For decades, psychology was considered a woo-woo science, wrapped in a history of mysticism. But by the mid-twentieth century, the study of the human mind and its functions had become respectable in the eyes of mainstream science. The paranormal was labeled ‘magical thinking’ and researchers often linked such beliefs with a pathological condition, such as psychosis.
To this day, mainstream psychologists tend to be dismissive of psychic abilities, though not always relating it to mental illness. So it’s refreshing to encounter a leading researcher in the field (of psychology, not parapsychology) who challenges the norm. Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer was one such outlier, a psychoanalyst and internationally acclaimed clinician-scholar who taught at the University of California at Berkeley until her death in 2005.
Rather than ignoring uncanny experiences as mere anomalies not worthy of consideration or study, she gathered example of the paranormal and tried to understand them. Her book, Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind was published after her death at age 57. Even before the book was published, however, her view of consciousness—described as ‘coincidence theory’—was the subject of a lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine, which called it one of the ‘most exciting’ new ideas of 2003.
In the book, Mayer describes one particularly intriguing story that she said triggered her interest in what she called ‘extraordinary knowing.’ Here it is:
A rare antique harp that she owned was stolen following a Christmas concert at a theater where her 11-year-old daughter was playing. Mayer filed a police report, contacted instrument dealers around the country, the American Harp Society newsletters, even got a news story on CBS-TV. No luck.
A while later, a friend suggested that she take an unusual approach, contacting a dowser. At that time, Mayer thought dowser were people who tried to find underground water with forked sticks. But by then she was willing to try anything, and was informed that really good dowsers could find lost objects.
Upon the recommendation of her friend, Mayer called Harold McCoy, the president of the American Society of Dowsers, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, about 1,600 away. She asked if he could help locate the missing harp. That call changed her perspective on what was possible.
To her surprise, he said: “Give me a second. I’ll tell you if it’s still in Oakland.” After a pause, he continued: “Well, it’s still there. Send me a street map of Oakland and I’ll locate that harp for you.” She was skeptical, but over-nighted a city map to McCoy.
He called back two days later. “Well, I got that harp located. It’s in the second house on the right on D—— Street, just off L———- Avenue.”
Mayer had never heard of either street, but she drove there, wrote down the address, then phone the police and gave them the tip. They didn’t want to get involved because the lead came from a dowser. They refused to issue a search warrant and said they were closing the case. They told her the harp had probably been sold and was long gone.
But Mayer refused to give up. She posted flyers about a lost harp in a two-block area around the house and waited. Three days later, a man called to say he’d seen a flyer, and that his next-door neighbor had recently obtained a harp like the one that was missing and had shown it to him. He offered to get the harp and return it. Two weeks later, after a series of phone calls, the harp was delivered to Mayer in the rear parking lot of an all-night Safeway.
Extraordinary knowing, indeed.