Parapsychologists study a wide range of paranormal experiences. Surveys suggest that around 50% of those in both America and Britain believe in the existence of the paranormal, and about 30% of people claim to have had a psychic experience.
This statistic means that, if you have not had a paranormal experience yourself, you probably know someone who has. This book describes the research that has been conducted in an attempt to understand these unusual, but surprisingly common, experiences.
The study of such experiences, parapsychology, can be traced back to some strange events in the mid-nineteenth century in Hydesville, New York, which seemed to suggest that some individuals could communicate with the deceased. Pioneering researchers grappled with the challenge of testing claims of afterlife communication. In the process they developed the three main approaches that are now employed in parapsychological research.
But before we find out more about how parapsychology came to be what it is today, let’s briefly consider what parapsychology is not.
Misconceptions about parapsychology
When I am sitting on an aeroplane and the stranger in the seat next to me asks what I do, I sometimes hesitate to answer. Yes, I am a researcher looking at quite a fascinating and sometimes controversial topic. But before I tell my fellow traveller what my job entails, I often have to dispel some myths that exist about parapsychology.
For example, quite understandably, many people associate parapsychology with popular films such as Ghostbusters. In fact, parapsychologists do not run around in boiler suits, hunting down marauding ghosts with proton packs. Instead, like other scientists, parapsychologists often carry out well-controlled studies and publish their findings in both mainstream and specialist academic journals.
Furthermore, parapsychologists typically have little interest in UFOs, astrology, occult beings, Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster. Their principal interest is in the capabilities and experiences of living human beings — hence the ‘psychology’ part of the discipline’s name. But ‘para’ means ‘beyond’, which signifies that parapsychologists are particularly interested in exceptional or anomalous human capabilities and experiences.
So, they are interested in seemingly paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, out-of-body experiences, reincarnation, apparitions, hauntings, and spirit communication. The University of Edinburgh’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit (KPU), of which I am a founder member, has studied many of these phenomena since its inception in 1985. Over these three decades, many members of the public have contacted us to report their unusual experiences. Throughout this book, I will delve into the KPU archives to illustrate some of these experiences (to protect privacy, some details have been changed and pseudonyms are used).
Finally, being a parapsychologist does not necessarily mean that one believes in the existence of such phenomena. Although many researchers find the evidence for psychic abilities convincing, others are less certain and some are even very sceptical. I tend to take the middle position. I consider that there is sufficient evidence to justify further work, but not enough to conclude that paranormal abilities exist.
Throughout this book, I will refer to paranormal phenomena and abilities. For fluency of expression, I will avoid repeatedly using terms such as ‘alleged’, ‘purported’, and ‘claimed’, although this is not meant to imply that I think such phenomena are genuine.
It’s now time to go back to the roots of parapsychology. The story begins with an age-old question: is there life after death?