Last week, I was honoured to take up my new position as Edinburgh University’s second Koestler Chair of Parapsychology. Here’s an account of the history of the Koestler Chair, and how I came to be here.
The Koestler Chair of Parapsychology was established at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Psychology (pictured) in 1985. However parapsychology has actually been studied at Edinburgh University since the appointment in 1962 of the late Dr John Beloff (pictured) as a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. Beloff researched and taught parapsychology at Edinburgh until his retirement in 1985, though he maintained his connections with the department for another two decades.
John Beloff was a friend of the noted writer Arthur Koestler (both were supporters of voluntary euthanasia and debated over dualism), and Koestler appointed Beloff as executor. Koestler and his wife Cynthia died in a double suicide in 1983, and bequeathed their estate to establish a Chair of Parapsychology at a British University. The declared intention was to further scientific research into “…the capacity attributed to some individuals to interact with their environment by means other than the recognised sensory and motor channels.” Having already established that parapsychology could be pursued with scientific rigour in a University setting, Beloff went on to play an important role in bringing the Koestler Bequest to Edinburgh.
The first Koestler Professor was an American named Robert L. Morris (pictured). Bob came to Edinburgh to take up his position in late 1985. Bob was instrumental in the growth of the KPU, recruiting additional staff (one of whom was me), overseeing over 100 undergraduate student projects, and supervising more than 30 postgraduate students. Many of these postgraduate students went on to research and teach parapsychology at other universities. Bob regarded parapsychology as an interdisciplinary problem area, so he took a broad approach to the field, including studying the psychology of deception (the topic of Richard Wiseman’s PhD under Bob’s supervision), the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences, as well as testing the psi hypothesis (for instance using the ganzfeld method.) The whole field was shocked and saddened when Bob unexpectedly died in 2004.
My own connection with Bob Morris began shortly after I graduated with a psychology degree from the University of St Andrews in 1984. There had been a lot of press attention over Bob’s appointment, and I wrote a speculative letter to him, wishing him success, expressing my curiousity about parapsychology, and saying that I’d love to help out at the Koestler Chair if needed. Unlike many who wrote to Bob, I hadn’t had any personal experiences that I thought might be paranormal. But as a psychologist I was intrigued to find out more about what lay behind the paranormal experiences that people quite commonly report. I was always impressed that, despite being busy with moving his family from the USA to Edinburgh, Bob took the time to send a handwritten reply inviting me to drop in for a chat once he was settled in Edinburgh. I try to remember that generosity, when I receive unsolicited approaches from curious young folks.
My potted history at the KPU: I successfully applied for a research assistant job with Bob, and in June 1986 became one of the founding members of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit. Yep, I’ve been here for 30 years. During that time, I studied part-time for a PhD (awarded 1993), brought up two sons, conducted and published many experiments (broadly speaking, looking at areas of overlap between psychology and parapsychology), wrote two books (the latest of which – Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide – came out earlier this year), and got involved in supervising student projects and teaching parapsychology to undergraduate psychology students. After Bob’s death, the KPU was restructured to put it on a more secure financial footing, and I had to compete with KPU colleagues and external candidates for two new Koestler-funded lectureships. Fortunately in 2006 I was appointed as Senior Lecturer, and Peter Lamont as Lecturer. I took on management of the KPU’s public profile, running the website and twitter stream, and designing and launching a popular online parapsychology course in 2008 (still going strong – check it out here!). I also accepted positions on the Bial Foundation, an important funding organisation for parapsychology. In 2010 I was awarded the prestigious Perrott-Warrick Senior Researcher Fellowship, and in 2012 together with Jim Kennedy I launched parapsychology’s first Study Registry (indeed it was the first of its kind in psychology, so far as I am aware). Click on the button on the right to find out more about that. I also took on more senior management roles at the University, including a three-year stint as undergraduate director for the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.
Then in 2015 I was on research leave and found that I at last had time (and, I felt, sufficient achievements) to apply for promotion to a professorship and personal chair. My application was supported greatly by Etzel Cardeña (Professor of hypnosis and parapsychology at the University of Lund) and Jessica Utts (Professor of Statistics at UC Irvine, and President of the American Statistical Association). I later learned that other leading researchers in parapsychology and anomalistic psychology had also commented to the University about my work, including Dr Stanley Krippner, Prof Chris French, and Prof Stefan Schmidt. I know how busy all these folks are, and am immensely grateful that they took the time to support my case. So here I am, honoured and delighted to become Edinburgh University’s second Koestler Chair of Parapsychology. Follow this blog to find out more about what we’re doing now at the KPU.
One last thing. In 1984 (when there was a lot of press interest in the new parapsychology chair at Edinburgh) I was sitting the ‘contemporary issues’ paper in my final year psychology degree exams at St Andrews University. The question I chose to answer went something like this: “You are applying to be the new Koestler Professor of Parapsychology at Edinburgh University. Outline your research programme and the methods you would use to pursue these questions.”
With hard graft and patience, dreams can come true.