The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) are probably known to many readers of this blog: I first joined back in 1992, was a member for a couple of years, and after a fifteen year hiatus have recently once again become an Associate member. Some of you may still be storing SPR Journals and Proceedings for me – if so thanks! Perhaps some readers would consider joining up?
Founded in 1882 the SPR are still Britain’s (if not the world’s) leading parapsychological organisation, and hold regular monthly meetings in London as well as occasional Study Days which are always worth the effort. The London based nature of most events makes me an irregular attendee – London is about as accessible to the Moon for me with no car and no money, and Becky is based in Derby so it’s not much easier for her — but the excellent Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR), and a popular magazine The Paranormal Review arrive in the post four times a year and are never devoid of interest. (There are also irregular occasional Proceedings (PSPR). In fact these form much of the basis for my reading in what is going on in contemporary parapsychology, along with the excellent Journal of European Parapsychology (not an SPR publication). On top of these benefits, SPR members also receive a generous download provision from another independent project, LEXSCIEN, the online parapsychology library -- where one can search through, read or print as needed 150 years worth of peer reviewed psychical research and parapsychological literature. Unfortunately I had already joined LEXSCIEN before rejoining the SPR, but it really is a huge plus to SPR membership for anyone interested in the subject – you can take a look at Abstracts and a few bits and pieces for free anyway.
Of course the greatest benefit is the other members: I have been privileged to have the opportunity to meet so many people, from the late John Beloff, Manfred Cassirer, Maurice Grosse and Andrew Mackenzie through to the many wonderful people I have learned a great deal from and whose work I knew, such as Tony Cornell, Tom Ruffles, Alan Gauld, Mary Rose Barrington, Archie Roy, David Luke, Tricia Robertson, Terry White, Guy Lyon Playfair, John Randall and Eleanor O’ Keeffe and many many more interesting people through the SPR’s events. And we should not forget the offices and library in London where members can find a wealth or research materials and assistance!
Ghosthunters & The SPR
Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in “spontaneous cases”: that is non-experimental psychical research. (Mrs Sidgwick seems to have originated that distinction and the phrase “spontaneous cases” in the Report on the Census of Hallucinations in PSPR, vol 10, 1894 I noted yesterday!) So now we have ghost groups, often deeply committed and sometimes very efficiently run, all over the country. These “local groups” like Cheltenham’s PARASOC however always maintain a distance from the SPR, I suspect more through ignorance of what the Society has to offer than by design. Some people are just in to the subject for “legend tripping” – they enjoy a spooky night in a haunted house, but want little more from their hobby. Many are put off I suspect by the dry prose of psychical research literature, especially some of the papers which feature quantitative methodologies and page after page of statistics, or just by the fact that articles are very technical. Yet the Paranormal Review rarely features such papers, and even if one is not willing to fire up SPSS (a stats computer program) to check the stats for oneself, the peer reviewed nature of the JSPR means one can always learn something from an article and have faith that the numbers mean what the author states!
So why don’t ghosthunters from local groups join the SPR? You don’t have to be a brilliant academic with a brain like the Mekon – you can be a normal person, and don’t have to speak like you swallowed a thesaurus.
The SPR is far less stuffy than many similar academic groups, warm and accepting. From the earliest days the membership ranged from the brilliant and famous (and many were) through the mighty and powerful (Balfour was Secretary of the SPR while Prime Minister, and on some old Proceedings the address for correspondence is given as 10 Downing Street, London!) through the scandalous and eccentric (George Sand) to the humble – chambermaids, undermaids and grocer’s assistants appear in the lists of members. Nothing has changed (except you can’t send mail to number 10 any more!).
Now the SPR is not, and never has been cheap, compared with joining your local ghost group. What it does do however is you bring you in to the mainstream and give you access to what has gone before in psychical research, and give you a chance to contribute insights and research to the wider parapsychological community. Long term readers of this blog may recall my piece on “types of ghosthunters” where each category I jokingly discussed ended “and never publish their results.” Of course many groups do publish newsletters, or decent websites where they chronicle their findings, but if you don’t publish in a mainstream publication, and I suspect some of the cases people have studied would make great Paranormal Review articles at least, how can you say you are doing scientific work? Scientists publish their results, and share with each other. While the peer reviewed JSPR may prove daunting to many with a non-academic background to write for, that is the aim. (they were kind enough to publish something of mine, and I’m not brilliant!). Even if you don’t want to write up articles , you can file your reports with the SPR library, and providing they are readable I am sure the SPR will be willing to store them for future researchers.
On top of all this the SPR has a number of members with a huge amount of experience in investigating spontaneous cases, and a Spontaneous Cases Committee who can usually help you, and put you in touch with a local member who will provide valuable knowledge and experience in your investigation if you so desire. How else will you be able to say as Venkman did “Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947?”, if you don’t know the literature?
The SPR has been doing this research for 150 years, so why do so many groups stand apart? They do NOT affiliate with local groups, by long term principle, but they will still give you as a member all kinds of valuable ideas and information you can bring to bear on your own research efforts, and provide a forum to discuss and meet with genuine experts in the field. The new SPR updated website has for the first time an online payment form – current annual membership prices are (January 2010) £60/ £40 unwaged/ £30 student, but honestly, you would pay more for a lot of psychical research related books and events out there.
I’m sure many of us have signed up to a local group only to later find they have a secret mission – in the case of the old Cheltenham group (CPRG) taking over the world, but in the case of many groups simply finding the Holy Grail or defeating the evil minions of some dire satanic cult, like the Inland Revenue – anyway another reason people hesistate to join psychic research groups is in case they are thought to be committing to belief in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis, without even a steady paycheck to compensate. This is not an issue with the SPR owing to a very important rule -the SPR as a body has no corporate opinions on the phenomena it studies, all members owning their own beliefs. So even if you are completely sceptical of all alleged paranormal phenomena, you will find SPR members who share your beliefs. There are actually a few important guidelines for SPR members – you can’t use membership in the Society to promote yourself or product (blast there goes my psychic phone line – “Madame CJ speaks the future, only £20 a minute!”), ad so forth. You can read them here.
Anyway what occasioned these brief thoughts is that the SPR website at www.spr.ac.uk – note the ac.uk domain, I was always impressed they got that! – has just undergone a major overhaul, with a lot of new material. There is a guest essay, a form to report your experiences, links to some members research (hopefully as soon as Becky has her ethics approval through she can get listed) and a listing of recent books on parapsychology and related topics, as well as extensive revisions throughout. So stop reading this, go have a look!
Hope to see you at an event one day, and if you join do comment.
Do try this at home…
I created this a few years back now as a light hearted joke on another forum, and we tried it on RD.net. Why not try it here?
Assuming that we wish to demonstrate a paranormal or supernatural claim first (they are not the same, but we have no effective way of distinguishing at this stage in the experiment) I think we should start there.
It won’t prove a God, let alone our Christian one, but I’m not that ambitious.
One thing at a time.
The Mustard Seed Experiment
(first suggested by me back in 2004 on Christianforums!)
Equipment:-- You will require two saucers, two packets of mustard seeds or cress (either – they are cheap fast growing, but do make sure both packets are one or the other!), some tissue or soil for them to grow in (follow the instructions on packet) and a window sill.
You want two locations, and heat and light and condensation etc to be the same on each – so the same windowsill?.
Mark the locations with paper, label A and B. Your seeds will sit in saucers here. You will also need a ruler, paper and pen.
Get the seeds. Now we don’t know what has happened to them in their packets, and they might be from different batches. Tip the seeds in to a glass, and mix them very thoroughly. Now divide them in to two piles. Next take your saucers. Add your tissue, flannel, soil or whatever medium you grow cress or mustard seeds in in your part of the world: they must be exactly equal in depth, water etc.
If you use soil mix it thoroughly then divide into heaps only after finely stirring it. Then add the seeds, and label the two saucers “annie” and “bob”, or “rhubarb” and “custard”, or — you get the idea… Next place the two saucers on the places A & B. The Experiment. Each day, you will do three things. Firstly, you will swap the saucers each morning or night so they move location. This is to average out any inequalities caused by the environment.
Secondly, you will have noted a “good” saucer, and a “naughty” one. You will think positive thoughts of, sing to, pray for, or otherwise encourage growth in the “good” saucer. You will just ignore the “naughty” saucer. You may feel a bit off sending “good vibes” to a saucer. I encourage you not to explain what you are doing to neighbours. Once someone is institutionalised it can be hard to get them released. No when praying/singing/thinking tenderly/asking God to bless your crop – stay away from it. Possibly in the next room? We don’t want the vibrations, heat, or some other natural factor effecting the growth!
Testing the Hypothesis
Null Hypothesis: given exactly equal conditions, prayer/positive thoughts/healing energy/asking God to bless it/etc has no effect on a crop. We set an exact deadline. 12 noon on day 8. We measure, an more importantly we get someone who does not know the good from the naughty cress, or even the nature of the experiment, to measure the height of the crop. If your seeds have turned in to a mighty tree, you take photos and post them here.
If one saucer, the naughty one was blasted like the fig, you pat the cat on the head, but some stuff from the vet to stop him spraying in the house, and post pictures here.
If the “good” crop is 10% taller or more bountiful than the “naughty one”, then it’s a success. Ensure the ruler measures from the saucer. Hopefully you will find the results are visually apparent.
It seems to work, and its cheaper than the Templeton Prayer Experiment (see TGD) by a factor of several millions. To give that authentic big money research programme feel, do feel free to paypal me some cash however.
Well it either works or it doesn’t. Either way, post your results here (negative results still vital – do post! No File Drawer here please…). Might be interesting to measure the crops each day and record their progress. If it works, what does it prove? It proves we need to try tightening the controls and trying again. Still it might be indicative of an effect, and if our thoughts or prayers can effect a small plant, well they might well effect many other things. Who knows? What it disproves potentially is the null hypothesis.
It gives us no positive evidence as to the nature of the effect, if any — it could be down to invisible pixies, or a unseen thermal current, or maybe ESP/PK, or experimenter error, or – but we can work on that later. Let’s get an experimental effect first! It’s along way from here to St. Paul and Jesus dying on the Cross for our sins… Anyway, there ya go. I have set out my version of the experiment. The question is, will a few of you try it? Let me know! Is it an improvement? It is less ambitious! So who is up to try this? Feel free to critique my experimental design, I just typed it up quickly… OH yes — I am interested in any result over 10% on either plant in variation, but I think 20% seems a fairly impressive margin and should be required to count as a hit. There you go, I have employed the extraordinary claims principle even though I don’t believe it personally.
Anyway, post your results, positive of negative in the comments here.
I managed to find this on the Waybackwhen internet archive, and as I frequently cite it, and thought it might be of interest, I’ll reproduce it here. The title is taken from a very famous ghost story, but seemed appropriate! This piece was originally written in 1994, and revised in 1995 and 1997. [[XXXX]] indicates 2006 edits when I put it on my ghost group’s forum.
I note the revision history, but the position stated is very much that I held in 1994 – it has changed in many ways since then, but I think it was one of the first pleas to take an approach that looked at what we might find if both psi and the spirit hypothesis held some truth, or were partially true, but more importantly now is that I had realized the potential of experimental work with psychics even back then. Little did I realize that Most Haunted would happen within a decade, and unfortunately every one would experiment in this direction!
Anyway, as people keep coming here looking for the Edinburgh Science of Ghosts event (and one more time – http://www.scienceofghosts.com/) which I will be attending as a punter like you, well I may as well publish one of my articles on the topic. Please note I am in no way at all connected with said event — I just thought it looked fun and advertised it on my blog after it was first mentioned on the parapsychology mailing lists!
The Haunted or The Haunters;
The House and The Brain
(from copy dated July 18th, 1997)
When investigating a “haunting” there are two main schools of thought in the [[group]].
The first takes the ‘common sense’ view that the disturbances we look at are caused by external agencies, such as ghosts, spirits and the like.
This could be called the haunted school for it believes that paranormal events do occur and are something like an affliction, or at least little to do with the witnesses.
The second school is that of the haunters, those who believe that the occurrences are primarily the responsibility of the witnesses themselves.
This could be further subdivided into those who do not believe in the paranormal except as hallucination or delusion (the sceptic’s camp), and the position I intend to consider, that which holds that paranormal events do have an objective existence but originate within ourselves [as a result of unknown psychical powers.]
It is quite a remarkable claim. Imagine Mr. Jones has called us in to investigate mysterious goings on in his home. The last thing he expects to hear in reply to his worried question “What’s haunting my home?” is the answer “You are, Mr. Jones.”
Now of course for many years parapsychologists have postulated the idea that poltergeist phenomena are created by PKE or psycho-kinetic energy; that is that a human being is responsible for the haunting. Unfortunately popular works on parapsychology have created a popular conception of haunting as either by ghosts (apparitions appear, chains clank, doors open and close, etc.) or by poltergeists (an emotionally repressed and deeply frustrated youngster lets off steam by throwing furniture about psychically and generally having a nervous breakdown outside of their head).
This is the basis for the concept of the person-centered versus place-centered haunting; the former “poltergeist”, the latter a “ghost”.
Could it be the distinction is false? One of the great strengths of the [[my group then]] is that the investigators tend to make repeated visits to a property and spend several hundred hours at any site, and hence come to analyse cases thoroughly. Most of our investigations have included both traditional ‘ghost’ effects such as apparitions and a history of disturbance through several tenants, and traditional ‘poltergeist’ phenomena such as objects moving and in many cases S.O.D.
(Author’s note: SOD is an acronymn for small object displacement. A good example is a craft knife which vanished while repairs were underway at The Bell in Dursley, and reappeared a few minutes later on a table where it certainly was not a moment before. SOD is easy to explain away as misperception but I am personally convinced by the fact this phenomena has been mentioned to me on almost every case I have investigated without leading questions, yet it is not considered part of the traditional repertoire of a haunt. SOD is easy to remember; indeed rarely has a technical term been so appropriate. The mnemonic to recall this is “Where’s the sodding ghost put my car keys/cufflinks/whatever?!”)
So how then does one set about haunting oneself? Well according to most proponents of the RSPK [Recurrent Spontaneous Psycho-Kinesis - Star Trek style technobabble at its finest that I have critiques elsewhere] or poltergeist theory the human agent who creates the disturbance is unaware of their actions, at least on a conscious level. After suffering a set of paranormal events such as SOD and object displacement what is more natural than to start seeing ghosts?
In the 1950′s the then President of the S.P.R., G.W. Lambert devised his much maligned geophysical explanation for haunting resulting from underground water. His theory was in essence that an underground water course may flow under the ‘haunted’ house and that after heavy rainfall the stream results in subsidence of the property or other structural movement, possibly causing the house to vibrate and knock objects flying simulating ‘poltergeistery.’ He took the theory one stage further, stating that these odd noises could the be psychologically ‘rationalized’ by the percipients minds creating a ‘ghost’ to account for them, and then seeing the imaginary ‘ghost.’
In essence I think Lambert may have been on to something. Environmental cues such as the ‘Corridor’ and ‘occulted space’ things I found in my work with Curtin and Lay, as well as a variety of other stimuli, may lead a sucession of tenants to the same conclusion, namely that their house is haunted, even if no knowledgeable local tells them so.
Once the belief is there, or even the vaguest shadow of a doubt, it must surely become that much easier for the mind to generate micro-PK (or minor poltergeist) phenomena. It has been repeatedly claimed that believers score higher than sceptics on ESP tests, and there is some reason to believe that motivational factors should also be considered. Once the idea of a haunting is broached, do the family then begin to generate the haunting?
What follows? As the Psi/haunting builds up more and more people within the family become convinced, and their scepticism breaks down. Thus the haunting becomes increasingly severe. Members of the family then begin to explain the events by reference to a guilty third party or ‘ghost’ and may in line with Lambert’s theory begin to see or hallucinate apparitions. It may only be at this stage that they consciously begin to consider themselves “haunted”, the build-up having been largely ignored by the conscious mind. Then again a sighting of a ‘ghost’ with its origin in misperception, temporal lobe epilepsy or other stimuli may actually initiate the sequence.
If the hallucinatory nature of the apparitions seen seems unlikely, as in a case where two witnesses see an apparition simultaneously, it is still hard to rule out the possibility of one telepathically transmitting the image to the other. More problematic is the situation where two witnesses, many years distant in time and with no knowledge of the earlier experience both see an identical figure. This could be rather unconvincingly explained by recourse to archetypal or locationally suggested visions (a monk in a church for instance) or possibly by evoking the idea of Super-ESP which is sometimes used in discussions of mediumship.
Why does it end? Well if the initial PKE disturbance is occasioned by psychological forces then we may expect those feelings to eventually be alleviated as the chief instigator or focuses circumstances change. Often all that is needed to cure such a ‘haunt’ is the intervention of someone with counseling skills who is able to pay a little attention to the frustrated person. Of course it is significantly better if the person who ‘cures’ the situation has an air of authority and possibly even some hi-tech gadgetry to wave around. Simply announcing ‘the ghost’s gone’ may sadly stop the exteriorization of the internal complex and lead to the eventual breakdown of the agent if they can not find a better way of ‘letting off steam.’
What of ‘exorcism’, ‘deliverance’ or ‘moving on’? If the exorcist has less than full confidence in their own abilities or the focus has developed a dislike for the would-be helper then we might expect a violent reaction; the ejection of the exorcist or the worsening of the haunt. This is not a game for idiots or fools, but requires a mature sensible person who is likable and possesses certain counseling skills.
It is with the matter of exorcism however that we find the greatest problem with this theory. Practical experience, not as yet backed by any theorectical or experimental basis, has shown that haunting tends to reoccur some three months after exorcism. Unless there is some compatible pattern in the fields of psychotherapy, counselling or psychoanalysis I find it hard to see why this should occur. The second outbreak is rarely as severe as the first and is usually not a source of worry to anyone involved.
A word of apology and a disclaimer. This article has been hard to develop and reflects my own developing ideas. Although I am a [[group]] member this article is in no way representative of the ideas of the group. The group holds no corporate religious or philosophical beliefs, and all views are those of individual members. I certainly do not intend to denigrate the psychics, especially Miss M. A——, who is just as vital if these ideas are true, for she is the best ‘cure’ I know of for ‘psychic disturbances’. I therefore offer a brief word on the psychic, haunter and the haunted.
I have never rejected psychism as a belief system. This is a constant source of amusement to my more sceptical colleagues, but I see no conflict in my position. If poltergeists are caused by the mind of a human agent we do not necessarily have to give a psychosomatic explanation for their ‘exorcism’. The psychics energies may well be one and the same as those which are causing the haunt; that is the agent is in fact a latent psychic who simply does not know how to control the energy they are generating. The problem for me is that against my wishes I am being led further and further towards an epiphenomenalist rather than dualist position, and hence am rather inclined to see ‘spirits’ as exteriorized fragments or sub-personalities of the human agent or psychic, a convenient label or mental device to perform the task. I am however willing to be proved wrong, and end by stating that if anyone has any doubts about a psychic’s talent then they should meet a good one, and listen. The results are edifying. [[Obviously this should not be read as an endorsement of the reality of psychic powers!]]