Exploring the paranormal at Midlothian Science Festival

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 19.33.37To mark the 30th Anniversary of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, this year I’ve been touring science festivals with a show I developed with Professor Richard Wiseman. It’s called Unbelievable: The Science of the Paranormal, and has been attracting full houses all year, from Brighton to Orkney. For those who didn’t manage to get in for our run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, there’s a second chance! On 6th October I’ll be presenting it twice at Midlothian Science Festival, in Dalkeith and Loanhead.

GlasgowSciFest2Unbelievable is great fun to present and – I hope – to participate in. It’s an interactive talk, with hands-on demos and experiments to show how we can be fooled about psychic abilities, and how parapsychologists conduct controlled tests of paranormal claims. The photo shows participants at Glasgow Science Festival trying their hand at faking psychokinetic abilities. Would you make a good fake psychic? Do you think you can score better at an ESP test than the good folks of Orkney? If you’re in the area, we hope to see you in Midlothian on Tuesday! Skeptics and believers welcome.

 

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News from the KPU research meeting

DSC01545This week we held our first research meeting of the semester. It was a chance to catch up on research news after the summer break. We were joined by visiting researcher, Graham Jamieson (pictured) of the University of New England, in Australia. Graham is working with Marios Kittenis and Ruxi Tivadar on a project funded by the Bial Foundation to do with EEG and hypnosis. They’re looking at whether there are EEG differences between high- and low-hypnotically susceptible individuals. Graham said their first study had obtained some really interesting findings – watch this space for news when these are published.

Peter Lamont’s sabbatical year has finished and he has taken on a new admin role within our school of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences (PPLS): Undergraduate Director of Teaching. I was PPLS UG Dir for 3 years, and found that although it was a time-consuming task , it was rewarding to be able to help students who had run into difficulties, and also interesting to meet and collaborate with colleagues across the university. Pete was working on the concept of wonder over his sabbatical and he has just submitted a number of articles to different journals as a result. Once these are published I’ll let you know.

Ana1We welcomed Ana Flores (pictured) who became my PhD supervisee just this week (my student Milan Valasek graduated over the summer and has found a job as a statistician with the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh). Ana is from Portugal. She has a passionate interest in  parapsychology, having taken University of Northampton’s Transpersonal Psychology and Consciousness Studies MSc (supervised by Harald Walach), and also she’s worked with Dean Radin (they co-authored the 2009 Explore paper entitled Intuition through time: What does the seer see?). We’ll be looking at replication issues in parapsychology. Ana has been helping out at the KPU over the summer, especially in getting the materials together for the new KPU publication archive.

I also told the group my news, including that Unbelievable: The Science of the Paranormal had a very successful run at Edinburgh Fringe (in fact so far every  performance I’ve given of Unbelievable has been over-subscribed). This shows the public is curious about parapsychology and the KPU. It’s on next at Midlothian Science Festival 6 Oct, and Dundee Science Festival 31st Oct. The September run of my online course opened this week (next run commences April 2016). In what remains of my own sabbatical year (which ends in December) I’ve got lots to do, including a couple of book chapters and articles, and I’m putting the final finishing touches to my book Parapsychology: A Beginner’s Guide, due to be published by Oneworld in 2016. Pete and I also contributed to a BBC Radio Scotland doc on parapsychology, due to be broadcast next week, 22nd September. Again, watch this space for more info.

 

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Dowsing with onions, sleep paralysis & Psychology gone wrong. Highlights of European Skeptics 2015

ESCPanelLast weekend, Michael Heap, Chris French, and Goldsmiths College at the University of London hosted the 2015 European Skeptics Congress. On the Saturday I presented on 30 years of research at the KPU. I was glad to be able to inform skeptics about what academic parapsychologists do. One interesting question following my talk was whether skeptical participants in ESP studies should be trusted to give an honest description of their target impressions.

I also took part in a panel (pic above, photo credit Mark Williams) on researching anomalous phenomena and claims, together with members of Czech and German skeptic groups who set up what seemed to me to be reasonably well-controlled tests of individual claiming psychic abilities. A test by the Czech skeptical society, known as Sisyfos, consisted of concealing plants or stones in 30 identical cardboard boxes in a nuclear shelter, to test a dowser’s claims that he could locate living material (he couldn’t). The presenter Antonin Pavlicek noted that there is an abundance of nuclear shelters in the Czech Republic. Martin Mahner of the GWUP described a number of tests they have conducted (they offer a €10,000 prize similar to the Randi challenge), mostly testing dowsing-like claims. (None was successful.) They included a man who used an onion on a pendulum to dowse for water, which is a new one on me. Other claims tested: to locate an active mobile phone, to detect poisoned food, to detect electricity running in a cable, finding coins under cups, and a homeopathic fertiliser. I was impressed that both societies went to some lengths to negotiate and agree the nature and conditions of the test with the claimant, so that the claimant was satisfied in advance that the test was fair. After failing the tests, most claimants came up with an explanation for why they failed that preserved their belief in their psychic capabilities.

Parapsychologists testing alleged psychic abilities tend to conduct experiments with large numbers of individuals who may have had occasional psychic experiences but who don’t claim particular psychic skills. At the panel, we discussed why the KPU does not test claimants. My feeling was that the skeptical organisations were testing claimants to meet a public communication goal, to catch the attention of journalists and demonstrate what happens when controlled tests are conducted. Parapsychologists are seeking to publish their research in peer reviewed journals and to communicate with the scientific community. Although the nature and strength of the hypothesised abilities being tested differs, most experimental parapsychologists adopt the model of experimental psychologists (that X ability is normally distributed in the general population.)

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.15.01I think my personal congress highlight was a screening of Carla MacKinnon’s short experimental film The Devil in the Room (see pic). I thought this was an excellent portrayal of sleep paralysis, with expert commentary from Prof Chris French and spooky mixed media film and animation to convey the horror that is felt by the experient. It is a fantastic vehicle to help anyone who doesn’t realise their scary night-time experiences are due to sleep paralysis.

Attendance was perhaps a bit disappointing given how many Skeptics in the Pub groups there are in the London area. However, the programme was interesting, the lecture room was first class, there was a nice social area to mingle and try out various perceptual illusions and purchase books, and of course a great London pub to hang out in at the end of the day.

PsychGoneWrongAnd talking of books, I purchased one by two Polish researchers who also attended the Congress, Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski: Psychology gone wrong: The dark sides of science and therapy. It has sections on fraudsters in psychology, the misuse of psychotherapies, and the dodgy commercial applications of psychology. Here is a link to the book on Amazon. Although parapsychologists sometimes feel ‘picked on’ by skeptics, this book is a reminder that skeptics can be skeptical about many things, including mainstream psychology.

 

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Paranormal matters at the European Skeptics Congress

logo_0The European Skeptics Congress is about to kick off at Goldsmiths College, London. The formal programme commences on Friday 11th September. The meeting looks really stimulating. It includes presentations on YouTube skepticism, global warming, the psychology of magic, quantum biology, and integrative medicine. However readers of this blog might be particularly interested in those presentations tagged Paranormal. They include members of Czech and German skeptical organisations reporting on their investigations of paranormal claims, plus yours truly describing the highlights of 30 years of research at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit.

A preview of the ‘Paranormal’ talks is here, and the full programme is here. I’ll write a wee blog on the talks I saw at the congress in due course – watch this space!

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What do Bob Morris and the KPU mean to you?

To mark the 30th Anniversary of the KPU in 2015, we invited leaders in parapsychology to provide statements in response to the question: “What do Bob Morris and the KPU mean to you?”

This movie is the result.

Robert Morris was the Koestler Professor of Parapsychology from 1985 until his death in 2004. He was instrumental in the growth of the KPU, recruiting additional staff, 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. Morris was also passionate about integrating parapsychology into the wider academic community, serving as president of the Psychology section of the British Science Association.

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30 Years of KPU Publications

bobBWRobert Morris arrived to take up the first Koestler Chair of Parapsychology in 1985. Since then, many researchers and PhD students have spent time at the KPU (see below for just a snapshot), yielding a diverse body of research publications. This work exemplifies the wide remit of the KPU, from investigating historical and conceptual issues surrounding unorthodox psychology, to examining ‘what’s not psychic but looks like it’, to testing the psi hypothesis.

To mark the 30th Anniversary of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, I’ve been compiling this Archive of KPU publications. I hope this will provide a useful resource both for the curious-minded, and for scholars. Currently the KPU Archive stands at around 300 publications, where possible including links to full articles or abstracts. It’s still a work in progress, and will be fleshed out over time. Do let me know of any omissions! I’d like to thank the Parapsychological Association, the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, and the Journal of Parapsychology for kindly granting permission to reproduce articles.

KPUFolks

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Koestler Parapsychology Unit stages its first ever Edinburgh Fringe event #Edfringe

webGANZUnique parapsychology unit opens its doors for Edinburgh Fringe.

Edinburgh University’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit is running a series of events during the Edinburgh Fringe, for the first time ever. A founder member of the KPU, Dr Caroline Watt, will lead an interactive workshop called ‘Unbelievable: The Science of the Paranormal’. The audience will take part in experiments and demonstrations revealing how parapsychologists test for psychic abilities, and how people can fool themselves about seemingly paranormal experiences. The free and unticketed events take place 15-22 August in the University’s department of Psychology, which has been the home of the KPU since its inception in 1985. Dr Watt said ‘People hold a lot of misconceptions about parapsychology and the paranormal. Our Fringe event is a unique and fun opportunity for the public to visit our department and find out what parapsychologists really do.’

Background.

In 1983 the writer Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia died in a suicide pact. They willed their entire estate to found a centre for parapsychological research at a UK university. Edinburgh University agreed to host the Koestler bequest, and in 1985 the first Koestler Professor of Parapsychology, Robert Morris, took up his post. Shortly thereafter he recruited Dr Caroline Watt, who has taught and researched parapsychology at Edinburgh University for three decades.

Dr Watt has created ‘Unbelievable: The Science of the Paranormal’ together with Professor Richard Wiseman, who obtained his PhD at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit. The event is designed to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit.

The image shows a participant in a ganzfeld experiment at the KPU. The ganzfeld is a sensory isolation procedure that parapsychologists use to test extrasensory perception.

Further info and contact.

This event is free and unticketed. If you’d like to cover this event for your blog or publication, please contact Dr Watt to reserve a space.

Koestler Parapsychology Unit Website

Fringe programme entry

Dr Watt can be contacted via email

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A sneak preview of PA/SPR conference highlights (IMO)

radio_27Next week, at Greenwich University in London, I’ll be attending the combined 39th Annual Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, and the 58th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association. There is a really full programme with several papers I’m particularly looking forward to. On Thursday, Dick Bierman will be presenting a paper entitled ‘Can results in experimental parapsychology be Deborah2[crop]accounted for by questionable research practices?’. Bierman and colleagues use genetic algorithms to model QRPs in parapsychology. Also on Thursday, my dear friend Deborah Delanoy will present her PA Award address, on Bob Morris and the Koestler Chair. On the same theme, Thursday evening I’m looking forward to hosting a reception to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit. On Friday, I’ll be presenting one of my Perrott-Warrick studies with Milan Valasek testing the dream precognition hypothesis, and RabeyronHonorary KPU member Thomas Rabeyron will be presenting on Anomalous experiences, mental health, creativity, and psi. The day ends with Jim Carpenter’s Presidential Address, on why psi is not a psychological anomaly.

On Saturday, for the first time in my experience of PA and SPR meetings, there will be parallel sessions. The program chairs have had to do this to accommodate the large number of accepted papers. It’s going to be difficult to choose, but George Williams’ presentation ‘Are different standards warranted to evaluate psi?’ sounds intriguing. The Banquet address on Saturday will be given by Les Lancaster, who is Chair of the Transpersonal Psychology section of the British Psychological Society. He’ll be speaking on taboo when venturing beyond physicalism. And on Sunday, I’m particularly looking forward to Walter von Lucadou presenting on the repeatability problem in parapsychology and how the correlation matrix method might help.

When held separately, the PA and the SPR conferences feel different, with more emphasis on spontaneous cases and survival at the SPR, and more on experimental parapsychology at the PA. There should be something for everyone at the joint meeting. Hope to see you there! Click here for the draft programme and more information on attending. Now I’d better get back to preparing my presentation!

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London, Thursday 2nd July: Talk on 30 Years at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit

bobBWI’m often asked by students how they can get started in parapsychology. I always advise them to get a good quality undergraduate degree in a related subject such as psychology. Here’s my own story.

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.

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Want to learn more about parapsychology? Uni of Edinburgh’s online course starts September.

CourseLogoSince 2008 I have run a popular online intro parapsychology course. Participants are enrolled as visiting students at the University of Edinburgh for the duration of this 11-week course. Containing contributions from leading skeptics and parapsychologists, my aim is to provide authoritative and balanced information about what parapsychologists do, what they have found, and what challenges the field faces. The course runs twice a year, beginning April and September. As the April course is coming to an end, I’m opening registration for the course that begins September 14th (registration will close 4th September). To find out more, explore the course webpages (see menu above). If you’d like to join the September course, click hereCourseExperts

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