One doesn’t typically get the chills during a PowerPoint presentation in a well-heated conference room. But ghost stories were the hot topic at a two-day event in San Francisco’s Cowell Theater billed as the first scientific conference on the afterlife for a general audience.
Take, for example, a tale spun by “Professor Paranormal” Loyd Auerbach, a former teacher in the now-closed parapsychology department of Pleasant Hill’s John F. Kennedy University, about a ghost named Lois.
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The story is set in the mid-’80s, when a family moved to an old Victorian house in Livermore. Soon after settling in, they became aware of a ghost named Lois, the former owner of the house, who was developing a relationship with the 12-year-old son. The boy told his family that he spoke to Lois daily. “Apparently,” Auerbach said, “Lois even helped him with his homework.”
Auerbach was intrigued. He and two students piled into a car with some rudimentary recording equipment and headed to Livermore, casually discussing stuff like one student’s former dance career and Auerbach’s thoughts on purchasing a new car. When they got to the house, they met the boy. He said Lois was distressed. They had just watched “Ghostbusters” on television together, and she was worried they’d bring equipment to vaporize her. Auerbach assured him this wasn’t the case. Well, the boy said, then Lois wants to know whether the student would continue dancing and what color car Auerbach wanted. They were floored.
Auerbach said he checked the tape – the three didn’t mention anything they had discussed in the car with the boy. He also checked the car for bugs. Nothing. The story, from Lois, was that she had been nervous about their visit and didn’t believe they wouldn’t try to hurt her, so she rode with them in the car. Auerbach and his team also investigated details of Lois’ life relayed by the preteen. It all checked out.
Auerbach holds a master’s degree in parapsychology, has written seven books on the subject and has been a fixture on the paranormal lecture and television circuits for more than a decade. He – and several other speakers at the conference, titled Investigations of Consciousness and the Unseen World: Proof of an Afterlife – exist in a strange professional realm that encompasses rigorous academic training, spiritualism and sometimes fraud.
But the other academics at the conference didn’t lack for degrees. There was Dean Radin, who began his career in electrical engineering and cybernetics at the University of Illinois before moving on to psychic phenomena at the University of Edinburgh, Princeton University and the University of Nevada. Also represented were Gary E. Schwartz, a Harvard-educated, former Yale professor who now teaches psychiatry, psychology, medicine, neurology and surgery at the University of Arizona, and University of Virginia Division of Perceptual Studies researchers Dr. Jim Tucker and Dr. Bruce Greyson.
These academics take their paranormal work seriously; they also risk ridicule on campus and struggle to find sources of funding to investigate what happens after we die. One of the issues they face is whether an afterlife is provable by scientific method. Some, like Julie Beischel, who co-founded Arizona’s Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential, think it is.
“This is how science works,” Beischel said. “There’s a question and science investigates it. You can’t draw a line and say, no, that’s outside of science. Science doesn’t have any boundaries in what it can investigate.”
The mood at the death-centered event was anything but grim. Between presentations the 170 or so attendees chatted in the small foyer of Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater. The crowd displayed certain Northern Californian traits – purple was a favorite color, scarves and cloaks abounded, and at least one person addressed the conference topic sartorially, with a sweatshirt that proclaimed, “I’ve Had A Difficult Few Past Lives.”
For all the hugs and smiles and the scientifically coded words and acronyms – “NDE” means “near death experience” and “OOB” stands for “out-of-body experience” – many people had a simple reason for attending: grief.
The Forever Family Foundation, the New York nonprofit that sponsored the conference and that promotes scientific inquiry into the afterlife, was started by grief-stricken parents, Bob and Phran Ginsberg, whose 15-year-old daughter, Bailey, died in 2002. Bob Ginsberg, who works in the insurance business, said that until his daughter’s death he never contemplated the paranormal or the possibility of an afterlife.
“The morning of Sept. 2, 2002, Phran woke me up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. She was white as a ghost, and said, ‘Something horrible is going to happen today,’ ” Ginsberg said in a phone conversation from his home in Oceanside, N.Y. “Long story short, my son and daughter were in a car accident that night, and my daughter passed away.
“Months later, when the shock wears off, I wondered, ‘What happened? Was that precognition? Someone sending a message?’ At the time I wasn’t open to such talk, but logically how do you explain it?
“I needed evidence. I needed to hear from scientists and researchers.” His foundation now has 3,000 members.
Forever Family Foundation member Diane Kaspari of Portola Valley attended the conference with her husband, Bill. They lost their son in a car crash when he was in college. After that happened, she said she started researching, reading and paying attention to “lots of things that weren’t pure coincidence.”
“The night he died, I was crying terribly. I lay down and thought, ‘Where are you?’ ” she remembered, “and then I felt this incredible warmth, and I heard him – it wasn’t an actual voice, but a telepathic one – say, ‘It’s OK, Mom, it’s no big deal. I’m still here.’ It was so perfect. That’s exactly how he talked.”
Scientists being scientists, no one stated outright at the conference that an afterlife had been proved, and no one seemed interested in espousing any particular vision of it. Religious views were never mentioned.
The conference topics – from ghosts, to near-death experiences, to an especially interesting presentation on reincarnation reports from children – were designed to explore the disconnect between the “mind” and the “brain.” If one could be shown to operate without the other, such as a brain-dead person who was resuscitated and then offered details of a hospital scene or a particularly well-documented reincarnation – then a case could be made for consciousness existing outside of the physical body.
Greyson, director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia’s department of psychiatric medicine, related a case where a patient was put under anesthesia for brain surgery and the brain drained of blood to the point where no brain waves were detectable. After the operation, the patient reported on aspects of the surgery in impossible detail.
In another case, Greyson said a patient whose heart stopped beating claimed to have an out-of-body experience while technically dead. The patient said while floating above the hospital, she saw a red shoe on a ledge of the hospital building, far from the room. Sure enough, a nurse recovered a red shoe from the unlikely spot.
But for as much anecdotal evidence and data as the presenters gave, there was recognition that believing in the paranormal is difficult without a direct experience.
“I feel sorry for the skeptics,” said Kaspari. “They’re the ones who’ve already made up their mind.”
By Reyhan Harmanci, sfgate.com