published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Paranormal experiences, mental health and mental boundaries, and psi
Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, UK
Previous research has suggested that paranormal beliefs and experiences are associated with thinner
mental boundaries and traumas during childhood. This paper examines more thoroughly the
relationship between paranormal experiences, mental health and boundaries, and psi abilities. 162
participants completed questionnaires about paranormal experiences (AEI), mental health (MHI-17),
mental boundaries (BQ-Sh), traumas during childhood (CATS) and life-changing events (LES). A
controlled psi experiment was also conducted. Significant correlations were found between paranormal
experiences and mental boundaries, traumas and negative life events. The overall results were non-
significant for the psi task and no significant correlation was found between psychological variables
and psi results. These findings suggest that mainly mental boundaries concerning unusual experiences
are associated with paranormal experiences. They also highlight the importance of
occur especially frequently after negative life events.
Keywords : paranormal experiences, mental boundaries, trauma, mental health, negative life events,
retro-priming, psi, precognition.
Given the fact that more than half of the population has had at least one paranormal
(Ross & Joshi, 1992), it is important to understand why people have such
mental disorders accompanied by paranormal experiences. This association is confirmed by
several studies showing a correlation between paranormal beliefs and magical ideation (Eckbald
& Chapman, 1983; Tobacyk & Wilkinson, 1990), hypomania and schizophrenia (Windholz &
Diamant, 1974), manic depressiveness (Thalbourne & French, 1995) and negative relation with
psychological adjustment (Irwin, 1991). On the other hand, some research has suggested that
there is no link between paranormal experiences and mental health disorders (Goulding, 2004)
and that these experiences could potentially improve well-being (Kennedy & Kanthamani,
Most of the current research addressing the connection between paranormal beliefs and
experiences and mental health uses the concept of schizotypy, a multi-factorial personality
construct that appears to be on a continuum with psychosis (Claridge, 1997). A large amount of
research has indeed shown a link between schizotypy and paranormal belief and experiences
(Schofield & Claridge, 2007). But people who have such experiences mainly have high scores on
scales of strange perceptions and beliefs, and rarely have high scores on negative symptoms.
Thus, the notions of “happy schizotypes” and "healthy schizotypes" have been proposed
(McCreery & Claridge, 1995), and a fully dimensional model of schizotypy has been developed,
When we refer to paranormal "experiences", we are referring to the individual’s attribution that an experience is
disorder. People who have paranormal experiences could belong to this category.
It seems appropriate to question whether these experiences as a whole should be
associated with lower mental health and most of the studies have so far concerned paranormal
beliefs rather than paranormal experiences. Thus, it seems relevant to use a clinical tool to
attempt to understand more precisely whether, overall, paranormal experiences are associated
with mental health disorders.
Other research into the psychological variables that correlate with paranormal
experiences suggest that thinner mental boundaries, that is the postulated thickness of relations
between different mental structures (emotions, thoughts, cognitive process, etc.), may be an
important factor. Paranormal experiences and mental boundaries have been studied primarily
through the concept of transliminality (Thalbourne, 2000). The notion of mental boundaries has
also been widely studied by Hartmann and several distinct boundaries in the mind have been
found (for example, about frequency of unusual experiences or need for order) (Hartmann,
1991). Although research indicates links between thinner mental boundaries and paranormal
experiences (Houran, Thalbourne, & Hartmann, 2003), we don't yet know very precisely which
kind of mental boundaries are associated with paranormal experiences.
Paranormal beliefs and experiences have also been associated with childhood trauma
(Wilson & Barber, 1983; Irwin, 1992), abuse (Ross & Joshi, 1992; Lawrence et al., 1995;
Perkins & Allen, 2006), need for interpersonal control (Irwin, 1994), and a perceived lack of
childhood control (Watt, Watson, & Wilson, 2007). But, it seems that relatively few studies have
addressed specifically the links between paranormal experiences and trauma. The present study
aims to understand more precisely which sorts of traumas influence the occurrence of
experiences (Lindeman & Aarnio, 2006). From a qualitative analysis (Rabeyron, 2006), it
appeared that paranormal experiences seem to occur frequently after important negative life
events. This connection with paranormal experiences, however, has not yet been empirically
Finally, paranormal experiences could also be considered as a consequence of specific
interactions, called "psi", between individuals and their environment (Irwin & Watt, 2007).
Despite the fact that such a hypothesis is highly controversial (Alcock, Burns, & Freeman, 2003),
some results suggest that this case cannot be dismissed easily (Bem & Honorton, 1994), and
more research is needed to address this question.
Thus, the present study will examine more thoroughly the relationship between
paranormal experiences, mental health and boundaries, and psi. We predict that people reporting
paranormal experiences will have thinner mental boundaries and we will determine which kind
of mental boundaries are associated with paranormal experiences. We will then assess the links
between paranormal experiences and mental health by using a clinical tool (MHI-17). We also
predict that people who have reported trauma during childhood will have more paranormal
experiences and we will analyse what kind of trauma. We then predict that people who have had
paranormal experiences will have significantly more negative life events.
A second series of hypotheses will test what would be expected to hold if psi was a
genuine phenomenon. We predict that people with a higher score on a controlled psi task will
have more paranormal experiences, and especially extra-sensory perception experiences, than
those with lower scores. We also predict they will have more beliefs in the paranormal, thinner
mental boundaries, and more traumas during childhood than people who don't score highly on
the psi task.
Given that the effect size on the psi task was supposed to be small considering the
literature, we used different possibilities to find a lot of participants. There was no specific
inclusion or exclusion criteria except the fact that participants didn't suffer from vision or health
problem that could have influenced their psi task results. 162 Participants were recruited: 31
from a general population volunteer panel in Edinburgh University’s Psychology Department,
114 students from Edinburgh University’s intranet website and 17 other participants from
advertisements in shops and internet websites. There were more females (71.6%) than males in
the whole group. The median age was 28.64 years (range = 18 to 76).
designed to investigate unusual, anomalous and paranormal experiences, beliefs and abilities, as
well as including questions relating to drug and alcohol use and fear of the paranormal (e.g. "
. The AEI has adequate
reliability and validity (Gallagher, Kumar, & Pekala, 1994). We used 4 of the subscales of the
AEI: paranormal experiences (29 items), paranormal ability (16 items), paranormal belief (12
items) and paranormal fear (6 items). We also used two other subscales of the AEI (the
encounter and poltergeist subscales) and we designed for this study an ESP subscale (11 items)
(Stewart, Ware, Sherbourne, & Wells, 1992) was used. Participants have to evaluate their mental
health during the last two weeks. There are five subscales in the MHI-17: anxiety (4 items),
depression (4 items), behavioural and emotional control (4 items), general positive (4 items) and
emotional ties (1 item). Higher scores on total MHI score indicate better mental health.
Short Boundary Questionnaire (BQ-Sh): The BQ-Sh (Rawlings, 2001) is an empirically
derived shortened version of the 145-item Hartmann Boundary Questionnaire (Hartmann, 1991).
The BQ-Sh consists of 46 items (e.g. "
My dreams are so vivid that even later I can't tell them from
waking reality", "I like clear, precise borders", "I am a very sensitive person")
with a 5-point Likert-
type scale and corresponds to six subscales: unusual experiences (12 items), need for order (12
items), trust (6 items), perceived competence (9 items), childlikeness (5 items) and sensitivity (2
items). The BQ-Sh has adequate psychometric properties (Rawlings, 2001) and it can be
considered as a satisfactory alternative to the Boundary questionnaire, with which it strongly
correlates (r = 0.88).
Child Abuse and Trauma Scale (CATS): This scale provides information on the frequency
and extent of negative childhood experiences (Sanders & Becker-Lausen, 1995). The CATS
consists of 38 items concerning the general atmosphere of respondents’ childhood home
environment and treatment, with answers on a 5-point scale ranging from “never”(0) to “always”
(5). Three subscales relate to negative home environment/neglect, sexual abuse and punishment.
A previous study demonstrated strong internal consistency and test-retest reliability (Sanders &
Becker-Lausen, 1995). We also used the Emotional Abuse Subscale that was subsequently
developed (Kent & Waller, 1998).
stressful life events and importance of life experiences (Sarason, Johnson, & Siegel, 1978).
Participants indicate for each event whether the event occurred within the last six months or
experiences (positive or negative). The measure is set on a 7-point Likert-type scale anchored by
extremely negative (-3) and extremely positive (3). The test-retest reliability for the LES is
two questions about mental health (“Have you already suffered from mental disorders?” and
“Have you already been in therapy?”). Participants were also asked if they had had a paranormal
experience during the last year. If a personal event had happened before the paranormal
experience, they had to briefly describe it.
2.3 Psi Task
The computer used was a Dell Optiplex 745 with Windows XP. The program used for the
different version than the one used by Bem (2008): this version used pictures as prime instead of
words. We used a Windows version of this software, using an algorithm to generate a random
sequence of numbers. The software used 64 different images selected from the International
Affective Picture System. These pictures could be "positive" pictures (e.g. happy people) or
"negative" pictures (e.g. car crash). Between each trial, participants were shown briefly on the
screen a picture of a sky with stars in order to avoid an influence from the previous trial on their
This psi task was a precognitive experiment in which response time of participants was
press one of two keys on the keyboard as quickly as they could, to indicate whether the word was
pleasant or unpleasant. The participant’s response time in making this judgment was the major
congruent trials was the index of a priming effect, with positive differences denoting faster
responding to congruent trials. The first 32 trials constituted the retroactive priming procedure,
and participants were told that a picture would be flashed on the screen just after they made their
decision. In this condition, when the participant has a positive result, it appears as though he or
she has been "influenced" by the picture seen after the word. A participant who is very
permeable to psi information is expected therefore to obtain a very positive score. The remaining
32 trials constituted the standard “forward” priming procedure, and participants were told that
from this point on, the flashed picture would appear before rather than after they had made their
response. The standard priming condition was used in order to be able to compare psi results
with a classical priming effect but also to investigate possible correlations between priming
results and other variables.
Response times shorter than 250 ms or longer than 2500 ms were regarded as outliers and
were excluded from the data analysis, as were trials on which the participant made an error in
judging the picture to be pleasant or unpleasant. Finally, because response-time data were
positively skewed, all response times were log-transformed. Shown below is the time sequence
of events for Forward Priming and Retroactive Priming trials, respectively.
Forward Priming Trial
the information sheet, sign the consent form and complete the questionnaires, after which they
did the psi experiment. Finally, participants were debriefed and were paid £5. They received
study results by email. The study was approved by the Department of Psychology’s ethics panel.
The results were analysed using SPSS 14. For analysis of the priming and retro-priming
results, 7 participants were eliminated, having made 16 or more errors (>25% of the trials). Age
was correlated negatively with BQ-Sh (r
= -.18, p < 0.05, two tailed) and Negative Life Events
= -.33, p < 0.01, two tailed). There was no significant difference between the male and female
The correlations between the main variables are shown in Table 2. As predicted, BQ-Sh
= .33), CATS (r
= .44) and Negative Life Events (r
= .29) correlated significantly with
MHI correlated significantly negatively with paranormal experiences (r
= -.16) but a
variables. A partial correlation between mental health (MHI) and paranormal experiences (AEI),
Similarly, following a partial correlation to explore the relationship between mental health
(MHI) and paranormal experiences (AEI), while controlling for negative life events (LES), the
correlation between paranormal experiences and mental health was no longer significant (r = .04,
ns). A partial correlation was also performed between paranormal experiences and negative life
events, while controlling for traumas. The correlation was still significant (r = .17, p < 0.05).
Finally, a partial correlation was used to explore the relationship between traumas and negative
life events, while controlling for paranormal experiences. The correlation between trauma and
negative life events was not significant (r = .07, ns).
3.2 Group comparisons
Participants were divided into two groups based on their score on the AEI - Paranormal
Experiences subscale. Those participants with a score less than or equal to 5 experiences were
considered to be "few paranormal experiences participants" (P-, n = 86) and those with a score
greater than or equal to 6 were considered "many paranormal experiences participants" (P+, n =
76). This division has been chosen with the use of the mean (mean = 6.16) in order to have two
groups with the closest number of participants. Mean Rank, Mean, SD, U, Z and r for the P- and
P+ groups on main measures are presented in Table 3.
We found significant differences between the two groups on the BQ-Sh scale (r = -.25, p
(r = -.24, p < 0.01) but also CATS (r = -.38, p < 0.001), all CATS subscales and Negative Life
events scale (r = -.24, p < 0.01). There was no significant correlation between the two groups on
There were significant differences between groups on the items “have you already suffered from
mental disorders?” (X
(1) = 3.81, p < 0.05, one tailed, phi = 0.15) and “have you already been in
(1) = 3.65, p < 0.05, one tailed, phi = - 0.15).
The results on the retro-priming task were not significant (t = 1.32, df = 154, p = 0.09, r =
0.11) while they were significant on the priming task (t = 8.06, df = 154, p < 0.001, r = 0.65). A
group comparison between negative and positive retro-priming results groups has been
conducted. There were no significant differences on the predicted psychological variables
between the two groups. We can nevertheless note that group comparisons showed that people
with positive psi results had slightly thinner mental boundaries, more paranormal and ESP
experiences and better mental health.
The present study examined the relationship between paranormal experiences and several
psychological characteristics. Most hypotheses have been confirmed. First of all, people who
have had paranormal experiences have thinner mental boundaries. Only unusual experiences and
childlikeness subscales were individually significant for paranormal experiences on group
comparison, which suggest that people who have paranormal experiences have specifically
thinner mental boundaries on these characteristics. Interestingly, there was also a significant
correlation between the priming results and the boundaries questionnaire stemming especially
from the correlation with the unusual experiences subscales (r
= 0.29, p < 0.001). Future research
experiences, which is confirmed by the fact that the group of people who have had a lot of
paranormal experiences reported having suffer from more mental disorders. Nevertheless, partial
correlations suggested that this link may be an artifact, being mediated by traumas and negative
life events. This is confirmed by a group comparison showing no significant differences on
mental health between people having many or few paranormal experiences. Therefore,
paranormal experiences cannot intrinsically be associated with mental health disorders.
Furthermore, people who had many paranormal experiences responded that they had spent
significantly less time in therapy than people who reported fewer paranormal experiences.
We also found a strong significant correlation between paranormal experiences and
between traumas and paranormal beliefs, consistent with Lawrence et al.’s model (1995).
Emotional abuse was the more significant measure on group comparison. Paranormal
experiences could thus be particularly associated with this kind of abuse. The subjective
perception of a spurning or terrorising environment during childhood, studied with the CATS,
could be an important aetiological factor in paranormal experiences. Future studies could verify
that this link is not the consequence of better memories or imagination of people who have
paranormal experiences, even if we already know that there is research suggesting a real link
between paranormal beliefs and traumas (French & Kerman, 1996). It could also be relevant to
analyze more precisely the association between childhood abuse, the development of dissociative
experiences and specific paranormal experiences.
We also showed that negative life events and paranormal experiences were correlated as
reported a paranormal experience during the last year also reported one important life change
before the paranormal experience. Paranormal experiences could thus be considered as a specific
precisely to correlations between different kind of negative events and specific paranormal
If most of the psychological hypotheses have been confirmed, none of the hypotheses
about psi led to firm conclusions. The overall psi results were non-significant even if they were
in the predicted direction with an effect size (r = .11) relatively close to previous research (Bem,
2008). Even if this result could merely be the sign of the non-existence of psi, it could be the
consequence of the use of a slightly different version of the software. Thus, It may be more
relevant to take words as prime instead of pictures as in previous research using this protocol. A
post-hoc analysis also showed that participants from the positive retro-priming group were
significantly slightly younger than the negative retro-priming group (U = 2418, mean age =
27.90, SD = 13.27, p < 0.05, two tailed). As our population was on average older than the one
used by Bem (2008), this could be an eventual explanation for the lower effect that we obtained.
However, as this is a post hoc finding, further formal testing of this hypothesis is necessary
In conclusion, this study suggests that specific mental boundaries are associated with
paranormal experiences. It highlights the association between emotional abuse and paranormal
experiences and demonstrates that paranormal experiences occur especially frequently after
negative life events.
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Descriptive statistics for all variable
Scales and subscales
1. Anomalous Experiences Inventory (AEI)
a. Positive life change
0 - 141
b. Negative life change
Spearman inter-correlations between main variables
* P < 0.05 ; ** P < 0.01 (one tailed)
1. Paranormal Experience
2. ESP Subscale
3. Encounter Subscale
5. Paranormal Belief
9. Negative Life Change
11. Priming (3.0)
Differences between paranormal experience groups
* P < 0.05 ; ** P < 0.01 ; *** P < 0.001
BQ-Sh - Total
BQ-Sh - Unusual Experience
BQ-Sh - Need for Order
BQ-Sh - Perceived Competency
BQ-Sh - Trust
BQ-Sh - Sensibility
CATS - Negligence abuse
CATS - Sexual abuse
CATS - Punishment abuse
CATS - Emotional abuse
LES – Negative