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An Interview with Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson

Posted on 24 August 2015, 8:29

It seems safe to say that there are very few people living today with more experience and knowledge in psychical research and parapsychology than Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, (below) an 83-year-old resident of Iceland, best remembered for coauthoring, with Dr. Karlis Osis, At the Hour of Death, a cross-cultural study, in India and the United States, of the experiences of dying patients, first published in 1977.  Among other books and papers, he is the author of Modern Miracles: The Story of Sathya Sai Baba  (1986), and The Departed Among the Living (2012).  His latest book, coauthored with Loftur Gissurarson, Indridi Indridason: The Icelandic Physical Medium is due for release during September by White Crow Books.

 erlendur

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Haraldsson for The Searchlight, a publication of The Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies (see http://ascsi.org/ for more information about the Academy and its upcoming conference, September 25-27, in Scottsdale, Arizona).  This is a slightly abridged copy of that interview.

After studying psychology at the University of Freiburg and the University of Munich, Haraldsson became a research fellow at the Rhine Institute in the University of Virginia, and then received his Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg.  I put questions to him by email. 

Dr. Haraldsson, how did you become interested in psychical research/parapsychology?

“My first and primarily love was philosophy with a thirst to know more about the world around me – and not less – and to know what I was and the nature of that mysterious evasive ‘I.’  I felt I did not understand either.

“When I was around 15, I became like reborn to myself, and became aware of some inner reality that was also mysteriously external, and so immensely greater than anything I had experienced or been aware of before. It started suddenly in heavy rain during the middle of the day, near some banks of pebbles on the seashore that lit up as the sun suddenly shone and reflected on them. Then I had the experience of being filled with light that was immensely delightful and beyond words. After a while this faded away but a vivid trace of it remained with me forever after and would sometimes – especially in my youth – sweep over me again. After that there was never a doubt that there existed a superior/supernatural reality that was sometimes closer and sometimes further away from my normal self. Somehow the two were connected, but how?

“When I was old enough to enter university there was no question as to what to study, namely philosophy, which I had anyway been reading about for a long time, not only the traditional academic philosophers but also the unorthodox: the Danish Martinus, Tibetan texts, Brunton, Ouspensky and theosophical writings, to name some.

“I spent four years on academic philosophy; in Copenhagen, in Edinburgh and two years in Freiburg. By the end of that period I felt I knew how matters stand with philosophy and that it was time to start something new. What philosophy taught me were the limitations to what we can know. Yes, we were homo sapiens, but primarily homo ignorance.”

Did your philosophy education include psychical research?

“Until this time I had not been particularly interested in psychic phenomena though I had experienced my share of them.  In Freiburg I became aware of them as an interesting research area. Professor Hans Bender gave a course on parapsychology that was popular with students. He aroused my scientific interest.

“I returned to Iceland to work and earn money, mostly as a journalist. I edited one book about an Icelandic psychic who was also an influential politician, and got into correspondence with J. B. Rhine at Duke University. After some three years in Iceland I was off again, first to Berlin where the iron wall had just been built. Then I traveled for a year and a half through the Middle East and Asia and wrote my first book – exclusively travel/political/historical – With Rebels in Kurdistan.  That was the beginning of a long association with the Kurds which was a whole world apart from philosophy and the paranormal.

“Late 1963 I returned overland from South India, through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, and then took the train from Istanbul to Freiburg. Now the intention was to study psychology. After a few years I obtained a Dipl. Psych. degree in psychology and later a Ph.D. with Hans Bender, whom I came to know personally. In the meantime I had on and off continued some correspondence with J. B. Rhine who invited me over to his Institute of Parapsychology after I had completed my Dipl. Psych. degree. Rhine´s institute was the Mecca of parapsychology at this time. With Rhine I stayed for a year and conducted my first two experiments both of which got published in due time.

“From then on I became more and more involved with research into the paranormal. There followed a year of internship in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia with Robert van de Castle, the dream researcher, and Prof. Ian Stevenson. With Stevenson I conducted my first studies of mediumship. From him I learned a lot. The medium was Hafsteinn Björnsson (1915-1977). Stevenson and Van de Castle became life-long friends and I wrote a tribute to both when they passed away.

“And I was lucky. As my time at the University of Virginia was coming to the end, Karlis Osis, director of research of the American Society for Psychical Research, invited me to join him on a major study of deathbed visions which he was planning. I gladly accepted. For comparative purposes this project was conducted in India as well as in the United States. It involved interviews with over 800 doctors and nurses; it was a highly memorable and interesting experience that had a lasting effect on me.

“Karlis Osis had a deep-seated interest in the question of survival. And what better way to study what may follow when we die – he argued – than to investigate the experiences people have just before they die? That is, when they find themselves on the threshold between life and death.”

Is there any one case you have been involved with that stands out in your mind as especially convincing?

“The case of the fire in Copenhagen in 1905, described by the medium Indridi Indridason (1883-1912) and the Danish communicator Emil Jensen, immediately comes to mind. At this time there was no telephone or radio communication across the wide Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and the rest of Europe. News arrived only by ship. This remarkable case reminds me of Swedenborg´s remote description of the fire in Stockholm when he was in Gothenburg. However, the Indridason/Jensen case is much better documented. Not only that. Over a century after it occurred I was able to trace Emil Jensen (1848-1898) by searching census records and archives in Copenhagen. Everything that Emil Jensen had said about his life in 1905, seven years after he had passed away, was proved correct. Jensen had lived in the Great King Street most of his life and there the fire had broken out, namely close to his home, as in the case of Swedenborg.”

What has been the highlight of your career?

“The study of deathbed visions with Karlis Osis was the first such highlight. After lots of interviews, fieldwork and analyses we wrote At the Hour of Death, which has since appeared in some 20 editions/translations. It was last published in 2012 by White Crow Books. It is still the most extensive study conducted of deathbed visions.

“Deathbed visions are rather common among the dying. Deceased loved ones, friends and relatives appear to some of the dying in their last hours. They express the purpose that they have come to take the patient away into the realm of the dying. And when that happens the dying are happy to go. They experience being received by their loved ones.

“Was it all hallucinatory? We gathered as best we could information about each patient´s medication, temperature, the nature of his/her disease, etc., in short all that might possibly produce hallucinations. The analyses of this great body of data did not support the hypothesis that the bulk of the deathbed visions was caused by hallucinatory factors. That being rejected we were left with the survival side of our model of what happens in deathbed visions.

“My surveys of psychic experiences and apparitions of the dead in Iceland (The Departed Among the Living) is another of my favorite projects. The great European Values Study had revealed that 25 percent of the population of Western Europe had personally ‘felt that they had really been in touch with someone who had died.’  In the USA this figure was 30 percent.  What had these people experienced? We sought answers by interviewing 450 persons who reported that they had experienced an encounter with someone who had died.

“Another highlight was my study of Sathya Sai Baba, whom I first learned about during the study of deathbed visions in India. Equally – perhaps more important – is my research of children’s´ claims of past-life memories that Stevenson encouraged me to conduct. On that I have written numerous papers and book chapters.

“Then – of course – very prominent for me are my studies of the mediumship of Indridi Indridason, about whom I have now written a book. Also my studies and experiments with the mental medium Hafsteinn Björnsson.

“All these major projects are summed up in my autobiography that still exists only in Icelandic. Many of these studies offer challenging evidence for survival of death and the existence of a supernatural reality that have to be considered seriously.”

What did you find most interesting about the mediumship of Indridason?
 
“Most remarkable were the frequent phenomena of direct voices. And sometimes there were two voices – a female soprano and male bass voice – singing together.  The direct voice phenomena are rare with mediums but were more common with Indridi Indridason than any other kind of phenomena, and were also observed outside his séances and in full daylight. There were also massive movements and levitations of objects and the medium, and frequent appearance of lights in various forms and colors, sometimes with a human form appearing in a pillar of light. All the classical forms of physical mediumship were there in a country where they had never been observed before.
“The group round Indridi Indridason – the Experimental Society – consisted mostly of academics who took all thinkable precautions to prevent the possibility of fraud, which Indridi gladly accepted, and still the phenomena continued.”

We don’t seem to have the same quality of mediumship today that we had in Indridi’s day.  Do you have any ideas as to why this is?
 
“Some psychic/spiritual phenomena appear epidemic. They have their primary period and purpose and after a while we may only find traces of them. But they may turn up again.”

Are you fully retired now or are you still doing research?

“Formally retired but as busy as ever, writing papers and books, and lecturing frequently in many countries as can be seen on my homepage: http://www.hi.is/~erlendur/english. Retirement can be a very fruitful and productive time as one is then relieved of all teaching and administrative duties.”

What is the general worldview in Iceland?

“National surveys reveal widespread belief and experiences of the paranormal to about the same degree as in Italy and the U.S., but considerably higher than in the rest of Europe.  About 70 percent of the population believe in an afterlife, which is about the same percentage as in the U.S. and Ireland and considerably higher than in the rest of Europe. Some people go to church but to a much lower extent than in the United States. Funerals are particularly well attended.”

Indridi Indridason: The Icelandic Physical Medium by Erlendur Haraldsson and Loftur Gissurarson is published by White Crow Books and will be available in September 2015

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books. 

Next Blog 7th September


Comments

Brian.
I advise for the second time that you read the paper that Richard Wiseman and I wrote about this videotape: https://notendur.hi.is//~erlendur/english/Sai Baba Indians/SBvideotape.pdf
In the abstract we write: A recent claim of “exposure“ was published in the Deccan Herald. A carefulanalysis of the film reveals a hand movement which lead to the allegation and would have given Sai Baba the opportunity to use sleight-of-hand. Whether he did so or not cannot be firmly determined by examining the film. There is need to distinguish carefully between allegation and proof of trickery.
For more details see the paper and further discussion in my book, MODERN MIRACLES. SATHYA SAI BABA. The Story of a Modern Day Prophet
Erlendur Haraldsson

Erlendur Haraldsson, Thu 10 Sep, 11:09

Dr. Haraldsson,

You claim “This video proofs nothing one way or the other”. How can you say this? Anyone looking at this video and many other videos captured of Sai Baba clearly show him using trickery? Are you saying this video shows no trickery?

Brian

Brian, Tue 8 Sep, 15:40

Brian,  yes indeed do take a really good look like Richard Wiseman, the British arch-sceptic, and I did. This video proofs nothing one way or the other. Read our paper:
Erlendur Haraldsson & Richard Wiseman (1995).  Reactions to and assessment of a videotape on Sathya Sai Baba.  Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 60(839) 203-213.

You can find the paper on my homepage: https://notendur.hi.is/~erlendur/english/index.html

Better still read my book: MODERN MIRACLES SATHYA SAI BABA THE STORY OF A MODERN DAY PROPHET

Erlendur Haraldsson, Mon 7 Sep, 21:26

I think this is far more evidential than any claims made by anyone witnessing Sai Baba personally in India. The eye can easily be fooled which is what may explain Dr. Heraldsson’s belief in the “powers” of this man:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNVJyycAZYw

Brian

Brian, Mon 7 Sep, 15:25

Dr. Haraldsson, thanks for your response. You have shown several more reasons why the skeptical attack on the Indridason Copenhagen fire case is implausible. However, there is one further detail that still bothers me. Apparently (according to the skeptic), rather than being in trance for the entire sitting, at one point Indridason took a break and left the room for a half hour or so rest. Then it was after he returned that he reported the information about the fire. The seance was apparently held within walking distance of the Marconi transmitting station… But unfortunately this issue is still enough to create a little doubt in my mind.

Thank your comment. Nielsson writes that Indridi had some rest of half an hour during the séance on the 24th of November.  It is not stated that he left the séance room, still less the house. (Haraldsson, 2011, PSPR,59, p. 205).
The Marconi receiving station (photo exists) was erected where Katrinartun is now and Hofdi where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986.  It was near the sea on a field belonging to the farm Raudara some distance away from the small town that Reykjavik was then. Indridi´s sitting took place at Mjostraeti.  These streets can be looked up at Google maps. The walking distance between these locations is given as 27 minutes. Walking back and forth would take 54 minutes. Assuming that Indridi had gone there he must have been spent a few minutes with the two men at the station, so at least an hour altogether.  Indridi being a fit young man this might have taken him somewhat less time, but still far beyond his 30 minutes rest.
This explanation is highly unlikely. It also opens up the question, how Indridi could have known that Marconi was dispatching news that evening that something interesting was happening in Copenhagen. Also, had he already come to know the two Englishmen, Wm. Densham and his assistant? They surely did not know Icelandic and Indridi did not know English.  For this explanation a third man, an Icelander knowing English, was necessary.
This explanation is extremely far-fetched. Equally far-fetched must be the explanation that the Marconi men informed Indridi at the séance in Mjostraeti that something interesting for him was happening. How could they have done that without the sitters observing it? Why should the Englishmen and Indridi get involved in fraudulent behaviour that would greatly damage their reputation?

Another part of your comment:
It seems at least possible that this break was long enough for Indridi to have gotten the information from the newspaper editor member of the Society (who certainly had access to the news feed). 
My reply:
As I already pointed out in my last comment, news of the fire in Copenhagen could not have been dispatched until after midnight Danish time. During the night the Englishmen as well as the newspaper editor are likely to have been sound asleep. Besides, the newspaper editor (Bjorn Jonsson) was probably present at the séance when Indridi/Jensen described the fire in Copenhagen, namely a day before the Marconi message could have arrived at the newspaper offices. Also, all newspaper editors in Reykjavik received the same dispatches from Marconi, also those who were critical of Indridi.

Erlendur Haraldsson, Sun 6 Sep, 20:20

Dr. Haraldsson, thanks for your response. You have shown several more reasons why the skeptical attack on the Indridason Copenhagen fire case is implausible. However, there is one further detail that still bothers me. Apparently (according to the skeptic), rather than being in trance for the entire sitting, at one point Indridason took a break and left the room for a half hour or so rest. Then it was after he returned that he reported the information about the fire. The seance was apparently held within walking distance of the Marconi transmitting station. It seems at least possible that this break was long enough for Indridi to have gotten the information from the newspaper editor member of the Society (who certainly had access to the news feed). Implausible, especially because of the critical timing issues you point out. But unfortunately this issue is still enough to create a little doubt in my mind. As has been pointed out by many others, the paranormal seems always to try to avoid furnishing unambiguous “proof”.

David, Wed 2 Sep, 22:24

In 1905 there was much discussion in Iceland about whether the country should have a telephone cable connecting it with other countries, or wireless radio communication. The Marconi Company set up a station in Reykjavik in the summer of 1905 in the hope that the government would favor a wireless station. It chose the telephone cable. The station in Reykjavik was only able to receive radio messages from the powerful Poldhu station in Cornwall that transmitted news and messages to America. The Reykjavík receiving station distributed only major world news from the Cornwall station and gave it without cost to all newspapers in Reykjavik until it was closed in 1906.
The fire in Copenhagen was far from being world news. It caused no loss of life and only damage to one building. Also, report of the fire would not have been transmitted until the short lived fire had been quelled. First it would have to be sent to Cornwall, then manually morsed and transmitted, typed up at the Reykjavik receiving station and brought to Indridi who was in deep trance in the locked up Experimental House and held by one or two sitters.  If at all possible, this would have taken so much time that the séance would have been over when the message arrived. Let us not forget that Indridi/Jensen described the fire as it took place, not afterwards. This criticism of this remarkable case has obvious flaws and fails to explain it in a satisfactory manner.
Erlendur Haraldsson

Erledur Haraldsson, Wed 2 Sep, 13:32

The Indridi Indridason fire in Copenhagen case has come under serious question, because Marconi apparently built a wireless telegraphy receiving station at Reykjavik in 1905, before the fire. Dispatches from this station started to be published in a local newspaper in the days right after the seance was held. This makes it at least possible that Indridason was able to access information about the fire from this source. A leading Experimental Society member (a local newspaper editor) would seem to have had access to information from this Marconi station at the time of the sitting.

Of course this skeptical case isn’t convincing at all, if only because the detailed information about the Copenhagen businessman Emil Jensen certainly would not have been on the wireless. And because the fraud theory would require that all the leading members of the Icelandic Experimental Society (set up to study mediumistic phenomena) including the scientist investigator Hannesson were in on it and part of the trickery.

David, Sun 30 Aug, 20:08

As far as I know, Haraldsson personally never witnessed trickery with Baba and neither did any of the witnesses he interviewed. He and Richard Wiseman travelled to India to examine video footage purporting to show possible trickery but neither Wiseman or Haraldsson could say trickery occurred.

Haraldsson did travel to India on many occasions investigating people claiming to possess psychic gifts and he did uncover fraud, but not with Baba.

Jon, Sat 29 Aug, 11:28

I wonder if Brian has read my book carefully, like the chapters on the ex-devotees (16 and 17), chapters on Indian and Western Critics (20, 32) and ”On the question of proof” (39). I quote from that chapter:
“In science, experimentation is traditionally the ideal way to certainty about the nature of any phenomena. In our research on Sai Baba this approach was closed to us. Restricting oneself to that criterion of proof from experiment there is no proof of genuine paranormal phenomena having been produced by Sathya Sai Baba.
Experimentation, however, is not the way most questions of truth or falsehood, fact or fallacy are settled; nor indeed is it the only way in certain branches of science, such as in some of the social sciences and history that involve case studies and field work. Experimental science has one way of approaching truth; descriptive science another. Our judicial systems have evolved interrogation and corroboration of witnesses, investigating relevant contemporary documents and so on, as ways of accruing evidence” (p.  362).

I used the descriptive, interrogative method of science, and did indeed spend much time looking for evidence of fraud that was contrary to the normal or natural explanation. I interviewed those who had in his early days been with Sai Baba day in and day out and later left him. They with their abundant opportunities had not observed fraudulent behavior (see chapters 16 and 17). I also interviewed his later critics who had meager possibilities to observe Sai Baba (chapters 20, 32). Their claims of fraud were mostly conjectural. There may well have been fraudulent phenomena and deception in his later years, but for the bulk of the phenomena we have no natural explanation. Read the book if you want to judge for yourself.

Erlendur, Sat 29 Aug, 10:10

Dr Haraldsson seems to make very elementary mistakes as it pertains to the scientific method. His latest book on Sai Baba completely discounts all evidence showing Sai Baba using trickery. No good scientist will ever disregard evidence contrary to their own theory.
I nkw find all his work to be suspect given how he refuses to acknowledge any evidence running contrary to his world view-this is not how the scientific method works.
Brian

brian, Fri 28 Aug, 17:54

Erlendur has done wonderful work in psychical research, often daring to go ‘where no man has gone before’. He is one of nature’s gentlemen and is indeed one of the modern ‘greats’ in psychical research. His contribution has been and is invaluable. I am happy to be one of his friends and look forward to his next venture.

Tricia, Tue 25 Aug, 08:12


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