Nov 19 2012

Studying the Brains of Mediums

What is happening when a medium claims to be channeling or speaking to spirits? Believers claim that they are actually contacting non-physical entities, and that their channeled words and actions come from a place other than their brain. The skeptical interpretation is that the mediumship, of whatever flavor, is nothing more than a performance. The truth lies in the brain of the medium, and since we cannot read minds it seems there will always be room for interpretation.

This may be changing, however, as we develop the technology to peek directly at brain activity. Electroencephalogram (EEG), functional MRI scanning (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) are all methods for looking at brain function. A recent study used the latter technique, SPECT, to look at the brains of mediums while performing psychography – automatic writing that they claim has an external source, that of spirits.

The study involved only 10 subjects, 5 novice and 5 experienced psychographers (with from 15 – 47 years of experience). They had each subject generate normal writing, then they had them generate “automatic” writing while allegedly in a trance-state. The researchers found two things – that the writing of the experienced (but not novice) psychographers were more complex in the trance state than the control state, and the experienced (but not novice) psychographers had decreased activity in certain parts of the brain related to higher cognition while writing in the trance state. Specifically:

The experienced psychographers showed lower levels of activity in the left culmen, left hippocampus, left inferior occipital gyrus, left anterior cingulate, right superior temporal gyrus and right precentral gyrus during psychography compared to their normal (non-trance) writing.

To be clear, both groups showed activity in the parts of the brain that are involved in writing (those listed above). The amount of activation was just less in the experienced psychographers, compared to baseline writing (not in a trance) and to less experienced psychographers.

The authors acknowledge some of the limitations of their study:

A limitation of this study arises from the small sample size, which obviated the detailed analysis that a larger sample could support. We only used a threshold for clusters as a correction for significance since correction for multiple comparisons would be over-conservative for this exploratory study. However, in a larger study, we could run a more robust analysis to correct for multiple comparisons, as well as small volume correction.

They correctly characterize their study as “exploratory” – which means we cannot take the results as reliable or definitive. It is a very small study, designed to look for any interesting patterns but not able to distinguish real patterns from illusory or statistical flukes. They did not correct for multiple comparisons, which means that any chance pattern could have emerged. Further, SPECT scanning (any kind of functional brain scanning, actually) is quite noisy in the data that it generates, making multiple subjects and multiple trials necessary to tease out a real signal from the noise.

Therefore any interpretation of this study must be preliminary and tentative. The authors themselves acknowledge that the study needs to be replicated with greater numbers of subjects.

If, however, we take the results at face value, what might they mean? It should be noted that the authors are not trying to make a case that psychograpy is a paranormal or “extra-neurological” phenomenon. They are using psychography as an example of a dissociative state.  They conclude only that it is unlikely that the experienced psychographers are faking or roleplaying, which would likely be associated with activity in the listed brain regions proportional to the complexity of the writing.

I agree that this is reasonable, to a point. I think they are committing a false dichotomy logical fallacy. It is possible that some or all of the experienced psychographers have insight into what they are doing (they know they are faking) but  still have developed their technique to the point that they are largely performing subconsciously. It is also possible that they are interpreting their own dissociative states as spiritual. This study provides no evidence, in my opinion, to separate these two possibilities.

There is a purely neurological interpretation of the results that are consistent with prior studies (and again, I don’t think the authors are trying to dispute this). Expertise in certain tasks has been shown to be associated with lower levels of activation in the correlating brain areas. The standard interpretation of this is that, with training and practice, the brain becomes more efficient at performing tasks. Some of the components of the task become ingrained in subconscious parts of the brain so that less conscious effort is required to perform them.

In sports, for example, experienced professional often talk of needing to “let go” and allow their body to do what it knows how to do. Anyone who has become even moderately competent at a complex physical activity (like sports, or playing a musical instrument) will have had this experience. After a while the proper technique becomes automatic, and you don’t have to think about every detail – you just do it. You are still in conscious control, it just takes much less brain power and you can perform much more quickly and smoothly.

The most parsimonious interpretation of the current study, therefore, is that psychography is simply a trained ability that experts perform with greater neurological efficiency than novices – just like every other trained ability. The increased complexity in the writing is also not surprising. After decades of performing automatic writing I would expect experts to have a vast repertoire of phrases and ideas that they can throw out, without the need for new creativity. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each reading. In this way they are like any cold reader.

I do think it’s possible for mediums of any stripe to become so good at what they do that to them it does feel automatic. They may, therefore, come to believe their own hype, that the performance feels automatic not because they have done it for years, but because the source of the information is truly from the outside. It does, in fact, come from a place other than their conscious mind – it comes from their subconscious, and there is no need to speculate about a non-physical source. This would be analogous to an alleged psychic who is intuitive and can make observations and conclusions about people that are likely to be true, and they interpret their own intuition as if it were a psychic ability.

I also find the difference between novice and experts psychographers to be very revealing. If psychography were truly a matter of entering a trance-state in which another entity were taking over and doing the writing, why would there be any activity of the brain areas involved in such writing, and why the difference between novices and experts? Either the psychographer is the source of the writing or some other entity is. I would expect, therefore, a binary result with “fakers” and true mediums showing completely distinct patterns of brain activity. There would also not be a direct relationship with experience, as you might have some experienced fakers and novice but genuine psychographers.

The pattern of results, however, is completely consistent with the conclusion that psychography is a performance by the psychographer, a skill that is developed over time like any other skill.

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12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Studying the Brains of Mediums”

  1. SARAon 19 Nov 2012 at 10:09 am

    I think it’s sad that people who fine tune a talent for cold reading in it’s various forms are generally part of the grifters of the world. Intentionally or not.

    When you consider what such a talent could do for a therapist, for example. I don’t think therapists (or at least none that I’ve ever met) are nearly as good at reading people as the cheapest psychic at a fair.

  2. EOon 19 Nov 2012 at 10:38 am

    It would be interesting to go back in time and have painters like Masson, Miro, or any of the surrealists take these tests. They were, as part if their artistic practice, seeking to create this kind of trancelike state as a way to get away from all of their artistic training.

    I imagine results between a more seasoned surrealist (so to speak) and a younger artists would line up very similarly to the participants in this study.

    I don’t know what the spiritual beliefs are of all those artists were, but I am fairly certain they weren’t projecting their abilities on some outside or mystical source. They like myself found the subconscious far more interesting than having contact with some outside spiritual personality.

  3. Artur Krolon 19 Nov 2012 at 1:17 pm

    I would differentiate between the flow states as experienced by sportspeople and trance states as experienced by mediums. Both might be based on deeply integrated skills, but the conciousness works on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

    In trance states there is an increased “internal” awareness, concentrated on a single issue (either physiological experience, or imagination), with little “external” awareness.

    In flow states we have more of a mindful state, an increased “external awareness”, with little “internal” awareness, so the sportsmen in flow often claim to be observers of their own body moving. (This is only so in well developed skills. In undeveloped skills the same state causes a “I have no idea what’s going on, my head is empty” style panic attack.)

  4. Steven Novellaon 19 Nov 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Attul – the analogy was to increased brain efficiency with long term training of a specific task or ability. In this way sports ability and automatic writing are similar. They are obviously dissimilar in many other ways.

  5. Jared Olsenon 20 Nov 2012 at 5:35 am

    Forgive my ignorance, but why does ‘subconscious’ activity in the brain correlate to less blood flow?
    It’s still a part of the brain doing the processing, and we’re apparently not privy to it, but the processing is still occurring, no?

  6. BillyJoe7on 20 Nov 2012 at 6:02 am

    ^consciousness, itself, requires the expenditure of energy.

  7. Steven Novellaon 20 Nov 2012 at 7:11 am

    Jared – to be clear, the blood flow still increases with brain activity. The researchers were looking at specific regions that correlate with creative writing. In the experienced psychograpers these areas still lit up, just not as much as the less experienced psychographers. This is probably because some of the processing burden of the task was offloaded to subconscious parts of the brain. Further, with practice the brain becomes more efficient at certain tasks. This is probably because the subconscious processing is inherently less demanding than the higher-order conscious processing, and through plasticity the brain develops learned processing, so it doesn’t have to recreate the effect each time.

    It’s sort of like Google cacheing common searches so it doesn’t have to process the search over and over.

  8. ConspicuousCarlon 22 Nov 2012 at 11:14 pm

    SARA on 19 Nov 2012 at 10:09 am

    I think it’s sad that people who fine tune a talent for cold reading in it’s various forms are generally part of the grifters of the world. Intentionally or not.

    When you consider what such a talent could do for a therapist, for example. I don’t think therapists (or at least none that I’ve ever met) are nearly as good at reading people as the cheapest psychic at a fair.

    I suppose there could be value in a therapist being able to discover what a patient is not wanting to tell them, but I see two issues with this:

    1. Ethically, should a therapist do this? It’s probably in the patient’s best interest, but it seems creepy.

    2. I don’t think it works as well as you think it does. Cold reading is often defined as including reading signs and body language, but in practice it looks like that is limited to some very basic stuff which a patient is unlikely to conceal (eg, are they married, what sort of job do they have, are they angry today, etc). And those are only around 60-70% accurate, which is hardly something a therapist should use to draw conclusions. Most cold reading seems to be Forer/Barnum tactics, which are only impressive to the receiver and are completely useless. The “reading” heuristics (when they are used at all–most seem to offer generic rambling) are only useful to psychics as a way of making very general choices about which vague Barnum statements they crank out (e.g., a psychic notices a wedding ring on a depressed woman, and says some crap like “there is unrest in your home”).

  9. ConspicuousCarlon 22 Nov 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Steve Novella:

    Is there any existing info on whether or not non-conscious brain functions either subside or increase when a person intentionally uses a conscious process to do the same thing? I’m not sure if I know enough to come up with a valid example, but if there were a non-conscious process for determining which block of chocolate is larger, is that activity altered if I intensely ponder the exact dimensions of each? I am wondering if learning to shut down conscious thought about something might actually increase the production of impulsive guessing, instead of just reducing conscious distractions from it.

  10. Grizwald Grimon 05 Jan 2013 at 9:51 pm

    “It does, in fact, come from a place other than their conscious mind – it comes from their subconscious, and there is no need to speculate about a non-physical source.”

    It’s completely okay to believe the null-theory, there’s no need of further studies…

    If the evidence from the study is insufficient to reach the conclusions they would like to, how is it not also insufficient to reach a negative conclusion?

  11. Thadiuson 05 Jan 2013 at 11:36 pm

    Grizwald Grim- when we are presented with a claim and we want to test it scientificaly, we create a test that will falsify the claim. That is a negative outcome refutes the claim and has much more weight than a positive claim (assuming no mistakes and biases).

  12. PixelKdon 16 Jan 2013 at 12:36 am

    Okay, bear with me here – fiction writer, thinking like a fiction writer… so don’t go thinking I actually believe what I am about to write is really plausible. Obviously, there is no reason to draw these conclusions… but assume that no one in the study is actually ‘faking’. That is, they all at lease believe what they are doing is real. For my purpose, assume it is real (cough* make believe with me).

    Steve – “If psychography were truly a matter of entering a trance-state in which another entity were taking over and doing the writing, why would there be any activity of the brain areas involved in such writing, and why the difference between novices and experts?”

    Witch doctor – “Well, of course communing with external spirits is a skill you have to work on. You may have a natural talent for it, but one must learn to hone that talent in order to better make contact. And it’s important to remember that the ‘entity’ is not so much taking you over, as it is ‘writing through you.’ It’s sending impulses through all that squishy biological goo via quantum… something.. and electrical impulses generated by that… something. Think of it as a cooperative endeavor.”

    A shadow moves. A plate falls off the counter.

    End scene

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