Today I’m glad to present interview with Annalisa Ventola. I first got to know her through her blog, Public Parapsychology. These days she’s the Executive Director of the Parapsychological Association. This interview was taken over email.
Annalisa, could you please tell our readers about yourself.
I am a the Executive Director of the Parapsychological Association, an associate member of the Center for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology at Lund University, Sweden, and the founder of Public Parapsychology, a web log devoted to promoting public scholarship in the fields of parapsychology and anomalous psychology.
I'm also a composer, performer, and music teacher. I have a small, private studio of 20-30 young pianists who see me once a week for tutoring. I also perform original piano/vocal music around Columbus, Ohio and have an EP album in development (http://www.annalisaventola.com/).
Could you describe the Parapsychological Association, how does it differ from other psi research associations (SPR, for example)
The Parapsychological Association is a professional association of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of psi (or 'psychic') experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition. The PA is similar to the structure of other kinds of professional academic associations, but unique in the types of members that it attracts and the programs that it offers.
Our professional membership is primarily made up of college and university professors, clinicians, counselors, and independent researchers who engage in psi research. The PA supports their work with publications like the Journal of Parapsychology and the Mindfield Bulletin, research grants, yearly awards and annual conventions. Additionally, the PA publishes a set of ethical standards by which our professional members abide.
What do you do at Parapsychological Association?
I am responsible for implementing the PA Board's plans and policies, managing general operations, recruiting and supervising staff and volunteers, conducting the official correspondence of the PA and communicating with PA membership and the general public.
What about your own research?
Lately my personal research efforts have taken a back seat to the PA's administrative needs, but prior to working for the PA, I was doing field research on haunting and poltergeist experiences. I assisted Devin Terhune and James Houran in a large-scale study that was funded by the Society for Scientific Exploration's Young Investigators Program (http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_21_1_terhune.pdf). It was a double-blind field study that investigated the physical characteristics of a reputedly haunted residence compared to the thoroughly "unhaunted" residence next door. Positive results from that study had me spending several years pursuing the question of how to evaluate photographic anomalies and work with expert consultants (The Parapsychological Association, Inc. 52nd Annual Convention Abstracts of Presented Papers – page 23).
More recently, I've worked with fellow parapsychologist Bryan Williams on several self-published primers created to assist paranormal enthusiasts in adopting parapsychological methods in their own field investigations. Each of our primers contains a thorough literature review on the topic under study followed by tips on how to put the knowledge from previous research into practice. So far we've covered temperature, magnetism, apparitional experiences, and poltergeist phenomena. The primers can be downloaded at http://www.annalisaventola.com/research/.
Please tell about the PA conferences. Who is the target audience? What interesting events or lectures took place at previous ones?
The annual convention of the Parapsychological Association – now in its 56th year – is where the parapsychological community comes together to present and discuss the latest research developments taking place in universities and private laboratories around the world. The target audience is generally academic, though the event is always open to the public.
At our last PA convention in Durham, North Carolina, two events come to mind as particularly interesting. One was a workshop chaired by Dr. Athena Drewes titled "Understanding and Responding to Child and Adult Psi Experiences". The workshop focused on the recognizing the differences between healthy and unhealthy paranormal experiences and how clinical parapsychologists can assist the mental health system in "de-pathologizing psi".
The other event was the annual J.B. Rhine address, which was given by Prof. Thomas Robisheaux of Duke University in Durham. Prof. Robisheaux is a historian and an engaging storyteller. In his address, he used the story of Psyche and Eros as an allegory for the major turning points in the study parapsychological phenomena. The way he weaved these threads together was quite brilliantly done.
What do you look forward to in the upcoming conference in Viterbo?
Right now what I'm looking forward to most is the accommodations and the food! I've been tracking Ora Domus La Quercia on Facebook and their food pictures make me salivate. I love to eat new foods when I travel and I can't wait to sample their fare.
The PA program Committee is still at work on the program, and until they are done I won't be able to say much more about what is happening at the Viterbo convention. However, Dr. Simon Thorpe has been invited to deliver the J.B. Rhine address this year. He is the research director of the Brain and Cognitive Research Center (CerCo) at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, France. He will be speaking on the possible implications of psi for cognitive neuroscience and thinking about the nature of mind and consciousness. This should be a very interesting talk.
What do you wish that people knew about parapsychology?
I wish that more people understood that parapsychology is an academic discipline and that in some parts of the world it is fully integrated in the university system. For example, in the United Kingdom there are 16 universities involved in teaching and/or researching parapsychology or anomalistic psychology. Anomalistic psychology is on the pre-university (A-level) psychology syllabus. And in 2010, the government-funded Higher Education Academy (HEA) organized a meeting for academics teaching parapsychology, which helped to firmly establish parapsychology and anomalistic psychology as legitimate sub-disciplines of psychology within UK academia.
Why does psi research have a hard time to be accepted in the mainstream science, in your opinion?
I would argue that psi research has already been accepted into mainstream science, even if its results remain controversial. The Parapsychological Association has been an affiliated organization of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science since 1969, which gives parapsychologists a forum to present their research findings to the larger scientific community. And as recently as 2011, the AAAS hosted a symposium titled "Quantum Retrocausation: Theory and Experiment" where several PA professional members were invited to speak.
2011 also saw the publication of Daryl Bem's "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – a paper that presented positive evidence for precognition in a high impact journal with a circulation of over 1300 subscribers.
Mindfield: The Bulletin of the Parapsychological Association hosts a regular column by PA Vice President Gerd Hövelmann titled "Articles Relevant to Parapsychology in the Journals of Various Fields." The latest installment of this bibliography has brought the total number of references to 715 articles since its inception in 2009.
These kinds of developments suggest to me that when it comes to mainstream science, parapsychology has already been given a seat at the table. However, science is far from an objective enterprise. Just like any system that attempts to establish truth or knowledge, scientific research is vulnerable to one's self-limiting beliefs, cultural assumptions, and organizational politics, as well as governmental and general socioeconomic concerns. Despite all that, scientists can -and should – at least aspire to objectivity, and many of my colleagues do this exceptionally well.
What do you think about the discussion that took place on TED site regarding the talks of Rupert Sheldrake?
The TED-Sheldrake controversy was heart breaking for me because prior to that I was a huge fan of TED talks. My husband and I recently purchased a smart TV with an app that brought TED talks directly to our television, and when all of that went down, I was positively addicted – watching at least 4-5 TED lectures per day. Since then, mine and TED's "bad breakup" has been a running joke with my friends.
Previous to the controversy, I had been under the impression that TED had a balanced approach to popularizing scientific and scholarly research, not just from the my initial engagement with their Sheldrake and Hancock talks, but after seeing excellent talks by people like Jeffrey Kripal and Cassandra Vieten among others. But there came a point when TED Conferences, LLC attempted to demonstrate that they were in the position to demarcate between science and pseudoscience. Their boilerplate criticisms – which had very little correspondence to the actual content of Sheldrake's talk – suggested to me that they were not up for the task. Fortunately, the incident has only shed more light on the valuable work of parapsychologists and consciousness researchers around the world. This has resulted in even wider support for the work that we do.
Where do you see parapsychology 10 years from now? 50 years?
Information technology is changing quickly and professional organizations like the PA have had to adapt to keep up. More and more, consumers of scientific research are demanding that organizations provide free and open access to their resources online. However, maintaining the quality of those resources requires a staff – editors, managers, proofers, etc.- and those resources are generally require funding. Just about every academic organization is facing this problem right now. Those who can effectively navigate the transition will be leading the organizations that flourish 10 years from now.
I'm encouraged to find students who are organizing their efforts to fill in some of the gaps as information technology expands. Recently we've seen freely available publications like Paranthropology and the Journal of Exceptional Experiences and Psychology emerge – publications founded by PA Student Members – with PA Professional Members occasionally contributing. The youth of the field are shaping new digital technologies and making them available to more established professionals. It may sound cliché to say that the youth are our future, but I see something unusual happening here.
The digital age is also bringing together the Western/Eastern and Northern/Southern hemispheres, and as researchers from different continents continue to network with each other, new terminology and new metaphors for understanding consciousness and explaining psi phenomena will emerge. At this point, parapsychology is very much a Western science – which is rooted in Western ways of thinking and Western concepts of self. But over the years, more and more Asian and South American researchers have been joining our ranks. Just recently, the PA has welcomed its first Arabic-speaking Professional Member. And for the last two years, the PA has been guided by our first South American President.
Fifty years from now, we can look forward to parapsychology developing into a multi-cultural science – less encumbered by limitations of a single worldview and thus more aware of our own assumptions. This blending of worldviews will bolster our aspirations toward objectivity – even if the results of our studies suggest that there may be no such thing.
My sincere gratitude to Annalisa for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure to take a look at her blog, the PA web site and its conference.