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Brain Correlates of Psychic Experience

Ever since the height of the Spiritualism movement in the late 19th century, there has been a lingering public fascination with the claims of mediums and psychics.[1] And since that time, systematic attempts made by parapsychologists to study the claimed psi abilities of mediums and psychics have generally been mixed, with some producing statistically significant results in favor of the claimed abilities, and others producing results at or near chance.[2-3]

The Psychical Research Foundation has contributed to this effort over the years through its own systematic studies conducted with various psychics and mediums.[4] Perhaps the most extensive and successful of these were conducted in the 1970s with Sean Lalsingh Harribance, a psychic claimant originally from the island of Trinidad who was able to produce a fair amount of significant results under test conditions designed to control for the effects of sensory cuing, logical inference, and deception.[5] If Harribance (and at least a few other psychics and mediums) do possess some kind of genuine ability, then this immediately raises certain questions: How is it that mediums and psychics are able to do what they do? What is going on in their brains during their efforts to actively employ their abilities?


To explore these questions, the PRF conducted a pilot study in April of 2013 in which the brain wave activity of a 64-year-old male psychic claimant was actively monitored using computer-based quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG). During this study, 19 channels of QEEG data were recorded from the claimant’s scalp during two types of psi task. In one of the tasks, the claimant tried to perceive the target cards being randomly generated by a simple computer-based ESP test program. In the other task, the claimant attempted to mentally influence the output of an electronic random number generator (RNG) by way of psychokinesis (PK, or "mind over matter"). The QEEG data collected during the test sessions were then screened for artifacts and used to generate color-coded topographic maps of the claimant's brain wave activity during each of these tasks.


The image on the right shows an example of the topographic maps generated from the QEEG data collected from the psychic claimant during one of the PK sessions for which he produced promising results. The image shows a view of the head from above, looking down (with the face being towards the top), and displays activity across three brain wave frequencies: theta (4 to 8 Hz; often associated with states of drowsiness and light sleep), alpha (8 to 13 Hz; often associated with a state of relaxed awareness) and beta (13 to 21 Hz; often associated with active cognitive thought).[6] The image indicates that during this particular PK task, alpha activity was present in the occipital and parietal lobes on the right side of the claimant’s brain (Column 2 in the image), while some theta activity was concentrated toward the central region of his brain (Column 1). This suggests that the claimant may have been fairly relaxed during his PK attempts.

This preliminary observation happens to be consistent with other EEG findings obtained by the PRF and other parapsychological research centers during the 1970s and 1980s.[7-8] Although the results have generally varied with the use of different participants, psi tasks, and EEG recording and analysis techniques, the most consistent finding to date has been a tendency for alpha activity to be associated with successful ESP performance. This finding has been particularly notable in EEG studies conducted with Sean Harribance by the PRF in the 1970s, in which higher ESP test scores were positively correlated with higher amounts of alpha on Harribance’s EEG.[9]


Surveys of other brain-related research on psychic experiences can found in the monograph Psychic Phenomena and the Brain: Exploring the Neuropsychology of Psi by PRF member Bryan Williams, which was published in December 2015 by the Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research.[10]



























References & Notes


[1] Because of their close similarity, mediums and psychics are often confused with one another. As a general distinction, mediums tend to apply their claimed ESP abilities toward their attempts to communicate with deceased individuals, while psychics tend to apply their abilities toward gaining information about living individuals, hidden objects, and distant places.


[2] Schouten, S. A. (1994). An overview of quantitatively evaluated studies with mediums and psychics. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 88, 221 - 254.


[3] Bastos, Jr., M. A. V., de Oliviera Bastos, P. R. H., Goncalves, L. M., Osorio, I. H. S., & Lucchetti, G. (2015). Mediumship: Review of quantitative studies published in the 21st century. Archives of Clinical Psychiatry (Sao Paulo), 42, 129 - 138.


[4] See, for example, “Foundation begins ‘mediumistic’ project” in Theta No. 12, Winter 1966; and Roll, W. G. (1966). Token object matching tests: A third series. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 60, 363 - 379.

[5] A detailed overview of the experimental test series that the PRF had conducted with Harribance can be found in Williams, B. J. (2015). Empirical examinations of the reported abilities of a psychic claimant: A review of experiments and explorations with Sean Harribance. In D. Broderick & B. Goertzel (Eds.) Evidence for Psi: Thirteen Empirical Research Reports (pp. 102 - 137). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.


[6] See, for example, pages 254 – 255 of Carlson, N. R. (1998). Physiology of Behavior (6th Ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


[7] Alexander, C. H. (2002). Psychic phenomena and the brain: An evolution of research, technology, and understanding. Proceedings of Presented Papers: The Parapsychological Association 45th Annual Convention (pp. 9 - 24). Raleigh, NC: Parapsychological Association, Inc.


[8] Krippner, S., & Friedman, H. L. (Eds.) (2010). Mysterious Minds: The Neurobiology of Psychics, Mediums, and Other Extraordinary People. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.


[9] Morris, R. L., Roll, W. G., Klein, J., & Wheeler, G. (1972). EEG patterns and ESP results in forced-choice experiments with Lalsingh Harribance. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 66, 253 - 268.


[10] Williams, B. J. (2015). Psychic Phenomena and the Brain: Exploring the Neuropsychology of Psi. AIPR Monograph No. 3. Gladesville, New South Wales, Australia: Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research, Inc.

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