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In contrast to the spontaneous ADC experiences outlined above mediumship refers to an ‘active’ or ‘facilitated’ ADC (Beischel, 2014, 2019). For instance, many people who have been bereaved seek out the comfort of a message from a medium relating to their loss. A medium is someone who regularly experiences contact with the deceased and is often able to do this ‘on demand’ and relay obtained information back to the bereaved (Bastos Jr et al., 2015; Beischel, 2014, 2019). They are sometimes referred to as psychic mediums or spirit mediums (Beischel, 2019; O’Keeffe & Wiseman, 2005) and it is a phenomenon that is well known in many cultures around the world (Pierini, 2016).
The idea of mediumship has an important historical role to play as it was primarily for this reason that the Society for Psychical Research (see https://spr.ac.uk) began its activities in terms of collecting and examining the various case reports. For instance, initial tests of mediums carried out in the 1880s allowed investigators attending séances to note down the comments made by mediums, allegedly received from the deceased, and then assess the accuracy of this information. Some of the resulting reports argued in favour of the existence of genuine mediumistic ability, and contained lengthy transcripts of mediumistic messages along with detailed descriptions of the evidence supporting these statements (e.g., Hodgson, 1898). From this work emerged several seemingly remarkable individuals who demonstrated an ability to contact the deceased and/or obtain accurate information. For example, both the American medium Leonora Piper and the British medium Gladys Leonard were particularly acclaimed for their successes (Gauld, 1977; Salter, 1950). However, it should be noted that some have argued that such work often failed to assess whether the seemingly accurate readings could have been the result of various psychological stratagems, such as the mediums engaging in shrewd guesswork or producing very general statements that would be endorsed by the majority of people (see e.g., Gardner, 1992; O’Keeffe & Wiseman, 2005).
Profile of a medium
A number of researchers have examined the personality profiles of mediums to assess whether there is anything unique or distinct about them compared to non-mediums. There is some agreement in the literature that mediums tend to be well-adjusted, healthy, happy, occupationally active individuals (Aurelio et al., 2015). For instance, one study found that mediums scored higher in wellbeing and lower in psychological stress compared to a non-mediumistic control group (Roxburgh & Roe, 2011). Another reported a clear association between mediumship and good mental health and social adaptation (Bastos Jr et al., 2015). Though some have suggested a link between mediumship and the pathological process of dissociation (Negro Jr, Palladino-Negro, & Louzà, 2002), a recent study by Wahbeh and Radin (2017) found that individuals claiming mediumistic experience do tend to score higher than non-claimants on a dissociation scale but not to the extent that their responses would be deemed pathological.
Types of mediumship
There are a variety of methods or approaches that have been developed and adapted for the study of mediumship and often a distinction is made between physical, trance and mental mediumship (Beischel, 2007; Beischel, Mosher, et al., 2015; Beischel & Zingrone, 2015). Physical mediumship usually refers to the generation of physical phenomena such as table tipping and materialisation; it may also include the levitation of objects, and taps on walls or furniture. Trance mediumship may occur in a sleep-like state and involve some aspect of amnesia on the part of the medium whereby they become the instrument of the discarnate entity. Mental mediumship generally refers to a situation where the medium enters into an altered state of consciousness, though remains conscious and awake, and acts as an active intermediary between the living sitter and the deceased discarnate by gathering and relaying information during a ‘reading’ (Beischel, Mosher, & Boccuzzi, 2015; Beischel & Zingrone, 2015). The set-up of a reading is outlined in Figure 11.1 and indicates the flow of communication via the directionality of the arrows. For instance, the sitter may ask questions of the medium and receive responses, though questions posed to the discarnate entity by the sitter will be relayed back through the medium.
According to Beischel (2014) a reading involves a complex dynamic between the sitter, the medium and the invited deceased person, each component of which may influence the outcome. Mental mediums can relay information back to the sitter in a wide variety of formats including drawings, paintings, music and in some cases artistic performances (see, Harris & Alvarado, 2014). However, the main types of mental mediumship are proxy sittings, discarnate directed, drop-in communications, xenoglossy and cross-correspondences.
Here the sitter may ask the medium for information known only to some third party not present at the meeting. For example, in experimental research the proxy sitter may be the experimenter who sits with the medium and poses questions that have been pre-specified by the sitter (see e.g., Beischel, 2007). Using a proxy sitter to pose questions blinds the medium to cues from the original sitter and can also
Figure 11.1 The set-up of a reading involving a medium, who obtains and relays information from a discarnate entity to a sitter, who in turn may be a living relative or friend of the deceased.
blind the sitter to the reading until it is later scored. An extension of this is for the proxy sitter to contact the medium via phone or email. In this way the blinded proxy sitter acts for an absent sitter and the medium can conduct the reading in a comfortable location of their choice. Such blinding techniques have been proposed to exclude any possible use of psi by the medium. However, as Irwin and Watt (2007) accurately point out, the precise limits of psi are as yet unknown, if indeed there are any, and as such it is not possible to be completely certain that such an approach excludes all psi-based sources.
In this instance the medium may be given the first name of a specific discarnate the sitter wishes to communicate with and sometimes their relationship to the sitter. It has been suggested that by giving the medium such information it may be possible for them to produce generalisations that could give the impression of accuracy (French & Stone, 2014). However, Beischel (2007) has argued that the specific information required from the medium regarding the physical life of a discarnate is not likely to be obtained solely from a first name. Furthermore, Beischel (2007) points out that if a name does provide some culturally specific information, as it would with the clearly Japanese name of Akira, then it should be possible to either provide two names from the same cultural background, only one of which would relate to a discarnate, or provide two names from the same cultural background both referring to discarnates and require the medium to focus on details that would distinguish between the two.
According to Irwin and Watt (2007) this is where an apparently discarnate personality ‘drops in’ to provide information to the sitters in a séance. In this instance, information obtained from such a discarnate would be unknown to the medium, sitter or experimenter (Beischel, 2007).
In some rare cases during a séance the medium may exhibit a skill and/or personality characteristic that was possessed by the discarnate whilst living but that the medium does not have. A classic example is the paranormal ability of the medium to speak and/or write in a language they have not naturally acquired. Although there have been reported cases of such xenoglossy (see, Gauld, 1982, 2005) their methodological rigour leaves many questions unanswered.
Here the idea is that different mediums may receive communications from the same deceased individual. This in turn would lead to a correspondence between the scripts of their meetings or readings which would suggest that the information came from the same source. This would be assuming that the mediums in question never meet. An adaptation of this is where distinct parts of a single message are communicated through different mediums which would only make sense when all the parts are brought together as a whole (Gauld, 2005). This has led to suggestions that such cross-correspondences in communication, if accurate, would indicate that they belong or stem from a single source (Beischel & Zingrone, 2015).
Laboratory based investigations into mediums
Two of the main lab-based approaches used to examine mediumship have been to explore changes in psychophysiological activity to see if there is something distinct about the state of the medium and to examine the veracity of any communication whilst attempting to control for the various normal routes of communication. According to Beischel (2007) all lab-based research examining mediums needs to use detailed reading protocols, clear experimental blinding of those involved, the prescreening of all those involved in the research and a transparent scoring system to identify the accuracy of the readings. Unfortunately, not all abide by these helpful and rigorous guidelines.
A central idea with this type of research is to examine the cerebral activity of the medium before, during and after the reading to ascertain what, if any, differences in cortical activity are seen in the medium compared to either non-mediums or mediums in a non-reading control condition. For instance, one study utilising Single Positron Emission Tomography (SPECT) showed a reduction of cerebral blood flow (CBF) in a wide range of cortical regions associated with memory, language and planning during mediumistic communication as compared to a control task for more experienced mediums (Peres, Moreira-Almeida, Caixeta, Leao, & Newberg, 2012). There was also a negative correlation between the CBF in these areas and the linguistic complexity of the written text produced. The pattern of data was more complex than would be expected simply by having the individual relax. As such, it was suggested that it indicated the activation of fewer neuronal populations during the reading. In addition, researchers have examined changes in the electrocortical activity of the medium’s brain using the electroencephalogram (EEG). For example, work by Krippner (2008) reported increased activity in the EEG frequencies of theta, alpha and beta during mediumistic communication compared to a baseline. In a two-part study Delorme et al. (2013) measured the EEG from mediums during masked readings as well as other mental tasks. This showed some differences in theta brain activity during periods of low accuracy compared to periods of high accuracy. In the follow-up experiment they required mediums to think about a living person, to passively listen to a biography, to think about an imaginary person and finally to mentally communicate with a deceased individual. They found clear differences in gamma band activity between each of these four conditions which was taken to suggest that mediumistic communication represents a distinct mental state from ordinary thinking or imagination and that brain activity during these phases may also be distinct. Others have also compared the EEG of mediums to non-mediums before, during and immediately following a reading. They found greater activity in the theta and beta EEG frequency ranges for the mediums compared to the non-mediums (Bastos Jr et al., 2016). Such increases in theta and beta are usually indicative of greater cognitive demands.
However, there are many methodological issues with this area of research which indicate that its findings need to be interpreted with caution. First, it has been noted that it is a challenge in such psychophysiological research to precisely define when any mediumistic communication begins and ends (Bastos Jr et al., 2015). This makes it difficult to precisely synchronise any potential changes in brain activity to the distinct stages of the reading process. In addition, the various studies utilise mediums with a diverse level of experience. For instance, the study by Peres et al. (2012) examining changes in the brain during mediumistic readings included mediums with between 15 and 47 years of experience. There are also inconsistencies in the offered interpretations across the various imaging studies. For instance, the SPECT study by Peres et al. (2012) suggested a reduction in activation of some key left hemisphere regions whereas the EEG work of Bastos et al. (2016) is indicative of greater cognitive activity. Such contradictory findings are difficult to reconcile. In part, no doubt, this is likely to be due to the complexity of the brain and the task at hand. However, even when clear cortical differences are identified it needs to be made clear that they are not simply a result of other non-specific differences such as the age of the medium, their experience, the number of readings they have conducted, the duration of the reading, as well as the context and setting (see e.g., Beischel, 2007). This will no doubt be a growing area of research as technology develops; nevertheless, more needs to be done in terms of developing clear a-priori ideas as to why a medium would be expected to exhibit a particular cortical profile.
This line of research examines the veracity of information obtained during a mediumistic reading. According to Beischel (2007) the information obtained by the medium is more often received than retrieved and as such is referred to as anomalous information reception (AIR). Beischel (2014, 2019) also suggests that the three main types of information obtained by mediums relating to deceased individuals includes information identifying the deceased, information regarding events in the life of the bereaved person including those since the death, and direct messages relayed from the deceased. Such identifying information can include physical appearance, background information including occupation, and personality characteristics. This is thought to help the sitter identify the source as the specific individual they wish to communicate with. Information relating to events in the sitter’s life since the death are thought to provide evidence that the deceased individual is still taking an interest in their life. Finally, the relayed messages may simply be messages of love or may specifically refer to things only the sitter would know. However, mediumistic readings have often been criticised for allowing potential artefacts, such as non-verbal cues, clever guesswork and generic statements to be used (French & Stone, 2014; Holt, Simmonds-Moore, Luke, & French, 2012), specifically, the use of Barnum statements and the cold reading approach. The former relies on producing generic truths that encourage the listener to form a specific impression (e.g., O’Keeffe & Wiseman, 2005; Roe, 1996), whereas the latter refers to a set of techniques in which visual and auditory cues from the sitter may be used consciously or unconsciously to fabricate readings (French & Stone, 2014).
Researchers are fully aware of the use and potential influence of Barnum statements and cold reading and as a consequence contemporary methods have evolved beyond the historical approaches to include a range of rigorous checks and measures. Although there is no single universally accepted methodological gold standard Beischel (2007) has identified a set of procedures that robustly deals with issues of contamination and possible fraud. This includes the use of detailed reading protocols, clear experimental blinding, the pre-screening of all those involved in the research and a transparent scoring system used to identify the accuracy of the readings. A key element of all this is the reliance on using well trained and skilled mediums. For instance, the reading may include protocols that become more specific at each step, requiring more detailed information as the session progresses. Or it may involve asking for a specific discarnate, which would allow for similar discarnate readings to be made across a study. In addition, when rating a given reading the sitter should ideally be given two readings, one that was intended for them and one intended for another sitter. These readings should be matched for discarnates of the same gender to avoid any obvious gender-based cues and the sitter would be required to identify which reading was intended for her. The level of blinding can also become progressively more stringent. For instance, a single-blind condition refers to situations where only the medium is blinded to information regarding the sitter and discarnate. Double-blind conditions are where the medium is blind to all information and the individual rating the reading is also blinded to the origin. Triple-blind procedures include the addition of blinding the experimenter involved in the research (see Beischel, 2007). Nevertheless, whilst these procedures represent a gold standard in terms of methodological rigour there are still many methodological differences in the studies reported in the literature which may to some extent account for the different results.
For example, one study required five professional mediums to each provide a reading to five sitters. The mediums had no contact with the sitters and were provided no information about them. Each sitter was then asked to rate the accuracy of their own readings along with a range of decoy readings. The results failed to show any clear pattern with only one occasion whereby a sitter gave a higher accuracy rating to a reading meant for them (O’Keeffe & Wiseman, 2005). This would suggest that the accuracy of information obtained during a reading is very poor. However, this study was later criticised for containing both descriptive and methodological flaws which included requiring the mediums to produce multiple readings ‘on demand’, and editing transcripts in such a way as to reduce applicability ratings (Beischel & Zingrone, 2015). That said, others have also attempted to study the veracity of the readings given by mediums when produced under controlled conditions and found no clear evidence of paranormal communication (Jensen & Cardena, 2008), although it was noted that the medium also gave all the readings a rating of low confidence which could indicate that they felt the environment was not conducive to making the necessary connection to obtain the relevant information. It is important to be wary of accepting such reasons at face value as it would always be possible to suggest that conditions are not conducive given current understanding of what this may mean.
Nevertheless, there are those that argue that certain mediums are able to accurately report specific information relating to a discarnate without any prior knowledge of the discarnate or sitter and in the absence of any feedback (Beischel, 2007), also that such information cannot be explained as a result of fraud or ‘cold reading’ (e.g., Beischel, 2019; Beischel, Boccuzzi, Biuso, & Rock, 2015; E. W. Kelly & Arcangel, 2011). For instance, Beischel and Schwartz (2007) using a rigorous triple-blinded approach found significantly more accurate whole-reading scores for readings intended for the sitter compared to those for a control, see Figure 11.2.
Such findings have led to the suggestion that ‘some’ mediums are able to relay accurate information under rigorous lab-based conditions (Rock & Storm, 2015). Indeed, a follow-up study incorporating two experimental reading sessions by Beischel, Boccuzzi et al. (2015) examined the accuracy of information reported by mediums who performed readings over the phone under blinded conditions. Subsequent comparisons of the accuracy and specificity of blinded target and decoy readings showed that the real readings were rated as significantly more accurate in both experiments (see Figure 11.3). Such findings have been suggested to provide evidence supporting the notion that mediums can receive and communicate anomalous information. Given that the experimental conditions eliminated the normal sensory sources for information transfer, Beischel, Boccuzzi et al. (2015) suggest that a non-local source was the most likely explanation.
Others agree they also point out that not all studies with rigorous methods have shown clear evidence supporting the accuracy of information provided by mediums (for a review see, Bastos Jr et al., 2015). To some extent this may be due to the heterogenous methodologies used (Aurelio et al., 2015). In part this may also be because mediums only have limited control over the specific individual that ‘comes through’ and that rather than calling up a particular individual they generally allow themselves to be open and receptive to whatever information, or whoever, comes through (Beischel, 2019). In addition, there is little in the way of any formal or consistent training and accreditation for those interested in becoming a medium. This is likely to influence the outcome of research because whilst some have argued that research should focus on mediums who have been screened, pre-tested, well trained and are experienced (see, Beischel, 2007),
Figure 11.2 The mean accuracy (%) of readings intended for the sitter (left) and control readings (right) (adapted from Beischel & Schwartz, 2007).
Figure 11.3 The percentage mean accuracy of blinded target (left column) and decoy (right column) readings for both experiment I (left panel) and experiment 2 (right panel) (adapted from Beischel, Boccuzzi. et al.. 2015).
this may not always be the case. Nevertheless, the positive results reported by the more rigorous studies are sufficiently interesting to warrant further investigation.
The three most common explanations for mediumship are fraud, either consciously or unconsciously, some form of super-psi and the possibility that it accurately represents a form of after death communication (Bastos Jr et al., 2015). It is true that the history of psi research, like many others, has experienced some cases of fraud (e.g., Kurtz, 1985; Markwick, 1985), though it should be noted that in most of these cases the deceptions came to light because researchers in the field of psi questioned the findings and made public their concerns (see, Roe, 2016a, 2016b, 2017). Furthermore, it should be made clear that the majority of those participating in psi research are sincere in what they do and the claims they make. Of course, sincerity is not a guarantee of scientific accuracy, though, as French and Stone (2014) note, there is no evidence that those who either participate in psi research or experience such phenomena are any less honest than those who do not. In fact, reflecting on the possible types of fraud across different areas of science Roe (2016b, p. 16) argues that the field of psi research ‘is actually much less susceptible to fraud than other research areas’.
The second possibility is based on the notion that even when evidence for anomalous information reception by mediums emerges it is not possible to distinguish this from effects reliant on super psi (Beischel & Schwartz, 2007). Super psi refers to the idea that it is the psi ability of the medium, either through telepathy, precognition or even psychokinesis, to obtain any and all relevant information about the necessary deceased persons from the sitter (Braude, 1992). This is often seen as a more parsimonious interpretation suggesting that any effects produced by a medium are more probably the result of telepathy, or other aspects of psi, than the possibility of contact with discarnate entities (Bastos Jr et al., 2015). To an extent this is because the limits of psi are not clearly known or fully understood at this time. However, there is a problem with this idea in that it attempts to explain one unknown with reference to another and as such doesn’t really explain anything. In addition, some have argued that it would be difficult if not impossible to test such a proposal as super psi is often seen to represent some form of omniscient or omnipotent capacity that cannot be falsified (Alvarado & Martinez-Taboas, 1983).
The final possibility is that mediumship is what it claims to be: a form of after death communication where a skilled medium can obtain and relay information from a discarnate entity. Such a proposal would provide clear evidence to support the survival of consciousness beyond physical death and have significant implications for the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Indeed, evidence from the more rigorous studies would certainly support such a view (Beischel, Boccuzzi, et al., 2015; Beischel & Schwartz, 2007; E. W. Kelly & Arcangel, 2011), though it is too early at this moment in time to reach a firm conclusion. Such findings need to be replicated by other laboratories, ideally using the same stringent procedures. Hence, there is no single explanation that at present can fully account for the data from mediumistic research.