VARIETIES OF ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCE: EXAMINING THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE.
One of the most noteworthy features of this book is its publisher. The American Psychological Association (APA) is probably the most influential psychology organization in the world. Thousands of psychologists on this continent are members, receiving the APA's journals and publication catalogs. The willingness of the APA to release a volume that treats seriously such topics as anomalous healing, alien abduction experiences, and, yes, psi, marks something of a watershed in the recognition that, as William James noted a century ago, no scientific account of reality can aspire to be comprehensive without taking such things into account.
Varieties of Anomalous Experience also embodies a blurring of old boundaries in the study of anomalies, a healthy development in my opinion. Here there is none of the adolescent entrenchment and scorn for opponents--the "true believers" versus "critics" game--that so tainted dialogue about unusual experiences in the 20th century (and that still degrades such otherwise useful publications as Skeptical Inquirer). Editors Cardena, Lynn, and Krippner should be applauded for fostering a balanced tone across the volume's 12 chapters.
They set the tone themselves in an introductory section, where they lay out definitions, offer a thumbnail history of anomalous investigation, and list reasons why scientists should concern themselves with strange things. Definitions of anomalies are often as phantasmal as the phenomena to which they refer (think of the semantic murk clinging to such terms as paranormal, supernatural, transcendent, even ESP and psi), so clarifying the domain of interest is vital at the outset. In this book the category anomalous experience embraces three sorts of experiences: those that are statistically uncommon in the general population, those that may not be uncommon but that deviate from ordinary experience, and those that seem to challenge standard explanations of reality. The editors are sensitive to the fact that the meaning of these terms is always relative to cultural contexts. The definition does a serviceable job of outlining the field. The editors further focus the book by emphasizing that their concern is with a nomalous experiences per se, and not with the epistemological status of those experiences. Thus much of the text does not directly address the issue of psi's reality. However, almost every chapter contains something to pique the interest of the process-oriented parapsychologist.
Varieties of Anomalous Experience is divided into two parts. Part I comprises two chapters exploring general methodological and conceptual points. In the first chapter, Howard Berenbaum, John Kerns, and Chitra Raghavan try to dispel the remaining fog around definitions of the anomalous. They carefully demarcate psychopathology (distressing, dysfunctional, nonvolitional phenomena arising from psychological causes), peculiarity (extraordinary characteristics, beliefs, perceptions, or experiences), and anomalous experience (here deferring to Cardena et al.'s ideas), and they discuss potential overlaps and interactions. They also offer a "cartography of anomalous experiences," really a multidimensional space within which these events can be situated. Some of their dimensions refer to the commencement and course of experiences: variations in personal awareness level, volition during the onset, and control over the course. The authors also note phenomenological dimensions: "subjective hedonic valence" (which appea rs to mean "pleasure," so why not call it that?), the degree to which the experience is anchored in immediate sensations versus altering or seemingly transcending physical and mental limits, and the presence of an entity (human or other) as part of the experience. It is a useful endeavor to parse the unwieldy world of the weird, and Berenbaum et al.'s cartography seems reasonable. But they offer neither theoretical nor empirical justification for this particular parsing. It would have been more valuable if they had built their dimensions of anomaly on a semantic or factor-analytic approach to descriptions of unusual experiences.
Indeed, the following chapter showcases some promising developments of just this sort. Ronald J. Pekala and Etzel Cardena review the scientifically treacherous turf of consciousness studies. "Experience," whether ordinary or anomalous, connotes "subjectivity"; and the subjective has always resisted objective pinning. Despite the many pitfalls, from memory errors to social desirability effects, clever researchers have devised some valid and reliable windows into our subjective realms. The most meaningful for anomaly researchers is Pekala's work in constructing self-report questionnaires with established psychometric properties that can be used to map phenomenological features in many contexts. His Phenomenology of Consciousness Inventory has been used in several published studies. Related instruments developed by Pekala include the Dimensions of Attention Questionnaire, which measures attentional features, and the Anomalous Experience Inventory (AEI). The authors illustrate the strength of this approach by de scribing a study that found complex relations between the reporting of anomalous experiences (on the AEI), dissociation (on the Dissociative Experiences Scale), and hypnotizability (on the Harvard Group Scale of Hypnotic Susceptibility). Such work places anomalies research within the tradition of mainstream psychology, with the advantages (precisely honed measures) and limitations (shyness toward considering the possible objective features of the anomalous experience) that this membership entails.
Part II of the volume comprises 10 chapters, each devoted to a particular type of anomalous experience. The first of these, on hallucinatory experiences by Richard Bentall, is one of the best in the book. As mental images taken for "real" figure prominently in parapsychology's spontaneous case files, the relevance for psi researchers is evident. Bentall highlights findings showing that the association between hallucination and psychopathology is much weaker than most people (including most mental health professionals) think. There is evidence for fashions in hallucinating. In the Middle Ages, most reported hallucinations were visual and religious, but over the course of the past century these forms have been largely replaced by auditory hallucinations with persecutory or technological themes. Bentall offers a "schematic model" of factors that influence hallucinating. Stress, environmental noise, and socially derived beliefs and expectancies all affect how one decides whether an image originates from within o r without. Bentall tries to make his model cross-cultural and transhistorical in its application, but he stumbles slightly. The final cognitive act in the model is "classification (of the image) as real or imaginary." But this dichotomy of real versus imaginary is itself not culturally invariant; indeed, many worldviews have held that sometimes the imagination can make direct contact with nonsensory realities. Perhaps "classification as real or unreal" would avoid this snare.
The next chapter, by Lawrence E. Marks, is on synesthesia, or "cross-talk" between the senses--hearing colors, sensing tastes as geometric shapes, and so on. Marks, a senior researcher in this area, provides a thorough survey of theories and data. Given the rarity of the phenomenon (much less than 1% of the population have synesthetic experiences in their strong form), devoting an entire chapter to this topic seemed disproportionate.
Stephen LaBerge and Jayne Gackenbach's chapter on lucid dreaming highlights an astonishing success in linking the seemingly impenetrable "subjective" world with the objective world of science--the discovery that lucid dreamers can control the sleeping body's eye movements and send "signals" from the dreaming state to outside observers by wiggling the eyes in predetermined ways. This finding permits researchers to confirm when a dreamer is lucid, and so to search for correlates to the lucid dream state. LaBerge and Gackenbach review the largely inconsistent correlational findings and frame theories from psychophysiological to transpersonal. Bravely they allude to some of the more profound implications of the phenomenon, noting the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine that even waking consciousness is a type of dream in which we might become more lucid.
Carlos Alvarado authored the chapter on out-of-body experiences (OBEs) with his customary thoroughness and competence. And he is not shy about raising the parapsychological aspects of his topic. He notes that people who report OBEs are more apt to report spontaneous ESP experiences, apparitions, seeing auras, and mystical experiences too, but that OBE experients are not unusually adept at laboratory tests of ESP. Alvarado also considers the handful of parapsychological projects in which OBEs were actually induced and summarizes that "Some of these studies appear to indicate that veridical information has been acquired during an OBE in the laboratory" (p. 200); he also mentions the dearth of replication attempts. He calls for greater collaboration between those taking psychological and parapsychological angles on OBEs, asserting that the systematic study of anomalies should not exclude parapsychology "just because it challenges the conventional paradigms of psychology" (p. 208).
Alvarado's contribution sets the stage for the chapter on psi-related experiences by Elisabeth Targ, Marilyn Schlitz, and Harvey J. Irwin. These authors chose to accent the subjective rather than the putatively veridical aspects of psi; their chapter seems mainly aimed at clinical psychologists who have little knowledge of parapsychological literature but who deal with clients who report psi experiences. Unfortunately, naive readers might become confused at the chapter's outset. After giving the standard list of examples to illustrate spontaneous psi (clairvoyance, precognition, etc.), they write: "When studied in a suitably controlled laboratory setting, the underlying ostensibly paranormal process, be it extrasensory or psychokinetic in nature, is termed psi" (p. 220). This sentence implies that the "underlying ostensibly paranormal process" is not termed psi outside the laboratory setting. Why, then, are spontaneous ESP and psychokinetic experiences dubbed psi or psi-related experiences, the puzzled reade r might ask? A minor infelicity of wording, perhaps; but given the wide potential readership and the expected close scrutiny by critics, this fuzziness in the very definition of the psi domain is inopportune. That quibble aside, the rest of the chapter is a valuable summary of research on spontaneous psi (and a two-page synopsis of the major findings and debates concerning the reality of psi). The discussion of clinical aspects is especially well done. The authors wisely assert that, regardless of the etiology of the psi experience, "the primary goal of the clinician should be to direct the patient away from over identifying with the [psi-related experience] and to focus on stabilizing basic coping skills and emotional tone" (p. 230).
Stuart Appelle, Steven Jay Lynn, and Leonard Newman cover the topic of alien abduction experiences (AAEs). The mockery potential here is even higher than it is with psi experiences, but the authors maintain a fair-minded approach as they survey the research on the psychological correlates of the AAE. They acknowledge that none of the skeptical hypotheses, from hoaxes to sleep disorders, can fully account for the phenomenon at present, and dare to consider the remote possibility that "the AAE is veridical" (p.276)--real ETs! True scientists, they call for more research.
Past-life experiences (PLEs) are addressed by Antonia Mills and Steven Jay Lynn, focusing on cases occurring spontaneously in childhood. After summarizing the literature on the characteristics of PLE experients (they tend to be better socially adapted than other children in public but more argumentative and withdrawn when at home; they usually grow up to function normally), they weigh possible explanations, including paranormal ones. They are respectful but skeptical of the evidence for either reincarnation or psi theories of the PLE. A key problem is how to quantify the likelihood that correspondences between a PLE experient's statements and features of their supposed "previous life" are not due to chance. The same challenge holds for matches between birthmarks and wounds allegedly sustained in the "past life."
Bruce Greyson provides a masterly summary of research on near-death experiences (NDEs). The chapter tilts toward clinical issues for the therapist confronted with clients who have had NDEs. Greyson presents the psychological and physiological hypotheses for the NDE, noting that none have conclusive support; he then describes anecdotal evidence for a "mind-body separation and afterlife hypothesis" and concludes: "Although these data are not compelling proof of survival, they provide convergent evidence that... may be considered suggestive of it" (p.342).
Stanley Krippner and Jeanne Achterberg grapple with the immense field of anomalous healing experiences. They too take the tack of distinguishing the experience of anomalous healing from the objective outcome and mainly discuss the former. They succinctly review descriptions of healing experiences given by both clients and practitioners, as well as studies looking for biological and psychological correlates of these occurrences. It is striking that so little of this literature goes much beyond the analysis of compiled anecdotes. As the authors declare, this is a potentially highly significant, yet dramatically underresearched, field. The authors do address briefly the question of possible parapsychological features of anomalous healing. They summarize the conclusions of the main commentarial texts and note some of the better known studies, such as the reports of intercessory prayer effects on cardiac patients and the inability of therapeutic touch practitioners to detect the "human energy field" under blinded conditions. Krippner and Achterberg critique the field for its paucity of testable theories about seemingly paranormal aspects of healing.
The final chapter of the book, by David M. Wulif, considers mystical experiences. Apparent encounters with a transcendent reality can range from mild to extreme, and from introvertive (the object of the experience being beyond time, space, and form) to extravertive (the encounter does not cancel out the perception of ordinary objects but rather suffuses them). Relying largely on the research of Michael Thalbourne and his colleagues, Wulif observes that mystical experience is correlated with belief in ESP and psychokinesis, and he marshals the evidence for a common factor: an unusual penneability of consciousness by "subliminal" or unconscious contents.
Varieties of Anomalous Experience, while incomplete in its coverage (in particular I was disappointed that UFO experiences not involving abduction were neglected), is a feast of information and suggestion characterized by high standards of clarity and objectivity. With considerable subjective hedonic valence, I recommend this book as a new basic reference for students of anomalies.
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|Publication:||The Journal of Parapsychology|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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