Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center
I present here an interview with Dr. Richard Broughton, whom I met in the 1980s in a convention of the Parapsychological Association and whom I got to know better when I moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 1986. Richard, who has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Edinburgh, then worked at the Institute for Parapsychology in Durham (now the Rhine Research Center), where he was Director between 1995–2000.
Richard now lives in the UK, where he is retired from the University of Northampton. He is currently the President of the Society for Psychical Research and has been twice President of the Parapsychological Association . Richard has made many contributions to parapsychology, as seen in the bibliography below. One of them is a popular book, Parapsychology: The Controversial Science (1991).
How did you get interested in parapsychology?
As an undergraduate in the late 1960s I had an interest in what might be called the “higher states of consciousness” that were associated with oriental religions and philosophies, but the philosophical approach didn’t really suit me. Subsequently, while doing my alternative service at a school in Egypt, I read an article by Lawrence LeShan that was a precursor to his book The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist. In that I learned that scientists were studying the phenomena that interested me, and that got me excited. In the school library I managed to find a bit more information about parapsychology, and by the time my wife and I returned to the States I had decided that I would return to university and make a career of trying to understand how these phenomena worked.
What are your main interests in the field and how have you contributed to its development?
I started in the field interested in how the brain is involved in ‘transducing’ (for lack of a better term) the anomalous information that we call ESP into useful information or action. Now, at the other end of my career, I am still interested in that same question. The difference is that in the early days I focused on the presumed cognitive aspects of ESP in the brain whereas now I think the answer to how ESP works will be found in the emotional system. Along the way I have become convinced that to help in this quest to understand how ESP works we need to understand its evolutionary role in human development. Another interest of mine—not by choice because it was forced upon me at the start of my career—is the “source of psi” problem in experimental research, or more specifically, experimenter effect. I dare say that my entire career as an experimental researcher has relentlessly demonstrated (to me at least) that the experimenter remains the most potent variable in eliciting evidence of psi (or failing to do so, as is more frequently, though not always, the case for me). Quite frankly, apart from arguing my case from time to time—be it the importance of the emotional system, the role of evolution in the development of ESP, or the time bomb that is experimenter effect—I think my contribution to the field has been less than what I would have hoped for because of a relatively consistent inability to deliver convincing experimental results. That is certainly not for lack of trying, and, of course, I have my suspicions, if not convictions, as to where the problem lies. In the end, perhaps my main contribution to the field has been to undertake key supporting roles in its various institutions—the Parapsychological Association, the Rhine Center when I was there, and now the Society for Psychical Research.
Why do you think that parapsychology is important?
I think parapsychology is important in the same way all sciences are important—they help us understand how the world (including ourselves) works. Amongst the sciences parapsychology’s unique role has been to focus on that class of puzzling phenomena that seems to reveal new relationships between the human mind and the world of advanced physics. I certainly don’t think its importance lies in the hope that parapsychology will end up vindicating a view that consciousness is non-material or that it survives death, because I don’t expect that to happen.
In your view, what are the main problems in parapsychology today as a scientific field?
We all know the litany of usual suspects from which the answer to this question can be drawn, but my gut, my intuition, tells me that the root of most of the problems lies in the fact that there is something fundamental about psi that we just aren’t getting. For all the clever experiments we devise, and for all the hard work that goes into the various meta-analyses, we simply are no closer than we ever were to having predictable results. Yes, we are dealing with weak effects, but even with a weak effect we should be able to trust a power analysis for a replication and we can’t. That same gut feeling tells me that this may be allied to the whatever is at the root of psi-based experimenter effect that I mentioned earlier, but what ever it is, we are not seeing it.
Can you mention some of your current projects?
Well, as you might suspect from my comments, I am taking a break from experimental projects for the present. I have some writing to do, particularly with regard to elaborating my evolutionary model of psi, but quite frankly, having retired from teaching duties at the university I am enjoying having the time to engage in more tractable pursuits, not all of which are academic. And I am enjoying shepherding the Society for Psychical Research (of which I am the president) through some interesting decision-making and project development that will benefit the whole field (we hope).
Broughton, R. S. Parapsychology: The Controversial Science, New York: Ballantine, 1991. Translated editions published in Italy, France, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Israel.
White, R. A. & Broughton, R. S. (Eds.). (1984) Research in Parapsychology 1983. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Broughton, R. S. (2010). An evolutionary perspective on anomalous intuition. Proceedings of the Eighth Bial Foundation Symposium: Aquém e Além do Cérebro: Intuição e Decisão. Porto: Fundação Bial, 61–73.
Broughton, R. S. (2006). Memory, emotion and the receptive psi process. Journal of Parapsychology, 70, 255–274.
Broughton, R. S. (2006). Why do ghosts wear clothes?—Examining the role of memory and emotion in anomalous experiences. European Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 148–165.
Broughton, R. S. (2002). Telepathy: Revisiting its roots. Proceedings of the fourth Bial Foundation Symposium: Aquém e Além do Cérebro: Relações Interpessoais Excepcionai. Porto: Fundação Bial, 131–146.
Alexander, C. H., & Broughton, R. S., (2001). Cerebral hemisphere dominance and ESP performance in the Autoganzfeld. Journal of Parapsychology, 65, 397-416.
Bierman, D. J., Broughton, R. S., & Berger, R. E. (1998) Notes on random target selection: The PRL autoganzfeld target and target set distributions revisited. Journal of Parapsychology, 62, 339–348.
Broughton, R. S. (1993). The new technology: A man and his tools. Journal of Parapsychology, 57, 111-127.
Broughton, R. S. (1993). Taking psi ability seriously. In L. Coly and J.D.S. McMahan (Eds.) Psi Research Methodology: A Re-examination. New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 21-43.
Broughton, R. S. and Perlstrom, J. R. (1992). PK in a competitive computer game: A replication. Journal of Parapsychology, 56, 292-305.
Broughton, R. S., Kanthamani, H., & Khilji, A. (1990). Assessing the PRL Success Model on an Independent Ganzfeld Database. In L. A. Henkel and J. Palmer (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1989, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 32–35.
Broughton, R. S. (1988). “If you want to know how it works, first find out what it’s for” (Presidential address to the Parapsychological Association), In D. H. Weiner and R. L. Morris (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1987, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 187–202.
Burdick, D. S. and Broughton, R. S. (1987). Conditional displacement analyses. Journal of Parapsychology, 51, 117–123.
Broughton, R. S. (1987). Parapsychology on the couch. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 10, 575–576.
Broughton, R. S. (1987). Publication Policy and the Journal of Parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology. 51, 21–32.
Broughton, R. S. and Perlstrom, J. R. (1986). PK experiments with a competitive computer game. Journal of Parapsychology, 50, 193–211.
Broughton, R. S. (1982). Computer methodology. In B. Shapin and L. Coly (Eds.) Parapsychology and the Experimental Method (pp. 24–36) New York: Parapsychology Foundation.
Broughton, R. S. (1982). The use of computers in psychical research. In I. Grattan-Guinness (Ed.), Psychical Research: A guide to its history, principles and practices. Wellingborough, UK: Aquarian Press.
Broughton, R. S. (1982). Computer methodology: Total control with a human face. Parapsychology Review, 13, 1–6.
Broughton, R. S. (1979). An experiment with the Head of Jut. European Journal of Parapsychology, 2, 337–357.
Broughton, R. S. (1979). Repeatability and experimenter influence: Are subjects really necessary? Parapsychology Review, 10, 11–14.
Broughton, R. S. (1976). Possible brain laterality effects on ESP performance. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 48, 384–399.
Broughton, R. S. (1975). Psi and the two halves of the brain. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. 47, 133–147.