The practice of channeling — a person's body being taken over by a spirit for the purpose of communication — has been around for millennia. There are countless stories of shamen, witch doctors, prophets and others who claim to hear voices or receive some supernatural knowledge from the spirit world. Channelers, also sometimes known as psychic mediums, often use what are called "spirit guides," friendly spirits who give them knowledge and help them on their spiritual journeys.
According to Sanaya Roman and Duane Packer, authors of "Opening to Channel: How to Connect With Your Guide," "channeling is a powerful means of spiritual unfoldment and conscious transformation. As you channel you build a bridge to the higher realms — a loving, caring, purposeful collective higher consciousness that has been called God, the All-that-Is, or the Universal Mind.... Channeling involves consciously shifting your mind and mental space in order to achieve an expanded state of consciousness."
To achieve this expanded state of consciousness, channelers usually meditate, trying to break free of worldly influences and tune in to a higher consciousness. They may imagine themselves seeking out specific spirits of the dead, or they may be contacted, apparently unbidden, by some unknown force that wishes to communicate.
Ramtha, Roberts and other writers
While most people channel to seek inner wisdom, entire books have been written, supposedly by ancient spirits channeled through modern mediums. In fact there are hundreds of such books, many of which can be found in New Age sections of bookstores and libraries around the world. The most famous American writer-channeler was Jane Roberts, who claimed to channel an ancient and wise entity named Seth. For her 1972 best-seller "Seth Speaks," as well as several popular sequels, Roberts, as Seth, dictated esoteric information to her husband about the soul, the nature of consciousness, spiritual truths, higher planes of reality, and so on.
Since the 1980s, New Age mystic J.Z. Knight has claimed to channel Ramtha (also known as "The Enlightened One,") a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit who described, among other things, being born on the (fictional) continent of Atlantis. Knight became a multi-millionaire writing books and offering seminars and DVDs teaching the wisdom imparted to her by Ramtha. Another prominent channeler in the 1980s and 1990s was actress Shirley MacLaine, who wrote a best-selling book and a popular television miniseries on the subject. Channeling has waned in popularity in recent years, though it is still practiced (and its reality widely accepted) in the New Age community.
So is channeling real? What's going on?
There seems to be no real evidence that the information is truly coming from unseen spirits or some omniscient cosmic consciousness instead of the channeler. Virtually all channeled information is subjective, mystical and completely unverifiable, often including themes of universal love, messages from God, cosmic unity, and so on.
Channeled information from different sources is often contradictory; a dozen different spirits, presumably dwelling in the same afterworld, give a dozen different accounts. If the spirits are truly imparting important cosmic wisdom and universal truths, you would expect different channelers in different places and times to say the same things. Instead, studies have shown that channeled information changes with the times and tends to reflect the ideas popular in the culture at the time.
Because there is no way to verify information and descriptions of different planes of existence, the nature of the soul, and so on, there's no way to know what, if any, of the channeled information is accurate, but clearly much of it cannot be correct.
What would help verify channeling as a real phenomenon would be to have accurate, concrete, and verifiable information revealed that only the spirit would know. For example, a person who truly channeled Einstein should be able to continue making important physics discoveries long after his death; or a father who died unexpectedly and left his affairs in disarray should be able to tell his wife and family, through a channeler, where important documents are located to help settle his estate.
If people could communicate with spirits of the dead, it would be a tremendous boon to law enforcement, who could simply ask a medium to contact the dead and provide them with details to find their bodies or solve their murders. Channelers have unfortunately never been able to contact the spirits of Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, Natalee Holloway, Holly Bobo, or countless other missing persons to find their remains and/or bring the killers to justice.
The psychology of channeling
Instead, channelers are only able to provide unimportant, unverifiable and ambiguous information about the great beyond. The real explanation for channeling lies in psychology, not psychic powers. As psychologist James Alcock of York University notes in "The Encyclopedia of The Paranormal," "the supposed phenomenon is actually very old, for it is simply automatism — automatic behavior over which an individual denies any personal control ... Today we recognize that automatism is a form of dissociation, an altered state of consciousness, in which an individual is capable of speaking or acting without awareness of deliberately doing so."
In other words, when a person mediates and clears his or her mind, random thoughts, images, and symbols may spontaneously arise. In this harmless dissociative state, though it may seem that this information is coming from another consciousness outside the body, in fact it is generated by the mind itself. It's the same process by which artists and musicians may suddenly be inspired by a great thought, or how we dream of things we'd never have imagined or thought of.
Some channelers have been proven frauds who pretend to contact the dead for fame or fortune, though most people who channel sincerely believe that some unseen spirit uses their bodies as a vessel to dispense truth and wisdom. In the end, there is nothing pathological about channeling, but nor is it an unexplained conduit to another dimension.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.