Parapsychology – Where are we?

(This was originally posted elsewhere in my personal blog. I’m reposting it here, as it is quite appropriate to this site. I’ll answer some comments form the original post at the bottom.)

OK, I’ve been studying the paranormal since some time around the 6th grade. That would have been the mid 1980’s… so about 20-25 years now. People I talk to about it are often surprised at the info I’ve gathered from fairly reputable sources, both “believers” and “skeptics”. For me, belief has nothing to do with it. It’s like gravity – we know it’s there, we know about some other forces that can emulate it, but we know very little actually about the real thing.

So… what have I learned in that time? I’ll pass on citing most references, as honestly I don’t remember some of the details. (Can YOU cite sources for something you learned 20 years ago?!?) A lot of this is really quite recent. Some isn’t.

– Ouija Boards… Yes, the participants ARE pushing the pointer. They are NOT doing so consciously, and are generally NOT aware that they are doing so (book reference mid ’80’s.). Usually, (when it is successful) one participant serves as a medium or contact and directs the movement. Again, this is NOT conscious movement. BUT… generally, that person’s eyes need to be able to see the board and often, oddly, the board needs to be close to right-side-up for that person. (Personal experimentation, mid to late 80’s). As for where the intelligence behind the messages comes from, more experimentation is needed.

– Apparitions… Full-bodied apparitions, ghosts, if you will, look 3-dimensional, solid, “real” and not spooky, glowing things you see in movies. They may look out of place for the time and conditions. A subjective feeling of un-ease in the observer(s) often accompanies them. They do NOT glow in the dark, though they seem to more commonly be seen in poor lighting conditions, especially at night. Very often, they will be gone if the observer does what is commonly referred to as a “double take”. They look away, think, “WTF?!?” and look back and the apparition is gone. I have seen one apparition near running water and try to cross it. The apparition disappeared instantly upon touching the water, but footstep sounds continued for some seconds. This is what clued me in that this was a ghost and not someone dressed in a period costume.

– Remote Viewing… This has raised more questions than it has answered. Fully controlled experiments have yielded correct but most often, in government terms not “actionable” reports, gathered by these means. supposedly using the exact same methods, some VERY whacked out information has been reported, casting doubts on either the sanity of the viewer and/or the nature or our world and reality in general. In my opinion, the sessions need to focus on THIS reality, and THIS time in THIS reality in order to yield useful results. By FAR, the best info on this topis can be found at the “Firedocs” website and a lecture by one of the key participants in the US Government study, Dr. Harold (Hal) Puthoff.

– Precognition… While precognition is mostly unproven, presentiment has some very convincing evidence to it. In laymen’s terms, knowing the future by anomalous means is unlikely, but having emotional reactions before the causing stimulus is well documented. Older studies have also shown a similar pre-action in plants.

– ESP in general… Much has been studied. A study in India claims to have located the parts of the brain by usinf a functional MRI scan of people involved in Ganzfeld experiments in telepathy. In the fall of 2008, a study in the UK found a strong correlation between ESP success and geomagnetic activity.According to the abstract, “Two patterns were observed: ESP was found to succeed only during periods of enhanced pulsation activity within the 0.2-0.5 Hz band, but ESP effect was absent during the most disturbed periods of activity in the 0.025-0.1 Hz band.” Obviously, this points to an interesting direction for further study. Generally, as with precognition vs. presentiment, emotions can more easily be sensed anomalously than information. That’s likely why Zener card studies have so often shown poor results while more emotionally charged thought transfers have succeeded better. Meta-analysis, according to one book I have, has shown a weak, but strongly present anomalous effect (it is difficult to distinguish precognition here from micro psychokinesis) in the .0X% range with a .8 correlational coefficient. This is effected by the subject’s boredom levels and the effect is actually reversed (a process called “anti-psi”) if the subject is a strong disbeliever, showing an anomalously high number of “wrong” answers.

Some less-formal studies include those at where they found some very interesting results.

– Hauntings… Here there is a wealth of really bad, unscientific information, bad science, and plain old fraud. There is also some very good info out there. Weeding through it all takes a critical mind and a LOT of patience. Some very good studies have been made regarding infrasound which indicate that certain loud sounds too low for the human to hear may cause feelings of dread or sanctity. A study online, which has long been missing (404) was looking into “negative space” in architectural design and its effect on the human psyche relating to hauntings. (Archived here.) Studies of the effects of electromagnetic radiation of humans in regard to the subjects perceptions of haunted locations has yielded mixed and seemingly contradictory results. Purported ghostly photographs showing “orbs” have been pretty well debunked and explained by the folks over at in this essay and by their experimental use of a device designed to test their hypothesis, called the DEVA. My own research on “EVP” or Electronic Voice Phenomena shows that some of these anomalies can be cleared into intelligible speech patterns by simply reversing the audio, changing the playback speed, and/or cleaning up the background noise. Recent trends to eek EVPs out of white noise or pink noise are an exercise in pareidolia and can be pretty generally be discounted due to this well known and documented psychological phenomenon. Perhaps, one could devise an analytical approach using computerized speech recognition to rule it out some day, but the technology is not there yet.

As with ghosts in general, the major problem in studying hauntings is that it is exceedingly difficult to study anything in a scientific manner that you cannot reliably and predictably repeat. While we can rule out many explainable causes and influences, and even go a fairly good job at simulating some of the characteristics of a real haunting, studies of the real thing are extremely elusive for this reason. Until a haunting can be found to be scientifically repeatable, we may never know for sure very much about this anomalous phenomenon.

– Poltergeists… These are most often characterized today as “Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis” or RSPK, as they usually center around an adolescent and the activities and intelligence of the forces demonstrated are strongly connected to that person. This subject or focus person is often in a stressful emotional state and the RSPK manifestations usually cease when this state is removed, either by changes in the environment, life, or by psychological therapy. There are, of course, reported exceptions, but these are extremely rare, even among this rare phenomenon. The effects are not known to cause major injuries or death in any case I’ve ever heard of, though the possibility is there. Some of the moved objects have shown signs of anomalous temperature changes, often found to be warm or very hot when touched immediately after a manifestation.

– Demons, Angels, etc… Most often these are a result of someone anthropomorphizing one or more explainable or anomalous phenomena (or a combination of the two) in accordance to that person’s belief structure or world view. Again, there is room for the existence of exceptions, but this is the general rule in my experience. The accepted authority on demonic possession in the world has been the Vatican. From the reports and inside rumors I’ve heard, even this huge organisation only deals with a handful of real cases a year world wide (at most!) and many still question these. Insider rumors I’ve heard put the number at (sometimes well) under half a dozen on average. While the Vatican has recently increased the number of people it authorizes to perform exorcisms, I’ve seen no reports of an increase in the number actually performed. It seems to me that the reasoning for this is that the ritual is extremely hard on those involved and having more around to do it lessons the burden. In short, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning. Much more likely. …than to encounter a real demon.

– Psychokinesis… Lots of research done into micro-PK, but many have pointed out that it is diifficult to distinguish micro-PK from precognition in many earlier experiments. See above for info on statistical results. Macro-PK is still quite elusive. Many individuals have reported on the internet that they’ve had some success with a device called a “psi wheel”, a pinwheel like device balanced on a pin so as to have little friction and which is often covered with a transparent cover to exclude wind. I have one. They are pretty simple to make. I have had no success with it to date. It would be very incomplete of me not to mention the seemingly astounding siccess of the Russian lady, Nina Kulagina, who wowed the world with her display of macro-PK effects from the 1960’s till her death in 1990. There were several studies done and the controversy still rages today, as many of the effects she produced can be faked using “invisible” nylon thread. The physiological changes her body manifested were pretty incontrovertible, though they might be explained by nervousness at the possibility of being caught faking the effects. Her case may never be fully proven one way or the other.

– Fraud… It is essential in the study of the paranormal to be able to rule out fraud. In my opinion, the best way to do that is to know how to fake the effects and therefore guard against them. Thus, I have also made it a habit of studying slight of hand, illusions, and generally what the Brits call conjuring. By careful experimental design and statistical analysis of well executed experiments, we can better learn the real effects and rule out the fraudulent ones.

Further, there is the factor of those seeking attention either for personal gain or just for the attention itself. While some people who may have genuine paranormal abilities may and do become famous, there are also many who are only showmen, yet present themselves as having paranormal abilities. Further complicating matters, are those who both have genuine talents AND are natural showmen. These are the people the frauds try to emulate. Telling the difference is often best accomplished by trying to figure out the intention of the person in question. To help things along, for those paying attention, I do not associate myself with frauds. I have several friends with genuine abilities and a couple also have an element of fame. I also have friends who practice slight of hand who are quite honest about what they are doing, and quite skilled at doing it. Also: NOT frauds.

Yet another wrench in the works, is the phenomenon of basically honest, but …shall we say… misguided… people who think they’re doing the world a service but only seem to mangle matters further. Again, people I do not associate with, and if you catch me in private, in the right mood, I’ll rant about them. They are all too common. One I’ll refer to here, I saw give a presentation while I was in college, along with her now late husband and associates. Famous. Exaggerated. Completely unscientific. Self-described experts often referred to AS experts. Probably genuinely believe their own hype.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. If you have something to add, comment away!

Comments from the original:

Comment One: A snarky note: don’t forget the otherkin! (gah)

Re ouija boards. I completely agree that one or more of the participants is pushing the planchette, usually subconsciously. That, however doesn’t take it out of the realm of psychic phenomena, because it’s just as legitimate as casting runes or Tarot cards (you didn’t mention divination).

My Answer: Yup. As for the intelligence behind things like the Ouija board, dowsing rods, pendulums, etc, we just don’t know. I’ve seen different studies yield different results.

Runes, tarot, and other forms of sortilige are a slightly different thing and seem to coincide more with Jungian psychology. As the theory goes, if you take a series of symbols that represent a complete world view, and devise a criteria of predictions, then pseudo-randomly fill that criteria with examples of the symbols, then there will be a meaningful interpretation. There is no rhyme nor reason for it to work, but work it does!

As for otherkin, that’s a whole other topic of which I’ve only scratched the surface over the years…

Comment Two: (A personal memory of paranormal activity from a friend self-described as “staunchly atheistic and don’t believe in souls/afterlives/anything of that nature and THIS is the stuff that’s really difficult for me to come to terms with.”

My Answer: These mostly sound like pretty typical of what most paranormal researchers tentatively call, “residual” hauntings. The usual characteristics include:

1. No interactivity with the living – if the ghosts look your way, they typically seem to look through you or take no notice of you.
2. Solid shapes, but only in peripheral vision or which disappear at a second glance.
3. Some repetitive activity – They do the same thing every time.
4. Consistent “feelings” associated with them – god, bad, it doesn’t really change.
5. Locational constraints reflect those the entity experienced in life, including locations of walls, stairs, furniture, doors, and the level of the floor or ground. Thus, for instance, if a wall was built after the subject’s demise, that wall does not exist for the ghostly echo.

Scientific explanation? None. The fact is that there is no currently plausible scientific explanation. We just don’t know what causes this. Disbelievers will attribute these to hallucinations, dementia, or optical illusions, often coupled with pareidolia, but none of these really fit the data. Believers explain them as echoes of the past, often associated with either strong emotions in the original entity who’s ghost is manifest or with some sort of strong, residual self image – they look as they remember themselves and do what they best remember doing. Though the latter is an excellent analogy, there is no scientific data to back it up.

Oddly, this is probably the most common type of haunting and is pretty common over all, especially in New England. Around here, you can see examples in almost every building and pretty much everyone has some sort of experience. You’d be surprised at how often people confide they’ve seen this sort of thing. Most don’t like to talk in public about it because they fear people will think they’re crazy.

I saw several of this type of ghost at the Boy Scout camp I used to go to (and later, work at). In subsequent years, I heard similar yet unique stores from others, always from the same lean-to. Many moved to other accommodations because they were spooked and had trouble sleeping there.

You’re not alone and you’re not crazy. But the lack of reliable scientific info about these things is what motivates me to study them. Unlike the deep ocean creatures, these things are right here in front of us and happen all the time… but we still know next to nothing about them. Thousands of reliable people all over the world have reported them over at least the last three thousand years and look what we have to show for it… So yeah. We know more about the surface of Mars….

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