We've all been there — you freak yourself out telling stories or watching a horror movie and all of a sudden you're seeing poltergeists everywhere. But what about people who have actually caused paranormal phenomena to happen, with just the power of their brains?
One of the most famous explorations of the link between the paranormal and the mind is The Philip experiment, which tested a group's ability to "create a ghost" from a fictional narrative. These experiments have informed much of modern parapsychology, even making it into cinema. In The Quiet Ones, a group of psychology students perform experiments inspired by The Philip Experiment on a young girl, Jane Harper, who harbors unspeakable secrets, resulting in a truly terrify outcome. I looked at The Philip Experiment and spoke with a psychiatrist about whether or not telekinesis and other paranormal phenomena can be explained using what we know about the human brain.
In the early 1970s, a group of parapsychological researchers — known as The Owen Group — from the Toronto Society for Psychical Research decided to test the theory that paranormal visitations are merely a product of the human mind by seeing if they could use their collective fear and belief to create a spirit, named Philip, and force it to manifest.
The group began by envisioning a history for Philip — they even drew his portrait. They then spent an entire year discussing Philip, meditating on his image and willing him to appear to them. In 1973, during a traditional spiritualist séance in which members placed their hands on a table and spoke and sang to Philip, he began to communicate. He began by rapping on the table, answering questions related to the history that they had created for him, and also correctly answering questions outside of his own mythology, but still within the collective knowledge of the group.
Telekinetic happenings were reported, such as the lights dimming when the group would request Philip lower them. The Philip experiment worked so well that the Owen group took him to the small screen — filming a séance in front of a live audience of fifty people, during which the table reportedly levitated. Iris Owen and Margaret Sparrow, both members of The Owen Group, also wrote a book about the experiment, called Conjuring Up Philip.
Some saw the Philip experiment as proof that people can, with enough will power, connect with a spiritual or paranormal world, while others saw the test as proof human consciousness creates such experiences. I spoke with psychiatrist Dr. Robert Stein, about what he thinks links the paranormal and the human mind.
"What I don't believe is that there are people hanging around in the ether waiting to talk to us," he began, but went on to say that it's not as simple as saying that these things are hoaxes, or that everyone who claims to have had a paranormal experience is a fraud. Citing the frequency of simultaneous scientific discovery, and the phenomena of mass hysteria, Stein suggests that group experiences of the supernatural are either the result group projection or products of the fact that human energy — specifically ideas — are more tangible than we think.
"There is no reason to think that ideas travel any differently than, say, radio waves," he said. The same way radio waves can cross great distances, perhaps brain waves can pass through the air, creating physical, telekinetic changes in the environment and shared understanding. "There are so many examples of people around the world coming to the same conclusion at exactly the same time, it's possible that the mind is more powerful than we think."
With this in mind, there are two possible explanations for the Philip Experiment's success: either the participants were so wrapped up in their fantasy that they interpreted everyday phenomena to support their desire for a paranormal encounter, or they were actually creating a change in their environment with their brain waves. There's also a third option: that the whole thing was a hoax.
What do you think: are experiences of the paranormal the result of spirits on another plane, or is it all the result of the human mind? Tell us about your personal experiences of the paranormal, and share your theories on the matter, in the comments. To see a depiction of a parapsychological experiment, check out The Quiet Ones, from the producers of The Woman in Black, in theaters April 25.
Maud Deitch is a Senior Content Producer at Studio@Gawker. She has written in SPIN, The FADER, MTV.com and other publications.