Richard: There are a great number of people interested in the study of the paranormal; some are looking for education within the field to provide them with the intellectual tools to proceed, what would be your recommendation?
Dr. Watt: Joining the Parapsychological Association (PA) is a good place to start. The PA also has a page on its website about educational opportunities in parapsychology. In terms of reading, I have co-authored an introductory textbook with Harvey Irwin, which reviews the scientific literature on parapsychology. It’s fairly densely-packed, but informative. For something more accessible, there’s always my online course…
Richard: I understand you lead an online course through Koestler Parapsychology Unit. Who do you feel this course is best suited for?
Dr. Watt: My course runs twice a year (next run is in April) and is open to anyone who can use the internet. It attracts individuals from around the world who want to know more about parapsychology, both believers and skeptics. If readers are interested, they can find out more about the content of the course on the Koestler Parapsychology Unit website.
Richard: Your career in parapsychology is an inspiration too many people, what advice would you give to those who want to pursue serious work in this field?
Dr. Watt: First of all get a good quality undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline. Psychology is probably the degree that most parapsychologists have, but it depends on where your interests lie. Other relevant disciplines are physics, philosophy, and anthropology. You should make sure you have high level (MSc in the UK) methodological training that is appropriate for the area or question that interests you. Become familiar with the relevant literature, and approach a university-based academic who publishes in that area to see if they would be willing to supervise a PhD on that topic. (Of course, you have to be good enough to apply for a PhD in the first place!) Technically, there are no PhDs in “Parapsychology” (not from a reputable institution, that is). Rather, the PhDs are in mainstream subjects such as Psychology but specializing on a parapsychological question and supervised by an academic who is expert in that area.
Richard: Can you tell us a little bit on the work you have done in near death experiences and your conclusion that all aspects of these experiences are based in neurological responses?
Dr. Watt: I was second author on a discussion paper published recently in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. If you read the paper, you’ll see that we suggest that there are a number of understood physiological and psychological mechanisms that can produce experiences that are similar, if not identical, to aspects of Near Death Experiences. The paper suggests that we can gain a better understanding of NDEs if we focus on these mechanisms. That’s not a particularly controversial thing to say, but some NDE researchers would strongly disagree, and think that NDEs tell us something about survival of the soul or personality after physical death. However, surveys have shown that around half of those who report NDEs were not physically in danger of dying at the time of the experience. This indicates that there is a strong psychological component to the experience. In many cases, it is the perception that one is at risk of death that appears to trigger the experience. Of course, this does not make the experience any less profound or meaningful for the person who has the NDE. Typically, NDEs are life-changing experiences, and they will continue to be life-changing whatever lies behind them.
Richard: What are your thoughts on why it appears that work in parapsychology is largely accepted in the UK and yet it is deeply ridiculed in the United States and Canada?
Dr. Watt: Is it really deeply ridiculed in North America? What I have observed is that in the UK and the European Continent, parapsychologists have tended to situate themselves within established academia – for instance in psychology departments within respected universities. In this way, they can show their colleagues at first hand that they are responsible and careful researchers. That tends to open minds and open doors much in the same way that racial prejudice can disappear when people of different races get to know each other as individuals. In the US, there is a greater tendency for research units to be independent, which leads to more of an ‘us and them’ mentality, and in my view breeds mutual distrust and misunderstanding.
Richard: How large a role do you feel skepticism plays in paranormal research?
Dr. Watt: Depends on what you mean by skepticism.
If you’re referring to organisations such as those led by Paul Kurtz (now deceased) and James Randi, in the last couple of decades I think they’ve turned their attention away from academic parapsychology. I regard this as a tacit admission that we are doing good science and there are easier targets for these groups now, such as climate change deniers, homeopaths, and creationists.
If you mean skepticism in the dictionary sense of the word (‘questioning’) then I think that is absolutely crucial to parapsychology. If someone makes a claim, the proper skeptical response is to ask ‘how do you know that?’. Parapsychologists are often their own best critics, and questioning in this way leads to improved standards of research.
Richard: Can you tell us about your work in precognitive dream experiences?
Dr. Watt: I’m fortunate enough to have won funding from the Perrott-Warrick Fund to investigate psychological and parapsychological aspects of precognitive dream experiences. Some of this work has looked at how selective recall, propensity to see correspondences, and implicit awareness, may lead to an increased frequency of such experiences. I’ve also been testing the idea that people’s dreams genuinely can predict future events. So far I haven’t found support for this hypothesis, but I’m still working on it! Even if there are psychological explanations for some precognitive dream experiences, logically that does not rule out the possibility that paranormal factors may operate in other cases.
Richard: Can you tell us about the fascinating work you did on the Psychology of Paranormal Beliefs and Experiences?
Dr. Watt: One study in particular built upon previous research that suggested that, for some individuals, paranormal belief may develop because it satisfies a motivation they have to feel in control of their environment. I asked people to report how much control they had felt as a child (for instance, moving house often, living in a large and chaotic household, having divorcing parents can all lead a child to feel a lack of control.) I found that those who reported less childhood control also reported higher levels of paranormal belief. It doesn’t prove that the two are causally connected, but it does support the hypothesis that the two are linked somehow. There is evidence elsewhere that superstitious beliefs are held more strongly in areas that are risky to live in, for instance if it is dangerous to hunt for food, or if one is at risk of missile attack. Again, these beliefs tend to give us a comforting sense of control.
Richard: Do you feel there could be a next book from you on parapsychology in the future?
Dr. Watt: Funny you should say that – I’ve just had an offer from a publisher, but can’t discuss it at the moment. Watch this space!
Richard: Any parting thoughts you wish to express to the readers?
Dr. Watt: Keep questioning!