I will start this post by saying that no matter what you’ve read or heard, there is so far no scientific evidence that living beings possess a soul and therefore there is also no subsequent proof that if we would indeed have a soul, that soul continues to exist after our death.
Even so, since ancient times, there have been claims that certain people can communicate with the soul of the departed, through various means. And many people chose not to pass up the opportunity of having a final or a series of talks with someone they love, but who is no longer with us.
Now, putting the two together – no proof soul exists and survives our death and the fact that some people claim to communicate with this very soul – and also eliminating those cases of mental illness that would cause the sufferer to have such experiences and provide such interpretation, I think it is fairly sensible to label these events, so far, as hoaxes. The person who requires the session is not necessarily the only one deceived, but the reader himself/herself may also be the victim of their own cognitive processes. Irrational beliefs or poor education in scientific areas may cause flawed conclusions that may appear to support the abilities of the medium and the validity of a séance.
Therefore, knowing that, most likely, there is no spirit-medium communication going on during these meetings, why are there so many people reporting that the reading made them feel better and that it is easier for them now to go on with their lives? This is, in the end, what’s been keeping mediums in business for centuries and even in the attention of the scientific community. Some people say it works. In this article, I want to address not how it works, but why it works. And by ‘it works’ I refer to the self-reported psychological status of the client, before and after the reading. In those cases in which the séance is seen as a success, individuals often report a dissipation or complete disappearance of the psychological discomfort.
Let’s take a closer look at what I consider to be the main factors that guide this self-reported results.
Many times, people do not get the chance to say goodbye to those they love before they die or it is only after their disappearance that one becomes aware of messages that were left unsaid. Sudden separation can cause significant distress and people going through it may get a feeling of things being incomplete. This unsaid goodbye or message somehow “floats” in the mind of the person, creating an open loop which may cause continuous suffering until it is properly addressed.
Meeting with a medium who claims he/she can contact the dead provides an opportunity for this loop to be closed, and once that happens, the person can resume their everyday life without the burden of an incomplete/unfinished situation. All it takes is for the medium to establish that the deceased is present and that he or she acknowledges the message and eventually provides a similar message in return. It is this virtual continuation of a relationship that allows the unsaid to be manifested and thus unlocked from the survivor’s psyche. Once that conflict is solved, the psychological distress is diminished or disappears altogether.
If they believe in the afterlife, which people who contact mediums most likely do (or at least hope for, or are curious about), people want to know that their loved ones are alright, even after their death. Getting the chance to verify the well-being of the spirit of the deceased is a way to regain emotional comfort and peace of mind. Although they’ve been through the experience of death, they are now on the other side, having this new existence undisturbed by earthly struggles. You will often encounter situations in which the spirit of the deceased is presented as having no trace of illness, old age or suffering. This information brings peace to the survivor, knowing that their family member, friend or person whom they’ve appreciated or admired, is in good health, worry-free and basically, happy.
During a séance, important messages seem to not only be transmitted and acknowledged but also received. Significant pieces of information seem to become available to the medium and conveyed to the survivor during the reading. These messages usually contain information that resolves a matter that concerns the person being read and it regards the period just prior to the person’s death or the death itself. Examples of such messages: “I was not in pain when it happened, I didn’t feel anything”, “I knew you were holding my hand in the hospital (while I was in a coma)”, “It was this diagnosis, not that” etc. When the survivor finally gets these messages that respond to certain questions they’ve been having but weren’t able to gain response to, the ambiguity is resolved and the matter is no longer a burden.
Giving and/or Receiving Forgiveness
In the past years, psychology studies have shown that there is a link between forgiveness and well-being, even length of one’s life is supposed to benefit from the act of forgiveness. Also, forgiveness is a strong concept in many religions. Therefore, it is not surprising that forgiveness plays an important role in relation to the departed, too. If one feels remorse or guilt regarding a situation involving a loved one, then these feelings may be amplified by the death itself. The chance to say you are sorry or to explain why you made this decision or why you acted in a certain way, is gone. Most people would say that even that of receiving forgiveness is gone. But not the mediums. Sessions with a medium may provide the so needed feedback that one’s been forgiven by the dead. Or that the dead understand the survivor forgave them. Either way, a loop is closed, and intense feelings of guilt, remorse, and self-blame, are diminished or completely relieved.
Often, the survivor will be left with a “Why?“ that no one can answer, regarding the death of a loved one. “Why him/her?“, “Why now?”, “Why not me (too)?” etc. During sessions, more or less satisfying answers are provided for these questions. “It was my time”, “I’ve fulfilled my mission on Earth”, “I have a new mission here” or full explanations involving main factors that lead to the death of a person (development/stages of medical condition with time frames, behaviors, personal decisions and so on) may be conveyed to the survivor. Sometimes this helps a person deal with a sudden death or terrible illness of the person who died. We need meaning and reason in our lives. These answers provide significance.
Validation or Approval
Whether there are aspects that were hidden in the relationship with the person who passed away or new aspects occurred in the life of the survivor after their death, validation of those aspects or approval regarding certain actions and decisions may be what the latter needs in order to feel they are doing the right thing. Some people would like to get approval on their lifestyle or the decisions they’ve made regarding, for example, education of children, since they became a single parent. Knowing that the person you loved, trusted and admired agrees with the way you lead your life, can be a great validation that helps people continue their life without guilt, fear or ambiguity. One of the most conveyed messages in this area is “I am proud of you”.
If the person who died had a consultation role in their relationship with the survivor, then the latter may feel the need to somehow maintain that same dialogue even after the death of the former, in order to maintain the behavioral pattern and roles. People who lost a spouse may feel they need their approval before getting married again or before deciding who is going to share their parental duties with them. Sessions conducted by mediums provide this type of feedback, that “It is OK to..” and that the person who left this world permits to be replaced or approves of the person replacing them in their role. Of course, we can discuss here the type of people who need this kind of message, their level of independence (rather dependence), external locus of control or submission, obedience, but this is part of how these services come to happen and seem relevant. As I said, I will stick to the why for the purpose of this article.
Often, the loss of a significant person will leave the survivor with a feeling of being lost, confusion and lack of clarity regarding how to further live their lives. An external guidance may help the survivor become more confident and take the needed steps in their life, especially when they feel these decisions are in sync with what the departed may also want or agrees with. Motivation, direction or even information about future happenings are somehow provided through a séance. Ambiguous messages seem to carry the response to the “What”, the “How” and the “Whys” of life and are interpreted as significant enough to constitute the basis of further actions and decisions. The person who required the session seems to feel more empowered and able to act. They seem to have a clearer perspective and it becomes easier for them to act on it.
Confirmation of Immortality
Being able to communicate with the dead would most likely involve at least the following two assertions: that we do have a soul and that it is immortal. To know that, may be comforting to the living in relation to one’s own fear of death and questions regarding what that experience means for the body and mind. A séance in which communication with the dead appears to be established acts as proof of the immortality of the soul.
Safety and Protection
People have a need for safety and any information that can offer comfort or a sense of certainty regarding one’s physical and psychological well-being is welcomed. Mediums often provide the information that the soul of a loved one is watching and protecting those who are still alive. This perspective does not only bring comfort to the living but also boosts their confidence in dealing with everyday aspects of life.
Most of all, going to a medium and apparently being able to connect with a person who was important to the survivor and remains significant after their death, is a way to continue that relationship and may even eliminate the need to deal with the idea of permanent loss. Whenever one feels lonely or misses that loved one, they can visit a medium and re-establish connection, through a session.
The Feeling of Being Special
This aspect is common to many parapsychology practices or alternative medicine contexts: it makes one feel special. Not everyone can benefit from these services. You need to believe, the context must be just right, the deceased must be at peace and willing to communicate, you receive information others lack, you continue important relationships and don’t let a phenomenon such as death paralyze you, like you’ve seen it happen in other situations. And when all of this comes together and is part of your life, it proves you are worthy. This is special, not ordinary, and that also means you are taking part in extra-ordinary things. This thought may bring comfort, satisfaction, confidence, and happiness.
Considering the emotional benefits above, one may understand why some people find it useful to go and see a medium. But just because it feels good, it does not make it real. Emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion (a thinking error) that enables people to construct information they believe to be valid, based on emotion, not on reason. “It feels good, then it must be true”. And that is not always true, nor is that a way in which the value of truth is assigned to information. Actually, I find it valid and useful to mention that the same benefits (or same type of benefits) can be achieved in reason-driven contexts, like psychotherapy or actions that can deal with the underlying need or feeling that makes a certain type of outcome/benefit so valuable. It may be about understanding and coming to terms with the idea of death in general, one’s own mortality, about expressing feelings that have been bottled up for long, about learning to live with ambiguity and uncertainty, it may be about control and dependence, about confidence and fear, about grief and despair that you do not yet know how to regulate. Maybe it’s just about you giving yourself time to mourn and regain a clear perspective on your life. It may take a longer time, but I dare to say that these results are almost always stronger and last longer. A rational approach to life and a healthy integration of emotion can lead to better adjustment, better skills and in the end, a happier life.
Trying to contact the people who have passed and thus, not having to accept the significant changes in your life, may seem like an intuitive solution to a complex problem, yet, as far as we know, it is only make-believe. It may be a quick solution to deal with intense emotion, but in the long run, it’s the rational, thorough approach that generates best results and manages to re-establish physical and emotional well-being.
Ray, H. (2003). How Not to Test Mediums: Critiquing the Afterlife Experiments. Retrieved December 6, 2015, from http://www.csicop.org/si/show/how_not_to_test_mediums_critiquing_the_afterlife_experiments
Webster, D., & Kruglanski, A. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(6), 1049-1062. (Abstract here)
The ideas presented on this website are my own. When reading these articles, keep in mind that Psychology Corner is a blog. Also, I am not a native English speaker.