Jan 26 2021

Why People Hear the Dead

Some spiritualists claim to be “clairaudient” which means they can hear voices, usually of spirits of the the dead. Some claim to be clairvoyant, which means they can see things remotely (from a different place and/or time), while still others claim clairsentience, meaning that they can feel emotions or sensations from objects or places. There is no credible scientific evidence that any of this is real, meaning that they represent genuine extrasensory perception (ESP), or the perception of genuine external information through non-physical (or at least unknown) means. There is also no plausible mechanism for such phenomena. This doesn’t make such phenomena strictly impossible, just highly unlikely, and sets a very high bar for evidence to be convinced they are real.

When a person claims to hear, see, or feel something through ESP, then, what is happening? Likely, many different things. In some cases there is good reason to suspect (or there is even solid evidence) that the person is simply lying. Convincing others that you have special access to hidden knowledge can be lucrative. But assuming that in at least some cases the person claiming to experience ESP is sincere, what is happening? (And to be clear, this is not a strict dichotomy, as there is a full spectrum of people mixing sincere belief with “shortcuts”.) Is this all a learned behavior, or are some people neurologically or psychologically predisposed to the subjective experience of ESP?

In 1981 Sheryl C. Wilson and Theodore X. Barber first reported what they called “Fantasy Prone Personality” (FPP). This emerged partly from their research into what makes some people better subjects for hypnosis. They found that about 4% of the population have a heightened ability to imagine and to be fully engaged in fantasy. The traits of a FPP include:

excellent hypnotic subject (most but not all fantasizers)
having imaginary friends in childhood
fantasizing often as child
having an actual fantasy identity
experiencing imagined sensations as real
having vivid sensory perceptions
receiving sexual satisfaction without physical stimulation

Their research also found that people who score high on tests of FPP were more likely to experience parapsychological phenomena. This research was taken up by several paranormal investigators, who found a positive correlation between FPP and those claiming to experience everything from ghosts to alien abductions to all forms of ESP. In fact it seems that many such phenomena seem to focus on people with FPP. As one investigator, Joe Nickel, once observed – there are no haunted houses, only haunted people.

FPP may simply be one end of the Bell curve of human variability. We know there are people who have aphantasia – a complete inability to conjure mental images or to imagine things. Perhaps FPP is just at the other end of the curve. It seems obvious why the ability to imagine and to have mental images is useful, and most neurological abilities vary along some distribution. This is just one more. But the brain is also extremely complex, and rarely is one feature, like the ability to fantasize, an isolated ability. Psychological phenomena are usually multifaceted, with many factors interacting with each other. FPP is more like to be the beginning of this quest, therefore, than the end.

A pair of studies found that those rating high on the FPP scale were better storytellers. Their stories were richer, more plausible, and more emotionally compelling. Storytelling is a central part of human culture and experience, and so it seems highly plausible that this will be a valuable skill for such a social species.

A recent review of FPP found:

Effect sizes were large (r’s > .50) for hallucinatory experiences, magical ideation, perceptual aberration, dissociation, and excessive daydreaming.

However, effect sizes were small when it came to any association with childhood trauma, depression, anxiety, or memory illusions. This suggests that perhaps FPP is not a pathological state, but rather is part of the healthy spectrum of human variation.

A recent study adds another layer to the evidence. Psychologists Powell and Moseley looked specifically at clairaudient subjects to see what features correlate with the subjective experience of hearing voices. Hearing voices could be one symptom of schizophrenia, so they focused on what they call “nonpathological” cases – people who hear voices but lack other signs or symptoms of schizophrenic pathology. They also looked at a trait called “absorption” which is the ability to become completely absorbed in one’s own thoughts. They found:

Spiritualist mediums (N = 65) completed an online questionnaire assessing the timing, nature, and frequency of their auditory (clairaudient) spiritual communications – including scales measuring paranormal beliefs, absorption, hallucination-proneness, and aspects of identity. These measures were compared to a general population group (N = 143), with results showing higher levels of auditory hallucination-proneness and absorption among the Spiritualists as well as correlations between spiritual beliefs and absorption, but not spiritual beliefs and hallucination-proneness, for the general population.

From this study there appears to be a difference between auditory hallucinations and visual hallucinations. Without getting into the details, this is not surprising, as we see these as very separate phenomena in various neurological and psychiatric conditions. In other words, the neural circuitry underlying these phenomena are distinct. What this new study finds is that spiritualists are more likely to have a tendency to hear voices, but not to have visual experiences. This suggests that clairaudience, more than clairvoyance, is a fantasy prone trait.

Not surprisingly, absorption also correlated with being a spiritualist. This makes sense as absorption seems to be tied to fantasy proneness, as both are related to being deeply involved in an internal imaginary experience.

There is still a lot to unravel here. The role of intuitive vs analytical thinking, for example, is unresolved. The extent to which FPP plays a role in a variety of paranormal phenomena also is a ripe area for research. But so far there is a strong signal that the FPP and predisposition for certain sensory and cognitive experiences plays a significant role in driving various paranormal phenomena.

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