Spirit Mediumship: A Complex Phenomenon
I. Neuroimaging Studies
by Jack Hunter
Spirit mediumship is a complex, near universal phenomenon (see Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies from Between the Worlds for a cross-cultural snapshot of just a few of the world’s mediumship traditions), which, despite over 130 years of investigation from psychical research and the social sciences more generally, continues to evade scholarly attempts to pin it down and neatly explain it. Countless attempts have been made, however, from the debunkers who suggest that all mediumship is a mixture of fraud and delusion, to the social anthropologists who argue that spirit mediumship is a purely social phenomenon, performing specific social functions, and certain parapsychologists who suggest that spirit mediumship offers proof of survival after death. And yet, none of the theories that have been put forward quite seem able to offer a fully satisfying explanation for what is going on.
In this series of short articles I would like to highlight some of the reasons why spirit mediumship is such a difficult phenomenon to get a grip on through outlining some of the research that has been conducted, and pointing out gaps in our understanding of the underlying processes. This first article will present an overview of the, really rather sparse, neuroimaging data on spirit mediumship, and will briefly discuss what it does and doesn’t tell us about the phenomenon.
It was long suspected that mediums might exhibit unusual neurological activity, and yet despite countless studies of the neurophysiological correlates of other forms of altered consciousness, such as meditation, very few neurophysiological studies of spirit mediumship have actually been conducted. Altered States researchers Edward F. Kelly and Rafael Locke have suggested that despite the potentially fruitful use of EEG and other physiological monitoring devices for classifying and differentiating specific altered states of consciousness and their physiological correlates, there are unfortunate technical and social difficulties associated with attempting such studies in the field. Technological difficulties include the problems associated with trying to monitor and record brain activity naturalistically in the field setting using cumbersome equipment, while social difficulties include getting spirit mediums, and other practitioners, to agree to participate in such studies. Fortunately, since Kelly & Locke first published their research prospectus in 1981, technological advances have made it possible to measure EEG in the field (see Oohashi et al. below), but other forms of neuroimaging still rely on heavy-duty equipment which is impractical for field studies. Despite these difficulties, however, a small number of studies have been successfully carried out specifically looking at the neurophysiological correlates of mediumistic states of consciousness.
Even before the advent of neuroimaging studies of mediums, American psychologist Julian Jaynes, drawing on his theory of
Earlier this month Intelligence2 hosted a debate on the question of the afterlife, with ground-breaking near-death experience author Dr. Raymond Moody and neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander arguing for the statement "Death is not Final", while countering that claim were physicist Sean Carroll and neurologist Dr. Steven Novella. With the event being a sell-out, Intelligence2 graciously streamed the debate via video to the internet, and have since shared the recorded version on YouTube (see embedded video below).
I mentioned my concern over the choice of panelist arguing 'for' the proposition before the debate, and that concern was largely borne out. In my opinion, they failed badly and the negative side were worthy winners of the debate. Moody and Alexander seemed unbelievably badly prepared, given how obvious the arguments of the negative side were going to be. Neither seemed ready for the critiques, which certainly have vulnerabilities of their own which the positives could have responded with (see my examination after the video below). Both Moody and Alexander also seemed to be pre-occupied by their own personal interaction with the topic, and as such rather than surveying the whole landscape of the afterlife debate to bolster their case, they stayed within their own very narrow boundaries. Eben Alexander led off almost completely with his own, subjective (and not totally NDE-like) experience, which was no doubt profound for him, but is not a story which should win any logic-based debate. Raymond Moody - who is certainly owed a huge debt by us all for his contribution to the field with his seminal NDE book Life After Life - indulged in his predilection for deep philosophical musings, which may be fun over a casual drink, but in an hour-long public debate is an action doomed to fail. Moody got so lost in his musings in fact, that at one point he said point-blank "I believe parapsychology is a pseudoscience", and later was invited by the negative side to join their panel because he seemed to be arguing on behalf of their side!
You can watch the entire debate for yourself here:
I said before the debate that I would have preferred to see someone with the credentials of Dr. Bruce Greyson arguing for the positive, as he has a deep knowledge of these topics, understanding both the evidence for and the critiques against, and is a fairly unflappable character. Since the debate, I've thought of other possible candidates who would also have done a good job: Michael Prescott, Chris Carter, Janice Miner-Holden, Michael Grosso, Julie Beischel, Sam Parnia and Steve Volk. (Some of my Twitter followers suggested to me that I should have been on the panel (based on my examination of the evidence in my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife), but I am a poor speaker, and may have been a bit too ambivalent about certain aspects of afterlife evidence to be a powerful speaker for the positive side.)
Nevertheless, here's how I think Moody and Alexander should have conducted the debate:
The 'for' side needed to ... Read More »
Is there a life beyond death? It's a question that has been asked throughout human existence, but in recent times mainstream science has concluded that answer is a definitive "no". But many of those who have had a near-death experience tell another story, and claim that they have seen a realm in which consciousness persists after the death of our physical body. What is the truth?
An upcoming debate in New York on Wednesday evening seeks to weigh the evidence from both sides in order to get closer to an answer. In support of the statement that "Death is not Final" will be seminal researcher of the NDE, Dr. Raymond Moody, and neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, who has had an NDE himself and written a book about it (Proof of Heaven). Skeptic Dr. Steven Novella and physicist Sean Carroll will argue against the claim.
The debate is a sell-out, so the host (Intelligence2) are going to expand the audience by streaming the debate live to the internet:
If consciousness is just the workings of neurons and synapses, how do we explain the phenomenon of near-death experience? By some accounts, about 3% of the U.S. population has had one: an out-of-body experience often characterized by remarkable visions and feelings of peace and joy, all while the physical body is close to death. To skeptics, there are more plausible, natural explanations, like oxygen deprivation. Is the prospect of an existence after death “real” and provable by science, or a construct of wishful thinking about our own mortality?
The webpage for the debate has extra information, as well as a poll for viewer's opinions (already split 50-50 with 800 votes cast). I would have liked to see Dr. Bruce Greyson appearing on the 'For' side, given his extensive knowledge and unflappable manner, but it should be an interesting debate regardless - tune in if you get the chance!
(Shameless self-promotion: If you're looking to have some solid background information on your side going into the debate, grab my eBook Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife - only $5.99 - which has a good run-down of the latest research on these topics.)
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One of the things that surprised me most during the writing of my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife was the topic of end-of-life experiences (ELEs), and in particular death-bed visions (DBVs). I devoted an entire chapter to this fascinating topic – phenomena that occur in the final days and hours of someone's life, covering everything from DBVs to coincidences at the time of death, the room of the dying suddenly becoming illuminated, and sudden recoveries from coma.
And yet, while near-death experiences are often covered by the media, and have had many best-selling books written about them, ELEs are very much the poorer cousin, with very little coverage in books and media. And yet, once I dug into the topic, it was every bit as fascinating as the NDE literature. When I spoke to palliative care physician Michael Barbato about this strange disconnect, he suggested that the fundamental difference might be that with NDEs, we have a returned 'hero' (that is, as the subject of the archetypal "hero's journey"), while with end-of-life experiences the subject actually does pass away, unable to continue talking about what happened to them. From my book:
In a small study he carried out in the 1990s, Barbato found that about 20 to 30 percent of patients reported a death-bed vision. But he points out that this is “almost certainly an underestimation” of the number of experiences, as his study only included reports from the patient or next-of-kin. “I, like many, suspect the incidence of death-bed visions increases as death approaches, but loss of consciousness or sheer fatigue get in the way of these visions being shared”, Barbato notes. “This number may therefore be the tip of an iceberg, with many, and possibly the majority, of death-bed visions going unnoticed”.
Those who report a near-death experience, Barbato points out, live to tell their story. Those who have a death-bed vision though may not get the opportunity to report their experience, being too sick or unconscious in the lead-up to their death. But even if they do, Barbato says, many in the caring profession label it as delirium and the experience goes unrecognised. “The medical profession (including palliative care) has contributed to the ‘poorer-brother’ status of death-bed visions [relative to the NDE] by not acknowledging their occurrence,” he opines. “When I first submitted an article to an International Palliative Care Journal some 15 years ago on death-bed visions, their reply was ‘this is not for us’ – code for ‘it’s too fringy’.”
It is rather sad that ELEs have not had the same coverage as NDEs, because when you look at the literature, and listen to experiencer accounts, it is obvious that these are profound and deeply moving experiences. “For those who have a death-bed vision, the experience is very real, personally significant and almost always helps them as they transit from life to death," Michael Barbato told me. These experiences also have a significant impact on family and carers attending the dying, as this wonderful, moving selection of interviews with hospice nurses shows:
Those who have read my book will notice many of the factors discussed in the chapter on end-of-life experiences: how patients seem to straddle the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead, how patients' experiences are often embedded within symbolism of traveling or being assisted on their way, and the appearance of previously-deceased family members as guides to the next world.
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The following excerpt is from Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, which looks into the evidence for the survival of consciousness beyond death. The book is available right now as an eBook download and in paperback format.
NDEs and Communication Through Mediums
After days of struggle against the disease that had struck him down, Dr. Horace Ackley could take no more. All of a sudden, he felt himself gradually rising from his body, with the distinct feeling that he had been divided, though the parts retained a tenuous connection of some sort. As the organs within his physical body ceased functioning, the feeling of being divided came to an abrupt halt, and he found himself whole again. Except he now appeared to be in a position slightly above his lifeless physical body, looking down on it and those who had been in the room with him. Then, without warning…
…the scenes of my whole life seemed to move before me like a panorama; every act seemed as though it were drawn in life size and was really present: it was all there, down to the closing scenes. So rapidly did it pass, that I had little time for reflection. I seemed to be in a whirlpool of excitement; and then, just as suddenly as this panorama had been presented, it was withdrawn, and I was left without a thought of the past or future to contemplate my present condition.
Dr. Ackley realized that he must have died, and was gratified to learn that it seemed a rather pleasant experience. “Death is not so bad a thing after all,” he said to himself, “and I should like to see what that country is that I am going to, if I am a spirit.” His only regret, looking down on the whirl of activity in the room, was that he was unable to inform his friends that he lived on, to set their minds and hearts at ease. At this point, two ‘guardian spirits’ appeared before Dr. Ackley, greeting him by name before leading him from the room into an area where a number of ‘spirits’ whom he was familiar with had assembled.
You may well be saying to yourself “ho-hum, another stock-standard near-death experience”. You might guess that Dr. Ackley then woke up in his resuscitated body and told an NDE researcher about his experience. But if you did, you would be wrong. Dr. Horace Ackley truly did die that day, never to return to this life. The report that you read above was an account of his death, allegedly given by him through a spirit medium – one Samuel Paist of Philadelphia. And what makes it truly remarkable is that it was written down by Paist in his book A Narrative of the Experience of Horace Abraham Ackley, M.D., and published in 1861 – more than a century before the near-death experience had come to the attention of researchers and the general public. And yet Paist/Ackley tells of an OBE shortly after death, a “panoramic” life review (the exact word "panoramic" is used, just as in many other NDEs), and being greeted by spirits who subsequently guided him to an afterlife realm!
The after-death narrative of Dr. Horace Ackley is not an isolated instance. More than a decade before the publication of Raymond Moody’s Life After Life – the book that started the modern fascination with near-death experiences – another scientist had already investigated and written at length on the topic. In a pair of relatively obscure books – The Supreme Adventure (1961) and Intimations of Immortality (1965) – Dr. Robert Crookall cited numerous examples
Well-known near-death experience researcher Melvin Morse, convicted two months ago of 'waterboarding' his step-daughter by holding her head under a faucet, has been sentenced to three years prison by the judge presiding over the case. Shockingly, given the details of the case, Morse was a former pediatrician (his licence was revoked) who had become famous for his research into the near-death experiences of children. This had led some to speculate that the abuse of the child was an attempt at inducing an NDE, though ultimately the judge disagreed on that count:
The judge ordered Melvin Morse, 60, to serve two years on probation after completing the prison term. Morse also received concurrent sentences of probation for other charges of endangering and assault.
...Morse, whose medical license was suspended after his arrest and has since expired, wrote several books and articles on paranormal science and near-death experiences involving children. He has appeared on shows such as "Larry King Live" and the "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to discuss his research, which also has been featured on an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" and in an article in "Rolling Stone" magazine. Morse denied police claims he may have been experimenting on the girl.
"The idea that the defendant was experimenting on (the girl) is speculative, and I see his actions differently," said the judge, who described Morse as controlling and manipulative in his abuse of a vulnerable child.
Beyond the sad tale of abuse in this case, where does this leave Morse's body of research on the NDE? Should it be disregarded on moral grounds simply because it is the work of a convicted child abuser, or perhaps more cogently because - in a field that leans heavily on personal testimony - this throws doubt on his honesty and integrity? I for one would find it difficult to cite any of his research in future, for the latter reasoning, unless the details could be corroborated via another source.
I'm pleased and proud to announce the latest book release from Daily Grail Publishing today: Talking With the Spirits: Ethnographies From Between the Worlds (Amazon US and Amazon UK), a scholarly anthology of essays, edited by Jack Hunter and David Luke, on the phenomenon of spirit mediumship in various cultures around the world - from good old-fashioned British Spiritualism through to more shamanic manifestations in other corners of the world:
Talking With the Spirits is a cross-cultural survey of contemporary spirit mediumship. The diverse contributions to this volume cover a wide-range of ethnographic contexts, from Spiritualist séances in the United Kingdom to self-mortification rituals in Singapore and Taiwan, from psychedelic spirit incorporation in the Amazonian rainforest, to psychic readings in online social spaces, and more. By taking a broad perspective the book highlights both the variety of culturally specific manifestations of spirit communication, and key cross-cultural features suggestive of underlying core-processes and experiences. Rather than attempting to reduce or dismiss such experiences, the authors featured in this collection take the experiences of their informants seriously and explore their effects at personal, social and cultural levels.
Here's the chapter and author listing:
- Believing Impossible Things: Scepticism and Ethnographic Enquiry • Fiona Bowie
- An Agnostic Social Scientific Perspective on Spirit Medium Experience in Great Britain • Hannah Gilbert
- Spirits in the City: Examples from Montreal • Deirdre Meintel
- Mediumship and Folk Models of Mind and Matter • Jack Hunter
- Cyber Psychics: Psychic Readings in Online Social Spaces • Tamlyn Ryan
- Spirit Possession in East Africa • Barbara Stöckigt
- Developing the Dead in Cuba: An Ethnographic Account of the Emergence of Spirits and Selves in Havana • Diana Espirito Santo
- Mediumship in Brazil: The Holy War against Spirits and African Gods • Bettina Schmidt
- Psychedelic Possession: The Growing Incorporation of Incorporation into Ayahuasca Use • David Luke
- Anomalous Mental and Physical Phenomena of Brazilian Mediums: A Review of the Scientific Literature • Everton Maraldi, Wellington Zangari, Fatima Regina Machado, Stanley Krippner
- Spirit Mediums in Hong Kong and the United States • Charles Emmons
- Vessels for the Gods: Tang-ki Spirit Mediumship in Singapore and Taiwan • Fabian Graham
One of the near-death experience (NDE) researchers I mention in my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife is Dr. Penny Sartori, an experienced intensive-care nurse from the U.K. I mentioned her own recently released book on the topic, The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences, a couple of months ago here on TDG, and thought as a follow-up that interested readers might enjoy viewing the above hour-long interview with Penny conducted by another researcher on these topics, Anthony Peake.
You can also keep up with Penny's latest thoughts about the topic of NDEs on her blog.
One of the major surprises during the writing of my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife was how neglected the topic of end-of-life phenomena was, especially compared to its more famous sibling, the near-death experience. In the end, I was so fascinated that I wrote an entire chapter about end-of-life experiences, ranging from 18th century accounts through to recent research on the subject.
For those who haven't read my book, the recent TEDx talk by Martha Atkins embedded below will give you a great overview, as she touches on a number of the elements I discuss in my book, not least how the question of whether these experiences are 'real' may be secondary to the impact they have on the dying and those they are leaving behind. Fantastic presentation...but please, nobody tell certain whiny atheist bloggers about it lest they have TED remove it.
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In my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, I devoted an entire chapter to the fascinating topic of 'end-of-life experiences' (ELEs), which incorporate a number of phenomena that occur in the final days and hours of someone's life. These include experiences of the dying such as deathbed visions, but also a number of perplexing cases that involve quite healthy people close to or caring for the dying person. One such ELE is the 'dying light', where those caring for the dying have described seeing a bright light surrounding the person as they pass away, exuding what they relate as “a raw feeling of love”.
Surprisingly, reports of the 'dying light' are not rare. As I pointed out in Stop Worrying..., neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick was amazed to find in a survey of palliative carers that one in every three reported accounts of “a radiant light that envelops the dying person, and may spread throughout the room and involve the carer”. In a similar Dutch study, the numbers were even more staggering: more than half of all carers reported observations of this light!
After my book was published, I came across another, high-profile example of the 'dying light'. Olivia Harrison, wife of former Beatles guitarist George Harrison, gave this account of his passing for the Martin Scorcese-directed documentary about his life, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (0:26 mark):
There was a profound experience that happened when he left his body. It was visible. Let’s just say, you wouldn’t need to light the room, if you were trying to film it. He just…lit the room.
Olivia Harrison's testimony sounds very similar to Peter Fenwick's description, “a radiant light that envelops the dying person, and may spread throughout the room", and seems befitting of the passing of a man who was very interested in mysticism, consciousness, and being personally prepared for our own death. As Harrison himself put it on one of the songs on his 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass, "nothing in this life that I've been trying, could equal or surpass the art of dying".
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