Blue / Grey hero banner image

JSPR Abstracts 2011

January 2011

The Psychical and the Mystical: Boundaries, Connections, Common Origins

by Paul Marshall

Notable exceptions aside, researchers in the fields of mysticism and parapsychology have not taken an active interest in each other’s domain of study. Mysticism scholars have tended to regard psychical phenomena as unworthy of academic study, as lesser phenomena that mystics themselves view with suspicion. For their part, parapsychologists have been inattentive to mystical experience despite their interest in a variety of extraordinary experiences. However, one type of mystical experience — the unitive apprehension of the natural world — does appear to have connections with psychical cognition, and other links are evident too, including shared triggers and predisposing factors. It follows that the psychical and the mystical require interdisciplinary study and a theory capable of explaining both. To this end, filter theory and Kundalini yoga are invoked to suggest that psychical and mystical cognitions derive from a common source.

The Importance of Extraordinary Experiences for Adopting Heterodox Beliefs or an Alternative Religious World View

by Gerhard Mayer and René Gründer

The importance of extraordinary experiences for the process of adopting a heterodox belief system or an alternative religious world view is often neglected in the existing research literature. Scholars of religion commonly lay stress on the process of religious conversion characterized by different stages. Extraordinary experiences are, thereby, included as potential internal catalysts (e.g. mystical experiences or near-death experiences), but only among others. The particular quality of the extraordinary experience remains largely unconsidered. In our paper, we emphasise the personal extraordinary experiences of strongly subjective evidence as an important factor in the process of becoming a magical practitioner and adopting a heterodox world view. Our examination is based on the interview data of three field studies with neoshamans, contemporary magicians, and German heathen (Ásatrú), conducted in German-speaking countries. First, we outline different functions of extraordinary experiences regarding the process. Second, we reflect on the process of converting the personal extraordinary experience into a narration (framing). Finally, we propose to distinguish between two classes of extraordinary experiences, with regard to their function in the process of adopting a heterodox (religious) world view. Furthermore we address the methodological problem regarding the possibility of the reconstruction of factual/objective ‘para­normal’ events as potential catalysts of extraordinary experiences. This gives rise to the question of the validity of narratively embedded and processed extraordinary experiences. In this context, the German differentiation between Erlebnis (experience in the sense of a pure individual impression) and Erfahrung (social form of experience, based on shared knowledge) seems to be a crucial distinction.

Discarnate Entities and Dimethyltryptamine (DMT): Psycho-pharmacology, Phenomenology and Ontology

by David Luke

The highly psychoactive molecule N,N - dimethyltryptamine (or simply DMT), is found naturally occurring in the brains of humans, mammals, and some other animals, as well as in a broad range of species of the plant kingdom. Although speculative, neurochemical research suggests that DMT may be made in the pineal gland, and it is hypothesised that, as much as melatonin helps activate sleep cycles, DMT activates dreaming, and may also be implicated in other natural visionary states such as mystical experience, near-death experience (NDE), spontaneous psi and psychosis. Amazonian shamans may have made use of this chemical for its visionary properties for thousands of years, and take it as part of a decoction frequently called ayahuasca, which translates from Quechua as “vine of the spirits” or “vine of the dead”. The psychedelic brew is taken because it gives rise to extraordinary mental phenomena that have shamanic and supposed healing qualities, such as synaesthesia, ostensible extra-dimensional percepts, out-of-body experiences, Psi experiences and, perhaps most commonly, encounters with discarnate entities. When described by independent and seemingly naïve DMT participants, the entities encountered tend to vary in detail but often belong to one of a very few similar types, with similar behavioural characteristics. For instance, mischievous shape-shifting elves, praying mantis alien brain surgeons and jewel-encrusted reptilian beings, who all seem to appear with baffling predictability. This opens up a wealth of questions as to the ontology of these entities. The discussion of the phenomenology and ontology of these entities mixes research from parapsychology, ethnobotany and psycho-pharmacology — the fruits of science — with the foamy custard of folklore, anthropology, mythology, cultural studies and related disciplines. Hopefully, however, given the varied readership of this journal, it won’t prove to be a trifle too interdisciplinary.

April 2011

Possible Thermodynamic Limits to Anomalous Cognition Entropy Gradients

By Edwin C. May

I examined seven anomalous cognition (AC) studies in which the entropic gradients and the entropy of their associated target systems were calculated, and the quality of the AC was estimated by a rating system called the ‘figure of merit’ as opposed to a ranking system. The combined Spearman’s correlation coefficient for these variables for the seven studies was 0.211 (Z = 3.22, p = 6.4 × 10–4) with a 95% confidence interval of 0.084 to 0.332; whereas the same data for a correlation with the entropy itself were 0.028 (Z = 0.37, p = 0.36; 95% confidence interval = –0.120 to 0.175). This strongly suggests that AC is mediated via some kind of a sensory system in that all the normal sensory systems are more sensitive to changes than they are to inputs that are not changing. I find that a standard relationship for the change of entropy of a binary sequence appears to provide an upper limit to anomalous cognition functioning for free response AC and for forced-choice Zener card guessing.

Psychic Experiences a Third of a Century Apart: Two Representative Surveys in Iceland with an International Comparison

by Erlendur Haraldsson

In 2006 a large-scale representative survey of psychic beliefs and experiences, and various related local folk beliefs and experiences, was conducted in Iceland. Its purpose was to find out whether substantial changes in personal experiences and beliefs had taken place in the population since the same survey was conducted a third of a century earlier. Since that time there have been great changes in Icelandic society; it has become highly educated (6% of the 1974 sample had attended university compared with 36% of the 2006 sample) and (until the present financial crisis) one of most affluent societies in Europe, and with more contact with other countries than ever before in its history. Somewhat contrary to expectations, there was an increase in reporting almost every kind of psychic experience. Some of these increases may indicate a ‘Harry Potter effect’ among the younger generation, and perhaps there is also some sampling effect, but the findings may indeed show that more people experience real psychic phenomena than earlier, or — formulating this more conservatively — that they interpret their experiences more readily and more often as paranormal in nature. In 1974, 59% of the men reported some psychic experience, and 70% in 2006, while 71% of the women did so in 1974 and 81% in 2006. For some phenomena, such as perceiving a deceased person, there was a significant difference between genders, with more women reporting such experiences than men. But, generally speaking, the correlation between gender and psychic experiences was very low (averaging around 0.12). A similarly low negative relationship was found with level of education. In this paper some comparison is also made with surveys conducted in other countries.

Psychic Phenomena and the Vital Force: Hereward Carrington on “Vital Energy and Psychical Phenomena”

by Carlos S. Alvarado and Michael Nahm

Excerpts from an article by Hereward Carrington, entitled “Vital Energy and Psychical Phenomena”, and published in 1921 in the Psychic Research Quarterly, are reprinted. The article is discussed in the context of previous and later publications on ‘vital forces’. Carrington argued that metabolic processes, and life itself, were produced by a vital force that did not depend on the body for its production: this force could be projected from the body and cause physical phenomena, such as movement of objects and materializations. Carrington continued to speculate along similar lines in later years. While his views are in some ways inconsistent with the non-physical ideas developed by later parapsychologists such as J. B. Rhine, they remain a valuable window to past aspects of parapsychological theory.

July 2011

Talking with the Spirits: Anthropology and Interpreting Spirit Communications

by Jack Hunter

Anthropological approaches to the study of spirit mediumship groups, and of related practices, have usually tended to focus on social-functional interpretations, arguing that spirit mediumship groups function as a means to enable female practitioners to protest against their traditional roles as “mothers, wives and sexual partners” in oppressive male-oriented societies (Boddy, 1988; Lewis, 1971; Skultans, 1974). Such approaches, however, have failed to address the experiential core of these groups: members believe that they are able to make direct contact with the world of spirits, whether through communicating with spiritual entities channelled via entranced mediums, witnessing ostensibly paranormal phenomena in the context of séances, or through falling into trance themselves and experiencing direct communion with the “numinous” (Otto, 1958). The experiential element cannot be removed from an analysis of mediumship, as it represents the primary motive for séance attendance as the members themselves perceive it. To ignore it would be to detrimentally reduce the complexity of the phenomenon. In addition to providing an overview of a variety of anthropological approaches to the issue of spirit possession and mediumship, this paper will detail the experiences of an anthropologist exploring this experiential component while conducting fieldwork for his undergraduate dissertation (Hunter, 2009a). The fieldwork itself was conducted at the Bristol Spirit Lodge, a centre established specifically with the aim to promote and develop trance and physical mediumship. The fieldwork methodology was one of immersive participant observation informed by the work of Edith Turner (1993, 1998, 2006), who has advocated the necessity of complete immersion in ritual if its functions and effects are to be adequately understood. In an attempt to under­stand the role of experience for the members of the group, participant observation was carried out in séances and mediumship development sessions as a means to gain an appreciation of the types of experience encountered by both sitters and mediums. This paper will present the research findings and describe the experiences of the researcher while engaged in the field.

Not Feeling the Future: A Failed Replication of Retroactive Facilitation of Memory Recall

by Eric Robinson

The present paper reports an attempted replication of a time-reversed psi effect reported by Bem (2011), in which word recall during a memory test appeared to be facilitated retroactively. In the experiment, immediately after completing a recall test of 48 words, participants were exposed to 24 of the originally tested words and instructed to ‘rehearse’ them. In the original experiments participants recalled a greater proportion of the ‘rehearsed’ words compared with control words, suggesting retroactive facilitation of memory recall. In the present study, fifty undergraduate participants completed the experiment, using the same software as reported by Bem (2011). A personality measure of ‘stimulus-seeking’ was also reported to predict the effect. The present study (N50) failed to find evidence of retroactive facilitation of recall or any effect of stimulus-seeking on performance. There was no observed difference in the number of practice and control words recalled (M = 9.4 and 9.8 respectively; t(49) = 0.85, p = 0.40), nor did stimulus-seeking predict retroactive facilitation of memory recall; r(50) = –0.07, p = 0.65. Further replication of the original effect is needed to substantiate claims of retroactive influence using this paradigm.

October 2011

Mirror-gazing Facility and Psi: Examining Personality Measures

by Alejandro Parra and Jorge Villanueva

There are many points of comparison between psychomanteum experiences and accounts of hypnagogic/hypnopompic imagery, which might suggest that both could be conducive to ESP. In this paper we report on our attempts to study personality variables, as measured by the NEO-PI-R, with a group of individuals recruited to participate in psychomanteum ESP testing at the Instituto de Psicologia Paranormal in Buenos Aires. The sample included 128 participants, of whom 91 (72%) were female and 37 (28%) were male (mean age = 47.25; SD = 12.02). Our prediction of a positive correlation between the index of prior psi experiences and Extraversion was confirmed. However, our prediction of a positive correlation between the Psi index (count of paranormal experiences) and Openness to experience was not confirmed, except the facet Feelings (Openeness), that is Openness to inner feelings and emotions. An inspection of the comparisons found between Psi/psychomanteum performance and personality aspects did not confirm the trends found in previous work on the relation between personality and performance at an experimental psi task.

Anomalous Cognition: Two Protocols for Data Collection and Analyses

by Edwin C. May, Sonali Bhatt Marwaha and Vinay Chaganti

The primary aim of this paper is to provide two protocols to conduct and analyse a form of free-response ESP experiment known as remote viewing. While another free-response methodology known as the ganzfeld enjoys a substantial literature on variants on the protocols, we were unable to find similar discussion of remote viewing methods. To address this omission, this paper describes in detail two data collection methodologies for what is known as anomalous cognition (aka remote viewing): in the free-form method, a blind monitor may ask structured questions of the participant to elicit as much psi information about the randomly selected target as possible; in the stimulus-response method, psi information retrieval is obtained immediately after a trigger word such as ‘target.’ This is analogous to a word association test in traditional psychological counselling. We describe the most common form of analysis using rank-order, in which an analyst (not the participant) is presented with a single anomalous cognition response and five photographs, of which one is the intended target for the session. The analyst’s task is to pick which photograph best matches the response, second-best match, and so on. This matching procedure is independent of the quality of the putative match. We explain how the quality of the match — sometimes referred to as an assessment or rating — is obtained by a fuzzy set technique. In this approach, all the targets in the pool should have previously been consensus encoded with regard to their cognitive content. The analyst, who is blind to the encoding of the intended target for the session, encapsulates the response with same set of potential cognitive elements that was used in the coding of the target pool. From these data, a simple calculation constructs the accuracy (i.e. how much of the intended target was described correctly) and the reliability (i.e. how much of the response was correct). The assessment for the trial is the product of accuracy and reliability — called Figure of Merit. While there may be some deviation from the above methods and analyses depending upon the research question, we hope that those described here will serve as templates in order to conduct valid anomalous cognition experiments with this form of free-response methodologies.

Testing the Theory of Morphic Resonance using Recognition for Chinese Symbols: A Failure to Replicate

by Chris A. Roe and Glenn A. M. Hitchman

Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance suggests a means by which the thoughts or behaviours of a species contribute to a collective ‘morphogenetic field’ that can encourage future organisms to prefer those thoughts and behaviours that had been selected most frequently. Sheldrake has argued that an individual’s acquisition of language could thus be influenced by the morphic resonance of past speakers of that language, and this has enabled researchers to empirically test the theory using learning activities that involve a language unfamiliar to the participant. For example, Robbins and Roe (2010) gave participants a set of Chinese symbols to learn and found that they correctly recalled more genuine characters (for which a morphogenetic field would presumably exist) than imitative characters (for which one would not), as predicted by Sheldrake’s theory. However, potential shortcomings were identified within the experimental design, and so the current study was intended to replicate earlier findings with a more robust research design that used a more comprehensive system of randomising across participants. An opportunity sample of 101 participants were shown, in a randomised order, 8 genuine and 8 imitative characters. They then took part in a distracter task by playing ‘scissors-paper-stone’ against a computer opponent for 1 minute. Subsequently, participants were presented with symbols in pairs (one genuine and one imitative) matched for complexity and radical component (a key element of the character) and were asked to indicate if they recalled seeing either character at the presentation stage. For some trials, participants had previously seen one of the characters whereas in others, both symbols were novel. Participants correctly identified a similar number of real and imitative characters, whereas they exhibited more false memories for the imitative characters. Furthermore, the proposed relationships between the purported morphic resonance effect and transliminality and openness to experience were not supported. These findings fail to confirm those reported by Robbins and Roe (2010) and support an explanation in terms of methodological artefact.

1 This is a special issue of the Journal, featuring two papers that were first presented at the second annual “Exploring the Extraordinary” conference in September 2010, and one from the first one, held in 2009. Exploring the Extraordinary was established in 2007 by members of the Anomalous Experiences Research Unit (AERU) at the University of York as a network for researchers of and those interested in extraordinary experiences commonly labelled as paranormal, anomalous, supernatural, transcendent, religious or spiritual. A third conference is planned for September 2011 and further information about the initiative can be found at Two members of the AERU group, Drs Hannah Gilbert and Madeleine Castro, served with me as co-Editors of the articles that appear in this issue — Editor