PSYCHOLOGY AND THE PARANORMAL: Part I – From the OCPRS

Posted on June 11, 2014

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By: Demetrius (Co-Founder of the OCPRS)

The Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society has been very interested in the subject of Psychology for various reasons. Many of the paranormal subjects explored have had some element of Psychology, including some of the resource materials stemming from the Church. For this reason the OCPRS believes it is necessary to share some of the more important relationships between Psychology and the paranormal. In doing so, it is the hope of the OCPRS to help people recognize the options available to them. More importantly, the OCPRS hopes to help people define paranormal experiences through the traditions of the Church.

What should be stressed before exploring some of the more interesting relationships between Psychology and the paranormal is that the OCPRS is not offering therapy or any other mental health advice. The subjects which will be examined here have much more to do with choices leading people to a better sense of spiritual health through our Lord Jesus Christ. What will become apparent throughout this article is how to approach paranormal phenomena from a Christian perspective. In many ways, what will be discussed here has emerged from the OCPRS’s own growing experiences.

An Paranormal Paradox?
An awkward paradox emerged through one of the OCPRS’s protocols of investigation. As an important rule, when interviewing people who have provided their paranormal experience(s) it is necessary to ask whether the individual suffers from any mental health issues, usage of prescription or recreational drugs, etc. Here, a rational assumption is made that a paranormal experience could be owed to something psychological, or even physiological. To qualify a paranormal experience as a possibility, it was necessary to disqualify experiences having explainable causes. However, a strange stigma of “crazy” is often attached to any testimony concerning paranormal experiences. In other words, even when someone who is seemingly “sane” reports a paranormal experience, they – or others – question their sanity. This observation presented some important questions: Are all paranormal experiences owed to some form of mental disorder, psychological condition or explanation? Are only “sane” individuals capable of experiencing the paranormal?

Theses questions presented the OCPRS with a paradox. While it makes perfect sense to associate paranormal experiences to hallucinations, misinterpreted perceptions, etc., this assumption also suggests that only mentally healthy individuals can experience something truly paranormal. At the very least, the “sane” person isn’t disqualified from the possibility of experiencing paranormal phenomena. This paradox has presented itself throughout various investigations and some of the research conducted by the OCPRS.

In order to qualify a reported paranormal experience as worthy of further investigation, the OCPRS could not disregard the possibility that even people with mental disorders – or substance abusers – may be experiencing something. Although it makes sense to take into consideration that mental illness may be responsible, it doesn’t make sense that paranormal phenomena can only be experienced by “sane” people. The following case comes from the OCPRS files and serves as an example having psychological and paranormal considerations. Out of respect and confidentiality, the name of the person has been changed.

A man named Jack contacted the OCPRS, complaining about personal problems he believed were demonic. Meeting with Jack, the OCPRS learned that he was Bipolar. Although Jack was taking prescribed medication to help regulate his condition, he was also a recreational drug user and smoked marijuana (a depressant). He regularly saw his family doctor, as well as other doctors and therapists. The first impression was that Jack was a pleasant and friendly person, and was very articulate when he spoke.

Jack claimed he wasn’t religious, and did not belong to any particular Church. He preferred to regard himself as a spiritual person, open to various beliefs, which suited his personal needs. However, he claimed to speak with God. More often, he would hear God tell him how much He loved him. There were also demons who spoke to Jack. The demons manifested themselves as voices inside his head, and told him that he is worthless. Trying to explain why he believed the voices were demonic, Jack exhibited a great deal of anxiety. He said that the voices he heard sounded like the voices of his friends, family, and other people he knows. Jack believed the demons were using familiar voices to convince him of all the horrible things they told him. These demonic voices occurred frequently over long periods when he had trouble sleeping, whereby he became extremely upset and depressed. The last time he heard the voices was a few months prior to contacting the OCPRS.

Having only a vague familiarity with Bipolar disorder, the OCPRS set out to learn more. Everything Jack described seem to be easily explained by his condition, regardless of how he ascribed God and demons as responsible for the auditory hallucinations he was experiencing. The restless and sleepless periods accompanied by overwhelming sadness and depression were also symptoms of his condition. His use of recreational drugs – marijuana, which is a depressant – probably aggravated his depressive state of mind. At this point, the OCPRS thought it best to encourage Jack to stop using recreational drugs, and only use the medicine given to him by his doctor. It was also necessary to try and talk to Jack about the voices, and to convince him that maybe he should try to focus on God telling him how much he was loved. The Bipolar disorder could account for everything Jack was experiencing. Despite this fact, the OCPRS decided it was best to take one of Jack’s positive experiences and encourage him to focus on God, and ignore the demons. If he believed God loved him, this could help him see his self-worth.

During a second meeting with Jack, he seemed much the same as before. Unfortunately, the advice and recommendations given to him were not well received. Instead, Jack became upset. When asked what he believed the OCPRS could do for him, Jack explained that the demons wanted to hurt him; possibly possess him. Jack was aware that the OCPRS does not conduct exorcisms, but his expectations of the OCPRS had everything to do with a desire to obtain an exorcism. At this point, any form of rational discussion faded away. Jack began to use insults, accusing all Christians of being hypocrites and liars. It was during this burst of anger that Jack said something which Bipolar disorder could not account for.
Jack had knowledge of personal matters, which the OCPRS had not disclosed to him or anyone else, except to a priest during confession. The personal matter referred to here was a sinful and shameful act, and will not be described here in this article. When Jack was asked why he would say such horrible things, his answer became very disturbing – demons! He claimed that the demons had told him, and now he no longer desired help from a hypocrite and liar. Jack left and never contacted the OCPRS again. All attempts to contact him went unanswered.

Demonstrating knowledge of events he had no means of actually knowing, was very troubling. This could have qualified as one of the symptoms for Demonic Possession. Was this a possible case of possession? The details of Jack’s knowledge were not vague. Neither were they guesses. It was a detailed description of an event. There is no mental illness which could account for this aspect of Jack’s case. Regardless of the possibilities, the OCPRS failed to help Jack. The rational explanation pointed to the Bipolar disorder, but having demonstrated knowledge of an unknowable event in another person’s life was unexplainable. Having failed to recognize that even someone with a mental illness may possibly be afflicted by demonic molestations, the OCPRS needed to rethink its protocols of investigation if it were to truly benefit others.

Compelled to re-examine what is rational in terms of explaining the paranormal, the OCPRS needed to look further into Psychology. Various other problems presented themselves besides the paradox previously discussed. The term Psychology comes from the Greek words psyche (meaning, soul), and logia (meaning, to study). Yet, Psychology isn’t the study of the soul, but of the mind. This distinction is important in terms of recognizing how Psychology is best applied to paranormal experiences.
As a study of the mind, Psychology tries to understand how the mind works in terms of: perception, behaviour, development, etc. As a result of such diversity, Psychology consists of various disciplines, some of which examine paranormal experiences. Interestingly, two disciplines of Psychology exploring the paranormal do not lean towards mental illness as the most obvious explanation. These two disciplines are Parapsychology and Anomalistic Psychology.

Parapsychology examines paranormal experiences with an emphasis on psychic abilities typically referred to as Extrasensory Perception (ESP). The OCPRS was quick to recognize that Parapsychology examines paranormal experiences with various non-scientific ideas stemming from New Age and occult beliefs and philosophies. The Philip Experiment, which the OCPRS examined, is a prime example of this conclusion. Mainstream Psychology often rejects Parapsychology for these same reasons.

Like Parapsychology, Anomalistic Psychology examines paranormal experiences. However, Anomalistic Psychology approaches paranormal experiences in an entirely materialist view. In other words, Anomalistic Psychology does not recognize even the remote possibility that something paranormal occurs. Instead, the approach of Anomalistic Psychology is that any such experience thought to be paranormal is owed to a rational explanation: hallucinations, optical illusions, the power of suggestion, etc. Such explanations are not exclusive to Anomalistic Psychology, but are used to reinforce the preconceived conclusion that there is no such thing as paranormal phenomena.

Both Parapsychology and Anomalistic Psychology are completely subjective in their view of the paranormal. The first seeks to prove the existence of mental phenomena thought to be paranormal or produce paranormal experiences. The second seeks to explain all paranormal experiences as natural and explainable phenomena. Obviously these two disciplines seek to promote two very different world views. When compared to one another, the underlying objectives of these disciplines of Psychology are belief vs. disbelief.

Belief is not necessarily true or false, but simply serves as the motivation. The same can be said of disbelief. Interestingly, the motivations of belief and disbelief occurred during the exploration of the paranormal through psychical research societies of the late 19th and early 20th century. These motivations were later refined, and contributed to the development of Parapsychology and Anomalistic Psychology. The OCPRS was never interested in adopting the subjective perspectives of either discipline, but only to understand how Psychology could be applied to paranormal research. Indeed, the OCPRS’s own approach is subjective; a Christian perspective of the paranormal consisting of both belief and disbelief.
Turning all attentions onto the Church Fathers, the OCPRS recognized some of the earliest examples of paranormal exploration motivated by both belief and disbelief. St. Hippolytus (3rd century A.D.) is a good example. In Book IV of Refutation of all Heresies, there can be found many examples of what would be considered “paranormal” today. St. Hippolytus approached such phenomena with a Christian disposition along with a practical and rational mindset. Here is one example demonstrating how St. Hippolytus exposes a form of spirit communication as a confidence trick:

“But putting a skull on the ground, they make it speak in this manner. The skull itself is made out of a caul of an ox; and when fashioned into the requisite figure, by means of Etruscan wax and prepared gum […] it presents the appearance of a skull […] when having procured the windpipe of a crane or some such long-necked animal and attaching it covertly to the skull, the accomplice utters what he wishes.”

At the end of this trick, the skull seems to vanish or melt away after placing hot coals around it. This last detail not only makes the experience seem much more mystifying, but also destroys the evidence.

Despite the fact that St. Hippolytus was not a psychologist – Anomalistic or otherwise – this particular example brings attention to how people were lured through clever tricks, which exploited their senses and thinking. The examples found in the writings of St. Hippolytus consist of disbelief in those experiences regarded as demonic and fraudulent. Most certainly he believed in the Christian faith; of the saints and martyrs, of angels and demons, and of God. His disbelief was not entirely based on scepticism, but instead it was through his faith he was able to discern the miraculous from demonic and human deceit. This is the ideal the OCPRS hoped to achieve in its own pursuits.

Psychology uses the paranormal to establish world views apart from the Christian perspective. Regardless of any such intentions, this does not prevent Psychology or Christianity from finding common ground. In terms of how Psychology could be applied to the OCPRS’s own objectives; the soul – and not just the mind – is of the utmost importance.

The common ground between Psychology and the writings of the Church Fathers are not explicitly obvious. There are, however, problems that are both psychological and physiological, which both Psychology and the Church contend with. In other words, both Psychology and the teachings of the Church recognize a need to address the overall health of every person. What is significantly different between Psychology and the teachings of the Church is how each perceives humanity. In regards to Psychology, it should be stressed that the perceptions on the nature of humankind are not limited, but neither are they complete. In regards to the paranormal, how humanity is defined ultimately impacts what types of relationships exist.

According to most disciplines of Psychology, a person consists of mind and body. There are various philosophical arguments presenting the mind and body as a dichotomy – dualism – whereby the consciousness is considered to be separate from the body. A popular notion among paranormal enthusiasts is that this dichotomy of mind and body lends itself to the possibility of consciousness surviving beyond physical death. Other disciplines of Psychology associate the mind as a component of the body – monism – and consciousness ceases with bodily death. Although briefly mentioned here, these are two of the more popular arguments, but there are certainly other views. The mind and body are thought of as having a material relationship. In the simplest of terms, Psychology is the study of the mind. Humanity is defined according to how the mind itself is understood. Regardless of which view is adopted, the mind and body work together in terms of experiencing sensations. Sometimes the mind and body experience is termed Psychosomatic, and this concept is often used when examining mental health issues. In such cases, the mind and body may not only affect one another but may also find treatment though one another. What is emphasized through Psychology is that the mind and body are physical, and even the psychical component has a materialist context attached to it.

The teachings of the Church describe humanity in different terms. A human being is not simply mind and body. Neither is monism or dualism a defining feature of humanity. Instead, the fullness of a human being is: spirit, soul, and body. From 1 Thessalonians 5:23, the Apostle Paul identifies these characteristics:

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless…”

Here, the Apostle Paul identifies how humanity is defined. To be sanctified completely is to have spirit, soul, and body in balance with one another. The spirit, soul, and body are not three components, but are a reflection of the Trinity. The body is the image of God; not a duplicate, but a persons physical manifestation. The body is not simply a temporary vessel, but a complete part of how humanity is defined by the Creator. If the body were only a temporary vessel, there would be no need for a resurrection, but this is another topic entirely. The soul – or psyche – is where thoughts occur, and where the emotions, and senses of the body are experienced. The soul is not superior to the body, and requires the body. The spirit is above the intellect and faculties of the soul and body. There is a distinction between the spirit and the soul, which should be clarified here. The spirit and the soul are not interchangeable terms in all cases. What the spirit and soul represent are aspects of humanities spiritual nature. In the book of Hebrews 4:12, there is a reference made concerning the spirit and soul, and how they are not necessarily separate psychical components within humanities nature. Also, the spirit and soul are both identified as two aspects, divisible only by God.

“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit…”

Returning to the subject of the spirit, it is through the spirit a person can behold the presence and mysteries of God. However, in the present fallen condition of humanity, the spirit is in isolation from God. It is in this isolation whereby the soul and body are in conflict with each other through sin; or in the most severe cases of sin, the Passions. What is emphasized through the teachings of the Church is the concern for the spirit, soul, and body, and the attainment of a healthy relationship between these human traits. In turn, humanity is defined as both spiritual and physical.

The similarities between Psychology and the teachings of the Church do not simply reveal how humanity is defined, but reveal what requires attention. Obviously the motivations and objectives are different, but both can be beneficial to one another. Despite not having discussed how Psychology and the Church perspectives – in terms of defining humanity – relate to paranormal research, a further comparison will help to illuminate what is being stressed here.

There are many mental disorders adversely affecting the mind and body. Sometimes the mind affects the body, or the body affecting the mind; the Psychosomatic relationship. Psychology has helped to define these disorders. The severity of such disorders, like Bulimia, can often lead to dangerous consequences. Some of these disorders can be compared to sins known as the Passions; or what is better known as the Seven Deadly Sins.

Before the Passions – the Seven Deadly Sins – can be explored in connection to Psychology and the teachings of the Church, it becomes necessary to briefly explain what sin is. According to the Catechisms of the Catholic Church (#1849), “Sin is an offence against reason, truth, and right conscience […] It wounds the nature of man…” Sins can be recognized according to the severity they inflict on the soul; Venial and Mortal sins. Regarding the Passions – or Seven Deadly Sins – the following definition comes from Elder Ephraim’s Counsels from the Holy Mountain: “A passion is a spiritual disease that dominates that soul. When one repeatedly falls into a certain sin, it becomes second nature…” Likewise, the Catechisms of the Catholic Church (#1865) state, “Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts. This results in perverse inclinations which cloud the conscience and corrupt the concrete judgement of good and evil.”

The word, Passion, comes from the Latin word, Passionis, meaning, suffering. When taken into consideration with the previous descriptions of sin, the Passions can be viewed as infirmities of the soul. The Seven Deadly Sins, which are the vices and give proliferation to other sins, are: Pride (Superbia), Envy (Invidia), Lust (Luxuria), Anger (Ira), Gluttony (Gula), Greed (Avaritia), and Sloth (Acedia). All sins can develop into vices, and in their extreme severity become one or more of these Passions. The severity of disorders described through Psychology have many things in common with the Passions listed here. For the sake of brevity, both the Passions and Psychological disorders will be defined alongside each other.

In this first example, there is an overlapping relationship with various disorders having a Psychological relationship involved. Like the Passions, some disorders proliferate other conditions. For instance, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a condition when a person becomes obsessive in terms of their appearance, social status; obsessed with themselves. It can become disruptive in the individual’s personal life, at work, and may negatively affect those around them.
The Passion of Pride is the love of the self, often leading to a self-perception having little to do with reality. It can manifest as vanity, or a disregard for others whereby Pride instills the belief that other people are beneath them. When compared to NPD, it becomes obvious that Pride is very similar. In terms of how NPD or Pride can proliferate other disorders or sins, here is another example. One possible symptom of NPD may be a proneness to anger and hostility when criticized. The Passion of Pride may also proliferate other sins, like anger.

The Passion of Anger is an uncontrolled emotion, which may become persistent. This may lead to desires of resentment, or vengeance; wilfully inflicting hostility and suffering on others. Anger consumes reason and many Church Fathers have referred to it as a form of madness. Here, the proliferation of one disorder to another is a possibility. The same is true of the Passion of Pride leading to the Passion of Anger. In terms of how a disorder or sin originates, the problem may occur from within the person and grow from something minor to a more severe condition. Also, there is the possibility that the problem originates externally, introducing or contributing to the problem. Yet, how does all this relate to the paranormal paradox mentioned at the outset of the article? How is this relevant to paranormal research?

From the perspectives found within the Church, there already exists a “psychology” which can be applied as a methodology in paranormal research. Of course, this does not mean that Psychology is rejected in favour of the teachings of the Church. What this means is that the two can benefit and be enriched by examining various points of view. The paranormal paradox, of course, cannot be resolved through a synthesis of Psychology and the teachings of the Church. Instead, what the paradox helped to reveal is that Psychology is a possibility, and not necessarily the solution. In other words, although rational in its approaches, reason often encounters unreasonable circumstances. From where do these problems originate?
For now, the Psychological considerations will be set aside. The problems identified by the Church has much to do with Sin, and identifies what the Church believes is an illness of the soul. From where does illness begin? There is original sin, which has placed all of humanity in a fallen state. The fallen state opposes the natural condition intended for humanity. Having already discussed some of the categories of sin, it is important to understand how they occur in terms of internal and external influences. Due to the fallen state of humanity, sin most often emerges from within – through each person. From the Gospel of Mark 7:21-23,

“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”

Psychology would agree that any such anti-social behaviour can develop within a person. However, there are also external factors, which may proliferate the anti-social behaviour of the individual. Ultimately, nothing can compel a person to act a certain way unless they desire to act as they do so, for whatever reason. When the problem grows in severity, the activity begins to dominate the person’s mind, and free will deteriorates giving way to compulsion. Of course, this is a simplified generalization of how Psychology would assess such anti-social behaviours leading to disorders.

From the Epistle to the Ephesians 6:12, the Apostle Paul states: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against the spiritual wickedness in high places.” What the Apostle Paul is identifying here are external influences. This does not conflict with the teaching of Christ, who taught that sin comes from within a person. Sin may be born from the person, or influence a person externally, in the same way identified to Psychology. However, what the Apostle Paul is saying is that the soul – which is affected by sin – struggles against spiritual factors; against demons. To elaborate on this teaching, the following comes from Elder Ephraim’s, Counsels from the Holy Mountain:

“Satan shoots thoughts at us like arrows, but he cannot tell if our heart is receptive to them. But since he is an expert, once he shoots an arrow – that is, once he assaults us with an evil thought – he observes our face and all the movements of our body, and based on them, he gauges how well the arrow struck our heart. If he sees that the soul is hit, then he shoots more arrows there to kill it.”

The external influences working against the soul are not simply superstitions belonging to some Medieval theology, although much emphasis was placed on demonic illness during that period. Demonic possession serves as the most popular example, as a remnant of that era. It is true that during the Medieval era of the Church’s history, that sins were strongly associated to devils, such as in Bishop Peter of Binfeld’s (b. 1540 – d. 1603 A.D.) associating the Passions to various demons. Despite what Psychology has to say about such subjects, the Church recognizes the human being as having a soul, and not just a mind. The spirit, soul, and body define what a human being is, and therefore, sin may be encountered from within a person, or through external influences, including those that are spiritual. In regards to Demonic Possession and the Passions, Elder Ephraim raises an interesting aspect concerning how the person is affected by the Passions in comparison to Demonic Possession:

“The Fathers say: ‘It is not such a great thing for a demon to be cast out of a person. It is a far greater achievement to be able to cast out a demonic passion.’ A saint can cast out a demon, but to cast out a passion requires a personal struggle.”

From this example, there is a distinction between the Passions and Demonic Possession. The Passions are much more difficult, and are not manifested as a form of Demonic Possession. They are recognized as demonic influences. Such external influences are not superstition, and are very much a part of humanities spiritual struggles with itself, and against its adversary, Satan.

The concept of demons may sound strange for people living and experiencing all the advances of the 21st century. Indeed, there are many superstitions associated to demons. The OCPRS was guilty of this when it was contacted by Jack. The necessity of that situation required greater discernment than what was applied by the OCPRS. Having failed Jack due to a lack of the appropriate discernment, which his attentions called for, the OCPRS not only needed to examine Psychology, but needed to re-examine and learn more from the teachings of the Church.

Interest in paranormal phenomena is dangerous for many reasons, but most people have rushed into paranormal research without considering the consequence to themselves or others. However, paranormal enthusiasts are reacting to a desire for something spiritual in most cases. They are simply misguided by popular culture. Paranormal phenomena has also attracted the attentions of various belief systems, philosophies, and sciences, etc. There are many interpretations, explanations, and theories attempting to describe the unexplainable circumstances of human reality. Perhaps the appeal of paranormal phenomena is that it provokes the profound question concerning the nature of humanity. Curious about itself, humanity also questions what is it that people are experiencing, and why? The paranormal can influence emotions, and sometimes disturbs those emotions. It can gratify the carnal minded, often leading to wrong thinking, and wrong doing. The OCPRS believes that only the extremely naive or the foolish desire to experience spirituality through the paranormal. In Part II the OCPRS will share some useful terms and applications of Psychology in the field of paranormal research and investigations.

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