Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reading Notes – Heath’s on PK Research and Theories

This post is reviewing the second part of Heath’s book about PK Research and Theories. The emphasis is placed here on issues that might be of relevance to the study of UFOs, UFO waves, and for parasociology in general.

Spontaneous PK and symbolism

Spontaneous PK tend to have an inherent symbolic component. Louisa Rhine, co-founder with her husband of modern parapsychology, “made the vital observation that spontaneous nonrecurrent PK events are frequently linked with a crisis of some kind, and many of the involved objects were personally meaningful (Roll 1983). She also recognized that there were two people involved—one person who observed the effect, and another undergoing a crisis, often at a distance (Rao 1983). In addition, the process appeared to be unconscious, with neither of the involved individuals knowingly ‘willing’ the experience to happen.” (p.111). This idea of symbolism has been noted also in the particular case of RSPK, “one the more curious kinds of phenomena is when objects seems to arrange themselves into patterns or tableaus inside empty rooms or houses (Gauld and Cornell 1979).” (p. 116). This is a key finding about the general pattern of spontaneous PK, which has a lot of potential for the study of UFO waves. As discussed in the mini case studies, UFOs waves seem to occur when there is a crisis of some kind, oftentimes on matters related to war or national security. The people who are worried about these issues are not the same ones who are witnessing the events. Lastly, as Jacques Vallée found, UFO observations tend to carry a social and symbolic meaning. At the most general level, the patterns seem to be duplicated from the individual psi level to the social psi level, and this would be consistent with the idea that the individual unconscious and the collective unconscious are structured in a fractal arrangement.

Heath also underlines that “personal significance is a key factor that, although often overlooked by experimentalists, appears to be key to the manifestation of spontaneous PK. This is true whether it occurs as an isolated episode, or, [...] as recurrent event.” (p.111). The same can be said about ETH ufology, as ufological events are almost always presented in a complete social and phenomenological void; the individual witnesses, and what is happening in their life at the time is completely ignored (same attitude is found about social events surrounding the sightings).

One of the challenges for parasociology, however, is that there might be UFO sightings that are only meaningful to the witness (particularly when there is only one witness), and from that point of view it is possible that there is no social psi involved, but only individual psi as the symbolism seems individualistic in nature. Massive UFO waves, on the other hand, can carry symbolism at a social level (e.g., the Belgian UFO wave of 1989-1990 occurred at the end of the Cold War in the country that was the seat of NATO, and where strange flying objects in the sky got the attention of NATO radar stations and of the Belgian Air Force – the social symbolism is pretty clear here). Yet, it is also possible that the phenomenon is composite. Social psi is behind the UFOs, but the witness had their own individual psi projected into an actual sighting (or even no individual psi involvement at all – they would be pure witnesses of events entirely external to them). Thus, UFO sightings could be meaningful on both levels at same time (individual and social) without having a direct relationship between the meanings found at each level. This a common issue in history (the academic discipline). For instance, Barack Obama’s inauguration is certainly an historic event that carries a lot of strong social symbolism linked to slavery, racial discrimination, the American Dream, and democracy in the United States, but its collective meaning could quite different than the meaning attached to the event by someone in the crowd (for instance, a resident of D.C. could see it as a bit too much, and looking forward to normal life to resume in the city when all those visitors are gone).

Heath also mentioned that research on miracles in the 18th century came to very similar conclusions to that of Louisa Rhine (200 years later). Heath underlines the research by Prospero Lambertini (who became Popo Benedict XIV) published in the 1730s. His findings are: “1) psychic experiences can occur to anyone and need not be divine miracles; 2) apparitions have little to do with sanctity or demonic beings; 3) prophecy occurs more often in sleep than in awake state; 4) it is difficult for prophets to distinguish between their own thought and ESP messages; and 5) that predictions often take symbolic forms.” (p. 113).

Many links between psi and his findings can be made. However, if we focus on UFO sightings, especially the ones that involve “aliens” entities, it is clear that altered state of consciousness remains a central feature in apparitions; that perception is almost always mixed with the witness’ thought and psi effect; and symbolism is an important part of the event. More on this in a future post on revisiting the famous story of Barney and Betty Hill.

RSPK and the expression of aggression

One important difference between spontaneous PK and UFO events, however, is that children and teenagers are not over-represented in the case of UFO sightings. One of the first researchers to notice the over-representation of children and teenagers in spontaneous PK is Frank Podmore in Modern Spiritualism published in 1902. Some, like A.R.G. Owen in Can We Explain Poltergeist (1964), have speculated that RSPKs could be linked to the sexual hormonal changes of puberty. But there is no agreement on this hormonal thesis.

Indeed, I would suggest that a psychological thesis can also be put forward: puberty is also a time of deep changes in an individual’s identity (from childhood to adulthood), and such changes occur mostly in the unconscious mind, where psi –related phenomena seem to originate. This alternate explanation would fit what is commonly accepted about RSPKs: “first, that the RSPK agents have strong internalized inhibitions against expressing aggression. Second, that they do not have outlets for the expression of hostility. Third, that there is psychological conflict between the expression and inhibition of aggression. [...] sometimes better approached as a case of total family dysfunction, and need not always concentrate around a central agent” (p. 123). Lastly, Heath underlines that “we are left with the possibility that in times of stress, or where more normal channels of communication seem barred, that the human being may seek nonordinary methods, such as PK, to achieve their goals.” (p. 124).

These findings can be “translated” at the sociological level. One can imagine the case of a community that cannot express some of its deep tensions, which would normally lead to some sort of serious protest or even political violence. Here, I can think of John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecy. The events occurred in West Virginia, which has a long history of repression, in particular from large coal mining companies who used all kinds of means, including violence, to prevent ordinary people to organise themselves to defend their labour and environmental rights. Yet, West Virginia is also deeply religious (part of the so-called “Bible Belt”), where inhibitions against violence and the expression of dissent are strong. At the sociological level, this creates conditions similar to the ones found in RSPKs. West Virginia has a long history of sightings of winged men, big foot, and UFOs. The case investigated by Keel was about a major stress to come, as if the community knew through unconscious premonition of a major tragedy to unfold. If the analogy is applicable, then one indicator would be communities with serious ongoing social tensions, but that does not show organized dissent, nor does it get involved in political violence.

Group PK research

Some authors, particularly Kenneth Batcheldor, conducted group experiments in PK. Although this was done at the level of small groups (i.e., social psychology), there are a number of interesting elements for parasociology. The key findings according to Heath (p. 157) are three important enablers: (1) belief shared by everyone that the paranormal exists; (2) belief that something else is responsible for the paranormal events; and (3) the “normalization” of the paranormal within the group. Based on these goal-oriented experiments, one of the findings suggests that: “the unconscious knows how to do psi—it just needs to have an idea of the goal state to be achieved, and find some way to keep the conscious mind from interfering with PK production (Reinhart 1994).” (p. 157). Once again, if I think about The Mothman Prophecy, people in West Virginia have the reputation of being superstitious, and if true, then this can be translated into a strong belief in the paranormal but assigned to the agency of non-human entities, and it is essentially normalized in the private sphere of people’s life as people take the paranormal for granted. The expression of the premonition about the bridge falling and killing many people became the unconscious goal that remained misunderstood until the event arrived, and thus kept the collective consciousness at bay. As soon as the bridge fell, the paranormal events quickly disappeared.

Other enablers

As Heath mentions, “the naturally occurring (and fluctuating) electromagnetic fields of the earth are another factor that seems to be important. Geomagnetic activity appears to be associated with the magnitude of anomalous cognition and the start of RSPK (May 2001; Puhle 2001).” (p. 167). Another factor that appears to be significant in ESP (and therefore potentially for PK) is the exposure radio wave interferences from the galaxy which occur at its peak around 1900 hours in local sidereal time (i.e. standard time), and the least interference and highest success rate of ESP occurs when there is the least amount of interference from the galaxy at around 1300 local sidereal time. Most UFO sightings occur at night around 21:00 and with a second peak around 3:00 (irrespective of sidereal time). This is a well established fact, but it can probably be explain by life habits of people, rather than through a PK analogy. Once again, this can be linked to many observations and research about the electromagnetic dimension of UFOs.

Theories about PK

Heath (pp. 199-200) confirms that there is no consensus as to whether PK should be construed as a field or as something else. The evidence points towards both directions. Other theories imply that the human mind can modify matter, and PK will perform in various ways to achieve the goal (consciously or unconsciously). Other theories are acausal, like Jung’s synchronicity, which implies that “the unconscious is capable of absolute knowledge, and that the archetypes are able to exert their influence on, and create, events extending beyond the percipient.” (p. 204). Although there are a number of problems with acausal theories, among others it is not amenable to research based on positivist epistemological assumptions (a big problem for more traditional parapsychology), it is more amenable to psi research located at the social level (i.e., to parasociological approach. Social psi can have a dynamic of its own, which implies that it can only be understood if individual percipients are not the central focus of research at that level.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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