Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Psychoanalysis and parasociology

The modern and systematic study of the so-called paranormal phenomena has its roots in the 19th century spiritualist movement. Many consider the foundation, in Britain, of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in the 1880s was the first step. A large number of the SPR members (and sympathizers), as well those from similar organizations created around the world in the following years, were mostly motivated by a quest to prove the immortality of the soul. Their emphasis on medium séance and haunting activities is therefore not surprising. Those who are nowadays interesting in researching haunting are very often referring to the body of literature created or inspired by the SPR, and remain motivated by the belief in the immortality of the soul (even if they may not be willing to admit it).

In spite of the great care deployed in conducting empirical research, the overall psychical research was, and still is, very problematic due to the fact that their fundamental assumptions was essentially improvable. The epistemological foundation of psychical research was based on two inter-related principles. The first one is that if information only available to a deceased person is obtained by a medium, then it is considered as evidence pointing towards the immortality of the soul. The second one is that if there is physical activity (noise, footsteps, knocking, human-shaped moving shadows, etc) near were a person died or was interred, then it is also evidence considered as pointing towards the immortality of the soul. In other words, ghostly activities are assumed to be caused by the spirit of a deceased individual.

Both these principles, however, are actually fundamentally flawed. As research in remote viewing has clearly shown, information about something than only a deceased person would have known can indeed be accessed without any “involvement” of a spirit or ghost. Hence, accessing information cannot be used as evidence of the immortality of the soul simply because the actual source of such information is not known, and the use of mediums to talk or sense spirits is in no way necessary. If fact, an argument can be made that mediums are simply practicing a non-visual form of remote viewing by self-deluding themselves into having a spiritualist communication, while in fact they are simply neutralizing their consciousness—a key enabler for ESP effects. As well, the Jungian hypothesis of the Absolute Knowledge could be invoked to explain every single medium-related gathering of information through paranormal means.

In a similar way, research on PK (like the Philip Experiment) and RSPK has shown that living human beings can create all these physical manifestations, and that invoking a non-human entity is not necessary to explain these phenomena. If anything, it is the livings’ unconscious belief in ghosts that seems to be the key variable for such manifestations.

It is not surprising that already in the 1920s, researchers intuitively knew that the psychical research approach was leading to a dead end, and motivated the creation of scientific parapsychology by people like J.B. Rhine. It is safe to say that the parapsychologists’ rejection of psychical research was fully vindicated by the 1980s.

The above is a very brief, but standard, description of the paranormal research intellectual history. However, there is an important component of that history that is often overlooked: the departure from psychical research was not only the fact of quantitative and positivist scientists like J.B. Rhine, but also due to the emergence of psychoanalysis as an accepted scientific discipline.

The central role of psychoanalysis in studying the paranormal

In reviewing yet another older book, there are a number of interesting issues about the study of the paranormal that emerged, and that can be of great importance for parasociology. The book is:

Fodor, Nandor. (1959). The Haunted Mind: A psychoanalytical look at the supernatural. New York: Garrett.

It is interesting to note, for instance, that Sigmund Freud had an interest for the paranormal since the early days of his career, although the full extent of this interest was only revealed two decades after his death. Carl Jung’s interest was well-known relatively early in his career. A number of analysts followed him afterward, like Eisenbud and Fodor. The fundamental thrust behind this interest, in the case of psychoanalysts, was that many of them experienced ESP and synchronistic events in the course of their practice.

For any analyst, it is important to be mindful of the phenomena known as transference and counter-transference, where the patient might become dependent on what the analyst is thinking, and conversely the analyst might become too emotionally attached to their patient. For the analysts, the experience of ESP events can be interpreted as either being too close to a patient so that both come to think alike or it is a genuine psi effect. For them, it was important to find out which interpretation was the most accurate. It appears that both can occur concurrently. There are many instances where the patient (or the analyst) could not objectively have known the information, but the emotional proximity tends to enhance such ESP activity. Given that emotional proximity can be both an enabler and a proxy for ESP, this makes such research challenging. It is therefore not surprising that those who thirst for clear-cut answers focused almost exclusively on quantitative laboratory-based research. In the end, the issue of emotional proximity was found to be an important issue in the laboratory too, through what is known in parapsychology as the experimenter’s participating in the psi effects.

This is an important reminder for any researcher interested in psi. Not only those who do research on haunting and poltergeist (and UFOs) can be unconsciously full-fledge participants in causing psi effects to occur, but they tend to be offended at the very idea that they and the witnesses are probably more important to study than the physical manifestations. Fodor, although not having UFOs in mind, wrote a very crisp passage on this issue: “Up to that time, psychical research was a singularly one-sided scientific pursuit. The researchers, no matter how intrigued by the mysteries of the supernormal, felt they were upholding the strictest scientific standards by investigating the reported phenomena exclusively. To them, any questions of the mental background or personality of a medium under examination or of a family experiencing a haunting were beside the point—a distracting influence of no bearing on the reality of the psychic event” (p. 6). Fodor wrote this in the 1950s, referring to events that occurred in the 1930s. It is fascinating to see that 80 years later little has changed.

The psycho-dynamics of paranormal research is also quite interesting and important. It is known that ETH UFO researchers have ignored many witnesses reporting cases not fitting the “typical” ET encounters. The same can be said of ghost researchers. Based on my own personal observations of such “research activities”, I can also add that who speaks during a field research has a lot of impact as whether the information will be retained or not. In other words, the internal “pecking” order plays a major role on determining which data that will be reported or excluded. Similarly, the anticipation as whether it is a “haunting” or a “poltergeist” will also determine what is reported. I noticed that during a “haunting” research, “poltergeist” data would be ignored. Lastly, if someone high in the pecking order is performing fraud, or at least is somewhat cheating, that person might not be denounced and the fraud not reported because it would go against the “mood” of the group.

As Fodor noted about a medium that he saw committing a fraud, “…stating it publicly against a crowd of believers was a dangerous thing. Negative evidence must be absolutely overwhelming when pitted against the will to believe, while positive statements are accepted without questioning. Moreover, the moment you permit even the suspicion that you are beginning to doubt to enter a medium’s mind, you are no longer allowed to get near her. I had caught Mrs. Perriman before, walking in the dark and breathing down my neck. I said nothing because I realized that any statement against her would have compromised me.” (p. 251). I wonder how many UFO and other paranormal research have suffered from this group thinking syndrome.

As noted in a previous post, fraud and group thinking are important elements to understand how genuine psi effects can be produced. The key is to investigate the psychological reason behind fraud and group thinking. As Fodor noted, “there is no mystery behind the mercenary exploitation of human gullibility. In a few cases, the trumpet [instrument used in medium scéances for allegedly allowing the dead to speaking to the living] may be the best vehicle for the medium to display the rare gift for obtaining supernormal information about the living and the dead. For some idiosyncratic reason, the trumpet and a ventriloquistic dissociation may be the best means for meaningful telepathic, clairvoyant, and prophetic utterances.” (p. 258).

Collective psi events

Fodor, through the course of his life-long research on the paranormal, developed an interesting concept for parasociology that seems to have been forgotten by most parapsychologists: the family gestalt and by extension what he called the “racial gestalt”. Fodor found that there are certain paranormal events that cannot be explained by solely focusing on an individual mind. In some cases, a serious explanation has to encompass an entire family mindset and can only be understood as idiosyncrasies specific to a family (this view can be considered as a precursor to what will be found later by researchers dealing with RSPK). Fodor gave the example of “[…] the death coaches driven by ghost drivers, and many other human, semi-human, and animal apparitions that in old English families are the heralds of impending death. They add ‘body’ to the Family Gestalt. The older the family, the stronger the Gestalt. Nebulous and ill-defined as it necessarily must be, the concept of the Family Gestalt unites a variety of ill-assorted phenomena of folklore with psychical research.” (p. 51).

Fodor also saw a Gestalt for larger groups. For instance, he wrote that “the Jews had a racial Gestalt for two thousand years. It has changed into a national Gestalt for the people of Israel, but not for those still living in the diaspora. The power of this racial Gestalt is well known to the world. For centuries the Jews tried or were forced to assimilate, and for centuries they resisted or had been rebuffed and were shut into ghettos and concentration camps.” (p. 53). Whether one agrees or not with Fodor’s interpretation, it is clear that the general notion of a collective emotional energy, which can lead to social psi effects, is interesting for parasociology.

It is also interesting to note that Fodor describes the Gestalt effect in ways that are similar to Sheldrake’s concept of morphic field. The longer the field is in place, the stronger it is (i.e. old families, and ethnic group with long shared history). Fodor actually used a metaphorical description of the family gestalt as ionized field. “If a statement of survival is meant by the event, it has a more significant bearing for the family that for the individual son. Continuance of the family as a collective entity regardless of the individual death might well be given a telekinetic emphasis. If we accept the splitting of the ring [every time an oldest son dies] as a genuine phenomenon, we automatically admit that the dynamic means are available at the moment of death for the dying. We may have a conception of the manner of its genesis if we consider death as an event similar to ionization. When an electron, a member of the atomic family, is shot out of its orbit (death), the energy discharged can be photographed as a trail of comet-like light. Ionization means that the air is rendered conducive of electricity.”(p. 48).

Older contactees

A short note to show that the “contactee” phenomenon predates the flying saucer era by at least 20 years. In October 1926, Fodor interviewed someone who claimed to be in telepathic communication with Mars, and that soon the Martians would communicate in clear with us (p. 260). According to that same man, “they [the Martians] want to teach us, to help us. They are far more ahead in civilization than we are. But we cannot expect miracles from them. They will not teach us more than we are ready for … There are different races on Mars, just as on this earth. The cultured ones do not differ much from us. But there are Martians who look like rats. I have been in contact with Mars for ten years. I wanted to leave them alone, but they would not let me. It is my mission to listen to them.” (pp. 264-265). This story has all the narrative structures of the ET stories of today. Clearly, the social and psychological narrative structures, rather than the content, are the key to understand the ET component of the UFO phenomenon.

Eric Ouellet ©2009