Is the ‘trickster’ concept of any use in understanding the paranormal?

Over the years I’ve heard and read the term “trickster” applied to the (then-mysterious) makers of crop circles; to certain people linked to psi phenomena; and even to non-person-centered, apparently paranormal phenomena such as cattle mutilations.

Although I’ve always been mildly skeptical about this use of the trickster label, I’ve never taken the time to think through my skepticism. But the other day I was reading Lewis Hyde’s book, Trickster Makes This World, and it prompted me to set down a few thoughts. Hopefully those who read and write about this stuff more deeply than I do will consider this little dose of skepticism a healthy one.

What is the ‘trickster’?

To begin with, the trickster – or just “trickster” – is a type of character who appears in the folklore of many premodern societies, and even to some extent in Western-culture stories. His name is seldom translated precisely to “Trickster.” Br’er Rabbit of the Uncle Remus Stories (derived from African folklore), and Bugs Bunny from Warner Bros., are arguably trickster figures, for example. A central trickster figure in the Navajo lore is called “Coyote” – and “Wile E. Coyote” may be his more technologically advanced descendant (or so I speculate). In any case, trickster is the general ethnological term for this character, thanks largely to the work of Paul Radin, who spent decades studying the Winnebago tribe and its folklore, early in the 1900s.

Trickster is sometimes a clever deceiver and a player of tricks, but he (almost never a she) is just as often the fool, the idiot, the one who is tricked.

Tricksters may seem personifications of impulsiveness, their adventures being driven by base appetites for food and sex, occasionally with odd excursions into dirt and mud – even their own excrement. Yet above all the trickster figure is what Hyde called “a boundary crosser” and a “culture hero,” whose “seemingly asocial actions continue to keep our world lively and give it the flexibility to endure.” Tricksters resolve conflicts by stepping outside social norms. Sometimes they go as far as to steal valuable things or knowledge from the gods. Prometheus has been identified as one of the great trickster figures of Western culture, and some would give the ‘trickster’ label to the serpent in the book of Genesis. To Radin, trickster tales are meant to depict “man’s struggle with himself and with a world into which he had been thrust without his volition.”

How can the trickster concept help us understand the paranormal?

Psi phenomena often seem to come from people who appear remarkably genuine one day, and blatantly fraudulent the next. Ethnologists and other Western observers have long noted this of shamans; and in the modern West, often-convincing-yet-often-bogus mediums and psychics have infested parapsychology from its beginnings. Moreover, as George Hansen has argued, psi phenomena are potentially boundary-crossing, culture-shaking phenomena, such as tricksters typically get involved with; and psychics are often sexually unorthodox, again like tricksters. Hansen even claims that the weird, primal earthiness of tricksters is reflected in the psi lore: “the connection between the scatological and the magical should not be overlooked.”

We are asked to believe, in other words, that the paranormal lore has so many correspondences to the trickster lore that the two must be linked in some way — and that, given this linkage, trickster themes are going to arise and complicate and ultimately compromise any effort to do science with paranormal phenomena.

But what is the mechanism?

The first big hint that something is wrong with this argument should come from the fact that it lacks any proposed mechanism to explain why trickster themes should be reflected in the paranormal lore.

In principle, we don’t have to look far for such a mechanism, at least to explain human trickster behavior. Carl Jung named the trickster figure as one of his universal human ‘archetypes,’ and I think that people nowadays who are sympathetic to the general idea of archetypes, and have some knowledge of evolutionary psychology, can rationalize archetypes as ancient patterns of traits that once fulfilled highly adaptive functions, and thus became deeply imprinted in the human genome.

But for some reason Hansen doesn’t take this route. He writes:

For purposes of this volume, “archetype” means only a pattern that can manifest at multiple levels. No more is implied… [p 28]

Even Hyde shies from portraying the trickster pattern as a behavioral atavism that emerges in real people:

My own position… is not that the artists I write about are tricksters but that there are moments when the practice of art and this myth coincide. I work by juxtaposition, holding the trickster stories up against specific cases of the imagination in action, hoping that each might illuminate the other. [Hyde p 14]

I don’t know how Hyde gets away with this hand-waving cop-out. What is the point of discussing recurrent trickster motifs in relation to human life if one refuses to address the issue of how – mechanistically how – these motifs keep resurfacing? Are they part of a psychological trait-set contained in our genes? Or are they merely passed culturally, via folklore? Or would the selection of either hypothesis break the spell of mysterioso, late-night-bull-session-hand-waving and invite unwithstandable critical scrutiny?

What if tricksters belong to mythology, not psychology?

A more sensible way of looking at tricksters, I think, is not as psychological archetypes but as characters in stories, which after all is literally what they are.

Our own culture’s stories, particularly those coming from Hollywood, have a fairly well defined set of character types who appear again and again. These character types may contain exaggerations of human traits, and the characters’ experiences may be exaggerations of actual human experiences, but their function on the page or on the screen is not to reveal actual life or the hidden patterns of our psychology. Their function is to entertain us, to carry a story along, to make us laugh or cry or otherwise feel as if we’ve lived through some experience that we could never have had in ordinary life.

The folkloric characters in premodern, polytheistic cultures have their own underlying logic, of course. They may be not just aspects of social entertainment but also aids to the transmission of the religious/mythological understanding of how things came to be in the world. Trickster figures are often origin-figures, and perhaps with their near-universal maleness they are meant in such cases to personify the role of non-biological (i.e., cultural/technological) generation and evolution.

Hyde himself emphasizes the trickster’s situation within a fairly precise cultural/mythological context:

Outside … traditional [i.e., premodern] contexts there are no modern tricksters because trickster only comes to life in the complex terrain of polytheism. [Hyde p 9]

Trickster isn’t a run of the mill liar and thief. When he lies and steals, it isn’t so much to get away with something or get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the door to new worlds. [Hyde p 13, my italics]

Has ‘trickster’ behavior really been a big problem in modern parapsychology?

Another difficulty I have with this ‘trickster’ idea is that it seems more like an explanation in search of a problem than the other way around. One of the most important psi research programs to date, and the one with which I’m most familiar, took place with US government funding at SRI and later SAIC, from approximately 1973 to 1996. Although early on the government sponsor (then CIA) informally wanted to know whether Uri Geller was for real, and encouraged Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ to bring him into the lab, Geller (to my knowledge) was the only public, controversial, supposedly ‘trickster’-ish psychic with whom they ever worked.

As for the more private psychics they worked with, I do not recall hearing that Ingo Swann, Pat Price, Joe McMoneagle, Gary Langford, Hella Hammid, Keith Harary and the various other research subjects fouled up SRI/SAIC’s experiments by cheating, having lots of sex, and/or emitting impossible volumes of flatus – even though tricksters routinely carry on that way in their tales.

So Trickster’s anus, in rapid succession, began to expel more and more gas. Still [the foxes] did not run away. Once, twice, three times, it expelled gas in rapid succession. ‘Pooh! Pooh!’ Such was the sound it made. Yet they did not run away. Then louder, still louder, was the sound of the gas expelled. ‘Pooh! Pooh! Pooh!’ Yet they did not run away. On the contrary, they began to eat the roasted pieces of duck As they were eating, the Trickster’s anus continued its ‘Pooh!’ incessantly…. [Radin, p. 16]

Parenthetically: I think it makes sense to see such anecdotes as my 12-year old son would see them: as hilarious in a primitive, juvenile way, and not much more than that. Whether or not “the scatological theme” has some tenuous relation to the psi lore, surely it is obvious that this theme occurs much more in our ordinary lore, chiefly to make children (chiefly boys) laugh. In my experience, premodern or “developing” cultures also use such themes to make adults laugh; their senses of humor are to a great extent still “developing” too.

Psi and psychology

There are numerous examples of people who have intensively practiced remote viewing or related techniques and have come a bit unglued mentally. But should we attribute their coming-unglued to the mysterious influence of some mythological archetype? Or should we look first for more conventional psychological explanations?

The evidence that psi proponents have put together for ESP and PK suggests that it belongs mainly to neural circuitry for quick, non-conscious perception and feeling and action – circuitry that in great apes, and particularly humans, is extensively inhibited and modulated by regions of the late-evolving prefrontal cortex. So if psi phenomena are mediated by these fast, primitive circuits, then in principle they could be enhanced by factors that enhance that circuitry generally, or that reduce its inhibition/modulation by the prefrontal cortex. Obviously, such factors could have other perceptual and behavioral effects beyond the enhancement of psi.

And there could be many such factors, so that people who had a ‘high psi trait’ would not necessarily have one particular personality type or one particular pattern in their life experiences. In principle, they could have any of a large variety of genetic and environmental backgrounds, all of which would predispose to psi manifestations in their own way, but only some of which would produce ‘problem traits’ such as deceptiveness. (I should mention that, according to this very crude model of brain function, ESP and perhaps other psi phenomena could be teachable; although this teachability would depend on the plasticity of the parts of the brain that mediate them, and in general, brain plasticity falls off rapidly after childhood.)

One type of psi-predisposing background (I speculate) could involve a medical condition that occurs in adulthood, such as epilepsy or coronary artery disease, and that alters the metabolism, connectivity and/or neurogenesis in key brain regions in favor of this trait. Another type of psi-predisposing background would be genetic or developmental. In both cases, there would be brain activity patterns – causing spontaneous ESP or PK experiences, for example – that are normally absent or suppressed. Depending on other factors such as their life experiences, upbringing and education, they might – in addition to their putative psi traits – have unusually rich visual or auditory perception; higher creativity; a more intense imagination; greater emotional reactivity; and/or higher impulsivity. The latter three could give rise to anxiety and other mood disorders, all kinds of childish, deceitful, mischievous behavior, relatively uninhibited sexuality and other normally-taboo behaviors, and psychoses.

There is evidence that you can ‘force’ at least a partial version of this condition simply through intensive practice of techniques designed to elicit normally unconscious, imaginative, ‘inner’ mental content. These techniques would include ESP techniques, but also many meditative techniques. Some practiced meditators deliberately aim for a condition in which their normal perception is seriously disturbed, and consider it a waypoint on the path to enlightenment. To others, focusing on inner mental content to the exclusion of the real world becomes a mental health problem:

Ms. H was placed on a voluntary, 72-hour hold as a result of being judged to be gravely disabled and a danger to herself after she drove her car into a wall. She believed that she was invincible and wanted to test her superpowers in the crash. She was also hyperverbal and agitated, and her thoughts and speech were tangential, loose and disjointed. She was tearful and evidenced poor insight and judgement.

Ms. H reported that prior to hospitalization she practiced Qi-gong several times a week for approximately two years. Qi-gong is a meditative practice involving deep breathing, mental focusing and meditation. Once, when practicing Qi-gong next to a mountain lake, she had unusual experiences, including seeing colors streaming from the sky into the water and feeling that her senses were dramatically heightened. She also said that during the period of her meditative practice, she could read other people’s minds and that her TV and her radio sent her [messages].

Obviously, there are more prosaic reasons why some people who have or claim psi experiences would also be involved in other remarkable behaviors, such as deception. Fraudulent psychics and spirit-mediums have long used deception to gain attention, love and money. Traditional shamans probably deceived to maintain their status, and also to maintain the illusions that produced positive (placebo) effects in their clients. In this sense, shamans’ clients – their whole society, one could say – had a big stake in keeping the deception going.

There is also a whole literature on spirit-possession syndromes, which portrays these conditions — particularly when they occur in “peripheral,” ordinarily-nonempowered members of society, such as housewives in male-dominated societies, or low-caste servants — as ingenious and semi-covert means of empowerment. In other words, in this ethnological view, possessees use pseudo-paranormal phenomena as an alternative mode of self-expression. But if one accepts the reality of the paranormal, then one should expect real ESP and PK to be put to similar use whenever possible. The way ‘spirits’ carry on in some of these possession cases, constantly trying to demonstrate their cleverness with assorted tricks and mischief, has obvious parallels in the UFO abductee and poltergeist lore — and suggests psychological roots that are not too complicated: To me, anyway, many of these cases appear to be very exotic expressions of otherwise inexpressible inferiority complexes — in which the essential message is: “look at me; I’m more clever and powerful than you thought.”

UFOs, crop circles, cattle mutilations

The idea that trickster motifs are relevant to the behavior of deceptive individuals within ufology or crop circle ‘studies’, or that they ‘explain’ puzzling phenomena such as cattle mutilations, can be dismissed for the same basic reasons I’ve sketched out above: The trickster concept contains no explanation of how its motifs would arise in real people or in strange phenomena; the trickster appears to be more of a mythological type than a real psychological type; and there are more conventional explanations for the deceptive behaviors seen in these paranormal contexts.

In the ufological and crop circle lore, for example, there are some amazing and weird cases of deception, but the resemblance of these deceptive people to mythological tricksters is slight, to put it mildly. UFO and crop circle groups attract all sorts of people — there are seldom any barriers to entry — and for some of these people it must be too tempting to use deception (which can be particularly effective in a spooky paranormal context) to gain attention and status or some other advantage. Is someone like Bob Lazar a ‘trickster’ whose “seemingly asocial actions” — to quote from Hyde’s definition — “continue to keep our world lively and give it the flexibility to endure”? How about Linda Napolitano and the dozens, perhaps hundreds of other female ‘UFO abductees’ whose wild stories have given them status within their circles and kept them tied in various ways to their male hypno-‘therapists’? Are they Promethean culture heroes? Give me a break.


Originally published 22 July 2011