3 January 2010


Matthew D. Smith. (editor) Anomalous Experiences: Essays from Parapsychological and Psychological Perspectives. McFarland and Company, 2009.

These papers, classed into two sections, parapsychological approaches and psychological approaches, are based on those presented to a one-day conference at Liverpool Hope University in June 2005. There are several papers which should be of interest to Magonia readers.
Of particular interest is Simon Sherwood's study of phantom black dog experiences. Traditionally regarded as products of cultural source and folklore, he demonstrates that there are modern encounters, including his own, and that Hufford's experiential source model is probably the more nearly correct.

That being said there are no obvious explanations either normal or paranormal for such experiences. When looked at critically, the same might be said of the haunting experiences discussed by Ciaran O Keefe and Steve Parsons. They look at possible environmental factors which could generate such experiences, as well as, more briefly, the role of expectancy and the like.

If in such spontaneous experiences there are transcultural themes, there are also clearly cultural and metacultural influences. One of these deep metacultural influences might be the very way human beings spontaneously use language to describe personal experience, a theme developed by Robin Wooffitt in his paper on a 'sociological parapsychology'. While he was studying the use of language by people describing their experiences in laboratory ESP tests, the insights will have as great, if not greater relevance to spontaneous experiences.

Also of potential interest is the study by Chris French and his co-workers of the prevalence of 'false recall' a form of false memory among a group of people they characterise as 'UFO abductees' (but which, however, looks rather broader, encompassing people who would generally be classed as contactees). They claim to have detected a higher than baseline incidence of false recall among 'abductees'. This is, however, one of those papers which require a knowledge of statistics in order to evaluate its findings.

Readers of Magonia (whether in hard copy or online) will know that Martin Kottmeyer has discussed the role of boundary deficiency in the generation of anomalous experiences. This seems to be connected to the 'positive schizotypy' discussed by Christine Simmonds-Moore. These are associated with increased creativity, increased perception of patterns where none exist and increase communication between the brain's hemispheres. She leaves open whether this means that people in this population have an increased tendency to generated patterns and meanings in noise, or have an increased awareness of subliminal information, including ESP.

Richard Wiseman discusses his fake séances, and shows how even in rather artificial conditions, people can misperceive and misremember, and that believers seem to do this more than sceptics, and suggests that this much be a much stronger factor in real séances.

Daryl Bem and Caroline Watts both report positive correlations, which might be seen as evidence for psi, yet together they show how these claims can lead to major complications, Basically Bem argues he has shown that people can become bored by pictures before they have seen them, he does this by showing them two fairly neutral pictures, and asks which they prefer. Then the computer selects one at random and flashes it to them several times. They tend to prefer the picture they are not going to see than the one they do (by a small margin). Bem argues that this demonstrates precognition. But Watts paper claims to show that the beliefs of the experimenters produce above chance variations, so if you think ESP and PK are plausible but precognition is not you could argue that the experimenter learned which of the pictures was chosen by ESP and then used his PK to influence the computer to produce results which fitted his theory.

Of course if you are prepared to accept precognition, but not ESP or PK, you could interpret those results in terms of precognition (you foresaw the result and chosen your guess to tie in with the result), and this is at least partially suggested in the piece by Paul Stevens, in which he argues that things like ESP might not be quite as anomalous as parapsychologists want them to be. He may well be on to a point here, but I suspect he does not go far enough. One of the central problems of parapsychology is that many (perhaps the majority) of those involved in it are not so much interested in the various anomalies in and of themselves, but using them as battering rams against 'materialism'. Therefore non-transcendialist interpretations of even possible 'genuine' anomalies are rarely looked at.

It is for perhaps this reason and not just the artificiality of the experimental situation as suggested by Jezz Fox, that neither experimental parapsychology nor spontaneous experiences will ever 'prove' psi. Both may indeed generate curious coincidences and correlations which cannot be explained by conventional theories, but that this demonstrates some positive thing called ESP is quite another matter.

There are also two chapters by Etzel Cardena and Chris Roe which deal with the role of hypnosis and other forms of altered states of consciousness in the generation of anomalous experiences and correlations. Chris Roe makes the important point that it is no use studying the relationship between ASC's and parapsychological experiences/correlations unless you can prove that the subject was indeed in an ASC! -- Peter Rogerson.

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