Harriet Swain, continuing our series on young researchers, talks to parapsychologist Tony Lawrence.
A little more than ten years ago, when psychology lecturer Tony Lawrence was 15, he went to see the film Ghostbusters. "I thought it looked a good job to do," he says. "So I did it."
He is now one of just 230 people in the world, (eight in Britain), officially registered as parapsychologists, examining experiences of the paranormal. His speciality is nasty near-death encounters, an interest which developed after he was introduced to them by a student who later dropped out of the course Lawrence teaches at Coventry University.
This ghoulish fascination has put Lawrence in contact with more than 200 people who claim to have had close encounters with life after death. So far, he is not one of them. With no experience of the paranormal himself, the Ghostbusters incident proved seminal. "I was a student who seemed to be average at school and all of a sudden I thought, 'that's something worth doing'," he says. "Many parapsychologists tend to have a religious interest at some point in their lives. Around the age of 14 or 15 I was starting to lose my interest in orthodox religion. I had gone through a phase of being a Christian but that went and parapsychology seemed like a way of dealing with it." It could have been simply a teenage phase. But then, spookily, at the age of 17, he happened upon a book, Foundations of Parapsychology. "If it hadn't been for finding that book, I wouldn't have been where I am now," he says.
Where he is now, aged 26, is finishing his doctorate on modelling the causes and consequences of paranormal belief and lecturing psychology students on statistics. He arrived at Coventry via a psychology degree at University College London, followed by postgraduate work at the University of Edinburgh. But his studies really came to life when he started looking at death.
He appealed on the Internet for people who had had near-death experiences and received 220 responses. While stories of white lights and floating feelings have become relatively well-known, less pleasant encounters with death are rarely mentioned. "It seems to be a bit of a taboo subject," says Lawrence. "But about 45 per cent of the responses I received were negative."
The stories he heard included a graphic account by a former meningitis patient of being dragged down a black pit by a man with three legs. In another, a man who suffered severe fatigue while serving as a soldier in Germany, remembered seeing black robed figures who seemed to be impressing upon him the word "Manx". Several people have written to him with dentist-chair experiences, which suggests there may be a link with anaesthesia.
For the moment, he is developing a database of names and addresses and drawing up a suitable questionnaire. This will include questions about his subjects' religious background and whether the experience has had any effect on their beliefs. It will also ask whether they can identify any circumstances in their social or moral lives which may have contributed to their negative experience of near-death. "It is very difficult to be objective in ascertaining this aspect so we will leave it up to them to decide whether they deserved it," Lawrence says. "Some say that the experience was one they needed at the time. There are people who have tried to push it out of their minds and they find writing to me a therapy in itself."
He will also be trying to assess the parapsychological factors which may lead to negative near-death experiences. "Many people having NDEs report coming out of their body and seeing something going on in a remote place," he says. "For example, they can travel to another hospital ward and see an operation taking place."
Finally, he will look at medical factors, including assessing the general psychological health of the subjects. He tries to collect as many details as possible about surgical operations in which people have had near-death experiences, including when and where the surgery took place, who performed it and what medication was used. This allows him to check whether his informers are telling the truth and whether the circumstances of the operation, particularly the anaesthetic, may have caused their experience.
He has been offered the chance to write a book on his research for general readers. But he also plans a more learned tome. A general book would be more therapeutic, he says. "It would help people by giving them the knowledge they are not alone."