Saturday, November 02, 2019

The Neural Correlates of Channeling the Dead



November 2nd is the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday to honor the memory of lost loved ones. If you subscribe to certain paranormal belief systems, the ability to communicate with the dearly departed is possible via séance, which is conducted by a Medium who channels the spirit of the dead.

Since I do not subscribe to a paranormal belief system, I do not think it's possible to communicate with my dead wife. Nor am I especially knowledgeable about the differences between mediumship vs. channeling:
Mediumship is mostly about receiving and interpreting messages from other worlds.

Mediums often deliver messages from loved ones and spirit guides during readings.
. . .

...channeling is often about receiving messages from other types of entities, such as nature spirits, spirit guides, or even angels.

In short, Channels can communicate with a broader class of non-corporeal entities, for instance Mahatma Ghandi or Cleopatra (not only the dead relatives of paying clients).

What seems to be uncontroversial, however, is that Channels who enter into a trance state to convey the wisdom of Gandhi may experience an altered or “expanded” state of consciousness (regardless of the veracity of their communications). This permuted state of arousal should be manifest in the electroencephalogram (EEG) as an alteration in spectral power across the range of frequency bands (e.g., theta, alpha, beta etc.) that have been associated with different states of consciousness.

A group of researchers at the Institute of Noetic Sciences adopted this view in a study of persons who claimed the ability to channel (Wahbeh et al., 2019). The participants (n=13; 11 ♀, 2 ) were on average 57 year old white women of upper middle class socioeconomic status, representative of the study site in Marin County, California. The authors screened 155 individuals to arrive at their final sample size.1 Among the stringent inclusion criteria was the designation of being a Channel who directly and actively conveys the communications of a discarnate entity or spirit (rather than being a passive relay).2 The participants were free of major psychiatric disorders, including psychosis and dissociation (according to self-report). Oh, and they had the ability to remain still during the channeling episodes, which was advantageous for the physiological measurements.

The participants alternated between channeling and no-channeling in 5 minute blocks while EEG and peripheral physiological signals (skin conductance, heart rate, respiration, temperature) were recorded. At the end of each counterbalanced session (run on separate days), voice recordings were obtained while the participants read stories.




Contrary to the authors' predictions, they found no significant differences between the channeling and no-channeling conditions for any of the physiological measures, nor for the EEG analyzed in standard frequency bands (theta 3–7 Hz; alpha 8–12 Hz; beta 13–20 Hz and low gamma 21–40 Hz) across 64 electrodes. I'll note here that the data acquisition and analysis methods were top-notch. The senior author (Arnaud Delorme) developed the widely used EEGLAB toolbox for data analysis, which was described in one of the most highly cited articles in neuroscience.3

Modest differences in voice parameters were observed: the channeled readings were softer in volume and slower in pace. The authors acknowledged that the participants could have impersonated an alternate voice during the channeling segments, whether consciously or unconsciously.

So does this mean that channeling is a sham? The authors don't think so. Instead, they recommended further investigation: “future studies should include other measures such as EEG connectivity analyses, fMRI and biomarkers.”


Footnotes

1 This is a rather esoteric population, so I won't fault the researchers for having a small sample size.

2 “The channeler goes into a trance state at will (the depth of the trance may vary) and the disincarnate entity/spirit uses the channeler’s body with permission to communicate directly through the channeler's voice, body movements, etc. (rather than the channeler receiving information mentally or otherwise and then relaying what is being received).”

3 I was rather critical of a previous study by this research group, which was ultimately retracted from Frontiers in Neuroscience. See Scientific Study Shows Mediums Are Wrong 46.2% of the Time.


Reference

Wahbeh H, Cannard C, Okonsky J, Delorme A. (2019). A physiological examination of perceived incorporation during trance. F1000Research 8:67.



Bev Tull, the fake medium on Bad Girls.

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