Raising the dead

Research into spiritualism – a belief system based on the idea that human souls endure beyond death and communicate with the living through a medium or psychic – probably seems slightly at odds with one’s picture of contemporary science.

But there’s growing interest in it worldwide. In Britain, several organisations support, train and offer the services of practising mediums. One of the largest, the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), claims to serve at least 11,000 members through its training college, churches, and centres.

There are even definitions for the different sorts of communications experienced by mediums. Mediums who “hear” spirits are said to be experiencing clairaudient communications, rather than clairvoyant (“seeing”) or clairsentient (“feeling” or “sensing”) communications.

This interest is in part why a research team led by Durham University, UK, recently conducted the largest scientific study into the experiences of clairaudient mediums. They surveyed 65 clairaudient spiritualist mediums – found through organisations such as the SNU and spiritualist communities – and 143 participants from the general population as a control group.

The researchers found that spiritualist mediums might be more prone to immersive mental activities and unusual auditory experiences, such as hearing voices, early in life. They think this might explain why some people, and not others, eventually adopt spiritualist beliefs and engage in the practice of “hearing the dead”.

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The Fox sisters: Kate (1838-92), Leah (1814-90) and Margaret (or Maggie) (1836-93). In 1848, they reported hearing ‘rappings’ and ‘knocks’ that they interpreted as communication coming from a spirit in their house. These events and these sisters would eventually be considered the originators of Spiritualism. Credit: N. Currier, New York.

The findings are published in the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture. Study co-author Peter Moseley says spiritualists’ unusual auditory experiences are positive, start early in life and are often then in the spiritualists’ control.

“Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too,” says Moseley.

The researchers say their findings suggest that it’s not giving in to social pressure, learning to have specific expectations, or a level of belief in the paranormal that leads to experiences of spirit communication.

Instead, it seems that some people are uniquely predisposed to absorption and are more likely to report unusual auditory experiences occurring early in life. Many of these individuals embrace spiritualist beliefs because they align meaningfully with those unique personal experiences.

“Our findings say a lot about ‘learning and yearning’,” says lead researcher Adam Powell, from Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion. “For our participants, the tenets of spiritualism seem to make sense of both extraordinary childhood experiences as well as the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practising mediums.”

“But all of those experiences may result more from having certain tendencies or early abilities than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough.”

The researchers gathered detailed descriptions of the way mediums experience spirit “voices”, and compared this to levels of absorption, hallucination-proneness, aspects of identity, and belief in the paranormal.

They found that 44.6% of spiritualist participants reported hearing the voices of the deceased on a daily basis, with 33.8% reporting an experience of clairaudience within the last day. A large majority (79%) said that experiences of auditory spiritual communication were part of their everyday lives, taking place both when they were alone and when they were working as a medium or attending a spiritualist church.

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