Oct 10 2012

Can Paranormal Experience be Found in the Brain? (part 1)

Published by at 9:24 pm under Consciousness,PSI

(This series of posts dates back to research of mine from 2006. There may be more current sources that support or refute what I’ve written.)

Perhaps the only limits to the human mind are those we believe in. – Willis Harman

Does the brain somehow “create” consciousness (either directly or epiphenomenally), or does consciousness utilize the brain? While I have no illusions of solving this conundrum within these posts, let alone this website, I would like to discuss the issue in terms of what are often described as paranormal or “anomalous” experiences, often referred to as “psi.” Dean Radin, in his book Entangled Minds (2006), defines common psi experiences as including

…mind-to-mind connections (telepathy), perceiving distant objects or events (clairvoyance), perceiving future events (precognition), and mind-matter interactions (psychokinesis). Psi may also be involved in intuitive hunches, gut feelings, distant healing, the power of intention, and the sense of being stared at (p. 6).

There has been a long history of attempting to pathologize those who experience and/or believe in psi phenomena. Are there simple biological or environmental explanations for psi (as some would suggest), or does the existence of psi hint at the necessity for further investigations into the nature of consciousness itself? I have a proposal for resolving this issue. However, I would like to first provide some historical background.


Carlos Alvarado, in his article Nineteenth Century Medical Explanations of Psychic Phenomena (1989) provides a fascinating overview of what could be termed “the materialist paradigm’s” attempts to explain away psi phenomena, and pathologize those who may exhibit behaviors such as those that fall under the psi umbrella. According to Alvarado, this effort was assisted by the field of psychiatry, which “contributed to the idea that many usual and unusual behaviors and conditions had pathological explanations, [and] these developments led physicians to consider a variety of strange and anomalous phenomena from a medical perspective” (pp. 4-5). Various explanations for psychic phenomena included unconscious muscular movements, automatic reflexes, and “morbid nonparanormal states of the nervous system” (p. 5).

Typical of the establishment’s views towards psi phenomena and spiritualism (which was often lumped together with psi), is this tirade attributed to an anonymous physician (whom Alvarado believes to have been Thomas Wakely) in 1860:

Its analogies to the delusions of the lunatic asylum and to the various moral epidemics which from time to time spread amongst persons of defective cerebral organization or ill-cultivated intellects are features which the physician cannot ignore…the counterpart of the wretched medium we find in the half-deluded and half-designing hysterical patient, who persists…in simulating some extraordinary or impossible disease (as quoted in Alvarado, 1989, p. 5).

In addition, an element of Victorian-era misogyny crept into the discussion, with the discovery of the disorder known as “mediomania” by F.R. Marvin in 1874. Mediomania (the “insanity of mediums”) affected both men and women, but was found predominantly in girls undergoing puberty and menopausal women. Alvarado explains that “mediomania was considered by Marvin to be related to other nervous disorders such as hysteria, chorea, and utromania, or disorders related to the position and workings of the uterus” (p. 5).

There was (and is) without a doubt, a high incidence of fraud in mediumistic claims. Yet to completely dismiss all psi phenomena as fraud completely misses the point, and would be unscientific. Countless experiments seem to support the existence of some sort of psi ability.  Yet the study of these phenomena is still highly controversial. Because of the controversy, and mutual mistrust between the materialist paradigm, and those not of the materialist ilk, research becomes difficult. Funding is scarce. In addition, attempts to find neuro-physiological correlates between brain activity and the experience of psi phenomena can lead to fears of Victorian-era reductionism and pathologization.

Yet this mistrust need not continue. Clearly, brain states can cause states of consciousness. Yet states of consciousness can also have physical effects on the brain, and the entire body. By finding the correlate phenomena, we can better understand the brain’s capacity to facilitate psi phenomena in particular, and consciousness in general. By acknowledging that our minds can affect our bodies, we can begin to accept the possibility of other capabilities of the mind and consciousness.

The medical and scientific search for biological correlates to psi phenomena still continues to this day. Fortunately, it has gotten a lot more interesting that the 19th Century hypothesis involving “positions and workings of the uterus”  (not that there’s anything wrong with the uterus!). It is present day research that I wish to look at in the next several posts, providing a brief overvew and critique.

There are two main areas of research in the field. The first school of inquiry tries to understand why people believe in the  paranormal, both from a brain standpoint, and from a psychological standpoint. If someone is prone to belief in the paranormal (the argument goes), then they may be finding supernatural explanations for perfectly natural phenomena. I would like to affirm that this is entirely possible in some instances. That said, by going exclusively down this road, we again find the specter of pathology potentially haunting us yet again. Though researchers in this area often make disclaimers against attributing pathology to their findings, oftentimes, it can become too easy to dismiss their results as indicative of psychological flaws in their test subjects. The second school of inquiry tries to understand how psi phenomena (telepathy, precognition, percptions of “presences”, etc.) might be processed in the brain.

In my concluding post, I will offer an alternative framework within which these inquiries might operate, as well as a possible direction for further study. First however, we will take a look at some of the “reasons” people might believe in the possibilities of psi and the paranormal.

Tomorrow: Sheep and Goats.




  • Alvarado, Carlos S. (1989). Nineteenth Century Medical Explanations of Psychic Phenomena. Parapsychology Review, 20(3), 4-7.
  • Radin, Dean. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. New York: Paraview Pocket Books.



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