Friday, January 23, 2009

Reading Notes – Heath’s phenomenology of PK

This is the last post about reviewing Heath’s book on PK. The focus of the third part of her book remains on individual experience, as she proposes a psychological phenomenology of PK. Phenomenology is understood here as a description of the PK experience by people who are performing PK, from the point of view of the experiencers. As Heath states, “phenomenology is a rigorous method that was developed specifically for this purpose. It allows an investigator to scientifically examine experiences and boil them down to their fundamental essential features.”(p. 207). Phenomenology in psychology is often associated with the Gestalt school of thought.

Another important element of phenomenology is that it does not give the investigator a special observation standpoint that would be “superior” to the one of people experiencing. This constitutes a major difference with other approaches in psychology where it is implicit that the psychologist “knows better” than the subject. To put it in Heath’s words, this means “that the study was not concerned with either the magnitude, or the ultimate reality, of the [PK] event. It only focused upon the experience itself.” (p. 207).

The choice of phenomenology, however, appears to me as more than just out of convenience to document experiences from experiencers. As Heath notices, because PK appears to occur often in an altered state of consciousness (ASC), the description of the experience cannot use “normal” points of reference. Elements like the sense of time, the feeling of knowing something special that cannot be put into words, strange feeling of dissociation and unity with the environment, etc., cannot be adequately describe if ones remains attached narrow materialistic descriptions (which is a common problem in ETH ufology).

Phenomenology is also a well known approach in the social sciences. Hence, it is an interesting approach because both psychology and social sciences can work together using the same epistemological framework. Something to keep in mind for parasociology when reaching out to parapsychology.

For the purpose of “extracting” interesting findings and concepts for parasociology, the review will focus on those elements that could be replicated at the social level, assuming that the fractal arrangement between the individual and social level identified before is valid, and those who can apply more generally to UFOs (particularly to those elements involved in spontaneous PK).

Altered state of consciousness (ASC)

ASC is a common feature of PK. Heath found that the key elements of ASC and PK are (1) a feeling of being in another dimension or alternate reality; (2) awareness of discarnate entities, by accessing our spirit; (3) altered sense of time or of being “out” of the time; (4) a sense of vast complexity, difficult for the ordinary mind to understand; (5) a sense of flow, or being in the “zone”; (6) fusion between the conscious and the unconscious; (7) sense of meditation; and (8) subtle shift in the quality of the experience (pp. 220-222). These elements, of course, cover a wide variety of PK experiences from lab tests on random number generators to RSPK. But I would like to emphasize that the elements (1) to (6) describe very well many UFO close encounters, especially those described by the ufologist Jenny Randles (1983) known under the concept of the “Oz factor”.

When one keeps in mind the factors identified above and links them to Randles’ description of the Oz factor, one can only be struck by the similarities. For instance, she states that "the Oz factor certainly points to consciousness as the focal point of the UFO encounter...Subjective data that override objective reality could be internal [from our subconscious], external [e.g., from some other intelligent agency], or both...The encounter has a visionary component. You might interpret that as meaning it is all in the imagination. But it really means that there is a direct feed, if you like, from the source of the encounter to the consciousness of the witness...Some witnesses report a strange sensation prior to the encounter -- a sort of mental tingling as if they are aware that something is about to happen. They just have to look up and see what is there, as if it had called to them silently...Then time seems to disappear and lose all meaning." (Randles 2004).

This points strongly towards a common dynamics behind PK and UFO close encounters.

It is also interesting to note, however, that “ASC may enhance a sense of connecting to the universe or the transcendent realm, and allow us to let go of the belief systems that are of our individual identities. It is possible that this would explain [...] why a person’s belief and level of confidence did not appear to be important to PK performance. They may simply become irrelevant in a deeply altered state. Thus, it may be that they only become important factors when the state of consciousness is normal or only mildly altered.” (Heath 2003, 230). This statement from Heath is of course speculative, but this relates to a number of hypotheses put forward in previous posts.

For instance, could it be possible that the connection with the transcendent realm is a connection with the collective unconscious, as Carl Jung proposed? In such a case, and assuming that the actual content of the collective unconscious is filled with what is going on in a community, then it is possible to explain that UFO close encounters are an individual experience of the collective unconscious. And hence, the individual belief and inner state of being of the witnesses may not be a critical factor at that moment of the UFO experience. The beliefs and state of being, however, may play a significant role in the early stage of the experience when a night light or a day disc is perceived in a normal or lightly altered state of consciousness. From that point of view, the UFO experience would be a composite psi experience both “fuelled” by the individual and the collective unconscious. In turn, this would explain that the structure of UFO events tend to be quite similar from one account to the other, but their actual phenomenological content can vary considerably.


Other factors that are more commonly found in spontaneous PK are strong emotions and a strong sense of playfulness. Heath notes that “peak levels of emotion can trigger PK, especially for spontaneous events. This seemed to be true for a wide variety of strong emotions, including anger, frustration with others, sadness, excitement, and love.” (p. 256). Heath also quotes an experiencer to illustrate the role of playfulness, “’play is very important in these sorts of’s entertainment at a certain has a thrilling quality”. (p. 258). Although it is a bit generic, there are clear links with the UFO experience where emotions can run high, including fear mixed with curiosity, which in a way connects both aspects of emotions in PK, i.e., the strong emotions and the thrilling aspect. The famous story of Barney and Betty Hill certainly fits quite well these elements found in spontaneous PK. However, Heath does not identify fear as a key emotion. Given the type of experience selected for her study, this is not surprising.

Heath also underlines that “spontaneous PK tended to be associated with high levels of emotion, physical activation, and a relative lack of awareness of an ASC compared to intentional PK experiences. Also, in spontaneous PK awareness was often focussed on something other than the target, such a thought, memory, emotion, or another person.” (p.264). Clearly, the lack of awareness that people are in ASC during an event is a common issue in the UFO experience. It is only in the 1980s with more astute UFO investigators, like Randles and Schwartz, that this aspect was brought to light. The lack of focus on the target is more problematic in the case of UFO close encounters as it is a very comprehensive event. It can be noted, however, that in the case of Barney and Betty Hill the thought and fear of being stopped by a group of men was the main focus of Barney’s consciousness (which in the context of the racial tensions of the early 1960s in the United States, this was not an unfounded fear), while for Betty it was the willingness to remember the event to prove the ET reality of UFOs (as she was a strong believer in the ETH before the events of September 1961).

Openness to the experience

Heath describes openness as “both something of a personality style and a lack of rigid beliefs that might prohibit PK. It seems to indicate a flexible worldview, which might allow the performer not only to do PK, but also to recognize and accept their experiences. [But...] belief systems seemed to play far less of a role than the literature would suggest.” (p. 307). This is an interesting distinction, but it can also cause quite a bit of confusion. For instance, studies that identified the belief in the paranormal as an important element of the UFO experience (Philips 1993; Spanos et al. 1993; Basterfield and Thalbourne 2001) used the concept of belief not meant to mean necessarily “belief system” but rather a positive attitude towards the paranormal in general. The word belief can therefore mean either “belief system” or “openness”.

In her summary, Heath reassesses somewhat her findings in stating that “in a way, openness to an experience is also a willingness to suspend disbelief, and to see what can happen without the interference of the intellect. It also suggests a lack of attachment to a rigid world view. Hence, it is possible that beliefs could act to modify PK performance either through encouraging the performer to be open to the possibility of PK, and/or willingness to open up to that state[...]”(p. 314). The relationship between belief systems and openness can be therefore more subtle than previously understood by parapsychologists. Here, I can think again of the different experiences of Barney and Betty Hill. Barney had a more rigid belief in “rationality” while Betty was quite open to have an extraordinary experience. Barney had no visual memories of being on “the ship”. It was Betty who provided the bulk of the story about the “Greys”, the medical experiment, the stellar map, etc. The Hill story fits well Heath’s findings about openness.

Sense of Knowing and Impact

Heath found that there is a general sense of knowing among experiencers. Knowing that the event will occur; knowing that the healing is working or not. The sense of knowing also manifests itself through ESP-like experiences. It is a well documented characteristic of UFO close encounters that the witnesses “know” that the light in the sky is “interested” in them, and they know what the alien entities are saying even when there are no sounds or spoken word uttered.

Heath also underlines that “impact appears to be a frequent consequence of the PK experience (Heath 1999). This may not be surprising, considering that the events often have intense personal meaningfulness. PK can bring up strong emotions and cause major shifts in world view—sometimes acting as a pivotal life event.” (p. 325). This issue of impact has been identified by Jacques Vallée about the UFO experience early on. However, I think Vallée is wrong in seeing the UFO experience as a control system by creating life changing events for people (for better or for worst). PK is a natural human ability (both individual and collective) and life changing events associated with PK are just a possible outcome of PK. There is no control system behind it. I think Vallée confused two different dynamics. The first one is the life changing capacity of PK/UFO events on one hand, and on the other hand the UFO belief system found in societies that may have been nurtured by intelligence agencies, as described by Bishop (2005). But the linkages between the two dynamics are unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are very common outcomes of complex societies and occur in a large array of issues and topics (bureaucratic miscommunications being the most common and obvious one).

Final comments

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the paranormal in general. Although the author does not touch upon UFO events or hauntings, the link between these phenomena and PK are very strong. It does not provide the proof that UFOs and UFO waves are essentially PK events, but the intense similarity in their dynamics offers a powerful indication that indeed we are dealing with some sort of PK phenomena.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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