Often science dismisses what it doesn’t yet grasp, until technology or some other breakthrough turns the tide. Before the advent of MRIs, for example, if someone said they could taste a texture or hear spoken words in color (examples of a condition in which the senses are intermingled known as synesthesia), conventional wisdom held that it had to be a metaphor, similar to remarking that a certain wine is “full bodied” or that “I feel blue today.” But it’s no metaphor—neural scans show that the brains of people with synesthesia light up in distinctive ways corresponding to the sensory overlap they report.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) went through a similar transition, albeit over a longer time. Derided as the “yuppie flu” in the 1980s and ’90s, CFS was considered a symptom of overwrought upper-middle class white women (Medical science took the same attitude a hundred years earlier, when the illness was known as neurasthenia). But in 2006, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control determined that CFS is not only a biologically real condition, but one that likely has a genetic basis. The affected individuals tend to have a characteristic set of changes in a dozen genes that help the body respond to stress. On the nurture side of things, the researchers found a correspondence between the severity of a person’s CFS and the cumulative stressors she/he has faced over a lifetime. Backing this up, a separate study found compelling evidence that childhood trauma—especially sexual abuse and physical neglect—increased the odds of CFS occurring later in life four to eight times. And an epidemiologist in Sweden found that high levels of stress—even if occurring decades before one’s CFS symptoms—made it 64 percent more likely that a person would manifest the condition.
It’s become clear that people with CFS aren’t simply malingerers or hypochondriacs. Their brains and bodies turn out to be strikingly different than other people’s as far as handling extreme stress. Could perceptions of ghosts turn out to have a similar legitimacy?
Consider the major strides medicine has made in recent years shedding light on numerous other conditions that my study has linked with anomalous perceptions: migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, PTSD. The closer one looks at these conditions, the more evidence accrues that strong emotion has undeniable and long-term effects on the human organism. A thriving scientific discipline called psychoneuroimmunology has sprung up to examine the interactions between the nervous system, the hormonal system, and the immune system—with the dynamics of emotion front and center.
Yet emotion has only recently become respectable to study. For centuries, feelings couldn’t be tracked or measured, so they were ignored by science. All that has now changed.
This much is true: we don’t know what we don’t know. Paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, we ought not to “believe” or “disbelieve,” but put aside our predispositions and find out. Physicist John Wheeler advised, “In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.”
That’s because the payoff in those cases stands to be the greatest. But the key for unlocking the mysteries of the psychic is to first take seriously what people report. That’s not an easy thing to do because of human nature: if we haven’t had a particular experience, we aren’t inclined to give it much credence. As Nietzsche observed (and this could apply to highly sensitive people today), “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” That is undeniably tough to do if you find the “dance” extraordinarily sensitive people do to be offbeat or weird.
Yet, in the words of James Alcock, a psychologist at York University in Canada, “It is the study of anomalies that drives science forward. The strange and compelling experiences that people have reported across the ages provide an important and fascinating field of study. We can only expand our knowledge of human functioning, and extend our theories of cognition, by coming to understand the genesis of such experiences.”
That is why the perceptions of highly sensitive people matter. We can learn so much from them—about subconscious perception, about emotion, the roles of nature and nurture, the ties between people, and quite possibly about spirituality and our place in the big scheme of things. The time is right. As one person wrote to the editors of Newsweek: “I am psychic … It is not something I have gone looking for. I have suppressed and denied it … and I have argued about it endlessly, but only with myself … I am convinced that there is a silent group of psychics in our culture, ridiculed and confused, lacking reproducible data and waiting to come into the spotlight.”
Perhaps individuals like this, who are especially sensitive, register haunted feelings in certain places quite naturally and more so than the rest of us. Perhaps the whole matter should no longer be considered marginal or occult but “come into the spotlight” of straightforward science.
Michael Jawer has been investigating the mind-body basis of personality and health for the past 15 years. His articles and papers have appeared in Spirituality & Health, Explore: The Journal of Journal of Science and Healing, Noetic Now, and Science & Consciousness Review. Jawer has spoken before the American Psychological Association and been interviewed by multiple publications. His latest book, written with Marc Micozzi, MD, Ph.D., is “Your Emotional Type.” Its website is www.youremotionaltype.com. His previous book is titled “The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion,” its website is www.emotiongateway.com. Jawer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published by PsychologyToday.com.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.