© Benjamin Haas | Dreamstime.com (#7488267)
People can look at our data and our P values until the end of time, but when they have one reading, that makes all the difference. That’s what happened to me. I had this personal experience that demonstrated that something was going on here that required further investigation, and I had no preconceived notions about my investigation.
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Can Mediums Really Talk to the Dead?
Editor’s Note: In the following dialogue, excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series, “Exploring the Noetic Sciences,” IONS Senior Scientist Dean Radin talks with Dr. Julie Beischel, one of the world’s foremost researchers into the phenomenon of mediumship. You can stay in touch with her work by visiting The Windbridge Institute, an independent organization of scientific researchers and rigorously screened and certified mediums. There are also opportunities to participate in Windbridge studies.
Dean Radin: I want to ask you a question that you likely get a lot. How did a nice young lady with a doctorate in toxicology and pharmacology end up doing mediumship research?
Beischel: I do get asked that a lot. It’s a long story, but the short version is that when I was in graduate school, my mom committed suicide. I was twenty-four at the time. Science is my religion, and I turned to science to see what it had to say about the afterlife. Although there were some things being done, I found science did not have very many answers.
I had a reading from a medium, and from my personal experience, I recognized that there was clearly something going on there. I have a strong sense of justice, and it angered me to know that there are people in the world who have this innate gift of what they experience as communication from the other side, which they want to use to help people, yet most scientists were just dismissing the whole thing outright, without any information about the reality of it. So I got on my soapbox and began my scientific investigative pursuit.
Radin: A lot of scientists are interested in these kinds of questions, questions about survival, but they don’t take the time and the care to study the data long enough to be able to tweak their prior beliefs. So, as you said, if science is your religion—at least within the Western science tradition—when you’re dead, you’re dead. The brain is the mind, and that’s the end of the story. You must have had a lot of motivation to push through that argument, which is what most college students get, certainly by the time they finish their doctorate. Was there anything other than the mediumship experience that motivated you? What about the literature that you read afterward?
Beischel: What happens when we die never came up when I studied for my degree in the medical field, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I was never taught that the brain creates the mind; it didn’t take a lot for me to get over that. I was a blank slate. Before my mom died, I didn’t even know what a medium was. That first personal experience was moving. You know, people can look at our data and our P values until the end of time, but when they have one reading, it makes all the difference. That’s what happened to me. I had this personal experience that demonstrated that something was going on here that required further investigation, and I had no preconceived notions about my investigation.
Radin: As a biologist you have probably been around lots of studies involving mice and other animals. Given your perspective now, do you imagine that when the mice are euthanized, after doing whatever experiment they’ve done, that they continue on to mouse heaven somewhere? Are there little departed mice out there?
Beischel: I hope so. I think the example most people can relate to is with their pets or companion animals. I know my dog has consciousness; I have no doubt about that. The question is how far back can we go in the evolutionary tree to where consciousness stops. Do amoeba have consciousness? These are questions we don’t have answers to now. Animal consciousness is a topic we’re interested in at Windbridge. Mark Boccuzzi, my husband and cofounder of Windbridge, did a presentation with me at the Florida Sciences Consciousness Conference on a study we did with our dog and a random event generator.
Radin: I’m familiar with that study; it was interesting. It’s not exactly in the mediumship realm, but it does ask where does consciousness begin and end. My suspicion is that it doesn’t end, that it’s everywhere all the time. And if that’s the case, there’s the idea that we are momentarily embodied with consciousness but might also be saturated with it everywhere. We’re just not normally aware of it. Maybe mediums are aware of it.
Radin: Would you take a few minutes to describe your experiment with Moose, your dog?
Beischel: It’s kind of complicated. A company called Psyleron makes random event generators, and they offer an online service called SyncTXT, where you can get an account and are assigned a stream from a random events generator at the Psyleron facility. You load your account with a number of messages, and whenever the random events generator goes nonrandom, it texts you one of your messages. It randomly chooses one.
We set up an account for Moose with her own email address, and seven messages in increasing orders of activity: the first said, “I am sleeping”; the second, “I am dreaming”; up to the seventh, which said, “I am running around like crazy.” We had five video cameras in our house recording twenty-four hours a day in the places where Moose was most likely to be. At the end of every day, we checked to see at what time a SyncTXT message came in. We didn’t look at the message but at the time a message came in. Then we coded the video for what Moose was doing at that time and did a correlation to see if the SyncTXT message matched what Moose was doing on the video. It turned out that there was a match. It was a weak statistically significant effect, but it was there nonetheless.
We did a second round then in which Mark and I each had an account and loaded each with the same seven messages—Moose is sleeping, Moose is dreaming, and so forth. My account proved very significant, but Mark’s was not. Well, I spend all day every day with Moose. I was there when she was born; we are inseparable. People who have written about animal psi theorize that it is not necessarily the psi of the animal alone or the psi of the companion alone but the combination of the two—sort of the psi of the relationship. And that is what we saw.
Radin: I wonder if this is relevant to the connection between a person who is living and a departed loved one. I can see that there might be a link, but then how does the medium come into play? How does a medium make that link?
Beischel: When we do our quintuple-blind experiments, there are five levels of blinding. The medium and I are on the telephone, and all we have is the first name of the deceased person—we’re both blinded. I give the medium the first name—let’s say, “Jack”—and then I ask a number of specific questions about Jack. People wonder how the medium finds Jack. It’s not up to the medium; Jack finds the medium. Most mediums will experience communication before the reading even starts. So before I even call, Jack is already there trying to get through to the medium, who is literally a channel. Mediums just report what shows up.
Radin: How does Jack know that Jack is going to be the person you want to contact? What is your guess?
Beischel: I think that once you are not bodily bound, you have access to nonlocal information. Jack knows what medium’s name is in my planner next to his name, and he is able to find her.
I recently started a blog. I post behind-the-scenes things that don’t end up in journal articles but that are interesting and perhaps evidential. Recently we did a lot of readings to test a number of new mediums. We were collecting data for a study. My planner is full of deceased people’s names and mediums’ names, and it turned out that there were two deceased people with the same first name—we use the first name to protect the privacy of the deceased. So, two deceased people named Sally were supposed to be read on the same day, and I just held my planner up to the universe as if to say you guys are going to have to figure this out because I don’t know who goes with whom. Well, the first medium became ill and couldn’t do the reading. We rescheduled, and then the other Sally got her own day. It all worked out, oddly enough. There was no confusion because only one Sally got read on a given day. So, they have a way to work it out: there must be some sort of awesome receptionist on the other side, or I don’t know—but someone is organizing something over there.
Radin: Let’s back up a second so that you can describe not the quintuple blindness, but a simple version of at least a double-blind mediumship experiment.
Beischel: A single-blind mediumship reading is where the medium is blinded to any information about the deceased person, but the experimenter knows who the deceased person is or who the sitter is—that sort of information. Once you also blind the experimenter, the experiment becomes double-blinded. In those cases, for example, I get on at a scheduled time and call the medium with a first name of a deceased person. (This requires more people being involved—someone who gives me the name but is blind to other parts of the study.) So, the medium and I only have the first name of the deceased person. I call and say, “The person’s name is Jack,” and then we ask four questions about Jack when he was alive. We ask for a description of his physical appearance, his personality, his hobbies or activities or how he spent his time, and the cause of death. If you have that information about any given person, you can pretty much determine if it’s the person you’re looking to hear from. Once that’s established, we ask, “Does Jack have any comments, questions, requests or messages for the sitter?” After all, we’ve asked Jack to jump through all our science hoops, so the least he should be able to do is provide information for the living person who is interested in hearing from him. We call this person “the sitter.”
Radin: I presume you record these sessions.
Beischel: Yes, we audio record. The definitions of blinding do get complicated because you could also think of the sitter as blinded. It’s just the medium and me on the phone, so the sitter doesn’t hear the reading. The living person who wants to hear from Jack doesn’t hear the reading. The medium and I do that whole process a second time on a different day with a different deceased person—let’s say, “Bob.” We ask the same questions about Bob, and that session is also audio-recorded.
Then I take those recordings and turn them into itemized lists. Each numbered item is a single piece of information: he had brown hair, blue eyes, whatever the different pieces of information about the deceased are. Those two lists are then emailed to the two sitters, the people who lost Jack and Bob, but they don’t know which one is which. The readings have been blinded. Then they score each reading as to how it applies to their deceased person and pick which one they think belongs to them. We compare the scores a person gave his or her own reading to the scores he or she gave the other person’s reading. We look at that difference.
Radin: And what do the results of such experiments show?
Beischel: They’re pretty strongly significant. In a study we published some years ago, 13 out of 16 people were able to choose their own reading from the two. We’re currently replicating that published study with a much larger one.
Radin: How important is it that the medium is a medium? In other words, if there were something like a control medium, someone who didn’t profess any ability to be able to do this, would the control get chance results on that?
Beischel: I would assume so, yes. What we see is that when someone scores someone else’s reading, they’re usually about 20 to 25 percent correct. So about a quarter of the information that a medium provides might relate to someone else. That’s not a criticism of mediums or mediumship. It just shows how similar we are as people and that there are going to be things that are true for everybody.
Radin: One of the things I think is unique about Windbridge is the large number of mediums that have passed through a variety of hoops to make sure that they are actually as good as they think they are. Would you describe this process of forming what you call the research medium?
Beischel: We have an eight-step process. First, I should point out that we’re not looking for any new mediums. We have a bunch going through the eight steps at this time—currently the six mediums on our website have passed all eight steps. I won’t go through them all now; there are a lot of tests, interviews, and blinded readings. Once a person passes step five, the blinded reading part, he or she goes on to be trained. We’ve found that about 25 percent of people who think they’re good enough to pass our stringent testing do no better than chance.
Radin: Does that mean that 75 percent actually do pass?
Beischel: Yeah, that is a little surprising, but the screening is so daunting that only people who are really confident they can do it even attempt it. Also, a Windbridge certified research medium agrees to volunteer four hours per month for this research, so only people really interested in the scientific pursuit of this investigation and willing to dedicate part of their life to it even attempt our certification process.
Radin: I understand that it’s a highly select group. Still, for 75 percent of the applicants to have a very special talent like that is pretty impressive.
Beischel: I think that goes to show that it’s not so miraculous. A lot of people can do it, and a lot of people can do it very well. I’ve heard a number of mediums say that they aren’t special, and they don’t like to be called that. It rubs them the wrong way when they hear other mediums—on TV or whatever—talk about how special they are and how unique this is. A lot of mediums will say their job is to put themselves out of business, because if one human brain can do this, then anybody can. I think it’s probably closer to how in parapsychology the word virtuoso is often used for people who are just born with this ability and can do it right off. Some people can practice and practice but never be as good as a virtuoso. There are probably tips, but a lot of mediums say you just have to be open. You have to learn to let go of all the cognitive blocks you and others have put on yourself that say this isn’t possible and can’t be done by you
Radin: That’s easier said than done.There really are differences in native talents. While being open is important, that alone is probably not sufficient. I understand the humility underlying those comments, but something should be said also for the actual talent involved.
Beischel: Yes, definitely. I attended the International Association for Near-Death Studies meeting last year, and one of the topics was how a near-death experience can bring about psychic abilities in people who have one. One of the textbook scenarios is that some people will have [psychic] experiences when they are young, and then as they reach adolescence, they realize not everyone can do this and decide not to talk about it. Because teenagers want to be like everybody else, they sort of shut it all off until something happens later. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a near-death experience, but something happens to kick the ability to the front burner so that the person experiences it again. That’s a common story we hear.
Radin: Given that you’ve spent the last seven years or so doing mediumship research and have published a number of papers, where do you see this line of research going in five to ten years? For example, would it be possible that the cumulative data would actually start to persuade people who previously wouldn’t have given you the time of day? Would you have enough data to persuade them that at minimum something really interesting is going on and that at maximum there really is survival?
Beischel: Well, we are the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research, so we want to know how this can benefit humanity and best serve all living things. I think, though, that we could gather data to no end, and it still wouldn’t convince some people. I’ve had P values and peer-reviewed journal articles, and still people say, “Oh no, it’s just a fluke.” There is a cognitive block; I’m not going to waste my time banging my head against the wall to convince people who refuse to see that something is going on here. So we’ve gone down another path: what can we do with this, and how can this help?
We recently presented some pilot data about the potential therapeutic benefits of a mediumship reading. We propose that a mediumship reading would be a great treatment option for grief. There’s a lot of evidence that spontaneous or even induced after-death communication has a great effect on personal grief. A recent meta-analysis performed at the University of Memphis on 64 studies demonstrated this. Traditional grief counseling wasn’t benefiting the patients any better than the passage of time and the resources of support a person already had. An effective grief therapy is not currently out there. People who have had a mediumship meeting report some miraculous, instantaneous changes. I think that a lot of grief counselors would agree that to get past grief you have to redefine your relationship with the deceased. A mediumship reading allows you to do that. We foresee a future where someone can have a mediumship reading and take the information the medium provided to a counselor to integrate that information.
Another arm of our research is studying the mediums’ experiences. We’ve demonstrated that they have an altered sense of time—mediums are not really present for the reading as it takes place. I describe this as when you’re on the phone with someone who is giving you a phone number and you’re saying it out loud to a person in the room who is writing it down. As soon as you’re done, you don’t know what that phone number was because you were just repeating it as the other person was saying it to you. That’s what mediums do; they’re not in a space that allows them to be a counselor—and they shouldn’t have to be.
Mediums and grief counselors together could make a difference in people’s lives. Grief is really at the root of so many pathologies, addiction and all kinds of things. I think there is a real need for this. Recently, I told [pioneering psi researcher] Charlie Tart that I foresee a future where an insurance company will pay for a mediumship reading, and Charlie laughed. He said I had big dreams. But I don’t think that this is so crazy. It wasn’t that long ago that insurance companies wouldn’t pay for acupuncture, and now a lot of them do. I think that this is the future and that we just need to demonstrate the efficacy so they cave to public pressure. People are spending billions of dollars anyway; let’s certify mediums so people can go to a reputable one.
Radin: The beauty of this is that it finesses the scientific issue altogether because in a sense it doesn’t matter whether this is “real” or “not real.” What matters is that it has a significant impact on the thing of interest—in this case, a resolution of grief. Obviously, the moment that something becomes covered by insurance, it makes people more open to the possibility that it might be real. And then the rest of the basic science can proceed apace.
Beischel: Right. I want to make it clear, though, that that’s not the only question we’re chasing. We’re collecting data on a replication of a previously published study to demonstrate that this is indeed a real phenomenon. And as I said, we are also looking at the mediums’ experiences, which help us determine the source of the information. That’s a question we still don’t know the answer to.
Radin: Have you done a study with multiple mediums reading the same person to see if the information yield might be better than with only one medium?
Beischel: No, because that makes a lot of assumptions. Maybe it would tire the deceased person. Maybe they don’t want to talk to every medium on the block. So the deceased come the first time, say their piece, and then go back to what they were doing. From what the mediums say, the departed are busy; they’re not just sitting there on the other side waiting for mediums to hear them. If we had a number of mediums read the same person and they didn’t pan out, we couldn’t say it wasn’t because the deceased didn’t show up for the second reading.
Radin: I’m thinking not so much of readings in sequence but rather a parallel reading, like six mediums simultaneously hoping to speak to the same person. And the reason is not so much that you might get more information or better information but to be able to address the issue of what it is that is being communicated with.
Beischel: What would that show if they couldn’t do it, or what would it show if they could?
Radin: If they couldn’t, it wouldn’t show anything, but if two or more mediums were able to simultaneously talk to what they perceive as the same person—and of course they would all be doing this independently—that might be able tell us something about what it is they are communicating with. We certainly can’t communicate simultaneously with six different people, but maybe the departed can.
Beischel: I’ll put it on the very, very long list of interesting studies that we’ll do when we have the resources. Mark and I have a few part-time research assistants and research colleagues, but I’m the only one on the Windbridge team that does Windbridge full time. And so, as with the history of parapsychological research, not a lot gets done because we don’t have the same funding and assistance as other research endeavors.
Radin: I would think that this topic would be of such great interest to so many people that funding would not be an issue, but of course it’s the exact opposite. It’s very strange, because the research question seems to be the last thing on people’s minds when it should really be the first.