Are spirit mediums really communicating with the dead? My Magic 8 Ball says “Outlook not so good.”
But a new brain study of Brazilian mediums shows that something decidedly strange is occurring during the famous “trance state,” and no one has a ready answer to explain exactly what’s going on.
Ten mediums—five less expert and five experienced—were injected with a radioactive tracer to capture their brain activity during normal writing and during the practice of psychography, which involves allegedly channeling written communication from the “other side” while in a trance-like state. The subjects were scanned using SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) to highlight the areas of the brain that are active and inactive during the practice.
The mediums ranged from 15 to 47 years of automatic writing experience, performing up to 18 psychographies per month. All were right-handed, in good mental health, and not currently using any psychiatric drugs. All reported that during the study they were able to reach their usual trance-like state during the psychography task and were in their regular state of consciousness during the control task.
Here’s what happened: The experienced psychographers showed lower levels of activity in the left hippocampus (limbic system), right superior temporal gyrus, and the frontal lobe regions of the brain during psychography compared to their normal (non-trance) writing. The frontal lobe areas are associated with reasoning, planning, generating language, movement, and problem solving, which means that the mediums were experiencing reduced focus, lessened self-awareness and fuzzy consciousness during psychography.
For the less experienced mediums, exactly the opposite was observed–increased levels of activity in the same frontal areas during psychography compared to normal writing, and the difference was significant compared to the experienced mediums. What this probably means is that the less experienced mediums were trying really hard. The force is not yet strong with them.
But here’s the interesting part: the writing samples produced were analyzed and it was found that the complexity scores for the psychographed content were higher than those for the control writing across the board. In particular, the more experienced mediums showed higher complexity scores, which typically would require more activity in the frontal and temporal lobes–but that’s precisely the opposite of what was observed.
To put this another way, the low level of activity in the experienced mediums’ frontal lobes should have resulted in vague, unfocused, obtuse garble. Instead, it resulted in more complex writing samples than they were able to produce while not entranced.
Why? No one’s sure.
The researchers speculate that maybe as frontal lobe activity decreases, “the areas of the brain that support mediumistic writing are further disinhibited (similar to alcohol or drug use) so that the overall complexity can increase.” In a similar manner, they say, improvisational music performance is associated with lower levels of frontal lobe activity which allows for more creative activity.
The big problem with that explanation is that improvisational music performance and alcohol/drug consumption states are, in the researchers’ words, ”quite peculiar and distinct from psychography.”
“While the exact reason is at this point elusive, our study suggests there are neurophysiological correlates of this state,” says study co-author Andrew Newberg, MD, director of Research at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine.
Neurophysiological correlates indeed, but to what?
The study appears in the November 16th edition of the online journal PLOS ONE.