Monday, 20 January 2014

Mysterious Minds: The Neurobiology of Psychics, Mediums, and Other Extraordinary People

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Edited by Stanley Krippner and Harris L.
Friedman. Praeger, Santa Barbara, CA, 2010. Index. 219 pp. £31.95

(hardcover). ISBN 978 0 313 35866 1

Book Review July 2013, the Society for Psychical Research

This volume reviews the history and prospects of neuroscientific approaches

to the study of psychical phenomena. Over the course of nine chapters, seventeen

researchers discuss past and present neuroscientific research in their

areas of interest, and recommend directions for future work. The phenomena

discussed range over an appropriately wide variety of subject areas, including

poltergeists, various forms of ESP, PK, trance mediumship and psychedelics.

The contributors include many recognized experts in parapsychological research,

such as Morris Freedman, Harvey Irwin, David Luke, Alexander Moreira-

Almeida, Vernon Neppe, Adrian Parker, William Roll, Caroline Watt, and of

course the editors themselves.

In the studies reviewed here the focus is not on proving the validity of psi

phenomena but on the neurobiological aspects of mechanisms involved in how

psi is activated, sustained, mediated, controlled, modulated or blocked. This

typically takes the form of investigating psi-correlated changes in the level of

activation in different parts of the brain, as indicated by changes in electrical

characteristics (e.g. shifts in amplitude, frequency spectrum or spatial distribution

of electrical activity), changes in metabolic activity (e.g. shifts in oxygenation

level or temperature) or changes in brain chemistry (e.g. production or

blocking of neuro-chemicals, or alteration of brain chemistry by psychedelics).

However, other neurological measures are also used (e.g. the electrical

characteristics of the heart or the skin).

Research in this area is clearly very challenging, both technically and

methodologically. Apart from difficulties with execution, there are also

considerable difficulties surrounding the interpretation of the results, as

the studies are often lacking in replicability and consistency. To complicate

matters further, it is often unclear whether psi was actually present in the

study, making the overall significance of the findings even more difficult to

assess. All this will hopefully improve over time, but at present the findings

are more useful for clarifying research questions than for revealing mechanisms

associated with psi. As such the book is of immediate practical interest to

parapsychologists doing neurobiological research, but for others it serves more

as a warning about how little we know than as food for thought about the

nature of psi.

Apart from reviewing the status and problems of research into the neurobiological

aspects of psychic experiences, the book also presents an interesting

and valuable discussion of the challenges inherent to psi research, and suggests

some strategies for dealing with them. In Chapter Two James Alcock reviews

the technical and philosophical challenges facing parapsychology, and on pages

87–88 Joan Hageman and colleagues discuss the pitfalls hampering research

into trance mediumship. Parapsychologists and psychical researchers can gain

much from studying these recommendations, irrespective of whether or not

their research or theorising is concerned with the neurobiological aspects of psi.

Centre for Systems Philosophy                           DAVID ROUSSEAU

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