Category Archives: Pop Culture

The Unstoppable Woo of The Fantasist James Randi

For those who need to catch up, I’ve written in the past about the strange case of James Randi, the self-proclaimed truth-teller who spent the last 20-odd years living with a man who stole someone else’s identity.

Randi remains a legend in skeptical circles, though the net effect of his high reputation in that crowd is to create an opening for someone like me to point out how little critical thinking skeptics actually engage in when they happen to like the story they’re being spoonfed.

I’m a bit beside myself over this one, though. Because I figured the embarrassment of being caught out with, you know, an identity thief, might cause Randi to back up a step or two from his usual fulminating self-righteousness. Instead, Randi is doubling down on the crazy.

The facts: Randi’s long-term live-in lover, Venezuelan Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga, stole the identity of a man named Jose Luis Alvarez in the 80s, in order to stay in the country and travel with James Randi. Working as a performance artist, Pena Arteaga/Alvarez, posed as “Carlos,” a mystic who claimed to be able to channel spirits, at performances staged by Randi himself.

Randi has yet to fully acknowledge whatever role he played in his companion’s con, but the timeline I’ve laid out elsewhere suggests it is very likely he knew about the theft for a long, long time.

Over the years, the real Jose Luis Alvarez, a teacher’s aide in the Bronx, faced IRS investigations because he wasn’t claiming the income actually paid to Randi’s lover. He was himself suspected of identity theft. And when he tried to travel out of the country for his sister’s wedding, he was denied a passport. These sorts of stresses undoubtedly undermine the quality of a man’s life—family weddings don’t occur a second time, and an IRS audit is something I wish upon no man.

At his sentencing hearing, Pena Arteaga apologized for any harm done to the real Alvarez. But not Randi, who was quoted in the newspaper saying: “This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt.”

Come again?

I have written before that I think there will be little to no blow-back for Randi over this entire affair. The skeptical community granted him sainthood and stopped looking askance at the depth and consistency of his transgressions a long, long time ago. But his statement in a court of law that no one was hurt is deeply offensive to anyone who has ever been forced to deal with identity theft, in general, and to the real Jose Luis Alvarez, in particular.

I think, however, that Randi has gotten away with so much for so long—again, feel free to look over my past work on the subject here—that he essentially feels he can “create his own reality.” This is the sort of thing skeptics often chortle about—how those silly New Agers read books like The Secret to learn how to think or speak the life they want into being. But essentially, Randi has done exactly that: By speaking of himself in self-righteous tones for decades and proclaiming his own status as a truth teller, he has convinced far too many people that he really is deserving of our admiration, that he really is a truth-teller.

But he’s not.

In fact, my own opinion is that he is a candidate for serious psychological examination. Because this line—”No one was hurt”—reveals the distance between Randi and reality.

After all, in reality, claiming that “no one was hurt” does absolutely nothing to undo the fact: Jose Luis Alvarez was caused a lot of needless stress and anxiety by the illegal actions of Randi’s lover.

But as a magician and a longtime manipulator of the skeptical community and the media, Randi knows perception is really the important thing. So, simply by saying, “No one was hurt,” he will leave a certain number of people, who won’t ever dig into the story, in the dark.

To them, Randi will remain a truth teller and all will be right with the world.

Of course, there is also another, even darker possibility, in which Randi is not simply seeking to cravenly manipulate people with an obvious falsehood. It could be, in fact, that Randi has been weaving this tale for so long now, in which everything he does is right, that he actually believes it.

This would mean Randi hasn’t simply conned the skeptical community and most of the media. He’s even fooled himself.

Some people might see this as an attempt on my part to give the story of James Randi some poignancy.

It’s not.

At this stage, he’s simply a virulent presence.

He is the biggest problem the skeptical community has, and yet they just keep applauding him.

Hypnotize Me

Skeptics are still fighting the specter of Franz Anton Mesmer.

I just caught a particularly intriguing article on hypnosis, at Scientific American, covering a study performed by neuroscientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel. The study seeks to demonstrate just how powerfully hypnotism effects brain activity. And indeed, Scientific American portrays the study as presenting a (further) challenge to anyone who still seeks to deny that hypnotism is, in every meaningful sense, “real.”

This last sentence might strike some as odd. Of course, hypnotism must be real. In fact, even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has declared hypnotherapy a valid treatment for chronic pain. But Hypnosis, long associated with Franz Anton Mesmer’s debunked claims of “animal magnetism“, remains a controversial topic. And over the years, a steadily growing pile of well-constructed, replicable experiments has done little to quell the skeptics.

There are studies demonstrating hypnosis can be an aid to learning, that it can greatly reduce pain, and that it can dramatically reduce anxiety. PubMed includes more than 12,000 studies on hypnosis now, in various forms, with an impressive array of positive results. But skeptics of hypnotism remain unmoved. In fact, this little treasure can be found at “Skepdic”.

“While it is true that some hypnotherapists can help some people lose weight, quit smoking, or overcome their fear of flying, it is also true that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can do the same without any mumbo-jumbo about trance states or brain waves. There have been many scientific studies on the effectiveness of CBT. For example, one  systematic study found that CBT improves weight loss in people who are overweight or obese.”

In all, it is an alarmingly selective and dismissive little tract—dealing with a small number of studies and seeking to explain away any positive results obtained by hypnosis therapy. (At a time like this, I should point out that the “skepdic” moniker actually stands for “Skeptic’s Dictionary.” The unfortunate phonetic pronunciation is, one presumes, an unfortunate coincidence or a kind of sly wink from the skeptical side of the aisle.) And I believe even this new study will fail to convince a skepdic.

I’ll leave you to get the details from Scientific American. But here is an admittedly brief and simplified summary: People who had demonstrated a prior capacity to respond to a post-hypnotic suggestion were shown a movie and told beforehand, under hypnosis, to forget the film until they heard a specific cancellation cue. After hearing the cue, the memories should “come back” to them.

The subjects were then asked about the film while in an fMRI scanner, measuring their brain activity. The results seemed to demonstrate that, due to the hypnosis session, activity in the occipital lobes—responsible for visualizing scenes—was suppressed. The researchers then “canceled” the directive to forget the movie. The details were now accessible to the study subjects, and activity in the occipital lobes correspondingly increased.

This would seem to present a clear physiological effect. Though perhaps a skepdic might argue that the subjects, merely due to the power of suggestion, didn’t really try and recall the details of the movie until they received their audio cue. But my favorite part of the Scientific American article is this:

“Mendelsohn et al.’s study is important because it demonstrates that hypnotic suggestions influence brain activity, not just behavior and experience. Hypnotic effects are real! This fact has been demonstrated clearly in earlier work, for instance, by psychologist David Oakley (University College London) and colleagues, who compared brain activation of genuinely hypnotized people given suggestions for leg paralysis with brain activation of people simply asked to fake hypnosis and paralysis.”

There are a couple of problems here. One, the idea that it takes a brain scan to reveal a subjective experience as “real” is highly suspect. The effects of hypnosis have always been “real,” in the sense that people have responded to hypnosis for pain, anxiety and phobias. The question has been the cause. And the truth is, this latest study will likely do very little to move the needle, culturally speaking.

The Oakley study referenced here was itself published in 2003, nine years ago. (Scroll down to “Differential hemispheric activation for feigned and subjectively ‘real’ paralysis. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 8(4), 295-312″ at this link.) And I am left thinking that the entire “controversy” surrounding hypnosis reflects something my friend Alex Tsakiris, at Skeptiko, often says: “It’s not about the data.”

We’re talking about worldviews here. And to the committed skepdics, hypnotism has been on the outside looking in for so long that, seemingly, no study can convince.


Top 10 Developments in Fringe-ology: 1

Dr. Michael Persinger


Near as I can figure it, this is the year the debate over whether or not telepathy exists shriveled down to an argument over the statistical analyses common throughout the entire field of psychological research.

As a result, I’d argue the field has reached a kind of crisis point. This development shouldn’t come as a surprise: The period right after I turned in Fringe-ology started with such promise for psi proponents that hardcore skeptics were likely to reach for nuclear options.

Daryl Bem’s paper on retrocausality—can an action taken in the future influence the present?—sparked massive media interest. You can read up on it here. But the upshot is that Bem’s research suggested yes. A storm of coverage ensued, and opponents of all things paranormal leveled a large argument: Not only were Bem’s results flawed, the story went. But, essentially, the entire field of psychology does a poor job of handling statistics, producing false-positive results.

“False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant,” argues that researchers in the field of psychology essentially leave themselves too much wiggle room. For instance, according to the authors, researchers often do not predetermine how much data they will collect before moving on to the analysis phase. Further, they write, “it is common  (and accepted practice) for researchers to explore various analytic alternatives, to search for a combination that yields ‘statistical significance’ and to then report only what ‘worked.’”

To be clear, “psi” comes up in this paper just once, and then only in terms of how statistical data are analyzed. There, the authors list a paper critical of Bem’s retrocausality study. I had read this source material, by Wagenmakers, et. al, but only became aware of  the “false positive” paper when I saw it referenced in a tweet by the skeptic Richard Wiseman:

“Psychologists,” he writes, “this neatly sums up why some studies appear to support psychic ability.”

He then links to the article.

And there you have it—an entire field of research dismissed in a less than 140 character tweet. Only a hardcore skeptic could make so extraordinary a claim. And given the history of the field, it’s hard not to think that skeptics are guilty—again—of moving the goal posts. As sociologist of science Trevor Pinch told me during my research for Fringe-ology, every time parapsychologists cross some new threshold in terms of the evidence they present, skeptics ask for more.

In other words, for many years skeptics cried that fraud was involved in the production of positive results for psi. Then they cried for stricter protocols to eliminate opportunities for fraud or for subliminal means of influencing the results. With all those calls heeded, positive results have continued to turn up. So the new skeptical battle cry is that psi researchers—and psychologists in general—mishandle their statistics. For a fuller discussion of this trend in the argument, please see my discussion of a paper critical of Bem here. For now, I want to offer up a couple of wishes: First, that the current debate ultimately produces more meaningful and congenial dialogue between skeptics and believers than this field usually enjoys. (As usual, the not so great James Randi is more hindrance than help in this regard.) Second, I want to take a moment to suggest an approach that might, not to put too fine a point on it, change absolutely everything.


What I have in mind is a paper from the Journal of NeuroQuantology by Dr. Michael Persinger, who has made headlines many times in the past with his God Helmet.

Persinger is a curiosity to me because his research lands on both sides of the believer-skeptic fence: His God Helmet work leaves little doubt that he is not a believer in God; but his work touting psi or telepathy runs counter to strict atheist-materialist orthodoxy. In other words, where most atheists or materialists seem to hold the position that claims of a God and psi are somehow equal, Persinger is willing to look at these ideas separately. And this paper on Sean Harribance, a psychic he’s studied for many years, advances his argument considerably.

“The Harribance Effect…” includes references to a series of studies Persinger has conducted over the years. He found, for instance, that when Sean Harribance is accessing accurate information the alpha rhythms in his brain increase. Conversely, when the information he is “receiving” proves inaccurate, there is a corresponding decrease in alpha activity. But, as Persinger puts it, those findings are not the wow.

The “wow” is that when Harribance is obtaining information from a human subject whose mind he is supposed to be reading, a correlation occurs between his brain state and theirs’.

“An effect was shown conspicuously in all four separate subjects,” writes Persinger. “As the duration of the proximity increased over the approximately 15 to 30 min period there was increased similarity in the EEG patterns over the temporal lobes of [Harribance] and the subject. The increased similarity was most apparent within the 33 to 35 Hz range. More specifically, there was increased coherence within the 19 Hz to 20 Hz range and the 30 to 40 Hz band for SH’s right temporal lobe and the subject’s left temporal lobe.”

The subjects also reported that Harribance was more accurate when correlations between their brain activity and his was higher. Persinger theorizes, in part, that Harribance might be using his right temporoparietal region to access information from the subject’s left temporal region, an area “associated with the representation and consolidation of experiences that become the individual’s memory.”


I won’t argue for or against the validity of Persinger’s study. And I will also acknowledge, for the sake of skeptical readers, that where there is a “wow” there is also a “whoa”—a need to slow down and be sure of our findings. But what I want to stress is that this line of research is worth pursuing.

First of all, if one brain really is sending information to a receiving brain, or one brain really is reading another, we have no idea how such a thing would be possible.

The result is a possible paradigm shift. In the current culture wars, the debate is usually framed as a battle between materialists, who say matter is everything, and those who argue there must be something… more.  The battle lines usually shape up, at least in media portrayals, as materialist-atheists to one side and believers to the other.

This puts me in mind of a lecture I saw given by Dr. Charles Tart to fellow parapsychology researchers. Tart argued that materialism is dead, and a chill wind seemed to sweep through the room. Even parapsychology researchers, men and women dedicated to teasing out evidence in favor of telepathy, are largely materialists. So when Tart concluded his talk, silence reigned for several long, awkward seconds before one of his colleagues finally raised his hand and forced a question out of his mouth. “You-, you-, you’re not advocating dualism, are you?” he asked.

The word “dualism” clearly stuck in his questioner’s throat. But Tart smiled genially.

“Maybe,” Tart replied. “I mean, monism and dualism are not our only choices. It could be one-ism, or two-ism or even three-ism. It could even be 2.5-ism.”

In other words, any assault on materialism throws the windows open and what exactly is outside those windows would be an open question. Of course, that’s a big problem, sociologically and psychologically speaking. But is telepathy research really an assault on materialism?

I hasten to point out here that a scientist like Persinger is looking for material explanations for psi. And such possibilities should not be dismissed out of hand. In other words, a materialist universe could be far stranger—and admit far wilder possibilities—than materialists normally admit. Even controversial quantum theories of mind are, at heart, materialist theories, which also—in some hands—allow for the possibility of telepathy and even an afterlife.

But I think we need to set these larger arguments aside, at times. And psi research is one of them. In fact, I think that rather than worrying over the philosophical implications of parapsychology research, psi proponents and opponents and scientists should do something particularly novel here and just, you know, shut up. And do some more science.

Think about it: If other labs could reconstruct Persinger’s study or conduct a similar study that is itself then replicated, subjective statistical arguments about “Bayesian priors” would likely fall by the wayside. Suddenly, we’d have stats and associated physical findings in, theoretically, two test subjects (the “sender” and “receiver,” or “sitter” and “reader”). We’d have multiple lines of evidence that seem to demonstrate some communication directly—there is no other way to say it—from brain to brain.

Of course, one of the things I learned while attending a parapsychology conference in Seattle is that the field of telepathy research is underfunded and understaffed. The barriers to doing this sort of research, then, let alone replicating it in different labs a few times, is extraordinary. But my response to that is so what?

Yes, putting on this kind of dog and pony show will be expensive and labor intensive, requiring expertise and equipment—in the form of perhaps fRMI machines or SPECT-imaging devices—beyond what’s available in the standard parapsychology lab. But after more than a century of pitched debate about the existence of parapsychological phenomena isn’t the prospect of victory worth putting together what might be the most ambitious set of experiments in the field’s history? Isn’t it time, after all this time, to go for a killshot?

I could be wrong. But I bet the prospect of testing so definitive might persuade a lot of potential funders to kick in a few dollars more.  And I’d also argue that without so definitive a set of tests we are likely to remain in this position—stuck in a debate without end, mired in a pitched battle with people more worried about their worldviews than the data in their hands.

Top 10 Developments In Fringe-ology: 2

The Near Death Experience: Still Undead

While other fields within the paranormal seem to fade in and out of the conversation—look at the dearth of psi-related happenings immediately preceding and directly after Daryl Bem’s precognition study—the Near Death Experience nearly always seems to offer some new development to discuss.

Working in its favor, the NDE has a fantastic and ever-growing compendium of cases at the website of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, run by Dr. Jeffrey Long. But in the months since I finished Fringe-ology there has also been no shortage of news.

Illinois woman Julie Papievis had her NDE story optioned into a film this year by the same production team that made the hit movie The Blind Side. The Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, reports that at 29 Papievis suffered a horrible traffic accident. Her injuries were so great she had to be resuscitated and fell into a coma. Her brainstem was “all-but severed,” according to the account, yet she retains a distinct memory of being visited by her two deceased grandmothers. They told her to come back and keep living. (This seems like a story worth following up on; perhaps I’ll give her a call and see if she can offer some supporting evidence of her injuries.)

The Colton Burpo story lit up the book charts, chronicling the NDE of a four-year old boy. This story is most noterworthy because NDEs with specific, religious content are a rarity, rendering Burpo’s story a statistical anomaly for hewing so closely to his parents’ beliefs.

The year 2011 ended with NDEs gone viral—namely, Ben Breedlove’s two YouTube videos, documenting his illness and his Near Death Experiences. I posted Breedlove’s videos earlier here with no analysis. But to give my take, I found the story quite moving. Breedlove unveils a series of flashcards, describing a life he spent living in particularly close proximity to death due to a condition called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.” The illness thickens the heart, forcing the organ to work increasingly hard to pump blood. It is difficult to understand the pain this might cause, both physically and psychologically. The disease acts as a boa constrictor, slowly tightening its coils. But Breedlove describes all this, including a vision he had during a close brush with death, with a satisfied, contented and warm expression.

The kicker is that Breedlove died shortly after shooting these videos, on Christmas day. And his peaceful demeanor in these shorts suggests he “fits” the NDE profile: The vast majority of those who experience the NDE are greatly changed, rendered more spiritual by the experience. Yet his story, too, violates one of the chief statistical truisms of the NDE. Rarely do experiencers see a living person. Breedlove, however, saw the very much living rapper Kid Cudi. It’s tempting to dismiss that vision as something other than a Near Death Experience. And of course it’s possible that he hallucinated or grafted the “memory” of Cudi into hi experience later. But there is also the chance that the consciousness we experience after the death of the body—if indeed we experience consciousness at all—allows the new reality we’re in to mix with personal thoughts, a merging of objective and subjective realms.

Whatever the case, Breedlove’s story, as told in two videos, has now tallied more than 10 million views.

To me, however, the biggest development is that the Near Death Experience remains, well, so alive.

The NDE has been remarkably consistent over time. Though there is variability in the experience, historical accounts dating from before the phenomenon got a name in 1975 do seem to describe the same event. So the power of suggestion simply does not work as an explanation. And the pattern of distressing NDEs makes it hard, if not impossible, to argue that wishful thinking is at play. Further, as the years have passed, skeptics have responded with a remarkable variety of arguments, which total up to, by now, more than 20 potential explanations. If the skeptics are to be believed, anoxia, carbon dioxide, ketamine, repressed memories, overactive temporal lobes, seratonin, REM intrusion, cardiac massage, lucid dreaming and more are at work (not all at once, of course) in the NDE.

The deluge of possible causes reminds me of the Onion spoof news article that purported to “solve” the Kennedy assassination: “KENNEDY SLAIN BY CIA, MAFIA, CASTRO, LBJ, TEAMSTERS, FREEMASONS,” reads the priceless headline.

To skeptics, the experience is clearly a brain-based illusion. But I placed this particular item so high on my list because I think it is the one area where skeptics are most clearly suffering a kind of brain-based illusion all their own. To me, it simply follows that neurological explanations require skeptics to find some association between the circumstances of the experience, the content reported, and what we know about brain function. In other words, until skeptics deliver a working model explaining how the different circumstances NDErs find themselves in at the time of their experience produce predictable changes in the content and character of what they report, they have yet to produce any scientific explanation at all.

As an example, people lacking oxygen at the time of their experience should report something different than people who had plenty of oxygen. People under anesthesia should describe something different than people under the influence of no narcotics at all. After all, if I took a shower under some form of anesthetic or with something impeding my ability to breathe, it would be a far different experience than if I took a shower with no such variables in play, right?

Let me be clear: The current lack of such a model for how Near Death Experiences are produced doesn’t mean no such explanation or combination of explanations will emerge. It doesn’t mean the Near Death Experience does or doesn’t represent a glimpse of an afterlife. But what I am arguing is that because skeptics have thus far failed to produce that model the NDE represents a continuing, deepening mystery.

Quite recently, Dr. Mario Beauregard and co-researchers recorded a case involving veridical (verified, accurate) perceptions in a patient undergoing emergency surgery. The patient, a 31 year old they call J.S., was undergoing a procedure called hypothermic cardio-circulatory arrest, very similar to the famous Pam Reynolds “standstill” case. The authors write: “J.S. did not see or talk to the members of the surgical team, and it was not possible for her to see the machines behind the head section of the operating table, as she was wheeled into the operating room. J.S. was given general anesthesia and her eyes were taped shut. J.S. claims to have had an out-of-body experience (OBE). From a vantage point outside her physical body, she apparently ‘saw’ a nurse passing surgical instruments to the cardiothoracic surgeon. She also perceived anesthesia and echography machines located behind her head. We were able to verify that the descriptions she provided of the nurse and the machines were accurate (this was confirmed by the cardiothoracic surgeon who operated upon her). Furthermore, in the OBE state J.S. reported feelings of peace and joy, and seeing a bright light.”

The full write-up, “Conscious mental activity during a deep hypothermic cardiocirculatory arrest?” is available in the January 2012 issue of Resuscitation and can be found here.

Beauregard and his co-researchers admit they cannot be certain the 15-minute subjective experience occurred during the 15-minute cardio-circulatory arrest. But, they write: “Nonetheless, the tantalizing case of J.S. raises a number of perplexing questions. For this reason, we hope that it will stimulate further research with regard to the possibility of conscious mental activity during cardiocirculatory arrest.”

That last line, about “further research,” is the final point I’d like to hit: In the battle over worldviews—do we suffer the same fate as meat? Or do we have a consciousness that continues beyond death?—we often seem unable to admit that we really don’t have an answer yet. In this sense, the NDE represents one of those fields that has essentially been hijacked by philosophical agendas rather than studied in careful, rational and patient terms.

Usually, skeptics hold the line against calls for further research, portraying the paranormal as somehow frivolous. Usually, this part of the argument is contextualized as a plea to see scientific research funding and brainpower applied only to worthy and credible causes. But in the case of the Near Death Experience this argument doesn’t really carry any weight.

Skeptics and believers all agree that death provokes great anxiety, often detracting from the quality of the life we live. Yet the great majority of people who undergo NDEs no longer fear death.

If this “cure” for death anxiety is purely the product of brain function—in a materialist sense, the secretion and absorption of various chemicals—then pinning down the exact mechanism that makes this possible seems the most humane thing we could do for ourselves and each other.

In this sense, the skeptical position of “go on about your business, there’s nothing to see here,” seems not only bankrupt of evidence—but simple decency. And the Near Death Experience, 37 years after Raymond Moody first coined the term, simultaneously sheds light on death and retains its deep sense of mystery.

Top 10 Developments in Fringe-ology: 3

The Prospect of a Hitchens Statue and How the New Atheism Gets It Wrong

The recently deceased Christopher Hitchens was one of the journalists I looked up to while in college, his career suggesting to me that journalism encompassed far more than the boiler-plate, inverted pyramid stuff I had grown up reading in the daily paper and learning in my high school journalism courses.

I would expect that a lot of writers of my generation feel a similar sense of debt to Hitchens—for pushing the envelope so damn hard, for demonstrating how much invective the marketplace will tolerate and intermingling reportage and opinion.

When he died, I felt protective of that Hitchens and hoped commentators might refrain, for a time, from using his death as a cudgel. Hitchens had reached his zenith, in terms of name recognition, as a General in the Culture Wars—siding with the New Atheists in the battle over religion.

I dashed off a quick post, which concluded:

The vast outpouring of words Hitchens sent spiraling off his keyboard, over four decades, has amounted to something so great, and so vast, that the rest of us should respond with a respectful silence.

Sitting in silence isn’t the way of the world, and I am of course shoveling my own meager offering on you right now. But in the wake of Hitchens’ passing, I feel a need for white space. Just print the news of his death and follow it with what’s left.

A void.

I was of course under no illusions. I figured the death of Hitchens would keep tongues wagging and keyboards clacking forever. But when I heard about a petition being circulated requesting Hitchens be immortalized in a statue—in London, and Washington, D.C.—I laughed, presuming it to be a joke.

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Consciousness, Free Will and the Paranormal

Just a few years ago, while researching Fringe-ology, I found the chapter I wrote on “consciousness” provoked the most quizzical looks. The reason is that the issues involved—really, the central riddle—isn’t like ghosts or UFOs or any of the other topics in Fringe-ology. Ghosts carry a certain romance—the whiff of the grave and some hope of a new existence beyond. UFOs trail entire worlds and galaxies in their wake. But consciousness, for most people, hasn’t traditionally suggested the same realms of mystery.

Consciousness— that inner monologue; the sensation of eating a steak or drinking red wine—is something most people have taken for granted. But the fact is, the source of consciousness is a mystery: How do the mechanistic processes of chemical secretions and neural impulses, these materialistic operations in our brains, produce something as non-physical as thought? We don’t know. And in the years since I first began work on Fringe-ology, more people seem to recognize this fact.

Certainly, topics like consciousness and general neuroscientific research have gained a lot of traction in recent years. The term “Neuroplasticity” has entered the lexicon, cluing people in to how they can change the shape and function of their own neural circuitry. More people are meditating, investigating their own consciousness. And there has been a boom in meditation research. Of the 2,289 articles on meditation available on PubMed this winter, the National Institute of Health web site, 676 of them, or 29.5 percent, were published since January 2009. (By way of comparison, in the three prior years, of 2006-2008, just 405 articles were published.) But the topic that saw the most surprising uptick in exposure is free will.

Most of us take the idea that we make voluntary choices or decisions for granted. I have the sense that I could finish writing this post, or just quit and go buy an X-Box (believe me, I’m tempted). But within neuroscientific and philosophical circles, this vision of ourselves as free agents, sifting through our various choices—vanilla or chocolate, sandwich or salad, steal the company stationary, or buy your own—is a hugely contentious issue. And in recent times, free will has taken something of a beating in the popular media.

Author David Eagleman, in his book, Incognito and the Atlantic, argues that we need to begin rethinking our legal system because current findings in neuroscience do not support free will. As an example, he cites a man who developed a brain tumor—and an urge to molest children. When the tumor was removed surgically, his urge to commit this particularly heinous crime went away. The reason for this massive change in the man’s desires and behavior is purely mechanistic, in Eagleman’s formulation—beyond his choice or control.

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It would not be inaccurate to claim my book, Fringe-ology, is shot through with ghosts. Though I explore seven different paranormal phenomena in great depth, the book starts with ghosts, raises the subject in the middle, and concludes there, too.

We are used to encountering ghosts, as a culture, in several places. We have some strange experience in our own lives. We meet someone we trust who tells us some incredible story. Occasionally, a newspaper or some local TV news broadcast will cut some “light” news feature on a haunted hotel or bar, particularly around Halloween. Most commonly, I think, we happen across one of the many rigorously awful ghosthunting programs on television.

Of these, the one I think most worthwhile is the first-hand account.

My initial inspiration for writing Fringe-ology is an old family ghost story I grew up with as a child. So, as I promoted the book in various settings, I heard many ghost stories from attendees, usually after the crowd dispersed for the night. One man told me about a ghostly, feminine voice that would cry in the family dining room every night. A couple told me their daughter’s invisible friend proved to be the ghost of an old train conductor. Their daughter described him in detail, particularly his uniform, with the boxy hat, before they researched the house and found that a train conductor had lived and died there many years beforehand. A woman told me about a ghost who “played” with her, moving her car keys, for instance, from the peg where she habitually hung them to various, unlikely places, including inside the refrigerator.

There are potential skeptical explanations for some of this that should occur to us immediately. But the narrative arc of these stories often includes some fairly dramatic steps to come up with a prosaic explanation. During my time spent ghosthunting as part of my research for Fringe-ology, I ran across many people who seemed excited by the idea that their house was haunted and disinterested in any Earthly explanations. But I also met many who felt they were being plagued by something they didn’t understand, and hoped for a rational, terrestrial cause to be discovered.

One story passed on to me concerned a woman who claimed her house was haunted by a pair of children, who had the highly annoying habit of messing with various devices around the house. They changed stations and volume settings on the radio. They turned the lights on and off. She would go to the radio or the light afterward and see that the controls in question appeared to have been physically manipulated—the light switch maneuvered “up” and “on” from the “down” and “off” position, for instance. But the most dramatic and annoying thing they did is switch the ringer off on her phone.

To provide some context, her whole story took place before cell phones, when handsets included a little plastic tab on the side that could be slid in the opposite direction to turn the ringer off.  Over a period of months, as these phenomena occurred, she got especially tired of friends, family and colleagues telling her they could not reach her. “I called again and again and you never picked up,” they’d say.

Finally, after finding the ringer turned “off” on numerous occasions, she put a strip of tape over the ringer to fix it in the “on” position. I find this detail delightfully funny. Why would a “ghost” have the power to move the ringer switch but not the tape? She told me that throughout the experience she doubted the idea that her home was haunted. She had, at this stage, conducted enough research to know that a pair of children had died in the basement of the house. And their antics did seem playful, and  attention-getting, like a child grabbing at her skirt. But she was skeptical and thought of the tape as a barrier and a test.

So she put the tape on and went about her business in the house for several hours. Then she returned to find the tape rolled into a tight little ball beside the handset. And the ringer? Now switched to “off.”

We are left with only a couple of possible explanations, including a stealthy intruder who crept into her home, undetected, for the sole purpose of mystifying its occupant. Or she was making the whole thing up. Or… well, we have to concede that there is a mystery afoot.

In the many months since I completed Fringe-ology, there have been plenty of ghost stories in the media: The publicity department at Thorpe Park, in Surrey, claimed a ghost caused an entire, 64-foot water ride to be moved because it was frightening everyone who caught sight of it. Cries of “hoax!” followed quickly. Touring comedienne Karen Rontowski revealed her alter-ago as a ghost hunter. Some paranormal investigators in Knoxville, Tennessee have cooked up a plan to restore a historic building by charging admission to give “ghost tours” of the site. Turning to the truly outlandish, Gawker reported on a ghost that supposedly liked to grope one old woman—all night long. (This reminds me of a story I’ll get around to writing in one of my next projects, an e-book.) Gawker also wrote an item on a pair of ghosts seen—and photographed—copulating in Ohio.

This next story sits behind a pay wall. But the sheer number of ghostly goings on at the Naval Academy Grounds in Annapolis, Maryland is impressive, complete with one employee who quit the place over ghosts. And lastly, unexpectedly, one Salem hotel operator denied her spot is haunted—never mind what extra business the reputation might bring her.

The best developments in this particular aspect of the paranormal, however, are more scientific. I myself guest-hosted an episode of Alex Tsakiris’s Skeptiko, interviewing writer Guy Lyon Playfair about some research he collaborated on with Dr. Barrie Colvin.

In the paper Colvin published, he claims that true poltergeist sounds actually demonstrate a different acoustic signature than “normal” sounds. But an even more intriguing study was just released from the lab of Dr. Michael Persinger, who partnered up with one of the early pioneers in parapsychology research: Dr. William Roll.

The paper, “A Prototypical Experience of ‘Poltergeist’ Activity,” is an adventurous ride across the far frontier of science—and a whole lot more intriguing, I think, then putting all hauntings down to superstition and imagination. In this instance, Roll, Persinger and their co-authors report on a woman they call “Mrs. S.”, a middle-aged woman with no kids, a divorce in her past and a husband in her present. About 17 years before the experiments discussed in the paper began, Mrs. S. suffered a traumatic brain injury so severe she fell into a coma for two days. After she awoke, strange things started to happen.

Knocking sounds, luminous discharges from her left hand, disruptions in electronic equipment, and an ability to see strange, colored lights—or “auras”—around people in her view. The authors further claim that The Incredible Mrs. S. can move a pinwheel with her mind. A photometer, which measures photon emissions, caught an increase in photons around her when she entered a particular, anomalous “brain state.” She hears voices, but displays no other signs of any mental illness. In fact, she seems to be functioning normally but for these strange occurrences, after which she feels a profound sense of… sadness.

As I read over the paper, I must confess to a profound feeling of skepticism. No matter how open minded we might be, such reports are tempting to simply dismiss. But the intriguing part of the study is the line of thought researchers are following. They claim to have found an anomaly, an uptick in electrical activity, over her right temporal lobe. They further claimed to have cross-referenced scans of 1,000 people who had suffered closed head injuries with a comparable number of students with no such medical history. No one had the same pattern of chronic, increased activity. Moreover, as it states in the abstract, “The rotation of a small pinwheel near her while she ‘concentrated’ upon it was associated with increased coherence between the left and right temporal lobes and concurrent activation of the left prefrontal region.”

A similar effect was noticed during these odd, spontaneous photon emissions.

What are we to make of this?

Well, Roll and Persinger conclude that there is no need to verify the more extreme claims reported by the woman, her husband and friends—or even the claims of the research group, which saw the pinwheel move at Mrs. S’s, presumably only mental, effort. Instead, they argue, the people reporting “sensed presences” or odd sounds and sightings of auras—who feel distressed about it all—can be investigated for this temporal lobe anomaly and perhaps treated with anti-convulsant medication. They also might be taught, the paper concludes, to see these phenomena not in supernatural terms but as the product of a dysfunction in the brain.

Of course, there are questions that remain: If Mrs. S can actually make a pinwheel move, why not something else, less prone to moving in an invisible breeze or exhalation? If she can make a physical object move, including the pinwheel, then just how is that happening? One thing to like about Persinger, who includes geomagnetic energy as part of the equation in this paper, as he has in the past, is that he is willing to man the gates of western science on one hand—undercutting the whole notion of ghosts as disembodied entities—while storming the ramparts on the other. After all, if Mrs. S. really can move an object with her mind, we do need to start drawing up some rather serious amendments to our current understanding of physics.

I’d like to toss out one intriguing point, by the way, which runs in favor of the paranormal. According to this paper, when Mrs. S. was asked to move the pinwheel, the anomalous activity in her brain occurred only when the pinwheel actually moved. Not when it didn’t.

I’ll leave this here, for now, on that mysterious note. And I will close by mentioning that Persinger’s co-author William Roll died just as this paper was published. An 85-year old psychologist, Roll was born in Germany and lived in Denmark before coming to America. He conducted parapsychology research at no less august an institution than Oxford for eight years, and worked with J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology lab at Duke, where some of the most successful and hotly contested telepathy experiments ever completed took place.

He was the lead investigator on a 1984 poltergeist case, which produced a famous—and again, roundly debated—photo of Tina Resch. And on his way out the door he left us this strange paper.

With any luck, perhaps someone will contact Persinger and invite the Incredible Mrs. S. to their own lab, to see if the results of this study can be replicated.



We all know the basic bio: Apple mastermind Steve Jobs changed the way we relate to every manner of computer and gadget, marrying form, functionality and ease of use in a way unlike any electronics company before. The result—the iPod, iPhone and the company’s sleek computer line—are now cultural touchstones, changing the way we relate to information, entertainment and each other.

Thanks to Walter Isaacson’s revealing biography, Steve Jobs,  we now know that Jobs was a control freak and a monster of a boss. He drove his charges crazy, asking for things they didn’t think were possible. As a result, those same employees achieved more than they had ever dreamed. But when Jobs passed away last fall, after a long battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, there were new lessons to take from his life, both of which land in the realm of Fringe-ology.

For roughly the first nine months after Jobs was diagnosed with cancer in October, 2003, he pursued an alternative treatment regimen. He even declined an operation that, statistically speaking, promised him at least 10 more years of life.

When he finally did consent to surgery, in July, 2004, his cancer had advanced to his liver. The media gossip website Gawker quotes a specialist in Jobs’s form of cancer lamenting the corporate wizard’s decision-making: “In my series of patients, for many subtypes [of this form of cancer], the survival rate was as high as 100% over a decade… As many as 10% of autopsied persons in the general population have been reported to have one of these without ever having had any symptoms during their life.”

I have always maintained an uneasy relationship with alternative medicine as a whole. I don’t believe that all these therapies are as worthless as the skeptical community would have us believe. Acupuncture is often dismissed as outright quackery here in the west. But the record is mixed. (See this Mayo clinic roundup, for the list of pain-related uses of acupuncture. There is also evidence it reduces the symptoms associated with chemotherapy.) “Aromatherapy” is also a constant target of “quack” watchers. But a quick search at PubMed—a U.S. National Institutes of Health website—reveals multiple studies that show aromatherapy has a positive effect on anxiety and, in some cases, post-operative pain. The Mayo Clinic says research on aromatherapy is thin, but acknowledges there is evidence of some benefit for people suffering from anxiety or depression. But the tendency of skeptics to overstate their case isn’t reason for believers in alternative medicine to overstate their own.

The wisest course of action, it seems, is to pursue alternative therapies as additions to the most well researched, evidence based treatments. (Here in Philadelphia, actually, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, one of the most advanced partnerships between alternative and mainstream medicine is underway.)

Jobs, sadly, reminded us in the most final possible terms that the quality of the information we’re using is critical. So take the lesson that tragedy offers to heart: Look at the available research, and engage in your own care—pro-actively and without prejudice. If Jobs had looked at all the data, free from his own biases, he would almost certainly still be with us today.

Of course, Jobs also left us something else when he passed away, something we first learned of through the eulogy delivered for him by his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. The New York Times published the text of Simpson’s talk, in which she describes Jobs’ final days in unsparing terms—at turns romantic and bitter. But it was the final passage that got everyone buzzing, relating the very end of Jobs’ storied life:

Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

   He seemed to be climbing.

   But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

   Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

   Steve’s final words were:


Some speculated that Jobs was only reacting to the feelings of love he felt for those closest to him. Others (including me) pointed out that Simpson—a novelist, after all—undoubtedly chose her words very carefully. And she noted that he looked “over their shoulders past them” before uttering those last words: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

I contacted Simpson, to see if she did intend to suggest that Jobs had a deathbed vision—a glimpse of what’s next. She declined to be interviewed.

For the record, however, judging by the research I did for Fringe-ology, if Jobs did see something fantastic on his journey toward death, Simpson’s account seems to fit with the existing lore on the subject.

The deathbed vision is a staple in paranormal circles. In Fringe-ology, I relate the story of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famous psychologist who wrote On Death and Dying—the book that gave life to the hospice movement.

Kubler-Ross repeatedly encountered terminally ill patients who claimed to see deceased loved ones in their hospital rooms. She initially resisted these stories, failing even to take notes. But the stories kept coming. As her research partner, the reverend Mwalimu Imara, told me: “We weren’t looking for this. It was just happening, again and again, to us.”

Over time, they relented. They decided that if their project was to chronicle the fears, wishes, hopes, needs and experiences of the dying, they needed to write it all down, no matter how strange it might seem. As their work continued, Kubler-Ross and Imara started filling filing cabinet drawers with these unexpected tales. In fact, patients who had been resuscitated told them stories of what we now call Near Death Experiences (NDEs), years before these stories became popularly known.

When it came time to write On Death and Dying, in 1968, Kubler-Ross included an entire chapter on the paranormal subjects of NDEs and deathbed visions in her original manuscript. But, as I chronicle in Fringe-ology, she ultimately decided against sending this outlandish material to her publisher, lest they deem she’d lost the plot. It was only years later, after the phrase “Near Death Experience” was coined and popularized, that she began sharing these stories at all.

Intriguingly, in the context of Steve Jobs, Kubler-Ross noted a stark difference between what she termed a “deathbed visitation” or vision and a mere hallucination.

Patients suffering from some form of dementia or drug-addled state are unable to understand or coherently interact with the objective, verifiable world around them. Patients Kubler-Ross described as having deathbed visitations, however, remained lucid. What this means is that they described people and things that weren’t visible in the room. They even carried on conversations with these unseen visitors. But they were also fully aware of their surroundings and able to continue interacting with the objective world, without fail.

In researching Fringe-ology, I found these reports remain prevalent among hospice professionals today. In the case of Steve Jobs, if he did have a deathbed vision, it’s far from the most spectacular. But it does fit the standard template: the dying man, encountering the material world before him and another one besides.

We should acknowledge that skeptics would scarcely spend any time on this subject, rebutting any idea that Jobs had a deathbed vision and positing that all such reports are the product of dying, deluded people, unable to discriminate any longer between hallucination and reality.

Believers might simply take such stories as evidence for an afterlife.

Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, offered the New York Post the following opinion: “Well, I’m glad—as with everything in Steve’s life—he leaves us with a slightly inspiring mystery.”

I don’t envy Isaacson, a terrific writer and researcher, who has likely never looked at any paranormal research, being put in the position of answering for Jobs’ last words. Reading the entire Post item, you can almost feel his discomfort as he tries to find some convenient exit. That said, I don’t think I’m being too unfair to Isaacson to say that his response is “slightly spot on,” while also being “slightly off.”

What are we to make of Jobs’ final words?

Well, in my opinion, no one should run from—or be embarrassed by—any hope occasioned by Jobs’s last statement. And the mystery of what awaits us—the suggestion of new lands beyond the veil—is more than “slightly inspiring.”

The way I think of it, Steve Jobs left us one last gift on his way out, a final, useful tool, which operated according to the same elegant aesthetic that marked his products: Monsosyllables, two words, repeated three times, capturing one of the great existential mysteries of humankind’s existence—and boundless possibilities.  Its function is merely to instill in us an appropriate sense of wonder. And it worked for me. In fact, the first time I read this passage, the day Simpson’s eulogy for her brother appeared, it put me immediately in mind of one of my favorite stories that never made it into Fringe-ology.

I spoke to a few hospice workers along the way, one of whom had read On Death and Dying but was unfamiliar with Kubler-Ross’s more metaphysical research. She, too, had encountered strange happenings. She, too, drew a sharp dividing line between patients suffering from hallucinations and those buoyed by what she took to be visions.

In most instances, she said, when a patient was consumed by a vision, she allowed them to narrate what they were seeing as they wished. But once, an old man to whom she felt particularly close had asked her to remain silent as he locked his eyes on a far corner of the room. He seemed pleased, excited even, and engaged someone or something in conversation.

She only saw the same old room.

“Hey,” she broke in, “what is it? What are you seeing?”

The old man glanced at her briefly. “Oh honey,” he said. “I could tell you. But you wouldn’t believe me.”

Author’s Note: As the year wound down, I started thinking about the most important things to happen in the realm of the paranormal since I finished writing Fringe-ology in the late fall of 2010. All the entries will be posted here, though many will run for a few days exclusively at The Daily Grail. You can also follow me on twitter @stevevolk



The year or so since I finished Fringe-ology did not lack for activity on the UFO front.

The FBI and NSA made their declassified files easier to find. The Brits and New Zealanders released more UFO files. I was, I must admit, perversely pleased when the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) lost its funding in spring. In my opinion, searching for alien life—ie., advanced civilizations—using radio technology is almost guaranteed to turn up bupkus.

Also in spring, shortly before Fringe-ology was released, Annie Jacobsen released her provocative book on Area-51. The book held lots of surprises, but one got all the attention. A single, anonymous source told Jacobsen the famous Roswell crash of 1947 was a hoax engineered through a collaboration of Russian scientists and Nazi Joseph Mengele. Their purported, nefarious plot was to scare America into thinking aliens had landed. Presumably, chaos would ensue and we would, like, eat each other or something.

Just months after it shut down, SETI started up again. And somewhere along the way, astronomer Derrick Pitts came forward and said UFOs deserve serious study. I interviewed Pitts, who, like me, emphasizes the unidentified nature of Unidentified Flying Objects. I admire Pitts, lead astronomer at the Franklin Institute, for stepping up, publicly, and getting involved. Those who’ve read Fringe-ology know I believe believers and skeptics alike are too keen to define UFOs. Believers look mostly to aliens; skeptics claim weather anomalies, sky lanterns, balloons, flares and anything else that sort of comes close to maybe fitting any given sighting. And the upshot is this: Combatants insist so adamantly on their preferred explanation that we forget what we’re talking about: Something unidentified.

If we made progress on any front in the last 15 months or so, it’s that we might actually have more momentum now among people advocating for that middle position. For instance, Leslie Kean’s book collects UFO accounts from government and military sources around the world. And throughout, she diligently lets the UFO stay a UFO without insisting on an extraterrestrial explanation.

The rate of sightings appears to be on a steady rise.

MUFON reported that between 2008 and 20011 there was a 67-percent increase in claimed sightings. The early part of 2012 featured sightings in 36 of 50 states here in the U.S., and a wave of sightings around the world. But no sighting won the public’s widespread attention. Or, at least, there was nothing to equal the Stephenville Lights, of January, 2008, which I focus on in Fringe-ology. There were some sightings reported out of China. Robert Hastings reported a series of sightings around a military base near Cheyenne, Wyoming. He also released a report analyzing a photo of a Chilean UFO. But the two most intriguing developments have probably been psychological.

The Area-51 Nazi kerfuffle actually united skeptics and believers. Was the purported crash of an alien disc in 1947 the result of a foreign government’s attempt at psychological warfare? Proponents and opponents of alien visitation both cried no! in sweet, unlikely harmony. In my opinion, in addition to whatever fact-based reasons they listed, both had emotional reasons for adamancy. Many believers are invested, decades-deep, in claiming the 1947 Roswell crash is evidence of E.T. visitation. Skeptics likely can’t stand the idea that, if Jacobsen’s account is true, the Roswell witnesses would be duped innocents, who were right about a government cover-up, instead of fantasists and hayseeds with no credibility whatsoever.

The other story I found intriguing, in psychological terms, is the revelation that a man stepped forward to claim he hoaxed a very famous photograph snapped during a 1990 wave of sightings in Belgium. Granted, the hoax was the news. But it seemed curious to me that the hoax finding didn’t also provoke a fresh look at the numerous civilian, government and law enforcement eyewitnesses who professed to see something in the sky. In sum, the UFO reports seemed to get lost in the hoax they inspired, a fact Kean herself mourns in the story I link  to above.

I’ll conclude with one last event, which also fell far short of the clichéd UFO landing on the White House lawn. Huffington Post reporter Lee Speigel published a story claiming the Air Force deleted a passage about UFO policies and procedures from a personnel manual, just days after he requested an interview about the odd instructions. I call the instructions “odd” because the U.S. Government, officially speaking, stopped investigating UFOs in 1969, with the release of Project Blue Book—a report that dismissed the whole phenomenon.

The directive Speigel discovered, in a 2008 Air Force manual, asked personnel to note the size of any “UFO” by comparing it to a known object ranging from a “pea” or “silver dollar” to known, similarly sized “aircraft”. Witnesses were also asked to take down the “number, and formation” of UFOs and—gotta love this—“how it disappeared.”

What disappeared after Speigel made his inquiry was the UFO section of the directive. You can read all about it, and see the excised instructions at HuffPo.

For what it’s worth, the military claimed the timing of this pruning was a coincidence.

The event moves the needle, a bit. Believers would argue that the “UFO” reference was deleted because the government is hiding the truth about alien visitation, or at least about their own continued interest in these strange sighting reports.

Skeptics can claim the UFO-reference was deleted because it never should have been there, as the government doesn’t take UFO reports seriously and neither should we. Clearly, however, the incident reveals the government is concerned enough about how we perceive the subject of Unidentified Flying Objects to take action—deleting this intriguing little instruction right after a reporter started asking questions.

Further reading: Alejandro Rojas sent me his own personal Top 20 developments of the year, along with an article about a sharp uptick in celebrities talking about UFOs in surprisingly serious ways.

Author’s Note: As the year wound down, I started thinking about the most important things to happen in the realm of the paranormal since I finished writing Fringe-ology in the late fall of 2010. I’ll post all the items here, though a few will appear first on my guest blog at the Daily Grail.


Less Said, The Better

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Part II

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