Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
It has always been a pleasure to see Dr. Elizabeth Roxburgh at conventions, and to see her papers about mediums and clinical issues related to psychic experiences. I particularly enjoyed one of her early papers, co-authored with Chris Roe, ““A Survey of Dissociation, Boundary-Thinness and Psychological Wellbeing in Spiritualist Mental Mediumship” (Journal of Parapsychology, 2011, 7, 279-299). This is an important contribution to the new era of psychological studies of mediumship, a study that was part of her PhD thesis at the University of Northampton.
Elizabeth is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Northampton, where she conducts research, teaches, supervises doctoral students, and is course leader for the BSc (Hons) Psychology and Counselling degree. My last personal contact with her was when she came to the US to participate in a forum organized by the Parapsychology Foundation in 2015, “Recent Advances in UK Parapsychology.” In addition to Elizabeth, this included the participation of Professor Chris Roe, Callum Cooper, Rachel Evenden, and David Saunders.
How did you get interested in parapsychology?
It all began when I was about 10. I awoke one night and I saw a sparkle of white light and felt my hair being tugged. My family and I were staying with some friends at the time and my mum said it might have been the two daughters messing around with some matches. However, I wasn’t convinced (the light looked nothing like the spark of a match as it was much brighter and quite large), and when I got home, I kept on talking about it to my mum and she eventually said that the family in the house thought that there was a spirit there as they had felt its presence literally and unusual things had happened in the house (particularly in the room I was staying in…thanks for that!).
Whilst growing up I put this experience to one side and haven’t had any similar experiences since. I then did my undergraduate degree in psychology in 1997 at Staffordshire University and worked for the NHS for a number of years as an assistant clinical psychologist in various different mental health contexts. It was here that I came across the medical model and the belief that experiences, such as seeing visions, hearing voices, and sensing the presence of the deceased were considered symptoms of a ‘mental disorder’ and labelled as ‘hallucinations’. I quickly became very critical of this view for a number of reasons and decided that I wanted to investigate unusual experiences from a less reductionist perspective. I had always been fascinated by ‘parapsychology’ and think the first book I read on the subject was in fact called ‘In search of the light: The adventures of a parapsychologist’ by Susan Blackmore, who at the time was interested in NDEs. She talked about devoting her life to the field of parapsychology and the adventures she got up to at the Rhine Research Center (an institute for parapsychological research in North Carolina). So, in 2003, off I went to the Rhine Research Center after receiving a scholarship from the Parapsychological Association to attend the Rhine summer study program. It was there that I had an introduction to all the different research that had been conducted in the area of parapsychology (and where I first met Christine Simmonds-Moore and Nicola Holt; Nicola was also on the program at the time and is incidentally my birthday twin!).
In 2005 I left the NHS and clinical psychology (I was training to become a clinical psychologist) and a few months later saw a bursary advertised to do a PhD on the psychology and phenomenology of mediumship at the University of Northampton (where Nicola Holt was working at the time) under the supervision of Professor Chris Roe and Professor Deborah Delanoy. I was successful in receiving this bursary (I always felt this was ‘meant to be’!) and began my doctoral research in early 2006 at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes in the Psychology Division at the University of Northampton, and was awarded my PhD in 2010.
I was fortunate to secure an academic position at the University of Northampton on completion of my PhD and I am now a Senior Lecturer in Psychology where I specialise in teaching and supervising research on the phenomenology of anomalous experiences, mental health, counselling, and qualitative research methods. I am a BACP Registered counsellor, teach on the MSc in Counselling (a practitioner training program) and was recently appointed as course leader for the BSc Psychology and Counselling degree. I am also a current Board member of the Parapsychological Association and member of their Anomalous Experiences Committee.
What are your main interests in the field and how have you contributed to its development?
My research interests are broad but stem from a passion to develop a scientific understanding of anomalous, spiritual and transpersonal experiences through careful application of a range of interdisciplinary methodologies. I am particularly fascinated by the growing field of ‘clinical parapsychology’ (exploring mental health and anomalous experiences) and its applied focus given that many individuals have had anomalous experiences (AEs) or believe in such phenomena. Some also report having existential questions after their experience or experience psychological distress and do not know where to seek support or are concerned that they will be labelled ‘mad’. I believe that there is a need to research the actual impact or interpretation of these experiences and I am interested in how individuals make sense of their experiences. Therefore, the research approaches that I have used thus far have been mainly qualitative and have taken experiences at face value without trying to prove that ‘paranormal phenomena’ exist. Rather my aims have been to increase our understanding of these experiences as psychological, social, and cultural events. This was demonstrated at the Qualitative Research in Mental Conference, Chania, Crete, in 2014 (and again in 2016) where I chaired a Symposium of four qualitative research papers on ‘Making Sense of Anomalous Experiences’.
Mediums are of interest to ‘clinical parapsychologists’ as their experiences could be interpreted as symptoms of a ‘mental disorder’ by Western psychiatry, so for my doctoral research I was particularly interested in what we can learn from this group of individuals that might be useful for people who become distressed by hearing voices or seeing visions. I was also interested in how some individuals who hear voices come to label these experiences as instances of mediumistic communication. In addition, mediums seem to experience a hidden or alternate reality that exists beyond ordinary sense experience which has implications for the study of consciousness; for example, they claim to have access to information not ordinarily available to them, they experience physical sensations that were associated with the deceased personality (such as bodily aches and pains, sensed changes in height, weight or posture), and they report spirit guides suggesting a personality process that expands or extends the limits of everyday consciousness as conventionally understood.
I began the research with participant observation of a mediumship training course at the Arthur Findlay College, Stanstead Hall, home of the Spiritualist National Union, which really helped increase my knowledge of the culture surrounding mediumship and the language used. I was also able to gain first-hand insights into the experiential components of mediumship which helped when thinking of questions to ask in my interview study. As the late Rhea White said: ‘In doing research on a particular aspect of human life you should begin, not with a research protocol or hypothesis but with exploratory investigations of the research population itself. Only when you have steeped yourself in their empirical world can you possibly be in a position to devise hypotheses and a research design’ (White, 1997, p. 101).
A survey conducted as part of my research compared Spiritualist mediums with non-medium Spiritualists on a range of wellbeing and personality measures and found that mediums scored better on psychological wellbeing and lower on psychological distress. Consequently, there is no evidence to suggest that mediums experience negative mental health; in fact, they seem to have better psychological wellbeing than comparable others. Likewise, when compared with population norms from a sample of patients (experiencing hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, or depression) mediums scored more positively on both wellbeing and psychological distress. There were no significant differences between mediums and non-mediums on measures of dissociation, fantasy-proneness or boundary-thinness. In exploratory analyses mediums scored significantly higher than non-mediums on measures of Openness to Experience, Neuroticism, and Extraversion, but no significant differences were found for Agreeableness or Conscientiousness (Roxburgh & Roe, 2011).
In follow-up interviews using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), mediums emphasized the importance of childhood anomalous experiences and mediumistic experiences within the family context as explanations for how they became practising mediums. Some mediums also spoke about how important mediumship and Spiritualism was in helping them to construct a personal experiential framework for making sense of initially distressing experiences, which reflects the importance of connecting with a community that shares the same belief system. Particular importance seemed to be placed on controlling the communication process, setting boundaries, and not allowing mediumship to interfere with daily life (Roxburgh & Roe, 2014). Mediums contemplated that spirit guides may not be real entities but aspects of themselves and spoke about preparatory practices they use to communicate with spirits such as mental detachment, meditation, and making a demand for a positive outcome (Roxburgh & Roe, 2013).
Within a few months of completing my PhD, I was awarded a research bursary from the Bial Foundation, Portugal to investigate the prevalence and phenomenology of synchronicity experiences in the therapy setting. This research found that 44% of a random sample of 226 therapists had experienced synchronicity in the therapeutic setting (Roxburgh, Ridgway, & Roe, 2015) and that synchronicity experiences are perceived as useful harbingers of information about the therapeutic process, as well as being a means of overcoming communication difficulties (Roxburgh, Ridgway, & Roe, 2016).
In 2012, I was asked to participate in the third meeting of experts on clinical parapsychology (alongside Isabel Clarke, Renaud Evrard, Thomas Rabeyron, and Wim Kramer) that was hosted by the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris, April 2012. This meeting focused on clinical practices with people who have had anomalous experiences and was co-organized by The Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, Germany and a Dutch foundation, Het Johan Borgman Fonds. An outcome of this meeting was that I developed ideas for future research, and was successful in winning another research bursary from the Bial Foundation to investigate the counselling experiences of clients who report anomalous experiences (e.g., sensing the presence of the deceased after bereavement, spiritual crisis, near-death experiences) and the training needs of therapists who might work with such clients (counsellors and clinical psychologists).
In addition, I also became involved with the UK Spiritual Crisis Network (SCN), which is a charity organisation that accepts that some people understand mental health issues as a spiritual awakening or profound personal transformation, and was invited to talk about the latest research on anomalous experiences and mental health at their 2nd annual conference ‘Mending the Gap: Global collaboration towards a more humanistic understanding of mental health and anomalous experiences’. I also gave a presentation on clinical parapsychology in 2015 as part of the WizIQ web-based series ‘Parapsychology Foundation Forum: Recent Advances in UK Parapsychology’ and have been asked to give a keynote presentation on anomalous experiences and mental health at a conference entitled ‘Psychotherapies Across Time, Space, and Cultures’ at the University of Glasgow in April 2017.
I enjoy networking and sharing ideas about parapsychology and I am interested in international collaboration. In August 2011, I presented two papers at the 54th annual convention of the Parapsychological Association (PA) in Curitiba, Brazil. Following this conference, I won (in collaboration with Professor Chris Roe) a Santander grant which enabled us to visit colleagues (Wellington Zangari, Fatima Machado, Everton Maraldi) at the University of São Paulo in May 2014 to discuss mutual areas of research interest and just recently Everton visited the University of Northampton alongside colleagues from the Brain, Belief, and Behaviour research group from Coventry University. In 2015 I also attended the ‘First Transpersonal Research Colloquium: Gathering Our Research Community Together’ in Milan where I had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with researchers worldwide (delegates are participating from Austria, Canada, China, Greece, Germany, Israel, Macedonia, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA!) on training related to research methods and procedures applicable to the study of parapsychology and transpersonal psychology.
I am currently disseminating my research in the area of clinical parapsychology to students on the BSc in Psychology and Counselling programme as well as the MSc in Counselling programme at the University of Northampton. I am also currently supervising two PhD students: Charmaine Sonnex is studying the ‘Effects of Pagan healing practices on health and wellbeing’ and Louise King is exploring ‘A transpersonal understanding of spiritual experiences in individuals with epilepsy’
Why do you think that parapsychology is important?
As parapsychology could be considered within the umbrella of the vast topic of psychology, all the reasons why it is important to study psychology could also apply to parapsychology! Parapsychology can tell us a lot about human nature, our potential, how we interact with others, our experiences and beliefs, and the nature of reality and consciousness. As we are essentially biological, psychological, spiritual, social, and cultural beings it is also important that parapsychology reflects this in its interdisciplinary approach to research. We also have a responsibility to try to establish a scientific understanding for the phenomena that people experience and to help people make sense of their experiences. This is particularly important given that surveys have consistently shown that a high proportion of the general population believe in or experience AEs. For example, Dr. Simon Dein, in a paper entitled ‘Mental Health and the Paranormal’ published in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies in 2012, cites surveys conducted across the world in which over half the general population have reported at least one AE. AEs can occur at anytime in an individual’s life but have often been reported after negative life events. Common reactions include fear, anxiety, distress but it is also important to acknowledge that some people do find them comforting and positive or have existential questions after the experience. Interestingly, research within the field of clinical psychology has found that it is not necessarily the AE itself that has an impact on whether or not the person experiences distress, but rather how they appraise such experiences, their perceived levels of social support, and whether or not there are opportunities to reduce stigma in a context that normalises and validates the experience (Brett, Heriot-Maitland, McGuire, & Peters, 2014; Heriot-Maitland et al., 2012; Roxburgh & Roe, 2014; Taylor & Murray, 2012). However, most health care professionals in mainstream services tend to ignore the spiritual or transcendent aspects of people’s AEs or worse interpret them within a pathological framework. Therefore, I think (clinical) parapsychology has a role to play in trying to understand what might help someone to process the experience and make sense of it.
In your view, what are the main problems in parapsychology today as a scientific field?
I think the main problems stem from ignorance, arrogance, prejudice, and a reductionist and materialist view by some members of the scientific community, alongside sensationalist and incorrect portrayal of parapsychology within the media. This has resulted in a lack of funding and resources to undertake parapsychological research as well as researchers and academics finding it difficult to undertake parapsychological research for fear of the potential repercussions. Schouten’s (1993) estimation, that the total amount of human and financial resources that has been dedicated to the study of parapsychology since 1882 is about the same as two months’ worth of research in mainstream psychology, is often cited to emphasise the challenges that have been faced in this respect!
Can you mention some of your current projects?
I recently completed a Bial Foundation funded project on counselling for anomalous experiences which involved three qualitative studies. The first study explored the counselling experiences of clients who report AEs in therapy and is due to be published this year in Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, the journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), which has over 40,000 members. The title of the paper ‘“Most people think you’re a fruit loop”: Clients’ experiences of seeking support for anomalous experiences’ (is a participant’s words not ours!) sums up how clients felt when they sought support for AEs. The second study explored the experiences of therapists who had worked with clients reporting AEs to better understand how AEs are addressed in therapy. This paper is entitled ‘“They daren’t tell people”: Therapists’ experiences of working with clients who report anomalous experiences’ and has been published in the European Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy (in a special edition entitled ‘What is paranormal: Some implications for the psychological therapies?). The third study investigated the needs of students undertaking training to become therapists and the paper ‘“It’s about having exposure to this”: Investigating the training needs of therapists in relation to the issue of anomalous experiences’ is currently under review.
The implications of this research are that 1) individuals who believe they have had AEs may not seek support for fear of being dismissed or pathologised, 2) findings emphasise the importance of reaching a ‘shared explanation’ which addresses differences in beliefs (spiritual and cultural) about the causes of AEs and mental health issues, 3) therapists should explore the meaning of AEs to help clients make sense of their experiences and to identify any precipitating factors involved, and 4) there is a need for training opportunities on the topic of AEs, greater awareness of where to refer or signpost individuals to, and access to accurate and balanced information about AEs.
In terms of my next project I am hoping to undertake further research on mediumship in collaboration with colleagues in Brazil. I am also planning to explore the concept of the ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (high sensory processing sensitivity) with a couple of qualitative studies but also some experimental research. Watch this space!
Roxburgh, E. C., & Evenden, R. E. (in press). “Most people think you’re a fruit loop”: Clients’ experiences of seeking support for anomalous experiences. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research.
Roxburgh, E. C., & Evenden, R. E. (2016). “They daren’t tell people”: Therapists experiences of working with clients who report anomalous experiences [Special Issue]. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 18, 123-141.
Roxburgh, E. C., Ridgway, S., & Roe, C. (2016). Synchronicity in the therapeutic setting: A survey of practitioners. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 16, 44-53.
Roxburgh, E. C., Ridgway, S., & Roe, C. (2015). Exploring the meaning in meaningful coincidences: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of synchronicity in therapy [Special Issue]. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 17, 144-161.
Roe, C. A., Sonnex, C. and Roxburgh, E. C. (2015). Noncontact healing: What does the research tell us? European Journal of Integral Medicine. 7(6), p. 687. 1876-3820.
Roe, C. A., Sonnex, C., & Roxburgh, E. C. (2015). Two meta-analyses of noncontact healing studies. EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, 11, 11-23.
Grivell, T., Clegg, H., & Roxburgh, E, C. (2014). An interpretative phenomenological analysis of identity in the therian community. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 14, 2, 113-135.
Roxburgh, E. C., & Roe, C. A. (2014). Reframing voices and visions using a spiritual model: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of anomalous experiences in mediumship. Mental Health, Religion, & Culture, 17, 6, 641-653.
Roxburgh, E. C., & Roe, C. A. (2013). “Say from whence you owe this strange intelligence”: Investigating explanatory systems of spiritualist mental mediumship using interpretative phenomenological analysis. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 32(1), 27-42.
Roxburgh, E. C., & Roe, C. A. (2011). A survey of dissociation, boundary-thinness and psychological wellbeing in Spiritualist mental mediumship. Journal of Parapsychology, 7, 279-299.
Roxburgh, E. C., & Roe, C. A. (2009). Thematic analysis of mediums’ experiences [Letter to Editor]. Journal of Scientific Exploration. 23, 348-351.
Roxburgh, E. C. (2007). Book review [Familiar voices: Corroborative evidence of life after death by Tom Cross]. Paranormal Review, 42, 33-34.
Roxburgh, E. C. (2006). Mediumship, spirit awareness and developing your potential: A personal view of Course 20 at the Arthur Findlay College. Paranormal Review, 40, 18-23.
Roxburgh, E. C. (2006). Gwen Tate Lecture: Mediumship and how it works. Paranormal Review, 3, 24-26.
Roxburgh, E. C. (2006). The 49th SPR Study Day: 1905-2005: 100 years of progress? Paranormal Review, 38, 21-25.
Roxburgh, E. C., & Roe, C. A. (2014). A mixed methods approach to mediumship research. In A. J. Rock (Ed.), The Survival Hypothesis: Essays on Mediumship (pp. 220-234). NC: McFarland.
Roe, C. A., & Roxburgh, E. C. (2014). Non-parapsychological explanations of mediumship. In A. J. Rock (Ed.), The Survival Hypothesis: Essays on Mediumship (pp. 65-78) NC: McFarland.
Roe, C. A., & Roxburgh, E. C. (2013). An overview of cold reading strategies. In C. M. Moreman (Ed.), The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World (pp.177-203). California: Praeger Publishers.
Roxburgh, E. C., & Roe, C. A. (2013). Exploring the meaning of mental mediumship from the mediums’ perspective. In C. M. Moreman (Ed.), The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World (pp. 53-67). California: Praeger Publishers.