Psychic Phenomena and the Brain: Exploring the Neuropsychology of Psi, by Bryan J. Williams
Reviewed by Robert A. Charman
This review first appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol 81(1).
Bryan Williams who is a Research Affiliate, Psychical Research Foundation, Texas, was also a student with the late parapsychologist Dr William, G, Roll (1926-2012), Professor of Psychology and Psychical Research, University of West Georgia. Besides many articles on psi, Williams contributed the chapters on Revisiting the Ganzfeld Debate: A Basic Review and Assessment and Experimental Examinations of the Reported Abilities of a Psychic Claimant: A Review of Experiments and Explorations with Sean Harribance in Evidence for Psi (Broderick & Goertzel, 2015).
With a Foreword by Dr Edward F. Kelly, Visiting Professor, Division of Perceptual Studies, University of Virgina, this peer reviewed monograph with some 250 references is a valiant attempt to bring some order into the complex field of research into the neural correlates of psi activity using electroencepalography (EEG), event related potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The hope is that if parapsychologists can determine which areas and which structures of the brain ‘light up’ during different manifestations of psi — such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, micro-psychokinesis (microPK) recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK), sometimes termed macroPK — then this would increase the possibility of psi being accepted by the neurosciences on an evidential basis. If research can also demonstrate which of the four brainwave frequency bands predominates during successful psi in terms of voltage amplitude, then maybe we will be able to use this knowledge to train people in psi using brainwave biofeedback.
In his Introduction Williams outlines the scope of his inquiry, discusses the pioneering survey achievements of the early years of the Society for Psychical Research, presents two interesting anecdotal cases, looks at the work of J.B. Rhine and surveys the range of modern neurological research into psi phenomena. The following nine chapters are devoted to explaining the methodology and evaluating the findings and meta-analyses of research into the different manifestations of psi. What becomes very clear is that when you are dealing with the ever-fluctuating changes of brain activity arising from a multitude of confounding causes, extracting signal from noise, chance correlation and artefact is not easy.
Before discussing any conclusions the following information about brainwave frequency bands may be helpful.
• Gamma waves (30–80Hz) have the fastest cycles and have been correlated with complex integration processing of sensory stimuli, perception, problem solving, memory and motor skills.
• Beta waves (13–29Hz) are correlated with conscious concentration, cognition, being alert and aware of the surroundings.
• Alpha waves (8–12Hz) are correlated with relaxed awareness and passive awareness of the surroundings.
• Theta waves (4–7Hz) are correlated with relaxed drowsiness tending towards light sleep.
• Delta waves (1–3Hz) have the slowest cycles and are correlated with deep, dreamless sleep.
ERPs. These are sudden peaks of brainwave potentials registered as a response to sensory events such as a flash of light or sharp sound. If, for example, the ‘sender’s’ EEG registers an ERP in the visual cortex in response to a light flash that is mirrored by a similar visual cortex ERP recorded from the visual cortex of the quiet, non stimulated ‘receiver’ sitting in another room then a telepathic connection between the pair is cautiously assumed.
fMRI. The functional ‘f ’ stands for registering changes in increases or decreases in localised blood flow which is detected by changes in the magnetic field of the blood flow. If, for example, an area of brain receives a sudden increase in blood flow this will be in response to increased neuron activity requiring more oxygen.
At the end of his review Williams comes to some guarded conclusions concerning this field of psi research that may act as a guide to present practice and future research. There seems a good correlation between an increase in alpha wave amplitude relative to the other brain wave bands in successful ESP performance, implying that a calm receptive mind increases the likelihood of psi performance. While this finding holds true in general it seems especially true for those with a good psychic record such as Sean Harribance and Michael Bessent. There is a hint of a functional oddness between the brains of high performing psychics and savants such as Kim Peek. There also seems tentative evidence for an increase in brain wave frequency alignment between successful ‘sender/receiver’ pairs. Besides some cautious evidence of almost simultaneous ERPs between the brains of ‘sender/receiver’ pairs at the moment of ‘sender’ stimuli, there is also some evidence of a more pronounced ERP response to those screen images chosen later by random computer compared to non-shown control images. This is thought to imply a non-conscious increase in presentiment of what will be experienced and is backed up by other techniques such as recording changes in respiration and electrical skin conductance. There is tentative evidence that right hemispheric activity, particularly in the temporal lobe and hippocampal (memory) area, is more associated with successful ESP in men, but this relationship is more ambiguous in females who tend to use their hemispheres more in tandem. Successful microPK — as in borderline deviations towards a desired increase or decrease in non-random RNG noughts and ones — seems associated with enhanced alpha activity. As for any neural association between episodes of RSPK and individuals at the scene, there has not been much research because ‘poltergeistic’ occurrences are not predictable.
There are three major omissions from this study which if included would, I think, have considerably strengthened the neurological evidence for psi. Firstly, I am baffled as to why Williams has not included the numerous publications by the late Mexican neurophysiologist Professor Jacobo Grinberg-Zylberbaum and co-researchers presenting many successful studies of psi using EEG (see Charman, 2006 for review). Secondly, and more forgivable as it is written in Italian and not yet translated into English, there is a series of EEG studies of group meditators carried out by the Italian neurophysiologist Dr Nitamo Montecucco, Professor of Psychosomatic Medicine, University of Milan (witnessed on one occasion by Ervin Laszlo 1996, p. 109/10). Through the use of EEGs Montecucco found that when a group of meditators ‘descend’ into deep meditation their initially separate brain wave frequencies come into group brain wave synchrony as if mutually entrained (Montecucco 2000). Thirdly, and definitely more forgivable as he died before his extensive research was published in academia, there is the alpha wave dominance at around 7–8Hz found by Maxwell Cade (1918-1985) in meditators and in healers when in the healer mindset. Using a specifically developed EEG unit termed the Mind Mirror, Cade found and repeatedly demonstrated healer to healee 7–8Hz brain wave frequency synchronisation during a successful healing session. It was as if the steady alpha frequency of the healing mindset entrained the healee’s alpha rhythm. Not only that, but Cade was a pioneer in using alpha wave EEG biofeedback to train both meditators and healers (Cade & Coxhead, 1979; see Charman, 2014, for a review). Such findings cry out for further research.
What, however, really fascinated me were the questions this research raises as to the nature of psi, and Williams is to be congratulated for discussing them. Neuroscientists point out that the brain has no mechanism to send or receive nonsensory signals across space. Physicists point out that all transmission systems whether sound or electromagnetic lose power over increasing distance. So to claim that telepathy is equally effective between people whether tens of yards apart or thousands of miles apart means that something must either be fundamentally wrong with our understanding of neurophysiology and physics or ‘ESP’ must stand for ‘Error Some Place’. Where, for example, does telepathic energy come from let alone the psychic energy necessary to perform psychokinesis whether interfering with the randomness of RNGs or claimed feats of table turning? What signal is being given off by those out-of-sight objects that clairvoyants claim to detect? What is imprinted on the objects that psychometrists hold and then claim to know about the owner? None of these claims make any sense within the present framework of science. Williams points out that what all these objections share in common is the idea that psi is some form of mental radio in which a sender brain transmitter sends a message that is received and decoded by its target brain receiver when they are neurologically tuned in to each other.
What critics do not realise is that parapsychologists do not employ concepts of A to B message transmission across space as in classical physics. On the assumption that well-investigated anecdotal cases and experimental findings are valid evidence of psi, it is agreed that as they are not explainable in terms of classical physics the eventual explanation is likely to lie in the alternative concept of nonlocality as in the entangled quantum relationship between two photons of complementary ‘spin’ in which the detection or changing the spin of one photon simultaneously determines the spin of the other, even if they are at opposite sides of the universe. For psi, distance is irrelevant. Roll and others have pointed out that unlike sound and vision there is no characteristic sense unique to psi so psi has to employ whatever familiar sense or thought is available to convey its meaning. Neurologically speaking, psi expression will always be masked. Williams does an excellent demolition job on Moulton and Kosslyn’s (2008) boast that the null results of their one-off neuroimaging experiment did not ‘simply fail to support the psi hypothesis: they offer strong evidence against it’. Hubris indeed!
Roll and others have proposed that as no message is sent from A to B in the conventional sense (although, rather confusingly, we use ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ to distinguish their roles) then the information must already exist and an ESP experience or experimental detection of ESP-in-action is the result of selective activation. Mutual memory, as in sharing a common cultural stock of knowledge and imagery seems essential. Williams quotes Roll (2006) as saying that “ESP has no experience to call its own. When ESP appears in consciousness it comes in borrowed garb. The brain has a storehouse of used apparel in the hippocampus where ESP chooses whatever fits the occasion. When the ESP target is a visual scene, the response may be a visual image or it may be an auditory expression” (p. 13). This concept is further captured by the following quote from Harvey Irwin (1979), “Suppose that by some extrasensory means you learn of the death of your friend John in a car accident some distance away. Now John has never died before, so there cannot have been a single trace in memory corresponding to John’s death in his car. However…..each discrete piece of information is already contained in memory at the time of the experience: there is stored information about John, about death, and so on” (p. 87). The inference is that while physically separated in space and often in time we are non-spatially related by common cultural and specific personal knowledge and its emotional meaning. Is our shared emotional relationship with each other, which remains the same regardless of distance apart, our mental equivalent of quantum non-locality?
In psychometry the emotional vividness of imagery held in the mind of the token owner seems to be picked up by the psychometrist. Williams quotes a revealing example from Pagenstecher’s (1922) studies of Senora Maria Reyes de Z (Mrs Zierold) practising psychometry under hypnosis. She was handed a piece of string that had once held the identification tag of a German soldier during World War One. Holding it, “She described a cold, foggy day on the frontlines of a battlefield during which she saw a bomb fall from the air and kill several soldiers”. The soldier who had worn the tag confirmed her imagery, saying he had actually witnessed the event adding’
“I am certain that this was the first great impression I received of the war possibly the greatest of all.” (my emphasis in line with William’s italics).
As Williams concludes, with the ‘hard problem’ of the relationship between the physical processes of the brain and mental processes of consciousness remaining unsolved, further research into the nature of psi including its neurological correlates may add clues to help solve the puzzle.
Solve one and you will solve the other. This book is an important step forward and AIPR are to be congratulated for sponsoring this monograph.
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Cade, C. M., & Coxhead, N. (1979). The awakened mind. Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books.
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Robert A. Charman can be reached at email: firstname.lastname@example.org