Robert M. Schoch, PhD -- is a scholar widely known for his geological theories that question the conventional dating of the Great Sphinx. His book The Parapsychology Revolution (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008) is one of the best research compilations on the market today for the field of parapsychology. It highlights some of the most seminal parapsychological research conducted over the past 100 years. Join us today for an interview with Dr. Robert Schoch.
Would you tell us a bit about your background and research interests?
Many people know of my work on the Great Sphinx, the Great Pyramid, and other ancient monuments, as discussed in various articles and my books Voices of the Rocks, Voyages of the Pyramid Builders, and Pyramid Quest (see my website, www.robertschoch.com). Traditional Egyptologists of the last half-century have generally dated the Great Sphinx to the reign of the pharaoh Khrafre (Chephren), circa 2500 B.C. Based on my geological analyses of the Great Sphinx, I have calculated that the oldest portions (it was subsequently repaired and the head re-carved) of the giant statue date back to at least 7000 to 5000 B.C. This revised dating for the Sphinx undercuts many widely held assumptions concerning the origins of civilization, and my research has engendered intense debate in some circles. The geology of ancient monuments is not my only interest, however. Recently I have been exploring the nature of human consciousness, particularly in the realm of what is sometimes referred to as the paranormal.
I view my interest in parapsychology as a logical extension of my work on ancient cultures, and furthermore I personally have a long history of interest in the paranormal. Let me elaborate. I am a traditionally trained scientist (Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale University, 1983) whose first inclination was to simply dismiss any reports of “mind-reading” and similar “nonsense.” I was long of the opinion that people can believe what they want to believe, and if they want to believe in “conjurer’s tricks” or imagine that they can know the private thoughts of others, well, that just shows the sad lack of scientific literacy in this present age.
However, in the back of my mind, I always felt a little gnawing feeling that maybe things are not quite so simple. Could there just possibly be a little, maybe only a very little, something to this paranormal stuff? Might, every once in a while, just occasionally, a thought or feeling make its way from one person to another without the use of any of the known senses? Could there be an occasional instance when something abnormal occurs, like a falling book, when no one is near it and no known forces act on it, which coincides with a strong “emotional discharge” from a person on the other side of the room? As a child, I was introduced to what are now referred to as paranormal phenomena by my late grandmother, who just happened to be a Theosophist. My grandmother was one of the most rational people I knew, but she was not one to belittle or ignore possible cases of the genuine paranormal. Maybe this was due to her Theosophical background, or perhaps she was attracted to Theosophy because of her interest in Eastern philosophies, the occult, and possible paranormal phenomena. I have never been a Theosophist myself. However, reading various Theosophical works still made me wonder if perhaps there was a core of something being touched on that transcends the typical materialistic view of the universe.
In college I studied anthropology as well as geology, and it seemed that in one “primitive,” “traditional,” or “indigenous” society after another supposed instances of the paranormal kept cropping up. A diviner here or a sorcerer there: Why are such beliefs so widespread if there is nothing to them? Why do they persist? If there is nothing to clairvoyance, why are clairvoyants found among different cultures around the world? Attending graduate school, I focused on traditional science and did not worry too much about the paranormal. Then in the 1990s I found myself applying my geological expertise to the study of ancient cultures, beginning with the Great Sphinx in Egypt and moving on to the study of pyramids and other megalithic structures around the world. Questions I had not given much thought to for years started to haunt me once I became involved in studying not just the stones, but why past civilizations had erected the stones into magnificent edifices. The why behind the monuments, more often than not, apparently included religious beliefs and practices, initiation rites and rituals, which in many cases seemed to have an ostensible paranormal aspect, whether it was clairvoyance, divination, or manifestations of higher levels of consciousness. The temples and tombs of ancient Egypt, Mexico, and Peru seemed to cry out “paranormal.” So, was it all a mixture of ancient myth, superstition, and downright fraud on the part of many a seer, priest, and priestess, or could there be something to it? Were the ancient structures used, at least in part, to alter consciousness, and possibly enhance paranormal phenomena? There was that nagging question again.
Logan Yonavjak, my co-author on The Parapsychology Revolution and a former student of mine at Boston University, prodded me even further along these lines. Logan not only served as my field assistant during research trips to Egypt and Peru in 2003 and 2005, but she also challenged me to look at the serious scientific literature addressing the paranormal. It was a result of our collaboration that gave rise to The Parapsychology Revolution.
Of the research conducted in the past 100 or more years, how did you decide upon the studies featured in The Parapsychology Revolution?
In the book we include selections from fourteen seminal papers, dating from 1886 through 2007 (some published for the first time in our book), by major figures in the field plus a hundred pages of our own commentary. The book is decidedly “pro-parapsychology,” but it did not start out that way. In all honesty, I have to admit that I have always been highly skeptical of any alleged paranormal phenomena. However, my concept of skepticism is not the same as dismissal, and in my studies of ancient and traditional cultures alleged paranormal phenomena kept making an appearance. Still, when I first began working on this anthology, I honestly doubted that much compelling evidence would be found to support the existence of genuine paranormal phenomena. Indeed, initially my conception was that the anthology would present “both sides of the coin” in equal amounts, namely evidence for and against the reality of paranormal phenomena, the pro- and the con-. However, in hindsight I was naïve, and the more I researched the paranormal, the more evidence I found to support it and all the “evidence” against it seemed to be simply skeptical dismissals without any real substance, or isolated cases of exposing fraud here and there. And the cases of fraud, more often than not, were exposed not by the debunkers but by serious parapsychologists. Exposing cases of fraud no more invalidates the entire field of parapsychology than exposing cases of bogus fossils (faked fossils, or fossils fraudulently placed in localities from which they did not originate) invalidates the entire field of paleontology. I should also point out that it has been calculated by independent observers that fraud is no more common in parapsychology than in most other scientific and academic disciplines. So, returning to the anthology that Logan Yonavjak and I compiled, it represents a sampling of the best work in parapsychology over the last century and a quarter, and yes, this work provides compelling evidence for the reality of paranormal phenomena.
Here I should point out that in The Parapsychology Revolution we discuss paranormal and psychical phenomena in a strict sense, including the concepts of ESP (extrasensory perception: telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) and psychokinesis (PK, or mind-over-matter, both on a micro- and macro- scale). Certain topics that are sometimes included in more general definitions of the paranormal and parapsychology, such as UFOs, aliens, Big Foot, and so forth, were not our concern in this book. Likewise, our primary focus did not include evidence bearing on survival beyond the grave (though we do briefly discuss evidence for reincarnation). The survival issue is highly controversial and the evidence typically used to support life after death is subject to many interpretations. We felt it was important to first establish what is possible in terms of paranormal phenomena while people are still alive. Perhaps the survival issue will be the subject of a future book on my part.
What do you believe is the most compelling evidence that we have to date for the existence of the paranormal?
I agree with the majority of people who have seriously studied the subject, namely that telepathy (mind-to-mind interaction) is the best-supported class of paranormal phenomena. There is strong laboratory evidence for telepathy, such as classic card-calling experiments as well as many more sophisticated tests for phenomena such as clairvoyance and remote viewing. There is also a large and compelling body of evidence from spontaneous cases (non-laboratory experiments) supporting the reality of telepathy. For instance, crisis apparitions, veridical hallucinations, or "ghosts" are well known, as documented in the classic two-volume scientific monograph of rigorously authenticated events produced by the Society for Psychical Research titled Phantasms of the Living. The evidence for PK (psychokinesis; mind moving or influencing matter directly) is also strong, including micro-PK studies at an atomic level using random event generators and similar devices, such as the evidence developed by the PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research) labs over more than a quarter of a century, and the carefully studied incidents of macro-PK (affecting larger objects) associated with genuine spontaneous poltergeist cases.
As a natural scientist, I expect genuine phenomena (be they psychical and paranormal phenomena, or more conventional phenomena) to exhibit patterns and share elements in common, and this is just what has been found in spontaneous cases of the paranormal. Even when viewed cross-culturally, such commonalities persist.
Perhaps even more compelling for me is the work of various modern researchers that has demonstrated a weak but persistent correlation between low levels of geomagnetic activity on planet Earth and cases of apparent spontaneous telepathy (based on records going back to the latter half of the nineteenth century). This, in my opinion, is a very strong argument supporting the contention that there is something genuine to the concept of telepathy. It suggests that spontaneous telepathic phenomena are real and natural and, as is expected of natural phenomena, their manifestation is influenced by other natural parameters. Alternatively, are we to hypothesize that hundreds of hoaxers over nearly a century and a half have conspired to fake telepathic incidents in identical correlation with geomagnetic activity? This latter hypothesis strikes me as rather far-fetched, if not downright ludicrous. It has also been found that incidents of the paranormal correlate with Local Sidereal Time (which relates to the position of the horizon at any particular point on Earth relative to the center of our galaxy).
I would like to note that a correlation between geomagnetic activity and spontaneous telepathy does not necessarily imply that the "telepathic signal" is magnetic or electrical in nature. The human brain is influenced by magnetic and electric fields, and whatever may be the carrier of the telepathic signal, the transmission, reception, and manifestation of the message by the brain could be hampered or enhanced by differences in the magnetic and electric fields that the brain is subjected to.
For many people a phenomenon is not "real" unless it can be duplicated in a laboratory setting under controlled conditions. Being a natural scientist and field geologist, I have never agreed with this contention. After all, can we create a genuine volcanic eruption in the laboratory or even on command in the field? Until about two centuries ago the scientific community routinely rejected the concept of rocks falling from the sky (meteorites). Still, attempting to induce, capture, observe, and experiment with apparent telepathy under controlled conditions is a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, however, to this day it is fraught with problems and though numerous experiments have tested positive for apparent telepathy, others have had negative results and replication is a persistent problem. The bottom line is that we really do not know exactly what parameters or variables make for good telepathic transfer (or the elicitation of other types of paranormal phenomena), much less how to control for them.
Is there any ongoing current research that is being conducted that you feel shows promise?
In my assessment, there is a wide range of ongoing research that shows much promise. One recent line of compelling evidence for the reality of paranormal phenomena is the study of presentiments or "pre-sponses," essentially a form of short-term precognition as measured by physiological parameters (heart rate, electrodermal activity, and so forth). This is a class of studies that could not be carried out before the development of the appropriate instrumentation. Numerous replicated experiments have demonstrated the physiological responses of individuals to disturbing photographs, for instance, a second or two before the photographs are actually viewed by the person. According to conventional science, this should not be possible.
Mainstream science still refuses to give any credence to parapsychology research. They claim that the effects are small and could be attributed to investigator bias. What is your opinion on this?
Since so much of laboratory research in parapsychology depends on apparently small or weak statistical deviations from chance, it has been easy for some critics to dismiss such deviations as essentially meaningless; perhaps they are not significant, or are due to such factors as poor experimental design, poor or inappropriate statistical analysis, or downright fraud. However, what the critics fail to acknowledge is that innumerable studies, from individual experiments to meta-analyses, clearly support the contention that there is something there. For instance, in the book we include a selection by Dr. Jessica Utts, a professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of California, Davis, who has long taken an interest in the use of statistics in parapsychology. Dr. Utts analyses collectively, from a statistical point of view, laboratory research carried out on psi phenomena over the decades. Her conclusion is that there is indeed an anomalous effect that remains even when taking other factors into account.
In my opinion, the offhand and unsubstantiated dismissal of the statistical significance of parapsychological results is due to what we might label an emotional aversion to parapsychology among many mainstream scientists. Indeed, parapsychology is held in such low repute by many academics (most of whom, I would point out, have no first-hand knowledge of the subject and are not aware of the serious research in parapsychology) that anyone showing an interest in the subject may find himself or herself ostracized and marginalized. As philosopher and parapsychologist Dr. Stephen E. Braude (professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) has written, “[I]t still amazes me that when I so much as raise the subject of parapsychology to my academic colleagues, I often find nothing but stiff body language, sarcasm, and (perhaps most surprising of all) sometimes even outrage [italics in the original]. Not exactly the way you’d expect truth-seekers to respond to serious and thoughtful empirical and philosophical investigation.” (p. xvi of Braude’s book The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations, The University of Chicago Press, 2007)
To this day the study of paranormal phenomena is not generally accepted as a legitimate academic endeavor, and those who do insist on taking such studies seriously are often “punished” in the sense that they are marginalized at their institutions, they may be passed over for promotion, they are ridiculed, and so on. Here I do not want to sound like “sour grapes,” but this is the reality that my colleagues in parapsychology and I recognize.
Why this active hostility to paranormal studies? For one, charlatans and fraud plague the field, and this has been the case since before the formal beginning of serious scientific studies of the paranormal over a century ago. Fraud is an extremely serious problem, and one reason it is important to undertake large statistical analyses, both of lab results and of field studies of spontaneous cases of possible paranormal phenomena, searching for regularities and patterns, as one would expect among any natural phenomena. Also, one of the strengths of certain non-human studies sometimes applied in parapsychology (for instance, studies of pets responding telepathically to their owners) is that it is less likely that animals will cheat and lie. It should also be noted that many "powerful mediums" who appear to have genuine paranormal abilities also apparently have low moral values and will cheat and commit fraud, perhaps unconsciously, at times, especially when their genuine paranormal powers fail. This is a pattern that has been noted over and over by parapsychologists working with human subjects.
Even after sorting out fraud so that we are dealing only with genuine instances of the paranormal, there are major issues that remain unresolved concerning paranormal and psychical phenomena. We don't fully understand what conditions are best to elicit paranormal phenomena and thus these phenomena are not easily replicated on command (such as in a laboratory setting). There is often a very low signal to noise ratio when it comes to psychical phenomena; and there is no single physical theory to account for paranormal phenomena.
I would also point out that, for some people at least, there seems to be a deep-seated fear that there might be some reality to paranormal phenomena. If even the most “minor” paranormal phenomena might be genuine, for some people this would apparently upset their entire worldview. Indeed, there are such strong feelings against the paranormal that claiming to have had a paranormal experience can actually be used against the person making the claim to diagnose that person as having a mental illness. For example, the fourth edition of the standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explicitly includes “belief in clairvoyance, telepathy, or ‘six sense’ ” as one of the diagnostic criteria for Schizotypal Personality Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 645). Perhaps it is no wonder that many people are hesitant to discuss paranormal experiences.
It is often suggested that the ultimate, definitive, easily and consistently replicated parapsychology experiment would turn the tide and convince the general scientific community of the reality of paranormal phenomena. However, until we fully understand the parameters involved in eliciting paranormal phenomena, such a convincing experiment may be a long way off. Another weak point of parapsychology is that there is no general agreement as to an explanation or comprehensive theory that would explain paranormal phenomena. Indeed, if we had such a theory, then attempting to develop experiments based on the theory’s predictions might test the theory. Numerous theories have been proposed to explain paranormal phenomena, including quantum mechanical theories, electromagnetic theories, decision augmentation theories, and so forth. However, when it comes right down to it, there is no single or compelling theory of the paranormal - - but that does not mean the paranormal does not exist or should be rejected; we simply do not understand it fully and we still do not know the underlying mechanisms that make it work. In analogy, "continental drift" was recognized, but then falsely rejected, before the driving mechanism of plate tectonics was hypothesized. Everyone "knew" that continents could not move.
For people who are very interested in the field and would like to further their studies, what would you recommend?
In The Parapsychology Revolution we list a number of great books that those interested in the subject can pursue, as well as organizations and websites devoted to parapsychology. Of course, the Parapsychology Information Portal (http://www.parapsych.info) is an excellent place to start. Other institutions and websites that I would suggest offhand are:
Rhine Research Center ( http://www.rhine.org/ ).
Koestler Parapsychology Unit in the Psychology Department at the University of Edinburgh (http://www.koestler-parapsychology.psy.ed.ac.uk/ ).
Society for Psychical Research (http://www.spr.ac.uk/expcms/index.php )
Parapsychology Foundation (http://www.parapsychology.org/ )
Certainly the above are just a beginning. There are an incredible number of great resources available to those interested in the serious study of parapsychology and the paranormal.
Have you had any personal experiences with the paranormal? Would you also describe why this area interests you?
I have personally experienced many situations that I believe involved telepathic transfer of information; sometimes I have apparently been the “sender” and other times the “receiver.” I will give an example. One Saturday a spider bit me. This particular spider had the appearance of a hairy little tarantula with large green “eyes” that I found very striking and beautiful. I was quite worried about the incident as my thumb hurt where I had been bitten, and I knew stories of people becoming extremely ill or even dying from spider bites. I did not know what kind of spider it was, and thus could not judge whether it was poisonous or not, so before letting it go (I do not believe in killing anything unnecessarily) I took photographs of the spider in order to later identify the species if need be. That night or early the next morning a friend of mine, thousands of miles away, dreamed or hallucinated (her description) of a tarantula-like spider, and also dreamed of a baby with “beautiful large green eyes.” Furthermore, I appeared in her dreams that night and the next day she felt a need to tell me about the spider, and so sent me an email about her dream (she does not write to me that often, and does not normally relate her dreams to me). Upon receiving her email, I told her about the spider incident and sent her photos of the actual critter. To this day I am convinced that my spider bite and her dream were not just a simple case of chance coincidence, especially since more than a spider was involved. Green eyes, which had caught my attention, were in her dream, plus so was I, to the point she felt compelled to tell me.
I believe that parapsychological studies are not only inherently interesting from numerous perspectives, but also absolutely critical to a full understanding of what it means to be human. The implications of paranormal mental phenomena, even if only a “little bit true,” are far reaching and worldview shifting.
One of the principle concerns of many religious leaders, ethicists, researchers, scientists, and ordinary human beings is the fundamental nature of the human personality and what determines our boundaries and our role in the natural world. It is topics such as these that are at the core of psychical studies. Parapsychology addresses primordial questions such as: Who am I? How do I fit into the world at large?
Would you introduce us to any of your upcoming work or books that you are in the midst of completing?
As detailed in The Parapsychology Revolution, there is growing recognition of, and solid scientific evidence for, anomalous mental capabilities and phenomena such as telepathy (direct mind-to-mind information transfer) and higher levels of consciousness. Furthermore, such phenomena show correlations with environmental factors, for example the geomagnetic field of Earth, Local Sidereal Time, and other subtle energies. As a geologist with a long history of exploring ancient monuments and sacred sites, I am very interested in apparent correlations between certain locations on Earth and heightened paranormal mental abilities. Such concepts go back thousands of years. Could they be due to geological anomalies that indeed have a genuine effect on human consciousness? Were ancient temples and ritual sites used to focus energies and enhance anomalous mental capabilities? These and related subjects are topics that I am currently exploring, and they may indeed find their way into my future books.