Holds Special Chair in Parapsychology : Professor’s Specialty Is Out of This World
A soft-spoken American started work here recently as one of only two professors of parapsychology in the world: He is investigating whether some people can put a jinx on machines.
“Some people react to machines much better than others, and I’m interested in the possibility that there is some kind of psychic component involved,” Robert Morris said in his office at the 400-year-old Edinburgh University.
Morris’ new job takes him into the realm of telepathy, mind-over-matter and things that go bump in the night.
His controversial chair is financed by a $700,000 endowment in the will of writer Arthur Koestler, whose bequest was seen as an attempt to gain wider academic acceptance for the paranormal.
Koestler, who first won fame for his political novels such as “Darkness at Noon” and autobiographical works such as “Spanish Testament” but later wrote mostly about science, died in 1983 at the age of 77. He became fascinated by the paranormal late in life and wrote “The Roots of Coincidence,” his most important book about parapsychology, in 1972.
Morris’ students, undeterred by the reporters and photographers who have descended upon the university since he began work in December, are already strapping people to chairs in dark rooms to test them for extrasensory perception.
Overflow of Letters
Morris himself will have no trouble finding guinea pigs for his experiments. His desk is overflowing with letters from fans relating strange experiences or claiming paranormal powers.
“But do not expect us to produce a new ghost every week or check out every psychic claim that comes along,” Morris warned. “The sensational cases that crop up from time to time teach us very little. They only benefit that person’s bankroll and are usually faked anyway.”
He is interested in exploring Scottish folklore to see what it suggests for future research. “On the Isle of Skye, for instance, many residents claim to have second sight but say their gift vanishes as soon as they cross over to the mainland.”
A student, Julie Milton, 24, from Scunthorpe in northeast England, uses what is known as the Ganzfeld technique to test people’s powers of clairvoyance.
Subjects are strapped to a chair in a small, dark room and placed in a state of sensory deprivation--Ping-Pong balls over the eyes, a red light shining on their face and a dull tone played to them through earphones--which is supposed to make them more receptive to spontaneous imagery.
Their remarks are then monitored as they try to describe an intricate picture locked away in a cupboard next door.
Baffled by Publicity
Morris himself seems baffled by the blaze of publicity that heralded his appointment and oblivious to the shock wave it sent through Britain’s orthodox academic world.
Few dons in academia will accept the paranormal as worthy of serious research--an attitude reflected in the fact there is only one other chair like his in the world--at the Dutch University of Utrecht, Morris says.
“I know some people treat parapsychology as a joke,” he said. “But, the way I see it, we have some unusual mental powers which we do not understand too well, and it would be helpful to throw some light on them.”
He has an unexpected ally in the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, whose interest in the paranormal is well known.
Formerly a senior research scientist in computer studies at Syracuse University in upstate New York, Morris has been involved in parapsychology for the last 20 years at various universities in the United States. He says his fascination stems from intellectual curiosity rather than personal experience of otherworldly happenings.
One of his students, 28-year-old Sheri Cohn from New York, however, who is writing her thesis on the theory that psychic powers run in the family, says it was her gift of extrasensory perception that drew her to parapsychology.
“One morning, for instance, I woke up in New York and told my roommate that my identical twin sister was in danger,” she said. “At precisely that same moment a bomb exploded outside my sister’s apartment 3,000 miles away in Arizona.”
It was at Edinburgh University that Morris once met Koestler, when the author was after-dinner speaker at a convention of the Parapsychology Assn. in 1972.
‘Shaking People Up’
Morris wants to continue the Koestler tradition of “shaking people up” and intends to start by debunking some of the courses that claim to teach people to be psychic.
“For some people, these courses do bring out their paranormal powers, but the majority are cheated into thinking they’re psychic or start misleading themselves about it.”
He has learned the hard way to be constantly on the lookout for fraud and believes one of the reasons he was selected for the chair from an impressive array of applicants from all over the world is the respect he has earned from skeptics.
Before his appointment, some work on parapsychology had been done at Edinburgh as part of psychology courses by Dr. John Beloff.