The SPR’s 40th International Annual Conference at the University of Leeds, 2016
The intense white light suddenly changed to blue, orange, yellow, then back to white.
‘Are you sure this is just white light?’ I asked.
‘Yes, just white light,’ replied a calm voice with the hint of an Austrian accent.
When the change came again, I could see a black and white chequerboard pattern stretch out and twist, even though my eyes were closed. The psychedelia changed abruptly into fractal sets, a green surround concentrating into a red ball.
My eyeballs were growing hot. I wondered if this would have any long term effects.
Psychedelia flashed back: a ball rolling between two chequerboard planes. A tunnel of colour appeared. Where did it lead?
So far, I had been watching this light show like someone at the cinema. Could I move into it? Travel with it? As I concentrated on this thought, transparent streaks or tears opened in the coloured surface. Beyond I could see a garden.
The light began to fade. The machine stopped humming. A normal level of light shone through my closed eyelids.
‘That is the end of the demo. How do you feel?’ asked the Austrian voice.
I opened my eyes. Blinked. The psychefractal–frackedelic landscapes had gone. I was staring into an array of lights in a circular metal housing of the device called ‘Lucia No. 3’. I looked round, the room – a room in the Liberty Building of the University of Leeds – was still there. I was back once more at the conference of the Society for Psychical Research. The Austrian inventor, Dr Engelbert Winkler was looking at me with a smile on his face.
The 40th conference of the Society for Psychical Research opened with the Conference Programme Chair, Prof. Adrian Parker, reminding us that around a thousand years ago and only about thirty miles away a battle had been fought that decided the fate of Britain and meant that today we were not all speaking some Scandinavian tongue. It only served to underline that most of us were descendents of the various ancient Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans (from ‘North Man’, i.e., the Vikings) and so on) and were all speaking some variation of German. Whatever conclusions we should draw from that and in face of Brexit provincialism, an international group of speakers from Austria, Germany, Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands and the USA, had convened to share their research. Parker took the opportunity to thank Prof. Bernard Carr for his ‘very personable stewardship and dedication’ which had ensured the ‘success and longevity’ of the SPR’s conferences for many years; and acknowledged the ‘humanized style of efficiency’ of the SPR’s Secretary, Peter Johnson.
This year, the list of delegates ran to sixty-five names, who had gathered to listen to a total of twenty-six speakers. The list included the first ever conference film-crew of Judy Newstead-Howard and Benjamin B. Smith of Viral Films, visiting American journalist T. Jennings Brown and the tireless Mick O’Neill, without whose technical expertise no SPR event would be possible.
The conference began on Friday afternoon with the newly appointed Koestler Professor for Parapsychology, Caroline Watt, discussing the ways and means of stimulating research in parapsychology. From Charles Richet’s development of the mathematics of chance, what we now call probability, in 1884, to J.B. Rhine’s first application of meta-analysis in 1940, and Martin Johnson’s pioneering of registration of reports for the European Journal of Parapyschology in 1978, parapyschology has been at the forefront of methodological advancement that mainstream psychology and other sciences have slowly but surely benefitted from. Now that was being advanced again with the Koeslter Parapsychology Unit’s implementation of pre-registration of experiments, an especially important response to criticisms of questionable research practices. During questions, Prof. Chris Roe added the important observation that, for journals, peer review should come before the research is undertaken to help improve it, rather than after when it is too late.
Dr David Vernon, Canterbury Christ Church University, presented the results of his own experiments in what has come to be known as pre-call – he prefers the term ‘dark cognition’. Despite recent claims that practice in the future can retro-actively improve earlier performance, he found no such evidence. Discussion moved on to his methodology, with Vernon suggesting his sample may have been ‘too sceptical’. Prof. Parker added that the intended shock value of the images was mitigated by people’s lessened sensitivity to disturbing imagery.
When the first blue tit discovered that it could help itself to a free breakfast by pecking a hole in the shiny foil cap on a bottle of milk on a doorstep in the north of England, despite the great breakthrough for blue tits in general, it had no idea that this would lead to a profound new conceptualization of the living world. Prof. Chris Roe talked about research being conducted at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes (CSAPP) at the University of Northampton, together with his students Lucy Desborough and Kim Robbins, into Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance whereby isolated individuals, such as a blue tit in the north of England, could communicate learned behaviour with others of the species, such as blue tits in the south of England, despite having no physical contact with them. The individual created a ‘morphic field’, he argued, that could be accessed by others. Roe and colleagues devised an experiment to try and test this theory. Using sets of real and invented Chinese characters, they hypothesized that non-Chinese speaking people would nevertheless be able to distinguish the two due to a shared morphic field.
Lucid dreaming of the deceased was the subject of Dr Annekatrin Puhle’s paper. With ninety participants, she had found that twenty-eight of them were able to have lucid dreams, amounting to eighty lucid dreams over an eighteen-month period. The majority (90 per cent) reported dreaming of a deceased relative and 10 per cent of conversations involving information that was unknown to the dreamer. Puhle herself had had a lucid dream involving her deceased sister.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, David Saunders was unable to present his paper on research collaboration between CSAPP and the Spiritualists’ National Union at the Arthur Findlay College. Prof. Parker was able to talk on some of these aspects in his place, additionally contributing personal reminiscences of two visits to the Arthur Findlay College and his own thoughts on the problems of investigating mediums. Prof. Roe added observations from his PhD research into ‘fishing’ by stage mediums. He had been struck by the self-critical attitude of mediums and the resistance of audiences to vague Barnum-style readings: audiences were not as ‘needy’ as expected.
Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson brought the day’s proceedings to an end with a presention of his work on the Icelandic medium Indridi Indridason. This has already culminated in a book on the subject published by White Crow in 2015.
Amidst all the shiny, ugly, new build that plagues the university campus, there is still a wonderful monument to knowledge in red brick and ornate sandstone, the neo-gothic Great Hall. Here we re-gathered for the President’s Drinks Reception, dinner and dreams; or, more specifically, Dr Engelbert Winkler on how to fulfil your dreams whilst dreaming. Winkler regaled us with the joys of lucid dreaming and how ‘lucid light’ from machines such as Lucia No. 3 could take us there even when awake.
Ross Friday began Saturday with an update on his ongoing research (partly funded by the SPR) into the sense of being stared at or listened to. This was an interesting follow-up to his paper presented at last year’s conference and we were able to see detailed schematics of the laboratory set-up.
Pioneer in lucid dreaming research, Dr Keith Hearne introduced us to his ‘Alpha-Numeric Dream Code’, a variation on the alphabetical system developed by the late David Melbourne. A single word is assigned to each letter of the alphabet, such as A for Avarice, and the list is read through as a means of programming the unconscious – ‘your best friend’, according to Hearne – to present dream imagery specific to each letter and its meaning. Hearne made copies available for delegates to try this out for themselves. The talk ranged over such subjects as the discovery of brain cells in the gut – ‘We’re not simple entities. We’re a collection of them’ – to conclude that ‘Life is a dream: I’m tending towards that an awful lot.’
Hearne was joined by Puhle and Winkler for a panel session on the use of lucid dreaming in psychical research. For Puhle, lucid dreaming was ‘an ideal way to explore your life and consciousness’, but was also something of a Pandora’s Box: ‘we have to question what is real,’ she said, giving the example of Plato’s cave.
For Winkler, too, lucid dreaming was an ‘opportunity to do everything you wanted to do’, but he had also come to the conclusion that ‘reality is much more dream-like than we usually think it is,’ or even that it is ‘more appropriate to see reality as a kind of dream.’
Hearne added, ‘They’re very cheap holidays, lucid dreams.’ But they could also be more than that. ‘For purely scientific reasons,’ said Hearne, ‘I decided to conjure up a young woman.’ A ripple of laughter went round the audience. ‘A few weeks later, I met that young woman.’ Had it been precognition, or had he just created reality? By way of an answer he later added, ‘If only we could become lucid in wakefulness.’ The discussion turned to the question of survival of the personality after death, with Hearne commenting that ‘At death, you really see what you expect to see.’
The session elicited many questions from the audience. When asked how to become lucid during dreaming, Winkler responded with one technique he had heard of: ‘Just lie in your bed and pretend you cannot move and then go through a roller-coaster’ – apparently it is also effective for inducing out of body experiences.
Dr Sean Richards continued after the break with a paper on his investigation of electronic voice phenomena (EVP) and instrumental trans-communication (ITC). ‘I didn’t expect to succeed,’ he said, but Richards amassed 800 examples of EVP and six of ITC during the fourteenth months of the study. However, he is still left with what he calls ‘a thousand piece jigsaw’. About 70 per cent of messages involve dialogue between the communicators and Richards, with messages ranging from ‘He doesn’t believe it’ to ‘This is the graveyard speaking’ and included receiving advice on how to achieve better EVP (raise the AM frequency above 80). Disturbingly, ‘Whatever is communicating,’ he said, ‘can see me.’
Staying with the theme of EVP, Ann Winsper presented an update on her PhD research into EVP. Was there a difference, she wanted to know, between people who experience EVP and those who do not? She found that there was. She found that those reporting high levels of EVP also exhibited a greater tendency for auditory and sleep-related hallucinations, deficiences in reality testing, fantasy proneness and positive schizotypy. She had her equipment with her and invited members of the audience to take part.
After lunch, Trevor Hamilton, author of the 2009 biography of Frederic Myers, Immortal Longings, guided us through the labyrinth of the cross-correspondences, a series of supposedly inter-connected messages from the spirit world spanning 3,800 ‘scripts’ (not counting information received through Mrs Piper), 4,400 pages of commentary by J.G. Piddington and Gerald Balfour, and a further 3,000 pages of commentary published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Over two-thirds of these made some sort of sense, but there were only four ideal cross-correspondences where triangulation of the scripts had occurred. ‘Has the meaning been created,’ Hamilton wondered, ‘by a mass random generation?’ He added that ‘Some might argue that a cultic element began to develop around the cross-correspondences,’ before concluding, ‘I don’t think, quite frankly, that they deserve their historical status.’
Dr Steve Webley introduced his paper on das Unheimliche in psychoanalysis as ‘a story about my arrogance as an academic’. It was an unusual opening, but became clearer as he progressed, quoting Jean de la Fontaine as paraphrased by Carl Jung, ‘We find our destinies on the roads we take to avoid them.’ Freud’s suppressed interest in the occult and his final regret that he had not devoted himself to psychical research, takes Webley from psychoanalysis to ghost hunting and his own confrontation with the uncanny.
Wim Kramer came from Utrecht to tell us about Dutch mediumistically produced art during the inter-war years that had been collected and catalogued by Het Johan Borgman Fonds as part of its ‘Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology’ project. The range of such productions covered the gamut from naïve styles to fine art – some mediums claimed to be channeling deceased artists. This was a particularly good paper to present at conference as we benefitted from large-scale projections of the artworks, like walking through an art gallery.
Kimberley Thomas, a recent graduate from the University of Northampton, presented findings from her research into viewer opinions on the use of ‘science’, as exemplified by gadgets, in popular ghost hunting television programmes, such as Most Haunted and Ghost Adventures. From the audience, as a parable on the public reception of the media’s presentation of the paranormal, Dr Sean O’Donnell told us about his friend Billy, who, after watching the film The Blair Witch Project, announced ‘I’ve seen the paranormal; and it works!’
After a short break, I presented the results of my SPR-funded research project, ‘The SPR at War’, on the Society during during the First World War. This looked at the trials and tribulations of the Society during wartime, the involvement of SPR members in the war itself and psychical research conducted during this period. Despite an intitial decrease in members – there were several, such as Sigmund Freud, in enemy countries – the SPR ended the war with more members than it had at the start and several notable cases under its belt, such as the investigation of the Angels of Mons. However, it was bemoaned in the Journal at the time that, despite the awful depredations of the war, there had not been more spontaneous cases. But the fault lay with the Society. It had clearly missed an opportunity to investigate the experiences of combatants directly as exemplified by Prof. Charles Richet, who had sought them out and received them in abundance. During questions, Prof. Roe asked if there were lessons to be learned from this and there were: the SPR should be more pro-active in gathering data about people’s potentially paranormal experiences.
Mary Rose Barrington has been at every one of the SPR’s forty conferences. Today, she was talking about telepathy. She reversed the usual model of telepathy in which the telepath is seen as the dominant component in acquiring information from a passive sender by arguing that the sender uses psychokinesis (PK) to project information that impinges on the receiver. ‘The telepath,’ she argued, ‘has something akin to sharp hearing. We can all hear to some extent our names spoken in a the midst of a jumble of background chatter – the telepath has acute psychic hearing.’ But it is the sender who does the ‘speaking’. What is usually ‘heard’, she noted, is bad news: ‘bad news makes the biggest waves’, which may determine the frequency and content of messages. She ended by saying, ‘I think PK rules the world.’ Afterwards, Prof. Carr added that quantum theory would support her argument.
Fergus Hinds introduced us to the ideas laid out in his new book No Time and Nowhere. He began by describing an experiment where individuals were shown visual stimuli (a coloured or black and white screen) whilst their brain reactions were being monitored by an EEG. Under hypnosis, the brains of test subjects showed reactions in line with the suggestions they were given, not with the screens they were being shown, demonstrating that they were no longer perceiving reality, but creating their own version of it. ‘There is no physical energy,’ he argued, ‘that explains the transference of these images’. The ultimate consequence of these observations is that ‘the universe is not bounded by space and time’, that there is something else beyond. However, with reference to myth and religion, he said that, ‘the idea of an immaterial world behind this one is not in the least surprising.’
Dr Sean O’Donnell, as confrontational as ever, declared that parapsychology no longer seems to be advancing our knowledge and the problem is all to do with time. Our understanding of time is in crisis due to the contradictory claims of relativity, quantum theory and our own everyday experience of it, but psi, he argued, solves the problem of time. Whilst we experience time from the moving point of ‘now’ as unformed future and concrete past, O’Donnell argued that just as we can recall that past we can pre-call the future, not just sporadically in the form of premonitions, but as a learned faculty. And that all aspects grouped under the heading of psi – precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, remote viewing, etc. – are in fact demonstrations of pre-call.
Eberhard Bauer gave the after-dinner talk on Saturday evening, reflecting on the historical relationship between German researchers and the SPR. The relationship was often a critical one, but many influential German researchers, such as Dr Max Dessoir, Emil Mattiesen, Prof. Hans Dreisch and Baron Schrenck-Notzing, had been members, with Driesch even serving as President of the SPR in 1926/7. Today, the spirit of internationalism is just as alive as ever it was, despite Brexit.
Dr Terence Palmer opened proceedings on Sunday with a continuation of his research into spirit possession. He had recently returned from the USA where he had been involved in the use of mediumship to assess incarcerated serial killers. He showed a video clip in which a medium purported to contact an entity attached to the ‘Kalamazoo Killer’, Jason Dalton, the 45-year-old man charged with shooting dead six people during a killing spree on 20 February 2016. Palmer ended by suggesting a simple experiment to test the efficacy of spirit release therapy and challenged an established parapsychology laboratory to take him up on it.
Prof. Chris Roe presented a paper on the initial findings of his Perrott-Warrick funded research, supported by an SPR-funded research assistant Rebecca Linnett, into the reporting of spontaneous experiences in the case collection of the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre. The focus is on the terms of experience, not evidentiality. This kind of sociological work is a project after my own heart, so it was encouraging to seeing it receive such substantial funding.
Steve Parsons threw a cat among the pigeons by asking whether the SPR is relevant to today’s self-styled paranormal investigators. It was a fair point, well presented: the SPR has largely both side-stepped and been sidelined by the huge popular interest in the paranormal. If people have actually heard of the SPR, then they are usually surprised to discover that it is still going. However, the SPR has been modernizing, with the re-vamp of the Paranormal Review, the re-launch of the website and the entirely new online Psi Encyclopedia. At any given time, the SPR is only the sum of its members’ activities, so it behooves us all to take responsibility for our Society.
Dr Michael Potts is a regular fixture at SPR conferences, always having a new angle and something useful to say. This year was no exception. He presented the results of his survey of students at the Methodist University, Fayetteville, North Carolina. Out of 79 respondents, he found 17.7 per cent reporting apparitional experiences.
Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe had been billed to present on the miraculous blood of St Pantaleon, but was unable to attend. Charmaine Sonnex brought the conference to a close with her presentation of the final part of her PhD research on the efficacy of Pagan healing spells. She gave a confident talk and it was with a certain degree of bravery that she acknowledged that the results of her study were inconclusive. The Programme Chair, Prof. Parker, returned to the podium to thank all involved and the auditorium resounded with applause.
It was a welcome coincidence that so many of the conference delegates re-convened at Leeds train station for what became the ‘SPR Express’ back to London. Prof. Carr entertained us with a demonstration of the psychic cutting of a banana inside its skin. It was an old trick expertly done, using needle and thread to perform the invisible cuts. We had seen appearance and reality, and they had not been the same. Everything is a dream, it is all PK, voices will talk to you if you listen and there is no such thing as time: the SPR conference had once again shattered our illusions of reality. But one thing remained certain: an SPR conference is not something to be missed.
Originally published as Leo Ruickbie, ‘Lucid in Leeds: A Review of the SPR’s 40th International Annual Conference’, Paranormal Review, 81 (Winter 2017).