THE JOURNAL OF SPIRITUALITY AND PARANORMAL STUDIES
by Sylvia Hart Wright
Sensitivity to psi appears to run in families. Intensely sensitive people often come from households with a history of psi or strong belief in its reality and/or a history of multiple births such as twins. Mounting evidence also suggests that intensely psychic adults are particularly likely to have suffered severe trauma in their first 10-12 years. In general, women tend to be more psychic than men. The person least likely to be sensitive to psi is a man who had a generally pleasant childhood, is not the product of a multiple birth, and comes from a family with no history of psychic experiences or belief in psychic powers. In the special case of after-death communication, people with limited psychic gifts may nonetheless sense the presence of departed loved ones with whom they have an especially strong bond. Introduction Psychic powers vary widely. It’s commonplace for a person to answer the phone and exclaim to the caller, “Oh, I was just thinking of you.” Is that person psychic? Probably only to a minor degree, if at all. By contrast, intensely psychic people may feel bombarded by uninvited impressions of others’ thoughts, of events happening at a distance or events still to come. Sometimes they receive messages from the dead for themselves or someone else. Mediums and people who practice automatic writing move on to invite such impressions; they strive to obtain them by paranormal means. But what empowers them to do so? Answering this question may help us respond to those skeptics who believe that since they don’t receive psychic impressions, nobody does. Many skeptics seem to assume that the capacity to receive information via paranormal routes, if it exists at all, should be present in all of us to a significant degree. A growing body of evidence suggests quite the opposite. Certain kinds of backgrounds may make one almost impervious to paranormal messages—or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge them when they come. Intense sensitivity to psi would seem to stem from inherited abilities, from family belief in the reality of psi, and/or from having experienced a high degree of stress in childhood. In this paper, I will try to outline what some of these influences may be. Genetic Inheritance and Family Expectations It’s widely accepted that sensitivity to psi runs in families. In cultures where shamanism is recognized, the role of shaman is often hereditary, most typically passed from father to son (Eliade, 1964). Two sisters, Kate and Maggie Fox, were responsible for the birth of Spiritualism. Both of them performed for years as mediums, not infrequently attaining veridical results. At times their older sister, Leah, also served as a medium (Weisberg, 2004). ^ Detailed evidence for familial patterns of psi has been supplied by a series of studies of second sight done in Scotland by Shari Cohn (Cohn, 183 Childhood Influences 1999A, 1999B, 1999C). This form of clairvoyance, which can comprise remote viewing, retrocognition and precognition, is believed to be particularly common in the Highlands and Westem Isles of Scotland. In the early 1990s, Cohn distributed a long questionnaire to hundreds of Scots and people of Scottish ancestry living abroad, most of whom had experienced psi. Several of her findings, based on 208 completed responses, matched those of earlier studies. Thus, for instance, she found that women were more likely to have second sight than men. Over a hundred years ago, the Society of Psychical Research’s Census of Hallucinations reported that women were more than half again as likely as men to report having had a psi experience. (Sid gwick, Johnson, Myers, Podmore and Sidgwick, 1894, p. 152-153). Cohn also found that almost 10% of those who returned her questionnaire were twins—though twins make up less than 3% of the general population. Many of those who weren’t twins reported that they had twins in their family. The remarkable sensitivity of twins to psi has been noted elsewhere in the literature (Playfair, 1999,2002).  In addition, striking anecdotal evidence of the unusual psychic powers of children of multiple births appears in anthropologist Margaret Mead’s description of one of her forebears. (Mead, 1975, p. 51-52) “Grandma … told me about Great-Aunt Louisian, who could read people’s minds and tell them everything they had said about her and who had been a triplet and so small when she was bom that she could fit into a quart cup…. I saw the house in which my father’s cousin Cally had heard the sound of a ghostly coffin bumping on the stairs until her mother made her get down on her knees and promise never again to indulge in that strange, outlandish Aunt-Louisian behavior.” Later in the decade Cohn analyzed 130 family histories, using standard methods from genetics, and determined that there was a strong tendency for second sight to run in families In my own work also, I have found a strong association between spending your early childhood years in an environment where psi is acknowledged and experiencing it yourself (Wright, 1999,2002). It should how^ever be noted that family views regarding psychic perception affect the nurture as well as the nature of young family members. Negative attitudes toward psi—of ten related to rigidly materialistic values—may lead highly intuitive yoimgsters to repress their psychic powers. By contrast, being taught that receiving information via paranormal means is possible and accepted liberates children to do so themselves. Mediums may even set psychic tasks for their kids to do. One third-generation spirit rnedium told sociologist Charles Emmoris (Emmor\s, 1998) that when she told her mother there was a man standing in the comer, her mother asked, “What’s his name?” Another medium reported that her grandmother used to play psychic games with her. For instance, she would hide a key and say, “Become the key, then see where you are.” Another Contributing Factor: Childhood Stress According to a growing body of data, experiencing intense stress in childhood also may heighten one’s psychic powers. Needless to say, severe trauma in one’s early years can in some cases have highly und^esirable aftereffects such as depression, learning and memory disorders, and difficulty identifying and bonding with others. Such aftereffects are a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, akin to the experience of battle scarred war veterans (Bremner, 1999; Schwarz and Perry, 1994). Many of its survi- 184 THE JOURNAL OF SPIRITUALITY AND PARANORMAL STUDIES vors are society’s walking wounded. No feeling person could want their numbers to increase. Nonetheless, responsible scholarship demands that we acknowledge this apparent connection. What is more, recent genetic research suggests that a variant form of gene related to the delivery of serotonin may protect some sufferers of childhood abuse from its more harmful consequences (Caspi, Sugden. Moffitt, Taylor, Craig, Harrington, McClay, Mill, Martin, Braithwaite, and Poulton, 2003). Brad Steiger, who for decades interviewed mediums and other psychically gifted individuals, reported that “nearly every medium has undergone a series of personal crises in his childhood or youth” (Steiger, 1982, p. 129). He cited an observation by Gardner Murphy, former president of the American Psychological Association, that “severe illness, things that are biologically or in a broader sense personal crises—dismpting, alerting situations” (p. 129) may lead to heightened psychic awareness. Nonetheless Steiger noted that most mediums—few of^whom earn their living as psychics—are well-adjusted, enthusiastic extroverts of at least average inteUigence p. 128). A classic study of over 1400 Americans (the NORC-Luce Foundation Basic Belief Study), done at the National Opinion Research Center associated with University of Chicago, yielded interesting results regarding those who scored especially high for psi, reporting clairvoyance, ESP and/or deja VU experiences (Greeley, 1975). They were more likely than others to report a high level of family tension during their early years: strained relationships between their parents, between themselves and their fathers, and to a lesser degree between themselves and their mothers. On the other hand, their scores for “life satisfaction” now and expected five years hence were substantially above average (p. 17-24). Summarizing these data, the American sociologist Andrew Greeley wrote, “Frequent psychic experience, it would appear, is ’caused’ in part by growing up in a tense family but has no direct relationship with current family tension.” Two Canadian researchers, studying the relationship between childhood parenting and creativity in adulthood found that creative adults were especially likely to come from families where mother and father openly disagreed. “Parental conflict/’ they reported, “was significantly positively related to later adult levels of creativity” (Koestner and Walker, 1999). The significance of experiences in early childhood, up to the age of 10—and even later for especially bright youngsters—cannot be overemphasized. In the 1990s, neurobiologists came to understand that the infant brain contains a huge number of neurons, which develop synapses or are pruned according to what some call a “use-it-or-lose-it” principle. As one scientist working in this field has pointed out (Siegel, 1999, p. 13-14) “experience early in life may be especially crucial in organizing the way the basic structures of the brain develop. For example, traumatic experiences early in life may have more profound effects on the ‘deeper’ structures of the brain, which. .. enable the mind to respond later to stress. Thus we see that abused children have elevated baseline and reactive stress hormone levels … . Genes contain the information for the general organization of the brain’s structure but experience determines which genes become expressed, how and when. The expression of genes leads to the production of proteins that enable neuronal growth and the formation of new synapses. Experience—the 185 Childhood Influences activation of specific neuronal pathways—therefore directly shapes gene expression and leads to the maintenance, creation, and strengthening of the connections that form the neural substrate of the mind.” With respect to the brain development of especially bright youngsters, recent research at the National Institute of Mental Health revealed differences between their brain development and that of less gifted children. Brain scans showed that “children with the highest IQs began with a relatively thin cortex—the folded outer layer of the brain that is involved in complex thinking—which rapidly grew thicker before reaching a peak and then rapidly becoming thiimer.” Children of average intelligence had a thicker cortex around age 6, but by around 13 it was thirmer thari in children of superior intelligence.” A Washington Post article (www.washingtonpost. com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/29/AR2006032902182.html) on this study, which was headed by lead investigator Philip Shaw, reported that “the cortex continued to thicken in gifted children until around age 11 or 12, much later than in children of average intelligence, whose cortex thickening peaked by age 8.” These findings—in conjunction with case histories I’ve collected in my own research—suggest that highly intelligent youngsters who experience intense trauma primarily in their pre-teen years may still be impressionable enough at that stage of their development to develop greater than average psychic powers. In the 1980s and early 1990s, several psychologists noticed that people who had endured severe stress in childhood were particularly likely to report having psychic experiences. They concluded that childhood trauma impels suffering youngsters to dissociate, that is, to divert their conscious focus from the here and now, turning their attention to fantasy. But then the British psychologist Tony Lawrence, using a series of statistical tests, showed that a stronger link existed between trauma and psychic experience than between trauma and fantasy (Lawrence, 1995). “You have this direct link from childhood trauma to paranormal experience…. And you don’t necessarily have to be a good fantasizer to get that paranormal experience coming in…. Even people with low levels of childhood fantasy could still experience the paranormal because they have trauma in their lives” (Lawrence, 1999). Kenneth Ring has observed that adults who report near-death and UFO experiences are particularly likely to report childhood abuse and trauma (Ring, 1992, p. 142-144). However, he sees them as empowered by these earlier ordeals to be more perceptive of alternate realities. As Ring puts it, “Growing up under such conditions tends to stimulate the development of a dissociative response style as a means of psychological defense. After all, a child who is exposed to either the threat or actuality of physical violence, sexual abuse, or other severe travimas, will be strongly motivated selectively to ‘tune out’ those aspects of his physical and social world … by dissociating. By doing so … he is more likely to ‘tune into’ other realities….” [Original italics] In an autobiographical work Eileen Garrett, one of the greatest mediums of the past century, described just such a cormection between childhood trauma, accompanied by positive input regarding the paranormal, and the development of her remarkable psychic powers (Garrett, 2002). From earliest childhood, Garrett endured virtually daily abuse from the 186 THE JOURNAL OF SPIRITUALITY AND PARANORMAL STUDIES aunt who raised her. Garrett’s well-to-do Irish Protestant mother had defied family expectations by marrying a Spanish Catholic with “neither position nor money.” Then both committed suicide shortly after the birth of their child, (p. 49-51) Garrett’s aunt, determined to guide her tiny charge to a different path, was exceedingly hard on her. By the time Garrett was four, she sensed the presence of what are customarily dismissed as “imaginary friends.” She soon came to see auras and once got into particular trouble by seeing a vision of a relative who—unknown to the household at the time—had just died. Though most of the people in Garrett’s environment disparaged what she sensed, an old Roma woman took the little girl under her wing and led her to respect her own psychic gifts, teaching her how to read cards and interpret omens. Garrett quotes the gypsy as telling her, “Do not be unhappy if others do not believe you. It is not given to everyone to know and see such things…. Ever since I could walk and talk, I have seen and heard things beyond man’s understanding, for I was bom with the ‘seeing eye’ and have the power to work charms and to heal.” (p. 34) Clearly, the young sensitive gained validation from the old psychic who befriended her. As a grown woman, Garrett sought to understand how she had acquired her talents as a medium. “I saw that the trance state might be a part of the pattem of my own development. I began to comprehend how the pain and suffering of my early days had made me withdraw from the world of people. Indeed, I had been able to withdraw so completely that, although I had seen my aunt’s lips moving as she scolded me, not a word of what she said penetrated my hearing. I remembered how, when the pain or punishment became almost imbearable, I could retire within myself and become numb, negating the painful effects…. I had unconsciously developed the technique of escape in order to avoid suffering. I could now perceive how this practice had perhaps prepared the way for the development of the trance state” (p. 90-91). Garrett’s comments clearly indicate that such “tuming off,” separating mentally from the immediate world around, doesn’t have to be a sign of mental illness. Rather it can be both a survival mechanism and a meditative practice, which may lead to heightened psychic awareness. Findings from Recent Interviews Since 1998,1 have interviewed over a hundred people about their experiences of spontaneous after-death communication (ADC), unexpectedly sensing contact with lost relatives, friends and others. Such experiences do not involve mediums and, unlike near-death experiences, they generally happen when the perceiver is perfectly well. In contrast to most researchers in this field, it was my plan from ihe start not to ask merely what my interviewees’ psi experiences had been but also to leam something about the homes in which they spent their early years. The responses I’ve received strongly suggest that stress in early childhood tends to create greater than average psychic powers in adults. In the course of informal, rather free-form interviews, I asked whether the household in which they grew up was conventionally religious and whether the adults in it had any interest or belief in the paranormal. The typical interview lasted 45 minutes; the shortest took 20 minutes, the longest a full two hours. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed 187 Childhood Influences (Wright, 1999. P. 259-260). Perhaps because I told my informants that I myself had sensed my late husband’s presence many times since I was widowed, invited them to talk freely about themselves and what they had sensed, and asked questions about details of their accounts, most of them tended to ramble on and, in the course of often very emotional confidences, to tell me extremely personal things. By the time I had completed my first 15 interviews, it struck me that five of my interviewees had said or suggested that one or both of their parents were alcoholics. This although, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, at that time only about 7% of the adult American population had serious problems with drinking, and no major decline in alcoholism had occurred since my informants were children (National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 1998). So I added a deliberately vague inquiry to my questionnaire: “Would you say that your childhood was generally pleasant or was it difficult?” I tried to get back to those whom I’d already interviewed who hadn’t covered this issue in their earlier responses. And I asked this question of all my later informants, but only after they had told me about whatever psi experiences they could recall or chose to share with me. If the answer was “generally pleasant,” I didn’t pursue it further. (Since those who preferred not to discuss whatever anguish they might have suffered as kids were spared such pain, my numbers for those who had stressful childhoods are probably an undercount.) If the answer was “difficult” or “both pleasant and difficult,” I asked for details. Over a third of the informants from whom I collected these data reported having one or two alcoholic parents or an alcoholic relative—an uncle or grandfather—present in the home. The mother of one woman, a gifted medium as well as a social worker, was addicted to prescription opiates. When this woman was three, her mother smothered her. Only the intervention of a doctor who lived across the street saved her life. The parents of another woman were addicted to both drugs and alcohol. Many adult children of alcoholics reported suffering frequent beatings or frequently seeing/hearing others in their family beaten. Even where there wasn’t significant physical abuse, there was likely to be massive neglect and other problems. One clairvoyant, the daughter of an alcoholic mother, recalled that when she and her sister came home from school, they never knew whether they’d find her passed out on the kitchen floor. An intemationally respected remote viewer who is a twin as well as the son of two drunkards, said that though there was no physical abuse in his home, there were lots of battles between his parents about childrearing and paying bills. “All kinds of strange things that kids shouldn’t have to deal with, we had to deal with on a regular basis. It’s sort of the Jekyll and Hyde story. You become ultra-sensitive in order to judge the current state of affairs with one or the other parent. The drimker they are, the more Mr. Hyde they are.” This informant, like a number of others, felt that he had developed psychic powers to protect himself, rather than as a byproduct of dissociation. Still another group proposed a third, though related theory. Several informants reported that their alcoholic father was himself psychic but, they believed, drank to numb that side of him. This theory argues that, in these cases, both father and child are genetically predisposed to have 188 THE JOURNAL OF SPIRITUALITY AND PARANORMAL STUDIES psychic powers. Of course, one form of causation need not preclude any other; influences may be additive. Soon another “difficult” pattern emerged in the early life of sensitives. Almost a third—primarily not from alcoholic homes—reported that they had come from authoritarian/angry/abusive homes where instant, total obedience was demanded, or that they had unloving parents with quick, fiery tempers, which they often unleashed on their children. (One interviewee described her father as a “rage-o-holic”) Many of them came from prosperous homes; their rage-o-holic parents often held positions of authority and respect in the community. Here are some of their childhood memories: Unthinking obedience was demanded. We were not allowed to fight, we were not allowed to say no, we had to jump when we were spoken to. I’m the only one that was never beaten with a strap. The others (her older siblings) all got it. [From a singer and music teacher] My mother was real psychotic. She never knew whether she wanted to love me or hate me or kill me, so most of my childhood she just beat me up a lot. [From a fabric artist who creates unique costumes for operatic and rock performers] My father was a womanizer and beat us. If we lied or anything…. I never lied, didn’t dare, but he’d think you did and ohh …. Of course the boys got it more than the girls but the girls got it too. Whenever my mother and Dad had an argument, she’d get a migraine and have to vomit. [From a retired secretary and social worker] Sara, an intensely psychic woman, suffered different kinds of abuse: her father used her sexually from the age of six. Well into adulthood she felt unexplained tension in her shoulders. It went away when she retrieved a memory of watching her father choke her mother (not fatally). Clearly the stress of her childhood damaged her. A brilliant woman in her early forties—for fun she taught herself Chinese—Sara only returned to college and eamed her degree in her late thirties. Until then, her primary occupations had been delivering newspapers and cleaning other people’s houses. Other sources of intense stress in childhood reported to me have included losing one’s mother while a toddler, moving every three months for years at a time, having two bipolar parents, and enduring numerous operations to correct a congenital deformity. Some of the most sensitive of my interviewees—people who had sensed numerous after-death communications and were clairvoyant in other ways as well—as children experienced both alcoholic and rage-o-holic behavior in the home, or some other combination of those genetic and childhood influences which appear to heighten sensitivity to psi. Communal experiences like living through the Blitz do not seem to have had impact of this sort. Sensing Psi without Childhood Stress As described earlier, genetic factors such as coming from a psychic family or being a twin may predispose someone to experience psi. But a large percentage of people, especially women, who don’t come from such a background and, in addition, enjoyed generally pleasant childhoods may well at some time have one or more intense experiences of after-death communication. Research from around the world documents that people who have lost a life partner are particularly likely to sense their presence 189 Childhood Influences after death. Groundbreaking work done by W. Dewi Rees suggests factors, which may make some bereaved spouses more likely to sense ADCs than others (Rees, 1971). Rees, a physician, interviewed 66 widowers and 227 widowers in an area of Wales, almost all of those healthy enough to be interviewed. Although he did not count in his tally observations of symbolic events, or vivid dreams that seemed like a visit—frequent forms of after-death communication—he still found that half of the widowers and 46% of the widows had sensed some kind of after-death communication from their departed mate. Perhaps because Rees did not count certain kinds of communication, his results differ from later research in the field (e.g. Olson, Suddeth, Peterson and Egelhoff, 1985; Grimby, 1993; Greeley, 1989; and Wright, 1999) in which widows were more likely to report ADCs than widowers. The bereaved partners who had ADCs were not particularly depressed or socially isolated. Instead, they were more likely to have had longer marriages, happier marriages, and marriages with children. In other words the more strongly the surviving partner had bonded with his or her mate, the more likely they were to sense that partner’s presence thereafter. Though ADCs were most likely to occur within the first year after bereavement, sometimes they recurred for years, even decades. They might even continue after the widowed spouse remarried. Some departed spirits seem to be more effective or more frequent commimicators than others (Berger, 1987). Similarly, in my own work I have found that people with no family history of childhood trauma or belief in psi nonetheless may experience contact with a discamate deeply meaningful in their life: a child, a parent or a beloved life partner. T3^ically such interviewees report no other psi experiences before this life-changing event. But since ADCs tend to open the minds of experiencers to the reality of psi, thereafter they may be more receptive to psychic messages. Genetic Protection from Childhood Stress As mentioned toward the beginning of this article, intense trauma in childhood may be associated with depression and other negative consequences in adulthood. Nonetheless, the findings of numerous researchers, myself included, indicate that many people with highly troubled childhoods seem to do remarkably well as adults. Recent research in the field of genetics argues that possession of a variant form of a particular gene may protect against some of the problems often triggered by stressful childhoods (Caspi, Sugden, Moffitt, Taylor, Craig, Harringtron, McClay, Mill, Martin, Braithwaite, and Poulton), 2003). A team of researchers worked in New Zealand with 847 Caucasian, non-Maori members of a health and development study who had been assessed regularly since the age of three. This cohort was virtually intact at the age of 26 years. The team determined which form of the serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene each subject had. “The serotonin system,” they explained, “provides a logical source of candidate genes for depression, because this system is the target of selective serotonin reuptake-inhibitor drugs that are effective in treating depression.” Testing “whether adult depression was predicted by the interaction between 5-HTTLPR [the 5-HTT gene-linked polymorphic region] and childhood mistreatment that occurred during the first decade of life … [they found] that childhood mistreatment predicted adult depression only among indi- 190 THE JOURNAL OF SPIRITUALITY AND PARANORMAL STUDIES viduals carrying an s allele but not among 1/1 homozygotes.” It was their conclusion that “this epidemiological study … provides evidence [that] an individual’s response to environmental insults is moderated by his or her genetic makeup.” Conclusions Much evidence indicates that the person least likely to receive information via paranormal routes is a man who enjoyed a generally happy childhood, who is not a twin, and who comes from a family with no interest or belief in the paranormal. Predictors for particular sensitivity to psi are: 1) coming from a family with a history of psi and/or where psychic powers are accepted as a fact of life; 2) being a child of a multiple birth, e.g., a twin or triplet, and 3) suffering serious trauma in one’s first 10-12 years of life. Two frequent sources of trauma are living in a home where one or more adults are alcoholics and living with a habitually angry and abusive parent. Especially gifted psychics frequently have experienced more than one of the above circumstances. In general, women are more psychic than men. Although intense trauma in childhood may have negative consequences such as depression in adulthood, possession of a variant form of a gene related to the body’s use of serotonin might protect against such consequences. In the special case of after-death communication, people with limited psychic gifts nonetheless often ser\se the presence of departed loved ones with whom they have an especially strong bond. The role of the communicator must not be overlooked. It would appear that some spirits reach out to the living more effectively or frequently than others.