Dr David Luke is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Greenwich (London) in the Department of Psychology and Counselling. He currently teaches the Psychology of Exceptional Human Experience, Individual Differences and Abnormal Psychology, and Research Methods. He is the current President of the Parapsychological Association
An oldie but a goodie to start with. What first got you interested in parapsychology?
It was a combination of a few factors. As a truanting schoolboy I would loiter in second-hand book shops and give myself a more self-directed education, reading anything left field in science I could get my hands on. A whole stack of copies of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research appeared on the shelf one day for 10 pence each and I bought the lot. Somewhat perplexed by the dense language I was nevertheless utterly fascinated with the subject matter.
I later joined the Society before heading off to university. My interest in altered states of consciousness went back even further and grew right from the moment I could spin round until I went dizzy. I experimented widely with all sorts of altered states and gradually realised I had a deep calling for them beyond mere hedonism. I decided to study psychology to make sense of my extraordinary experiences in these states and headed off to university for a degree, but finished that feeling somewhat disappointed with the sheer limitation of the answers that emerged from mainstream science. I travelled across Mexico for 18 months, discovered shamanism, explored plant entheogens, and finally figured that a doctorate in parapsychology was the closest branch of academia to where I would find my answers. I returned to study and this was certainly a very good start.
You are currently the President of the Parapsychological Association; what is the PA, and what does it represent?
The PA website sums this up excellently, so I’ll borrow heavily from there. The Parapsychological Association is the international professional organization of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of ‘psi’ (or ‘psychic’) experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, remote viewing, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition. Such experiences seem to challenge contemporary conceptions of human nature and of the physical world. They appear to involve the transfer of information and the influence of physical systems independently of time and space, via mechanisms we cannot currently explain. The primary objective of the Parapsychological Association is to achieve a scientific understanding of these experiences.
In view of this, PA members develop and refine methodologies for studying psi and its physical, biological or psychological underpinnings. They assess hypotheses and theories through experiments, conceptual models and field investigations, and seek to integrate their findings with other scientific domains. PA members also explore the meaning and impact of psychic experiences in human society, and assess the possibility of practical applications and technologies.
While covering a wide range of perspectives, the PA, as a whole, is committed to: Promoting scholarship and scientific inquiry into currently unexplained aspects of human experience; disseminating responsible information to the wider public and to the scientific community; and integrating this information with knowledge from other disciplines.
The PA was first established in 1957, and has been an affiliated organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since 1969. As of the year 2002, there are approximately 300 PA members from all over the world.
You list ‘experimental and field parapsychology from a multidisciplinary perspective’ as one of your research interests. Can you expand upon this ‘multidisciplinary’ style a little?
Well I have a background in psychology, but my fascination with plant shamanism has led me into exploring anthropology, ethnobotany, phytochemistry, neurobiology and, more generally, consciousness and transpersonal studies. In practice, my research extends only as far as field parapsychology experiments informed by ethnography and with the aim of shedding some light on the neurobiology of psi. This largely amounts to some preliminary psi experiments with people under the influence of psychedelic jungle decoctions and mountain brews. I think it’s important, for me at least, to take psi research back to its natural sources.
Shamanism is probably the oldest magico-religious practice known to man and has seemingly been used for millenia for accessing psi-conducive states. Many of those states involve plant psychedelics, and it is the study of the use of these within a parapsychological context that can likely tell us the most about the neurobiology of psi. Simultaneously, there is a personal dimension to my research and as much as I study these things for advancing the field I follow this trajectory to expand my own personal wisdom and knowledge too. And of course both of these endeavours feed into each other, you just have to be prepared to be transformed in the process of doing this kind of research.
So not only is this research multidisciplinary, it is also multimethodological, as it is both empirical and experiential, and in the latter mode it is also polyphasic too, to borrow a term from Charles Laughlin, in that it incorporates many states of being. I’m also a fan of the other Charles too, Tart, and his state specific sciences. We haven’t even begun to understand the world scientifically yet from a non-pragmacentric view – that is from within other states of consciousness – although the indigenous shamans of traditional cultures have been doing so for thousands of years, so we would be wise to study them, and from every possible direction. You can’t just put them under a microscope though, the early anthropologists tried that and eventually realised how blinkered they had been until they embraced participant-observation. So my approach is more mutidimensional than just multidisciplinary.
You have ‘hit the road’ previously and travelled widely to investigate healing in different cultures and from different perspectives – what have been some of your headline findings?
My field research has so far been key in indicating how difficult and demanding this kind of research is. I would have been wise to have noted from my colleague and teacher Dr Serena Roney-Dougal just how slow and arduous this kind of research is, after the six long years it took her to complete two studies in India, while living in various ashrams and monasteries. Nevertheless, this research direction is also the most rewarding, personally at least.
So while I have been less than successful in some of my field psi research, some of it has paid off, and more than that, I have had the benefit of having had innumerable anomalous experiences upon which to draw upon and ponder in my quest for some kind of ontological truth. It’s good to remember this too when you find yourself cueing up to have your eyeball scraped with a kitchen knife and have a pair of forceps shoved all the way up your nose, or when psychedelically purging yesterday’s breakfast in an unbearably hot sweatlodge whilst being whipped with nettles under the weight of a transpersonal dark night of the soul. I guess my headline findings are yet to come, if they are to be found, meanwhile they read more like a travel section feature on how to end up in strange places doing even stranger things.
I would say, though, that we still have some enormous questions yet to ask as scientists, let alone begin to answer, and that these primarily relate to the area occupied at the edge of the study of parapsychology and altered states of consciousness. Indeed, here be dragons, because currently we Westerners are the medieval cartographers in a land populated by pygmies with GPS. I think in this territory it pays to acknowledge one’s ignorance instead of bragging about how obviously clever we are just because we’ve read a few books. Science is an excellent tool kit, but I think we have to be prepared to jump over the fence at the edge of our field of expertise and be prepared to get our feet wet,… or even not to land at all - Excelsior!
Thank you very much David