Do the Spirits MoveYou?
Focuses on the growing enchantment of Americans with all things paranormal. Psychic readings; Role of science in the sudden surge of interest in the paranormal; Research on mind over matter. INSET: I was a psychic spy.
By Jill Neimark published September 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Call it the second coming of spiritualism—from psychic hotlines tolaboratory studies on mind over matter, America is newly enchanted by all things paranormal. Why are we taking these magical mystical tours--and are we being taken for a ride?
I conjure you, by that which you profess—Howere you come to know it—answer me.
In have always had a secret and embarassing love of psychics. But I'm an unfaithful lover: I wander from one to the next, infatuated and then disillusioned, on the hunt for something I can hardly set a name to. A cosmic compass in this crazy world? My own wiretap on God? Or just the scoop on an old boyfriend?
There have been some uncanny, spine-tingling "hits"—psychic parlance for accurate predictions--in my psychic readings over the years, and just as many misses. It's the hits that keep me coming back, jockeying between faith and doubt. The moment I sit for a reading, I am admitting a whole starry night of possibilities: that my life has narrative force and heft; that time may not travel in a straight line; that there is sacred order in seeming disorder.
Even stopping by the table of a blue-haired, red-lipsticked tarot card reader in New York City's East Village, I am on a haft-acknowledged quest. As physician Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Prayer Is Good Medicine, puts it, "I have a passion for psychic phenomena, because they tell us we may have to think in new ways about how consciousness behaves."
He's not alone in his passion. As of this writing, Betty J. Eadie's Embraced by the Light has been on the best-seller list for 93 weeks. Television's cult hit, The X Files, reels in 8 million households per show. And Many Lives, Many Masters, the book in which psychiatrist Brian Weiss, M.D., describes the benefits of past-life therapy, has now been printed in 17 languages. At California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, Elizabeth Targ, M.D., is overseeing a national study to determine the effect of remote prayer on healing AIDS patients. A previous study showed results that were promising enough to warrant further research.
Even the CIA came out of the closet last year with its abashed confession that the government agency had spent $20 million on psychic research in the last two decades (see "I Was a Psychic Spy," page 52). Gallup polls show that 69 percent of Americans believe in angels, half believe they have their own guardian angels, and 48 percent believe UFOs are real. Last April, Robert Miller, the governor of Nevada, renamed State Route 375 the Extraterrestrial Highway, supposedly because of the frequency of UFO sightings. Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network logs 4 million minutes a month at $3.99 a minute and last spring celebrated its 10 millionth caller. Even that wonderful relic of my childhood, the Magic 8-Ball, has resurfaced, reaching record-breaking sales of a million balls a year.
Not that our culture hasn't always had a mystical bent; think Emerson and the transcendentalists. But why are we now turning to oracles in huge numbers? Who is this new "vast middle-class of credulous neospiritualists"—as Newsweek so aptly referred to them in a recent cover story?
Traveling through the Twilight Zone
As a serial monogamist, I've always been able to preserve the illusion that my psychics were better than they actually were. I got to know and like them. Above all—probably like most of us—I tended to sift out and remember only the remarkable moments. There was the time a healer and clairvoyant named Jason Schulman sat across the room from me and without knowing a single fact about my history, described down to the point of a pinhead exactly where pain was throbbing in my body, despite no outward sign to clue him in. There was the morning my friend called me before and after a phone reading with a psychic named Rochelle. He said the first words out of the visionary's mouth were, "What's this about Romania?" He and I marveled over the peculiarity of extrasensory perception—it was I who was flying to Romania the following week, not he. Had our talk about my trip that morning lingered around him, in some electromagnetic corona around his head, one that she'd picked up but not precisely?
For this article I wantonly sampled readings—eight of them in a single week—culled from friends' recommendations, books, and newspaper articles. I followed a reporters' mandate for objectivity, and so prepared myself by talking to skeptics as well as believers. And, for the first time in my life, even with a glut of readings, I came up nearly empty-handed.
I had never before compared and contrasted readings; but as soon as I did it became clear they were like verbal Rorschach prints, their interpretation dependant on the beholder. They were all different; they could all have been at least somewhat true. Then, because the senior editor of this magazine emphatically de-dared that he was "horrified" to see this subject taken seriously, we assembled a list of simple questions for the intuitives to answer: How many siblings do I have? What does my uncle do for a living? Almost uniformly, they either got the facts wrong or claimed their "guides" did not allow them to see such trivia because it had no spiritual significance, Even if I give professional seers leeway for working creatively and intuitively, for accessing a part and not a whole, I can't help wondering why it was hard for them to retrieve such simple information.
Two of the eight seemed to hit the bull's-eye several times. One was Mary Jo McCabe, a New Orleans clairvoyant and author of Learn to See, a book about developing your own intuitive ability I'd had a reading from her a few months earlier on the phone. In her previous reading, she'd correctly predicted the amount of money I'd be offered for a job (she was proved right the following week). In my "test" reading of her, she saw that in September of 1994 I'd moved, and that the move was very hard for me (both true). She also saw bookends coming together in 1993-the year my first novel was published. When l asked her what our senior editor had been doing in September of 1995, she saw "a roomful of furniture covered with sheets and all of a sudden he's taking off the sheets. He has a new placement in life." As it turns out, he had also moved into a new home then. "There were no sheets on the furniture," he said, "but my wife and I spent most of October unpacking." Ever the joking nonbeliever, he added, "Maybe the previous family kept sheets on their furniture."
Another reader, Carolyn Myss, a "medical intuitive," has worked closely with Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D., a Missouri physician and founding president of the American Holistic Medical Association, and Christiane Northrop, M.D., a Maine doctor specializing in women's health. Both physicians have referred patients to Myss for readings that confirmed their own, independent medical diagnoses. Myss diagnosed me by phone, correctly identifying portions of my medical history'. While Myss didn't get the whole picture, she seemed to genuinely "see" things.
It seems that even the best readers are like radio stations in a lightning storm, picking up an occasional signal perfectly, yet transmitting a lot of static as well. Dr. Dossey—who early in his career had experienced three detailed precognitive dreams but who has not had one since—respects those rare, perfect signals for the questions they make us ask about space and time: "In my case, it was like, 'Dossey here's the message: Time is not linear. You got it?' Yup, I've got it."
The Illogic of Belief
Yet our capacity for credulity is large, and too often we see clothes the Emperor isn't wearing. Ray Hyman, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Oregon, and perhaps the field's most relentless debunker of all things psychic, worked as a palm reader when he was a college student, and was deeply convinced of its accuracy Then, at a friend's suggestion, he started telling clients the opposite of what he "saw" in their palms. They were as enthusiastic as those who'd come before, and Hyman was sufficiently shaken to switch his major from journalism to psychology "My specialty is human error," he says today
The tendency for people to agree with what they've been told at readings has been dubbed the Barnum effect, in honor of P. T. Barnum's line, "There's a sucker born every minute." A legendary test of the Barnum effect was offered in Pans in the 1970s, by Michel Gauquelin, who placed an ad offering free personal horoscopes. Later, 94 percent of the recipients rated their horoscope accurate. Each person had received the same horoscope, that of one of France's most notorious mass murderers.
The Barnum effect is heightened incredibly in one-on-one readings, simply because of the way most psychics approach them. Many offer a kind of messianic authority that both elevates and deflates the listener, and that may veer from warmly embracing to hostile-an all-knowing blend of mother's milk and a slap in the face.
When I began responding to what one visionary was saying to me, she cut me off: "I don't like any help in someone's file, so butt out." Another said my father was very protective; when I disagreed, she retorted, "You don't know your father. You've never known your father." When a world-renowned seer told me I wanted to move west, I assured him that I had tried that the year before and discovered I was deeply attached to New York. I never wanted to leave again. He replied, "That's your head talking. Your heart wants to move."
I suspect it's this psychic hubris that catapults some readers to fame. This isn't as benign as it may sound. "I've known my share of psychic casualties," Mark Matousek wrote in a controversial Common Boundary magazine article entitled "Painting Devils." "A few years ago," he wrote, "an otherwise brilliant, politically active liberal I know actually followed his psychic teacher's brainstorm to buy Krugerrands while apartheid was still being practiced in South Africa. Someone else was told by a psychic that he was about to embark on the most important love affair of his life, then had his bones jumped by that same wacko."
What is really at work in a psychic reading? Why do some of the psychics get it right some of the time? And why do "ordinary" folks sometimes come up with uncannily accurate predictions themselves? After a thoroughly disappointing session with a tarot card reader, I traded tarot card readings with the art director at this magazine. We don't know each other well, but I was able to tell her that she'd recently given the boot to two men in her life, which she had actually done the week before; and she was able to describe my emotional state as accurately as I could have myself.
"All people frequently take advantage of subtle cues," explains Joe Nickell, a former stage magician and private investigator, and editor at the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine devoted to debunking the paranormal and pseudoscience. What many of us call intuition may simply be a finely tuned antenna, decoding subtle signals. Many psychics have perfected that ability, as well as a few less-than-respectable techniques.
"During a first, cold reading, many psychics begin by stating the few facts they already know or by offering generalities. They closely monitor their clients' reactions—eye movements, facial expressions, any noticeable response—and take their cue from those signals.
Psychics often speak in a stream-of-consciousness style, piling on impressions. According to one 1982 study, when the abilities of psychic sleuths who worked with detectives were tested against college students and homicide detectives, none of the three groups scored better than they would have if left to chance, but the psychics produced 10 times as much information, increasing their likelihood of a chance hit.
Psychics tend to shift away from their errors in midstream. For example, one reader asked me, "Were you recently married? No? Do you know anybody going through a divorce? No? Well one of your friends is going to divorce in the future and they'll need you to be a buffer."
Psychics are adept at reinterpreting their pronouncements after the fact. This is called retrofitting. For instance, they will come up with numbers supposedly related to a specific crime, and later say those numbers qualify as accurate hits when they correspond to anything from the birthday of a suspect's friend to a significant date, time of day, or telephone number.
Saved by Science
Why are we seeing a sudden surge of interest in the paranormal, especially now, in this so-called age of science? Is it a kind of backlash? "Paradise has been lost, not to sin but to science," contends Stuart Kaufmann, Ph.D., a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute and pioneer in the field of complexity. In his book, At Home in the Universe, Kaufmann delineates the ways science has shattered our sense of importance. First came Copernicus, who proved that we were not the center of the universe; then came Newton, who proved that gravity, not God, made the arrow arc towards its target; and the final blow was struck by Darwin, who, says Kaufmann, showed us that we are merely "the result of a chain of accidental mutations, sifted by a law no more noble than survival of the fittest."
In the words of Roger Watsh, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and philosophy at the University of California at Irvine, "Science enlarged the scope of our known universe from leagues to light years, but paradoxically we ended up as meaningless blobs of protoplasm adrift on a little speck of dust in some uncharted galaxy. In response to this we're seeing areal thirst for direct spiritual experience." Toss. a little millennial fever into the brew and, says Walsh, you've got more and more people turning to psychics, moving back to magical views of reality.
Psychics themselves recognize the power of science, and many casually borrow its language. In the course of my readings, I heard statements like, 'I'm picking up some chronic illness in your DNA,' or 'I go into the chemical, metabolic, and electromagnetic fields of a person to access privileged information.' To the scientists who are actually studying the paranormal, these statements are infuriating. "If those psychics were pressed to explain what they mean, you would discover they don't know what they're talking about," complains Dean Radin, Ph.D., director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory at the University of Nevada.
At laboratories like Radin's, along with the pioneering Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR), founded by rocket engineer Robert Jahn, Ph.D., in 1979, psychic ability is studied in carefully designed and repeatable studies. These scientists have staked out a narrow and mesmerizing band of reality where science and the "mystical" begin to merge.
"When the history of consciousness in the twentieth century is written," contends Dr. Dossey, "it will be the studies at these laboratories that mark the turning point." It is in these labs, at this moment, that science may actually be demonstrating that consciousness is nonlocal; that is, it's not limited to specific points in space or time--or even to the brain itself.
And so it was, paradoxically, the scientists who rescued me from my withering faith. Scientists themselves are apparently encouraged of late because of a new form of statistical analysis called meta-analysis. Using computers, researchers can compare and sift out masses of data from a vast archive of different studies.
Two of the most robust areas of scientific research are telepathy and telekinesis (mind over matter). In the first, a "sender" tries to connect with a "receiver," though they are isolated from each other. The sender may look at a "target" (a visual image) randomly selected by the researchers, while a receiver in another room tries to identify or describe that target. Or a sender may try to alternately calm and excite a receiver at random intervals, simply via his thoughts and own state of being; the receiver's skin conductance and galvanic skin response (indications of arousal) are measured. Studies repeatedly demonstrate significant results.
"The results are surprisingly positive," notes Walsh. Marcello Truzzio, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Michigan, agrees. "Some areas have borne up remarkably well when they are re-analyzed?'
The O.J. Simpson Effect
Mind over matter emerges as the most electrifying area of research. It seems that human intention can influence machines--even at a distance, when no influence seems possible. Researchers are both enthralled and puzzled by the data, which makes no sense. Studies thus far have examined machines that randomly produce positive or negative electrical pulses, or measure random radioactive decay, or randomly generate numbers. By concentrating, subjects try to influence the machines in one direction or another. After more than 14 million trials, Jahn has found a constant, significant influence of humans on the performance of machines, and the odds of this happening are 1 in 5,000. Other studies have shown that people can influence not only the random generator they are concentrating on, but hidden generators they don't even know about.
The actual shift is small, but to' understand it requires a stunning leap of perspective. Something is at work here that indicates our world may be far more fluid and interconnected than we ever imagined. Inspired by Jahn's research, Padin tested five different random generators on October 4, 1995, the day the O. J. Simpson verdict was delivered. At 10 A.M. Pacific time, when 44 million Americans were tuned in to television and radio, the random generators all became significantly less random. The shift lasted for 50 seconds. Padin believes that "the movement of mind does affect matter. It influences everything you can imagine, including mind itself. If 44 million minds are focused on one thing, that coherence spreads out, and influences even machines."
Other researchers have tried to find flaws in the studies. "We've wondered if influence varies with distance, or with data rate, or with the voltage of the machine," says physicist Michael Ibison, Ph.D., a visiting scholar at PEAR. "It doesn't." So, says Ibison, you start musing on the mysteries o[ quantum physics, where mind and matter don't seem so separate and divided. "When cooled to zero degrees Kelvin," he says, "matter exhibits very weird behavior at great distances, as if the whole system is a single, unified, unbroken, organic thing, and instantaneous changes are visible everywhere. But that's still just a metaphor. All we really know is that what you are thinking now can actually be correlated with what is happening over there in a machine."
Or in another mind. Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in the world of parapsychology research is the fact that a researcher who is a "believer" will get positive results while a skeptical researcher will often come up with nothing. One would assume the believers are simply skewing their data by interpreting them with a generous and uncritical eye. But these absolutely contradictory findings have occurred even when researchers double up on the same study.
Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D., an anthropologist who is research director at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a think tank, conducted an experiment with psychologist Richard Wiseman, Ph.D., at Cambridge University. "It was a study in remote staring," recalls Schlitz, "with a closed-circuit TV setup." In this type of study, two people are put into separate rooms. A video camera is pointed at one person and connected to a television monitor in the other room. Half the time, at random intervals, the camera is on and the person in the second room can see an image of the first person. During the "on" times, the second person stares at the image and tries to mentally get the attention of the first.
"I did two such experiments with physicist Ed May, and got significant results in both," says Schlitz. "Richard [Wiseman] is a skeptic, and wasn't able to replicate my results, so he invited me over [to England] to run the same experiment at the same time. Everything was identical. I worked with half the people and got significant results, and he got no effect. I wonder what this means about the mind of the researcher and how that may influence data."
Schlitz suggests that the whole notion of a truly double-blind procedure, the supposed hallmark of pristine science, is questionable. "Can any experimenter be truly objective and detached from his object of inquiry?" she wonders.
It's possible, then, that the world we live in truly is a web without a weaver, that each strand in that web vibrates alone, and yet in consonance with the whole. As science inches along that web with its newly designed studies, we seem to illuminate a strand here, a strand there, just as real rainwater and light bring a spider's silk into sudden, brilliant relief when you wander onto your back porch on a summer morning.
I think back to the clairvoyant who years ago described to me exactly where I felt pain in my body. He told me that he was able to travel back in time, and one day I asked him to try this. I wanted to know about my first year of life, when my mother suffered from agoraphobia and couldn't leave the house. He was still for a long time and then asked, "Did you move when you were three?" I nodded; we'd moved from a town house to a ranch house. Again he was still. But then he shook his head. "Something is stopping me. I can't go back to before you were three." Make of it what you wish; I believed him. He knew more than he should, but not as much as I wanted.
There's no question that our fascination with the paranormal is here to stay. "It's one of the most ancient human attractions," notes Dr. Dossey, "part of the legacy of the human species, part of our original nature."
And so the mystery remains--blinking on and off somewhere between infinity and now, as strange and fluctuating as the random numbers the scientists measure and that our minds nudge now to coherence, now to randomness. It's a question, not an answer, but one of the more meaningful questions we can ask.
WHAT'S IN, WHAT'S OUT
Is it the dawn of a new age, or just the dawn of new lingo? Here's what's in and what's out in the misty realms:
o holographic repatterners
o transformational seers
o light workers
o negative thought forms
o sacred psychologists
o altered states
I WAS A PSYCHIC SPY
David Morehouse's Psychic Warrior, to be published in November by St. Martin's Press, sounds more like a sequel to the sci-fi film Strange Days than real life. After being tapped for the CIA's psychic espionage program--now known as Star Gate--he spent eight months, eight hours a day, being trained in the practice known as "remote viewing," by which individuals are taught to transcend space and time to access people, places, and things remote from them; to go forward and backward in time; and to use their five senses to taste, smell, touch, hear, and see the details of their target.
"The trainers tried to take our emotions to an extreme, to calibrate our senses," says Morehouse. "We might find ourselves crawling in the ovens of Dachau or at ground zero at Hiroshima, weeping openly, suffering the emotional trauma that is locked into that specific time and place. On another day I might find myself traveling to a garden with a Shinto shrine, attuned to the subtle nuances of a cherry blossom."
A typical assignment, says Morehouse, was to access the mind of an enemy test pilot in order to get detailed information about fighter planes. "Let's say we wanted to find out the capabilities of a new Soviet MIG 2I. I'd concentrate on the test pilot, step in behind his eyes, and hear his thoughts, feel the aircraft and whether it had enough power in a turn or if the seat was too small or guages vibrated too violently." The information was correlated with other surveillance programs.
Though the CIA claims it has abandoned the program because of lack of success, Morehouse and his remote viewing colleagues believe Star Gate is a active as ever but has gone further undercover. They also believe the government is taking this technique into the realm of weaponry, training individuals in "remote influence"--accessing another human mind to inflict harm on it, anything from nausea to confusion to physical illness. Morehouse says remote influence was used against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. "Later, on CNN, I saw him accuse the U.S. of using psychics to attack him."
Now that Morehouse has gone public about a top-secret program, does he continue to use remote viewing in his everyday life? "Once the channels are open you can't close them," he says. "Remote viewing is like entering an altered state that is very euphoric. Access to pure information is like a morphine flow that the brain craves and wants." After years of the experience, his brain won't stop. "At night I can't sleep without the TV blaring, just to shut out all the internal data."
Look for a $70 million movie from Interscope Pictures. Tune in and try some remote viewing to see who will star.