Psychologist attracted to spirit world

April 24, 1998

ALAN GAULD has investigated well over 100 hauntings and found rational explanations for all but a handful. Rational explanations are, after all, his stock in trade. If only his fellow scientists would see it that way.

Dr Gauld and the small band of parapsychologists working in British universities have to be content with jibes from the "respectable" end of the scientific community, who dismiss their work on phenomena that occur, apparently, outside the laws of science, as at best a fringe activity and at worst plain fruitcake.

"It is irritating, but the climate of our times is certainly less than sympathetic towards parapsychology," says Dr Gauld, a lecturer in Nottingham University's psychology department. "Scientific hostility towards us has always been around, but it has become a more organised opposition of late. And much more vocal."

The problem he has identified is that many of his opponents display just the characteristics that gullible "believers" suffer from. "They usually work on preconceptions and a minimum of evidence rather than any proper critical scrutiny," he says. "They never bother with primary sources and their main concern is to show the fallibility of human testimony. This makes it hard for someone like me to take the middle road since both extremes go so far over the top."

Ironically, parapsychologists have become even more sophisticated and rigorous in their scientific methods than other types of scientists because of the level of hostile scrutiny. He remembers with disdain an eminent physicist lecturing parapsychologists a few years ago on the need for scientific rigour. "He had never read a word of the literature, it was just pure prejudice."

Dr Gauld thinks it important to keep a toehold in the academic world. Besides parapsychology, his more mainstream activities in neuro-psychology are concerned with brain damage and its impact on higher mental functions. He also lectures on animal behaviour.

But his most interesting research is with poltergeists. He has published a survey and computer analysis of some 500 incidents. By electronically clustering the events he was able to draw common distinctions between "ordinary" hauntings, which tend to focus on a place, and poltergeist activity attached to particular individuals.

"Both cases raise all sorts of questions about the nature and reliability of human testimony, but in my experience, errors in memory do not accumulate over time," he says. "We should not dismiss such accounts merely on the basis of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts."

Dr Gauld has also published on mediums and hypnosis and takes a keen interest in extra-sensory perception. He says it has been shown that some states of mind are conducive to ESP. Rigorous experiments have, he says, shown exciting and repeatable results. Some message "senders" have been able to influence the dreams of individuals sleeping in another room under controlled double-blind conditions.

Using data going back more than 100 years he has tried to correlate hundreds of instances of ESP such as crisis apparitions with fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field. Such apparitions are not uncommon and occur when a person who has died unexpectedly, say in a car crash, "appears" to a close relative or friend at the time of his death. Such instances of ESP are, says Dr Gauld, significantly more likely when geomagnetic activity is low.

"I don't know what to make of this but it is intriguing and there is much, much more work to be done," he said.

But whether the next phase of research will ever get done in such a sceptical climate is questionable.

So what of those bumps in the night? Dr Gauld tells just one spine-chilling episode from back in his days as a member of the Cambridge University Psychical Research Society. It is a terrifying experience he has never been able to explain. But you would never believe it ...

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