Interview with London physician Dr. Ian Rubenstein reveals how one doctor’s encounter with psychic phenomena led to Spiritualist Church mediumship.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Ian Rubenstein author of, CONSULTING SPIRIT: A Doctor’s Experience with Practical Mediumship. During the interview Rubenstein discusses how he struggled to understand his psychic abilities:
Alex Tsakiris: What you seem to be contrasting is a materialistic, medical paradigm that says there is none of this; this cannot happen. There is no way that the consciousness survives death. There is no way that spirits can influence us. That, I think, is what you’re really butting up against, and yet you seem to give that a lot more weight then I think it deserves in this case, especially given, (1) your personal experience and, (2) the research that you’ve done to see that there’s data to support it. Why do we have to stay with the materialistic paradigm? It doesn’t seem to work.
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: I think you’re looking at a guy struggling with this. I don’t come from a religious background at all. I’m a non-practicing, left-wing, Jewish background. All my family was, you could say, very anti-religious. I’m not a religious guy. Spirituality is not new to me. I’m as affected by new-age stuff as much as everybody else, but it’s not native to my culture and background, and certainly not to my education. Western rationalist education is all pervading; it colors the way you see the world. It’s there, and I’m dealing with this every day. At medical school, you were taught how to think. You have to think critically. You do not trust your instinct. Every doctor knows that instinct is very important, and you get a feel for it, but you’re not trained in this. One of the things I develop in my book is that I found that training as a medium, having had all these experiences and then ending up sitting in a spiritualist circle, I actually found that you can train your intuition, that you can to some extent trust it, and it’s very useful. I now use it much more in my consultations. Of course, a skeptic would say, “You know, Ian, you’re an experienced doctor. You’ve been a family physician for 28 years. You’ve been a doctor for 34 years. Maybe this is just ordinary stuff.” I don’t know.
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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Dr. Ian Rubenstein to Skeptiko. Dr. Rubenstein is a general practitioner in London who’s written a fascinating book titled, Consulting Spirit: A Doctor’s Experience with Practical Mediumship. Welcome to Skeptiko, Ian, and thanks for joining me.
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: Thanks, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: I guess that’s a question I want to come back to; what do you do with it? In your book, Consulting Spirit, what you do is chronicle this journey that this initial experience in your office sent you on. What I found particularly interesting about the book is the people that you meet along the way.
You do more than I think most of us would have done. What was your thought process in going for this? Just saying, “I have to see where this leads.” You chronicle how you’re able to meet some of the folks you do, like spiritual healers, and medium researchers like Gary Schwartz.
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: Absolutely. It was almost as if someone, I don’t know who, took me by the hand and said, “Okay, Ian. I’m going to lead you through this world,” bearing in mind I knew very little about it.
Having had that first experience with a Ouija board, I think I was very lucky to have a second experience when I was 19 and in my first year at medical school, which I perhaps ought to mention, because it maybe explains why I was a bit open-minded to it than otherwise.
At the time, my sister and I witnessed what is spiritually called transfiguration. I don’t know if you know what that is, but spiritualists believe, and I don’t classify myself as a spiritualist, but spiritualists believe that we all have a spirit guide. In spiritualists’ literature, physical mediums claim to be able to change their physical features, which sounds completely bonkers. There is a theory behind it, which we won’t go into at the moment.
Basically what happens is, you look at someone and you see someone else is there. That sounds crazy, but when I was 19 and in my first year at medical school—remember this was 1973; they were still sending people to the moon. I was in my first year of medical school, heavily into science, and really up to my neck in studying.
We were in my friend Nick’s house with his girlfriend Felicity one evening, me and my sister. I looked at Felicity, and Felicity had long dark hair and a dark complexion. She was a nice-looking girl with brown eyes. In her place, I just looked at her, and there was someone else there. This someone else had shoulder-length blonde hair fringe, piercing blue eyes, and high cheekbones. The most interesting thing was thick white lips, as if they were covered with white lipstick, slightly distorted.
If you see that, what do you do? You blink. What I then heard was my sister, who was 15 at the time, screaming at the top of her voice. She stood up out of her chair and started screaming, “My God, can you see those lips?” She was sitting so she could see the profile, and she saw Felicity’s profile. What was most prominent to her were these distorted white lips. Otherwise, she saw exactly what I saw.
I looked at my sister and said, “Well, you’ve seen it too.” I looked back at Felicity, and she was back to normal, but we both saw the same thing. That was about midnight. We jumped into my car and woke up my parents. They weren’t best pleased. They told us just to take Nick and Felicity back home, and don’t be silly. Obviously, hysterical teenagers.
The next day, obviously, we told all our friends. My friend Steve said, “Why don’t you tell my neighbor?” “Who’s your neighbor, Steve?” “A guy called Keith Hudson.” “Why him?” “He’s a spiritual medium. It sounds like his field.” So we went to Steve’s house.
This guy was slightly older than us; he must have been 27. He came around and took out his little tattered volume of the Spiritualists’ National Union Guide. He said, “You witnessed her spirit guide.” Why did I witness her spirit guide? Felicity had a crush on me, and I was playing up to it. He thought I was probably being warned off to keep away from her.
Actually, I have to say, the message I got from this face was a very imperious look. “Keep away from Felicity. What you’re doing is wrong. Mark this. One day you’ll understand.” It was almost as if—do you know the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the spaceship lands, the doors opens, this white light hits everybody, and they all go, “Huh!”? It was that feeling of being hit by light, but not like I could see it. It was like being knocked backwards by a powerful force.
Maybe that was it; maybe it was a shared hallucination. I debated this with my sister. My sister doesn’t believe in spirits. She’s not science-trained.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s the part that really strikes me as amazing. It comes up again and again throughout the book. You seem to be always attempting to integrate these extraordinary experiences into your ordinary world, your world of being a physician, a family guy with a wife and kids, an office staff who says, “Twilight Zone,” and “woo woo.” You always seem to be trying to integrate these experiences.
Now you just relate this story, and you’re trying to integrate these experiences into your family, but I don’t know. What do you make of that? How do you integrate it?
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: You don’t. I didn’t at first. These are two isolated stories. I told people of these; I even told a few patients. I remember one guy who was dying, a guy called Len. He said, “What do you think, doc? When I die, is there anything after?” I remember saying, “I don’t know, but I had this experience when I was 19.”
When he died, he wife, Rita, came to see me. She thanked me. This was years before I started training as a medium. She said, “That story you told Len, he found very comforting.” He said that if a guy like my doctor is prepared to countenance these stories, then maybe there’s something to it.
I have to say, when I tell this story, I’m still not sure whether it was a shared hallucination, telepathy between my sister and I, or whether we objectively witnessed a spirit. I think I’m more inclined to the spirit hypothesis now, having read around the subject more and having had further experiences. The thing is, there are two major hypotheses. You have to start from the assumption that this is real, that I’m not bonkers. I could be mad.
Alex Tsakiris: But, Ian, that’s the part that keeps getting me. In the story, in the book, it’s entertaining and makes for a great read because you’re suspensefully pulling us through, but you always seem to be pulling back to normal. “Am I bonkers?” “Is this crazy?” You’re the doctor. Tell us, right now, and we can end the interview. Are you crazy? Are you having hallucinations?
One of the things that bothers me about this whole field is that hallucinations are something that we study. It’s not your specialty, but as a medical doctor, if someone came in, you’d have some questions. You’d ask them to determine whether or not they’re hallucinating.
My wife’s a trained psychologist, PhD. It’s the same thing, right? These accounts as far as I understand, and if you talk to Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona, a very well regarded psychiatrist and psychiatrist at Harvard and Yale, he has a way, the same that you do, understanding whether people are hallucinating. They would say you’re not hallucinating.
Tell us, are you hallucinating, or not? If you’re not, then why do we always have to come back to, “Am I bonkers?” “Is this woo woo?” “Is this Twilight Zone?” I understand the need to do that, but what’s going on there?
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: What’s going on in my mind is, remember, this all happened to me out of the blue. All of sudden in 2003, wham, Keith Bishop comes into my room, and I’m off on this journey. The context, of course, was also something else going on in my life. We had a flaming family row.
I come from a large and somewhat fractured Jewish family. I realized that my cousins all had similar problems with their parents. Using my background as a GP family physician, I suspected that we all had the same problem because my parents had a similar problem with their parents.
I traced it to my grandfather, who I never met. He died before I was born. He actually was gambler, and had rising and falling fortunes. I guess he gave my grandmother a hell of a time.
There’s a way Keith Bishop came into my room and started giving me messages from this guy, and they were very evidential. He told me stuff about my family and situation that he couldn’t possibly have known, and it was from the guy I’d been researching. That’s what really got me. It pressed the right buttons.
Alex Tsakiris: I guess what I’m driving at Ian, where is the tipping point at which someone like you, who’s directly experienced this…I haven’t directly experienced it, but I’m over the tipping point of saying that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that although we can never know for sure, there’s a reality to this. You seem to always pull back from accepting that.
I’m just curious, because you’ve directly experienced it, I haven’t. How are we looking at the data differently? What are you seeing that I don’t see?
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: I’m not looking at data. I suppose it’s my scientific background coming in here. I don’t do belief; I look for evidence. I’m a firm fence sitter, and I’m quite happy to change my ideas as new evidence comes in. I suppose, in that respect, I’m a true skeptic as opposed to some of the other skeptics who seem to have closed minds on this issue. I’m open to the data.
I’ve since read lots of stuff about this field, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s very good scientific evidence about this. Some people will say the evidence is not good. I’m, perhaps, not in a position to judge the statistics. I’ve trained in science, but I’m not a trained scientist.
I suppose when all of this happened to me, I thought, If I experience it, I’ll know. I have to say, I’ve experienced it, and I still don’t know. I guess you never do know. But I think experiences have value, and I don’t think they need to be swept under the carpet. I think they’re genuine experiences.
I still think they can be open to interpretation. There are two big things here. Twenty-five percent of me is laughing at me, thinking, You’re mad. Seventy-five percent of me accepts that there’s something paranormal going on. We then have to tease out, is this survival or some sort of super-psi?
The trouble with the super-psi hypothesis, as I see it, is it can explain everything.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, take super-psi out of it for a minute, because I don’t think it works either. The other problem I see with super-psi, just very plainly, is it isn’t how the phenomena is reported. People don’t report it that way, so I think there’s an extra burden on those who want to advance the super-psi hypothesis.
“Why are people experiencing it this way, but it’s really this other way? I’m open to that, but tell me why that’s true.” What you seem to be contrasting is a materialistic, medical paradigm that we live in that says there is none of this, this cannot happen. There is no way that the consciousness survives death. There is no way that spirits can influence us.
That, I think, is what you’re really butting up against, and yet you seem to give that a lot more weight then I think it deserves in this case, especially given, (1) your personal experience and, (2) the research that you’ve done to see that there’s data to support it. Why do we have to stay with the materialistic paradigm? It doesn’t seem to work.
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: Twenty-five percent of me is skeptical with a little “s” I suppose. The rest of me more or less accepts it. Just to develop the super-psi hypothesis again, I’ve come to the conclusion that if super-psi exists, it more or less implies that there is some form of information storage in the universe, somehow. That more or less implies that, actually, there is survival of the human personality.
I’ll give a simple example. Let’s just say telepathy is real, the brain is really just a material computer, and we’re just software agents running on the brain. It’s not too hard to imagine that somehow, within 30 years, we’ve networked our computers; maybe all the brains are networked together. Maybe, when we die, we migrate across the network. I don’t know.
I think whatever way you look at it, super-psi more or less imply that there is some form of survival of consciousness. Does that make sense?
Alex Tsakiris: I would agree. I think you’re right. I think you’re also right to point out that, to me, that seems to be the big leap that we have to make. If consciousness survives, whether you want to put it in the super-psi box, which I don’t think fits very well, or some kind of individuated consciousness that may dissolve at some other level into some collective consciousness, I don’t know.
It still seems to be the big jump is from the materialistic science that we’re in that says, you are just a biological robot, versus, you are more. That seems, to me, to be a very important discussion. It not only has these huge implications for science and medicine, but it has huge implications for our culture, who we’re going to go bomb today, who we’re going to go give loans to, stop malaria, or any of those things.
No matter how you feel on them, I don’t care what your political stripe is, it seems to be that the materialistic idea that it is survival of the fittest and us against them, is an important cornerstone to how we are. I think your understanding that you’ve come to contradicts that basic idea. I don’t know if you see it that way.
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: I think you’re looking at a guy struggling with this. I don’t come from a religious background at all. I’m a non-practicing, left-wing, Jewish background. All my family was, you could say, very anti-religious at all, and I’m not a religious guy.
Spirituality is not new to me. Obviously, I grew up in the 60s and 70s, so I’m as affected by new-age stuff as much as everybody else; it’s in the air, but it’s not native to my culture and background, and certainly not to my education. Western [inaudible 15:19] education is all pervading; it colors the way you see the world. It’s there, and I’m dealing with this every day.
At medical school, you were taught how to think. You have to think critically. You do not trust your instinct. Every doctor knows that instinct is very important, and you get a feel for it, but you’re not trained in this.
One of the things I develop in my book is that I found that training as a medium, having had all these experiences and then sitting in a Spiritualist circle, I actually found that you can train your intuition, that you can to some extent trust it, and it’s very useful. I now use it much more in my consultations.
Of course, a skeptic would say, “You know, Ian, you’re an experienced doctor. You’ve been a family physician for 28 years. You’ve been a doctor for 34 years. Maybe this is just ordinary stuff.” I don’t know.
Alex Tsakiris: Ian, share with folks the story of the patient who arrives in your office reporting symptoms of depression, severely depressed. That story, I think, goes counter to what you’re just saying. Please tell us.
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: Okay, her name’s Lucy. This is her real name. She loves me telling this story; she thinks it’s wonderful. Lucy, at the time…the day is very important. This was the 6th of December, 2004. Lucy is an Irish lady who has been living in the UK for years, since she was about 16. She was in service in Manchester when her father, who was an Irish Catholic, was murdered by the IRA, she alleges. Although he was a Catholic, he didn’t like what the IRA was doing with the troubles.
She’d always felt that her father was around, but wasn’t able to tell anyone. I knew nothing of this. She came into my room on the 6th of December, 2004, and just burst into tears. She’s normally a quite happy woman and never had depression before. She was inconsolable to the point where I did something I don’t normally do. After 15 minutes of her crying and not getting any sense out of her, I actually in desperation printed a prescription for an antidepressant, which I handed to her.
As I was about to hand it to her, I felt this blow to the back of my neck and heard a voice behind me saying, “Ask her about her father.” With that, over her left shoulder, I saw a mist. It was like I could see it not quite with my eyes, but it was almost like I could see it. It was more than just imagination or an image in my head. I could see this misty form of a guy which I could describe over her left shoulder.
I just said to her, “Lucy, tell me about your father.” She looked at me, stopped crying, and said, “He was killed 38 years ago on the 8th of December. In two day’s time would be the anniversary of his death. Do you think that’s why I’m depressed?”
I said, “Did he look like…?” and I described the guy over her left shoulder. She said, “Yes, how did you know?” I said, “Lucy, I think I can see him over your left shoulder.” She grabbed my arm, stopped crying, looked at me and said, “Doctor, you don’t know how much this means to me. Thank you, so much.”
She told me the story about how he had been killed. I said, “Lucy, I’m not saying I saw your father. I’m just saying this is what I saw.” I was trying to back track a bit.
[break in audio 18:34]
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: This was unbidden. It came to me, and I just said it, and I thought, My God, what have I said? This is how you get erased from the medical register. She said, “Now that I know why I’m depressed, doctor, I don’t need your pills. Thank you, very much,” and left my room. My jaw was on the floor.
She then spent about half-hour speaking to one of my receptionists, and then four weeks later, she came back to see me. She looked chipper, very happy, with a smile on her face. I said, “Nice to see you, Lucy. What’s wrong with you?” She said, “Nothing.” So I said, “Why have you come to see me?” She said, “I’ve got to tell you this story.”
She sits down and told me two weeks after she saw me, she’d gone to an Irish social do. There was this creepy guy who was following her around, tugging at her coat tail, saying, “Lucy, I’ve got something to tell you. Would you come into this room?” She said, “I’m not coming into any room with you. If you’ve got something to tell me, you come right out and tell me now.”
He said, “Lucy, do you know there’s a fellow over your left shoulder. I think he’s your father.” She said, “Of course I do. My doctor told me that two weeks ago.” She said, “I sure took the wind out of his sails.”
That sort of confirmed it, and actually has transformed her and her sister’s life. That story spread through the family, and it’s been very, dare I say, healing for the family. The prescription for antidepressants would not have cut the mustard in that case.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s interesting. It also, I think, speaks to something we talked about before. How brave you are to do this, because you just slipped in there that you could be erased from the medical registry, but that isn’t such a joke. I actually think I read a comment online that said, “I’m reading this amazing story and saying, ‘Wow! This is so life-affirming for this woman,” and somebody saying, “Who’s that doctor prescribing medicine based on spiritualist [inaudible 20:27]?”
I also saw the headline in one of the UK tabloids that read, “I give my patients messages from the dead.”
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: On the same cover, is a famous medium saying, “A murderer stole my legs.” That’s great. I took that to a medical meeting. These guys are walking with rolled up copies of the British Medical Journal and saying what they’re in. I’m in Take a Break’s Fate & Fortune magazine, which is lovely.
I have to say, I quite like that feeling of sort of sticking it to the man, even though so might say, I am the man. I’m a well-established doctor in a large practice, and I’ve been there for some time, so I guess I’m part of the establishment.
I do have an agenda. I don’t like the way my profession is going, I have to say. I suppose I’ve been in the profession long enough to sit back and think, I just wonder where medicine is going.
Alex Tsakiris: I just want to thank you, again, for joining me. It’s been great to have you on Skeptiko. Best of luck with the book.
Dr. Ian Rubenstein: Thanks, very much, Alex.