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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