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An Interview with Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson

Posted on 24 August 2015, 9:29

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


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Just Wondering (about death)!

Posted on 11 August 2015, 7:50

While recently accompanying a granddaughter around the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, so much of which sets forth biological evolution as fact, I wondered if fundamentalist Christians – at least those fundamentalists rejecting Darwinism – were among the visitors and how they reacted to it all.  I wondered how there can be such absolute certainty when there is still that “missing link.”  I thought about the comment by Alfred Russel Wallace, (below) co-originator with Darwin of the natural selection theory of evolution, that the evidence for a spirit world is as good as the evidence for evolution and wondered if the evidence is still as good as it was back then, concluding that it was much greater in both areas. 

 wallace

I further wondered about the quantum aspect; that is, if there is no such thing as “time,” then how do things “evolve”?  Of course, that question doesn’t help religion, either, since even Creationism involves time, if only seven days. As with reincarnation, I have come to the conclusion that biological evolution is much more complicated than we realize and for the most part beyond human comprehension, and so I don’t concern myself too much with our origins.

I concern myself more with where we are headed than from where we came and wonder why others are not so concerned.  I recalled that when Professor James Hyslop (below) was teaching philosophy and logic at Columbia University, a fellow professor sneered at his interest in psychical research.  When Hyslop published articles that strongly supported non-mechanistic theories, the fellow professor tried to have him fired.  In his defense, Hyslop, noting scientific efforts to find a species of useless fish to support Darwin’s theory, asked “why it is so noble and respectable to find whence man came, and so suspicious and dishonorable to ask and ascertain whither he goes?”  Pondering on that, I wondered why paleontologists are so much more respected than psychical researchers and parapsychologists.

 hyslop

As I further toured the Smithsonian and came upon the displays dealing with space exploration, I wondered why people are so interested in exploring “outer” space and so little interested in exploring “inner” space. I wondered about the benefits of space exploration if life is nothing but a march into an abyss of nothingness, as fundamentalist science would have us believe.  Who benefits and in what way?  Will our descendants find greater meaning in life if we find something out there?  What is the point of it all?  I wondered how Smithsonian officials would react if someone proposed they set aside a building devoted to discoveries in psychical research and parapsychology.  No doubt, they would scoff at the idea. 

The July 28 issue of the Washington Post carried an interview with Harvard geneticist Jack Szostak, who won a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, about his attempts to create life in a test tube.  “What I hope this will show people is that there is a perfectly natural progression from chemistry to life and that the origin of life is not something magical,” Szostak was quoted, going on to say that a supernatural explanation is not needed.  I wondered about his definition of “supernatural” and further wondered how the world might be better off if he were to succeed in completely ruling out a supernatural explanation.  Would everyone be happier knowing that life is meaningless, nothing but a march into that abyss?  Is life just about making life better for future generations?  I wondered what happens when Utopia is achieved – when some future generation experiences only happiness.  Will it be all eat, drink, and be merry?  What will life be like without challenges and adversity?  To what end the progeny, to which generation full fruition?  Will that future generation go the way of Nero and Rome, and then will the pursuit of happiness start all over again?  Then again, I wondered if creating life in a test tube proves anything relative to the existence of the soul.  Might not a soul attach itself to that life in the same way it attaches itself to a fetus or a newborn? 

I visited a 99-year-old friend at the Old Soldier’s Home in Washington, D.C. and after seeing the pain and misery he seemed to be in I wondered why anyone would want to live to be that old.  As near as I could determine, when he wasn’t sleeping he was in pain, and so he preferred to spend most of his time sleeping.  I wondered if his fundamentalist religious beliefs helped him deal with it all.  He was not in condition to talk about it this visit, but when I visited him two years ago he talked about seeing his family in heaven at some far off date, though he did not seem anxious to join them, seemingly looking forward to making it to 100 and beyond.  Most of the other old soldiers I observed at the retirement home appeared depressed and despondent and I wondered what their beliefs are. 

Going south, we visited Universal Studios in Orlando.  As we toured the new Harry Potter theme parks, I wondered how so many people can get so excited about a fantasy world involving some elements of spirituality while taking no interest at all in a real spiritual world.  I wondered why fiction appeals to so many when there is enough non-fiction concerning a spiritual world to delve into.

On my 11-hour flight home to Hawaii on American Airlines, I sat in the coach section, the seats moved even closer to each other than on previous flights, and wondered why they don’t call it what it really is – “steerage,” and if that is what it feels like to be buried alive.

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 post:  August 24


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