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It is a stormy October night in 1841, and although Liverpool is asleep, Mrs. Bates is very awake. In front of her, shining brightly at the foot of her bed, is an “open vision” of her friend Elizabeth Morgan, “who stands in full view of her and is dressed in beautiful white robes”. The shimmering vision lasts “for some time” before it fades. At dawn and after a restless sleep, Ms. Bates is informed by a messenger that Elizabeth Morgan is dead.

People have been reporting spooky, spiritual, and extraordinary experiences for centuries. Like Ms. Bates, those who claim to have communicated with the dead have been mocked and worshiped. Our recent research has shown that the mediums, mystics, and clairvoyants are more prone to certain hallucinatory traits than the general population – leading them to believe that they are actually communicating with the dead.

Hearing voices is far more common than expected. Some studies have estimated that up to 50% of people in times of grief hear the voice of their deceased loved one. Elsewhere, research by our team has shown that some Christians occasionally hear God as a literal hearing voice to communicate with.

The claim of being able to speak to the dead often coexists with the beliefs of so-called “spiritualism” – a quasi-religious movement based on the idea that individuals continue to exist after their physical body has died. Their “spirits” can appear or communicate with living persons, often referred to as “media”.

Spiritualism dates back to the Fox sisters Maggie and Kate who claimed in 1848 to hear a ghost knocking on the walls of their New York home. Media that “hear” the ghosts, as the Fox sisters did, are said to be “clairaudient”, while those who can “see” the ghosts are said to be “clairvoyant”.

From Arthur Conan Doyle to the Kardashians, the opportunity for spiritual mediation has endured and captivated many. In fact, the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), one of several contemporary spiritual organizations in Britain, has at least 11,000 members.

Additionally, interest in ghost channeling, psychological prediction, and the afterlife seems to have increased in recent years in both the UK and the US. But what is actually going on when people claim to hear voices they think are spirits of the dead?

“I hear dead people”

Our new study of the clairaudient experiences of contemporary media begins to clarify why some people report hearing spiritual voices. We found that people who are more likely to experience “absorption” – a tendency to get lost in mental images or altered states of consciousness – are also more likely to experience clairaudience.

This finding suggests that these people are actually experiencing unusual noises that they think are clairaudient. But it doesn’t explain why they identify those hallucinated voices with the spirits of the dead, which is the core of spiritualism.

Significantly, nearly 75% of those surveyed said they knew nothing about spiritualism or its beliefs prior to their earliest clairaudient experiences. This suggests that for many, the feeling of speaking to ghosts preceded the knowledge of clairaudience as a phenomenon.

Some scholars argue that media later map their voice to spiritualism to explain their auditory hallucinations. This “attribution theory” could explain why there are so many spiritual media out there.

Serious Concerns

Historical research suggests that emotional desires play a key role in evoking such phenomena. In the past, this research told us that when an individual felt melancholy and desperate after a manifestation of the supernatural, they often recorded a spiritual experience shortly thereafter.

The guidance of a religious leader also seems important in conjuring up the metaphysical. For example, the work of Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann shows how the wish must be granted and points out the importance of training and instruction for believers who hope to have lively encounters with the divine through prayer.

However, further research has shown that spiritual practice is not necessarily perfect – at least not without a pre-existing tendency towards immersive mental activity. For the media this means that “longing and learning” is not enough. Clairaudience may require a unique propensity for hearing voices.

Healthy hearing

Spiritualist beliefs appear to be relatively harmless, although researchers are increasingly interested in the similarities and differences between clairaudience and various other forms of voice hearing experienced by people with mental illness.

For example, people with psychosis also often hear voices. By comparing such voices with media-reported clairaudience, researchers have already begun to identify key differences that differentiate clairaudience from the experiences of people with psychosis. For example, the media tend to have more control over their voices – and they report very little stress associated with the experience.

Back in Liverpool in 1841, Ms. Bates “was delighted with the vision” of her friend at the end of her bed, while Elizabeth Morgan’s husband is said to have received “Comfort in the Valley of Sorrows” upon learning of the vision. Hearing the dead is not necessarily a sign of psychological distress – or supernatural possession. For the media, it can be a source of comfort, a simple quality in the way they experience reality.

Scientists shed light on how and why some people report hearing the dead provided by The Conversation

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The conversation

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