So I decided a few weeks back to enroll on the Koestler Parapsychology Unit's (Universirty of Edinburgh) online Parapsychology module. It's a 9-week programme covering ESP, PK (or psi, as they are collectively known) and 'survival hypothesis'. The latter is basically the study of life after death. The course is led by Dr Caroline Watt, and so far, it is really interesting!
For the first week, we are introduced to basic terms, and reminded that the course is about the study of parapsychological experiences as opposed to paranormal phenomena. In other words, the assumption is that people really do have these parapsychological experiences, the question is why and how they have these experiences. Anyhow, students on the course are required to engage in online discussion with eachother on the course blog (only accesible to students and course leader), and these discussions are proving really informative. It is clear that people who do this course are very knowledgeable, and have read a lot on the subject.
A key question that was posed by Dr Watt to stimulate discussion in this first week of blogging was: why have people throughout time reported paranormal experiences?
As one of my fellow-students suggests - it is simply because they do have paranormal experiences. Of course, one has to clearly delineate what a paranormal event entails. This involves taking into account cultural and sociological differences in reporting of paranormal events i.e. what is considered paranormal to one person or culture, may be considered completely normal to another person or culture. I think we all agree, however, that a paranormal event is something outside the range of normal experiences, and for which there is no scientific explanation (the moment at which the paranormal event can be explained scientifically, it can no longer be classed as paranormal, but normal).
One of my fellow students provides a series of examples of apparent paranormal events that have taken place publicly, and hence can be corroborated by other witnesses. For example: on 3rd June 1875, Georges Bizet, composer of the opera "Carmen", died at the age of 36 from a heart attack in Bougival, France. During a performance of Carmen in Paris, Madame Galli-Marié (who perfromed as Carmen) was overcome by a strong sense of foreboding, and had to leave the stage mid-performance. Two hours later, Bizet died of a heart-attack.
Another example provided is that of Laurens van der Post, who was writing about the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert. One day, whilst the men were out hunting, the women began jumping up and down with joy. When van der Post enquired as to the reason, he was told that the hunters had made a kill - this turned out to be correct. (Thanks to fellow-student for the examples!!)
Another more famous example is that of Abraham Lincoln's premonition of his own death - ten days before his assasination, he dreamt about his death, and wrote about it in a journal. The dream recurred over several days. Ten days later he was shot.
There are countless other anecdotal accounts of apparent paranormal phenomena. A simple google search will bring them up.
Anyhow, as I read through the examples provided by my fellow-student, and more online, some common themes appeared to emerge:
1. These anecdotal reports of people experiencing apparent paranormal phenomena generally relate to events associated extreme loss (or very significant gain, as in the case of the Kalahariu bushwomen)...
2. ..and significant emotional involvement with the affected party (oneself, a loved one) or affected resource (e.g. one's house or personal property).
My question is: could these events be replicated in a lab-based setting? An experiment mimicking these events would involve one subject, and a selection of people and/or things they care about.
..what? Smash the subject's new car whilst they're in the lab, and see if they 'know'? Administer electric shocks to a subject's loved one and see whether they 'know'? Hand over a million pounds to the subject's spouse whilst they're elsewhere, and see the subject's reaction?
Damn damn. I thought I was onto something there. But I don't think any of those would get past the ethics board...not for humans, not for animals.
So much for great ideas. Seems that to replicate actual paranormal events in a controlled setting would entail some pretty dastardly activities. So, for now, its back to card-guessing and random event generators I guess....