The Best Poltergeist Case

This is a Life Magazine picture of the Herrmann family in their home. I thought people who’ve read Unbelievable might appreciate seeing what they looked like.  (It’s also a pretty great shot.)  I gather the objects at the boy’s feet are some of the things that flew or fell around the house.  For those who haven’t read my book, this is all from a Seaford, LI poltergeist case that the Duke scientists looked into in 1958.  It was pretty dramatic and the Duke investigators concluded that at least some of the events in the house were not the result of a hoax.

Pictures From the Rhine Research Center Archives

There were no captions with either of these photographs, so I call them “Nails Guy” and “Tongue Guy.” They’re self-explanatory, but I would have liked to have dates, places and names.  The second woman on the left in the mink and cloche is unmoved. 

Ack, ack, ack.  Oh christ, I only just noticed the guy on the right is holding onto something going through the other guy’s neck.  (Love the glasses.)

Louisa Rhine

People often had mixed feelings about J. B. Rhine, but as far as I could tell everyone loved Louisa, or Louie, as she was called.  I think I failed Louie in my book.  She doesn’t loom large enough.  She was a key figure in the struggle for parapsychology and frequently ahead of her time.  I point out several times in the book where some ideas generally accepted today actually originated with her (and I’m not just talking about ideas in the field of parapsychology).

This one always intrigued me:  “I thought that mind should be supreme in the universe and matter somehow an attribute or expression of it.”  She wrote that in the early 1980’s about her thinking before 1920.  I don’t know when this idea was first proposed, but I hear people say this more and more now, and always with the sense that they are saying something radical.

It seemed everything about her was brave and intellectually independent.  She got her Ph.D in 1923, which was extremely unusual for a woman at the time, and I gotta believe especially unusual for someone from her relatively rural background.

I always loved what Louie wrote her mother when her parents expressed their displeasure about her investigations into parapsychology.  

“You or Dad didn’t mind if I found sufficient proof to allow me to believe the electron theory of matter … if the same cold judgment of fact leads me to believe there is a possibility of definitely proving there is life beyond, instead of piously believing it all my life, or infidel-like disbelieving it, I should think you’d grant that it is at least a worthy task …” 

Look at what she said.  She’s pointing out that both sides were operating more on faith than fact.  But Louie always remained objective.  About seances, she wrote that “in them we found no evidence on which to feed our interest and only what seemed to us to be gullibility, suggestion, wishful thinking. We soon gave up the effort as unprofitable and a waste of time.”

Louie was a product of her time in that she always stood a little behind J. B.  Perhaps her accomplishments wouldn’t be all that different, I really don’t see much evidence that she was intellectually repressed either by J.B. or her time, but still I wonder how much further she might have gone if she had lived, well, now.

Carl Sagan

From Carl Sagan’s book Demon-Haunted World:

“… there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any way other than reincarnation.”

I was pretty surprised when someone pointed me to this quote.  Sagan was a known critic and a founding member of the skeptical organization now known as CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).  He was still skeptical and the next paragraph in the book confirms that.  He’s pretty sure an explanation will be found that will explain it all away, but he is reluctantly conceding that in these three cases there is something there that still needs to be explained.

Morey and the Astronauts

In 1963, Morey Bernstein had a visit from astronaut Alan Shepard.  Shepard was interested in parapsychology, “But these boys have a very tight tongue when it comes to talking about ESP effects in space,” Morey wrote J. B. Rhine. In 1971, Alan Shepard would walk on the moon with astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell, who would try to “send” messages back to earth. Two years later Mitchell founded The Institute of Noetic Sciences, which he established in order to scientifically study paranormal phenomena.  By the way, Mitchell has been in the news this week for saying we’ve already been visited by aliens.

Shepard didn’t want to talk about ESP during this visit, and he didn’t want to talk about a 1956 Naval report that Bernstein had just read called The Break-Off Phenomenon: A Feeling of Separation from the Earth Experienced by Pilots at High Altitude. The study reported that 48 out of 137 Navy and Marine pilots questioned described having had an out of body experience while flying, although the authors didn’t call it that and were somewhat vague on the details. Shepard admitted to working with Captain Graybiel, one of the authors of the report, but he wouldn’t say anymore.  So Morey went to Pensacola and spoke to Dr. Harlow Aides, who had also worked with Graybiel. “It is clear from my personal interview,” he wrote Rhine, “that some of the pilots find themselves out of their body, looking back at their own physical bodies which are still efficiently flying the jet plane.” Other reports followed Graybiel’s. In one, a pilot said “that he was at high level when he suddenly had the feeling that he was outside the cockpit, sitting on the wing, and watching himself fly the aircraft.”  In others, the break-off phenomena was experienced as a relatively mild feeling of unreality and separation.

There’s been some recent research that might explain the out-of-body experience.  In 2006, one possible physical explanation for out-of-body experiences was found by Swiss neurologist Dr. Olaf Blanke. Blanke discovered that when electric current was applied to the angular gyrus at the temporo-parietal junction in the brain, an out of body experience occurred. Whether or not this explains the break-off phenomena remains to be seen, but behavioral neuroscientist Todd Murphy points out that Dr. Blanke created this experience with one patient only, and this instance does not address the cases where subjects have out-of-body experiences and come back with information that they could not have obtained given the location of their bodies at the time.

Blanke was also not the first. “In the 1950’s, the Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield also succeeded in eliciting an out of body experience using electrical stimulation,” Murphy wrote in a commentary on Blanke’s results, “but he was stimulating a very different area of the brain, the sylvian fissure. Dr. Michael Persinger has elicited out of body experiences through stimulation of the temporal lobes using magnetic signals derived from the EEG signature of one of the structures deep in the temporal lobes. Clearly, there is not a single ‘brain center’ that supports out of body experiences but rather a widely-distributed set of pathways.” That said, Murphy does credit Blanke’s research. “The experiment goes a long way toward providing a scientific explanation for what some believe is a paranormal phenomenon, even if the study is based on only one patient.”

I believe there’s been even more recent research, but I haven’t looked into it since I was working on this section.  

The picture is of Dr. Ashton Graybiel, who went on to have a distinguised career. There’s an Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory at Brandeis University today. “Dr. Ashton Graybiel, whose studies on the effects of weightlessness and acceleration on human balance, spatial orientation, physiology and performance helped prepare America’s astronauts for manned space flight …” From his New York Times obituary.

My Last Event for Now

I’m trying to psych myself up to schedule a bunch more, but my last event for now is a panel tomorrow at 6:30 at the New York Public Library called:  Paranormal Mysteries: Ghost Stories, Psychics, Vampires, and Things That Go Bump in the Night.

It’s not in the building with the lions, but the one diagonally across the street at 455 Fifth Avenue, on the 6th floor.

This is me and author MaryElizabeth Williams at an event for her new book called Gimmie Shelter.  I look happy because it’s MaryBeth’s event and she’s the one who has to deliver.  I’m just a regular member of the audience.  (She did a great job, of course.) I’m feeling less pressure for this event tomorrow because I’ll be on a panel with a number of people.  It should be a good one for that very reason — a number of people besides me and I’m feeling relaxed!

Morey Bernstein Part 1

Morey Bernstein was a friend of the Rhines, and he’s probably best known for his reincarnation work which he wrote about in his book The Search for Bridey Murphy.  But like many people who are exposed to something unexplained, Bernstein became interested in other areas that fell under the heading of “unexplained.”

A newspaper reporter once wrote that Bernstein looked a little like Frank Sinatra.  Rhine said he had a bit of a tennis player look about him, which to me meant he had that country-club thing going for him.  Rhine wanted Bernstein to work at the lab, but Morey said no.  He recognized that their interest and approach was just too different, and that it never would have worked.

I liked Morey.  Morey was smart.  Like many others, including Rhine, he recognized the importance of emotion in ESP work.  He once asked an artist to design a different set of ESP cards.  This particular set was going to be used for a test with psychic Peter Hurkos so they were on the lurid side.  For instance, “One card pictures an hysterical woman, bleeding from a stab wound—the knife protruding, of course,” Morey wrote to Rhine.  Hurkos agreed to the test, but then never showed up.

More to come.