The concept of mediumship contains far-reaching implications and possibilities with respect to its applicability in the therapeutic process. While most self-described mediums operate outside the context of professional therapy, the benefits they provide to clients in aiding the grief process and providing evidential validation of people’s continuing involvement with deceased loved ones is worth further examination as a viable counseling practice.
Beischel and Rock (2009) explain that understanding the phenomenology of mediumship will indirectly offer validation of survival beyond physical death and potentially contribute to healing. They state, “scientific evidence for life after death may alleviate the anxiety felt by hospice and end-of-life patients and their families and alter the way allopathic physicians perceive death. Mediumship readings may also be helpful in grief counseling and recovery” (Beischel & Rock, 2009, p. 73). In order to use mediumship as a “helpful” tool in therapy, however, there must be a level of replicability for its use and notable acuity on the part of the therapist acting as the medium. As such, “mediumship research has been primarily concerned with empirically demonstrating a particular and replicable effect” (Rock, Beischel, Boccuzzi, & Biuso, 2014, p. 184).
Unfortunately, for mediumship to be considered viable for mainstream therapeutic use by licensed professionals, there must be further research into understanding how the process of such information transmission works. Beischel and Rock (2009) note, “Process-focused investigations of mediums’ phenomenology during mediumship and psychic readings may aid in defining the source(s) of information for each” (p. 76). Knowing where the information is coming from during mediumistic exchanges has been an integral part of mediumship research since the mid-nineteenth century.
In discussing the work of Frederic W. H. Myers, a prominent psychologist and early researcher of mediumship during the 1880s, Alvarado (2014) explains, “Myers [also] mentioned two [other] possible causes of these communications that do involve supernormal function: telepathy from the sitters and the influence of discarnate beings” (p. 100-101). Myers’s noteworthy consideration here was formulated during the infancy of mediumship research, when attempts were still being made to distinguish mediumship from deception. Beischel and Rock (2009) have more recently described the schools of thought regarding the information source accessed during mediumship work, including: perceiving information psychically from living clients about the deceased, (“super-psi” [p. 72]); perceiving information from a collective source of energy (“psychic reservoir hypothesis” [p. 72]); and actually achieving genuine mediumship, in which the information perceived has been given by the surviving consciousness of a physically deceased human being or animal. Once the mystery of the source of mediumistic information is solved, the appropriation of mediumistic work for use in therapy will become much more feasible.
In terms of practice, mediumship is often divided into two forms, mental and trance, or physical (Roxburgh & Roe, 2011). According to Roxburgh and Roe (2011), “Mental mediumship can be defined as the ostensible communication with deceased persons” (p. 280). Compared to its counterpart, mental mediumship would be far more suitable for therapeutic work, since, as Roxburgh and Roe (2011) note, “trance mediumship often involves mediums entering a deep trance state in which they may lose awareness of their surroundings” (p. 280). Because this type of mediumship can cause a practitioner to dissociate, there are many potential threats to the safety of the client if such a practice were undertaken. In fact, some mediumship research has focused on the connection between mediumistic experience and psychopathological symptoms such as those associated with dissociative identity disorder (DID), but attempts to substantiate such a relationship have proven inconclusive (Roxburgh & Roe, 2011).
While the phenomenological process of mediumistic exchange with the physically deceased remains untenable given the present scientific tools available, the factor of unpredictability, and the plethora of variables to consider, there has been considerable research done to validate mediumistic integrity. Rock et al. (2014) note:
[c]ertain mediums can report accurate and specific information about the deceased loved ones (termed discarnates) of living people (termed sitters) through the process of anomalous information reception (AIR), that is, without any prior knowledge about the sitters or the discarnates, in the complete absence of any sensory feedback, and without using fraud or deception. (p. 183)
In addition to these research findings, the anecdotal evidence supporting the validity of mediumship has now been well established within mainstream pop culture. Rock et al. (2014) assert, “Numerous books, television shows, and movies featuring mediums—those who experience regular communication with the deceased—have moved from the obscure realm of the occult to the recognizable mainstream” (p. 183). Thus, as there is now less of a stigma associated with mediumistic exchange, the public consciousness has become more accepting of mediumship as a genuine form of information reception and sharing. This heightened cultural acceptance of mediumistic exchange serves two important functions: (1) people acknowledge the possibility that mediumship practice can be legitimate, and (2) people are less fearful of being stigmatized in response to disclosing their own mediumistic exchanges, whether intentional or unintentional.
In general, the literature regarding mediumship tends to differentiate between research of self-proclaimed practitioners of mediumship (e.g. mediums, psychic mediums, clairvoyants, etc.) and passive experients of mediumistic perception. Haraldsson (2009) discusses personally undertaking decades of research involving 337 Icelandic individuals reporting unintentional mediumistic exchanges. He explains that studies in Western Europe, the United States, and China asking participants about conscious exchange with the energy of a deceased individual revealed outcomes ranging from 25% to 41% (Haraldsson, 2009). With such substantial numbers of reportedly non-psychic people experiencing unintentional perception of the dead, the only apparent difference from the perceptions relayed by mediumship practitioners seems to be the intention. Based on the research of Haraldsson (2009) and others, there seems to be no difference in the level of specificity between practitioners and non-practitioners when discussing perceived elements of a deceased person.
Haraldsson (2009) explains, “The alleged encounters with the dead came in a great variety of forms. Ninety percent of them were sensory: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or multiple modalities. In 10% of the cases there was only a vivid sense of presence” (p. 95). As Haraldsson’s (2009) research demonstrates, just as professional or intentional mediumship practitioners may receive information from the deceased through clairvoyance (clear seeing), clairaudience (clear hearing), clairsentience (clear smelling), clairalience (clear smelling), clairgustance (clear tasting), and claircognizance (clear knowing), a non-practicing experient can perceive the same types of information regardless of intention, expectation, or practice. For practitioners, the frequency and replicability of mediumistic perception appear to be the significant differentiating factors from the layperson with a mediumistic experience. However, the fact that both practitioners and non-practitioners can have the same specificity of mediumistic perception suggests both the prevalence of such experiences across the population and the importance of integrating such experiences into therapeutic work, if it is to be as holistic as possible in accommodating a full range of human experience.
If unintentional mediumistic exchange is meaningful for the experient and can thus be likened to ”exceptional human experiences (EHEs)” (Palmer & Hastings, 2013, p. 333) such as out-of-body experience (OBE), near-death experience (NDE), or anomalous information reception (AIR), then it becomes the therapist’s responsibility to offer as much validation and understanding as possible when a client discloses such an experience. A client who has had an unintentional mediumistic exchange, like any EHE, may be at risk for spiritual emergency, a shattered worldview, and, if the exchange was prompted by the recent death of a loved one, an increase in feelings of sadness and overall grief. As Palmer and Hastings (2013) explain, “Disclosing life experiences, especially the more unusual events of one’s life, is the foundation for psychotherapy and counseling practices” (p. 341). Thus, counseling as a process is meant to promote holistic sharing as a way to support a client’s growth. In terms of disclosing EHEs, Palmer and Hastings (2013) note, “through a process of confessing or professing these experiences and revealing more of oneself, it may be possible to come to know one’s true identity more fully and appreciate the reality of such experiences” (p. 342). To this end, a therapist’s ability to use mediumship as an intervention within a session may be a highly beneficial way to support the validity of a client’s unintentional mediumistic experience.
As a practice, mediumship offers experients the opportunity to exchange information with the physically deceased. From a counseling standpoint, a therapist’s use of mediumship within a session can provide a client with two meaningful benefits: (1) validation of the veracity of a client’s own unintentional mediumistic experience, and (2) healing associated with an awareness that their loved one’s consciousness has survived despite physical death. Therefore, a continuing phenomenological exploration of mediumship is essential to the field of transpersonal counseling, since substantial research may ultimately offer enough supportive evidence of its reliability and benefits to legitimize its use as a productive therapeutic intervention.
Alvarado, C. S. (2014). Mediumship, psychical research, dissociation, and the powers of the subconscious mind. Journal of Parapsychology, 78(1), 98-114.
Beischel, J. & Rock, A. J. (2009). Addressing the survival versus psi debate through process-focused mediumship research. Journal of Parapsychology, 73, 71-90.
Haraldsson, E. (2009). Alleged encounters with the dead: The importance of violent death in 337 new cases. Journal of Parapsychology, 73, 91-118.
Palmer, G. & Hastings, A. (2013). Exploring the nature of exceptional human experiences: Recognizing, understanding, and appreciating EHEs. In H. Friedman & G. Hartelius (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology (pp. 333-351). Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell.
Rock, A. J., Beischel, J., Boccuzzi, M., & Biuso, M. (2014). Discarnate readings by claimant mediums: Assessing phenomenology and accuracy under beyond double-blind conditions. Journal of Parapsychology, 78(2), 183-194.
Roxburgh, E. C. & Roe, C. A. (2011). A survey of dissociation, boundary-thinness, and psychological wellbeing in spiritualist mental mediumship. Journal of Parapsychology, 75(2), 279-299.