Do Academic Professionals Believe in Survival and the Paranormal?

July 14, 2023
IONS Science Team

Most people believe in an afterlife, or that their personal sense of self will continue on after their physical body dies. In fact, a belief in some sort of afterlife has persisted throughout history and across all cultures. 

Substantial anecdotal and several types of experimental evidence suggest that some aspect of consciousness does survive bodily death. However, the evidence is far from being scientifically conclusive, and it is not given due consideration as often as it should be in academic settings.

But, do academic professionals personally believe in the continuation of human consciousness? We tend to think that people who work in academic environments lean more toward skepticism, but is that actually true? If so, what kind of experiment could convince them that human consciousness can survive death? Non-believers would probably require substantial empirical evidence to flip their skepticism. That’s what we set out to explore in our newly published paper

Do academic professionals believe in the survival of consciousness?

This study’s objective was to evaluate whether academic professionals believe in the survival of human consciousness after death and what types of evidence might nudge them towards being more open to this belief. 

The experiment

We surveyed over 400 academic professionals and asked them to rate their confidence in survival after death, using the question, “How sure are you that some form of consciousness survives the death of the physical body?” We also surveyed them about their other paranormal beliefs. Our hypothesis was that there would indeed be academic professionals who believe in survival of consciousness or the paranormal. We also predicted that people in this group who tend to believe in survival of consciousness would also tend to have other paranormal beliefs. 

To assess what kind of evidence might persuade them to more seriously consider belief in the survival of consciousness, we also devised ten hypothetical experiments (informed by existing evidence for survival) that could be conducted in the future, and asked participants, “How persuasive would this experiment’s positive results be for you to believe in the survival of consciousness after death?” (e.g very, somewhat, or not at all persuasive). 

More generally, we wanted to know which is the most persuasive potential experiment testing for survival? We list the full ten experiments in the paper (see here), but describe three of them here as examples. 

  1. Mediumship – Ten people in hospice would be recruited to agree to contact five or more mediums after they passed away. After being contacted by the deceased, at least five of the mediums (who would be unaware of the experiment) would have to contact experimenters within 30 days of the death with the name of the deceased. 
  2. Reincarnation – A dying person would be asked to assemble a collection of their unique favorite objects and place them into a sealed box, which would then be given to researchers. No living individual would know about the box’s content, and it would not be opened until after a child claiming to be the reincarnated person would be located and asked to describe the objects in the sealed box. Positive results for this experiment: an accurate description of the deceased person’s objects.
  3. Out-of-Body Experiences During Near-Death Experiences (OBE in NDE) – Randomly selected images would be displayed on a computer screen near the ceiling of a procedure room and pointed upwards so that no one at the floor level could see them. Patients scheduled for a cardiac arrest as part of a medical procedure would be asked to float up to the ceiling and observe the computer screen if they have an OBE during their procedure. Upon resuscitation, the patient would be asked if they had an OBE and were able to see a picture on the screen. If so, they would be asked to indicate which of 20 possible pictures was the one they saw. Positive results for this experiment: a majority of the participants accurately describing and selecting the correct target image shown on the screen.

We were also curious whether the type of experiment chosen was influenced by a few factors, including: 

  • Current spiritual affiliation (e.g. Do religious/spiritual people and non-religious/non-spiritual people differ on the types of potential experiments they consider to be persuasive?).
  • Academic discipline (e.g. Does one’s academic discipline influence which type of survival experiment the person deems the most persuasive?).
  • Confidence in survival (e.g. “Does believing in survival influence which type of survival experiment the person deems the most persuasive?).

Lastly, we asked participants to rate the likelihood that these experiments could actually produce positive results, using ratings such as ‘About 1 in a thousand,’ or ‘About 1 in a million’ chance of producing a positive result.

Some academic professionals are believers 

As we predicted, confidence in the survival of consciousness and paranormal beliefs in a population of 442 academic professionals was diverse – 50% were ‘believers,’ 30% were ‘uncertain,’ and 20% were ‘non-believers.’ Also, as predicted, people who tend to believe in survival of consciousness also tend to have other paranormal beliefs. 

As expected, ‘believers’ had higher belief (on a sliding scale) in survival and the paranormal than those who identified as ‘uncertain’ or ‘non-believers.’ The non-religious/non-spiritual respondents showed low belief, whereas religious or spiritual respondents had high belief levels in survival and paranormal experiences. 

Of the ten proposed experiments, the veridical OBE perception during a NDE was the most frequently selected experiment as the most likely persuasive. Mediumship and reincarnation studies were also rated as being more potentially persuasive. ‘Believers’ had higher ratings of persuasiveness than those who were ‘uncertain,’ who had higher ratings than ‘non-believers.’ Religious/spiritual people also had higher persuasiveness ratings. In other words, if the experiments produced positive results, ‘believers’ and religious/spiritual people would be more persuaded than others. 

Did participants think that the proposed experiments could likely give positive results? Most participants did not think that the proposed experiments would be completed with positive outcomes and rated them too unlikely to even assign an odds, or impossible. OBE in NDE’s was more frequently rated as the most likely to have positive results with odds about 1 in a thousand.

We didn’t find any differences between academic disciplines.

What does it mean?

Even though people who work in academic settings may carry reputations of being more skeptical, around half of our study population reported having survival and paranormal beliefs. Our study confirms that these types of beliefs are common worldwide, even among academic professionals. 

While the person’s academic discipline was not related to whether they believed or not, current spiritual affiliation was. Non-religious respondents showed low belief in survival and paranormal experiences, while religious or spiritual respondents showed high belief levels. A personal experience often explains belief, so future studies might assess whether participants have had personal encounters with the paranormal or experiences with the consciousness of someone who has passed away. 

Our study shows that for people who are already believers and those who reported being uncertain or who have not yet made up their mind, certain studies may be persuasive to them, such as an OBE in NDE, mediumship or reincarnation experiment. However, it also seems that scientific evidence – at least through the proposed experiments – would not be strong enough to persuade non-believing academic professionals. It might be that no type of evidence will be convincing enough to these individuals, or perhaps it is simply that new and creative types of experiments are needed to flip non-believers. So, let’s get creative.

Academics hold a wide range of personal beliefs in survival and the paranormal, highlighting the fundamental role these beliefs play in our lives. It will be important to find agreed upon types of evidence for these phenomena since – even if some people do not accept the classes of evidence as sufficient – there does exist a large body of evidence and exploring these topics is vital to helping us understand our reality.

Proving that survival is a fact would change the ways that we approach living and dying, potentially removing fear of death and reorienting our lives to include more connection with the mystical, inviting more meaning to our lives. The question of survival lies at the heart of our most basic existential questions and warrants continued research, especially since they are such widely held beliefs – and not to mention – also widely experienced phenomena.

Read the publication this blog is based on

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