Way back in 1984, I was coming to the end of my undergraduate psychology degree at the University of St Andrews. In my last year, there had been several press reports about the Bequest from Arthur and Cynthia Koestler to establish a centre for parapsychological research at a UK university. Edinburgh University had announced it was willing to host the Koestler Chair at the University’s Department of Psychology, and was recruiting the first Koestler Professor. This interesting development made its way into the ‘contemporary issues’ paper in my final exams. Intrigued, I answered this question. The gist of it was: “Imagine you are applying to be the new Koestler Professor. What research programme would you follow, and what methods would you use?” (My answer included twins and baby rabbits…)
Several months later, Edinburgh University announced that it had appointed an American researcher named Robert Morris to take up the Koestler Chair. Bob had cut his teeth at J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology lab in North Carolina, and had a reputation for taking a balanced and responsible approach to parapsychology. He felt it was important not only to conduct carefully controlled tests of putative psychic abilities, but also to develop a sophisticated understanding of ‘what’s not psychic but looks like it’. I couldn’t resist writing to Robert Morris (pictured). I explained that I didn’t think I had ever had a paranormal experience, but as a psychology graduate I found paranormal experiences a fascinating area of enquiry. Could he use an assistant?
Typically for Bob, although very busy he took the time to read my unsolicited letter and hand-wrote an encouraging reply to me (I was impressed that he addressed me as ‘Ms’ – something of a rarity in Scotland three decades ago). Bob wouldn’t be arriving in Edinburgh with his family until November 1985, but once settled in he would be advertising for an assistant and he would alert me when the ad went up. In due course, I was invited for interview. I was somewhat apologetic about my lack of personal psychic experiences or beliefs, but Bob explained he valued the fact that I was attracted to the topic through intellectual curiosity rather than because I had strong opinions about the paranormal. I started at the Koestler Unit in June 1986 and have been there ever since.
Sadly, Bob died in August 2004, but I hope I have continued his practice of taking a cautious and balanced approach to parapsychological research. This year I’ve been doing many activities to mark the 30th Anniversary of Bob Morris taking up the Koestler Chair (check out Unbelievable: The Science of the Paranormal, running at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2015). On Thursday 2nd July, I’ll be giving a talk at the Society for Psychical Research giving highlights of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit’s three decades of research. It’s at 7pm in the Lecture Hall of Kensington Central Library. I hope to see lots of people there – skeptics and believers welcome! For more details, visit the SPR’s website.