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Finnish research project probes stigma of the paranormal

Based on population research, more than half of people in the Western world have had at least one experience that might be called “paranormal.” So why then do we hear so little about them?

Image: Kalevi Rytkölä / Yle

A discussion at the popular “Night of Science” event in late January drew a large crowd to Helsinki University Library café. The theme of the talk was paranormal experiences in Finland.

Professor Marja-Liisa Honkasalo talked about a recent research project called Mind and the Other, funded by the country’s most prestigious academic body, the Academy of Finland. A medical doctor and anthropologist, Honkasalo led the four-year study, which ended in late 2017. It investigated what the researchers called “uncanny” experiences – ones that defy common sense and a mainstream modern worldview.

“It's a kind of project where we try to understand experiences, which are called in the literature "unheimlich," uncanny or weird,” Honkasalo explains. “Different kinds of bodily and sensory experiences of hearing voices, or seeing miracles, or visions, or feeling a kind of presence, the strange presence of something. Then also experiences, which are quite frequent. I mean experiences of precognition and telepathy.”

Honkasalo says that the main question posed in the study was why these experiences are excluded from proper research on human mind or psychiatry or psychology – in other words, why they are not taken seriously.

Natural “uncanny” experiences

Such experiences are surprisingly common. Based on population research, more than half the people in the Western world have had at least one experience that might be called “paranormal.”

Honkasalo says that in Finland these are as common as arrhythmia, with up to 40 percent of the population reporting them.

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Jeena Rancken interviews Marja-Liisa Honkasalo (right) at the Night of Science. Rancken’s doctoral dissertation on Finns’ paranormal experiences was recently published as a book. Image: Yle / Donagh Coleman

The research project is based on over 200 letters from Finns from different walks of life who shared their experiences, often with the hope that the researchers could explain what had happened to them.

Here is an excerpt from one woman’s letter (translated from Finnish):

One night I woke up to the feeling that my friend Emma, who lived abroad, was giving birth. At that time I didn’t even know she was pregnant. The delivery just went on and on. I was really surprised by this knowledge; it felt so real, yet I could hardly believe it. The delivery took many hours, and I couldn’t sleep… In the country where Emma was living it was customary to send friends a card telling the time of birth and how the baby was doing. About a week later I got such a card from Emma, where she said she had given birth to twins that very night, and that everyone was well.

Lived truth

There is in fact some evidence for more common parapsychological phenomena such as precognition (knowing what happens before the event), contrary to most media reports and popular scientific figures.

In an address to the American Statistical Association's 2016 Joint Statistical Meetings, Jessica Utts, Professor of Statistics at the University of California, talked about research in this area that she had been closely tracking over the past 30 years. In her assessment, these phenomena are real – as real as any phenomena that have been studied for a long time by many different laboratories. Utts was commissioned to write a report for the US Congress on decades of research into these phenomena, where she reviewed multiple studies.

“The data in support of precognition and possibly other related phenomena are quite strong statistically, and would be widely accepted if they pertained to something more mundane,” Utts noted in her speech, continuing, “I have asked the debunkers if there is any amount of data that could convince them, and they generally have responded by saying, 'probably not'. I ask them what original research they have read, and they mostly admit that they haven’t read any. Now there’s a definition of pseudo-science – basing conclusions on belief, rather than data!”

The Mind and Other researchers were not interested in whether their subjects’ experiences were 'true' or 'false' in a narrow natural scientific sense, however. The interdisciplinary Academy of Finland project took a cultural studies perspective, with contributors from fields including anthropology, folklore, history, and psychiatry.

As Honkasalo explains, they were interested in what these experiences meant to the subjects, and society around them.

“If they are true to their experience then they are true. As researchers, we just can't evaluate truth, because it's their truth. We want to take that truth at face value, and that's our task. We were interested in lived experiences of the uncanny and how they are experienced and narrated in ordinary Finnish everyday life.”

Stigmatised by the uncanny

If such experiences are so common, why don’t we hear about them more in modern day Finland?

Honkasalo says that it was a bit astonishing to researchers in this study how strongly taboo they are.

“What people were telling us, the vicissitudes of having told about these experiences – some of them, or most of them were really shocking. We think that’s because the experiences were not fitting the natural science-based way of thinking, where it's either normal or then it's pathological, and nothing in between. They are in-between experiences, so they were easily categorised as abnormal. There's only one truth and there is only one institutional truth, and that is the medical or psychiatric way of defining these,” Honkasalo says.

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Image: Ville Välimäki / Yle

Honkasalo says that when the project started, many people contacted the team because they specifically wanted to tell about the stigma; about how they had tried to make themselves understood for years or even decades. This included tales of how they had contacted various institutional figures and medical doctors, as well as priests and representatives of the Finnish Lutheran Church.

“Because these authorities were not quite sure whether these are healthy or sane experiences, they always considered them to be on the sick side. They were categorised as sick people. After having tried to share these experiences, it caused a kind of itinerary of stigma for them and for their families. Also, quite tragic lives and fates.”

Some were given psychiatric diagnoses such as schizophrenia, and put on medication and even in mental institutions.

In their contribution to the study, folklorist Kaarina Koski of Helsinki University and historian Juuso Järvenpää of the University of Tampere note that compared to other cultures before and now, Western, and Nordic society in particular has a negative attitude towards phenomena seen as supernatural. These do not fit into the prevailing scientific worldview, nor do they sit with Lutheran doctrine that dominates the religious field in Finland.

Low cultural self-esteem?

Honkasalo considers other possible reasons for this Finnish sensitivity to experiences that only a century ago were part of common folk tradition. She sees the strict boundaries set by medicine and medical institutions as one factor, but also attributes it in part to history of Finnish modernity. In the European and Nordic context, Finland entered the modern era quite late, creating a welfare state and a modern society only during the post-war period.

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Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

“Now, in order to be a proper society, and proper persons, you must be modern. All these experiences refer to cosmology and ways of seeing the world before modernity. They are always reminding us of that time before modernity, which Finnish people are very scared of getting defined by. It's the worst thing. We are very easily labelled, like people who are less modern than for example the Swedes, and we are somehow shy about this. It's like these experiences are knocking at the door of this low and problematic self-esteem. I think that might be the other reason for this strange taboo, and very special, more strict taboo nature of these experiences.”

Academic taboo

Honkasalo claims first-hand experience of the taboo nature of her research subject, as she relates events around the publication of the Academy of Finland project findings in the book Mielen rajoilla (At the Limits of Mind) last autumn. At that time she was leading the research from her long-term post at the University of Turku.

“After the book, this Mielen rajoilla was published, I was invited to see my boss. Then instead of congratulating me, and serving champagne or giving me roses, she stated that I was going to lose my teaching [position] – my undergraduate, and also my graduate students. Also, I was in charge of quite a progressive and active research unit, the University of Turku's Centre for the Study of Culture and Health. Then I also lost the ability to lead that research centre, so I lost somehow everything.”

The Academy of Finland project was scientifically vetted and peer reviewed, with notable international researchers involved. According to Honkasalo, her Turku University employers had earlier wanted to review her work ability due to memory problems, which she denies having.

Honkasalo adds that no review was made of her scientific competence. While not claiming a direct link between the publication of her research into the paranormal and the termination of her positions at Turku University, she points out that the two came in close succession.

Honkasalo is now continuing her investigations of the uncanny at the University of Helsinki, and as a researcher at the University of the Arts Helsinki. Funded by the Kone Foundation, her new “Body and the Other” project is bringing together scholars and artists, to study the embodied aspect of uncanny experiences and the knowledge that this may produce.

You can hear an audio report on this topic in Yle's All Points North Podcast #6.

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