I woke up this morning with a psychic advert left lingering in my dreaming mind. It was some kind of oneiric flyer for a new type of yoga, it even had a telephone number on it to call. This fanciful hypnopompic intrusion brought me back to the idea that if science can identify techniques for reliably producing psychic abilities (termed ‘psi’) then PR executives will soon be pumping millions into pumping adverts directly into our minds. Forget the television, tube trains and pub toilets, we’ll have adverts (or perhaps ‘psiverts’) sneaking rudely into our subconscious and marauding around our dreamscapes at all times of night and day. We won’t even have to open our ears or eyes to be lured in by the latest product we probably don’t need. As a parapsychologist this is one of the annoying possibilities I’ll have to take responsibility for, if and when my research field starts producing practical commercial applications, but what’s the real likelihood of this? I’ll come back to this issue at the end, and instead begin by asking what is the current state of the art in psychical research?
this dismissal of paranormal research by the mainstream might be doing us all a favour, because it might by saving us from the painful military and commercial applications of psi that might ensue if parapsychology were widely accepted
The scientific study of psychic abilities, currently termed ‘parapsychology’, has been represented by an official organ since the 1882 formation of the Society for Psychical Research1 (SPR) in the UK. The SPR came into being only three years after the establishment in Germany of the first psychological laboratory by Wilhelm Wundt, which gave birth to psychology as a modern science. In the last 125 years or so there’s been a very small, but steady, chipping away at the block of our empirical understanding of telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance. Regrettably, this sculpted work in progress has been mostly either ridiculously ignored or ignorantly ridiculed by the vast majority of more mainstream scientists, despite parapsychology being one of the most rigorously executed branches of social science. All the same, this dismissal of paranormal research by the mainstream might be doing us all a favour, because it might by saving us from the painful military and commercial applications of psi that might ensue if parapsychology were widely accepted as a valid research field and funded with more than a handful of loose change.
Looking now at this legacy of research, fastidiously investigated for many years, there appears to be compelling evidence for the existence of psychic abilities[i], yet this would hardly surprise most people on the street. Surveys typically reveal that the majority of people believe in the authenticity of one or more paranormal process[ii]. This widespread belief and evidence for psychic abilities is all well and good but the question remains of whether or not these abilities are readily accessible and can be learnt, and whether we can develop these skills for our purposes and our growth as a species.
although it’s a little-known fact, that the television, the radio and the telephone were all born of the desire to augment psychic abilities
You might disagree that the development of psychic techniques is something we all aspire to – there’s certainly an element of ingrained fear in potentially accessing our ‘latent omniscience’, as Emerson[iii] called it – but our current technology argues for itself. If we had no desire for telepathy (the ability to communicate remotely with anyone anywhere) we would never have become so obsessed with mobile phones or even bothered inventing them. The Internet too, in part at least, attempts to satisfy our need for clairvoyance, to readily know anything there is to know, and so cyberspace can be seen as modern man’s grasping to clutch the Akashic Records, the supposed cosmic catalogue of all events and things in time. It may be no surprise then to find, although it’s a little-known fact, that the television, the radio and the telephone were all born of the desire to augment psychic abilities. The three Victorian fathers of these inventions, Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird, had all shared a serious interest in the spirit mediumship movement, Spiritualism, and had expected to develop technologies for improved psychic communication with the deceased[iv].
A return to the Golden Age?
But is all this hardware just filling a gap we can’t bridge with our own ‘wetware’ – the human nervous system and the mind – or is it just a means of demonstrating what is possible through technology until our lapse imagination catches up and we hone the flaccid muscles of our psyches? We might then consider modern telecommunications and information technology as a kind of rebranding exercise of psychic abilities to prepare us for using our dormant psychic skills. An exercise to help us fake it till we make it, by showing us what a readily available telepathy and clairvoyance would be like, but without the tariffs, the gadgets, and the electromagnetic radiation blasting invisibly out of the phone masts. I know one parapsychologist who, prior to working in this field, developed a biofeedback system which enables completely paralysed people to control a computer merely with their brain waves, thereby using technology to mimic psychokinesis (the direct control over matter by mind). Is all this technology just a warm up for the next stage? Certainly, Rupert Sheldrake’s research[v] with telephone telepathy – the widespread experience of knowing who is calling when the telephone rings – seems to suggest that the technology of telepathy hasn’t reduced the direct experience of it. Perhaps Bell’s desires for psychic communication and his important patent were just a stepping stone to bring the experience of telepathy to virtually everybody, thereby enabling the present critical mass of belief in such experiences required to ensure the following development of the paranormal analogue of the experience, i.e. real telepathy. Perhaps.
Slouching towards 2012 there’s a hopeful fervour brewing in the New Age and psychedelic cauldron that the end of the Mayan calendar will force us to leap spectacularly into an era of realised panpsychism, where telepathy no longer requires telephones and we can plug directly into the Gaian internet or Vernadsky’s noosphere (a kind of human collective consciousness). As a contemporary spokesman for this view Daniel Pinchbeck has borrowed generously from Rudolf Steiner, who foresaw the coming of the Age of Michael and the development of universal telepathy, as did Steiner’s contemporary Teilhard de Chardin. Pinchbeck[vi] supposed that, “…many people, myself included, seem to be experiencing an almost exponential increase in synchronicities and other types of phenomena that suggest that the psychic and physical realms are approaching each other at a high speed”. This is something that I once accidentally neologised during a lecture as the ‘frequenicity’, the sensed increase in the frequency of synchronicities that tends to occur after a sustained dalliance with altered states, much like that which occurred with Pinchbeck’s attempts to break open his head with psychedelics.
a sense that we moderns are living in an age of psychic ignorance, where science has supplanted magic and we are becoming increasingly more detached from any vestiges of that psychic wisdom that our ancestors may once have had
Sure enough, plenty of people on the New Age and psychedelic scenes talk about increasingly opening up to these ‘paranormal’ experiences, but does this reflect a new dawning in human evolution or is it just an artefact, a cohort effect if you like, something that some of us experience more often as we journey further together in our neo-mystical development? Are we each just experiencing this psychic awakening as we unfold on our own path, as many others have before us, or is this increasingly happening to everyone more and more? The evolution of a psychic consciousness might genuinely be happening to all of us as a species, and the experience of opening up to one’s own power might be an indicator of this, but I’ll argue it’s also likely that a prolonged period outside the reaffirmation of our peers’ experiences would lead us to think that we’re just “doing it alone”. Hanging out with fundamentalist sceptics, which many scientists are, or a trip to prison, say, and the harsh realities of life outside one’s chosen bubble of the esoterically educated might lead to the assumption that we are actually travelling down the devolutionary path of psychic consciousness. And, having failed to nurture real telepathy or clairvoyance, our ‘techne’ instead of our ‘psyche’ is increasing fulfilling our needs, plugging the gap between our desire for omniscience and the reality that this desire still very much remains unreachably in the domain of the gods.
Going back to our ancestral roots, a common theme evident in Mircea Eliade’s study of shamanism[vii] is that, globally, the shamans lamented the passing of the Golden Age during which magic powers such as psi had been more potent than at any time since. According to Eliade this was an age that has long been lost and traditional shamanism now is considered a dying art, forever being diluted. Although this might be discounted as Eliade’s pessimism, there appears to be something in this notion. Still clinging to a vanishing world, many of the various tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of the Indian Ocean have managed to resist contact with modern ‘civilisation’ (I use the term loosely) and would still be considered ‘primitive’ by anthropologists had this species of academic survived until now without evolving in a more politically correct direction.
According to the Fortean Times, as a testament to their heightened awareness, these tribes-people were likely the only humans to escape without casualties after their islands were hit by the devastating Tsunami that swept the region in December 2004. Hundreds of thousands of less-aware coast dwellers were killed by this wave across South East Asia[viii]. Strangely enough, apparently very few animals drowned anywhere at this time either, with many having broken their tethers to flee before the waves struck[ix]. Such awareness to the perils of nature was attributed to a sixth sense, a sense that the modern human denizens of those beaches seemingly lacked. If this is a case of genuine paranormal faculties at work then there’s also a sense that we moderns are living in an age of psychic ignorance, where science has supplanted magic and we are becoming increasingly more detached from any vestiges of that psychic wisdom that our ancestors may once have had.
The science of magic?
Taking an objective position on this notion of psychic awareness – if there is such a thing as objectivity – science also holds a means of investigating magic with a critical, yet open mind. This empirical approach is the essence of parapsychology, which can be considered as the science of magic, covertly at least because the word magic itself is anathema to most parapsychologists, keen as they are to remain respectably scientific and scientifically respectable. The word magic, taken seriously, is actually completely abhorrent to most scientists, who commonly subscribe to what has been called ‘scientism’. This is the view that science has ontological supremacy in the explanation of reality, primarily assuming that all processes can be reduced down to mechanical explanations governed only by physical laws, a position known as materialist reductionism. Parapsychology, as a scientific discipline, has been brave enough not to make such materialist assumptions by upholding that science is just a method, not a position or a belief system, thereby keeping a door open for the possibility of real magic and the existence of mind, and even spirit. Much to the alarm of many opponents in the mainstream, parapsychology has used modern methods and technologies to devise experiments that increasingly point toward humans as genuinely psychic beings.
Considering such recent advances, had it not been for the advent of modern psychophysiological monitoring technology, such as electroencephalograph (EEG) brain mapping equipment, psychical research might otherwise have languished in the repetitive and boring loops of card-guessing experiments so popular a few decades ago. Weirdly enough, however, the man renowned for naming the EEG, Hans Berger, developed this technology early in the 20th century for measuring electromagnetic (EM) fluctuations in the brain because he (incorrectly) thought that these EM emissions might be the carrier waves responsible for psychic transmissions between brains. Marconi had earlier thought the same of EM when he invented the telegraph. Berger himself had changed career from astronomy to psychology to study the neurophysiological processes of psi after his distant sister had an accurate vision of him involved in a near-fatal accident. Somewhat poetically then, Berger’s EEG, after disappearing as a tool of psi research but flourishing in neuroscience, has been brought back into the field of parapsychology. This time though, the EEG is being used to find telepathic thought transmissions in a slightly different way, by demonstrating that distant brains can seemingly communicate without the owners of those brains being conscious of it, but not through the medium of electromagnetism as Berger once thought.
What many people may not be aware of is that much of the recent research in parapsychology adumbrates psi as a genuine, albeit subtle and largely unconscious phenomenon capable of escaping our conscious detection, even though our nervous system seemingly picks up the psychic information and responds to it. To illustrate, using brain mapping technology such as EEG a person in one room has their brain monitored while a person in a distant room has their brain randomly stimulated, usually through visual stimulation, such as a flash of bright lights. These visual stimulations are known to reliably cause easily observable reactions in the brain of the person directly perceiving them. What is not generally known is that these stimulations can also be observed somewhat more subtly in the brains of a distant person sealed in another room, well out of sight of the flashes. Some successful experiments even found this effect to occur in the visual cortex, the brain region where the effect might be expected if their brains were being stimulated directly[x]. The same effect was also found using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology[xi] – even localising the spot in the brain where the effect was detected – and so these findings, repeated with different technologies, cannot be easily explained away as an artefact of the brain imaging technique. However, the effect tends to be observable only with pairs of people who have some kind of emotional bond[xii], such as with friends and lovers, with some indication that twins do particularly well[xiii]. Complete strangers, curiously enough, tend not to exhibit this distant brain synchronisation effect, which seems to imply that those people who are emotionally bonded are also somehow cerebrally bonded too.
One surprising effect that occurred in some of these ‘distant brain correlation’ experiments is that there was also a slight time difference between the stimulation in and its reception in the brain. This time difference occurred in those being directly stimulated, in one experiment, and those being distantly stimulated, in another. The trouble is, this slight time shift occurred in reverse, such that the brains seemingly registered the stimulation just a few hundred milliseconds before it occurred. Ordinarily this might seem to be an impossible twist to some already very strange results, but psi researchers are also beginning to amass a wealth of data to support something they call presentiment – the bodies ability to react, or rather ‘pre-act’, to immanent events before they happen, without any known physical means of predicting theses immanent events.
In the basic set-up for these experiments the participants’ physiological arousal is monitored while they are randomly shown images that are either emotionally arousing or emotionally neutral, such as a burn-damaged child or a wicker chair. Using sensors that detect minute fluctuations in skin perspiration by measuring skin conductance, called electrodermal activity (EDA), an accurate gauge of general physiological arousal can be obtained. The EDA of a person reacts directly and almost instantly to the content of the image being seen. However, defying what is generally understood about time, a very small ‘pre-stimulus response’ (something I think would more accurately be called a ‘presponse’) is also observed a few seconds before the presentation of the arousing pictures. Having ruled out other explanations for this effect, the best interpretation of the successful results suggest that the body is subtly prescient to future events, although we may not be consciously aware of it. Similar experiments have successfully been carried out by measuring physiological changes in heartbeat and EEG and also by using pornography, loud noises or even electric shocks as the arousing stimuli[xiv], though no one yet has combined all three of these stimuli – at least not as a parapsychology experiment.
The unconscious reservoir of psychic information
Other uses of EDA monitoring equipment in parapsychology have found that not only are participants’ physiologies responsive to future events but they may also be responsive to the physiological interaction or influence of other people. In a series of experiments designed to test the feasibility of direct psychic healing or intercessory prayer, a participant – the receiver – has their EDA monitored in one room and relayed to another room by computer. In the other room another participant, the ‘agent’, monitors the receiver’s EDA and attempts to influence the receiver’s level of arousal at randomly determined intervals. As you might now expect, there is good evidence from these experiments to suggest that, in line with the agents’ wishes, some kind of interaction or possible influence is occurring between the physiology of these distant pairs[xv]. This is something parapsychologists call ‘direct mental interaction between living systems’, or DMILS.
As with the distant brain correlation and presentiment experiments these changes in the receivers’ physiology appear to go consciously undetected, and collectively these experiments seemingly indicate that our physiology supersedes our cognition in the reception of psychic information, interaction or influence. One interpretation of this is that we may all be continuously psychic, albeit subtly, and yet we remain consciously unaware of the fact, even though our body apparently reacts on our behalf. This makes sense in economic and evolutionary terms because otherwise our awareness of psychic information would have to compete with our other cognitive systems for our attention and might become conflated or lost. Alternatively, unconscious psi information would prevent our conscious awareness from becoming overloaded by a potentially infinite amount of direct psi information. So it would be advantageous if psi worked directly through our physiological systems, enabling us to act unconsciously on this information where necessary, and perhaps stopping us from having accidents or helping us to have useful synchronicities at times. There certainly seems to be very good evidence for the fact that anyone can perform well in a laboratory psi tests and yet most people only have one or two conscious psi experiences in their lives, usually through dreams, and usually only when the information is really needed, such as the death or sudden crisis of a distant loved one. This then suggests that, most often, we are not really consciously aware of our own psychic abilities.
But if anyone can be psychic at any time you might well ask what stops us from actually being omniscient and omnipotent all the time. Why, we want to know, aren’t we gods? The answer might well be us ourselves, as both parapsychological theorists, such as Rex Stanford, and occultists, such as Austin Osman Spare, have indicated that our own unconscious desires often conflict with each other, thereby preventing pure desires and needs from manifesting[xvi]. As Spare[xvii] puts it, “The soul, proud and blighted… is a civil war of desire”. Equally we may hold psychic awareness of something, or perhaps even of everything, in our unconscious mind yet this does not mean we can access it, because it is clear that many people remain consciously detached from their own unconscious. This is obvious to anyone who pays attention to their dreams and starts to unravel their inner conflicts. So it may come as no surprise that a vast reservoir of psychic information can be found lurking in the body or hiding in the unconscious mind. For this reason the study of altered states has a lot to offer in the pursuit of both psi and magic, because, broadly speaking, altered states tend to make the unconscious conscious.
The research of dream psi has long been fruitful in generating successful results[xviii], as has research with partial sensory deprivation environments known as the Ganzfeld, to some degree. But aside from a few projects looking into meditation there has been very little research done recently into psi with other altered states. Revisiting the hopeful days of the 1960s, one of the areas of research I’ve been working on, in virtual solitude, is the parapsychology of psychedelic experiences[xix]. So far, about a dozen experimental programs using LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, cannabis or Amanita muscaria have provided promising evidence for the inducement of psi with psychedelics, under certain conditions, albeit with some methodological difficulties[xx]. Not least of which was that most of these experiments, primarily conducted in the 1960’s, gave psychedelics to inexperienced trippers and then got them to do long series of boring card-guessing tasks while they wrestled with their first numinous experience. More recently a number of surveys[xxi] looking at drug use and paranormal experiences have provided results consistent with the idea that psychedelics in particular can induce psychic experiences, but this probably isn’t news to most trippers. Occultist Julian Vayne[xxii] notes that among psychedelic explorers of inner space, dubbed psychonauts, the telepathic experience is so common that it is hardly remarked upon. Shamans too have been using these substances for millennia for clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, psychic diagnosis, psychic healing, hunting, warfare, magical combat and a host of less easily definable esoteric activities.
Personally, I think it is these other magical activities and apparently paranormal phenomena that occur after a gaze into one’s medicine bag that most deserve investigating. Take the relatively common occurrence of entity encounters with the endogenous psychedelic N,N-dimethyltryptamine (or simply DMT), those classic meetings with self-transforming machine elves or alien praying mantis-neurosurgeons. Outside of my own research, contemporary parapsychology has virtually nothing to say about these encounters. This appears to be largely because parapsychology has yet to recover from its untimely split with the psychedelic research community in the late 1960’s when psychedelics became illegal and all human research with these substances terminated. Since then anybody working on the fringes of science, be it with psychedelics or psychic abilities, has already become too marginalized to risk being further ostracised by their proximate scientific community. On the weird edges of science where funding thins out like oxygen at high altitudes, nobody wants to be a maverick in an already maverick field and researchers on both sides are wary of being seen to discredit their own field by joining the other (though occasionally fools rush in). Meanwhile monstrous be-tentacled beasts with thousands of eyes regularly terrify naïve psychonauts as they burst through the veil to inner dimensions – apparently at least[xxiii] – and parapsychologists, let alone psychologists, have nothing much to say about it.
Up and till now parapsychology has largely confined itself to the study of psi, psychic healing, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, mediumship, the survival of the personality after bodily death, hauntings, ghosts, apparitions, and other ostensible communications from the spirits of the dead, such as electronic voice phenomena. Whatever conservatism has kept the field back from scientifically researching more esoteric activities and phenomena over the last 125 years, it would seem like an appropriate time to expand these activities to include the weirder phenomena found with shamanism, magic (not the illusory stage magic kind), and the use of psychedelics. Lets face it, 2012 or not, things are looking set to get quite a lot weirder in the coming years. A glance over at the world of genetics alone indicates that pretty soon we may all be living in a kind of surreal Neuromancer-type reality.
Recent news suggests that scientists are on the verge of creating purely synthetic genes that can be injected into cells and brought to life – if you believe that life can be created from non-life. Similarly, in 2007, geneticists were granted ethical approval to create hybrid human-animal foetuses, purely for stem-cell research of course and not to go to full term and give birth to hybrid human-animal babies. Given that this kind of technology is available now, the creation of real mutant humans and hybrids the likes of your favourite comic book hero or heroine, is only the thickness of an ethics committee away from being a reality in the near future. And what strikes me as poetic about this is that all those ancient therianthropic images of centaurs, griffons, and mermaids adorning art and myth for millennia may have been more than just the outpourings of imaginative minds, and could have been genuine insights into our mythological mutant future. I, for one, sure wouldn’t mind a set of wings or a pair of goaty pan legs.
So what does modern science have to fear about investigating the mutant gods and demons that lurk within certain neurohacking molecules? Especially molecules like DMT that have long since being naturally occurring in our own brains. Surely with centaurs, neurofeedback control of computers, space travel, nanotechnology and all the other really weird stuff happening in science there’s a genuine need for psychology to catch up by overcoming its taboos about drugs and the paranormal and to really start mapping the weirder realms of the mind. After several years of experimentation with altered states the scientist John C. Lilly said he looked forward to the day when parapsychology was just another branch of psychology. That day never came in John’s lifetime and, given the resistance to non-materialist thinking still current in the mainstream, that day appears to remain a long way off. Perhaps 2012 will change all that. Perhaps not.
Coming back to the start of this essay, one thing that seems apparent, however, is that psi research won’t be starting a revolution in advertising just yet. Rest assured that although there seems to be some good evidence emerging recently for an essentially constant and unconscious psychic awareness in all people, albeit very subtle, there seems to be little indication that the desire to buy a specific product – be it yoga classes or the latest phone – can be psychically ‘planted’ in one’s unconscious mind. The bad news is that in principal such “psiverts” are completely feasible and resemble much of the work that has occurred in parapsychology over the years. Thankfully, however, psychic advertising appears to have been totally overlooked by both researchers and marketing executives alike for the last 125 years. And although psychical research seems to suggest that psychic information can be picked up unconsciously, whether or not this has an effect on spending habits has yet to be researched. This lack of research probably has more to do with good taste and the difficulty replicating individual results in parapsychology than with any lack of imagination.
The other problem for psiverts of course is that psychic abilities, if we assume they are real, are concerned with accessing truths that are not known whereas advertising really wishes to gloss over the warts and present a shining “whiter than white” hyperbole that keeps the truth hidden. Yet, its seems unlikely that the corporate and capitalist machinery in all its manifestations has so far overlooked this area for boosting profits, and it’s possible that at least some organisations may have already conducted such activities covertly. Furthermore, if psychic piracy were at work the fact that psi seems to work unconsciously most of the time means that we would be unlikely to suspect anything at all, so there may already be corsairs costcutting in our cortices and buccaneers billboarding our brains trying to gain that vital extra sales edge on their competitors.
Meanwhile, I won’t let it keep me awake at night but I am determined to try and remember that phone number in the yoga advert next time I dream it and give it a call anyway. Real or not, all this speculation has left my pineal gland feeling like the cerebral equivalent of the Somalian coast and I think all this psychic piracy floating on the aethers has ruptured one of my charkas, so a spot of yoga certainly seems in order. As Eddington said, “The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but it is stranger than we can imagine.”