The young man on the phone seemed distraught. He had left one residence where he had experienced paranormal phenomenon only to move to another residence where he began to experience strange phenomenon. “Why did these things always seem to happen to him?” he asked. I wasn’t sure he’d like the answer. But if you, like me, have ever wondered whether there was a type of person that seemed more prone to believing in and/or experiencing paranormal phenomenon, the answer according to a recent study appears to be yes.
“Transliminality, Paranormal Belief and Paranormal Experiences at a Reportedly Haunted Location” is the summation of a year-long study conducted and published by Dave Schumacher, Director of Anomalous Research for the Paranormal Research Group. Schumacher notes that his study supports the increasing body of evidence that people who report experiencing paranormal phenomenon tend to be transliminal personalities.
Transliminality was a term coined by the late Dr. Michael Thalbourne, Parapsychology Professor, University of Adelaide. The term was first used in Thalbourne and Delin’s 1994 paper where the researchers described a personality type that appeared more in tune with both external stimuli and their own internal subconscious (see also the article Transliminality, August 2010).
This type of personality was able to pick up environmental cues more easily, and was also able to move information more easily from their unconscious to their conscious minds. In other words, a transliminal personality would be able to pick up on things in the environment that others wouldn’t perceive. Certainly we all pick up environmental details all the time, thousands of tidbits of information such as the sound of the train going by, or the wafting smell of popcorn from the kitchen, or the influx of heat once the furnace kicks on. The transliminal personality might also note the scratch of a skateboard out on the sidewalk and the spider in the corner.
A study conducted at Goldsmith College, London, found that those who scored high on the transliminality scale were able to perceive flashed subliminal messages far more frequently, than those who scored low. (An interesting aside, high transliminals did not score significantly higher on ESP scores, than their low transliminal counterparts.)
As pointed out earlier, someone who scored high on a transliminality scale would likely pick up on subtler environmental clues than those who scored low and they would be able to move that information more easily from the unconscious to the conscious part of their brain. Thalbourne noted that these people had, “an openness or receptiveness to impulses and experiences whose sources are in preconscious (or unconscious) processes (Thalbourne, 1991).”
In a 2007 interview, Thalbourne went even further, noting that high-transliminals had a “hyper-sensitivity [my emphasis] to psychological material coming from the unconscious…and stimulation from the external environment (Williams, 2007).” These two traits led to a set of personality characteristics that are very specific to the highly transliminal, including creativity, a belief in magical ideation, a tendency toward eastern philosophies, new age ideas and a belief in the paranormal and assertions that they have personally experienced something paranormal.
Houran and Thalbourne suggested that highly transliminal people may be characterized by a hyper-connectedness of the temporal-limbic structures with the sensory association cortices of the brain. Lying deep within the lobes of the cerebral hemispheres, the C-shaped limbic structures are the older and more primitive structures of the brain associated with more visceral emotions, memory and motivation. Specifically, the amygdala attaches emotional significance to sensory input. Also, olfactory input is processed in the limbic system, which explains why certain smells elicit an immediate emotional response.
Therefore, a person scoring high on a transliminal scale would not only be extremely sensitive to sensory stimuli in the environment, but would also be more likely to attach emotional or symbolic significance to the stimuli. Schumacher notes that, “the limbic system has been postulated to be the source of material for apparitional and visionary experiences (Schumacher, 2011; Houran & Thalbourne, 2001lb; Thalbourne et al., 1997).” This would explain why those scoring high on a transliminal scale would be more likely to believe they experienced something paranormal.
Podmore and Tyrell; Theories as to how one Perceives Ghosts
Schumacher notes that the theory of transliminality may also help explain older hypotheses of how people perceive hauntings. The Society of Psychical Research member and author, Frank Podmore, speculated that apparitions were the result of a telepathically received hallucination. G.N.M. Tyrell, psychologist, paranormal researcher and author, elaborated on Podmore’s theory, suggesting an “idea-pattern model” The “idea” is created by the ‘agent’ and sent telepathically to the percipient. The information is perceived first in the subconscious or unconscious mind, where it undergoes processing, becoming an apparitional ‘drama.’
Tyrell suggested a mid-level of consciousness that did the processing, and that was “responsible for elaborating on the basic telepathic message. This would eventually lead to the construction of an appropriate visual image to convey the message. This is the point when the material moves from the subliminal/subconscious to conscious awareness (Schumacher, 2011, Tyrell, 1953).”
The year-long study conducted by the Paranormal Research Group basically primed, taught and studied groups of volunteers in paranormal research. Small groups of volunteers signed up. They were then indoctrinated in the basics of paranormal research via a classroom session. Afterwards they were set loose to investigate a purportedly haunted location with the only caveat being that they had to submit to a battery of three tests later in the evening. Being thus primed, it’s not surprising that the majority of participants reported having had paranormal experiences. Again, the experiment was designed to test the theory that people who scored higher on a transliminal scale would report more paranormal experiences than those subjects that tested low on the scale, when both groups investigated a site that was purportedly haunted.
The PRG team gave the groups a battery of survey tests that measured for slightly different belief subsets. The first was the Rash-Revised Transliminality Scale (RRTS). The original Thalbourne survey was a survey of 29 true/false questions. Many of the questions have been eliminated due to age and/or gender bias. Thus the Rash-Revised scale is a 17 question survey with the more “yes” responses indicating a higher transliminal personality.
The group also administered The New Age Philosophy (NAP) and the Traditional Paranormal Belief (TPB) Subscales of the Revised Paranormal Belief Scale (RPBS). The Paranormal Belief Scale was designed so that separate scores could be categorized into different categories of paranormal belief, which included: traditional paranormal belief, Psi, precognition, witchcraft, superstition, spiritualism and extraordinary life forms.
The final survey was an EXIT Questionnaire which consisted of 20 items which measured whether specific anomalous sensations had occurred to the participants during their investigations. The responders were allowed a three point scale from which to answer which included a 0=Never, 1=occasionally, 2=frequently. These were tallied for an overall score.
What is not remarkable is the fact that people primed to believe they were investigating a property reported to have paranormal activity actually experienced paranormal activity. What is interesting in noting is that the types of experiences were differentiated into two groups.
The experiences were roughly broken down into physical phenomenon and psychological impressions. The physical phenomenon includes measurable phenomenon such as temperature changes, auditory experiences, physical manifestations, olfactory experiences and objective events in the environment (Persinger and Cameron, 1986, Houran et. al. 2002 ).
Among phenomenon under the psychological category are feelings of being watched or sensed presences, physical sensations, emotional responses, visual apparitions and related visual imagery. Psychological experiences might be viewed as more subjective and less measurable.
Undoubtedly the two categories include much grey area. Schumacher notes that many of the phenomenon could be listed in both categories, but that the differentiation depends on whether there was an environmental cue for the experience or whether it correlated instead with “perceptual-personality variables (Schumacher, 2012).” Is a smell, for example a psychological experience or a physical experience? This may depend on whether more than one person experiences the smell and whether there were verifiable environmental cues, i.e. smells. For example if several people report smelling a strong perfume and someone present is wearing a strong perfume then smell would be categorized as a physical experience. If only one person reported the smell of strong perfume while no one present was wearing such and no one else present smelled perfume, then the phenomenon would be listed in the psychological category instead.
What the PRG noted during the year-long study was that those who scored high on a transliminal scale, while conducting paranormal investigations tended to report many more experiences in the second category, i.e. feelings and impressions of entities, and far fewer in the first category of measurable phenomenon. The study did not correlate the experiences with evidence collected via recording devices. Overall, those scoring higher on the transliminal scale did report more experiences after an evening's investigation, thus supporting PRG's premise that they would. Schumacher concludes, "Despite the limitations of this study, it does add to the overall evidence that transliminality and belief play a role in paranormal experiences at a reportedly 'haunted location (Schumacher).'"
Hesselink, J.R. MD, FACR. The Temporal Lobe & Limbic System. Retrieved November, 3, 2012 from http://spinwarp.ucsd.edu/neuroweb/Text/br-800epi.htm
Houran et al. (2002). European Journal of Parapsychology. 17. 17-44.
Persinger, Cameron (1986. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. 80, 49-73.
Schumacher, D. (2011) “Transliminality, Paranormal Belief and Paranormal Experiences at a Reportedly Haunted Location.” Paranormal Research Group, Red Lion, Pennsylvania www.paranormal researchgroup.com.
Strom-Mackey, R. (2010) “Transliminality.” The Shore. Delawareparanormal.blogspot.com. Delaware Paranormal Research Group.
Thalbourne, M.A., Delin P.S. (1994) A Common Thread Underlying Belief in the Paranormal, Creative Personality, Mystical Experience and Psychopathology. Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 58, March 1994.
Thalbourne, M.A., Delin, P.S. (1999) Transliminality: Its Relation to Dream Life, Religiosity, and Mystical Experience. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 9-1 (pp.45-61)
Thalbourne, M.A. Interview with Robyn Williams. ABC.Science.com; Radio National. June 4, 2006. www.abc.net.au/rn/science/incon/stories/s1607944.html Retrieved August 12, 2010.