WHY A POLTERGEIST WON’T HURT YOU

July 28th, 2011

a ‘network hypothesis’ for psi phenomena

One of the most striking and puzzling features of well-documented poltergeist cases concerns the trajectories of apparent polt-moved objects.  Typically these objects travel not as if thrown but as if carried by someone, albeit at inhumanly high speed.  Typically they are aimed at people too, and yet they almost never end up doing significant physical harm.

For those who are not well acquainted with the lore, I provide some snippets from Herbert Thurston’s Ghosts and Poltergeists (first published in a journal in the 1920s, and in book form in 1953):

[quoting Sir William Barrett, FRS, of the Society for Psychical Research:] The movement of objects is usually quite unlike that due to gravitation or other attraction.  They slide about, rise in the air, move in eccentric paths, sometimes in a leisurely manner, often turn around in their career, and usually descend quietly without hurting the observers. [p. 2, my italics]

Dr. Schuppart [a respected professor of theology, in the late 1800s] … declares that every pane in his study window was repeatedly smashed, stones from six to ten pounds in weight were aimed at him but seemed designedly to miss him by a hair’s breadth, his wife was struck with blows which resounded all through the house but which nevertheless inflicted relatively little pain. [ p. 17, my italics]

[quoting from a report of a case in Bristol in 1761-62:]  In spite of the vexations to which the children were subjected, a certain consideration, as has often been noticed in other poltergeist manifestations, was shown by the spook to prevent their sustaining serious injury to health. [p 25, my italics]

[from a case reported by an Austrian physics teacher in 1818:] A good deal of damage resulted, but it was noticed with some surprise that no one present was seriously hurt, even when struck by a big “stone” which seemed to be deliberately aimed and to be traveling with great velocity.  Many of the moving objects upon contact with a living person or with a resisting surface fell dead as if a hand had arrested them in their flight. [ p 30, my italics]

What explains this?

The basic model that has come down from Thurston, SPR guys like Barrett, and more recently William Roll, is that a poltergeist manifestation is initiated and mediated by a person – sometimes called a ‘medium’ – in the vicinity.  Unconsciously the medium ‘throws’ PK and ESP phenomena, as a ventriloquist ‘throws’ his voice; and typically the medium is a young child, an adolescent, a youngish servant, or some other youthful, stressed person who [see Note 1] uses the polt displays to ‘act out’ dramatically and deniably.  Roll has suggested that in some cases the polt display could be due to an epileptic or Tourette’s-like seizure condition that hyperactivates the PK-mediating part of the brain; but to me polt displays seem more purposeful and controlled than a seizure phenomenon could be, and of course the seizure theory doesn’t explain polts’ weird non-lethality.

Is this non-lethality due simply to the absence of malice in the youthful medium?  I find that hard to believe.  Even if they have no intention to cause harm, young people routinely do foolish, impulsive things that bring about serious injuries (or death) to other people.  How do they manage to avoid that during polt displays, especially when the trajectories and impacts of polt-moved objects often seem designed to look and sound lethal?

The network hypothesis

I haven’t read all the polt lore and the theories, and so I apologize if someone else has come up with this idea before.  Anyhow, it occurs to me that the polt’s refusal to cause serious harm to witnesses in these cases may be — in addition to the fact that its intention is only to frighten — an act of self-preservation.  That would be the case not only when the chief medium is spared but also when additional witnesses are spared.  In other words, although there may be a chief medium of the polt displays, further witnesses are recruited into the phenomenon too – invisibly and unconsciously in a psycho-psi realm that science has hardly touched – and they participate to some extent, even if they usually cannot initiate or fully control the displays.

According to this idea, the heavy rock aimed by a polt at a witness’s head and moved at high speed stops a millimeter from his scalp and falls to the floor harmlessly, in part because the witness  (maybe with the ‘help’ of other friendly witnesses) unconsciously stopped it.

I can only speculate wildly at this point about the mechanics of such an interaction among unaware brains.  Perhaps the active psi-mediating brain areas would be like nodes making up their own local network, and the polt would be an emergent property of this network. [See note 2]

A more unsettling possibility is that the participants in some cases would also be joining a non-local network, an ancient Spooknet, with little or no firewall so to speak.  But the Spooknet, demon-polt hypothesis seems to me to resemble Exorcist-style or Lovecraftian fiction more than real polt cases, and of course it fails to explain the benign-trajectory conundrum (unless there is some kind of don’t-kill-humans law that governs the denizens of Spooknet!).

In any case, a general network hypothesis could help explain a lot of other curious paranormal phenomena, such as the apparent ability of some polts (or ‘possessing spirits’) to speak or write with an amazing range of knowledge, including secrets about members of their audience, but with some curious limitations which suggest that these communicative entities do not have perfect ESP for declarative knowledge or for skills such as languages, music, etc.  According to this network hypothesis, these entities are acting mainly via telepathy in the local network that is made up of their audience, i.e., using the limited knowledge and skills in the available brains.  The larger the audience, the greater the apparent range of their knowledge and skills.

This theory could also account for the seemingly greater likelihood of weird stuff happening when more than one of the right kind of person is brought together – in UFO-related close-encounter waves, abductee/contactee scenarios, hypnotist-hypnotee relationships, spoonbending parties, spirit-possession cults, religious contexts (e.g., the Pentecost), Ouija board sessions, seances, and the reported ‘telepathic overlay’ phenomenon in remote viewing.

It also might explain this rather spooky sentence in the Bible, attributed to Jesus Christ:

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.  [Matthew 18: 20]

Of course, the idea that telepathy can occur spontaneously among two or more people isn’t new at all.  And even Thurston nearly a century ago seems to have allowed in at least one case – without further explanation, unfortunately – the possibility that two siblings were involved in generating a polt.

The mediumistic power seemed to center in the boy Harry aged 12, but also in his sister Anna, who was four years older.  [p 12]

In general, though, I think that we in the modern West, with our individualist, reductionist culture, prefer to break behavioral phenomena down to the single-brain level – so that even if we acknowledge that polt and other paranormal displays can be group phenomena, we don’t give this possibility nearly enough emphasis or really think through its implications.

Again, this is a very speculative hypothesis, but it could be used to guide experiments and observations in polt and other paranormal cases.  I’ll make some suggestions along those lines in an upcoming post.


Note 1. We normally think of a person in terms of his or her aggregate mental ‘agency’, i.e., all the conscious and non-conscious drives and/or selves.  However, in the case of poltergeists — and presumably for spirit possession, fugues, hypnotic and MPD-type phenomena, ‘voices’ in schizophrenia and so forth — we seem to be dealing mainly (or exclusively) with the agencies that are not accessible to ordinary awareness,  the ‘inner demons’ as it were.  Thus, when I refer to a person who is putatively involved in mediating poltergeist phenomena, I don’t mean that this person is aware of his or her involvement.

Note 2. For some reason this reminds me of so-called quasiparticles from condensed-matter physics, which are emergent properties of macro material (e.g., ultracold superconducting metal), exist only virtually, and yet respond to their environment as if they are real.

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