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Voices from Beyond

Science Investigates Mediumship

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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  1. Hopefully they can keep
    Hopefully they can keep redesigning the experiments and really try and pin down the effect.

    Regarding repeatability it is my hope that both the groups researching this and the mediums themselves are willing to allow others to test them. If I could lift objects with my mind it would convince no-one if someone wrote a paper on me and published it. I would have to be willing to do the same with other people.

  2. slipshod balderdash
    This is not the kind of experiment that anyone should hang their hat on. Nor is it a good example for future scientists and researchers.

    “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.”

    The art and science of cold-reading should not be underrated – what the hell does a photo of the deceased have to do with contacting them? Why not just give the reader a name and birth date? Is one better than the other? What happens when you institute blinds against cold-reading? THAT might be interesting.

    Remote viewing has demonstrated itself to be effective but inconsistent – often using protocols where the viewer has no idea what they’re supposed to be viewing. I am not at all averse to the possibility of conversations with the dead, but “Michael, Mikey, Mike” is no way to establish your paranormal capabilities.

    “black licorice, ooh, you like that?” – I remember this from my own life – how many others do, too?

    Someone mentions Northampton, and the link is that someone said this girl, who lived in Texas, wanted to go to school there. And the sitter picked that one? Maybe the sitter is psychic.

    Nine readers and forty sitters is too small a sample. It’s meaningless, whatever the results.

    Is this a test to see if we’re paying attention? ‘Cause it’s a crap test. This study smacks of hucksters shucking their wares. Or maybe just preachers talking at the choir.

    It and the article above are doing a disservice to parapsychology and psi research, and securing their place in the waste bin. Why did the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders publish it? (I can’t imagine what it has to do with nervous or mental disorders.)

    My apologies to Williams-Kelly and Arcangel if they are in fact earnest and honest – and I think they are. But you must be more stringent. I won’t sugar-coat the truth: your efforts at a scientific test of mediumship have been wasted (assuming the information above is accurate). Does anyone think the belief, on the part of the sitter, in contact with their lost loved ones is not good, i.e., therapeutic? No! But that doesn’t mean we should molly-coddle nonsense, or lower standards for paranormal research.

    PS: “Science” doesn’t investigate anything – scientists do.

    1. A question
      [quote=Azwyth]Is this a test to see if we’re paying attention? ‘Cause it’s a crap test. This study smacks of hucksters shucking their wares. Or maybe just preachers talking at the choir.

      It and the article above are doing a disservice to parapsychology and psi research, and securing their place in the waste bin. Why did the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders publish it? (I can’t imagine what it has to do with nervous or mental disorders.)

      Just wondering – have you read the paper?

      1. re: a question
        Hi Greg,

        No, I haven’t read the study. I looked it up at the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (not Disorders, as I stated above), but I would have to pay to read it and I am not so inclined (and probably can’t afford it). I do think your post does a great job of presenting the main points of the study, and my comment is only a response to what’s in your post.

        And I agree that the study is interesting – however slippery I find the readers’ comments, the fact remains that 14 of 40 sitters ranked their reading the highest, and that is meaningful (despite my comment about the sample being too small). I worry about the use of photographs of the deceased, but they did remove physical descriptions from the transcribed readings, so, what do I know?

        I believe it is possible to communicate with the diseased, but it’s a damned difficult thing to study scientifically; especially if you ask how one can isolate the possibility of psychic impressions rather than actual spirit-communication being responsible for successes. I’m still not convinced this study says anything about spirit-communication, per se. (Are not mediums supposed to provide a medium through which a spirit speaks?)

        Hopefully I’ll have a chance to read the study, and hopefully it will fuel more and better studies.


        1. Better studies: here’s an idea
          Ignoring the validity or lack thereof of this study for a moment, it occurs to me that one avenue to improve these kinds of experiments is by implementing an on-line ‘seance’ meeting in real time. That way sitters would be able to judge the medium’s responses instantly, and the researchers would also be able to judge the sitter’s response to the medium’s response.

        2. Subject
          I believe it is possible to communicate with the diseased, but it’s a damned difficult thing to study scientifically … [/quote]

          I sometimes wonder about whether we place too much emphasis on scientific testing. Like anyone else, I want to see good, hard-to-argue-with evidence but when we are dealing with something that is, by definition, not of this world – then why do we expect the evidence to conform to our standards of objectivity?

          Science is an objective discipline. It deals in “hard” facts. I suspect that the reality a little removed from this world might be somewhat more subjective. Indeed, when we look deep enough, even our seemingly objective reality in the here-and-now might prove to be essentially subjective.

          An example of the assumption of objectivity can be seen in the way sceptics often scoff at NDE accounts where religious personalities were encountered. “She said she saw Jesus – Yeah, right!” is the type of response I’m sure everyone has encountered. But all it takes is a little open-mindedness and one can easily accept that any afterlife “resident” could well have appeared as Jesus or Krishna or the Virgin Mary. Maybe the subjective experience of Jesus is just what was required for the drama to play out? Maybe Charles Darwin will appear to Richard Dawkins when his time comes?


        3. Let me know
          [quote=Azwyth]Hopefully I’ll have a chance to read the study, and hopefully it will fuel more and better studies.[/quote]

          If you drop me an email via the site contact form (or simply my first name, at, I can send a PDF of the article to you.

    2. An Insurmountable Problem?
      When it comes to scientific investigations of the paranormal such as this, I’ve learned there is only one thing we can be absolutely certain of–namely, no matter how carefully a study is designed, or how scrupulously its protocols are followed, there will always be those who dismiss it as “balderdash.” I’m not qualified to judge the merits of this particular study, but then I don’t really need to be to know–with Nostradamus-like certainty–that no study will ever be rigorous enough to satisfy everyone’s tastes. So does this doom the entire field from ever achieving true respectability? Let’s hope not.

  3. great post! the skeptical
    great post! the skeptical response to this research is so lame… unfortunately, the research is still seems mired in this skepticism. would be interesting to see research that moves beyond the “if” to the “how/why”.

  4. There used to be a guest room
    There used to be a guest room at my father’s ranch house which would make a believer of the most hardened ghost skeptic after one night’s sleep over. Direct experience of these things is not really that hard to provide, and direct experience can cut to the chase and through all the bullshit.

  5. I work for a Psychic Medium
    I work for Psychic Medium Cassandra Blizzard. There are definately Mediums who can do what they say. One exercise that we will do is I will write the name of a famous person that is no longer with us on a paper and fold it up tight so it can not be read. I will give it to Cassandra and she will start to tell me what she sees, hears etc. I write it all down. Most of the time I know very little about the person except for basically what they are known for. The amazing thing is, she will say very detailed things about the person and many times says who they are by name. Now yes, she could be reading my mind, but she says things I don’t know and doubt that anyone learned them in school which rules out that maybe I know it but don’t realize I do. Only after the session is over do I go research the person. Cassandra is right on at least 95% and the few details I can’t verify I suspect are correct as well, I just can’t verify it easily.

    The conclusion I arrive at is she is getting information from a deceased person and not from me.

    Don- Cassandra’s assistant.
    Psychic Medium

  6. Like using a phillips to turn a flathead.
    I react by turns in amusement and exasperation. The idea that “science” is a viable way to explore is non-physical is both limiting and limited. And yes . .amusing.

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