Parapsychology work at Edinburgh University is making the field respectable. John Davies reports.
If you are looking for an academic take on unexplained psychic phenomena, tread carefully. One psychologist at a Midlands university who is interested in Extra-Sensory Perception and poltergeists will not talk to the press because he is worried his work could be "sensationalised".
Robert Morris of Edinburgh University has fewer qualms and will readily tell you why the study of "additional means of communication with the world around us" is a growing field.
Morris left Syracuse University a decade ago to become the first holder of Edinburgh's Koestler chair of parapsychology. As Morris has written, "after initial scepticism... parapsychology as practised at the Koestler chair has become recognised as a valid field of research." If this is true, it must be thanks to the rigour with which, under his aegis, research seems to be conducted. Ask him to detail the work that his department - four projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council - is engaged in, and Morris says "we try to find out what is not psychic but looks like it". The study of both fraud and unintentional deception looms large.
Initially the Edinburgh team was assisted by psychologist and magician Robert Wiseman whose PhD thesis, supervised by Morris, examined the "psychology of deception". Other research has looked at "Barnum statements" - those used by clairvoyants (and named after the US showman who said there was a sucker born every minute) that seem to apply uniquely to ourselves, but do not. Such research, Morris notes, "has a parapsychological aspect but blends into regular psychology - belief and attitude formation, how we attribute meaning to ambiguous information and so on."
More mainstream psychologists agree. Chris French, head of psychology at Goldsmiths College, London is "on the side of scepticism" but has "a lot of respect" for Morris. "It is important to make a distinction between people like him and those who make more cranky claims. The vast majority of what people take as evidence for the paranormal is no such thing, and I'm sure he would agree. But the best parapsychology is at least as good as the best psychology."
What then is parapsychology? Edinburgh University's definition is "the scientific study of paranormal phenomena, in particular the capacity of some individuals to interact with their environment by means other than the recognised sensory channels". Much of the Edinburgh team's work explores ESP, with carefully-controlled experiments using techniques such as the ganzfeld. The ganzfeld places participants in a situation where they receive no particular outside stimulus: they hear "white noise" over headphones while translucent hemispheres are placed on their eyes and red light is shone on them, creating "a diffusely illuminated visual field, much like staring into a thick fog". By this means they are encouraged "to turn their attention internally" and recognise any signals that may be sent extra-sensorily. Experiments where a "sender" in a nearby room watches videos that the ganzfeld sample later hasto identify turn out to have results well above chance.
"Our attitude is that much of what we run across can turn out to have orthodox explanations," says Morris. "There may also be minor modifications in our understanding of present-day physics, biology and psychology that will explain other things. But in some cases there may have to be major modifications." An agnostic, Morris dismisses talk of the supernatural - "If there are phenomena occurring in our lab, they're part of the natural world." Is he confident phenomena such as ESP do exist? "I'm sceptical both of people who say it's proved and of those who say it's rubbish. I've said that the likelihood of something new going on is somewhere in the low 90s (per cent). But I'm very comfortable with uncertainty."