Auditory Pareidolia: Effects of Contextual Priming on Perceptions of Purportedly Paranormal and Ambiguous Auditory Stimuli

Lafayette College, Department of Psychology, Easton, USA

Summary: Reality television programs that explore purportedly paranormal phenomena with pseudoscientific research approaches have emerged in popular culture. These shows commonly feature electronic voice phenomena (EVP), whereby recording devices capture audio signals that are interpreted as paranormal messages. We compared perceptions for voices in EVP with actual speech, acoustic noise, and degraded speech. Some participants were told that the experiment was about speech intelligibility, whereas others were told that the experiment was about paranormal EVP. The paranormal prime increased the proportion of trials for which participants perceived voices in both EVP stimuli and degraded speech. When a voice was detected, low agreement was found regarding the content of EVP messages. In both priming conditions, participants reported general skepticism in the paranormal. Results are discussed in the context of theoretical perspectives on paranormal events, trait-versus-state accounts of paranormal beliefs, and pseudo-scientific approaches to research.

Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Click here to Read The Full Research Paper


The Amazing Work of Dr. Persinger – What’s in your environment?

The God Helmet 

When I first began my research into unusual things I had (like many) a pretty strong belief in the possibility of some form of after-life existence. The idea of a wandering human soul didn’t really seem like a stretch to me and I admit I was a sucker for the all of the popular hype. It’s a tough thing to admit, but I was open to and fascinated by the idea of Ouija Boards, Tarot Cards, pendulums, Psychics and yes, I even got excited about orb photos (Yikes! Did I just say that?). Anyone who knows me today might find it all hard to believe considering my often vocal penchant for critical thinking and scientific methods.  Well that was 11 years ago and like any good student of life I developed with research. Education and study are the true monster killers of this world and their strength is certainly formidable.

With all that being said, let me add that in spite of my new-found rationalization, my belief and interest in unusual things has certainly not disappeared. In fact I still believe there are unusual and elusive things left to discover in this world. Some of them down-right freaky. But the difference now is that I approach this work, this vocation, this hobby, this passion (what ever you want to call it) with two feet firmly planted on the ground and a large supply of salt to cushion my skeptical ears.

Part of my research in recent years has involved the subject of human perception. Clearly, as humans, our perceptions and faculties (not to mention our limbic system) are the ambassadors to our experiences and our grasp on reality is only as good as they are correct. I know there are hundreds of behavioral processes in your mind right now that will argue to the contrary, but trust me, we are not in good shape.  I do believe most (97% or more) of the worlds “paranormal” experiences can be attributed to failures or inefficiencies in the way we think, react and perceive. Some of these perception failures are built-in and it’s simply a process of our behavior or neural function. But others come from the outside.

Anyone with even a rudimentary interest in Paranormal Research will have at some point, heard of EMF (Electro-magnetic fields). “Ghost Hunters” of all types run through purported active locations looking for readings from a field of energy on a meter that most investigators don’t truly understand (I’ll talk more about that in another article). Not many people realize that the search for “EMF” was a search for natural causes, not for energy disturbed by dis-incarnate beings. That’s right, all of those things you read about Ghosts giving off EMF or disturbing EMF or being made of EMF were actually unsubstantiated “guesses” made by people who failed to research the reasoning behind the measurements.

The fact is the lion share of the EMF hype all started in Canada with a neuropsychologist named Dr. MIchael Persinger. His work in identifying an apparent connection between electromagnetic stimulation of the brain and perceived paranormal experiences started college researchers searching “active” homes for EMF sources that might trigger the unusual effect. It was really a method of debunking. Yet today a hit on an EMF meter or KII is often considered a “sign” of a ghost. Truly its testimony to one more human failure… the failure to properly research a concept before teaching it to others.

In closing I leave you with an excellent report from one of the researchers at Laurentian college, exploring some of Dr. Persinger’s amazing work… Enjoy.

Oh and by the way, in the physics world “EMF” actually stands for “Electro-Motive Force” not Eletro-Magnetic Fields. The “EMF” Monicker was coined by folks uneducated to the true science nomenclature. “EMF” Meters are actually “Electro-Magnetometers”  – The more you know..

The neuromagnetics research of neuropsychologist Dr. Michael Persinger is given a cursory review in regard to Temporal Lobe Transients (TLTs) which are implicated as mini-seizures in producing a variety of perceptual anomalies combined with a sense of deep meaning. Persinger identifies the temporal lobes as the biological basis of the God Experience, “the God Module,” in his 1987 book Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs.

He comments on the purpose of his research: “As a human being, I am concerned about the illusionary explanations for human consciousness and the future of human existence.  Consequently after writing [NBGB], I began the systematic application of complex electromagnetic fields to discern the patterns that will induce experiences (sensed presence) that are attributed to the myriad of ego-alien intrusions which range from gods to aliens.  The research is not to demean anyone’s religious/mystical experience but instead to determine which portions of the brain or its electromagnetic patterns generate the experience.  Two thousand years of philosophy have taught us that attempting to prove or disprove realities may never have discrete verbal (linguistic) solutions because of the limitation of this measurement.  The research has been encouraged by the historical fact that most wars and group degradations are coupled implicitly to god beliefs and to the presumption that those who do not believe the same as the experient are somehow less human and hence expendable.  Although these egocentric propensities may have had adaptive significance, their utility for the species’ future may be questionable.”

His technique, using solenoids in a helmet for input, is fairly simple.  A hand-held computer programs the predefined pattern at which the fields will fluctuate. The impulses move through the temporal lobe and penetrate deep into the brain, where they interfere and interact with the complex electrical patterns of the subject’s neural fields. The new patterns spread through the limbic system, producing sensations that range from subtle to profound. 

Persinger’s research goal is to use his device to trigger transcendental experiences in nonreligious people faced with the fear of death. Persinger has tickled the temporal lobes of around a 1000 people and has concluded, among other things, that different subjects label this ghostly perception with the names that their cultures have trained them to use — Elijah, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Mohammed, the Sky Spirit.  Some subjects have emerged with Freudian interpretations – describing the presence as one’s grandfather, for instance – while others, agnostics with more than a passing faith in UFOs, tell something that sounds more like a standard alien-abduction story.

Persinger has discovered that when he aims for the amygdala, his subjects experience sexual arousal. When he focuses the solenoids on the right hemisphere of their temporal lobes, they sense on the left side of their body a negative presence — an alien or a devil, say. When he switches to left left hemisphere, his subjects sense a benevolent force: an angel or a god. Focused on the hippocampus, the personal electromagnetic relaxation device will produce the sort of opiate effects that Ecstasy does today. So far, subjects report no adverse side effects. However, “if you interfere with the opiate pattern, people get very irritated,” Persinger says. In fact, “they’ll actually cuss you out.”

Persinger asserts that, “God Experiences are products of the human brain.  When certain portions of the brain are stimulated, God Experiences, tempered by the person’s learning history, are evoked.  They appear to have emerged within the human species as a means of dealing with the expanded capacity to anticipate aversive events.  God Experiences contain common themes of “knowing,” forced thinking, inner voices, familiarity, and sensations of uplifting movements.”  God Concepts are determined by verbal conditioning; perceptions are constructions.  When multiple events occur within a week, they are usually given special labels, such as “revelations,” “communions,” or “conversions.”

People with TLTs experience vivid landscapes or perceive forms of living things.  Some of these entities are not humans, but are described as little men, glowing forms, or bright, shining sources.  The modality of the experience, that is, whether it is experienced as a sound, a smell, a scene (vision), or an intense feeling, reflects the area of the electrical instability.  The experiences, whether visual or auditory, may have actually happened or they may be mixtures of fantasy and reality.  Sometimes they may be fixed in space and time, while in other cases they may be as dynamic as everyday experiences.  However, whether they are dreamlike or vivid, they are experienced as real.

Persinger is not saying that the experiences of God are synonymous with temporal lobe epilepsy.  However,  when vast depolarizing waves spread across millions of cells, all types of memories and fantasies are mixed and mashed together.  But the God Experience is a normal and more organized pattern of temporal lobe activity, precipitated by subtle psychological factors such as personal stress, loss, and anticipated death. The gut feeling is a sense of familiarity, deep meaning, conviction and importance, even euphoria or mania (alternately fear and terror).  The brain’s chemical reaction is to release natural opiates and other mood elevating neurotransmitters. 

During TLTs, the person peers into another realm which has many names, heaven, the world of spirits, or the other dimension.  Trained meditators, (employing rhythmic stimulus to the CNS such as a mantra or “emptying”, changes in oxygen and blood sugar levels), can drive the temporal lobe into bouts of theta activity.  Sometimes frank electrical seizures occur and the God Experience is reported.

Neuroscientist Todd Murphy,, has done a good job of summarizing Persinger’s research in simpler language.  He describes consciousness as a feedback interface of sensory and cognitive modalities.  Low intensity magnetic fields orchestrate communication between lobes of the brain, at a speed much faster than the bioelectrical or biochemical process of neurons.  Different signals produce different phenomena.   

The temporal lobes are the parts of the brain that mediate states of consciousness. Multiple modalities are experienced simultaneously, with the implication that they are ‘reset’ all at once by neuromagnetic signals which come in pairs, running slightly out of phase with one another.  In this way, neuromagnetic signals, like the two laser beams used to produce a hologram, might be able to store information.  The speeds at which neuromagnetic signals are propagated and their capacity to recruit/alter multiple modalities suggests that they were naturally selected to make instant choices to alter states of consciousness, and to do so quickly to facilitate adaptive behavior.

Murphy’s many articles include not only the production of consciousness and states of consciousness, the God experience, but deja vu, and the spiritual personality.  Long-term memory is seated in the surface of the bottom of the temporal lobes in the para hippocampal cortex, closely connected to the hippocampus.  Usually, there is seamless integration of past, present and future.  We experience something in the present, compare it to the past and decide how to respond in a few seconds.

But once in a while, in Deja Vu, there is too much communication between short-term and long-term memories.  Then the present can feel like the past.  If present perceptions are shunted through the brain areas that process memories from the past, those perceptions feel like memories, and we feel we are re-living a moment stored in long-term memory. The opposite happens in Jamais Vu:  things seem totally unfamiliar because of too little connection between long-term memory and perceptions from the present.  

Nothing we experience seems to have anything to do with the past.  If these experiences spill over into the amygdala they are highly emotional.  If goes to the right it is unpleasant or fearful, to the left from ecstatic to beatific.  Another experiential phenomenon is time distortion. Murphy describes the phenomenon of the Sensed Presence and how it emerges from out of phase processes in different hemispheres of the brain. 

He also relates the sensed presence with the behavior and feelings of romantic love. The ‘self’ is what we experience when a specific pattern of brain activity is happening.  It is linked to the Forty Hertz Component which appears from the temporal lobes, and two of it’s deeper structures, the amygdala and the hippocampus.  The 40 Hz signal is only not there in dreamless sleep. 

The maintenance of the sense of self is repeated 40 times per second and each time it can manifest a new emotional response to changing circumstances every 25 milliseconds. These structures on both sides of the brain yield two ‘selves,’ two senses of self.  One is on the left, and one on the right, but they are not equals.  The left-sided sense of self is dominant in most people; right side subordinate non-verbal, introspective.  The left is the one where language happens, maintaining our stream of inner words and thoughts about everything we experience or can imagine.

Each normal brain function involves a primary operative area on one side with a subordinate homologous or corresponding area on the other.  On the other side of the brain, following the rule that each thing on one side of the brain does the opposite of what the same thing on the other side does, we get the conclusion that there is a non-linguistic sense of self on the right side of the brain.  Usually the two selves work in tandem.  But if the two fall out of phase, and the left-sided self manifests by itself, we experience our own, right-sided silent sense of self coming out where the left sided sense of self experiences it as “other,” as not-self.  This leads to the phenomenon of Sensed Presence, actually the Silent Self.


Electrical activity in the amygdala, hippocampus and temporal can ‘spill over’ into nearby structures.  If it ignites the visual area, intense visions of an entity of some sort emerge (left amygdala-positive imagery; right side-negative images/entities).  Kindling the olfactory region leads to unique scents; the somatosensory stimulation leads to buzzing, energetic, or tingly sensations or perceptions of being lifted or floating; language center activation produces voices, music or noise; long-term memory (lower portion of temporal lobes) access yields interactive virtual realities, complete with emotions, much like waking dreams. 

The thalamus is implicated in aura vision, and the reticular activating system in life reviews. Because positive thoughts (involving the right hippocampus), and positive feelings (involving the left amygdala) are on opposite sides of the brain, prayer or meditation changes the balance of activity on the two sides.  These structures have some of the lowest firing thresholds in the brain and are thus likely to mismatch their metabolic rates of activity. 

Whenever that’s happening, chances of the activity of the two sides falling out of phase with each other increases. Then the ‘right self’ is experienced as an external presence. Sensed presence experiences become more common until the day arrives when God’s presence is something the person feels at all times. 

In mystical experience language fails, and a person’s sense of themselves can be transformed.  Since we can’t experience two senses of self, one is projected as other, the Beloved, either romantic or spiritual.  There is thus some truth to the saying that the beloved is God, and that when we love God we are loving ourselves.  I and Thou are One.  The other becomes the Self.


Greater electroencephalographic coherence between left and right temporal lobe structures during increased geomagnetic activity
KS Saroka, A Lapointe, MA Persinger
Neuroscience letters 560, 126-1307

Radio Head – Can We “Hear” Radio Transmissions?


Just over two years ago my sister told me that she had been hearing what sounded like a muffled radio playing at night when she was in bed. She said it sounded like a radio playing behind a wall. Sometimes playing music and sometimes just talk. The sound was muffled enough that she couldn’t quite make out the words, and the music was not recognizable. Try as she might, she never could find the source. My father who lived with her at the time also heard the mysterious radio in his apartment, but neither of them could find it. She questioned whether the source might be paranormal in nature and asked me to give it some thought.

Interested in this claim I started doing some research. I located a radio broadcast tower just 5 miles from her house. It was an AM broadcast station broadcasting at 770 MHz. Interestingly, it was christian broadcast station that had talk shows and played music. I had my sister tune a radio near her bed to 770 AM and instructed her to turn the radio on when she heard the mystery radio and see if the sounds matched. They did. She didn’t recognize the music because she’s not familiar with christian music and the talk show schedule coincided with her experience of hearing talking. It was an amazing find. I was curious to see if any other people were experiencing this strange phenomena. Doing an internet search I found many forums with people describing the same experience as my sister. It seemed to be a common phenomena.

Later that same year, I put out a call for people who were experiencing these mysterious radio broadcasts. 25 people responded and to my amazement I was able to tie the majority of the reports to radio towers near their homes. All within 15 miles or less. All AM towers, mostly lower band frequencies. This was truly a phenomena, but I simply couldn’t find anyone who was researching it. I was baffled. How could something so strange exist, affecting what I believe to be thousands of people and no body is researching a cause?

Well in the months that followed I gathered more claims of people experiencing the mysterious radio syndrome, but could only guess at how it could be concurring. My initial thought was that the human brain must be able to detect radio frequencies and transferring them to the auditory system, but that was just a guess. Then, in the middle of my endless scouring of published research papers (one of my research techniques), I found a paper published in 1982 by Chung-Kwang Chou, Arthur W. Guy and Robert Galambos.

They were conducting research to explain the claims of radar workers (since World War II) that they were able to “hear” the microwaves emitted by the radar. What they found was amazing and fully supported the research I had done to date. According to the paper:

” Microwave hearing is most easily explained by the mechanism of thermoelastic expansion, i.e., absorption of microwave energy produces nonuniform heating of the exposed head; a thermoelastic wave of pressure is then launched, presumably through bone conduction, to the cochlea where it is detected. After auditory-nerve excitation in the high-frequency portion of the cochlea, transmission of the microwave-induced neural response follows the same auditory pathways as do all of the .acoustically induced responses through the brainstem and thalamus to the auditory cortex. ”

In other words, through a form of heated expansion the radio waves are absorbed through the bone in the skull and is audibly detected by the cochlea (the spiral cavity of the inner ear containing the organ of Corti, which produces nerve impulses in response to sound vibrations.) and wa la! people are hearing a radio broadcast. The idea is similar to hearing through vibration, and the result would be, as in the many claims, muffled sound not easily to discern.

I know not many people would be excited by finding a paper like this, but for me it was a validating experience and it feels good to know I was on the right track all this time. Here is the paper I discovered (for those interested)

Paranormal Illusions – Reality Check


The image above appears to be moving, but you know it isn’t. It’s a trick of the brain called the peripheral drift illusion. Many people have seen this and have no problem accepting that the image isn’t really moving.

The image below is caused by the same peripheral shifting of the brain and makes it appear as though the white dots are changing into black dots randomly between the corners of each of the squares. Of course you know they aren’t.


It’s not hard to identify images like these as illusions and accept that our brain isn’t perfect and has truly been fooled – even when we are consciously aware that is not real.  The sites that display images such as these openly profess they are illusions.  Yet we can’t stop our brain from seeing the wrong thing.

If we can accept the fallibility of our brain regarding these images, why then is it so hard to accept that our brain can be wrong in so many other instances such as hearing words in random background noise or faces in window reflections?  The effect of “paraedolic” anthropomorphism has been demonstrated and proven time and time again.  But yet, there are so many people who adamantly insist that what they are seeing or hearing is real…not an illusion.  They insist their mind could not be the culprit behind the anomalies that present themselves in such mundane and non-informative ways.

The reason for this adamant denial is sourced from yet another psychological effect called cognitive bias.  Our brains tendency to “assemble” information that aligns with our desires or beliefs and any idea or bit of information that doesn’t align is sharply rejected.  Often to the point of irrational anger.

As humans (living animals) we rely on our senses and brain for all of our knowledge and experiences. It was our perceptions and critical thinking process that allowed us to speak and understand. It taught us to walk and eat and fend for ourselves. We have no choice but to trust the validity of our own mind and senses… especially when it regards something near and dear to our heart or something into which we have staunchly invested our interest.  Let’s face it, our brain is our only interface to the outside world. It’s not a pleasant experience to conceive its fallible nature.

That being said, it only stands to reason that when a concept or opinion is presented that challenges not only our mind but our beliefs and wants as well (regardless of how logical it may seem), the default reaction is a sharp and swift dismissal.  Be careful. While the cause of a stubborn, non-objective opinion in response to seemingly anomalous phenomena may seem a natural condition of our psyche, it is dangerous to our growth as an intelligent race.  Every “patriotic” defense of an unsubstantiated perspective is a truth left undiscovered and a hindrance of progress.

Next time you see a face in a window reflection or hear your name being called in the heavy background noise of a poor recording, just stop and think for a moment. What seems more likely? That your easily fooled brain has done it again or some mysterious inter-dimensional being is trying to communicate with you through a bad photograph or poor recording


Hallucination: A Normal Phenomenon?

A superb article Posted by Dartmouth University Journal of Science / In Fall 2009 / November 21, 2009

Original :

The word “hallucination” conjures images of schizophrenics and drug abusers. Hallucinations seem to be the domain of psychosis and psychedelic drugs. But in reality, hallucinations can be common and ordinary, defined as a “sensory perception without external stimulation of the relevant sensory organ” (1).  The “creepy crawly” feeling one gets on the skin is an example of such a perception, or rather misperception, caused by a misfiring or other minor error in the nervous system.

Seeing Dead People

In general, hallucinations occur slightly more often in males than females. They are most common in males between ages 25-30, while females peak around age 40-50. Aging increases hallucinations in both sexes (2). The increase in hallucinations with age might have to do with the deaths of loved ones. It is not unusual to see dead friends and relatives; these hallucinations are considered normal, perhaps part of the grieving process. Almost half of widows and widowers have hallucinations of their dead spouse, most commonly in the first 10 years of widowhood (3). The occurrence of these hallucinations is unrelated to social isolation or depression— they actually increase with length of marriage, the happiness of the relationship, and parenthood. They are even considered helpful accompaniments and a coping mechanism of widowhood.

Hallucination can cause an altered sense of reality, which may manifest itself as visual or auditory distortions.


Hallucinations are most commonly associated with schizophrenia. Individuals may hear voices, or in rare cases see objects, that are not really there and believe that they are completely real, as opposed to a widow’s awareness that the vision of her dead husband is just in her head. Hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics also tend to be derogatory and hostile in tone.

Auditory hallucinations in schizophrenic individuals occur when normal cognitive processes are disturbed, such as monitoring of “self-generated verbal material.” These hallucinations are not a result of epileptic episodes in the auditory cortex, just small neural disturbances in regular brain activity. As a result, the auditory input seems just as vivid as a real perception.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans during episodes of hallucinations show that the right hemisphere is highly active. The right hemisphere is associated with emotions and connections among the set of perceptions brought in through the sensory organs. It is thought to “make sense” of the surroundings by interpreting multiple sensory inputs. It is thought that during an episode, the schizophrenic individual may be trying to interpret and process what is being said by the voice in his head. Since these hallucinations are hostile in nature, the individual may be trying to form an emotional response to the input he is receiving (4). As a result, schizophrenic individuals become paranoid about the people or objects in their lives that the voices tell them are harmful.

Another illness associated with hallucination is Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the brain that leads to loss of motor skills, caused by the death of dopamine-secreting nerve cells in the brain. A first sign of Parkinson’s is an involuntary tic-like tremor or reduced mobility of certain body parts. Sensory processing then becomes disturbed, especially in vision. One study showed that almost 40% of people with Parkinson’s experience hallucinations, mostly visual. These individuals have “presence” hallucinations, where they perceive somebody else in the room. Some patients experience passage hallucinations, where they think they see something in their peripheral vision, probably due to a misinterpretation of a very flimsy perception in an early part of the visual cognitive process. Patients usually see strangers or domestic animals such as dogs, neutral objects that draw no emotional response (5).

Select individuals with Parkinson’s have more vivid hallucinations, perhaps due to other causes. One woman saw her dead son saying, “take care of yourself.” Another man, who was also diagnosed with dementia, saw “small incorporeal devils with a blurred face and a changing size.” He once thought that they were hurting him during an episode of lumbar pain, but for the most part the devils were not frightening to the man. In general, hallucinations are more prevalent in Parkinson’s patients with a longer duration of the disease. Also, the dopaminergic drug therapy administered to Parkinson’s patients is strongly associated with hallucinations (6). Hallucinations can also be induced with recreational drugs, such as LSD, by increasing activity in the same dopamine pathway (7).

Another neurological disorder that can cause hallucinations is called Charles Bonnet’s syndrome, or CBS. Frequent in elderly, visually handicapped individuals, CBS leads to “complex visual hallucinations without delusions or loss of insightful cognition.” The individuals are psychologically normal and aware that their hallucinations are not real. In a study, CBS was present in 11% of a group of 300 visually handicapped patients, 72 years old on average. The hallucinations ranged from mundane objects like a bottle or hat to funny situations, such as “two miniature policemen guiding a midget villain to a tiny prison van.” Others saw ghosts, dragons, or angels. Real images might combine with the imaginary, such as a hallucinated person in a real chair. Like the hallucinations experienced by Parkinson’s patients, the hallucinations generally have nothing to do with the person’s life (8).

Most of the individuals with CBS involved in the study did not tell their doctor about their hallucinations for fear of being ignored or considered insane. One individual who did tell the doctor received a response: “You’d better not talk about such silly things.” They also do not tell loved ones, due to the same fears. When the wife of a man with CBS expressed her amazement at her husband’s episodes and asked why he never told her, he simply replied, “I didn’t want to upset you” (9).

Wakeful dreaming

There is a strong stigma against hallucinations, as they are considered severely abnormal and a marker of a major psychiatric disorder. Since our society also has a strong stigma against psychological illnesses, people may hide their hallucinations. However, hallucinations are not really that extraordinary. Mahowald, Woods, and Schenk propose that hallucinations are really just like dreams in a conscious, wakeful state. In a normal awake state, the brain ignores activity generated internally while attending to the external stimulation it perceives. In a hallucination, whether induced by drugs, sleeplessness, or sensory deprivation, the brain processes the internal activity that it normally ignores, creating a hallucinogenic episode. Mahowald, Woods, and Schenk label this “wakeful dreaming” (10).

A strong social stigma against hallucination causes many people to conceal them. But some scientists argue that hallucinations are a wakeful occurence of the brain’s dream imagery.

Our body is covered with sensory organs that transmit information to the thalamus, part of the cerebrum, which is the part of the brain that controls many functions including sensory processing. The thalamus has two modes to control whether information goes to the forebrain (relay) or stops in the thalamus (oscillatory), controlling the input of environmental information into the cortex. The thalamus is in relay mode in wakefulness and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the sleep stage when vivid dreams tend to occur. The rest of the time, in non-REM (NREM) sleep, the thalamus is in oscillatory mode and the cortex is deprived of all environmental sensory information (11).

According to J. Allen Hobson, a revolutionary in dream research, dreams have five common features: hallucinatory imagery, bizarre cognitive features like discontinuity and incongruity, strong emotion, uncritical acceptance, and memory deficits (most dreams are forgotten) (12). These features would be considered very abnormal in a wakeful state. One explanation for hallucinations is based on Louis West’s theory of perceptual release. According to this theory, our life history and experiences create permanent neural changes that reprise themselves as memories, thoughts, and fantasies. Using these changes and the constant sensory input received from both the environment and inside the body, the midbrain gives rise to consciousness (13). With normal environmental sensory input, the midbrain organizes and limits the brain from reintroducing memory traces within itself. When the brain is deprived of sensory input (such as by blindness), brain circuitry encoding the memory of previous perceptions is released, causing the memories to be re-experienced as hallucinations (10).

Don’t try this at home

Hallucinations do not occur naturally in healthy people without psychological disorders. Extreme physiological stress can induce hallucinations, such as heatstroke or fasting. Religious or spiritual people use this form of physical exertion to experience “awakenings” and supernatural visions that can allow them to leave the normal realm of human perception.

In addition to recreational drugs, some prescription medication for disorders like ADHD can cause hallucinations, though only in small numbers. In one study, psychosis-mania events occurred in 11 out of 748 individuals treated with drugs. Children commonly had visual or tactile sensations of insects, snakes, or worms, described as a “creepy crawly” feeling (14).

Another interesting way hallucinations can arise is through intentional sensory deprivation. One study showed that healthy, normal sighted people who were blindfolded for several days started having visual hallucinations. Thirteen subjects wore blindfolds for five consecutive days. Ten people had visual hallucinations ranging from bright spots of light to complex hallucinations like faces, landscapes, and ornate objects. They started occurring on the second day of blindfolding and the subjects were aware that their hallucinations were not real (15).

For the most part, hallucinations are harmless and no real cause for worry, unless the person starts to believe that they are real. In that case, the person may need to seek medical treatment, though ironically, the person would not recognize that he needs help. Even in psychologically normal people like those with Charles Bonnet’s syndrome, hallucinations can be unwanted annoyances that cause emotional distress. But they can be healing or reassuring in some way to the person experiencing a hallucination. Martin Luther King reportedly heard God reassuring him during hard times in the form of an inner voice, saying, “Lo, I will be with you” (16). Hallucinations occur in many situations in different ways. They range from adverse symptoms of severe mental illness, to occasional, harmless dream-like events. Perhaps hallucinations are just one indication of our physical or psychological state of being.


1. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., ed. 3, 1987), pp. 398.
2. A. Y. Tien, Soc. Psych. Psych. Epid. 26, 287-292 (1991).
3. W. D. Rees, Br. Med. J. 4, 37-41 (1971).
4. S. S. Shergill, M. J. Brammer, S. C. R. Williams, R. M. Murray, P. K. McGuire, Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 57, 1033-1038 (2000).
5. G. Fenelon, F. Mahieux, R. Huon, M. Ziegler, Brain 123, 733-745 (2000).
6. C. G. Goetz, C. M. Tanner, H. L. Klawans, Am. J. Psychiatry 139, 494-49 (1982).
7. P. Seeman. Synapse 1, 133-152 (2009).
8. R. J. Teunisse, J. R. M. Cruysberg, W. H. L. Hoefnagels, A. L. M. Verbeek, F. G. Zitman, Lancelet 347, 794-797 (1996).
9. M. W. Mahowald, S. R. Woods, C. H. Schenk, Dreaming 8, 89-102 (1998).
10. J. A. Hobson, R. Stickgold, Conscious Cogn. 3, 1-15 (1994). [as quoted in Teunisse 1996]
11. J. Monahan, H. J. Steadman, Violence and Mental Disorder: Developments in Risk Assessment (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996)
12. A. D. Mosholder, K. Gelperin, T. A. Hammad, K. Phelan, R. Johann-Liang, Pediatrics 123, 611-616 (2009).
13. L. B. Merabet, D. Maguire, A. Warde, K. Alterescu, R. Stickgold, A. Pascual-Leone, J. Neuro-Ophthal. 24, 109-113 (2004).
14. B. J. Scott, J. Relig. Health 36, 53-64 (1997).

A Methodological Note on Psycho-physiological Studies in Parapsychology – 1978

Research Item

The search for psycho-physiological measures related to the psi process has recently been the center of much interest in parapsychology. (For a review, see Beloff, 1974.) Studies have been reported relating performance on various types of psi tasks to physiological measures both within and between subjects. This note is not meant to discuss the findings or merits of such studies, but rather to discuss a methodological factor present in someof this type of research.

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Information in Life, Consciousness, Quantum Physics, and Paranormal Phenomena – 2011

Research Item –  J. E. Kennedy

ABSTRACT: Information consists of symbols, media for storing and transmitting the symbols, and an interpretational infrastructure that establishes the meaning of the symbols, can generate and decode the symbols, and can take actions based on the symbols. Information processing in livings systems includes genetics, perception, behavior, memory, learning, communication, imagination, creativity, and culture. For certain hypotheses in quantum physics and most hypotheses in parapsychology, the media and interpretational infrastructures for information processing are beyond current scientific understanding. After extensive research, the hypothesis that an observer can sometimes paranormally influence the outcome of quantum events does not have convincing empirical support. The current experimental results in parapsychology do not have the properties of a signal in noise and cannot be convincingly distinguished from methodological bias. Prospective registration of experimental protocols could greatly reduce the confounding problem of methodological bias; however, the experimental results will likely continue to be inconsistent with the positions of both proponents and skeptics of experimental parapsychology. The findings of parapsychology may be most consistent with a model that paranormal phenomena are the result of supernatural information processing agencies with relatively independent motivations that manifest as spirituality and influence the meaning and direction of an individual’s life.

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