Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why It's Not OK to Pathologize Psi

Those of us who have Psi/spiritual experiences often have to deal with discrimination and bigotry. It's hard enough handling our own self-doubts and concerns about whether or not these experiences are "real". But we also have to deal with people who are quick to label us as being "delusional, deceptive or mistaken" without even the slightest allowance made for any alternative possibilities. There is a false assumption that science, and scientists themselves, overwhelmingly support that premise as if it were the standard scientific response to all such experiences. But truthfully, that isn't the case. 

In a study presented by Yolaine Stout at the 2011 IANDS conference in Durham, NC, it was found that 46% of people who had reported a Spiritually Transformative Experience (STE) and who had shared the experience with a trusted professional such as a medical doctor or mental health practitioner felt "believed, validated or respected" as a result of the disclosure. A slight majority (48-54%) of respondents felt that the professional was "open-minded, interested or understanding". So even though there is definitely room for improvement in regards to how professionals deal with experiencers, the good news is that skeptics are mistaken about the standard educated professional's response to unusual experiences. That same study found that 31.9% of those surveyed answered "yes" to the question, "Have you ever felt as though you were very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?". Chances are there are medical and mental health professionals numbered among those who answered "yes".

A term used in the talk that I had never heard of before was "Iatrogenic Harm" which is harm "resulting from the activity of physicians", including "any adverse condition in a patient resulting from treatment by a physician or surgeon". The reason it was mentioned was to emphasize the point that when medical doctors or other professionals mistreat a patient by pathologizing  their spiritual experiences, they are doing real and substantial harm to that patient. According to the study, of those who had reported an STE and who had shared the experience with a trusted professional, 44% felt "unsupported", 25% felt "ridiculed", 23% felt "pathologized", 18% felt "demoralized" and 10% felt "suicidal" as a result of the disclosure. I have to wonder what those educated professionals would say in their own defense knowing that they may have caused suicidal feelings in a patient as a result of their actions?

At the 2013 ACISTE conference in Arlington DC, a talk was given by David Hufford which addressed the positive aspects of Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences (ESEs) while drawing attention to the need to educate professionals about the harm caused by stigmatizing such experiences. The abstract of the talk is as follows (emphasis mine):
"Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences (ESEs), such as near-death experiences and after-death contacts, are common around the world and have been shown to be normal and salutogenic. Substantial data indicates that several of these experiences are associated with better psychological health. ESEs have healing power, a power partly rooted in the way that the knowledge they confer to the experiencer produces a cognitive re-appraisal of threats and, therefore, stress. Since stress can produce morbidity and death, and cognitive appraisal modulates stress, the spiritual resources arising from Extraordinary Spiritual Experiences can be potent mediators of the stress response and, therefore, health.  To facilitate the use of this resource it is necessary to combat the stigma of psychopathology that has been consistently used by skeptics to “debunk” ESEs, and to assist experiencers in an appreciation of the empirical and rational support that exists for taking ESEs seriously."
Given the potential harm which can result from pathologizing spiritual experiences, you have to wonder, "What kind of person would do such a thing?" If the evidence suggests that these experiences can be positive for those who have them, then why would anyone suggest otherwise? Well, it turns out that there are organized groups of individuals out there dedicated to promoting the idea that Psi/spiritual experiences are pathological. Groups such as CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation) attract followers by using the age-old, tried and true method of inciting an angry mob. Instead of burning witches, modern day skeptics vilify and ridicule those people brave enough to come forward with Psi/spiritual experiences (such as NDEr Eben Alexander), as well as any scientist who dares to investigate these commonly occurring, normal human experiences.

Most of us never encounter skeptics in our daily lives. They are a very limited, but vocal, minority. Unfortunately, they can substantially change history, or at least the perception of it, by concentrated efforts such as Guerrilla Skepticism. Skeptics have turned something as innocuous as Wikipeadia into a weapon of censorship and a tool for self-promotion. Craig Weiler has been covering this issue on his blog.

The skeptics may believe they are doing a service by helping to rid the world of psychic-fair mediums, but how many people out there have been seriously harmed financially or otherwise by a medium? Probably far less than the 31.9% who have had STEs and who may require support from well-trained, well-informed professionals aware of the potential dangers of pathologizing Psi. We have to hope such professionals are smart enough not to believe everything they read on Wikipedia

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Can't We Talk About Morphic Resonance?

Rupert Sheldrake is once again a target of the organized skeptical movement. Craig Weiler has made this the subject of his latest blog for those of you interested in all the gritty details. It's hard to imagine why such a distinguished and soft-spoken academic repeatedly raises the hackles of skeptics. Sheldrake comes across as the sort of person you wouldn't hesitate to invite to a dinner party. Most people wouldn't find him offensive in the least.

So who does find Dr Sheldrake offensive? And why?

They call themselves skeptics, but they follow a a strict set of beliefs which makes them anything but skeptical in the true sense of the word. They are characterized by a lack of curiosity and an abundance of free time. Let's face it, when you think that science has already figured out everything important (such as "Is there life after death?"), there isn't much left to do but mess with Wiki from the safety of mom's basement.

It's hard to understand that lack of curiosity. I have a pretty good education, a couple of undergraduate degrees as well as graduate school. I'm always interested in learning more. There was never a time when I thought science had everything figured out. There were times when I wished it did, particularly those times when I wanted to dismiss my own experiences of Psi. But in the end, I couldn't rationalize away my experiences or the large body of experimental evidence that suggests Psi is a possibility. It would have been intellectually dishonest to make Psi "disappear" in such a way. But once you accept Psi as a possibility, your universe becomes a lot bigger, and perhaps a bit more scary. I suspect that's why there are organized attempts to make it "disappear" along with other scary worldview changing concepts like Sheldrake's Morphic Resonance.

It takes a certain amount of courage to deal with a universe that isn't deterministic. One in which you aren't a robot, where you have to take responsibility for your own actions and how they impact on others around you. Perhaps a bit more courage than the average anonymous skeptic who edits Wikipedia is known for. The sad thing is, they are missing out on all the real fun to be had. By passively following orders, they forgo the joy of exploring new ideas for themselves.

In a perfect world, we'd be able to talk about Morphic Resonance. We wouldn't all have to agree on the validity of the hypothesis of formative causation, but it could be discussed like anything else. We could push the envelope and consider effects outside of MR's usual scope of ontogeny, crystallization, etc... There could be so many interesting discussions! Are large-scale evolutionary processes affected by Morphic Resonance? Who knows! But it sure would be fun sitting in a campus pub on a Friday afternoon drinking beer and arguing about it. 

I once toyed with the idea of whether or not Morphic Resonance could be used to explain diversification patterns seen in Ordovician fauna. Highly speculative, difficult to prove, but still fun to think about. This is some of what I wrote:
It is hard to conceive that there might be an intrinsic “something” that connects the past to the present within even our planet’s basic biological systems. But if there were such a “something”, wouldn’t it be evident in the geologic record? The geological record gives indications of all sorts of neat stuff that happened on this planet before we showed up. If there were intrinsic forces influencing the basic biological systems on this planet, one would think that this would be evident in the past record of faunal diversity.

Let’s consider the work of Jack Sepkoski, a paleontologist best known for his global compendia of marine animal families and genera. Sepkoski (1981,1984, 1990) used factor analysis of marine family diversity to produce a model of Phanerozoic diversity patterns involving three “Evolutionary Faunas” (EF’s) with distinct periods of diversification and taxonomic dominance (Figure 1). Successive faunas demonstrate declining origination rates and increased levels if equilibrium diversity in comparison to their predecessors. Based on this model, Sepkoski proposed that the Late Cambrian plateau of taxonomic diversity represented the point where the equilibrium between extinction rates and diversification rates had been achieved in regards to the Cambrian EF. The Paleozoic EF initially exhibited a much slower diversification rate than the Cambrian explosion, but was able to attain much higher levels of diversity than the Cambrian fauna before being superceded by the Modern EF.

Based on his mathematical modeling of global diversity, Sepkoski (1979, 1984) viewed the Ordovician Radiation as the logical result of intrinsic factors, a natural consequence of diversity-dependent interactions between the established Cambrian EF and the newly diversifying Paleozoic EF. In light of more recent works that highlight external influences on diversity (i.e. Miller, 1997a, 1997b; Miller and Mao, 1995), the importance placed on such intrinsic factors has been diminished. In spite of this, Sepkoski’s model endures due to its success in modeling Early Paleozoic patterns of diversification. Nearly all of the phyla and most of the clades that radiated during the Ordovician originated during the Cambrian. Even without a definitive link, this suggests that the Ordovician Radiation was influenced on a very fundamental level by the Cambrian explosion (Erwin et al, 1987; Miller, 2004).

Does Sheldrake’s hypothesis of formative causation (Sheldrake, 1981) explain the influence of the Cambrian explosion on the Ordovician Radiation? I really can’t say one way or the other, but it's fun to explore such ideas. It's great to be curious. And it's very sad that instead of talking about and playing with new ideas, there are people out there whose main pastime seems to be quashing the conversation. I may never get that afternoon in the pub to talk about such things. Those ideas are being suppressed because some people would rather live in a very small, very safe universe, with a finite destination, than be confronted with an infinite space and all the time needed to explore it.What a shame.


Erwin, D.H., Valentine, J.W. and Sepkoski, J.J. Jr., 1987. A comparative study of diversification events: The Early Paleozoic versus the Mesozoic. Evolution 41:1177-1186.

Miller, A.I. 1997a. Dissecting global diversity patterns: Examples from the Ordovician Radiation. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 28:85-104.

Miller, A.I. 1997b. Comparative diversification dynamics among paleocontinents during the Ordovician Radiation. Geobios M.S. 30(S1):397-406.

Miller A.I., 2004. The Ordovician Radiation: Toward a New Global Synthesis. In B.D. Webby, F. Paris, M.L. Droser, and I.G Percival (eds), The Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, pp. 381-388. Columbia University Press, New York.

Miller, A.I. and Mao, S.G., 1995. Association of orogenic activity with the Ordovician radiation of marine life. Geology 23:305-308.

Sepkoski, J.J. Jr., 1979. A kinetic model of Phanerozoic taxonomic diversity, II: Early Phanerozoic families and multiple equilibria. Paleobiology 5:222-252.

Sepkoski, J.J. Jr., 1981. A factor analytic description of the Phanerozoic marine fossil record. Paleobiology 7:36-53.

Sepkoski, J.J. Jr., 1984. A kinetic model of Phanerozoic taxonomic diversity, III: Post-Paleozoic families and mass extinctions. Paleobiology 10:246-267.

Sepkoski, J.J. Jr., 1990. Evolutionary faunas. In Briggs, D.E.G. and Crowther, P.R. (eds) Paleobiology: A synthesis, pp. 37-41. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.

Sheldrake, R., 1981.  A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation. Blond and Briggs, London.