After the demise of Richard Dawkins old forum I joined the exiles at http://www.rationalskepticism.org, where I finally got back in to the debating habit. The formal debate there between myself and Campermon rumbles on, but I thought this post of mine was perhaps worthy of my blog…
“OK, I’m in a playful mood. Last week I ended with a promise – that we would create a “ghost” in the lab, or our own homes, and experiment with it. And that, dear reader, is exactly what we are going to do today… if you want to!
I will skip the philosophical stuff, and the discussion of the cases I referenced last time for now – Campermon wants science, and while I think we have been doing science from the start let’s play with something empirical. Let’s see a ghost!
Now the obvious caveat – calling up ghosts is technically necromancy. The term is not fashionable these days – since Derek Acorah styled himself a “psychic medium” that seems to be the preferred parlance, though I sometimes called him Derek the Necromancer, which at least conjures up amusing visions of him in a track suit leading a shuffling army of bewildered zombies…. Anyway, necromancy is possibly illegal (please check before proceeding for your country), generally considered immoral and definitely frowned upon by most sensible religions. I take no responsibility as to the results — “Noli evocare quod reprimere non potes” as Charles Dexter Ward sagely reminded us, and if Yog Sothoth eats your soul you have no one to blame but yourself. Ah but you are atheists, so you don’t have souls – fine carry on then! :)
I would also note this practice may be emotionally harmful, and I guess spiritually dangerous. Some people have claimed the same about reading the works of Richard Dawkins though, so providing you are sensible adults and tell a friend what you are up to I guess it will be OK. I am completely serious in my warnings though, and if you are disturbed by the experiment do feel free to contact me and chat. I’m pretty level headed and have a lot of experience of dealing with freaked out “psychonauts”. If you are concerned about your emotional stability or mental health I would advise you to stick to theory, and see how others get on??? I accept no responsibility for what happens to you, though I doubt it will upset you lot!
I suppose I could set this out formally, as a proper experiment, or I could write it as a recipe. I won’t do either – this is Punk Science – I’ll just make some notes on the basic idea, and let you play with the variables, refine the controls and think of ways to do something useful with your “ghost”.
YOU WILL NEED
A small dark room, with as little light pollution as possible.
A mirror – a full length one works best.
A table and candle – please don’t burn your house down
A black sheet or bin bags taped to wall, for black out and that goth ambience.
That’s it for the basics.
THE SET UP
I would recommend a small space, such as a short corridor. Your basic set up is as follows – you black out one wall with your sheet or bin bags, and place the mirror in front of it, facing down the room. You place your chair near the other end, in front of the table. You put the candle on the table, so when it is lit it’s behind your body, and only dimly casts flickering light down to the mirror.
The mirror should be positioned not more than a few feet in front of you, at a level so you can see your face fully reflected in it – so if a small mirror you will want to hang it at eye level. You sit on the chair, light the candle, and turn out all the lights. (If you have access to lots of black cloth drape all the walls, and build a small dark chamber for the experiment.)
What you have produced is a very basic “psychomanteum”, or as it was known in the classical world, a “necromanteum”. Dr Raymond Moody, the chap who started most of the modern interest in Near Death Experiences named it the “psychomanteum”, and describes his pioneering work with the technique in his book Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones, Little, Brown and Co., 1993, ISBN 978-0679425700.
Since the mid-1990’s parapsychologists, psychologists and neurologists have been experimenting with the technique, which I assume (though I do not have the research in front of me as I write) works by generating some kind of feedback loop. What it definitely does do a repeated trials have shown, is allow one to experience something at least very similar to the “ghost experience.”
Remember that from the beginning of the debate I conceded that many ghost experiences are simply hallucinations? Well, this experiment allows you to hallucinate. As Tim Leary used to say “set and setting” define much – your set up and your expectations – but even hard core sceptics of my acquaintance have been startled by the power of this very simple set up to invoke powerful hallucinatory experiences. You may wish to experiment with playing classical music – or do as I did for my trials, and use a pink noise or white noise generator and put headphones on your subject.
Dr Moody’s approach was to use the psychomanteum or apparitional chamber in grief therapy, to allow the bereaved to have a visionary encounter with a deceased loved one. I can see vast potential for psychological damage if this was tried without proper therapeutic support – we will be more modest, and simply aim to see a “ghost” of someone, anyone. Expectation undoubtedly plays a huge part in the process, as demonstrated in Terhune, D. B., & Smith, M. D. (2006) ‘The induction of anomalous experiences in a mirror-gazing facility: Suggestion, cognitive perceptual personality traits and phenomenological state effects’, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194, 415 – 421, so if you do try this with multiple subjects (which I hope you will) then make sure they KNOW exactly what it is supposed to do.
OK, so try it. I think the minimum length for sitting gazing at the mirror should realistically be thirty minutes, though fifty minutes to an hour would be better. I think this set up is basic enough that you can explore your capacity for visual hallucination, and see your own ghost, sometime this week, and of course discuss your results in the commentary thread. Hopefully you can find a few interested friends to participate.
Now what I have described is an incredibly basic set up – if you want to see the full lab research version of the apparatus I refer you to Lange, R., & Houran, J. (1997). ‘Context-induced paranormal experiences: Support for Houran and Lange’s model of haunting phenomena.’ Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84, 1455 – 1458 and 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, though the best description of the methodology and a decent set up is probably Dean I. Radin (2001). “Seeking Spirits in the Laboratory” in James Houran and Rense Lange. Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. McFarland & Company. pp. 165–174. ISBN 0786409843. There is a great short essay on the web in the form of Ventola, Wilson & Williams (2009) — http://publicparapsychology.blogspot.co … er_23.html — which will give you a detailed overview of the research to date. (There is also some superb research that was recently conducted under Dr Ian Hume at Coventry University, but that is not presented or published yet, though I believe it will be this summer at the PA conference?)
So why have I proposed this experiment? Well it’s empirical: it shows you something about the brain and the capacity to hallucinate; it’s rather interesting; and theoretically if we get enough data we can use qualitative analysis to compare the “apparitions” seen in this set up with “spontaneous cases” – apparitions reported in “real life”, and see how these artificially induced ghosties compare with the classic apparitions reported by Tyrell, Sidgwick et al.
However, I can imagine Campermon reclining in his deck chair, discarding a stack of marking and a pile of beer mats covered in equations, and dancing a little jig of delight. Surely I have shot myself in the foot here? After all, I am defending the claim “”Some Ghost cases may represent discarnate consciousness or the remote operation of a living human consciousness”. It is surely immensely stupid of me to concede that one can mimic the nature of “ghost sightings” by hallucination? Yet I have as we all know concede this point from the very beginning. So a stronger argument might be my experiment is an irrelevance – it shows us what we already know to be true???
Yet no, I can actually cite these experiments in support of my hypothesis. Yes, really – because study of the environmental variables during the sessions has produced a most unusual and intriguing result. Unfortunately my copy of Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives has been borrowed by a friend, so rather than try to summarise inaccurately, I shall wait for her to return it, or for my girlfriend to pick up her copy when she returns home tomorrow. In my next post I’ll describe the interesting aspects which imply some form of relationship between consciousness and the environment, or perhaps even suggest these apparitions possess some kind of independent existence. For now it is best that I do not discuss these anyway – as we have already seen expectation plays a huge part in the experience – so let us do some simple “beermat parapsychology” experiments with this very uncontrolled set up, and then later if anyone is interested we can refine it. I strongly suspect that both Campermon and Twistor (at least) have access to the equipment we will need to allow to test all this further. And most importantly, you can now go and see a ghost!
Just in case anyone is confused – there is nothing “psychic”, “mystical” or “spiritualist” about this experiment. There is a considerable literature – I have not cited for example Simon Sherwood’s excellent paper on hypnagogic imagery and the psychomanteum, and several others – but I don’t think any discussion of the academic literature can take the place of actual practical experimentation. I hope at least a few of you will run some trials and see what you experience, and preferable use a Dictaphone or write it up immediately afterwards so that we can discuss the experiences in the commentary thread.
OK, I have some words left for once! However today I’m immensely pushed for time – my girlfriend goes back tomorrow, so I want to spend a little time with her, and I’m sure me twittering on will only bore. So instead I encourage you to go try the experiment, well after nightfall if you find darkness hard to achieve in your home on this glorious June day.”
So I wrote. Why not try it at home, and let me know what you experience?
If anyone is interested in following the debate between myself and CAmpermon, it is here –
comments can not be posted in the thread, but can be posted in the peanut gallery here —