31 August 2009

“Visions of the Future – The Definitive Study of Premonitions” by Keith Hearne

Historically, the future has always been a prime concern for everyone, from the simple man trying to find out how his life will turn out to the great leader pondering the path of a nation. It’s almost as if we can still hear the flutes and drums of distant Neolithic communities, circling around their priest, elder or shaman in the often vain hope to know more about the unfathomable days and months ahead of them. The weather and its agricultural impact were their main interest. Curiously, later and more advanced societies that bred pivotal civilizations like the ancient Egyptians and Greeks would also seek comfort in the mystical qualities of oracles. Some Emperors wouldn´t even take a step out of their beds without proper counseling by their astrologers.

The trend is still well alive today and we may certainly state that the obsession with the future has been travelling hand-in-hand with us throughout the millennia. But the leap between concern and the actual ability to see future events is a large one. Unbeknownst to many is the fact that people around the world experience various kinds of premonitory experiences, some sporadically and a few recurrently. Interestingly enough, those prophetic sights span all cultures, sexes and walks of life, building a fascinating corpus of anecdotal evidence that spurred the interest of some researchers.

So is the case of Dr. Keith Hearne, a renowned psychologist that has conducted investigations in the area of lucid dreaming. During his inquiries into this subject he experienced what he felt to be a premonition and the event lingered in his mind, awakening his interest to the subject. He would start delving into the problem, collecting hundreds of first hand narratives of sighting of future events. Usually, the premonitions were only recognized as so after the predicted event took place. This makes research quite hard, for the vision is rarely reported before the situation yet to occur. As in many other paranormal fields of study, the witness testimonies are the main and often only basis to work with, obliging the investigator to develop efficient means to filter them.

A premonition consists “an experience which appears to anticipate a future event and which could not have been inferred from information available before the event”. These surprising visions manifest themselves in different ways: some in dreams (during the REM phase of sleep), others during waking time or sometimes in the transitional state before sleep (often associated with hypnagogic imagery). The author makes a fast incursion into the historical dimension of the theme, underlining events that incorporated concepts like omen or augury into common knowledge. Hearne then stresses the need for some form of categorization of the experiences, creating three major tiers.

The first and the most emotionally shattering are the bad news, gathering future events of a tragic nature that may or may not be directly related to the percipient. In fact, this latter question is of the utmost relevance, for the witness’s accounts include situations of imminent danger involving relatives or friends (obviously the more disturbing ones), known people (including popular or prominent personalities) and total strangers (often associated with major disasters). Contrary to generic belief, there are many visions where there isn’t a direct relation or personal knowledge of the people involved. The other two categories include the not-so-bad news and the good news, where the aforementioned pattern is also observable. Other point of interest is that the premonitions aren’t always perfectly clear, including elements that later will prove to be totally wrong (misleading perhaps?), even when the event comes to be. This conducts to situations where the facts are only understandable after the situation occurs, making us think about the real purpose (if any exists at all) of these prophetic happenings (how relevant can they be if nothing can be done to prevent, for instance, an incoming tragedy?). It challenges us to think of the eternal dichotomy between the deterministic theory, where destiny is inescapable, and the uncertainty and liberty of a free will existence.

After a very straight presentation of the amassed narratives, Dr. Keith Hearne enters a phase where he tries to establish connections between the visible patterns that emerge from his studies. The percipients themselves come from different social strata and age groups, but there are some puzzling facts that came to light and may later reveal itself essential for a better understanding of this phenomenon. What can we make of the fact that several premonitions occurred to women in advanced stages of pregnancy? Also interesting were the results of psychological tests applied to groups of people who had such visions, showing a higher prevalence of neuroticism among them when compared to the normal population. In the end the evidence is still feeble and it’s sad to notice that 20 years after this excellent book was published it doesn’t seem that we’ve gotten any further into this theme. It may seem a trifle perhaps, that a serious and continuous study of premonitions must be made. We now have the scientific ability to tackle in a serious manner this and other fringe subjects that have been with us Humans all along, but still lay beyond our understanding. Make no mistakes: the answer to the questions raised by this subject will always enrich us scientifically and intellectually, even if it turns out to be just a neurological/psychological aberration.

Additional information on Dr. Keith Hearne’s life and work projects may be found in the following websites: http://www.european-college.co.uk/ and http://sawka.com/spiritwatch/keith_hearne.htm.

29 March 2009

"Old Souls" by Tom Shroder

Reincarnation is, undoubtedly, one of the most enduring themes in human history, traversing cultures and religions. It has been, in the wider sense, an expression of faith, hope and, ultimately, deep fear in front of the great unknown death still represents. Is there anything else beyond? That’s surely a question that has bothered every single man and woman at some point in their lives. Theories are abundant regarding to what happens after we leave our mortal coils, but the need for scientific evidence has inevitably been thwarted by the unquantifiable nature of the soul. People claiming to remember past lives aren’t hard to find but, as westerners, we have been taught to scoff at most of such cases. A feeling fueled by media appearances of egomaniacs or plainly mentally ill individuals who supposedly were Napoleon or Marie Antoinette in a previous life.

More recently, the emergence of New Age ideals that drink from the religious lore of the far-east has once again boosted the public interest in reincarnation. The intersection of such mythologies with the “tools” of modern age psychology and psychiatry produced an all new perspective expressed in both popular and academic works. It’s no surprise that the works of authors such as Brian Weiss became instant best-sellers, fitting perfectly into the new trend and, simultaneously, filling the empty space left by a progressive disenchantment with Christian tradition. “Old Souls” actually starts off amidst this environment, with its skeptical author exploring the meanders of such resurgence.

Past life events recovered through hypnotic regression cause controversy not only because of the supposed memories of the subjects, but mainly due to the doubts involving the process itself. Hypnosis, a long cherished method of psychoanalysis, became a fulcrum of contention for the results obtained aren’t absolutely truthful, resulting of an intersection of real facts and memories with the patient’s imagination and the therapist’s own expectations, both seeping through and often tampering with the truth. Looking beyond these widely popularized and questionable tales of reincarnation, Tom Shroder found the works of Dr. Ian Stevenson, psychiatrist and former director of the Division of Personality Studies in the University of Virginia.

His books and articles, virtually unknown outside the world of academia, took a different perspective on the prospect of reincarnation and the survival of the soul after death. After almost 40 years of thorough field research in various countries of Asia and America, he gathered hundreds of fascinating stories of children who naturally recounted past lives without the use of hypnosis. The serious and utterly scientific approach to the reported situations captivated the author’s interest, further catalyzed by the peer reviews published about Stevenson’s work. Tom Shroder was astounded to notice that other scientists had put forward the possibility of reincarnation in face of the present body of evidence, with some even suggesting other psi phenomena like extrasensory perception (ESP) to explain the acquisition of virtually unattainable knowledge by small children, some as soon as they began to speak. The facts were so powerful that many had difficulties to find a rational explanation based on the present state of science.

Shroder managed to convince Ian Stevenson and accompanied him on one of his last field trips to Lebanon and India. “Old Souls” is the fascinating account of that journey across of the often sordid environment of those two countries, from the war torn streets of Beirut to the overcrowded lanes of Delhi. Through its lines we can feel the difficulties and, sometimes, the perils inherent to the painstaking cataloguing of cases and their mandatory follow up. Away from the comfort of the laboratory, we discover a figure of great persistence, a man that after decades of investigative work still has the drive to face long car trips to remote villages, often just to add a few details to his files. As a man of science, Stevenson knew how hard is to venture into the unexplored areas of human knowledge and that strong proof is of the utmost importance. This book is, in itself, a powerful testament to his work and resilience.

Either among the Druze people (a religious community that emerged from the Islamic religion’s stem incorporating, among many other concepts, that of reincarnation) in Lebanon, or the Hindus in India, we come upon stories of now adult men and women whose childhood was marked, from a very early stage, by the remembrance of a different life and frequently a tragic death. Lives of common people, not prominent historical figures, just regular citizens whose existence was untimely terminated. Sometimes the outstanding tales of the children, containing many details of the previous life (names, accurate description of places and objects and the remembrance of very personal events and conversations) are further attested by birthmarks in their bodies (for example, a child whose previous personality was killed with a shot in the chest exhibits a spot where the skin has a different color or even a peculiar texture). The selection of cases is exhaustive and includes interviews with the children, their families and also the past life’s kindred.

It’s best not to dwelve into the specifics of each case mentioned on “Old Souls”, for they are quite detailed and any short description does justice neither to the subjects, nor to Stevenson’s work. Tom Shroder must be lauded for his ability to transport the reader to the physical and human landscape of distant places, candidly revealing his evolution from disbelief towards serious hypothesing of the reality of this phenomenon, without ever losing his rational, journalistic mind. Believers and skeptics will find intelligent material to ponder about, but don't expect to find definitive answers. Reincarnation is far from being a proven fact, but this volume reminds us that in face of extraordinary facts we must, at least, put aside our preconceptions and allow brave men like Ian Stevenson to do their work without spurious interferences. His legacy is very much alive among fellow scientists and simple admirers, for time will certainly remember those unremittingly researched case files as a pioneering influence on the study of reincarnation and the paranormal as a whole.

More information on “Old Souls” can be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Souls) as well as about Dr. Ian Stevenson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stevenson). The webpage of the University of Virginia’s Division of Personality Studies, a department founded by Stevenson in 1967, is also recommended (http://www.healthsystem.virginia.edu/internet/personalitystudies/).

8 March 2009

"The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings" by John A. Keel

There's no way around him: even if you're just mildly interested in unexplained events John Keel is one of the must read authors. His life's story is almost as fascinating as the subjects he so wittily tackles. The nomadic nature of journalism, a profession he chose from an early age, took him to the farthest corners of the world. It would be in places like India and Egypt that the appeal of Fortean phenomena would compel him to dedicate the following decades to the study of bizarre creatures, fleeting lights in the sky and elusive apparitions. The sheer width of Keel’s investigative work makes him one of the most insightful commentators on anomalous subjects, although his approach and subsequent theorizations would lead to an almost complete isolation both from academics and hardened believers.

This specific volume is an upgrade on the earlier “Strange Creatures from Time and Space”, first released in 1970, and constitutes a fine example of John Keel’s intelligent writing style. As always he manages to create a subtle blend of newspaper article objectivity with personal and often comedic interludes, characteristics that make him an unparalleled master on the popularization (in the best sense) of the paranormal. “The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings” works as an encyclopedia of anomalous beings that have been reported throughout human history, their appearances, physiology and, most relevantly, effects on the unsuspecting witnesses.

The author isn’t afraid to peer into events reported from distant centuries, for bizarre occurrences have always been with us as humans, a fact that allows us to see them in an historical, social and anthropological chain that conducts to what we are now and to how we see and interpret such incidents. It’s no surprise that the chapter dedicated to demon dogs and phantom cats also mentions themes like vampirism and lycanthropy, for the singularities of the outer world are undeniably linked to our cultural perception and behavior. From there we’re taken through the usual parade of classics such as hairy beasts, lake monsters and flying creatures (Mothman included), essential to prepare us for the Keel twist on the subject. So don’t be surprised if you’re reading about Bigfoot and, turning to the next chapter, you’re in the middle of a discussion about bedroom invading humanoids or brightly illuminated angelic visions. The strange creatures mentioned in the title come in all shapes and that’s what makes this book quite different from the “competition”.

Also relevant is the fact that many of the mentioned beings were sighted in association with other abnormal phenomenon like UFOs. This is a trademark of the author’s thinking, one that has garnered him despise and reverence. Unlike other investigators, Keel sees the paranormal as a whole, a gathering of various manifestations, with different appearances, but profound similarities on the way they affect the humans who are faced with them. He often concludes that, despite the form, the final purpose (if there is a consciously designed one) of this outlandish engagements with the occult is to confound and, most disturbingly, to manipulate the witnesses and, ultimately, our beliefs.

Keel’s very unique worldview is perfectly illustrated in the 2002 afterword he wrote for this book. After decades of uncountable millions of dollars launched into the extraterrestrial hypothesis scientific grinding machine, created by respected academics and fed by eccentric millionaires, the results are none. Our radio telescopes have captured the fascinating mumblings of distant galaxies, but never the intelligent message from an alien civilization. The SETI program and his siblings may have seemed the correct approach to the problem. However, time has disproven such vision and phenomena like UFO still baffle us as much as 50 years ago. It’s certainly the time to look back to our rich history and the powerful teachings of our ancestors, to learn with our mistakes and missteps and to try, just try, to look for answers elsewhere, for maybe they lie much closer to us than the inscrutable depths of space.

You may find more information on John Keel on the Wikipedia article about him (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Keel). Also you can check out another review, written by Rick Kleffel (http://trashotron.com/agony/reviews/keel-guide_myserious_being.htm).

3 February 2009

"The UFO Experience" by J. Allen Hynek

The history of the UFO phenomenon is (or at least should) be built on witness reports and physical evidence. But when dealing with a subject as baffling and almost unintelligible as this one, the investigator himself becomes a central piece in attributing credibility to the study and its subsequent results. Sadly enough, science as a whole has cast the UFO enigma outside its gates, allowing gross misappropriations by the show-prone media and unprepared self-styled specialists. Only a handful of brave academics have emerged from the ivory tower of universities and laboratories to apply their knowledge on this matter. Among them the astronomer J. Allen Hynek is both a pioneer and an unforgettable reference.

Curiously enough, he came into the UFO field by accident, after an invitation presented by the United States Air Force to serve as a consultant to the newly created Blue Book Project. His work would put him in contact with thousands of sightings reports and take him around North-America to interview witnesses and supervise the collecting of evidence. His initial reluctance to accept the reality of the phenomenon was well in tone with the military authorities’ wishes. Later, his contact with other investigators like Jacques Vallée and Aimé Michel (also members of the mythical “Invisible College”) would contribute to a dramatic shift in his conviction, towards a realisation that such a quantity of strange events was urging for a major organized scientific study. More than that, the inquiry’s results should be made available to the public, an idea that went against his employer’s secretive (and manipulative) objectives.

“The UFO Experience” was published for the first time in 1972, when Hynek had already spent 25 years in the field. The Condon Report was published just 3 years before and its conclusions were peremptory: there's no scientific validity or interest to the study of UFOs. Obviously J. Allen Hynek disagreed, but was followed only by a small group of scientists who remained interested in the phenomenon (some publicly, others privately). His book was, firstly, a wake up call against the fallacious results brought to light by Edward Condon and his committee. For that purpose he presents evidence that the investigation was biased and scientifically inept, a fact also supported by former members of its board who voluntarily resigned in protest. Hynek underlines that in spite of the laughter of science the phenomenon continues to manifest itself, generating a crowd of people from all walks of life who have experienced something they can’t explain and that doesn’t fit the prevailing notions established about our world - that alone is worthy of scientific scrutiny.

On the other hand, the main and more perennial contribution of this book to the study of UFOs would be the classification method for sightings, ranging from distant observations (nocturnal lights, daylight discs and radar-visual reports) to the more fascinating close encounters of the first, second and third kind. To illustrate the different categories, Hynek picked several cases, including some from the Blue Book Files, and divided them according to strangeness and probability indexes. The proximity of the observed object and, eventually, the physical effects and traces left behind are the main vectors to consider in his classification method. Remarkably, it’s fairly noticeable that the close encounters of the third kind (which involve descriptions of beings associated with the UFO itself, usually denominated as humanoids) provoked a reaction of extreme caution in the author. They were attached to reports of such high strangeness that J. Allen Hynek was visibly contained in his appreciation, presenting only a handful of well documented cases.

In the end, “The UFO Experience” remains as one of the essential reads for anyone with an interest in this phenomenon. It’s a truly scientific, methodical and passionate analysis directed both to academic circles and the general public, a balance that few authors can claim to have achieved.

Further information about J. Allen Hynek is available on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Hynek). For contextual purposes we also suggest the article about the Condon Committee (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condon_Committee).

2 February 2009

"The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball" by Surendra Verma

Around 7:14 A.M. on June 30 1908 the Siberian heartland was shook by a colossal explosion, with a strength equivalent to 1000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. The effects of this cataclysm were felt worldwide: shockwaves were registered around the planet, for weeks Europe had unusually bright nights and disturbances were measured on Earth's magnetic field. More than 100 years have gone by and the definitive answer for such dramatic event still eludes the scientific community.

The debate has flourished between scientists and passionate investigators and the theories that purportedly explain the mystery are diverse, ranging from the plausible to the absurd. Strangely, the available literature in english about the Tunguska Event is scarce, making this work by Melbourne based science writer Surendra Verma a gem of sorts.

The structure of “The Mystery of the Tunguska Fireball” is very straightforward: it starts with an overview of the happening and its immediate consequences and then follows a path of historical review of the various expeditions and scientific studies performed on the spot. The lifelong work of Leonid Kulik, scientist and leader of the first expedition to observe the devastating effects of the catastrophic occurrence (1921), is carefully scrutinized. His theory was that the Tunguska Event was caused by the impact of a meteorite and this is a possibility that still has many followers. The evidence on the ground though was quite frustrating and Kulik died without ever discovering the massive impact crater he expected to find.

The procession of theories begins to unfold from the third chapter onwards. The comet hypothesis, first suggested by the astronomer F. J. W. Whipple in 1934, became one of the most solid and supported through the decades. But as the expeditions to Tunguska became more frequent and well equipped, more puzzling data began to emerge. Small spheroid particles were found scattered around the epicentre of the explosion and bizarre increases in annual tree growth served as support for stranger possibilities. The impact of a black hole, antimatter and even the spectacular crash landing of an ailing extraterrestrial spacecraft, were some of the theories that met more or less criticism from the scientific community and the media.

Surendra Verma must be lauded for the impartial treatment of every hypothesis, allowing the reader to make his own judgement. As an author he took the right approach, strongly cementing his book on published scientific studies and through direct contact with some of the investigators who spent (and still spend) long summers on the inhospitable Siberian wilderness in search for the answer to one of the truly great mysteries of the 20th century.

More information on the Tunguska Event may be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunguska_event), which also contains further links for websites pondering on this enigma.

8 January 2009

"Borderlands" by Mike Dash

The so called field of paranormal research encompasses a wide variety of strange phenomena. Some became a common place amidst our social existence like UFOs or ghosts. Others remain known only to those who, in almost fanatical fashion, pursue the time consuming job of scrutinizing old newspapers and science articles, following the footsteps of the likes of Charles Fort. A world of strange sprouts of frogs, bizarre light manifestations and other oddities.

Being a writer and publisher with the monthly magazine "Fortean Times" for more than 20 years, it's no wonder that Mike Dash would venture into these areas with great ease and enthusiasm. This "Borderlands" is undeniably one of the finest overviews of our world of strangeness ever published. Dash manages to establish a perfect balance between an informed, highly factual approach and a joyous sense of humour, making this book a pleasant reading experience. These are some of the most enjoyable 500 pages one can read on such a spiky field of knowledge thanks, in no small part, to an intelligent division of the themes into wide ranging chapters.

The book opens with a short explanation of its title setting the tone for the vast array of subjects explored in the pages to come. The main sections are wisely built from a historical point of view, placing each event within the sociological frame of their protagonists, allowing a better understanding of the evolution of both the study of the phenomena and the public's reactions to it. "Borderlands" takes us through reports of religious miracles, psychic manifestations, ghosts, UFOs, strange creatures and, no less relevantly, hoaxes. Mentioning a few selected cases to illustrate each theme, including some lesser known testimonies, Mike Dash's work constitutes an excellent starting point for those looking for an overview of anomalous occurrences, but also a solid and wide ranging volume for the more knowledgeable reader.

For more information on "Borderlands" and Mike Dash we suggest a visit to his personal website (http://www.mikedash.com/), containing information on this and other of his works. Brief biographical information may be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Dash).

The Beginning

This is a personal journey through a very special section of my library. It emerges from my love for books and my inescapable passion for the unusual phenomena that permeate our reality. My long lasting fascination for mysteries and anomalies led me to compile, through the years, a collection of diverse tomes, most of them bought in second-hand booksellers, a few offered by family and friends. Each title will have a short review and brief description of the themes and contents. When possible I'll also work to elicit some relevant facts on the author's lives and careers. More than an exhaustive analysis, I hope this blog can be a contribution for those looking for info on a certain book or just a starting point for further ventures into the captivating world of fringe science and everlasting enigmas.