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PARIS IN AUGUST:
A REVIEW OF THE 45TH ANNUAL PA CONVENTION

CHRIS A. ROE

 

THE VENUE FOR the PA Convention in 2002 was the elegant Terrass Hotel in the popular Montmartre district of Paris. Known for its nightlife and as a haven for artists, the area is home to the Moulin Rouge (made famous in posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and more recently in a Hollywood musical starring Nicole Kidman), the bustling Place du Terte and the striking Sacré-Coeur that stands at the top of the limestone hill and overlooks the whole city. The conference organisers, and in particular our host Mario Varvoglis are to be congratulated on finding such an agreeable location. No doubt these many distractions helped attract such good attendance at a convention that also boasted a full and varied programme.

The convention was opened with some welcoming remarks by Mario Varvoglis and by Caroline Watt who served as the Programme Chair for the event. The first paper was delivered by Bob Bourgeois, who described ongoing research he has conducted with John Palmer using computerised tests to explore ESP in children. These studies make good use of Bourgeois’ considerable skills as a programmer to produce testing formats that engage and entertain participants whose attention may be more difficult than most to secure. Unfortunately the results to date have been disappointing, with no overall significant scoring and some real difficulties in recruiting participants. René Peo’ch followed by overviewing his ingenious work that exploits our understanding of imprinting in chicks to produce a PK testing protocol in which a robot ‘mother’ is moved randomly according to the output from an RNG. Peo’ch reported that the robot spent significantly more time in the vicinity of imprinted chicks than might be expected by chance. This strand of research, which extends back over twenty years (indeed some has been published in our Journal), excited a lot of interest with numerous questions asking about various features of the design of these studies.

The next session was concerned with the representation of ‘paranormal’ phenomena, and began with an entertaining talk by Pete Lamont, who considered the manner in which the Victorians sought to defend their belief in the Bible (particularly the Gospels), including the numerous instances where natural laws are apparently violated, at a time when such apparent violations that did not involve Divine intervention (e.g., as found in the séance room) were subject to much closer scientific scrutiny and had to meet more stringent criteria to be accepted. Miriam Moss followed with a fascinating analysis of the (at times very subtle) strategies that can be used by the television media to encourage a reading of the presented phenomena as genuine or as fraudulent.

After lunch yours truly described some of the work being done at UCN looking at ESP and PK performance using a common protocol that allows us more confidently to look for points of similarity and difference, and which could bear on the question of whether these phenomena are distinct or actually aspects of a single phenomenon. The next two talks were invited addresses given by previous winners of the Gertrude Schmeidler Outstanding Student Award. Stefan Schmidt gave a thoughtful reflection on the issue of replicability. His talk included some entertaining light-hearted moments, but also some important lessons concerning the notion of what different forms of replication actually consist of, and which are sanctioned within science. Simon Sherwood gave a thorough overview of the important research — now largely neglected — on dream ESP which, incidentally, has produced better results than ganzfeld stimulation in four of five direct comparisons. He gave a useful breakdown of study characteristics and outcome that gave some clear guidance on how future research should be conducted.

After coffee Mario Varvoglis introduced an interesting session on French psychical research, in which he compared its origin and remit with that of the British SPR, noting a greater emphasis on the continent upon the investigation of physical phenomena. The session itself was essentially divided into  ‘segments’ dealing with investigations from different periods of history. The first speaker was Bertrand Meheust, who gave an absorbing account of the life of Alexis Didier, a celebrated psychic known particularly for his ‘magnetisme’ effects. Didier was never caught cheating and indeed after two sittings with Robert Houdin, the latter admitted that he could neither produce nor explain the phenomena he had witnessed. But despite giving demonstrations for over 20 years Didier was effectively ignored by the French scientific elite and is virtually forgotten in France, being much better known to British researchers (such as Hyslop and Gauld). Mario Varvoglis then talked about his ‘conversion’ upon taking over as Director of the Institute Métapsychique (IMI), beginning with how on first seeing the Kluski hand moulds he laughed to see that such artifacts of fraud were still being taken seriously. However, through close study of the writings of Geley he became convinced that they should be accepted as genuine paranormal objects. In his talk he focused mainly on the 14 sessions with Kluski that were conducted at IMI in 1920, describing the procedure and outcome, and later exhibiting some of the actual moulds that were produced. Grégory Gutierez gave a paper on experiments at IMI with Rudi Schneider, but also included an overview of his remarkable career as a participant in experiments with researchers such as Harry Price. The talk was illustrated with some fine photographs of séances held with Schneider in the early 1930s and also included a tape recording made at the time that demonstrated the peculiar pattern of breathing that Schneider engaged in while in trance. Unfortunately, the final scheduled speaker Djohar Si Ahmed was unable to attend, but the other speakers stimulated a great number of questions and still managed to overrun the allocated time for the session. Reflecting on these talks, it did seem unjust that despite being in the heart of Paris, French researchers still courteously spoke in English. Their presentations were impressively clear and left this speaker feeling a little embarrassed at not being able to reciprocate.

The second day began with a session devoted to statistical and methodological issues. Ulrich Timm and Emil Boller described a method of analysis that would allow researchers to recognise variance in their data that is not attributable to chance but which may not be evident from simple mean shifts. This technique has already been applied to a series of five REG-PK experiments with the overall significance being adjusted from p = .34 to p = .013. Jan Dalkvist, Joakim Westerlund and Dick Bierman explored a potential drift in participants’ arousal levels during presentiment studies that may occur as a result of them believing that the more consecutive trials they experience with a calm stimulus, the more likely that the next stimulus will be arousing (a version of the gambler’s fallacy). They hypothesised that this could offer an explanation of the presentiment effect. Although it had previously been argued that such a bias could not produce the condition differences attributed to presentiment, the authors did find some evidence that there may be a small bias, albeit only where runs are very long and summary scores are calculated in a particular way. The final talk in the session was by Jiri Wackermann, who also considered how a participant’s memory of past trials and expectancies for future trials might influence their response on a particular trial. He used an amusing ‘dinners model’ to show that even with correct randomisation there would be a deviation from zero in terms of the mean difference between conditions.

The second morning session was devoted to shorter research briefs. The first of these, by Alexis Champion and Bernard Auriol, used a version of the word association task in which participants are presented with a word and are to give the first word that comes to mind in association with it. Their program automatically records and times their responses. Details of a small pilot study were presented and we await details from more extensive studies. Next Jerome Daltrozzo presented a paper co-authored with Yves Lignon that revisits the work of Cleve Backster into the responses of plants to trauma suffered by other organisms in their environment. Daltrozzo proposed a design of study intended to replicate and extend this work. It was noted during questions that Backster’s original work was prone to artifact problems which would need to be addressed in any future work. Jezz Fox gave an impressive demonstration of a digital autoganzfeld system that has been developed with Matt Smith and Carl Williams at Liverpool Hope University College. This excited a great deal of interest in their computer program, which the authors say will be freely available to interested researchers. The program is written for a Macintosh platform at present but there are plans to develop a PC version. Mario Varvoglis also announced that the program had been used that very morning for a Belgian television team who filmed a ganzfeld session with Matt Smith as sender and Rick Berger as receiver. This produced a striking hit in which the target was given a rating of 100 (out of 100) and the receiver wanted to give all the other three a rating of zero.

Ciaran O’Keeffe and Gaëlle Villejoubert took as their starting point some of Kahneman and Tversky’s work on probability judgement in which participants are presented with scenarios and are asked to gauge the likelihood of certain outcomes. They described how they intended to replicate and extend this work. During questions they were rather unfairly criticised on the grounds that the scenarios are quite simplistic and contain so little relevant information as to make it impossible for participants to make probability judgements. But this misses the point. Participants nevertheless were able to make such judgements, and it was clear from the presentation that part of the purpose of this series of studies was to determine (for example, through interview) how participants felt able to arrive at an estimate at all.

Stanley Krippner can be relied upon to give lively and informative presentations. On this occasion he enthusiastically described work done in collaboration with Paul Devereux and Adam Fish to see whether there were tangible differences in dream content when sleeping at ‘sacred sites’ and when sleeping at home. The results seemed promising but unfortunately do seem to be confounded by non-independence and the fact that participants clearly were aware of whether they were at a sacred site or at home. It would have been interesting to take participants blindly to other, non-sacred sites that shared many of the other physical features of the sites used (e.g., in terms of temperature/exposure, or comfortableness) to see whether dreams there were more like home dreams or sacred site dreams. The final paper of this session was by Ferdinand de Pablos, who described with great clarity a memory model of precognition that he has explored empirically by analysing his own potentially precognitive dreams (see his recent article in the Journal).

After lunch Paul Stevens gave a thought-provoking talk in which he introduced a simplified model of dyadic ESP that is based on reinforcement and requires minimal information transfer. Instead it relies on a feedback loop, in which the sender reinforces accurate material produced randomly by the receiver. Given that it relies on feedback to the sender (to allow for attempts at reinforcement) the model may not be applicable to some real-world situations, such as found in cases of crisis telepathy, but could readily apply to others, such as psychic readings. Also, the model should be readily testable, for example it might suggest that longer mentations should be more successful than shorter ones in standard ganzfeld protocols. The next paper was presented by Holger Bösch who along with Fiona Steinkamp and Emil Boller provided an updated meta-analysis of studies in which participants attempted to influence the output of an RNG. Their intention was to attempt to identify moderator variables that might distinguish successful from unsuccessful studies. They found a very small (albeit statistically significant) deviation, which seemed to be related to study size, with smaller studies reporting larger effects. There has been some discussion of the validity of some of the assumptions made in their analysis and an updated journal paper is awaited with interest.

Stefan Schmidt described two meta-analyses conducted with Rainer Schneider, Jessica Utts and Harald Walach on the related paradigms of direct mental interactions with living systems (DMILS) and detection of remote gaze. They found small but significant effects for both data sets, although for DMILS the effect sizes were negatively correlated with study quality, with a smaller and non-significant mean effect size from the seven highest quality studies.

After coffee Cheryl Alexander overviewed research on cerebral lateralisation and ESP performance, concluding that there is no consistent evidence for a right hemisphere superiority. She compared these findings with outcomes from more sensitive studies of brain activity (typically EEG) which shows alpha activity with greater power over the right parietal region. Continuing the theme, John Palmer discussed work conducted in collaboration with Vernon Neppe, in which they found that among 100 recent clinical patients of Neppe’s, those diagnosed as having temporal lobe dysfunction based on questionnaire responses had experienced significantly more spontaneous paranormal events (SPEs). Using EEG data, for females (but not for males) there was a significant association between temporal lobe abnormalities and incidence of SPEs. Willoughby Britten had in collaboration with Richard Bootzin looked at this same relationship but from the opposite direction. That is, where Palmer and Neppe had looked to see if those with temporal lobe signs had paranormal experiences, Britten had looked at people with paranormal experiences (specifically near-death experiences) to see if they presented with temporal lobe signs (TLS). She reported that NDErs did score more highly on a number of TLS measures as well as, interestingly, showing decreased sleep and increased REM latency. Finally for this session Dick Bierman gave an update on research on pre-stimulus response (or presentiment) effects, in which participants seem to be responding physiologically to a calming or arousing picture before it has been presented to them (indeed before the type of picture to be shown has been decided). Here Bierman and colleagues didn’t measure skin conductance (EDA) as has commonly been done, but rather used FMR imaging techniques to take brain scans that would give a more ‘direct’ measure of emotional response. Firstly they looked to see how the brain regions respond differently to stimuli of different emotionality, and then went on to find some evidence of a presentiment effect at –4 seconds. The method is still imperfect, since FMRI cannot produce an instantaneous snapshot of the whole brain (typically the succession of ‘slices’ takes about 2.1 seconds to complete), but this is undoubtedly a promising advance.

The third day began with Joop Houtkooper, who noted how recent RNG-based PK tasks typically require participants to produce a virtually continuous influence on the target system, which is in stark contrast to the short-duration and sporadic influence required for PK dice tasks that had proven so successful previously. In a pilot experiment he had addressed this by keeping the runs short (about five seconds) with half of the trials hidden. There was no significant overall hitting, but a number of planned and unplanned analyses were significant. The next paper, by Cornelia Herbert, Gabriella Boehm and Werner Pilhal, described a pilot study that took the startle eye-blink response as a sensitive measure of non-conscious awareness of the emotional content of a sender’s target picture. This response is known to be affected by emotional arousal and valence and so is potentially a useful indirect measure of participants’ awareness of remote targets. Unfortunately the data to date show no evidence of telepathy. Finally for this session Louie Savva and Chris French outlined three interesting studies that considered whether a psi effect might be found in the Stroop colour-naming task. Although the initial study found some evidence for a pre-stimulus response, this was by only one of three analyses, and subsequent replications (which included significant modifications of procedure) did not find the effect.

Serena Roney-Dougal reported on the latest phase of a series of studies of the effects of healing upon lettuce growth and health. This work will be familiar to SPR members through recent presentations at conferences and publications in our Journal. In these thorough and well controlled field studies (literally!) Serena reported that those seeds that a healer had held showed a striking (and — depending on the analysis — statistically significant) improvement in comparison with controls.

This was followed by a further session of research briefs that began with Frauke Zahradnik who described how grounded theory — a standard method of qualitative data analysis among social scientists — had been applied to the reports of unusual phenomena that are received by the Parapsychological Counselling Office in Freiburg. This powerful technique promises to allow greater insight to be drawn from the rich data they have than could be achieved through simple coding. Erlendur Haraldsson next updated us on his research with children who report past-life experiences. Here he described an attempt to replicate earlier findings in Sri Lanka in which he was interested to identify a common psychological profile for experiencers. Giullio Caratelli and Maria Luisa Felici described how they had been stimulated by Lambert’s notion that poltergeist cases tend to occur near water, and had attempted to confirm his finding using 25 cases that had occurred in Rome. It was not possible to test Lambert’s hypothesis because there were so many underground water sources that it would have been difficult to find a case that wasn’t near any of them (a criticism that had been levelled against Lambert himself). The analysis was transformed into an investigation of clustering, since cases did seem be concentrated in particular regions. However, it is too early to say whether this is meaningful beyond indicating that people who share a neighbourhood are likely to share a particular belief system, or inhabit buildings prone to similar creaks and groans. Indeed we cannot yet know whether we have anything more than the kind of clustering that can occur by chance, a phenomenon that is well known in, for example, epidemiological studies. Ironically, after the poltergeist talk there was a computer malfunction that prevented the next presentation from being given as scheduled. Deborah Delanoy kindly stepped into the breach to give a descriptive review of EDA-DMILS studies, focusing particularly on internal effects, such as personality and participant relationships. The review highlighted the need for more systematic exploration of individual differences using common measures. Undaunted by their earlier technical glitch, Miltos Hadjiosif and David Weidlich, two of a team of seven undergraduate students at Edinburgh University, described a project they had conducted that considered sensitivity to remote staring using performance at a ‘wobbly wire task’ as a response measure. There was no evidence of any effect suggestive of the detection of remote staring. This is unfortunate, because the method does seem to have some promise, although any psi effects may be swamped by simple social facilitation effects.

After lunch, Matt Smith presented data from a survey, conducted in collaboration with Michael Gordon, of active researchers in the field that was concerned with identifying why some experimenters seem to regularly or often produce ‘successful’ studies of psi whereas others are equally unsuccessful. They identified some promising predictors, although it is not yet clear if these are causes or consequences of experimental success.

Caroline Watt, as well as serving as Program Chair for the event and ensuring that presenters kept to time, also presented two papers on experimenter effects that were scheduled to follow one from the other. She really can’t complain, however, as she was responsible for the schedule! The first paper used a ‘behavioural DMILS’ in which participants undertook a focusing task. This allowed her to look at potential experimenter effects by recruiting a number of experimenters who differed in their level of belief or scepticism. She found that overall hitting could be attributed to trials with believer experimenters. The second paper, with Richard Wiseman, looked into experimenter effects upon the apparent relationship between paranormal belief and cognitive ability, but also involved a psi task (a kind of remote viewing procedure). They reported some support for a negative correlation between belief and performance at syllogisms that could not be accounted for in terms of a context effect.

Chris French then described a collection of cases of sleep paralysis gathered in collaboration with Nick Rose and Sue Blackmore. He gave an interesting breakdown of the features of such experiences. Survey data were factor analysed to identify co-occurring themes.

There followed a moving tribute to Elisabeth Targ who sadly died recently. Both Stanley Krippner and Robert Morris talked warmly about her passion for science and her keen intellect; she was clearly much loved and will be sorely missed. A minute’s silence was observed in her memory.

The 2002 PA awards were made to Christine Simmonds (the Gertrude Schmeidler outstanding student), and in absentia Harvey Irwin (outstanding achievement) and Remy Chauvin (lifetime achievement). Mario Varvoglis then delivered his presidential address, in which he began by reviewing his own involvement with the field, focusing especially on an important period of transition for him in the late 1970s when he moved from the more spiritually-oriented environs of Maimonides to the more scientifically-oriented situation that prevailed at PRL. He characterised the current state of parapsychology in terms of types of approach to the phenomena, using the amusing but effective analogy of wearing different coloured hats to reflect different modes of thinking. He argued that parapsychologists were too fond of their objectivist hat when at times other, perhaps more emotional hats would be appropriate.

The PA banquet was especially memorable this year, as dinner was served aboard a chartered boat that cruised along the Seine. Before the banquet, Isabelle Stengers, the renowned philosopher and historian of science, gave a stimulating analysis of the plight of parapsychology from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider. During dinner many took the opportunity to enjoy a spectacular interlude between courses, going on deck to take in the air and the sights of Paris illuminated against the night sky.

Despite the late finish the previous evening, those who managed to make the first session were rewarded with a description by Chris Simmonds and Jezz Fox of a novel method for testing for psi that presented participants with on screen visual noise. The procedure did not involved progressive relaxation, and did not seem to be intended to induce an altered state, as participants were encouraged to ‘see’ imagery in the visual noise. The authors reported overall significant missing, although the mentations were reminiscent of those produced during ganzfeld stimulation.

Stuart Wilson argued convincingly that there is merit in comparing psi with other unconscious processes and that parapsychology can learn from recent advances in the field of perception without awareness (as subliminal perception is now called). He described two studies conducted with Robert Morris that attempted to reproduce the false recognition effect, first with a traditional (subliminal) preentation, and then with a psi stimulus. Christine Simmonds returned to the floor to give an account of a study that compared participants’ performance in a ganzfeld condition with that in a waking control condition. Although there was no overalll significant hitting in either condition, there were some interesting differences between the two states.

The programme ended with another session of invited addresses from PA award winners in previous years, in this case more senior researchers who had won recognition for their outstanding contribution to parapsychology. Evan Harris Walker gave an absorbing talk that almost, for this reviewer, made aspects of a physicist’s interpretation of psi intelligible. This was achieved through the device of presenting a dialogue with Clarence, the guardian angel from It’s a Wonderful Life. (I suspect you had to be there to understand.) In his talk, Walter von Lucadou distinguished between true machines an pseudo-machines, the latter of which incorporates consciousness or psychology. This led into a cogent summary of his model of pragmatic information.

In summary, the conference can be regarded a success, including as it did such a diverse and generally well-conceived set of studies and analyses. If this is indicative of anything it may be that despite limited funding parapsychology remains as vigorous as ever.

 
Thanks to Dr. Chris Roe, Editor, Paranormal Review (the magazine of the Society for Psychical Research) for providing this report.

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