Psychiatry and Psychopathology of Paranormal Phenomena

F. A. Whitlock
F. A. Whitlock

Anyone inquiring into the nature of paranormal experiences and events does so with some apprehension and at some peril to himself. To remain wholly impartial in the face of inexplicable and disturbing phenomena is a difficult achievement, and inevitably one is swayed by one’s own biases which may take the form of a determined scepticism or an equally determined belief in the objective reality of the occult.

Unfortunately, it is an area of investigation which has a certain attraction to tricksters and the gullible; and there can be few psychical researchers who have not at some time in their careers been deceived. Hence one can have some sympathy with Freud who in his lecture on ‘Dreams and the Occult’ (1933) was so anxious to avoid committing himself to any point of view whatsoever.

His audience, he felt, might be thinking, “There is another example of a person who has all his life been a steady-going man of science and is now, in his old age, becoming weak-minded, religious and credulous”. He hurriedly assured his audience that none of these deplorable characteristics could be attributed to himself, least of all the possibility that he had grown religious.

In passing, it is interesting to note that Freud, in a letter written in 1921, said, “If I had my life over again, would devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis”; and then, in the best Freudian style promptly forgot that he had ever said it (Jones, 1957).

Freud, of course, is by no means the only individual of high intellectual standing to find himself attracted to the subject of occult phenomena, as the list of past Presidents of the British Society for Psychical Research (S.P.R.) includes some of the most eminent, competent and clear-sighted men and women of the past hundred years.

Whatever misgivings one might have about one’s own tentative explorations in this area, there should be no reservations about the quality of the company one keeps. It does appear that the topic is worthy of serious investigation, and if it attracts older rather than younger persons, possibly one contributory factor is a realisation that the physical sciences may not have the answers to every problem and also a more tolerant attitude to phenomena which in the past have evoked the utmost scepticism.

An alternative explanation may be that the subject has some of the qualities of improper literature designated by E.M. Forster as “A serious though dreadful branch of enquiry only to be pursued by pseudo-scholars of riper years”. However, whatever the facts might be, it is essential that this apologia should end and that I should try to define what paranormal phenomena are.

The S.P.R. aimed “to examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable by any generally recognised hypothesis”.

Among the phenomena to be considered “without prejudice or prepossession” were telepathy, precognition and other forms of non-sensory communication, psychokinesis, which includes anything from poltergeists to levitation, apparitions of the dead or living, lucid dreams, out of the body experiences, faith healing and unusual phychophysiological states presumed to be the basis of such well attested phenomena as fire walking and fire eating, apparent insensitivity to pain or cold and the timehonoured, strange manifestations of religious stigmatisation.

In a paper of this kind, a survey of all these interesting and controversial phenomena would hardly be possible. Fortunately, it is not my intention, nor is it within my competence to find explanations for them, nor, necessarily, to offer more than tentative evidence for their occurrence.

A more profitable exercise might be an examination of certain classes of paranormal phenomena to see whether some at least might be understandable in psychiatric or psychophysiological terms; and, equally important, to consider to what extent some familiar — but unexplained — psychiatric phenomena might conceivably have a paranormal rather than a so-called scientific explanation.

Hence let us begin with what is generally regarded as the best-established class of events in the series — telepathy and precognition, sometimes discussed under the headings of psi-phenomena, or extra-sensory perception or E.S.P.

E.S.P. is not, in my opinion, a particularly good term for what might be called extra-sensory awareness or cognition. However, whatever term is preferred, the evidence for this class of phenomenon seems as well attested as any other in the whole range of paranormal events.

Ehrenwald (1972), after a brisk review of some of the facts, felt that E.S.P. was a sufficiently well-established phenomenon to enable him to dismiss further critical discussion. From our point of view, certain features are of particular interest, notably the finding that communications of this kind occur most commonly between twins and other close family members who comprised 63% of the instances recorded by Ehrenwald.

Other examples involving strong emotional ties are experimenter and subject, teacher and pupil, leader and led; and, like many others, Ehrenwald commented on altered states of consciousness as being more favourable to this form of communication than fully-awake alertness.

Among these altered states of consciousness would be included dreaming sleep, hypnopompic and hypnagogic states, clouding induced by drugs, hypnosis, transcendental meditation, and possibly, so-called hysterical dissociative states.

Parker (1975) who had particularly emphasised the importance of altered states of consciousness in facilitating E.S.P. phenomena, described a number of experiments in which subjects in hypnotic trance apparently were able to report correctly on events taking place elsewhere.

When all allowance is made for possible trickery, unconscious distortion and collaborative fraud, there seems to be a core of truth in these’ claims which cannot be explained away by reference to the usual channels of communication.

Another point of interest in this context is the finding of minor E.E.G. changes consisting of synchronisation and slowing of the dominant alpha rhythm to what is termed an alphoid state of 6-10 C.P.S. However, not all examples of apparent E.S.P. take place when the subject’s consciousness is altered or impaired, although it is always difficult to be absolutely certain that some of the well-attested examples occurring in the waking state have not been in association with brief micro-sleeps or other drowsy states.

The celebrated McConnell case, discussed in detail by West (1962) is a good example of this kind of phenomenon where the recipient of the experience was allegedly awake and in a state of clear consciousness at the time. An interesting variant is when two or more persons appear spontaneously to share the same paranormal experience.

Accepting that some form of non-sensory communication can occur, one has to assume that the percipients on these occasions are either communicating their percepts to each other, or that both are simultaneously influenced by a third external source; a point of possible significance when one considers the phenomena of Folie a Deux.

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