Oct 12 2012

Can Paranormal Experience be Found in the Brain? (part 3)

Published by at 6:00 am under Consciousness,PSI

Part 1 of this series explored some historical background to the question, in which we learned that psychic phenomena might be related to the uterus.

Part 2 of this series looked at various brain-related factors that may contribute to whether one is a “sheep” or a “goat”, or, a believer, or a non-believer in the “paranormal”.

Today, I would like to offer some critiques, both of H.J. Irwin’s supposition that childhood trauma may lead to fantasy proneness, and hence belief in the paranormal, and the DSM-IV TR’s diagnosis of “Schizotypal Personality Disorder” for those who believe.

Yesterday, I mentioned that Irwin suggests that traumatic experience “evokes in the person a need for a sense of control over life events,” which can be facilitated by the embracing of paranormal belief, and using it to attribute meaning to said events (Irwin, 1994, p. 108).

First, and foremost, I am unsure “how” taking up a belief in supernatural forces allows one to feel more in control of a traumatic experience. This seems counter-intuitive to me. If one attributes mysterious forces at work for causing something bad to happen, this seems to me a step of further surrender of control. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, while there may be a strong correlation between childhood trauma and paranormal belief, there may be other reasons for it. The key to this may be the use of the term “subculture” in the DSM-IV’s description of schizotypal disorder. To arrive at my conclusion, I need to first provide some additional background information.

Margaret Wertheim, writing about an entirely different subject in her book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (1999) sums up the current Western scientific paradigm brilliantly.

[W]hile we have been mapping and mastering physical space, we have lost sight of any kind of religious or psychological space…in the very literal sense that we have lost any conception of a space in which spirits or souls or psyches might “reside.” In the modern scientific world picture it is a matter of cosmological fact that the whole of reality is taken up by physical space, and there is literally no place within this scheme for anything like a spirit or soul or psyche to be contextualized. In the vision painted by modern science, the physical world is the totality of reality, because within this vision physical space extends infinitely in all directions, taking up all available, and even conceivable territory (p. 32).

If this is indeed the dominant Western paradigm (and thought things may not be quite as extreme as Wertheim asserts, this is at least very close to the conceptual framework most of us operate within), then paranormal belief, let alone paranormal experience have no place. It is outside (as the DSM-IV puts it) our “subculture.” The DSM is adamant about this relation to culture/subculture and “wellness.”

Cognitive and perceptual distortions must be evaluated in the context of the individual’s cultural milieu. Pervasive culturally determined characteristics, particularly those regarding religious beliefs and rituals, can appear to be schizotypal to the uninformed outsider (e.g., voodoo, speaking in tongues, life beyond death, shamanism, mind reading, sixth sense, evil eye, and magical beliefs related to health and illness) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 699).

If a cultural milieu has no framework to deal with transcendent experience, let alone “no place for anything like a spirit or soul or psyche to be contextualized” (per Wertheim), then it is only logical that paranormal belief would be classified as pathological in terms of Western psychiatry.

Yet the DSM inadvertantly gives us a way out of this mess. By placing schizotypal disorder as being conditional on the interaction between individual and contextual culture, it does not deny the possibility of anomalous or transcendent experience. It only asserts that when those experiences are at odds with the dominant paradigm, that one might be considered to have a “disorder.”

Let us then step outside of our culture for a moment to assess paranormal belief in another context, specifically as it relates to childhood trauma. I realize I am walking a fine line with what I am about to suggest, but can only offer my own admission to having undergone childhood trauma as compensation (I might also add that I held no paranormal beliefs until 20 years after the fact, having been a pretty stubborn “goat” up until that point).

In a number of shamanic and spiritual traditions, there is a belief that one must undergo an initiatory ordeal of death and rebirth. We can find modest echoes of this in the Christian concept of being “born again,”  and the resurrection of Christ, Sufis speak of “dying before death,” shamanic traditions will often speak of dismemberment at the hands of various spirits or demons before being reborn/reassembled in a new form. Even Freemasonry has its own resurrection rituals. Could childhood trauma, for some people, be a parallel for such an ordeal?

If these rituals and beliefs foster an enhanced awareness in cultures that accept the validity of such beliefs, how would this enhanced awareness be perceived in a culture that no longer has room for it? I suspect that such an awareness or belief would be handled much in the manner that it is presently handled in dominant paradigm Western Culture.

Lest this linkage between shamanism and spirituality and paranormal belief seem stretched, the precedent has been set by psychologist Charles Tart in a series of books (1990, 1992, and 1997), parapsychologist James Houran (2004), and can even be traced back to the concluding chapters of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Additionally, if belief has an effect on neuroplasticity in the brain, could sustained belief in the paranormal lead to the creation of neural network patterns that allow for ESP or psi ability?

I would like to make one final set of disclaimers. I am painfully aware of the controversies surrounding belief in the paranormal and psi. In addition, I am in no way asserting that every victim of childhood trauma has some sort of “ability” or predisposition. I am also very cognizant of the fact that there are people with very real mental disorders who are in considerable need of help and have a knack for being aware of things that most of us are not.  It does not necessarily mean that they are merely “misunderstood.”

While I do believe there seems to be an abundance of over-hyped “syndromes” and “disorders” these days, I do not mean to negate the very real and tragic experiences of those with mental illness, nor the very admirable efforts of the doctors who attempt to help them. I am simply suggesting that there may be instances of misdiagnosis or opportunities for further study of psi abilities. This becomes especially true in the DSM-IV’s reliance on social norms as a determinant factor in schizotypal disorder.

Monday – Part 4 will ask the question “Is It All in the Head?”  Is there a possibility for psi abilities to be part of brain function? Are there physical correlates?




  • American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM IV TR). Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association
  • Houran, James. (ed.). (2004). From Shaman to Scientist: Essays on Humanity’s Search for Spirits. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
  • Irwin, Harvey J. (1994). Childhood Trauma and the Origins of Paranormal Belief: A Constructive Replication. Psychological Reports 74, 107-111.
  • Tart, Charles T. (ed.). (1990). Altered States of Consciousness. New York: Harper Collins
  • Tart, Charles T. (ed.). (1992). Transpersonal Psychologies: Perspectives on the Mind from Seven Great Spiritual Traditions. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Tart, Charles T. (ed.). (1997). Body Mind Spirit: Exploring the Parapsychology of Spirituality. Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads Publishing.
  • Wertheim, Margaret. (1999). The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.




No responses yet

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Prove You Possess Consciousness * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.