Ghostbusters? Investigator keen to dispell myths

Parapsychologist Dr Caroline Watt. Picture: Neil Hanna

Parapsychologist Dr Caroline Watt. Picture: Neil Hanna

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IT’S the profession made famous by the 1984 hit movie Ghostbusters – conjuring up images of haunted houses, wacky machinery and terrifying encounters.

But sitting in her ordinary-looking office, parapsychologist Dr Caroline Watt is quick to dispel any lingering clichés about what she does for a living.

The friendly 52-year-old might investigate ghosts and psychic abilities, but she insists it’s nothing like the films and TV shows.

And in an attempt to blast away the tired old stereotypes, the mysterious Koestler Parapsychology Unit she heads up will be opening its doors for the first time ever this month as part of the Fringe.

From August 15 to 22, brave visitors will be taken to a windowless laboratory deep in Edinburgh University’s George Square buildings and given the chance to show off their own psychic abilities – or, at least, have a go at learning to fake it.

“I wanted to do something to basically draw the public’s attention to the unit, and also there’s a lot of misinformation about parapsychology out there and people don’t really know what it is that parapsychologists do – they think about Ghostbusters, the movie,” Dr Watt says.

“And so this is an event that’s designed to be fun and interactive, but also to inform people about parapsychology – how you can fool yourself about psychic abilities and how, if you’re a parapsychologist, you would conduct a control test.”

Under the tutelage of Dr Watt, the audience can turn their hand to a raft of paranormal techniques designed to test psychic abilities – including the ganzfeld experiment, which sees participants bathed in red light and placed in a state of mild sensory deprivation as they attempt to receive mental images or thoughts from someone in a separate room.

Looking for evidence of psychic powers is an area the Koestler Unit, currently the UK’s only endowed chair of parapsychology, has specialised in since it was set up in 1985.

This year the department is celebrating its 30th anniversary – a landmark that contributed to its decision to throw open its doors to the public. Over three decades, its students and academics have produced heaps of detailed studies on everything from near-death experiences to dreams that apparently predict the future.

But despite some of the unit’s carefully constructed tests coming up with positive results, Dr Watt insists she’s yet to come across any concrete evidence for the supernatural.

“The Koestler Parapsychology Unit is trying to examine whether or not people have psychic ability – and also look at the normal explanations for paranormal experiences,” she says.

“In many cases – perhaps in all cases – in the real world there are often normal psychological factors going on. For example, just straight 
coincidences.

“Every now and then, you’ll have a dream that will correspond to a future event. We all dream several times every night and we forget most of our dreams, but if an event happens that reminds us of our dream we may think we predicted it. We forget all the dreams we had that didn’t come true and that didn’t match events.

“There’s lots of normal psychology – that’s why we sit quite comfortably within a psychology department. At least half of what I do looks at that side – what’s not psychic but looks like it.”

She adds: “One way that people have contact with claims of psychic abilities is through going to see mediums or visiting psychic readers like clairvoyants.

“These are people who claim to be able to tell you something about yourself, about your future, through paranormal means.

“What I try to show in the [Fringe event] is that we give out a lot of information about ourselves without even realising it – without even speaking, actually.

“You can make a lot of educated guesses about a person’s lifestyle, health, social class, background and their family circumstances.

“Depending on their age, we all go through certain phases of life – at my age you’re starting to worry about parents being ill and dying.

“We do some demonstrations where we ask members of the audience to write on a slip of paper something about themselves that they wouldn’t mind other people knowing.

“And then we have the audience try to guess who it is that, for example, learned to unicycle when they were ten years old. We have the audience try to play the psychic.”

But searching for evidence of psychic abilities – sometimes called extrasensory perception (ESP) or the sixth sense – isn’t the only thing that takes up Dr Watt’s time.

She might balk at the popular image of parapsychologists as something akin to the Scooby-Doo gang, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t done a fair bit of ghost-hunting and debunking in her time.

Back in 2009, Dr Watt and her partner Richard Wiseman – the renowned psychology professor and TV host – launched a project in conjunction with the Edinburgh International Science Festival where they asked the public to send in photographs of ghosts.

After a public vote for the spookiest snap, they were left with a spine-tingling picture showing a strange figure lurking in the shadows of a window opening at Tantallon Castle in East Lothian.

The baffled photographer claimed there was no-one present at the time the image was taken, and no actors at the castle in period costume – leaving the presence of the phantom a mystery.

Experts, meanwhile, said the image did not appear to have been digitally altered in any way.

But Dr Watt and Professor Wiseman were able to cast doubt on the photograph after going back to the exact spot it was taken and recreating it – with Wiseman, clad in a black cape, playing the part of the ghost.

Dr Watt explained: “We were able to almost exactly recreate the look of the photograph.

“That doesn’t prove it wasn’t a ghost, but what it does suggest is that it could well have been a person that just got caught while he was taking a photograph and the photographer just didn’t notice at the time.”

On another occasion, Dr Watt and her team mapped the location of ghostly experiences in the notoriously haunted Edinburgh Vaults under South Bridge.

By asking people to pinpoint places they had felt uneasy, the academic hoped to take a systematic look at the paranormal and discover what physical conditions could be contributing to feelings of fear.

What she discovered was disappointingly mundane. In a lot of cases, people were simply responding to basic things such as the size of the room. In large, dark spaces, people naturally felt more afraid – and attributed this to the presence of the supernatural.

But Dr Watt – who insists she hates the word “debunking” and its implication that the aim is to undermine someone – admits she’s much more at home in her lab working with ordinary members of the public than she is out and about chasing ghouls.

And while concrete evidence of the paranormal might still be a long way off, she insists her field has advanced in leaps and bounds since the Edinburgh department first opened its doors 30 years ago.

“One of our main achievements, I think, has been helping the discipline get a foothold in mainstream academia,” she said.

“About one in four people have had an experience they think is paranormal. As a psychologist, as well as a parapsychologist, that’s very 
interesting.”

Unbelievable: The Science of the Paranormal will run at the Psychology Department, Venue 364, at 5pm from August 15 to 22. Entry is free.

Koestler controversy

EDINBURGH University’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit launched in 1985 after noted writer Arthur Koestler bequeathed his estate to establish a Chair of Parapsychology at a UK university.

Arthur, who suffered from Parkinson’s and leukaemia, and Cynthia, his apparently healthy wife, both committed suicide in 1983. The £1 million boost they donated has helped secure the department’s future in the years since.

But Koestler has proved a controversial figure in the decades following his death, with an explosive 1998 biography accusing him of beating up and raping several women.