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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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