Oct 15 2012

Can Paranormal Experience be Found in the Brain? (part 4)

Published by at 6:10 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”.

Part 3 critiqued some of the psychological assertions made about those who believe in the paranormal, mainly the diagnoses of fantasy proneness due to childhood trauma, and schizotypal personality disorder.

Today, we’ll look at whether it might be possible that psi abilities such as ESP, telepathy, or the ability to perceive auras and/or apparitions (to name a few) might be related to normal brain functions. Might these be natural, inherent processes that we all possess to some degree or another?

[NOTE: I originally wrote the material in this series in 2006. James Carpenter  recently published First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life, which may address these issues more in-depth than I do. I’ll post an update to this series once I’ve had a chance to read it. I am very interested.]

In their book Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson speak to what they consider to be the limits of knowledge.

…the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding… .it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world (p. 4).

It might be easy to dismiss Lakoff and Johnson as reductionists. Yet it is possible to work within the framework they construct, and still find room for human abilities that one might consider “paranormal” or “anomalous.”

While everyone has more or less the same brain structure, each of us has had varying life experiences. Could the development of neural networks within the brains of some people facilitate some psi abilities? Could there be un- or underdeveloped pre-existent brain structures within us that allow for ESP, telepathy, or the ability to perceive auras and/or apparitions?

Before examining some of the research that has been done, I would like to make clear that I do not believe these abilities to be a recent evolutionary advancement. Despite the recent minor excitement over what are being termed “Indigo Children”* there is significant record – parapsychological, historical, and anecdotal – of people having these abilities for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In this post, I would like to look at some of the work being done by Vernon Neppe to locate parts of the brain that might be involved in psi processes, as well as will examine the work of Michael Persinger and his research in temporal lobe epilepsy. Persinger has also attempted to correlate  magnetic fields and psi phenomena. I will cover that in tomorrow’s post. I will revisit Lakoff in the final post in this series.

Just as much research is being done to map the more “normal” aspects of brain functionality, efforts are underway to determine what parts of the brain may be involved in psi activity. There is, of course, controversy over this, as well as disputes over the various conclusions that have been reached.

Dr. Vernon Neppe, of the Pacific Neuropsychiatry Institute, has been attempting to link what he calls “SPEs” (Subjective Paranormal Experiences) with temporal lobe dysfunction in the brain. Neppe defines an SPE as “any apprehension, manipulation of objects, or event perceived by the percipient (or experient) to be psi-related” (Neppe, 1990, p. 168). Neppe includes a variety of subcategories, such as “subjective telepathic experience, subjective clairvoyant experience, subjective precognitive experience, subjective mediumistic experience, subjective psychic healing experience, subjective psychokinesis, and subjective spontaneous psi” (pp. 168-169). Though Neppe is primarily interested in the temporal lobes, he admits that “not all subjective paranormal experiences may derive from or be associated with the same anatomical locus or have the same psychophysiological predispositions” (p. 169). He also feels that the occipital lobes might be involved in the perception of auras or apparitions, due to their visual nature (p. 171).

While it may be tempting to paint Neppe in a reductionist light, this need not be the case. In a 2003 paper, Neppe, along with co-author John Palmer, reinforce their case for pursuing this line of inquiry.

Our understanding of psi from a physiological point of view would be greatly enhanced if we could pinpoint a section of the brain in which psi mediation occurs, or at least an area that plays a primary role… First, by considering the functions performed by this part of the brain, we could develop more incisive insights about how psi manifests…Second, if momentary brain states could be found to correlate with the accuracy of discrete psi responses, progress could be made in predicting which particular psi responses (e.g., guesses on a card test) will prove to be correct. Third, attempts could be made through biofeedback, drugs, or other means to alter the functioning of this part of the brain to enhance psi performance (Palmer and Neppe, 2003, p. 75).

Palmer and Neppe speak of mediation, not causality. This emphasizes more of a facilitation of process, rather than a generation of one.

Pursuing a similar line of inquiry to Vernon Neppe, is Michael Persinger of the Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory at Laurentian University. Persinger’s model is considerably more complex, and takes into account a number of variables. First, Persinger believes that there is a correlation between paranormal experience and the temporal lobes (Persinger, 2001, ¶3). Second, Persinger believes that there may be a form of epileptic microseizure in the temporal lobes, specifically the hippocampus and amygdala (as cited in Neppe, 2003, p. 76). Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Persinger believes geomagnetic fluctuations may be responsible either for these seizures, or work in conjunction with these seizures to produce subjective paranormal experiences.

In regards to the correlation between paranormal experience and epilepsy, one would expect temporal lobe epileptics to have a higher incidence of subjective paranormal experience. Unfortunately, as Palmer and Neppe point out in their 2003 paper, A Controlled Analysis of Subjective Paranormal Experiences in Temporal Lobe Dysfunction in a Neuropsychiatric Population, this correlation has not been established (p. 77). One thing that might be interesting to attempt to establish, would be to flip this on its head: rather than temporal lobe seizures causing paranormal experience, might paranormal experience cause certain types of seizures in some experients? Regrettably, I have not the training, the background, nor the resources to conduct such an experiment.  Naturally, there would be ethical considerations as well.

Tomorrow: We dive into Persinger’s geomagnetic fluctuation hyptothesis, and see what we find!


*The “Indigo Children” are children who allegedly have an indigo-colored aura (there are also now “Crystal Children” and “Rainbow Children”), and are believed by assorted parents and teachers to have special powers, and will be the next wave of human evolution, bringing about world peace, and a global paradigm shift. Unfortunately, I am not as optimistic. In many ways, this is merely a new-age re-telling of the same narrative used by fundamentalist Christianity in terms of the “sanctity of the child,” projecting all of our hopes and dreams on the next generation. I suspect some of these children may have some form of AD/HD, or might just suffer from bad parenting. Indeed, I’ll be curious to see what sort of developmental issues they face as they grow older, having to deal with the pressures of saving humanity. It is entirely possible that some of these children may have a certain level of psi ability, but I would like to see more research done before I accept that there is an entire generation of Messiahs being born.




  • Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and the Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.
  • Neppe, Vernon M. (1990). Anomalistic Experience and the Cerebral Cortex. In Stanley Krippner (ed.). Advances in Parapsychological Research: Vol. 6 (pp. 168-183). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.
  • Palmer, John, and Neppe, Vernon M. (2003). A Controlled Analysis of Subjective Paranormal Experiences in Temporal Lobe Dysfunction in a Neuropsychiatric Population. The Journal of Parapsychology 67(Spring 2003), 75-97.
  • Persinger, Michael A. (2001). The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 13(4), 515-524. Retrieved August 5, 2006, from http://www.neuro.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/13/4/515.




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