Category Archives: Psychology & Consciousness

Bem’s Precognition Research and the Crisis in Contemporary Science

Recently Daryl Bem defended his famous research into precognition in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More recently, as in this week, Salon published a major piece about Bem and his research that delves deeply into its implications for the whole of contemporary science —  especially psychology and the other social sciences (or “social sciences”), but also the wider of world of science in general — and shows how Bem’s research, and the reactions to it, have highlighted, underscored, and called out some very serious problems:

Bem’s 10-year investigation, his nine experiments, his thousand subjects—all of it would have to be taken seriously. He’d shown, with more rigor than anyone ever had before, that it might be possible to see into the future. Bem knew his research would not convince the die-hard skeptics. But he also knew it couldn’t be ignored.

When the study went public, about six months later, some of Bem’s colleagues guessed it was a hoax. Other scholars, those who believed in ESP — theirs is a small but fervent field of study — saw his paper as validation of their work and a chance for mainstream credibility.

But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions — that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field — and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind — could be total bunk.

If one had to choose a single moment that set off the “replication crisis” in psychology — an event that nudged the discipline into its present and anarchic state, where even textbook findings have been cast in doubt — this might be it: the publication, in early 2011, of Daryl Bem’s experiments on second sight.

The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze. . . .

When Bem started investigating ESP, he realized the details of his research methods would be scrutinized with far more care than they had been before. In the years since his work was published, those higher standards have increasingly applied to a broad range of research, not just studies of the paranormal. “I get more credit for having started the revolution in questioning mainstream psychological methods than I deserve,” Bem told me. “I was in the right place at the right time. The groundwork was already pre-prepared, and I just made it all startlingly clear.”

Looking back, however, his research offered something more than a vivid illustration of problems in the field of psychology. It opened up a platform for discussion. Bem hadn’t simply published a set of inconceivable findings; he’d done so in a way that explicitly invited introspection. In his paper proving ESP is real, Bem used the word replication 33 times. Even as he made the claim for precognition, he pleaded for its review.

“Credit to Daryl Bem himself,” [University of California-Berkeley business school professor] Leif Nelson told me. “He’s such a smart, interesting man. . . . In that paper, he actively encouraged replication in a way that no one ever does. He said, ‘This is an extraordinary claim, so we need to be open with our procedures.’ . . . It was a prompt for skepticism and action.”

Bem meant to satisfy the skeptics, but in the end he did the opposite: He energized their doubts and helped incite a dawning revolution. Yet again, one of the world’s leading social psychologists had made a lasting contribution and influenced his peers. “I’m sort of proud of that,” Bem conceded at the end of our conversation. “But I’d rather they started to believe in psi as well. I’d rather they remember my work for the ideas.”

Note that the article also contains, in its middle section, a fascinating personal profile and mini-biography of Bem himself, including a recounting of his life-long interest in mentalism, which began in his teen years and persisted into his career in academia:

As a young professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Bem liked to close out each semester by performing as a mentalist. After putting on his show, he’d tell his students that he didn’t really have ESP. In class, he also stressed how easily people can be fooled into believing they’ve witnessed paranormal phenomena.

FULL TEXT: Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real. Which Means Science Is Broken.

Indigenous myths, animal ESP, and portents of apocalyptic transformation

Here’s science writer Carrie Arnold, in a newly published article at Aeon titled “Watchers of the Earth,” discussing the possibility that indigenous myths may carry warning signals for natural disasters:

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Reading this triggered a flood of associated thoughts this morning, mostly related to things I’ve read elsewhere that resonate with it. Although the basic focus is different, for me this article somewhat recalls a starkly apocalyptic and millenarian passage from the ending to Benjamin Hoff’s The Te of Piglet (1992), a book that many readers found off-putting for its semi-grimness, which represented a departure from the more charmingly whimsical presentation of Taoism that Hoff had adopted in its predecessor, The Tao of Pooh: Read the rest of this entry

How medicalization corrupted our mythic relationship with sleep and dreams

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Fascinating reflections from “a psychologist specialising in sleep and dream medicine”:

Nyx and Hypnos were a dynamic duo of sorts — supernatural heroes who romanticised night and sleep. Nyx gave birth to sleep and created an aesthetic of darkness where Hypnos could flourish. And Hypnos loved sleep. Surrounded by fields of wild poppies on the River of Oblivion, his lair was a sanctuary — a cool, magical retreat open to all in celebration of the sensual, even sexy, mysteries of sleep.

Today, mother and son have been largely forgotten. Nyx has been in exile for well over a century as our night sky is eroded by light pollution. And Hypnos is remembered mainly by his namesakes, hypnosis and, surely to his chagrin, hypnotics. Sleep is no longer personal, transcendent and romantic — it is medical, mundane and pragmatic. . . .

The Industrial Revolution radically transformed our perception of sleep from a gracious, transcendent experience to a mechanistic, biomedical process. . . . In more recent decades, the domestication of sleep has given way to its medicalisation. Hypnos has been abducted and is being held captive in research labs, clinics and pharmacies. The field of sleep medicine has encouraged us to think of sleep as a complex biomedical process that lies outside of our awareness — a perspective that impedes our personal relationship with sleep. . . .

We are mired in a pre-Copernican-like, wake-centric era regarding consciousness. We presume waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, and we relegate sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions. . . . Medicalisation obscures sleep’s true nature — its breadth and depth and joy. It conceals the personal, transcendent and romantic dimensions of sleep. We are in dire need of restoring our sense of sleep’s mythic dimensions — of reimagining our personal experience of sleep. I believe this can be best accomplished through poetry, spirituality and, ultimately, personal investigation. . . .

Mythic perspectives suggest that there is something in the deep waters of sleep worth accessing, and invite us to personally investigate it. Metaphorically, they encourage us to practise our descent into the waters of sleep with our third eye open. . . .

Sleep loss, then, is not simply a medical problem; it is also a critical spiritual challenge. Our epic struggles with accessing deep sleep are, fundamentally, struggles with accessing deeper aspects of ourselves. As wakists, we presume that who we are is limited to our waking-world identity. Essential parts of who we are, however, are obscured by the glare of waking life. And these become more visible at night — in the deep waters of sleep and dreams.

FULL ARTICLE: “Falling for Sleep

Image: Sleep and Death Carrying Away Sarpedon of Lycia by Henry Fuseli, 1893 [Public domain ], via Wikimedia Commons

 

When mental illness is really demonic possession, according to a psychiatrist

The following two paragraphs are excerpted from what’s basically your everyday, run-of-the-mill article about the reality of demonic possession as distinct from mental illness. Written by a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. For The Washington Post.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

FULL TEXT: As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.

(For more on the relationship — and distinction — between possession and mental illness, check your local library or any online bookseller for my Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies, which contains separate entries on possession and exorcism. Also see relevant entries in editor Joe Laycock’s excellent Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures.)

 

Strangling imagination: Science as a form of mental illness

Here’s a generous chunk of a really interesting and incisive blog post by author and Presbyterian pastor C. R. Wiley, who has been articulating interesting and incisive thoughts on religion, science, culture, Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, and an associated network of ideas and writers for a some time now:

For [my scientist friends] the imagination is just a tool for problem solving. It’s not a window to view the real world through; it’s more a technique for envisioning ways out of conceptual impasses.

They’re unable to get past the factness of things. Meaning eludes them. . . .

When I ask my scientific friends, “what does it say?” (referring to any work of art) they look at me blankly. They seem to be unable to move from facts to meanings. Worse, they reduce meaning to facts in some sense. There’s a savanna theory for instance, which asserts with darwinian certitude that the reason some landscapes seem beautiful to us is because our prehistoric ancestors found savannas conducive to survival. (Darwinians have the same answer for everything, what C. S. Lewis is said to have called, “nothing-butterism”, meaning, whatever you think is the case can be reduced to “nothing but” survival.)

Seeing that the scientific method is a fairly recent phenomenon and we’ve had interest in meaning of things from the very beginning of recorded history, what is going on here?

I can’t help but believe something has gone wrong, that in the interest of understanding the world we’ve lost the world. The world is reduced to cause and effect, but its meaning is something we can no longer see.

FULL TEXT: “Is the Scientific Method a Form of Mental Illness?

You may recall Wiley as the impetus behind one of the more popular posts here at The Teeming Brain in the past few years, “C. S. Lewis and H. P. Lovecraft on loathing and longing for alien worlds.” He’s well worth following. (For a relevant case in point, see his March blog post “H. P. Lovecraft, Evangelist of the Sublime.”)

For more on the mental illness that is scientism and the threat it poses to authentic imagination, see the following:

 

Jan Svankmajer: “A puppet is a magical object”

A puppet is a magical object. It is not a toy, is it? Here they see it as puppet theatre, as puppets for kids. But it’s just not like that. These native tribes — in Africa or Oceania, etc. — the shamans use puppets in communication not only with the upper world, with the gods, but even in relation when they treat a sick person. Those shamans, when they dress as some demon or some deity, they incarnate genuinely. They are either the totem animal or the demon.

 

How reading can save us from the digital dispersion of the self

Here are some choice passages from an insight-rich essay by historian James McWilliams at The American Scholar, in which he discusses two major and complementary options for dealing with digital technology’s epochal assault on the stable self: first, take serious and substantial steps to humanize the digital world; second, retain (or return to) a serious relationship with the physical book.

The underlying concern with the Internet is not whether it will fragment our attention spans or mold our minds to the bit-work of modernity. In the end, it will likely do both. The deeper question is what can be done when we realize that we want some control over the exchange between our brains and the Web, that we want to protect our deeper sense of self from digital media’s dominance over modern life. . . .

The essence of our dilemma, one that weighs especially heavily on Generation Xers and millennials, is that the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it while luring us with assurances of convenience. It’s critical not only that we identify this process but also that we fully understand how digital media co-opt our sense of self while inhibiting our ability to reclaim it. . . .

This is not to suggest that we should aim to abolish digital media or disconnect completely — not at all. Instead, we must learn to humanize digital life as actively as we’ve digitized human life.

No one solution can restore equity to the human-digital relationship. Still, whatever means we pursue must be readily available (and cheap) and offer the convenience of information, entertainment, and social engagement while promoting identity-building experiences that anchor the self in society. Plato might not have approved, but the tool that’s best suited to achieve these goals today is an object so simple that I can almost feel the eye-rolls coming in response to such a nostalgic fix for a modern dilemma: the book. Saving the self in the age of the selfie may require nothing more or less complicated than recovering the lost art of serious reading. . . .

[A]s the fog of digital life descends, making us increasingly stressed out and unempathetic, solipsistic yet globally connected, and seeking solutions in the crucible of our own angst, it’s worth reiterating what reading does for the searching self. A physical book, which liberates us from pop-up ads and the temptation to click into oblivion when the prose gets dull, represents everything that an identity requires to discover Heidegger’s nearness amid digital tyranny. It offers immersion into inner experience, engagement in impassioned discussion, humility within a larger community, and the affirmation of an ineluctable quest to experience the consciousness of fellow humans. In this way, books can save us.

Full text: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie

Related reading:

The numinous, subversive power of art in an artificial age: Talking with J. F. Martel

 

Reclaiming_Art_in_the_Age_of_Artifice-by_J_F_Martel

Now live: my interview with Canadian filmmaker J. F. Martel, author of the just-published — and thoroughly wonderful — Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, which should be of interest to all Teeming Brainers since it comes with glowing blurb recommendations from the likes of Daniel Pinchbeck, Patrick Harpur, Erik Davis, and yours truly.

Here’s a taste of J. F.’s and my conversation:

MATT CARDIN: How would you describe Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice to the uninitiated, to someone who comes to it cold and has no idea what it’s about?

J. F. MARTEL: The book is an attempt to defend art against the onslaught of the cultural industries, which today seek to reduce art to a mindless form of entertainment or, at best, a communication tool. In Reclaiming Art I argue that great works of art constitute an expressive response to the radical mystery of existence. They are therefore inherently strange, troubling, and impossible to reduce to a single meaning or message. Much of contemporary culture is organized in such a way as to push this kind of art to the margins while celebrating works that reaffirm prevailing ideologies. In contrast, real works of art are machines for destroying ideologies, first and foremost the ideologies in which they were created.

MC: What exactly do you mean? How do real works of art serve this subversive function?

JFM: A great art work, be it a movie, a novel, a film, or a dance piece, presents the entire world aesthetically — meaning, as a play of forces that have no inherent moral value. Even the personal convictions of the author, however implicit they may be in the work itself, are given over to the aesthetic. By becoming part of an aesthetic universe, they relinquish the claims to truth that they may hold in the author’s mind in the everyday. This, I think, is how a Christian author like Dostoyevsky can write such agnostic novels, and how an atheistic author like Thomas Ligotti can create fictional worlds imbued with a sense of the sacred, however dark or malignant. Nietzsche said that the world can only be justified aesthetically, that is, beyond the good-and-evil binary trap of ideological thinking. The reason for this is that when we tune in to the aesthetic frequency, we see that the forces that make up the world exceed our “human, all too human” conceptualizations.

FULL INTERVIEW: “Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice

“A web of flesh spun over a void”

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“The Madhouse” by Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So brilliant: an implicitly ironic but outwardly straight-faced reading of the DSM-5 as a dystopian horror novel, complete with a quasi-Ligottian assessment of the book’s narrative voice and view of humanity.

Great dystopia isn’t so much fantasy as a kind of estrangement or dislocation from the present; the ability to stand outside time and see the situation in its full hideousness. The dystopian novel doesn’t necessarily have to be a novel. . . . Something has gone terribly wrong in the world; we are living the wrong life, a life without any real fulfillment. The newly published DSM-5 is a classic dystopian novel in this mold.

Here, we have an entire book, something that purports to be a kind of encyclopedia of madness, a Library of Babel for the mind, containing everything that can possibly be wrong with a human being. . . . DSM-5 arranges its various strains of madness solely in terms of the behaviors exhibited. This is a recurring theme in the novel, while any consideration of the mind itself is entirely absent. . . . The idea emerges that every person’s illness is somehow their own fault, that it comes from nowhere but themselves: their genes, their addictions, and their inherent human insufficiency. We enter a strange shadow-world where for someone to engage in prostitution isn’t the result of intersecting environmental factors (gender relations, economic class, family and social relationships) but a symptom of “conduct disorder,” along with “lying, truancy, [and] running away.” A mad person is like a faulty machine. The pseudo-objective gaze only sees what they do, rather than what they think or how they feel. A person who shits on the kitchen floor because it gives them erotic pleasure and a person who shits on the kitchen floor to ward off the demons living in the cupboard are both shunted into the diagnostic category of encopresis. It’s not just that their thought-processes don’t matter, it’s as if they don’t exist. The human being is a web of flesh spun over a void.

. . . The word “disorder” occurs so many times that it almost detaches itself from any real signification, so that the implied existence of an ordered state against which a disorder can be measured nearly vanishes is almost forgotten. Throughout the novel, this ordered normality never appears except as an inference; it is the object of a subdued, hopeless yearning. With normality as a negatively defined and nebulously perfect ideal, anything and everything can then be condemned as a deviation from it. . . . If there is a normality here, it’s a state of near-catatonia. DSM-5 seems to have no definition of happiness other than the absence of suffering. The normal individual in this book is tranquilized and bovine-eyed, mutely accepting everything in a sometimes painful world without ever feeling much in the way of anything about it. The vast absurd excesses of passion that form the raw matter of art, literature, love, and humanity are too distressing; it’s easier to stop being human altogether, to simply plod on as a heaped collection of diagnoses with a body vaguely attached.

. . . For all the subtlety of its characterization, the book doesn’t just provide a chilling psychological portrait, it conjures up an entire world. The clue is in the name: On some level we’re to imagine that the American Psychiatric Association is a body with real powers, that the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” is something that might actually be used, and that its caricature of our inner lives could have serious consequences. Sections like those on the personality disorders offer a terrifying glimpse of a futuristic system of repression, one in which deviance isn’t furiously stamped out like it is in Orwell’s unsubtle Oceania, but pathologized instead. Here there’s no need for any rats, and the diagnostician can honestly believe she’s doing the right thing; it’s all in the name of restoring the sick to health. DSM-5 describes a nightmare society in which human beings are individuated, sick, and alone. For much of the novel, what the narrator of this story is describing is its own solitude, its own inability to appreciate other people, and its own overpowering desire for death — but the real horror lies in the world that could produce such a voice.

MORE: “Book of Lamentations

For more on the DSM-V and the controversy it has elicited, see this.

Interview with James Fadiman: The Daemon and the Doors of Perception

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Dr. James Fadiman

Just published and now available here at The Teeming Brain: my interview/conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology and modern research into the spiritual and therapeutic applications of psychedelics. This has been a long time in coming, for reasons that I explain in the interview’s introduction.

The interview is ten thousand words, so be prepared to settle in. A lot of what we talk about focuses on the practical and philosophical inadequacies of dogmatic scientific materialism in dealing with things like anomalous and paranormal experiences such as inspiration and perceived communication or encounters with supernatural entities. Here’s a key excerpt:

JAMES FADIMAN: The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”

MATT CARDIN: I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.

JAMES FADIMAN: But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense. . . . Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist” . . . . Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means that anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.”

MORE: “Interview with James Fadiman: The Daemon and the Doors of Perception