The SSPR Investigation Group met on Sunday the 17th of June, 2018 at 1.30pm until 3.45 pm in the Glasgow Theosophical Society, 17 Queens Crescent. Glasgow, G4 9BL.
The Case Co-ordinator presented a talk on how the SSPR Investigated the Paranormal, highlighting various issues, exploring the ethics of investigation the paranormal and finally exploring various case examples and how the SSPR responded.
It was stressed that the SSPR has no corporate view on the paranormal, but the paranormal, must be investigated ‘in a scientific manner‘ in line with its constitution. This meant that we had to always explore the possibility of normal/non-paranormal explanations for anomalous experiences; not ignore scientific research on witness testimony or hallucinations; and always be cautious in our findings.
The following are excerpts from the slide presentation / SSPR Guide.
Ethos of the SSPR
The Scottish Society for Psychical Research since its founding in 1987 has sought to investigate the paranormal in a scientific manner. The use of the word manner recognises that there are different interpretations as to what constitutes scientific method. Let us assume that scientific manner means: the observation, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
‘Spontaneous cases of ostensible paranormal phenomena’ present the scientist with a problem. Observation? Identification? Description? Paranormal phenomena are notoriously fleeting, occasional and often impossible to observe first hand. For this reason the Paranormal Investigator often relies entirely on witness accounts.
What a person says they have experienced is complicated by a dizzying amount of variables – which are hard to control in an experimental setting.
Investigators of ‘the paranormal’ should therefore be cautious in judging witness testimony and acknowledge that such variables are multitude and ensure that scientific controls are used.
The main controls used in an interview context:
- Ask no leading questions
- Interview witnesses separately
- Any other potential source of corroboration (be it plumber or psychic) should be naïve of source account(s)
Impartial gathering of information should be the most important goal of the SSPR. Following on from that, the SSPR should conduct research, formulate hypotheses and share our findings.
Duty of Care
The SSPR has a duty of care towards any member of the public that contacts the Society regarding their paranormal experience that can be summarised as follows:
- Respect their experience
- Preserve their anonymity
- Make no promises that cannot be kept
- Make no claims that cannot be substantiated
- Essentially try to do no harm
It is important to control the expectations of the client and explain a little about the Society and how it conducts an investigation. Most people don’t know what a paranormal investigator does. Or they imagine the SSPR will operate like Most Haunted, Ghostbusters or The Exorcist.
It is important to stress the following:
- That the SSPR is here at the client’s invitation. Nothing will be done without the client’s consent.
- The SSPR respects the client’s privacy. Any future report will be anonymized.
- The SSPR does not charge for its investigation and cannot guarantee success. However, we will endeavour to understand what is happening.
- The SSPR is a research society and will conduct the investigation in a scientific manner.
Suggested Opening Statements
The following statements may help the client feel more at ease.
- “We are the oldest continuous, largest paranormal investigation organization in Scotland. Our investigators can be doctors, lawyers or teachers and some might be spiritualist mediums or sceptics. However, we all believe in a scientific approach to investigating the paranormal”.
- “There’s no need to be embarrassed about what you’re going to say. I’ve heard some extraordinary accounts before – [optional] and had some paranormal experiences myself”.
- “We won’t do anything without your approval. It’s important that you feel as if you’re part of the investigation and in control of what happens in your home”.
There are many different interview techniques. It is recognized that different investigators with different professional experience and training will bring different approaches to an interview ~ this is expected and valued. One approach may work better with a client than another.
However the following points may prove to be useful in all cases:
- You will not only be judging the client by their appearance; they will be judging you. It is recommended that you look professional, neat & tidy.
- The Client will find it easier to talk to you if they relax. An easy and subtle way to build rapport is to engage in ‘small talk’ before you begin the interview. If they offer you a cup of tea, take it. However, this small talk should be natural and never forced. If you appear insincere you will lose trust, not gain it.
- Lead the interview. If you appear to be indecisive or unsure about what to say – or do – then the client’s confidence in you will be shaken. If you are unsure about how to respond then a positive ‘I’m gathering information at the moment and I’ll have to consult with my colleague before I get back to you’ will suffice.
- Record the interview. Explain to the client that this will assist you in writing up the interview. Permission must be asked – and given, for any recording to take place. Also take notes. These notes can be simple headings to assist you in further questioning.
- If you are unsure about what the client is telling you, or are confused by their account, then don’t be afraid to keep asking questions. Unusual experiences can be difficult to explain and hard to understand – if necessary, ask for patience during the interview process.
What do we need to know?
Gathering information in an unbiased manner is the most important aspect of the investigation. Each investigator has particular interests and beliefs that could result in selective information gathering. It is for this reason that the following protocol is recommended.
Investigators should ask the client(s) about the following:
- Brief Biographical Background A person’s education, employment and family situation has bearing on their wellbeing and state of mind.
- Summary of phenomena Start at the beginning, listing all the different kinds of experience and build up a detailed catalogue of events in chronological order. As much detail as possible – such as time, date, how long the experience lasted, witnesses and any physical evidence. If the client cannot remember exact times, dates, etc, then ask them to approximate.
- Any prior paranormal experiences Most people have had some kind of experience, which might be judged anomalous. Perhaps one or two experiences. If the client has a long history of many anomalous experiences, then it is possible that it is the client, not the location, that is the subject of the investigation.
- History of the Building/Location This may be relevant, but care must be taken to limit speculation about possible past history.
- Any relevant medical details It is important to establish if the client’s health may be a factor. It’s important to stress that the SSPR are not medical practitioners, and the client is under no pressure to disclose this information, but investigators must consider the client’s health as part of an investigation – if it is relevant.
- What the client believes This has tremendous bearing on how the client responds to their experiences – and the opinions of the investigators. The client may be religious – or hold strong views on the supernatural. Also, many clients consult other organizations or individuals before they contact the SSPR. Such organizations or individuals will likely have expressed an opinion about the client’s experiences – and such opinions will probably influence the client.
- What the client wants It will be assumed that most clients will want whatever is happening to them to stop. However, an increasing amount of clients want – not just their experiences to be validated – but their ‘psychic abilities’ to be validated too. A minority of clients are not disturbed by their experiences, but rather want to understand what is happening to them.
Clients often expect the SSPR to be paranormal practitioners and want someone to ‘wave a magic wand‘ and ‘make it all stop’. The SSPR does not use such practitioners immediately (our initial focus is always to gather information). The SSPR will attempt to remedy cases without the use of such ‘sensitives‘. This is because mediums/psychics etc are not accurate (under test conditions even the best mediums are 70% accurate, which is astonishingly high – and rare. This still means that a world class medium will be wrong 30% of the time). Because a client will place disproportionate emphasis/faith in statements by such sensitives, we run the risk of a client hanging onto false statements.
It should be noted that the paranormal practitioners used by the SSPR are used because of their counselling skills and ethical practice; their reputation for psychic ability is secondary to our considerations.
The following guidelines should be adhered to when using sensitives:
- Explain to the client that the SSPR sometimes uses mediums/dowsers/psychics because it provides an opportunity to test their ability
- Explain to the client that they should not believe everything a sensitive tells them. Only statements which match their own experience are evidential: all other statements are worthless until corroborated
- Explain to the sensitive that they should be aware of the consequences of their statements. If they inform the client that the spirit of a murderer haunts their house and they are helpless to remove it – then they have effectively condemned a building. Such statements could have legal consequences
- Do not tell the sensitive anything about the case. Keep them in the dark about even the most basic details – even the location. Make it clear to the client that they should also abide by this control, and not give too much away
- On the occasion when the sensitive is brought to the location, ensure that the Investigation Team ‘tops & tails’ the visit. The SSPR is in charge, not the sensitive
An SSPR Investigator may be ‘sensitive’ and such impressions should be recorded. However, any information gained after facts are known by the investigator cannot be considered to be uncontaminated by prior knowledge – and such information is not evidential.
Test Client Coping Strategies
There are many coping strategies that can be adopted by clients to help them cope with what is happening to them – either reducing their stress, or the phenomena itself. Obviously, a coping strategy should be tailored to the client, depending on their personality and their circumstances.
The following strategies can be considered:
- If the client is alone, then ask them to invite a friend or family member over. If their guest does not witness anything, then they should be reassured.
- Does the client have a pet dog or a cat? If the animal is untroubled, then perhaps they should be too?
- If they are disturbed at night, then sleep with a light on, or the radio on low.
- State of mind is crucial: worrying about it won’t make things better. Either distract yourself with a book (not horror!) or take some exercise.
- Concentrate on the positive: if there isn’t much that is positive, then do something about it. If the client is stressed or lonely, then they should take practical steps to improve their situation.
- Involve the client in the investigation: ask them to keep a diary of experiences.
- Encourage clients to try to record any anomalous experience: the presence of a video camera can be comforting.
Feedback to client
Only at the end of an investigation – when the Investigation Team has gathered in all the data they are likely to receive, can the Team reach any kind of opinion on what is ‘going on’. Most often, a client will hope for some kind of opinion/solution at the earliest stage. However, the Investigator must reserve judgement/opinion until all the facts are in. It should be possible to reassure a client without expressing any kind of tentative opinion – usually an authoritative ‘it doesn’t sound like anything you should worry about’ should suffice.
Naturally a client will be most interested in what someone thinks about their situation – especially one they perceive to be an authority on the subject. They will hope for something definite, conclusive and reassuring. However, the paranormal investigator will rarely be in a position to be definite or conclusive. Words must be chosen carefully – as a client will not just hang on every word – but often extrapolate, or misconstrue, depending on their needs or wants.
It is recommended that the Investigation Team present to the client all the possible hypotheses: natural, physical, psychological and paranormal. Weigh up the evidence in collaboration with the client. Whilst expressing your own possible interpretation of events, give equal weight to the opinion of the client – stressing that when dealing with paranormal phenomena, nothing is 100% certain.
Alternative Perspectives – keeping in mind the Psycho-Social Approach
It is to be stressed that because we investigate the Paranormal in a ‘scientific manner’, that we cannot ignore the advances of Psychology and Sociology: both have an enormous influence on our experiences. Furthermore, even if an investigator believes that there is such a thing as paranormal phenomena (e.g. psi is real or ghosts can be spirits of the dead), then this does not remove psychological or sociological factors from their considerations.
A Psychological Approach.
Jonathan C Smith, Professor of Psychology at Roosevelt University, founder of stress institute, states that the the paranormal is psychologically real, but caused by:
- Oddities in nature
- Perceptual error or trickery
- Memory error
- The placebo effect
- Sensory anomalies and hallucinations: The Aleman/Larøi Model 2008 of hallucination; sensory deprivation; Anoxia (starvation of oxygen); Also University of Gothenburg, Anna Erikkson (80% of the recently bereaved experience hallucinations). Hallucinations are not ‘pathological’ but normal and explicable.
Prof. Smith stresses exploring alternative explanations and using critical thinking to cope with anomalous experiences.
A Sociological Approach
James McLenon, Lecturer in Sociology at University of Elizabeth City State, North Carolina, investigated hauntings and paranormal phenomena from 1979 until 1992 and regards the paranormal as sociologically real. Furthermore, and of interest to the SSPR and all other organisations who seek to give comfort to those who are distressed by their anomalous experience, he discovered that a particular approach had beneficial effects.
Findings: Incidence of negative experience often declines when –
- People discuss and acknowledge the phenomena’s nonthreatening and unreal qualities.
- attempt to increase their mental strength through connection with powerful spiritual forces.
- examine the possibilities that anxieties shape group anomalous experiences and that future experiences can be controlled by individual and group attitudes.
- and treat the phenomena as real and create non-destructive directions for occult forces to express themselves. I sometimes invite an amateur psychic who is also skilled in family counseling to assist in my inquiries. I also teach meditation and self-hypnosis techniques.
The presentation ended with a discussion around case examples.
The Case Co-ordinator acknowledged that even the SSPR doesn’t go as far as Dr McLenon’s approach (in point 4), but explored multiple different strategies and always encouraged the client to take control of their own situation, their own investigation and test their own coping strategies.