Oct 16 2012

Can Paranormal Experience be Found in the Brain? (part 5)

Published by at 6:38 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.

Part 4 looked at the correlations between psi phenomena and temporal lobe weirdness.

Today, we look at Michael Persinger’s idea that geomagnetic fluctuations may have affect the brain, and account for a sense of “presence” of the deceased, among experients.

The geomagnetic fluctuation hypothesis, while highly suggestive at first glance, seems to buckle under stress. First, there are logical problems. One of the experiences that Persinger has noted in people he feels are “susceptible” to the influence of geomagnetic flucturation or even other types of magnetic fields such as solar flares, seismic activity, radio and microwave transmissions, etc. (Horgan, 2003, p. 91) is the sensing of a “presence.” Persinger concludes that this may account for some apparition experiences, as well as visitation dreams (Persinger, 2001,¶ 22-23). In the case of visitation dreams, he asserts (in agreement with much literature in the Dream Studies field on the subject) that many of these dreams take place within 3 days of the death of the deceased, and between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00am. It seems highly coincidental that geomagnetic fluctuations would coincide in such a manner to the death of a loved one.

In addition to logical considerations, there has been difficulty in trying to prove Persinger’s hypothesis in a laboratory. A pilot study by Dean Radin and Jannine Rebman in 1996, Are Phantasms Fact or Fantasy? A Preliminary Investigation of Apparitions Evoked in the Laboratory proved inconclusive. John Horgan, in his book Rational Mysticism (2004) pays a visit to Persinger’s lab in Canada, and volunteers to be subjected to the type of magnetic activity that Persinger claims will cause a Subjective Paranormal Experience. Horgan left the lab less than impressed.

That said, however, I do not believe we need to abandon the hypothesis of magnetic influence, entirely. In his article The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences (2001), Persinger relates the story of a subject who had experienced a series of presences, normally between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00am. Persinger concluded that these experiences were caused by a possible interplay between a childhood brain injury, and the magnetic field generated by her alarm clock (¶21). These experiences of non-specific presences (i.e., not as specific as “my dead grandfather”) coupled with the mixed results of the experiment by Radin and Rebman, might have a different explanation.

Perhaps, rather than “apparitional experiences being caused by magnetic fluctuations,” the avenue of inquiry needs to be “is it possible that apparitions/the human soul might have electro-magnetic properties that can be perceived by the human brain?” This is not to say that all apparition experiences are true, by any stretch. Yet if magnetic fluctuations can be perceived and processed by the brain, as Persinger’s and Radin and Remban’s work seems to suggest, perhaps specific electro-magnetic patterns (rather than a more “generic” patter produced by an alarm clock, for instance), might be perceived in a more specific manner. If I am familiar with the electro-magnetic signature of my grandfather, perhaps I am thus able to recognize him if he appears to me in a dream, or waking apparitional state. Proving or disproving this experimentally is a long way off, but it is an interesting hypothesis to consider.

Finally, Persinger has also looked at the role that the right brain hemisphere might play in paranormal experience, most notably in a paper co-authored with W.G. Roll, and others. Once more, the right hemisphere proved to be a difficult place to locate paranormal experience. While Roll and Persinger’s paper seems to suggest right hemisphere involvement, Neppe disputes this finding, stating that “it is impossible to test a single hemisphere’s functions, as the other hemisphere may be compensating for or accentuating anomalous or dysfunctional elements (Neppe, 1990, p. 172).

Tomorrow: I begin to wrap up this whole sordid saga, tying it all together, and offering some ideas about where we might go from here.




  • Horgan, John. (2003). Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment. New York: Mariner 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 Carlina: McFarland.
  • 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.
  • Radin, Dean I. and Rebman, Jannine M. (1996). Are Phantasms Fact or Fantasy? A Preliminary Investigation of Apparitions Evoked in the Laboratory. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 61(843), 65-87.
  • Roll, W.G., Persinger, M.A., Webster, D.L., Tiller, S.G., and Cook, C.M. (2002). Neurobehavioral and Neurometabolic (SPECT) Correlates of Paranormal Information: Involvement of the Right Hemisphere and its Sensitivity to Weak Complex Magnetic Fields. The International Journal of Neuroscience 112(2), 197-224.




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