What it feels like to ... be a parapsychologist
I tend not to tell people what I do for a living, but if I do admit I am a parapsychologist, people usually want to tell me about the experiences they or their friends and relatives have had.
The frequency of paranormal experiences, ghostly sightings and so on is quite high in the general population so it’s not a trivial question to ask why people are having these experiences and what effect they have. I’m interested in people’s stories, but I often end up giving them normal explanations, which makes me sound sceptical.
That’s what I will be talking about at the Scottish Paranormal Festival. My session, Things That Go Bump In The Mind, looks at the psychological factors which lead people to have ghostly experiences, when in fact there are normal explanations. For example, humans are very good at recognising faces, so we can construct a face or body out of shapes such as shadows or clouds.
Polls consistently show that, if you include religious beliefs, which I do, around 50 per cent of people believe in the paranormal.
I studied psychology at university and, in my final year, Edinburgh University was in the process of appointing Bob Morris as the first Koestler Chair of Parapsychology - the study of paranormal beliefs and experiences.
It was controversial - the first British university to set up a parapsychology unit - and I was interested in the claims people made of having unusual experiences, such as being able to read minds or influence objects by mind alone. I wanted to find out what lies beneath: is it all self-deception? Or could there be paranormal activity taking place?
I wrote to Bob, told him I was a psychology student with no strong personal beliefs one way or the other and he took me on as his research assistant in 1986. I’m now a senior lecturer and researching pre-cognitive dream experiences. I also run an online introduction to parapsychology course.
Is there something paranormal going on? If you want an answer to that, I’d say look at the laboratory research, rather than the real-world experience. People’s experiences are unreliable, difficult to understand and we don’t hear about them until after the event.
In the lab, controlled tests take place. Some parapsychologists say there is evidence ESP exists, based on studies, but I say we are not there yet. I think the evidence is patchy.
Has my opinion changed over the last 30 years? My views on the quality of research have. I’d say it is higher than in mainstream areas because parapsychologists are subject to so much more scrutiny. They are careful.
At the moment, most of my spare time is taken up with writing my book, a beginner’s guide to parapsychology, but I also have a life, a partner and two sons.
There’s a lot of rubbish written about parapsychology on the internet. There are many ghost-hunting groups, but those are mainly for entertainment. Not all mediums are exploitative but there is a dark side, when vulnerable people are targeted.
It’s important to give balanced, responsible information. I’m the only academic speaking at the festival and I suppose I am going to be the party pooper. Maybe that’s why I’m on early on Sunday morning.
by Dr Caroline Watt For The Herald Scotland