Can mediums really talk to the dead? Or at least gain access information not available via the accepted human senses? It's a debate that has gone on for more than a century, with skeptics generally dismissing the evidence as anecdotal, and any successes achieved through cold-reading or subterfuge on the part of the medium. Over the years there have been sporadic attempts to study the topic, beginning back in the 19th century with the Society for Psychical Research's intensive investigation, through to more recent years with Dr Gary Schwartz and Dr Julie Beischel. All of which have found that there appears to be 'something' odd happening. So a new study, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease this year, may hopefully provide a further shift towards making the subject a more respected area, worthy of ongoing future scientific study.
The paper, by Dr Emily Williams of the University of Virginia (co-author of the excellent book Irreducible Mind) and former hospice chaplain Dianne Arcangel, is titled "An Investigation of Mediums Who Claim to Give Information About Deceased Persons". It describes two exploratory studies, the larger of which gave results which appear to support the validity of mediumistic readings. Kelly and Arcangel employed nine mediums to offer readings for 40 individual sitters - each sitter had just one reading done for them, with two of the mediums doing six each, while the other seven mediums did four readings each. The readings were done without the actual sitter present (the researchers acted as a 'proxy' to guard against cold reading), and audio recordings of the mediums' statements were later transcribed. Each sitter was then sent six readings - the correct reading for them, and five readings done for others in the group - and asked to rate each one on how applicable they thought it was to them.
Thirty-eight of the forty sitters returned their ratings, of which more than a third (14 in total) were correctly chosen - a number significantly above chance. Additionally, seven other readings were ranked second, and altogether 30 of 38 readings were ranked in the top half of the ratings. One medium in particular stood out above the others: all six of this medium's readings were correctly ranked first by the sitters!
Not that this study should be taken as "proof" of the validity of mediumship on its own. The initial, smaller study offered no positive results, and there are certain parts of the protocol of the second study that skeptics will pounce on - not least that the mediums were given a photo of the deceased. Nevertheless, Kelly and Arcangel seem to have controlled for most possible 'advantages' this may have offered to the medium (e.g. removing physical descriptions from the transcribed readings). This does raise some of the difficulties involved in researching mediumship - how to study something that (allegedly) is a personal interaction between two living people, and one deceased, when the two living people must be separated to satisfy experimental protocols.
What I was happy to see was Kelly and Arcangel's rating system based on the complete reading. Some previous studies (such as those done by Richard Wiseman) have resorted to rating sittings based on the number of correct statements - which I think is completely wrong, because the history of mediumship shows that the convincing element to many people is often the one specific 'dazzle shot' that comes amidst other, incorrect information. Rating the reading, rather than the amount of correct information, in my opinion is a better way of trying to ascertain if there is some personal connection being made (though it should say something to anybody who implicitly trusts *everything* a medium tells them). Here's some of the comments made by those who rated their readings correctly:
Most of the 14 people who correctly chose their own reading made comments such as “I don’t see how it could be anything other than (X reading),” “I feel certain this is the correct choice and would bet my life on it,” “one reading stood out from the rest...I just know (it) was correct because it sounded like my mom,” or “it had the most instances that could apply to my son.” In addition to such general statements, however, some did go on to comment on specific details that impressed them. For example, the person who “would bet my life” on his choice cited the medium’s statement that “there’s something funny about black licorice... Like there’s a big joke about it, like, ooh, you like that?” According to the sitter, his deceased son and his wife had joked about licorice frequently. Also, the medium had said “I also have sharp pain in the rear back of the left side of my head in the back, in the occipital. So perhaps there was an injury back there, or he hit something or something hit him.” The deceased person had died of such an injury incurred in a car crash.
In another reading, the medium said “I feel like the hair I see here in the photo is gone, so I have to go with cancer or something that would take the hair away,” and later “her hair — at some point she’s kind of teasing it, she tried many colors. I think she experimented with color a lot before her passing.” The girl’s mother confirmed that she had died of cancer, had dyed her hair “hot pink” before her surgery, and had later shaved her head when her hair began falling out (her hair was normal-looking in the photo.). The medium also said “I feel I’m up in Northampton, Massachusetts...Northampton does have that kind of college town beatnik kind of feel to it.” Although the girl lived and died in Texas, according to her mother “this is where she told a friend she wanted to go to college.”
In another reading, the medium said “she dealt with either numbers or getting the invoices ready or helping with the bills, because she’s showing me numbers around her. So I don’t know if she helped her husband with the bills, or there’s something about working on his invoices. But she’s showing me that she had to become very mathematical. Or deal with the money.” In fact, she and her husband had started a business that became very successful, and she had done all the book-keeping in the early years.
In another example, among many other details the sitter commented especially on the statement “he said I don’t know why they keep that clock if they are not going to make it work. So somebody connected directly to him has a clock that either is not wound up, or they let it run down, or it’s standing there just quiet. And he said what’s the point in having a clock that isn’t running? So, somebody should know about that and it should give them quite laughter.” The sitter did laugh (and cry) over this, because a grandfather clock that her husband had kept wound had not been wound since his death. The medium had also commented that “he can be on a soap box, hammering it”; his children when young had frequently complained about “Dad being on his soap box.”
...the sitter quoted in the previous paragraph also noted the medium’s comment that “I think she collected some small things...either little china or glass things. Like little knicknacks. But I keep seeing an elephant with the trunk up, so this might be a special object or something that people would understand.” The sitter subsequently sent E.W.K. a photograph of a small ceramic elephant with its trunk up, part of his deceased wife’s larger collection and an item sitting on a table in their front hall. Another sitter noted, among other things, 2 especially meaningful items: The medium referred to “Mike, Mikey, Michael.” The sitter’s brother (son of the deceased person) was known as “Mikey” when young, “Michael” as he grew older, and finally “Mike.” Also, the medium referred to “a lady that is very much, was influential in his the deceased person’s formative years. So, whether that is mother or whether that is grandmother... She can strangle a chicken.” The sitter commented that her grandmother (the deceased person’s mother) “killed chickens. It freaked me out the first time I saw her do this. I cried so hard that my parents had to take me home. So the chicken strangling is a big deal... In fact I often referred to my sweet grandmother as the chicken killer.” None of these statements can be considered entirely unique, although no other sitter who received these readings as controls commented on them.
With intended goals of exploring whether mediumship is a phenomenon worthy of further investigation, and identifying any stand-out 'talent' amongst the mediums, the study certainly offers a stepping-stone to further research on this topic. At the very least, Kelly and Arcangel's final words should offer food for though to believers and skeptics alike:
Truly gifted mediums may, like other gifted persons, be rare, and those who can perform under the kinds of conditions necessary for an adequate scientific evaluation rarer still. Nevertheless, if we can identify such persons, and learn more about them and the conditions conducive to their success, such studies may contribute importantly to our understanding of the nature of consciousness, particularly those subliminal aspects of it that we rarely encounter in our normal states of consciousness. In the meantime, we hope that this study might suggest to readers that mediums are neither the infallible oracles that many people in the general public seem to believe they are, nor the frauds or imposters that many scientists assume they invariably are. The history of research on mediumship shows that the phenomenon should be taken seriously, and we hope that the results of our study might encourage other scientists to do so
Great to see some scientists out there who aren't afraid of exploring the edges.
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Sometimes I get caught up in the scientific debates for and against the validity of the near-death experience (NDE), and forget what a profound experience it is for those that it happens to. So I always enjoy hearing first-hand testimony - here's a nicely done video with a Los Angeles group of NDErs:
For most of those that experience, there is no debate...and is there any point in doing so for them? (Hat tip)
You can read about the near-death experience (NDE) as much as you want, and analyse all manner of scientific statistics to do with the phenomenon, but in the end the most convincing aspect is often the first-hand testimony of the near-death experiencers themselves. This 15 minute film features six NDErs telling their story, along with the research of Dr Jeffrey Long (author of the 2009 bestseller Evidence of the Afterlife):
For more, remember to check out this excerpt from Dr Long's book that we published here on TDG as a feature article a little while back.
Previously on TDG:
Interested to stumble across this article on 'Celebrity Near-Death Experiences', which includes - among others - the account given by comic legend Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther, Dr Strangelove) of his own NDE:
In 1964, during the first of a rapid series of eight heart attacks, when his heart stopped and he was clinically dead, he had an out-of-body experience and saw the bright, loving light. Sellers stated, “Well, I felt myself leave my body. I just floated out of my physical form and I saw them cart my body away to the hospital. I went with it … I wasn’t frightened or anything like that because I was fine; and it was my body that was in trouble.” Meanwhile, the doctor saw that Sellers was dead and began to massage his heart vigorously. Sellers stated, “I looked around myself and I saw an incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me. I wanted to go to that white light more than anything. I’ve never wanted anything more. I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light which was attracting me so much. It was kind and loving and I remember thinking That’s God.” Sellers’ out-of-body soul tried to elevate itself toward the light, but fell short. Sellers stated, “Then I saw a hand reach through the light. I tried to touch it, to grab onto it, to clasp it so it could sweep me up and pull me through it.” But just then his heart began beating again, and at that instant the hand’s voice said, “It’s not time. Go back and finish. It’s not time.” As the hand receded Sellers felt himself floating back down to his body, waking up bitterly disappointed.
What effect did his NDE have on Sellers? His biographer stated that “The repeated act of dying became for Peter Sellers the most important experience of his life.” (Walker, 158) Sellers himself said of death, ”I’ll never fear it again.” Family and friends found him more spiritual and reflective than before. His biographer stated, “The experience of resurrection intensified Sellers’ spiritual concern and friends discerned the start of a new introspectiveness, a sense of his not “being there” in spirit, though present in body.” According to his biographer, Sellers’ wife, Britt Ekland, found it unnerving that her previously restless husband had now become so quiet. He was now “sitting still over lengthy periods, saying nothing, but staring at her with his thoughts turned inward.”
Sellers' NDE was just one manifestation of an extended fascination with the occult and paranormal - check out this article at Dangerous Minds for more on the topic.
The IONS website has a very nice podcast 'chat' between Dean Radin and near-death experience researcher Bruce Greyson. Greyson is the Chester F. Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia Medical School, and is one of the most highly respected researchers investigating the NDE - he was one of the founding members of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and has edited the Journal of Near-Death Studies for the better part of three decades. Though it's rather a subdued interview, it does provide some excellent insights into the topic and how Dr Greyson sees the current state of research.
The most recent instalment of the always-fascinating Skeptiko podcast features an interview with Dr. Pim van Lommel (audio podcast and text transcription), well-known researcher of the near-death experience. Van Lommel is best known as the lead author of an NDE study published in 2001 in the premiere medical journal The Lancet:
I was raised and also in the study of medicine years and years ago, I accepted everything, that there is one kind of science and it was materialistic science. I just accepted the fact that everybody thought that consciousness was a product of a functioning brain. It was because in ‘86, after reading the book by George Ritchie, The Return From Tomorrow, about a near-death experience he experienced as a medical student in 1943, I was so curious. I had only heard of it once before in ‘69.
I started to ask my patients who survived cardiac arrest if they could remember something of the period of unconsciousness. To my big surprise, within two years out of 50 patients asked, 12 of them told me about their NDEs. And it was for me the start because it was my scientific curiosity, how it could be explained that people can have an enhanced consciousness when they are unconscious, when the heart doesn’t work and there is no breathing and their brain stops functioning.
That’s the reason we started the study and that’s also when I had so many patients telling me about an enhanced consciousness also with the possibility of perception out and above the body that I had to change all my concepts.
More recently van Lommel has written a best-selling book about the near-death experience, Endless Consciousness, which has recently been translated into English as Consciousness Beyond Life (Amazon US and UK).
Previously on TDG:
I've heard on the grapevine today that British psychologist, paranormal researcher and author David Fontana has passed away. Fontana's recent books Is There an Afterlife? and Life Beyond Death: What Should We Expect? were well-received and fitting final books in a large catalogue of research covering psychic phenomena, dreaming and meditation. If anybody could be considered to be well-prepared for the transition to a life beyond death, David Fontana would be that person. Here's hoping he's walking the Summerlands with a skip in his step and a smile on his face.
What lies beyond the veil of death? Here's ten movies which explore that question:
This 1990 hit movie may have revolved around the sappy, sentimental story of eternal love between characters Sam and Molly (Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore), but the real star was Whoopi Goldberg and her portrayal of Oda Mae Brown, a fake psychic who suddenly finds that she can hear the dead. Here's the scene in which she first encounters the ghostly Sam:
9. Enter the Void
Sex, drugs and the NDE: there's nothing sappy and sentimental about this afterlife rendering. In Gaspar Noé's provocative Enter the Void, small-time drug dealer Oscar is shot by police inducing an 'astral journey' around psychedelic Tokyo. Taking inspiration from mushroom trips, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Raymond Moody's NDE bestseller Life After Life, Noé hits the viewer with sensory overload in order to portray the altered states of consciousness that Oscar encounters (including a 6 minute DMT trip) during the movie. ... Read More »
Dr Sam Parnia is a British pulmonary care specialist who over the past decade has been actively involved in researching the near-death experience (NDE). In recent years he has led the AWARE study, a "multidisciplinary collaboration of international scientists and physicians who have joined forces to study the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death". As we've mentioned here on the Daily Grail previously, part of the AWARE study has been a novel experiment in which the researchers test for a veridical out-of-body experience (during the NDE), by placing hidden targets up near the ceiling of the patients' rooms. Much has been made of this experiment: correct identification of the targets would suggest that consciousness can leave the physical body and 'wander', while failure to identify any targets at all might be indicative that the whole experience is simply a hallucination.
Dr Parnia joined Alex Tsakiris as the latest guest on the Skeptiko podcast, clarifying some remarks he made earlier in the year during a presentation at a skeptical gathering, namely that he suspected the NDE was "an illusion, a trick of the mind." His response on Skeptiko was to say that...
I think as a researcher I have to remain neutral and unbiased. The current scientific models that we have - and this is the point I think I was trying to mention in that quote that you said - the current scientific models that we have do not allow for descriptions the patients are providing of an out-of-body experience if they’re real.
So let’s assume for a moment that the patient who claims that they were on the ceiling and able to see things is actually really correct. Well, we have no scientific model to account for it today. So based upon what we understand of the brain and the way the brain works, the most likely explanation that we have today and the knowledge that’s available in 2010 is that this must be an illusion. However, I’m open-minded enough to accept that at any given time and era science is very limited. And it may simply be that this phenomenon is going to be something that will open up a whole new field of science. So that again depends on what the experiments show.
So the point I was making was based on the limitations of science that we have today, this is most likely to be an illusion but I’m very open to experimenting with it and doing an objective study to find out whether it is or not. And that’s what we’re doing.
Alex then pushed Dr Parnia on his stance, leading to the following response:
You’re pushing and I’m giving you honest answers. I don’t know. If I knew the answers then I don’t think I would have engaged and spent 12 years of my life and so much of my medical reputation to try to do this. Because to appreciate people like me, I risk a lot by doing this sort of experiment. So I’m interested in the answers and I don’t know. Like I said, if I was to base everything on the knowledge that I have currently of neuroscience, then the easiest explanation is that this is probably an illusion.
Alex has taken this statement to mean that Sam Parnia is leaning towards the hallucination hypothesis (as the title of the podcast says, "Dr. Sam Parnia Claims Near Death Experience Probably an Illusion"). I can't say I'd go that far - it's clear that Dr Parnia is qualifying that opinion as being based on current scientific knowledge (and its limitations). However, given that (you would imagine) he has access to the ongoing data from the AWARE study, it sounds unlikely that they have come across any striking veridical OBEs thus far.
As I've said before about the AWARE study though, it's still rather likely the conclusion will be either "a few correct cases - interesting, but not conclusive evidence", or "no correct cases - suggestive of the OBE being a hallucination, but not conclusive evidence of that either". Though I still applaud the work being done in delving into this reported anomalous aspect of the near-death experience.
Previously on TDG:
One of my favourite research areas is the subject of near-death experiences. Here's a cool, hour-long documentary titled "Life After Life", featuring the man whose book of the same name propelled NDEs into the public consciousness in the 1970s, Raymond Moody. Despite being a little old, it's still worth checking out to hear the personal testimony of NDErs on their transformative experiences:
For more information about NDEs, check out the IANDS website.
Previously on TDG: