Afterlife researcher Julie Beischel of the Windbridge Institute has put out a terrific new Kindle ebook, Among Mediums: A Scientist's Quest for Answers, covering her experiences investigating mediumship. It's a short book and a quick read — entertaining, humorous, unpretentious, almost breezy, written in a conversational style, with many parenthetical personal asides. The content is rather light, but an appendix offers extensive links to supplemental reading of a more technical nature.
Among Mediums is not intended to convert skeptics. Beischel is speaking to the interested layman, and not to people whose minds are already made up. I find this approach refreshing, as I've come to think that far too much energy is expended in trying to persuade the unpersuadable.
Beischel observes that her principal interest in mediumship is not the mechanism behind the phenomenon, but its social utility. As she points out, science does not understand the mechanism behind many widely accepted natural phenomena, but this does not prevent us from taking advantage of them. For instance, until recently the mechanism by which aspirin reduced inflammation and pain was unknown, but people still received the benefits of aspirin, even if they didn't know how it worked.
Beischel writes: "Because I was trained as a pharmacologist, the unexplained things that come to my mind are the many drugs on the market that work through mechanisms we don't fully understand." Among these drugs are the anethestics used in surgery, leading her to make a humorous point:
In a blog I wrote on this topic, I pointed out that if skeptics need to have surgery, they must then forgo the general anesthesia since the doctors cannot define the precise mechanisms of action of those compounds. Those skeptics must be forced to conclude that any previous loss of consciousness demonstrated in other patients when exposed to these drugs was surely due to error, fraud, chance, or statistical manipulation.
She feels it should be possible to gain advantages from mediumship even if we don't have a theory by which to explain it. One of her top priorities is the study of mediumship's value in the grieving process. As our society ages, this topic may become even more relevant than it is today.
In the early part of the book, Beischel briefly reviews her studies in pharmacology and her eventual transition to the very different field she works in today. Interestingly, she discusses the research she conducted with Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona only in the most general terms, and Schwartz's name appears nowhere in the book.
For me, the most interesting part of Among Mediums is Beischel's discussion of her own sitting with a medium some years ago — the one and only formal sitting she ever arranged for herself. Beischel writes:
Angela began talking about a male in my generation, she provided the name Ron, that we were teenagers together, that he had died in a car accident, that he was reckless, that he drove too fast, that people had warned him about driving, that he was 17 when he died, that he drove a restored Mustang or other "muscle car," that drinking was involved, that he was aggressive, that he was in my close group of friends, and that he and I joked around a lot. There were a total of 16 pieces of very specific information.
And not a single one was right.
The alleged communication meant nothing to Beischel. She was ready to dismiss Angela as a "crazy charlatan" until the medium proceeded to transmit a second communication that related strongly to Beischel's deceased mother, who had passed by suicide.
A couple of years later, Beischel began dating someone who'd attended her high school and college, though they hadn't known each other during that time, and was surprised to discover that he had known a young man whose description and manner of death closely matched that of the communicator who'd come through in the early part of the medium's reading. The names were slightly different, however; the medium had given the name Ron, and the actual name was Rick. Since death in an auto accident is not too uncommon among teens, this apparent hit may have been coincidental. Who knows?
From a scientific standpoint, the meatiest part of the book is Beischel's discussion of the protocols employed by the Windbridge Institute to rule out information leakage in testing mediums. If I understand it correctly, the experiments are quintuple-blinded, meaning that multiple layers of sequestration are imposed on the researchers, sitters, and mediums. The precautions are almost paranoid in their elaborateness, and it's hard to see how even the most determined skeptics could poke holes in the procedure (though I'm sure they will try).
The payoff in this section is, I felt, a bit anti-climactic. Although we are told that the mediums' success rates exceeded chance by a statistically significant amount, we don't get to read excerpts from the transcripts and we don't hear about specific hits. I suspect that Beischel left out this material because she does not want to sensationalize her research, but I would have liked to see some of it.
Among Mediums gives a clear sense of the fund-raising challenges faced by the very few people who devote their careers to this marginal area of research. Beischel notes that people are always suggesting possible avenues of research to her, but there is simply no money to pursue them.
Speaking of such suggestions (as pointless as they may be), I've sometimes thought it would be worthwhile to see how mediums perform under hypnosis. There is evidence dating back to the 19th century that hypnosis can intensify psychic abilities even in people with no obvious psychic gifts. The more recent ganzfeld studies also suggest that a semi-hypnotic state (more precisely, a state of mild sensory deprivation) is conducive to enhanced psi. If mediums allowed themselves to be hypnotized, would their accuracy rates improve? Would the messages come through more directly, in the manner of trance mediumship? It would be interesting to find out. But I'm sure other people have thought of this, and there just isn't enough money to pursue it.
Overall, Among Mediums is an excellent introduction to scientific research into purported communications from "the other side," and one that should appeal to intelligent, open-minded readers, especially those with little prior exposure to this subject. And revenues generated by book sales will help fund the Windbridge Institute's research.
So … buy it already!