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Paranormal is the new Normal

Posted: 06/ 7/11 02:54 PM ET

It was late at night, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had swapped her hot cups of tea for whiskey sours. The room was filled with cigarette smoke. Kubler-Ross and her research partner, the Reverend Mwalimu Imara, were putting the finishing touches to On Death and Dying--the book that would make Kubler-Ross a star, introduce the once ubiquitous Five Stages of Grief and galvanize the international hospice movement. But there was one chapter still under discussion, a chapter in which Kubler-Ross addressed all the strange stories resuscitated patients told: about floating out of their bodies and meeting with deceased loved ones, of visiting what they took to be the afterlife.

"Do I put this chapter in?" asked Kubler-Ross.

"Not if you want it published," replied Imara.

On Death and Dying came out in 1969, with no mention of those classic Near Death Experiences. (The NDE didn't enter our cultural lexicon until 1975). But almost forty years later, the stigma against sharing any story with paranormal overtones persists.

As a journalist, I find this state of affairs to be curious. Polls on the subject demonstrate that a majority of Americans hold some paranormal belief. A Reuter's poll of people around the globe found a little more than half the world's population believes in God and the afterlife. U.S. polls regularly show that about half of us believe some UFOs might be ET spacecraft. As a species, we believe in many things unproven. So it behooves us to learn to talk about them in an open, honest way.

My contribution is Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable--And Couldn't. In it, I weave numerous tales that bear the stigma of what I call The Paranormal Taint, including ghosts, the afterlife, mental telepathy, UFOs, dreaming, meditation and prayer. I hope the result is entertaining, a tour through a territory we in the mainstream too often neglect. But more than that, I hope the book acts as a permission slip, so that people might feel inclined to share these stories without fear of ridicule--or diminished job prospects.

That last bit is personal. Because, in Fringe-ology, I share an old family ghost story I grew up with as a child. And yes, I wonder if sharing this odd slice of my history might cause some people to view me warily. But the book is worth some risk: As the polls suggest, these stories are so much a part of our culture, so much a part of our make-up as human beings, that when we turn our backs toward the things that go bump in the dark, we're turning our backs on ourselves. And I wonder, when we feel too shamed to tell these stories, what we fail to learn about ourselves.

Consider Kubler-Ross. Her real achievement was her act of listening to the dying. Some of the testimony she gathered proved shocking--reports of feeling peace when pain might be expected, comfort at the moment of greatest affliction. We now know from subsequent research, the majority of these people consider their NDEs to be real, life-changing experiences.

Should we reject the thought that a real scientific mystery might be at work here? Is the appropriate response to this a heaping of stigma and ridicule?

I choose respectful consideration. And I believe another appropriate response is to simply enjoy the story--a campfire tale rising from the hour of our death, from our darkest night.
But we can push further. And in Fringe-ology, I do.

Consider telepathy: I've grown so used to reading articles in which skeptics proclaim there is no firm evidence for telepathy that I was stunned by what I found: Parapsychology has in fact yielded hundreds upon hundreds of studies and meta-analyses demonstrating some small telepathy effect in the general population. But what really surprised me was finding that a leading skeptic like Richard Wiseman has admitted that the evidence is so good that "by the standards of any other area of science, [telepathy] is proven." Even more incredibly, as I report in Fringe-ology, another leading skeptic, Chris French, agrees with him.

Does this mean telepathy is established?

Well, both Wiseman and French hold that the claim of telepathy is so extraordinary--calling into question our most basic assumptions about physics--that we need a greater level of evidence than we normally demand. But given that serious consideration of troves of evidence is the real state of play, we can rescue even the long-derided topic of telepathy from the dustbin of the culture wars. In Fringe-ology, I also discover good reason to rescue tales of ghosts, UFOs, spoon-bending and more. And what all this means is that--well, it's time, finally, to bring your stories up, out of the dark.