JJ LUMSDEN is the author of The Hidden Whisper, a ghost investigation novel that has all the elements of a good detective mystery and spooky thriller. And because Lumsden is himself a parapsychologist, he weaves into the story a lot of very good information about ghost phenomena, poltergeist activity, and other aspects of the paranormal. So the book works quite well on both levels: as an engrossing haunting tale and as an informative overview of the current theories on the phenomena. In this interview, Lumsden talks about his book and provides fascinating insights into the study of hauntings, psychokinesis, mental healing, poltergeists, and more.
Tell us something about your background. How long have you been a paranormal investigator, and what got you interested in this field?
There was never any personal experience or incident that motivated me to enter parapsychology; rather, I just found myself intrigued by the paranormal from an early age. If phenomena like telepathy and clairvoyance proved genuine, or research could demonstrate that consciousness was able to transcend time and space, then there were significant consequences for how the universe operated, and that really interested me.
When University came along, I looked to cement my interest by entering academic parapsychology. I did my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Edinburgh University, and then stayed on to do a PhD (at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit). I finished up in 2003, and then moved into independent research and (of course) a bit of book writing.
Is the story you tell in The Hidden Whisper based on a real case?
No, the narrative is based on a fictional case. When I sat down to write the book, I wanted to explain about parapsychology (and what parapsychologists actually do) in an accessible and easy-going way. Although there are good popular science books available, they can be perceived as a little overwhelming and I wanted to avoid drawn-out explanations of phenomena. As such, I thought that a mystery, something with an interesting central puzzle, was a good way ahead – I could frame the science around the plot. Poltergeist events have a good hook to them.
Do you investigate cases in the way parapsychologist Luke Jackson does in the story?
No, I don't tend to do much field-based research. I'm predominantly laboratory based, taking a less exciting (!) but more predictable and controllable approach to examining paranormal phenomena. Researching paranormal functioning such as extrasensory perception (ESP) or psychokinesis is no easy task, and when you try to investigate it in the “real world”, the opportunities for fraud, misperception, and general errors grow.
As such, many people feel the best thing to do is try and conduct experiments in a space where you can manage as many variables as possible. Then, if you do find positive results, it is easier to get a handle on what mechanisms may be responsible, and easier for other researchers to try and replicate your findings.
Of course, at the end of the day we still need to relate these artificial laboratory circumstances to the real world and consider how phenomena might operate there. But in terms of establishing the legitimacy of phenomena, it's a sensible way to do research.
In your investigations, have you come across activity of the kind depicted in the story?
No, I've not been involved in any hands-on investigations of poltergeist outbreaks; they are fairly rare occurrences and it's clearly difficult to base any short-term research program on there being lots of incidents to investigate. As mentioned above, I've tended to operate mainly in the lab, where my work has focused on psychokinesis (and how emotional states might influence it). Nonetheless, I have done field work, and this has predominantly been into the concept of mental healing.
This mental healing research has taken place with indigenous healers in Zululand, South Africa. These healers (izangoma) are alleged to be able to heal using psychic or directed mental healing. In one study from 2005, the research team tested 20 izangoma under a number of different conditions (one of which was a directed mental healing condition, plus lots of “control” conditions). The only condition where we uncovered positive effects was the healing condition, and the results added some credence into the validity of psychic healing. In parapsychology, however, we have no definitive experiments. We simply add more evidence to the pile, and every so often step back to see the state of play.
Going back to the izangoma, it might be possible that the positive results can be attributed, not to special powers compared to a regular person, but because of self belief. Self belief is one of the main factors that underlie positive results in parapsychological studies. If your participant thinks that psychic functioning is nonsense, or that they are not able to do it, chances are that you will end up with null results (i.e. effects that look like chance). If, however, the person has high self belief in their abilities, the chances of getting positive results becomes a lot healthier. Izangoma are good for this because they believe they have been “chosen” by their ancestors; they have been “given” a gift for healing.
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