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Apparitional Experiences in the Psychomanteum

Personal experiences with apparitions (or "ghosts") of the dead have been a part of human culture for centuries, and still seem to affect a considerable number of people in the present time. Of the 1,000 Americans surveyed in an online poll conducted by The Huffington Post (in conjunction with the YouGov polling firm) in December of 2012, 45% said that they believed in ghosts, and 28% said they have personally experienced one.[1] Similar percentages were obtained in a slightly smaller poll of 808 Americans conducted by CBS News in 2009, in which 48% had professed a belief in ghosts, and 22% claimed to have experienced one.[2] An illustrative example of one type of apparitional experience comes from the following account, given by a woman in Arkansas:

 

      A cousin from my mother’s side of the family saw my father just minutes after his death.

      Our families had been estranged since she was young, so I was shocked when I heard that she woke up at three o’clock on Sunday morning with him at the foot of her bed. At breakfast, she told her husband and children. "I looked up and saw an old man standing there, staring at me. He was radiating a peaceful golden glow. It’s been over 30 years since I saw Uncle Ted, but I know that was him and that he’s dead." Then, on Tuesday, they read in the newspaper that he had died at 3 A.M. on Sunday.

      After all those years, she called me and described me father in exact detail. I had read that apparitions were hallucinations, so I had to wonder How could she have hallucinated that? She couldn’t have, because the last time she or anyone in her family saw him, he weighed over two hundred pounds, had a head full of thick black hair, and a shining complexion. But during the last months of his life, he became thin, frail, wrinkled, and his hair was thin and totally gray. Plus, she described his final physical changes, which only his doctor, nurse, and I knew.

      My cousin said, "Uncle Ted didn’t say anything, but I somehow knew exactly who he was and that he was there to make amends. And for some reason, all the pain and anger I felt toward the family disappeared when I saw him like that. I can’t believe it, but just seeing him was all I needed. I’m not mad at anyone any more. It’s okay."

      Now my cousin and I talk often, and she came to our family gathering this summer. Seems like a miracle.[3, pp. 22 -23, emphasis in original]

 

Assuming the experiences described in this and other accounts are genuine[4], how are we to account for them? Could there have been any tangible physical basis to the apparitions witnessed during the experiences, or were they all purely in the minds of the people seeing them?

 

Perhaps the most ideal way to explore this basic and important ontological question would be to study the physical and psychological correlates of the apparitional experience under controlled conditions. Of course, the main difficulty lies in trying to bring a genuine apparition into the confines of the laboratory, and it is well known that apparitions tend to be highly elusive in this regard. However, previous parapsychological research has demonstrated a practical technique with which it is possible to do the next best thing: to artificially induce a subjective experience in volunteers that is similar in form and appearance to a naturally-occurring apparitional experience. The technique, initially developed by psychiatrist Raymond Moody[5], involves the ages-old process of scrying (i.e., inducing visions by gazing into a reflective surface), and makes use of a custom-built chamber called a psychomanteum (Greek for "theater of the mind").

 

In brief, the technique proceeds as follows: A volunteer is asked to enter the dimly-lit psychomanteum chamber and sit in a chair that is set several feet in front of a large mirror, which has been tilted upward to reflect the darkness. The volunteer then relaxes and gazes deeply into the mirror to induce a mild altered state of consciousness through which apparition-type and other sensory phenomena may be experienced.

 

The purpose of this project is to further explore the possible physical and psychological correlates of any apparition-like experiences that volunteers may have while mirror-gazing in the psychomanteum chamber. The surrounding environment of the chamber will be monitored for any physical changes (e.g., magnetic fields, temperature, air ionization, etc.) during the session, and psychological measures (e.g., EEG, personality traits) will be assessed for any correlates of the experience. Any notable findings may be useful in drawing inferences about the physical and psychological factors underlying natural apparitional experiences, some of which can be further developed and explored through field research. Originally designed by Moody to simulate personal visionary reunions with deceased loved ones, psychomanteum sessions have been found to be very effective as a form of bereavement and grief therapy, and helping participants to complete the bereavement process and reduce grief shall be another aim of this project.

 

Previous Research

 

Success in eliciting apparition-like experiences in the psychomanteum has generally varied between 85% and 22% [6-8]; reasons for these differences in success currently remain unclear. Although their content tends to vary across participants, the experiences can be marked by visual imagery seen in the mirror (which can include human and animal figures, lights, cloudy forms, landscapes, and faces), as well as unusual bodily sensations (e.g., a sense of being touched), sudden shifts in mood, and the sense of an unseen presence in the chamber, among other subjective features. It is interesting to note that these kinds of features also tend to be common in haunt experiences.

 

In some studies, psychological assessments performed before and after the psychomanteum session found that there were notable reductions in grief among the participants[7-10], and participants in the sessions were predominantly found to have personality traits emphasizing intuition and feeling.[6-7]

 

At least one study has made a preliminary examination of the possible physical correlates of the psychomanteum experience [11], although any inferences that can be drawn from these findings have been extremely limited due to a small number of sessions. One goal of the current project is to further reproduce and extend these findings to a broader degree.

 

Budget & Project Status

 

Current Budget Estimation: $8000.00

 

This PRF project is currently in the planning stages, with the budget to be concurrently shared with that for the PRF field investigations project, which will utilize much of the same equipment.


If you have any questions about this project or would like to know more about it, please send an e-mail to Bryan Williams.

 

References & Notes

 

[1] Spiegel, L. (2013, February 2). Spooky number of Americans believe in ghosts. Available online at The Huffington Post website: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/02/real-ghosts-americans-poll_n_2049485.html. Retrieved July 10, 2013.
 

[2] Alfano, S. (2009, February 11). Poll: Majority believe in ghosts. Available online at the CBS News website: http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500160_162-994766.html. Retrieved October 8, 2009.
 

[3] Arcangel, D. (2005). Afterlife Encounters: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experiences. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company.
 

[4] Many other interesting accounts of apparitional experiences can be found in the book The Departed Among the Living: An Investigative Study of Afterlife Encounters by Icelandic researcher Erlendur Haraldsson (Guildford, UK: White Crow Books, 2012).
 

[5] Moody, R. A. (1992). Family reunions: Visionary encounters with the departed in a modern-day psychomanteum. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 11, 83 - 121. Also see Moody, R., with Perry, P. (1993). Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones. New York: Villard Books.
 

[6] Arcangel, D. (1997). Investigating the relationship between the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and facilitated reunion experiences. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 91, 82 - 95.
 

[7] Hastings, A., Hutton, M., Braud, W., Bennett, C., Berk, I., Boynton, T., Dawn, C., Goldman, A., Greene, E., Hewett, M., Lind, V., McLellan, K., & Steinbach-Humphrey, S. (2002). Psychomanteum research: Experiences and effects on bereavement. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 45, 211 - 228.
 

[8] Roll, W. G. (2004). Psychomanteum research: A pilot study. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 22, 251 - 260.
 

[9] Merz, R. J. (2010). Transformations of bereavement in a psychomanteum process: Qualities of meaning and paths of change. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, CA. 150 pp. (UMI # 3407974)
 

[10] Hastings, A. (2012). Effects on bereavement using a restricted sensory environment (psychomanteum). Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 44, 1 - 25.

 

[11] Radin, D. I., & Rebman, J. M. (1996). Are phantasms fact or fantasy? A preliminary investigation of apparitions evoked in the laboratory. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61, 65 - 87.