Altered Consciousness Conference 1918-1980 (November 2013)

Last weekend was the Altered Consciousness conference at Queen Mary, University of London, and was beautifully organised by Dr. Katy Price and her team. For me, the prospect of Academic Conferences always has a dual sense of anticipation and terror. I always look forward to the range and breadth of the talks, but I consider myself a bit inept when it comes to small talk, so the whole 'networking' aspect brings angst. However, from the moment of arrival, this conference was a little bit special, and didn’t follow the patterns I was expecting. The conference was nice and intimate, with people there from a range of backgrounds. Some were academic, and some were scholars from outside of academia. This gave the conference a relaxed air, and the two areas interacted pretty well, for the most part. The setting was also very impressive.

Queen Mary’s Mile End campus is pretty spectacular and the Arts 2 venue sits alongside the last remnants of the Jewish Graveyard that has been preserved in the grounds.

There are currently only four or so Universities across the Western World that have programs that look at more esoteric subjects from an academic standpoint. (Exeter, Rice, the Sorbonne and Amsterdam). The conference was a good opportunity for other researchers to emerge that are also touching on more esoteric subjects from all disciplines. This meant there was a wide range of talks.

It is impossible, within the confines of a blog, to really give each talk justice, so this will really only be a brief rundown of the talks I found the most inspiring, and why, and is for the purposes of my own recollection as much as for review. Post conference I am going through a process of assimilating the ideas I learned there, so blogging can be a useful tool for this. I am also aware the conference was sold out quite early, so for anyone who wanted to go (but was unable) hopefully this will gave a little flavour of some of the talks. As with most conferences there were split panels for some of the talks, which means I didn't get to hear all of them, but the organisers filmed them all, and so they will be available online sometime in the new year.

The highlights of the conference for me were (in order of presentation):

Jenny Chapman (Lecturer, University of Hull) – ‘American Literature of the Afterlife: Fiction That Tells the Truth’.

Jenny Chapman was speaking about Richard Matheson’s book, What Dreams May Come, and the avalanche of other Near Death Experience books of the 1970s. As an opening talk, this set a nice tone for the rest of the conference. It also piqued my interest, as I can remember reading the book in the eighties, soon aft my Mum and her friends discovered it. Academia doesn’t often validate concepts like notions of the afterlife, and they are often labeled ‘New Age’ in a derisory sense. The novel follows the story of a man who crosses over into the undiscovered country of death, but the difference with Matheson’s novel, is that he states very clearly from the offset that the characters alone are fictional, and ‘every other detail is derived exclusively from research’. Matheson is perhaps better known for his other works, I am Legend, and The Incredible Shrinking Man but thus far, he has attracted very little academic attention. As Matheson rarely gave interviews, his own spiritual belief system is not clear, but we do know that he believed in auras, reincarnation and that the body is just a vehicle that the ‘essence’ of a person disconnects from at death, as they travel on to another level. What is perhaps more unusual, is that his claims of research are backed up with a bibliography, an uncommon step for a work