Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Apparitional Experiences Primer: Characteristics of Experiencers

6. Characteristics of Experiencers of Apparitions

    We took a brief look in Section 3 at some of the various characteristics of apparitions. But what about those of the people who see them? Are there any physiological, psychological, or personality characteristics common among witnesses that may perhaps tie into their ability to experience an apparition? Some parapsychological studies are beginning to suggest that there might indeed be a few.

    One characteristic may be that people who have a strong imagination or a frequent tendency to fantasize may be more likely to experience an apparition. This possibility was initially researched in the early 1980s, when psychologists Sheryl Wilson and T. X. Barber (1983) studied a select group of women who had a "fantasy-prone personality," meaning that they exhibited a strong capacity for imagination and that they often engaged in fantasy throughout their daily lives. Rather than being the mere mental images of ordinary daydreaming, many of these women's fantasies are rich experiences involving multiple senses and are often described as being "as real as real" (p. 352). Based on their study, Wilson and Barber estimate that about 4% of the people in the general population may have a fantasy-prone personality.

    Wilson and Barber (1983) found that 73% of these female fantasizers had reported previous experiences with apparitions, some of which resembled deceased people they had known. They note:

For instance, one subject, who was feeling guilty for not trying to stop her family from cremating her dead grandmother, saw a striking apparition of her grandmother (a figure radiating a brilliant light) who communicated telepathically that she was happy, safe, and not angry. Another subject also saw her deceased grandmother, who told her correctly where her missing Will could be found (p. 363).

   Some of the women reported encounters with haunting apparitions in places that they had just moved into. Some knew beforehand that the residence was rumored to be haunted, while others did not and came to the conclusion that their residence was haunted.

    A few parapsychologists have attempted to follow up on Wilson and Barber's finding in field investigations. In a case investigated by Teresa Cameron and Dr. William Roll (1983), five people working at a Virginia radio station reported seeing an apparition in the vicinity of the station's long inner hallway from late 1980 to early 1981. Although they each saw the apparition at separate times, they all seemed to describe seeing the same one: a male figure, partially obscured in shadow, about six feet tall and 180 to 200 lbs., who was dressed in a brown or dark-colored suit. Their similar descriptions seemed to resemble that of a former sales manager who had worked at the station up until 1977, and had died several months after leaving the station. Of these five people, two were noted to have shown a rather high degree of fantasy-proneness.
    In another case, the late Dr. Karlis Osis (1986) had investigated the apparitional sighting of a young businessman named Leslie, who had died in a plane crash. Following his sudden death, a distant relative of Leslie had sent out a mental appeal to his discarnate spirit, asking him and his infant son (who had died from drowning the year before) to appear before his deeply grieving mother as a sign of comfort and survival. Two nights later, between 1:00 and 3:00 A.M., Leslie's mother suddenly awoke to find someone standing at the foot of her bed. Looking up, she was startled to see Leslie standing there with his infant son:
There he was, Leslie, with the baby, and he was holding the baby's hand ... they were at the foot of the bed. They looked at each other. I was wide awake then. They were content; they were happy that they found each other, that they were together now. And they were letting me know that it is so; I got that feeling (p. 181).

    Leslie's mother apparently became so lost in her experience of seeing them that the external world around her seemed to fade away. By her account:

They were solid. There was like grayness around, like a gray cloud around them. I would say there was a mist in the whole room, nothing you could touch, just the grayness all around. But they were solid, both of them. The room was dark; electric light was coming from outside through the venetian blinds .... but I didn't need light to see them. There is a lot of traffic around my area. No matter what time you got trucks and buses. Not one sound then, all was excluded at that moment, everything, as though the world had stood still. And there was nobody but us three in the world (p. 181).

    The experience quite brief, estimated at about 15 seconds total, and then the two figures seemed to recede into the distance and fade away. Despite its brevity, the experience had a profound effect on Leslie's mother, evoking feelings of both elation and sadness within her.

    Several months after her experience, Dr. Osis (1986) administered some psychological tests to Leslie's mother to see if he could possibly uncover any mental or personality factors that might have been related to her experience. Among these was a test of her imaginative ability. In asking her to imagine various mental images, Dr. Osis learned that Leslie's mother was able to vividly imagine them in her mind's eye, suggesting that she had a strong imaginative capacity.

    Related to the mental capacity for imagination and fantasy is the capacity for absorption, which is the tendency to focus one's attention so strongly to the point where one can mentally immerse oneself completely in their direct experience, to the exclusion of all others. In other words, it is the tendency to completely lose or absorb one's self in mental experience, while effectively blocking out the external world and the things occurring in it. A familiar example of absorption might be getting caught up in a good book or movie.
Along with fantasy-proneness, absorption might be a characteristic of some witnesses. This is clearly suggested by the account given by Leslie's mother, in which the external world seemed to fade during her experience, and this suggestion was further supported by the results of Dr. Osis' (1986) tests with her. Furthermore, in a recent study, Alejandro Parra (2007) surveyed 650 undergraduate students at a university in Argentina about apparitional experiences and possible psychological factors. Of these students, 67 had reported at least one encounter with a crisis apparition. Compared to other students who have never had such an encounter, these 67 students showed a significantly higher level of absorption, as well as fantasy-proneness.
    Some studies have begun to suggest that people who encounter apparitions tend to have a certain type of personality profile. As part of her psychomanteum study (Section 4), Dianne Arcangel (1997) had asked each of her 68 participants to fill out a personality assessment questionnaire known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) once they had emerged from the psychomanteum chamber. Her results indicated that people having a reunion experience while in the chamber showed a strong tendency to have a personality that emphasizes feelings over logical thoughts, and intuitions over sense-perception, with approximately 96% of these "intuitive-feeling" participants having a reunion experience (see also Arcangel, 2005, pp. 108 – 109). Dr. Arthur Hastings and his associates attempted to follow up on Arcangel's finding in their own study by giving the MBTI to each of their 27 participants before the psychomanteum session. In a similar fashion, they found that 20 of the participants had intuitive-feeling personalities, as well as a rather high level of absorption (Hastings et al., 2002).

    Other studies have begun to suggest that there may be a physiological factor involved apparitional experiences, having to do with a witness' brain functioning. Based on previous neurological research, Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger (1974, Pt. II, p. 81; 1988) has proposed that certain brain structures located deep within the temporal lobe, namely the hippocampus and the amygdala, are the most electrically unstable regions of the brain. As a result, these two structures are electrically sensitive and may prone to experiencing neuroelectric "mini"-seizures.7 The hippocampus and the amygdala have important behavioral functions, in that they are the prime brain structures involved in memory and emotion, respectively. Previous neurological research suggests that when these two structures are directly stimulated with electric pulses, they can sometimes evoke brief, vivid memory-like images of people and places, as well as generate strong negative emotions such as fear and apprehension (Gloor, 1990; Gloor et al., 1982; Halgren et al., 1978; Weingarten et al., 1977).

    Persinger (1988) has proposed that the unstable electrical activity of these deep temporal lobe regions may be influenced by the presence of a neurochemical known as melatonin, which is thought to have chemical properties that may be helpful preventing the occurrence of seizures. The secretion and circulation of melatonin in the brain is usually regulated by the day-night cycle, with an increase in melatonin occurring during the night hours. However, there is also some evidence to suggest that its regulation can be altered by changes in the Earth's magnetic field (Persinger, 2001; Reiter, 1993). Persinger (1988) proposes that during times when the geomagnetic activity is high, melatonin levels may decrease through such an alteration, effecting increasing the instability of the deep temporal regions and thereby increasing the likelihood of a neuroelectric mini-seizure. If this mini-seizure occurs in the area around the hippocampus and amygdala, it may briefly evoke a memory-like image of a person that can be subjectively experienced as an apparition. In support of his proposal, Persinger (1988, 1993) found that reports of apparitions tend to occur on days when the geomagnetic field activity is significantly high as compared to surrounding days, and at night hours when melatonin levels are at their peak (leading in principle to the greatest amount of alteration by magnetic field activity). Persinger (1988) suggests that this process may be more likely for post-mortem apparitions that appear not long after a person's death, as the brain's neurochemical processes may be further altered by the effects of grief and bereavement, and the deceased person may be more often in the person's memory (leading to increased likelihood of that person being the one seen as an apparition if the hippocampus is electrically stimulated by a mini-seizure). In addition, British researchers H. P. Wilkinson and Alan Gauld (1993, p. 306) independently compared their own apparition accounts with geomagnetic data and their finding was notably in line with the idea that apparitions tend occur on days of higher geomagnetic activity.

    Persinger's proposal that magnetic fields may affect brain activity in the temporal region in a way that could contribute to an apparitional experience received further support from a study that he and his associates at Laurentian University had conducted with a middle-aged man who reported experiencing an apparition and haunt phenomena in his West Canadian home. When the temporal lobe region on the right side of his brain was exposed to complex magnetic pulses with a strength of 10 milliGauss, the man reported suddenly experiencing brief "rushes of fear" and odd sensations, which were followed by his sighting of a visual image that seemed to resemble the apparition that he had seen in his home. Sharp spikes in brain wave activity over the man's temporal region were observed on an electroencephalograph (EEG) in conjunction with his experiences (Persinger, Tiller, & Koren, 2000). For additional discussion of magnetic fields and their possible relation to apparitional and haunt phenomena, we refer the reader to our first primer (Williams, Ventola, & Wilson, 2007).

Bryan Williams, University of New Mexico

Annalisa Ventola, CERCAP, Lund University

Mike Wilson, Psi Society


7.) It should be made clear here that these "mini"-seizures are not like the kind of seizures that tend to come to mind when people think about epileptic seizures. Those type of seizures, involving body convulsions, repetitive movements, and the like, are associated with grand mal epilepsy, and only occur when electrical discharges in the brain reach the areas associated with muscle and body movement. We are not referring to that particular kind of seizure; rather, we are referring to a kind known as complex partial seizure (CPS), which involves small electrical discharges that can naturally occur in the brain due to slight structural and neurochemical changes, as well as other factors. There is some evidence to suggest that CPS may occur from time-to-time even in the brains of healthy people (Persinger & Makerec, 1987; Roberts et al., 1990), and we are generally unconscious of it when it does occur. Sometimes CPS discharges might be capable of briefly altering our perceptions in a way that may contribute to apparitional experiences, as we note in text.


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