14 April 2011


Pamela Rae Heath. Mind-Matter Interaction: Review of Historical Reports, Theory and Research. McFarland, 2011.

David Gordon White. Sinister Yogis. University of Chicago Press, 2011

Many cultures have traditions of religious or occult virtuosi who possess extraordinary wild talents. These are to at least some degree the subjects of these two books. Pamela Ray Heath's book is a revised and expanded version of the author's book The PK Zone first published in 2002. In it she undertakes both literature searches on both accounts of spontaneous cases and research studies on various aspects of what she terms mind-matter interaction, along with her own interviews with various 'psychics'.
It is the first section of this book which contains accounts from the biographies of, and travellers tales about, religious virtuosi and wonder workers which includes these extraordinary wild talents which include levitation, bilocation, luminosity, spontaneous human combustion, matter duplication, indedia (living without food), matter transformation, apportation/teleportation, imperviousness to pain, the handling of fire and the like.

These are among the wild talents claimed by the yogis discussed by David G White. These are yogis very different from the kalisthenic meditators known in the west, closer to wonder workers such as Sai Baba, and certainly not always the sort of people whose claimed talents would be of the sort altogether suitable for a village church hall. Not least because other talents that they specialised in was the ability not only to duplicate their bodies as in bilocation, but to penetrate the whole cosmos, alter the size and shape of their bodies, as in western traditions of magicians/witches changing their bodies to those of animals.

They are clearly wild trickster figures who blur all sorts of boundaries not just of the self and others but between "real" and "unreal", religion and entertainment etc.

As I have argued several times before the modern psychics and wonder workers from the age of psychical research are also trickster figures. The earlier literature of psychical research still contains significant echoes of these old talents, along with new ones such as table turning, the production of ectoplasm, of direct voice or electronic voice recordings, psychic photographs etc. They too inhabit the debatable land between dream and reality, truth and fiction, and zones where religion science and show business meet.

In the realm of modern parapsychology these talents seem to have faded down to the claimed ability to influence random number generators and other powers only detectable through esoteric statistical analysis.

Clearly the world views in which these magico-religious traditions were very different from the world view of modern science, where most of these talents are viewed as very improbable to say the least, and some such as bilocation, teleportation and matter duplication, would appear to be as near to 'impossible' as one is going to get. It goes without saying that claims of their existence are unlikely to impress the more sceptically minded, not least because no one ever produces the sort of evidence which would be persuasive to most mainstream scientists.

This presents a problem for those like Dr Heath who are seeking to use such accounts as scientific evidence, for what she interprets in quasi-Cartesian terms as 'mind-matter' interactions. Interpretations by Indian philosophers tend to be much more complex and subtle, though in some ways (such as the belief that sight involves sending out rays from the eyes) even more removed from modern science.

Sceptics will also point out that while Dr Heath has clearly done a great amount of reading and brought to light some snippets of odd material, her granting of popular paperbacks and the like with the same status as academic studies and her willingness to take at face value the tales told by popular entertainment writers such as Vincent Gaddis and Martin Caidin suggests both a lack of critical faculty and a lack of knowledge of the wider Fortean field and its many debates.

Indeed from the point of view of modern science they do not seem to be any explanations, including popular paranormal ones, which could make any sense of these talents, certainly not half understood appeals to quantum physics.

This does not necessarily force critics back to the notorious cultural source hypothesis, as we might still argue that some of these traditions have been based on powerful subjective experiences in altered states of consciousness, and point to anomalies and lacuna of perception and memory.

Of course there is a realm where most, if not all, of these wild talents, including the claimed Yogic ability to occupy many bodies at once, and that is the virtual realm of cyberspace. Those living their lives in cyberspace may therefore be the true Yogis of modern times. -- Peter Rogerson

No comments: