From Séance to Science: Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick

Who is Psychology’s Greatest Hero? A few days ago, I sparred with my Psychology dept colleagues Dr Stuart Ritchie and Dr Thomas Bak in a fun event at Edinburgh Science Festival.Screen Shot 2017-04-11 at 17.32.43

We each had 12 minutes to make a pitch for our own hero, then had to defend our candidate under questioning from the audience and each other, culminating in an audience vote. We presented in order of hero birth-date – so Stuart went first with the Victorian polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911). Then I presented the case for psychical researcher and women’s education pioneer Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1946), and Thomas championed the Soviet neuropsychologist and developmental psychologist, Alexander Luria (1902-1977). Thomas did a great job, and Luria clearly won the audience vote, with Sidgwick coming second. Despite a brave effort by Stuart, Galton was scuppered by a piercing final point from the audience about eugenics.

Eleanor Sidgwick is unknown to most psychologists, so why did I choose her? Sidgwick1870She was an exceptional mathematician, scientist, and reformer – outstanding achievements particularly because in Victorian times most women were expected either to marry and run their husband’s household, or if unmarried to provide domestic support for their unmarried brothers or parents. I wanted to read more about Eleanor (my sources are listed at the end of this piece) and to bring her work to a wider audience. I also wanted to convey the message, perhaps surprising to some, that in their early years, psychology and psychical research were difficult to distinguish from one another.

Eleanor was fortunate to be born (1845) into one of Britain’s most powerful political families. Her father James Maitland Balfour was a wealthy Scottish landowner and railway investor, and her mother was Lady Blanche Harriet Gascoyne-Cecil. Eleanor Balfour was the eldest of 8 children, several of whom had distinguished careers in science or politics, including her younger brother Arthur, who became British Prime Minister.

Euclidean-GeometryLady Blanche’s influence. Lady Blanche took two steps that helped to shape Eleanor’s future. First, she ensured with a codicil to James Balfour’s Will that her daughters would be financially independent, not having to marry to be financially secure (though they would give up this support if they married). Second, she encouraged Eleanor to learn Euclidean geometry and it turned out that Eleanor excelled at mathematics, which she largely taught herself. James Balfour died when Eleanor was only 11, and Lady Blanche was in poor health, so in her twenties Eleanor took over the running of the three grand Balfour family homes – Whittinghame in East Lothian, Strathconon House in Ross-Shire, and 4 Carlton Gardens in London. This phase of her life ended when she married and moved to Cambridge.

Electrical science. Eleanor’s brother-in-law was John William Strutt – later to 260px-Ohm's_Law_with_Voltage_source_TeX.svgbecome Lord Rayleigh who won a Nobel prize in 1904.  In 1879 Strutt took over from James Clark Maxwell as Professor of Experimental Physics and Head of the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge. In 1882, Eleanor contributed to Strutt’s work on the measurement of the fundamental units of electricity, and co-authored three papers for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Meeting Henry Sidgwick. Meanwhile, Eleanor’s brother Arthur was being taught philosophy at Cambridge by Henry Sidgwick. Henry Sidgwick and Arthur shared a fascination with mediumship and Eleanor attended séances with them. It’s thought that this is how Eleanor Balfour met her future husband. Henry drew Eleanor into his interests in psychical research and women’s education. She married Henry in 1876, when she was aged 31. Eleanor and Henry had an unusual Victorian marriage, a working partnership. Henry Sidgwick, Edmund Gurney, and Frederic Myers founded the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, and Eleanor was an important contributor to early SPR research projects such as Phantasms of the Living. Henry was also a strong supporter of women’s education, and was co-founder of Newnham College – the second female college at Cambridge. For the rest of her life, Eleanor adopted and extended upon Henry’s two passions, though she herself was not an overtly passionate person.

The Society for Psychical Research. Eleanor was a thorough and skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. Here are just a few examples of her work in psychical research.

Spirit photography. The biologist Alfred Russel Wallace endorsed some spirit photographers, and asked the SPR to investigate. Eleanor took on the task, and in 1891 published On Spirit Photography, detailing the fraudulent methods used by the photographers to dupe bereaved members of the public.

Telepathy. Eleanor was a careful and hands-on investigator. She detailed in one case how she attempted to effectively blindfold a claimant, but concluded ‘no bandages of the eyes can be made satisfactory’. She also learned conjuring and codes, which helped her to detect cheating by the Creery Sisters. Although sometimes revealing fraud and error, in her later years Eleanor became convinced that there was some good evidence in support of telepathy.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Eleanor wrote the entry on Spiritualism for the 1875-1899 edition of the Encyclopaedia. She enraged Spiritualists by likening séance methods to those used to ‘add glamour’ to the later Greek oracles, and contributed to the departure of some of the more ardent Spiritualists from the SPR.

seancebwThe psychology of mediumship. The great psychologist and psychical researcher (he was President of the SPR 1894-1895) William James studied  mediums including Mrs Leonora Piper. James and his co-investigators were not just interested in whether there was evidence of telepathy or spirit communication, but sought to understand in psychological terms the behaviour and phenomena displayed by the medium while seemingly in a trance, such as automatic writing and speaking in voices. James said in 1904: “The ‘exploration of the Subliminal’ I regard as the great psychological problem”. Eleanor Sidgwick later (1915) wrote on this topic, modestly describing her work of over 600 pages as ‘a contribution’. Although Eleanor often identified the limitations of mediumistic feats as evidence for the ability to communicate with the deceased, much later in her life she was reported to have become convinced that some such evidence did exist.

Statistics of chance coincidence. Drawing on her mathematical expertise, Eleanor also contributed pioneering statistical work on the role of chance coincidence as a confounding factor in interpreting evidence, for instance on the coincidence between someone seeing an apparition/hallucination of a person, and that distant person experiencing a crisis. This work was presented to one of the early international Congresses of Psychology (Sidgwick, 1897).

Psychology and Psychical Research. From the years of the SPR’s inception to around 1910 psychical research and psychology were difficult to distinguish from one another. Several of the early Congresses of Experimental Psychology were presided over by the founders of the SPR, who presented papers both on putative paranormal phenomena such as telepathy and on psychological aspects such as hypnosis and induced hallucinations. I was intrigued to read in  Sommer’s (2013) thesis that when discussing the name of the new society for psychical research, the founders considered Society (or Association) for Psychological Research. Indeed Sommer concluded that ‘…the only fruitful collective and long-term effort to conduct and consolidate psychological research in England between the early 1880s and the inauguration of the BPS in 1901 came from the inner core of the SPR – Gurney, Myers, the Sidgwicks and several of their collaborators.’ In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the scientific community (not just philosophers and psychologists, but physicists, chemists, and mathematicians) was curious about psychical research, perhaps because of technological developments such as the discovery of electromagnetism and the invention of wireless telegraphy that made people question what might be the limits of human communication. Later, psychical research became marginalized as psychology sought to demarcate itself as a science, though many great psychologists continued to have an interest in anomalous experiences.

A British psychology. Eleanor contributed so much to the early years of the SPR, having an impact on the distinctive anti-reductionist ‘flavour’ of British psychology at that time, which held that ‘the categories and terminology of the physical sciences were not basically applicable to the mind’ (Oppenheim, 1985). What’s incredible to me is that all this was done alongside her primary occupation, at Newnham College, Cambridge.

Newnham College. In addition to donating over £30,000 of her own money to Newnham, from 1876-1919 Eleanor was the college’s Treasurer. Running the Balfour family estates no doubt helped to prepare her for this role. She was no mere book-keeper, but entirely and successfully controlled the finances of the college, including ensuring that there were resources substantially to expand the college’s buildings and student body. Amazingly, in addition to being Treasurer, Eleanor was Vice Principal 1880-1882, and Principal 1892-1910. With her work at Newnham, Eleanor’s influence and agenda was felt. She ensured that research was valued for its contribution to the intellectual health of the college, establishing research fellowships. Also, she tirelessly and effectively pressed for the entry of women into University examinations, and for the awarding of degrees to women students – though it took much longer for Cambridge to accept the latter.

Eleanor supported the Suffragette cause, but did not approve of violent protest. So she pursued women’s education, and educational reform more generally, with a quiet but steely resolve.

Killer stats. More than once, Eleanor demolished baseless and lazy arguments with data. For example, a journalist ill-advisedly opined in the Pall Mall Gazette: ‘Intellectual success can only be achieved by women at the cost of physical deterioration and consequent weakening of the stock’. Eleanor promptly organised a committee representing both Oxford and Cambridge, and circulated over 500 questionnaires to women students, and to the sisters of women students as a comparison group. She evaluated the health of students, of their parents and children, hours of sleep, exercise, and in 1890 reported the results in The Health Statistics of Women Students. The critics were silenced.

Sidgwick1920Honorary degrees. Eleanor was awarded 4 honorary degrees. Tom Ruffles has blogged about these (link in sources below). The final one (LLD) was awarded by the University of Edinburgh when she was aged 79, in July 1923. Ruffles obtained the speech given by the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Prof James Mackintosh, as he awarded the degree. This nicely sums up her achievements:

.. it would be hard to find a lady better entitled to University honour or more deserving of the gratitude of her sex. During her long connection with Newnham College as Principal and Bursar, she proved herself a sane and judicious leader in the movement for the Higher Education of Women. She has contributed materially to the progress of Electrical Science by the part she took in investigating the absolute values of the fundamental electrical units. In the more occult region of psychical research, she has pursued her inquiries in the same strictly scientific spirit, not without a certain measure of philosophic doubt.

Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick was too self-effacing (and perhaps too busy!) to write an autobiography, and sadly as yet there is no biography. That’s why I was keen to read what I could about her life and to introduce Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick to the Science Festival audience. Unlike some so-called scientists, she did not dismiss psychic claims out of hand, but engaged with them as a scientist should, testing and questioning them. Eleanor was an outstanding scientist and reformer, in times when it was immensely difficult for a woman to achieve such things.


Oppenheim, J. (1985). The Other World. Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oppenheim, J. (1995). A mother’s role, a daughter’s duty: Lady Blanche Balfour, Eleanor Sidgwick, and feminist perspectives. Journal of British Studies, 34, 196-232.

Ruffles, T. (2010). Eleanor Sidgwick and her doctorates.

Shills, E. & Blacker, C. (Eds) (1992). Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sidgwick, E. M. (1897). On a statistical enquiry into hallucinations. Dritter Internationaler Congress für Psychologie (pp. 390-392). Munich: J.F. Lehmann.

Sidgwick, E. M. (1915). A contribution to the study of the psychology of Mrs. Piper’s trance phenomena. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 28, 1-652.

Sidgwick, E. (1938). Mrs. Henry Sidgwick. A Memoir by Her Niece. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Sommer, A. (2013). Crossing the boundaries of mind and body: Psychical research and the origins of modern psychology. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University College London.


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Representing parapsychology at #icps2017vie

etzel-cardena-2Prof Etzel Cardena, of Lund University, kindly invited me to contribute to a symposium on anomalous experiences at the International Convention of Psychological Science meeting in Vienna.  ICYMI here is a wee preview of our symposium and my presentation.

Title: Extraordinary (Anomalous) Experiences: Multidisciplinary Perspectives


1. (Re)introducing the Psychology of Anomalous Experience.
Etzel Cardeña, Ph. D., Lund University

2. A Beneficial Cultural Reinterpretation of Dissociative Phenomena.
Yvonne Schaffler, Ph. D., University of Vienna, and Etzel Cardeña

3. Putative Precognitive Dreaming: Psychological Mechanisms and Parapsychological Research.
Chris Roe, Ph. D., University of Northampton

4. The Role of Sensory Habituation (Ganzfeld) in the Possible Occurrence of ESP.
Caroline Watt, Ph. D., University of Edinburgh

Time will be tight for each speaker, but fortunately I will benefit from the groundwork laid by Etzel, Yvonne, and Chris, who will consider links between anomalous experience and possible paranormal phenomena. My own presentation focuses on ganzfeld ESP research. First I discuss the ‘noise reduction’ model that was introduced by Charles Honorton in 1977 and William Braud in 1978, in response to converging evidence that sensory habituation and direction of attention towards internal processes might be conducive to psychic experiences. The noise reduction model assumes that possible extrasensory information resembles a weak ‘signal’ that can be swamped by somatic and cognitive ‘noise’. By relaxing and habituating the participant to homogeneous sensory stimulation, the participant’s attention is directed towards their internal thoughts, images, and impressions, and these impressions are considered to become more salient as other noise and distraction is reduced.


I’ll explain that the ganzfeld method was adopted by parapsychologists in response to the noise reduction model, as a way to create a seemingly psi-conducive internal attention state, for testing hypothesised ExtraSensory Perception (ESP) in the laboratory. (Actually ganzfeld was first used by Gestalt psychologists to study perception.) And since the first ganzfeld ESP studies in the late 1970s, 5 meta-analyses of a total of 112 ganzfeld studies have been published, between 1985 and 2010.  (A meta-analysis is a quantitative review of the results of a group of studies using similar methods to test the same hypothesis.)

The ganzfeld ESP meta-analyses are by Ray Hyman in 1985, Charles Honorton in 1985 (both published in Journal of Parapsychology), Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton in 1994, Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman in 1999, and Lance Storm, Patrizio Tressoldi, and Lorenzo Di Risio in 2010 (all published in Psychological Bulletin.) All but one of these meta-analyses found results consistent with the ESP hypothesis (that is, correct identification of the randomly-chosen ‘target’ at a rate greater than expected by chance alone.) This has led to some researchers claiming that the ganzfeld method has produced replicable evidence for psi.

Nevertheless right from the start there has been debate over how to interpret these findings. Those meta-analyses that concluded there was evidence for ESP, as well as those that came to the opposite conclusion, were criticised on various grounds, including: definition of ‘standard’ ganzfeld; statistical methods of the meta-analyses; cut-off dates and inclusion criteria; heterogeneity of results, and how to handle extremely high- or low-scoring studies.

For me, the ganzfeld debate is interesting in part because of what it reveals about the challenges of conducting research into controversial claims. The fact that both psi proponents and psi skeptics have criticised meta-analyses whose conclusions contradict their expectations highlights the limitations of meta-analysis as it is usually conducted (i.e., after the results of the studies to be meta-analysed are known). I am not the first to point out that retrospective meta-analysis is open to researcher bias because the researcher has to make many decisions in conducting the meta-analysis. These decisions can be influenced by knowledge of the outcome of the studies to be meta-analysed. Jim Kennedy and I have recently published a paper in which we expand on these issues and discuss possible solutions, particularly what we call ‘registration-based prospective meta-analysis’ (click here).

Of course any retrospective meta-analysis, including those conducted into less controversial topics in psychology, has the same vulnerabilities. Don’t make the mistake of concluding that just because we are discussing a debate over parapsychological meta-analyses, this means that parapsychology alone faces replication challenges and everything is rosy for other disciplines. It’s just that due to the nature of the claim that is being tested in parapsychology, the field invites greater scrutiny. My argument is that this scrutiny – which often comes from within the field of parapsychology – can drive up standards so that practices in parapsychology can be favourably compared with our sister disciplines.

In their presentations, Etzel, Yvonne and Chris wilI make the point that the study of anomalous experiences can increase our understanding of human capabilities. I’ll conclude our symposium with further examples of how the study of anomalous experiences has helped to develop methodological and statistical techniques that can benefit science more broadly.

The convention is next weekend. I’ve just completed my slides, and will be presenting a dry-run to check timings etc. at Wednesday’s KPU research meeting. To find out more about the ICPS, click on the banner below.



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Things that go Bump! in the mind

2017-website-banner-aAre you interested in the science behind table-tilting, near-death experiences and ghostly sightings? What is the surprising link between a telepathic experience and one of the greatest breakthroughs in neuroscience? I’m very excited to be speaking about this, and much much more, in just a couple of days from now, at Brighton Science Festival.

The organisers just informed me that tickets are nearly sold out, so don’t delay if you want to book to guarantee your place. Click here for the full event listing.

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New paper on options for prospective meta-analysis

transparentboxHappy New Year, folks! I hope 2017 brings you health and happiness.

Just a wee news item to let you know that this week Jim Kennedy and I published a short methodological paper about prospective meta-analysis (this grew out of the paper we presented at the 2016 PA/SSE conference in Boulder, Colorado).

A quick summary: We note that the principles of pre-registered well-powered confirmatory research apply for meta-analyses as well as for individual studies.  The outcomes of meta-analyses of parapsychological studies, for example, have been hotly debated. An important contributory factor to such controversy is that the researcher makes many decisions about how to conduct the meta-analysis (e.g., which studies to include or exclude), and these decisions are typically made after the results of the individual studies are known. So typical retrospective meta-analysis resembles exploratory research and allows potential for researcher bias to operate. This delays resolution of scientific controversies. Parapsychology is not alone in this: similar issues occur elsewhere in psychology too. We discuss the pros and cons of three different methods for prospective meta-analysis, and note how study registries can deliver further benefits if they are used to register prospective meta-analyses of pre-registered studies.

Click here to read our full paper.

Watt CA and Kennedy JE (2017) Options for Prospective Meta-Analysis and Introduction of Registration-Based Prospective Meta-Analysis. Front. Psychol. 7:2030. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.02030

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Sue’s back: #QEDcon 2016

opengraphI am still recovering from the pleasure of my first QED Conference, a very busy few days in Manchester. I was grateful to be invited to participate along with Prof Susan Blackmore and Hayley Stevens in the ‘Team Spirit’ panel about researching the paranormal, expertly chaired by Deborah Hyde (editor-in-chief of The Skeptic Magazine, and folklore afficionado). I was also delighted to get to speak on Investigating the Paranormal: 30 Years of KPU Research to a packed theatre of Greater Manchester Skeptics on the thursday night. That ‘eve of conference’ event was hosted by Geoff Whelan, who is also one of the energetic QED organisers – jings he must have been exhausted by the Sunday night, though he certainly didn’t show it! (I’ll be giving that talk again to Glasgow Skeptics on Monday 24th Oct, ICYMI).

wisemanchairI was also working with Richard Wiseman to set up his Quirkology ‘Mind Tricks’ exhibition (see pic for his ‘chair illusion’), and at every turn there was a QED helper or organiser  asking what they could do to help us. SO impressive. Before the event I had been a judge on The Skeptic Magazine’s Ockham Awards for outstanding skeptical achievement, and on gala night Deborah asked me to present the Award to the winning blog (the excellent Naturopathic Diaries) – v relieved I had changed into my posh shoes!

I was impressed by many things: the scale of the QED event (over 650 attendees), youthful demographic, superb organisation, and really helpful volunteers. As a parapsychologist, I wondered whether I would be regarded as a bit of an oddity, however everyone was very friendly and supportive.  I couldn’t help but compare it with the Society for Psychical Research conference, that I attended the previous month. That was of course very friendly too, but with far fewer delegates, and a much older demographic. QED felt a lot more vibrant. The Team Spirit panel was a lot of fun. My main contribution probably came when we considered whether belief in the paranormal would always persist. Perhaps controversially, I suggested that under certain circumstances, paranormal and superstitious beliefs might be adaptive. Obviously, it’s not at all adaptive to take pseudo ‘treatments’ for serious illnesses. However some paranormal beliefs might create beneficial self-fulfilling prophecies. For instance, someone who brings their lucky mascot to an exam may feel more confident, less nervous, and actually perform better. Also, research indicates that religious belief can have beneficial consequences for the believer – I think primarily because of the social support that can come from being part of a church.

Sue Blackmore spent 30 years investigating and writing on the paranormal and anomalous experiences such as NDEs and OBEs. Then, in 2000, Sue threw in the paranormal towel – she wrote about that decision for New Scientist, here. Sue then went on to focus on writing about memetics and consciousness.

sueqedHowever, Sue’s back! Her QED talk was on The New Science of Out-of-Body Experiences. Here’s a vimeo link to a talk she gave in Dec 2015 on the same topic. At QED, Sue began by recounting her own powerful OBE, which first got her interested in parapsychology. She then talked about early research on this topic. Sue explained how, after quite a hiatus, she has become interested again due to more recent research by Olaf Blanke and others. (The pic shows Sue illustrating in her QED presentation how one of these experiments works.) This research has identified the role of the right temporo-parietal junction in integrating and maintaining the sense of bodily awareness (for example, this paper). Some of this work has also (in news reports) been described as ‘creating’ an OBE using virtual reality techniques. However I think there’s a bit of a gulf between the ‘realer than real’ feeling reported by Sue and others who have experienced a spontaneous OBE, and the kind of bodily illusions elicited by providing false visual and sensory feedback. But clearly this ‘new science’ has something to say about OBEs, and OBE experiences have something to tell us about how the brain maintains a sense of bodily awareness and location. And this is what has excited Sue and has brought her almost full circle, to try to understand her first striking OBE. Welcome back Sue!



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Question, Explore, Discover: 2016

s200_susan-blackmoreFancy some Team Spirit? On Saturday 15th October I’ll be contributing to this year’s QED conference . QED is a science and skepticism meeting in Manchester (UK) .  I’ll be joining Prof Susan Blackmore (pictured) and @HayleyStevens for a panel called Team Spirit, exploring parapsychology and paranormal research. Keeping us in order will be Deborah Hyde (@jourdemayne , of werewolves, vampires, and The Skeptic magazine fame). As described on the QED site, “Susan Blackmore is Visiting Professor in psychology at the University of Plymouth and one of the most prominent early figures of the modern UK skepticism. Her personal encounters with perceived out of body experiences while studying at university led Susan to study the phenomena fully.” Sue’s 1986 autobiography Adventures of a Parapsychologist is a classic. Most recently, Sue has been writing about consciousness. Hayley is also a “Believer-turned-skeptic, with over a decade of ghost research under her belt, she examines strange sightings, photos, videos, sound recordings and more to determine their rational causes.”

Sue, Hayley and I were asked to come up with some possible questions to kick things off. Ideas include…

Has anyone ever tried to trick you?

What’s the most fun investigation into the paranormal you have ever done?

What’s the most depressing event you’ve encountered in paranormal research?

If there’s one paranormal phenomenon you’d most like to be true which would it be?

Is there any evidence for the paranormal that you think might possibly be valid?

Do you think belief in angels, spirits, souls, and life after death will ever go away? If not why not?

Is there any experiment you would love to do if only you had the time/money/ethical approval etc. ?

What advice would you give to a bright young student wanting to pursue a career investigating the paranormal?

Have you made any mistakes that have helped you to learn something about paranormal research?

Which paranormal researcher has inspired you most, and why?

What is the strangest thing you have experienced personally?

Has modern technology changed the way you research? For better or worse?

Are there any age-old stigmas you face regularly?


Let us know if you have any other ideas. There are just a few tickets left so you’ll have to move quickly if you want to join in. Hope to see you there!



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Becoming Edinburgh’s second Koestler Chair of Parapsychology

EDINBURGH UNIVERSITYLast 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 john1Psychology. 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.

BobMorris1995smallThe 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.

Caro2016My 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.

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Why ‘waste my life’ on parapsychology? #NECSS

Last week I was fortunate to get to hang out backstage at NECSS (Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism) in New York. It was great to get to know Evan Bernstein, and Steven, Jay and Bob Novella and their families. These are the NECSS co-organisers and the guys behind the long-running Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

While in New York, I also enjoyed a chatty dinner with a Skeptic who asked me (in a friendly way) why I was wasting my life on parapsychology. Parapsychologists form more than one ‘tribe’. For me, aside from that it’s a very interesting area in which to work, my answer is that I believe that researching paranormal experiences (parapsychology broadly defined), such as apparitional experiences, out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, can help us to learn more about normal brain function. Perhaps more surprisingly though, I think that psi research is generally well-conducted, positive results are not easily dismissed, and the challenge of conducting controlled tests of the psi hypothesis (i.e., parapsychology as it is narrowly defined) can drive advances that can benefit science more generally. Just a few examples:

Historians have suggested that the origins of randomization in experimental design can be found in nineteenth century tests of telepathy – check out this paper by Ian Hacking.

Ted Kaptchuk, the placebo expert,  has argued that testing controversial claims helped to develop placebo and double-blind methods – read more about that here.

Hans Berger developed electro-encephalography in order to search for telepathic brain waves, after he had a seemingly psychic experience. Read more about Berger’s ‘unusual and solitary journey’ to one of the greatest breakthroughs in neuroscience here.

I could go on, but skipping a century or so I’ll finish with a handful of more recent examples. Psychology’s ‘replication crisis’ was in part stimulated by Daryl Bem’s 2011 publication of studies about ‘Feeling the Future’ – read more about the wider importance and ramifications of Bem’s paper here. Psychology responded by starting to debate the need for study registration and introduced registered reports. Meantime, parapsychologists were already ahead of the game. In 1978, the European Journal of Parapsychology introduced registered reports – an editorial policy of accepting papers on the basis of their planned methods, as a way to tackle publication bias. Read about that here. In 2012, Jim Kennedy and I launched a registry for parapsychological studies. So far as we are aware it was the first registry of its kind in psychology – discover more about the KPU Registry here. In 2015, Jim and I published a paper for the wider psychological community making recommendations for how to improve study registration practices in psychology based on our experiences with parapsychological study registration. You can read that here. Finally, next month at the Parapsychological Association convention, Jim and I will be proposing a prospective meta-analysis of parapsychological studies. This is something that occasionally happens in medical research (check out the Cochrane Collaboration), but is rarely found elsewhere in behavioural research. The abstract of our PA paper is here.

So, that is why I am still engaged with parapsychology, and with scientific advancement.


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Launch of Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide @EdSciFest

Beginner's GuideI’m excited to announce that my new book – indeed my first solo-authored book – will be launched at the Edinburgh International Science Festival on 7th April. Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide is published by Oneworld as part of their Beginner’s Guide series. My book aims to provide an engaging, authoritative and balanced introduction to parapsychology, in three sections. First, testing psychic claimants. Second, anomalous experiences. And third, laboratory research.

I am thrilled that the book has been favourably reviewed by  Professor Robert Rosenthal (Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Riverside, and an expert in behavioural research methodology), who said:

Dr Caroline Watt’s new Beginner’s Guide to Parapsychology is a wonderfully clearly and engagingly written introduction to the domain of parapsychology, an introduction that manages to be broadly encompassing, rigorous, and scholarly, but yet remain nontechnical. In a highly controversial domain of science in which many scientists have been quite closed-minded and dogmatic, this book presents a balanced, open-minded, and data-driven overview of the domain and its controversial nature. The book is an excellent read for those who just want to know what’s been studied, how it’s been studied, and what’s been learned so far, as well as for those who want to go on and conduct serious research of their own on the topics covered.

And Etzel Cardeña, Ph. D., Thorsen Professor in Psychology, Lund University, Sweden. Co-editor of Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century stated:

The novice seeker of a trustworthy source on the possible reality of telepathy, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night (or the day) faces a daunting challenge. On the one hand s/he will encounter supercilious and aggressive dismissals of experiences that people have reported throughout history, on the other books that promise that the latest idea in psychology or quantum mechanics explains it all. Caroline Watt, the head of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit and a leader in the field delivers something very different. She excels at the very hard task of introducing a complex and contentious field in a balanced way. She has written an authoritative yet entertaining guide to what scientific research has shown (and not shown) about this fascinating field.

I hope you’ll like it too, and that if you’re not too far from Edinburgh you’ll be able to come along to my Edinburgh Science Festival event on 7th April, and discover how science explores the paranormal.

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How prospective meta-analysis could be useful for parapsychology

transparentboxThis week Jim Kennedy and I submitted our paper for the Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (June, Boulder Colorado). It’s about how prospective meta-analysis of registered studies could be used to help resolve debates about the evidence for psi. Travel to Boulder is costly, and a major driver for me to attend was the opportunity to meet Jim Kennedy, who’s based in Colorado and who I’ve been collaborating with since 2012 in running the KPU Study Registry.

PA conference submissions have to be full length papers, and get refereed, so we don’t yet know if it will be accepted. However, here’s a sneak preview of our abstract:

In 2012, the authors launched the Koestler Parapsychology Unit (KPU) Registry for Parapsychological Experiments. Study registration is a valuable tool that helps to eliminate or identify many questionable research practices in individual studies and thereby enhances the methodological quality of an area of research.

Researchers employ meta-analysis to quantitatively combine methodologically similar studies. When conducting a meta-analysis, they must make decisions about what data to include and what statistical methods to use. If researchers do this after knowing the outcomes of the studies, the decisions may be biased. Pre-registration of individual studies does not eliminate potential biases that emerge from decisions during a meta-analysis. Retrospective meta-analyses are similar to exploratory research because methodological decisions are made after the study outcomes are known. Prospective meta-analyses are a form of preregistered confirmatory research because the analyses and the data that will be included are specified before the results are known.

The present paper uses ganzfeld ESP research to illustrate the limitations of retrospective meta-analysis, and to highlight how prospective meta-analysis can help to resolve debates over the evidence for psi and stimulate progress in parapsychology. For the first time, we present a summary of the KPU ganzfeld ESP studies, and note the decisions facing anyone seeking to evaluate their combined outcome. We then discuss the wider ganzfeld ESP database and associated debates about the methodological decisions for meta-analyses. The extensive discussions and debates about the Milton and Wiseman (1999) meta-analysis demonstrate the latitude in making decisions for a retrospective meta-analysis and, most importantly, the potential for bias either pro or con the psi hypothesis.

We then introduce a registration-based prospective meta-analysis of ganzfeld ESP studies and describe the differences from the more common prospective meta-analysis in medical research. The ganzfeld prospective meta-analysis will be preregistered on the KPU Study Registry following review by parapsychologists and critics. In addition to preregistering the statistical methods, this meta-analysis will use future study registrations to prospectively decide which studies will be included. Any qualifications or modifications for the use of a study will also be specified prospectively on the list of included studies. This approach to meta-analysis does not limit process oriented research or innovation, but simply specifies what studies will be included in a subsequent meta-analysis before the studies have been conducted.

The benefits of registration-based prospective meta-analysis as proposed here include (a) each study is preregistered and precludes most questionable research practices; (b) the meta-analysis does not require the increasingly complex methods that are being used to evaluate possible methodological biases; (c) the decision to include a study in the meta-analysis and decisions about possible qualifications for the use of study data are specified prospectively at the time the study is registered, which eliminates biases (pro or con) from methodological decisions after the study results are known and also allows adaptation to the unique characteristics of a study; (d) the properties of psi will be revealed without being obscured by methodological noise and biases; (e) potential critics of the meta-analysis outcome (pro or con) can be given the opportunity to comment on the meta-analysis plan; and (f) the field of parapsychology will be recognized to be a methodological leader.

Finally, we consider how prospective meta-analysis could be applied to other lines of parapsychological research. By pioneering high standards of methodology and research synthesis, parapsychologists send an important message to researchers in other fields (Watt & Kennedy, 2015).”


Milton, J., & Wiseman, R. (1999). Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 125(4), 387–391.

Watt, C., & Kennedy, J. E. (2015). Lessons from the first two years of operating a study registry. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 173.

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