Dr. Alan Gauld, a retired Harvard-educated psychology professor at the University of Nottingham, is well known in parapsychology for his discussions of various topics, among them survival of death, poltergeists, and the history of psychical research.
Regarding the latter, he is the author of “The Founders of Psychical Research” (1968), a book that influenced me, and that to this day remains what I believe to be the best discussion of the early work of the London-based Society for Psychical Research, by those such as Frederic W.H. Myers and Edmund Gurney.
Although I had corresponded with Gauld before, I believe I first met him in a conference hosted by the Society for Psychical Research in Bournemouth, England, in 1994. It was great meeting someone whose work I had admired and followed closely for years. In the last decade, as I started to write about historical aspects of dissociation, and hypnosis in general, I have had occasion to cite Gauld’s “A History of Hypnotism” (1992) repeatedly, a work that, like his other books, has become a standard.
Gauld is a past president of the Society for Psychical Research. He was granted the Outstanding Career Award by the Parapsychological Association, and the Myers Memorial Medal by the Society for Psychical Research.
Carlos Alvarado: How did you become interested in parapsychology?
Alan Gauld: So far as I can remember, my interest in things psychic began when I was about six.
It originated not from any precocious interest in science, philosophy, or religion, but probably from watching an early Walt Disney cartoon in which Mickey Mouse and his friends, as ghost hunters, were given a somewhat trying time by a group of “lonesome ghosts” in search of amusement.
Intrigued, perhaps, by these mischievous spooks (as I recall, their antics also figured now and again in “Mickey Mouse Weekly”) I not long after ventured with various friends of about my own age on an excursion to a reputedly haunted building nearby. It was a largish place, still under construction, and my part in the enterprise finished when I climbed several feet up some scaffolding, fell off, and cut my head.
The undignified end to my first psychic investigation did not, however, quash my interest in the subject, although during the ensuing war years that interest was somewhat distracted by the London “blitz.”
After the war, it emerged again in somewhat more serious form, encouraged by the fact that my mother had a longstanding interest in such matters (and had something of a reputation herself for possessing “psychic” gifts). The consequence was that, during the post-war years I acquired and read various old and new books on the subject, proposed (successfully) before the school debating society “that this house believes in ghosts,” and retained my interest during my military service. In my first week at Cambridge, in 1952, I sought out the secretary of the Cambridge University SPR and signed up.
Membership made a huge difference to the extent and nature of my involvement in the subject. The CUSPR (founded in 1906, but now alas extinct) arranged regular lectures by well-known psychical researchers, many of whom I got to know (several lived in Cambridge), and organized experiments and investigations.
My interest was heightened when, on one of these investigations in my first year, I experienced some rather odd happenings in a wonderfully atmospheric old house near Sudbury, and wrote the case up in the student newspaper, Varsity. During the next few years, I encountered various other curious phenomena, joined the main SPR, and became convinced that there were matters here not readily susceptible of any ordinary explanation.
By the time I left Cambridge for Nottingham in 1962 I had become a member of the SPR’s Council.
Carlos Alvarado: What are your main interests in the field and how have you contributed to its development?
Alan Gauld: I have dabbled at one time or another in most aspects of parapsychology, but my principal interests have been in spontaneous cases, and in the problems of physical and mental mediumship.
My publications have often had a historical slant, though I have tried to bring out their relevance to current issues. But as to my contributions (if any) to the development of the field, I can hardly assess them.
Perhaps, despite their flaws, I have been to an extent a ground-breaker. I was (so far as I know) the first to go through, sort, and make use of the correspondence, diaries, and papers of F.W.H. Myers (then in the hands of his granddaughters), the first to produce what was in effect a short monograph on “drop in” communicators, and the first to apply cluster analysis to a large collection of cases of hauntings and poltergeists.
I have also been something of a delver into obscure historical cases and old authors, little-known but worthy of resurrection. I have much enjoyed all these activities, but how far they may have amounted to a contribution of any significance to the development of the subject I would not presume to say.
Carlos Alvarado: Why do you think parapsychology is important?
Alan Gauld: I have to confess that I have never worried much about the general importance of parapsychology. Mostly, I have just asked myself is this, that, or the other “parapsychological” phenomenon interesting, and does it interest me?
For as long as I can remember, I have been (perhaps unduly) fascinated by all sorts—too many sorts!—of mysteries, not utterly insoluble metaphysical mysteries, but mysteries, be they historical, criminal, cryptozoological, astronomical, cosmological, palaeontological, archaeological, or whatever, on which it seems at least possible that further factual evidence or factual considerations may throw new light.
That is just my turn of mind. And, of course, among these assorted enigmas parapsychological ones have had a prominent place.
I certainly believe, as I said before, that among the phenomena loosely lumped together as “parapsychological” are some for which there is evidence not easily wished away by any facile ordinary explanation—this is what makes them so intriguing and makes them potentially important.
But before one can properly assess their actual importance, one needs to know far more about their nature, causes, and origins than has so far been unearthed. For instance, it is often claimed or supposed that if “psychic” phenomena really occur they would be outside the scope of physical explanation and that a purely “materialist” view of the world would accordingly be put out of court. That would be important.
Yet the concept of the physical is itself very difficult to define or delimit and has changed a lot over the centuries as physics has advanced. And today’s physics seems pregnant with further impending change—we can feel the infant kicking, but we can’t yet properly determine its size and coming strength.
Under these circumstances, can we really assert with any great confidence that physical science or a science descended from today’s physical science could never adequately accommodate parapsychology? It is interesting to speculate on these matters, but premature to pronounce on their ultimate importance.
Carlos Alvarado: In your view, what are the main problems in parapsychology today as a scientific field?
Alan Gauld: Among such problems an important one is the powerful influence of what has been called “scientism” in and around the upper echelons of science.
Scientism consists in a resolute belief that the orthodox concepts and methods of science, particularly physical science, are, or will turn out to be, adequate to handle all the problems of natural knowledge and the philosophy of science.
It is not infrequently to be found allied with a strongly anti-religious secularism.
Supporters of scientism, who are usually not reticent in expressing their opinions, tend to take a pretty hostile attitude towards parapsychology, though commonly without any detailed knowledge of the subject.
Perhaps they suspect it of providing hope and comfort for deluded religious believers. Perhaps indeed they fear (mistakenly in my view) that if parapsychological phenomena turned out to be genuine, their own cherished materialistic worldview would necessarily be scuppered.
For whatever reasons, supporters of scientism, or persons with inclinations that way, seem rather often to attain positions from which they can make life difficult for would-be parapsychologists. They are to be found on committees that award research grants and offer places to research students, on appointments boards, on the editorial boards of academic publishers, and among the referees consulted by leading academic publishers.
And, if by any chance a reputable academic journal actually publishes an article detailing apparently positive results in a parapsychological experiment, it is not unknown for hostile forces to gang up on the author(s) in a manner suggestive to some (though I am sure unjustly) of organized vigilantism.
Persons thinking of applying for an academic post in a psychology or even a philosophy department might do well to keep quiet about any interest they may have in parapsychology—heads of departments, whatever their personal views, might well fear that if their departments became known for supporting or sustaining parapsychology they might lose favor with vital grant-giving bodies.
It was not always this bad. My experience of university psychology departments goes back to the 1950s, and although I never hid my parapsychological interests, and indeed offered final-year special options, and supervised final-year practical projects in parapsychology and in hypnosis, I cannot recall ever having encountered any serious hostility (discounting, of course, occasional jokes at my expense).
And I remember feeling, probably around the 1970s—say 1977, when Benjamin Wolman’s massive “Handbook of Parapsychology” was published (by a well-respected academic publisher)—that parapsychology might before too long “make it” as an academic subject.
Around that time, there were quite a few well-known parapsychologists in university departments and equivalent institutions. Money seemed to be available for research students undertaking Ph.Ds in parapsychology (I was once spontaneously approached by a representative of a leading British grant-giving body, who told me that they would be happy to consider applications from such students).
Interesting work was under way—Ian Stevenson and Charles Honorton were well into their ground-breaking research programmes.
But now? Well, things are not that good, though they are not altogether bad. There are still able young people interested in parapsychology, some at universities. But clearly what is currently most needed is money to reinvigorate and sustain the subject.
In its early days, it was largely supported by wealthy and well-educated private persons who were themselves much involved in the ongoing work. More recently, a small number of very rich individuals have helped with substantial funding, mostly to particular investigators.
But now we must ask—for in these hard days precious few government grants are likely to be given to projects that bring no electoral benefits—where are today’s friendly billionaires?
My experience of billionaires is small, but I can’t imagine that many of them nowadays are likely to bankroll enterprises that are, if not exactly other-worldly, certainly not worldly. It therefore rests with us to find funds, seek support for relevant societies, rouse interest where we can, and keep the subject in active being, until better times dawn or we can bring them to pass.
Carlos Alvarado: Can you mention some of your current projects?
Alan Gauld: At the moment I am trying to pick up the threads of a project I was working on a few years ago but had to suspend in favor of other things. It involves looking into some early investigations of mental mediumship.
Carlos S. Alvarado has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Edinburgh, and holds masters degrees in parapsychology (MS, John F. Kennedy University), and in history (MA, Duke University). His work has centered on survey research (on out-of-body experiences and other psychic experiences) and studies about the history of psychical research. Alvarado is a Research Fellow at the Parapsychology Foundation, and adjunct research faculty at Sofia University (formerly Institute of Transpersonal Psychology).