Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

Free eBook of Stephen Braude's The Gold Leaf Lady

The Gold Leaf Lady

The University of Chicago Press is currently offering Stephen Braude's book The Gold Leaf Lady and other Parapsychological Investigations as a free ebook download.

For over thirty years, Stephen Braude has studied the paranormal in everyday life, from extrasensory perception and psychokinesis to mediumship and materialization. The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations is a highly readable and often amusing account of his most memorable encounters with such phenomena. Here Braude recounts in fascinating detail five particular cases—some that challenge our most fundamental scientific beliefs and others that expose our own credulousness.

Braude begins with a south Florida woman who can make thin gold-colored foil appear spontaneously on her skin. He then travels to New York and California to test psychokinetic superstars—and frauds—like Joe Nuzum, who claim to move objects using only their minds. Along the way, Braude also investigates the startling allegations of K.R., a policeman in Annapolis who believes he can transfer images from photographs onto other objects—including his own body—and Ted Serios, a deceased Chicago elevator operator who could make a variety of different images appear on Polaroid film. Ultimately, Braude considers his wife’s surprisingly fruitful experiments with astrology, which she has used to guide professional soccer teams to the top of their leagues, as well as his own personal experiences with synchronicity—a phenomenon, he argues, that may need to be explained in terms of a refined, extensive, and dramatic form of psychokinesis.

Heady, provocative, and brimming with eye-opening details and suggestions, The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations will intrigue both adherents and detractors of its controversial subject matter alike.

For all you old-schoolers, the hardcover of The Gold Leaf Lady is available from Amazon.com (I have it, and it's excellent).

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The Mirroring Mind

Another nicely done piece by Jason Silva, though my phlegmatic personality sometimes wants him to just chill a bit and get some of those concepts across without the adrenalin-infused hype and activity.

Created by Jason Silva in collaboration with CITIZEN. Follow Jason on twitter @JASONSILVA

This video is a non-commercial work created to inspire, made for educational purposes, inspired by the ideas of Douglas Hofstadter explored in the magnificent book GODEL, ESCHER, BACH: An Eternal Golden Braid.

It offers my interpretation of Strange Loops of Self Reference, recursion, and the emergence of consciousness and self-awareness:

"To Hofstadter, the human mind is a bright, shimmering, self-sustaining miracle of philosophical bootstrappery" - Lev Grossman.

"You know something. What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your whole life" - The Matrix

It is also inspired by some of the writing of Erik Davis in Techgnosis.com about the hero's journey taken by NEO in the Matrix in order to understand who he is:

"Neo must then face his own Cartesian "passage through madness," melting into a mirror that alludes not only to Lewis Carroll but to the mystic-psychotic collapse and disappearance of the externalized ego that stabilizes our inner void. As Neo phases out of the Matrix, he opens up, however briefly, the fractured bardo that is the secret thrill of every fan of the "false reality" genre: the moment when baseline reality dissolves but no new world has yet emerged in its pixelating wake. This is the most radical moment of the cogito, but it's tough to sustain."

It features the track "The Awakening" by Andy Quinn

Full credits for everything used in the remix at Vimeo.

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Vale Ingo Swann, Remote Viewing Pioneer

Ingo Swann

Well-known remote viewer Paul H. Smith has announced the passing of a (perhaps *the*) pioneer in the field, Ingo Swann, aged 79. A double degree graduate from Westminster College in Utah (in biology and art), Swann also served time in Korea in the U.S Army, before later pursuing a career in art and becoming involved with research into anomalous powers of the human mind:

Swann's active participation in parapsychology research began in 1969 when he was 36 years old. During the next twenty years he worked only in controlled laboratory settings with scientific researchers. Although he lectured widely on the importance of psychic faculties and potentials, he has never publicly demonstrated his abilities. Because of his participation in hundreds of thousands of experimental trials, author Martin Ebon wrote of him as "parapsychology's most tested guinea pig," and Psychic News and other media often refer to him as "the scientific psychic."

...In 1970-71 Swann experimented with Cleve Backster in attempting to influence plants by mental activity. In 1971-72 psychokinetic experiments involved successfully influencing temperature recorded in a controlled setting devised by parapsychologists Gertrude Schmeidler and Larry Lewis at City College, New York. this involved PK effects upon target thermistors (temperature measuring devices) in insulted thermos bottles at a distance of 25 feet from Swann...

Swann was also the subject of experiments in out-of-body travel, or psychic perception at a distance. These took place during 1971-73 at the American Society for Psychical Research. They involved Swann sitting in a chair and attempting to project his consciousness into sealed boxes on a small platform several feet above his head, in which there was a target symbol completely shielded from view. Swann was monitored by electrodes that would have recorded any movement from the chair.

Under these difficult laboratory conditions, Swann nevertheless scored significant successes in describing the targets. In one test he was actually able to state correctly that a light that should have illuminated the target was inoperative. There was no normal way of ascertaining this fact without opening the box.

In 1972-73, at the American Society for Psychical Research, Swann began suggesting experimental protocols to test for the existence of mind-dynamic processes that would enhance ESP and Dr. Gertrude Schmeidler, he coined the term "remote viewing" to describe the experiments in which subjects attempted to view targets at a far distance. His original remote-viewing protocols were later utilized and expanded upon in collaboration with the researchers Dr. H.E. Puthoff and Russell Targ. Other laboratories ultimately repeated various kinds of remote-viewing experiments.

...Even in his retirement, Ingo Swann maintained an interest in the progress of our understanding of human mental functioning, and was an avid observer not only of the human condition itself, but of the inroads being made to discover the full potential of the mind. At the time of his death, on February 1, 2013, Ingo was well along in the process of creating a new book featuring his marvelous art work.

For more information, read Paul Smith's complete profile of Ingo Swann, and also check out Ingo's website biomindsuperpowers.com which features Ingo's thoughts on parapsychological topics, as well as some of his artwork.

(h/t @DavidBMetcalfe)

TEDx: Jeff Kripal on the Impossible Becoming Possible

Jeff Kripal is a Professor of Comparative Religion at Rice University. He's also the author of two absolutely fascinating recent books which touch on aspects of the paranormal, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. If those sound like topics you'd find interesting, then you'll probably enjoy this TEDx talk that Jeff gave in November 2012 on "impossible things":

There are complexities and wonderment in life we simply cannot explain. When we look to science and religion, we can't always find the answers. Have you ever experienced deja-vu, coincidences, or dreams that may have seemed real? Have you ever wondered what exactly qualifies as human consciousness? Reality vs. Abstract? So have we...join us...in a discussion to explore these and more paradoxical ways of thinking.

I strongly recommend picking up Jeff's books, I found both super interesting and catalysts to deeper thinking on these topics.

Happy 42nd Birthday, Greg!

On behalf of everyone at the Grail, happy birthday Greg! Blowing out 42 candles on your birthday cake is an ancient method of achieving an altered state of consciousness, during which the meaning of life will be revealed to you. Have a good one mate, and I hope there are many more to come.

First Sight: A New Way of Understanding Psi

For some time I've had James Carpenter's First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life sitting on my reading list, but with multiple projects (and setbacks) happening I haven't yet had time to sit down with it properly. But I thought that I should at least mention it here, as I'm sure many Grailers would find it of interest. The book's PR promises no less than "a new model for understanding" anomalous abilities, such as those studied in parapsychology. Now there's not shortage of theorists out there in parapsychology, throwing out all sorts of ideas - but Carpenter is no crazy amateur. He's been involved in parapsychology research for many decades, and you only need to look at those who have commented on his book to know that he's got the attention of the field. Dean Radin labels First Sight as a "refreshingly novel approach to understanding psychic phenomena", Daryl Bem notes that the evidence Carpenter "marshals in defense of this thesis is persuasive and serves to unify many phenomena associated with psychic functioning", and Stanley Krippner says it is "a model of the mind that is both innovative and compelling".

I've embedded a video above of Carpenter describing the First Sight theory, but for those unable to view it, here's a short passage in which he outlines the theory using the analogy of lightning:

Consider physical lightning bolts. For thousands of years they were just about all that people knew about electricity. They were unpredictable, awesome, terrifying and beautiful. The ancients thought that when they erupted, the dormant sky had become suddenly and fiercely alive. Book Cover - First SightNow we understand that lightning is one expression of electricity, and electricity is actually everywhere. Electric charge is a basic constituent of every atom. It helps make up the stuff of our bodies, it connects each synaptic chain. It tells your heart when to beat. As we came to understand electricity we mastered it. Now you hold a domesticated lightning bolt in your hand when you use your cell phone. In a few moments you can use it to speak to someone in Beijing or Adelaide or Buenos Aires. The awesome anomaly is not anomalous at all and we have tamed it.

The lightning bolts that we call paranormal experiences are also surprising and beautiful and disturbing. They shake the ground of solid reality. They seem different and anomalous. According to First Sight theory, they are not really anomalous either.
This book is about a radically new way of thinking about these things. It presents a revolutionary understanding of how each of us fits within the world and how we are put together within ourselves. A lot of evidence suggests that the theory is true. In light of this, much of what we normally assume will need to be changed.

First Sight theory proposes that, like electricity, psychic experience is actually going on all the time. Also like electricity, it is almost always out of sight in its functioning. Occasionally, it will be expressed in obvious ways, like lightning bolts, but normally it is unconscious. What is it for? According to the theory, it is the leading edge of the unconscious processes that the mind uses to construct all its experience and all its behavior. Because it traffics with things that have not reached the physical senses, it is our first line of engagement with the world, our first outpost of information. This is why the theory reconstrues what has been called second sight and calls it First Sight.

You can grab First Sight from Amazon US or Amazon UK. More information about the book can also be found at the First Sight website.

Feeling the Future: Round Two

Crystal Ball

Two years ago we posted news of a study by Professor Daryl Bem which seemed to support the idea of 'presentiment', which went on to cause no end of controversy within scientific and skeptical circles (and continues to do so). And now here comes another one on the same topic, although not directly related to Bem: a broad review of experiments so far exploring the presentiment effect, titled "Predictive physiological anticipation preceding seemingly unpredictable stimuli: a meta-analysis. The paper is fairly heavy on terminology and statistics, but here's the basic summary (though 'basic' doesn't do it justice, given the implications of a presentiment effect being proven):

It has been known for some time that arousing and neutral stimuli produce somewhat different post-stimulus physiological responses in humans. However, what is remarkable is that many of the studies examined here make the claim that, for instance, the same physiological measure that yields a differential post-stimulus response to two stimulus classes also yields a differential pre-stimulus response to those same stimulus classes, prior even to the random selection of the stimulus type by the computer. Authors of these studies often refer to the effect as presentiment (sensing an event before it occurs) or unexplained anticipatory activity; we favor the latter terminology as it describes the phenomenon without implying that the effect truly reflects a reversal of the usual forward causality.

Basically, data from experiments appears to show that the body begins reacting to a future event from 2 to 10 seconds *before the event happens*. Needless to say, this is not part of the canon of the current scientific paradigm...

The physiological responses mentioned above are recorded from various sources, including skin conductance, heart rate, blood volume, respiration, electroencephalographic (EEG) activity, pupil dilation, blink rate, and/or blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) responses.

The meta-analysis found a small effect size (though many scientific and medical breakthroughs have been smaller), with a high level of significance. The analysis also seemed to rule out the chance that the results were an artifact of poor experimental design, "as higher-quality experiments that addressed known methodological concerns (randomization and expectation bias analysis) produced a quantitatively if not significantly higher overall ES and level of significance than lower-quality studies."

The authors also analysed data from emotional physiology studies that were not investigating the presentiment effect, and found that this data also contained evidence of the phenomenon.

The paper addresses a number of possible 'mundane' explanations for the observed presentiment effect, but found no smoking gun. In the final summary...

...the results of this meta-analysis indicate a clear effect, but we are not at all clear about what explains it. We conclude that if this seemingly anomalous anticipatory activity is real, it should be possible to replicate it in multiple independent laboratories using agreed-upon protocols, dependent variables, and analysis methods. Once this occurs, the problem can be approached with greater confidence and rigor. The cause of this anticipatory activity, which undoubtedly lies within the realm of natural physical processes (as opposed to supernatural or paranormal ones), remains to be determined.

And by that last sentence, I think they mean "well most people would probably describe this as paranormal, but we know we'll lose all the skeptics and scientists if we do that so we'll explicitly disavow it"...

(hat tip to @DavidBMetcalfe)

The Science of Lucid Dreaming

The short video above provides a quick introduction the science and (some of the) techniques involved in learning how to lucid dream. For more detailed information, I highly recommend a book from Daily Grail Publishing, Lucid Dreaming: Accessing Your Inner Virtual Realities, by Paul and Charla Devereux (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). Paul and Charla provide a detailed breakdown (in an easily readable manner) of both the history of research into lucid dreaming - a fascinating topic on its own - and also the science and techniques you can use to learn how to do it yourself.

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What Hallucinations Reveal About Our Minds

In this fascinating TED-Talk, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks discusses Charles Bonnett syndrome, a strange condition where visually impaired people experience lucid hallucinations.

Our good friend Paul Devereux has written on this topic previously, in Darklore Volume 1 and Fortean Times, and you can find a version of his article at Brainwaving.com. It's a personal story involving a friend of Paul's that suffered from Charles Bonnet syndrome, which got him thinking about the 'reality' of our perceptions:

The Charles Bonnet Syndrome is merely an observation, not an explanation, so what exactly causes these hallucinations? On that subject the medical literature becomes less helpful, and it is clear, even admitted, that no one really knows. I could buy the idea that patches of light in the central visual region could be related to pathological conditions in the macula, and could cause people and writing to apparently disappear intermittently, but faces at the window, and people dressed in various costumes walking toward churches or driving vehicles or holding street parties seem more of a push. This was especially the case for me in that I was also aware that people claiming to encounter spirits, whether psychic mediums or ordinary individuals in spontaneous cases, tend to report seeing them in their peripheral vision rather than directly, “head on”. I could not help but wonder with these macular degeneration visions whether we were dealing with hallucinations or spirits or some subtle level of perception between them both.

Although the actual mechanics are currently unknown, the basic official theory explaining the visions associated with visual impairment like macular degeneration is that the brain, on receiving incomplete visual data through the eyes, “fills in” the missing elements as best it can – a kind of “best fit” process. In fact, there is evidence that it is only the input of a constant visual stream through our eyes that prevents the brain making up its own imagery in any case. This has been demonstrated in sensory deprivation experiments in which subjects who are placed in total blackout conditions for long periods experience hallucinatory imagery to lighten their darkness. All of us experience this in another form and to a lesser degree when we dream.

If this explanation is true, then a whole host of other implications are raised. If animated figures in costumes, shades of the dead, processions leading to physically real churches, whole landscapes and entire, complex scenes can be rendered in intricate detail by the brain struggling to “fill in” gaps in sensory data, what then is “reality”? Could what we take to be concrete materiality be a kind of hallucination sustained by cultural conditioning, and are paranormal phenomena simply glitches in that illusion? Are the different, spirit-based worldviews held by tribal societies simply other forms of hallucination no less “real” than our own? Is the Hindu doctrine of apparent reality being but the “Veil of Maya”, of illusion, correct?

Whatever the answers are to such questions, one thing is certain – we do not see with our eyes alone.

An interesting point made by Oliver Sacks is that around 10% of visually impaired people have these hallucinations, but only about 1% report it to their doctor, as they fear being labeled "crazy". It's a similar predicament to people who have near-death experiences and other seemingly paranormal interactions, and suggests that there is somewhat of a deleterious effect to the growing rationalism of the modern world. In fact, we are strange creatures who regularly see and experience strange things - we shouldn't "believe" them as a matter of fact, but we should at least acknowledge more often that they are a built-in part of our perceptual range.

Dr. Sacks' latest book, Hallucinations, which obviously touches on this topic, will be released later this year and can be pre-ordered via the given link.

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Not Feeling the Future: New Bem Replication Fails to Find Evidence of Psi

Crystal Ball

Another possible hit this week for Professor Daryl Bem's controversial "Feeling the Future" experiments, which found positive evidence for precognition, with the publication of a large-scale replication study which found no psi effect. The full paper, "Correcting the Past: Failures to Replicate Psi", is freely available for download, and I recommend downloading it and having a good read. No doubt many will suffer (as I did) through the more technical descriptions of statistical analysis, but amongst that there is fascinating, respectful discussion of the Bem experiments and this latest replication attempt. In addition to the experiment results, the paper also features a meta-analysis of all replications attempted so far, which found again no significant evidence for precognition effects.

For those that can't make it all the way through the paper, skeptic Steven Novella already has a large write-up of the new paper at Neurologica, in which he addresses many of the key points, as well as giving a broad overview of the entire Bem controversy.

Bem’s studies have not fared well in replication. Earlier this year Ritchie, Wiseman, and French published three independent replications of Bem’s 9th study, all negative. Of further interest is that the journal that originally published Bem’s article had declined to publish Ritchie et al’s paper claiming that they don’t publish replications. This decision (and editorial policy) was widely criticizes, as it reflects an undervaluing of replications.

It’s good to see that the journal has relented and agreed to publish a replication. Galak, LeBoeuf, Nelson, and Simmons should be commended, not only on their rigorous replication but their excellent article, which hits all the key points of this entire episode.

The researchers replicated experiments 8 and 9 of Bem (they chose these protocols because they were the most objective). They conducted 7 precise replications involving a total of 3,289 subjects (Bem’s studies involved 950 subjects). Six of the seven studies, when analyzed independently, were negative, while the last was slightly statistically significant. However, when the data are taken together, they are dead negative. The authors concluded that their experiments found no evidence for psi.

I leave it to more qualified minds than mine to authoritatively assess the merits of the paper. For what it's worth, however, here's my thoughts (caveats abounding):

I would imagine Bem would criticize this new replication on a key point, one which Novella glosses over in his assessment (in calling it a "rigorous" and "precise" replication) - that four of the seven experiments were done online, not in the lab. Additionally, one of the online experiments (#7) had roughly 2400 respondents, so across all 7 tests the amount of 'lab' results is only about 12%. This online aspect brings in a number of points of failure, from inattentiveness and distraction, right through to unintentional (by knowing about and thus being prepared for the 'surprise' test at the end) or intentional sabotage - it's worth noting that the availability of the online test was passed around on skeptical forums such as the JREF and Rational Skepticism. Bem himself has criticized a previous paper from Galak et al. on this very point, saying when you do the test online, "you lose total control over it". Interestingly, two of the three lab-based experiments done by the researchers had significantly lower p-values (p=0.04 and p=0.10) than the other tests.

Additionally, the researchers acknowledge explicitly that after reading Bem's replication notes, they noticed that "there were at least three differences between our experiments (which followed the procedure described in Bem’s published paper) and the full procedure actually employed by Bem." This included using a different word set to Bem for some tests. Steven Novella notes in his blog summary the importance of precise replications, saying that "a precise replication should have no degrees of freedom." I find it hard to imagine how he reconciles this view with his support of the paper (describing it multiple times as a "precise" replication), and therefore that it "provides further evidence against psi as a real phenomenon, and specifically against the claims of Daryl Bem".

Having said that, the paper itself does an admirable job of explaining these limitations/problems, and providing alternate analysis excluding some of these factors which appears to still show support for their conclusions. However, I had the distinct feeling that some of those exclusions were rather arbitrary (for instance, how to exclude possible sabotage), and in the end I'm not sure that they overcome the larger problem of (a) the massive online component and (b) the lack of precise replication, in terms of making this latest study acceptable as a true replication of Bem's experiments. Nevertheless, fascinating reading and well worth your time.

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