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Q. What is psychical research?

A: The unprejudiced investigation of those faculties of Man, real or supposed, which appear inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis. It is also probably the most intellectually challenging and exciting area of scientific research around, since it is ultimately concerned with the very nature of Man.

Q. What’s the main area of research currently?

A: The most obvious, and widespread, would come under the heading of Extra-Sensory Perception, or ESP, sometimes simply called Psi.

Q: What does that include?

A: Telepathy (transfer of information directly from mind to mind), clairvoyance (sightless seeing of objects, places or people), psychokinesis (the ability of mind to move matter at a distance), precognition (foreseeing the future) and even retrocognition (apprehending scenes or events from the past).

Q: Does ESP include and hauntings?

A: Investigation of reports of ghosts and hauntings comes under a separate heading, but may well include aspects of ESP.

Q: Would that be the same as poltergeists: aren't they the same as ghosts?

A: Poltergeist phenomena include paranormal noises, furniture movement, stone throwing and domestic mayhem. They are generally thought to derive either from mischievous, aggrieved, occasionally malevolent or sometimes simply playful earthbound spirits; or to be some form of psychic energy centred around an emotionally disturbed occupant of a house. They are usually considered distinct from your traditional ghost attached to a house or mansion, usually old. They are often seen by more than one person, sometimes over a period of many years, occasionally on or near battlefields. Now and again the ghost is reported not only to move but to speak. They are thought to be associated with some tragic event linked to the haunted location.

Q: What about hallucinations and apparitions?

A: The Proceedings and Journal of the Society for Psychical Research over the past 120 years contain a huge collection of cases of people who see apparitions or experience hallucinations.

Q: Aren’t they the same thing?

A: That’s one of the great mysteries! An hallucination is generally regarded as something internally generated by the mind of the percipient, often in dreams or under the influence of drugs. Some consider an apparition to be a semi-physical representation of a person or thing which exists independently of the perceiver, but this distinction remains highly controversial.

Q: But how do you know whether these phantoms are real?

A: If by 'real' you mean having some objective existence outside the person experiencing them, we don't. What we do have are many reports of people whose hallucination of people or events coincide with what is later found to have taken place in the real world outside.

Q: For example?

A: Very often at the moment of crisis or imminent death of a distant loved one or friend, a person will experience an aural message, see an image, feel a pain or sense a danger.

Q: Like a premonition?

A: That could be regarded as one class of hallucination, except that it relates to something which is about to happen, rather than something which is just happening; and it is very often quite intensely felt but vague in its meaning or purpose.

Q: So all psychical research relates to the relationship of one human mind with another?

A: No, no: it goes well beyond that. It is concerned with the faculty which appears to connect human minds with eachother, and between and with animals, independently of time and space.

Q: Would that extend to birds or fishes or plants for example?

A: Indeed it could. There have been studies on the effect of the human mind on the germination and growth of seeds, for example; and there has been a lot of experimental work which appears to detect the operation of telepathy in insect colonies and among animals.

Q: What about psychic healing: is that considered an acceptable area of investigation?

A: Most certainly, although it comes under the general heading of DMILS, or direct mental interaction with living systems. It can more readily be studied at laboratory level than in the field with mental healers, because it is very much easier to apply strict scientific disciplines to the studies.

Q: But does this mean that psychical research is simply an aspect of psychology, and has nothing to say about the existence of the soul?

A: On the contrary, the question of whether we have a soul, that is a personality that somehow continues after the death of the body, is one of the most important, and contentious, areas of research.

Q: What form does this research take?

A: The most obvious is the examination of messages purporting to come from deceased entities.

Q: How can that help?

A: Well, if they contain information which is veridical, i.e. accurate, and very specific, and can be confirmed by the recipient, or preferably by someone else if the recipient himself is unaware of the truth of the information conveyed, this is useful evidence of a paranormal effect.

Q: Does that mean conducting investigations into mediums?

A: Among other aspects, yes, but it would also cover many other types of purported post-mortem communication.

Q: Such as?

A: Automatic writing, for example.

Q: What's that?

A: Where someone, usually in an altered state of consciousness or even in full trance, feels his hand being taken over by some external force which then produces messages, which he may or may not understand. Sometimes these messages seem aimed at proving the continued existence of earthly life. Occasionally they appear to come from a 'drop-in' communicator who may give sufficient information about his past life on Earth to enable checks to be made. They may even take the form of works of art, or even musical compositions. But many consider them to be simply aspects of our individual or group minds, gathering and processing all sorts of information and images from other minds, and nothing to do with dead spirits.

Q: What about claims that spirits have been caught on camera?

A: This was very popular in Victorian times, but is known to have been rife with fraud. With modern equipment it should be easier to capture anomalous images, but it's also easier to fabricate them. However, this is another controversial field of investigation.

Q: How about physical events in séance rooms, and mediums who are supposed to produce ectoplasm?

A: A great deal of investigatory work has been done on this in the past, most of it considered inconclusive; and ectoplasm emanating from the bodies of mediums seems to have gone out of fashion. Although these claims are not easy to investigate, and require co-operation from all concerned, a recent revival of physical mediumship is affording a valuable opportunity to examine these phenomena at close hand, and striking claims have been made for the outcome.

Q: If psychical research is concerned with everything paranormal, what about crop circles and UFOs or alien abductions?

A: We leave these specialist areas to other organisations

Q: What else is covered, then?

A: A great deal of hard-nosed research is being done in several UK Universities.

Q: How ‘hard-nosed’?

A: The sort of research with which orthodox scientists feel comfortable, that lends itself to replication, statistical quantification and analysis, as distinct from what is commonly called the spontaneous cases which are usually one-offs, centred on a particular individual, claim, location, group or event.

Q: And what have they found?

A: Impressive evidence has accumulated, pointing not only to the existence of an extra-sensory perception faculty like telepathy, or mind-reading, but to a capacity to see at a distance (clairvoyance) and move physical objects by thought alone (psychokinesis)

Q: Distant viewing has been in the news in recent years. Is that the same as clairvoyance, and can it be explained?

A: It’s the modern term for clairvoyance, and was the subject of a very long term, state-subsidised experiment in the USA. The aim was to see whether some gifted subjects were able to envisage far distant places just by map reference, and describe reasonably precisely what was happening: a faculty with obvious implications for defence or espionage purposes. It had a significant degree of success, but insufficient for it to be relied upon implicitly for possible military operations. There were many such experiments recorded in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research more than a century ago.

Q: Would that be anything to do with ganzfeld experiments?

A: Yes. Both in Britain and the USA a great many experiments have been conducted with subjects who are placed in sensorily–deprived conditions (the so-called ganzfeld state) to enable them to 'see' what is taking place in another place, or what someone elsewhere is looking at, listening to or even thinking about at that time.

Q: What else is covered, then?

A: Near-death and out-of-body experiences, including what used to be called astral travel, is now becoming an important field of research, especially since it relates to hospital patients bordering on death, and who sometimes claim to have recollection of events and scenes of which they could have no normal sensory recall.

Q: How about miracles like levitating saints, weeping statues and the like?

A: Certainly within our remit. Here again the problem is to gather objective evidence in a scientific fashion.

Q: Does this apply to people who think they've experienced previous lives, or have reincarnated?

A: Both. It is very rare to come across cases where there is independent, verifiable evidence of actual past lives, but such cases as do exist and have been thoroughly investigated have revealed evidence which has convinced many people that such events occur. Much of the work suggestive of reincarnation has been undertaken by such leading researchers as Professors Ian Stevenson and Erlendur Haraldson examining cases where children not only appear from a very early age to remember past lives, but often bear birthmarks relevant to the manner in which the earlier incarnate met his death.

Q: What about areas like dowsing which have practical implications: is that covered by psychical research?

A: It is, extensively. The SPR has published many studies of experimental work on all aspects of dowsing, both in the field and in laboratory-type studies.

Q: What other areas are covered by psychical researchers?

A: The susceptibility of the human brain to illusion, false recollection, exaggeration, invention.

Q: But what has all that to do with psychical research?

A: Because we are so often dealing with things, or claims, which most scientists still consider highly implausible, it is important for us to be thoroughly familiar with the weaknesses of human testimony, so that one can look first for 'normal' explanations before concluding that something paranormal is taking place.

Q: But lots of people claim to see visions, hear spirit voices or simply experience premonitions of some impending disaster.

A: No doubt; and these are the sort of people, with the sort of experiences, we need to study, once they have overcome their fear that they may be consigned to a psychiatric ward.

Q: Are there other subjects you cover?

A: Certainly: there is growing interest once again in what is popularly called electronic voice phenomena, for example.

Q: What's that?

A: Messages, of varying degrees of audibility and meaning, usually appearing on tape recordings without any apparent normal source.

Q: Does that include so-called telephone voices from the dead?

A: Yes, and also messages claimed to be received in similar ways, e.g. via a computer screen.

Q: What about the implications of psychic phenomena for philosophy, or physics?

A: These are most certainly within our domain. The findings of psychical research have profound implications not just for such fundamental 'laws' of physics as gravity, thermodynamics, the law of causation, the inverse square rule and the many challenging puzzles stemming from the development of quantum mechanics, but also for neurology, physiology and medicine.

Q: Does that mean covering things like distant healing and psychic surgery and suchlike?

A: Yes: we have published a number of papers on such issues, but far more work needs to be done, and doubtless would be were the financial and human resources available.

Q and A for Psychic Novices by Montague Keen
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