Stephan A. Schwartz is an expert on near death experiences and parapsychology
I’ve got a ghost story. It’s a real one, and it happened when I was a very little kid. My mother tells it better, but I can be convinced, if the time is right and the people are comfortable. It’s become part of our family’s mythology, but it’s still something that happened, still a series of events that occurred, and we don’t have an explanation. I’ve been shaped by those inexplicable events, in a weird way, because the people that are skeptical in this world are very skeptical. You might know from telling your own ghost stories that they can become ghost arguments. Insisting on your ghost experience means insisting on a reality not everybody has experienced. A whole reality. It’s uncomfortable for everybody.
So I’m a sucker for ghost-related content. A little while ago, I saw this video on Vox. It’s called Why People Think They See Ghosts. The man in it, Joe Nickell, introduces himself as “the world’s only full-time, salaried, professional, science-based paranormal investigator.” He’s been researching ghosts for almost 50 years and he hasn’t found any evidence of their existence.
That seems like a willful lack of finding, because 18 percent of Canadians say they’ve seen a ghost, and almost half of us (47 percent) say we believe in them. More Canadians believe in ghosts than climate change. That’s a big job for Joe Nickell. It’s a good thing he’s not actually alone in all of this.
About two weeks ago, I learned that The University of Virginia has a department dedicated to the study of the paranormal. There’s also an organization in the United States called The Parapsychological Association, or the PA. Their mission is, among other things, to explore non-local consciousness, a.k.a. the soul, the main ingredient in what we think of as ghosts.
Stephan A. Schwartz is a scientist and a member of the PA. He’s written half a dozen books, and contributed chapters and introductions to dozens more, he’s a Research Associate at the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory of the Laboratories for Fundamental Research, and he lives with a very confident 20-year-old cat. I had a conversation with him over Skype about consciousness, shifting paradigms, ghosts, and what all of the scientists who study these things think.
More Canadians believe in ghosts than climate change.
Aurora Stewart de Peña: Hi Stephan.
Stephan A. Schwartz: Hello.
ASP: Will you tell me about your group? I read the website, but—
SAS: The PA is a group of scientists, physicians, and philosophers—mostly scientists, who are interested in the non-local aspect of consciousness.
ASP: Tell me about that.
SAS: That is, the Materialist paradigm proposes that consciousness arises from matter, your consciousness is the result of bio-physical processes in your neuro-anatomy. The dominant belief, the materialist belief, is dead meat, no consciousness.
SAS: It’s a true dogma. But it’s completely inconsistent with the observed data.
SAS: You will discover when you talk to people about this that they come basically in two categories. The first category is of people who are evidence/fact based, and the second category of people have ideological, um … it’s not really a religion because it’s not about God, but who have this deep ideological commitment to materialism.
But the first group of people, of which I’m an example, are people who don’t have a position, they basically have the research data. And the research data is telling us what Max Planck told us in 1931. Which is—in 1931 The Observer asked Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, what he had learned. It’s a reasonable question. And Planck’s response was, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.” He’d learned that space/time arises from consciousness, not consciousness from space/time. Basically, we’re Planckians.
[I nod at the screen.]
By the way, Einstein, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, all of them agreed with that.
ASP: They did?
SAS: Einstein calls it “the great optical delusion.” I love that one. But in any case. Those of us who do this research, almost all of us started out as materialists. I started out as a materialist. Everybody who gets any scientific training pretty much starts out as a materialist because that’s the dominant paradigm. But what happens is that you keep running into these data that don’t conform.
The dominant belief, the materialist belief, is dead meat, no consciousness.
You can look for instance at the near death research. Now, based on research that was done by a Dutch cardiologist named Pim van Lommel, about 13 million people in the United States have reported a near death experience. And that’s just the people that report it. The number is actually much larger, because people, we know, from the research, have these near death experiences, and they never tell anybody about them.
ASP: Can you tell me about an example of a near death experience?
SAS: Oh, a typical near death experience would be—well, um, I’ll tell you a personal story.
SAS: I’m 12 years old. My father is an anesthesiologist, and the chief of staff at his hospital. Back then, on Saturdays when there was no school, you could scrub up and sit behind your father in the operating room if you didn’t make any noise and you didn’t do anything—it wouldn’t happen today, but this was a long time ago. So, anyway, there we are. I’m 12 years old, I’m sitting behind my father. There is a patient on the table, I can’t really see much other than that it looks like it might be a woman, but even that, I’m not sure about because the patient is draped with all the towels, preparatory to the surgery. And all of a sudden, everybody gets very agitated, and I don’t understand what’s going on. And they do what I would now recognize as a resuscitation. They tear off the clothes and towels and I can see that it’s a young girl—it turned out she was 17. And so they’re pressing on her chest and doing the things that you do for resuscitation and they get her breathing. They get her off the operating table, and on a gurney. My dad takes her into the recovery room, he’s there for quite a while. They decide not to do the surgery at that point, I think was an elective surgery.
When he comes back, he has this very odd expression on his face. We go into the locker room and the doctors are scrubbing up. This was the last patient of the day. It’s Saturday and all we all go to a delicatessen and sit around a big round table and my father tells this story.
He says, “I took this girl back into the recovery room and I talked to her and she said, ‘Suddenly I was out of my body. I could look down and see all of you, but none of you would pay any attention to me. So I went out into the hall, and I saw this pretty young nurse and she was talking with this a young man.’ And she describes it, she says he has this blue and white striped shirt, his tie is not fully pulled up, and the young nurse has a particular kind of pin. So Dad went out into the hall, and sure enough there was this nurse, and I recognized from the description who the young man was, he’s an intern at the hospital. And I asked the nurse, were you talking with Dr. Whatever-His-Name-Was? And she kind of blushed a little bit and smiled, and said, ‘Oh, yes.’ Everything the girl told me was correct. How could she know that? Not only how could she be out of her body, but looking down at me, and at all of us and correctly describe what we were doing to her? How could she have gone out into the hall and seen the exchange between the nurse and the young intern?”
… medicine is as much an art as it is a science, and there’s much that we don’t know.
And so, he tells this story and one by one the doctors go around the table—this is 1954, so nobody knew about near death or talked about near death—but they go around the table and one by one they tell these strange stories. When we’re driving home after lunch, I ask my father what happened? What was that all about? And my Dad said, well, Stephan, you just have to understand that medicine is as much an art as it is a science, and there’s much that we don’t know.
SAS: So, that’s a classical, vertical NDE. It happened under controlled circumstances, and they were able to validate that the description the girl gave was correct, and that she could not possibly have known any of what went on in the hall with the intern and the nurse.
ASP: Because she was on the table being resuscitated.
SAS: Because she was dead.
ASP: Right, she was dead.
SAS: And there are literally millions of these stories.
ASP: That happen in the same controlled circumstances?
SAS: What really changed the game was Pim van Lommel. He wrote a book called Consciousness Beyond Life, and Pim examines the accounts of near death experiences and realizes that almost all of them are retrospective. That is, they’re stories that people tell days, weeks, months, or years after the actual event. Pim begins looking at accounts that are happening to people who are under highly controlled circumstances, who are immediately, as soon as they’re able to, asked to recount these things, and then they can be checked. You not only have the people telling them right away, they are having these experiences under highly controlled circumstances. They have EEGs hooked up to them, and their blood chemistry is being monitored, and their heart is being monitored.
One of the things you discover when you’re looking at the criticism of non-local consciousness research is the mediocrity of it. The mediocrity is really appalling. It’s just that it’s often advanced by people who have made a good reputation in some other area of science, and believe that their expertise in one thing carries over to their expertise in another. It’s like, I don’t know, an aerospace engineer feeling that he’s competent to talk about brain surgery. When you look at the criticism, you find that it’s really shoddy stuff.
Now, there’s an entire sub-specialty of medicine called resuscitation medicine, they even have a journal. They’re a group of physicians all over the world are dedicated to monitoring these resuscitation events, and they have a very clear idea of what the circumstances are in which these near death experiences occur. The usual criticisms of NDEs are that it’s a ketamine-like experience—
SAS: It’s the hallucinations of a dying brain—
SAS: You know, all that sort of stuff. But it just doesn’t hold up. For instance, look at the research of a guy named Sam Parnia.
He’s written a book on resuscitation, and you can see that the quality of the studies that are being done now just simply don’t permit these kinds of shoddy criticisms. But that’s very typical of deniers in general.
ASP: What’s the purpose of those criticisms? Is there stigma attached to the kind of research that you do?
SAS: Of course. Materialists hate it.
ASP: Does that come from a desire to believe we know the contents of ourselves and the world we live in?
SAS: I think it arises from the belief that everything can be explained in materialist physicalist terms. That’s quite an astonishing assumption, but—
ASP: But it’s easy. It’s right there.
SAS: The dominant paradigm is materialist/physicalist. And the assumption is that consciousness arises from some sort of bio-physical process within the body’s neuro anatomy. Therefore, no brain, no consciousness, and consequently things like remote viewing, therapeutic intention, ganzfeld, presentiment, all of those must, by definition, be impossible. For instance, I’m one of the founders of remote viewing, in which people are asked to describe persons, places or events from which they are separated by time, or space, or both. It’s so routinely done now that it’s gone from a laboratory protocol to an avocational interest like scuba diving or snowboarding. They have conferences, magazines are published, thousands of people do this. And they do it and continue to do it because they’re sufficiently successful that they get excited about it. If they weren’t successful, they wouldn’t keep doing it. It’s pretty much like any other human skill, there’s a small group who are really, really gifted. There’s another group who either can’t or won’t have the experience, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
One of the things you discover when you’re looking at the criticism of non-local consciousness research is the mediocrity of it.
If you look at this now, you’ll see there are about a dozen protocols that are carried out at universities and independent laboratories that are carried out all over the world involving hundreds, maybe several thousand scientists who do these experiments and they all have now odds independently better than one in a billion where one in 20 is considered significant. I mean, you could do it yourself. Remote viewing is easy to do.
ASP: How? I guess I’ll look it up. That’s interesting.
SAS: Oh—Oh—Well, I’ll tell you what. Can we do this? I’m holding something in my hand.
SAS: Can you see it?
ASP: I see that your hand is closed.
[Stephan prepares to take me through a simple remote viewing exercise.]
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Take another deep breath. Let it out. Take a third deep breath, let it out. And then as you do that, let your mind clear so that there’s nothing going on, it’s like a still pool.
[Let it be known that my mind has never been a still pool. My mind, during any kind of meditative exercise, is more like Christie Pitts pool. It’s dominated by loud teenage voices, insecurities, and a fear of diving. I’m not the ideal candidate for an exercise like this. But if I had been, I might have been able to see that Stephan was holding an heirloom ring in his closed hand.]
As I said, remote viewing is so easy to do and is so popular that this little bitty laboratory protocol that we created has become an avocational activity. And people join clubs and do it all the time. I’ve used it to find archeological sites.
SAS: We’ve done criminal resolution. We’ve caught murderers with it.
ASP: Obviously this is a skill you can begin to train.
ASP: How many people experience this casually? Because I feel like there are so many day-to-day experiences where you articulate what someone had dreamed the night before, or you bring home the thing from the grocery store that your partner was going to ask you to bring home. Is it a fairly common—
SAS: Yes. About 60 percent of the population have experienced it. A study was done a few years ago at The New York Technological Institute in which they looked at 350 CEOs of corporations. They discovered that there was an extremely strong correlation between those CEOs who were most successful and their ability to perform non-local consciousness tasks. And they published a book called Executive ESP. They basically asked CEOs to predict a hundred numbers, ten groups of ten, and then they correlated that with the annual financial reports of the corporations. Those who scored in chance, their corporations were pretty much the same, those who scored below chance declined, and those who scored significantly above chance, their corporations made money. As they said, prophets make profits.
ASP: That’s clever.
… in 1545 at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church said that anything that had to do with consciousness, the spirit, belonged to them, and the scientists were relegated to the physical world.
SAS: Science’s view and the general popular view about these things are very different. Scientists are conditioned to consider materialism. That’s because back in 1545 at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church said that anything that had to do with consciousness, the spirit, belonged to them, and the scientists were relegated to the physical world. And if you cross that boundary, well, they’ll burn you alive.
ASP: Which nobody wants.
SAS: And after 1545, scientists stopped talking about it, not entirely, not everybody. But enough were subjected to the Inquisition, and a number were burned alive. The last man killed by the inquisition was in 1826, which is pretty recent. It was in Spain. A man was garroted to death in public because he was teaching deism.
It became a taboo subject and now it’s become dogma. However, this is changing because the paradigm is changing. If you’re familiar with Thomas Kuhn and The Structure of Scientific Revolution, he was at the Princeton Centre for Advanced Studies. He describes why paradigms are resistant to change, and why change suddenly occurs. He says change doesn’t occur incrementally, one brick at a time, it occurs because somebody has a flash of “intuition.” Einstein says he saw the theories of relativity as he was whiling away time in a canoe, Descartes said the whole theory of what became his form of geometry came to him in dreams, and Tesla saw the electric motor as he walked across Central Park in a vision. He came back and drew the blueprint for it. He didn’t do a prototype, he just gave his engineers a drawing and said “build this.” They turned it on and it worked. This is quite common, and basically, parapsychology is simply one of the disciplines that studies non-local consciousness under controlled conditions, trying to figure out how it works, and as more and more data points accumulate showing the existence of non-local consciousness, the paradigm is going into crisis. What’s particularly driving it is neuroscience, as the neuroscientists understand more and more about how neuroanatomy and the brain work, they understand that these things which are occurring simply can’t be explained in a physical way.
ASP: We’ve talked about things that people experience when they’re alive or when they’re crossing over from life to what we’re considering death. Can you talk to me about people who experience apparitions—can you talk to me about ghosts?
[A small cat hops up onto the desk in front of Stephan’s screen. He strokes him on the head as he settles into a sleepy little doughnut in front of the monitor.]
He’s 20 years old, but he still goes out chasing bunnies. Actually, he spends most of the day sleeping on a towel in front of my computer.
ASP: It looks like a good place.
SAS: Right now, he needs pets. The staff must give him pets. You know, with dogs, you’re family. With cats, you’re servants. Anyway, what we are beginning to see is that what we call reality is an information architecture. That reality is the creation of intentioned consciousness manipulating information. I mean, for me and people like me, the big question is, “What is information?”
Anyway, what we are beginning to see is that what we call reality is an information architecture.
SAS: Now, if you think of reality as a construct of consciousness manipulating information to produce information architectures, we know there are certain things we can do to manipulate that process. There are three; the ability to hold intentioned focused awareness, which is something that people who meditate can do, that’s one. Two is what Jung called numinosity, which means a sort of informational enrichment process which occurs by acts of observation. So, for instance in remote viewing, it’s much easier to see Chartres Cathedral than it is a warehouse of the same size. Why? Well, because Chartres Cathedral has been the focus of intentioned focused awareness in a highly emotional state for hundreds of years, by millions of people. Whereas people walking by warehouses don’t pay them any attention at all.
SAS: Repetitive acts of intentioned awareness enrich informationally these architectures that are non-local. That means they are non-space-time. They can manifest in space-time, but that’s not where they reside. They reside in the domain of non-local consciousness. The reason you see ghosts is that these are events in which something happened, a person died, was murdered, whatever, that are highly numinous.
The third thing we know makes a difference is entropy. Now, there’s the traditional understanding of the word entropy as a movement toward disorder. But it’s not just a physical thing, entropy can be a change in informational state. For instance, if someone dies in traumatic circumstances, that’s a change in informational state that also involves high numinosity, you see—and that’s why people see ghosts.
ASP: One of the reasons I think about this a lot is because I had an experience with a ghost that I don’t remember, I was young, but my mum talks about it. I actually wrote it out for The Puritan, the magazine that I’m writing this interview for. My parents didn’t buy a house knowing that it was haunted, nevertheless, there was an extra man there. I would have nightmares about disembodied white hands and I would see a man in the hallway, and the people who lived there before us found, when they were cleaning out the house, an artificial white hand in an apple basket in the cupboards under the counter. It had belonged to a previous inhabitant of the house, this man that I apparently saw. But what was so bizarre about it is that there was no—he didn’t die violently, he died in his sleep, he seemed to live a fairly lonely existence, but he would just appear. In very boring places in the house, honestly.
SAS: Yeah, his consciousness was still attached to the informational structure that was represented by the house.
SAS: And so, it wasn’t that he was murdered or anything, it’s that his intentioned awareness was still focused in the informational construct of the house. You’re a little girl, and you’re going to sleep and you’re in a kind of reverie state, you’re in a hypnogogic state and you’re relaxed, and all of a sudden, you pick this up, or it appears in a dream. Because this is an interactive process, it’s not just you, it’s that it’s the information structure that’s represented by the ghost.
I would have nightmares about disembodied white hands and I would see a man in the hallway …
SAS: I mean, I grew up in a house that was built in 1643. And my sister, several times, saw a young woman. We never could find out who she was. And she never did anything, she just walked down the hall. And nobody could understand why she walked down the hall. She would see this woman in white just walking down the hall way and she would turn and go in a room, and when my sister would go down, she wouldn’t be there, of course. Almost the same kind of thing you had.
SAS: Nobody had any idea what it was, we were never able to find out. Just like you didn’t have any idea until you moved and discovered that there had been this guy. And I mean you don’t know why he was still there, still attached to this house.
But if you start from the premise that consciousness is the fundamental, then you have continuity of consciousness. Consciousness exists before you were born, and it will continue after your body is dead.
SAS: And this eternal non-local aspect of us, episodically manifests another personality, and incarnates. Now we know for instance from the reincarnation research done for instance at the University of Virginia—
ASP: I’ve read a bit.
SAS: Or Jim Tucker now, at the University of Virginia. If you look at Ian Stephenson’s book you will see that what comes across life to life—you are not coming back. Aurora is not coming back, Stephan is not coming back.
ASP: Too bad.
SAS: But this eternal part of us, this non-local aspect of us, will episodically, for reasons we don’t know, manifest another personality, and that what comes across is information. People come back with wound tissue, wound scars, or with birthmarks where things happened to them in an earlier life. And there are hundreds of these stories, they have something like 2,500 of these cases of this sort of thing.
Research that was done in University of Virginia shows that young people who have had their lives terminated under very violent circumstances, car wrecks, murders—incarnate in about 16 months.
Of people who come back—much of the early work was done in Asia, because in a lot of those cultures, reincarnation was an accepted belief, so people talk about it. Research that was done in University of Virginia shows that young people who have had their lives terminated under very violent circumstances, car wrecks, murders—incarnate in about 16 months. They come back quite quickly. We’re only beginning to understand this, because we’re only beginning to permit this kind of research to be done.
ASP: Wait—how do we know that 16 months is the period?
SAS: Because Jim Tucker was doing research on the previous lives of people and when they reported them. He measured the time between when this earlier life supposedly occurred and now, when they’re reporting this other experience and it ends up that it’s just a few months.
ASP: Let’s say I die in a horrible car crash.
SAS: 16 months later you’re born, and when you get to be about five or six years old, you articulate, “I was killed in a horrible car crash.”
SAS: It was on highway 84. And I was hit by a Mack truck. And you go back and you find out that 16 months earlier, there was a 16-year-old girl who was driving a car and was hit by a Mack truck. Years later, she’s now five years old and she’s describing this story.
ASP: Man, a Mack truck is actually my penultimate fear. I’m terrified of Mack trucks. Specifically, that make of truck.
SAS: You know, I did a television special on reincarnation. We got a young girl, this was in India, and she claimed that she had been married when she was 14 to a much older, very wealthy man. He basically wanted her as a sex toy. And when she wasn’t very co-operative about that, as they were on their honeymoon riding on the train, he threw her off the train, and she died. Our partners in India tracked all this down and found the guy. And he confessed.
ASP: He did?
SAS: He was then a much older man, and it was the thing he felt most guilty about.
SAS: Yeah, as well he should. But in any case—there are all kinds of stories like this. People have these birthmarks or these wound scars. Now we know, for instance that meditators have the ability to manipulate their DNA. They change the telomeres, the little caps, and so we know from the studies, we know that it’s possible for meditators literally to manipulate their genetics.
ASP: And what is the result of that manipulation?
SAS: Well, it causes less deterioration of the telomeres. You’re healthier.
ASP: Okay, I see.
SAS: So, in any case consciousness has the ability to manipulate physicality down below the cellular level.
SAS: The point is, the real takeaway, Aurora, is that once you begin to think of consciousness as the fundamental and you recognize the idea of the continuity of consciousness, your whole perspective begins to change, because then you realize that we don’t live isolated. It changes your entire worldview. Because it shows you we’re not isolated in our heads, in fact all consciousness is interconnected and interdependent, and we know for instance in therapeutic intention research that it’s possible to change everything from the growth of bacteria to the activities of high order mammals through holding healing intention. I mean, there are lots and lots of studies. There is an enormous amount of this research.
SAS: It’s been going on for quite awhile. Some of it is very repetitive, but that’s good because it’s a replication. It can be very difficult to get funded, but there’s a lot of it going on, because interestingly enough, in China, for instance, you don’t the cultural prohibition of the Council of Trent, and more and more of the papers are coming out of Korea, Japan, and China.
… once you begin to think of consciousness as the fundamental and you recognize the idea of the continuity of consciousness, your whole perspective begins to change, because then you realize that we don’t live isolated.
ASP: Those countries are considered to be on the forefront of a lot of other scientific and technological practices, too. If that is the case and there’s tonnes of research being done in the US and in other Western cultures, why has it not broken through to the mainstream? Why is skepticism still so dominant?
SAS: Because of the council of Trent. It’s a taboo, we don’t think of it that way anymore. The inquisition started in 1232. By the 15th century, it had formalized under papal authorization. Torture chambers. It was perfectly okay to torture people, you just couldn’t spill any blood. You could burn them with hot irons. Of course, particular populations became the target of this—women who were herbalists, for instance, who were wise women in their villages. Physicians who were associated with the church, well, they didn’t like the competition, so we’ve got to burn those girls. And they did. Thousands of them.
This went on for hundreds of years, many generations of scientists. And it started out with Galileo and the heliocentric worldview—it wasn’t original to him, but he was the one we associate with the idea.
You got shunned, or quarantined away. Or you lost your position, or you get tortured, and bad things happened to you. The old scientists tell the new scientists, and it becomes an unspoken taboo. We just don’t talk about that. Because physical science is doing so well, and it’s discovering so many new things, that after a while, it just kind of withered away, the idea of consciousness.
Then we get to the ghost in the machine, well, it’s just got to be something but it must just be some process in the brain that produces this, consciousness is just kind of odd by-product, it’s all physiological. But then more and more anomalies accumulate, and just as Kuhn predicts, where anomalies accumulate, the paradigm goes into crisis.
You got shunned, or quarantined away. Or you lost your position, or you get tortured, and bad things happened to you.
The first thing people want to do is to supress any research that addresses this forbidden subject area, and so you do that, you make sure that nobody gets funded who does that. It gets hard to get tenure. If you talk to scientists who have tenured positions at universities, they will tell you their horror stories of how they almost didn’t get tenure. You talk to somebody like Charlie Tart. In 1973 he publishes in Science, a paper called State Specific Science about altered consciousness. It caused a huge uproar. Why is he doing that kind of stuff, that’s not what he should be doing and blah, blah, blah—maybe we shouldn’t give him tenure.
I do a daily web publication called The Schwartz Report. I study trends that are shaping the future. I just published a story about all of the information about climate change that has been deleted in the United States from government websites, because the Republican party doesn’t like climate change. The US geologic science explorer website—a fully taxpayer-funded website, has taken down 320 links on climate data. The effects of climate change had 2,825 items in December, and today they have 0 items. That’s what happens when a paradigm goes into crisis. The first thing you do is you just try to disregard, the second thing you do—you try to extend your theory so it will incorporate the anomalies, and then the third thing you do is you try to supress these anomalous results, and finally when that is no longer possible the paradigm goes into crisis and changes. And that’s where we are now. We’re in the crisis phase.
ASP: That’s kind of exciting.
[Stephan pets the top of his sleeping cat’s head. He flicks an ear.]
SAS: You could look at it that way, exciting. But it does mean change.