What does psychology have to “say” about supernatural (paranormal) phenomena?
I have found over many years of private practice, reading, and exploration of the esoteric, that there is very little training available to the vast majority of psychologists (and various other mental health professionals like GPs), in helping people to manage their paranormal (supernatural, spiritual, ESP-related) experiences.
Paranormal phenomena manifest much more often than we realise in our lives; and when patients speak of this in therapy it may be missed or dis-missed, because we tend not to see what we do not believe in.
What Are Paranormal Events?
What do I mean by paranormal events? Such phenomena would include (but are not limited to):
- Exceptional Dreams (including predictive, intuitive, out of the body kinds);
- Clairvoyance / Clairsentience (remote viewing or knowing);
- Apparitions (including perceptions of ghosts or spirits or the departed);
- Memories of suspected past lives;
- Communications with deceased relatives/friends/family;
- Savantism (exceptional talent evident at earliest years; child prodigies);
- Poltergeist Phenomena (described below);
- Prayer (and Healing by Prayer);
- Mediumship (“channeling” of spiritual entities);
- Other Exceptional Events Lying Outside Scientific Explanation (eg Miracles, Synchronicity)
During December last year (2017), an experienced Sydney-based Intuitive (Medium) contacted me and described a Brisbane family in strife. This family (mum, dad, two daughters) had been experiencing unexplainable noise phenomena and the spontaneous movements of objects, for the previous 18 months.
An Example of the Paranormal
One of the daughters – whom I’ll call Mariella* – claimed to be frequently ‘bullied’ with assaults to her body, mainly her extremities (hands, feet, fingers, ankles) but sometimes also parts of her face.
These assaults appeared as either welts or scratches and their inflictions were referred to by daughter and mum as ‘stabbings’. I made careful observation of these on four occasions and though I am no doctor, 2cm marks did appear over large skin surface areas, similar in my experience to scratches by a blade.
The daughter and mother claimed vehemently these were not self-inflicted; and the daughter did not demonstrate the profile of a self-harmer. She claimed these injuries were intentionally created by a ‘presence’ or entity.
The family had sought guidance from both mental health experts and from reading websites. A visit to a Psychiatrist led the daughter to being formally diagnosed with ‘Anxiety and Depression with periodic Psychotic Episodes’ (ie hearing noises and voices in the walls).
Both mum and daughter did not feel this was accurate and that it would eventually be a harmful label to carry around in the daughter’s medical record. This being so, they did what many clients of health care do when they do not see the benefit of a Western Medical Approach to health and family needs: over the course of a year they sought the help of numerous ‘psychic experts’, professionals who would not gratuitously label them as crazy or psychotic or abnormal.
Over the course of a year and a half there were about a dozen paranormal experts who visited the house, including four psychic healers, on different occasions. All four in their various ways, proposed that ‘negative energies’ or ‘spirits’ were the likely causes of the disturbances. Though these healers did not use the term ‘poltergeists’, they all accepted the idea that intelligences of some sort were making mischief for the family, especially the daughter.
When Life is Affected by the Paranormal
From a practical standpoint it made for a lot of worry and inconvenience, as injury and markings tended to crimp the activities of daily living, such as homework, housework, going to school, and one very important thing, sleep.
The entity seemed to take pains to disturb the house as Mariella tried to drift off to sleep each night. This is when rappings in the walls or in her own bed frame became quite noticeable. It would not readily stop upon request, but would stop when the daughter would finally drift off to sleep. These phenomena were captured via video and sound devices by the paranormal teams as well as by the mother (using her mobile smartphone).
Intelligence was attributed to the sounds for when mum would put a question to it (“How many cartoon characters appear now on the TV screen?”), the entity would correctly rap out the number. It would also answer more general or personal questions put to it (phrased in a yes/no format), with a high degree of accuracy. One occasion it was asked to answer, “What song is this being sung by Mariella”, responding by correctly rapping out the rhythm to the tune.
Recurrent Spontaneous PsychoKinesis
As a final intriguing aspect, the disturbances in the home also included so called Recurrent Spontaneous PsychoKinesis or RSPK. These included the movement of small mementoes (like paperweights) on the common area table tops, the formation and movement of ‘energy balls’, and the shifting of pictures on walls to be askew.
RSPK is regarded by scientific researchers as a better kind of evidence, or ‘smoking gun’, for when captured by reliable investigators, using scientific methods, it is harder to fake or to claim that the movement that occurred was in the observer’s warped fantasy. This phenomena, whereby objects are observed or recorded to move of their own accord, is what has fascinated public and scientific bodies over the centuries as a Poltergeist or Poltergeist Haunting.
Once into our second week of dialogue, Mum (Sarina*) shared with me that ‘after a year this Poltergeist Thing became too much to handle.’ In other words, the activity was putting a major stress on the family.
Mum then expanded her outreach and found several more healers on the east coast to perform a clearance. Some of these healers worked through chanting, some through shamanistic ritual, some using hands-on healing, some using channel guides (mediums), and some using Catholic Rites (Latin invocations). But Mum claimed in March, that after about 18 months ‘none of these had lasting effects’. The Poltergeist Activity would fall to zero for a day and then return a day or two after the clearance expert left.
After reading up on poltergeist literature, Sarina began a campaign of trialling various paranormals (‘psychics’). This went on for another 6 months when finally she was introduced to myself (a general psychologist with 25 years’ experience) by a long-standing member of the Australian Institute of Parapsychology Research (AIPR).
When I was hired as a family-based psychologist I interviewed Sarina. She reported that over the last few months most of the family friends who were told (or learned through friends) of the various wall knockings, bed frame creaks, yes/no querying, and marks/sensations visited upon Mariella, could not handle such tales emotionally. So these friends made themselves scarce or stopped seeing the family altogether, further making mum and daughter feel isolated.
The haunting in the family’s house also included so called Poltergeist Phenomena, whereby objects are reported to move of their own accord, and irritating sounds and breakages disturbed the family.
Can Psychology Help?
The standard “clinical /medical model” of psychology has serious shortfalls in the treatments offered paranormally-affected clients.
The family’s referring GP performed the standard Care Plan interview, consisting of a very cursory physical exam, running through two inventories measuring Distress, and the taking of an oral medical history. But he appended an interesting ‘add on’ to his diagnosis: namely, “psychotic episodes of hearing voices in the walls of her house”.
Hearing voices in the walls? The older daughter, Mariella, presented as a healthy, lithe, aware early teen. She answered questions quite clearly; her primary goal in life was to become a performing artist and excel in dance and dance-friendly theatre. She freely admitted that school and study were to be avoided; in fact she suffered frequent anxiety attacks when being driven to, and entering the school grounds. Thereupon she claimed that the entity began stabbing (marking) her. She wished to avoid school entirely and eventually enrolled in a distance education course to attain equivalent credit. My administration of a DSM-V based instrument (PsychProfiler), revealed she had a Learning (Speech and Reading) Disability, of unknown duration and previously undiagnosed. There were no indications otherwise of a mental and/or physical disorder.
Given the above assessment, and acting in my role as a researcher and a clinician (though one with a humanist bent), I did not immediately accept the GP’s diagnosis add-on of “psychotic episodes”. I asked myself, could Mariella (and family) actually have been experiencing paranormal events? Could Mariella somehow, in some mysterious way, be the target of a malevolent entity or at least a mischievous one?
After 2 years, over 10 groups of ‘paranormal experts’ (paranormal investigators with electronic equipment, two TV production crews, two Catholic clergymen, a Buddhist monk, and half a dozen ‘clearance’ paranormals), and a scientific team composed of two investigators affiliated with the AIPR (Australian Institute of Parapsychology Research), the family was at a wits’ end.
Sarina said they needed urgent help with their Poltergeist Activity, something that was frequently disrupting their daily lives. Both she, and daughter Mariella in particular, were losing sleep as they were ‘haunted’ about 40% of the time at night with the activity (knockings in wall, stabbing pains on the girl).
I knew through my own reading that many multitudes of people have reported experiencing paranormal events, throughout history, with the largest category of these being witnesses to the presence of deceased persons. Most commonly these are called ghosts or spirits, but more scientifically and less ideologically they may be described as ‘apparitional experiences’.
Through giving the daughter her own voice in therapy, allowing her to take control of her study format, and work on resolving problems in the mother/daughter relationship, the paranormal behaviour experienced in the family home has greatly decreased. At this point of writing, therapy with the family is ongoing.
Listening and observing the family in real time over 6 months, and looking at the patterns of paranormal behaviour, led me to believe that the problems were related to the relationship between mother and daughter. These problems were I believe playing out at an energetic level that science has yet to develop tools to measure and understand. I am still unravelling this dynamic, which will be covered in a future article.
Type 1 and Type 2 Phenomena
Major qualified scientists and their associations have generated a respectable body of knowledge and data regarding apparitional experiences.
Apparently a lot of people experience apparitions (either felt or seen or heard). This I would call a Type I phenomena (direct experience with some kind of corroboration, perhaps by another observer unconnected to the first). Type I experiences – because they expose the reporter to a high risk of being seen as foolish for fooled – seem more credible than Type II. There is good scientific evidence to support the reality/existence of what I call Type I phenomena. These phenomena include (but are not limited to) extrasensory perception, past life memory and talents, and near-death experiences.
There is less solid, less observable evidence for what I call Type II ‘big picture phenomena’- like experiencing other worlds, spiritual masters, higher dimensions, etc. They are not easily amenable to scientific investigation but experientially seemed to resonate with people.
Strict ‘hard minded’ and ‘scientific’ psychologists don’t like personal accounts. They often ignore or denigrate them as “just another anecdote” and/or “its just a personal perception, a delusion, or an hallucination”. But after doing a lot of study and research and listening to my clients, I think we need to reconsider such stories.
Such stories might initially begin as: “I have yet again anticipated a person’s phone call just seconds before I picked up the receiver and guess what, it was the person I had in mind!”. While in many cases this could be chalked up to chance, if the therapist listens for the total context, a different story might be seen. The persons involved may have had an urgent need to connect but had not seen each other for many months or years. In many such cases the recipient also has a feeling or intuition of (exactly) what the caller’s content will be.
Because such events were spontaneous, happened in the past, have to be recalled, and may not be witnessed or recorded, they are not susceptible to be systematically looked at, and therefore not deemed scientifically valid or proven. This created a lot of dissonance though for researchers as people were reporting such things in their lives, but nobody had figured out a way to study them.
But this changed, when starting in the 1930’s the first fully recognised parapsychology laboratory in the USA was established at Duke University. Since then depending on the era, the country, the institutions and funding models, a compendium of research has resulted.
Taken as a whole, this research seems to indicate people (and some animal species) do have a ‘sixth sense’, and that they pick up on signals that cannot be explained well using a hard-minded scientific paradigm and culture.
We may laugh or dismiss so called stories or anecdotes about messages from the dead or premonitions. But it gets harder as our technologies and theories get better and these phenomena can be more readily captured or observed. There is also several scientific monographs which offer for useful review witness accounts (starting as far back as 1894 with the Census of Hallucinations by the British Society for Psychical Research).
Today through the efforts of several paranormal research societies we have recordings (audio/video/camera) of objects moving of their own accord, through means not known to present science. This more recent set of data help make the case that it is unfair and unreasonable to automatically dismiss our client’s experience, when they report having paranormal experiences.
If we educated ourselves just a bit more, just took a little more time over another session or two, we might discover with the client there is a deeper meaning underlying their experience, one which leads them to take courage and decide a new course of action. And thus shift their unhappy or confusing situation to a better one, or to help them heal themselves or a relationship.
It is even harder to dismiss paranormal events if oneself is visited in some way by an apparition, especially of someone special to you, someone held near and dear to you before their death. It has been scientifically investigated that the vast majority of apparitional experiences occur in the context of two people one living and one just deceased. It’s been systematically found that apparitions do not appear as goblins, chain-dragging spooks and similar fantasy-based characteristics.
Rather, it is about two entities trying to maintain a relationship beyond the life-death boundary ‘beyond the veil’. Continuing research has suggested several patterns, an important one being that apparitional experiences appear to have the function of maintaining a bond between friends, lovers and family, even after life ceases for one of those so previously involved.
Have you ever been witness to an apparition? Many people have. And we are describing the general population here, not people diagnosed with schizophrenia, drug addiction or histrionic personalities. After contact is made with the deceased, they later report that within a day or so of the visitation they undergo a kind of transformation, one of a positive kind. They end up developing a different sensibility as to what life and death really is about, that there is a reality beyond this one, that is at the very least holistic, healing, meaningful and forgiving.
Experients shift their worldview, giving now more credence to things like religion, spirituality, God and Heaven, and Purpose in general. They report becoming calmer and more accepting of life; they accept more readily the mistakes made by themselves and others.
It is most unfortunate that our Schools of Medicine, Psychiatry, and Psychology do not take seriously paranormal events and therapy (though it is also true that many enrolled and would-be students delve into these areas ‘on the sly’).
In my own professional continuing education, I deem paranormality worthy of study and application, as while the paranormally gifted (clairvoyants, healers, intuitives, mediums, sensitives, channels) may only number 5 percent of the population – their impact is large. Add to that the fact that many millions more have experienced paranormal events across their lifetime – or will do so.
The Paranormal occurs to “Normal” People
Many consumers of mental health services consider the paranormal as real, but in wanting to be seen as a sane, healthy, normal, rational person, may find ways to minimise / distort / cover-up their experiences.
Integrating and understanding the experiences of the paranormal through Western psychological therapies will only help clients in a major way if we as psychologists (and the public) start demanding that universities and other training organisations get on board, and start systematically studying what works and what doesn’t work, and somehow integrating that into the canon (accepted texts and methods) of psychology.
At the very least we need to accept that paranormal events are probably more normal than paranormal, and that we need to listen with an open mind when such things present in our clinical settings.
I believe we should not be automatically dismissive simply because Poltergeist Activity doesn’t fit into our received training, our personal comfort zone, or our immersion in the current scientism which excludes all such phenomena in the first instance.
Author: Dr Terry Olesen, BA (Hons), M Psych, PhD Psych, MAPS.
For over 25 years, Brisbane Psychologist Dr Terry Olesen has been helping people via psychology-based counselling. He finds it particularly rewarding to work with people with a ‘life situation knot’: feeling stymied, distraught, sad or angry, while facing external challenges such as job loss, health issues or getting over an ex. The topic of his doctoral research was work-life adjustment and mental health, which, in addition to his years of clinical practice, gives him the expertise to help people with a range of difficulties.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
NB Terry Olesen is not currently practising at M1 Psychology, however if you call us on (07) 3067 9129 we would be happy to suggest another psychologist at our practice with experience in this area.
- These are visually recorded and archived by several research agencies including AIPR.
- I am also now completing a Graduate Certificate in Parapsychology from the AIPR at the University of Adelaide.
- See Harvey Irwin and Caroline Watt’s An Introduction to Parapsychology Fifth Edition (2007). Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
- Relevant here is the establishment in the 1880s of the British Society for Psychical Research. Composed of leading scientists, philosophers, and writers at the time
- A leading researcher makes this case very well in The End of Materialism (2009) by Dr. Charles Tart, Oakland California: New Harbinger Publishing
*All names have been changed