Interview with Afterlife Researcher Julie Beischel
Julie Beischel, PhD, is the co-founder and Director of Research at The Windbridge Institute. She graduated magna cum laude and with honors with a BS in Environmental Sciences from Northern Arizona University and received her PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology with a minor in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Arizona. She served as Co-Director of the VERITAS Research Program with Dr. Gary Schwartz, investigating the alleged ability of mediums to 'talk to the dead', before moving the research of prospective research mediums to Windbridge in January of 2008. Her research interests center on the survival of consciousness hypothesis and include proof-focused studies on mediums' communication with discarnates and process-focused studies on mediums' experiences of that communication.
Q: Thanks for talking to The Daily Grail, Julie. To start off, can I ask how you ended up in this 'heretical' area of research that is certainly not known for its career-building potential? And can you tell us a little bit more about the Windbridge Institute and why it was formed?
Julie: Thanks for having me. Yes, I did commit a pretty severe case of professional suicide when I embraced this field of study. My PhD is in Pharmacology and Toxicology with a minor in Microbiology and Immunology so my future was bright! But when I was in graduate school, my mom passed away and I started to wonder what science had to say about life after death. Through some strange coincidences, after I graduated I was able to take a position as the William James Post-doctoral Fellow in Mediumship and Survival Research and serve as Co-Director of the VERITAS Research Program with Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona. When the funding for that position ended and the VERITAS Program closed, my husband Mark Boccuzzi and I formed the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential in January 2008 in order to continue performing this important research into the survival of consciousness. At Windbridge, the primary methods for carrying out this research include: (1) investigating technologies that may be useful in enhancing interaction and communication with deceased individuals, (2) addressing reports of haunting and apparition phenomena using both field and laboratory methods, and (3) studying mediums (individuals who experience regular communication with the deceased) and the information they report as well as their experiences during the communication. Windbridge also screens, trains, and certifies the mediums who participate in research using a multi-step process that takes each medium several months to complete.
Q: You've come to the forefront of research into mediums rather suddenly, without the background that others in the field have. In many ways, I'd imagine this is a good thing - there's a lot of baggage and expectation from certain quarters, that comes with a prominent role in 'psychical research'. Have you encountered any resistance or criticism from those who have been involved a lot longer in investigating mediums?
Julie: Overall, the parapsychology community has been very receptive and supportive of our work. For example, when we formed Windbridge, a number of the "big names" in survival research and general psi research agreed to serve on our Scientific Advisory Board including Stephen Braude, Etzel Cardeña, Bruce Greyson, Erlendur Haraldsson, Emily Kelly, Dean Radin, and Jim Tucker. These and the other board members continue to serve as an asset at Windbridge providing helpful comments about our research protocols.
Q: Michael Grosso has remarked on the disparity between the budgets for the 'technology of death' - that is, military spending - versus the funds available to research the question of life beyond death. Do you agree that 'afterlife research' should be better funded than it is, or would you say the current levels of financial support are probably commensurate with the speculative nature of the field, and the results achieved thus far?
Julie: I think survival research definitely requires more funding and deserves to be taken seriously. If you consider the numerous modes of studying the afterlife — near death experiences, children who remember past lives, mediumship, etc. — and the body of data collected, it is difficult to claim that nothing is going on. At Windbridge, we focus on applied research, that is, research the results of which will positively impact society. For example, we have begun a systematic investigation of whether mediumship readings are helpful in grief recovery and have forged relationships with various hospice and grief organizations in order to work together on this question. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter how or why it works as long as it makes people feel better. The same can be said about a number of pharmaceutical therapies on the market today and that particular "keeping people sick" field is also highly funded compared to survival research.
Q: You have already published one quite positive study on mediumship, titled "Anomalous Information Reception by Research Mediums Demonstrated Using a Novel Triple-Blind Protocol" (PDF file), with Dr Gary Schwartz. In that study, you found that "under stringent triple-blind conditions, utilizing a novel summary/global rating scale used by blind raters, evidence for anomalous information reception can be obtained." Indeed, with blind conditions and a binary choice, the results were that "sitters chose the readings intended for them 81% of the time." Since that study, have you found (or been told of) any possible weaknesses which may have contributed to such significant results?
Julie: Initially, some criticism was raised, but once people understood the complexity of the protocol in detail, it became apparent that those issues had been addressed during protocol design. That study successfully controlled for fraud, deception, information so general it could apply to anyone, experimenter cueing, rater bias, and "cold reading." That is, it provided evidence for anomalous information reception (or AIR), the phenomenon in which mediums report accurate and specific information about the deceased without any feedback during the reading, without using deception or fraud, and without any prior knowledge about the deceased or the sitter (the living person wishing to receive messages). The biggest limitation of the study was that it did not rule out psi (telepathy, clairvoyance, and/or precognition) as an explanation for the positive results. The data cannot differentiate between the survival of consciousness hypothesis and theories stating that mediums are using some form of psi ability to gather their information about the deceased. These include the Super-psi and Psychic Reservoir hypotheses.
In order to further test the existence of AIR and to replicate and extend that triple-blind study, we are now collecting data on a follow-up quintuple-blind study funded by the Bial Foundation. We have tightened controls with that new procedure and addressed criticisms regarding, for example, cases in which the first name of a deceased person given to the medium during a reading provides overt evidence about his/her ethnicity, culture, or religion (though that did not occur during the triple-blind study). For those interested, I provide a detailed description of the methods we currently use and the criticisms they address in a recent Journal of Parapsychology paper titled "Contemporary methods used in laboratory-based mediumship research" (available at http://www.windbridge.org/publications.htm). That paper also addresses historically proposed "ideal" studies for determining, once and for all, if AIR is real.
Q: A common debate over the past century in the psychical research community has been whether 'genuine' positive results are due to the 'spirit' hypothesis, or the 'super-psi' explanation. You do mention this briefly in the paper above, offering mainly opinion on which way the data leans. Though you seem to be concentrating at the moment simply on finding evidence for 'Anomalous Information Reception' (AIR), I wondered whether you think there is a scientific protocol that could move the debate beyond this impasse?
Julie: Actually, because the proof-focused research described above cannot differentiate between survival and psi, we are also engaged in process-focused research in which we are examining the mediums' experiences during mediumship readings compared to psychic readings for the living in which telepathy, clairvoyance, and/or precognition are used. Our Windbridge Certified Research Mediums (WCRMs) perform psychic readings for clients as well as mediumship readings and, when asked, report being able to clearly distinguish between the two experiences. My favorite quote about this from a WCRM is "a psychic reading is like reading a book... a mediumship reading is like seeing a play." Dr. Adam Rock and I have published both qualitative and quantitative studies in this area and are currently attempting to find support for the next step: a blinded, quantitative study of mediums' experiences during the two types of readings.
Q: When it comes to research on the talents of mediums, I've always wondered whether pure statistics doesn't offer a true test of a reading, especially when it comes to 'dazzle shots'. That is, is there a scientifically valid way of evaluating sensationally specific information? I'm thinking here of a situation where a medium might get 9 out of 10 items wrong (or just be vague), but then 'hit a home run' with a highly specific piece of information that identifies the discarnate perfectly.
Julie: I think the difference is one between statistical evidence and evidence that is meaningful to a sitter. A p value won't convince a sitter of communication and a dazzle shot doesn't provide objective evidence that can be statistically analyzed. At this time, we are relying on statistical evidence because the reality of AIR has not been unequivocally established. But in addition to item-by-item and whole reading scores, we also have raters choose which blinded readings they believe were intended for them so if one reading contains true dazzle shots but not a lot of other correct information, that may be reflected in the raters' choices. We also have a scoring system for the emotional significance of an item regardless of its accuracy and that captures dazzle shots, but we are only currently interested in mediums' accuracy scores given by sitters for readings intended for them compared to the scores those sitters gave other people's readings.
Q: For those who would like to learn more about modern research into mediums, what resources and papers would you recommend?
Julie: People can find our latest publications at www.windbridge.org and can join our email list at http://www.windbridge.org/news.htm#list to be notified when new papers are added. I recommend the books Immortal Remains by Stephen Braude (Amazon US and UK), Is There an Afterlife? by David Fontana (Amazon US and UK), and Irreducible Mind by Ed and Emily Kelly, et al (Amazon US and UK). We also have recommended book lists in a number of areas at http://astore.amazon.com/windbridge-20 And though this isn't about modern studies, for a really enjoyable discussion of historical mediumship research, I highly recommend Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum (Amazon US and UK).