26 May 2023


Alan Sanderson. Psychiatry and the Spirit World: True Stories on the Survival of Consciousness After Death, Park Street Press. 2022

Right, no doubt you’ll be thinking even after just a casual glance at this book’s title, it’s obviously a hatchet job on the whole afterlife thing, by an out-and-out sceptic. Psychiatry and the spirit world! Has to be a sneery put-down by a hardnosed materialist scientist. Has to be. But you’d be wrong. It very much isn’t. 
And that might be both most of its charm and at least some of its problem.

First, though, perhaps I should declare an interest – sort of. I am, broadly speaking, a believer in an afterlife and in many sorts of paranormal events, some of which I have experienced for myself. Having said that, though, I’m no pushover and have, in my time, exposed charlatans in the business. And I do have serious reservations about some areas of this subject, including alleged spirit contact, especially mediumship and channelling.

So, as you can imagine, it was with mixed feelings that I turned to Dr Sanderson’s book. I confess that my heart sank rather when I saw that a large part of the therapy he has offered involves ‘spirit rescue’. Instantly all the tacky New Age associations came flooding to mind – ‘ascension’, ‘walk-ins’ and the spiritually-snooty, arrogant concept of ‘Lightworking’, which basically means some souls are more ‘evolved’ than others and you – obviously an unevolved sort – should revere your spiritual superiors. The very term ‘spirit rescue’ does rather conjure up a similar sort of elitism. I admit I bristled and felt the old outrage simmering in the background.

I do have to admit, though, that you can’t simmer long in the presence of Dr Sanderson. He’s obviously totally sincere and rather humble, often citing others’ work – usually, however with a degree of too-uncritical admiration. And there’s nothing of the charlatan about him.

But I couldn’t relax totally as I read this book. Delightful though the author clearly is, he does seem something of an innocent, perhaps a bit naïve.

Without being at all bitter, Dr Sanderson does, nevertheless, come over as rather surprised when his colleagues accuse him of using ‘Voodoo’ in his clinical work. Well, they would think like that, wouldn’t they – he was using spirit rescue, while working for this NHS! Again, he seems rather taken aback when he had to leave the National Health Service for private practice and research.

He gives the impression that he had no interest in the unseen world or the unexplained until he was well into his work as a psychiatrist, but then he also describes how he came across his mother’s books on such matters and, having told his father about his interest on a family holiday (so as a teenager), was told: ‘Don’t let me ever hear you say that again’. So the seed was planted long before he qualified as a psychiatrist.

To me there was also a huge red flag when he remarks ‘After my training in psychiatry, I researched the connection between facial structure and personality… [which has] considerable potential for extending knowledge of the genetics of personality’.

What connection between facial structure and personality? Dr Sanderson doesn’t elaborate – which is somewhat annoying - but the very mention of this field of interest instantly rang alarms bells. Not only does it call to mind the total quackery of Victorian phrenology, where the shape of the skull was believed to determine certain traits and even destiny, but much, much worse – it also evokes the whole tragic and horrifying business of physical and genetic make-up being analysed and, ultimately, judged. We saw the worst of this with the Nazis measuring noses and heads in their determination to eliminate all the Jewish race. It was never remotely scientifically valid. And while I’m not even vaguely suggesting that Dr Sanderson, who seems like a thoroughly decent and tolerant chap, shares any of the Nazis’ abhorrent views, linking physical characteristics to character is a slippery slope indeed.

He goes on to describe using hypnotherapy as a tool in spirit rescue – fascinating and, apparently, often highly effective (although he says nothing of his inevitable failures). He is obviously utterly sincere in both his belief in this and in his desire to heal. Those are never in doubt.

His work has convinced him that many cases deemed obvious psychiatric-fodder will react astonishingly well to spirit rescue, which can take several forms. For example, for many reasons, a spirit might attach itself to a person, essentially possessing and causing them physical and psychological pain. This can go on for years and, unless treated, can even bring about the host individual’s demise. (Interestingly, roving spirits can often get into the living if the latter are weakened through addiction.)

Of the many cases scattered throughout this book, both those treated personally by Dr Sanderson and patients of other practitioners, some stick in the mind more than others. A tormented cross-dresser loses his addiction to women’s clothing when he discovers he harbours an agitated female spirit. Once she has been contacted and her situation fully explained to her, she is ‘rescued’ – and the man is released (much to his wife’s relief).

Many of the cases also involve reincarnation, though sometimes the link isn’t particularly clear.

Where this book does succeed is as a sort of introduction to the world of psi - the realm of the psychic, the unexplained, the other. It includes chapters on reincarnation, out-of-the-body experiences, Near Death Experiences, Hallucinations and even Telepathy in Humans and Pets. It’s fascinating and just about detailed enough to set the inquisitive reader off on their own paranormal journey, and for that I’m grateful.

Dr Sanderson writes in a distinctly direct, no-nonsense style, which sometimes errs on the too simplistic side, while at others it briefly but beautifully summarises otherwise difficult concepts. For example, on the difference between the mind (non-physical) and the brain (physical): ‘The physicalist [materialist] view is largely based on assumptions, such as the view that human consciousness is created by brain activity. And yet we don’t believe that the TV program is created by the TV set.’

Of course I’ve been dying – no quip intended – to take a long, hard look at the alleged communications with spirits. So here goes… While having no doubt that spirits exist, I do wonder not only at the quality of their suppose utterings from the other side, but also about the competence or over-awe??? of their human mediums, often acting as a sort of interviewer.

Take for example, hypnotherapist Michael Newton’s work with the alleged spirit of an opera singer cited here. ‘S’, the spirit, has just announced that ‘… you can pull any [musical] instrument out of the air and play it. But, for me, there is nothing more satisfying than creating a choir…’

Dr Newton: ‘Look, you don’t have vocal cords of an opera singer any longer, so…?’

S: (Laughs at him): ‘… no human body is needed. In fact, the sounds we create are lighter and of much greater range than those on Earth.’

Yes, ok – but how do you do it, then? How do you sing without vocal cords?

But S goes on remorselessly, all about beauty and vibration etc etc without a single ponderable fact. They do mention using a ‘score’ for singing, but Dr Newton doesn’t think to ask what score, by whom, and what they think over there of the likes of Mozart, Beethoven – or perhaps even Lennon and McCartney.

And if they can all sing perfectly just by thinking about it as S implies, why do they need a choir leader – like S? Or rehearsals? What about the great pianists or oboists or violinists? What happens to them when they discover they no longer have need of any instruments? Does all this imply that singers are somehow ‘purer’ because they don’t need a piano or whatever – or, apparently, even vocal cords?

Not for the first time in such communications does one get the sense of enormous worthiness and elitist artiness in such spirits - but nil humour. One wonders what happens to satirists when they die. And do they still have stand-up comics? How can there be when there’s nothing to satirise, challenge or ridicule? How unspeakably dull.

You might consider I’m just being ludicrously flippant, but really it’s a serious point. Is Heaven, or Summerland or the afterlife or whatever merely peopled by the embodiments of earnest dullness such as Boy and Girl Scouts and po-faced opera singers?

True, one communicator is a lad from the back streets of 1950s/60s’ London – the rather inevitable chirpy Cockney. This is taken from a booklet entitled: Billy Grows Up in Spirit: A Cockney Lad Returns after Death to Tell His Story by British medium Michael Evans, as cited by the author. There are elements that don’t ring true to me, but I could be nit-picking. For a start, I don’t think that anyone in the 60s referred to the jumble of makeshift shelters under railway arches as ‘cardboard city’, which is surely a much later term.

Also, this from Billy: ‘Cor, there’s some things there, mate, I couldn’t tell yer – you talk about science fiction, don’t yer, but it’s science fact to us.’ Really? Would a ten-year-old from the slums talk like that in the 60s? Would such a concept even occur to him?

Similarly, elsewhere a Victorian ghost declares she’s ‘in shock’. No, not only wasn’t this a term used by 19th century people, it wasn’t even in use as late as the mid-20th century in Britain, being a later Americanism. Over here we’d have said ‘suffering from shock’ - and I’m not even sure Victorians would have said that.

Perhaps these are small points, but then we’re asked to be impressed by these words from the spirit world. So what happens when we’re not?

However, some of the stories in this book are real stunners, though in my opinion none of them are concerned with spirit communication. As usual, the most convincing paranormal anecdotes concern Near Death Experiences and reincarnation. Take this as evidence of the latter:

James Leininger was just two when he began to evince a strange passion for WW2 aircraft, after he was taken to the Cavanaugh Flight Museum near Dallas. Not just that, but he displayed astonishing knowledge of them. When his mother gave him a plastic wartime plane, she pointed out the bomb under the fuselage. ‘That’s not a bomb, Mommy,’ James pointed out. ‘It’s a drop tank.’ (For extra fuel on long flights.)

He caused his parents’ great concern when he began to have terrible nightmares, screaming, ‘Airplane crash on fire! Little man can’t get out!’ Apparently he was referring to himself. He then told his father he’d been on a plane flying from the USS Natoma Bay. He’d been shot down by the Japanese. And he’s been killed during the battle for Iwo Jima.

Little James claimed to have been an airman called James Huston Jr, who had flown with one Jack Larsten.

James’ father Bruce did some serious research and discovered the details of a James Huston Jr and a Jack Larsten who had been shot down at the battle for Iwo Jima. There were many other evidential matches between little James’ claims and the historical record.

All this is particularly impressive as Bruce was hardly inclined to be proud of his son’s apparent past life memories. As an evangelical Christian he constantly sought to find holes in the narrative, to find gaps in the evidence. His whole cherished worldview was under threat from his tiny son. But try as he might – and he did try hard - he couldn’t undermine this astonishing story.

So … a strange book, curiously unsatisfying in some respects but guardedly recommended over all.
  • Lynn Picknett


Terry the Censor said...

>facial structure and personality

This crank idea is probably best known from "The Criminal Man" by Cesare Lombroso (1976). From the introduction of the 1911 translation: "the problem of the nature of the criminal— an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes..."

Anonymous said...

Ah, Terry. I see you around on so many blogs, spewing your ignorant fedora-tipping bilge. You'll never transcend your midwit redditism, will you? "Durr! Silly crank idea! Phrenology LOL, am I right, fellow skeptics? Lombroso thought that and he was, like, a Nazi or something!"

Meanwhile, if you or Picknett had taken 5 seconds to check Google Scholar, you'd have noticed that, yes, there's a lot of contemporary scientific evidence showing that human facial features are associated with psychological traits, including personality. Here's one 2020 study on this, from a source no less prestigious than Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-65358-6/. First sentence: "There is ample evidence that morphological and social cues in a human face provide signals of human personality and behaviour." Oh whoops. The unthinking "skeptic" assumption that anything deviating from modern leftist assumptions about human nature and reality must be "fringe" or "crank" nonsense turns out to be wrong yet again. Who would've thought?

Terry the Censor said...

Such incompetent off-the-shelf slurs:

>Ah, Terry. I see you around on so many blogs

Unlikely. I have commented on paranormal/UFO blogs just a handful of times since the Orange Mussolini was placed in the Oval Office by Vladimir Putin.

>midwit redditism

I have been on Reddit once. And not for years.

>a source no less prestigious than Nature

The report discusses correlations, not causation -- they haven't a clue about what they think they have found. Nor is the evidence strong: "The correlations reported above with a mean r = 0.243 can be viewed as modest." Also, "this effect size indicates that an ANN can make a correct guess about the relative standing of two randomly chosen individuals on a personality dimension in 58% of cases (as opposed to the 50% expected by chance)."

It's useless guessing about...something.

Anonymous said...

>I have commented on paranormal/UFO blogs just a handful of times since the Orange Mussolini was placed in the Oval Office by Vladimir Putin.

"Having screeching rage fits over a reality TV celebrity I've never been in the same room with makes me a smart, sophisticated person." Wow, I'm ever so impressed. Only a "few times," yet I keep seeing your bland derivative non-thought over and over. Note my comment said nothing about the recency of the posts of yours that I'd seen. But people who can't really think tend to read entailments into statements where none exist.

>I have been on Reddit once. And not for years.

This doesn't stop you from fitting the mould of posters there perfectly. I think you might be separated from your true people.

>The report discusses correlations, not causation -- they haven't a clue about what they think they have found.

Ah yes: the rational "scientific" skeptic who's the first to shriek about lack of "peer review" dismisses a source in a high-impact, major academic journal with the unthinking midwit truism that "correlation isn't causation." The midwit fails to understand that all evidence of causation is in the end correlational. We've known this since David Hume--he should be your patron saint as a "rational skeptic," no? Please go ahead and show me evidence for causal processes in the behavioral sciences that ISN'T correlational.

>Nor is the evidence strong: "The correlations reported above with a mean r = 0.243 can be viewed as modest."

An entirely respectable effect size for the behavioral sciences. You have no idea what you're talking about.