David Luke, Author of the Month for May 2009
Psi-verts and psychic piracy: The future of parapsychology?
By David Luke
Dr. David Luke lectures in psychology at several London universities and is a writer and researcher with a special interest in altered states of consciousness, parapsychology and extraordinary human experiences. He has studied ostensibly paranormal phenomena and techniques of consciousness alteration from South America to India, from the perspective of scientists, shamans and Shivaites. He lives life on the edge, of Hackney in London. We are pleased to welcome David as our May 2009 Author of the Month.
I woke up this morning with a psychic advert left lingering in my dreaming mind. It was some kind of oneiric flyer for a new type of yoga, it even had a telephone number on it to call. This fanciful hypnopompic intrusion brought me back to the idea that if science can identify techniques for reliably producing psychic abilities (termed 'psi') then PR executives will soon be pumping millions into pumping adverts directly into our minds. Forget the television, tube trains and pub toilets, we'll have adverts (or perhaps 'psiverts') sneaking rudely into our subconscious and marauding around our dreamscapes at all times of night and day. We won't even have to open our ears or eyes to be lured in by the latest product we probably don't need. As a parapsychologist this is one of the annoying possibilities I'll have to take responsibility for, if and when my research field starts producing practical commercial applications, but what's the real likelihood of this? I'll come back to this issue at the end, and instead begin by asking what is the current state of the art in psychical research?
The scientific study of psychic abilities, currently termed 'parapsychology', has been represented by an official organ since the 1882 formation of the Society for Psychical Research1 (SPR) in the UK. The SPR came into being only three years after the establishment in Germany of the first psychological laboratory by Wilhelm Wundt, which gave birth to psychology as a modern science. In the last 125 years or so there's been a very small, but steady, chipping away at the block of our empirical understanding of telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance. Regrettably, this sculpted work in progress has been mostly either ridiculously ignored or ignorantly ridiculed by the vast majority of more mainstream scientists, despite parapsychology being one of the most rigorously executed branches of social science. All the same, this dismissal of paranormal research by the mainstream might be doing us all a favour, because it might by saving us from the painful military and commercial applications of psi that might ensue if parapsychology were widely accepted as a valid research field and funded with more than a handful of loose change.
Looking now at this legacy of research, fastidiously investigated for many years, there appears to be compelling evidence for the existence of psychic abilities, yet this would hardly surprise most people on the street. Surveys typically reveal that the majority of people believe in the authenticity of one or more paranormal process. This widespread belief and evidence for psychic abilities is all well and good but the question remains of whether or not these abilities are readily accessible and can be learnt, and whether we can develop these skills for our purposes and our growth as a species.
You might disagree that the development of psychic techniques is something we all aspire to - there's certainly an element of ingrained fear in potentially accessing our 'latent omniscience', as Emerson called it - but our current technology argues for itself. If we had no desire for telepathy (the ability to communicate remotely with anyone anywhere) we would never have become so obsessed with mobile phones or even bothered inventing them. The Internet too, in part at least, attempts to satisfy our need for clairvoyance, to readily know anything there is to know, and so cyberspace can be seen as modern man's grasping to clutch the Akashic Records, the supposed cosmic catalogue of all events and things in time. It may be no surprise then to find, although it's a little-known fact, that the television, the radio and the telephone were all born of the desire to augment psychic abilities. The three Victorian fathers of these inventions, Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird, had all shared a serious interest in the spirit mediumship movement, Spiritualism, and had expected to develop technologies for improved psychic communication with the deceased.
A return to the Golden Age?
But is all this hardware just filling a gap we can't bridge with our own 'wetware' - the human nervous system and the mind - or is it just a means of demonstrating what is possible through technology until our lapse imagination catches up and we hone the flaccid muscles of our psyches? We might then consider modern telecommunications and information technology as a kind of rebranding exercise of psychic abilities to prepare us for using our dormant psychic skills. An exercise to help us fake it till we make it, by showing us what a readily available telepathy and clairvoyance would be like, but without the tariffs, the gadgets, and the electromagnetic radiation blasting invisibly out of the phone masts. I know one parapsychologist who, prior to working in this field, developed a biofeedback system which enables completely paralysed people to control a computer merely with their brain waves, thereby using technology to mimic psychokinesis (the direct control over matter by mind). Is all this technology just a warm up for the next stage? Certainly, Rupert Sheldrake's research with telephone telepathy - the widespread experience of knowing who is calling when the telephone rings - seems to suggest that the technology of telepathy hasn't reduced the direct experience of it. Perhaps Bell's desires for psychic communication and his important patent were just a stepping stone to bring the experience of telepathy to virtually everybody, thereby enabling the present critical mass of belief in such experiences required to ensure the following development of the paranormal analogue of the experience, i.e. real telepathy. Perhaps.
Slouching towards 2012 there's a hopeful fervour brewing in the New Age and psychedelic cauldron that the end of the Mayan calendar will force us to leap spectacularly into an era of realised panpsychism, where telepathy no longer requires telephones and we can plug directly into the Gaian internet or Vernadsky's noosphere (a kind of human collective consciousness). As a contemporary spokesman for this view Daniel Pinchbeck has borrowed generously from Rudolf Steiner, who foresaw the coming of the Age of Michael and the development of universal telepathy, as did Steiner's contemporary Teilhard de Chardin. Pinchbeck supposed that, "…many people, myself included, seem to be experiencing an almost exponential increase in synchronicities and other types of phenomena that suggest that the psychic and physical realms are approaching each other at a high speed". This is something that I once accidentally neologised during a lecture as the 'frequenicity', the sensed increase in the frequency of synchronicities that tends to occur after a sustained dalliance with altered states, much like that which occurred with Pinchbeck's attempts to break open his head with psychedelics.