Paranormal studies: John Cleese moderates UVA panel

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Life after Monty Python finds John Cleese performing a solo show at the Tom Tom Founders Festival to raise money for UVA’s Division of Perceptual Studies, as well as moderating a panel with the paranormal researchers.
Tom Daly Life after Monty Python finds John Cleese performing a solo show at the Tom Tom Founders Festival to raise money for UVA’s Division of Perceptual Studies, as well as moderating a panel with the paranormal researchers. Tom Daly

For years, what’s now known as the Division of Perceptual Studies at UVA kept a pretty low profile under its reincarnation researcher and founder Ian Stevenson, who was notoriously publicity shy.

That seems to have changed in the department’s current incarnation, which sponsored the appearance of Monty Pythoner John Cleese at last week’s Tom Tom Founders Festival. Cleese’s solo appearance April 11 raised money for DOPS, and he moderated a “Life After Death” panel April 12 with the paranormal researchers themselves discussing their psi work.

“I’m here for one reason and that’s I’m a celebrity,” joked Cleese.

But he’s also a supporter of the group, and he met some of its staff at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where Esalen’s founder, Michael Murphy, also is a fan of the Division of Perceptual Studies, according to Ed Kelly, a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies altered states of consciousness.

Another big fan of Stevenson’s reincarnation work was Chester F. Carlson, the inventor of xerography, who endowed the department’s first professorship when it was founded in 1967. The division remains one of the few university-associated groups in the world to use scientific methods to study the paranormal.

Former DOPS director Bruce Greyson is the Chester F. Carlson professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, and he focuses on near-death experiences, crisis apparitions and deathbed visions to answer the question, “Does consciousness or the mind survive death?” he said.

Greyson has documented 1,000 cases of near-death experiences, including those in which a person accurately describes an out-of-body scene at a time of being seriously impaired, such as on an operating table, said Greyson.

He’s also run across crisis apparitions, such as the 9-year-old boy in a coma who saw deceased family members, including his older sister, whom he and his family didn’t yet know had been killed in a car accident. “How did Eddie know?” asked Greyson.

“That’s when I started getting interested in all this nonsense,” quipped Cleese.

Current director Jim Tucker has continued Stevenson’s work and now DOPS has documented 2,500 cases of children who claim to have memories of past lives, most of those in Asian cultures that believe in reincarnation.

“Now with the internet, they come from all over,” said Tucker, who has investigated children in the United States who seem to have knowledge of having lived in Hollywood or of dying in a fiery plane crash.

These memories tend to involve violent deaths and resurface on average of 4.5 years after the death, said Tucker, although the boy who remembered making a movie with George Raft and sailing on the Queen Mary was born 40 years after movie extra Marty Martyn died. And the memories fade for most kids around 6 or 7 years old, Tucker said.

“These exceptional cases” seem to provide evidence consciousness does survive the body in some form, said Tucker.

A member of the audience asked the panelists if there’s life after death. Cleese replied, “I remember my good friend Peter Cook, who was a genius and a comedian, and he was more worried about sex after death.”

Both Greyson and Tucker said they’re skeptical about the cases they’re documenting. “I look for defects in the data,” said Tucker.

Said Kelly, “We’re all just poor empirical scientists” who aren’t entirely sure what it all means.

“These phenomena exist as facts of existence, and science is going to have to accommodate them,” he said.

“I remember my good friend Peter Cook, who was a genius and a comedian, and he was more worried about sex after death.” John Cleese

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