often served as inspiration for artists in the shaping of pop culture content, such a pulp novels or comic books. No greater example could be found than in Daredevil's #133 (by writer Marv Wolfman and artists Bob Brown and Jim Mooney), in which "the man without fear" teamed up with none other than "the Spoonman" himself: Uri Geller.

Why the Marvel artists decided to promote the young Israeli mentalist is due to direct divine intervention --or in this case, the god of the Marvel universe: Stan Lee. As Wolfman wrote in the letter column after the story was published:

[...]Stan said he’d like to use Uri Geller in one of our comics, and that I should find a place for him. At that time, I had heard of Geller – he was some sort of a metal-bender. That’s all I had heard, and frankly, I wasn’t too keen on the idea, and so I said I’d use him in DAREDEVIL (easier for me to do this than to assign it to another writer, I thought). Cut to a week or so later – I was at a party up at Paty (Cake) Greer’s upstate New York home and I happened to see a copy of “Uri Geller, My Story” in her bookstand. Asking if I could borrow it for background information, I began reading it, and getting more and more involved with the reading. It was a fascinating story – and, yes, I was hooked – though still a total cynic.

It was then that Uri called, asking if he could come up to the offices to speak with me, to discuss the story. I said sure, hoping that this would be a chance to find out some things not in the book. He did come up the next day, and I found him to be a very likeable person, an avid Marvel fan, and not at all what one would expect a person with “special powers and abilities” to be like – in other words, the furthest thing from an egomaniac that you could hope to find. During the course of our talk, he asked for a key, which I gave him, then asked me to hold his fingers to see if he was pressing on the key. They were loosely around the heavy metal key, and slowly, as I held his fingers with mine, I watched the key bend.

Yeah, I may be a cynic, but I don’t ignore facts – the key had bent – I was holding his fingers so I know he couldn’t bend them with his hand, and it was my key. Whatever powers he had – were real. At that point, he asked me to draw a picture and not show it to him. He then began drawing his own picture, and as you can see from our two illustrations reproduced on this page, the sketches are very similar. Considering the rough drawing style from which Uri was trying to receive his psychic impressions, he was able to come very close to my own illustration – even duplicating the bizarre front view of the face on the side view of the body.

Afterwards, Uri bent another key for Sparklin’ SCOTT EDELMAN, with virtually the entire Marvel staff watching. We also took a few publicity pictures; the best printed here.
As for me, I began a cynic, and now I’m a believer – of whatever abilities Uri has, and if there are any super heroes in this world, we should hope they are all as nice as Uri.

The image on the left is the one drawn by Wolfman, and the right one by Uri.

The comic book even deals with Geller's own 'origin story' of how he (allegedly) acquired his psychic abilities during his early childhood, after having a close-encounter experience with a UFO. Perhaps no more fantastic an explanation than say, being exposed to outer space radiation like the Fantastic Four, or Matt Murdock's (Daredevil) accident with a truck transporting radioactive waste; in which case Geller could probably fit into the 'radioactive hero' category employed by Kripal --something I'm sure would greatly please him, seeing how he nowadays boasts of having served for Mossad and the CIA as a 'psychic spy'…

Kripal does mention Geller on a couple of occasions in Mutants & Mystics though, and not in a particularly flattering way:

From the perspective of the [Stanford Research Institute] scientists, Geller was an artful mixture of stage magician and the real deal --the truck and truth, or tricky truth again. They studied him at SRI for six weeks toward the end of 1972. He never managed to demonstrate his psychokinetic powers under the controlled laboratory conditions of SRI, but he did produce some fantastic effects outside the lab, including one really weird instance of teleportation with Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell.

The' teleportation' event was actually closer to an apport, the kind of spiritual manifestation of an object that is often reported among Eastern cult leaders and gurus. Mitchell wanted to test Geller's supposed abilities, and challenged him to produce the camera he had left on the Moon; since the device had a very specific NASA serial number which would be unknown to Geller, this would be an excelent way to eliminate the possibility of forgery.

Alas, Geller's powers didn't raise to the occasion --good thing he wasn't fighting super-villains instead!-- but what happened instead did manage to surprise Mitchell nonetheless: While they were having lunch along with Russell Targ at the SRI cafeteria, Geller almost broke a tooth on something in his ice cream; it was the point of a miniature arrowhead, which Mitchell thought it looked familiar. Back in the lab, everyone suddenly saw something fall on the carpet: "We picked it up, and it was the rest of the arrow. Together, the two pieces made a tie pin." Mitchell was astonished because he immediately recognized it as a tie pin that belonged to him; one that he had lost years ago. The Trickster strikes again!

But getting back to the Daredevil story, Geller not only helps the Hell's Kitchen vigilante to 'sense' the presence of the baddies using his 'powers', but he even has a mano a mano --make that a mente a mente-- fight with the (also psychic) villan 'Mind-wave.' It's a shame the story writer didn't decide to make Geller face his real arch-nemesis *ahem*

Speaking of skeptics, they have also been invited to step inside the 'super hero' universe a couple of times. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance, was the one who helped Superman locate the position of his long-gone home world in Action Comics #14. I even managed to detect his voice in the recently-released official trailer of Batman vs Superman; like most modern geeks, Neil has no problem in dabbling with Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres --it's when the Fantasy starts to creep into Reality and viceversa, like Kripal ascertains, that hardcore materialists meet their own personal kryptonite...

What other real life psychics, mystics and magicians --or people who claim to be so-- do you think deserve to rub elbows with our spandex-clad gods? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

[H/T Fortean UK]


On Alien Abductions and Exploding Heads

Exploding Head Syndrom

In 1876, physician Silas Weir Mitchell described how he was treating two men who suffered from strange “sensory discharges”: being woken from their sleep by the seemingly illusory sound of "loud bells" or a “gunshot”. Provocatively named 'exploding head syndrome', a modern sufferer describes his own symptoms as a "sudden crescendo of noise, then a profound and jarring explosion of sound, electrical fizzing and a bright flash in my vision, like someone has lit a spotlight in front of my face."

Despite its strangeness (or perhaps because of it?), there has been relatively little research into the disorder. A new theory has however been put forward by Assistant Professor Brian Sharpless of Washington State University:

Several ideas have been proposed, including ear disorders and partial epileptic seizures. But the most compelling theory comes from a handful of studies in which people with the condition have had their brain activity monitored overnight. These small studies suggest that there may be a burst of neural activity in the brain that coincides with the reported explosion.

Normally, when we go to sleep our body shuts down and becomes paralysed so that we don’t act out our dreams. During this transition from wake to sleep, the brain usually turns off bit by bit, says Sharpless.
However, in exploding head syndrome, there is a hiccup in the 'reticular formation' – the part of the brain responsible for overseeing this general shut-down – which results in a delay in switching off some areas.

This delay is associated with a suppression of alpha brainwaves that are normally responsible for drowsiness, and a sudden burst of neural activity in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound. “We think the neurons are all firing at once,” he says, which results in the sensation of an explosion in your head.

Sharpless says that the syndrome's similarity to another neurological disorder, 'sleep paralysis' - both appear to arise from problems in the transition between wakefulness and sleep - may also tie it to some 'paranormal' experiences:

Take a look at these supernatural or alien stories, says Sharpless, and sometimes you can see hints of both sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome. “People can sense these strange explosions in their head, and they may think they’ve had something implanted in their brain. Or they feel this surge of electricity and they think they’ve been shot by some kind of new energy weapon. They can’t move, but hear and see strange things and think they’ve been abducted.”

For more detailed discussion about the sounds heard during paranormal experiences, be sure to have a read of my Darklore article "Her Sweet Murmur".

Link: 'I have Exploding Head Syndrome'

Related: "Her Sweet Murmur: Exploring the aural phenomenology of border experiences"