Like millions of others, I am head-over-heels for Stranger Things, Netflix’s new smash-hit paranormal series and love letter to the 1980s. A masterful fusion of Stand By Me (my own personal favorite childhood movie), E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, all things Stephen King, and 1980s synth sentimentality — Stranger Things has struck a chord within its sci-fi audience. The series has clearly hit the Holy Grail as far as demographics are concerned, by bridging the gaps between the three most finicky generations of all TV viewers — kids under 18, millennials (i.e. born between 1982-2004), and Gen-X (i.e. born between the mid-1960s to mid-1980s). And just as impressive as this, Stranger Things has even given its viewers an impressive dose of theoretical physics to boot (see New Scientist‘s video below).
Novelist P.L. Travers once wrote, “More and more I’ve become convinced that the great treasure to possess is the unknown.” And Albert Einstein himself once said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead — his eyes are closed.” Undoubtedly, Travers and Einstein would have been huge fans of the show. In Stranger Things, we are quickly faced with the disappearance of Will Byers at the hands of a faceless alien monster able to move between parallel dimensions — our Earthly one, and a much darker and sinister one. Almost as soon as Will’s family realizes he’s gone, Will’s three buddies encounter a young girl lost in the woods, with the number 011 tattooed onto her arm. In the episodes ahead, we get a glimpse of her extraordinary telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Eleven (or “Elle” as the boys nickname her), has just escaped a top secret government research facility not far from the small Indiana town where Stranger Things is set. Attempting to understand, harness, and weaponize Elle’s superpower, the researchers stop at nothing to find her once again and return her to the lab for further research.
It might seem far-fetched, but this lab is by no means entirely make-believe. Approximately 500 miles east-southeast of rural Indiana is the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. Founded in 1967 by Dr. Ian Stevenson, its mission is “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.” The brilliant research teams at DOPS have conducted thousands of research studies into cases that involve: ESP, poltergeists, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, claimed memories of past lives, and more.
One part Stranger Things, one part Mulder and Scully from X-FILES, and one part Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters from X-MEN, The University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies is one of the world’s best known laboratories investigating the paranormal, and a number of their cases continue to baffle even the most senior scientists on its team. One of DOPS’ most famous cases was headed by Dr. Jim Tucker, a Bonner-Lowry Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, who studied a 2-year-old boy from Louisiana named James Leininger. In an interview with NPR‘s Rachel Martin, Tucker told the story of this little boy’s brush with the unknown. Jake Flanagin of Scientific American writes:
“[We studied James Leininger], a Louisiana boy who reported memories of flying a fighter jet in World War II. At around age 2, James experienced terrible nightmares, almost nightly, of violent plane crashes. During the day, he relayed extremely vivid memories of this supposed Air Force career. He recalled the name of a real aircraft carrier stationed in the Pacific during World War II (‘Natoma’). He claimed to have a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen. He had memory of being shot down by the Japanese and dying near Iwo Jima. The USS Natoma Bay lost only one pilot at Iwo Jima, a man named James Huston, and he died in a crash that matched Leininger’s description almost exactly: ‘Hit in the engine, exploding into fire, crashing into the water and quickly sinking,’ Tucker said. ‘And when that happened, the pilot of the plane next to his was Jack Larsen.’ Spooky, right? Surely little James was merely parroting information he had absorbed elsewhere. ‘Children’s brains are like sponges,’ the saying goes, but Tucker’s findings suggest something more profound at work. For one thing, James Huston is simply not a well known person. A cursory Google search of his name reveals only press related to Leininger’s claims. It’s hard to say how Leininger or his parents could have possibly known anything about Huston before the nightmares began. Huston’s story is so obscure that it took Leininger’s father three to four years to track down his information. James Huston was killed more than fifty years before James Leininger’s birth, and came from Pennsylvania — more than a thousand miles from the Leininger family home in Louisiana. What’s more, James Leininger was only two years old when he first reported memories of Huston’s fiery death. ‘It seems absolutely impossible that he could have somehow gained this information as a 2-year-old through some sort of normal means,’ Tucker told NPR.”
Using the same scientific techniques, and inspired by the same motivations as the researchers of NASA or the World Health Organization, the scientists at DOPS are rigorous in their collection and analysis of data. Acclaimed American psychiatrist Harold Lief praised DOPS’ scientific method in a feature written for The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: “While I withhold final judgment on the content and conclusions of [their studies] of telepathy, xenoglossy, and reincarnation, I am a true believer in [DOPS’] methods of investigation. [The researchers] are methodical and thorough [with their] data collection, and clear and lucid in their analysis and presentation.”
Bruce Greyson is another scientist at the DOPS lab, who, for the past three decades, has specialized in the lab’s studies of near-death experiences. Greyson tells the University of Virginia magazine: “Over those three decades, Greyson, who directs the Division of Perceptual Studies, has witnessed an evolution in our knowledge about near-death experiences. ‘Back in the early 1980s, when we would present information about these experiences at medical conferences, after the conference was over doctors would come to us individually and say, ‘I had one of these experiences. Let me tell you about it.” Several factors made them reluctant to speak publicly. The experiences are intensely private, and people had yet to learn how common they were. In addition, the field of study had yet to gain wide acceptance. As knowledge has grown, reticence has waned. ‘Now they’re more willing to say that during the conference in front of an audience,’ Greyson says. About one person in 20 has reported having a near-death experience, according to one study. The International Association for Near-Death Studies estimates that 12 percent of people who have had a close brush with death will later report having a NDE.”
“The power of the experience often is life-altering,” Greyson adds. “Fear of death vanishes. Love of life blossoms. Spirituality strengthens. Compassion and connectedness become central principles. [Experiencers] feel they’re part of something greater than themselves. They feel that they’re all part of this universal whatever you want to call it — nature, the Godhead,” Greyson says.
“Though the research is modern, the phenomenon is ancient. The afterlife has fascinated mankind since he was wrapped in the swaddling clothes of civilization.” Greyson continues: “Science is my game. I can understand that there are philosophical or theological ways of approaching this, but that’s not my interest,” he explains. “My interest is in the scientific understanding of it.” You can read more of Greyson’s fascinating insights by visiting UVAmagazine.org. Walter Semkiw, M.D., an associate with the Institute for the Integration of Science, Intuition and Spirit (IISIS) has compiled an impressive collection of past-lives case studies from the halls of DOPS, and you can read them in full by visiting IISIS.net.
The Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017, and even after five decades, the wisdom of its founder, Dr. Ian Stevenson, still rings true to this day with his now famous statement: “The wish not to believe can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.” In keeping with Stevenson’s wisdom of openness to the unknown, it seems all too fitting for the team at DOPS to have a similar quotation on their website’s headerboard from President Thomas Jefferson, the man who founded, conceived, and designed the University of Virginia in 1819. “I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge,” said Jefferson in 1812, “never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led.”
Princeton University also has its own paranormal research lab devoted to telekinesis and other paranormal phenomena. It is called the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR): Scientific Study of Consciousness-Related Physical Phenomena. You can learn more about their research at Princeton.edu.
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