Monthly Archives: September 2011

Do you believe in ghosts?

If the question means “Do you believe that dead people sometimes walk the earth in their other-world bodies?”, the answer is probably no. G.N.M Tyrrell, in his classic book Apparitions, suggested many years ago that a better way to put the question is ‘Do people sometimes experience apparitions?’ – the answer to that one is definitely yes.

Apparitions may be seen, heard or felt. When they are seen, they often look so like a normal human being as to be mistaken for one, at least at first. In The Reality of the Paranormal, which I have mentioned before, Prof. Arthur Ellison lists five types of apparition, each of which is well documented:

  • hauntings – regularly perceived in a particular place
  • crisis cases – seen, heard or felt when the person perceived is undergoing a crisis (often near death)
  • post-mortem cases – perceived long after a person has died
  • experimental cases – where a living person is deliberately trying to make his apparition visible to another
  • suggestion cases – “tricks of the mind” in places believed to be haunted.

The first three of these types may be regarded as ‘ghosts’ but it’s debatable as to whether or not they have an independent existence; they are probably ‘hallucinations’ generated by the unconscious mind, existing only in the minds of those perceiving them (sometimes several people at once). This doesn’t make them any less “real”, but it’s important to distinguish these cases from apparent communications with departed spirits. Generally speaking, apparitions don’t communicate with the living, although spirits may, as I discussed in my previous blog.

It’s generally considered that most hauntings are something like a video recording – stored in the fabric of a building, perhaps, by a strongly emotional event. The classic TV ghost story The Stone Tape was based on this idea. Crisis apparitions are best explained by telepathy from the living (even if at the point of death). Post-mortem cases could be evidence of telepathic communication from the dead in some cases, or possibly just hallucinations created by the unconscious mind in the bereaved.

So while apparitions may be classed as “paranormal” they are not really evidence for life after death in themselves. How and why some people (and not others) experience apparitions are questions which are still to be answered; there’s no simple explanation. For a comprehensive analysis of the subject, I recommend the 1975 book Apparitions by Celia Green and Charles McCreery. They suggest that, when someone sees an apparition, it’s not just the apparition that’s hallucinatory, but the whole environment. This leads into a discussion of lucid dreams and out-of-the-body experiences – but that’s another blog…or two…

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Is there anybody there?

Apart from the reincarnation evidence which I discussed in my last blog, the main area of research into life after death (“survival”) has been the study of mediumship. The Society for Psychical Research (“SPR”) was founded in 1882, shortly after the “birth” of Spiritualism. The work of the SPR initially focused mainly on mediumship, although they also investigated thought-transference, mesmerism and other paranormal phenomena. The investigation of mediumship declined, as the study of parapsychology became more experimental, but the popularity of recent television series such as Living TV’s Most Haunted makes it clear that both mental and physical mediumship are very much in the public consciousness.

To define these terms I’m going to give two quotes from the excellent book The Reality of the Paranormal by Prof. Arthur Ellison (a past president of the SPR).

“The psychic is called by Spiritualists a medium because he or she is assumed to act as a medium between this world and the next. According to the Spiritualist theory, when mediums’ minds are used in this way, they are called mental mediums. In other words, a mental medium is a person receiving data ostensibly communicated from the dead via the mind and body of the medium.”

“When the production of ostensibly paranormal physical effects take place during a séance then the medium is called by Spiritualists a physical medium and the phenomena, which are assumed to be produced by entities in the ‘next world’, are referred to as physical phenomena.” These phenomena include such things as cold breezes, whispered voices, table rapping and levitation and faint lights – the “orbs” familiar to viewers of Most Haunted.

The history of Spiritualism, and by extension that of psychical research, has been plagued by fraud; generally speaking, magicians are more competent investigators than scientists. Physical mediumship has always been particularly suspect, and in my view is largely irrelevant to the question of survival, but mental mediumship has provided some strong evidence.

In fact, there’s a huge amount of evidence, and I only have room here to give a very brief outline of two historical, related cases which appeal personally to me. The first is the Cross-Correspondences, apparently an experiment which originated from “the other side”. Communications ostensibly came from deceased leading members of the SPR, classical scholars who wove obscure literary references into automatic writing scripts received by several mediums living well apart, some even on different continents. This is such a vast subject in itself that the best I can do is refer you to online introductory articles at http://www.montaguekeen.com/page42.html One of the mediums involved, Mrs Piper, was studied in great detail (not only in connection with the Cross-Correspondences) and is particularly highly regarded among psychical researchers.

Another of the mediums involved in the Cross-Correspondences was “Mrs Willett” (in fact Mrs Winifred Coombe Tennant, the first British woman appointed as a delegate to the League of Nations), who, after her death, apparently started communicating with another medium, Geraldine Cummins. The Cummins-Willett scripts have been published in edited book form under the title Swan on a Black Sea, and I can recommend it as strongly convincing evidence suggesting that Mrs Coombe Tennant’s consciousness lived on after her death.

As with other paranormal phenomena, I don’t think that there will ever be definitive unarguable proof that the living can communicate with the dead; the sceptic can always fall back on the “Super-ESP” argument referred to in my last blog. Any verifiable information received by a medium must exist somewhere in the world, either in writing or a living person’s mind, for it to be checked. But if you read communications such as those in Swan on a Black Sea, where Mrs Coombe Tennant’s personality clearly comes through, you would be justified in wondering whether Super-ESP is the simplest explanation.

Past Lives – the Evidence

The scientific evidence for past lives or reincarnation – from formal research rather than just anecdotal evidence – comes from two main directions.

The first is hypnotic regression, but this is not generally considered to have produced anything conclusive. The principal reason for this is that it’s relatively easy for sceptics to come up with alternative explanations, such as suppressed memories (from books, newspapers, TV programmes and films), false memories implanted by the hypnotist, or simply fantasy.* Having said this, past life experiences under hypnosis are usually very convincing to the person having them, and there is some useful research in this area. I can recommend the book Reliving Past Lives: The evidence under hypnosis by Dr Helen Wambach for a comprehensive description of her own research.

The second line of research, which is rather harder for sceptics to explain away, comes from studies with young, sometimes very young, children, particularly those conducted by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who published a number of books on his research. There are two reasons why these studies are more convincing than those involving hypnosis: firstly, the suppressed memories argument is not plausible when the subjects are two to three years old and secondly Stevenson’s subjects mainly lived in semi-literate cultures where access to other sources of information was extremely limited.

To give you an idea of this research I’d like to give a very brief summary of one of Stevenson’s classic cases – that of Imad Elawar.** Imad was born in in a village in Lebanon in 1958, and the first word that he spoke was “Jamileh”, the name of the mistress of Ibrahim Boumhazy, who had lived in a village 20 miles away and died in 1949 at the age of twenty-five. As soon as Imad learnt to speak in sentences he began to talk about his past life, and at the age of two recognised a neighbour of Boumhazy’s in the street. He also gave many details about Boumhazy’s house, relatives and his life. At that time the people of the region tended to do little travelling, and the members of the Elawar and Boumhazy families insisted that they had never met. After collecting as much information as possible from both villages, Stevenson took Imad (then aged five) to Boumhazy’s village, where he recognised many of Ibrahim Boumhazy’s relatives and addressed them correctly. They were amazed at Imad’s behaviour, which was just like Ibrahim’s.

Stevenson collated 57 factual statements made by Imad; of these, 51 were verified as correct. This case, and others like it, is very difficult to explain if it is not a genuine example of reincarnation. Communication between communities in the region was extremely limited at the time. Imad had never visited the other village and the two families were adamant that they had never met. Fraud was also most unlikely, as Imad’s comments were more of an embarrassment to his family than giving any benefit.

“Super-ESP”, i.e. telepathy from Boumhazy’s family, is of course a possible explanation for the information given by Imad; it’s the sceptic’s “Get out of jail free” card, as it can explain almost anything – except perhaps Imad’s behaviour. In cases like this, reincarnation is the most straightforward explanation, and these cases do give very strong evidence – but not, of course, conclusive proof.

*None of these arguments affect the effectiveness of past life regression for therapeutic purposes, for reasons that I have explained in other blogs and articles.

** A detailed discussion of this case can be found at http://www.criticandokardec.com.br/imad_elawar_revisited.html#review