Thursday, July 16, 2009

Reading Notes – Parapsychology and the Unconscious

This post is reviewing a somewhat older parapsychology book that is made of previously published articles and book chapters from the 1950s up to the early 1980s by Jule Eisenbud, a now deceased but reknown parapsychologist. In spite that those texts were written some time ago, they are still relevant today as they seek to reconcile parapsychology and psychoanalysis, an incomplete task up to this day. Even if the focus remains on the individual unconscious, there are a number of useful notions for parasociology in general, and for the study of the UFO phenomenon in particular. The full notice is:

Eisenbud, Jule. (1983). Parapsychology and the Unconscious. Berkeley: North Atlantic Book.

Psi as continuously influencing the unconscious (both individual and social)

The author opens the introduction with a provocative thought from the eminent Cambridge University philosopher C.D. Broad, who once wrote in his book Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research that: “our understanding of, our misunderstandings with, our fellow men; our general emotional mood on certain occasions; the ideas which suddenly arise in our minds without any obvious introspectable cause; our unaccounted immediate emotional reactions towards certain persons; our sudden decisions where the introspective motives seem equally balanced; and so on; all these may be in part determined by paranormal cognition and paranormal causal influences” (p. 11).

Such a statement is clearly appealing to parasociology, as paranormal interactions among human beings are the core topic of the discipline. Furthermore, as Eisenbud notes, C.D. Broad was not only making a statement about paranormal phenomena, but he was also showing “his conspicuous disregard of the dynamic role of the individual unconscious...” (p. 12). This last statement is an important one because it means that the individual unconscious is not an isolated island that would be only in relationship with others through “normal” communication channels. Furthermore, the individual unconscious is not only constructed through socialization and filled with collectively shared ideas, norms, values, beliefs, etc., but it is also in constant contact with others’ unconscious (both individually and collectively) through parapsychological means. From the psychoanalytical other side of the coin, Eisenbud considers that not only the issue of socialization needs to be taken into consideration much more comprehensively by psychoanalysts, but it is important to incorporate the “efforts of Freud, Jung and other psychoanalysts to draw attention to the significance for psychology of parapsychological data” (p. 12). In other words, psi effects, which are originating and emanating from the unconscious, constitute a core dynamic of the mutual interactions between individuals and their society.

Eisenbud highlights, in particular, the work of the Viennese psychoanalysts Wilhelm Stekel and Sigmund Freud who extensively investigated telepathic dreams in the 1920s. One of the interesting findings was that the so-called transference and counter-transference processes, where the patient and the analyst adjust to each other’s personality to create an effective therapeutic relationship, are also partly telepathic. Freud “convincingly showed that a patient in treatment was sensitive to material of concern to the analyst, and that the reaction which was evident in the patient’s associations—for instance jealousy—could be related dynamically to this material, just as if the patient had acquired conscious knowledge of what was taking place in the analyst’s mind. Other investigators soon extended these observations. The picture emerging from cumulative data [...] showed man’s paranormal capacities to be very much in the service of his adaptational needs.” (p. 20).

Additional researches were conducted later on by Ian Stevenson (Telepathic Impressions: A review and report of thirty-five new cases. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970), and by Russian scientists (Vasiliev, L. Experiments in Distant Influence. New York: Dutton, 1976) that showed that people are actually influencing each other through paranormal means. As Eisenbud notes “through the domain of the ‘psychic pathology in everyday life’, in any case, man is seen as actively utilizing his latent paranormal capacities to bring about desired changes in his environment in the same way he uses other adaptational means at his disposal” (p. 21). This view of psi is very much in line with François Favre’s contention that psi is something very common, ordinary and natural, as discussed in previous posts.

This view of psi can have important consequences for the study of UFOs, if one considers that UFOs are a specific and idiosyncratic use of psi to provide some form of adaptation to our environment. Certainly, Méheust’s contention that UFOs, through the material generated in the sci-fi literature, expresses our collective concerns about our technological society appearing to be out of control can be further supported by this approach. In the same vein, one can find a direct linkage between the findings of Roll and others about poltergeists being generated by psi subjects through unconscious and unexpressed feelings of anger and frustration.

What is missing in Eisenbud’s approach, however, is the social nature of our interactions. Not only human interactions are mediated by socially shared language, culture, norms, values, ideas, etc, but they do occur also at a level that is properly sociological. For instance, interactions between social classes cannot be reduced to individual interactions. Commonly shared desires, sitting in a large number of individual unconscious minds, can have dynamics of their own. This can be observed in the emergence of ideologically driven movements, and there is already an extensive literature on this subject in political science. As well, the classical 1896 study of Le Bon of the crowd mentality also illustrates such dynamic very well. Is it possible, then, that large groups’ desire can produce social psi effects? It is possible to refer to a number of parapsychological studies to illustrate that it is indeed possible. The Global Consciousness Project certainly offers interesting insights. As well, the notion that there are more male births after a major disaster or a war is well established statistically, and has been perceived as a collective psi effect by some parapsychologists.

Methodological insights

These issues have discussed in earlier posts, leading to same roadblock based on the conflicting views of psychology versus sociology. However, Eisenbud also tried to relate his research with the work of anthropologists and brings some interesting methodological insights for the study of social psi. For him, “the objective of psi in primitive societies, however much the styles of its experience and use may vary between different ones, is to secure information and to gain control over external events. [...] This order is itself ‘magical’ in that categories of time, space and causality which constitute the framework of the primitive’s experience of reality, are far less rigid, far more infused with human thought and will, than the way in which these same categories are envisaged and experienced in non-primitive societies. To the primitive, thus, behaviours based upon power of thought and will to accomplish things are reality oriented. He simply makes use of processes considered inherent in the social order and the universe.” (p. 81)

Then Eisenbud offers a not so flattering contrast for Western societies stating that “paranormal experiences of various kinds, regardless of the belief systems of those involved, continue to be reported with quantifiable frequencies in highly developed Western societies which have no institutionalized means of integrating such experiences into their beliefs and practices [...]the useful information conveyed in the experiences, and the realistic benefits derived from them, are practically nil [...] the experiences themselves come to be regarded as freak occurrences, meaningless coincidences or at the most inexplicable intrusions from an only vaguely conceived supernatural realm” (pp. 81-82).

Seen from this perspective, then it becomes clear that ETH ufology, especially in its New Age form, represents an institutionalizing attempt to integrate the UFO phenomenon within a belief system. As Jacques Vallée has shown in his prophetic book Messengers of Deception, in a Western context such belief system can easily be manipulated for other purposes. In any event, what is key here is that the UFO phenomenon, as a particular idiosyncratic expression of the Western mind in the 20th and 21st centuries, is produced and integrated unconsciously as incidents rather than as an outcome of a conscious collective will. From a methodological standpoint, this supports further the notion that one needs to look into the content of the socially shared unconscious to understand the UFO phenomenon, and that looking around the phenomenon is more important than looking into the phenomenon itself.

Eisenbud also considers that traditional repeatability as a fundamental condition to produce scientifically valid knowledge is highly problematic when it comes to study the unconscious and psi effects. For him, psi capabilities are constantly in operation, which means that variables cannot be isolated. Psi subjects in parapsychological experiments have their unconscious psi capabilities operating before, during, after the experiment. Parapsychologists (and their staff) unconscious psi processes are in interactions with the ones of the subjects. Furthermore, for him, psi capabilities being found in unconscious processes are also “locked up” with our other impulses (death and aggression in particular) that are repressed through socialization to allow us to live in society. Metaphorically, psi is the treasure guarded by the dragon (impulses) in the remote castle (the unconscious). To get the treasure in full, then you have to unleash the dragon or kill it (to become a psychopath or a zombie). Hence, the best we can do is to sneak in the castle and steal a few pieces of gold while the dragon is sleeping (i.e. try to get the most out of spontaneous psi effects as they occur). It is in this context that he wrote that “the essential contradiction in attempting a repeatable experiment really lies in the fact—and this is the crux of the matter—that in so doing we are asking the ‘raw’ psi principles to serve two masters and to do two opposing things—to keep the laws and at the same time breaking them; or, put another way, we are asking psi, so to speak, to work against itself and to deliver into our hands the instrument of its overthrow”. (p. 162-163).

According to Eisenbud, we need to break away from the “rather too narrowly and rigidly slanted conceptual framework of the physical sciences” (p. 167). Better results can be achieved, from a methodological stand point, by focussing instead on the intent (both conscious and unconscious) of all those involved (including the experimenters). Parapsychologists have studied conscious intents and found limited correlations with psi results (see Heath 2003). However, they do not study unconscious ones because it requires more than a simple survey to collect data, and that’s where they miss the boat (which is Eisenbud key point). From the point of view of parasociology, there are some well-known methodological ways to assess collective unconscious intents through text analysis, participant observations, focus groups, and artwork analysis. These methods, like in the case of parapsychology, are not economical to study a single sighting, but are of interest for UFO waves (and are probably use to studying hauntings). In many ways, this is exactly what John Keel did when he researched the material for his book The Mothman Prophecy. And let me be clear here, once more, he was quite successful because he spent most of his energy looking around the phenomena.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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