Psi on the Tyne

The 42nd Annual International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2018

Newcastle made a singular impression on me as I stepped off the train. The familiar Victorian station led out into a strange landscape. The Lady Boys of Bangkok had encamped before the rearing block of Jury’s Inn, the venue for this year’s conference, and determined hen-party revellers were arriving in force with sex dolls and a giant inflatable penis, filling the inner courtyard of this corporate castle with a raucousness worthy of a witches’ sabbath. The surreal tone was thus well and truly set as we prepared to descend the rabbit-hole of philosophical debates about consciousness, the uses of psychedelics and the normality of the ‘paranormal’, and plug our infinite improbability drives into many cups, not of tea, but of conference-grade, overly hot coffee.

Conference Chair, Adrian Parker, began with ‘Research Projects that I Would Carry Out If I had the Millions Needed’. The frivolous title hid a hard truth: academic parapsychology, the slightly respectable face of investigation into the paranormal, was itself being forced up against the wall by hardline materialists and academic bean counters. A rich Swedish entrepreneur, Dag Landvik, had once offered millions to establish a chair in parapsychology at Lund Universiy, but the anti-parapsychologists had trie to subvert the offer and in the process lost it all. And so Prof. Parker could only speculate on the sort of research that could have been done, but in doing so gave a valuable run down on what he considered to be the most promising avenues to explore: twin telepathy; shared states of consciousness; mediumship; near-death experiences; and thought forms. He concluded that the current mainstream interest in consciousness was probably the best hope for parapsychology.

This theme was picked up and expanded upon in first day’s panel discussion with Prof. Bernard Carr, Dr Bernardo Kastrup, Dr David Luke and Dr Rupert Sheldrake on the subject of ‘Psi and Consciousness?’ And this year’s invited speakers – Luke, Sheldrake and Kastrup – each presented different approaches touching on the problem of consciousness, in one way or another.

Dr David Luke (University of Greenwich) was the first to try and prise open our doors of perception with ‘Psychedelomancy: Precognition with Psychedelics’. His starting point was the great mass of evidence from history, anthropology and ethnobotany that traditional ritual practices involving psycho-active substances also produced psi phenomena, including telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition, and hence indicated a fruitful line of inquiry. Despite that, scientific research on the subject has been minimal, with most of the projects having been conducted in the 1950s to 1970s. Until now, that is. Dr Luke introduced us to four recent experiments he had conducted into precognition using mainly ayahuasca and LSD, but also DMT (Dimethyltryptamine, also usually found in ayahuasca brews) and San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi, which contains mescaline among other alkaloids).

Once a normal part of traditional culture, such psi-inducing techniques have become outlawed and sidelined by the West’s addiction to alcohol, but all is not lost, as Dr Rupert Sheldrake assured us that far from being ‘paranormal’, all those miscellaneous phenomena rolled together as ‘psi’, were, in fact, quite normal, if not actually common. Being a biologist, his approach was to consider evolutionary selection for faculties that could aid in survival, such as the sense of being stared at (scopaesthesia), telepathy (animal-human, mother-child and so-called ‘telephone telepathy’), precognitive dreams and other forms of premonition. Acknowledging the normality of psi then allows us to understand further the nature of the mind (consciousness, sub- and un-) as it extends beyond physical constraints in both time and space.

Of course, the sheer number of presenters at the conference – twenty-five talks in total – ensured a diverse range of topics were addressed. The twenty-four scheduled talks listed in the programme were further added to by the unexpected arrival of Bingo Wu. Speaking no English, Dr Simon Duan nobly stepped in to provide simultaneous translation of his presentation on his teaching of psi techniques to blind children in China.

The SPR’s President, Prof. Chris Roe, presented a valuable paper on ‘J.B. Priestley’s Man and Time Letters: A Re-Analysis’. Two members f the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee, Alan Murdie (Chair) and John Fraser both presented on the subject of poltergeists. Prominent SPR member, Trevor Hamilton, gave two talks looking t the supposed afterlife communications of F.W.H. Myers and his correspondence with Eileen McAlpine, a long-standing member of the College of Psychic Studies, who had had sittings with many of the most famous psychics during her lifetime. Prof. Roe’s protégés from the University of Northampton, also gave papers: Callum Cooper on his work with David Saunder on the use of flotation tanks; Rachel Evenden on the new laboratory facilities at the Arthur Findlay College; and Erika Annabelle Pratte on people’s adjustment to near-death experiences. Dr Annekatrin Puhle presented on the subject of paranormal experiences reported during dreams. Dr Simon Duan introduced us to his Metacomputics Model, his answer to the question that if reality as we perceive it is a computer simulation, a la The Matrix, then where does it come from and how does it function? Conference regular, Dr Terence Palmer, talked about paranormal experiences in hospitals. Chetak Nangare introduced us to his research on paranormal experiences among meditators in India. Professor Emeritus Erlendur Haraldsson went back to reports of miracles and wonders in what he called the ‘old reputable sources’, including the Bible and the Travels of Marco Polo, to ask ‘is there anything comparable since?’ Dr Kitt Price (Queen Mary University) presented a novel paper on the ‘Uses of Media Technology in Precognition Research’, including a discussion of what she called ‘the Victorian internet of death’. Dr Luke’s PhD student, Ross Friday, gave us an update on his research into the sense of being stared at or talked about. Other research papers came from David Vernon and Laura Ivencevic on using computer games in precognition trials, Anna Flores, Ian Tierney and Caroline Watt on studying mind-matter interactions.

If that all sounds like a lot to take in, rest assured that the presenters gave engaging and lively talks. And for all academia’s reluctance to support research into the paranormal (if not actual obstruction), the conference gave the sense of a vigorous discipline and a thriving community of researchers exploring every nook and cranny of it. Not even Asian men in tights and inflatable genitalia could dampen our spirits.

Originally published as Leo Ruickbie, ‘Psi on the Tyne: The 42nd Annual International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2018’, Paranormal Review, 90 (2019).