Interview with parapsychologist JJ Lumsden author of The Hidden Whisper
JJ Lumsden is a UK based experimental parapsychologist who has just released his debut book “The Hidden Whisper” (See my review of The Hidden Whisper). Centring on a fictional poltergeist case in Southern Arizona, the book seeks to explain various aspects of parapsychology and where paranormal research currently stands. Lumsden gained his PhD at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit (University of Edinburgh), before moving into independent research.
Could you please start by telling about how and why you became a parapsychologist?
As a youngster, I was curious as to how things ‘worked’ in the world, and naturally intrigued by paranormal phenomena. This intrigue grew stronger as I got older; if telepathy and precognition, for example, were real – there were serious implications for our world view and how the universe operated. I didn’t enter the field because of any personal paranormal experiences, or because I wanted to prove or disprove anything. I just wanted to look into things for myself.
What do the studies of parapsychology in the Koestler Parapsychology Unit include?
Things have changed now, but when I attended (2000-2003), there was a buoyant set of research programmes in place. These were conducted by full-time staff, postgraduates working on their PhD studies, and undergraduates doing final year projects. We had a full Ganzfeld suite in the unit, so (as you can imagine) there was a fair amount of research into Extra Sensory Perception. In addition, there was Psychokinesis work, investigations into ‘haunted’ settings, and DMILS (Direct Mental Interaction with Living Systems) studies.
Between 1984 and 2003, almost two dozen people gained their PhDs at the KPU, but in recent years, following the untimely death of Professor Robert Morris in 2004, the unit has been substantially downsized. Nowadays, there are only two permanent members of staff, the laboratory space has been given up, and very few students are taken on. Today, Edinburgh University seems to prefer to focus resources on other areas of psychology.
What specific areas of parapsychology did you concentrate on?
I primarily investigated emotion and its bearing on Psychokinetic functioning (the idea that your mind can influence events in your environment).
Using ‘Random Event Generators’ to generate random data-streams of ones and zeros, (akin to lots of coin tosses with perfectly balanced coins) I looked at how highly emotive states like anger, sadness and happiness impacted on the behaviour of these devices.
Later on, I began to examine psychic healing (still using micro PK protocols), and spent time in Zululand, South Africa – working with indigenous healers (izangoma).
*The REG approach is a measure of so called micro-Psychokinesis. With micro-PK, we rely on statistical analyses to see if the behaviour of a measuring system (e.g. the REG) can be accounted for by ‘chance’ (i.e. the ones and zeros are summed, and compared with mathematical probability). This is in contrast to macro-PK events like levitation, where you can see the event with the naked eye.
What are your thoughts on the state of parapsychological research these days? After the PEAR has closed, there are not much research institutions left in the academia in the field. Why is that? Should it be different?
There’s little doubt parapsychology is going through a tough time right now, with a lack of funding and a lack of institutional support being the primary reasons.
In academia, particular research areas often come in and out of favour. Certain fields might find themselves lavished with resources one moment, and conversely, starved of them the next. I hope that parapsychology is simply experiencing a cyclical dip in appeal (and support), and that we are not witnessing any long term decline. Whilst the funding environment remains difficult, it will inevitably be more of a challenge to advance research programmes, and we should expect the field’s progress as a whole to slow.
Nonetheless, despite these tough times, parapsychology perseveres. In recent years, for example, Professor Deborah Delanoy has done sterling work at the University of Northampton, at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes. Deborah has built up a unit of very capable and accomplished researchers doing valuable research. In turn, there are individual researchers dotted around various Universities who have an interest in parapsychology and who quietly work on their own experiments when they get an opportunity.
To return to the funding point, it should be pointed out that there remain a number of organisations who continue to support and promote parapsychology. These include, amongst others, the BIAL Foundation from Portugal, Trinity College, Cambridge (via the Perrot Warwick grants), and the Society for Psychical Research in the UK.
What areas of parapsychology are well researched, in your opinion, and which need much more effort?
Good question. I don’t think we’ve reached a point with any area of parapsychology where we can step back and declare: “aha – we’ve got it”. Psi (an umbrella term that’s often used when referring to ESP and PK together) is an elusive animal, and has a habit of tripping you up when you think you understand it. As I’m not holding my breath for a definitive experiment any time soon, it remains the case of patiently putting more evidence onto the pile.
Having said that, certain areas have been carefully researched for many years, and there comes a point when a sensible decision can be made as to whether more and more replications are needed, or whether we can move on – to new avenues of enquiry. The literature and meta-analyses from micro-PK research suggest the micro-PK is a valid, low order, but replicable effect. So the question that follows is how can we move things forward? Can we think of fresh methods to ramp up effects? Can we utilise new technologies to better measure the phenomena and the processes that underpin them? If a large cheque came though my letter box, I would love to instigate some MRI studies. In turn, I am always fond of experiments that try to break new ground with creative approaches. In recent years I’ve followed the Global Consciousness Project with great interest.
What are the most promising research areas in parapsychology in terms of establishing the fact that there’s something to it?
In terms of positive results, the Ganzfeld has shown itself to be an effective means of generating supposedly paranormal effects, as has the micro-PK/REG based research already mentioned. Of course, there is always the argument that these laboratory based investigations have limited crossover to the real world – which ultimately is something we need to address. But, once phenomena are established in the lab – it’s pretty likely they exist outside the lab in some way.
Some of the DMILS work has also enjoyed good results, and I’d like to see more of it, as I believe it should help us understand how psi might operate in the real world. If psi is real, it probably didn’t develop to enable us to influence the electrical current of Zener diodes (these form the basis of many Random Event Generators).
Going to your book, The Hidden Whisper, why did you write it? What was your goal in writing it? Do you think you’ve achieved this goal?
When people find out what I do, I get a whole spectrum of responses. Some smile and change the subject, others tell me it’s all nonsense, and others instruct me at great length on esoteric and quite unique universal theories.
In between, there are a lot of people who are unsure as to what parapsychology is, and what parapsychologists do. They would like to know more without enduring a lecture. So, The Hidden Whisper is for them.
Who is the targeted audience for the book?
I tried to write a book that could be picked up and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their knowledge of parapsychology. I wanted to keep the book accessible and easy-going, and not get bogged down with lengthy didactic explanations. I also hope that people who enjoy mystery stories get a kick out of the narrative.
How much is Luke Jackson, the main character, based on yourself or perhaps other parapsychologists that you know?
Luke is a mix of real life people and fiction. I originally thought the book would take about a year to write, but it took three. Over that period Luke’s character morphed quite significantly. Luke Jackson (Mk.1) was very different to the one we see today.
Why did you select the case of poltergeist for the subject of the book. I would not consider poltergeist as a central aspect of parapsychology.
I wanted to write a book that hooked people into an interesting fast-paced story, and reckoned that mystery fiction – something with a central puzzle – was a good way to do so. I wanted to have an interesting plot which I could frame the science around. Poltergeists seemed to fit the bill.
How was the book accepted so far, by critics and by general audience?
So far, the reviews have been very pleasing… which is reassuring. A lot of time and effort was spent developing and writing the book, and if it had gone down like a lead balloon – I’d be in a right old grump. The ‘mix’ of fiction and expanded endnotes has been received especially well, which is good, as that was the riskiest part. A number of publishers I spoke with, advised me strongly against it.
One of the reviewers on Amazon suggested you write a series based on this character. Is this something you might want to consider?
There is another book, circulating in the back of my mind, but it is very different to The Hidden Whisper. I have no immediate plans to bring Luke back in any sequel, but you never know.
What other books on parapsychology could you recommend to people who are genuinely interested in it?
There are a number of good introductory books out there, including:
Irwin and Watt’s “An Introduction to Parapsychology”, Dean Radin’s “The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena”, and “Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence” (edited by Cardena, Lynn & Krippner).
Then, when you start to drill down into specific areas, there are numerous specialised titles. “Healing, Intention and Energy Medicine” (edited by Jonas & Crawford) is one I can recommend.
If people want to stay abreast of the latest research, the best thing to do is get hold of parapsychology journals, such as the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, the Journal of Parapsychology, the European Journal of Parapsychology, and the Journal of Scientific Exploration.
At the end of the book, you write about the skeptic-believer debate and how both sides need to consider that they might be wrong. What are your thoughts on the state of this debate today?
The broad ‘uninformed’ debate will tick along regardless of the facts. You find people on both sides who hold views that appear to bear no relation to the evidence. The debate between informed critics and advocates of the paranormal is more interesting in many ways, because it is one of interpretation. Informed critics are aware of the experiments and the positive results generated – it’s now a question of what they mean…
At the end of the day, I simply suggest that people form their own opinions by looking into parapsychology for themselves, from a fair and impartial starting point. It is up to both sides of the debate (proponents and sceptics) to put across their positions convincingly. They should do this backed up by evidence, not rhetoric or conjecture.
Let me thank JJ Lumsden for this great interview. I wish him best luck both in his parapsychology research and his writing career.