Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Electromagnetism As The Cause Of Supernatural Experience: A Very Skeptical Dogma.

A few days ago I shared an article from the Sun regarding ghosts in a completely non-critical way. Digest that for a minute. The reason I did this was despite being extremely lightweight, it was refreshing to see one of the UK's leading propagators of nonsense and paranormal bullshit take a semi-skeptical approach to ghosts. Of course, the article wasn't perfect. One section, in particular, reminded me of numerous heated discussions with various skeptics and skeptical paranormal investigators on the internet.

The subject: Can electromagnetic fields be the cause of supernatural experiences?

From the Sun article:
"Apparitions, cold spots and ghostly touches can be caused by man-made magnetic fields, experts have suggested...
APRA investigator Alvis said: "High electromagnetic fields and bad wiring can cause temporal lobe activity, making people believe that they are in the presence of ghosts. It is often associated with strange sensations, time distortions and hallucinations."

It's is a query that's long been pondered by skeptics and by scientific paranormal investigation teams. I think part of the reason skeptics are so enamoured with the idea is that it's tempting to attempt to find a catch-all explanation for phenomena. Flawed as we all are, these explanations are appealing, but they're often too simplistic and a poor fit for the phenomena in question. Quite often when this subject is broached I am met with claims that this is just "common knowledge" and that we "just know" this is accurate. That's a worrying position for investigators and skeptics to adopt. How have we come to this conclusion and is there any validity to it?

There has been some research aimed at providing an answer to the question of electromagnetism and supernatural experience. The most prominent example of this being Michael Persinger's work with Stanley Koren's "God Helmet", a crash helmet (left) equipped to create low-level magnetic fields in contact with a subject's frontal lobe. The hypothesis is that this causes the subject to experience what alternately described as "spiritual", "paranormal", "religious" or just plain "weird" experiences. This highlights the first problem with Persinger's work. It's all very vague. What exactly is a spiritual experience? What metric can we use to establish one has taken place. It's extremely subjective to say the least, for example as the father of a five-year-old and a six-year old I can tell you that lying on a bed in complete silence for a few hours sounds pretty spiritual to me, gaudy yellow helmet or not.

But Persinger's work has indeed provided positive results and seems to imply that low-frequency electromagnetic fields could be connected to paranormal and supernatural experiences. The problem is, no one has actually been able to successfully replicate the experiment. In fact, a team of Swedish researchers who attempted to replicate Persinger's work did so, but in a double-blind study, meaning neither the subjects nor the experimenters knew who was experiencing the directed field. Positive results vanished leaving them the team to conclude that the results shown in Persinger's testing were due more to suggestion than to electromagnetic field effects. Persinger's positive results they concluded, were as a result of failure to properly "blind" subjects.

This is seemingly borne out when we consider the experiences of subjects tested by Persinger. Jack Hitt, for example in a 1999 article for Wired magazine tells of Persinger's ominous warnings of "freaking out" in the helmet.
"Has anyone ever freaked out in the chair? Persinger smiles slightly and describes when a subject suffered an "adverse experience" and succumbed to an "interpretation that the room was hexed." When I ask if, say, the subject ripped all this equipment from his flesh and ran screaming from the dungeon, Persinger curtly replies: "Yes, his heart rate did go up and he did want to leave and of course he could because that is part of the protocol." One more time: Has anyone freaked out in the chair? "His EKG was showing that he moved very, very quickly and dramatically," Persinger offers, "and that he was struggling to take off the electrodes."..." (Wired, 1999)
Such comments are likely to colour a subject's experience and could even induce a panic which could be mistaken for a negative spiritual experience. If this is typical of the treatment a subject receives before the experiment it's easy to see this as them being "primed" to experience something odd. Let's face it, it's already a stretch to expect people to feel normal whilst they know they are taking part in an experiment. If they are then primed to expect odd sensations, this discomfort may well manifest as a feeling of being watched. Are you seriously not going to feel unusual rigged up like this?

Further to this, patients are placed in conditions approaching sensory deprivation, a state which has also been connected to inducing hallucination as demonstrated by Brady, Mason, et al in a 2009 study. All of which seems to leave Persinger's findings in some doubt. Despite this many skeptics have wholeheartedly embraced Persinger's work and similar tests such as "the haunted bed" performed by ASSAP. Likely because it provides a seemingly plausible, scientific sounding explanation of paranormal experiences. What I often hear is:
"Surely EMFs are a much more suitable explanation for ghost experiences than ghosts themselves? I mean EMF exists, right?"

Sure EMFs exist, but that doesn't immediately make them a plausible explanation for ghostly phenomena. Nor does the fact that ghost experiences often occur near sources of EMFs, electromagnetic fields are too ubiquitous for this to be anything more than a trivial statement. You're never far from electromagnetic fields. As an example take a passenger on a high-speed cross country train passing under electric pylons generating EMFs. Their frontal lobe would be exposed to rapidly alternating EMFs, shouldn't we expect some effect with respect to the passenger's perception? Is this where the expression "ghost train" comes from?

Don't worry about the Vampires and Zombies,
 it's the EMFs you have to watch for!

What is always missing from discussions about electromagnetic fields and ghost experience is a proposed mechanism by which EMFs can affect the body or the brain. There are two ways in which electromagnetic radiation can demonstrate physical effects, thermally and via ionisation. We can pretty much discount heating as a proposed mechanism for generating ghost experience for a number of reasons. Firstly all electromagnetic radiation has heating properties. We don't see these sensory effects from exposure to sunlight, if all EMF caused these effects, then surely our sensory perception would be permanently skewed? Thus there would be nothing unique about a supernatural experience. Secondly, if the proposed effect is thermal, we should expect any source of heating to be a source of sensory alteration and we should expect ghost sightings to be correlated with hotter regions of the planet and in hotter periods of the year. Also, consider that sources like power lines, the most frequent source in these claims, despite carrying strong electric currents are non-thermal.

No such correlation exists.

Let's consider the second effect electromagnetic fields interact with matter. Via ionisation. Again what we have to state clearly is there are two particular forms of electromagnetic radiation we have to consider. Ionising and non-ionising.

You can see from the above diagram that X-rays and Gamma rays (right-hand side) can damage DNA, this is done via ionisation. Ionisation occurs when electromagnetic radiation has enough energy to liberate electrons from atoms. As valence (outer shell) electrons moderate the kinds of chemical reaction a molecule partakes in, this can be disastrous when it occurs in DNA and can lead to all sorts of nasty diseases and disorders. Could short term exposure also have sensory effects? Possibly. We know there's a physical effect to consider here, a physical effect on the brain is possible.

The problem is that none of the items commonly accused of causing sensory alteration and supernatural effects, mobile phone towers, power lines and household items emit ionising radiation. The electromagnetic radiation they emit is too low-frequency and thus low-energy to cause ionisation. The energy of electromagnetic radiation is related to wavelength and frequency by the following relationships.

c=the speed of light, h= Planck's constant, f= frequency, λ= wavelength,
E= energy.

So you should see clearly that the longer the wavelength the shorter the frequency and the lower the energy. So you should also see that the radiation emitted by power lines and household items carry considerably less energy than X-rays or gamma rays as their wavelength is much lower. In fact, they even have less energy than even visible light. As we are specifically concerned with radiation's effect on the brain, let's look at the ionisation energies of the most common elements in the human brain namely carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen which are roughly 11.3 eV, 14.5eV, 13.6 eV and 13.6 eV respectively and calcium which has an ionisation energy of 6.11eV and calculate whether a photon of microwave radiation has the requisite energy to ionise any of these elements. Before we do that there is something that is important to recall here. If an element has an ionisation energy of 10.0 eV then only a photon of 10.0 eV and above will ionise it. Two 5.0 eV photons incident upon the atom will not work, nor will five 2.0 eV photons. What this essentially means is the intensity of a field doesn't make a difference to its ionisation effects.

Let's focus on power lines which generally emit a field with a frequency between 50-60Hz and are skeptics are paranormal investigators go-to culprit in manufacturing supernatural phenomena. Using that second formula up there, that gives us an energy of:

Converting that to electron volts (eV) you can see it's an insignificant amount of energy and nowhere near ionisation energies.

There is research into the possibility of low-frequency EMF causing physiological damage, but it is particularly poor and mostly published in open access pay-to-play journals. One striking example is "Fielding a current idea: exploring the public health impact of electromagnetic radiation" (Genius, et al, 06) which offers evidence in the form of four case studies. An example of which is below:
"Case history #3

A 17-year-old boy experiencing a 3-year history of intrusive thoughts relating to religious themes believed he had committed unpardonable sins and was convinced the devil was imminently taking him to hell. As well as increasing depressive symptoms, the adolescent displayed escalating aggression towards his parents. The nominally religious parents took their son for religious counsel to no avail. Psychiatric diagnosis included a thought disorder. Psychotropic medication failed to control the symptoms but caused numerous side effects. Human exposure assessment uncovered extremely high gauss measurements (4200 mGauss) at the head of the teen’s bed, as electrical entry to the house was immediately adjacent to the bedroom, right beside his bed. As well as changing rooms, all other sources of EMF exposure were minimized. Within 12 weeks, the intrusive thoughts abated considerably, the mood symptomatology declined, the medication was stopped, and the parents indicated that their son was now a friendly, motivated boy. One episode of symptom aggravation subsequently occurred immediately following 4 h of online work in a high school computer laboratory; symptoms subsided within 72 h of deliberate EMF avoidance. All adverse symptoms completely cleared within 6 months and wellness was maintained over the next 2 years and at the time of writing." (Genius, et al, 2006)
So Genius concludes that medication was not successful, but was continued until symptoms abated. How he can conclude that the cessation of symptoms was as a result of non-exposure to EMF is unclear, especially as psychotropic medication has a tendency to take some time before an effect is displayed. As for a mechanism of effect, Genius suggests "dirty electricity" electromagnetic radiation that enters the home at a "pure" frequency and is altered, although quite what makes one frequency bad, and another good, escapes me.

There are other factors that have to be considered when focusing on outside sources of EMF such as power lines. Building materials provide excellent screening for electric fields but screen little against magnetic fields. What we also have to consider is that electromagnetism is one of the many physical forces that obeys an inverse square law. This means the strength of an electromagnetic field falls off rapidly at increasing distances.

Now let's say that Persinger's experiment was robust. All those issues with this work, forget them for now. Replications were successful in our hypothetical world. It's accepted science. Now can you see why his experiment may still not account for ghost experiences?

I'll give you a clue. In this shitty diagram, the distance between the lines indicates the strength of the field. Closer lines, stronger field.

Persinger's helmet gives a highly directed, local exposure. Not something you're going to get from a power line!

Of course, some are still going to argue that despite what I've said here, electromagnetism is still a valid explanation for the cause of ghost sightings. As a skeptical paranormal investigator recently pointed out to me from her experience, proximity to power lines was most definitely responsible for the experiences of her clients.

Her evidence was purely ancdotal in nature.
"Most definitely they can, we had a client with a huge fear cage around her home from defective outside power lines, we measured levels all around and it was extremely high up until about 20 yards then it slowly went down the further you got. They all suffered insomnia, delusions, hearing voices and seeing apparitions. Their dog almost died from seizures and would periodically go insane fighting something that wasn't there, the vets were baffled."...and I know that once I got the state power authority involved and the problem was rectified their symptoms dissipated entirely. They had been told they had demons they were not confident that I had solved the problem until that point."
There's also a hefty dose of correlation without causation mixed in there for good measure. Perhaps the client's apparitions went away because they believed our skeptic when she said they would? Much in the same way as the ritual of exorcism may help alleviate symptoms of spiritual possession because the subject believes that it will. It's simply the power of suggestion, and until more evidence is provided it's as pseudoscientific to claim hauntings are a result of electromagnetic exposure as it is to say they are a result of the spirits of the dead. Crucially evidence suggests it's just as incorrect an explanation too. It's a clear example that skeptics too must be careful not to fall into accepting ideas simply because they are suitable or even comforting.

References and further reading.