No phenomenon is without history. Our understanding of transpersonal experiences surrounding near death and dying is no exception. Edmund Burke (1729-1797) once said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it (Bartlett, 2012, p. 323).” Scientists look to those who came before them to attempt to avoid the misadventures of previous researchers. Scientists also build on the successes and insights of preceding researchers to extend knowledge. This chapter includes a brief description of the development of parapsychology as a scientific field of study, the definitions and descriptions of terms, and research methodology. It also includes a discussion of Kuhn’s (1962) description of the structure of scientific revolutions with examples in the biological and medical sciences. Kuhn’s understanding of how revolutions in science take place provides a framework for understanding how a revolution in our view of death and dying has been developing during the last 50 years.
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote an extraordinary book entitled, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn believed scientific communities operate under paradigms which include basic, and assumed to be, uncontroversial assumptions about the nature of a discipline. The paradigm includes theories derived from facts and research shown to successfully explain common occurrences within the discipline.
According to Kuhn (1962), science progresses by what he called normal science. That is the type of scientific study that enables researchers to add more and more information about what is believed to be true in a discipline. The largest progressions in science, however, occur through revolutions which are often fraught with difficulties. The revolution begins with anomalies. These anomalies are occurrences that cannot be explained by the prevailing paradigm. Once these anomalies occur, scientists will try to use the known paradigm to try to explain their existence with great tenacity. The current paradigm filters the interpretation of events. Even when the current paradigm is unsuccessful in explaining the anomaly, individuals cling to the old paradigm. Often even factual data does not help produce a change in the way of thinking about a new phenomenon. The history of the development of germ theory provides a good example.
After Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) built his microscope, he noticed small living things he called “animalcules” moving in teeth scrapings he placed under the microscope. The idea of microscopic creatures was unheard of during this time. He sent his findings to the Royal Society of London whose members were full of misgivings about his reports. No one had heard of microscopic organisms before this time. In 1676, Leeuwenhoek reported to the Royal Society signs of microscopic life on pond scum. Fortunately, he could convince the members of the truth of these findings when they could see the one-cell organisms themselves under the microscope (de Kruif, 2002).
As early as the 1840s, a Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Seemelweiss, argued for aseptic techniques during surgery and when doctors examined patients. Doctors who worked for him washed their hands in calcium chloride between patients. Deaths on Semmelweiss’ patient wards decreased from 12% to 1%. However, his findings were ignored by the conservative doctors in Hungary. The paradigm those doctors believed in was that diseases were spread in the form of “bad air,” also known as miasmas. Also, it was believed diseases were the result of an imbalance of the “four humours,” the treatment for which was bloodletting. Semmelweis’s ideas contradicted all established medical science of the time. The doctors also believed because they were gentlemen of high social status, they could not possibly have dirty hands. Semmelweis argued for the validity of the use of antiseptic techniques until his death in 1865 at the age of 47. His legacy lives on today, being recognized as a pioneer of antiseptic techniques. Semmelweis University in Budapest is named after him. There is also a Semmelweis Medical History Museum and a hospital for women in Vienna that carries his name (Carter & Carter, 2005).
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) followed the development of this revolution when he proposed his germ theory. It was also difficult for Pasteur to convince others of the validity of this theory. One of his major efforts was to convince surgeons that germs existed and carried diseases. He argued intensely about the need for surgeons to clean instruments and wash their hands between patients. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), surgeons did not wash their hands and clean instruments between patients. More soldiers died from infections than bullet wounds during that time. Many of these infections could have been prevented if the new aseptic techniques proposed during that time had been used (de Kruif, 2002).
As the above example shows, current paradigms filter perceptions. Those who advocate for a new paradigm are often ignored for centuries until the evidence is too overwhelming. Those advocates can be rejected by society and even persecuted. When there is a change in the paradigm, it is referred to as a paradigm shift.
Paranormal events and parapsychology
In the biological sciences it has been determined we have five senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. Reality in our current biological paradigm is determined by what we experience through those senses. We have recognized these five senses for centuries. Early Buddhist literature (sixth century BC) described the five material faculties. Shakespeare (1564-1616) discussed the five wits or senses in his writings. Depictions of these five senses were a popular subject for artists as early as the seventeenth century. In 1630, Pietro Paolini, an Italian artist, executed a painting entitled Allegory of the Five Senses. In this painting at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the artist depicts the functions of these senses through the actions of the figures. A woman with a lute represents sound. Taste is represented by a man drinking from a flask of wine. Another young man smells a melon next to a man holding a pair of spectacles. Touch is represented by two people fighting (Walters Art Museum).
Thus, for centuries, we have held to be true that there are five senses. Normal science, in accordance with Kuhn’s thinking, has led us to develop explanations of how these senses work and operate within the physiology of our bodies. We know our senses have ranges leading to some individuals being better than others in certain activities. An acute sense of taste allows some individuals to distinguish fine wines from mediocre ones, where others could not taste the difference between even a merlot and a cabernet. Normal science has helped us understand much about our five senses. There are those who argue we have evidence of a sixth sense and even a seventh sense. Normal science still says we have only five senses.
The sixth sense
Extrasensory perception (ESP) is often referred to as the sixth sense. This sixth sense idea was made popular in modern culture in the movie, The Sixth Sense. Anyone who saw this movie will forever remember Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), the six-year-old boy, telling Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, that he “sees dead people.”
ESP is defined as the reception of information gained through the mind and not the physical senses. It also can involve knowledge of the future and not just knowledge of the past and present. ESP was defined by J. B. Rhine, a Duke University psychologist, as including telepathy, clairaudience, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and precognition.
Telepathy is the ability of individuals to transfer thoughts or feelings from mind to mind without the use of sound or body language. Clairaudience is the ability to receive information from their inner or outer hearing. Clairvoyance is the ability to see objects or events that cannot be perceived by the senses. Psychokinesis (PK) is sometimes referred to as “telekinesis” or “mind over matter.” It is the ability to move matter or energy through mental processes. Precognition involves extrasensory cognition of a future event (Clegg, 2013; Rogo, 1975).
Some in the field of parapsychology believe these ESP abilities are developments of our tendencies to be auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners. For example, if your ability to learn is best through hearing information, you would be more inclined to develop clairaudience.
The seventh sense and more
Besides this sixth sense, scientists have described other abilities that are beyond the five senses. These senses include our sense of balance, our organic sense, and proprioception. Our sense of balance, or vestibular sense, is the sense that keeps us in alignment. That is the body’s way of keeping us upright, like a cat’s ability to land on its feet. It is believed this sense is due to a system of several structures in the inner ear. Our organic or interoceptive sense is what tells us when we feel hungry, thirsty, ill, or even have a change in heart rate.
A third sense, in this category of senses, is known as proprioception. Proprioception is how we know the location of parts of our body without the use of sight. If you close your eyes and move your arm, you will know where that arm is located and the direction in which it has moved without seeing the movement. Even if someone else moves your arm or leg, you immediately know where the body part has been placed.
In some sources, the above senses are in a category called the seventh sense, along with an ability to do remote viewing. In other sources, an ability to see the seventh sense is limited to a psychic ability for remote viewing. Remote viewing is a mental ability that enables a person to see or otherwise experience a target not accessible by normal senses because of distance or shielding. The book, The Seventh Sense, by Lyn Buchanan details the story of his life as a soldier in the military who worked on top-secret government and military projects using remote viewing.
In 1995, the CIA declassified and approved for release documents describing remote viewing research carried out at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, CA. This research was carried out for two decades, from 1972 to 1985. As well as Lyn Buchanan, Russell Targ, a physicist and author, and cofounder of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), authored books on the subject. Many of the psychical research centers have carried out research on remote viewing.
Development of psychical research
There are centuries-old reports of paranormal or extrasensory events. The first nonacademic but systematic investigations of apparitions and miraculous events were conducted by the Catholic Church. Initially, saints in the Catholic Church were chosen by public acclaim, starting with those who were martyred for their faith. This approach was changed in the tenth century when the canonization process was initiated. As part of the canonization process, besides other criteria, miracles had to be attributed to the person being considered for sainthood. Members of the Catholic Church hierarchy were charged with investigation of apparitions and miracles. Visions of the Virgin Mary, such as those that took place at Lourdes, France, in 1858, and subsequent claims of miraculous cures, were and continue to be thoroughly investigated. After a three-and-a-half-year investigation, and the confirmation of thirty-five cases of inexplicable healing, in 1862, the Bishop Laurence of Tarbes declared the Virgin had appeared to Bernadette. The Lourdes Medical Bureau now investigates over 30 claims of cures a year. Most are ruled as lacking substance but a few are turned over to the International Lourdes Medical Committee for further investigation (The Medical Bureau of Sanctuary).
Apparitions of the Virgin Mary still occur during this time. According to Nelson (2000), there were over 300 reported apparitions in the 20th century. Psycho-physiological and psycho-diagnostic research was done on those who had visions at Medjurgorje, a village in the southwestern region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, formerly central Yugoslavia. The Italian doctors performed case histories, neurological exams, personality inventories, polygraphs, and other tests, even during the apparitional experiences. The results indicated the subjects do not show signs of any pathological states (Pandarakalam, 2001).
Lawrence (2014) interviewed a woman who reported seeing the image of Mary in the chapel in the village of Medjurgorje. While many pilgrims to this site see the apparition from inside the chapel, she was able to see an image from outside on the lawn. This woman said seeing the apparition left her with a wonderful feeling of peace and relief.
The investigation of apparitions and inexplicable healing attributed to a person being considered for sainthood continues. In 1983, Pope John Paul II changed the requirement from three miracles to two for canonization. These miracles must take place after the candidate’s death as a result of prayers to that person. The beatification of Pope John Paul II was allowed to proceed when a French nun claimed that she was cured of Parkinson’s disease. This “cure” was verified by medical doctors. Beatification, which requires verification of one miracle, is the first step in the canonization process. Another miracle is required for verification of sainthood (Fisher, 2007).
It was not until 1882 when the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London was formed that true research investigations of these phenomena took place.
One of the major issues of investigation, which still plagues this field, is methodology. It was important that the pursuit of knowledge about paranormal events used scientific methods. However, since the psychical researchers were investigating phenomena different from occurrences in the physical sciences, different approaches needed to be used. In some ways the psychical researches were analogous to the biological scientists trying to identify germs without a microscope.
Also the early psychical researchers were hindered by false claims of psychic abilities. Often they would find subjects were frauds, especially those who claimed to be mediums.
The founders of the SPR included many eminent men, well respected in London society. Edmund Gurney, Frederic William Henry Myers, William Fletcher Barrett, Henry Sidgwick, and Edmund Dawson Rogers were the founding members.
The SPR initially stated its purpose as being:
To approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated (Grattan-Guinness (1982). p. 19).
The members of the SPR studied thought-transference (telepathy), mesmerism (hypnosis), mediumship, apparitions, and haunted houses. They were particularly interested in phenomena indicative of life after physical death.
One of the significant studies carried out between 1889 and 1892 was the survey of 15,000 to 17,000 non-institutionalized individuals in the United Kingdom (UK) by Henry Sidgwick. The subjects were asked if they could remember having one or more hallucinations. They found approximately 10% of the non-institutionalized population reported one or more hallucinations. The researchers also identified 350 firsthand reports of deathbed visions. At the time this study was being conducted in the UK, similar surveys were being done in Germany, France, and in the US led by philosopher and psychologist, William James (1842-1910). When the results of all these studies were put together through a meta-analysis, it was found 11.96% of non-institutionalized individuals experienced or witnessed hallucinations. These hallucinations were both visual and auditory. The final report from the SPR is called the Census of Hallucinations.
For a number of years, the members of the SPR studied mediums, often showing they were frauds. However, some individuals, such as Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886), were believed to have real paranormal abilities. Home was the most well-known medium of the nineteenth century. He showed remarkable ability in being able to levitate himself as well as objects. After many observations of his abilities, no one was able to show how he was able to do the levitations, although most believed trickery was involved. In one instance, he moved a table while standing at some distance. No one was able to determine how this occurred since no strings, wires, and so forth were found. William Crookes conducted numerous experiments from 1871-1874 without being able to detect fraud.
The SPR is still active in London. The members conduct research, hold events, publish The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and Paranormal Review, and support an online and lending library.
William James (1942-1910), the notable psychologist, was involved with the London Society for Psychical Research from its beginning in 1882. In 1885, he helped form the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR). Along with astronomer Simon Newcomb of Johns Hopkins; anthropologist Charles Sedgwick Minot of Harvard; Biologist, Asa Gray; Andrew White, President of Cornell; and Minister Phillips Brooks, James conducted research with mediums. Most were proven to be fraudulent except for Leonora Piper. So impressed was he about the accuracy of the knowledge she obtained while in trance, he referred to her as his own “white crow.” “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white (James, 1896).”
Both the SPR and ASPR conducted research studies during which their subjects experienced what is known as veridical perceptions, the direct observation of the environment as it exists. In parapsychological terms this means the subject experiences accurately something in the environment they see, hear, or know, but that information is not through normal sense experiences. In the early days of both the SPR and ASPR, subjects gave information about the history of a person without previous knowledge of that person and/or reported the death of a person, whose death to the immediate family or community had not been reported.
In the US, Stanford University in 1911 became the first academic institution to study ESP and PK. This was followed by Duke University in 1930, which under the direction of psychologist William McDougall, conducted experiments involving subjects in ESP experiments. The Duke University efforts included quantitative statistical approaches, different from the qualitative or description approaches previously conducted.
J. B. Rhine formed an autonomous parapsychology laboratory within Duke and started the Journal of Parapsychology. He concluded in his first book, Extra-Sensory Perception (1934), after years of research, that ESP existed and could be demonstrated in a laboratory. Not everyone believed the results of the experiments carried out at the parapsychology laboratory. Claims of ways subjects could have deceived researchers were common from academics and other nonbelievers.
In 1957, Rhine proposed the formation of the Parapsychological Association (PA). The aim of the association was “to advance parapsychology as a science, to disseminate knowledge of the field, and to integrate the findings with those of other branches of science” (History of the Parapsychological Association).
In 1965, after Rhine’s retirement, the administration at Duke broke links with the parapsychology laboratory. Rhine started the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in a building off the Duke campus but close by. In 1995, the FRNM was renamed the Rhine Research Center. In 2002, the building that held the Rhine Research Center was sold to Duke University and a new building, built for experimental work in parapsychology, was constructed. It is now known as the Rhine which houses the Rhine Research Center and the Rhine Education Center located at 2741 Campus Walk Avenue in western Durham about a mile west of the Duke Medical Center.
During the 1970s and 1980s, over 30 organizations worldwide involved in the advancement of parapsychology were formed.
Robert Thouless, a British psychologist and parapsychologist, in his book, From Anecdote to Experiment in Psychical Research (1972), applied Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolution to the field of parapsychology.
Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions contains many illuminations of the problems of parapsychology: Among others, it suggests why we should expect to have critics, and why they will not be convinced merely by increased weight of experimental evidence. He points out practitioners of normal science have always tended to resist new theories because these seem to throw doubt on what they are doing and on what they have already done. He also suggests that this resistance to change by normal science has its own value in emphasizing the fact of anomaly when a new finding does not fit normal expectations. But this resistance has always led a number of practitioners of normal science to refuse to recognize the necessity for conceptual change. They will not indeed abandon an old paradigm until a new paradigm is ready to take its place. We, in parapsychology, are far from the situation of being able to formulate a new paradigm. So we must expect incredulity to persist among our critics, and not expect that this incredulity will be overcome by mere increase of experimental evidence obtained under new conditions of stringency (p. 101).
Parapsychology has indeed struggled to create a valid identity within the scientific community. It is often referred to as “pseudoscience.” Much research has been carried out by parapsychologists with results showing gifted subjects demonstrate psychic abilities at a statistically significant level. Even statistically significant results have not been enough to convince much of the scientific community of the existence of paranormal phenomena as anything more than fraud or products of vivid imaginations or psychological delusions.
Scott Rogo (1975) says this about the foundation of psychical research:
Although modern parapsychology, or psychical research, dates only from Victorian England, psi phenomena had been recorded and investigated for centuries before the scientific revolution. Despite the fact that the Age of Reason, Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution all shunned what they thought to be crude superstition, no culture or era has been without tales and reports of what we today would call psychical phenomena (p. 28).
However, since 1975 when Raymond Moody’s book, Life after Life, was published, paranormal or transpersonal experiences were documented as occurring in medical situations. These phenomena had been occurring for centuries, but Moody’s book began the current investigation of these events. More sophisticated methods of resuscitation led to more individuals being brought back from the edge of death with possible glimpses of the afterlife. Healthcare professionals now became engaged in research of near-death experiences and other related phenomena. This research caused an explosion in the study of these transpersonal experiences and a new avenue of study of paranormal or transpersonal experiences.
The first researchers in the field were Raymond Moody, MD, PhD; Kenneth Ring, PhD; Bruce Greyson, MD; Melvin Morse, MD; and Michael Sabom, MD. Other researchers in the medical professions followed suit. Soon there began a body of research documenting the incidence of near-death experiences. Medical doctors and other health professionals have always been held in high regard thus increasing the credibility of this type of research. In Chapters 5 and 6 we will be discussing near-death experiences in more detail.
The most puzzling, at the same time interesting, occurrences were the veridical perceptions of patients while physically unconscious during near-death experiences. Anomalies, unexplainable by current science, were now being described in this literature.
Sabom (1982) studied over 57 cardiac patients who were clinically dead and brought back. Of those 57 patients, 32 had had an out-of-body experience (OBE) and 25 had none. All of the patients in the OBE group accurately described their resuscitation efforts. Over 80% of the members of the non-OBE group made serious errors in describing their resuscitation.
Ring and Lawrence (1993) published a report of three incidences of veridical perception by near-death experiencers. In the first situation a patient, when she became alert, reported seeing a red shoe on the northwest corner of the roof of the hospital. She had had a cardiac arrest during which she had a near-death experience. She was brought in unconscious and would have had no opportunity to be on the roof. She reported this occurrence to a nurse who reported it to the resident on duty. He was able to have someone from building services open the door to the roof of the hospital. He came back to the unit carrying a red shoe.
Around the same time, another patient remembered during her near-death experience seeing a nurse’s plaid shoelaces. The nurse only wore them on the day the patient was unconscious while assisting with her having a cardiac arrest. In a third instance the patient remembered seeing a nurse’s polka dot blouse during her near-death experience.
During the pilot phase of a study done in the Netherlands (van Lommel, van Wees, Meyers, & Elfferich, 2001) in one of the hospitals, a coronary care unit nurse reported a veridical out-of-body experience of a resuscitated patient. The 44-year-old man was brought to the coronary care unit in a comatose state. He immediately required artificial respiration, defibrillation, and heart massage. When the staff were ready to intubate the patient (put a breathing tube into his airway) they first removed his dentures. The nurse placed these dentures on the nearby crash cart. This is her report on the incident:
Meanwhile, we continue extensive CPR. After about an hour and a half, the patient has sufficient heart rhythm and blood pressure, but he is still ventilated and intubated, and he is still comatose. He is transferred to the intensive care unit to continue the necessary artificial respiration. Only after more than a week do I meet again with the patient, who is by now back on the cardiac ward. I distribute his medication. The moment he sees me he says: “Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are.” I am very surprised. Then he elucidates: “Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that cart, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth.” I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR. When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated, as well as the appearance of those present like myself. At the time that he observed the situation, he had been very much afraid that we would stop CPR and that he would die. And it is true that we had been very negative about the patient’s prognosis due to his very poor medical condition when admitted. The patient tells me that he desperately and unsuccessfully tried to make it clear to us that he was still alive and that we should continue CPR. He is deeply impressed by his experience and says he is no longer afraid of death. Four weeks later he left hospital as a healthy man (p. 240).
In our current paradigm, some would say the patient heard someone talk about the resuscitation procedure, the red shoe, plaid shoelaces, polka dot blouse, and where their teeth were placed. It is highly unlikely someone during the patient’s critical state someone would have been talking about these events or descriptions. As these anomalies continue, the current paradigm becomes inadequate to explain these new occurrences.
The search for explanations of transpersonal occurrences continues. Those who support the facts, beliefs and theories of the current paradigm believe these transpersonal experiences to be due to the lack of oxygen, temporal brain lobe abnormalities, mental illness, and/or the influence of drugs. Others believe a new paradigm is necessary to explain these occurrences. Much is known about these events to guide the analysis and processing of these occurrences. We know there are several types of transpersonal experiences that occur to individuals who come close to death or are dying. What is also known is, these experiences occur in large numbers. It is estimated millions of individuals who come close to death, or are dying, have some type of transpersonal experience. In each chapter, incidences of each specific type of events are presented. What is also known is these experiences have a profound and mostly positive impact on the person and their family members.
Keywords: Clairaudience, clairvoyance, paradigm, parapsychology, psychokinesis, revolutions, seventh sense, sixth sense, telepathy.
PSI: The structure of revolutions is an extract from The Death View Revolution: A Guide to Transpersonal Experiences Surrounding Death by Madelaine Lawrence, Ph.D.