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Studying the Brains of Mediums

by Steven Novella, Nov 19 2012

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.

6 Responses to “Studying the Brains of Mediums”

  1. Retired Prof says:

    This post gives fascinating insight into the compositional techniques of singers who composed intricately structured verse during performance of long narrative poems such as the Homeric epics, medieval Germanic works such as *Beowulf*, and the poems recorded and analyzed by Albert Lord in the mid-20th century.

    The processes Lord’s illiterate singers used in learning their craft and performing their songs allowed them to produce oral texts far more complex and sophisticated than their everyday prose speech. The book corroborates the study and Steven Novella’s discussion about how “channeling” an outside voice works in automatic writing. Furthermore, the brain study helps us understand that at least some poets were sincere in declaring that their poems came from a Muse.

  2. Peter says:

    I find your account a bit curious. Why are you grasping for reasons to feel that a study does or doesn’t prove the claims of mediums? Why is the ‘faker’ term used? It seems that this study doesn’t set out to prove mediums’ claims, but rather to explore what the difference is in brain activity from novices. But brain activity isn’t going to prove or disprove mediums’ claims – even if the brain activity were to be identical between groups, so I don’t see the point in using it as an argument against the claims of mediums.

    Personally I think automatic writing is just subconscious processes at work. At least, that is the most plausible explanation based on what we know scientifically, but I can’t be certain. I think the majority of mediums truly believe they are doing something ‘spiritual’ and not under false pretenses (i.e. I think the faker term is not the most appropriate). Sure there are true con artists of course, but the distinction should be made. And it is also of course true that people can make them self believe just about anything. I don’t think we should sloppily generalize just for the sake of doing ‘the skeptic thing’.

    Your line of reason is very much ‘it should be happening within the skull’, vs mediums claim some outside source is directing them. I think both positions are extremes that make it seem like there are only two theories that could possibly be true. I think that’s not a skeptical approach to the matter. Either claim doesn’t disprove the other, they could both be true, or an alternative mechanism could conceivably be in play. (What if some people are particularly good at picking up information subconsciously, say, through non-local means, and they fit that information in a narrative that fits their beliefs?)

    For example, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that one good medium’s claim that they are channeling a deceased individual is true. If this were indeed the case – as implausible as it sounds – at best, at the very best, a neuroscientist might find a unique pattern of brain activity.

    99.99999% of neuroscientists will find no reason to believe the claim based on what they measure, no matter how unique, or banal the brain activity. And they would have no strong reason to.

    Now, let’s assume that the medium’s claims are entirely in alignment with all the laws of physics and that the mechanisms in play are simply not understood yet. We would need a different set of experiments to uncover these.

    The hairy issue here is that measurements of brain activity are very limited in terms of what we can deduce from them. It has only provided corollary data so far. I think people sometimes get a false impression.

    Take the issue of memory storage. We don’t know how memory is encoded and where it is encoded (presumption is somewhere in the brain obviously). Some people think otherwise and since we can stimulate a certain area of the brain and reliably invoke a memory, we all of a sudden have claims that we know where memory is stored, and that the memory then must be encoded somehow in that exact spot. But – so far – it most likely locates a pointer that can activate a specific memory. Not to say that isn’t incredibly valuable knowledge, as it allows us to deduce in some situations what a person is actively thinking about (a pin number for example).

    To be really convincing I think, if the ‘it’s all 100% in the brain’ hypothesis holds in the materialist sense, we should at some point be able to find information in the brain and reproduce the content of that information, looking at material properties of the brain alone. The technological advances to accomplish this would be momentous of course, but it does provide a true test for the assumptions made either by mediums or for the current conventional theories on the mind and brain.

  3. Adrian Morgan says:

    As I understand it, automatic writing is the claim that if I kept writing like THIS (which I actually scribbled together a few minutes ago) for hours or days on end, it would, eventually, turn into increasingly sensible words/phrases/sentences composed by a consciousness other than the one I think of as my own.

    Are we talking about the same thing here? Because I get the impression that this article is talking about something slightly different.

    P.S. Apologies if I wrote something insulting in an obscure dialect of Arabic. :-)

  4. Ademir Xavier says:

    Let me first comment that I really liked this post both for its content and the way the critics was exercised.

    Having said that, I would like to just clarify some things about the term ‘psychography’ that was a keyword of the commented article: i) there are very old account about this term; ii) Brazil has a long tradition in psychography or ‘automatic writing’ in which mediums write messages for the sake of comforting families or alleviating family grief. They do this without charging a single cent for the task.

    The ability exhibits a variety of manifestations, some mediums write messages that can be readily identified as of unconscious origin, while others are not so easily discarded. There are, for example, messages containing references to deceased family members, where the reference is made to the nickname of the diseased person and not his/her original name, what sometimes makes difficult the name identification by family members. While I know this may not please the skeptic mind, I insist that there are a large number of automatic letters (in Portuguese) where this phenomenon was obtained, not to mention letters written in a language totally unknonw to the medium.

    • tmac57 says:

      Ademir,why do you “insist” that those large numbers of automatic letters are as you describe? Were you there when these were written? Even if you were,can you absolutely rule out faulty recollection or misapprehension of what took place? Have you ever been unable to explain how a stage magician performed a seemingly ‘miraculous’ trick? If so,then you are capable of being fooled by,just like everybody else.
      What I am getting at,is that while your anecdotal assertion may have some validity,it is totally useless,unless it is backed up by a subjective and scientific examination of the facts,to rule out biases,trickery,and random guessing on the part of the ‘medium’,and observers.
      You are right about one thing though…this does not (and should not)please the skeptic mind.

      • K says:

        Do not agree. Ademir was referring to Francisco Xavier, the famous psychographist. This happens to some other experienced “media” too. Sometimes he recieved famous portuguese and brazilian deceased writers and the letters were confirmed by specialists to have the same aesthetic form of writing as the spirit author in question. They tried to calculate the amount of reading, even dynamic reading or subconscious mnemonics Chico Xavier had to have to be just unconscious writing and he would need two other lives to match the same amount of knowledge and technique. I believe Ademir would not please the modern skeptic, who’d rather negate than question first. I did like the logical rigor this post got but is biased to the materialistic view, which is not intrinsically skeptical.