Expanding Our Experience of Psi – Biophysical and Clinical Approaches to Parapsychology

While much of the current debate around the existence of psi exists in the field of psychology and cultural studies, the history of psychical research is actually based as much, if not more, in the physical sciences and clinical medicine. In a recent piece for Reality Sandwich researcher Paul Devereux discusses the biophysical experiments of Dr. Michael Persinger and Blake Dotta at Laurentian University, Ontario, and how the evidence from experiments like these is bringing our attention back to the physical characteristics of the phenomena:

“Parapsychology generally provides its evidence in the form of statistics, and so is all too readily subject to the charge of “lies, damned lies and statistics” – how reliable is monitoring lots of subjective responses to laboratory tests, and why isn’t psi robustly repeatable in experimental conditions?  When it comes to actual, real-life psi experiences – telepathic or precognitive events, apparitions and so forth – critics tend to level accusations of misperception or dishonesty against the claimants, and point out that in any case such reports are merely anecdotal, and not acceptable as scientific evidence. Mainstream scientists demand “hard” evidence (whether or not their idea of that is applicable to the mercurial nature of psi phenomena). But now, research by the redoubtable Michael Persinger, with Blake Dotta and their team at Laurentian University, Ontario, makes it look as if the hard-nosed sceptics can at last be confronted on their own ground. To do so, the Laurentian researchers have taken a different track to standard parapsychology – and it is all to do with light.

Persinger is famous (or infamous) for his so-called “God helmet”, a helmet that holds electrodes in place on the wearer’s temples that generate programmed patterns of weak magnetic fields which massage the temporal cortex producing sensations  of unseen “presences” and other strange perceptions. (In fact, Persinger had developed this procedure to explore the neurological use of magnetism in therapy in place of pharmaceutical products.) But on the heels of this device, he and his co-workers developed a further instrument, nicknamed “the octopus” on account of all the wires involved. More properly known as a circumcerebral magnetic stimulation (CMS) device, this basically is comprised of solenoids (coils) set at intervals on a headband fitted around a person’s cranium. The solenoids are controlled by a computer program that enables them to rotate precisely configured weak magnetic pulses around the head. This magnetic stimulation can affect the brain in certain ways, including partially disrupting the 40 Hz so-called “binding factor” of the brain which normally seems to help pull all our sensory inputs together into a smooth, seamless perception of the world. Put in non-technical language, this disruption allows normally curtailed or masked information from “Mind-at-Large” to reach awareness. Some of this information can seemingly possess psi properties, whatever they turn out to be.”

Devereux mentions that he has tried an earlier version of the CMS device, with provocative results, and he feels that more research in this area is important. Persinger’s work builds on similar work being carried out at institutions like the Rhine Research Center, in Durham, North Carolina.  The Rhine Bio-Energy Lab has been conducting research for the past 30 years on bio-photon emission from subjects initiating altered states of consciousness. This kind of research provides a much more direct approach to experimenting with the problem of mind/matter interaction.

Another interesting area of research which returns to the roots of psychical investigation is clinical parapsychology, which Annalisa Ventola, Executive Director of the Parapsychological Association, briefly details in a recent post at Public Parapsychology. Ventola explains that clinical parapsychology is a branch of research that helps “psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and family doctors who find themselves confronted with clients who report apparently “paranormal” emotional experiences, but do not exhibit the traditional signs of psychopathology.” Despite skeptical media accounts of the phenomena, Ventola mentions that “there are a small number of professionally-staffed outpatient clinics in Europe and South America that serve people experiencing paranormal emergencies. However, resources for those suffering in North America and other parts of the world are limited.”  As she points out, “whether or not a variety paranormal experiences can be seen as scientifically proven phenomena is still a matter of debate. But reports of distress resulting from paranormal experiences in otherwise psychologically healthy people are widespread.”

This kind of research is central to the work of Rhine Research Center associates Dr. Christine Simmonds-Moore, University of West Georgia, who specializes in  the overlaps between parapsychology, clinical psychology and mental health, and Dr. Jim Carpenter, whose therapeutic work with experiencers informs his recent publication, First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Unexpected, or spontaneous psi events can be traumatic, and in cases where there is no history or sign of mental illness, sound guidelines for counseling are an important function of research into these liminal areas of human potential.

To read more about these expanded approaches to researching the outer limits of human experience head over to Reality Sandwich for Paul Devereux’s take on “Taking the Psychology Out of Parapsychology,” and visit the Public Parapsychology site for Annalisa Ventola’sreview of Perspectives of Clinical Parapsychology – An Introductory Reader.


8 Comments on "Expanding Our Experience of Psi – Biophysical and Clinical Approaches to Parapsychology"

  1. David Howe | Dec 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm |

    All we need is some data that shows that psi is more reliable and predictable than guessing. Guessing is what most psychics do and they’re good (enough) at it to fool the people who pay them. As for ghosts, all we need is proof and please remember Occam’s Razor.

    I’m all for high quality research on ESP and such. Bring it on. In fact, some might say it’s already been “broughten” and that the psychics are moving the goal post. Using words like “mercurial” do not make it sound more sciency. It makes it sound more bullshitty.

    • Matt Staggs | Dec 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm |

      I’m for more research as well. To be absolutely fair to proponents, some of them feel that skeptics have been moving the goal post as well. David B. Metcalfe could speak to that.

      • David Metcalfe | Dec 6, 2012 at 11:07 pm |

        The goal posts have remained fairly static, as have the arguments pro & con. I was reading On the Threshold of the Unseen by Sir William Barrett, which was published in 1917, and it was surprising to see how similar the situation was. There was even a version of the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” argument prior to it’s popularization from CSICOP quoting Carl Sagan.

        Much of the issue seems to exist in terms of belief, rather than evidence or experimentation. The evidence suggests there is something that needs to be addressed, whatever it’s cause, in all of the phenomena that have remained open to investigation.

        One of the other issues is that from the beginning there has been a tension in terms of the conflict between religious fundamentalism and scientific fundamentalism. Psychical research developed out of the question of whether phenomena that had been associated with religious experience, or more broadly spiritual experience, had any testable veracity. The research was basically an attempt to discover the efficacy of these phenomena in light of scientific inquiry. It was not, however, necessarily intended as an expression of religious belief.

        Depending on how this is presented it can be used as a support, both pro and con, the validity of religious beliefs themselves. Without a sensitive approach this can end up going beyond the efficacy of the basic phenomena, and into being used to justify abstract theological claims or metaphysical theories, again this applies to arguments both pro and con.

        Another factor was warfare in the 20th century. Europe, and especially Germany and Russia/Soviet Union, were key in the movement prior to move the research into more directly applicable areas, such as medicine, psychiatry/clinical psychology, physics and human potential. The Nazi regime, however, severely curtailed research, as did the Soviet Union at certain points, due to the abnormal nature of the phenomena and the complications it raised for collectivist ideologies.

        In the United States, especially after the development of Silicon Valley in WWII, most funding/research focus turned to technology, and directly, and immediately, applicable programs. This in turn required that the public conversation be turned towards that focus.

        The research has provided significant data, which needs a thorough accounting. Much of the hesitancy is due to cultural and historical factors. We have to move past associating it with belief, magic, superstition, “paradigm shattering,” etc. and start treating it as data. We also have to find ways to integrate the research into the practical focus of the economy. That’s one of the benefits of these alternate focuses.

        Another thing to think about is that psi research began during the late 19th century, when electricity and telephony/telegraph technology were being developed and calling attention to “unknown” experiences that might find an explanation in the burgeoning technical sciences. With the focus on military tech this isn’t as prevalent, however as information technology began to become more advanced in the late 20th century we again see a rise in scientific interest (away from the occult focus of the 60’s-70’s.)

        Our culture’s focus on Information technology provides an analogous way of looking at psi, and anomalous phenomena. That is one of the reasons that Jacques Vallee, Jeffrey Kripal, Erik Davis and other people covering the cultural and narrative aspects of these experiences are having more success, since they are treating it in a way that is supported by the cultural experience of our time.

        • David Howe | Dec 7, 2012 at 4:32 pm |

          Wow. That’s quite a rhetorical shitstorm. Again, all I need is evidence.

          “The evidence suggests there is something that needs to be addressed….”
          To what evidence are you referring?

          “a tension in terms of the conflict between religious fundamentalism and
          scientific fundamentalism”
          What is scientific fundamentalism?

          The next few paragraphs that begin “Another factor was…” is a fairly elaborate and implausible conspiracy theory explaining – apparently – why psychic research stopped. The fact is that psychic research stops when it is evident that there is no such thing as psychic powers. This has happened many times, including during the 20th Century.

          By all means, don’t associate psi with magic and superstition. Let it stand on it’s own.

          • David Metcalfe | Dec 7, 2012 at 7:01 pm |

            130 years of specific data on an unanswered question that has existed for the entire stretch of recorded history is a lot of material to consider.

            Scientific fundamentalism such as Rupert Sheldrake discusses in regards to ideological dogmatism in the establishment.

            I think you’ve taken my mention of the cultural situation a bit too strongly, it’s not a matter of conspiracy, simply funding shifts based on the needs of the time period. This affects how the media and culture relate to the phenomena.

  2. alizardx | Dec 6, 2012 at 7:32 pm |

    ” circumcerebral magnetic stimulation (CMS) device, this basically is comprised of solenoids (coils) set at intervals on a headband fitted around a person’s cranium.”

    Sounds like a good “Hack-a-Day” project.

    • David Metcalfe | Dec 7, 2012 at 12:30 pm |

      My friend Dr. Tim Brigham has been wanting to build one and run some replications. I believe he has the technical details of the helmet, but I’m not sure.

      • Could you ask him for me? Thanks. Suspect from description it isn’t difficult unless one needs serious field strength out of the coils.

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