According to Durham University, mediums who are “hearing the dead” can have a history of unusual auditory experiences – they are more likely to experience absorption, which is linked to altered states of consciousness
Now, science is offering us an explanation for the experiences of mediums.
There are countless beliefs about what awaits humanity on the other side of death. For some it is Heaven or reincarnation, for others, it is the soil of the earth or a new world. Then, there are further divisions – those who believe communication is possible, and those who don’t.
This research was conducted by Durham University to examine what makes some people more likely to believe.
In the current pandemic, over two million people have died. As vaccination patterns are slowly creaking to life in some countries, others are still waiting for their first innoculations. More deaths are coming, straining both the mental and physical health of the global population. This is an unprecedented situation, which has led to communities seeking support in one another.
Firstly, what is Spiritualism?
One of these communities is the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU). Their website describes Spiritualism as the “true” way to communicate with “departed spirits”: “Spiritualist churches and centres provide many of the venues where communication, through mediumship, is possible and many loved relatives and friends take advantage of this opportunity to continue to show an interest in our welfare and us.”
Interest in Spiritualism is increasing in the UK, with several organisations supporting, training, and offering the services of practising mediums. The SNU claims to have a congregation of around 11,000 people today.
The researchers conducted a survey of 65 clairaudient spiritualist mediums from the Spiritualists’ National Union and 143 members of the general population in the largest scientific study into the experiences of clairaudient mediums.
Dr Peter Moseley, co-author on the study at Northumbria University, commented: “Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences which are positive, start early in life and which they are often then able to control. Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too.”
Secondly, what did the researchers find out about communication?
Through their study, the researchers gathered detailed descriptions of the way that mediums experience spirit ‘voices’, and compared levels of absorption, hallucination-proneness, aspects of identity, and belief in the paranormal.
Less than half spoke to the dead everyday
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.
Part of the daily routine for those who did
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.
Inside or outside the mind?
Although spirits were primarily heard inside the head (65.1%), 31.7% of spiritualist participants said they experienced spirit voices coming from both inside and outside of their minds.
Usually 21 when the communication begins
Spiritualists reported first experiencing clairaudience at an average age of 21.7 years. However, 18% of spiritualists reported having clairaudient experiences ‘for as long as they could remember’ and 71% had not encountered Spiritualism as a religious movement prior to their first experiences.
Thirdly, how do these experiences compare to the general population?
For the general population, absorption was linked to levels of belief in the paranormal, but there was no significant corresponding link between belief and hallucination-proneness.
To understand any of this, first we have to understand what absorption is.
According to this research, absorption reflects an individual’s cognitive capacity for involvement in sensory and imaginative experiences in ways that alter an individual’s perception, memory, and mood with behavioural and biological consequences. In the words of Auke Tellegen, the psychologist who coined the term, it is a disposition or personality trait that allows a person to become absorbed in their mental imagery.
The researchers say their findings suggest that it is 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. For many of these individuals, spiritualist beliefs are embraced because they align meaningfully with those unique personal experiences.
‘Learning and yearning’
Lead researcher Dr Adam Powell, in Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project and Department of Theology and Religion, said: “Our findings say a lot about ‘learning and yearning’. 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.”