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Monday, October 15, 2018

For Widows and Widowers, the Paranormal Is Rather Normal

Our materialist skeptics frequently try to suggest that people who report paranormal experiences are some kind of rare freaks. Such insinuations are contrary to actual experience, in which we find that reports of paranormal phenomena are very common. Those who wish to get a better understanding of just how common are human reports of the paranormal should go to a public library and look for a good handbook of parapsychology, or the three-volume Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. You can actually read this excellent publication online by using this link, this link and this link. (These links worked fine last week, although there is now a message saying the link is offline until November.)  Other sources of information include the very recent Psi Encyclopedia of the SPR (available here), and the much older 1932 Encyclopedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor available here

You will read in the Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained countless cases of paranormal human experience. Polls indicate that large fractions of the population report direct experience with the paranormal. A scientific paper refers to a 2006 poll finding 52% of men and 56% of women saying they had waking ESP experiences.  A 2015 Pew Research poll found that 18% of Americans said they've seen or been in the presence of a ghost, and that 29% said that they've felt in touch with someone who died. 

Among widows and widowers the percentage is even higher. A recent meta-analysis compared several studies on widows and widowers who reported seeing or hearing their departed spouses, or having a sense of their presence. The meta-analysis found that 56% of widows and widowers had such experiences.

In the meta-analysis I previously mentioned such experiences are referred to as hallucinations. This is an appallingly subjective and judgmental term that should not be used in objective scientific literature, unless a paper is dealing with people under psychiatric treatment for mental illnesses. A more appropriate term would be an objective non-judgmental term such as “anomalous experience.” There is no evidence that any pathology is involved when widows or widowers report seeing, hearing, or having a presence of a departed love one. Modern day scientists who attempt to portray paranormal experiences as pathology are comparable to 1950's psychiatrists who attempted to portray homosexuality as pathology, and psychiatrists in the Soviet Union who attempted to categorize political dissidents as people suffering from “sluggish schizophrenia.”

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Those who discuss the high number of anomalous sensory experiences of widows and widowers will often insinuate that such experiences are some kind of coping mechanism in which the brain generates hallucinations to ease stress or sadness. But other than people who report seeing or hearing deceased loved ones, there is essentially zero evidence that humans ever have anything like hallucinations to make themselves feel better in times of stress or sadness. Let us consider these facts:

  1. As shown on the TV show American Greed, there are very many people who have been swindled out of their life savings, losing decades of their savings. But none of these people ever had a “comforting hallucination” in which they saw something like a stack of cash on their dining room table to make themselves feel better.
  2. We have many historical experiences of people who put their hearts and souls into a war, only to be bitterly disappointed when their country lost the war, and was occupied by a foreign power. There are no cases of any such people having a “comforting hallucination” in which they learned that it was a mistake, and their side really won the war.
  3. Many people have the greatest emotional involvement in a romance, only to have their fondest dream crushed when they are dumped by their loved one, or have their marriage proposal rejected. None of these people have ever had a comforting hallucination in which they saw or heard their loved one say something like, “I've changed my mind; let's stay together.”
  4. There are many people who learn they have cancer, and begin to suffer from it. None of them have “comforting hallucinations” in which they see a doctor telling them their cancer has been cured.

So since sad and depressed and grief-stricken people other than widows and widowers do not have hallucinations to make them feel better, it is implausible to be evoking the concept of “comforting hallucinations” to explain the anomalous experiences of widows and widowers.

Scientific papers and scientific literature often make unnecessary use of terms that draw unnecessary and inappropriate conclusions about the source or nature of a phenomenon. In the second and third rows of the table below we see two examples of such inappropriate language, along with a similar example of poor phrasing that an ordinary observer might make.

Statement Problem with statement Better way to make statement
I first started seeing the extraterrestrial spaceship when I noticed a bright blue light in the sky. The extraterrestrial spaceship moved quickly across the sky, until it vanished from view.”
We do not know that unidentified lights in the sky are extraterrestrial spaceships, so why use such a phrase in describing them?
I first started seeing the sky anomaly when I noticed a bright blue light in the sky. The sky anomaly moved quickly across the sky, until it vanished from view.”
When your brain considers two different choices, your brain sometimes hesitates because it does not see an obviously superior choice. But usually your brain chooses one of these options fairly quickly, even though it may not be able to explain the exact reason.”
We do not know that brains produce thoughts or decisions, and no one has any idea of how neurons could produce a thought or make a decision.
When you consider two different choices, you sometimes hesitate because you do not see an obviously superior choice. But usually you choose one of these options fairly quickly, even though you may not be able to explain the exact reason.”
A large percentage of widows and widowers have hallucinations in which they report seeing, hearing or sensing their deceased spouse.
We do not know that such reports are hallucinations, and they may result from causal factors outside of the mind of the observer.
A large percentage of widows and widowers have anomalous experiences in which they report seeing, hearing or sensing their deceased spouse.

In table 8 of the study here, there is a list of various studies done involving anomalous experiences. For example, in Arcangel's study of 827 people, 64% responded affirmatively to the question, “Have you experienced an encounter after the death of a loved one?”

In addition to a large fraction or majority of widows and widowers reporting seeing, hearing or sensing a deceased person, there are also very many others who report baffling hard-to-explain occurrences that they suspect could be caused by some spiritual presence. Most of these cases are not picked up by the type of questions typically asked by the surveys listed in that table.

For this reason I strongly suspect that the actual number of widows and widowers who have paranormal experiences is much higher than the 56% cited in the meta-analysis I referred to. Another reason for this suspicion is the strong likelihood of under-reporting on this topic. Our society often stigmatizes anyone who reports a paranormal experience. Report a paranormal experience, and there will always be some people who will ridicule you or say or think that you have lost your mind. Given this appalling stigmatization effect, we should imagine that the actual number of people having a paranormal experience is far greater than the number who report the experience in surveys, and that a large fraction of those who have the experience will never report it for fear of being ridiculed or accused of a mental problem.

One could summarize the situation by saying that for widows and widowers, the paranormal is rather normal.

It is interesting that Haraldsson found that college education did not seem to cause any decline in the reporting of paranormal experiences.  In a paper he compared a 1974 poll in Iceland showing 59% of men and 71% of women reporting some psychic experience to a 2006 poll showing 70% of men reporting psychic experience and 81% of women reporting such a thing.  Between 1974 and 2006 the number of college-educated people in Iceland had increased from 6% to 36%. 

Postscript: A recent Groupon survey of 2000 people found that more than 60% claim to have seen a ghost. 

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