Saturday, January 31, 2009

Psi, Liminality, Reality and UFOs

After reviewing quite a few texts, it is time for some reflecting. One of the greatest difficulties in dealing with a subject like parasociology is that a common notion such as reality cannot be taken for granted, which in turn raises a series of question about how proof can be established. What constitutes reality and what does not is the key question of ontology.

Phenomenological reality

The approach taken by a few parapsychologists (King 1996) is to define reality in a psychological way by emphasizing the notion of consciousness from a Kantian perspective. This approach implies that what is real is what the consciousness is aware of. Such an approach is not concerned, at first, as to whether what is perceived by the consciousness of one person (subjective reality) would be also perceived by others (objective reality). In fact, Immanuel Kant, rejected the idea that there is a strong distinction between subjective and objective reality. After all, for others to perceive something, they also need to perceive it subjectively at first, and then they must be able to communicate it to others. Furthermore, they also need to agree collectively that indeed something was perceived (and only then it becomes objective).

In the 20th century, other thinkers like Berger and Luckmann, went further and showed that reality is actually a social construct. This means that objective reality is only possible if people have similar prior socialization, norms, values, training, etc., so that they can agree that something is real. In other words, objective reality is a matter of pre-established social conventions. For instance, the rules for scientific validity in a discipline like chemistry will differ greatly from the rules found in cultural anthropology. These rules are based on the internal conventions respective to each scientific discipline. In turn, this means that science is itself a social construct where the notion of what constitutes reality is essentially based on a social convention. When the convention changes in a radical way, then we have a scientific revolution as described by Thomas Kuhn.

Sociologists of science like Bruno Latour, have shown also that the scientific conventions about reality are actually the ongoing stake of bureaucratic, institutional, political, and rhetorical debates and conflicts in and around the scientific community. Therefore, what is accepted as objective reality is also a matter of who is powerful and who is not (for instance having the support of large private enterprises, official recognition by the state, formal status in academia, etc.). The clear example of this is parapsychology, which has shown, using the rules and conventions found in many natural sciences, that psi as a statistically unexplainable deviation from chance is real. Yet, it is not a scientific community with powerful allies, so the objective status of its findings is constantly challenged. As one can see, the question as to what constitutes reality (implicitly understood as objective reality) is not a simple one to answer, and there is no consensus as to how reality should be approached.

To take an example closer to the project, typical UFO cases can easily explained by these concepts. For instance, someone sees a strange object in the sky. It is a subjective reality. Then, that person shares the story with several close friends, and they all agree that it must be true because the witness is someone trustworthy and not into telling tall tales. So it becomes objective reality. Then, a sceptic arrives and states that it must have been a plane because the sighting was made in the direction of an airport. It becomes a subjective reality. Then, an ETH ufologist comes along, and does some verification and found that there was no recorded plane in the sky at the time of the sighting. The overall status of the sighting is now fully contested, and no one can truly claim whether the UFO was an objective reality or not. Within the sceptic community, it is declared a misperception. In the ETH ufology community, it is declared a genuine UFO sighting (that could only be of extraterrestrial origin, of course). In the end, the witness remains alone with his/her sighting.

It is for this reason that a phenomenological approach is useful, as it tries at first to see the world from the point of view of the witness, before attempting to incorporate the sighting into a more objective explanatory structure. To approach reality through the idea that what is real is what the consciousness is aware of, is called phenomenology. This choice of using a phenomenological approach is even more necessary if one suspect that what was perceived was in part the product of a psi effect.

To continue the example above, if it is discovered that the witness was in an altered state of consciousness during the sighting, then what he/she saw might not have been seen by others, but he or she was not lying either. If the description of the object also seems to match symbolically an event happening a few days after the sighting, then the witness was exposed to some sort of external stimulus. Then, to declare the sighting either subjective or objective does not make any sense, as it was both objective and subjective. Without looking at world from the point of view of the witness (altered state of consciousness, symbolism in the sighting), then important elements of the explanation would be missed. Most sceptics and ETH ufologists fall in this trap of having only subjective or objective reality (this is known as ontological dualism in philosophy).

Psi and the paranormal as liminal events

An important concept often associated with phenomenology is the one of liminality. Liminality is an abstract concept to describe situations that are “out of time”, “out of the normal”, where everything seems temporarily indeterminate. Liminality implies also that such situations are at the threshold between two “normal”. Anthropologists have used this concept to describe rites of passage in tribal societies. There is the “normal” reality of an individual being a child in the tribe, and then there is the liminal reality of the rite of passage, and finally the “new normal” of being an adult within the tribe. A rite of passage is a short moment out of the normal time, oftentimes with members of the tribe performing rituals which give them a persona completely different from their “normal” life. As well, the individual going through the ritual has for a short time period an indeterminate social status (neither a child nor an adult).

Most paranormal and psi phenomena can be described as liminal events. They are “parallel” to normality because something “weird,” unusual, supernatural, etc., has occurred. Without the strange, “out of this world” qualities of the event, nothing could be noticed as there is no change to normality. Furthermore, after the event, the status of reality has to be changed so that the paranormal is now integrated into the new normal (e.g., a house becomes a haunted house, an object in sky becomes an extraterrestrial spaceship, some of my feelings are now telepathic impressions from people close to me, etc.). Otherwise, if the old normal is reinstated then no paranormal event occurred (e.g., construed as an illusion, misperception, dream, etc.), and this is independent from whether the person believe in the paranormal or not, as not all strange events are necessarily perceived as paranormal by believers.

In the case of psi effect, an additional form of liminality has been noticed by parapsychologists. Psi seems to be generated through the unconscious parts of the human mind. But to be noticed, it has to reach the conscious mind, otherwise we would never notice. Hence, a psi effect from a phenomenological perspective is something that occurs at the very moment when it reaches the conscious mind. It is intimately associated with this liminal zone between the unconscious and consciousness. Once it reached the consciousness, then it is no more psi; it is either information or a completed effect on matter. This explains why it so difficult to do remote viewing because it is essentially a difficult and exhausting balancing act between the raw information received unconsciously and the efforts of consciousness to make sense of it. This explains also why altered states of consciousness, which is a state liminal between the unconscious and consciousness, is such an important enabler to psi effects.

Liminality of social psi

If my theory about the fractal arrangement of the individual and collective unconscious is correct, then there should be something like liminality between the collective consciousness and the collective unconscious where social psi occurs. Certainly, anthropologists found liminality in small societies, particularly during rites of passage, which incidentally are also moments where magic is being performed by the shaman or sorcerer for the benefit of the entire community. But this is for small communities. What about large complex societies?

One can think of the Global Consciousness Project, where several random number generators (RNG) located across the planet are linked together and monitored by a network of computers to see if there are moments when there is sustained statistical deviations from chance. Such moment occurred when the verdict for O.J. Simpson was read live on TV during the criminal trial for the murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Having so many people waiting for the verdict could have created a liminal moment, where a psi effect could be measured on a social scale. Yet the same effect was noticed by the Global Consciousness Project eight hours before 9/11 (Radin 2006), but there was no liminal moment associated with the event. Once again, the Global Consciousness Project is important and useful to understand social psi, but it is still articulated on the assumption that social psi is an accumulation of individual psi affecting RNGs (i.e., it remains based on psychological reductionism).

To be more effective, social liminality must be understood in sociological terms. Ginach’s text (2004), based on Zizek’s original idea, offers more interesting opportunities to identify social liminality. To borrow from Kottemeyer (1996) and Viéroudy (1977), but also implicit in Vallée (1992), such moments seem linked to shared feelings of insecurity, often perceived to be in relation to matters of national security. In such situations, collective identities are threatened.

For instance, the October 1973 UFO wave in the United States came at the conjunction of three important social events. The defeat in Vietnam was at that point consummated. The troop reduction was near completion and even the capacity of the United States to defend South Vietnam with aerial bombings in the North was denied by Congress in June 1973 with the Case-Church Amendment. The US was clearly a country that could be defeated by a smaller one. Then, of course, October 1973 was the Yom Kippur War where the Arabs had their first military success against Israel (Egypt in the Sinai), and this war was linked to the peak oil price, threatening the car-based American way of life. Finally, there was 20 October 1973, also known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”. President Nixon ordered the dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox who was investigating into the Watergate Scandal, which also led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus. For many Americans, their democracy appeared to sink into dictatorship.

From a sociological standpoint, this can be construed as a liminal moment. Fundamental social representations such as “the nation chosen by God to lead the Free World”, “the American Way of Life”, and “America the Mother of all Democracies” where seriously challenged, and where no more the same after the events of October 1973. A new normal came into force afterward, particularly perceptible in the arts with a much more cynical outlook about the American society, best illustrated by a string of movies like Three Days of the Condor (1975), and All the President's Men (1976). The hedonistic disco era emerged into the mainstream in full force around the same time as well. Although it is not to be construed according to the positivist epistemology with the naive hope of leading to a mathematical type of proof, sociological liminality can be shown through a social constructivist epistemology.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Friday, January 23, 2009


As the number of consulted work increases, I decided to put online a bibliography. It will be updated regularly, and future post will use the (author, year) system to refer to them.

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Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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

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

Friday, January 16, 2009

Heath’s on qualitative accounts of PK

As discussed in my previous post, I am reviewing Heath’s book with more depth. This post will be focussing on qualitative accounts of PK, and on some epistemological issues related to qualitative accounts.

In the first part of her book, Heath proposes a review of PK in various religions and cultures, to include miraculous feat such as levitation, stigmata, inedia (surviving without food), teleportation, bilocation (to be seen at two locations at the same time), fire immunity, luminosity, physical mediumship, anomalous healing, “ki” related super performance in martial arts, and poltergeists. To this list, it would have been interesting to add tulpas from the Tibetan tradition, as they have often been associated with non-ETH explanations of UFO sightings. Without going in detail for each of them, it is clear that such feats were recorded in many cultures and across time periods; very much like UFOs and like UFOs were interpreted differently according the local culture. One of the common themes found in these accounts is that strong beliefs and religious fervour seem to play an important role. Another one is the role altered states of consciousness as being an important enabler. This is certainly consistent with findings of modern parapsychology.

Qualitative research in PK research – A work in progress

An interesting opening statement by Heath is that “unfortunately, the database of qualitative studies is still a small one. [...] It is only in the last few years that we have started to see phenomenological studies and surveys of what PK performers say about their experiences (Barrett 1996; Gissurarson 1997a; Heath 1999). Clearly there is a great deal of work yet to be done in this area, as well as unexplored directions of research.” (p. xxvi).

This statement by Heath can be put in parallel with the work done by one of the pioneers of non-ETH ufology, Dr. Alex Keul. As stated by KWC Phillips, “Dr. Keul slowly began to work on the missing element in all the various and contradictory reports which came to his attention and, in so doing, came to the somewhat shocking conclusion that the missing factor was the human witnesses: that is, we knew next to nothing about them, let alone the enigmatic UFOs they were to report in large numbers. Even more fundamentally, we knew nothing of the void between the witness and the object perceived.” (Phillips, KWC. (1993). “The psycho-sociology of ufology”. In D. Barclay and T. M. Barclay, UFOs, The Final Answer? Ufology for the 21st century. London: Blandford, 40-64, p. 44.).

The state of research in PK and in the study of UFOs is in many ways similar. Although Keul’s efforts were very innovative, the dominance of the ETH approach had the effect of pushing his ideas under the rug. Given that one of my working hypotheses is that UFOs have a substantial PK component, then any advance in parasociology could be beneficial to parapsychology as well.

In spite of Heath’s innovative standpoint of working outside the usual parapsychological box (i.e. focussing on qualitative approaches), it is also clear that the author is still battling with the ambient positivist attitude in parapsychology. For instance, the author warns the reader that “accounts of miracles tended to mirror the needs and social beliefs of the age. [...] These stories may thus reflect cultural bias, rather than an accurate picture of either PK or fraud.” (p. 1). As a sociologist of science, I would not hesitate a second to turn the table and say that parapsychological accounts (i.e., articles in academic journals) tend to mirror the needs to prove the existence of psi according to the social belief that quantitative and positivist science is the only way to reach the “truth”. The exclusion in parapsychological accounts of the non-quantifiable reality of psi reflects a cultural bias, rather than an accurate picture of what constitute psi or fraud...

This bias is also found when she discusses “Spontaneous Nonrecurrent PK” (pp. 94-105). She clearly states that spontaneous cases of PK “are important not only because they allow us to learn about the range of what is possible, but also because, as Beloff noted, ‘it is the persistence of such spontaneous phenomena that has kept alive interest in the field among the broad public” (p. 94). Yet, in the same breadth she states also that “nonrecurrent spontaneous PK is impossible to study in the laboratory since it is (by definition) a solitary, uncontrolled event. Thus, it can only be speculated about in anecdotal and case study literature” (p. 94). This is a nice example of positivist epistemological bias from someone who is coming from North American psychology. Political science, sociology and anthropology, to name a few, also deal with solitary, uncontrolled events such as a coup d’état, the emergence of a new social movement, or cultural manifestations of all kinds. Archaeological findings and physical anthropology findings also fall into the same category, as a dig occurs only once, and what is declared as being observed can only be accepted if someone trusts the archaeologist or physical anthropologist. Does it make these sciences less scientific, and their objects of study less worthy of our research efforts? Or rather, it is the psychologists’ definition of science that is problematic? Other disciplines have developed extensive methodologies to handle “solitary and uncontrolled events” and developed knowledge that is not speculation about anecdotes. Once again, I would turn the table and say that parapsychology is suffering from an inferiority complex and thus it tries to be more scientific (i.e. positivist) than everybody else. In spite of great research efforts (like Heath’s book) Parasociology will have to be careful in dealing with parapsychologists and their epistemological bias.

Teleportation and alien abduction

Among the older qualitative accounts, teleportation seems particularly pertinent to the study of UFOs. It is a rare spontaneous event (although there are claims of people who mastered it), and appears to be more common among secular individuals, especially children (here read teenagers like in poltergeists phenomenon) (p. 37). People spontaneously disappear from one place and found themselves somewhere else without any memory as to how they got there. Altered states of consciousness and visions of angels were associated with such events. It was also interpreted as a sign of demonic infestation. This pattern clearly resembles cases of “alien abduction,” like the well-known story of Betty and Barney Hill. Heath, however, does not make the connection.

Several of the accounts proposed by Heath about teleportation are drawn from: Rogo, D. Scott. (1982). Miracles: A parascientific inquiry into wonderous phenomena. New York: Dial Press.

Poltergeists and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

It is interesting to note that older accounts of poltergeist activity include more than noise and objects moving violently in the air. Apparitions of various entities are also reported. Heath notes that “St. Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) was similarly said to have been assailed by explosions like pieces of artillery being discharged, vision of grotesque animals, the opening and shutting of the warming pan in his room, and being struck and bruised.” (p. 92). Heath also points out that the content of poltergeist events tend to be influenced by idiosyncratic cultural beliefs, “poltergeist agents vomited pins and manifested ’animal familiars’ in culture where witchcraft traditions exist, while in other cultures the agent created apparent demonic manifestations in conformance with their local customs and beliefs. If this is true, it makes an interesting comment on how we feel about technology, given recent poltergeist activity with telephones and electrical appliances going haywire”. (p. 93). Once again, Heath does not make the obvious connection between the space age, encounters with “aliens” from outer space, and the cultural component of poltergeists.

Spontaneous human combustion, balls of light and UFOs

Heath introduces the controversial notion of spontaneous human combustion (SHC). She provides a good tour of what is known about the phenomenon, and some of the possible explanations. One of them is the role of balls of light. This phenomenon “is capable of floating gently along, squeezing through keyholes and chinks in window frames, or down fireplace chimneys, and has even been said to be able to materialize inside rooms or airplane cabins. Furthermore, this natural phenomenon (which is thought to be electromagnetic plasma) can be small as a pea, or as large as a house, and may be violet, red, blue, or yellow, and may even change colors during its brief life”. (p. 100).

The explanation about balls of light is not sufficient to explain some of the more psychological characteristics associated with SHC. “Considering the similarity to the sudden and complete destruction of items by poltergeist fire, the possibility of an ASC [altered state of consciousness] involving a lack of pain, and the correlation with depression, we must consider the possibility of a mind-matter interaction.” (p. 101) But she recognizes that “it is possible that some individuals have a mind that is capable of triggering the combustion, perhaps by materializing or attracting ball lightning, through an electrical discharge of some sort, or even a form of nuclear radiation” (p. 101). Once again, if we link Michael Persinger’s research on the influence electromagnetism on perception and psi abilities, with some of the findings of Albert Budden on electric UFOs, and these comments from Heath about the PK dimension of SHC and balls of light, one can see a pattern of explanation emerging. Yet, once more Heath does not make the connection with UFOs.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reading Notes – Heath’s The PK Zone

For those interested in psychokinesis from a parapsychology perspective, I found “the” book on the topic. It is:

Heath, Pamela Rae. (2003). The PK Zone: A cross-cultural review of psychokinesis. Lincoln: iUniverse.

This book is essentially an extensive review of our knowledge about PK, and it can be easily considered as a reference manual. The bibliography is almost 20 pages long. It is not a book to be read like a novel, however, as it is divided in analytical sections, and sub-sections. The first part of the book is a quick review of past approaches to PK-like phenomena (such as in 19th century psychical research), and religious-based understanding of PK (like the levitation of the saints). The second part presents a review of scientific research and theories (and the more scientific portion of psychical research is included in this section). The last part and the most extensive one is about the experiential portion of PK, i.e. how PK relates to altered states of consciousness, dissociation, trust, inhibitors, etc. In the conclusion, the author presents briefly a psychological model linking 14 experiential elements of the PK experience (pp. 355-357). Graphically, it looks like a “spaghetti” org. chart, and it is not meant to be user-friendly. This book is obviously the outcome of a colossal amount of work, but it is not for those who are seeking “the” answer to PK. It is rather an honest look at the multiple incomplete and imperfect answers that are out there.

It is interesting to note that the author, by focussing on the experiential part of PK, is taking a qualitative (or phenomenological) perspective on the phenomenon. The author offers not only the main findings on various aspects of PK by citing the relevant literature, but she proposes many quotes from people involved in PK experience, or who had spontaneous experiences, to support her claims. This is refreshing to see a parapsychologist able to beyond dry statistical analysis attempting to determine whether it is within or outside chance deviations. From that point of view, this book offers a readily usable analytical guide for the qualitative material (i.e., witness accounts) of the UFO experience (assuming it is indeed a PK-related phenomenon).

PK and parasociology

From a parasociology perspective, however, it is more challenging to use this book as a reference, as the proposed experiential approach is essentially one based on the individual, its key unit of analysis (i.e., a psychology-based approach). A fair bit of careful “translation” between ontological levels (i.e., between the individual level and the social level) will be required to make her findings useful to parasociology.

For instance, “focused awareness” or attention (pp. 283-290) is found to be an important enabler to intentional PK. As well, on p. 287 she notes that focused awareness can occur at the group level (to be understood here as a small group) where people are focussing on the same thing. This can increase the power of PK. Although the author does not expand on it in that chapter, there is an implicit idea that the intensity of a psi effect has a direct correlation with the number of human psyche involved. In other words, psi energy appears cumulative. UFO sightings and UFO waves can rarely be understood as intentional PK (with a few exceptions such as Viéroudy’s experiments presented in an earlier post). Hence, this part of the findings may not be relevant. However, it is also possible to make the argument that once a UFO is seen the focussed attention of the witnesses can possibly have an impact on the changing shape and behaviour of the UFO (a common observation in UFO sightings). But we are still staying at the individual level in this case. On the other hand, the idea that an increased number of people involved in a PK phenomenon (whether they are focussed or not) seems to lead to greater PK effects is an interesting argument in favour of social psi; if thousands (or more) people unconsciously produce PK effects, then the effect should be much more ostentatious, taking shapes like UFO waves, or repeated Marian apparitions. This is certainly one of the key assumptions behind the Global Consciousness Project. Yet again, this issue of focused attention could explain why during a same UFO wave there can be conflicting observations by the different witnesses (which situation often leads ETH ufologists to dismiss the observations that do not fit their preconceived notions, and to declare as “more real” or “better” the ones that fit “the pattern” – from that point of view, the criticism towards ETH ufology as being nothing more than “saucerology” is deserved).

From a methodological standpoint, because accounts of UFOs during a UFO wave are usually coming from individual people, it is still important to take into consideration the individual level portion of the phenomenon. To find social dynamics that would be particular to social psi, however, it is fundamental to maintain a clear analytical distinction between the two ontological levels. Hence, borrowing from Heath’s book will be a delicate balancing act.

As one can see, there is lots of food for thought in this book. I think it would be useful to go in depth through each of the elements of this book, in an attempt to “extract” the findings that could have a sociological level application (i.e., to inform parasociology). This will constitute the bulk of my next posts.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reading Notes - Various authors on various topics

Today’s post is a bit eclectic, but there are several ideas useful to many aspects of parasociology. Three articles from scholarly journals are reviewed, without having a common theme. They are:

Etzold, Eckhard. (2005). “Solar-periodic full moon effect in the Fourmilab retropsychokinesis project experiment data: An exploratory study”. Journal of Paraspychology 69(2): 233-261.

Orme-Johnson, David W et al. (1988). “International Peace Project in the Middle East: The effects of the Maharishi technology of the unified field”. Journal of Conflict Resolution 32(4): 776-812.

Rojcewicz, Peter M. (1987). “The ‘Men in Black’ experience and tradition: Analogues with the traditional devil hypothesis”. Journal of American Folklore 100(396): 148-160.

Etzold’s article

The gist of this article is to show that solar activity, instead of lunar cycles, has more impact on casino winnings, which is understood has a form of psi effect (i.e., people wish to win and this happens more often than normal chance allows). The author also mentions some other researches that correlate high geomagnetic field activity with high PK effects like poltergeists. They are:

Braud, W.G. and S.P. Dennis. (1989). “Geophysical variables and behaviour: LVIII.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 68: 1243-1254.

Gearhart, L. And M. A. Persinger. (1986). “Geophysical variables and behaviour: XXXIII.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 62: 463-466.

Palmer J., S. Baumann and C.A> Simmonds. (2005). “Factors affecting the relationships between human intentionality and the hemolysis of red blood cells”. Proceedings of The Parapsychological Association 48th Annual Convention, pp. 119-130.

After doing extensive statistical analysis on several sets of data, the author concludes that the: “analysis at hand shows that the stronger parameter might be the direct influence of solar activity and not GMF [Geomagnetic field]. This might indicate a complex interaction of a direct solar influence accompanied by interactions of the moon with the earth’s magnetosphere during full moon.” (p. 258).

Etzold article is about physical and astronomical parameters that could be enabling PK psi effects. I found it interesting because it relates to some analysis of UFO waves. The Swedish researcher Ragnar Foshufvud took UFO sighting data selected by Hynek and compared them to sunspot cycle data (see Foshufvud, Ragnar (1980). “Unidentified flying objects – A physical phenomenon”. Pursuit 13(2)). He found that sightings increase at the beginning of the cycle when sunspots are getting to their maximum. A similar study by Claude Poher was able to correlate the rise of geomagnetic activity on Earth with increases in UFO sightings (see Poher, Claude and Jacques Vallée. (1975). “Basic patterns in UFO observations". Annual Conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautic, Pasadena, California, 20-22 January). It is yet another indication, but not proof, that UFO sightings and PK effects seem to share similar patterns, and thus they might share fundamentally the same origin.

Orme-Johnson et al’s article

Orme-Johnson and others’ article looked at first interesting, as it represents a pragmatic approach as to how collective unconscious could be affected by reducing social stress in conflict areas. But their study is problematic in a number of ways. The authors’ main thesis is that if a small number of people practice transcendental meditation (TM), social problems and conflict decrease. Then, the authors describe an experiment in Israel and Lebanon in the 1980s and think they found statistically valid correlations between TM and reductions in social conflicts. Although they never mentioned the concept of psi, it is certainly linkable to the Global Consciousness Project.

The problem is that it is a bunch of psychologists who really have no understanding of social sciences and social realities. They mention Jung and Durkheim’s approach to collective consciousness (which is incorrect in the case of Jung, as he developed the concept of collective unconscious) to say that “such theories will not have a major influence on mainstream psychology until they are empirically testable”. (p. 778). Yet, they are accepting without any critique TM, based on the Vedic religion. From an epistemological standpoint their argument is completely flawed. Sociological theories cannot be verified the same way as psychological ones because they are ontologically different. And, of course, their argument is asymmetric as they accept religiously based concepts (i.e., based on faith) while rejecting sociological arguments based on empirical research (even if such research is epistemologically different than what they are used to). Furthermore, their key concept of social coherence (i.e., less social conflict) is a prescriptive concept that sociologists have long rejected. Conflicts and violence are a normal part of human societies. As well, their approach is fundamentally reductionist “because the individual is seen as the unit of collective consciousness, restricted individual development can be identified as a fundamental source of collective stress as well” (p. 780). Sociologists have shown, long time ago, that a social fact like collective consciousness can only be understood if one looks at it as a social object (not as an aggregate of individual wills). But their greatest problem, in using their own perspective, is that there are a myriad of other social and political factors that would need to be controlled to be sure that TM has any effect on anything. And again, social and political factors can only be studied as social objects, not as aggregates of individual psychological issues. Finally, I think they use the wrong terminology when they introduce the notion of collective consciousness. If TM has any effect, it would be on the collective unconscious, as it is a phenomenon akin to psi effects.

Not a whole lot of useful information can be extracted out this article. However, it is a useful reminder that a psychological approach (i.e., using the individual as the fundamental unit of analysis) is not suited to tackle social objects. This, in turn, is also reminder that any linkage between parasociology and parapsychology will have to be carefully adapted to ensure effective epistemological and ontological correspondence or translation.

Rojcewicz’s article

The article by Rojewicz is interesting as it shows that “Men in Black” (MIB) sightings could be construed as a paranormal phenomenon. The author shows that many of the usual traits of MIBs are similar to traits found in descriptions of meetings with the devil (black being the key color, the entity knows things about the witness that only he or she knows, unusual speech, come in group of three, strange walk, strange synchronistic events, etc.). This echoes Jacques Vallée’s analysis of folkloric tales having similarities with the entities associated to UFOs in his book Passport to Magonia.

What is more interesting is that the author rejects the all too common condescending attitude in folklore studies where “the scholar knows ‘reality,’ and what the informants know is ‘folklore’.” (p. 157). Rojewicz suggests that MIB could be a form of tulpa, an idea taken from the Tibetan mystical tradition, which he defines as “materialized thought-form”. (p. 154). He cites the key book on this topic by Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet (New York: Penguin, 1973). He also suggests that “MIB are materialized tulpoidal forms stabilized by collective fear—of ‘Big Brother,’ of terrorism and violence of hijacking, of all forms of personal intimidation.” (p. 154). This is no proof, of course, but it is yet another indication that UFOs are more likely to be a psi phenomenon (of a collective rather individual nature) than something explainable through the ETH.

Lastly, Rojewicz offers some methodological piece of advice that I find useful. He cites David Hufford. (1977). “Humanoids and anomalous lights: Taxonomic and epistemological problems”. Fabula 18: 234-241, stating that “believed accounts that look to repeating occurrence as their authority must be evaluated as to their objective nature before the question of their stability and distribution can be adequately be answered. There exists no good epistemological and ontological reasons to distinguish descriptions from explanations if the folklorist cannot seriously entertain the possibility that a real experience lies behind traditional belief.” (pp. 157-158). In other words, the content of discourses about strange phenomena must be assessed first in looking in the actual events that were reported. Otherwise, it is not possible to make any inferences about the structure of what is essentially construed as a “rumour”. However, implicit in this statement is that one does not need a unified materialistic explanation to understand folkloric traditions either (like the ETH). Folkloric traditions, like the ones about MIB and the devil, share many similarities pointing towards a common origin, but the content is not fully identical thus pointing also towards invalidating naive materialistic explanations (like the ETH).

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet