Humans have long pondered whether something within us survives physical death. About 150 years ago, scientists started to investigate the matter.
According to this prize-winning essay by IONS, mediumship currently provides the most compelling evidence of the survival of consciousness.
The task of scientifically evaluating these experiences is challenging – especially if we’re restricted to a materialistic model of reality.
But imagine how revolutionary it would be if we could clearly demonstrate that mediumship involves communication with some surviving aspect of human beings. Mediumship studies provide some of the strongest evidence for survival in that they’ve used rigorous methods and the information received in these conditions could not have been known using normal ways.
Naturally, we were curious to look under the hood.
How could mediumship suggest survival? And most importantly – why should you care about the survival of consciousness at all?
Why survival matters
To start with the latter question:
Believing that some part of us humans survives physical death has been shown to reduce anxiety and lead to enhanced wellness. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs – but the existing evidence for survival deserves to be shared. Hopefully, knowing more about the mysteries of the afterlife can help some people feel better about life.
Let’s look at how the current understanding of mediumship could suggest the survival of at least some aspect of consciousness.
What is mediumship?
Mediums allegedly receive information from deceased people (discarnate beings) in states of consciousness ranging from ordinary waking states to deep trance.
Mediumship comes in various forms:
- Mental mediumship, where the medium mentally receives messages from the discarnate being. The messages can be perceived as words, feelings, or sensations conveyed to the deceased person’s loved ones present during the sessions (traditionally called “sitters”). The medium essentially acts like a conduit or means of transmission between the living and the dead, hence the term “medium”.
- Trance channeling, where the medium feels their body is being used as a vehicle for the non-physical being to communicate through them. Trance channelers may also have specific gifts, like artistic or language skills that they couldn’t easily know outside of channeling.
- Physical mediumship, where the medium manifests something material purportedly related to the deceased or performs other macroscopic psychokinetic feats. The manifestation can be ectoplasm, an energetic substance, or an object that (in the dark) feels like a hand or arm.
This article focuses on mental mediumship.
How does mediumship work?
No one knows exactly how mediumship works. Experiments we and others have conducted indicate that the mediums’ physical and psychological biomarkers are altered during the process of channeling, as compared to ordinary states of awareness.
What does the research suggest?
Information gathered from medium sittings was originally (meaning in the late 1800s) interpreted as evidence for the survival of consciousness after death – simply because it was the best explanation at the time. But other interpretations were proposed over time, including that the information was obtained by telepathy from living people, or from the past or future, or simply by chance or fraud. For some, survival was still the most plausible explanation, but as always when it comes to controversial topics, there’s always more than enough evidence to convince the believer, but never quite enough to convince the skeptic.
How much would they know about us?
Not all evidence of survival suggests that the “other side” is aware of or capable of communicating with humans. Mediumship is quite unique among survival evidence since it indicates that the following scenarios could be valid:
- Discarnate persons can send veridical information to the minds of living people
- Discarnate persons possess detailed knowledge of living people
- Discarnate persons operate causally in the physical world
This is different from some other indicators of survival – for example, past-life memories – that does not necessarily imply survival in the sense that discarnates are still present in some form.
Another question to ponder is: if deceased people exist in some form, then because they are presumably “non-physical,” how could they convey information to physical creatures, like living humans? Would such communications necessarily be through a mind-to-mind connection, and if so, then how could we distinguish between the medium gaining information telepathically from a discarnate versus a sitter? After all, the sitter is the one who ultimately decides if the medium’s information is correct. Researchers discussed these kinds of issues in the 19th century, and those were the kind of questions that stimulated more sophisticated mediumship experiments (e.g., use of double-blind protocols, proxy sitters, etc.), as well as modern studies of telepathy among living persons.
An interesting body of evidence of survival – different from mediumship – is communication through signs and symbols in our material world. This can take the form of flickering lights or phone calls at specific moments.
In mental mediumship, however, communication happens in the invisible realms. The deceased apparently use some form of psi to communicate with mediums, rather than sending a WhatsApp message.
An argument against survival is that mediums tap into some kind of “echo” or memory storage (like the Akashic records) from when the deceased was still alive, rather than communicating with the discarnate in real-time.
This fails to explain how some mediums can channel detailed information from the discarnate about recent events in the sitter’s life – events that took place after the deceased person died.
We can thus suppose that disincarnate beings, if they exist, have a way of accessing knowledge about things that happened after they passed away – including what we’re doing right here, right now!
Of course, this type of information could also suggest that the medium is using telepathy to gain information from the sitter, in which case no discarnate need be postulated. This illustrates why it is so difficult to know for sure what is actually happening during mediumship. There are always multiple, and viable, explanations.
Sometimes, mediums relay information that hadn’t occurred – but that the sitter had thought about doing. This suggests that if they exist, deceased people access information by scanning people’s minds rather than by observing the physical world. Or again, that the medium is “reading the mind” of the sitter.
Some remarkable examples of mental mediumship
- Leonora Piper (1857-1950) was one of the most well-known American mediums. She conducted countless sessions as a trance medium. What’s unique about her story is that she was subjected to numerous tests for possible fraud (which was unfortunately rife among many who claimed they were mediums), but no one could ever demonstrate that Piper had cheated.
- Gladys Leonards (1882-1968) was a British trance medium. She regularly channeled two entities. One of them, North Star, apparently used her physical body to heal sick patients.
- Pearl Curran (1883-1957) was an American housewife who channeled remarkable literary works. She transcribed millions of words said to be dictated to her by a seventeenth-century poet named Patience Worth. Those works were later acknowledged by scholars to be authentic early American literature.
- Luiz Antonio Gasparetto (1949-2018) was famous for channeling artwork by artists like Picasso and Leonardo DaVinci. He could complete a simple drawing in the style of those famous artists in as little as thirty seconds.
- Hafsteinn Björnsson (1904-1977) channeled the deceased person Runolfur Runolfsson. This originally happened through a “drop-in communication”, where the Runolfsson unexpectedly showed up one day. Runolfsson kept appearing for several years and shared accurate information about his death, which was later verified as correct.
- Indriði Indriðason (1883–1912), who was said to channel deceased people that spoke languages unknown to him. Xenoglossy, also known as glossolalia or speaking in tongues, is another mediumistic phenomenon that supports the interpretation of survival.
Where do we go from here?
A next step could be to perform mediumship studies with a higher degree of confidence. One such example is mentioned in the award-winning essay by IONS. In short, it consists of recruiting people in hospice and asking them to contact a mental medium after they have passed, and convey instructions to them to contact the (living) research team. Mediums would not be informed about the experiment in advance.
This experiment was voted one of the stronger candidates for suggesting the reality of survival in a survey of 422 academics.
Research on mediumship and our understanding of it has been around for over a century, but modern studies, using increasingly sophisticated methods, are relatively new. What an exciting time to be alive (or dead)!