Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Update 5-12-09: Added paragraphs about mentally unstable people and their stories.
In 1981 Wilson and Barber first identified what they called a fantasy-prone personality (FPP) type (this work actually extended from Josephine Hilgard’s observations of people who were very susceptible to hypnosis). These are people who not only lead a rich fantasy life but seem to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. They identify 14 characteristics of fantasy proneness: (1) being an excellent hypnotic subject, (2) having imaginary playmates as a child, (3) fantasizing frequently as a child, (4) adopting a fantasy identity, (5) experiencing imagined sensations as real, (6) having vivid sensory perceptions, (7) reliving past experiences, (8) claiming psychic powers, (9) having out-of-body or floating experiences, (10) receiving poems, messages, etc., from spirits, higher intelligences, and the like, (11) being involved in “healing,” (12) encountering apparitions, (13) experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations (waking dreams), and (14) seeing classical hypnagogic imagery (such as spirits or monsters from outer space).
Like any “diagnosis” in psychology, fantasy proneness is somewhat arbitrary. Most people probably have some of the above traits (I have 3; I have never been hypnotized so I don’t know what my susceptibility is, so potentially I may have 4 traits at most). Wilson and Barber considered having 6 or more traits worthy of the designation of fantasy-prone.
This is quoted from Steven Novella’s NeuroLogica Blog. I cannot find the actual study by Wilson and Barber, it does not seem to be on-line or it is behind a subscription wall, but based on the Wikipedia article, it seems to be taken slightly out of context by Dr. Novella. He appears to be focusing solely on parapsychological phenomena, whereas the study seems to be saying this:
A person diagnosed with fantasy prone personality is reported to spend a large portion of his or her time fantasizing, have vividly intense fantasies, have paranormal experiences, and have intense religious experiences. His or her fantasizing may include extreme dissociation and intense sexual fantasies. People with fantasy prone personality are reported to spend over half of their time awake fantasizing or daydreaming and will often confuse or mix their fantasies with their real memories. They also report several out-of-body experiences.
Research has shown that people who are diagnosed with fantasy prone personality tend to have had a large amount of exposure to fantasy during childhood. People have reported that they believed their dolls and stuffed animals were living creatures and that their parents encouraged them to indulge in their fantasies and daydreams.
The basic problem with this line of thinking is that it runs counter to reality as understood by physics. The basis for this theory is that there is an objective reality and that some people are detached from it. But that’s not how things really are. We don’t live in a universe with an objective reality. It’s important to understand that what we really are is a set of infinite possibilities that have been formed into reality by being observed. That’s a rather simplified way of putting it, but it’s essentially what quantum physics tells us. What we actually experience can be more accurately termed a consensus reality, and even that is a bit of a stretch. This consensus reality is more like a set of common guidelines that not everyone follows to the letter.
We know that the brain cannot distinguish between reality and thoughts of reality and the explanation for this is simple: There is no distinction. The thoughts and the reality are the same thing. In the most basic terms, everyone is different, so everyone’s reality is different. It’s not that everyone has a different interpretation of reality, they actuallyHAVE different realities. Quantum physics tells us that reality is not there when we’re not observing it, and this is the consequence of that.
In fact, the argument can be made that the conservative belief in an objective reality is a fantasy in itself and impairs the person who thinks that way significantly. People with this belief typically display significant selfishness, competitiveness, poor empathy and rigid thinking. Shall we then classify them as fantasy prone personalities as well?
What this shows is that labeling a person as fantasy prone is just a convenient dumping ground for people who are experiencing a reality that deviates significantly from the norm. As would be expected, the targets of this label are people who are extremely sensitive and creative. Sound familiar? These are two of the most prominent characteristics of those people whose psychic ability deviates significantly from the norm. Being withdrawn and distant can easily be a result of having a physiology where the sensitivity is dialed way up. Ordinary events for most people can be experienced as trauma. This isn’t mental illness, this is coping with an unusual trait.
And speaking of mental illness, there are certainly ways to spot a mental illness reality and differentiate it from the rest. My uncle on my mother’s side, for instance, is a paranoid schizophrenic. In his story, the army is using a captured alien technology brain control device that it uses to tell him what to do. It keeps him awake at night (actually a medication problem he won’t alter) and forces him to do certain things (which conveniently allows him to avoid changing.) He’s eternally waiting for the army to turn the machine off and award him the rank of colonel.
This story has the classic elements of the tales that mentally unstable people spin.
1. He’s the star of the story. The army has focused its attention on him making him important to them in some way.
2. He’s aware of a secret no one else knows. This makes him a hero of sorts.
3. Powerful forces are working together thwart him. Matters are beyond his control.
4. He’s waiting for someone else to do something. Change is postponed indefinitely.
5. Everything has an explanation. The story cannot be wrong.
Anyone who is relating an incredible tale that they believe to be true with these story elements is almost certainly mentally unstable. The story is a place they’ve gone to because they cannot cope. It’s their defense against a world that they perceive to be causing them pain. And it’s a full story. When people relate their real psychic experiences one does not find these elements. People relating psychic experiences do not use them to justify or rationalize their behavior.
People who take the idea of a fantasy prone personality seriously should educate themselves on the evidence for psi. This body of scientific evidence demonstrates that telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis and precognition do not fall into the realm of fantasy. Studies on mediumship have demonstrated the existence of consciousness beyond the life of the physical body.
This is an important mental health issue because you can seriously damage the psyche of psychic people by treating them as fantasy prone. Psychic people can experience a lot of stress in dealing with the wide dichotomy between the reality that they experience and the one that that is socially accepted. The healthy position for psychic people is to accept psychic abilities as part of their reality. I have had several situations where people who were in therapy found me and my blog and just getting the facts and knowing they weren’t alone and weren’t crazy helped them cope better. That is to say, accepting their psychic ability as normal helped them to reduce their stress level and thereby deal better with the consensus reality.
In those instances where I have encountered people who had psychic ability, but had suppressed it, I have observed that they typically experienced headaches, migraines or other health problems related to stress. In other words, if you treat psychic ability as fantasy, psychic people will get worse, not better. I’m sure that many psychologists have encountered this already.
As a person with psychic ability, what I have learned is that it requires time and experience to sort it all out. The ability is gummed up by strong desires and fears not only by the psychic person, but by those close to them. The practical use of the ability requires an inner calmness that we must train ourselves to possess and we must learn to pay attention and focus on it. Without this, the ability is chaotic and unpredictable. Thus, many psychic people are unaware that they even possess the ability. They just have “really good hunches”, or some of their dreams come true, or they get “flashes” where they know something.
The key to this area of mental health for a psychic person is for the ability to be perceived as normal and ordinary; being neither the focus of their lives, nor something to be avoided; and to be aware of the physiological traits that accompany this ability. (Characteristics of Psychic People.)
If someone is actually experiencing psychic ability and disassociation, the problem does not lie with the psychic ability, but with the issues and overall sensitivity that accompany it. A psychic person can feel detached from humanity because they cannot find anyone who can relate to them. This problem is real. They also have an extremely high sensitivity that can make seemingly ordinary emotions like yelling and shouting feel very traumatic.
A sensitive person who has retreated into their own reality is doing so because of stress. It is a reaction to something external. That is the issue that requires attention. Take away the stress or learn to deal with it and there is no longer a need to retreat.
A person who has retreated into their personal reality needs to be able to embrace that reality while emphasizing the consensus one. It is the accepting of that personal reality that will heal them, not its rejection. Remember, for all practical purposes, the two actually co-exist. The brain cannot tell them apart and encouraging rejection of the personal reality will not help matters.
In conclusion, I would encourage rejection of the idea of a the Fantasy Prone Personality. It is both insulting and harmful to people with psychic ability and its application can only result in more stress and unhappiness for those to whom it is directed.