This episode was published on 9 March 2020. Below is the full transcript, complete with links of all resources and events mentioned. This transcript is also available as a PDF with embedded links (10 pages in A4 format).
Summary: This episodes kicks off with a round-up of the latest mind-body-spirit news — from plant-based medicines and virtual reality curbing pain to the Global Wellness Summit‘s trends for 2020 and beyond — and continues with a conversation between Mindstream editor Liza Horan and Dr. Caroline Watt, who heads parapsychology research at the University of Edinburgh. Listeners will learn how psi overlaps with psychology and physics, the challenges of testing for mental phenomena, psychic tradition in Scotland, how to join the research panel, and much more.
Host Liza Horan: Welcome to The Mindstream Podcast, exploring the facts and the stories around mind-body-spirit pathways to greater health and happiness. I’m your host Liza Horan. Episode 5 features an interview with Dr. Caroline Watt. She leads the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at The University of Edinburgh. Our conversation covers fascinating research on metaphysical mysteries of the mind and the challenges that come with it. How did this University — founded in 1582 whose alumni include Nobel Laureates, champions, space explorers, and prime ministers — come to focus on mental phenomena? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.
Before we join the conversation with Dr. Watt, let’s overview the top mind-body-spirit headlines.
The top story in health, of course, right now is Covid-19. As of the 5th of March, 97,000 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19; 3,300 of them, unfortunately, have died, and 54,000 of those cases have recovered. The news today is that there are two strains to the virus: one brings mild symptoms and the other one is life-threatening.[1:45] Besides the human suffering associated with Covid-19, we’re seeing a bit of a fallout on the economic level, too. We’ve seen dramatic drops in the stock markets and today the United Nations economist announced a likely $50 billion drop in worldwide exports — and that’s just considering February. We don’t know how long this impact of the virus will continue, but countries like the UK are seeking now to delay the spread and contain it. And all the authorities are saying that the best measures we can take against the spread of this virus is practicing normal good hygiene — that’s washing your hands and hot water with soap for the length of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
I’d like to highlight a few of the top points from the last month of The Mindstream NewsWrap. This is a new feature on MindstreamConnect.com where I summarise and provide perspective on some of the top headlines in the mind-body-spirit movement. The fact is there’s so much information out there, and it’s totally overwhelming, so I’m trying to make things easier for everyone to get the scoop, and I hope you will find it interesting and useful.
So, moving on to more positive news in regard to complementary alternative and natural health solutions, research has just been released that points to virtual reality, acupuncture, massage, and plant-based medicines as solutions to reduce pain and help symptoms. Specifically, virtual reality has been found to help women with labor pains associated with childbirth. So imagine strapping on a VR headset rather than getting a spinal. Massage is being found to help patients cope with cancer, and also to improve neuropathy associated with chemotherapy. Acupuncture’s in the news for two reasons both acupuncture and plant medicines recently have been found as an alternative to opioids for pain relief and acupuncture has reached a new level of acceptance by the U.S. medical institution as two of its very large healthcare plans, Medicaid and Medicare, have finally approved acupuncture for the treatment of chronic low back pain.
Research into relationships have shown that they have significant impact on quality of life and our longevity. Two books I’d like to point to that were recently released: One is called “Friendship” and that was written by Lydia Denworth, a science journalist. She [is quoted as saying], “Friendship literally improves your body’s cardiovascular functioning, how your immune system works and how you sleep.”
But there are more benefits. She pointed to a study that showed the best predictor of your health and happiness at age 80 is not your wealth or your professional success; it was your friendships at the age of 50.[5:22] So what is friendship? She relied on the definition that biologists give for friendship — see how this compares to your own: They define friendship as a positive, reciprocal, cooperative, long-lasting experience that makes you feel good.
Seems pretty simple, but what is the biggest thing that we’re missing in our relationships?[5:50] It’s listening, and that’s according to Kate Murphy who authored a book called, “You’re Not Listening: What you’re missing and why it matters.” She points to research that we listen more acutely to people we’re not close with. Whether this is politeness or something else, it’s fascinating. So those are the two big messages of these two recent book releases. Surround yourself with good friends and also listen.
An interesting development to invite more kids into meditation and positive mental health: Headspace, the meditation app company, has partnered with Mattel for the Barbie Wellness Collection. Among this collection is Breathe with me Barbie, which includes five meditations.
I devoted a whole edition of the NewsWrap recently to plant based medicines because the medicinal plant market is expected to be worth $5 trillion dollars by 2050. This is staggering. That’s bigger than the whole Wellness industry ($4.5 trillion) and the pharmaceutical industry ($1 trillion). However, controversy still exists around the use of certain plants and medicines derived from them.
Israel and Canada happen to be leading cannabis research because their laws allow it. But the guidelines may be loosening for exploration in other areas because the international narcotics board presented its annual report and said ‘our guidelines are so old we need to revisit them.’[7:41] Some of the very exciting research shows that cannabis is helping with a range of issues, from pain relief to sleep improvement whether or not it has the psychoactive THC component in it. Ayahuasca is helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and ecstasy (or MDMA), which comes from the sassafras plant, is being shown effective for treatment-resistant depression — and Israel is already allowing prescriptions for MDMA based on that research. Psilocybin, also known as ‘magic mushrooms,’ is gaining momentum as an alternative to opioids and already three U.S. cities have legalised the use of psilocybin for this.
The last piece of news I’d like to share with you today is the Global Wellness Trends Report for 2020 and Beyond. This has been released by the Global Wellness Summit, which is part of the Global Wellness Institute. They named 10 trends everyone should be aware of, and what’s magical is that an awful lot of them are mind-body-spirit solutions.
Just to give you a sneak peek of three of those: Energy medicine is being recognised by scientists and researchers. Their work is recognising that we are, indeed, complex biofields of electromagnetic frequencies and light waves that are a control centre for our physical and mental functioning. So expect to see therapies that involve electromagnetic light and sound interventions to heal our energy body. Of course, acupuncture, chakra balancing, Reiki, Qigong, sound baths and other mind-body-spirit disciplines have been in use for millennia to accomplish this, but now what we’re seeing is the western scientific and medical institution catching up with what the Ancients have known.
And, thirdly, music (sound healing) is going to be taken to another level. There’s a whole lot of funding going into medical studies about how sounds and how music affect the brain. Biofeedback, artificial intelligence and machine learning are helping identify how music’s structural properties — like the beat, the key, the chord progressions, and the timbre — specifically impact biometrics like heart rate, brainwaves and sleep patterns. So researchers are looking to develop music as precision medicine to help with everything from pain to PTSD.
You can see the full list of the 10 trends for 2020 and Beyond — and perspective on them — at mindstreamconnect.com/blog. To get the sources and the links and more information on the topics we just covered in the News segment, please go to MindstreamConnect.com. You’ll find the NewsWrap there plus other Stories on the blog and I encourage you to sign up for The Mindstream Monthly. This is our new email newsletter. There’s going to be several opportunities that are presented to participate and be connected with like-minded people, whether you are an enthusiast of mind-body-spirit or you’re a professional practitioner in this area. So you can go to MindstreamConnect.com for that.
Now let’s join the conversation with Dr. Caroline Watt who heads The University of Edinburgh’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit.
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Well, we’re a research group within the psychology department. We are unusual [in that] we are the only endowed chair in parapsychology in the UK. What that means is that we have a source of funding to support us. So when I say “endowed,” it means that Arthur Koestler and Cynthia Koestler left money in their wills to support the establishment of parapsychology research at a British university.
So our work here is, actually, not just research, although that’s what people are most interested in. Because we’re part of the University, we are integrated with the psychology department. So psychology is our home and we teach psychology students about parapsychology, and we also do research and parapsychology. And we also do just like every other academic: We have to do rather tedious administrative tasks like running committees and managing courses and so on…marking essays and all of the normal activities [that] are [the] kind a fully-fledged academic would do.
Host Liza Horan: This is part of the psychology department, as you just mentioned, and you mentioned there was an endowment created by the Koestler’s, so that explains why it is here at the University [of Edinburgh]. Can you give a little insight to how the parapsychology institute actually fits into the culture or the values of the University of Edinburgh?
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Our mission is to promote excellence in parapsychology research and education so that fits very much with the University’s wider goals, which is excellence in academia and research, and in education. And I see “education” [as] … I think I might have mentioned teaching before, but when I say “education” we’re talking and both about teaching students who are matriculated students at the University and also engaging with the general public — the wider public — to tell them about what we do, what parapsychology is, because there are a lot of misconceptions about that.
Host Liza Horan: Can you dispel some myths for us, please?
And anyone can call themselves a parapsychologist — there are no sort of professional qualifications or there’s no organisation that, basically, can endorse someone as a parapsychologist. So anyone could say, “I’m a parapsychologist.” which presents a problem for parapsychology.
Now, we do have The Parasychological Association, which I would say– if anybody wants to know, Am I dealing with a reputable parapsychologist or not? — check to see if they’re members of the parapsychological association. It’s an international association, but they have [a] kind of criteria for membership. And to become a full member you need to be active in research and parapsychology, so that you have some sort of track record of conducting research — by which we mean scientific research that is then published in scientific journals. It’s not sitting in a dark room looking for ghosts in the middle of the night.
The myth that we have to dispel is that parapsychology is just ghostbusting, but that it’s trying to establish that it’s a scientific discipline.
Host Liza Horan: Great. Any other myth you’d like to mention?
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Yeah, I think there’s a preconception, maybe more so amongst the scientific community than the public, that parapsychology is a pseudoscience. Not everybody is like this. In fact, some academics are more open-minded than others towards the field. It’s interesting that probably the most open-minded are the physicists. Although physics is a very “hard science.”
So part of what we do here in Edinburgh is look at the psychology of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Why do people believe in the paranormal? What kind of experiences do they have? And what might be the reasons for these experiences?
That’s an area of parapsychology that overlaps quite closely with psychology. Some people call it anomalistic psychology rather than parapsychology, so it depends on your definition of the term. And psychologists see that as very close to what they’re doing anyway because it’s looking at questions such as, What sorts of personality of people are more likely to report paranormal experiences? That sort of very psychological question.
The part of parapsychology that’s more challenging for psychologists is where you start to test the idea that people have genuine psychic abilities. Do they have the ability to read each other’s minds through telepathy? Or, can they influence physical objects through psychokinesis?
Host Liza Horan: It’s almost as though you have a higher standard; that you have to almost prove your legitimacy amongst other academics. Is that right?
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: I think that’s absolutely correct, and I think it comes from the claim that’s being tested — so you’ve probably heard the philosophy of saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Now not everybody agrees with that. There’s lots of flaws with that because, well, it’s extraordinary and one time period is not extraordinary and it just depends what we know at the time. But I think, in practice, that’s the case for parapsychology because we don’t have at the moment wider theory
that allows us to explain how a person could read another person’s mind. We don’t know the mechanism. What is it about the brain or the mind or the spirit that would allow this to happen? And then it makes it challenging to sort of explain if people can do it in a scientific environment — in a controlled experiment — so I think that’s a challenging claim.
So standards get driven up over time and, I think, you can look at history of parapsychology and see that and you can point to particular occasions where parapsychologists were actually ahead of the game compared to psychologists because … we’re dealing with difficult questions and questions that are being challenged. The psychologists are — sorry to my colleagues who are studying memory, but… they might be asking questions about how many digits can we recall. It’s not particularly
challenging or controversial. So if you’re not doing that kind of research then you were less open to scrutiny. You’re less subject to scrutiny now.
The other field that also gets a lot of scrutiny, but for completely different reasons, is medical research.
So parapsychologists are under scrutiny because they are testing a controversial claim. In medical research you are testing a claim that could be critical for someone’s health and their life or death.
So it might be, Does this drug work or not? You’ll get cancer, or whatever the claim is, and, therefore for similar reasons, medical research has had higher standards in general terms of trying to establish whether there’s good evidence for this.
So one of the techniques that parapsychologists use [is] called meta-analysis, which is a kind of statistical way to combine studies in parapsychology. We were quick to pick up meta-analysis, but not in psychology — it was a little bit later — but medical researchers were doing meta-analysis from quite an early stage, as well. So that’s just one example where there are other disciplines where the standards are particularly high but not necessarily for the same reason. You can just get an improvement on quality of research depending on the drivers that are behind that.
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Well, parapsychology is an interdisciplinary problem area so what discipline is relevant for it depends on what question you’re asking. So the question of, How does telepathy work? What’s the mechanism to allow apparently information instantaneously to move from one person’s mind to another? That’s what the claim is; that’s a question about physics. It’s about, What capabilities do we have in the universe to allow something like that happen?
And another question might be, What sorts of people are psychic? That’s the psychology question, you know. So [the answer may be]: It’s people who are extroverted [who] are more psychic. In fact, some of the research suggests that people who are creative have done particularly well with one kind of research in parapsychology. This is the Ganzfeld research and I’m going to talk about that hopefully a little bit later. That’s a psychology question. So it’s not that parapsychology is drawn to a particular discipline; it depends on what question you’re asking.
You’re right to mention quantum physics and that there are a lot of strange things in quantum physics compared to Einsteinian physics. And quantum physics deals with very, very small scale, tiny — for us — unimaginably small particles, and there’s a debate amongst researchers whether it’s even possible to map from that onto human biology, which is warm and wet.
[Gestures to table.] This table for us is solid. We’re in a Newtonian or an Einsteinian world. And in the quantum world, this table is mostly space. So which world applies best to us? I’m not an expert in physics so I couldn’t say, but a lot of people have spotted similarities between what’s happening in quantum physics.
You mentioned the “double slit experiment,” where you see two particles behave simultaneously and there are some parapsychology theories that are coming off the back of that that are quite interesting.
They tend to not necessarily take it literally that there are quantum phenomena happening, but they might say that, if the circumstances are right , you can get quantum-like phenomena happening and it’s not necessarily to do with movement of a signal — you mentioned one particle behaves as if it knows what the other particle is doing — and parapsychologists think it’s maybe a bit more like a synchronicity; that the universe is set up in such a way: If this particle is this way the other one must be that way. It’s not a transmission model, it’s more of a kind of balancing, if you like, that has to happen. If one is one way, the other one has to be the other way.
There are lots of different varieties of theories in parapsychology, but I think people are more excited at the moment about the kind of quantum-based theories. I’m not saying they’re taking it literally — it can be a bit embarrassing there [as] sometimes people do talk literally as our minds are entangled in a quantum way. I’m not sure that helps parapsychologists because, at that point, physicists think you’re just nuts [and] don’t know what you’re talking about.
Dean Radin, for example, is a researcher who’s written a book called “Entangled Minds,” where he looks at [this], and I would recommend it if you’re interested in areas of overlap between parapsychology and quantum physics. Look at that book to get a sense of what similarities there might be. But he himself is very cautious when he’s publishing this research and he’s done work looking at the double slit experiment that you mentioned, with the two particles, to see if you have an observer looking at that, can they influence the outcome of the experiment? He claims that they do. He claims that this shows that the conscious observer is important in the system somehow.
Host Liza Horan: Very interesting, thank you for bringing that up. One of the things that I’ve heard is that Einstein said [about energy]: Nothing is created nor destroyed, it just changes form. I’m a believer in all this connectedness and that it is a matter of energy — but proving it is someone else’s task, I suppose. Of the work that you’ve been doing here, what are you most excited about?
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: I’m always most excited about what’s coming next: The Ganzfeld Method, which is a sort of mild sensory isolation procedure. It’s been used since the 1970s by parapsychologists to test for extrasensory perception. They use it because they think that if ESP exists it’s not a very obvious, very strong, [experience], otherwise we wouldn’t be arguing about whether it exists or not. We’d all be using it every day and we wouldn’t have to use telephones or anything.
The Ganzfeld method has been showing quite positive results, actually, over the years. It’s been meta-analysed [and] groups of studies have been published, sometimes in mainstream psychology journals — reporting generally positive effects. So there’s a claim there. To me, it’s not entirely convincing yet because these studies are generally not pre-registered.
Also, the Ganzfeld studies are using all sorts of different designs — different participants, for example — and it takes a little while to spot patterns in these groups of studies, when one pattern that seems to be coming up time and time again is the best results are with selected subjects, participants. If you do a study with unselected participants, the results are ‘near chance,’ generally. I mean this is when you combine maybe 50 studies, if you a study with selected participants then you tend to get what we call “significant results.” That means that they’re not merely attributable to chance — we think there’s something in the data there that’s interesting — might not be ESP but certainly a deviation from what we’d expect.
What I’m planning to do and have started doing now is to do Ganzfeld research with selected participants but also doing the other things that help to reduce questions about the data, which is pre-registering the studies: State what the plan is and publish it before the data is collected.
I’m hoping to do it particularly looking at creative participants, who have had the highest effects in the previous studies. So it’s really trying to kind of zoom in on the recipe, if you like, for success and I’m really excited about this. I’ve got funding for a new PhD student, and she was a [graduate] student here and as an undergraduate did a Ganzfeld project with me so she’s already got some track record on doing something. We’ve got positive results, so that’s a good thing, and we’ve got some money from two different sources to do probably about a three-year program on this. It’s a long-term project. The whole thing started probably a year or two ago with a pre-registration saying, This is what our plan is, but it takes a while for it to all unfold.
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: So it’s slower because it takes longer to find the right people to take part in the research. And you can only really do that kind of research if you’re in the fortunate position, as we are, of having a relatively stable position within a university with a stable source of funding. Of course we have to do all the other jobs as well so we don’t have as much time — because I have to teach courses and I have to mark papers and so on — but you’ve got the infrastructure around you to help the research progress.
Host Liza Horan: That’s great, thank you so much. That was the perfect segue to my next question, as a matter of fact. I wanted to ask you about the University of Edinburgh, a very old and renowned University. There’s so many discoveries and fantastic research that has come out of this University, but I was very surprised to learn that there’s a chaplain of mindfulness [with] the focus on mindfulness and, of course, mental health and wellbeing. When you talk about mindfulness yes that can absolutely be a mind thing, but very often spirituality will creep into these conversations. It just seems that the University is very grounded in its values, yet very open and even progressive. I don’t know if any other or many other universities would have a parapsychology institute, for example. It just seems that the University of Edinburgh is very uniquely placed to have these other disciplines that are not traditionally strictly academic or scientific.
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Well, Edinburgh University is huge, and so I think it’s a very broad church. It has incorporated other institutions over the years, so [for example] Edinburgh College of Art is now part of Edinburgh University.
You mentioned whether other universities would have the same thing and what tends to happen at most other universities is that they don’t have an endowed centre or a chair like we’ve got, but they sometimes have research groups subgroups. And there are a few of those — actually maybe about half a dozen — in Britain, many of whom have come through Edinburgh. They did their PhDs at Edinburgh and then they went on to work as psychologists in other departments, but their research speciality was parapsychology.
Now they’re not all doing psi research, but usually that’s in there amongst the mix. They’re doing some experiential work: They’re looking at phenomenology, for example, of mediumship, so they’re interested in all the different kind of angles, [of] which there are numerous. But they’re usually based within a psychology department so they are there.
They also have some interest in mindfulness and meditation research, so there are other pockets around the world. University of Northampton — I don’t know if it has it now, but it used to have a transpersonal psychology MSc degree. Transpersonal psychology is another area where you can see overlaps with spirituality and healing, wellbeing, mind-body-spirit issues.
Although it’s not been a major focus here at Edinburgh — I guess you’d say we’re pretty boring experimental parapsychologists [at Edinburgh] — we are asking interesting questions, but we’re using a particular model that throws out a particular kind of data. It tends to be statistical. You come out with P values and claim you’ve got an effect based on your results. But there are other institutes doing other kinds of research, so I think that’s nice to think that there’s a kind of jigsaw with people working on different parts of the puzzle around the world.
[38:51] Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Good question. It could be to do with population density. We have a large rural area and there are only small parts of the country that are really densely populated. I think that people have a little bit more open-mindedness in the countryside. I think that there’s a little bit more openness to not knowing everything, to there being other forms of communication. For example, the Second Sight in Scotland. It tends to be in the Western Isles, and it’s a kind of tradition that people have this ability to look at someone — perhaps see what their future is going to be. For example, see if they’re ill or they might even be about to die. It starts to travel down the generations.
[39:50] One of our PhD students, Shari Cohn, did her PhD on Second Sight, so now that probably fits better with the school of Scottish studies in a way because she did an ethnographic kind of project. But it’s an example of a tradition in Scotland, which is essentially our kind of psychic tradition. And it’s definitely rural.
And I think if you look at other cultures like Iceland, for example, it’s not a densely populated island and I think you find reports of paranormal experiences, beliefs and elves. There are different forms of beliefs that, perhaps, city people would not hold. So I think it might be something to do with the countryside.
Host Liza Horan: Great, thank you for explaining that. My grandmother was from Ireland and she definitely had this, and we know there’s a lot of it in our family. And I’ve been working on increasing my intuition. I never knew you could take a course in that sort of thing until I came to Edinburgh and went to the Doyle Center, so it’s absolutely fascinating and I truly believe in it because I’ve experienced it my whole life. And, by the way, my first four years of life were spent in a house that was built on American Indian burial ground and there were all sorts of tales from there that even involved me, so you can see that I’ve had a fascination since Day 1 with all of this. When you talk about rural areas it’s nature — people being entrenched in nature. I think that really does affect us very positively health-wise, as well.
My final question to you is, do you believe the mind, body and spirit are connected? If not, why; if so, why?
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Well, I don’t know what spirit is and mind is…I suppose I’m a materialist. I think most psychologists are materialists. So that doesn’t mean that I don’t think telepathy is possible. I do think telepathy is possible, but I think that there is an explanation for that. So it is possible — through the use of science and, perhaps, with the help of physics — to understand how two people can communicate with one another at a distance.
I think it boils down to the brain, to consciousness, which is something that psychologists don’t understand. It’s something that there are many different theories as to what consciousness is, and we don’t know enough yet about it. It’s not my area of research, but I would say that for me the brain is the seat of our being, but we don’t understand it. We don’t know enough about how consciousness emerges from the brain and we don’t know what the capabilities of consciousness are. So, for me, it’s perfectly possible that two peoples’ consciousness may overlap even though they’re not in the same body. I don’t know if that answers your question or not, but I just think that there is a scientific explanation that we can try to discover how telepathy, psychic abilities, are possible — and that’s my mission.
There are some questions that I don’t think are amenable to science; for example, Does God exist?
Host Liza Horan: That was a beautiful and eloquent way of summing this all up! Thank you for that. It also sounds like you have a great reverence, personally and professionally, for the exercise of exploring this.
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: I think I have to believe in science and the scientific process because I think that’s the job: Try to discover how consciousness works; for example, how ESP works. I think we have to use these tools. Now getting on to bigger questions we probably don’t have time to explore: What’s the best way of doing that research? And it might not be by applying the traditional scientific method. Maybe we have to pay more attention to experiences that people are having. There are some parapsychologists who feel we’ve rushed too quickly into the laboratory; that we should actually learn more about how psychic experiences manifest naturally before we try to craft a way to observe that in the lab.
Host Liza Horan: Great! Well, I want to thank you so much for doing this interview with The Mindstream Podcast and best wishes. We’ll be watching!
Guest Dr. Caroline Watt: Thank you for having me!
I participated in this research a year ago and it was a very nice experience. It was just a simple Q&A with the research student and then we moved into a soundproofed isolated building where I put some headphones on, sat back and a very big lounge chair, and went through a series of exercises.
Participating in the research is open to everyone — you don’t have to be located in Scotland or in the UK. Go to KoestlerUnit.wordpress.com. You’ll find a Participate button. You can also go to MindstreamConnect.com/podcast and find the link on our website.
Thank you for listening. This is Liza Horan, signing off with love and light.[46:06] Music