Parapsychology's Contribution to Psychology: A View from the Front Line (1)

By Watt, Caroline | The Journal of Parapsychology, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Parapsychology's Contribution to Psychology: A View from the Front Line (1)


Watt, Caroline, The Journal of Parapsychology


Many of us have happy memories of the 2004 PA Convention in Vienna, where Bob Morris was his usual sociable self. No one could have guessed then, as Nancy Zingrone handed over the Presidency to me, that Bob would tragically die less than a week after the convention ended and exactly a year ago from the date of this address, August 12. I never imagined that he would not be sitting proudly in the audience as I gave my first Presidential Address.

It is a tribute to Bob Morris's leadership that parapsychology will continue to be integrated into the psychology department at Edinburgh. I think that one of the reasons that Morris was so successful was that he was particularly good at seeing the contribution that parapsychology could make to many different areas, such as medicine, physics, and philosophy. I'm going to speak to that theme in this address, focusing on what parapsychology has to offer psychology. I will draw on examples from our past and our present, and from my own experience in the "front line"--working as a parapsychologist within a psychology department at a leading UK university. Along the way I will also touch on what I think are some of the weaknesses of our field, and I will suggest how we can become stronger.

MENTAL PHENOMENA AND ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCES

My first theme is that psychical research and parapsychology have an important role to play in keeping mental phenomena and anomalous experiences on the mainstream research agenda. By "mental phenomena" I mean considerations of consciousness and volition as well as allegedly paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP) and the influence of mind over matter. The history of psychology and parapsychology--or psychical research as it was then known--is closely intertwined. The two shared common areas of interest and common problems and couldn't easily be distinguished from one another. In tackling these problems, frequently it was the psychical researchers who were the pioneers.

Experimental psychology began with the founding of Wilhelm Wundt's psychology laboratory in Leipzig in 1879. The emphasis was on understanding people's perceptual, cognitive, and motor functions, using statistical analysis of experimental data. Both in the US and on the European continent, many early experimental psychologists worked within a scientific worldview that nature was understandable through careful observation and discovery of mechanistic laws. In Britain, however, a dissident group of thinkers felt that the prevailing mechanistic model had wrongly demoted the role of mind in nature. Historians such as Oppenheim (1985) and Plas (2000) have argued that this group exerted a strong influence on the development of psychology.

Frederick Myers, Henry Sidgwick, and Edmund Gurney were prominent and respectable academic figures who attempted to apply scientific method to the study of a wide variety of mental phenomena. For example, they studied the survival of human personality after death, anomalous phenomena associated with mesmerism, and the strange physical manifestations reported to occur during seances with spiritualist mediums. These phenomena are today associated with parapsychology but the earliest researchers considered these topics to have a rightful place in mainstream psychology (Oppenheim, 1985). This group of thinkers challenged the reductionistic and mechanistic agenda that was taking hold in psychology.

As a concrete example, let us consider the Second International Congress of Experimental Psychology. This was held in London in 1892, ten years after the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). The President of the Congress was also the President of the SPR, Henry Sidgwick. The majority of the English members attending the congress were either SPR members or were openly sympathetic to its aims (Sidgwick & Myers, 1892). In his opening address, "The Future of Psychology," the eminent Parisian physiologist Charles Richet gave an important place to psychologie transcendentale, by which he meant the study of those mental phenomena of particular interest to psychical researchers.

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