The veil is thin and once again the News Authorities are briefly letting in some discourse about spirits in the modern world for the next few weeks. There’s all kinds of spectral goodness in the mainstream outlets, discussing reasons why ghosts and goblins are still with us despite the overwhelming rationality that characterizes these Modern Times.
Why won’t the ghosts go away? I did a quick search for the keywords “ghosts” and “supernatural” in google news and this was revealed:
- We are wired for magical thinking
- We’ve been primed by the “supernaturalization” of Christianity and by the magic of smart phones
- We crave “the illusion of control”
- We seriously want to believe
- And in case you didn’t get it yet, believers are gullible and too confident for their own good.
Of course, what I haven’t seen this week in the news is that people believe in the supernatural because they have highly salient experiences with… ghosts and spirits. You can bet there are neurological associations to these experiences –like everything we experience–but the neurology does not discount the experience or its long term effects on our future beliefs.
In an essay in my scholarly anthology on lucid dreams, medical folklorist David Hufford points to an often-overlooked phenomena:
Reading scholarly accounts of belief in spirits and the nature of dreams, one would never guess that the beliefs being characterized as “primitive” are common among 21st century Americans–yet overwhelming data show that they are. For example a Harris Poll found that 84% of Americans believe in the survival of the soul after death, including 78% of those with postgraduate degrees, and 51% of the public believes in ghosts. Similar findings have been made repeatedly for decades. This is not surprising when one considers that the experience of visits of deceased loved ones to the bereaved (Often called “after-death contacts” [ADCs}) have been shown to be common, experienced by about one third of the general public (the rate is much higher among widows and widowers) and often very helpful in the grieving process (2014, volume 1, 263-254).
After-death contacts are not gullible mistakes in cognition, desperate clutchings for order in the face of random stimuli, or the result of an abracadabra digital lifestyle. Rather, they are salient, emotionally intelligent experiences that are correlated with good clinical outcomes. They are healing. This is why spirituality still matters: because contact with spirits—whatever they are—is energizing.
In my own essay in the lucid dreaming anthology, titled “Unearthing the Paleolithic mind in lucid dreams,” I suggest that acknowledging the full spectrum of our cognitive heritage means taking a good look at these extraordinary events, inside and out.
Lucid dreams, succubi encounters, alien abductions, out-of-body experiences and night visitations are all part of a weird complex of borderland states of consciousness that are not unravelled merely by noting that certain parts of the brain light up when various aspects of the experiences are simulated by other means.
The neurological work in the science of consciousness is fascinating: but sadly this thread of research is continuously used in mainstream media to explain the mysterious away.
Don’t be fooled by this bait-and-switch. No doubt some of the sociological and psychological “reductions” currently trending in the news have merit. But they are missing the big point. I concluded in my chapter:
In answer to Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, this is why we still live in a demon-haunted world and why God won’t go away: not because of irrational beliefs and a lack of Oxford education, but due, at least in part, to the continual presence of visionary states of consciousness in human lives (2014, volume 1, 306).
As Halloween approaches, I invite you to stay closer to your extraordinary experiences. Revel in the tension between your rational and emotional selves, eat up the ambiguity like candy corn, and let the mystery do its work.