Archive for July, 2020

What does science say about 'paranormal' sleep experiences ...

Every now and then, I like to dust off my critical mind and find an article that–yet again!–seeks to describe all paranormal phenomena as a by product of brain functions, ‘stress’, or some other physical or psychological glitch in the system. The latest assault on the paranormal comes from this source, which you are welcome to read in its entirety should you feel inspired: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ooze/201507/why-some-people-see-ghosts-and-other-apparitions

Here is a quote that I find interesting yet dismaying: “A recent study by Kirsten Barnes and Nicholas Gibson (2013) explored the differences between individuals who have never had a paranormal experience and those who have. They confirmed that experiences of supernatural phenomena are most likely to occur in threatening or ambiguous environments, and they also found that those who had paranormal experiences scored higher on scales measuring empathy and a tendency to become deeply absorbed in one’s own subjective experience.”

One of the most common assumptions of scientists and psychologists when dealing with anomalous experiences is that the environment or the brain itself PRODUCES the paranormal experience. There are so many variations on this assumption: blind spots create the effect of seeing something out of the corner of your eye; variations in the electromagnetic field produce the feeling of a presence or being watched; variations in infrasound create feelings of doom or dread; sleep paralysis and the hypnagogic state bring our dreams into reality; or environmental contaminants make us hallucinate. The article under discussion here states that both stressful and boring environments create the necessary conditions for the brain to hallucinate ghosts. If you are a sensitive person, an empath, or simply prone to self analysis, your brain will supply you with visions. The problem with this hypothesis should be fairly clear, but allow me to break down my objections:

  1. Instead of assuming that conditions and brain states CREATE the paranormal experience, it is more likely that the proper CONDITIONS lead to the ability to perceive non-ordinary realities and presences. You can study the brains of meditators and mystics and exclaim that the changes you see in their brains have created their visions, or you can conclude that the changes in their brains are the result of sustained and focused connection with “God” or the world of spirit. The brain changes are the result of their spiritual practices, not the cause.
  2. The same can be said for people who enter trance states, ingest psychedelic substances, engage in intense religious rituals, or in any other way alter their consciousness with the express intent to contact the world of spirit. Yes, the brain changes in response to the substance, activity or intention of the participant in any kind of ritual, because the brain is accommodating and facilitating the connection, not creating it.
  3. This does not mean that you can’t genuinely hallucinate while under the influence of drugs, carbon monoxide, or some other physical agent. What’s the difference? In genuine cases of spiritual contact, there is logic, emotional impact, a sense of the divine, a coherent story, or the fulfillment of one’s deepest intentions. There is, in other words, a sense of the holy or sacred that accompanies one’s vision, a transcendence that serves to elevate the experience to another level of reality and often ends up changing the life of the person who has witnessed or sensed the presence. I have, unfortunately, endured an episode of carbon monoxide poisoning when I was a teenager in Spain–I woke up disoriented, confused, and seeing strange things. I knew immediately that this was not ‘paranormal’, but something that was sickening me in body and mind. I have also had multiple surgeries where I struggled through the effects of anesthesia and other drugs, and it was always clear that those effects were not at all supernatural due to their chaotic and irrational nature. There is simply no way to compare the effects of drugs and poison to a true, spiritual experience that leaves you in awe.
  4. And, finally, to reduce spiritual experiences to brain effects or environmental stresses completely ignores centuries of human experiences of the holy and the uncanny. If you reduce the power of religion to, for example, the stress Jesus felt while wandering through the desert, you have denied the most powerful aspect of humanity: our ability to connect to higher realities and transmit those messages to others.

Our brains serve as a sort of ‘reducing valve’ for an overwhelming amount of information that we cannot possibly process in its entirety. This quote from Aldous Huxley is quite famous in certain spiritual circles:

“Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. […]

But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.” https://www.ianmack.com/aldous-huxley-dont-mistake-the-trickle-for-ultimate-reality/

And yes, Huxley wrote this after his experiments with mescaline; and yet, think about it: there is infinitely more information ‘out there’ than we are able to process. If some event, circumstance, drug, or stressor hampers the brain’s ability to filter out the greater reality, extra information can sneak past the gates and flood us with ‘paranormal’ experiences: messages from the gods or from God, spirit contact, or the ability to perceive what is normally blocked from view. How do we know what is ‘real’ and what is the result of a brain on overload? “By their fruits you shall know them”: this refers to false prophets, but it could easily refer to false messages or hallucinations. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; likewise, true spiritual contact, ‘real’ paranormal experiences, are life changing and profound.

I have not mentioned the fact that documented and verifiable paranormal experiences are abundant and well researched. The Society for Psychical Research, for example, has published volumes of excellent evidence for the existence of ‘ghosts’, telepathy, near death experiences, mediumship, out of body experiences, and so much more. The SPR has been around since 1882 and included some of the most prominent and respected scientists of their time. Their work continues today. Gary Schwartz in the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona has carried out fascinating experiments in afterlife communication. I could go on and on, but the point is: before one decides what is ‘science’ and what is not, you must do your research. There are centuries of evidence that spiritual energy is real and communicates with us on a regular basis. You don’t need to be an empath to receive these communications, but you do need to allow that such experiences are possible; if you block the full range of human consciousness with your materialism in the name of science, you lose the most profound aspect of our humanity: our connection to spirit.

The end of the article offers advice for the psychologist faced with the patient reporting paranormal contact:

“There are really only three possibilities:

  1. The event really happened, just as the person has reported.
  2. The person believes that the event has really happened, but it has not.
  3. The person is fabricating a story for some reason.”

I am not entirely sure how the psychologist would know that the event has not really happened, in the case of the second scenario. I would recommend option number 1, assuming that there is no serious mental illness present (although, some argue that schizophrenia, for example, is simply a case of a reducing valve that does not work well and allows too much information in without context or intention).

In the end, we simply cannot assume that we have access to the full display of reality that the Universe contains. Some of our brains are more plastic, more open, than others, for a multitude of reasons. Why not treat those people for whom the larger realities intrude as wise instead of crazy? Why not see what doors open for psychology and science when this extra information flows through freely, without judgment or skepticism? And, of course, why not educate yourselves in the rich history of the ‘paranormal’ and realize that the science is, actually, already settled?

—Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD

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Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) - HelpGuide.org

I thought I might share what I have to do to stay sane. Not to be a paragon of mental health, but to simply exist without running to the psychiatrist for medication (and I might still consider medication. I have no conflict with that for anyone that needs it).

I take 100 mg. of Theanine in the morning, along with various supplements for digestion and general nutrition. I must walk briskly for 40 minutes, twice a day. Every day. I cannot have caffeine after 1:00 in the afternoon. I take a nap for a least an hour; that is non-negotiable. I have a light dinner, walk some more, and watch non-violent television. I can’t watch stimulating programs or anything with upsetting content. I have to do stretching, yoga for stress, and meditate for at least 1/2 every, single day. In between all of those activities, I read books on mental health–lots and lots of them–underlining strategies for managing anxiety, stress, and depression. I follow the ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) protocol as much as possible, as it works for me better than anything else (please consider reading up on it if you deal with mental health issues, or even if you don’t and simply want to be psychologically healthier). I take another 100 mg. of Theanine at night to help me sleep. If things are really rough, I ask my husband for a massage.

I generally wake up two hours after I fall asleep, and again around 3:00 or 4:00 am. I don’t get upset or angry that I can’t stay asleep; I get up and walk around, listen to the night birds, and return to bed when I start feeling sleepy. I almost never sleep through the night.

I am managing Generalized Anxiety Disorder, mild to moderate depression, and Panic Disorder. The panic attacks that come at night can kick of esophageal spasms so intense that they mimic a heart attack. If I didn’t know what they were, I would immediately go to the ER. I have had moments of derealization where the world seems unfamiliar and strange, a place I don’t recognize. My stress levels are considered by my doctors to be ‘severe’ and ‘extreme’. Spasms of the stomach and esophagus are the result of unusually advanced states of anxiety. It’s been almost two weeks since my last attack, and I am very grateful for that; but I work hard to keep those episodes at bay.

The news is filled with Covid horror stories, and well-meaning friends and family occasionally send me terrifying “true stories” about someone who experienced awful side effects from the virus, or someone who lost more than half of their family to the disease. The fear-based narrative has become like pornography–we know that it’s bad for us, that we shouldn’t look at it, but we are compelled to due to the intense reactions we feel in our body. Fear is a form of arousal, after all, just not a pleasant one.

Selling and promoting fear may strike some as profitable or beneficial for public health, but for people like me who suffer from crippling anxiety, it is an act of emotional violence. The “second pandemic” will be the mental health fallout of Covid-19, and at least some of that could have been prevented with a consistent, calm message to the public that someone was in charge. Fear-based reporting does not convince Covid deniers to change; the irresponsible people throwing parties and tossing about conspiracy theories will not read the heartbreaking and horrifying accounts of Covid chaos that the news uses to stoke panic. If they do, it won’t matter. They will not change their opinions or suddenly decide to wear a mask.

But people like me read these stories; people with an overdeveloped sense of danger and a big imagination for disaster. There are a lot of us out there, struggling in silence with our own morbid thoughts and gnawing fears. I remember my father telling me stories of brain eating amoebas and viruses that would make you bleed to death through every orifice. He collected the most horrifying stories he could find and used to tell my sister and me all about them, delighting in the fear and upset that he provoked. I don’t know why he told those stories; I suspect it was about feeling in control. He could create emotions in others and perhaps work through his own in a psychodrama that ended up fomenting in me a kind of permanent dread.

Don’t share anecdotes about the deadly unpredictability of Covid-19 with your friends, families or coworkers who struggle with anxiety, especially under the guise of ‘helping’ us understand the severity of the situation. You probably know already that we ‘get’ that, and–I suspect–sharing highly distressing narratives of medical horrors is not about educating or informing us, but about the power one feels when you receive a response; especially if that response confirms that your well-intended warning created such fear that it took an entire day to recover from it.

We watch scary movies because humans love to be terrified when they know that after two hours or so, everything will go back to normal and the ‘fight or flight’ instinct evaporates. But for many of us, the scary movie never ends. There is no reprieve after two hours, and we can’t turn off the awful stories. They run through our heads like an endless loop. We want to run, and there is nowhere to go. We want to hide, yet never find a safe place. We want to fight, but there is no visible enemy to defeat. Panic and anxiety that never end create health risks that nobody seems to appreciate; but I know that I am far likelier to die from incessant stress than from Covid-19. Let’s take care of each other in ways that extend beyond wearing a mask or refusing to socialize. Reach out in a compassionate way to someone who is suffering.

Thank you for listening. As always.

–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD

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