Researchers step into the twilight zone

August 10, 2007

Is the truth out there? A small but dedicated band of academics looks for answers in the world of the paranormal. Louise Radnofsky reports

More than two decades after a trio of fictional parapsychologists were sacked from their posts at New York's Columbia University and became the notorious Ghostbusters in the eponymous Hollywood blockbuster, their real-life counterparts have kept a small foothold in British universities.

At Northampton University, home to the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes, director Deborah Delanoy explores whether people can unconsciously respond to remote influences, such as calming thoughts sent from another person, and Richard Broughton tests the possibility of premonitions by seeing if subjects respond physiologically to an imminent shock.

In Edinburgh University's Koestler Parapsychology Unit, Caroline Watt studies the possibility of people sending positive thoughts to each other, while postgraduate researchers investigate "paranormal healing" and whether people can share the physical sensations of someone in a different room.

Drs Delanoy, Broughton and Watt are joined by researchers in small units across the country in their study of "psi" - occurrences that are not readily explained by existing science and that some attribute to mental processes. They form a closely knit community of psychologists and historians, in which a few are convinced that the phenomena they see have paranormal implications but where many more say they are not committed either way.

"I am firmly convinced that there are phenomena here that need to be investigated and may provide a radically new view of the capabilities of human consciousness," Dr Broughton said.

But Dr Delanoy, who said she was drawn to the area by curiosity and now "I follow the data," argues that it is all quite ordinary.

"I'm simply trying to do the best experimental work I can do," she said. "If we are dealing with a real phenomenon, and it's been with us since the dawn of mankind, shouldn't we understand it? If we're not dealing with a real phenomenon, is it going to make any difference, other than to help us understand the psychology of the human belief system?"

For some in the field, the question of whether psi exists is less relevant, though even they argue that it is worth exploring.

Chris French is head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a sceptical expert on everything from ghosts to UFO abductions.

"I think you have to be particularly weird to be passionately interested in something you don't believe in; either that, or you have to be a psychologist," Professor French said.

"The fact is that the majority of the population does believe in this stuff, and a sizeable minority of the population claims to have had direct experience of the paranormal. If psychologists have nothing to say on this topic, they are missing out on a broad part of human experience."

Most parapsychologists say that their departments and universities have been supportive.

"It's a high-risk approach to an academic career where many will be regarding you as at best on the fringe of things, and at worst as being pseudo scientific," said Matthew Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Liverpool Hope University College.

Dr Smith has studied whether researchers who believe in the paranormal are more likely than non-believer researchers to get positive results when testing psi. His colleagues, he said, have generally had an attitude of "keep up the good work".

Funding is a big difficulty. Dr Smith said he has been able to bring in charitable funding, which has had a favourable reception at Liverpool Hope, but might be seen as less significant in a bigger university.

Professor French agreed. "It is difficult to get funding for this type of research even if you've got 'sceptic' tattooed across your forehead," he said.

Still, researchers trying to build their careers in the field can draw on a number of grants and are finding homes in a growing number of parapsychology or "anomalistic psychology" units.

Many parapsychologists say, too, that their subject is valuable in undergraduate teaching, popular with students and a good way of teaching critical thinking.

Their own research can be more frustrating.

"It's a big question, hardly anyone's looking at it, and where they are looking at it they're all changing their methods every five years," Dr Watt said.

Sceptics, such as Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology at Hertfordshire University, believe the problem is bigger than that.

"It's all to do with the evidence, and the evidence is not very good. I don't think it's scientists with their heads in the sands," Professor Wiseman said.

"I think people need to be aware that it hasn't been solved in the past 60 years and it's very unlikely that it will be solved in the next 60 years."

Dr Watt said she has avoided putting all her "eggs in one basket" by devoting some of her research to why people believe in the paranormal.

"You're spending time looking at something that may or may not exist," she said. "You may spend all your time working at it and have nothing to show for it."

On the other hand, if a parapsychologist did come up with something extraordinary, Dr Watt said, "you'd get a Nobel prize!"

LIKE MINDS

Where to study the paranormal:

  • Cambridge University Mind-Matter Unification Project 
  • Coventry University Parapsychology Studies Group
  • Edinburgh University Koestler Parapsychology Unit
  • Goldsmiths College Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit
  • Hertfordshire University Perrott-Warrick Research Unit
  • Liverpool Hope University College Parapsychology Research Group
  • Liverpool John Moores University Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology Research Unit
  • Northampton University Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes
  • York University Anomalous Experiences Research Unit

Funding sources:

  • Bial Foundation,
  • Parapsychology Association,
  • Parapsychological Foundation,
  • Perrott-Warrick Fund, administered by Trinity College, Cambridge, Society for Psychical Research

'Like any scientist, I look at the data': A parapsychologist speaks

Richard Broughton's young children were unimpressed when after seeing Ghostbusters at the cinema, their father tried to tell them that he was a parapsychologist, too. "No, you're not a Ghostbuster, you just go to an office!" they said.

Still, Dr Broughton, who led the Institute for Parapsychology in Durham, North Carolina, and set up his own labora-tory in America before coming to Northampton University, goes further in his ideas than most academics in Britain.

"That whole concept of 'premonition', or as we used to call it, 'precognition', involves information travelling backwards in time," he said. "It's really a problem for physics, and there are quite a few physicists who say it's not an insolvable problem.

"I'm not a physicist. My problem as a psychologist is that if this information is available somehow then we as information- driven human beings may have figured out a way to use this."

Applying this would be "tremendously useful in an evolutionary sense," he said, though he cautions that it would be more likely to help improve decision-making than to predict lottery numbers.

Dr Broughton puts his colleagues' caution down to "political reasons".

"The birth of quantum physics was fraught with all sorts of battles," he said.

"Science has always had a dimension of the political in addition to that which is driven by the data."

He maintains that he is not stupid, gullible or naive.

"Like any scientist I look at the data and find that there are some strange things that need to be explained here.

"I've been in it for 30 years. If it was that simple I'd have been out a long time ago," he said. "We're in it because we think we have a chance of solving it."

Despite "some progress", though, the problem can seem intractable. "I don't think we're close to cracking it in my lifetime," Dr Broughton said.

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