Mediums – people who say they can channel spirits or other supernatural beings to communicate with the living – often get a bad rap. They’re the subjects of debunking attempts, they’re accused of fraud, and most people think they’re just plain odd. But what if we deferred our judgments and tried to find out just what’s actually going on physically and neurologically in the act of channeling? A team of researchers in the US and Brazil did just that, finding that, whatever else is happening, mediums show some very unique patterns of brain activity. And even more interestingly, those patterns differ depending on the mediums’ amount of experience.
The researchers, led by neuroscientist Julio Peres of the University of Pennsylvania, gathered a group of ten Brazilian psychographers, or writing mediums. Psychographers put themselves into a receptive trance, which, they claim, allows spirits to dictate words that they then relay onto a piece of paper. Some psychographers claim to actually hear the words to be dictated, while others say they’re not consciously present at all during the transcribing. Instead, they let the spirits fully take over their bodes – and writing hands.
The group of mediums was comprised of five experienced psychographers and five less-experienced peers. Experience level was determined by the number of years each medium had been transcribing spirits’ messages, as well as his or her average number of trances each month. So, for example, the most experienced psychographer in the group had been transcribing for 40 years, and averaged 16 medium trances per month – 7,680 trances in all. The least experienced medium, on the other hand, had been working for five years and averaged eight medium trances per month – a total of 480 channellings.
The researchers asked each medium to go into a trance, channel a spirit, and begin transcribing the messages the spirits gave them. When the mediums had been in a trance and writing for ten minutes, the researchers injected a radioactive dye into their bloodstreams. While it may sound barbaric, the harmless dye is the key ingredient in the SPECT (Single-Photon Emission Computerized Tomography) brain-scanning technique – the dye stops circulating very quickly once in the bloodstream, leaving a near-perfect snapshot of the volume and extent of blood flow at the moment of injection. SPECT dye injection allowed the researchers to take pictures of the mediums’ brains in a scanner 15 minutes later, after the end of their trances, to learn what regions of the brain had been most active during the height of their psychographic experiences.
In addition, each medium was also asked to simply write, without going into a trance, on a predetermined subject for the same length of time. Again, the researchers injected dye and performed SPECT scans to see what was happening in the subjects’ brains. The order of these tasks was randomized, so that some subjects did the trance writing first, while others did the normal writing first.
Meanwhile, a third-party expert with a doctorate in Brazilian literature was asked to anonymously rate the complexity and quality of the writings the subjects produced. The writings were randomized, so the expert didn’t know which samples were the products of trances, and were rated according to sentence structure, punctuation, grammatical fluency, and related criteria. The writing samples were also tested against Portuguese-language archives to ensure that they weren’t plagiarized. (They weren’t.)
The SPECT scans focused on regions of the brain involved in conscious focus, planning, and linguistic skill, since writing typically depends on those mental functions. In six different specific areas – the culmen, hippocampus, inferior occipital gyrus, anterior cingulate, superior temporal gyrus, and precentral gyrus – the experienced psychographers showed much higher levels of activity during normal writing than their less experienced peers. This was not necessarily surprising, because the more experienced mediums had spent much more time over their lives composing and writing messages. It stood to reason, then, that areas of the brain related to planning, focal attention, and language would be more active in the experienced psychographers.
However, what happened during the trance writing was a bit more surprising. Compared with the normal writing conditions, experienced mediums showed much less brain activity in the aforementioned regions during channelling experiences. And oddly, the less-experienced mediums showed sharp rises in activity in the very same regions. The net effect was that the brain activity of the experienced and less experienced mediums seemed to converge on a kind of happy medium during trance writing (see image at right; source: PLOS ONE).
The ratings of the mediums’ writing samples showed that the writings done during psychographic trances were more complex and higher-quality than those done during normal, waking consciousness. This effect was highly significant for the experienced mediums and fell just short of statistical significance for the less experienced mediums.
In other words, when less experienced mediums went into psychographic trances and produced written messages, the parts of their brains associated with complex idea production, planning, and language became much more active – as one might expect. Their writing also became slightly more complex. But when the more experienced mediums went into trance, the very same parts of their brains seemed to suddenly go much quieter…just as their writing became much more sophisticated.
The researchers postulated that this paradoxical effect might be the result of sheer experience. Many experts in different fields show unexpectedly low levels of activity during performance in precisely the areas of the brain most related to their craft or art – suggesting that experience may lead to greater cognitive efficiency. These results are also consistent with the experienced mediums’ claims that they weren’t aware of their actions during trances, since the areas of the brain that went quiet were involved in attention, focus, and planning.
Of course, these results don’t say much about whether psychographic mediums are actually contacting spirits, making up the messages themselves, or unconsciously unlocking their own linguistic skills during trances. But because the patterns of brain activity were different than those one might expect to see in someone who is intentionally lying or deceiving others, it seems unlikely that these mediums were consciously fabricating their trance experiences. What’s more, psychographic mediums in Brazil typically don’t charge money for their services, making it even more unlikely that they were just inventing the whole thing for personal gain. Instead, the researchers suggested that the mediums may have been experiencing a kind of “dissociation,” a psychological term for feeling detached or distant from one’s body and actions. Dissociation is often considered a mental disorder in Western contexts, but there was little evidence that the mediums were mentally disturbed – they rated as well-adjusted psychologically and showed few symptoms of depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder.
For the most experienced psychographers, then, trance writing may have been a kind of automatic function, isolated from everyday conscious control but nonetheless very able to draw on the brain’s underlying resources. The mediums entered a kind of unconscious, intuitive state so powerful that it produced measurable changes in brain function, and they were able to generate writing of considerable complexity and skill. So, then, you might scoff at the notion of spirits, but spirits were clearly not the only “people” involved here. The mediums themselves had hidden depths, rooted in the same neural architecture we all share.
For more, check out "Neuroimaging During Trance States: A Contribution to the Study of Dissociation" in PLOS ONE.