Remote Viewing

remote viewing of a forest

I first heard about remote viewing in the 2009 film The Men Who Stare at Goats which was more of a parody of real experiments done by the military into the paranormal. The film (starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey) is based on Jon Ronson’s 2004 book of the same title. The film got me interested enough to read the book which is about attempts by the U.S. military to employ psychic powers as a weapon.

In the book The Men Who Stare at Goats, Ronson gets into the U.S. Army’s exploration of how “New Age” paranormal concepts such as ESP were given serious consideration as having potential military applications of the paranormal.

The book’s title refers to attempts that were made to kill goats by staring at them and stopping their hearts. A three-part British TV series in 2004, Crazy Rulers of the World, was based on the book.

I got thinking about all this again when I heard the recent podcast “Spooks and Psychics: Inside the Military’s Top-Secret ESP Unit” on a podcast I really enjoy, To The Best Of Our Knowledge.

The podcast talks about one successful example of remote viewing (RV) which is the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target, purportedly using extrasensory perception (ESP) or “sensing” with the mind. In the example, a remote viewer was asked to “look” into a building in Russia by concentrating on a photo of it in a closed envelope. One soldier described a building on a shoreline, which smelled of gas and industrial products that had inside of it a large coffin-like object with fins, like a shark.

A few months later the CIA received satellite imagery showing that the Soviets had constructed a new ballistic missile submarine. It was later known by its NATO designation,  Typhoon class, but at the time of the remote viewing it was known in the USSR as the Akula. Russian for “shark.” This is purported to be one of several true examples of the military’s paranormal activity research.

My own investigations led me to another quite serious investigation in the book Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen. She examines the now declassified papers that came from government attempts to locate hostages, fugitives, secret bases, and downed fighter jets, and gather other nations’ secrets using the paranormal. It went as far as to try to predict future threats to national security. She says that the intelligence agencies and military services involved include CIA, DIA, NSA, DEA, the Navy, Air Force, and Army-and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As the podcast noted, remote viewing experiments have been criticized for lack of repeatability, which scientists demand, but it may be that a successful remote viewing is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for a subject and just not repeatable. There is no scientific evidence that remote viewing exists, and so it generally falls under “pseudoscience,” although it is physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff, parapsychology researchers at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), who are generally credited with coining the term “remote viewing.” They wanted to distinguish it from the closely related concept of clairvoyance.

Ronson’s book first looks at the small group of U.S. Army officers in the late 1970s and early 1980s who wanted to use paranormal phenomena, some New Age philosophy, and elements of the human potential movement for intelligence-gathering.

Some of these efforts included First Earth Battalion Operations Manual from 1979 which you can now buy from Amazon! and a “psychic spy unit” established by Army Intelligence at Fort Meade, Maryland, in the late 1970s that was the focus of the film. This was the Stargate Project, established in 1978 by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and SRI International (a California contractor) to investigate the potential for psychic phenomena in military and domestic intelligence applications.

The Stargate Project was terminated and declassified in 1995 after a CIA report concluded that it was never useful in any intelligence operation. But conspiracy theorists seem to believe that its successes have been hidden from the public and are still being used covertly.

The “men who stare at goats” were Special Forces soldiers who supposedly experimented with psychic powers against goats at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the now-decommissioned “Goat Lab” medical training facility. Legend (and probably only a legend) is that one soldier was able to kill a goat simply by staring at it.

The middle section of Ronson’s book jumps to more modern psychological techniques like the military programs from the post-9/11 War on Terror at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the psyops in Iraq. The connections seem tenuous, but maybe I am naive.

I was much more interested in the parts of the book dealing with the 1950s Army psychic program, and later the CIA’s MK-ULTRA “mind control” research program of experiments on human subjects that intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations. Early CIA efforts focused on LSD-25 to see if they could weaken an individual and force confessions through mind control. Could it be used to make Soviet spies defect against their will, or could the Soviets do the same to the CIA’s own operatives?

The MK-ULTRA project is now well known and it appears in many films, TV shows, books and even songs.

Ronson suggests that the “psychic warriors” are again active in the U.S. military again. Put your tinfoil hats back on.


Glyphs from TV’s Fringe

I teach a course in critical thinking. One of the writing assignments is to research a topic that is considered “fringe.” Skepticism is something a critical thinker embraces. They need to look at the evidence that supports the belief and at the evidence that refutes it, and then make a reasoned decision about their own belief.

The topics that students have chosen to research would give me material for blog posts for years to come: ghosts, poltergeists, past life regressions, astrology, divination, dowsing (for water, disease etc.), spirit contact (Ouija, automatic writing etc.), prophecy (Tarot, I Ching, etc.), precognition, homeopathic healing, acupuncture, acupressure, alien abductions, cryptozoology, alien abduction, missing time experiences, spontaneous combustion, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience, déjà vu & jamais vu experiences, time travel, parallel universes, the search for extra-terrestrial life, hypnotherapy, out of body experiences, near death experiences, psychokinesis, telekinesis and iridology.

One source that was referenced several times piqued my interest, so I got a copy of the book. Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable-And Couldn’t by Steve Volk is a journey into the that territory where modern science and the paranormal converge.

Volk explains on his website that:

Fringe-ology is my attempt to reconcile a mysterious ghost story from my childhood with my lifelong, down to earth occupation as a journalist. My solution was to do journalism—to investigate that family ghost story, and other paranormal topics, in the high style of narrative nonfiction. What I found is a great tale that’s been relegated to the fringe of our discourse for too long—a story about all of us, a story filled with ghosts, UFOs, maverick scientists, psychics, spoon-benders and the people who love and hate them. More importantly, I found common ground we can all share—a place for skeptics and believers, spiritualists and scientists, to stand together—not at the fringes, but at the heart of what it means to be human.

As a child, Steve Volk and his family heard loud sounds that came from the walls and the roof of his house late at night.  They couldn’t find a source. His sisters said their blankets were pulled from them at night and they saw an old woman walk through the closed door of their room. Ghosts or poltergeists – or  faulty pipes and overactive imaginations?

His family could never track down the explanation of the sounds, but, as a reporter, Volk decided to investigate other people who had inexplicable experiences. He has accounts from people who have had paranormal experiences that affected their lives. Many people are hesitant to talk because there are definitely societal stigmas about these topics. People will often judge you as crazy if you believe in any of these topics too deeply.

There is science in the book. He follows the work of  an anesthesiologist, He talks with a famous psychologist whose work leads him to conclude that death is not the end. Are we more likely to believe the testimony of an astronaut whose journey to outer space made him a strong believer in the paranormal?

It’s science when researchers examine what happens in the brains of people undergoing a religious experience. It’s fringe when they try to find God in the brain.

Volk works to learn how to control his dreams. I have gone down that path too. Lucid dreaming. Fringe?  I was successful. Sometimes. Sometimes not successful. Scientists don’t like that irregularity. But how many times would someone have to be able to read your mind accurately for you to believe that they could?  For some people, it would only take one time.

Finally, Volk also investigates some haunted locations as a way into his own family’s ghost story.

Maybe the conclusion is that there are still lots of mysteries unsolved in the world and what we don’t know or understand is humbling. There is room for skeptics and believers. Perhaps, spiritualists need to work with scientists.

Years ago, I taught another course that touched on fringe beliefs and the book I sometimes turned to was Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers. (I think it may be out of print now.) In the preface, Clarke says that half the topics in the book are not true. The problem is that he didn’t know which ones and he suspected that half of them were true. I feel the same way.

Though I can personally dismiss some topics like astrology and I am doubtful about much about prophecy, I can’t dismiss some topics like time travel (a personal favorite).

One thing that students discover is that there is some science behind all the topics. In some cases, believers have taken some huge leaps from that science into the land of  fringeology. It is a pretty interesting world to explore.

Listen to a short RadioLab episode with Steve Volk who talks about how lucid dreaming helped him deal with the recurring nightmare that came out of his childhood haunting experience.

The Exegesis

“I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth.”   –  Philip K. Dick  from The Exegesis

I heard the writer  Jonathan Lethem talking about the writer Philip K. Dick and a 900 page book he co-edited which comes from thousands of pages written by PKD. The collection is called the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. It becomes the final work of an incredibly imaginative author. It’s a big book and one I could never read all the way through. So, once again, I borrowed a copy from the library so that I could explore parts of it.

Exegesis (from the Greek, meaning “to lead out”) is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text. It is often used with religious texts and many people associate it with the exegesis of the Bible.  Today it is likely to be used to mean a critical explanation or exploration of the meaning, significance or relevance of some text.

Dick is known as a science-fiction writer and futurist who explored reality and perception, space and time, monopolistic corporations, authoritarian governments, altered states and the human and the divine. The Exegesis comes from 8 years of his attempts to document some visionary experiences he had in which the universe was “transformed into information.”

He tried to understand it by writing through it, and he came up with a number theories. He wrote several novels known as the VALIS trilogy that also deal with it. Co-editors Jackson and Lethem try to guide us through Dick’s actual exegesis and also make some connections with Dick’s life and other writing.

More people have encountered the imagination of Philip K. Dick through the movies that have been based on his writing like Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau and Minority Report.

Who was Philip K. Dick?

He was born December 16, 1928.  He was an American novelist, short story writer and essayist whose later works shifted to his personal interest in metaphysics and theology. It seems that he also used his own experiences with drugs, paranoia, schizophrenia, and transcendental experiences in books like A Scanner Darkly. (Non-readers can watch the A Scanner Darkly film version)

He published 44 novels, and approximately 121 short stories, and yet lived most of his career in near-poverty.

ichthys symbol

Here’s the strangeness. After a dental visit in February 1974 during which he was given sodium pentothal (for an impacted wisdom tooth), Dick has a life-changing experience at his front door.

He went to his front door expecting a prescription delivery and encountered a woman who was going door-to-door. She was wearing a gold Christian fish-pendant known as the ichthys and as the sun glinted off it, the reflection generated a “pink beam.” Dick ultimately concluded that this “intelligent” beam imparted wisdom and clairvoyance to him.

After that day, he began to have strange visions. At first he thought it was from his medication, but after several weeks of these visions he began to attribute them to the beam.

As an example, one  instance when the pink beam returned he learned that his infant son was ill. He took the child to the hospital and the vision and diagnosis were confirmed. Dick called these experiences “2-3-74” for February–March 1974.

You can take his visions as real paranormal experiences, or you can see them as delusional, but Dick was a believer. He describes in his writing  visions as geometric patterns and even pictures including Jesus and ancient Rome. In fact, he began to be convinced that he was living a double life. In one world he was the Philip K. Dick writer we know, and in the other he was “Thomas”, a persecuted Christian in the first century A.D.

He wrote about the change that occurred within him as the “transcendentally rational mind” which he referred to as “Zebra,” “God” and “VALIS”. His semi-autobiographical novel Radio Free Albemuth is about these experiences and they continue in The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which make up the VALIS trilogy.

Dick died on March 2, 1982, the result of a combination of recurrent strokes accompanied by heart failure. I have read articles that attribute his visions to those strokes or their precursors. I’m sure many readers of his late writing (or this post) will see it as a man gone mad.

But, perhaps, the one universal exegesis is our own attempts to arrive at some critical and rational explanation, through whatever exploration we do, in order to discover the meaning and significance of our own life.

Ghost Ship

On this day, December 4, back in 1872, the ship Mary Celeste was found floating, unmanned and abandoned, in the Atlantic near Spain and Morocco. It was a ghost ship.

The ship was an American merchant ship that had been at sea for about a month. The sea was calm. She had no issues that would have made her unable to sail. When found, it had a 6 month store of food and supplies. There were no signs of violence or mutiny. No distress flag. No notes or log entries of any problems.

All passengers and crew had vanished.

Yes, the ship’s lifeboat was gone, so you would guess that they had abandoned ship. But if they did, why did they leave all their personal possessions and valuables? They must have been in a big hurry. Or they were taken (by pirates, spirits or UFOs?)

Who took the ship’s papers but left the logbook? It makes sense that the navigation equipment and two pumps if they were headed out in that lifeboat. But why did they leave in the first place?

The Mary Celeste has been fictionalized since then. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, is one author who was intrigued by the possibly paranormal parameters the tale offered.

The ship was still under sail and heading toward the Strait of Gibraltar when found – as if ghosts were sailing her.

It is still one of the best maritime mysteries. So, what happened? There is no shortage of theories: alcoholic fumes, underwater “seaquakes”, waterspouts, and paranormal explanations involving extraterrestrial life, unidentified flying objects and sea monsters.

Piracy is one explanation. The crew was crew murdered and thrown overboard by Ottoman pirates known to operate in the area. But why no  signs of a struggle? Why take navigation equipment, pumps and a lifeboat and leave the cargo and personal possessions?

Here’s a complicated explanation. A seaquake erupted below the ship and jarred open nine barrels of alcohol (~450 gallons) which leaked into the bilge and some dislodged fuel for the stove on deck caused embers from the fire to drift into the rigging. Modern experts believe that the alcohol fumes that would have been easily ignited, and because alcohol burns at such a low temperature, even a large explosion could have left the ship and even the surrounding barrels undamaged. The crew abandoned ship, perhaps planning to return if all looked safe. But they were unable to catch the ship in their lifeboat (a sailing dinghy). They floundered at sea and all died.

The paranormal explanations are a lot more interesting.

There is no lack of books about the mysterious ship to read, and they cover the gamut of explanations. I checked out Ghost Ship by Brian Hicks which is an easy read and covers many theories, but also gives a nice background on the ship’s crew so that the story has a human feel. It reminds me a bit of the film Titanic‘s approach to that ship’s tale.

There are also plenty of websites, like, that will keep you busy if you want to follow the theories. That site pretty much sides with Charles Edey Fay’s book which settles on the alcohol theory.

You won’t find any sound evidence for the theory that aliens abducted the crew in a flash from the ship.  (Did the aliens need a lifeboat and pumps?) And when you think of “ghost ships”, you are more likely to be referring to is a supposedly haunted or ghostly vessels like the Flying Dutchman, but the term is also used for derelict ships found adrift with their entire crew either missing or dead, such as the Mary Celeste or the Baychimo.