February 03, 2014
I was given a review copy of James Carpenter’s First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life some time ago, and I found it fascinating, but not one to knock off in an afternoon. When I got to the end I started to read it again, and have been dipping into it ever since.
A big complaint about parapsychology is that it lacks a theory. First Sight goes a long way towards filling the gap, at least from a psychological perspective. In the 1930s Joseph Rhine introduced the idea of psi as a universal feature of human functioning. But that notion has jostled uneasily ever since with the rival, and still probably more widespread view, that it’s something rather rare, an exotic appendage possessed by a few freaks. Professional mediums and healers seem to have it in abundance. A lot more people experience occasional psychic ability, or think they do. However the vast majority of us have never experienced anything of the kind, can’t imagine what it’s like, and may suspect it doesn’t exist.
Counterintuitively, Carpenter argues that psi is a fundamental element of human psychology, something that happens all the time. He sees it functioning smoothly, but for the most part invisibly, among all of our other mental functions, including memory, perception, motivation and creativity. The active component we call psychokinesis, the receptive aspect is ESP.
This idea is revolutionary, Carpenter says, because it turns so many things on their heads.
Are you being contained within your skin and confined to the present moment of experience? First Sight says that you are not. Are the paranormal lightning bolts and the parapsychological findings odd anomalies that don’t fit in with normal experience? First Sight says that they are not, they are only a handful of visible expression of processes that are going on all the time and that we unconsciously use with exquisite efficiency. Are we ultimately alone within our spheres of personal experience, with no real bridge to others? First Sight says that we are intimately entwined with others, and we swim in that unconscious sea each moment of our lives. Do your thoughts and feeling express only what you know about and remember? First Sight says they often show traces of things that haven’t even happened yet. Does this make the world bizarre and disorienting? We have all been living with it comfortably from the moment of birth.
In particular, Carpenter sees psi intimately involved in the process of subliminal perception. This concept is now a pillar of modern psychology, but interestingly was once almost as hotly contested among psychologists as psi has been, and for similar reasons. As he says, ‘it seems an insult to common sense to think that something so brief or faint that it is not consciously experienced can act as if it were a kind of experience by arousing meaningfully related responses.’
Yet experiments have shown over and over that people’s attitudes and behaviours can be influenced by exposing them to subliminal primes, a fact that is universally exploited in marketing, whether of products or political parties. We’re not aware of the concealed influence, but it nevertheless directs us. If ESP is like subliminal perception it might work in the same way, Carpenter suggests, affecting our experiences and behaviours but without being consciously available.
Having stated the thesis in some detail, Carpenter then looks to see how this relates to areas such as creativity, fear, and extraversion, with detailed reference to research findings from psychology and parapsychology. There’s a particularly interesting chapter on how the theory can be applied retrospectively to actual psi experiences, featuring Mary Craig Sinclair and Joe McMoneagle.
McMoneagle makes the point that a lot of training is required to access psi-based intuitions and make sense of them. They come in many forms, a vague sense of movement, a flash of shape, the hint of an odour, a feeling that raises goose bumps. Understanding the meaning behind such things involves a lot of practice, and learning how your unconscious mind works.
A great deal of this training has to do with a disciplined process of consulting fragmentary inner experience and writing it down as it is, with no interpretation at all for a long while. [McMoneagle] expects this fragmentary material to be made up of feelings, pictures, and words (more pictures for most men, more words for most women). Like Sinclair, McMoneagle insists that the material be consulted in the raw, not construed, and laid down as bits of nonsense only to be compared later with the actual thing.
This is hard to do, Carpenter comments.
The mind reflexively interprets experience, even the barest fragments of light or shadow or mood. It will look like a snowman or feel like a certain song. Like the meditator practicing detachment, move away from these interpretations and then move away again and again. Stay with the fragments and do not interpret them. If you work at this, you will get a little better. Then see if you are hitting targets. Tolerate lots of failure and you may get better at that too.
There is also a chapter on psychotherapy, where the theory predicts that psi information is likely to be more heavily weighted if it is highly relevant to a person’s unconscious goals and intentions. That will make it observable, as it will express itself in dreams, moods and accidents.
Carpenter relates how a patient of his, a middle class white male, one day delivered a vigorous lecture about the ‘foolish arrogance of America and our illusion of safety’.
Many people hate us, he said, much more than we imagine, and our smug isolation would soon be shattered. According to my notes, he said, ‘Our oceans won’t protect us. Remember the World Trade Center bombing in ’93? That was just a shot across the bow. Believe me, a shot across the bow. It was the tip of an iceberg. Things will come down in a fiery ruin!’
The patient had previously mentioned that he considered himself to be somewhat psychic and in the habit of making prophecies, which people were often unhappy about. On the other hand he had previously shown no interest in subjects relating to politics and terrorism. Carpenter chalked his rant up to his anger at some family members. However this session occurred a few days before the 9/11 attacks, and it was when he read back his notes at the start of the next session that he realised the coincidence, one of several such that he noted with this patient.
I have to say honestly, I have found this book curiously hard to review, which is probably why I have been putting it off for so long. This puzzles me because I actually rate it very highly. It’s an absolute treasure trove of insights, and persuasive in promoting a new way of thinking about psi. Quite apart from that, it provides an excellent overview of contemporary parapsychology, with an unusual richness of detail. Some of it would make more immediate sense to a psychology graduate than to a lay reader, and indeed, I can imagine it one day being read in universities as a text book. But none of it is inaccessible; on the contrary, the ideas are clearly and elegantly expressed. It’s the sort of book that one could pick up anywhere and dip into to get a sense of the mechanism working in different contexts.
In fact nothing I can say here will really do justice to it. I’d rate it along with Irreducible Mind as a major contribution to the field.
So what explains my hesitation? I wonder whether it might be because the book is so far ahead of its time. It looks forward to an intellectual climate where psi is seen to be integral to human functioning, talking in the present tense about something which, alas, is still firmly in the future.
I don’t mean at all that Carpenter does not recognise this. On the contrary, he sees the idea as revolutionary. But much work still has to be done to make it acceptable. Like many parapsychologists, Carpenter is entirely secure in the belief that psi has been demonstrated by empirical findings. He speaks on behalf a community that accept that psi is real and isn’t fixated on the uncertainties and ambiguities that reassure sceptics. The problem is, this community is still very small, at least in terms of qualified people who are prepared to discuss the matter openly.
Even so, this is surely where psychology is heading, part of the eventual paradigm change. When materialist models of consciousness have started to fall out of favour this way of thinking will become normal and natural. Anyone who wants a sense of what that future might feel like will enjoy reading this book.