The Origins of Subjective Anomalous Experience

Text and Figures 2.1 -2.4 © David F Marks, 2022

Reproduced from Chapter 2 of Psychology and the Paranormal by David F Marks (2020), Sage, London.

In any developed science, there is, of necessity, a wide gap between the diverse facts of observation and those few types of observed fact which form the basis of important generalizations and from which a body of theory is then derived. For the very act of reducing observation to order involves the neglect of many pertinent facts; a theory which attempted to take account of everything would be smothered by its own complexity. Thus all generalizations and theories necessarily refer to artificially simplified situations.

Alfred North Whitehead (1938, p. 171)

OUTLINE:

The process of theory construction in science means solving a scientific jigsaw puzzle: from the multiple pieces emerges one coherent picture. The puzzle here is why one large group of individuals have subjective paranormal experiences (SPEs) and an almost equal number do not. The jigsaw becomes a theory of SPE which highlights factors in childhood, notably trauma. The ‘Trauma + Dissociation’ Theory links childhood trauma with dissociation, fantasy, coping and SPE into one causal chain. The theory holds that childhood trauma causes depersonalization, compartmentalization and defensive fantasy to regain feelings of safety and control. The ‘Trauma + Dissociation’ theory  fits a large body of findings from multiple studies that are reviewed in this chapter.[1]

EXISTING THEORIES OF SPE

Why do so many people experience anomalous paranormal experiences while others do not?  Like all natural phenomena, variation in SPE follow a normal distribution.  Genetic and epigenetic variations are almost certainly part of the answer, as all human traits are heritable to a certain extent. Yet, an environmental theory is necessary to explain the non-genetic part of the variation.  What differentiates people with paranormal experience from the others?  To date, there have been three main theories:

1)Socialization to a Cultural Source, absorbing paranormal beliefs and experiences through exposure to family members and close friends with a shared culture of paranormal belief, e.g. joining religious, cultist groups, reading astrology columns or New Age literature, watching paranormal-themed entertainment on television (Sparks and Miller, 2001), YouTube, games and social media that promote paranormal content. The Cultural Source theory points to the relevance of the cultural context of paranormal experience, but this theory does not adequately explain the huge variations that exist between people in the number and intensity of their paranormal beliefs and experiences.

2)The Social Marginality Theory suggests that paranormal experiences are more likely in socially marginal people with limited education, low income, low social status, ethnic minorities, unstable sexual relationships and few friendships (Bainbridge, 1978). The world of the paranormal is said to provide compensation for the pressures arising from ‘structured social marginality’. However, this theory is inconsistent with the observation that a widely diverse population reports paranormal experiences, not only people who can be categorized as socially marginal (Emmons and Sobal, 1981; Carsto et al., 2014).

3)The Experiential Source Theory of McCLenon (1994) suggests that anomalous experiences have a universal physiological basis, which acts as a source of recurring beliefs in spirits, souls, life after death, and magical abilities. McClenon’s (2000)content analysis of a collection of 1215 accounts of anomalous experiences indicated to him that experiences of apparitions, paranormal dreams, and waking extrasensory perceptions have uniform structures and that these experiences coincide with recurring ideas within folk traditions.  However, McClenon’s Source Theory is speculative and, to date, it has not received the attention it deserves; the theoretical predictions require testing by independent researchers.  At this point, it is impossible to say whether the theory is correct or incorrect, or correct for some people and incorrect for others.

In outlining the case I am presenting here, it is necessary to review the complex literature about a topic of great social relevance and sensitivity: the incidence of childhood trauma and abuse, and the associated processes of dissociation, fantasy proneness and SPE. Thousands of relevant studies have been conducted and it is necessary to pinpoint the ones that provide key pieces in the puzzle.  One by one, the jiggled up pieces of a large theoretical jigsaw are unscrambled and fitted into a single picture of the origin of SPEs. Please bear with me, because it is a puzzle that takes time and patience to solve.

CHILD ABUSE, DISSOCIATION[2] AND SPE

Over the past decade, ‘celebrity’ child abuse cases have brought the issue into a spotlight of public attention: in 2012, the Jimmy Savile scandal hit the headlines in the UK; in 2019, the Michael Jackson scandal created a storm of controversy in the US. Also in 2019,  the conviction of the Pope’s closest advisor, Cardinal George Pell in Australia for sexual abuse, led Pope Benedict XVI to apologize for many cases of proven child sexual abuse involving priests. This issue is far larger than the metaphorical ‘elephant in the room’, it is a Blue Whale.

David Finkelhor (1994, 2008; Finkelhor et al., 2014) at the University of New Hampshire

suggests that 20% of  girls and 5% of boys in the US fall victim of child sexual abuse. Furthermore, during a one-year period, 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized, and, over the course of their lifetime, 28% of youth aged 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an increase in the reporting of childhood sexual abuse in the US. The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau (2010) reported that the vast majority of victimized children,78.3%, suffer neglect, 17.6% suffer physical abuse and 9.2% are sexually assaulted, yet the impact can be equally profound across all categories. The National Institute of Justice (2003) suggested that 3 out of 4 sexually assaulted adolescents were victimized by someone they knew well. More than 25% of children and adolescents in the US  are exposed to a traumatic event by the age of 16, and many are exposed to repeated events (Costello, Erkanli, Fairbank, & Angold, 2002).

Since the late 1980s, the detrimental effects of child sexual abuse (CSA) on the well-being of victims has been systematically researched. A child victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness, an abnormal or distorted view of sex, becomes withdrawn and mistrustful of adults, or even suicidal (Cohen, Deblinger, Mannarino & Steer, 2004; Davis & Petretic-Jackson, 2000;  Finkelhor, 1987; Marshall, Marshall, Serran & O’Brien, 2009; Paolucci, Genuis, & Violato, 2001; Münzer, Fegert & Goldbeck, 2016; Putnam & Trickett, 1993; Romano & De Luca, 2001). The psychological understanding of childhood trauma draws on the clinical theorizing of the French psychologist, Pierre Janet (1859 – 1947; Ellenberger, 1970; Van der Hart and Horst, 1989).  Pierre Janet is credited as being of three ‘founding fathers’ of Psychology along with Wilhelm Wundt and William James, both of whom also makes appearances in this book. Janet was interested in the integration of experiences associated with trauma which he found associated with “vehement emotion and a destruction of the psychological system”, a process that he called “dissociation” (Van der Kolk and van der Hart, 1989, p. 1532).  Dissociation is a process that may be crucial to our understanding of anomalous experience and is a core construct of this field.  Dissociation occurs when mental functions are alleged to split into different systems or ‘compartments’. The splitting is uncontrolled and unpredictable and can create multiple difficulties and complexities for the individual’s stream of consciousness.  ‘Compartmentalized’ or automatic parts can exist outside of conscious awareness or memory recall (Ludwig, 1983, p. 93; Ellenberger, 1970; Van der Kolk and van der Hart, 1989). Janet’s dissociation theory focused on the role of dissociation, and especially compartmentalization, in conditions induced by trauma and is relevant for research into traumatic stress and posttraumatic ‘hysteria’ (Van der Hart and Horst, 1989).

Dissociation has been defined as: “an experienced loss of information or control over mental processes that, under normal circumstances, are available to conscious awareness, self-attribution, or control, in relation to the individual’s age and cognitive development” (Cardeña & Carlson, 2011, p.246). The most extreme form of dissociation occurs in dissociative identity disorder (DID), a psychiatric condition with two or more distinct personality states, including memory gaps and discontinuity in sense of agency and selfhood.  The evidence suggests that DID is most prevalent in emergency psychiatric settings in approximately 1% of the general population (Dorahy, et al., 2014).  Hence the vast majority of people experiencing dissociation do not suffer from the extreme symptoms of DID. Typically, sufferers of DID display alterations known as “alters” whereby their mental functions are changed unpredictably (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).  DID was popularized in books The Three Faces of Eve (Thigpen & Cleckley, 1957) and Sybil (Schreiber, 1973) and also adapted into films. Alters are often depicted with disturbed or violent behaviours such as occurs in Stevenson’s (1886/1924), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Santoro, Costanzo and Schimmenti (2019) review the prominence and misrepresentation of DID in popular culture, films, games and videos.  Research indicates that DID frequently originates in repeated episodes of abuse and neglect in a child’s relationship with attachment figures (Dorahy et al., 2014; Schimmenti, 2017; 2018).

Meta-analysis of research on dissociation in psychiatric disorders using the Dissociative Experiences Scale (Lyssenko et al., 2017) finds that the largest dissociation scores occur in DID, followed by PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and conversion disorder. Patients with somatic symptom disorder, substance-related and addictive disorders, feeding and eating disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, OCD, and most affective disorders also show raised dissociation scores. Dissociation can also be benign, without ill effects or disturbances to everyday behaviour or conscious experience, beyond perhaps some limited impact on dreaming (Giesbrecht & Merckelbach, 2006).

In dissociation there is a dichotomy between two qualitatively different phenomena, ‘detachment’ and ‘compartmentalization’ (Holmes et al., 2005).  Detachment incorporates depersonalization, derealization and similar phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, all of which can occur in combination (Sierra & Berrios, 1998). Detachment involves feelings of being ‘spaced out’, ‘unreal’ or ‘in a dream’. Patients may have SPEs in which events seem as though they are not really happening, with the external world seeming pallid and two-dimensional. ‘Peri-traumatic dissociation’ involves a sense of detachment at the moment a traumatic event occurs and can be evaluated with ‘The Peritraumatic Dissociative Experiences Questionnaire’ (Marmar, Weiss, & Metzler, 1997).  It is thought that in peri-traumatic detachment, the encoding of information is disrupted so that memories of the traumatic event may be incomplete.  Such fragmented memories can trigger intrusive images and flashbacks (Brewin, Dalgleish, & Joseph, 1996). Peri-traumatically encoded feelings of detachment may be a part of the intrusive memory that is re-experienced, or perhaps the process of re-experiencing itself generates feelings of detachment. Becoming totally immersed in a traumatic memory to the point of believing that the event is actually happening again (‘flashbacks’) seems to be relatively rarely.

Compartmentalization is the inability to deliberately control processes or actions or information in memory that would normally be amenable to self-control (Brown 2002a, 2004; Cardena, 1994; Holmes et al., 2005).  Compartmentalization incorporates an inability to bring normally accessible information into conscious awareness (e.g. dissociative amnesia). The functions that are no longer amenable to deliberate control, and the information associated with them, are said to be ‘compartmentalized’. One of the defining features of this phenomenon is that the compartmentalized processes continue to operate  (Janet, 1907; Hilgard, 1977; Kihlstrom, 1992; Oakley, 1999; Brown (2004). Dissociation is viewed as an adaptive strategy to intense stress or trauma that leads to conditioned dissociative reactions, which can prevent adequate processing and integration of information (Koopman, Classen, & Spiegel, 1994; Lynn & Rue, 1994; Putnam, 1997; Eisen, Goodman & Davis, 2002). Repeated trauma can sensitize a child to hyper-arousal leading to dissociative responding under stress (Perry, Pollard, Blakley, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995). It must be acknowledged that many abused people do not evidence having dissociative experiences (Hall, 2003). However, the theory to be presented applies to the sizable proportion of cases where trauma triggers dissociation. Dissociation is an adaptive mechanism which aids survival in the following situations: 1) direct and close encounter with a dangerous perpetrator using force or having malevolent intent, e.g., when skin contact occurs; 2) in the presence of body fluids with danger of contamination, e.g. blood or sperm; 3) when bodily integrity is already injured, e.g. invasion, penetration, sharp objects (e.g., teeth and knife) at the skin (Schauer and Elbert, 2015). 

The Trauma + Dissociation Theory holds that SPEs are one of the more frequent consequence of childhood trauma.  There is a large literature of supportive evidence. Ellason and Ross (1997) found ESP experiences correlated .45 and .44 respectively with the level of childhood physical and sexual abuse.  Ross and Joshi (1992) obtained similar findings with a random sample of 502 Canadian adults. Reports of paranormal or extrasensory experiences were common and linked to a history of childhood trauma and dissociation. Ross and Joshi conceptualized SPE as one aspect of dissociation triggered by child abuse. SPEs discriminated between individuals with childhood trauma histories and those without trauma histories. Perkins and Allen (2006) compared paranormal belief systems in individuals with and without childhood physical abuse histories using the Tobacyk Revised Paranormal Belief Scale and a SPE questionnaire with 107 students. They found that psi and spiritualism beliefs were among the most strongly held among abused students and these were at a significantly higher level in abused vs. non-abused participants. Perkins and Allen (2006) concluded: “by providing a sense of control, certain paranormal beliefs may offer a powerful emotional refuge to individuals who endured the stress of physical abuse in childhood” (p. 349).

In the context of both detachment and compartmentalization, it has been proposed that ideas and fantasies of the paranormal serve a restorative function, aimed at resetting the psychological system. In an earlier book, we stated a general hypothesis that humans: “have a profound yearning for a magic formula that will free us from our ponderous and fragile human bodies, from realities that will not obey our wishes, from loneliness or unhappiness, and from death itself” (Marks and Kammann, 1980, p. 156).  It is suggested that individuals are able to use paranormal ideation as a coping strategy for past traumas in a search for stability, restorative justice, compensation or even revenge (Wuthnow, 1976). If emotional security and psychological adjustment depend upon the conviction that the physical and social worlds are orderly and meaningful, then a paranormal worldview provides an adaptive framework for structuring otherwise chaotic, unpredictable or unfair experiences that can make them more comprehensible and controlled (Irwin, 1993).

RATIONALE FOR AN INTEGRATIVE THEORY

Trauma in childhood evokes an instinctive need to regain a sense of control, which increases the appeal of paranormal abilities to provide mastery over threats to safety and other incomprehensible events. When children experience persistent terror without escape, as in neglect, attachment disruptions, incest or other sexual trauma, dissociation is protective against emotional distress (Bailey and Brand, 2017). Repetitive childhood physical or sexual abuse, or other forms of trauma such as neglect, are all found to be associated with the development of dissociative states and disorders (Putnam, 1985). Dissociation, detachment and compartmentalization can be considered adaptive to childhood trauma because they can reduce the degree to which the distress is overwhelming.  However, if detachment and compartmentalization continue in adulthood, they tend to be maladaptive. The dissociative adult may automatically disconnect from any situations that are perceived to be unsafe or threatening, without taking time to determine whether there is any real danger. This tends to leave the person “spaced out” or “dreamy” and unable to protect themselves in conditions of real danger making them vulnerable. In the following sections, different strands of research about childhood trauma, dissociation, fantasy and paranormal ideation are integrated into a single, coherent theory.

This Dissociation Theory of SPE hypothesizes a need for power and control in the face of adversity (Bandura, 1989; Taylor & Armor, 1996; Prilleltensky, Nelson & Peirson, 2001). It incorporates neurobiological evidence from the Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 2017) and the principles of homeostasis from the General Theory of Behaviour (Marks, 2018) to explain one origin of paranormal ideation. The central plank of the theory is the neurobiological evidence concerning the changes that accompany repeated childhood neglect and abuse which are thought to permanently alter developmental processes of adaptation in producing a “use-dependent” brain:

Childhood trauma has profound impact on the emotional, behavioural, cognitive, social, and physical functioning of children. Developmental experiences determine the organizational and functional status of the mature brain…There are various adaptive mental and physical responses to trauma, including physiological hyperarousal and dissociation. Because the developing brain organizes and internalizes new information in a use-dependent fashion, the more a child is in a state of hyperarousal or dissociation, the more likely they are to have neuropsychiatric symptoms following trauma. The acute adaptive states, when they persist, can become maladaptive traits.” (Perry et al., 1990, p. 271).

 In addition to the neurobiological changes, child abuse and neglect are associated with increased risk for psychiatric disorders including depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance and alcohol abuse, and also medical disorders such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and others (Nemeroff, 2016). Persistent biological alterations associated with childhood maltreatment include changes in neuroendocrine and neurotransmitter systems and pro-inflammatory cytokines in addition to alterations in brain areas associated with mood regulation. A systematic review found that individuals with at least four abusive childhood experiences (ACEs) are at increased risk of multiple health outcomes compared with individuals with no ACEs (Hughes et al., 2017). Associations were found to be weak or modest for physical inactivity, overweight or obesity, and diabetes (ORs of less than two); moderate for smoking, heavy alcohol use, poor self-rated health, cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease (Odds Ratios, ORs, of two to three), strong for sexual risk taking, mental ill health, and problematic alcohol use (ORs of more than three to six), and strongest for problematic drug use and interpersonal and self-directed violence (ORs of more than seven). 

Exposure to violence is thought to activate a set of threat-responses in a child’s developing brain. Excessive activation and arousal of the neural systems involved in threat responses alter the developing brain which, in turn, produces functional changes in emotional, behavioural and cognitive functioning. The existence of a  graded relationship of ACE scores to outcomes in multiple domains parallels the cumulative exposure of the developing brain to the stress response with resulting impairment in multiple brain structures and functions (Anda et al., 2006).

One implication of trauma-dependent neurobiological changes is that paranormal ideation is able to becomes an adaptive coping strategy for victims of child abuse.  I describe next a series of linkages, beginning with fantasy proneness, mental imagery and dissociation.

FANTASY-PRONENESS, MENTAL IMAGERY AND DISSOCIATION

Everybody daydreams. Fantasy, daydreams, and imagination are integral processes within healthy functioning, playing an adaptational role in daily life (Klinger, 1990; Singer, 1983; Marks, 2019).  Fantasy and daydreams reflect our current concerns, regulate mood, organize experience, provide self-relevant information, facilitate learning, and stimulate decision making (Rauschenberger and Lynn, 1995).  But, like everything else, there are widespread variations in fantasy proneness across the population.  Fantasy proneness (FP) refers to an enduring personality trait of individuals who are thought to spend a large part of their life daydreaming in fantasy.  Daydreaming is ubiquitous (Singer and McCraven, 1961), taking up 30–50% of our daily thinking time (Kane et al., 2007). 

I am reminded of an incident at school when I was about 13.  I had missed the first year of a course in Latin, and, because I wasn’t ‘taking’ Latin, I had to sit through Latin classes reading a book. One day, as I dreamily stared out of the classroom window, the master clipped me over the ear with his ruler, telling me to concentrate.[3] “But, sir”, I said, “I am not taking Latin.”  Raptus regaliter!

From the very beginning of research on FP, Wilson and Barber (1983, pp. 359-364) suggested that people with FP have psychic experiences, realistic out-of-the-body experiences and experiences of apparitional entities. Wilson and Barber also proposed that extreme fantasy is a coping strategy for dealing with loneliness and isolation by providing a means to escape from aversive environments. FP requires the generation of  mental imagery, those quasi-perceptual experiences that occur in the absence of an objective stimulus.  Large individual differences exist along a continuum of reported vividness and controllability of images (Marks, 2019). Individuals at the fantasy-prone end of the normal distribution (1-5%) experience vivid, uncontrollable images of hallucinatory quality which seem as real as actual events (Marks and McKellar, 1982; Wilson and Barber, 1983). Another small percentage (2-3%) of people at the opposite end of the distribution are unaware of any mental imagery at all (Zeman, Dewar and Della Sala, 2015).

The brain has a special  ‘default network’ that participates in internal modes of cognition such as autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, conceiving the perspectives of others and daydreaming. The default network appears to be a specific, anatomically defined brain system (Buckner, Andrews‐Hanna & Schacter, 2008) that would be activated on a frequent basis among people with FP. The default network also has a key role in the brain’s representation of the self (see Chapter 10).From the 1980s and 90s it had been hypothesised that FP is a process that is exacerbated by child abuse and that it may be a trait, like absorption, a variable that is related to FP (Kunzendorf, Hulihan, Simpson, Pritykina & Williams, 1997/98) and which is genetically mediated  (Tellegen, Lykken, Bouchard, Wilcox, Negal & Rich (1988). Lynn and Rhue (1988) elaborated the FP construct to include “a unique constellation of personality traits and experiences coalesced around a deep, profound and long-standing involvement in fantasy and imagination” (p.35). Fantasy prone individuals are believed to share a unique set of characteristics, including the experience of vivid memories, the ability to voluntarily hallucinate and superior hypnotic abilities (Wilson & Barber, 1983). Many phenomena associated with FP also includeabsorption (Lynn, & Rhue, 1988; Green & Lynn, 2011; Levin & Young, 2001/2002; Merckelbach, Horselenberg & Muris, 2001), aversive childhood experiences (Geraerts et al., 2006; Pekala, Kumar, Ainslie, Elliot, Mullen, Salinger, & Masten, 1999/2000; Rauschenberger & Lynn, 1995; Rhue & Lynn, 1987; Sanchez-Bernardos & Avia, 2004; Somer & Herscu, 2017), hypnotic abilities (Green & Lynn, 2008; Terhune, Cardena, & Lindgren, 2010), hallucinatory abilities (Giambra, 1999/2000; Laroi, DeFruyt, Van Os, Aleman, & Van der Linden, 2005), mentalimagery (Levin & Young, 2001/2002), and paranormal beliefs and experiences (Bartholomew, Basterfield, & Howard 1991; Berkowski & Macdonald, 2014; French, Santomauro, Hamilton, Fox, & Thalbourne, 2008; Gow, Lang, & Chant, 2004; Hough & Rogers, 2007/2008; Irwin, 1990; Lawrence, Edwards, Barraclough, Church & Hetherington, 1995; Merckelbach et al., 2001; Parra, 2006; Perkins, 2001; Rogers, Qualter, & Phelps, 2007; Spanos, Cross, Dickson, & DuBreuil, 1993).

There are two connections with FP that are particularly salient: (i) among individuals reporting a history of childhood abuse, the incidence of FP is especially high (Rhue, Lynn, Henry, Buhk & Boyd, 1990; Lynn and Rhue,  1988); (ii) dissociation is linked to both child abuse and FP (Rauschenberger & Lynn, 1995;  Pekala et al., 1999). These two findings have led to a renaissance of Janet’s trauma theory (TT).

As noted, dissociation is considered a psychological defence mechanism for victims of traumatizing events such as sexual molestation, natural disaster, or combat (Putnam, 1991). The TT  holds that victims are able to compartmentalize their perceptions and memories and detach themselves from the full impact of the trauma and that these dissociative processes possibly continue throughout their entire lives.  Vonderlin et al. (2018) investigated the relationship between childhood interpersonal maltreatment and dissociation in 65 studies with 7352 abused or neglected individuals using the Dissociative Experience Scale (DES). The results revealed higher dissociation in victims of childhood abuse and neglect compared with non-abused or neglected subsamples sharing relevant population features with highest scores for sexual and physical abuse. Earlier age of onset, longer duration of abuse, and parental abuse significantly predicted higher dissociation scores.

Skeptics – as expected – doubt the correctness of the TT and propose a fantasy theory (FT) instead.[4] Dissociation is alleged to produce fantasies of trauma among naturally fantasy-prone, suggestible patients who are vulnerable to the ‘planting’ of false memories by overly zealous psychotherapists. The FT is associated with the “False Memory Syndrome” movement, an organization of people accused of childhood sexual abuse,[5] with multiple court cases brought by alleged perpetrators, usually parents claiming total innocence of abuse (Belli and Loftus, 1994; French, 2009; Porter, Yuille & Lehman, 1999); Giesbrecht, Lynn, Lilienfeld, & Merckelbach, 2008; Lynn et al., 2014 ). The possibility that therapeutic techniques could create illusory memories of abuse became a major debating point that has divided psychotherapists and researchers into opposite camps. The vehemence of the opposing camps is reminiscent of the ‘Battle over Psi’.

In a systematic review of memory implantation, Brewin and Andrews (2017) found that recollection of suggested events can be induced in 47% of participants, but only in 15% of cases are these experiences likely to be rated as full memories. Brewin and Andrews concluded that susceptibility to false memories of childhood events seem to be quite restricted. The jury is still out, but there is little doubt that a significant proportion of recovered memories of child abuse is veridical, i.e. they are based on actual events.

Dalenberg et al. (2012, 2014) also reviewed numerous studies in a meta-analysis to determine whether the TT or FT received the majority of empirical support. They concluded that the TT was most consistent with the evidence, which included several supportive longitudinal studies.  Dalenberg and colleagues found the trauma–dissociation relationship to be modest for childhood sexual abuse (CSA; r = 0.31) and physical abuse (r = 0.27) but stronger among individuals with DID (0.54 for CSA and 0.52 for physical abuse). However, dissociation scores predicted only 1–3% of the variance in suggestibility. Other studies have found that individuals with DID are no more suggestible or prone to creating false memories than individuals with PTSD, actors simulating DID, or healthy controls (Vissia et al., 2016). A continuum of trauma-related symptom severity was found across the groups, which supports the hypothesis of association between the severity, intensity and age at onset of traumatization, and the severity of trauma-related psychopathology. The evidence from Vissia et al. (2016) supported the TT of DID and challenged the core hypothesis of the FT. However, the issue is not yet fully resolved (Merckelbach & Patihis, 2018; Brand et al., 2018). A further issue to complicate this already complex picture is that unusual sleep experiences can precipitate episodes of trait dissociation (van Heugten–van der Kloet, Merckelbach, Giesbrecht & Broers, 2014).

The closeness of victims to perpetrators has also been the focus of studies. The impact of abuse is more intense and longer lasting when linked to a sense of betrayal. The betrayal version of the TT proposes that one response to betrayal may be to keep knowledge of the trauma out of conscious awareness (Freyd, 1996, 1997). Although this ‘betrayal blindness’ may benefit survival for ongoing abuse by helping to maintain significant relationships, this compartmentalization of reality can lead later to psychological and behavioural problems. Gómez, Kaehler and Freyd (2014) ran three exploratory studies to examine the associations between exposure to betrayal trauma, dissociation and hallucinations which found betrayal trauma increases the likelihood of dissociation and hallucinations.

How might high proneness to fantasy, then, lead to SPEs? The Vividness Hypothesis claims that fantasy-prone people are more likely to experience visions, voices and apparitions of extreme vividness leading them to conclude that such events have a psychic origin (Blackmore, 1984; Marks, 1988). Hallucinogens and psychedelic substances tend to increase a state of FP in people who might otherwise be less fantasy prone. The discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann (1980), wrote: “in the LSD state the boundaries between the experiencing self and the outer world more or less disappear….Feedback between receiver and sender takes place. A portion of the self overflows into the outer world, into objects, which begin to live, to have another, a deeper meaning. In an auspicious case, the new extended ego feels blissfully united with the objects of the outer world and consequently also with its fellow beings. This experience of deep oneness with the exterior world can even intensify to a feeling of the self being one with the universe.” A sense of awe and oneness with nature does not require LSD but is likely to be magnified by LSD and may also trigger ‘paranormal’ experiences (Luke and Kittenis, 2005).

As noted, multiple studies have examined the relationship between FP, imagery vividness and SPE. Merckelbach, Horselenberg and Muris (2001) found that the Creative Experiences Questionnaire (CEQ), a brief self-report measure of FP, correlated with dissociativity in the range of .47 – .63 and also with paranormal experiences. Wiseman and Watt (2006) felt that the evidence should be treated with caution given that the measures employed are intercorrelated and may reflect the operation of a single underlying concept. They refer to Kirsch and Council (1992) and cite Thalbourne’s (2000) concept of ‘transliminality’, which is claimed to underpin a range of imagery factors including frequency of dream interpretation, FP, absorption, magical  ideation and mystical experiences. Other studies, however, suggest that the Vividness Hypothesis may indeed be correct, especially when combined with high absorption (Glicksohn and Barrett, 2003).  In Brazil, Alejandro Parra and Juan Carlos Argibay (2012) compared people who claimed psychic abilities with a non-psychic control group to find that the ‘psychic’ group (N = 40) had significantly higher scores on dissociation, absorption and FP than did the ‘non-psychic’ group (N = 40). In Australia, Gow, Hutchinson and Chant (2009)  tested 114 females and 59 males who were classified as ‘anomalous experiencers’ (n = 125), ‘anomalous believers’ (n = 39) and ‘non-believers’ (n = 9), according to their responses on a ‘Measure of Anomalous Experiences and Beliefs’. In the experiencer group, significant correlations occurred between FP and five subscales of paranormal belief and significant moderate to low correlations with both the “intuition” and “feeling” dimensions of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. Dissociation was also found to be related to global paranormal belief and to the subscales of psi, superstition, and extraordinary life forms.

Parra (2015) assessed 348 educated believers for their paranormal or anomalous experiences, and capacity for visual imagery under eyes-open- and eyes-closed conditions using the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire Revised (VVIQ-R; Marks, 1995) and a 10-item self-report inventory designed to collect information on spontaneous paranormal/anomalous experiences. The results showed that VVIQ scores and paranormal/anomalous experiences correlated significantly, especially for Aura, Remote Healing, and Apparitions, but only in the Open-Eyes condition. Parra (2015) noted: “These results also highlight the fact that mental imagery ability may be psi-conducive, and it is interesting to note that the VVIQ may be helpful in identifying and selecting better psi-scorers in psi experiments, and may even be of use in psychomanteum (sic) and aura-seeing research. The other advantage of the VVIQ is its ease of administration and speed of data analysis.”  In another study, Parra (2018) found that psychic/high-psi-scorers scored significantly higher than nonpsychic/low-psi-scorers on both sub-scales of the VVIQ.

Lawrence and colleagues (1995) proposed a model of paranormal experience (SPE) and belief (PB) which included fantasy (but not dissociation) as a predictor. In Lawrence’s model, trauma was found to have two causal routes in influencing SPE, one direct, the other indirect (Figure 2.1). However, the omission of dissociation appears to have been a significant limitation of the Lawrence et al. model. My current proposal is to assume that dissociation is the most significant sequela[6] of extreme forms of ACE and that fantasy, paranormal experience and paranormal belief are among the consequences of the process of dissociation. Figure 2.1 show the supervenient role of dissociation in the fantasy that is generated following childhood trauma.

Figure 2.1: A theory of childhood trauma, dissociation, paranormal experience and belief as an extension of the model originally suggested by Lawrence et al. (1995) shown with continuous lines. The model is extended to include dissociation as the main sequela of childhood trauma with causal connections to childhood fantasy, paranormal experience and paranormal beliefs (broken lines).

This extended Dissociation + Trauma Theory suggests that the psychological system strives to restore safety, security and equilibrium by dissociating into compartments to inhibit action and generate compensatory fantasy. Homeostasis performs a restorative function with its ability to deploy the entire resources of the psychological system, including affect, fantasy, and the approach-avoidance-inhibition system to reset the imbalances created by dissociation. The reset restores feelings of safety and control (Marks, 2018, 2020). The hypothesised stabilising role of homeostasis is consistent with the theory of Silvan Tomkins who proposed that the primary motivational system is the affective system and biological drives have impact only when amplified by the affective system (Tomkins, 1962). Clinical studies have established that involuntary images and difficult-to-control memories are associated with dissociation, trauma, stress, anxiety and depression. Sufferers often report repeated visual intrusions concerning real or imaginary events that are ‘usually extremely vivid, detailed, and with highly distressing content’ (Brewin, et al., 2010).  These elements are precisely the sequelae of a dissociative response to ACE.

PSYCHOSIS, HALLUCINATIONS, CHILDHOOD ADVERSITIES AND DISSOCIATION

The association between childhood adversities (CAs) and the onset of psychotic episodes (PE)  is receiving the attention of clinical researchers who widely agree that childhood trauma is a risk factor for the development of psychosis.  Since Janet, the relationship between childhood trauma and symptoms of psychosis has been explained as one consequence of dissociation. For example, Varese, Barkus and Bentall (2012) explored the hypothesis that the effect of childhood trauma on hallucination-proneness is mediated by dissociative tendencies. Patients with schizophrenia spectrum disorders (n=45) and healthy controls (with no history of hallucinations; n=20) completed measures of hallucination-proneness, dissociative tendencies and childhood trauma. Compared to healthy and non-hallucinating clinical control participants, hallucinating patients reported both significantly higher dissociative tendencies and childhood sexual abuse. Dissociation was found to positively mediated the effect of childhood trauma on hallucination-proneness, a mediational role that was “particularly robust for sexual abuse over other types of trauma” (Varese et al., 2012, p. 1025). They concluded that the results are consistent with dissociative accounts of the trauma-hallucinations link.

Meta-analyses of the association between childhood trauma and severity of hallucinations, delusions, and negative psychotic symptoms in clinical populations have confirmed the association. In a meta-analysis of 29 studies (4680 participants) Bailey et al. (2018) found that, in individuals with psychosis, childhood trauma was significantly correlated with severity of hallucinations (r = .199, P < .001) and delusions (r = .172, P < .001) but not with severity of negative symptoms. These results lend support to theories that childhood traumas may lead to hallucinations and delusions. McGrath et al. (2017) assessed CAs, PE and DSM-IV mental disorders in 23,998 adults in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. People who had experienced any CAs were found to have an increased odds of later PE [odds ratio (OR) 2.3, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.9–2.6]. CAs reflecting maladaptive family functioning, including abuse, neglect, and parent maladjustment, were found to exhibit the strongest associations with PE onset at all life-course stages. Sexual abuse was observed to produce a strong association with PE onset during childhood (OR 8.5, 95% CI 3.6–20.2), while other CA types were associated with PE onset in adolescence. McGrath et al. (2017) concluded that exposure to CAs is associated with PE onset throughout the life-course, with sexual abuse being most strongly associated with childhood-onset PEs.

 Muenzenmaier et al. (2015) tested the dose–response relationship between CA and delusions and hallucinations including the effects of dissociation on the relationship. The prevalence of CA in individuals with psychotic disorders was high, with each additional CA being associated with a 1.20 increase in the incidence rate ratio (95% confidence interval [CI; 1.09, 1.32]) for hallucinations and a 1.19 increase (CI [1.09, 1.29]) for delusions, supporting a dose–response association. After controlling for the mediating effects of dissociative symptoms at follow-up, CA remained independently associated with delusions. Muenzenmaier et al. (2015) proposed that cumulative CA can result in complex reactions including dissociative, posttraumatic stress disorder, and psychotic symptoms.

A review of 19 quantitative studies investigated the relationship between voice-hearing and dissociation between 1986 and 2014 (Pilton, Varese, Berry and Bucci, 2015). The authors concluded that dissociation may be implicated in voice-hearing as a mediating factor. In a clinical study with 71 patients diagnosed with psychosis, Perona‐Garcelán et al. (2012)  found that childhood trauma was positively associated with the dissociation scale scores (r = .40) and the hallucination (r = .36) and delusions scale scores (r = .32).  Depersonalization was found to be a potential mediator between childhood trauma and hallucinations, but not between childhood trauma and delusions. In another study of  depersonalisation mediation in the relationship between childhood maltreatment and both hallucination-proneness and delusional ideation, Cole, Newman-Taylor and Kennedy (2016) used a cross-sectional design in a non-clinical group. They found that dissociation mediated the relationship between early maltreatment and hallucination-proneness and delusional ideation.

It has been suggested that the content of hallucinations may be formed out of dissociative memories of traumatic events (Mauritz, Goossens, Draijer & van Achterberg, 2013) and that it could reflect the experiencer’s perceived lower social self-appraisal as a consequence of childhood abuse (Birchwood, Meaden, Trower, Gilbert & Plaistow, 2000).

In the next section, I examine another piece in the jigsaw, the Polyvagal Theory, which concerns the organism’s defences when safety is challenged by an imminent threat.

THE POLYVAGAL THEORY OF SAFETY

The Polyvagal Theory is a neurobiological theory of safety. The Polyvagal Theory describes an inbuilt system within the nervous system for evaluating threat, which enables a shift in the body’s physiological defences. Think of the drawbridge going up at the main gates of a castle when enemy soldiers are detected at the edges of the estate. The goal of the psychological system is to continuously monitor the environment for threats by searching for unique cues. When a threat or lack of safety is perceived, the system actively inhibits outward responses to promote safety and well-being with feelings of love, security and trust. Safety is associated with specific environmental features and unconscious bodily responses as well as making conscious cognitive evaluations. Adaptive survival resides in the evolutionary wisdom of the body and nervous system that function outside the realm of awareness. These neural processes that evaluate risk in the environment without awareness are called neuroception.[7]  Evaluations of risk and lack of safety in potentially dangerous relationships play a secondary role to our visceral reactions to people and places (Porges, 2017, p. 43; Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2: THE POLYVAGAL THEORY OF SAFETY

The Polyvagal Theory concerns the vagus, the tenth cranial nerve and the primary nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The vagus connects brainstem areas with structures in the body including the neck, thorax, and abdomen. Polyvagal Theory involves the changes in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and a unique change in the vagal motor pathways that first occurred with the emergence of mammals in evolution. When the ventral vagus and the associated social engagement system are optimally functioning, the ANS supports health, growth, and restoration. According to the Polyvagal Theory, defence reactions are manifested as either an increase in SNS activity that inhibits the function of the dorsal vagus to promote fight and flight behaviours or as a shutdown manifested as depressed SNS activity and a surge of dorsal vagal influences that results in fainting, defecation, and an inhibition of motor behaviour, as seen in mammals feigning death (Porges, 2017).

Neuroception is the neural process that evaluates environmental risk from cues which trigger shifts in autonomic state prior to conscious awareness. We constantly monitor the environment for safety both with and without awareness. One example is the sense of danger we may experience immediately prior to a mugging. If somebody suddenly runs up from behind and rips one’s bag off one’s shoulder, it would be a perfectly natural reaction to freeze. Other victims may switch into ‘fight’ mode, others into ‘flight’. These response occur prior to any conscious decision. Neuroception shifts the ANS response to cues of safety, danger or threat by activating the social engagement system and shutting down the fight/flight and the body’s defence systems. This includes the face, heart, and myelinated vagus (Porges, 2017).  Finally, I show how the pieces of the jigsaw fit together.

FIGURE 2.3: A graphic representation of the Trauma + Dissociation Theory of SPE (Marks, 2020).

THE TRAUMA + DISSOCIATION THEORY OF SPE

Here we take a look at the complete picture produced by the theory.

If we are to make sense of the connections between childhood trauma, dissociation, and SPE we need to consider the options for an infant or child who is confronted by a significant threat of harm from a person who may be a close family member, another known person or even a complete stranger. Being able to cope with such a threat has profound evolutionary significance, and how the organism responds is likely a life and death issue.  Every living organism is endowed with a powerful mechanism that has been especially designed to deal with threats to life called the ‘Approach-Avoidance-Inhibition (AAI)’ system. This system controls the individual’s fight, flight or freeze response. A well-established principle is the universal striving towards pleasure and away from pain that underlies all approach and avoidance behaviour. Organisms approach sources of potential pleasure and satisfaction and studiously avoid potentially aversive stimuli and confrontations with danger. Essential similarities in the neural systems underlying painful and pleasant sensations are based on the opioid and dopamine systems respectively  (Leknes and Tracey, 2008).  This ‘do or die’ neural circuitry evolved to ensure survival. This survival circuitry is activated either by stimuli that are life-sustaining or by stimuli that threaten survival. Activation of the pain and pleasure circuits alert the sensory systems to pay attention and prompt motor action (Lang and Bradley, 2010). The approach–avoidance concept is pivotal to the organisms’ systems of self-defense (Elliot, 1999). However, the AAI system also includes a mechanism for behavioural inhibition, which is activated in approach–avoidance conflict. It has been proposed that an ‘Action Schemata’ (AS) system coordinates and controls action with the AAI system (Marks, 2018).  Further details of these systems are given in Chapter 10.

The innate species-specific defense reactions of the AAI system – fleeing, freezing or fighting – are rapidly acquired when organisms are still young and relatively immature (Bolles, 1970; Wichers et al., 2015). In infants and young children, the first reaction to continuing threat is to cry and then to freeze. The ability to fight or fright is not usually available. Freezing allows better sound localization and visual observation of the environment for potential threat. Cessation of movement is also a form of camouflage which reduces the risk of attracting attention by predators. Traumatised children often develop a “sensitized” hyperarousal or “sensitized” dissociative pattern in association with freezing when they feel anxious. Freezing can escalate to complete dissociation (Perry et al., 1990).

An adaptive homeostatic mental and physical response to childhood trauma consists of a dissociative response of freezing and/or surrender involving fantasy and imagery. The diagram in Figure 2.4 shows a representation of a general behavioural control system with two co-active sub-systems for the control and timing of action, the ‘Action System’, and for the control and timing of imagery, the ‘Image System’ (Marks, 2018 a, b).

FIGURE 2.4: A diagram of the Trauma + Dissociation Theory of SPE. The control system consists of two co-active, parallel systems, an ‘Action System’ and an ‘Image System’. In any response to danger, one system can switch down its activity allowing the other system a greater share of control. In the left panel, the Image System is dominant with a setting for freeze or surrender while, in reciprocal fashion, the Action System is inhibited. The Image System is fully activated to produce fantasy, calmness, stillness and self-control. In the right panel, the Action System is dominant and set for mobilization of fight or flight with actions of aggression or revenge, while the Image System is switched off. The arrangement shown in the right hand panel is not available to infants and young children, who would normally respond with the system shown in the left-hand panel, but the right-hand panel system would be available to older adolescents and adults.

The Dissociative Setting is activated as the child’s response to trauma. The Image System is fully switched on and the Action System is switched off, giving a Freeze or Surrender response. The child-under-threat withdraws into an inner world of detachment and derealization in which stabilizing fantasy of calm and self-control are utilized to restore homeostasis. Post-traumatic fantasy is a normal homeostatic balancing process to produce equilibrium in a system experiencing unjustified life threat, loss or harm. There is every reason to expect trauma-based fantasy to be restorative of missing love objects in the form of voices, hallucinatory images or the felt presence of missing persons, or in fantasies of personal survival beyond death.  The genesis of fantasy- and affect-laden paranormal experience in dissociative self-defense causes paranormal ideation of coping and survival. Fantasy and daydreaming increase the likelihood that a person will experience altered states of consciousness, striking coincidences, and beliefs in the paranormal which help to restore a sense of balance and control.

The theory views dissociation as the system’s innate response to threat with defensive immobilization and involuntary freezing or the feigning response of playing dead. As in all behaviours, there are gradations in reactions to life threats ranging from total shutdown and collapse to immobilization when muscles lose tension and the mind dissociates from the traumatic event similar to the REM state during sleep. I turn to consider 13 hypotheses that follow from the theory with a brief statement of the support from the research literature.

HYPOTHESES

I list here 13 hypotheses that follow from the theory and cite illustrative studies relevant to these hypotheses:

H1:  SPEs should be more common  in people reporting childhood abuse (supported:Lawrence et al.,1995;Rabeyron and Watt, 2010; Sar, Alioğlu and Akyüz, 2014; Scimeca et al., 2014; Parra, 2019).

H2: SPEs should be more common among people with dissociative symptoms (supported: Wahbeh, McDermott & Sagher, 2018).

H3: SPEs should be more common in females than by males (supported: Castro, Burrows and Wooffitt, 2014).

H4: One common response of children to extreme negative affect (trauma, fear and anxiety) is dissociation, detachment, derealisation and restorative fantasies of control and calm (supported: Cook et al., 2017).

H5: Dissociation in adulthood is more common in people reporting childhood abuse (supported:Chu and Dill, 1990; Vonderlin et al., 2018).

H6: Dissociative experiences are more common among females than males (inconsistent findings: Ross, Joshi & Currie, 1990; Putnam et al., 1996; Spitzer et al., 2003; Brosky & Lally, 2004; Maaranen et al.,2005; Steuwe, Lanius & Frewen, 2012; Wolf et al., 2012a, 2012b; McLaughlin  et al., 2013; Stein et al., 2013).

H7: FP is more common in people reporting childhood abuse (supported:Rhue and Lynn, 1987; Somer and Herscu, 2018).

H8: FP is more common in women than in men (supported: Minakowska-Gruda, 2006).[8]  

H9: Paranormal beliefs are more prevalent in people reporting high levels of FP than in others (supported:Ellason and Ross, 1997; Irwin, 1990).

H10: Individuals who claim paranormal abilities score higher on dissociation and fantasy than individuals who do not claim paranormal experiences (supported:Parra and Argibay, 2012).

H11: FP and coping style fully mediate the relationship between trauma and paranormal beliefs (supported: Berkowski and MacDonald, 2014).

H12: Belief in ESP and PK is a vehicle for exercising a need for power and control at a fantasy level (supported: Roe and Morgan, 2002).

H13:  Among victims of childhood abuse, a dissociative response such as PTSD is more likely to be released when trauma occurs in adulthood (supported: Brewin, Andrews and Valentine, 2000).

LIMITATIONS

The overall fit between the theory and empirical findings provides one solution for the jigsaw of pieces that I have identified. However, there may be missing pieces to be filled into a bigger picture that is not yet clearly visible.  It is unlikely the theory can explain the origins of all SPEs.  That really would be too good to be true.  All theories are eventually replaced by better theories.  It has been well documented that dissociative states are much more common among individuals who have been traumatized in childhood and that the defensive use of fantasy provides a beneficial coping strategy.  However, there must be other causal pathways to SPE, one of which is the possibility that some of the experiences are veridical, let us not forget.

The inconsistent findings in relation to H6:Dissociation is more common among females than males”, does not perfectly align with the confirmations obtained with the other 12 hypotheses. At least the uncertainty about H6 eliminates any accusation that the theory is too good to be true.  One can think of post hoc reasons why H6 might not be correct. Perhaps the greater levels of abuse experienced by girls than boys as younger children are counterbalanced at older ages when boys generally receive greater levels of trauma from physical bullying than girls. In 35 countries surveyed in the WHO International report from the HBSC, 11-15 year-old boys report significantly more physical bullying and fighting than same-age girls (Craig & Harel, 2001).  In an older sample of 18-24 year-old US college students, however, the prevalence of PTSD and risk for trauma were greater for the female gender. The uncertainty about H6 awaits further analysis. A further limitation is the cross-sectional nature of the majority of studies. Future research needs to include longitudinal designs to explore directional, causal effects while controlling for potential confounding factors. It seems unlikely that everybody who experiences SPE has been a victim of abuse as a child, although this remains an open question. It’s horses for courses: SPEs in people who were never abused would require a different kind of theory.

SUMMARY

The Trauma + Dissociation Theory holds that childhood trauma and dissociation act together to produce SPE in a significant number of people. Childhood trauma is a prevalent social scourge requiring a robust system of self-defence against potential  perpetrators. One instinctive defensive strategy is dissociation that is known to produce fantasies and feelings of calm and control. The theory provides a comprehensive account for a large number of findings in the published literature. New prospectively controlled research is required to test theoretical hypotheses on a large sample of children to enable rigorous testing together with alternative hypotheses about the origins of SPE.

Notes


[1] Readers interested in anomalous phenomena themselves rather than their origin may wish to head straight to Chapter 4 and return here later.

[2] In this review, child abuse applies to individuals aged 0-17 years inclusive.  

[3] Corporal punishment with canes and rulers was routinely administered by school teachers in those days.  An ear clipping by a teacher today would be a sackable offence.

[4] Also called the ‘socio-cognitive’ or ‘iatrogenic’ model.  Any effect resulting from healthcare professionals, products or services that unintentionally lead to illness or adverse effects is termed ‘iatrogenic’.

[5] The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) is a non-profit organization founded in 1992by Pamela and Peter Freyd after their adult daughter Professor Jennifer Freyd  accused Peter Freyd of sexually abusing her as a child (Dallam, 2001). 

[6] Sequela = consequence.

[7] We will return to consider neuroception in Chapter 6 when discussing the theory of human magnetosensitivity.

[8] Many publications on FP report correlational studies of FP with other variables but not gender differences. Wilson and Barber’s (1981) original study was with girls only.

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