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David Luke, Author of the Month for May 2009

Psi-verts and psychic piracy: The future of parapsychology? (cont.)
By David Luke

Sure enough, plenty of people on the New Age and psychedelic scenes talk about increasingly opening up to these 'paranormal' experiences, but does this reflect a new dawning in human evolution or is it just an artefact, a cohort effect if you like, something that some of us experience more often as we journey further together in our neo-mystical development? Are we each just experiencing this psychic awakening as we unfold on our own path, as many others have before us, or is this increasingly happening to everyone more and more? The evolution of a psychic consciousness might genuinely be happening to all of us as a species, and the experience of opening up to one's own power might be an indicator of this, but I'll argue it's also likely that a prolonged period outside the reaffirmation of our peers' experiences would lead us to think that we're just "doing it alone". Hanging out with fundamentalist sceptics, which many scientists are, or a trip to prison, say, and the harsh realities of life outside one's chosen bubble of the esoterically educated might lead to the assumption that we are actually travelling down the devolutionary path of psychic consciousness. And, having failed to nurture real telepathy or clairvoyance, our 'techne' instead of our 'psyche' is increasing fulfilling our needs, plugging the gap between our desire for omniscience and the reality that this desire still very much remains unreachably in the domain of the gods.

Going back to our ancestral roots, a common theme evident in Mircea Eliade's study of shamanism[8] is that, globally, the shamans lamented the passing of the Golden Age during which magic powers such as psi had been more potent than at any time since. According to Eliade this was an age that has long been lost and traditional shamanism now is considered a dying art, forever being diluted. Although this might be discounted as Eliade's pessimism, there appears to be something in this notion. Still clinging to a vanishing world, many of the various tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of the Indian Ocean have managed to resist contact with modern 'civilisation' (I use the term loosely) and would still be considered 'primitive' by anthropologists had this species of academic survived until now without evolving in a more politically correct direction.

According to the Fortean Times, as a testament to their heightened awareness, these tribes-people were likely the only humans to escape without casualties after their islands were hit by the devastating Tsunami that swept the region in December 2004. Hundreds of thousands of less-aware coast dwellers were killed by this wave across South East Asia[9]. Strangely enough, apparently very few animals drowned anywhere at this time either, with many having broken their tethers to flee before the waves struck[10]. Such awareness to the perils of nature was attributed to a sixth sense, a sense that the modern human denizens of those beaches seemingly lacked. If this is a case of genuine paranormal faculties at work then there's also a sense that we moderns are living in an age of psychic ignorance, where science has supplanted magic and we are becoming increasingly more detached from any vestiges of that psychic wisdom that our ancestors may once have had.

The science of magic?

Taking an objective position on this notion of psychic awareness - if there is such a thing as objectivity - science also holds a means of investigating magic with a critical, yet open mind. This empirical approach is the essence of parapsychology, which can be considered as the science of magic, covertly at least because the word magic itself is anathema to most parapsychologists, keen as they are to remain respectably scientific and scientifically respectable. The word magic, taken seriously, is actually completely abhorrent to most scientists, who commonly subscribe to what has been called 'scientism'. This is the view that science has ontological supremacy in the explanation of reality, primarily assuming that all processes can be reduced down to mechanical explanations governed only by physical laws, a position known as materialist reductionism. Parapsychology, as a scientific discipline, has been brave enough not to make such materialist assumptions by upholding that science is just a method, not a position or a belief system, thereby keeping a door open for the possibility of real magic and the existence of mind, and even spirit. Much to the alarm of many opponents in the mainstream, parapsychology has used modern methods and technologies to devise experiments that increasingly point toward humans as genuinely psychic beings.

Considering such recent advances, had it not been for the advent of modern psychophysiological monitoring technology, such as electroencephalograph (EEG) brain mapping equipment, psychical research might otherwise have languished in the repetitive and boring loops of card-guessing experiments so popular a few decades ago. Weirdly enough, however, the man renowned for naming the EEG, Hans Berger, developed this technology early in the 20th century for measuring electromagnetic (EM) fluctuations in the brain because he (incorrectly) thought that these EM emissions might be the carrier waves responsible for psychic transmissions between brains. Marconi had earlier thought the same of EM when he invented the telegraph. Berger himself had changed career from astronomy to psychology to study the neurophysiological processes of psi after his distant sister had an accurate vision of him involved in a near-fatal accident. Somewhat poetically then, Berger's EEG, after disappearing as a tool of psi research but flourishing in neuroscience, has been brought back into the field of parapsychology. This time though, the EEG is being used to find telepathic thought transmissions in a slightly different way, by demonstrating that distant brains can seemingly communicate without the owners of those brains being conscious of it, but not through the medium of electromagnetism as Berger once thought.

What many people may not be aware of is that much of the recent research in parapsychology adumbrates psi as a genuine, albeit subtle and largely unconscious phenomenon capable of escaping our conscious detection, even though our nervous system seemingly picks up the psychic information and responds to it. To illustrate, using brain mapping technology such as EEG a person in one room has their brain monitored while a person in a distant room has their brain randomly stimulated, usually through visual stimulation, such as a flash of bright lights. These visual stimulations are known to reliably cause easily observable reactions in the brain of the person directly perceiving them. What is not generally known is that these stimulations can also be observed somewhat more subtly in the brains of a distant person sealed in another room, well out of sight of the flashes. Some successful experiments even found this effect to occur in the visual cortex, the brain region where the effect might be expected if their brains were being stimulated directly[11]. The same effect was also found using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology[12] - even localising the spot in the brain where the effect was detected - and so these findings, repeated with different technologies, cannot be easily explained away as an artefact of the brain imaging technique. However, the effect tends to be observable only with pairs of people who have some kind of emotional bond[13], such as with friends and lovers, with some indication that twins do particularly well[14]. Complete strangers, curiously enough, tend not to exhibit this distant brain synchronisation effect, which seems to imply that those people who are emotionally bonded are also somehow cerebrally bonded too.

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  1. Eliade, M. (1972). Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Originally published in French in 1951). - back to text
  2. Anonymous (2005). In the Tsunami's wake. Fortean Times, 196, 26. - back to text
  3. Anonymous (2005). Did animals sense danger? Fortean Times, 194, 6. - back to text
  4. Kittenis, M., Caryl, P. G., and Stevens, P. (2004). Distant psychophysiological interaction effects between related and unrelated participants. In S. Schmidt (Ed.), The Parapsychological Association 47th Annual Convention: Proceedings of Presented Papers, Vienna (67-76). - back to text
  5. Richards, T. L., Kozak, L., Johnson, C., Standish, L. J. (2005). Replicable functional magnetic resonance imaging evidence of correlated brain signals between physically isolated subjects. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, 955-963. - back to text
  6. Kittenis, M., Caryl, P. G., and Stevens, P. (2004). Distant psychophysiological interaction effects between related and unrelated participants. In S. Schmidt (Ed.), The Parapsychological Association 47th Annual Convention: Proceedings of Presented Papers, Vienna (67-76). - back to text
  7. Brosnan, A. (2007, 21st March). Testing for telepathic powers: Twin brothers' psychic moment. Northampton Chronicle and Echo. - back to text

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