by Michael E. Tymn |
"Not only do I believe that scientific and scholarly approaches may
help us to understand psychic phenomena more deeply, but I see the
discipline as a unique strand of humankind’s efforts to understand
So writes Dr. Carlos S. Alvarado, assistant professor of research in psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Alvarado, who grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, received his BA in psychology from the University of Puerto Rico, an MSc in parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University in California, an MA in history from Duke University, and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Edinburgh.
He is the author of Getting Started in Parapsychology (2002), which he is currently updating. With his wife, Nancy L. Zingrone, he has been presenting continuing education seminars for psychologists in Puerto Rico about parapsychological topics. Also with his wife, he is currently analyzing the results of surveys involving depersonalization and dream experiences, and he is writing a variety of papers about OBEs and NDEs, funded by a grant from the Society for Psychical Research. One of those papers will be the basis for the keynote address at the Academy’s conference.
I recently put some question to him by e-mail.
Dr. Alvarado, what motivated you to become a parapsychologist?
“When I was around 17, I developed an interest in psychic phenomena and related topics. It is an interest I cannot explain. I read about yoga, witchcraft and many other topics. In my readings I encountered the field of parapsychology and was immediately attracted to the scientific study of psychic phenomena. I started my study of parapsychology’s literature around 1972. I remember reading various journals from cover to cover and books by authors such as Robert Amadou, Hereward Carrington, Frederic W.H. Myers, J.G. Pratt, J.B. Rhine, Louisa E. Rhine, René Sudre, and many others. Somewhat later, I started reading the old literature and was forever fascinated by the historical aspects of the field. At the time I was living in Puerto Rico and every time I visited New York City, I took the opportunity to buy old books.
“I wanted to be a parapsychologist. But due to practical considerations, such as the lack of employment and formal educational programs on the subject, I opted for the study of psychology instead.”
Do you have any regrets about entering the field?
“I do not have regrets. However, it has been difficult to obtain employment due to my work in parapsychology. This was particularly true when I went back to Puerto Rico around 1997. For example, a friend of the family who took my CV to a person she knew in one of the administration offices of a private university reported back saying that this person handed the CV back to her with disdain for my parapsychological interests. There were other problems, including successful attempts to curtail my teaching of parapsychology in a local institution through various means such as telling students my courses were not going to be offered that particular semester when this was not true.
“While these problems made life difficult, particularly financially, I am aware that others have had far worse experiences. Life has been made easier due to my marriage to Nancy L. Zingrone, who also works in parapsychology and collaborates with me in research and other projects. And the work is fascinating to me. In addition, the phenomena of the field have implications about human nature that are of great importance.”
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
“I do not think I would refer to ‘highlights,’ but instead to things that were important to me professionally. Two examples were my association with persons that are no longer alive. Between 1982 and 1986 I worked for Dr. Ian Stevenson as a research assistant at the University of Virginia. I learned much from Dr. Stevenson, both from his work and from him as a person. My period at the University of Edinburgh pursuing a Ph.D. with Robert L. Morris was also important to me. Dr. Morris’ positive and supportive attitude towards students was inspirational and something to emulate. Both of these events provided useful professional and personal development in ways I cannot start to describe in this short interview.”
What are your main areas of interest in parapsychology?
“I am very interested in providing historical perspective to workers in parapsychology. This involves the publication of papers that remind current researchers that specific ideas and research are not new but have a history, and that knowledge of this literature can give you perspective and ideas for further research. Furthermore, this literature is sometimes essential for evidential and theoretical concerns. I discussed this in a paper I published in 1982 in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research entitled “Historical Perspective in Parapsychology: Some Practical Considerations.” With this purpose in mind, I have published many papers summarizing aspects of the old literature about such varied topics as out-of-body experiences, displacement in ESP, ESP and altered states of consciousness, parapsychological terminology, Ernesto Bozzano’s ideas about bilocation, the concept of human radiations, SPR dissociation work, and mental mediumship and memory. The latter paper was published in 1980 in the Journal of the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research.
“I am also interested in more general historical issues beyond the practical use of the old literature for the interests of parapsychologists. There is much to learn from the past about the various factors that have affected the development of the field, as well as about particular ideas and methodologies without focusing on the reality of the phenomena. I have written papers along these lines about the influence of Eusapia Palladino on the development of ideas in psychical research, and the more general influence of mediumship in the development of concepts about the subconscious mind and dissociation.”
When did you become interested in OBEs?
“I published my first paper on the topic when I was 21 years old. This was a review of experimental studies that appeared in the Spanish journal Psi Comunicación in 1976. Since then I have conducted research on the subject, first for my MS degree and later for my Ph.D. degree. This research – most of which I have conducted with my wife Nancy – has centered on questionnaire studies about the psychology of the person who has had OBEs, and about the features of the OBE, or characteristics such as floating over the physical body, seeing the physical body, and traveling to a distant location. The field of OBE research is very underdeveloped and much needs to be done. I have had the opportunity to study aspects of the experience that no one has focused on in modern times. This includes attempts to replicate the OBE feature patterns reported both by Sylvan Muldoon and Robert Crookall.”
So much of modern parapsychology beats around the bush on the issue of the survival of consciousness after death, focusing more on the existence of ESP of one kind or another and seemingly pretending that it is unrelated to the survival issue or ignoring it. Where do you stand on the survival issue?
“For many workers in the field, survival research is not a main interest. To some extent this is academics as usual. People specialize in some areas and develop interests due to personality traits, life experiences, training, and employment opportunities, and parapsychology is no exception. Then there are concerns such as getting tenure and the belief that the area has many methodological difficulties. However, I believe that in some cases there is more than this. In some circles it is more “respectable” to conduct ESP experiments than working with survival-related phenomena such as apparitions or mediumship. I still remember how the director of a parapsychology unit within an university, wanting to keep a conservative image, discouraged students from pursuing topics such as apparitions for dissertation research.
“While I have my doubts about some of the evidence, overall I think there is enough to take the idea of survival seriously. For example, the best of the mediumship literature (particularly studies with Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard) is impressive to me.
“I agree with Ian Stevenson when, after discussing alternate explanations, he wrote: ‘I can say that I think reincarnation is, for some cases, the best interpretation. I am not claiming that it is the only possible interpretation for these cases, just that it seems the best one among all those that I have mentioned.’
“Something similar may be said about some cases of mediumship and apparitions, but we need to be careful about dogmatic opinions. I am continuously surprised about how sure many individuals are about many obscure issues relevant to survival to the point of preaching. For example, some assure us that consciousness needs a subtle body to communicate, while others are equally convinced that such view is nonsensical because consciousness has no need of such mechanisms to manifest. But not all of us can see the logic behind such convictions and in fact it seems that some presume to know too much without actual evidence, or without recognizing the ambiguity of some of the evidence. Similarly, others talk about nonphysicality or nonlocality as if they really knew the nature of the problem. While such ideas need to be discussed, and actually make sense in some instances, we need to realize that we know almost nothing about these constructs.”
What other areas of parapsychology do you feel have been neglected?
“One of them is the importance of spontaneous cases, which I discussed in my 1995 presidential address to the Parapsychological Association entitled ‘The Place of Spontaneous Cases in Parapsychology.’ Unfortunately parapsychology as a scientific discipline has neglected studies that are not conducted in the laboratory. My address was a critique of this situation from different points of view. I have made this point repeatedly in other papers.
“Another topic that has been neglected is luminous phenomena. In 1987 I published a paper listing and analyzing features of luminous manifestations seen close to the body of mediums, dying persons, mystics and saints, and others. In my paper “Neglected Near-death Phenomena,” published in 2006 in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, I made a call, with specific suggestions for research, to consider phenomena such as physical events (clock stopping, falling pictures), and observations of ‘emanations’ from the body of dying persons. Regarding other neglected phenomena, I have conducted statistical studies of haunting apparitions and auras.
“Most of my efforts in the last years have been the education of the general public through Web materials. Through my association with the Parapsychology Foundation, I have prepared several online materials that anyone can access. This includes over 40 short bibliographies on different topics.”
It often seems to me that parapsychology is trying to reinvent the wheel and ends up with a square wheel. How do you see this?
“I still recall a conversation with someone that argued that he did not see the point in conducting more parapsychological research because we had already established the existence of the phenomena and its spiritual nature. But even granting these points for the sake or argument, such a view does not satisfy the scientific mind. There are still many questions that are unanswered. Just as saying that suggestion ‘explains’ hypnosis, which is no explanation at all, we should not presume that evoking the nonlocal or spiritual aspect of humankind is really an explanation, or at least the end of the argument. If, as argued by William James and others, the mind is an independent agent that uses the nervous system to communicate, but is not generated by that system, even if its expression may be hindered or modified by it, there is much to investigate and to be learned about the presumed psychophysical interaction between these orders of reality.
“The point of science is not just to assert that something exists, but to understand its functioning. In addition, we do not understand the nature of parapsychological individual differences. Why are some people more open to psychic experiences than others? Why do some mediums receive information via possession, while others perceive images or words dictated to them? We are still at the beginning of our explorations.”
What historical cases have impressed you the most?
“There are many old cases that I find impressive. Regarding mental mediumship, I can mention Leonora E. Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard. The case of Eusapia Palladino, even accepting the obvious evidence for fraud, is impressive in many respects.
“Many of the reports include much more than evidential information. This was the case of the features of ESP presented by Stephan Ossowiecki. Other examples are the 1892 and 1898 reports of Mrs. Piper authored by Richard Hodgson that have much information about trances and spirit controls.”
If you could go back in time and meet one of the early researchers, who would it be?
“The history of psychical research presents us with so many fascinating individuals that I find it very hard to focus only on one. One of them has to be Frederic W.H. Myers, who was a brilliant individual. The way he brought together many aspects of psychology and psychical research was remarkable and very different from most of his contemporaries. He seemed to have experienced those subliminal uprushes he wrote about. I think that Myers was more influential in psychical research after his death in 1901 than has been recognized. But in some ways his ideas were watered down over time and, as happens in many fields, people adopted some concepts (such as the role of the subconscious) without crediting Myers. This topic deserves historical study.
“Another fascinating figure I would like to meet is Charles Richet. He showed much courage in defending psychic phenomena putting his scientific reputation at risk. While he conducted research, he also did much for the field using his social and scientific prestige to open doors for psychical research, particularly in France.
“While much less ‘prestigious’ and with less formal education than Myers and Richet, Hereward Carrington devoted his life to the field. I have been studying the beginning of his career and it is interesting that his initial reputation in the field was made through his exposures of mediumistic fraud. He was also a prolific writer of books and articles for the general public. In my view his career would constitute an excellent case study in the popularization of psychical research.”