Archive for February, 2010

Oh, how I hate reading articles like this one by Steven Pinker (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580394-1,00.html). Not because they threaten my poor,  all-too-human hope that life continues after death, or we are more than the meat in our brains, but because such articles decide A PRIORI, with no in-depth research into survival of consciousness and no knowledge of the work that was done in this area beginning in the 1800’s with the Society of Psychical Research and continuing today, decide that all studies suggesting survival are flawed, rife with fraud, or impossible because we ALL KNOW, deep down, in our rational minds, that the soul is a silly, primitive fantasy of the undereducated masses and religious zealots. Consider this quote:

“Whatever the solutions to the Easy and Hard problems turn out to be, few scientists doubt that they will locate consciousness in the activity of the brain. For many nonscientists, this is a terrifying prospect. Not only does it strangle the hope that we might survive the death of our bodies, but it also seems to undermine the notion that we are free agents responsible for our choices–not just in this lifetime but also in a life to come. ”

First of all, the idea that only scientists can understand consciousness–or, better said, only neuroscientists–is an elitist assumption by a privileged few. Yes, it’s obvious that neuroscientists are in the best position to understand the workings of the brain, but the assumption that eventually we’ll be able to explain all conscious experience as a function of chemicals and transmitters is NOT JUSTIFIED and not scientific. Declaring that “eventually we’ll solve this problem” is not proof of anything. It is no different from me affirming that “eventually I will be able to prove the existence of the soul, just wait it out and trust me”.

Explaining how the brain works and how its perceptions can be altered by disease, injury, drugs or other factors does not mean that consciousness itself has been “located” in the brain. The article itself uses the analogy of radio transmitters and devices that receive waves: “They [certain brain waves] may bind the activity in far-flung regions (one for color, another for shape, a third for motion) into a coherent conscious experience, a bit like radio transmitters and receivers tuned to the same frequency.” But why must the radios and receivers tuned to the same frequency be necessary IN the brain or a function of the brain? A great deal of work has been done in the field of consciousness studies that suggest that consciousness is EXTERIOR to the brain–you can call this bank or field where consciousness (and perhaps memory) is stored whatever you wish–the fact remains that in order to explain the mysteries of consciousness, you have to look at the brain as the receiver, and the signals it receives as the originator and generator of consciousness. That explains ESP; remote viewing; telepathy; clairvoyance; verifiable after death experiences (see the works of Dr. Brian Weiss) and NDEs; communication with the “dead”; mediumship of all kinds; and all anomalous transfer of information. To simply declare that ALL of the above is either false or fraudulent reflects a lazy, uncritical mind unwilling to do the necessary homework to make such claims.

It is fashionable in academic circles to refute all such work in the “paranormal”, declaring it–in a paternalistic, Freudian manner–a reflection of our collective survival fantasies and equating it with religion or superstition. There is nothing more insulting than this paternalism to those scientists, philosophers, doctors, and so many others who dedicated their lives to unraveling the mysteries of consciousness. Many undertook the journey because the evidence forced them to; many started as skeptics and ended up believing what was obvious enough to shake the very foundations of their prior understanding of life and death. I have lived my entire adult life among academic super-skeptics, who will not even consider the evidence readily available for anyone to consider. There is not one text or experiment that will “prove” survival, but taken as a whole, the information garnered over the last 150 years or so leads the intelligent and thoughtful scholar to the serious consideration of survival of consciousness. However, a great many academics will automatically and instinctively reject ANYTHING that suggests the existence of a soul or an afterlife since it seems unseemly, a product of the religious lower classes that cling to fantasies in order to explain their existence. Academia is elitist in the extreme, always suspicious of any knowledge that it did not create or generate. Academics inhabit a closed system that  often doesn’t play by its own rules, since “knowledge” is their domain, and it is a power game: he who defines reality owns the keys to the kingdom.

The race to define reality as originating in the brain has as much to do with prestige and power as it does with seeking the truth. If science can deny the validity of human experience and declare that we can know nothing about ourselves and that free will is a fantasy, then a select few control the very notion of humanity. There is nothing “scientific” about that; it’s demagoguery and absolutism based on theories that have not yet been proven, and probably never will be. Science is not headed towards proving the location of memory and consciousness–yet, by telling the rest of us that they inevitably will, a chosen few are attempting to control our identity, our experience, and the vast amount of data that leads towards the opposite conclusion–our brains are excellent receivers of memories, information, emotions and experiences that exist SOMEWHERE ELSE. There is abundant evidence for that assertion, and although I won’t pretend to define the location of consciousness–no one can claim to do that–I will say that I trust our human experience. I believe in the validity of our collective observations and deductions regarding the existence and nature of the soul, our contact with those who have died, our continuing awareness after bodily death, and the individual consciousness that is interpreted through our bodies, but is not dependent on it.

Think, I ask, about what it means to equate science and logic with one view of how the brain works. Think about the assumption that those who disagree are illogical, unscientific, superstitious, fantasy driven, undereducated zealots. It’s a profoundly insulting characterization that is simply false. Those who propagate such unflattering propaganda need to do their homework and delve into the so-called “paranormal” research that is strongly suggestive of survival of consciousness. Most of all, however, those men of science who claim to own the truth or will figure it out “given enough time and resources” need some perspective on their own biases and prejudices. That distortion in and of itself is enough to cast serious doubt on the validity and objectivity of their conclusions.

To see the other side of the issue, please take a look at Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary’s The Spiritual Brain – Neuroscience of Consciousness. For some sense of the furious and impolite debate that rages on in this field, read the Amazon.com reviews of the book and the intense emotions that those reviews generate. That in itself is fascinating and worthy of study.

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The Tulip Staircase Ghost (1966)

“Rev. Ralph Hardy, a retired clergyman from White Rock, British Columbia, took this now-famous photograph in 1966. He intended merely to photograph the elegant spiral staircase (known as the “Tulip Staircase”) in the Queen’s House section of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. Upon development, however, the photo revealed a shrouded figure climbing the stairs, seeming to hold the railing with both hands. Experts, including some from Kodak, who examined the original negative concluded that it had not been tampered with. It’s been said that unexplained figures have been seen on occasion in the vicinity of the staircase, and unexplained footsteps have also been heard.” (http://paranormal.about.com/library/blclassic_ghost_on_stairs.htm)

The above photo is one of my favorite anomalous pictures. There is something so melancholy, so desperate, so tragic in this figure’s abandoned gesture. If we are to take this as a true representation of a spirit, then there is a tremendous sadness to the afterlife, or at least to the life-in-death that this soul is experiencing day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

In the previous post, I touch upon the research that defines people in search of their past lives as tending to be depressives with problems sleeping and an active imagination. Perhaps that research would say the same thing about ghost hunters or paranormal investigators. Do we tend to be depressed? Are we prone to insomnia? Do we exaggerate our findings due to lively imaginations? I have no idea; I rather doubt that we are all that different from the general population, although I would like to know what other investigators think about this issue.

During the most difficult time in my life–watching my ex-husband drift away and eventually move out–I started to devour books on life after death. I had so many tomes on the spirit world that they formed a huge column by my bed. They gave me comfort, solace, for reasons that I didn’t understand at the time. Now, when my life is stressful or sad or difficult, I still turn to those tomes–although now, I am choosing to disentangle difficult theories that seek to add scientific backbone to the quest for the afterlife. However, perhaps the emotion that drives this passion of mine is the same as it was then–an unresolved depression and dissatisfaction with the circumstances of my current life. I am not unhappy with my family or my job–quite the contrary–but I have emotional wounds that never healed from years, decades ago. Is it that pain that drives the obsession with life after death? Am I thinking, albeit not always consciously, that the next life will be better? Do I hope for enlightenment and optimism after the transition?

I think it’s a valid question for all of us who work in this field or find ourselves tracking ghosts with fervor. Do we do this because we hope to find something to inspire us in the next life? Is there angst and sadness that we work out through the spirit world? Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that this is the case for everyone, or even the majority–but I have to wonder. Contemplating the above picture, I start to think that perhaps the afterlife is only a reflection of our current life, and that any thought of future happiness in the spirit world is doomed to failure if we don’t find that happiness in the here and now.

As we sow, so shall we reap. If we see through a glass darkly now, that glass will become none the clearer after we exit this world and enter the next.

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In the interest of objectivity, I have decided to include an article that seeks to debunk reincarnation memories in adults as a result of faulty recall or a “source monitoring error,” as the memory specialists call it. Here’s the brief article (my comments on this follow):

“People who believe they have lived past lives as, say, Indian princesses or battlefield commanders are more likely to make certain types of memory errors, according to a new study.

The propensity to make these mistakes could, in part, explain why people cling to implausible reincarnation claims in the first place.

Researchers recruited people who, after undergoing hypnotic therapy, had come to believe that they had past lives.

Subjects were asked to read aloud a list of 40 non-famous names, and then, after a two-hour wait, told that they were going to see a list consisting of three types of names: non-famous names they had already seen (from the earlier list), famous names, and names of non-famous people that they had not previously seen. Their task was to identify which names were famous.

The researchers found that, compared to control subjects who dismissed the idea of reincarnation, past-life believers were almost twice as likely to misidentify names. In particular, their tendency was to wrongly identify as famous the non-famous names they had seen in the first task. This kind of error, called a source-monitoring error, indicates that a person has difficulty recognizing where a memory came from.

Power of suggestion
People who are likely to make these kinds of errors might end up convincing themselves of things that aren’t true, said lead researcher Maarten Peters of Maastricht University in The Netherlands. When people who are prone to making these mistakes undergo hypnosis and are repeatedly asked to talk about a potential idea — like a past life — they might, as they grow more familiar with it, eventually convert the idea into a full-blown false memory.



This is because they can’t distinguish between things that have really happened and things that have been suggested to them, Peters told LiveScience.

Past life memories are not the only type of implausible memories that have been studied in this manner. Richard McNally, a clinical psychologist at Harvard University, has found that self-proclaimed alien abductees are also twice as likely to commit source monitoring errors.

Creative minds
As for what might make people more prone to committing such errors to begin with, McNally says that it could be the byproduct of especially vivid imagery skills. He has found that people who commonly make source-monitoring errors respond to and imagine experiences more strongly than the average person, and they also tend to be more creative.

“It might be harder to discriminate between a vivid image that you’d generated yourself and the memory of a perception of something you actually saw,” he said in a telephone interview.

Peters also found in his study, detailed in the March issue of Consciousness and Cognition, that people with implausible memories are also more likely to be depressed and to experience sleep problems, and this could also make them more prone to memory mistakes.”   (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17982545/)

OK, I can certainly accept that adults who undergo hypnosis seeking past-life answers to current predicaments are prone to be creative thinkers more open to suggestion than the average person. “Vivid imagergy skills” and “suggestibility” indicating difficulty recognizing where a memory comes from are pitfals for the past life seeker, but certainly not any  kind of refutation of the theory itself. Adults who seek to uncover who they were in a past life are walking into a minefield if they hope to prove to themselves or anyone else that what they “remember” is actually originating in a past existence. By the time we are adults, our memories are so crowded with information that it is virtually impossible to “prove” that our memories represent objective recollections of an actual past life; even if we could locate the history of the person that we claim to have been, there is no way to know for sure that the information we possess didn’t come from a written or oral source that we glanced over or heard in passing. That information can bypass conscious awareness and lodge itself in the unconscious brain, only to be brought out under hypnosis as an experience we believe we had before. Then, of course, we have to understand how our unconscious wishes, desires and repressed emotions play a role in the past life we might create for ourselves. We can’t forget the influence of our experiences, fears and fantasies that might not be adequately expressed in a conscious state.

For all of those reasons, the most important researchers in reincarnation memories–the late Dr. Ian Stevenson and the current Dr. Jim Tucker–discount adult memories of reincarnation as impossible to corroborate. Note that this does NOT mean that such past lives did NOT exist; simply that to prove their existence scienfically is a daunting and probably pointless task, since the contamination of our present lives cannot be excluded from our memories of a past as someone else. There is no “pure” adult who can claim that he/she was not exposed to information about the person he/she claims to have been decades or centuries ago. That is why reputable past life research focuses on children’s past life memories, since children have not had the opportunity at the age of four to have read some obscure article with information on the person they used to be. Also, children’s past life memories are not coming from the rational, conscious brain that fabricates other lives based on a wealth of information that the adult has collected over decades; children show behavioral traits, emotional characteristics, that are out of synch with who they are now. A parent knows when her child is behaving in ways that are beyond what is logical or understandable for their age. An adult, on the other hand, can be anyone he chooses to be, or needs to be.

What really interests me about the above aricle is the statement that “people with implausible memories are also more likely to be depressed and to experience sleep problems”. I want to explore in more depth the possible reasons for that, and what someone interested in such research should do BEFORE he or she decides to embark upon the regression journey. There should be a sign posted at the entryway to the hypnotist’s office: “BEWARE: do not seek answers in the past that require solutions in the present”. More on this later . . .

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