Persinger: Where Paraquake Differs
Author's note: This article
is a revision of one I posted on September 25, 2008. Revisions were based on feeback from researcher Maurice Townsend and
are detailed below
Paraquake's focus on the link between pre-seismic activity and
paranormal activity may make it tempting to draw parallels to the theories of Dr Michael Persinger. However, there are some
In the 1970s, Persinger devised the Tectonic Strain theory to explain UFO and other phenomena. UFO researchers are correct
in noting that there may be a cultural connection in how people perceive such phenomena, so that what is called a UFO today
may have been deemed supernatural phenomena in earlier centuries.
Persinger feels that in some cases UFOs are in fact luminescent phenomena created by tectonic strain ahead of earthquakes.
More, he states that magnetic field disturbances created by the buildup of tectonic strain may affect people sensitive to
such fluctuations, causing them to have a wide range of hallucinations, from the borderline paranoid feeling of unseen presences
to more vivid face-to-face encounters with aliens.
Since devising the Tectonic Strain theory in the 1970s, Persinger has performed laboratory experiments to find a link between
anomalous magnetic fields and changes in people's perceptions. Picking up on his cue, other researchers are taking precise
magnetic field measurements in actual locations where hauntings have been reported (the MADS experiments) to determine if
such fields could account for reports of paranormal activity.
Before drawing the line of distinction between Persinger's work and Paraquake, I want to make it clear that I am not refuting
his findings in their entirety. But I feel it important to emphasize that there are key differences.
First, the approaches are coming
from different ends of the spectrum. Persinger is pursuing the theory that paranormal phenomena, when they do not involve
misperception or misidentification by the observer, can be explained by physical processes such as tectonic activity and anomalous
Paraquake's approach is that while misperception of events is a distinct possibility, there are indeed phenomena which
are truly paranormal. Using careful study with scientific methods we can learn more about them, without necessarily removing
their status as something beyond the everyday world. There may certainly be a link between paranormal activity and physical
processes such as earthquakes and geomagnetic anomalies, but the link is not necessarily a causative one. In other words,
the physical processes are not necessarily the origin of the paranormal activity.
Let's take a closer look at Persinger's
theory that UFO sightings are directly related to the so-called earthquake lights (see the Earthquake Lights section
of this website for a further exploration of their potential link to spirit activity). Certainly, this could account for some
reports of UFOs. The sight of strange, glowing objects in the sky brings UFOs to mind immediately because of the saturation
of science fiction and sci-fi related shows in our culture.
The problem is that UFOs come in all shapes and sizes, according to the eyewitness reports-from boomerang-style ships to the
more classic saucer shapes, to flying wedges to other geometric shapes. More to the point, these objects are usually seen
performing some sort of apparently controlled maneuvers and/or traveling for some distance. Sightings by aircraft pilots,
including a famous incident involving JAL flight 1628 in the 1980s, in which glowing objects dogged the plane for over an
hour, indicate that in some cases the distances the objects travel, as well as their speeds, can be substantial.
also come in many forms... but wedges, boomerangs and saucers are not typically among them. Instead, forms such as glowing
balls of light, like the Tagish Lake lights or the lights sighted in the Quebec earthquakes in the late 1980s, are a commonly
described shape. Multi-colored shifting lights similar to small-scale auroras, lightning-like flashes, as well as more general
glows such as the lights sighted in the Matsushiro earthquake swarm in the 1960s are also reported.
These differ significantly from
the shapes reported in UFO sightings. About the only ones that could cross into both territories are the glowing orb-like
Aside from differences in shapes, there is a difference in activity as well. Earthquake lights such as auroras, orbs and unexplained
flames hover and may move short distances in some cases, but they don't race around the sky, and they certainly aren't
sighted moving from one location to the next as we have seen in many UFO reports. Even if their glow is perceived for some
distance, earthquake lights are localized phenomena in the truest sense.
It would be very difficult to come up with a satisfactory
explanation for how seismic processes could generate a luminescent phenomenon capable of fitting any patterns of UFO mobility
except for hovering. Triboluminescence and piezoelectric activity are problematic, because while conductive potential increases
in a fault zone as tectonic strain increases (Madden and Mackey; Freund), most rock strata involved in earthquakes would insulate
against a significant discharge of light. And that's not counting the fact that once the light is emitted, it
would have to have some mechanism for forming a cohesive body and moving from place to place-many miles in some instances,
if we can accept eyewitness reports.
Trapped methane pockets also do not satisfy the bill, because even though methane could escape ahead of an earthquake and
ignite in small clouds, these would not be able to travel very far, and certainly could not perform the cowboy maneuvers frequently
attributed to UFOs. Even the corona discharges mentioned by Freund and St. Laurent (2006) would not work as an explanation
for UFO activity, because the discharge would be brief and immediate, not lingering and mobile.
Aside from the differences in
behavior of earthquake lights and UFOs, another reason to discourage a direct correlation is that there simply aren't
enough cases in which UFOS were sighted directly ahead of seismic activity in the same area. Seismic activity is common
enough globally that you could easily say a UFO sighted in Kentucky was related to an earthquake in Reno, if you were inclined
to grasp for connections. But by the same premise, I could run up complicated models showing how an earthquake in New Madrid
can create atmospheric gravity waves, and then surmise that the waves affected a storm system in Kansas and caused it
to generate a tornado.
Earthquake lights are typically seen just ahead of earthquakes or during earthquakes themselves, when tectonic pressure is
at a maximum. If UFO sightings had consistently been followed by or occurred at the same time as earthquakes in those areas,
the correlation would have been established long before now. It's debatable whether the public would have accepted UFOs
as light activity related to earthquakes, or simply blamed aliens for causing earthquakes, but the link would be firmly entrenched
in the public mind by this point.
Of course even die-hard Persinger fans won't deny that there are many other explanations for UFO reports, and like the
earthquake light theory, they involve misperceptions of what the observer(s) is seeing. But considering three factors: 1)
the distinct difference in behavior between earthquake lights and UFOs, 2) lack of a consistent link between UFO reports and
seismic activity in areas where UFOs are spotted, and 3) because of the absences of a strictly physical explanation for earthquake
lights, it seems presumptive to categorize more than a small fraction of UFO sightings as misidentified phenomena related
Persinger and fellow researchers have also pursued research linking unexplained personal experiences, including reports of
alien encounters and hauntings, to exposure to unusual low-level magnetic fields. The basic theory is that the brain is put
into an unsettled state by exposure to inhomogenous fields. While the brain can get comfortable with standard fields that
have set frequencies, fields which are consistently shifting make it difficult for the brain to adapt.
While it is a good
theory, there are some drawbacks to actually linking the results in a laboratory with real-world instances of paranormal activity.
First and foremost, is the fact that these were laboratory results. Dr. Susan Blackmore, who underwent the
process, described it vividly in an article for New Science:
deathly hush descended on the tiny red-lit, sound-proofed room in which I half lay, half sat, in a kind of dentist's reclining
chair. Half an hour alone in here might have seemed a pleasantly restful prospect - except for the converted motorcycle helmet
on my head. Embedded in either side of it, just above my ears, were sets of solenoids about to deliver a pulsed magnetic field
designed to mimic the firing patterns of the temporal lobes of my brain. (New Scientist, 19 November 1994, 29-31)
While it's possible
that the magnets caused some change in her brain function that gave her unusual perceptions and emotional reactions, her experience
is hardly the scenario seen in either active or residual hauntings. Most people who report spectral phenomena, whether it
is actual manifestation or unusual activity such as knocks, objects moving, etc, are not lying down in dentist's chairs
in red-lit soundproof rooms-with motorcycle helmets strapped to their heads, no less--when the activity occurs.
A laboratory situation
like this poses other problems. For example, it relied on strictly subjective responses by the participants. It's very
difficult to statistically quantify these responses-feelings don't have a particularly definitive spectrum. What I call
the blues may be someone else's depression, and may just be a slightly "off" mood to a third person. Similarly,
I may feel a little self-conscious sitting there, knowing that I'm being observed. Others might be more self-conscious,
and translate that into feeling someone unseen was there in the room with them. It's not a far chasm to leap.
Pursuing the theory that magnetic
anomalies can create a feeling of paranormal experiences, Braithwaite et al have conducted field experiments in which they
measured magnetic fields around a bed in a room of a supposedly haunted castle. In my first draft of this article, posted
September 25 2008, I noted that they were at least taking the experiment out of the lab, but I also expressed
reservations at the results.
It was my good fortune to have Braithwaite's co-researcher Maurice Townsend contact me to clarify several points, and
I am pleased to note relevant portions of that correspondence below. I have revised the original article based on his response,
but where possible I have kept the original language so that the reader could get a sense of what Townsend's responses
First, it must be said, as I noted in the initial article, that the researchers did an impeccable job of measuring the magnetic
fields in the room in question, and did pinpoint anomalies close to the area of a bed where someone would lay their head.
The fact that the bed had an iron mesh support would certainly add to the potential of unusual magnetic fields in the general
I commented in the original article that no one was in the bed during the experiments noted in two of the papers describing
MADS, Magnetic Variances Associated with Haunt Type Experiences: A Comparison Using Time-Synchronized Baseline Measurements
and Sleeping with the Entity: A Quantitative Investigation of an English Castle's Reputedly ‘Haunted'
Townsend clarified this by referencing a more recent paper published in 2008 (see Sources below):
In our latest
paper we placed a human subject in the bed and measured the disturbance to the field that ‘tossing and
turning' produced. The measured field disturbances would certainly have qualified as EIFs (Experience Inducing Fields)
[Townsend, personal correspondence]
I noted in the original article that the presence of an actual person may easily have shifted the magnetic field's characteristics
simply by altering pressure on the iron mesh support. Townsend confirmed this supposition:
Further, anyone lying in the bed who was moving
around (suffering a disturbed sleep, for instance) would have continually subjected themselves to EIF type fields. That's
because such movement alters the angle of the iron supporting mesh, so severely disturbing the field (like bending a magnet)
In the original article
I focused on another reason why having a person in the bed would have been important: because they could report what was going
on moment-by-moment to determine whether the field in question would have affected anyone's perceptions at all and generated
any sort of concept of paranormal activity.
Having addressed the issue of using a live subject, Townsend added:
The subject did not report any unusual perceptions. However, this was
not the purpose of the experiment which was to show that EIFs could be produced in a natural situation. Of course, only around
1 in 5 people are susceptible to EIFs and we have no idea if our subject was one of them. (Emphasis mine)
I pointed out in
the original article that the study periods were relatively short and not long enough to establish how long a transitory field
might have been present. Townsend responded to this point, and also clarified certain questions I initially raised about
the actual positioning of furniture in the room, and whether castle staff had been question as to whether the bed had been
a fixture in the room throughout the reported haunting periods:
The field we were interested in primarily was the static distortion to the geomagnetic field. This would have been present
wherever the bed was positioned. We understand the same bed has been in that room throughout the period when anecdotal reports
by independent witnesses were produced. It is an unusual bed, with its iron mesh support, and is probably unique in the castle.
None of the beds we examined (we haven't looked at every bed in the building) had such a mesh or its associated field
Townsend also noted, in response to a question I posed in the initial article, that several other rooms, not just the Tapestry
Room where the bed in question is located, had in fact been studied for unusual fields. He described the findings in those
rooms as unremarkable, and stated that the Tapestry Room "has by far the largest and most consistent set of independent
haunting reports in the castle."
In response to my observation that the mere presence of the field they isolated in that room does not disprove that any paranormal
activity is actually taking place, simply because people exposed to similar fields in a laboratory situation reported unusual
experiences, Townsend agreed. But he noted:
We would not expect EIFs to account for more than a small percentage of haunting cases. It is obvious, from investigating
many hauntings, that they have a number of different causes.
A drawback to the laboratory experiments performed by Persinger is that they do not mirror the real-world activity people
are engaged in when they experience paranormal events. The laboratory test subjects, if Dr. Blackmore's experience is
illustrative, were reclined and motionless.
Originally, I included the MADs experiments in this argument, pointing out that the study presupposed anyone experiencing
paranormal phenomena in that room would be lying in bed. Subsequently, Townsend corrected me, noting that in fact the reports
of unusual noises and other phenomena in that room were from people who were trying to sleep. So I now have to agree that
this is not at all a limitation to their findings: it in fact mirrors the real-world situation.
However, in both cases, the magnetic fields
involved were tied to a specific location, either the head of the bed in the castle or the head-gear worn by the immobile
laboratory subjects. The field reported around the bed's pillow area was not detected further out into the room, hence
it must have been relatively confined field.
Yet in many cases people who experience paranormal activity are not lying down motionless when it happens. They can be walking
through an area, they can be sitting down doing some sort of work, or they can be doing some household chore that requires
them to move around a room. We also cannot discount UFO observers who say they have followed mysterious objects for several
miles in their cars.
On the issue of how moving people would react to such fields, Townsend pointed out:
There are practical problems with wiring up moving subjects
to sensitive magnetometers (though we have looked into it). It is easier to test a stationary subject with moving fields which
simulate someone moving through a complex magnetic environment. On the Tapestry Room bed the field was a relatively simple
static one. However, in a house or car there might be a complex magnetic environment produced by electrical equipment. If
anything, a subject moving around is more likely to be subject to EIFs, rather than less, as they move through the complex
There is an important question: if these anomalous fields are supposed to induce hallucinations that account for at least
a portion of the reports of paranormal activity and alien encounters, just how large are these fields supposed to be? The
field study at the castle indicates they can be confined to quite a small area. Yet people in that castle and in other supposedly
haunted buildings report activity in many rooms, and people in one room can hear activity witnessed by other observers in
another area. Are they all exposed to the same field, or are they exposed to different fields in the same house?
This was an issue
Townsend readily answered;
It is not so much a question of considering the extent of certain magnetic fields but where conditions happen to be right
to produce EIFs. This will depend on the various sources and distorters of fields... EIFs can occur anywhere, anytime if the
conditions are right. Also, as you rightly point out, they can be transitory depending, for instance, on whether certain electrical
equipment is being operated or not. Where multiple witnesses record similar sounds from different locations, you need
to consider the possibility of auditory misperception. Also, there is a possible interplay between EIFs and misperception.
EIFs might put witness's brain into a hallucinatory state making them more susceptible to misperceptions. Two people in
such a state, subjected to the same sensory stimulus, might have the same misperception.
However, in his correspondence
Townsend also noted that in order to experience any unusual effects:
You need to be subjected to EIFs for something in excess of around 20 minutes. In that time EIFs might come and go or people
might simply walk away from them.
I would point out that this time frame would seem
to make it more difficult for two or more people to experience hallucinatory effects from EIFs. And, as mentioned
earlier, Townsend noted only about one in five people respond to these fields. However, simply because a possibility is rare
does not mean it is non-existent, especially since group experiences can be powerful (for example, a group of people feeding
off each other's edginess in being in a supposedly haunted location).
The question arises as to the intrinsic state
of mind of the laboratory test subjects in Persinger's original tests. Being isolated and not having to occupy themselves
with anything except lying in a chair, it might be easy for the mind to wander into a state in which their imaginations might
run away with them. This is a little different than, say, a person trying to concentrate on some take-home work looking up
and seeing a stranger staring back at them and then vanishing, or someone doing the dishes who finds they suddenly have
to dodge a plate thrown by an unseen presence.
It is not especially helpful that the researchers supporting this theory state that the people
most likely to be affected by these unusual magnetic fields have brain damage or predispositions to other brain disruptions,
such as migraines or epilepsy. None of these groups would be expected to respond particularly well to being reclined at an
angle with magnets (or anything else) strapped to their skulls, and could easily report feeling discomfort or slight paranoia.
my initial article, I mentioned that the frequencies involved (1-30 Hz) in these studies are somewhat problematic, because
they correspond with the naturally-occurring ELF band taken up by Schumann resonances. These resonances are generated by lightning
strikes and travel across the globe, using the space between the Earth and the ionosphere as a resonating cavity. In fact,
seismo-electromagnetic researchers have to work assiduously to filter out the Schumann resonances when looking for other ELF
signals that could indicate seismic activity is imminent.
Townsend clarified by noting that it is not just a matter of wavelength, but intensity:
Schumann resonances are incredibly
weak (0.05 nT). They certainly wouldn't qualify as EIFs which are 100 nT minimum. So, no, I wouldn't expect them to
cause ghostly or close encounter experiences.
Aside from Townsend's willingness to address key questions I raised in my initial article, he and Braithwaite should be
commended for performing valuable experiments that could lead to new answers about paranormal phenomena. If they eliminate
some cases as being caused by an identifiable phenomenon, rather than paranormal activity, it will help paranormal investigators
set new parameters so we can focus more energy on cases which cannot be explained. It is by the process of elimination that
we can find the one thing all paranormal investigators agree we are looking for: the truth.
Do I believe that it has yet
been established that anomalous magnetic fields can influence people enough to think they are experiencing paranormal activity?
At this time I have to say no. While there are accepted variables in any verified cause-and-effect situation, some variables
in this case seem somewhat extreme. The researchers say only 20 percent or so of the population will be affected; those most
likely affected have a tendency towards disorders such as migraines or epilepsy or brain-related trauma. If these propensities
make them more susceptible to stimuli that most of us cannot perceive, such as EIFs, could they not also be more susceptible
to other stimuli of a paranormal source?
There are limitations on what can be reliably ascertained from subjective accounts in a laboratory. While fields that meet
the requisite parameters have been isolated in non-laboratory locations, in situ tests have yet to be conducted to
determine how these fields affect people's perceptions. One hopes that in the near future, investigators will be able
to find suitable test subjects, (perhaps even some who were identified by Persinger's tests as being susceptible) to see
whether laboratory results can be repeated in real-life situations.
I want to stress that even though there is no hard evidence
yet that anomalous fields found in real-life situations induce unusual experiences, it is still possible such fields can affect paranormal
activity. In fact, they could either be indicative of other electromagnetic activity in an area which could draw spirits attempting
to feed off the energy, or they could be energy sources for the spirits themselves.
For that matter, who's to say some low-level magnetic fields aren't actually being generated by spirit
activity in an area, or by spirits themselves? This may simply be an attempt on their part to interact with living humans.
Who knows--perhaps Persinger has not disproved the existence of ghosts after all, but inadvertently helped us find a perfect
way to pinpoint them!
Copyright 2008 by Keith Schulenberg
A number of very thorough articles explaining the approach taken
by Braithwaite and Townsend towards paranormal investigation can be found at these sites: the reader is strongly
encouranged to visit these sites.
Magnetic Hallucinations; http://www.assap.org/newsite/articles/Magnetic%20ghosts.html
Townsend, Maurice: Do Ghosts Emit Electromagnetic Fields: http://www.assap.org/newsite/articles/Ghosts%20EMF%20meters%20and%20baselines.html
Townsend, Maurice: Misperceptions and Hallucinations: http://www.assap.org/newsite/articles/Misperception.html
Blackmore, Susan: Alien Abduction: New Scientist, 19 November 1994, 29-31
Braithwaite, Jason: Magnetic Variances Associated with Haunt Type Experiences: A
Comparison Using Time-Synchronized Baseline Measurements: European Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 19, 3-28
Braithwaite, Jason; Townsend, Maurice: Sleeping with the Entity: A Quantitative
Investigation of an English Castle's Reputedly ‘Haunted' Bedroom: European Journal of Parapsychology, Vol
Braithwaite, J.J, & Townsend, M (2008):Sleeping
With the Entity; Part II: Temporally Complex Distortions in the Magnetic field from Human Movement in a Bed Located in an
English Castles Reputedly Haunted Bedroom: European Journal of Parapsychology. 23.1, 90-126
Freund, Friedemann; Takeuchi, Akihiro; Lau, Bobby; Post, Rachel; Keefner, John; Mellon, Joshua;
Al-Manaseer, Akthem: Stress-Induced Charges in the Electrical Conductivity of Igneous Rocks and the Generation of Ground
Currents: TAO, Volume 15, No. 3, September 2004, 437-467
Theodore; Mackie, Randall: What Electrical Measurements Can Say About Changes in Fault Systems; Proc. Natl. Acad.
Sci, USA, Volume 93, 3776-3780, 1996
Persinger, M.A.; The Most
Frequent Criticisms and Questions Concerning the Tectonic Strain Hypothesis; 1999
St. Laurent, France; Derr, John; Freund, Friedemann: Earthquake Lights and the Stress Activation
of Positive Hole Charge Carriers in Rocks:: Physics and Chemistry of the Earth 31 (2006) 305-312
Townsend, Maurice: Personal Correspondence, September 26, 2008