The ‘Sixth Sense’ — Is there such a thing?


Ghost stories seem to be a part of life; whether you heard them from your friends at a sleepover or your family at an eerie campsite or perhaps if you had a personal experience(?). 

Either way, we are all familiar with tales about the communication between the living and the dead. The reality of these tales are often disputed though, and some researchers at Durham University set out, in a study, to provide some much-needed insight on this phenomenon of ‘hearing the dead’. 

Clairaudient Experiences (Pinterest)

This study focused on clairaudient individuals whom, in contrast to clairvoyants, claim only to experience auditive ‘communication’ with the dead rather than visual or physical.

The clairaudient participants were selected when they reported significantly higher levels of auditory spiritual communications compared to the general population. Sixty-five clairaudient spiritualist mediums from the Spiritualists’ National Union and 143 individuals from the general population were gathered for this study.

The aim of this study sought to investigate the mystery of why some individuals report religious and spiritual experiences and others do not. The researchers were interested in the particularities of those who report ‘hearing the dead’. More specifically, this study followed previous findings by Luhrmann and colleagues who reported cases where the trait of ‘absorption’ is associated with religious and spiritual experiences, as well as hallucinations. This article defines the process of absorption as “a trait linked to one’s tendency to become immersed in experience or thought, and it may be key for understanding that relationship”.

The study sought to determine a link between absorption and clairaudience, for which it had to, whilst controlling confounding variables, demonstrate that the clairaudients experience higher levels of absorption compared to the general population. The method of the study followed a series of self-report questionnaires assessing the participants’ absorptive tendencies and tendency to experience auditory hallucinations and paranormal beliefs.

The data indicated a significant relationship between absorptive tendencies and clairaudience. Clairaudients were much more likely to report absorption traits than the general population, and also showed a higher tendency of absorption and belief in the paranormal compared to the general population. Interestingly, they also expressed a higher likelihood to experience unusual auditory hallucinations compared to the other participants. The general population reported a relationship between absorption and levels of belief in the paranormal, however, there was no corresponding link between belief and proneness to hallucination. 

The researchers suggest that the findings imply that the experience of clairaudience is not an ability acquired due to social pressure, or based on a level of belief. Instead it is an innate predisposition to absorption and a proneness to experience hallucinations which leads to this ability to ‘communicate with the dead’.

The Neuroscience of Hallucinations
Did you know that numerous brain imaging studies have reported that auditory hallucinations are experienced in the brain in the same way as that of ‘real’ external hearing?

Experiences of auditory hallucination and actual external hearing are both seen as neural activity from the left temporal lobe to the primary auditory cortex — the process by which we interpret sound.

Auditory processing – (1) activity in left temporal lobe and (2) primary auditory cortex

How would you categorise these findings? Do they provide rationality in our quest to understand the reality of a communication portal with the dead? 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Original study:
Powell, A.J. & Moseley, P., 2021. When spirits speak: absorption, attribution, and identity among spiritualists who report “clairaudient” voice experiences. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, pp.1–16.

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