Is it possible to communicate with the spirit world? That has been the question which has driven the invention of a number of 'spirit technologies', from the Planchette to the Ouija Board. In the glory days of Spiritualism, they became almost household items, and though not so much in vogue in modern times, they retain their otherworldly, liminal reputation.
In the beautifully presented short documentary "Ghosts and Gadgets: Communicating with the Spirits" (embedded above), collector Brandon Hodge discusses the motivations of those using these strange devices, and the historical period in which their invention sits:
We have to understand the periods of time that these devices sprang out of. They came at a time when the telegraph was very new, where electricity was very new, this unknown force... Those conceptions were so nascent when these devices were being first created, this idea that 'well if I can receive a message through a telegram from someone hundreds of miles away within a few minutes, can we just sort of raise those poles a little higher and maybe communicate with something beyond?'
Hodge speaks passionately and eloquently about these spirit 'telegraphs', noting that even if you take the skeptical view that their 'communication' is all down to the ideomotor effect, it's still intriguing how our brains can "autonomously and co-operatively" produce these messages. Furthermore, he says that instead of dismissing them as historical curiosities, a simple parlour trick that preyed on 19th century gullibility, we should better appreciate their importance to people at various times of crisis in modern history:
You'll notice that the popularity of these devices ebbs and flows with war. You'll see that people are reaching out...the Planchette is tapping into a zeitgeist of loss and sorrow.
If I could impart one thing to others about these devices, other than just seeing them and appreciating them, I want them to understand their place in history. To me they're not just this passive item...people throughout history put their hands on these things in the hope they could communicate with the other side...what they represent was a profound belief that was followed by millions of people that has been sort of dismissed as just kookiness - and to really get at the heart of what they were seeking and what they believe is important to recognize, and I think these devices help bring that knowledge to the public.
This wonderful 7 minute documentary is the work of film-maker Ronni Thomas, who we've featured previously via another of his excellent paranormal-related featurettes: "Transmitting Thought: A Documentary on the Famous Maimonides Dream Telepathy Experiments".
To learn more about Brandon Hodge and his collection, be sure to visit his website Mysterious Planchette.
With Halloween just around the corner, the popular YouTube channel Vsauce3 has posted the well-produced spooky feature above titled "Four Strange Paranormal Phenomena".
As a piece of cross-promotion with the upcoming Goosebumps movie, the video features Jack Black (and 'Slappy' the ventriloquist dummy), and discusses likely rational explanations for things like sleep paralysis and spirit mediums. Murderous ventriloquist dummies are another matter though...
The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) has put out a call for donations to enable them to translate into English and publish an important addition to the NDE research literature: a recent Dutch book by NDE researchers Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven and Rudolf Smit that details 78 cases of veridical perceptions and other verified paranormal aspects of NDEs.
This book is a scholarly treatise on the main evidence from case reports of parapsychological or paranormal phenomena connected to Near-Death Experiences and its theoretical implications. It is the end product of a joint project of Athanasia Foundation, Merkawah Foundation/Netwerk Nabij-de-doodervaring and Limen/IANDS Flanders.
The book concentrates on paranormal phenomena, in which consciousness or the mind, spirit or soul of a patient seems to transcend the physical boundaries of the brain. It contains summaries of 78 cases [the English version will contain several more, i.e. over 80 cases] in which the patient's experiences were independently verified for a researcher or author by someone else, such as a physician, surgeon, nurse, partner, relative or friend. The cases have been derived from a thorough study of the available literature, a compilation of cases by Jan Holden, and the authors' own empirical studies.
Through early contributions from various sources, IANDS have raised around half of the $17,500 estimated cost of publication, and are now seeking help from the public to get the project over the line. You can donate here.
Personally I think a better approach would have been to offer a limited edition for backers (say 200 copies at $100 each), which might have raised the funds easily (I would have bought one for that) and also offered an investment for backers. But I can't argue with the fact that this book is a very worthy project - I covered some of the 'veridical' material in my own book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (available in paperback and Kindle ebook editions), and it's an absolutely fascinating area. I can't wait to read the English translation - so I'm throwing in some cash.
You can find out more information about the book itself (synopsis, chapter breakdown) at the IANDS website.
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Last week I linked to a video uploaded by Jaime Primak Sullivan on her Youtube channel and Facebook account, which apparently showed her little 4-year-old daughter Charlie 'delivering' a message from Jaime's grandmother, who died last November.
A number of members --the big bossman himself included-- expressed an understandable amount of skepticism toward the video, mentioning how it could have been easily scripted; I myself conceded from the beginning how there was really no way of knowing whether little Charlie had already heard the nickname used by her dead great-granny --whom she only met a couple of times-- to call her mom Jamie. I was content to leave it at that, but yesterday my cosmic compadre Micah Hanks on his radio show The Gralien Report mentioned my previous article, and he also pointed out this other video, which is a commentary about a previous one with Charlie recorded right after a family trip to Disneyland; the important part starts at 3:25:
So here again we seem to have a little girl, using a rather peculiar phrase which was deeply characteristic of Jaime's dead grandmother --"the walls (of my house) are crying"-- as a way to express homesickness. Once more, we can't vouch for the veracity of this account --the fact that the video embedded above and the previous one I linked to last week were posted on Youtube with only a day's difference is a bit fishy, although if these are attempts to attain notoriety on the social networks, so far it hasn't succeeded.
But if what Jaime is saying is true, then it would seem to suggest her child is able to 'channel' somehow the 'spirit' of someone who was very important to her mother at the time she was the same age as she is now. Whether that 'spirit' is more metaphorical than literal, is again open to personal interpretation...
[H/T Micah Hanks, a.k.a. 'The Mouth of the South']
Paranthropologist Jack Hunter recently spoke with Alex Tsakiris (of the Skeptiko podcast) about the anthology on mediumship around the world that he co-edited, along with David Luke, Talking With the Spirits* (Amazon US and UK). It's a fantastic discussion of how the paranormal can be approached by both the scientific method, and through anthropology - for instance, see the excerpt below:
Alex Tsakiris: One [question] is: Does [psychic] ability manifest itself more in some people than in others? And obviously we know it does. But particularly, what I think you bring that I had never thought of, and I think is…interesting to…grind on is: Is it more prevalent in certain cultures? Is it more prevalent in certain social situations with certain combinations of events, people, rituals, practices, all those things. I just think that’s mind blowing. That opens it up in so many different ways. Am I in the right direction, and what are your thoughts on that specifically in terms of what…directions…folks might want to go to find this phenomenon manifesting itself more frequently, more measurably, all the rest of that stuff?
Jack Hunter: That’s exactly what I’m talking about…when you look at the Anthropological literature, all the Ethnographic literature, and look at the kinds of experiences that people have reported to anthropologists in the field all over the world, you find these kinds of common characteristics. For instance, like you said, ritual is…an important process for people to go through in order to have these sorts of experiences. And I think that the parapsychological community has missed out on that. They could, for instance, use ritualized procedures in laboratory. That’s one example. Or take the laboratory out to the rituals…
* Full disclosure: Talking With the Spirits is a Daily Grail Publishing book.
In recent years, memoirs by those returning from the dead with astonishing stories of an afterlife realm have appeared with regularity in bestseller lists, from neurosurgeon Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven to child NDEr Colton Burpo's Heaven is for Real (which was also adapted for the screen). Some have been skeptical of these claims, and in one case it seems it would have been justified: Alex Malarkey, whose alleged NDE after an accident which paralysed him ten years ago at age 6 became the focus of a bestselling book by his father Kevin (The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven), has this week publicly recanted his testimony.
Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.
I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.
It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of Heaven outside of what is written in the Bible…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.
With the subject matter and the sort of nominative determinism that writes headlines automatically, this news will surely turn up on major news outlets around the world very quickly, giving somewhat of a black eye to the field of NDE memoirs.
There are of course a number of factors at play here though - the mother and father are no longer married, the father appears to receive the income from the book, Alex Malarkey has special needs after the accident. Add to that the complicating factor of his obvious Christian faith - and the sometimes suspicious relationship between Christianity and claims of near-death experiencers - and we may not know the full story behind this. Suffice to say, however, that the testimony in the book will have to be ignored by any serious researchers of NDEs.
(And serious researchers and writers on this topic will be depressed to learn that Malarkey's statement that the book is made up has made it climb within the top 400 books on Amazon's bestseller list (at the time of writing). WTF humans, you can't find a better book on the topic?!
Can we survive death ? What is the nature of our consciousness ?
Beyond Our Sight is an excellently produced independent documentary created by Anthony Chene that talks about near-death experiences, human consciousness, and the possibility of communication with other dimensions. It features the testimony of a number of near-death experiencers, as well as our good friend Dean Radin.
If you enjoy the documentary, please consider making a small donation to the director with a small donation. As I always say, do your best to support independently produced content that explores the topics we are all fascinated with here on the Grail!
The near-death experience (NDE) has blazed its way back into mainstream media this week, with the long-awaited publication (in the journal Resuscitation) of the results from one of the biggest ever scientific investigations into awareness after cardiac arrest. A number of years ago, Dr. Sam Parnia, an expert in the field of resuscitation, established the AWARE project, which is now a major collaboration between doctors and researchers in the coronary units of medical centers and hospitals across the globe. In the AWARE study, patients who survive a cardiac arrest were asked if they had any memories or experiences while 'dead' - and if they had an out-of-body experience during their brush with death, whether they were able to see certain ‘hidden targets’ placed in hospital rooms that can only be seen from a vantage point near the ceiling.
The headlines have been a little over the top. "First hint of 'life after death' in biggest ever scientific study", the Telegraph announced.
Death is a depressingly inevitable consequence of life, but now scientists believe they may have found some light at the end of the tunnel. The largest ever medical study into near-death and out-of-body experiences has discovered that some awareness may continue even after the brain has shut down completely.
[S]cientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria. And they found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted.
One man even recalled leaving his body entirely and watching his resuscitation from the corner of the room. Despite being unconscious and ‘dead’ for three minutes, the 57-year-old social worker from Southampton, recounted the actions of the nursing staff in detail and described the sound of the machines.
I'm really glad to see the AWARE study results finally published in a journal, but despite all the news headlines, there is little new information in this paper. As readers of my 2013 book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (available in paperback or as a Kindle ebook) would know, I covered the results of the AWARE study back then. If you haven't read the book, I've posted the relevant excerpt today here on the Grail for those seeking more information about the AWARE study, and a more detailed description of the experience of the patient who left his body.
For those with TLDR syndrome: the paper examines 2060 cardiac arrest events at participating hospitals, of which only 16% of patients survived (330). Of those 330 patients, only 140 proved eligible to be interviewed for the study. 85 out of 140 (61%) reported no perception or memories during their cardiac arrest. However, one of the interesting findings of the study was that 55 patients (39%) responded in the affirmative to the question "Do you remember anything from the time during your unconsciousness?", despite the fact that cardiac arrests are believed to shut down the brain and inhibit any of this sort of consciousness.
However, another interesting finding of the study was that 46 of those 55 "described memories incompatible with a NDE", such as "being dragged through deep water" and "seeing a golden flash of light". So even though their perception during cardiac arrest was 'anomalous', it wasn't an NDE. Only 9 patients had NDE-like perceptions, and of the entire 2060 cardiac arrests just one patient had an out-of-body experience (OBE). And sadly, it wasn't in an area with one of the shelves intended to test the reality of the OBE.
Nevertheless, the OBE patient was able to describe a number of aspects of the hospital room scene accurately - a so-called "veridical NDE". On its own, this doesn't seem much, but as I point out in my book, it adds to an ever-growing list of accounts where people who should not be able to perceive anything due to their physical condition are able to give accurate details about thing happening both in the room they are in and outside of it. Contrary to the Telegraph's "first hint", this new paper just adds to an already long list of hints.
The shorter summary of the AWARE paper?
- If you have a cardiac arrest, the odds are really not in your favour.
- That if you survive, there's about a 5-10% chance you might have a near-death experience.
- That people don't just experience NDE consciousness during cardiac arrest - they also find themselves in other modes of consciousness with totally different perceptions and imagery.
- That the AWARE study recorded what seems to be another veridical NDE account, to add to the growing number already on record.
- These veridical NDEs appear to suggest either (a) that some people are hyper-sensitive to their surroundings during a cardiac arrest, using any sensory modes available to reconstruct the scene in their minds, or (b) that the mind is actually able to somehow perceive things from a vantage point outside of the body - in short, that consciousness is not confined to the brain.
So, when looking at all the news stories and blog posts on this topic, be aware (hah!) that (a) a lot of the headlines are hyped up, and (b) plenty of them are looking at this study in isolation, when it is perhaps more interesting when considered with other evidence already collected.
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A critical care doctor and expert in the field of resuscitation, Sam Parnia has been fascinated with the question of what happens to consciousness at the moment of death since the time he lost a patient as a student doctor at the age of 22. Parnia’s joint fascination with resuscitation and the near-death experience (NDE) led him to establish the AWARE project, which is now a major collaboration between doctors and researchers in the coronary units of medical centers and hospitals across the globe. Dedicated to exploring and advancing our knowledge of these two inter-related areas, it began with an 18 month pilot study restricted to just a few hospitals in the United Kingdom, before the AWARE project proper launched on September 11, 2008 with the investigation extended to more locations, including some in Europe and the United States. To examine the veridical out-of-body experience component of near-death experiences, Parnia and his team installed approximately one thousand shelves high up on walls within rooms in the emergency, coronary and intensive care wards of participating hospitals, though they were unable to cover all beds due to time and financial constraints – with 25 participating hospitals, the total number of shelves they would have needed to install for full coverage would have been closer to 12,500. On these shelves they placed a hidden ‘target’, which they hoped patients who had OBEs might report back on after being successfully resuscitated. By targeting these specific wards they were hoping to cover some 80% of cardiac arrest events with their ‘shelf test’.
In the first four years of the study, AWARE has received a total of more than four thousand cardiac arrest event reports – some three per day. But while four thousand events may seem a good sample size for in-depth research into veridical NDEs, it must be remembered that these are cardiac arrests – not ‘heart attacks’, with which many people confuse the term, but cases in which the heart has completely stopped beating. As such, in only a third of those cases were medical staff able to resuscitate the patient – and then, only half of those critically-ill survivors remained alive to a point where they could be interviewed by the AWARE team. Further, those medical staff doing interviews on behalf of the AWARE study had to do so around their normal daily duties, and so not all patients were able to be interviewed post-resuscitation (especially so if they came in on the weekend). And, unfortunately, the team’s coverage of cardiac arrest events via shelf positioning was lower than hoped – only 50% occurred in a location with a shelf, rather than the hoped-for 80%.
Now, given that near-death experiences were only reported by 5% of survivors in the AWARE study, and that the out-of-body experience only occurs in a low percentage of NDEs, you might begin to see the problem. Out of some 4000 cardiac arrest events, the AWARE team was left with little more than a hundred cases in which a patient with a shelf in their room reported back after their resuscitation, and then only 5 to 10 of those actually had an NDE. In all, after four years, and four thousand recorded cardiac arrest events, the AWARE study has
We often think of our identity in terms of our physical body, but is it just something that we – as only a consciousness – simply use as a vehicle? This is an interesting idea, and has been with us throughout human history, largely built into the religious beliefs of cultures around the world. But we should be careful of falling into the trap of thinking about an afterlife existence based simply on the religious or cultural models we have been brought up with. Most people who were exposed to some sort of religion in their upbringing are imprinted with the fairly simplistic idea that surviving death means a transparent, ethereal version of you floats ‘up’ to a heaven of fluffy clouds, and lives there for eternity in happiness. Who knows, perhaps elements of this are correct – some of near-death experiences and other visions of an afterlife actually do correlate in some respects with these ideas. But perhaps also these experiences are filtered through an overlay of our own expectations and cultural beliefs, and the ‘true’ experience could be fundamentally different. It’s fun to consider some of these possibilities.
The way our view of an external realm ‘beyond reality’ can change is illustrated well by the science fiction blockbuster The Matrix, with Neo taking the red pill and ‘waking up’ into the ‘real’ world, despite having thought until that point that the computer-generated Matrix was the real world. Before the age of computers the idea that we might be inside some sort of virtual reality, with the ‘real us’ residing in another realm, was barely known. Certainly, versions of this idea existed before the computer age, notably in discussions of the strange world of dreams. For example, the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once remarked on the difficulty of distinguishing where ‘reality’ lies with the following words: “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man”.
The influential 17th century philosopher René Descartes also wondered how we could actually know what reality is, given that our senses can be so unreliable, and yet it is only through these senses (and then subsequent interpretation by the brain) that we comprehend the world ‘out there’. Descartes deduced that all we can be sure of about ‘reality’ is just one thing – that if we think, then we must in some way exist, at the very least as just a mind. He summarized this view with his well-known maxim ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). Beyond that, for all we know, we could just be a ‘brain in a vat’ – a piece of meat hooked up to sensors that trick our mind into thinking it is undergoing experiences in a virtual world. The Matrix took all these older ideas and made them new again by making them the centerpiece of a movie about a false reality (spoiler warning for the young kids out there):
The fact that all of our sensorial experience of ‘reality’ must necessarily be filtered subjectively through the brain – and thus isn’t ‘reality’ at all (for example, we apprehend the world very differently to an infrared-sensing rattlesnake) – was enunciated in Hindu culture via the term maya (illusion): the idea that we can never identify or comprehend the actual truth or reality of the world, only (at best) a fragment of it.
But in the 21st century, the ‘simulation argument’ – the suggestion that all of what we think of as ‘reality’ is actually a simulation, and that until now we have been unaware of the fact – has gone mainstream. Not only through the popularity of The Matrix, but through first-hand experience: many computer gamers now spend several hours a day immersed in the virtual worlds of first-person shooters. As an example of how things are progressing in the world of virtual reality immersion, see this recent demonstration: ... Read More »