Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer
Bantam Books, 2007, 301 pp., $26, h/b – ISBN 978 0 553 80335 8
My enduring memory of Lisby Mayer, who died shortly after this book was completed a couple of years ago, is of the stimulating discussions we had in Jamaica at a seminar given by Dean Radin, who was expanding on his seminal book The Conscious Universe. This was some years ago, when Lisby had already embarked on the research leading to this book, which has two forewords, one by Freeman Dyson and the other by Carol Gilligan. Dyson takes the curious view that ESP is real but scientifically untestable, curious because the contents of Radin’s book demonstrates that it has been tested scientifically for the last 70 years. However, he is right in saying that experimental procedure tends to exclude the human emotions that make ESP possible when it happens in real life. As subjects become bored with the repetition involved, the scores start to diminish. He expressed a similar view a review of a hostile book about ESP by two French scientists, and received a large number of angry letters from orthodox scientists criticising him for saying that ESP might be real. On the other hand, ‘true believers in ESP’ were angry because he claimed that ESP could not be scientifically proved. Dyson’s dilemma indicates the scope of this important book.
It begins with a personal story, which I remember her telling us in Jamaica. In 1991, her daughter lost a valuable harp. For two months she tried every means of recovering it, but without success. A friend then advised her to call a dowser, so she phoned the current president of the American Society of Dowsers. He said that the harp was still in Oakland, and asked her to send a street map. She did this, and he called back saying he had located the harp in a particular house at a junction between two streets that Lisby had never heard of. The police were not prepared to enter the house with a search warrant, so she did a leaflet drop in a two-block area around the house, offering a reward for the safe return of the harp. Three days later, her phone rang and a man said that it seemed exactly like the harp he had seen in his next-door neighbour’s house. He offered to get the harp returned and the deal was successfully accomplished in a car park behind the local Safeway. Dyson comments that he doesn’t believe the story as a scientist, but as a human being he wanted to believe it. In addition, he points out that Lisby did not have the luxury of not believing the story, because it happened to her and she knows it is true.
As the reader can imagine, this experience was a radical challenge to Lisby’s mindset as a professor of psychology, but she could not simply ignore the phenomenon. When she began talking to colleagues, she found that many of them had anomalous experiences which they did not feel able to talk about. Not only is it difficult to go public with what she calls ‘private knowing’, but also there is a strong tendency to disavow or deny extraordinary experiences because of the professional cost involved. She cites one colleague who used to dream of incidents that had happened to his patients. Another surgeon described his intuitive ‘scan’ of patients before he performed brain surgery. He had a 100% success rate, but only, in his view, because his intuitive capacity made him certain that it was safe to operate. However, he could not share this methodology with his colleagues. Consequently, he was only able to work with a part of himself, and was inwardly divided.
Lisby goes on to discuss the relative validity of different ways of knowing, drawing on a number of her own experiences. If science represents a form of knowing through separation, then intuition is about a way of knowing through union and is also related to our capacity for empathy. There is a relaxed focus, an intention not to have an intention. She concludes that intuitive knowing is the result of a state in which ‘connectedness, rather than separateness, moves to the foreground of our awareness.’ She goes on to suggest that ‘radical connectedness maybe the distinguishing feature of a state in which mind-matter anomalies become ordinary, everyday experiences. She also uses the metaphor of ‘night-time eyes’ to distinguish this way of knowing from the objective gaze of daylight science. One can readily understand why scientists find this kind of knowing unsettling. Lisby thinks that there is a basic perceptual problem at the heart of things because we review reality by organising it into ‘two radically different sets of figure-ground configurations. Each view defines fundamentally different things as foreground. And seeing the picture outlined by one means not being able to see the other at the same time.’ She continues: ‘to see a view of the world in which the novelist experience happens, we need to temporarily abandon a view of the world in which rational thought happens. Worse, we need to temporarily abandon the state of mind in which we see what rational thought helps us see.’ I found this a very helpful discussion and framework within which to understand scepticism about the paranormal.
She discusses resistance in terms of ‘signal anxiety’, pointing out that resistance to new ideas is powerful, and even more powerful to ideas that change one’s worldview. Furthermore, ‘resistance rooted in unconscious associative networks is the most powerful of all. It’s outside conscious choice and conscious regulation.’ This helps formulate the psychology of resistance. She gives a number of specific examples, including the knee-jerk dismissal of J.B Rhine’s Extra-Sensory Perception after Sixty Years, which was for a short time on the Harvard psychology reading list. She and her colleagues had heard of the book, but dismissed it and thought they knew what they were dismissing.
However, as she observes, ‘we were all misinformed. So much for priding ourselves on judging by the evidence.’ The book reviews a great deal of experimental evidence through which Lisby threads her discussion about ways of knowing. It reframes the discussion in a way that makes it more approachable by scientists and psychologists, many of whom would share Lisby’s initial scepticism and begin to understand their own uneasiness about the field and its implications. However, human beings are more than disembodied rational minds, so we need to be able to appreciate the full range of our capacities. This remarkable book is a landmark contribution to an expanded view of the world we live in.