We see dead people. In our news at least. NDEs, hauntings and people crossing over...this is the section.

I See Dead People: Can Mediums Tell If Someone is Alive or Dead From Just a Photo of Their Face?

The Deceased on 'The Other Side'

Mediumship - the alleged 'talent' of communicating with the dead - is as old as human history itself. But most modern scientists regard its manifestation in the modern world as a relic of times past, incompatible with our new and improved knowledge of the cosmos. For many, the only way science should interact with the claims of Spiritualism is to debunk it so that it takes its place "among the solemn absurdities in the history of thought," as one critic put it.

There are other scientists, however, who believe that the correct approach is to withhold judgement, listen to the claims made by mediums, and test them using science to see if they are valid, or at least worthy of further investigation. This approach is evident in a new paper just published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, titled "Prediction of mortality based on facial characteristics" (full paper currently available via the link on the side of that page).

Researchers from the University of California and the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Arnaud Delorme, Alan Pierce, Leena Michel and Dean Radin) began with the claim by some individuals that they are"adept at gauging mortality based on a glance at a person’s photograph" (see this 2011 story here on the Grail for background). To test the validity of this assertion, they invited twelve people who claimed this ability - i.e. 'mediums' - to see if they "could determine if a person was alive or dead based solely on a brief examination of facial photographs."

There are individuals known as “intuitives” or “sensitives” who claim to be able to predict mortality based solely upon a brief examination of a facial photograph. Various forms of intuitive counselling, including psychics, “fortune tellers,” and mediums, can be found in all cultures. This profession persists, even in modern times, due to the understandable desire to offset anxieties associated with health issues and a host of other uncertainties. Some counsellors may provide useful information gained through their experience in closely examining body language and other nonverbal cues. Others, with compromised ethics, are unfortunately only interested in perpetrating fraud.

The key question explored in the current study is whether it is possible for such alleged intuitive individuals to report accurate mortality information based on brief exposure to facial photographs under blinded conditions that prevent the exploitation of obvious non-verbal clues. A secondary question is whether there are electrocortical correlates associated with accurate predictions.

Each subject (medium) was shown 404 photos on a computer screen, one at a time for a maximum of 8 seconds each. For each photo, the participant was asked to press one of three keys on a key pad to indicate that they thought the person in the photo was “deceased,” “living,” or “do not know.” The 404 photographs were made up of three sets:108 images, originally taken about 75 years prior to the experiment; 126 images, taken about 50 years prior to the experiment; and 160 images taken more recently (about 10 to 20 years prior to the experiment).

(All of these photos had been previously rated by three judges on multiple characteristics: gender, age, gaze direction, glasses, head position, smile, hair color, and picture resolution. For each photo these ratings were combined, and two subgroups of photos - alive and deceased - were then created by a computer program, minimizing the differences between the two groups on all 8 characteristics.)

The results for each of the 12 subjects (% correct in each group, and combined for all three) can be found in this table taken from the paper:

Death Face Data

As can be seen, some of those results are quite interesting (though to be fair, not exactly paradigm-shattering). The researchers note that:

Both behavioral and electrophysiological data indicated that individuals claiming intuitive abilities were capable of classifying photos of living vs. deceased people above chance levels, and under conditions
where the photos were balanced across 8 dimensions to reduce visual cues about the health status of the individuals.

In summary, the paper's conclusions is that the study "supports the hypothesis that facial photographs contain as-yet unidentified information predicting mortality", though they can't make any determination of how they did so: ie. by through as yet unidentified visual cues (normal means), or via "access to information in ways that are not currently understood by modern physics (supernatural means).

So, as a piece of exploratory research it's interesting. But I'm not sure too much can be concluded from it other than 'let's take a closer look' - and if it's the mediumship side of things that we want to investigate, perhaps a method similar to that of Emily Williams and Diane Arcangel's earlier paper, "An Investigation of Mediums Who Claim to Give Information About Deceased Persons", might be a better way forward.

Link: "Prediction of mortality based on facial characteristics"

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Life After Life: A Discussion of the Near-Death Experience

For those interested in the near-death experience (NDE), the 30 minute film above is well worth a watch. It features video from the January 2016 'Life After Life' discussion at which skeptic Chris French and NDEr Raymond O’Brien talked about the topic, and is interspersed with pieces of footage from short films:

Life after Life was a short film and discussion event presented by Rich Pickings at London Short Film Festival 2016. The event examined the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and how they can affect people’s lives. It featured a programme of short poetic films about life, death and what may or may not lie beyond. These films were a jumping off point for a discussion with two guests with very different approaches to the subject.

You can learn more about the event, and view the full versions of the videos that were cut into the discussion, at the Rich Pickings website. One of those videos is "Crossing Over: The Art of Jeremy Down", which is a beautifully told story of one man's encounter with death, and the experience he had during it (embedded below).

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Charting the course of Gordon White's Star.Ships - A PreHistory of the Spirits.

The first thing you need to know about Gordon White's Star.Ships: A PreHistory of the Spirits is that you don't have to identify as a Practitioner to find this an extremely valuable resource for understanding not just the world around us, in all its vast strangeness just waiting to be appreciated, but have a sense of humanity's epic journey across time and the stories its told itself along the way.

The second thing you need to know is that if you're looking for just an in-depth discussion of the book, go directly to the end of this post, where you'll find my 90+min talk with its author.

What I'll be attempting in this piece is more than just a synopsis of the book - I'll also situate it amongst both other recent texts and against the current mainstream worldview, to tell you just why you should be reading it.

Scarlet Imprint is a publisher intent on supporting practicing magicians, so it's perfectly natural that this is how they've pitched Star.Ships to their occult audience:

A defining text of the new magical renaissance, Star.Ships addresses the question of who we are now by tracing where we come from, and by drawing out the stories and the spirits that have journeyed and evolved with us. The goal is, as Gordon writes, the restoration of context.

To this end, White applies his globally-recognised data and demographics skills to realise a groundbreaking work of truly interdisciplinary research. Utilising mythological, linguistic and astronomical data to reconstruct palaeolithic magical beliefs, he maps them to the human journey out of Africa; explores which aspects of these beliefs and practices have survived into the Western tradition; and what the implications (and applications) of those survivals may be for us.

Written for a magically literate and operative audience, Star.Ships displays the flair, wit and engagement with evidence that adherents of his runesoup blog have come to expect from Gordon. He deftly handles vast time scales and cosmologies to build his case; avoids the pitfalls of alternative historians with a refreshing absence of dogma or wishful thinking; and, in a masterful deployment of the latest research, simultaneously questions outworn dominant narratives and is not afraid to champion the work of independent researchers and entertain forbidden discourses. It is exactly what chaos magic should be.

Göbekli Tepe, the Pyramids and Sphinx, Nabta Playa, Gunung Padang, Easter Island and Sundaland are some of the points spangled across a work of truly cosmic scope. Star.Ships beckons those who are willing to engage in the adventure to follow the great river of history that flows into and out of an ocean of stars. Minds will be blown.

Nothing in that description is incorrect, and I don't mean to come off here as critical of it; except in the more traditional (vs common) usage of the word. Because, to me, this is an important book deserving of a much wider audience that extends beyond occult circles. Star.Ships to my mind is an ambitious work that succeeds in helping to build something extremely important to - and largely missing from - our contemporary condition: a global narrative of humanity that stretches back thousands upon thousands of years, that breaks down the individual civilisational mythologies of Earth's nation states and helps see us all as one people that splintered and regrouped, repeatedly cross-bred and adapted, and told each other stories under the Moon and the Stars for a hundred thousand years ... Read More »

TEDx Talk: Dreams and Visions of the Dying

The Deceased in the Afterlife Realm

A couple of years back I posted a fantastic TEDx talk on 'end-of-life experiences' - the strange phenomena that the dying experience in the weeks and months before their passing. I devoted an entire chapter of my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife to this much-neglected but fascinating topic, and continue to research the phenomena for the next update to Stop Worrying....

Another more recent, but equally good talk, is by Dr. Christopher W. Kerr, Chief Medical Officer at The Center for Hospice and Palliative Care, where he has worked since 1999. Dr. Kerr's research interests have evolved...

...towards the human experience of illness as witnessed from the bedside, specifically patients’ dreams and visions at the end of life. Although medically ignored, these near universal experiences often provide comfort and meaning as well as insight into the life led and the death anticipated.

You can learn more about the details of Dr. Kerr's research by reading any one of the recent journal papers he has been involved with, and also in this New York Times article from last month. But the TEDx talk below offers an excellent - and personal - primer, giving an insight into both the research, and the human aspect of listening to the dying about what they experience:

To learn more about the oh-so-interesting topic of end-of-life experiences, grab a copy of Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (available in eBook and paperback formats).

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Conduits to the Afterlife - Watch a Wonderful Short Documentary About Spirit Communication Devices

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.

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Give Yourself Goosebumps: Four Strange Paranormal Phenomena

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...

Crowdfunder: Translation of Fascinating Book on Near-Death Experiences

Near Death Experience

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.

Link: IANDS: Donate to Book Translation and Publication Project!

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Child Medium? (Part Deux)

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']

Talking with Tsakiris About Talking with the Spirits

Talking With the Spirits

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…

You can listen to the full interview (or read the transcript, if that suits better) over at the Skeptiko website. Talking With the Spirits is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

* Full disclosure: Talking With the Spirits is a Daily Grail Publishing book.

'The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven' Says He Never Went

Alex Malarkey, 'The Boy Who Went to Heaven'

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.

In Christ,

Alex Malarkey.

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?!