Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Blinded by Science: Are There Ways of Knowing That We Refuse to Acknowledge?

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Blinded by Science: Are There Ways of Knowing That We Refuse to Acknowledge?

Article excerpt

Bookmarks By Richard Handler 

Blinded by Science Are there ways of knowing that we refuse to acknowledge?

Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer Bantam Books. 302 pp. ISBN:0-553-80335-2

This book begins with a story about an experience that changed the author's life. After a Christmas concert in Oakland, in December 1991, a thief stole a rare and valuable hand-carved harp owned by Meg Mayer, Elizabeth Mayer's 14-year-old daughter. Meg was inconsolable: she couldn't play on any of the ordinary harps rented to replace it. Her mother, a professor at University of California at Berkeley and a psychoanalyst and respected researcher, tried every possible channel to get it back: the police, instrument dealers, sob stories on the news. Nothing worked. Finally, after two months, a friend suggested that Lisby (that's what her friends called her) try a dowser.

All that Lisby Mayer knew about dowsers was that they used forked sticks to locate underground water. But she was told that really good dowsers can locate lost objects. So she parked her skepticism and called up Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, president of the American Society of Dowsers.

Lisby liked the way he sounded and after he reassured her that the harp was still in Oakland, she sent him a street map of the area. A couple of days later, he called back with the exact coordinates of its location. First she tried calling the police, but they couldn't be bothered. So she posted flyers within a two-block radius, offering a reward, no questions asked.

A few weeks later, she got a call from someone who said he knew where the harp was. Shortly thereafter, she rendezvoused with a teenage go-between in the parking lot of an all-night Safeway. Minutes later, she sped away in her station wagon with the harp safely inside the vehicle. "As I turned into my driveway, I had the thought, ÔThis changes everything," she writes.

I take time to tell this story because it's at the core of this book: the unexpected knock of "anomalous" (unusual or abnormal) experience. It altered the way a psychologist who knew her way around scientific protocols viewed the world.

Forewords by eminent figures like psychologist Carol Gilligan and physicist Freeman Dyson alert the reader that Mayer isn't just an ordinary person taken in by paranormal phenomenon. She investigates the world of "extraordinary knowing," fully aware (as is Dyson) that she's exploring a subject that inspires much fraud and many outrageous claims.

Soon after Mayer regained the harp, she began to ask questions of respected scientists, doctors, and academics: "Tell me, have you ever had experiences like mine?" And a surprising number confessed that they had. But they'd learned to remain quiet about these peculiar events--they didn't want to be taken as kooks. At the same time, nobody Mayer spoke with had an adequate theory to explain them.

For instance, Mayer met Patrick Casement, a distinguished British psychoanalyst, who told her of a story about an experience back in the early 1950s, when he was a teenager and was staying with his father's mother for the Easter holidays. She told him she had "only one real regret in her life": during the war, when people moved constantly, she'd lost touch with her dearest friend, and, since then, had been unable to track her down.

That week, Casement was walking the four miles from his grandmother's house to church for Easter services. Twenty minutes into the walk, he discovered his right arm had thumbed down a passing car, as if by reflex, even though he'd had no intention of hitchhiking. When the car stopped, he felt he had to accept the lift.

Inside the car, through a series of questions, he discovered that one of the passengers was his grandmother's long-lost friend, who'd also been trying to trace his grandmother. Soon, the two women, who hadn't seen each other in 10 years, were reunited and spent the day together. …

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