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Who are we? What are we? We emerge, seemingly from nothingness, into the physical world. Is it to nothingness that we return? Are we our physical bodies? Our personalities? Or are we a field of pure consciousness through which our thoughts, sensations and emotions flutter like so many butterflies?
Much of the parapsychological evidence for the survival of death, including that from mediumship and reincarnation cases, suggests that the mind is able to survive death with large portions of its memories, skills and personality intact. There is, however, an overwhelming amount of evidence that one’s emotions, patterns of behavior and cognitive skills are intimately tied to the state of one’s brain. For instance, damage to the right hemisphere of the brain can turn a depressed musician into a happy-go-lucky, tone-deaf individual. Damage to the frontal lobes of the brain can turn an upright citizen into a raincoat-opening exhibitionist. Surely the removal of one’s entire brain at death would change one’s state of consciousness profoundly!
Memory also appears to be intimately dependent on brain structures. There is an abundance of evidence that damage to the hippocampal and thalamic areas of the brain can destroy one’s ability to store new long-term memories. People with such a condition live in a kind of dream state. They will not recognize the nurse who has been taking care of them daily for years, but will greet him each time as if meeting someone new. There is also an increasing amount of evidence that some memories may be stored in localized regions of the brain and may be erased when these areas are damaged. For instance, in a bilingual patient who speaks, say, English and Greek, it is possible to interfere with his inability to speak Greek by electrically disrupting one area of his brain and to interfere with his ability to speak English by disrupting another area. (Ojemann, 1983).
Michael Gazzaniga (1989) describes a case in which a localized brain lesion rendered a woman incapable of naming the color of red fruits, although she could name the color of non-red fruits such as bananas as well as of red objects such as fire engines. Kinsbourne & Warrington (1964) report a case in which a very circumscribed brain lesion rendered a patient unable to name colors altogether. Localized memory traces have also been demonstrated in nonhuman subjects. Memory for a conditioned eyeblink response has, for instance, been shown to reside in the cerebellum of the rabbit (see Squire, 1987; and Krupa, Thompson & Thompson, 1993). There is also a considerable body of evidence that the storage of memories is dependent on changes in the synaptic connections among the neurons of the brain (see Squire, 1987; Baringa, 1990; Zhong & Wu, 1990; Rose, 1992; and Fanselow, 1993).
Even the avowed dualist Sir John Eccles believed that long-term memories are stored as changes in synaptic connections between neurons. Eccles did, however, feel compelled to postulate the existence of a second, nonphysical memory system in which “recognition memory” (which monitors the correctness of recalled information) resides, even though he maintained that memories of the details of the events in one’s life are physically stored in the brain and hence lost at death (Eccles, 1979; Eccles & Robinson, 1984). The prominent reincarnation researcher Ian Stevenson (1981) likewise proposes that there are two memory stores, one physical and one nonphysical. He suggests that, although brain mechanisms may control access to all memories before death, this does not prove that the memory traces themselves are physical.
The parapsychologist Alan Gauld (1982) has also questioned whether memories are stored as physical traces in the brain, noting that memories are sometimes gradually recovered after brain damage. David Lund (1985) makes the argument that the brain may be the transmitter rather than the generator of consciousness, a view that goes back to William James (1898/1992). Under this analogy, a damaged brain may simply be unable to receive the signal from an intact consciousness. On the other hand, Barry Beyerstein (1987) has argued that a nonphysical mind should be able to compensate for the effects of brain damage. Why, he asks, can the mind allegedly separate from the body in an out-of-body experience and perceive the environment if it cannot overcome perceptual deficits caused by brain damage (such as blindness arising from damage to the visual cortex)?
What Could Survive?
Obviously, the physical body does not survive the death of the physical body. As we have just seen, it appears unlikely that our memories and personalities could survive the dissolution of our physical brains. What, however, constitutes our essential selves? Are we our bodies? Our personalities and memories? Or are we in fact pure centers of consciousness with the remaining aspects of our personalities just so much baggage to be checked (and inevitably lost) as we board the celestial starship for yet another ride?
Many philosophers see the physical body as an essential part of one’s self. In Terence Penelhum’s view, for instance, it makes no sense to talk about people surviving their deaths in some sort of disembodied state. If such a disembodied ghost were to communicate through a medium and relate memories of the person’s life, this would prove nothing according to Penelhum, as memories might be illusory. He thinks that people can only be identified on the basis of their physical bodies and that therefore it makes no sense to talk about people surviving the deaths of those bodies (Penelhum, 1987). Of course, physical appearances can also be deceptive. Persons can disguise themselves as someone else, for instance. Thus, it is not clear that physical appearance is a foolproof means of identifying a person either.
Peter Geach (1987) is another philosopher who maintains that personality traits and memories are not a sufficient basis to identify a person. He compares the transfer of personality traits and memories from one body to another, such as might occur in one of Stevenson’s reincarnation cases, to the spreading of a disease.
The noted philosopher Antony Flew (1987, 1991) also contends that immaterial souls would not be identifiable. In Flew’s opinion, the idea that a person survives death can only be made intelligible if you assume that people possess some sort of quasi-physical astral body, on the basis of which they could be identified. Flew views the ideas of disembodied survival and incorporeal souls as incoherent notions. He maintains that the word “person” refers to a flesh and blood creature and that it therefore makes no sense to talk of a person surviving the death of his physical body.
All of these writers contend that some sort of physical body is necessary in order to establish the continuity of personal identity. It is not clear why we should put so much more stock in physical appearance than in mental appearance. If we are in fact our physical bodies, then what survives in the long run is a fossilized skeleton, seemingly devoid of consciousness (although the panpsychists may give us an argument on this point) and a dispersed collection of elementary particles, some of them “reincarnated” in animals, plants and other living things and some of them finding lodging in inanimate objects, also seemingly devoid of consciousness (but again, as the panpsychists may argue, perhaps associated with a rudimentary form of “protoconsciousness”).
We now turn to an examination of the evidence amassed by psychical researchers that the human personality or some portion thereof survives the death of the physical body. Such survival is a central tenet of many major religions such as Islam and Christianity as well as the mythological and shamanistic traditions. As already noted, the findings of neuroscientific research in the past half-century have established an intimate dependence of the personality, including one’s memories, thoughts and emotions, on the physical state of the brain. This body of research makes the survival of the personality of the death and dissolution of the brain a much more improbable prospect that it was in the days of the early physical researchers such as Frederic W. H. Myers and William James. Nevertheless these researchers and their “descendants,” including a significant minority of the parapsychological community today, have amassed a considerable body of evidence that the human personality, or some portion thereof, may survive the death of the physical body. This evidence includes: out-of-body and near-death experiences; hauntings; apparitions; dreams; some poltergeist cases; evidence provided by mediums and “psychics;” cases suggestive of “obsession” and reincarnation, in which people report memories of past lives or are seemingly influenced by discarnate spirits; and miscellaneous attempts to photograph, weigh, record or otherwise physically measure and detect souls or spirits.
In Chapter 7, we will turn to an examination of the nature of the self, and in Chapter 8 explore the possibility that the self, construed as a center of pure consciousness, could survive the death of the physical body.
We begin our study with possible glimpses of the afterlife that occur prior to the actual death of the physical body, that is with out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and near-death experiences (NDEs). NDEs often incorporate OBEs as well as apparent visions of another realm and its inhabitants.
In OBEs, people are apparently able to separate from their physical bodies and travel to near and distant locations. OBErs often report that they experience themselves encased in some sort of “astral body,” usually resembling the physical one (often even wearing ”astral clothes”) during these wanderings.
Some people experience but one OBE in their lifetimes, whereas others experience OBEs repeatedly. In some cases, the OBE occurs without any conscious effort to induce it; in others, the OBE occurs as a result of a deliberate induction or incubation process. The following is an example of the former type of OBE and is taken from the collection of Susan Blackmore, an unusual researcher who is at once one of parapsychology’s harshest critics and at the same time a prominent investigator of OBEs:
I crossed the road and went into a well-lit wood. My distant vision began to blur and within five or ten seconds I could only see a distance of a few feet, the rest was “fog.”
Suddenly my sight cleared and I was looking at the back of myself and the dogs from a position eight or ten feet behind myself and about a foot higher than my height. My physical self had no sight or other senses and it was exactly as if I was simply walking along behind some-one, except that some-one was me… (Blackmore, 1982a, p. 9).
The following case is provided by Hornell Hart:
Sometime before 1907, a well-known physician in New York City…was on a river steamer…He had been having some curious sensations of numbness and of psychological detachment for some days. During the night on the steamer he found that his feet and legs were becoming cold and sensationless. He then ‘seemed to be walking in air’…In this state he thought of a friend who was more than 1000 miles distant. Within a minute he was conscious of standing in a room…and his friend was standing with his back to him. The friend turned, saw him and said: ‘what in the world are you doing here? I thought you were in Florida,’ and he started to come toward the appearer. The appearer heard the words distinctly but was unable to answer.
Then he re-entered his physical body.
On the next day he wrote a letter to the distant friend whom he had perceived in this excursion. A letter from the friend crossed his in the mail, stating that he had been distinctly conscious of the appearer’s presence, and had made the exclamation which the appearer heard (Hart, 1954, p. 133; as cited by Steinkamp, 2002, p.72).
Such cases, in which the OBEr’s presence is felt or seen by witnesses at the remote location are sometimes called “reciprocal hallucinations” (a term that is perhaps somewhat prejudicial as to the explanation of the phenomenon).
Involuntarily experienced OBEs can occur for no apparent reason, as in the first case above, or they can be the result of fatigue, drug intoxication, sensory deprivation, and psychological or physical stress, as in the second case. A most dramatic form of out-of-body experience occurs when a person is rendered nearly unconscious and near death but is able to witness attempts to revive or resuscitate her physical body from a perspective well above the body. Often such a person feels herself being pulled back into the body at the moment of successful resuscitation. Such cases may be regarded as one form of the near-death experience. Near-death experiences will be discussed in greater detail in the next section.
Obviously, there may be nothing paranormal about OBEs in and of themselves. They may simply be a kind of delusion, hallucination or dream in which one experiences oneself outside of one’s body. OBEs have been of interest to parapsychologists for at least two reasons. First, they suggest the existence of a mind or soul that is capable of traveling beyond the confines of the physical body in ways that are not explainable by current theories of physical science. Also, many people experience themselves as being encased in a secondary body while in the OBE state. Often this secondary body takes the form of a duplicate of the person’s ordinary physical body. This has suggested to some researchers that there may exist a nonphysical or quasi-physical “astral body” in which the soul or mind may be housed during its extrasomatic sojourns. If so, this body would be of a type unknown to current theories of science. Of course, the fact that people experience themselves as possessing astral bodies could be explained in terms of hallucination and fantasy, unless some means of detecting such astral bodies with physical instruments could be devised.
Several parapsychologists have in fact attempted to use some sort of physical measuring device to detect astral bodies, as will be discussed in greater detail below. Most parapsychologists remain skeptical about the reality of astral bodies due to the fact that people generally perceive themselves as being clothed while in the astral state. This would seem to indicate that astral bodies are merely hallucinations (at least as literally perceived), unless one wishes to assume that clothes have astral bodies too!
A second reason parapsychologists have become interested in OBEs is that there are many anecdotal reports of persons becoming aware of information during out-of-body travel to remote locations that would have been inaccessible to them at the location of their physical bodies during the OBE. For instance, the well known psychiatrist and consciousness researcher Stanislav Grof (1990) describes a case in which a woman who was undergoing cardiac arrest felt herself leaving her body and exiting from her hospital room. She then seemed to travel in the out-of-body state to a point outside of the hospital, and she felt herself rise to a point near a tennis shoe that was sitting on a ledge near a third floor window. A subsequent search revealed that there really was such a shoe on the ledge. (A determined skeptic, could of course always argue that the patient might have caught a glimpse of the shoe when she was admitted or when entering the hospital on a previous occasion, as her admission took place at night.) Incidentally, Roach (2005) reports two similar cases involving a red shoe and a plaid shoe (the latter being understandably noticeable even to one in a comatose state). Roach observes that the “OBE traveller’s affinity for foot wear must remain a mystery” (Roach, 2005, p. 277).
The following case, taken from the journal of a British army officer (Ogston, 1920), is cited by Cook, Greyson and Stevenson (1998):
In my delirium night and day made little difference to me. In the four-bedded ward where they first placed me I lay, as it seemed, in a constant stupor which excluded the existence of any hopes or fears. Mind and body seemed to be dual, and to some extent separate. I was conscious of the body as an inert, tumbled mass near a door; it belongs to me but it was not I. I was conscious that my mental self used regularly to leave the body…until something produced a consciousness that the chilly mass, which I then recalled was my body, was being stirred as it lay by the door. I was then drawn rapidly back to it, joined it with disgust, and it became I, and was fed, spoken to, and cared for. When it was left again I seemed to wander off as before….
In my wanderings there was a strange consciousness that I could see through the walls of my building, though I was aware that they were there, and that everything was transparent to my senses. I saw plainly, for instance a poor R. A. M. C. [Royal Army Medical Corps] surgeon, of whose existence I had not known before, and who was in quite another part of the hospital, grow very ill and scream and die; I saw them cover his corpse and carry him softly out on shoeless feet, quietly and surreptitiously, lest we should know that he had died, and the next night - I thought - take him away to the cemetery. Afterwards, when I told these things to the sisters [senior nurses], they informed me that all this had happened….(Cook, Greyson and Stevenson, 1998, p. 383).
Cases such as these have led parapsychologists to perform experiments in which people have tried to travel to a remote location in the out-of-body state in order to identify target materials placed at that location. These experiments will be discussed later in this section. Of course, if these experiments are no more successful than ordinary ESP experiments, it would not be necessary to assume that the subjects literally traveled out of their bodies; instead, one could simply assume that the subjects used their ESP abilities to identify the target.
On rare occasions, witnesses present at the location to which an OBEr has traveled in the out-of-body state may experience an apparition of the OBEr or otherwise become aware of the OBEr’s presence. Such cases are sometimes given the (somewhat prejudicial) label “reciprocal hallucinations,” because both the OBEr and the witness have mutually consistent experiences, as in case of the physician on the steamer presented earlier in this section.
Perhaps the most famous instance of reciprocal hallucination in the annals of psychical research is the Wilmot case, reported in Myers (1903). It has in fact become almost obligatory to cite the Wilmot case in an introductory work on parapsychology. The events in this case occurred in the 1860s, so it is a very old case indeed. A Mr. S. R. Wilmot was sailing from Liverpool to New York when his boat passed through a severe storm. During the storm, he had a dream in which he saw his wife come into the door of his stateroom, hesitate and then bend down to kiss and caress him. Upon awakening, his fellow passenger William Tait said to him, “You’re a pretty fellow to have a lady come and visit you in this way.” When Wilmot pressed him for an explanation, Tait said that, as he lay awake in the upper bunk, he saw a woman enter, hesitate and then kiss Mr. Wilmot.
When Mrs. Wilmot greeted him upon his arrival in Watertown, Connecticut, she almost immediately asked him if he had received a visit from her on the night in question. She said that she had been anxious about the severity of the weather and the reported loss of another vessel. She had lain awake for a long time and at about 4:00 A.M. she had the sensation of leaving her physical self and traveling across the stormy sea until she reached her husband’s stateroom. She said she saw a man in the upper berth looking right at her and so for a moment she was afraid to go in. But she did enter, kissed and embraced her husband and then departed.
One major drawback to this case is that the principal informants did not give their testimony until about twenty years after the events in question.
Alan Gauld (1982, pp. 222-223) provides a more recent case of reciprocal hallucination. He quotes from a statement sent to the American Society for Psychical Research by a 26-year-old woman from Plains, Illinois. This woman experienced a dream on the morning of January 27, 1957, in which she seemed to travel to the home of her mother in northern Minnesota, 926 miles away:
After a little while I seemed to be alone going through a great blackness. Then all at once way down below me, as though I were at a great height, I could see a small bright oasis of light in the vast sea of darkness. I started on an incline towards it as I knew it was the teacherage (a small house by the school) where my mother lives.… After I entered, I leaned up against the dish cupboard with folded arms, a pose I often assume. I looked at my Mother who was bending over something white and doing something with her hands. She did not appear to see me at first, but she finally looked up. I had sort of a pleased feeling and then after standing a second more, I turned and walked about four steps.
Gauld also quotes a letter the woman received from her mother:
I believe it was Saturday night, 1.10, 26 January, or maybe the 27th. If would have been 10 after two your time. I was pressing a blouse here in the kitchen…. I looked up and there you were by the cupboard just smiling at me. I started to speak and you were gone. I forgot for a minute where I was. I think the dogs saw you too. They got so excited and wanted out—just like they thought you were by the door—sniffed and were so tickled.
Your hair was combed nice—just back in a pony tail with the pretty roll in front. Your blouse was neat and light—seemed almost white. [Miss Johnson confirmed in correspondence that this was an accurate description of her subjective appearance during the OBE.]
It is difficult to decide whether to classify this experience as a dream or as an OBE.
Philosopher Michael Grosso (1976) suggests that the OBE is just one in a continuum of states of consciousness encompassing schizophrenic, meditative, drug, reverie and dream states. He further argues that ESP, “traveling clairvoyance” (in which a person seems to project his mind to a distant location and to become aware of events happening at that location), and the OBE may merely represent three aspects of the same process.
There are a few other states of consciousness that also bear a resemblance to the OBE. Psychiatrists use the term “depersonalization state” to refer to instances in which a person feels himself to be detached from his emotions, actions and even his body. A person undergoing feelings of depersonalization may describe himself as hovering over his body and watching his body perform actions without really being a part of them himself. Janet Mitchell (1981) argues that depersonalization states differ from OBEs in that depersonalization states, unlike OBEs, may involve feelings of derealization (in which one’s environment is felt to be unreal). It should also be noted that the flattening of affect (that is, diminished emotional reactions) that is often a characteristic of depersonalization states is not usually reported by people undergoing OBEs.
Irwin (1996) notes that the reporting of OBEs is correlated with the reporting of childhood traumas, and he suggests that a tendency toward dissociation and the experiencing of OBEs may a type of defense mechanism. Irwin (2000) also reports evidence of elevated somatoform dissociation in persons reporting OBEs. In addition, he found that OBErs scored more highly on the trait of psychological absorption (e.g., the ability to “lose” oneself in a book one is reading).
Autoscopy is a state in which one perceives a double or apparition of oneself in the external environment, such as across the street. Autoscopy thus differs from the OBE in that the person’s location of consciousness seems to remain located in the physical body rather than in the double. Tyrrell (1953, p. 144) reports the case of Archbishop Frederic, who saw an apparition of himself after awakening from a deep sleep. He stated that the apparition was “luminous, vaporous and wonderfully real” and that the apparition was looking at him. This state lasted for a few seconds, after which the apparition disappeared. A few seconds later, the specter reappeared, only to vanish once again after a few more seconds.
Doppelgangers. Closely related to autoscopy is the experience of the “doppelganger.” “Doppelganger” is a German word used to refer to the apparition of a living person who is not present. In many reported cases, the doppelganger presages the arrival of the person and is often reported to perform acts later performed by the real person. Andrew MacKenzie cites the case of Canon J. B. Phillips, whose wife had gone with an ambulance to the hospital to see after an injured person. Phillips reported hearing a car driving up the road to his chalet. He then heard his wife’s voice saying “Thank you very much, goodnight,” and he said he then “distinctly” heard the slamming of the car door. He ran out to welcome his wife, but there was no one there at all. About an hour later, these auditory events were replayed, but this time for real (MacKenzie 1971, p. 82). Like autoscopy, the doppelganger experience differs from the OBE in that the person’s consciousness remains in the physical body, not in the appearing double.
Bilocation. The phenomenon that will perhaps most strain the reader’s credulity is that of bilocation, in which a person, often a Christian, Hindu or Buddhist saint, is experienced as being physically present at two distinct physical locations at the same time. For example, on one night in 1774, the monk Alphonso de Liguori was reported to have been seen simultaneously in his cell and at the bedside of the dying Pope Clement XIV about 100 miles away. (Mitchell, 1981, p. 106). Susan Blackmore relates the case of a schoolteacher in the 1840s who evidently frequently appeared in duplicate (Blackmore, 1982a, p. 12). The students would see two copies of her standing side by side at the blackboard and also at dinner. Two copies of her would also be seen performing activities at different locations around the school. Blackmore reports that this teacher was fired from her job. One would have thought the administration was getting quite a bargain! Finally, Osis and Haraldsson (1977c) report on two Indian swamis, Sai Baba and Dadajai, who have been reported to bilocate in more recent times.
Bilocation is a very infrequently reported phenomenon and few parapsychologists would put much credence in it. Bilocation appears to differ from the OBE in that the double appears to be a solid physical object that does not vanish into thin air and that is capable of physical interaction with its environment. Also, as both copies of the self are reported to be capable of performing complex acts, bilocation would seem to involve a duplication of consciousness as well as of the body. It might of course be possible to explain such phenomena by assuming that the person’s mind is at least temporarily split into two distinct subpersonalities. This would be a type of mental, as well as physical bilocation that is not usually reported in OBE cases.
Explanations of the OBE
Theories concocted to explain OBEs may be divided into roughly two types. Theories of the first type postulate that the OBE involves an “exteriorization” or projection of some (possibly nonphysical) aspect of the person outside of the physical body. This projected aspect is variously conceptualized as the mind, the soul, or some form of quasi-physical “astral body.” Theories of this type date back to at least 5000 B.C., the time of the creation of portions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Mitchell, 1981). The ancient Egyptians postulated the existence of a ka, a form of astral body inhabited by the ba, or soul, after death. Likewise, the Tibetan Book of the Dead postulates the existence of a Bardo-body to house the soul after death. Some Mahayana Buddhists subscribe to the doctrine of kayatraya, postulating three bodies. This multiple body principle was later adopted by the religion of Theosophy, which has its roots in Buddhism. Non-Western shamanistic traditions also incorporate the notion of out-of-body travel, as in the case of the Australian aborigines, whose “clever men” are alleged to be able to project themselves at will.
Based on his analysis of a large number of reported out-of-body experiences, Robert Crookall (1970) was led to propose that the astral separation takes place in two stages. In the first stage, the soul or “soul body” is housed in a quasi-physical “vehicle of vitality.” When in this state, the OBEr experiences a gloomy Hell-like environment. The second stage, which occurs after the soul body is successful in shedding the vehicle of vitality, is characterized by a great sense of peace, beauty and tranquility. Several writers in the early days of OBE research (e.g., Muldoon & Carrington, 1929) were led, based on anecdotal reports, to postulate the existence of a “silver cord,” or sometimes cords, connecting the astral and physical bodies, often through the head or solar plexus. Modern OBErs are much less likely to see such cords, however.
Janet Mitchell (1981) has proposed that dreams in which one is falling are related to the process of reentry of the astral body into the physical body. She also suggests that sudden jerkings of one’s body when falling asleep may be due to the astral body’s suddenly moving back into “coincidence” with the physical body, an idea that had been earlier proposed by Sylvan Muldoon (Muldoon & Carrington, 1929). It should be noted, however, that such sudden jerkings are commonly called myoclonias and that several normal explanations have been proposed to account for them. One such explanation ascribes myoclonias to the withdrawal of the cerebral cortex’s control over spinal motor neurons (this withdrawal is a necessary component of the development of the “sleep paralysis” that prevents one’s body from acting out one’s dreams at night).
The OBE has been taken by many to suggest that some portion of the human personality may be capable of surviving outside of the physical body and hence capable of surviving the death of that body. Indeed, Thomas Metzinger (2005) has argued that the very concept of the soul derives from OBEs, which he notes is a widely experienced, transcultural phenomenon.
William Roll (1982b) has warned that survival in the form of an astral body may be sharply limited in time, as the number of reported crisis apparitions declines steeply with the time interval since the death of the appearing person (assuming that such apparitions are perceptions of astral bodies). Rodger Anderson (1981) observes that the OBE does not constitute unequivocal evidence for the mind’s survival after death, as the site of consciousness might occasionally extend beyond the body yet still perish with the body. He also notes that the silver cord need not be thought of as a means of animating the physical body, as some advocates of astral projection believe, but may instead be a means of animating the astral body by serving as a conduit for the delivery of energy from the physical body.
Perhaps the most devastating argument against the interpretation of the OBE as the literal projection of an astral body is that people are generally unable to identify stimuli placed at locations to which they have supposedly traveled in the out-of-body state in experimental situations, as will be discussed in greater detail below. Attempts to detect a quasi-physical astral body at its projected location through the use of physical instruments will also be discussed below.
The second category of theories includes those that propose a largely psychological explanation for the OBE, several of which have already been discussed. The psychiatrist Jan Ehrenwald (1974) viewed the OBE as an attempt to assert the reality and autonomous existence of the soul and as a psychological defense against the threat of extinction at death. Russell Noyes (1972) likewise sees the OBE as a form of psychological “negation of death.” On the other hand, the existing evidence indicates little relationship between anxiety about death and the reporting of OBEs (e.g., Myers, Austrin, Grisso & Nickeson, 1983; Smith & Irwin, 1981).
D. Scott Rogo (1978), Carl Sagan (1977), and Barbara Honegger (1983) have each suggested that the OBE (and the closely related phenomenon of the near-death experience or NDE) may be based on a rebirth fantasy or a reliving of the birth process. Some of the evidence they cite in support of this hypothesis includes the experiencing of tunnel-like passageways during OBEs and NDEs, as well as the cord-like connection between the physical body and the astral body reported by some OBErs (this cord being taken as reminiscent of an umbilical cord). There is some reason to be skeptical of this hypothesis. First, there is considerable doubt in the scientific community that the process of birth can be remembered in any detail, due to the incomplete myelinization of the neonatal brain. Second, Susan Blackmore (1983a) has attempted to test the hypothesis that persons born by Cesarean section (and hence who have not experienced a classical birth process to relive) will report fewer OBEs than persons born by vaginal delivery. She found no relationship between the reporting of OBEs and type of birth in her survey. It remains possible of course that OBEs may be related to fantasies or archetypal ideas about birth even if they do not involve a literal reliving of the birth process.
John Palmer (1978, 1986) has proposed that OBEs may be triggered by changes in the body concept arising from altered patterns of feedback from nerves monitoring the positions of muscles and limbs. Such altered proprioceptive feedback might occur in sleep, in conditions involving physical trauma, or following the administration of anesthetics. In Palmer’s view, these changes in body concept may threaten the normal concept of the self or sense of individual identity. As a result, the person’s unconscious defenses are activated in order to reestablish a sense of identity, and this reestablishment may take the form of an OBE. When the normal body concept is reestablished, the OBE ends.
Susan Blackmore (1984b) proposes a psychological model of the OBE that is quite similar to that proposed by Palmer. Like Palmer, she suggests that the OBE represents a mental model of the world that is constructed in response to a breakdown in the usual body-centered model of the world. This breakdown may be due to reduced sensory input or to a diminishment of proprioceptive feedback under conditions of reduced bodily movement. This secondary model of the world is often constructed from a “bird’s eye view,” suggesting to the person that he or she is located in the air above the physical body. Blackmore contends that such a bird’s eye view is frequently adopted when remembering a scene from one’s past and is thus a characteristic of mental models of the world constructed on the basis of memory. While it is true that in her own research she found that OBErs (that is, people who claim to have had an OBE) were no more likely than non–OBErs to recall scenes from an overhead vantage point, she did find that OBErs were able to switch viewpoints in such imagined scenes more easily than were non–OBErs. Blackmore further conjectures that if a dreaming person becomes aware that he is sleeping, he may construct a model of himself lying in bed and thus come to see himself as located outside of his body. In her view, this might explain why the reporting of OBEs tends to go hand-in-hand with the reporting of lucid dreams (a term used to denote dreams in which one becomes aware that one is dreaming).
Thomas Metzinger cites Blackmore’s research indicating that OBErs have better ability to control and terminate dream content and have more flying dreams than do persons not reporting OBEs (Blackmore, 1986a) as evidence that OBEs are “just an additionally constrained set of lucid dreams” (Metzinger, 2005, p. 69).
Murray and Fox (2004) report evidence that persons reporting OBEs have body images that differ from those of persons not reporting OBEs. Among several other measures examined, they found that OBErs had higher levels of somataform dissociation (psychological dissociation from one’s body), reduced self-confidence and reduced confidence in self-presentation. These findings lend support to the psychological theories of OBE proposed by Palmer, Blackmore, Irwin and others.
Devinsky, Feldmann, Burrowes and Bromfield (1989) propose that the purpose of OBEs is to help potential prey organisms to feign death and to calm and clarify the mind in crisis situations.
Blanke and his coworkers have linked the generation of OBEs to a site in the right angular gyrus of the brain (Blanke, Ortigue, Landis, & Seek, 2002; Blanke, Landis, Spinelli & Seeck, 2004). However, Neppe (2003) disputes this claim that an OBE-generating site exists in the right angular gyrus, pointing out that Blanke et. al’s findings are based on a single subject who had temporal lobe epilepsy with a site near the purported OBE center. Neppe further observes that this subject’s OBEs were brief and atypical. Neppe also points out that the existence of such a brain site does not rule out the possibility that OBEs involve paranormal processes.
A somewhat more outlandish theory to explain the OBE has been proposed by Munro and Persinger (1992). They suggest that OBEs may be produced when the left hemisphere of the brain gains a glimpse of the independent workings of the right hemisphere. This may lead the left hemisphere to perceive itself as separate from the rest of the body. They cite an observed correlation between such a sense of detachment and mismatches in the electrical activity of the two cerebral hemispheres as evidence in support of this theory.
Research Findings Relating to the OBE
Incidence rates. A great many surveys have been conducted to determine how frequently people in the general population report OBEs (e.g., Hart, 1954; Green, 1967; Blackmore, 1978, 1982b, 1982c, 1984a; Palmer, 1979; Myers, Austrin, Grisso & Nickeson,1983; Irwin 1980; Tart, 1971). The estimates of the incidence rate vary widely, from a low of 8 percent reported by Haraldsson et al. (1977) to a high of 54 percent reported by Kohr (1980). Most surveys, however, indicate that somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of the general population report having had an OBE at some time in the past.
Blackmore (1984a) found that 85 percent of the people who reported any OBE said that they had experienced out-of-body travel on more than one occasion. She also found that 85 percent experienced some sort of strange sensation before entering the OBE state. These sensations included vivid imagery, disorientation, shaking and vibrations, and the seeing of tunnels and doorways.
Carlos Alvarado (1984) asked college students reporting OBEs whether they experienced themselves as being housed in any sort of second body during the OBE. Thirty-five percent said they experienced themselves as not having any sort of body, 23 percent experienced themselves as located in a second body similar to the physical body, 13 percent experienced themselves as a cloud, mist, ball of light or point in space, 8 percent had no recollection, and 20 percent reported some other form of existence. Alvarado found that 81 percent of the students who reported having an OBE claimed to have had more than one OBE, a figure similar to Blackmore’s.
All of the above-mentioned surveys were conducted with modern, Western populations. This raises the question of whether the OBE is a universal experience or is peculiar to Western culture. To address this issue, Dean Shiels (1978) conducted a study of 70 nonwestern cultures. He found belief in some form of out-of-body travel in 95 percent of these cultures. Sometimes these beliefs do not correspond to the classical OBE as described above, but may encompass such doctrines as the travel of the soul to nonphysical realms during dreams.
Psychological factors. A large number of studies have been conducted to see if there is any relation between the reporting of OBEs and mental imagery ability (e.g., Palmer & Vassar, 1974; Irwin, 1979, 1980, 1986; Cook & Irwin, 1983; Blackmore, 1982c, 1983c, 1986b). Such a positive relationship might be taken as support for the idea that the OBE is largely a fantasy experience. The net result of these studies is that there is little evidence for a relationship between the reporting of OBEs and the experienced vividness of mental images, a person’s ability to control her mental imagery, or the tendency to adopt any particular perspective when recalling or imaging a visual scene. There is, however, a fairly consistent body of evidence indicating that OBErs have a greater ability to switch perspectives when viewing imagined scenes than do persons not reporting OBEs (Cook & Irwin,1983; Blackmore, 1983c, 1986b). There is also a fairly consistent body of evidence indicating that persons who report OBEs tend to fit the profile of a “fantasy-prone” personality. (Irwin 1980, 1981; Myers, Austrin, Grisson & Nickeson, 1983; Wilson & Barber, 1982; Stanford, 1987; but see also Gabbard, Jones & Twemlow,1980). This would lend some support to the view that OBEs may simply be the product of an overactive imagination.
One fairly consistent finding is that OBErs tend to report having lucid dreams more often than do non–OBErs (Blackmore, 1982b, 1982c, 1983a, 1984a, 1986a, 1986b; Irwin, 1986; Stanford, 1990b). Rex Stanford (1990b) has interpreted this to mean that people tend to confuse OBEs with lucid dreams. (Lucid dreams, it will be recalled, are dreams in which the dreamer is aware of the fact that he or she is dreaming.) Another possibility is suggested by the fact that some people have reported that they are able to deliberately launch OBEs from the lucid dream state. One such person was the late D. Scott Rogo. Rogo trained himself to control his hypnagogic imagery (the imagery one has when first falling asleep) in order to enter a state of lucid dreaming. While in the lucid dream state, Rogo like many other lucid dreamers was able to manipulate his dream imagery. He used this ability to “order up” a car, which he then drove and crashed, producing an OBE. Perhaps other lucid dreamers have learned similar techniques (Mitchell, 1981).
Experimental Studies of the OBE
There have been several attempts to determine whether people can identify target items placed at a location to which they have allegedly projected during an OBE. Of necessity, these experiments have focused on deliberately produced OBEs, sometimes using special subjects who claim to be able to enter an OBE at will and sometimes using ordinary people as subjects. In the latter case, the subjects typically undergo some sort of training procedure that supposedly will allow them to experience an OBE in the experimental situation. Such induction techniques usually involve the subject entering a state of relaxation, possibly through the use of auditory tapes. Occasionally visual input is restricted by placing ping-pong balls over the subject’s eyes, producing a “ganzfeld,” or blank field of homogeneous visual stimulation. John Palmer and his colleagues used such techniques in an attempt to induce OBEs in a group of ordinary citizens, who were then asked to travel to another room in the OBE state and to identify an ESP target placed there. While 45 percent of the subjects claimed to experience literal separation from their bodies, they were not successful in identifying the target (Palmer & Vassar, 1974). A second experiment was a little more successful, with the subjects reporting OBEs having greater success in identifying the target than subjects not reporting OBEs (Palmer & Lieberman, 1975). In a similar experiment, Smith and Irwin (1981) found a positive relationship between degree of experienced out-of-body separation and success in identifying a target. One problem with their experiment is that the same materials, a small sheep skull and potted palm, served as targets for all the subjects. Thus, their results could be due to a tendency for people who claim to experience OBEs to also report death-related or plantlike imagery.
Several studies have been made of special subjects who claim to be able to produce OBEs at will. One of the most famous of these is Charles Tart’s study of the subject he refers to as Miss Z (Tart,1968). In the one reported trial with Miss Z, she was asked to identify a five digit number that had been placed on a shelf above her while she lay on a cot with EEG electrodes affixed to her scalp. She was able to identify all five digits successfully, a feat which would occur by chance only one time in one hundred thousand. Unfortunately, no one was in the room observing her at the time. Tart conceded that it might be possible that Miss Z could have seen a reflection of the number in a clock that was present in the experimental chamber. Susan Blackmore (1982c) has pointed out that Tart placed the number on the shelf when Miss Z was already in the room, so that it is possible that she was able to get a glimpse of it then. Thus, this experiment was far from perfect. Unfortunately, Miss Z moved away from Tart’s area and was not available for further testing (although one might have thought that, given her level of success, Tart would have moved his lab to her new location!). Tart (1967, 1969) attempted a similar experiment with Robert Monroe, a well-known OBEr who has written several books on the subject, but without success.
Janet Mitchell (1981) conducted a very similar experiment with another prominent OBEr, the artist Ingo Swann. Swann did have some success identifying the target materials, but once again he was allowed to be in the room with the target materials with no one observing him. While his movements were restricted by the EEG electrodes attached to his head, it is conceivable that he could have used a device such as an extensible mirror to identify the targets, which were placed on a platform near the ceiling of the room.
Osis and McCormick (1980) conducted an experiment in which the special subject Alex Tanous attempted to identify a target displayed in an “Optical Image Device” (OID) while in the OBE state. Although Tanous had little overall success in identifying the target, a strain gauge placed in the vicinity of the OID showed greater activity when Tanous correctly identified the target than when he did not.
There have been several other attempts to detect some sort of physical effect at the site to which a person has allegedly projected during an OBE, using both animate observers and physical instruments as detection devices. Such physical effects could be interpreted as signs of an astral body. Perhaps the most elaborate such attempt was conducted with the special subject Keith Harary at the Psychical Research Foundation in Durham, North Carolina (Morris, 1974; Morris, Harary, Janis, Hartwell & Roll, 1978). In this study, Harary attempted to project himself from the experimental room to an adjacent building during a voluntarily produced OBE. He was unable to identify target materials placed in the second building. No behavioral changes were observed in a snake or small rodents located in the second building during Harary’s projection, although a kitten was less active and cried less during Harary’s OBE than during control time periods.
This effect was not, however, obtained in two follow-up studies. No consistent responses from human detectors were observed, although one witness claimed to have seen Harary on a video monitor during one of his projections. Several instruments were used to measure physical effects in the area to which Harary had projected. These included devices to measure several electromagnetic effects and a delicate thermistor to measure temperature changes. No physical effects related to Harary’s OBEs were observed with these devices.
There have been many attempts to detect the astral body by weighing or photographing the soul as it leaves the physical body upon death or by photographing the human aura, which is sometimes identified with the astral body. Because these attempts have not been performed with the subject explicitly in an OBE state, they will be discussed later in this chapter, in the context of the physical detection of “ghosts” and other manifestations of alleged discarnate spirits.
Most people are unable to identify target materials while claiming to be located in the vicinity of those target materials during an OBE. In fact, the overall results from these types of OBE experiments are in general no more impressive than the fairly weak effects obtained in ESP experiments, and thus it is plausible that even these minimal successes are due to simple ESP. This failure to reliably identify target material during OBEs constitutes fairly strong evidence against the view that some aspect of the person has literally projected from the body and is perceiving the remote location. This body of evidence would thus support the view that OBEs are simply the product of fantasy or hallucination.
Some people who have come close to dying, such as in cases of cardiac arrest or being knocked unconscious during an automobile accident, but who have been revived after a period of apparent unconsciousness, report an encounter with an apparently nonphysical or postmortem realm.
Such experiences are called “near-death experiences” (NDEs) and were brought to the attention of the general public through the publication in 1975 of Raymond Moody’s best-selling book Life after Life (Moody, 1975). Moody lists the following characteristics of the NDE:
Loud ringing or buzzing noises,
Sensations of traveling down a tunnel-like passage,
Viewing the physical body from an external vantage point,
Sensations that one possesses a quasi-physical astral body,
Encounters with the apparitions of deceased relatives and friends,
An encounter with a “being of light,” who serves as a spiritual guide (frequently interpreted as a Christ-like being in the West),
Undergoing an evaluation of one’s life,
Experiencing a panoramic review of one’s life,
Approaching a barrier or border,
Being told that one must go back (that is, return to one’s physical body and rejoin the realm of the living),
Not wishing to return,
Experiencing deep feelings of joy and peace,
Experiencing a reunion with the physical body, and
Having experiences of an ineffable nature (e.g., sensations of color or mystical union that cannot be described in words.)
Of the fifteen elements listed above, Moody notes that usually eight or more are reported by a typical NDEr, although no single case in his collection included more than 12 of the above 15 characteristics. He further notes that no single item of the 15 is included in every single NDE account.
Cook, Greyson, and Stevenson (1998) cite the following case from the May 26, 1935 (London) Sunday Express, which contains everything one could ask for in a spontaneous case of psi. Not only does it involve an NDE, but also multiple incidents of crisis psi as well as an attempted reincarnation.
In 1911, at the age of sixteen, I was staying about twelve miles from my own home when a high wall was blown down by a sudden gust of wind as I was passing.
A huge coping stone hit me on top of the head.
It then seemed as if I could see myself lying on the ground, huddled up, with one corner of the stone resting on my head and quite a number of people rushing toward me.
I watched one of them move the stone and some one took off his coat and put it under my head, and I heard all their comments: “Fetch a doctor.” “His neck is broken.” “Skull smashed like an eggshell.”
He [apparently a doctor] then wanted to know if anyone knew where I lived, and on being told that I was lodging just around the corner he instructed them to carry me there.
Now all this time it appeared as though I was disembodied from the form lying on the ground and suspended in mid-air in the center of the group, and could hear everything that was said.
As they started to carry me it was remarked that it would come as a blow to my people, and I was immediately aware of a desire to be with my mother.
Instantly I was at home, and father and mother were just sitting down to their midday meal. On my entrance mother sat bolt upright in her chair and said, “Bert something has happened to our boy.”
“Nonsense,” he said, “whatever has put such an idea in your head?”
There followed an argument, but mother refused to be pacified, and said that if she caught the 2 p.m. train she could be with me before three and satisfy herself.
She had hardly left the room when there came a knock on the front door. It was a porter from the railway station with a telegram saying that I was badly hurt.
Then suddenly I was again transported - this time it seemed to be against my wish - to a bed-room, where a woman whom I recognized was in bed, and two other women were quietly bustling around, and a doctor was leaning over the bed.
Then the doctor has a baby in his hands.
As once I became aware of an almost irresistible impulse to press my face through the back of the baby’s head so that my face would come into the same place as the child’s.
The doctor said, “It looks as though we have lost them both.” And again I felt the urge to take the baby’s place in order to show him we was wrong, but the thought of my mother crying turned my thoughts in her direction, when straightaway I was in a railroad carriage with both her and father.
He [Mr. Martin’s father] was looking at his watch, and she [Mr. Martin’s mother] was saying that the train was right on time.
I was still with them when they arrived at my lodgings and were shown into my room where I had been put to bed.
Mother sat beside the bed and I longed to comfort her, and the realization came that I ought to do the same things as I felt impelled to do in the case of the baby and climbed into the body in the bed.
At last I succeeded, and the effort caused me to sit up in bed fully conscious. Mother made me lie down again, but said I was alright, and remarked that if was odd she knew something was wrong before the porter had brought the telegram.
Both she and dad were amazed were amazed at my knowledge. Their astonishment further increased when I repeated almost word for word some of the conversation they had at home and in the train.
Mother remarked that she supposed that when some people came close to death they were gifted with second sight.
I replied by saying that I has also been close to birth as well, and told then that Mrs. Wilson, who lived close to us at home, had a baby that day, but it was dead because I could not get into its body.
We subsequently learned that Mrs. Wilson died on the same day at 2:05, delivering a stillborn girl.
I am convinced that if I had willed myself into that baby’s body, today I would be a Miss Wilson, instead of being - W. Martin, 107 Grove Streed, Liverpool. [Quotation taken from Cook, Greyson and Stevenson (1998, pp. 387- 388).]
Several surveys relating to NDEs have been carried out (e.g., Sabom, 1982; Pasricha, 1993, 1995; Ring, 1980; Long, 2003; Britton & Bootzin, 2004). The data indicate that somewhere around one half of the people who have been revived from a state of clinical death claim to have experienced an NDE, a remarkably high figure (see Sabom, 1982; Pasricha, 1993, 1995; and Ring, 1980); although Barŭšs (2003) reports an incidence rate of 9% to 18%
Kenneth Ring (1979, 1980) conducted a study of 102 persons who had experienced NDEs in order to determine how frequently various elements of the NDE, as described by Moody, occurred. He found that 60 percent of his respondents reported feelings of peace and contentment during their NDEs, 33 percent reported an out-of-body experience, 23 percent reported sensations of entering a region of darkness or traveling down a tunnel, 20 percent sensed a (typically benevolent) presence who aided them in reviewing and evaluating their lives, 17 percent reported seeing a light to which they were drawn, and 10 percent experienced seeing a world of “preternatural beauty.”
The skeptical view of NDEs is of course that they simply represent hallucinations, dreams and fantasies constructed by the mind under conditions of physical trauma or stress. Various neurophysiological causes for such hallucinations have been proposed, including seizures in the temporal lobes of the brain, (e.g., Thorton, 1984; Wilson, 1928; Carr, 1982; Persinger, 1983), lack of oxygen to the brain (e.g., Rodin,1980; Schnaper, 1986), the release of endorphins in the brain (e.g., Shaver, 1986; Blackmore, 1993), and the random firing of cells in the visual cortex of the brain (e.g., Blackmore 1991b, 1992; Siegel, 1980). Ronald Siegel (1977) has also noted that tunnel-like imagery is one of the eight common “form constants” of hallucinations induced by LSD.
Britton and Bootzin (2004) found that persons reporting NDEs are characterized by elevated temporal lobe epileptiform EEG activity relative to control subjects and also report significantly more temporal lobe epileptic syndromes. The elevated epileptiform activity is almost completely lateralized to the left hemisphere in such subjects. Britton and Bootzin found that NDEs were not associated with dysfunctional stress reactions, such as dissociation, post-traumatic stress disorders and substance abuse. Instead, they found NDEs to be associated with positive coping styles.
Theories attributing the out-of-body component of the NDE to states of depersonalization, a denial of death, and a reliving of the birth trauma were discussed in the previous section.
As with the other categories of evidence for survival of the personality of death to be discussed below, the primary evidence that NDEs are not simply fantasies or hallucinations is provided by cases in which patients become anomalously aware of information during an NDE when they apparently had no normal means of acquiring such information. In many cases, this information pertains to events at the scene of an accident or during a surgical procedure that the patient witnesses from a vantage point above the body, while the body itself is apparently unconscious. For instance, a patient undergoing cardiac arrest may describe events occurring during the resuscitation procedure. If the procedure itself is simply described, it is possible that the patient is merely demonstrating knowledge of resuscitation procedures she has gleaned from watching television shows, etc. If specific idiosyncratic events in the vicinity of the patient’s body are described, it is quite possible that the patient, despite her apparent unconsciousness, retained enough awareness and sensory ability to perceive the described events. Indeed, there is a wide body of evidence that patients retain some sensory capacity even under conditions of deep surgical anesthesia (e.g., Bennett, Davis & Giannini, 1985; Goldmann, Shah & Hebden, 1987; Evans & Richardson, 1988; Furlong, 1990; Pearson, 1961; Kihlstrom, Schachter, Cork, Hurt & Behr, 1990; Millar & Watkinson,1983).
It is less easy to explain cases in which the patient reports awareness of events occurring at locations remote from the body during the NDE, such as the case of the woman who saw a tennis shoe on a window ledge in the hospital during an NDE, which was discussed in the previous section. Such cases are exceedingly rare, however. There are some data indicating that NDErs tend to have fantasy-prone personalities (see for instance Twemlow & Gabbard, 1984; and Council, Greyson & Huff, 1986), which would give further support to the theory that NDEs simply represent fantasies and hallucinations.
Closely related to the near-death experience is the phenomenon of deathbed visions, in which dying patients apparently see apparitions of deceased relatives and friends, who appear at their bedside for the seeming purpose of conducting the dying person into the afterlife. In fact, out-of-body experiences and deathbed visions could conceivably be regarded as unusual NDEs in which only one component of the NDE occurs. One feature that distinguishes deathbed visions from typical NDEs is that the patient is not generally in a state of unconsciousness or “clinical death” at the time of the experience. Deathbed visions have been studied by William Barrett in the 1920s and the team of Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson in the 1960s and 1970s (Barrett, 1926; Osis (1961; Osis & Haraldsson,1977a, 1977b). Osis and Haraldsson collected their data from surveys of doctors and nurses in the United States and India regarding their recollections of any visions reported by dying patients. In the United States, hallucinated figures were primarily of deceased persons (70 percent), the rest being split between living persons (17 percent) and religious figures (13 percent). In India, a much higher percentage of religious figures was reported (50 percent), with deceased persons representing only 29 percent of the hallucinations, and living persons 21 percent. In approximately three-fourths of the cases in both countries, the purpose for the apparitional figure’s appearance was interpreted to be to escort the dying person into the afterlife. In both countries, the percentage of patients reporting such apparitions declined as the clarity of consciousness, as measured by the drugs administered and the presence of fever, declined. Osis and Haraldsson take this as evidence that such apparitions do not represent mere hallucinations engendered by psychopathological states; on the other hand, it could equally well be argued that persons in an impaired state of consciousness may be less able to communicate coherently about such an apparitional experience.
One type of deathbed vision case that is a little more difficult to attribute to a simple hallucinatory process occurs when a deceased person appears to a dying patient who had no knowledge that the appearing person had died. Karlis Osis quotes the following case from William Barrett’s investigations:
On Jan. 12, 1924, a Mrs. B. was dying in a hospital in England. Her sister Vida had died on Dec. 25, 1923, but her illness and death had been carefully kept from Mrs. B because of her own serious illness. As Mrs. B. was sinking, she said: ‘It is all so dark, I cannot see.’ A moment later her face brightened and she exclaimed: ‘Oh it is lovely and bright; you cannot see as I can.’ A little later she said: ‘I can see father, he wants me, he is so lonely.’ then with a rather puzzled expression: ‘He has Vida with him,’ turning to her mother—‘Vida is with him!’ A few moments later she died. (Osis, 1961, p. 16.)
On the other hand, Michael Grosso (1981) has noted that such “Peak in Darien” cases (as they are called) are extremely rare.
Stevenson (1995) describes a case that is very unusual in that a second witness perceived the deathbed visitor. This case involved a girl whose grandfather, who was dying of leukemia, was living with her family. She reports:
Granddaddy called to me to give him a drink of water. I failed in my attempts to lift him enough to wet his lips. The disease had reduced his once tall, strong stature to [that of] a frail, weak invalid. I called mom at work to ask for help, but she told me it would have to wait until dad…returned from work at noon.
Shortly thereafter I heard granddaddy calling out to his wife Hazel. Grandmom had died nine years prior, …so I thought he must be losing his mind. I ran down the hall to make another attempt to help him. I was amazed to find him sitting up, smiling with his arms reaching out. The room was filled with a warm, bright light. He spoke to grandmom, who was standing at the foot of the bed. Neither of them acknowledged my presence. She was there for a brief moment, and when granddaddy laid back down, his soul escaped with her. He died with a smile of his face. (Stevenson, 1995, p. 360.)
Occasionally, deceased persons appear in dreams. Usually, of course, such figures can be dismissed as images constructed by the dreamer’s subconscious mind (or spontaneously firing neurons). On rare occasions, however, such deceased persons may communicate information to the dreamer that neither the dreamer nor any other living person had any apparent normal means of knowing. In one famous and oft-cited case, known as the Chaffin will case (described in Myers, 1903), a father communicated the existence of an alternative will to one of his sons in a dream. Under the original will, one of the dreamer’s brothers had inherited the father’s farm and the rest of the family had inherited nothing. Based on information given to him in his dream, the son was able to locate a second will in his father’s handwriting, in which the property was distributed more equally. This will was admitted to probate. A cynic could dismiss this case as fraud combined with forgery, especially as the dreamer had much to gain by perpetrating such a fraud. In fact, Ian Wilson (1987) has noted that most of the witnesses in the Chaffin will case were family members who stood to profit from the new will. Less cynically, one might assume that the dreamer learned of the will’s existence and location through clairvoyance or that he had picked up cues as to the will’s existence from his father’s behavior before death.
George Zorab (1962) has compiled a collection of cases of the “Chaffin will type.” In one such case, a bookkeeper in Holland had been accused of embezzling approximately 1,800 guilders and died before his name could be cleared. After the bookkeeper’s death, his son had a dream in which a white figure appeared to him and said, “Look in the ledger at the dates.” Upon checking, it was found that his father had included the date at the top of a column in one of his additions. It is quite possible that the son may have unconsciously noted the identity between the disputed amount and the date and that this fact entered his conscious awareness in the form of the dream in question. There are many examples on record of such problem-solving activity in dreams, a notable one being Elias Howe’s invention of the sewing machine, which was based in part on a dream Howe had in which a group of cannibals were about to eat him. In this dream some of the cannibals thrust spears at Howe. These spears had holes in them near their tips, which suggested to Howe that he should put the hole near the point of the needle in his sewing machine rather than at the base of the needle. Another example of such problem-solving activity in dreams is provided by August Kekule’s discovery of the ringlike structure of the benzene molecule, which was presented to him in the form of a dream in which benzene molecules were transformed into a group of dancing snakes that suddenly took their tails into their own mouths.
Because of the existence of such counterexplanations as those discussed above, the existing evidence from dreams cannot be taken as definitive evidence of the survival of the human personality of death.
Another category of spontaneous psi experiences that are often taken as evidence for the survival of human personality of death consists of apparitional experiences. The sighting of apparitions or “ghosts” is not as uncommon as one might think. In John Palmer’s mail survey of the greater Charlottesville, Virginia, area, 17 percent of the respondents reported having seen an apparition (Palmer, 1979). A Gallup poll indicated that about 9 percent of the population of Britain believe that they have seen a ghost (Gallup,1982).
The following case, taken from Wright (1999) involves an auditory crisis “apparition.”
I was always very close to my grandfather. He had a wonderful sense of humor and he always related to me as though I were a little kid. And he’d tease me. He’d say very affectionately in this real deep voice, “ Mary-Minn, you’re a baddie, a real baddie.” He said that from the time I was about four or five and he still said it when I was in my twenties. Well, he went into a coma for a week or two. I wasn’t talking to most people in my family - we had had some horrible feud. But I’d been keeping up with my grandmother and I knew he was in a coma and would probably die, so I was sitting in the office one rainy afternoon, typing up a disbursement voucher, and suddenly this deep voice came out and said, “Mary-Minn, you’re a baddie, a real baddie.” And that was it. I knew it was him and I knew that nobody else heard it. I mean I knew that he had died, he had just expired. Well, the phone rang about two minutes later and he had. (Wright, 1999, p. 262.)
Of course, a determined skeptic could attribute this case to the fact that the grandfather’s death was not unexpected, which may have triggered auditory memories sufficiently vivid to be classed as hallucinatory.
A more classic, visual ghost experience is reported by Stevenson (1995):
[O]n the morning of May 29, 1975, E. W. [the percipient in Stevenson’s case] went to the outside door of her house (which faces the main road) in order to bring inside the delivered bottles of milk that had been left on her doorstep. She later thought she had done this between 10:00 and 10:30 a.m. She looked across the road and saw her neighbor Ronald McKay walking out of the driveway of his house and then along the road or drive as if going to the nearby factory of which he was the manager. E. W. and her husband had known that the McKays had been away on vacation and believed that they were still away. When E. W. went back inside her house, she said casually to her husband: “I see the McKays are back.” Her husband asked her when they had come back. E. W. replied: “I don’t know, but I saw Ron go down the drive.” About a half hour or perhaps an hour later, a senior employee of Ronald McKay’s factory came to the house and spoke with E. W.’s husband. He then asked her when she had seen Ron McKay, and she repeated what she had said earlier. Her husband then said that the factory employee had information that Ronald KcKay had died that morning while on vacation in Enlgand about 150 miles away from Dunfermline. (Stevenson, 1995, p. 358).
Stevenson estimates that the time interval between E. W.’s apparitional experience and McKay’s death could not have been more than 3-4 hours. He also estimates that she watched the apparition for at least ten seconds from a distance of 50 feet, reducing the chances of misidentification.
Stevenson cites several survey sources indicating that somewhere between 10% and 27% of the general population have had apparitional experiences.
Erlendur Haraldsson (1981) conducted a detailed survey relating to apparitional experiences in Iceland. Of the 902 respondents in Haraldsson’s survey, 31% affirmed having experienced the presence of a deceased person. Detailed interviews with 100 of the respondents who reported such experiences indicated that 16% of the experiences involved the mere feeling of the deceased person’s presence, 70% involved a visual hallucination, 24% included an auditory experience, 7% a tactile experience, and 5% an olfactory sensation. One-third of the cases occurred when the percipient was falling asleep, which indicated to Haraldsson that hypnagogic imagery was frequently involved in the experience. In 23% of the cases the appearing person had died violently, which Haraldsson notes is a disproportionately high number. In 43% of the cases, more than one person was present at the time of the apparition, and in one-third of these cases it was claimed that the apparition was collectively perceived.
A survey modeled after the early “Census of Hallucinations” conducted by the British Society for Psychical Research (Sidgwick et al., 1894) has been reported by D. J. West (1990). As in the original census, volunteers interviewed their acquaintances regarding apparitional experiences. Of 1,129 distributed questionnaires, 840 were returned, with 14.6% of the respondents reporting an experience with hallucination of a human figure. Discounting dubious cases, West concludes that 11.3% of the respondents reported “genuine” hallucinations, which he notes compares favorably to the figure of 10% obtained by the early Society for Psychical Research. Only 9 of the 840 respondents reported detailed, apparently psi-related hallucinations, a figure that is also comparable to the proportion obtained in the earlier survey.
It is very common for people to experience the presence of a deceased spouse. A study in Wales indicated that 43% of widows and widowers had seen an apparition of their dead spouses (Rees, 1971), and a second survey indicated that nearly 60% percent of the widows in the greater Los Angeles area had experienced the presence of their deceased spouse (Kalish and Reynolds, 1974). Of course, the fact that a bereaved widow has a vision of her deceased husband does not imply that she has accurately perceived the presence of her husband’s now disembodied spirit. The vision could simply be a grief-induced hallucination.
Occasionally, however, such postmortem apparitions transmit information to the percipient which the percipient had no apparent normal means of knowing. In the case of crisis apparitions, the information transmitted is usually simply that the appearing person has died or been injured. As we have previously remarked, such apparitions could be simply ESP-induced hallucinations, and therefore they cannot be taken as providing definitive evidence that the spirit of the appearing person has survived death.
On the other hand, not all cases involving information transmission fit into the crisis apparition category. For instance, Stanislav Grof (1990) describes two cases in which participants in LSD sessions apparently received accurate information from the dead. The first case involved an LSD session in America, in which the participant “saw” a deceased person who gave him the name and address of his parents in Moravia. When the parents were contacted at the address in Moravia, they stated that they had a son who had died three weeks prior to the LSD session.
In Grof’s second case, the wife of Grof’s colleague Walter Pahnke, who had died in a scuba diving accident, experienced an LSD-induced vision of her deceased husband. The apparition requested her to return a borrowed book located in the attic of her house. She claimed to have had no prior knowledge of the book or its location, but she was able to find it and return it.
Of course, neither of these cases constitute definitive evidence of survival. In fact, both could be due to cryptomnesia, or hidden memory. Possibly the first percipient may have read an obituary notice for the dead Moravian youth, but had forgotten that he had read it. Similarly, Mrs. Pahnke may have had a subconscious memory of the borrowed book. Counterexplanations in terms of ESP are also possible.
One apparitional experience that is frequently cited as providing evidence of survival is that of the “Red Scratch” case, reported in Myers (1903). The percipient in this case was a traveling salesman, who was staying in a hotel room. At one point he looked up from recording his orders and saw an apparition of his sister, who had died nine years previously, sitting beside him at the table. As he addressed her and moved toward her, she disappeared. Later, telling his parents about the apparition, he mentioned a red scratch that he had seen on the side of the girl’s face. At that point his mother nearly fainted, then arose trembling and stated her belief in the survival of her daughter’s spirit, as she had in fact made such a scratch on her daughter’s face at her funeral while attending to the body. She covered up the scratch with makeup and had told no one about it. It is, however, easily imaginable that the makeup job was not perfect and that the son may have noticed the scratch at the time of the funeral. Alternatively, he may have subconsciously overheard his mother talking in her sleep about the incident soon after the funeral (or, possibly, derived the information telepathically from her). Once again, this case does not provide conclusive evidence of survival.
Haunting cases involve repeated anomalous events, usually associated with a particular location or object. Very often, apparitions or “ghosts” are sighted. Sometimes several witnesses will claim to have seen apparitions at the location over a period of time. Some of the apparitions may be collectively perceived. Occasionally anomalous sounds are heard, including raps, footsteps and voices. Sensations of cold and strange odors are sometimes reported. Occasionally, anomalous movements of objects are associated with hauntings, although cases in which this feature is prominent are usually classified as poltergeist cases. As mentioned in Chapter 3, Gauld and Cornell (1979) found hauntings and poltergeist cases to constitute two fairly distinctive “clusters” of phenomena in their statistical analysis of such cases. Among their findings, they found that cases involving apparitions were more likely to involve the rattling and opening/shutting of windows and doors as well as experiences of unseen but felt hands.
Hauntings have been recorded throughout the ages. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger, for instance, reported a haunting case in the first century A.D.
Certain types of haunting phenomena may be due to the effects of suggestion and to the misattribution of normal sounds to paranormal causes. A frightened person alone in a house with a reputation for being haunted may misinterpret a normal settling noise as a paranormal rap or a ghostly footstep. The resulting shivers of fear may be responsible for sensations of cold.
The repeated sighting of apparitions by multiple witnesses is of course less easy to explain as the misinterpretation of normal stimuli or as due to psychopathology on the part of the percipient. There is thus a greater temptation in such cases to attribute the recurring vision to the surviving spirit of a deceased person.
Let us examine a fairly typical haunting case that was investigated by Teresa Cameron and William Roll (Cameron & Roll, 1983). This case involved repeated sightings of an apparition of a male figure, who was usually described as about six feet tall, weighing 190 pounds, and typically wearing a brown suit, in a radio station in Virginia over a time period from October of 1980 through April of 1981. The figure was usually seen in a standing position, and the sightings occurred in a hallway near the women’s restroom or in the doors leading off the hallway. Five employees witnessed the apparition. Three of the employees had heard stories about ghosts in the station, but had treated these stories in a joking manner. Evidently, a former employee had reported many sightings of apparitions, both inside and outside the building. This employee reportedly had severe psychological problems and left her employment under strained circumstances. She did not respond to Cameron and Roll’s inquiries or grant an interview.
The first sighting during the time period in question was by William Morrison, an engineer and carpenter. After an initial fleeting glance, Morrison saw a male figure wearing a brown suit from a distance of about twenty feet. He said the figure appeared to take a few steps while he was looking at it, although he did not recall seeing any legs or feet.
Carolyn McDougall, a 30-year-old continuity director at the station, heard papers “riffling” as she came out of the ladies’ room. She then saw a male figure wearing a brown jacket standing in a doorway. She stated that she saw only “down to the start of his pants.” She did not recall seeing any face, legs or feet on the figure. Although her experience occurred a day or two after Morrison’s sighting, she did not hear of Morrison’s experience until after her own vision. Both of these sightings occurred in October of 1980.
In April of 1981, Gloria Johnson, a receptionist at the station, was coming out of the ladies’ room when she saw a transparent male figure wearing a dark suit moving (but neither walking nor “gliding”) down the hallway. She had heard nothing about prior sightings at the station before she had her experience, and she had begun her employment in December of 1980.
A 30-year-old engineer named Henry Eaton saw a strange male seated at a fellow employee’s desk. He turned to reach for his own chair in order to sit down, and by the time he redirected his attention to the unknown figure it had vanished. This sighting occurred on the same day as the vision of Gloria Johnson, but he did not mention it until Miss Johnson burst into the room to describe her own sighting. He had previously heard stories about ghosts in the building.
Jack Sneider, a 21-year-old announcer on the evening shift, twice saw a strange male figure when no one else was presumably in the building, these sightings taking place in November and December of 1980.
Cameron and Roll had the witnesses take Wilson and Barber’s Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings (ICMI). Based on these scores and interview data, Cameron and Roll conclude that three of the witnesses may have been psychologically predisposed to having apparitional experiences. Carolyn McDougall obtained a very high score on the ICMI, indicative of a fantasy-prone personality. She is also a self-described psychic who has had other apparitional experiences and has reported seeing UFOs. Gloria Johnson had previously seen an apparition of her grandfather and had experienced a recurrent apparition in her childhood. Henry Eaton obtained a high score on the ICMI and has been diagnosed as manic-depressive. Thus, these three witnesses may have had various forms of psychopathology, or at least fantasy-prone personalities, that may have rendered them prone to having apparitional experiences.
Cameron and Roll note that Eaton and Morrison both had visual problems and that Morrison and Sneider saw the visions at night and in poorly lit areas. Morrison also reported feeling quite fatigued on the night of his sighting. Having previously heard stories of ghosts in the station, these witnesses might have been primed to interpret ambiguous stimuli experienced under poor observational conditions as ghostly phenomena. (While Sneider had reportedly not heard such stories prior to his experiences, these stories may have colored his retrospective interpretation of ambiguous events.)
One piece of evidence supporting the paranormality hypothesis, Cameron and Roll conclude, is the tight clustering in time of Morrison’s and McDougall’s experiences as well as of Johnson’s and Eaton’s experiences. As to agency, McDougall and Morrison thought that the apparitions resembled Charles Michaux, a former employee of the station who had died in 1978. Michaux had been fired under stressful conditions before Christmas of 1977, causing a fight to break out among the remaining employees during the annual Christmas party. Michaux died of a heart attack shortly thereafter. Obviously, however, the evidence from this case, like the evidence from most hauntings, does not constitute a clear cut case for any type of paranormal process, much less the survival of a discarnate spirit.
Even animals can sometimes appear as ghosts. My next-door neighbor during my teenage years had the experience of repeatedly seeing a cocker spaniel lying on a particular step in her stairway or under a desk built into the wall. When she mentioned this to the former owner of the house, he told her that at the time he lived in the house he had a pet cocker spaniel that used to like to sleep in precisely those locations.
There have been a few attempts to study hauntings scientifically. One method, used by Michaeleen Maher and her coworkers (Maher & Schmeidler, (1975; Maher & Hansen, 1992a, 1992b, 1995; Roll, Maher & Brown, 1992), involves dividing up a house into many different zones. A number of psychics, or “sensitives,” then state which zones they feel are associated with ghostly phenomena and attempt to describe any apparitions that might have been seen. A set of control subjects or skeptics then do the same. While the results have been mixed, in some cases the psychics’ descriptions of the ghostly phenomena corresponded more closely to the witnesses’ accounts than did the skeptics’ descriptions. This, however, proves nothing, as certain locations in the house may naturally suggest ghostly presences, thus accounting for the fact that both the psychics and the actual witnesses assumed that ghosts would be present at these locations. Similarly, certain houses may suggest certain types of ghosts. Thus, correspondences between witnesses’ and outsiders’ descriptions of the location and nature of ghosts cannot be taken as proving anything about the paranormality of the phenomena. Similarly, if the psychics were to provide descriptions that corresponded more closely to witnesses’ accounts than the control subjects or skeptics did, this would again prove nothing. Psychics and people who see ghosts may merely tend to think alike. Also, self-proclaimed sensitives who frequently investigate hauntings may have gathered a great deal of knowledge relating to where people will report seeing ghosts.
There have been a few attempts to detect physical anomalies at haunting locations, but these have generally failed to yield any sort of consistent effect. One intriguing finding was reported by Dean Radin and William Roll (1994). They found the activity of a Geiger counter to be significantly increased when placed in an area of space said by a psychic to be currently occupied by a ghost, suggesting that this ghost may have been in some sense “radioactive.” They speculate that the psychic may have been able to sense local regions of increased radioactivity, such as pockets of radon gas, or that she may have influenced the results by moving a radioactive piece of jewelry closer to the Geiger counter during the tests. Two of the investigators also witnessed a luminous blob in a room that the psychic claimed was occupied by a ghost, further suggesting the existence of some sort of physical anomaly in the environment.
Maher and Hansen (1995) found curious artifacts in Polaroid and video recording tests performed at sites of reported haunting phenomena.
Tandy (2000) found elevated infrasound levels at a frequency of 18.9 Hz in a reputedly haunted 14th century cellar beneath a tourist Information Center in Coventry, England. These infrasound waves were especially pronounced at sites where apparitions have been experienced. Tandy and Lawrence (1998) had previously proposed that apparitions and sensations of a “presence” might be caused by 19 Hz standing waves.
Braithwaite, Perez-Aquino and Townsend (2004) found evidence of heightened magnetic activity in the area of a pillow in a haunted castle. They theorize that the increased magnetic fields may have triggered a hallucinatory experience on the part of witnesses to haunting phenomena in the castle who slept in this bed.
Hornell Hart (1959) has noted that the fragmentary, repetitive nature of most apparitions’ behavior does not seem consistent with the hypothesis that apparitions are indications of the fully surviving consciousness of the deceased. Several other theories of haunting apparitions, including those of Myers, Tyrrell and Roll, have already been discussed in Chapters 3 and 5, and so we will not repeat those discussions here.
The evidence for survival provided by haunting cases, while suggestive, is not particularly strong. In many cases, a skeptic could maintain that the apparitional figures are simply hallucinations, perhaps caused by fatigue or some sort of pathological state in the witnesses. Also, normal settling noises and other sounds may be misinterpreted as ghostly phenomena in a house with a reputation for being haunted. It should also be realized that haunting cases, in the narrow sense of the repeated sighting of apparitions in a single location by several witnesses, are much more rarely reported than are spontaneous psi experiences. Thus, hauntings might more easily be attributed to psychopathology or fraud than spontaneous psi cases could be.
The belief that it is possible to contact the dead through the intermediary of a living person forms a part of many formal and informal religious traditions. Ian Wilson (1987) notes that rites for contacting the dead existed in ancient Greece and observes that the Biblical tradition has Saul contacting the deceased Samuel through the mediumship of the witch of Endor. Spiritualistic séances go back at least as far as 1000 A.D. in the Norse tradition, and mediumship was intimately associated with the phenomenon of animal magnetism or mesmerism (now called hypnosis) in the first half of the nineteenth century (Leahey and Leahey, 1983). Mediumship has of course always been associated with shamanistic religions, possibly even into prehistoric times. Nevertheless, in most people’s minds mediumship is most clearly associated with the Spiritualist tradition that began to flourish in America and England during the second half of the nineteenth century and which is still alive in a somewhat muted form today.
The birth of the modern Spiritualist movement is usually traced to the Fox sisters, who claimed to be able to communicate with the spirits of the deceased through mysteriously produced rapping sounds. The Fox sisters’ phenomena began with a series of raps that occurred over a time period beginning in 1847 in their childhood home in Hydesville, New York. The raps appeared to answer questions, and, when an alphabetic code was worked out, claimed to originate from the spirit of a peddler who was murdered in the house. A body was found buried in the cellar of the house, and the Fox sisters became celebrities. They subsequently developed a stage act in which they produced rapping messages from the deceased in front of large audiences. The sisters later became alcoholics, and one of them confessed that she had fraudulently produced the rapping noises by popping the joint of her big toe (although she later retracted this confession). By this time, mediumship had become a growth industry, and Spiritualism developed as a religious movement centered around mediumistic phenomena. The heyday of Spiritualism is past, although the recent mania for “channelled” advice from the beyond and the success of television psychics such as Jonathan Edward clearly has its roots in the mediumistic tradition.
Physical Mediumship. When anomalous physical phenomena seemingly connected with the spirits of the dead are manifested in the presence of a human intermediary or medium, one is said to be dealing with “physical mediumship.” Such phenomena are typically obtained in the context of a séance, in which a group of people seeking contact with the dead, called “sitters,” gather in the presence of a medium. Frequently, but not invariably, the medium enters a trance state as part of the ritual of contacting the dead. The phenomena obtained may include materializations or “apports” of objects (that is, the seeming appearance of objects out of thin air), the production of ectoplasm (an alleged wispy or ghostlike substance which may form the material for the physical reconstruction of the body of an appearing dead person), the production of strange sounds, including raps, the anomalous movement of objects, including the tilting of the séance table, and the anomalous appearance of written messages, such as chalk-writing on a board of slate. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and many other types of phenomena may be manifested.
Many physical mediums have been detected in fraud. The medium Mina Crandon, for instance, was allegedly able to obtain many physical phenomena, among them the production of wax fingerprints of her dead brother Walter. Fraud was revealed when E. E. Dudley was able to ascertain that a sample of such fingerprints were actually those of the medium’s very much alive dentist (Hansel 1980, p. 77).
In another celebrated case, a medium named Florence Cook was allegedly able to produce a materialization of the highly attractive body of a spirit named Katie King while Cook herself was tied to a chair inside a “cabinet.” On one occasion (and in violation of the etiquette of séance behavior), a sitter named George Sitwell grabbed the materialized form of Katie King. The cabinet was then thrown open, and the medium’s chair was found to be empty, the ropes slipped, and the medium’s clothes to be lying in disarray about the cabinet. Cook had herself portrayed Katie King (see Oppenheim, 1985, for more details).
While the above two exposures of fraudulent mediums took place in the nineteenth century, fraudulent physical mediums continue to be exposed in recent times. In an incident similar to the Katie King fiasco, several spirits at the Facet of Divinity Church (endorsed by death and dying expert Elizabeth Kübler-Ross) were found to be very much alive and kicking after they had taken the extraordinary step of having sexual relations with worshipers in need of “comfort” from the beyond (see Randi, 1980, p. 9). Melvin Harris (1986) describes the exposure of the medium Paul McElhaney. One of the features of McElhaney’s act was the apparent materialization of carnations; however, inspection of his possessions revealed that he had hidden the carnations to be materialized inside a tape recorder prior to the séance.
Because of the high incidence of fraud, most parapsychologists today cast a wary eye at physical mediumship. There continues to be debate about the genuineness of some phenomena, but in general the observational conditions for physical mediumship have been quite poor. Ectoplasm, for instance, was conveniently asserted to be sensitive to light, necessitating a darkened room in order to avoid injury to the medium (or, more likely, the medium’s reputation). The apparent levitation of the medium D. D. Home outside of an upper story window is one incident that is still argued to be genuine by some psychical researchers; however, this alleged levitation took place under very poor observational conditions, including total darkness (Jenkins, 1982).
Mental Mediumship. In mental mediumship, messages are purportedly received from the dead through the agency of a medium. In some cases, these messages may be relayed through the process of automatic writing, whereby the medium’s hand writes messages of which the medium claims no knowledge and for which she claims no responsibility. Occasionally, a device such as a Ouija board or planchette is used to facilitate the production of such unconsciously received messages. Alternatively, the medium may be “possessed” by the spirits of the dead, who then communicate directly through the vocal apparatus of the medium. Such possession is often produced by the medium’s entering a trance state. More rarely, the voice of the postmortem personality is heard to emanate from a point in space unoccupied by any person. This form of mediumship is called “direct voice.” One of the lesser-known projects of Thomas Edison was the development of an ideal megaphone or “trumpet” through which the dead could speak in this manner.
In trance mediumship, the medium is often possessed by a “control” spirit, who acts as “master of ceremonies” during the séance. Such control spirits may introduce new discarnate personalities, who then may displace the control in terms of possession of the medium’s body. In many instances, the control is a childlike figure, such as Feda, the little Indian girl who served as the control for the medium Gladys Osborne Leonard. In some cases, such as that of Mrs. Leonora Piper’s control Phinuit, who claimed to be a French physician serving royalty, the control spirit appears to be a totally fictional character. Most psychical researchers have come to view such control spirits as little more than secondary personalities of the mediums. One notable exception was George Pellew, a deceased friend of the psychical researcher Richard Hodgson, who displaced Phinuit as Mrs. Piper’s control during the 1890s. Purportedly, “Pellew” was able to recognize 30 friends and relatives of George Pellew, adding some credence to the former’s claim to be the surviving shade of the latter. However, the archskeptic C. E. M. Hansel (1966) has pointed out that Pellew’s family denied the authenticity of the communications from “Pellew.”
Sometimes information is provided by such ostensible deceased communicators which is accurate and which the medium would have no normal means of knowing. For a period of time the spirit of the deceased psychical researcher Richard Hodgson served as Mrs. Piper’s control. As reported by William James (1910), on one occasion “Hodgson” reminded a sitter of an anecdote Hodgson had related via letter to the sitter before his death. The anecdote involved a starving couple who were praying for food. The couple’s prayers were overheard by a passing atheist. The atheist dropped some bread down a chimney and heard the couple thanking God. When the atheist revealed himself as the couple’s benefactor, the wife replied, “Well the Lord sent it even if the devil brought it.”
During the sitting with Mrs. Piper, the Hodgson control asked, “Do you remember a story I told you and how you laughed about the man and woman praying?”
The sitter replied, “Oh and the devil was in it. Of course I do.”
“Hodgson” then added, “Yes the devil, they told him it was the Lord who sent it even if the devil brought it … About the food that was given them … I want you to know who is speaking.”
The provision of such seemingly accurate messages by alleged deceased communicators has rendered some psychical researchers more favorably disposed toward mental mediumship than they are toward physical mediumship. There are, however, ways in which a medium can gain information about deceased persons without directly communicating with the spirits of the dead. Some fraudulent mediums may conduct research on the lives of persons likely to consult them. The medium Arthur Ford, for instance, was discovered to have kept elaborate files on prospective sitters. Ray Hyman (1977) has described techniques whereby a medium or psychic can give a “cold reading” for a client he does not know by deliberately using vague statements, which are then progressively refined based on feedback from the client until an apparently accurate body of information has been communicated.
Mediumistic communications may also include information that is derived from obituary notices and other written records. Sometimes such information is apparently used unconsciously by a seemingly honest medium, through a process known as cryptomnesia. In a case of cryptomnesia, a person may read an obituary notice in a newspaper and then later “receive” this information from the apparent surviving spirit of the deceased while playing with a Ouija board. In such cases, the medium or Ouija board operator may have forgotten having ever seen the obituary notice, although this information has presumably been retained at an unconscious level and is being used subconsciously to construct the “communication” from the deceased. Ian Stevenson and John Beloff have described several cases in which all the information provided by a “drop in” communicator (a spirit who emerges uninvited during a séance) had previously been published in an obituary notice or other single written source (Stevenson, 1978; Stevenson & Beloff, 1980). In one case, Stevenson was able to demonstrate that the obituary notice was on the same page of the newspaper as the crossword puzzle that the Ouija board operator worked daily.
Ravaldini, Biondi and Stevenson (1990) describe an apparent instance of communication by a Sicilian priest who had been murdered in Canton, Ohio, through a medium in Italy. This communicator was one of the “drop-in” variety, insofar as he was unknown to any of the sitters present at the mediumistic session. The communication contained several accurate details, including a description of the murder, but these details corresponded to information that had previously been published in obituary notices. The authors argue against an explanation in terms of cryptomnesia on the basis of the fact that “Ohio” was misspelled as “Chio” in one of the obituaries in an Italian newspaper. They argue that “Canton, Chio” would be more likely to be interpreted as “Canton, China” than as “Canton, Ohio” by an Italian medium, although this would hardly seem to constitute an airtight case against cryptomnesia. Also, as M. H. Coleman (1991) notes, as twenty years had elapsed since the priest’s death, there was ample opportunity for alternate means of information transmission to occur.
Another possibility, if one is willing to grant the existence of psi, is that mediums may be able to use their ESP faculties to gather information about the deceased from the minds of the sitters present or from other persons or written records scattered throughout the world. In its extreme form, this has become known as the “super-ESP” hypothesis. (Of course, if one extends this hypothesis to include direct retrocognitive telepathy with the previously existing mind of the deceased, the super-ESP hypothesis begins to merge with the survival hypothesis. If one grants that the minds of deceased persons can be accessed telepathically after their death, then those minds in at least some sense can be said to exist after death, inasmuch as their contents continue to be accessible through retrocognitive telepathy.)
In one amusing application of the super-ESP theory, the psychologist G. Stanley Hall constructed a biography for a fictional niece named Bessie Beals. He then received communications from Bessie Beals through the prominent medium Mrs. Piper that related some of the information in the fictional biography. It is surprising that Mrs. Piper could acquire this information through ESP but remain unaware of its fraudulent nature. In this context, it should be noted that E. E. McAdams and Raymond Bayless (1981) have argued that a real person named Bessie Beals may have existed.
Finally, recent evidence indicates that some séance records have been fraudulently altered. Melvin Harris (1986) has charged that the British researcher S .G. Soal, who is known to have altered some of the data in his experimental work in parapsychology, altered transcripts of at least one séance in which he participated. The case in question involved a communication from the supposedly deceased spirit of Gordon Davis, a friend of Soal’s, who turned out to be very much alive at the time of the communication. The medium involved was Blanche Cooper. Through Cooper, “Davis” provided an accurate description of a house that the real Gordon Davis would move into well after the séance was held. Harris notes that Davis’ future house was located near Soal’s own residence. He charges that Soal may have looked in the window of the house to gain information as to its appearance, which he then inserted into the transcript of the prior séance. One of these details was that of a statue of a black bird sitting on Davis’s piano. However, a duplicate copy of the séance in question, in Soal’s own handwriting, had been sent to the Reverend A. T. Fryer, a fact that Soal had apparently forgotten when he altered his copy of the document. The duplicate transcript held by Fryer showed no references either to Davis or to a statue of a black bird. While obviously not proof of survival, the Gordon Davis case had stood for years as a prominent example of psi phenomena occurring in the context of mediumship.
There have been a few recent attempts to apply statistical tests to determine whether the accuracy of statements made by mental mediums exceeds that which would be expected by chance. Robertson and Roy (2004) report the results of eight experiments designed to eliminate cues such as body language of the part of sitters and expectancy effects. However, McCue (2004) has raised the point that Robertson and Roy’s statistical analysis used the individual statement as the unit of analysis, whereas statements cannot be treated as independent events (such as statements that the target person has an injured leg and that he uses a cane or crutch). Also, Robertson and Roy’s evidence could be interpreted as evidence of psi powers on the part of the medium rather than as evidence for a survival discarnate personality.
Several studies of mental mediumship have been recently conducted by Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek (which are summarized in Schwartz, 2002). Schwartz’ experiments involved a medium (often a prominent medium such as Jon Edward) giving a reading for a sitter over the phone. The statements made by the medium are then compared to the answers supplied by a control group of college students. However, as both Wiseman and O’Keefe (2001) and Stokes (2002a) have pointed out, the medium and the students are in much different situations. Whereas the medium is free to throw out “Barnum” statements (statements which many people might agree with) such as “your father felt kindly toward poor people,” the college students were given a much different task in which they had to answer the question of “who felt kindly toward poor people?” For instance, Wiseman and O’Keefe note that one such statement was “your son was good with his hands” which was affirmed by 82% of the subjects when posed as a “Barnum” statement, but only 36% of a control group “correctly” answered “the son” when posed with the question “who was good with his hands?” Also, the sitters rated the readings given for them against readings for other sitters. However, in most instances, the sitters heard portions of the reading given for them, so this rating was not conducted blindly.
In view of the fact that in many of Schwartz et al.’s experimental trials the sitter provided “yes/no” answers to questions and statements posed by the medium, the medium could use these answers to refine his of her statements, using the “cold reading” technique described by Hyman (1977). As pointed out by both Wiseman and O’Keefe (2001) and Stokes (2002a), other sensory cues were provided by the subject’s breathing, movements, etc., in those trials in which the sitter was in the same room with the medium or in phone contact with the sitter with the latter’s phone unmuted. Also, in most trials the experimenter interacting with the medium knew the sitter’s identity and thus was in a position to provide inadvertent cues through body language and facial expressions.
Finally, the statistical calculations performed by Schwartz et al., in which they found astronomical odds against their mediums’ doing as well as they did by chance, were inappropriate (see Stokes, 2002a, for more details).
Due to the counterexplanations of fraud, “cold reading” techniques, and the possible ability of mediums to gather information about deceased persons through psi, few parapsychologists today would be willing to conclude that the survival of death of the human personality has been demonstrated through the study of mediumship.
We now turn to the evidence for reincarnation, which constitutes perhaps the strongest form of parapsychological evidence for survival.
There is a body of parapsychological evidence that suggests that a process of reincarnation may take place, in which a mind or soul may survive the death of the physical body and be reborn in a new physical body, with at least some elements of its former personality (e.g., memories, emotions, or possibly “karmic debt”) intact. As noted in Chapter 0 and elsewhere, in view of the intimate dependence of the personalities and its memories on the physical state of the brain, there are good a posteriori reasons to be skeptical that such a process could take place. While it will be argued that the notion of reincarnation in the sense of continually recycling fields of consciousness makes sense and is even to a large extent compatible with the currently prevailing worldview of modern science, the notion that the personality, with its associated memories, emotions and beliefs could survive the dissolution of the physical brain (without being first down loaded into a computer, etc.) is fairly incompatible with the worldview of modern neuroscience.
However, some parapsychological researchers have amassed evidence that, at least in some instances, some human personalities, or portions thereof, have survived death and have been transferred to, or reborn in, new human bodies.
This evidence is roughly of three kinds. The first category of evidence consists of “readings” by psychics and other spiritual advisers, who are allegedly able to use their psychic abilities to gather information about the past lives or former incarnations of their clients. Perhaps the best known of such psychics was the psychic diagnostician Edgar Cayce, who frequently described the past lives of patients who consulted him for medical advice. Past lives as described by Cayce often involved such exotic locales as the lost continent of Atlantis and other planets. A second line of evidence arises from the technique of hypnotic age regression, in which a hypnotized subject is led backward in time to his or her childhood and then regressed even further backward in time to previous lives. Psychological and medical problems are often ascribed by past-life hypnotherapists to events that occurred in the patient’s previous incarnations as revealed in such past-life hypnotic regression techniques. A third form of evidence for reincarnation consists of spontaneous reports by young children of memories relating to previous lives. In such cases, which occur primarily in cultures having a strong religious belief in reincarnation, the child typically claims to be the reincarnation of a person who had died within the past few years. The child may exhibit knowledge of that previous life which is difficult to explain on the basis of the child’s experiences in his or her present life. The child may also manifest personality traits and behaviors consistent with those of the claimed former personality. These behaviors are sometimes at variance with the behavioral norms of the culture in which the child is being raised. There also may be birthmarks or other defects on the child’s body that seem to be related to events in the claimed previous life (often the manner of death). As we shall see, this type of case provides the strongest evidence for reincarnation of any of the three categories of evidence discussed above.
Many cultures around the world subscribe to a belief in reincarnation. A partial list of such cultures would include the ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, large numbers of Druse and Shiite Moslems, and several shamanistic traditions, including those of the native tribes of northwestern North America, the Trobriand Islanders, Australian aborigines, and the Ainu of northern Japan. Many prominent thinkers in the Western tradition have also been reincarnationists, among them Pythagorus, Plato, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg and Tom Cruise. The French philosopher Voltaire is responsible for the memorable quote “It is no more surprising to be born twice than it is to be born once.”
Within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, a different view has held, namely that we live but one life. Some sects adhere to the doctrine that the bodies of everyone who ever lived will be physically resurrected on the Day of Judgment. Many sects within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition hold that eternal damnation or salvation is dependent on acts committed within this one physical incarnation, a stern doctrine indeed.
It is interesting to note that the early Christian Gnostics, including such figures as Origen in the third century A.D., taught the doctrine of reincarnation. Reincarnationist beliefs within the Christian tradition were finally suppressed, however, by an ecumenical council held in 553 A.D. Despite the banning of reincarnation as heresy, many people within the Western culture continue to believe in reincarnation. A Gallup poll of American adults indicated that 21 percent believed in reincarnation, with another 22 percent indicating that they were “not sure” whether reincarnation occurs or not (Gallup & Newport, 1992). A similar result was obtained in a recent poll by Farha and Steward (2006), who found that 25% college students professed a belief in reincarnation.
It is perhaps not surprising that the belief in reincarnation is so widespread. The reincarnationist cycle of birth, death and rebirth bears many similarities to other naturally occurring cycles, such as the annual changes of the seasons, the daily cycle of light and darkness, and the chemical recycling of atoms in photosynthesis and respiration. Just as our bodies incorporate atoms that were once parts of the bodies of other people, so it might not be too surprising if our bodies also harbored souls (or Shins) that once resided in the bodies of other persons.
Another advantage of the reincarnation process is that it renders our present incarnate state less puzzling. Under the official Judeo-Christian-Islamic view, one lives but one human lifetime, which is but a flicker of an eyelash when compared to the 13.5 billion years or so that have elapsed since the creation of our current universe in the Big Bang as well as the eons that lie ahead before the universe’s quiet end in a “heat death” (or, less probably in view of recent findings by astrophysicists, its eventual recollapse at the time of the “Big Crunch”). Because our lives are such infinitesimal spans when compared to the age of the universe, each conscious person must marvel at the fact that this present moment in time just happens to be one of the moments when he or she (construed as the conjunction of a physical body and personality, as in the Western religious tradition) exists. If a moment were to be chosen at random from the history of the universe, the probability that any person would exist at that time would be essentially zero. The fact that the moment which has somehow mysteriously been selected to be “now” is also a moment at which the reader is conscious must surely seem like a miracle if the single life hypothesis is true (and the Western construal of the self as consisting one’s physical body and personality is appropriate). The fact that “now” happens to be a moment when you are conscious would become much less surprising under the hypothesis of reincarnation, as “now” would only have to correspond to any moment in a potentially endless succession of lives rather than a single life. If one were to allow the possibility of incarnation in nonhuman life forms, or even on other planets or in other universes, it becomes more and more probable that a particular person (construed as a center of consciousness, soul or Shin) would be conscious “now.”
Several objections have been raised to the idea of reincarnation. One, which was raised by the third century Christian philosopher Tertullian and has been reiterated by the philosopher Paul Edwards, is based on the population explosion (Edwards, 1997; Tertullian, 1997). There are many more human beings alive today than have lived at any time in the past. Thus, it is claimed, there would not be enough souls to animate each new human body, as the number of bodies must surely outrun the number of reincarnating souls. This objection could easily be met by assuming that souls or Shins that were once housed in nonhuman beings could reincarnate in humans. (It might not be surprising that kids like dinosaurs so much if you assume they spent one hundred million years incarnated in their bodies.) If the terrestrial animal population is not large enough, it may be that souls can be drawn from other planets (assuming that interstellar travel would not constitute any great difficulty for a soul existing outside of physical spacetime) or even from other decaying universes. (One of the explanations for the anthropic principle, the fact that the laws and conditions of our universe seem to be very delicately balanced to support the existence of life, is that many universes are created and we of necessity exist in a universe capable of supporting life. The anthropic principle will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 8.)
It is also conceivable that Shins or souls might spend considerable amounts of time not housed in biological bodies. As noted in Chapter 2, some physicists, such as Evan Harris Walker, have postulated the existence of “proto-consciousnesses” responsible for the collapse of quantum mechanical state vectors governing events that are remote in space and time from human (or other biological) observers (Walker, 2000). Hill (2005) has observed that, if the universe has been designed, it appears to be devised for creatures or consciousnesses that inhabit the vast, inhabitable regions of outer space. The design of such a vast cosmos for the mere purpose of entertaining a few randomly evolved, ephemeral sacks of protoplasm (such as ourselves) crawling about on a minor planet of a second rate star would be most uneconomical indeed. Perhaps proto-consciousnesses (or souls or Shins) are as common as electrons or quarks. If such is the case, then Edwards’ population-based argument against reincarnation carries as much force as the argument that human bodies cannot be inhabited by electrons, insofar as due to population growth, the number of human bodies must surely outrun the number of available electrons. Indeed, later in this book, it will be argued that our essential selves are likely fields of pure consciousness akin to Walker’s hypothesized “proto-consciousnesses” and that there may be a great many such selves (mini-Shins) inhabiting a single human brain at any given time. It is likely that these mini-Shins are, like electrons and other elementary particles, only temporarily associated with a particular brain and are being constantly recycled through a succession of biological and nonbiological host systems. Against this view, Edward’s objection based on the growth of the human population carries no weight.
A second objection to reincarnation is that we have no memory of our previous lives. Actually, that may not always be the case. Much of the parapsychological evidence for reincarnation, to be discussed below, consists of instances in which persons have in fact claimed to remember details of their previous lives. Reincarnation could of course occur without any transfer of memory from one incarnation to another. As discussed elsewhere in this book, a considerable body of evidence exists that memories are either physically stored in the brain or at least intimately dependent on certain brain structures. It would be difficult therefore to imagine that memories could in general survive the dissolution of the physical brain at death. In fact, we do not remember the events of many previous days of our lives, although we did in fact live through them. Our system of memories changes over time, with some memories decaying and new ones being formed. Our essential selves, on the other hand, seem to remain unchanged over time. We are not identical with any particular set of memories. Thus, it would be easily conceivable that one’s self could be reincarnated in a new body, while retaining no memory of one’s previous life. Several writers, including Ken Wilber (1990) and the author (Stokes, 1982a, 1987, 2002b), have in fact suggested that reincarnation might occur in just such a memory-less manner.
The parapsychologist D. F. Lawden (1989) has suggested that minds or consciousnesses experience the passage of time only when incarnated in a physical body. After death, Lawden proposes, the mind would exist in a timeless, mystical state of identification with the entire spacetime continuum. This mystical state of union with the cosmos as a whole is unstable according to Lawden, and so the mind’s attention once again contracts to a single stream of consciousness and one is reborn into a new physical body. In Lawden’s view, the order among successive rebirths may not correspond to their order in physical time due to the timeless nature of the state between incarnations. Thus, one’s “next life” may be in the Middle Ages, or one might be born again in the twentieth century and encounter one’s present self as a friend. If one were to extend Lawden’s theory to encompass the alternate universes inherent in Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, one could even imagine being reborn as one’s present self, but eventually experiencing a different life history as one travels up a different branch of the tree of possible futures!
A somewhat similar view has been proposed by Carroll Nash (1995c). Nash postulates the existence of a postmortem condition in which one’s mind exists in a timeless state and is capable of seeing all the events of one’s life (one’s “worldline”) at once. He proposes that this experience may form the basis of the “life reviews” frequently reported by persons undergoing near-death experiences. He further suggests that one might become bored with one’s own worldline and thus might be drawn to experience other worldlines as well. In Nash’s opinion, this common sharing of pain and pleasures would resolve some of the inequities of our earthly lives and would unify all minds in a single consciousness.
Writing in The Skeptical Inquirer, a journal notably skeptical of the claims of parapsychology in general and of reincarnation in particular, Greta Christina (2005) proposes that each human being achieves a kind of immortality insofar as the worldline that comprises a human life enjoys a timeless status in the spacetime of general relativity. As will be recalled from Chapters 2 and 5, the theory of relativity denies the existence of a unique present moment and the concept of time flow. Thus, the continued existence of one’s worldline in spacetime, when viewed from a “timeless” perspective, confers an immortality of sorts on all human beings. Christina’s observations bear a certain similarity to Nash’s theory, but omit Nash’s proposal that one may experience one’s own worldline repeatedly (as in the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s doctrine of the “eternal return”) or experience the world lines of other creatures (much like a visitor to a four-dimensional art gallery).
Both Lawden’s and Nash’s hypotheses are of course purely speculative. Lawden explicitly notes the similarity of some of his views to those of the Hindu-Buddhist tradition. In the Indian Vedic tradition, God or Brahman (the one Self of the universe) becomes bored with his solitary existence and splits himself into all the creatures of the earth. The Hindu tradition has it that one’s progression from incarnation to incarnation depends on one’s level of moral development. Persons of high spiritual development are rewarded by being reborn into more favorable conditions, while miscreants may be punished for their misdeeds in the circumstances of their next lives through a process known as karma. According to Hindu philosophy, the goal of spiritual development is to realize the identity between one’s individual self (atman) and the universal Self of the cosmos (Brahman). In Buddhism, the goal of spiritual development is to reduce one’s own suffering (and that of others) through the extinction of the cravings and desires that give rise to suffering (to the extent that they are invariably unfulfilled). The final aim is to achieve a state of total extinction of desire known as nirvana. Nirvana is essentially a state of extinction of the self. Despite Buddhists’ belief in reincarnation, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta is essentially a denial of the existence of a permanent self. Ken Wilber (1990) notes that while Buddhism denies a permanent existence to the individual soul or self, it does grant a “relative existence” to the soul. Indeed, the doctrine of anatta seems directed primarily against the idea that personality patterns and traits have a permanent existence. Thus, seekers of enlightenment should not cling to their present mental states. Rather, each such seeker should see himself or herself as pure consciousness and awareness, something separate from the personality traits, memories, feelings and sensations that may form the source or objects of desire or clinging, preventing one from reaching a state of enlightenment. The similarities between Eastern views regarding the extinction of self and union with a World Soul and Lawden’s and Nash’s views discussed above should be apparent (indeed, Lawden explicitly comments on these similarities).
An interesting element of Hindu and Buddhist doctrine is the concept of the kalpa, the great cycle beginning with the creation of the world through the splitting of Brahman and ending with the annihilation of the world (which is then created anew). One kalpa is thought to last 4.3 billion years, which is extraordinarily close to the 13.5 billion years modern physicists believe have elapsed since the creation of the universe in the Big Bang.
The parapsychological evidence is equivocal regarding the existence of the Hindu and Buddhist principle of karma, wherein one is rewarded or punished for the deeds of one’s past lives in the circumstances of one’s present life. As will be seen, the evidence from psychic readings and hypnotic regression suggests the existence of such a principle, but these cases do not provide the strongest evidence for reincarnation. The more compelling evidence from the spontaneous recall of past life memories does not in general suggest the existence of any moral karmic principle governing the assignment of incarnations.
Now let us turn to a detailed consideration of the parapsychological evidence for reincarnation.
One form of evidence for reincarnation consists of instances in which a professional psychic describes details of the alleged past lives of a client who has consulted the psychic for spiritual or medical advice. If the psychic has displayed evidence of paranormal ability by accurately describing details of the client’s life that the psychic had no apparent normal means of knowing, then the client and other observers may be inclined to accept the psychic’s description of the client’s past lives as accurate knowledge obtained through the same extrasensory abilities the psychic employed in describing the more mundane (yet at the same time more verifiable) details of the client’s present life.
By far the most famous collection of such past life readings was provided by the psychic diagnostician Edgar Cayce, who has been discussed earlier in connection with psychic healing. Cayce, it will be recalled, was allegedly able to enter a trance and diagnose people’s illnesses, given only their names and addresses. What is of interest in the present context is that Cayce frequently traced the cause of the illness to events occurring in a previous life of the patient. Often the illness seemed to be a means of paying a karmic debt. After entering his trance, Cayce would describe consulting the “akashic records,” in which the details of everyone’s past lives are recorded. Cayce was initially surprised at the Hinduistic nature of his readings, which indicated the operation of a karmic principle governing reincarnation that was quite at variance with Cayce’s own fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Cayce’s past life readings have been popularized in many books (e.g., Cermina, 1967; Stearn, 1967; Woodward, 1971), and form the basis for many people’s belief in reincarnation.
The following is a typical Cayce reading. This particular reading was given for a client who was suffering from a bone cancer in her hip. Cayce traces this condition to the client’s having laughed at the suffering of the Christian gladiators in a past life during Nero’s reign in Rome. In reading the text of Cayce’s remarks, the reader should bear in mind that Cayce typically used the phrase “the entity” in referring to the client, or more precisely, the client’s soul. The reading is as follows:
During the period in Nero’s reign in Rome, in the latter portion of the same, the entity was then in the household of Parthesias—and one in whose company many became followers of, adherents to, those called Christians in the period, and during those persecutions in the arena when there were physical combats. The entity was as a spectator of such combats, and under the influence of those who made light of them; though the entity felt in self that there was more to that held by such individuals, as exhibited in the arena, but the entity—to carry that which was held as necessary with the companionship of those about the same—laughed at the injury received by one of the girls in the arena, and suffered in mental anguish when she later—or became cognizant of—the physical suffering brought to the body of that individual during the rest of the sojourn. (Woodward, 1971, p. 61).
As the reader can gauge from the above passage, Cayce’s readings are not primarily remembered for the literary value of their prose. The main shortcoming of Cayce’s readings, and of psychics’ past-life readings in general, as evidence for reincarnation is that there has typically been little or no attempt to verify that the persons who formed the described past incarnations ever existed. Such attempts as have been made have been largely futile due to the extreme scarcity of records pertaining to the lives of most people who lived even as recently as one century ago. Thus, there is little reason to believe that such readings represent anything more than the psychic’s fantasies. In the case of Cayce, this is doubly true insofar as Cayce frequently described past lives on the lost continent of Atlantis, the existence of which would contradict a vast body of geophysical evidence, as well as on such planets as Mercury and Jupiter, which are not likely to support life. At least some of what Cayce said about past lives has to be erroneous; possibly all of it is.
Hypnotic Age Regression
A great deal of interest in reincarnation was stirred up in the 1950s with the publication of the “Bridey Murphy” case by Morey Bernstein, a businessman and amateur hypnotist (Bernstein, 1956). Bernstein’s subject was a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe. Bernstein used the technique of hypnotic age regression to take Tighe back to the time of her early childhood. Then he suggested that she could go even further back in time, beyond her birth, where she would find herself in “some other scene, in some other place, [and] in some other time.” At this point Tighe began to describe another life as Bridget (Bridey) Murphy, an Irish girl living in Cork and Belfast during the early part of the nineteenth century. While in the Bridey Murphy persona, Tighe used several Irish expressions, such as “lough” to refer to a lake, “linen” to refer to a handkerchief and “flat” to refer to a platter. At one point, she even danced an Irish jig. She also correctly named two Belfast grocery stores and accurately stated that a big rope company and a tobacco house were operating in Belfast at the time in question.
The details of her life as Bridey Murphy were not verifiable due to the scarcity of records. Two of her statements were challenged. She had stated that Bridey’s husband, Brian McCarthy, had taught law at Queen’s University in Belfast. Life magazine charged that there was no such institution, but the existence of Queen’s University was later proven. “Bridey” also asserted that she had a metal bed. Life charged that such beds were not introduced until at least 1850, but the psychical researcher Eric Dingwall was able to locate an advertisement for metal beds in Bridey’s home town of Cork in 1830, and the philosopher C. J. Ducasse was able to show that iron beds existed even in the eighteenth century (Ducasse, 1961).
A more devastating criticism was delivered by the Chicago American. That newspaper asserted that a woman named Bridie Murphy Corkell had lived across the street from Virginia Tighe when she was a little girl and suggested that an unconscious memory of this woman formed the underpinnings of Tighe’s construction of the Bridey Murphy persona under hypnosis. Curiously, Mrs. Corkell was the mother of the editor of the Sunday edition of the Chicago American. There proved to be some difficulty in verifying that her maiden name was Murphy, so this detail may be questionable. In any event, the Bridey Murphy case, despite its powerful role in creating a reincarnation “flap,” is surprisingly weak in terms of detailed statements made by Tighe that were subsequently verified. This weakness will prove to be a characteristic of the hypnotic regression evidence in general, as we shall see.
Hypnotic regression to past lives has become a growth industry at least in certain facets of American culture. Several versions of “past lives therapy” have flourished, in which it is claimed that patients’ medical and psychological problems can be alleviated when the patients discharge pent-up emotions by reexperiencing traumatic events they suffered through in their prior incarnations (see Goldberg, 1982; Wambaugh, 1978; and Weiss, 1988, for instance). Many other people have undergone hypnotic regression to past lives outside of any therapeutic context.
The main problem with the body of evidence that has emerged from hypnotic regression is that there has generally been little or no attempt on the part of the investigators involved in these cases to verify any of the details contained in these descriptions of past lives. Usually, there is not even an attempt to ascertain that the person described as a former incarnation of the subject actually existed! Thus, for the bulk of these cases, there is no compelling reason to regard these descriptions of past lives as anything other than the product of the subjects’ imaginations.
In a few rare cases, some details contained in past life descriptions obtained through hypnotic regression have been verified. Linda Tazari (1990), for instance, reports a case in which a woman recounted a life in Spain during the sixteenth century. The woman provided the names of several members of the Inquisition and their victims. She also accurately described buildings used by the Inquisitors and gave the correct dates of publication of several documents. Several obscure English documents and Spanish language sources had to be consulted in order to verify this information, so it is unlikely that the subject would have had easy access to this information.
In most such cases, however, it is difficult to rule out the possibility that the subject could have acquired the information given in a past-life description through normal channels. In fact, in several instances, it has been shown that all the details provided in a past-life description were contained in a single written source, which makes it appear plausible that the subject’s knowledge of these details could be explained by the phenomenon of cryptomnesia, or unconscious memory of reading the source in question. Melvin Harris (1986) describes two such cases. In the first, a woman described a previous life in Britain during the third century. Every detail in her description was found to be contained in Louis de Wohl’s novel The Living Wood. In the second case, hypnosis was used to regress the subject back to the times when she first learned of the details given in her past life descriptions. Under hypnosis, she was in fact able to recall reading the books that provided the material from which she constructed her past life accounts. Jonathan Venn (1986) cites a case in which a hypnotically regressed subject gave the date of a witchcraft trial as 1556, whereas the real date was 1566. The erroneous date had appeared in several books, one of which may have been the source of the subject’s material. Venn also provides a statistical analysis of a single case, in which he found that statements that related to commonly available records were more likely to be true than those that related to less accessible records.
Also, memories of past lives recovered through hypnotic regression bear a striking similarity to false memories of sexual abuse created through leading questions (and sometimes hypnosis) on the part of interviewer and therapists. The veracity of such “recovered memories” has been strongly questioned by memory researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus (1995).
For all these reasons, hypnotic regression cases provide less than compelling evidence for reincarnation.
The strongest evidence for reincarnation is provided, at least at the present time, by cases in which young children spontaneously report memories of previous lives. The most prolific investigator of such cases has been Ian Stevenson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, who, together with his coworkers and intellectual descendants, have generated a prodigious number of publications on the subject (Akolkar, 1992; Cook, Pasricha, Samararatne, Maung & Stevenson, 1983; Haraldsson, 2000a, 2000b; Haraldsson & Abu-Izzedin, 2002; Keil ,1991, 2005; Mills, 1989, 2004; Mills, Haraldsson & Keil, 1994; Pasricha, 1978, 1992a, 1992b, 1998; Pasricha & Barker, 1981; Pasricha, Keil, Tucker & Stevenson, 2005; Pasricha & Stevenson, 1979; Stevenson, 1960a, 1960b, 1966, 1970a, 1972b, 1973, 1974a, 1974b, 1974c, 1975, 1977a, 1977b, 1977c, 1980, 1983a, 1983b, 1986, 1987, 1988a, 1988b, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997a, 1997b, 2003; Stevenson & Chadha, 1988; Stevenson & Keil, 2000; Stevenson & Pasricha, 1979, 1980; Stevenson, Pasricha & Samararatne, 1988).
The Case of Nazih Al-Danaf. To give an example of a case involving the spontaneous recall of a past life, Haraldsson and Abu-Izzeddin (2002) report the case of Nazih Al-Danaf, a boy living in Baalchmay, Lebanon. At the age of one and a half years, Nazih began to speak about a former life of a man who was fatally shot by a group of armed people in Beirut. Nazih’s family were Druze Muslims, a secretive sect that affirms the doctrine of reincarnation. Nazih’s older sister had also spoken of a previous life.
Nazih was born in 1992 and was eight years old when he was first interviewed by Haraldsson and Abu-Izzedin. His initial statements about a previous life included a denial that he was a child (“I am not small, I am big”), and that he carried two pistols as well as hand grenades. According to his sister Sabrine, he stated that his first name was Fuad prior to the identification of the family in the ostensible previous life. Although Nazih’s mother initially confirmed Sabrine’s statement, she later thought that perhaps Nazih had not uttered the name “Fuad” until after Nazih’s present and “previous” families met.
Nazih told his mother that: “My wife is prettier than you. Her eyes and mouth are more beautiful.” This statement may have been the first that made her think that Nazih was speaking of a past life. Nazih made similar statements to most of his six sisters.
Nazih stated that he had a friend who was mute and had only one hand. He said that this friend could hold a gun in one hand and work it, getting it ready for firing. He described how he had been killed in a shootout in which he was able to kill one of his armed opponents.
Nahiz also manifested behaviors more typical for an adult than a child, such as requesting cigarettes and whiskey, particularly during the period in which he spoke most about his previous life.
By the age of eight, Nazih had stopped talking about this previous life and his memories of this life seem to have faded. This is a common feature of cases involving the spontaneous recall of previous lives.
Beginning at the age of two and a half, Nazih began insisting that his parents take him to village in which he lived in his prior life. When Nazih was six years old, his father and mother agreed to drive him to this village, following his directions. Nazih led them to a village named Qaberchamoun, about 17 kilometers from their home village of Baalchmay. Nazih’s father stated that Nazih had mentioned the name Qaberchamoun prior to this trip, although his mother and siblings do not remember him making such a statement.
After leading his family to a particular neighborhood in Qaberchamoun, Nazih got out the car and he and his father began asking people if anyone knew of a neighbor who had been recently martyred. They learned of one person who had died in a bomb blast, but this did not seem to fit with Nazih’s memories of being shot. However, Nazih’s mother and sisters met a man named Kamal Khaddage at the house next to where they had parked the car. He stated that Nazih’s memories seemed to correspond to events in the life of his father, Fuad Khaddage. At this point, Kamal’s mother was summoned, and Nazih indicated that she was his wife in the previous life.
The Khaddages then interrogated Nazih regarding events in the life of Fuad Khaddage. When asked who had built a particular gate to the house, Nazih correctly replied: “A man from the Faraj family.” He stated correctly that he kept his pistol and other weapons in a particular cupboard in the house. Kamal’s mother (Najdijay Khaddage) then asked Nazih if she had had any accident when they were living at the house in Ainab. (The Khaddages were living in Ainab while the present house was under construction. That house was not fully completed at the time of Fuad’s death.) Nazih correctly stated that she had skidded on plastic nylon and fallen while picking pincones and had dislocated her shoulder. When asked about an illness experienced by Fuad’s young daughter Fairuz, Nazih correctly stated that she eaten Fuad’s medication pills and had become poisoned. Nazih also recollected an incident in which their car had stalled and was started up again by Israeli soldiers, who recharged the battery.
Nazih also recalled a night in which (as Fuad) he had come home drunk and found that Najdijay had locked the door and was forced to sleep outside on a rocking sofa. He also stated that there had been a barrel in the garden that he used as a target when teaching Najdijay how to shoot. When asked to find the barrel in questions he went to garden and pointed to it.
In a later visit to the house of Fuad’s younger brother Sheik Addeb, he correctly recalled giving a handgun as a gift to his younger brother. When asked the brand, Nazih correctly replied that it was a Checki 16. When presented with another handgun and asked if it was the one, Nazih correctly denied that it was. This incident convinced Sheik Addeb that Nazih was truly Fuad reincarnated, as no one else would have known about this gift (except possibly for Addeb’s wife). When asked where Fuad’s original house was (where he first lived with his wife), Nazih walked down the street and correctly pointed to that house as well as the house of Fuad’s father. Nazih also correctly stated that (as Fuad) he had built a wooden ladder that was still standing in the house. Nazih also correctly identified his first wife and several family member in photographs.
Haraldsson and Abu-Izzedin (2002) present a table listing 23 statements that Nazih made prior to the initial meeting between the two families at Qaberchamoun as confirmed by witnesses. Of these 17 were correct, including the fact that Fuad had a mute friend and that there was a cave near his former house. Haraldsson and Abu-Izzedin present this as evidence that Nazih made several correct statements about the life of Fuad Khaddage that were not the result of leading questions, physical cues and other sources of information provided by the Khaddage family and their physical surroundings.
The Case of Rakesh Guar. Pasricha and Barker (1981) report a case involving a boy in India named Rakesh Gaur. In May of 1974, when Rakesh was a little more than four-years-old, he began to speak of a previous life in which he had been a carpenter named Bithal Das, who had been electrocuted at the age of 35. He claimed that he had lived in the village of Tonk, which was about 225 kilometers distant and that he had two sons named Babu and Bhanwar Lal. He stated that he had been a carpenter and was of the carpenter caste (a step down from his current status as a member of the Brahman caste). Rakesh in fact displayed a great deal of interest in carpentry as a child. He said that he had a well near his house and that he had hidden 1500 rupees at a certain location in his house. All of the above statements proved to be accurate descriptions of the circumstances of a carpenter in Tonk named Bithal Das, who had in fact died of electrocution. One erroneous statement that Rakesh did make was that Bithal Das’ wife’s name was Keshar, whereas in fact it was Radha.
One day in July 1976, Rakesh recognized the driver of a bus from Tonk, calling him by name. He related his past life memories to this bus driver, who then contacted the family of Bithal Das, the ostensible previous incarnation. Rakesh’s family then made arrangements to visit Tonk. Upon arriving in the city, Rakesh pointed to an electrical pole, stating that he had died while working on that pole. This statement later proved to be erroneous, as Bithal Das had in fact died when he contacted a live wire while clearing the blockage in a water drain with an iron bar. Rakesh did recognize Bithal Das’ son Bhanwar and his widow Radha in an area near the post office, in fact picking Radha out from among a group of women. When Bhanwar asked Rakesh what his name used to be, Rakesh replied “Arun.” This would seem to be an error, but Pasricha points out that this was in fact a name Rakesh had been called when he was younger and that Rakesh may have misunderstood the question. Rakesh did provide a fairly accurate and detailed description of the house Bithal Das had occupied during his life in response to further questioning by Bhanwar Lal.
One of the weaknesses of the above case, as pointed out by one of its investigators, David Barker, is that no written records of Rakesh’s statements were made prior to his visit to Tonk, and that therefore one has to rely on the memory of various witnesses as to what Rakesh actually said. Similar remarks apply to the case of Nazih Al-Danaf presented above. Mills (2004) reports that 1.3% of the cases on record in 2004 involved written records of the child’s statement prior to the case being “solved” (i.e., the former personality identified).
Prevalence of Cases. Reincarnation cases are not as rare as one might expect. As of 1990, Ian Stevenson’s collection included approximately 2,500 such cases. In a systematic survey of Northern India, Barker and Pasricha (1979) found an incidence rate of nineteen reincarnation cases per thousand inhabitants. In a mail survey of the population of the greater Charlottesville area, Palmer (1979) found that somewhere between eight and nine percent of the respondents claimed to have memories of a past life, although Palmer did not attempt to verify the details of these memories.
Stevenson (1986) reported that male subjects outnumbered female subjects by a ratio of two to one in his case collection at that time, and Matlock (1989) reports a similar ratio of male to female subjects in a separate analysis of published cases.
Birthmarks. Stevenson (1993) notes that in 35 percent of his reincarnation cases, the child is born with a birthmark or birth defect that seems significantly related to events in the life of the claimed previous personality, with similar percentages reported by other investigators (Keil, 2005; Pasricha, 1998). Frequently such birthmarks correspond to wounds incurred at the time of a violent death. In one such case, the subject was born with a long birthmark around his neck that seemed to correspond to the wounds received by the person whose life the subject claimed to remember; that person had died of a slit throat (Stevenson, 1974c). Pasricha, Keil, Tucker and Stevenson (2005) report a case in which a child was born with a large nevus (wrinkled skin of unusual roughness) in his scalp. This child claimed to be a man who was murdered by an axe blow to the head in a previous life. Finally, Haraldsson (2000a) reports a case in which a child who had made several accurate statements about a previous personality had a large birthmark on her abdomen that seemed to correspond to marks made by the tires of the bus that had run over the previous personality abdomen, killing him.
Stevenson (1988a, 1989, 1992, 1997a, 1997b) suggests that such birth defects may be psychologically induced. He presents evidence that some birthmarks and birth defects may be caused by maternal fright or otherwise generated by maternal sensory impressions. In several anecdotal reports, a woman who had seen an injury or a deformity later gave birth to a child with a similar mark or deformity. Stevenson also cites a case in which in which a man murdered another man and then cut off his limbs with a sword. The victim’s mother cursed the murderer’s wife. Her child was subsequently born without arms and with deformities of the feet. Based on this evidence, Stevenson suggests that birthmarks and birth defects may be psychically induced. Stevenson (1997a) notes that birthmarks found in reincarnation cases often differ from run-of-the-mill birthmarks in that they consist of hairless, puckered tissue, are often raised or depressed, and that some are oozing or bleeding at the time that the baby is born.
Announcing Dreams. Another feature of reincarnation cases is the announcing dream, in which a pregnant woman may dream of a deceased relative or acquaintance who informs her of his intention to be reborn as her child. Of the twenty-four cases that Stevenson (1977c) investigated among the Haida Indians of British Columbia, fourteen were characterized by announcing dreams. In one of Stevenson’s Haida cases, a tribal elder had said that he wished to be born with only one hand so that he could avoid manual labor. After his death, his grandchild was born without a hand on his right arm.
Unusual Interests and Skills. Many of Stevenson’s subjects displayed skills and interests that seem to represent a continuation of skills and interests developed in the claimed previous life. Nazih Al-Danaf’s interest in guns and Rakesh Gaur’s interest in carpentry in the cases discussed above would constitute examples of this phenomenon. Also, many subjects display phobias that seem related to their past life memories. One of Stevenson’s cases involved a boy who recalled a past life in which he had been killed when a van crashed into the abutment of a bridge. The child displayed a fear of that particular bridge and of automobiles in general (Stevenson, 1990). Stevenson notes that such phobias, which occur in about one third of his cases (Cook et al., 1983), seem in most instances to relate to the manner of death of the previous personality. He has even gone so far as to contend that unusual phobias, talents, and interests in general (including transsexualism) may have their roots in past life experiences, whether they are remembered or not.
Cases in which a person manifests a skill that he or she had no opportunity to acquire in the present life provides further evidence for reincarnation. The same holds true for mediumship. If a medium with no apparent mathematical skills is possessed by the spirit of a deceased mathematician and is able to solve randomly chosen partial differential equations, this would constitute a strong case for survival, as it is unlikely that a medium could acquire such a complex skill through telepathy. However, Braude (2002) has noted that prodigies and savants often manifest complex skills, such as piano-playing and mathematical calculations that that seem inexplicable on the part of the prodigy’s training and prior experience. In view of this fact, Braude suggests that it is premature to assume that such a manifestation of a complex skill must have been acquired in a different lifetime or through the exercise of some “superpsi” ability capable of acquiring complex skills from other living persons.
Xenoglossy. In a handful of cases, a medium or person remembering a past life has been able to speak in a language that he or she had no opportunity to learn normally, a phenomenon known as xenoglossy. The principal investigator of the phenomenon of xenoglossy has been Ian Stevenson (Stevenson, 1974d, 1976, 1984; Stevenson & Pasricha, 1979, 1980). In one of Stevenson’s cases, a woman who had been hypnotically regressed to a previous life spoke in German, a language that she did not know in her normal waking state (Stevenson, 1976). Some skepticism was expressed by German-speaking observers as to whether the subject really understood what she was saying in this case. D. Scott Rogo (1987) also contended that this subject attempted on at least one occasion to fake knowledge of German by consulting a dictionary. In any event, Rogo asserts, her knowledge of German was rudimentary and she was unable to keep track of long speeches and complex phrases.
Another case, investigated by Stevenson and Pasricha (1980), is quite unusual in that it resembles a case of possession more than a typical reincarnation case. (The phenomenon of possession will be described in greater detail below.) In this case, an Indian woman first spoke of memories of a previous life when she was in her thirties. Her body was apparently completely taken over by the personality of the previous incarnation. Her primary personality had amnesia for events occurring when the previous personality was in control of the body, and the previous personality had amnesia for events occurring when the primary personality was in control of the body, although this mutual amnesia was not entirely complete. When the previous personality was manifesting, the subject spoke Bengali, a language Stevenson and Pasricha claim she had no opportunity to learn. Six native speakers verified that she was fluent in Bengali while in the previous personality state. In an independent investigation of the case, V. V. Akolkar (1992) was able to determine that this subject did in fact have some training in Bengali, which of course diminishes the evidence for xenoglossy considerably.
Sarah Thomason (1987) has argued that two of Stevenson’s cases fail to provide evidence for true responsive xenoglossy (in which a subject can hold a two-way conversation in the language) as opposed to recitative xenoglossy (in which the subject may simply recite a phrase or word he may have previously memorized or may simply parrot back words presented to him by the questioner). Thomason claims that Stevenson’s subjects show an extremely limited vocabulary, that they provide only short answers, which often consist of mere repetition of phrases, when questions are posed to them, and that they make simple mistakes that are probably due to the fact that the subject understands only one or two words in a sentence.
A new case of xenoglossy has been presented by Barrington, Mulacz and Rivas (2005), with a minor correction published in Barrington (2005). In this case, in 1933 a fifteen-year-old Hungarian girl, Iris Farczady, who had dabbled in mediumship, underwent a complete personality change, claiming to be Lucinda, a 41-year-old Spanish woman who had died earlier that year. After the transformation, “Lucinda” spoke only in Spanish, a language that Barrington, Mulacz and Farczady claim Iris had never learned nor had to opportunity to acquire. Still in control in at age 86 in 1998 (the time of Barrington et al.’s investigation), Lucinda has remained in existence and considers Iris to be another person, who ceased to exist in 1933.
In general, the evidence for xenoglossy is quite fragmentary. Xenoglossy cases are extremely rare, and only four cases have received thorough investigation, three of them by Stevenson. At least two of Stevenson’s cases are extremely weak, and in any event it would seem to be an impossible task to demonstrate conclusively that an adult subject never had enough exposure to a given foreign language to enable him or her to produce a few simple phrases (or demonstrate increasing fluency over 70 years of practice in the case of Iris Farczady).
Prevalence of Violent Deaths. In an extraordinarily large number of cases involving the spontaneous recall of past lives, the previous life ended in a violent death. Such deaths occur in well over half of Stevenson’s cases (Stevenson, 1987). James Matlock (1990) observes that this represents a substantial elevation over the rate of violent deaths in the general population, which stands at five percent. Stevenson observes that the details of a violent death are frequently the most prominent memories in such cases. In instances of homicide, the murderer’s name is frequently recalled, and occasionally events that the previous personality would have no way of knowing are nevertheless recalled (such as the process whereby an object came to fall on one’s head, resulting in death). Stevenson further notes that even cases in which the death of the previous personality was nonviolent frequently involve sudden death or unfinished business (such as when a mother of young children dies or when the subject reports dying as a child in the previous life). Stevenson believes that such unfinished business can result in past life memories being more likely to emerge in the next incarnation and can also lead to a shorter time interval before reincarnation than might otherwise be the case. In fact, he presents evidence that cases involving a violent death involve a shorter time interval before rebirth than cases involving a nonviolent death (Stevenson & Chadha, 1988). The average time interval between lives is, incidentally, only 15 months in Stevenson’s cases.
Stevenson offers a few speculations regarding the process of reincarnation based on his research (Stevenson, 1987). He suggests that between lives the personality exists as a discarnate trace called a “psychophore.” The psychophore retains images relating to the previous life. These images are then capable of being described once the child whose body becomes associated with the psychophore develops the ability to speak. Stevenson further notes that his cases provide little support for the hypothesis that a moral principle of karma guides the reincarnation process.
Criticisms of Spontaneous Recall Cases. Critics have attacked the evidence for reincarnation based on spontaneous recall on several fronts. First and foremost among these criticisms is the possibility that the child may have acquired the information about the previous life through normal means and consciously or unconsciously used this information to construct a past-life fantasy or hoax. Certainly, in cases in which the recalled past life is that of a deceased member of the subject’s family, the possibility for sensory transmission of information is enormous. In other cases, the subject’s present family may have had contact with or knowledge of the family of his claimed former incarnation. In fact, in only about one-quarter of such cases are the two families unknown to each other (Stevenson,1986; Cook, 1986).
The high proportion of cases involving violent death in Stevenson’s collection raises the suspicion that the death of the prior personality may have received much formal and informal publicity, rendering it even more likely that the subject could have been exposed to information relating to the death through normal channels.
Keil (2005) reports that the median distance between the subject and the residence of the claimed prior personality in a sample of 1200 coded cases from Stevenson’s collection is only 14 kilometers and only a handful of cases involve distances of more than 500 kilometers. This close proximity would be consistent with the sensory leakage theory. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as evidence that “souls” or “psychophores” may be somehow confined in spacetime or constrained by spacetime in such a way as to not travel great distances between incarnations. A third hypothesis would be that being born in close proximity to one’s home in the former life provides cues that trigger memories of a past life, cues that may not be available if one is reborn in a remote location.
For a parapsychologist willing to admit the existence of psi, ESP constitutes another channel whereby the subject may have acquired information relating to the claimed past life. In such a scenario, the subject would then use the information consciously or unconsciously to impersonate the prior personality or to construct a past life fantasy (which a confused subject might actually believe). Stevenson counters this charge by noting that his subjects evidence no extraordinary extrasensory abilities apart from the reincarnation memories themselves. He also points to the behavioral and emotional components of such cases (such as the manifestation of skills or phobias relating to a past life), which he claims are not so easily explainable on the basis of ESP (Stevenson, 1987). In this context, it is interesting to note that in one of three cases extensively investigated by Antonia Mills (1989), the subject did in fact display extrasensory awareness (including precognitive awareness) of events happening to the family of the previous personality after the case had developed.
Another possibility is that reincarnation cases may be consciously perpetrated hoaxes. Stevenson himself has detected several such cases. (Stevenson, Pasricha & Samararatne, 1988). Ian Wilson (1987, 1988) has argued that a disproportionately large number of Stevenson’s cases consist of poor children remembering wealthy lives. He contends that these cases may represent a scheme to bilk money from the family of the claimed former incarnation. In fact, however, the evidence does not indicate any great tendency for subjects to recall past lives under better conditions than their present one (Matlock, 1990; Mills, 1989; Pasricha,1978).
One weakness of most reincarnation cases is that no written record is made of the child’s statements regarding his alleged past life prior to the attempted verification of those statements. This allows the possibility that the child and his family may mingle their memories of what the child said with what they have subsequently learned about the previous personality through meeting and interviewing the family, consulting records, and so forth. Stevenson has introduced the term “paramnesia” to describe such memory distortion, and he himself thinks that the easiest way to attack his research would be on the basis of the unreliability of witnesses’ memories (Stevenson, 1977b, 1987). In fact, in only about 1.3% of Stevenson’s cases were written records made of the child’s statements prior to attempts to verify them (Keil, 2005). On the other hand, some of these cases, such as the case of Bishen Chand (Stevenson, 1972b), are fairly impressive in terms of the number of accurate details contained in the child’s statements. Keil (2005) notes that there are on average 25.5 documented statements made by the child claimant in cases with a written record of the child’s statements (with 76.7% of these statements verified as accurate descriptions of the life and circumstances of the claimed former incarnation). There are an average of 18.5 statements in cases without written records, with 78.4% of the statements corroborated. Keil takes these results as evidence against the “social contamination” hypothesis. Also, an examination of the evidence by Stevenson and Keil (2000) found that the child claimants provided fewer details regarding their claimed past lives when there were delays in investigating the case. Stevenson and Keil take this as evidence against the hypothesis that the stories are being embellished over time; rather, details are being forgotten and lost. Of course, it may be possible that investigators are quicker to respond to cases in which the child has provided a lot of detailed information about the past life rather than just a few vague statements.
One concern regarding Stevenson’s reincarnation cases is that such cases may be manufactured as a result of parental or cultural encouragement. Certainly, the vast majority of Stevenson’s cases arise in cultures that already subscribe to a belief in reincarnation, such as the Hindu population of India, Druse Moslems, or the Tlinget Indians of Alaska. Also, the features of such cases may vary across cultures. For instance, announcing dreams and rebirth within the same family are far more common among the Native American tribes of the Northwest than among the Hindus of India (Stevenson, 1987, 1990). Stevenson suggests that nascent cases may be suppressed in cultures hostile to reincarnation (Stevenson, 1974b). He further notes that such cultures provide no cognitive framework in which such memories could be made intelligible.
Possession and Obsession
Closely related to reincarnation cases are cases in which a person’s normal personality is apparently temporarily or (much more rarely) permanently displaced by the personality of a deceased human being (or other entity). This phenomenon is known as possession. A milder form of this syndrome occurs when a person merely seems to be under the influence or partial control of a discarnate personality, without the person’s primary personality being displaced. Such cases are commonly termed instances of “obsession.”
One of the classic cases of possession has come to be called the “Watseka Wonder.” It was first reported in a pamphlet by the self-proclaimed minister E. W. Stevens (1887), who in fact may have been one of the prime instigators of the phenomena. The subject of this case was a thirteen-year-old girl named Lurancy Vennum, who in 1877 fell into a “trance,” or an apparently hysterical illness, in which she apparently became possessed by several “spirits,” including the personality of a sullen elderly woman and a young man who claimed to have lost his life after running away from home. One of the Vennums’ neighbors, Asa Roff, whose own daughter had died twelve years previously, convinced the Vennums to allow E. W. Stevens, a “magnetic healer” and “minister,” to see Lurancy. Stevens hypnotized the girl and suggested she replace the unpleasant personalities currently possessing her with a more pleasant personality. Lurancy then suggested a list of control spirits, including the deceased Mary Roff, and the Roffs, who were present, readily agreed to have their daughter serve as control. After becoming possessed by the spirit of Mary Roff, Lurancy lost all traces of her former personality, did not recognize members of her biological family, and insisted on living with the Roffs. She lived with the Roffs for a little more than three months. During that time, she recalled many events in the life of Mary Roff in conversations with the Roffs, including the details of a trip to Texas in 1857 and the names of many friends and acquaintances of the Roffs from the time preceding Lurancy’s birth. She also on one occasion pointed to a collar, saying she had tatted it (which was true as applied to Mary). She did not recall any of the details of her former life as Lurancy Vennum during the three months in question. Finally, Lurancy’s old personality reemerged, and she returned to the home of her biological family, although the Mary Roff personality would emerge from time to time during visits between Lurancy and the Roffs.
There are several problems with this case. First, the Roff personality was virtually suggested to a psychologically troubled young adolescent by the hypnotist minister (who also served as the main chronicler of the case). She may have seized on the Mary Roff personality as a means of temporarily escaping a troubled home life. Watseka, Illinois, was a small town, and Lurancy probably had ample opportunity to learn some of the details of Mary Roff’s life, especially as Mary had become insane at the time of her early and mysterious death and so may have been the subject of much town gossip. Also, as Rodger Anderson (1980) points out, the Roffs and the Vennums had been near neighbors when Lurancy was seven. The Roff boy was Lurancy’s age and hence a probable playmate, thus affording Lurancy another opportunity to learn some of the details of the Roffs’ history. Finally, there is always the possibility that Lurancy may have simply repeated details she heard in earlier conversations among the Roffs and that she may have recognized a child’s handiwork in the tatted collar and made the obvious inference that it was Mary’s sewing. For all these reasons, despite its centrality in the popular literature on parapsychology, the Watseka Wonder does not present an especially strong case for possession.
Several of Ian Stevenson’s reincarnation cases might be better interpreted as cases of possession, including the xenoglossy case discussed above. Stevenson’s collection also contains several cases in which a child’s normal personality seemed to be supplanted by the personality of a deceased person well after the child’s birth. In fact, Stevenson himself has suggested that cases of this type might be better explained in terms of possession rather than reincarnation (Stevenson, 1987, p. 124).
Of course, cases of ostensible possession occur frequently in religious contexts, such as when a practitioner of voodoo is possessed or “ridden” by a god or when a ritual of exorcism is performed to cure an apparent case of demonic possession within the context of Christianity. In the vast majority of such cases, however, the possessing entity does not seem to be identifiable with any specific living or dead person, nor is there much in the way of solid evidence for the paranormal acquisition of information. This being the case, it would seem reasonable to assume that such cases of possession are the result of suggestion, the product of attention-seeking role-playing, or constitute an especially bizarre form of multiple personality.
In cases of obsession, the subject’s personality is not supplanted by the surviving spirit of a deceased person, but is apparently under the influence of such a spirit. Perhaps the best-described case of obsession in the annals of psychical research was investigated by the American researcher James Hyslop (1909). The case involved a goldsmith named Frederic L. Thompson, who was suddenly seized by a desire to sketch and paint in oils during the summer and autumn of 1905. Thompson even remarked to his wife that he felt he was an artist named Robert Swain Gifford. Thompson had met Gifford only a few times and knew little about his work. Gifford had died in 1905. Thompson’s pictures, which consisted largely of seascapes, were found to correspond closely to Gifford’s work. Upon visiting the Elizabeth Islands and Naushon Island in Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts, where Gifford had done most of his painting, Thompson discovered several scenes that closely resembled paintings he had recently generated under the influence of the Gifford persona. At one point, Thompson heard a voice telling him to look on the other side of a tree. Upon doing so, Thompson discovered Gifford’s initials carved there, together with the date 1902. Thompson did in fact live in New Bedford for a period of time during his childhood, but he claimed never to have visited the Elizabeth Islands during this time.
One of the shortcomings of this case is the fact that the subject himself served as one of the principal investigators. Also, it would not strain one’s credulity too much to imagine that similarities between two collections of seascapes might arise purely by chance. A skeptic could maintain that Thompson may have identified with Gifford for some strange psychological reason and carried that identification to the point that he fancied himself possessed by Gifford.
A more recent case of obsession was described by Rogo (1989). In this case, a man was cured of transvestism after a female spirit who was apparently controlling his behavior was expelled through a rite of exorcism. This case does not provide particularly compelling evidence of obsession, however, as the female spirit was never identified with any specific living or dead person. Also, it is not uncommon for transvestites to talk about expressing their female personas and to distinguish such personas from their everyday male selves.
The strongest evidence for reincarnation or possession remains Ian Stevenson’s reincarnation cases. Even those cases have their shortcomings. As noted elsewhere in this book, given the findings of modern neuroscience, which has convincingly established that mental activity is at least intimately dependent on, if not identical with, brain activity, it is extremely unlikely that you could leave your physical brain behind and still retain all the memories, thoughts and feelings that have plagued you through this life. Reincarnation need not involve memory. As the ancient Greeks thought, we may drink of the river of Lethe and remember no more. Like the elementary particles that compose our physical body, our souls or selves (construed as centers of pure consciousness) may be constantly recycled through a succession of living organisms and non-biological structures (some such structures perhaps being beyond our ken at the present time). Memory, like a telephone number scrolled on a note pad, may reside in the structure, not the soul. This present life (or, as we shall presently see, perhaps a small portion thereof) may be but a brief interlude in continuing journey through spacetime (and perhaps through other realms beyond our present understanding).
Attempts to Physically Detect the Soul
We will now consider several rather colorful (and sometimes rather bizarre) forms of evidence for survival. They all fall into the category of attempts to measure and record the activities of discarnate spirits with physical devices. These include attempts to weigh the soul, to photograph ghosts, and to record the voices of the deceased.
Weighing the Soul
In a rather macabre experiment conducted in the early twentieth century, Duncan MacDougall, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, attempted to measure the mass of the souls of terminally ill patients as they died upon a bed resting on a delicately balanced beam scale. Usable data were obtained from four such patients and the results indicated a weight loss of between 3/8 and 3/4 of an ounce at the time of death. In a second experiment, no detectable weight loss at the time of death was detected in 15 dogs MacDougall (1907a, 1907b). The American psychical researcher Hereward Carrington (1907) argued that air loss from the lungs could account for up to five grams of the weight loss (or about one quarter of the weight loss reported by MacDougall). On the other hand, Donald Carpenter (1984) has contended in his review of MacDougall’s studies that no such weight loss would occur if the air in the lungs is at the ambient pressure. MacDougall in fact tested the effect of expelling the air in the lungs and found it to have no impact on the patient’s weight. Voiding of solids and fluids should have had no effect, as these would presumably be captured in the bed. In a definitive (although one is tempted to say breezy) analysis, Carpenter concludes that expulsion of gases through flatulence can account for at most one gram of weight loss.
Following up on MacDougall’s research, H. L. Twining (1915) claimed to detect a weight loss of between one and two milligrams at the time of death in mice that were killed with cyanide. This weight loss was, however, prevented if the mouse was sealed in a tube, and Twining ascribed the change in weight to loss of moisture.
Hollander (2001) reported a transient weight gain of 18 to 780 grams at the time of death in sheep and goats. The animals were wrapped in a bag to prevent fluid loss and were killed by asphyxiation. The transient weight gains were observed 10 to 200 seconds after the animal’s last breath. Hollander notes that Carpenter (1984) performed calculations suggesting that the energy needed for a ghost to function is approximately 60 joules and proposed a unit called the “Mac” in honor of Duncan MacDougall, which would be 20 to 30 joules. Hollander states that his own data supports the notion that the weight gain is composed of “ghost quanta” of this magnitude. In a debunking of Hollander’s result, Pollard (2002) notes that his own results standing on a scale indicated that a “dying gasp” could temporarily increase his weight from 165 to 175 pounds. However, Hollander (2002) rebutted this observation by noting that such weight gains were inertial and were always followed by a weight loss as the scale rebounded, whereas no such weight loss occurred in his data.
Thus, the weighing of spirits has enjoyed a long but thin history in the annals of survival research and the debate continues to this day.
Snapshots of Spirits
There have been many attempts to detect the soul visually as well as to weigh it. Closely related to the experiments of Twining and Pollard discussed above is one such attempt at visual detection of the soul by a physicist named R. A. Watters (1935). In an experiment not likely to win the approval of today’s advocates of animal rights, Watters decapitated animals, including frogs and mice, and claimed to have photographed forms bearing a resemblance to the animals in a cloud chamber of the type used to detect subatomic particles. Watters later came to attribute this effect to the emission of chemicals from the animal’s bodies. When this possibility was eliminated, the cloud chamber apparitions ceased to appear.
Alleged photographs of spirits played a prominent role in the early history of psychical research. The French researcher Hyppolite Baraduc produced photographs of what appeared to be luminous globes hovering over his wife and son at the times of their deaths (Carrington,1921).
Many people have claimed to have taken pictures of ghosts, but most of these snapshots appear to be hoaxes involving double exposures of film. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, even published a book in which he accepted two young ladies’ claim to have photographed fairies (Doyle, 1921). The fairies, however, turned out to be almost exact copies of illustrations from a popular children’s book augmented with wings. Thus it appears that the “fairies” were mere cardboard cutouts (as they frankly appear to be in the photographs), and it seems that the girls were playing a prank on Doyle.
Psychics frequently report seeing “auras” or luminous glows surrounding people. Sometimes such auras are interpreted as being caused by the astral body’s extending beyond the confines of the physical body. Several attempts to detect auras through physical measuring devices have been reported. One of the first was Walter Kilner’s invention of dicyanin goggles that he claimed enabled the viewer to see the auras surrounding people (Kilner, 1920). Unfortunately, it seems that the auras visible through Kilner’s goggles were due to the differential refraction of ordinary light rays.
Luminous halos or coronas surrounding living objects appear in pictures obtained through Kirlian photography, in which a high voltage electrical field is applied to an object in direct contact with photographic film. In the early 1970s, many people interpreted these coronas and halos as representing pictures of auras, astral bodies, or some other form of “vital energy.” Since that time, it has been rather conclusively demonstrated that such Kirlian auras are caused by known chemical and electrical processes. The nature of the aura obtained in the photograph is dependent on mundane physical variables such as the amount of water in the specimen, the pressure exerted by the specimen on the film, salt concentrations, and other variables. The aura is the result of simple electrical corona discharge and does not reflect any “psychical energy” (see for instance Burton, Joines & Stevens, 1975; Robinson, Maeir, O’Hallaren, Daniels & Staehel, 1975; Montandon, 1977; Pehek, Kyler & Faust, 1976; and Watkins & Bickel, 1986, 1989).
At one point in the history of this line of research, it was argued that the “phantom leaf effect,” in which the Kirlian image of a whole leaf remains even after part of the leaf has been destroyed, points to the existence of a nonphysical energy body capable of being photographed through the Kirlian process. Many investigators (e.g., Hubacher & Moss, 1976; Watkins & Bickel, 1986, 1989) have found this effect difficult to replicate, and at least one replication has been due to suspected fraud on the part of a member of the investigating team (Kejariwal, Chattopadhya & Choudhury, 1983). Watkins and Bickel (1986) pointed out that the phantom leaf effect can be the result of placing the partial leaf in the same position on the film that the whole leaf originally occupied. As the moisture pattern from the original, whole leaf may remain on the film, a Kirlian photograph depicting an intact leaf may result. Also, Kirlian auras have been photographed around inanimate objects such as coins, which are not normally viewed as being imbued with a life force.
Electronic Voice Phenomema
A few investigators have claimed to be able to pick up broadcasts from the afterlife using tape-recording equipment. Some of these researchers have taped the signal received at a radio frequency over which no station is broadcasting, while others have simply activated a microphone in a presumably quiet environment without any radio hookup at all. This technique was invented independently by Attila von Szalay and Friedrich Jurgenson in the late 1950s and early 1960s (see Jurgenson, 1964; and Bayless, 1959, 1980). A great deal of “research” using this technique was conducted by Konstantin Raudive, who reported his results in a popular book entitled Breakthrough (Raudive, 1971).
This body of research has been roundly criticized and condemned by the parapsychological research community. E. Lester Smith (1972, 1974) argued that Raudive was so eager to hear voices in ambiguous sounds that he was able to decipher signals from the beyond in what was really random radio static. In support of this idea, he noted that the same sorts of errors that Raudive usually made when he spoke German were being made by the spirits of the dead whose voices he claimed to have captured on audiotape. In fact, Smith noted that other observers often had to be “trained” for months by Raudive before they too could hear the voices of the departed on Raudive’s tapes, much as the subjects of the kingdom were eventually able to see the emperor’s new clothes. The British researcher David Ellis visited Raudive’s laboratory in an effort to confirm his results, but was unable to hear the voices. His impression was that Raudive seemed to be interpreting nonvocal sounds as voices. Ellis has also pointed out that the earlier electronic voice researcher Friedrich Jurgenson admitted to having “functional hallucinations,” which consisted of hearing voices in natural sounds, after he discontinued his own tape experiments (Ellis, 1973).
Stray radio signals could also have played a role in generating some of the voices. Ellis was able to determine that a sequence of phrases in several different languages purportedly directed to Raudive by the denizens of the afterlife was actually an announcement in English broadcast by Radio Luxemborg. Smith also suggested that stray radio signals were responsible for many of Raudive’s voices. He notes that Raudive’s willingness to use any language and to accept ungrammatical utterances from the beyond make it quite likely that Raudive’s voices were such stray speech fragments. Jurgen Keil (1980) was able to identify a 37-word passage in German on the tapes, but notes that Raudive used five languages to decode the passage and did not recognize the fact that it was entirely in German. Thus, if these were voices from another dimension, their advice might have lost something in the translation.
E. Lester Smith (1972, 1974) even suggested that Raudive’s eagerness to hear from the expired may have led him to use ventriloquism unconsciously to produce the voices on tape, and Gerd Hövelman (1982) has likewise postulated that Jurgenson’s and Raudive’s voices might be the product of unconscious whispering on the part of people present during the tape-recording process.
Raymond Bayless and the late D. Scott Rogo published a collection of cases in which people have claimed to have received phone calls from the dead (Rogo & Bayless, 1979). Their study, however, was widely criticized in the parapsychological community for its generally sloppy and credulous nature (see Hardy, 1979, for instance). Nonetheless, one waits with bated breath for the next development in electronic communication from the beyond. To my knowledge, the dead must not have a fax machine at their disposal nor do they seem to have much in the way of an text-messaging capability (possibly this may await the demise of Bill Gates). However, in at least one case, ghosts have apparently communicated via the spell-checker in a word-processing program. The investigators were, however, able to tie these ghostly communications to a computer bug in which the computer offered up the last word entered into a custom dictionary when the custom dictionary memory allocation was full (Rousseau & Rousseau, 2005).
Conclusions and Perspectives
We here conclude our examination of the evidence for the survival of the personality, or at least some aspect thereof, of the death of the physical body as well as our examination of the evidence for psi phenomena. As stated at the outset of this book, in view of the findings of modern cognitive neuroscience, it is doubtful that major portions of the “person” (defined as the concatenation of one’s memories, beliefs, emotions and habits) could survive the death of the physical body. By the end of the second millennium, it had been amply demonstrated that one’s cognitive and affective life is intimately dependent on brain activity. A twist of a scalpel in one’s hippocampus, and one loses the ability to store new episodic memories. How then, with their hippocampi long since decomposed, can the dead regale us with tales of their adventures in the afterlife? Remove his amygdala, and a violent maniac is turned into a docile creature. How then can a restless spirit, torn not only from its amygdala but its entire brain, terrorize us from beyond the grave to avenge some past injury? It is simply no longer possible to maintain that the personality is independent of the brain or that the brain is simply the conduit through which the soul speaks, rather than the generator of the personality, if not the soul. How, if a mind cannot maintain its memories once the brain has entered the ravages of Alzheimer’s, could it remember its adventures on earth when the entire cerebrum has been reabsorbed into the dust?
Psi powers, if they exist, would be strong evidence against the physicialist view that the universe is solely composed of physical particles already known to science, or minor modifications thereof. Also, should such faculties as retrocognitive telepathy exist, the dead would be granted a trans-temporal form of survival. If through retrocognitive telepathy one can “converse” with a lost friend, then somehow that friend’s mind (and personality) can in some sense be said to exist “now.” However, the current body of evidence, while suggestive of the paranormal, compels neither the belief in psi nor the belief in continued existence of the personality after the death of the brain.
In the next chapter, we will take up the question of the nature of the self, construed as a field of pure consciousness. It will be proposed that the self should not be identified with the patterns of memories, emotions, thoughts and sensations swirling through the physical brains which we are mysteriously (and perhaps only momentarily) trapped. Our memories, emotions, thoughts and sensations are fleeting and change from moment, whereas our conscious selves seem to persist (at least through macroscopic time intervals, if not through periods of sleep or a Sunday afternoon’s “microsleep” during the huddle in a televised football game).
The contents (sensations, emotions, memories etc.) of the greatest entertainment center we know, our brains, may separate and scatter into different corners of the mindscape or leave our conscious minds altogether. However, those minds, conceived as centers of pure consciousness, appear intuitively to be unitary and not divisible into components. If we are something like the proto-consciousnesses proposed by Walker (2000), or “mini-Shins,” then we likely share the same ontological privileges awarded to fundamental particles or fields, including conservation over time. Perhaps we are even identical with particles or fields already known to physics (much like a proton responding to a complex quantum-mechanical field, which connects it to the rest of the universe, thus rendering it in some sense aware of that universe). On the other hand we may be a fundamental entity yet to be identified by modern science. In either event, our association with any given brain or other physical system is likely to be more temporary than we think (the illusion of decades of continuous inhabitation of a particular brain arising from the memories stored in that brain and our construction of that social entity known as the “person”). The illusion of being the person, in the sense of the conjunction of our physical bodies and personality traits such as memories and desires, likely arises in part from a false identification with the physical body and its needs, which may serve our biological imperatives but perhaps not our spiritual needs.
This universe is one of conservation, of matter-energy, and baryon number and angular momentum. It is a universe of rearrangement, not destruction. If, as a centers of pure consciousness, we are granted at least some form of parity with such seemingly (to us) mindless and insignificant entities such as quarks and electrons, then it is likely that we like they, are recycled from system to system, continually falling into the murky depths of one system of primitive awareness after another, but perhaps from time to time becoming united in a “supersystem,” from which vantage point our present human consciousness will appear like that of an ameba.
If the materialists are correct in their view that we are nothing but matter-energy and our intuition is correct that we are unitary, much more like a quark on an electron than a temporary conglomeration of atoms, then the prosurvivalist may rejoice. The universe conserves mass-energy, recycling it from one part of the cosmic show to another. Uncountable beauties and terrors may await us as we are torn free of our human form and the illusion created by our stories of the self and our identification with the Person.
In the chapters to come, these ideas will be explored further, beginning with the nature of the self and its relation to the physical brain.
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