Understanding the Experiences and
Brain Processes of Spirit Mediums
‘Understanding the Experiences and Brain Processes of Spirit Mediums’ is an interdisciplinary project funded by King’s Together. Members of the group span King’s College London - Dr Quinton Deeley, Professor Mitul Mehta, Professor Emmanuelle Peters, Professor Hugh Bowden, Dr Jianan Bao, and Emily Currell; Stanford University - Professor Tanya Luhrmann; Inform – Dr Sarah Harvey and Dr Suzanne Newcombe; and University College London – Dr Vaughan Bell.
Mental health professionals frequently encounter people who report experiences of God or supernatural beings speaking or acting through them. More broadly, revelatory experiences are central to religions through figures such as oracles, prophets, visionaries, and shamans. These experiences, whether interpreted as revelation or illness, include alterations in the sense of control and ownership of sensory imagery (such as hearing the voice of God); and speech or movement (such as divinely inspired speech or writing). However, at present the relationships between altered experience of selfhood and agency in these two fundamental aspects of human life – religious experience and psychopathology – are not well understood. This interdisciplinary research proposal combines disciplines– classics, social anthropology, sociology of religion, psychology, psychiatry, and experimental neuroscience – to address this major challenge. Our key aim is to improve understanding of what underlies these alterations of selfhood and agency, and what distinguishes culturally valued experience from psychopathology across different cultures and periods of history. The research investigates how in religious contexts experiences of interaction with supernatural agents are influenced by cultural assumptions, beliefs and expectancies. The current research focuses on Spiritualist mediums in the UK, who have experiences of interacting with spirits of the deceased to pass on messages to the living.
The first stage of the project involved visits to Spiritualist churches and interviews with practitioners. Emerging from this was an exploration of the concept of “energy” in Spiritualist experience and practice, and a detailed characterisation of the phenomenological characteristics of mediumistic experiences.
The second stage of the project involves developing ecologically valid experimental neuroscience methods to measure brain activity in cultural practitioners during altered self-experience.
The Virtual Reality Oracle
Dr Deeley and Elisa Brann are part of the 'Virtual Reality Oracle' (VRO) project (http://www.vroracle.co.uk) an AHRC funded interdisciplinary project which combines cognitive neuroscience, ancient history, human-computer interaction, and psychology to create a virtual reality experience of the ancient Greek oracle at Dodona in NW Greece. An oracle was a site where ancient Greeks asked the gods to answer questions about the past, present and future. Divinatory practices of this kind are widespread and undertaken to guide action and reduce anxiety under conditions of salient uncertainty. This project embeds participants in a realistic simulation of ancient divination. This provides an opportunity to combine qualitative and neuroscience methods to investigate what in social anthropology is termed ‘the efficacy of ritual’ (Turner 1983; Whitehouse 2001) – how ritual practices produce experiential, cognitive, and neurobiological effects in participants.