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A Seriously Strange Conference reviewed
The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) celebrated its 30th Anniversary in beautiful scenery of the City of Bath. The biggest paranormal conference for a decade took place at the University Campus, and was masterminded as two-day event full of presentations, speeches, Paranormal Olympics, book stands, and complemented by the Gala Dinner.
The highlight for all fans of horror movies was the Gala Dinner Speaker: Stephen Volk, the author of the infamous Ghostwatch, Afterlife, Gothic, Octane and Superstition...to name just a few.
The interest in paranormal crosses the borders of many professions and sciences. An evident example of the multidisciplinary nature of the paranormal research was the fact that conference speakers represented a wide variety of professional backgrounds including sociology, archaeology, anthropology, computer forensics, law, chemistry, instrumentation technology and psychology. The presentations included a broad range of subjects from crop circles, ghosts, mediums, Bigfoot, paranormal TV, electronic voice phenomenon to Black Dog apparitions and UFOs.
What added to the variety of perspectives what the fact that some speakers represented the Believers in paranormal phenomena while others appeared to be more on, so-called, Sceptics' side. The programme of the conference offered a rare opportunity not only to learn about subjects one was particularly interested in but also to broaden one's horizons with knowledge one wouldn't otherwise seek. For example, although I had no interest in UFOs I was intrigued by the findings on disinformation and deception techniques presented by Mark Pilkington, author of the book "Mirage Men".
Particularly interesting from my perspective, as a graduate psychologist, were the presentations of two Senior Lecturers in Psychology, Dr Simon Sherwood and Dr Paul Rogers. They approached the subject of anomalous phenomena from two very different perspectives. Dr Sherwood from the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes (CSAPP) at the University of Northampton presented the results of preliminary qualitative thematic analysis of the reports of apparitions of Black Dogs. By using his Internet website (www.blackshuck.info) to gather reports of Black Dogs apparitions he collected 60 cases, including 52 first-hand accounts.
Although Black Dogs are often seen as part of the British folklore, Dr Sherwood's analysis indicates that the reports of their apparitions come from many other countries, especially USA and Canada. Dr Sherwood collected the reports, majority being a first-hand accounts, between 2000 and 2008, which suggests that the Black Dog apparitions, rather than being a forgotten part of folklore, are a phenomena, which is still being reported to this day.
An unusual addition to his collection of the reports of Black Dog apparitions was his own account of his childhood encounter with ghostly Black Dog. Dr Sherwood is currently conducting a survey of people who have and have not experienced a ghostly phenomena. His research is focusing on the exploration of individual traits, which might affect our tendency to experience ghost apparitions.
Dr Paul Rogers from the University of Central Lancashire is also pursuing his interest in the study of individual differences in the experiences of paranormal phenomena. Dr Rogers' presentation, however, appeared to have much more sceptical focus. He presented the results of numerous studies which indicate that Believers in paranormal are poorer at some probabilistic reasoning tasks and they tend to misperceive randomness and co-occurring events. His presentation was met with a lot of questions from the audience.
Although the implications of his research might have been difficult to accept for some of the participants they remained respectful in voicing their opinions. Presenting his research at the conference, which attracted at least as many believers as sceptics, was a brave step, which gave an opportunity for discussion and, again, exposed the audience to findings of the studies, which might have challenged their beliefs.
The centrepiece of the event was the Big Announcement that ASSAP had become recognised by the UK government as the national professional body for paranormal investigators. Majority of the members welcomed this announcement as good news. More information on that subject can be found on the ASSAP website.
The conference attracted people interested in paranormal phenomena but one should not presume that the beliefs of all participants were united. In fact, most of them would describe themselves as either Believes in paranormal or as Sceptics. In spite of apparent differences in opinions and beliefs held by the two groups the conference was characterised by friendly and peaceful atmosphere, full of acceptance and mutual respect. It offered a rare opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds and representing dissimilar, or even contradicting, views.
Although being non-judgemental is exactly what all good psychology courses teach, how often do we purposefully put ourselves in an environment where our ability to suspend our own preconceptions and belief systems is going to be challenged? Surprisingly, the most remarkable advice, which was offered at the conference, did not come from a psychologist, but from a chartered chemist: Dr Hugh Pincott. He pointed out that "being both scientific and sympathetic may achieve positive results" and that as researchers we should "involve Sensitives in our experiments as equal partners".
The interest in paranormal is frowned upon in some university circles and often rejected by mainstream scientists. As Dr Matthews Johnson, a clinical child psychologist from Oregon, pointed out: "being child psychologist who saw a Big Foot isn't good for business". Paranormal phenomena are undoubtedly a challenging area of research. It is rather sad that psychological interest in studying such phenomena has been suppressed by physics envy and fears of loosing one's professional credibility.
A better understanding of experiences, which contemporary sciences struggle to explain, might offer invaluable insight into human behaviour. For example: could working with mediums help us gain better understanding of hearing voices experience in schizophrenia? Perhaps it is worth to dare to be open-minded and practice our non-judgemental psychological attitude on the one of the most intriguing subject of all: paranormal research?
This report was written by Lucy Czwartos
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