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Many People Seek A Source Of Mystery And Wonder In The World

It wasn't immediately obvious to Walter Semkiw that he was the reincarnation of John Adams. Adams was a lawyer and rabble-rouser who helped overthrow a government; Semkiw is a doctor who has never so much as challenged a parking ticket. The second president was balding and wore a powdered wig; Semkiw has a full head of hair. But in 1984, a psychic told the then medical resident and psychiatrist-in-training that he is the reincarnation of a major figure of the Revolution, possibly Adams. Once Semkiw got over his skepticism—as a student of the human mind, he was of course familiar with "how people get misled and believe something that might not be true," he recalls—he wasn't going to let superficial dissimilarities dissuade him so easily. As he researched Adams's life, Semkiw began finding many tantalizing details. For instance, Adams described his handwriting as "tight-fisted and concise"—"just like mine," Semkiw realized. He also saw an echo of himself in Adams's dedication to the cause of independence from England. "I can be very passionate," Semkiw says. The details accumulated and, after much deliberation, Semkiw went with his scientific side, dismissing the reincarnation idea.

The Art Of Dowsing

Dowsing is a type of divination employed in attempts to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites, and many other objects and materials without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsing is considered a pseudoscience, and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance.

Water means life in agrarian societies, and few needs are more compelling than locating it. For centuries, adepts of the practice called dowsing have led the search, often times holding a rudimentary tool, a Y-shaped stick with a projecting end. The dowser walks across a landscape, waiting for the stick to move seemingly of its own volition, swerving down toward the ground. When it does - eureka! - the dowser has divined his precious hidden quarry.

Dowsing goes by many names - divining, water witching, radiesthesia - and it employs a variety of tools in addition to the classic forked stick: a pair of L-shaped brass rods is the choice of many dowsers, while radiesthesia refers to the practice of dangling an object over a map and noting its movements to reveal hidden targets. Thanks to the apparent success of many venerable dowsers, their methods are used to search for treasures in addition to water: gems and minerals, gold and oil.

Because dowsers often find water, their art is one of the most widely accepted forms of unexplained phenomena. The mystery of dowsing boils down to a single question: How does the dowser receive his information? Many practitioners are convinced that a good dowser has the power to sense forces that others cannot. They argue that mankind will eventually come to understand these forces, whether they are magnetic, radioactive, electrical or perhaps not yet known to science. For their part, scientists - who realized long ago that seemingly quaint folk practices can be doorways to discovery - have created blind tests that subject dowsing to rigorous scrutiny.

Sadly for believers, these tests have failed to establish that dowsing really works, much less that it holds clues to hidden forces. In test after test, dowsers of good reputation failed to find their quarry more often than random participants did. Scientists draw a number of conclusions from these tests: they suspect that master dowsers rely on an acquired knowledge of geography and topography to help them find their targets. They ascribe the sudden downturn of the divining rod to the ideomotor effect, an involuntary body movement evoked by a thought process rather than by outside simulation, In short, they argue, the dowser reacts to internal cues rather than external forces.

Yet the art of dowsing remains one of the more puzzling of mysterious phenomena, simply because it so often seems to work in the field, if not under scientific conditions. Confusion prevails: the U.S. Geological Survey declared in 1977 that dowsing was a pseudoscience, yet the Army Corps of Engineers has employed dowsers. And one can join reputable dowsing societies in nations around the world. Perhaps that is what makes the failure to explain dowsing through science so frustrating. Its proponents are not the kooks or cranks familiar to those exploring unexplained phenomena: they are more often down-to-earth folks, who say dowsing works for them and that science will catch up some day. Even James Randi, the former. magician who is a professional skeptic of parapsychology, has good words for them. Randi compares them to other advocates of the paranormal and declares, "No claimants even approach the dowsers for honesty. These are persons who are genuinen thoroughly, self-deceived." Or maybe just ahead of their time?

Usually, the boundary between science and science fiction is as distinct as the difference between the 6 o'clock news and "The Simpsons." Wherever the line blurs, you're bound to find contentious debates. One of the longest-running of these disagreements centers on dowsing, a supposed sixth sense that enables people to find underground water using a forked branch, pendulum or pair of bent wires. There is no scientific reason why dowsing should work. Yet, it apparently works well enough and reliably enough to keep the practice alive.

The success of dowsers doesn't surprise the people who know the most about finding underground water, hydrogeologists for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). They point out that the United States is so water-rich you can get wet drilling just about anywhere, if you drill deep enough. Far harsher criticism of dowsing and dowsers comes from outside the mainstream scientific community. Two organizations are actually working to discourage the practice, which they both dismiss as paranormal nonsense. To make their point that dowsing is a sham each has staged demonstrations in which dowsers were asked to find buried pipes. Dowsers did no better than the laws of chance predict.

Like bees unaware they are too aerodynamically challenged to fly, dowsers don't let the skeptics get them down. In fact, the ranks of dowsers have been steadily growing. Forty years ago, about 50 dowsers and curiosity seekers were drawn to Danville, Vt., for a 1-day National Dowsing Convention. That get-together led to the creation of the American Society of Dowsers (ASD), which now counts about 4200 members. Lest you dismiss dowsing's popularity as just another New Age fad, in a 16th century drawing the men wearing traditional miners' clothing are holding the same type of forked stick in use by many dowsers today.

Now comes a massive set of data that suggests there may be some validity to dowsers' claims. The encouraging words are contained in a study financed by the German government and published in the Journal Of Scientific Exploration, which is a peer-reviewed scientific journal published at Stanford University. The project was conducted by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit in the hope of finding cheaper and more reliable ways of locating drinking water supplies in Third World countries.

Researchers analyzed the successes and failures of dowsers in attempting to locate water at more than 2000 sites in arid regions of Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia and Yemen over a 10-year period. To do this, researchers teamed geological experts with experienced dowsers and then set up a scientific study group to evaluate the results. Drill crews guided by dowsers didn't hit water every time, but their success rate was impressive. In Sri Lanka, for example, they drilled 691 holes and had an overall success rate of 96 percent. "In hundreds of cases the dowsers were able to predict the depth of the water source and the yield of the well to within 10 percent or 20 percent," says Hans-Dieter Betz, a physicist at the University of Munich, who headed the research group. "We carefully considered the statistics of these correlations, and they far exceeded lucky guesses," he says. What's more, virtually all of the sites in Sri Lanka were in regions where the odds of finding water by random drilling were extremely low. As for a USGS notion that dowsers get subtle clues from the landscape and geology, Betz points out that the underground sources were often more than 100 ft. deep and so narrow that misplacing the drill only a few feet would mean digging a dry hole.

As impressive as this success rate may seem, it doesn't do much to change the minds of skeptics. Their preference is to test dowsing under more controlled conditions. Anticipating this criticism, the German researchers matched their field work with laboratory experiments in which they had dowsers attempt to locate water-filled pipes inside a building. The tests were similar to those conducted by skeptics, and similarly discouraging. Skeptics see the poor showing as evidence of failure. Betz sees the discrepancy as an important clue. He says that subtle electromagnetic gradients may result when natural fissures and water flows create changes in the electrical properties of rock and soil. Dowsers, he theorizes, somehow sense these gradients and unconsciously respond by wagging their forked sticks, pendulums or bent wires.

There is ample evidence that humans can detect small amounts of energy. All creatures with eyes can detect extremely small amounts of electromagnetic energy at visible light wavelengths. Some researchers believe the dark-adapted human eye can detect a single photon, the smallest measurable quantity of energy. Biologists also have found nonvisual electric and magnetic sensing organs in creatures from bacteria to sharks, fish and birds. Physiologists, however, have yet to find comparable structures in humans.

Betz offers no theories of how dowsers come by their skill and prefers to confine his speculation to his data. "There are two things that I am certain of after 10 years of field research," he says. "A combination of dowsing and modern techniques can be both more successful, and far less expensive, than we had thought."

But one day in 1995, when Semkiw was the medical director for Unocal 76, the oil company, he heard a voice in his head intoning, "Study the life of Adams!" Now he found details much more telling than those silly coincidences he had learned a dozen years earlier. He looked quite a bit like the second president, Semkiw realized. Adams's description of parishioners in church pews as resembling rows of cabbages was "something I would have said," Semkiw realized. "We are both very visual." And surely it was telling that Unocal's slogan was "the spirit of '76." It was all so persuasive, thought Semkiw, who is now a doctor at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group in California, that as a man of science and reason whose work requires him to critically evaluate empirical evidence, he had to accept that he was Adams reincarnated.

Perhaps you don't believe that Semkiw is the reincarnation of John Adams. Or that playwright August Wilson is the reincarnation of Shakespeare, or George W. Bush the reincarnation of Daniel Morgan, a colonel in the American Revolution who was known for his "awkward speech" and "coarse manners." But if you don't believe in reincarnation, then the odds are that you have at least felt a ghostly presence behind you in an "empty" house. Or that you have heard loved ones speak to you after they passed away. Or that you have a lucky shirt. Or that you can tell when a certain person is about to text you, or when someone unseen is looking at you. For if you have never had a paranormal experience such as these, and believe in none of the things that science says do not exist except as tricks played on the gullible or—as neuroscientists are now beginning to see—by the normal workings of the mind carried to an extreme, well, then you are in a lonely minority.

If you take the word "normal" as characteristic of the norm or majority, then it is the superstitious and those who believe in ESP, ghosts and psychic phenomena who are normal. Most scientists and skeptics roll their eyes at such sleight of word, asserting that belief in anything for which there is no empirical evidence is a sign of mental pathology and not normalcy. But a growing number of researchers, in fields such as evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, are taking such beliefs seriously in one important sense: as a window into the workings of the human mind. The studies are an outgrowth of research on religious faith, a (nearly) human universal, and are turning out to be useful for explaining fringe beliefs, too. The emerging consensus is that belief in the supernatural seems to arise from the same mental processes that underlie everyday reasoning and perception. But while the belief in ghosts, past lives, the ability of the mind to move matter and the like originate in normal mental processes.

Raised as a Roman Catholic, Semkiw is driven by a what-if optimism. If only people could accept reincarnation, he believes, Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites might stop fighting (since they might be killing someone who was once one of them). He is dismissive of the idea that reincarnation has not been empirically proved. That was the status of everything science has since proved, be it the ability of atoms to vibrate in synchrony (the basis of the laser) or of mold to cure once-lethal infections (penicillin). Dedicated to the empirical method, Semkiw believes the world is on the brink of "a science of spirituality," he says. "I don't know how you can't believe in reincarnation. All it takes is an open mind."

On that, he is in agreement with researchers who study the processes of mind and brain that underlie belief. As scientists began studying belief in the paranormal, it quickly became clear that belief requires an open mind—one not bound by the evidence of the senses, but in which emotions such as hope and despair can trump that evidence. Consider the Tichborne affair. In 1854, Sir Roger Tichborne, age 25, was reported lost at sea off the coast of Brazil. His inconsolable mother refused to accept that her son was dead. Twelve years later a man from Wagga Wagga, in New South Wales, Australia, got in touch with her. He claimed to be Sir Roger, so Lady Tichborne immediately sent him money to sail to England. When the claimant arrived, he turned out to be grossly obese, E.J. Wagner recounts in her 2006 book "The Science of Sherlock Holmes." Sir Roger had been very thin. Sir Roger had had tattoos on his arm. The claimant had none. He did, however, have a birthmark on his torso; Sir Roger had not. Although Sir Roger's eyes had been blue, the claimant's were brown. Lady Tichborne nevertheless joyfully proclaimed the claimant her son and granted him £1,000 per annum. Lawsuits eventually established that the claimant was an impostor.

The pervasiveness of belief in the supernatural and paranormal may seem odd in an age of science. But ours is also an age of anxiety, a time of economic distress and social anomie, as denizens of a mobile society are repeatedly uprooted from family and friends. Historically, such times have been marked by a surge in belief in astrology, ESP and other paranormal phenomena, spurred in part by a desperate yearning to feel a sense of control in a world spinning out of control.

As science replaces the supernatural with the natural, explaining everything from thunder and lightning to the formation of planets, many people seek another source of mystery and wonder in the world. People can get that from belief in several paranormal phenomena, but none more so than thinking they were abducted by aliens. Numerous studies have found that abductees are not suffering from any known mental illness. They are unusually prone to false memories, and tend to be creative, fantasy-prone and imaginative. But so are lots of people who have never met a little green man.

The scientific principle that the simplest explanation is most likely to be right is, well, alien to abductees. We are more irrational than we are rational; emotions drive voting behavior more strongly than analysis of candidates' records and positions does. The universal human need to find meaning and purpose in life is stronger and more basic than any attachment to empiricism, logic or objective reality.

A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe, a region toward the top and rear of the brain, for instance, distinguishes where your body ends and the material world begins. Without it, you couldn't navigate through a door frame. But other areas of the brain, including the thinking regions in the frontal lobes, sometimes send "turn off!" signals to this structure, such as when we are falling asleep or when we feel physical communion with another person (that's a euphemism for sex). During intense prayer or meditation, brain-imaging studies show, the structure is also especially quiet. Unable to find the dividing line between self and world, the brain adapts by experiencing a sense of holism and connectedness. You feel a part of something larger than yourself. This ability to shut off the sense of where you end and the world begins, then, may promote other beliefs that bring a sense of connection, even if they involve alien kidnappers.

A more common experience is to see patterns in coincidences. You think about the girl at the party last Saturday and—bam!—she calls you. You think about the girl who chatted you up in class—and never hear from her. Guess which experience you remember? Thanks to the psychological glitch called confirmatory bias, the mind better recalls events and experiences that validate what we believe than those that refute those beliefs. But why? Why do we remember the times we thought of someone just before she texted us and forget all the times we had no such premonition? When the mind was evolving, failing to make an association (snakes with rattles are to be avoided) could get you killed, while making a false association (dancing will make it rain) mostly just wasted time.

The brain also evolved to recoil from danger, and the most frequent sources of danger back in the Stone Age were not guns and cars but saber-toothed tigers and other living things. There is a clear survival advantage to imputing aliveness and asking questions later. That's why, during human evolution, our ancestors developed what is called a hypersensitive agency-detection device. Developing ideas about ghosts and spirits is simply a derivative of this hypersensitivity to the possibility" that a living being is present, and too bad if it also produces the occasional (or even frequent) false positives.

The belief that minds are not bound to bodies, and therefore that ghosts and other spirits exist here in the physical world, reflects a deep dualism in the human psyche. All of which raises a question. If the brain is wired so as to make belief in the paranormal seemingly inevitable, why are there any skeptics? And not just "any," but more assertive, activist ones.

Their more aggressive attitude provides a sense of mission and community that skeptics, no less than believers, crave. It takes effort to resist the allure of belief, with its promise of fellowship, community and comfort in the face of mortality and a pointless, uncaring universe. There must be compensating rewards. One such compensation, it is fair to say, is a feeling of intellectual superiority. It is rewarding to look at the vast hordes of believers, conclude that they are idiots and delight in the fact that you aren't. Another is that skeptics believe, or at least hope, that they can achieve at least one thing that believers seek, but without abandoning their principles. Skeptics, no less than believers, think it would be wonderful if we could speak to dead loved ones, or if we ourselves never died.

Jim Wilson. Finding Water With A Forked Stick May Not Be A Hoax. Popular Mechanics All Access . November 1998.
Sharon Begley. Why We Believe. Newsweek - Regular ed . November 3, 2008.


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