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Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Scientist's Spoiler-free Review of Hereafter

I saw Hereafter yesterday after not having been in a movie theater (yay, Netflix!) since Christmas Day, 2007. It was worth the trip.

Hereafter considered life after death through perspectives that were normal, ordinary, and, thus, realistic. One of the people I was with said, "I thought [a certain part] would be more spectacular." I, on the other hand, thought that the normalcy of the after-death portions of the story were what made it extraordinary. It didn't treat mediumship, near-death experiences, or after death communication as anything out of the ordinary. The same cannot be said about how some of the characters viewed these phenomena, though.

Outsider responses to the after death experiences were realistic; that is, people responded either with dismissive disbelief or with frenzied hunger to experience it oneself. The most interesting interaction from the dismissive front was an experiencer asking a non-experiencer if he could even entertain the possibility that there might be something on the other side. His response was something like, "If there was, wouldn't they have found proof by now?"

Let's dissect this argument. First, who are "they"? This is not an infinite number of chimps at an infinite number of keyboards sort of deal. It's not like every scientist in the world is working day and night on this question and they still haven't found anything. There are only a handful of us working with limited resources on this topic so progress is destined to be slow.

In addition, life after death is not a topic typically tackled by science. In most parts of the world, the idea of researching the possibility of life after death is ridiculous. It's like saying you do research on whether the sky is blue. It's just a given that we survive the death of our bodies.

And for most of history, religion, not science, was the authority with all the answers. When, relatively recently, the two split and science also became an answer machine, it disregarded all things religious as superstition. Since the afterlife was the domain of religion, science said, "No thanks. You keep that. We'll be over here." Science didn't start looking at the afterlife with any real gusto until the 1880s and, again, it's not like there were a lot of people working on it (then or now).

Then there's just the logical fallacy of the argument. The absence of proof for something is not proof of its absence.

The additional realistic facets from the film I wanted to point out were the existence of fraudulent "communicators," people demanding readings from a medium, and the presence of information in a mediumship reading that the sitter (who often demanded the reading) didn't necessarily want to hear.

There was a wonderful tongue-in-cheek montage of a grieving individual visiting numerous types of practitioners claiming that their trance mediumship, instrumental transcommunication device, or gallery readings (by the organization's "Senior Sensitive") were sure-fire ways to communicate with the deceased. I just hope the public recognizes that those people, in reality, are the minority.

I thought the common thread of people presupposing that mediums are at their beck and call and somehow required to connect them to their loved ones was an interesting one. My only experience with that is the people who spend a few bucks during some of our online fund raising events in which Windbridge Certified Research Mediums (WCRMs), whose readings usually cost at least a couple hundred dollars, provide "mini-readings" and then become indignant when they do not receive an entire reading's worth of information. (Most people at those events, however, are appropriately grateful for the opportunity to receive communication and support afterlife research.)

And finally, Hereafter addressed the issue of information being present in a reading that the sitter did not necessarily want to hear. I was concerned that the movie was inaccurately leading the viewer to believe that everything a medium says is correct and comes directly from the "mouth" of the deceased; so I was slightly relieved when at least this unwanted information aspect arose. Undesirable information, when verifiable, can be more evidential to a sitter than other types of veridical information because it cannot be dismissed as wishful thinking, the medium just saying what the sitter wants to hear, or the medium acquiring that information psychically from the sitter.

Overall, I thought that Hereafter did a great (but not perfect) job of representing the reality of several types of after death communication and related phenomena. Like I said in my previous post about an episode of the TV show Castle, I am always happy to see references in the popular culture that paint these experiences as normal. They are making it less and less taboo for people to see a medium, be a medium, or talk about their near-death experiences or personal after death communication experiences.

Thank you, Clint.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Mediums in the Media

I am surprised and encouraged by the frequency with which mediums and psychics are showing up in ‘mainstream’ movies and TV shows.

In this group, I am NOT including the “reality” shows in which deceased people are hunted down like vermin while people’s experiences are entirely discounted and environmental monitors which were not developed for any such purpose are waved around willy nilly.  Author, parapsychologist, and seasoned field investigator Loyd Auerbach just wrote a really terrific article about that type of show in our most recent issue of Winds of Change, our members’ e-newsletter.  Here’s my favorite excerpt: “Technology is the result of science.  But do you consider yourself as being scientific when you use a microwave oven?  Or use a metal detector?  Texting on a cell phone?  One can teach a chimp—heck, probably your dog—to get excited if the meter starts reacting on a magnetometer, but that hardly means the animal is being ‘scientific.’”  Chimps, indeed, Loyd.

It is the more “normal” shows that are featuring mediums and psychics that (sometimes) have me smiling.  The mere regularity with which these individuals are showing up means that it is truly becoming less and less taboo to SEE a medium or psychic or BE a medium or psychic.

For example, later this month (10/22), the movie Hereafter staring Matt Damon and directed by Clint Eastwood debuts.  Damon plays a medium and another character in the movie has a life-changing near-death experience (NDE).  Watch the trailer here.


And just today as I had my lunch, I watched the latest episode (“He’s dead, she’s dead” …hee hee hee) of the TV show Castle, a crime dramedy about NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett and mystery novelist Richard Castle who shadows Beckett as part of research for his books.  In this episode, a psychic medium is murdered.  Castle takes the stance of accept-er and Beckett acts as the deny-er.  (I won’t use the words ‘believer’ and ‘skeptic’ because I don’t think accepting the reality of psychic abilities requires blind faith and I don’t think denying even the possibility of such phenomena is being skeptical.)

There were a number of concepts portrayed in the show that I was pleased to see went along accurately with the research, politics, and psychology associated with mediumship and psychic abilities (collectively called “psi” for simplicity here)…

--Argumentum ad hominem.  Though Castle properly defines the abilities (“psychics can tell the future and mediums can tell the future and talk to the dead”), Beckett resorts to name-calling (“that’s like saying psychics are con-artists and mediums are con-artists and charlatans”).  At one point she even equates “belief” in psi to a belief in Santa Claus. Castle is more level-headed.  After Beckett calls him gullible, he says, “I’m not saying I can speak with the dead; I’m just willing to admit that there are people in this world who are more sensitive than me.” Our research findings back that up.

--Double standards.  Beckett finds it logical to dismiss psi outright but has no problem with other similar notions.  After she dismisses the link between the medium’s predictions and what comes to pass as “coincidence” rather than fate and later states that her “gut says” a suspect is innocent, Castle points out: “So you don’t believe in fate, yet your gut has magical properties.”

--Nature/nurture (also the topic of this week’s Two Cents Tuesday question).  The medium’s daughter also had psi experiences and more than once reported accurate information that she had acquired during a dream state.

--Personality types (i.e., the cops acted like cops).  In our research, we have mediums fill out several personality/psychological tests—one is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which assigns a person one of two personality types in four categories resulting in one of 16 four-letter types (for example, ENTJ: extravert-intuitive-thinking-judging).  We have found that 85% of mediums are personality subset NF, intuitive and feeling (the outside letters don’t seem to correlate to mediumship experiences).  According to the test developers, the professions with the highest percent of NFers are clergy (55%) and art, drama, and music teachers (54%).  The profession with the lowest—only 4%—of NFers: police and detectives.  They’re just different types of people, so it isn’t surprising that it is difficult for police to get behind information acquired through non-local (or as the journalist who recently interviewed Mark erroneously referred to it in her article: “non-vocal”) means.  When Castle laments that he is “surrounded by skeptics,” one of the detectives responds, “It’s called being a cop, bro.”  I was also pleasantly surprised that they included both possible explanations for why they couldn’t verify that the medium worked on all the law enforcement cases she claimed to: (1) the medium over-represented her involvement and (2) the agencies were hesitant to admit the use of psychic help.

--The psychology of memory.  In Castle’s recollection of a reading he had received from the murdered medium 8 years prior, he claims “she got everything right” which is simply impossible.

Though no one mentioned the more than a century of scientific research with mediums in the show, I was very pleased with how the title character stood up for psi (though not pleased with the sometimes shady activities of the medium).  I am hoping that with the continued presence of psi-associated phenomena in the popular culture as normal and ubiquitous, funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will follow.

Yeah, right.

Friday, September 17, 2010

What I did on my summer “vacation”


Worked.

Processed the sitter scores from a slew of telephone test readings performed by prospective Windbridge Certified Research Mediums’ (WCRMs).

Performed additional test readings with prospective WCRMs on the phone.

Administered the Phenomenology of Consciousness Inventory (PCI) a bunch of times (the PCI is a questionnaire that quantitatively measures 26 dimensions of consciousness).

Contributed an article titled “The reincarnation of mediumship research” to EdgeScience (vol. 3, pp. 10-12), a publication of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). Read the article here.

Was interviewed by Dean Radin, PhD, for an Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) teleseminar I called “Can mediums talk to the dead? Can you? Why should we care?”  Listen here.

Set up a specific page listing all the ways you can stay connected and get involved with the Windbridge Institute.

Presented Windbridge Institute research (“Empirically addressing a proposed mechanism behind orbic photographic artifacts” and “Evidence-based mediumship and survival research and its practical social applications”) at the 2010 conference of the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine (ISSSEEM) in Westminster, Colorado.  (Visit our publications page for all of our presentations and publications.)

Received much welcome advice and direction (and shared many giggles) over dinner with charming and brilliant physicist Ed May, PhD, Director of the Laboratories for Fundamental Research, and his fascinating wife Dianne Jenett, PhD, Co-Director of the Women’s Spirituality masters’ program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, during the ISSSEEM meeting.  (And got lost trying to get back to the hotel after dinner.)

Got to spend time with some wonderful Windbridge members and supporters during the ISSSEEM meeting.

Wondered why the scientific study of the survival of consciousness (life after death)---which affects every single person on the planet---receives so little interest, support, and funding.

Shared that wondering as a Featured Blogger on the Daily Grail.

Did my duty as a scientist and served as a reviewer for a journal submission.

Appeared on network TV and on the cover of a magazine in France (yes, you are correct – my name is indeed misspelled on the cover of the magazine).

Saw hilarious comedians Jackie Kashian and Maria Bamford perform in Tucson.

Got two haircuts and went to the dentist once.

Ate a Twinkie.  It wasn’t anything like I remembered from my childhood and I was rather amazed at the stones Hostess has calling that food.  It tasted like cleaning products with a sweet, creamy center.  I was, however, presently surprised recently by Oreos (vegan!) which I hadn’t had in years.


What I did NOT do on my summer “vacation”

Vacation, stay-cation, away-cation, or half-a-day-cation.

Go outside for more than 60 seconds at a time more than once a week.  I have had multiple sclerosis for 16 years (I'm 35) and one of my symptoms is intolerance to heat, so I am pretty much house-bound for the six months that is the Arizona summer (May-Oct).  This is complicated by the fact that the AC in my 1995 Ford Aspire only works if the car is moving more than 35mph but is much easier now that we have AC in our house (we used to just have an evaporative cooler).  Why do I stay?  (1) The other six months of the year are quite lovely and (2) the symptoms I experience from the cold are even worse than the heat-induced ones.
 
Say or write any of the following “words” or phrases: “till” (I will only use until or at the very least ‘til); “irregardless”; “a-whole-nother”; “supposably”; “your” when I meant “you’re”; and “explanation point” (oh, David Bromstad, you are in all other ways fantastic).
 
Take for granted for one moment my near-perfect husband (I would have said ‘perfect’ but he can’t seem to shake the habit of opening a box of cereal, a bottle of ketchup, a carton of soy milk, etc. when one is already open).

Eat a second Twinkie.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Two Sally's

When we screen a new prospective Windbridge Certified Research Medium (WCRM) as well as in most of our mediumship studies, each medium reads two deceased people (called discarnates), the readings take place over the phone, and I act as a proxy in place of the actual sitter (the living person wanting to hear from the discarnate), so only the medium and I are on the phone. The only information the medium and I have is the first name of a discarnate. Which medium reads which discarnate pair and the order in which the discarnates in a pair are read are randomized. Phone readings are scheduled at times convenient for me and the medium. Thus, in any given week, a number of readings are taking place. On rare occasions, I do two readings with two different mediums and two different discarnates in one day.

Recently, that situation occurred and because of all the randomization, two discarnates each named Sally* were scheduled to be read on the same day. Since I didn't have any other information about the two discarnates or sitters, the day before the reading, I simply held out to the universe the page in my planner where the two readings were listed, shrugged my shoulders apologetically, and said, "You two will need to figure out who goes where."

The morning of the scheduled Sally readings, I got a message from the medium assigned to read Sally-1 saying that she woke up sick and couldn't do the reading, so we pushed the reading back one week. Problem solved: no more two Sally readings in one day. (Mark and I joked that since I had left it up to the discarnates to deal with the situation, they had "struck the medium down with illness!") The reading later that day with Sally-2 and the other medium went just fine.

When I called the Sally-1 medium back a week later for the rescheduled reading, her phone just rang and rang and eventually went to voicemail. I assumed that she had forgotten about the reading, left her a voicemail, sent her an email to reschedule, and went back to work. When I checked my phone and email later, there were frantic messages from her saying that she was sitting next to the phone waiting for the session and when I didn't call, she tried to call me and noticed that she had voicemail. Apparently, her phone just didn't ring when I called. (Phone, computer, and electronic troubles are common for mediums. One of the WCRMs jokes that there should be some kind of special mediumship insurance to cover such disasters.) So we pushed the reading back one more week. I guess Sally-2 wasn't satisfied with only one week of separation. Maybe she thought she should be highlighted. And she had every right.

When I called that third week, the medium answered right away but there was a lot of static on the line. When I recommended that I call her back, it cleared right up and the rest of the reading was fine.

Just Sally-2 letting us know she was still running things.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the deceased.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Afterlife Dance Party

On June 25th, my research (and life) partner Mark Boccuzzi and I will be presenting "Empirically Addressing a Proposed Mechanism behind Orbic Photographic Artifacts" at the Research Day of the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine (ISSSEEM) 2010 conference. I can't post the abstract or the results here yet, but I will say that most, if not all, orb images that have been presented as evidence of the "paranormal" can be reproduced under controlled conditions using conventional means. (And I don't have time to argue about the validity of that statement. See, for example, Storm, 2001; Schwartz & Creath, 2005.) That being said, there are aspects of the orb photographic phenomenon that may warrant further study (e.g., people feeling compelled to take photos that then contain orbs). Thus, while orbs are not photographs of actual entities, it may be worth entertaining the possibility that some type of interaction occurs---be it physical, mental, or electronic---that results in these images.

In our study, we addressed the hypothesis that the deceased can "move" ambient dust particles in the air into physical positions that will result in orbic artifacts when photographed. We asked the deceased to "push" dust particles in the air in a dark room into the path of the visible beam from a laser light source which was then photographed. This does not create orbs in the photos since no flash is used but the dust particles reflect the laser and create bright spots that can be quantified using image analysis software. Imagine dust highlighted in a sunbeam. (The dust in this study was generously provided by the Tucson landscape and our dog.)

Photo analysis data aside, some very interesting things happened during data collection for this study. I am not going to draw any conclusions or offer alternative explanations at this time; I'll just convey some facts.

We collected data a number of times and asked a Windbridge Certified Research Medium to report back to us what the deceased said about their experiences during the experiment. In this medium's (and others') opinion, there is a "committee" of deceased individuals aiding in Windbridge research from "the other side" and this committee is spear-headed by the late author, journalist, researcher, and medium Susy Smith. I never met Susy while she was alive, but I feel like I have a good sense of her personality. As Director of Research at Windbridge, I don't answer to any "boss," though I'm pretty sure if I messed up, I'd have to answer to Susy.

According to the medium, Susy gathers the appropriate individuals for the task at hand. My visual image of this involves an able-bodied Susy (who was confined to a wheelchair toward the end of her life), a clip-board, a hip-mounted walkie-talkie, and a coach's whistle. Want to make sure the right discarnate finds the right medium during a quintuple-blinded reading? Susy gets them there. Need to test whether the deceased can interact with an EMF meter? Susy finds some engineers. And, as we found out, need some dancers? Susy holds auditions.

On the first night of the study, I simply told the medium that we were going to ask the Committee to do something and requested that she check in with them about how they did afterward. She didn't know anything about what we were testing or what the task was. We laid out dark fabric on the floor of a hallway in our house, shot the laser down the hall, asked the Committee aloud to push dust into the beam, and took some long-exposure photos. (Don't ping me on the protocol; those are far from all of the details. Rest assured that we thought of, controlled for, and documented "that.")

When we checked in with the medium, she mentioned "a black sheet" (not a common research tool around here) and said she felt confident that the members of the Committee were able to do what we asked of them. I then briefly explained the study and asked if they had any input regarding further trials. She said that Susy was asking that we move the experiment somewhere else because "there wasn't enough room for them to move around." Our hallway is about 4 feet wide.

She also said they had "tipped something over or knocked something down" in the area of the experiment. There is nothing in that hallway but pictures on the walls and all the pictures were fine. However, the next morning, when I got in the shower that's in the bathroom off that hallway, the shower head was hanging at a wonky angle and an innocuous little piece of rubber that had been holding it upright had come off. It had never come off before and, once I put it back, it has not come off since.

The next time we collected data, we moved the set-up into a larger room. When we checked in with the medium, she said, "This time, we all decided to dance. Spirit and I figured the more of us that danced in the room, the more dust particles would fly into the air." Sounds reasonable.

For the third run, we aimed the laser into a small hole in a box to prevent excess light reflection from the laser bouncing off the far wall. This box was placed on a small table with a mosaic top of small (1 inch x 1 inch), square mirror tiles. For this run, the medium reported seeing "a clear glass filled with ice cubes but no liquid." There was no ice anywhere in the house (we don't waste valuable freezer space with frozen water; it leaves more room for sweet potato fries). I didn't have any idea what that might have referenced. Mark made the connection between the cubes and the mirror squares when he noted that the table was new to the set-up.

She also said that, "This time I used my hands to pound on the ground as a beat" for the discarnates to dance to. "As I was doing this I felt I was doing what Spirit was doing. It was their way to show me what they were doing." She then reported that, "I felt the urge to stop or pause between my beats. I would beat for awhile then a long pause. I didn't understand why I was doing this. All I knew was this is what Spirit is guiding me to do." Because of the long exposures, the camera shutter would be open while a photo was being taken and then there were pauses after each shot while the digital camera wrote that image data to the chip.

Several weeks later, I was acting as a blinded proxy sitter during a test phone reading a prospective Windbridge Certified Research Medium was performing. This second medium was not aware (by any normal means) that an orb study existed and the two mediums don't know each other. When asked "Does the discarnate have any comments, questions, requests, or messages for the sitter?" during the reading, the medium (as requested) reported many statements applicable to the absent sitter. She also mentioned that, "He says everybody is around you, Julie, helping you do this. And he's kind of jumping up and down and doing the happy dance."

This orb study is still on-going and we will report the results publicly when appropriate.


References:
Storm, L. (2001). Photographic anomalies on the Internet. International Journal of Parapsychology, 12, 195-204.
Schwartz, G. E. & Creath, K. Anomalous orbic ‘spirit' photographs? A conventional optical explanation. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 19, 343-358.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Welcome

Hello and welcome to my brand new blog. My mission here is to share news, helpful resources, and interesting links, but most of all I hope to share the little behind-the-scenes happenings that occur during our experiments and interviews with psychic mediums that don't make it into journal articles but are just as evidential and fascinating as thematic analyses, effect sizes, and p values, if not more so (especially if you could give a rat's patooti about p values). Enjoy!