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 »
Christopher Laursen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia whose dissertation focuses on poltergeist phenomena. I first met him at the Parapsychological Association’s 2012 conference, and have been glad that his web magazine, the Extraordinarium, has allowed me to continue following developments in his research over the past few years. His PhD dissertation, titled Mischievous Forces, looks at the shifting perspectives on poltergeist phenomena in the 20th century, focusing on changing research paradigms in the United States and UK during this period. It’s with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to interview him via email regarding his work and recent developments in his studies, including an online survey of people who have experienced purported poltergeist phenomena (Click Here to take the survey).
DM: What is a poltergeist? How accurate is what we see in the popular media?
CL: Poltergeist refers to a strange phenomenon in which there are unusual noises, such as knocking or scratching sounds, and movements of objects, as if they were displaced or thrown by an invisible being. There can be spontaneous fires and appearances of liquids or objects among other things. These manifestations happen repeatedly, but they tend to be time-limited. They start happening out of the blue, and then just as mysteriously, they tend to disappear a month or two later. Sometimes the anomalous phenomenon lasts just a few days, and I’ve also seen reports in which manifestations stretch across years. It is something that has been recorded as early as the fourth century, and it is likely to have been experienced even earlier in history. Furthermore, the phenomenon has occurred all around the world, albeit under different names and interpretations that are culturally specific.
The historical reports I have read certainly have had their share of strange moments, but most of them are a catalogue of relatively mundane anomalous events. The tea cup slides three inches across the countertop. A bar of soap bends around a corner to fly from the kitchen shelf into the living room. A woman enters her bedroom to find the curtains aflame. Three knocks are heard from the ceiling at 11:40 p.m., but no one is upstairs. There isn’t anywhere near the level of paranormal fury that has been depicted in most TV shows and movies.
This isn’t to say that anomalous events do not bring tension to those who experience them; emotions and anxieties are heightened in many cases since no one really knows what’s going on or what’s going to happen next. In other cases, people are
The topic of 'spirit' mediumship has been so successfully marginalized by modern skeptics that, for many, the image conjured up by the word 'medium' is now a caricature of a gypsy-robed street hustler. The phenomenon of mediumship, however - regardless of your opinion on whether the results are 'real' or not - is a lot more nuanced and fascinating than that, and those that claim to have this ability are also very much human beings, rather than cartoon villains.
Daily Grail Publishing released a book earlier this year that discussed the intricacies of mediumship across cultures all over globe (Talking With the Spirits, edited by Jack Hunter and David Luke), and now a new ebook released by Dr. Julie Beischel also aims to help the public in better understanding mediumship. Julie (who blogs occasionally here on the Daily Grail) is the co-founder and Director of Research at the Windbridge Institute for
Applied Research in Human Potential, which actively researches the phenomenon of mediumship.
As a part of her role, Julie assembled a group of mediums (via a process of testing and certification) to utilise in experiments, and after many years working with them had the fantastic idea to release a series of short ebooks that discuss mediumship from their point of view. In Volume 1 of From the Mouths of Mediums ($3.99 on Amazon's Kindle store), 13 mediums share their person stories, talking about how they experience communication from the deceased, what suggestions they have for people interested in experiencing communication on their own, and why it might be that someone has not heard from their loved one.
As an example, here are a couple of the mediums discussing their sensory experience of mediumship:
Ankhasha: “Sometimes I see things in a movie format, an entire scene runs in front of me, other times I see only a flash, like a subliminal advertisement: They come through visually quickly and clearly; like a flash, but very clear, over in an instant. When that happens, it is very choppy, hard to get a hold of the entire picture. Sometimes I see them in kind of a fast blur, hear them loudly, but don’t really feel any emotion from them unless I spend time with them. It has been my experience that the ones who are able to stay around for longer times during the reading make their presence known by almost a building of energy, as if they are coming closer and closer as they communicate with me, until I can hardly hear anything, the sound is so high-pitched and loud and there is a buzzing, humming glow that becomes hard to look at. It almost feels like I am being lifted, levitating while I am communicating with them. I know that may sound wacky, but that is what happens to me. And to be honest, it feels really good!”
Traci: “Information comes to me via the gamut of senses: hearing (it may be a name, a particular ‘saying’ or accent, an animal, a cry, a speech idiosyncrasy, the wind, a crash); seeing (can be a symbol, a still as in a photograph, or a moving scene like watching a vehicle accident occur; also communication comes with words via a marquee, or in reading a page placed in front of my mind’s eye; the typeset can be significant, or the design of a letter: Victorian versus a technical-type of font can be indicative of a number of things); smelling (may indicate anything from a favorite or detested food; a perfume; or, if a flower such as a rose, either the name Rose/Roseanne/Rosalee, etc., or the discarnate loved or grew roses, for example); touching/feeling/being touched (too at times I experience shivering on top my head or down my neck or shoulders or back; this is an indication to me that the discarnate is letting me know I am on target); tasting; and ‘just a sense.’ It is important that I pay attention to first-thought as in: what comes to me powerfully, initially, and to not bypass it. Generally in readings, all of the above mentioned ‘senses’ come into play within each session. I also experience sympathetic pain particularly in regard to cause of death. Examples of this include an explosion of pain in my head indicates a gunshot to the head, whereas a sudden slap of movement with pain to the head may indicate a vehicle accident with head injury. In contrast, a sudden dart of pain may indicate an aneurism, or a throbbing pain or localized pain in head may indicate migraine, cancer, or tumor.”
From the Mouths of Mediums offers a fascinating insight into the processes and experiences of spirit mediums. Far from the shadowy figures demonized by outspoken skeptics, the Windbridge Institute-approved mediums interviewed for this book are shown to be caring, feeling human beings with as much curiosity about what they do as the scientists that are currently studying them. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the phenomenon of mediumship.
The ebook is available exclusively as a Kindle e-book rather than print in order to keep the price low - anybody can download and read Kindle books instantly on any computer, tablet or smartphone via Amazon's Kindle app. Heck, why not grab From the Mouths of Mediums and my own book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife (which features a section on Julie's research) for less than $10 combined?!
(Full disclosure: I received a complimentary advanced reading copy of the ebook)
Amazon Kindle eBook Link: From the Mouths of Mediums
Last week Seriah started to release a series of 'videocasts' on the show's Youtube channel, in which he'll invite run-of-the-mill, ordinary folks to share their own extra-ordinary experiences. The first one starts with a guy named Dave, who shares a couple of rather odd encounters, including seeing a full-front apparition of his brother --who was at the time in a coma after suffering a terrible accident.
One of the reasons I personally loathe the term 'paranormal' is that it gives a (false) impression of extreme rarity an infrequent occurrence, which then skeptics use to claim that only 'cranks & weirdos' report things like UFO sightings or ghosts apparitions. Yet the fact of the matter is MANY folks have had an unusual experience at least *once* in their life, and most would opt to keep quiet (or share them only with their closest friends) for fear of ridicule.
With this initiative, Seriah is trying to prove to anyone who might be hesitant to come out of the 'Fortean closet', that they're more people who have had a brush with the Unknown than they probably realize, and I for one wholeheartedly support that goal.
As regular readers of this site would know, I think the topic of end-of-life experiences (ELEs) deserves a lot more attention than it has so far received, as there is a plethora of fascinating reports out there that have largely been ignored (see for example my posts on both George Harrison's and Steve Job's passing). I devoted a chapter to the topic in my own book on research into the afterlife question, but was recently happy to discover another new book out there that also discusses it in an intelligent manner: Opening Heaven's Door: Investigating Stories of Life, Death, and What Comes After, by award-winning writer/journalist Patrica Pearson:
What happens when we die? People have been guessing since humans first began to think. Spirituality and religion provided the answers in the past, but in the age of science we're thrown back into the dark. If science cannot 'prove' there is life - or something - after death, then it doesn't exist. And yet ordinary people continue to experience unexplained phenomena when a friend or family member dies. These are normal people, even sceptics like Patricia Pearson. Prompted by her family's surprising experiences around the deaths of her father and her sister, Pearson set out on an open-minded journey of inquiry as a journalist. She discovered that far more people were having uncanny and transcendent experiences than generally let on: roughly half the bereaved population, plus all those who observe the dying (nurses, hospice workers, soldiers, etc.). With many years of examination into current grief research under her belt, she concludes that we cannot simply deprive people the legitimacy of these experiences until there is more solid evidence that 'we inhabit a purely material and mechanistic universe'. Pearson points to new scientific explanations around how dying is experienced, giving these luminous moments credence and understanding. As she says, 'The dying may finally be able to convey to us what they are feeling, and where they glimpse themselves to be going.' Opening Heaven's Door recounts deeply affecting stories of messages from the dying and the dead in a fascinating work of investigative journalism, pointing to new scientific explanations that give these luminous moments the importance felt by those who experience them.
Pearson recently gave a wonderful radio interview exploring the topic, and how the modern world reacts to personal anecdotes about ELEs, which I highly recommend - you can listen to it here (I tried to embed it but unfortunately it autoplays).
For those with the vague feeling that you've heard Patricia Pearson's thoughts on this subject before, it might be because we posted a TEDx Talk she gave last year in which Pearson describes her own personal experience, and how it pushed her to research the topic in more depth - here's a repost of the video for those who don't have time to listen to the 53 minute radio interview above:
(thanks to Kat for the heads-up)