The Borders of Normal

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The Borders of Normal

A Clinical Psychiatrist De-Stigmatizes Paranormal Phenomena

By By Manuel Matas, M.D.
Friesen Press, 2017 233 pages, Paperback, $24.95

Reviewed by NANCY

Dr. Manuel Matas is a clinical psychiatrist with impeccable academic credentials and years of experience working in the field of mental health. In The Borders of Normal, Matas explores the paranormal, a topic often dismissed by rational thinkers. In the process he explains various paranormal experiences like extrasensory perception (ESP) and visions, and explains how they differ from psychosis. His hope is that, one day, people will be able to “talk freely about their mystical, paranormal, anomalous, and spiritual experiences without shame or fear of being judged.”

Who hasn’t heard their name called, only to turn around and find no one is there? Have you ever been trying to make a difficult decision when the image of a departed loved one pops into your head and they advise you on what to do? Matas cites a number of studies which show paranormal experiences are so widespread that, by scientific standards, they are considered normal. Dr. Yvonne Kason’s research concluded that “transformative, spiritual experiences have been found in every culture throughout history.” They are universal. Even so, people are generally reticent about discussing something like hearing voices for fear of being labelled crazy. Professionals may be concerned about being ostracized by their peers if they disclose their paranormal experiences. Even in the entertainment business, where eccentricities are more acceptable, Shirley MacLaine was ridiculed when she wrote Out On A Limb. 

In his book, Matas systematically reviews conditions and experiences that are not paranormal. Migraines, post-traumatic stress, alcohol consumption, drug use, schizophrenia, sleep and/or food deprivation may induce what appear to be paranormal experiences. He follows this with a review of various types of true paranormal experiences. Matas relays stories  – including his own – and references studies that validate them. He includes helpful information, such as Dr. Larry Dossey’s suggestions on how to distinguish between a predictive dream or premonition and worry or anxiety. Of note, a vision or mystical experience tends to be calming and may happen only once or twice in a lifetime, while psychotic hallucinations are often frightening and disturbing, disrupting a person’s daily life.

Aspects of the paranormal have been of interest to scholars since at least the time of Aristotle and Hippocrates. The term parapsychology was introduced in 1889. It has been studied and researched at the university level for more than 100 years. Skeptics may deny its existence, but if you’d told my great-grandmother about TV, she’d have questioned it. Today, we know that even when the TV is off, signals are sent out and received. All we have to do is push a button to see evidence of this. We see evidence of the paranormal, too. It’s just that most people don’t know how to work the switch to turn it on.

Though paranormal experiences are common, their existence is hard to prove. It’s a challenge to replicate them in a laboratory setting because a heightened emotional state is often integral. Even so, if you’re a believer, you’re in good company. Jung, Einstein and Tesla “all believed in telepathy, ESP, and other paranormal phenomena.” Artists and scientists often say they tapped into “something” for inspiration, insight and guidance.

Individually and collectively, people have tried to connect with the divine or expand their consciousness through meditation, drugs, dancing, chanting and fasting. Books about spirituality and life after death often top bestseller lists. “The immense popularity of these and similar books,” writes Matas, “tells us a great deal about the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times in which we live. It indicates a widespread hunger for spiritual knowledge and a great curiosity about what happens to us when we die.”

There is no denying that something animates us, something we refer to it as the spirit. Medically, we can determine its presence and see evidence of its importance. Without the spirit, we die. Or do we? Reports on patients who have died and been resuscitated include stories with common themes that indicate something more continues when our body ceases to operate. Medical staff have documented the vivid memories of people’s out-of- body experiences and the similarities between them are evident, even between the devoutly religious and atheists.

Matas raises profound questions. If we conclude paranormal experiences are real, then what is reality? “Cutting-edge, theoretical physics tells us we cannot ever fully know or measure reality.” In theory, we only believe and perceive what can be conceived; the mind may hold the key. But, what is the mind? And where is it? Is it in the brain, the whole body and/or in the ether outside the body? Is it synonymous with spirit?

The power of the mind is profound. Our emotions affect our health. Studies show a link between heart disease and depression. It behoves us to use the spiritual practice of meditation as a way to beneficially influence our physical experience by lowering our response to stressors. Meditation can lower blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate to benefit our physical and mental health. It can even increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex and the density of its grey matter.

Whenever paranormal phenomena have been studied and documented by reputable academics, Matas has no problem accepting their findings. Within each area of the paranormal he covers in The Borders of Normal, he outlines what is known and acknowledges the jury is still out in some areas. He doesn’t tell anyone what to believe. If studies were not conclusive, he acknowledges this. He believes in healthy skepticism, gives the facts and then urges the reader to draw their own conclusions. Though some experiences are observable and measurable, scientists are still not clear on how they happen.

I learned a lot from reading this book. Matas comes across as witty, wise, intelligent, cosmic and pragmatic. He could easily have slipped into an overly cerebral tone, but he doesn’t. The presentation style of the book is a bit off-putting as it seems more like an article written for a psychology journal. There are few pictures or wasteful white spaces. Though the topic headings barely stood out, I liked the way this flowing format allowed the material on one type of experience to merge into another. It mirrored the reality of paranormal experiences, which are not easily pinned down or compartmentalized. References to studies made for a few dry patches, but their inclusion is essential. Without them, the conclusions drawn by Matas would lack credibility and this book would not be able to claim a place on the shelf next to other books of science and reason.  

This book will appeal to anyone with an open mind. Exploring the topics covered leads one to question everything. It includes some fascinating ideas to consider, like time is not linear but rather plastic and elastic, and the past, present and future are all happening at the same time. It has good suggestions, directions and examples about paranormal experiences, as well as practical information on things such as how to distinguish if you’ve had a warning dream and how to spot a fraudulent practitioner.

Throughout the book, Matas gives personal examples of his experiences and shows readers the difference between imagination and messages from spirit. Whether you believe the messages come from guides, guardian angels, the higher self or the collective unconscious, the label doesn’t change the fact that this phenomenon is common enough that more than half the population have experienced it firsthand or know of someone who has. Matas keeps the reader engaged by including trivia about recognizable people, including Paul McCartney, whose song “Yesterday” came to him in a flash, and Tom Hanks’s experiences of prescience. 

For those used to reading pseudoscience or self-help books with their pat answers, this book can seem like opening Pandora’s Box. Once you’ve read it, you’ll never be able to see the world or yourself the same way. For example, our belief that we are separate is an illusion. Matas quotes the work of a broad range of experts whose work leads to the conclusion that “whether physics, philosophy, psychology, or spirituality, there is a general consensus towards a connection, a lack of separation, between and among all phenomena, people, and things in the universe and in the cosmos.”

The reassurance that there is something more is central to many spiritual practices and belief systems. Spiritual beliefs can sustain one, especially through troubled times. “People who have been battered and shattered by life often want to believe that the world they see is not the only world, that there is another world, a better world.” This book delivers a message of hope. Not as a panacea but as a primer to further investigation into the very real human experience of the paranormal. Scientific studies have proven there is something more, something is going on, and it’s normal. 

Nancy, Night Sky Woman, has been doing psychic card readings professionally for over 20 years. She is also an astrologer and has studied a variety of spiritualities and philosophies. She has been writing Taroscopes for over five years and teaches the tarot through lifelong learning. To book an appointment or for information about classes, you can reach Nancy at 204-775-8368 or ngill@mymts.net.

nancy-gillNancy, Night Sky Woman, has been doing psychic card readings professionally for over 20 years. She is also an astrologer and has studied a variety of spiritualities and philosophies. She has been writing Taroscopes for over six years and teaches the tarot through lifelong learning. She reads out of the Bella Vista Restaurant and at events around Winnipeg, MB. To book an appointment or for information about classes, you can reach Nancy at 204-775-8368 or by email at ngill@mymts.net.

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