ASSAP History: 'Research'
by Val Hope
Our first Research Officer was the late Dr Vernon Harrison, a research scientist in the field of counterfeiting and forgery. In 1982 he gave an interview to ASSAP News on plans to put together a register of specialists from fields including engineering and physics, but was careful to emphasize that an instrument was only as good as the experiment that utilized it. There have been several incarnations of this concept, including the Technical Group with Dr Paul Lee at its helm and a short-lived Equipment Group.
The Merlin Matrix
In 1983 a Research Committee was reported to be meeting regularly to launch the 'Merlin Matrix' and other projects. Maurice Townsend’s Merlin Matrix comprised a number of research modules (including Project Albion) aimed at encouraging groups to work within a framework, following guidance, reporting back to the Executive on progress and publishing their results. Maurice gave an interview to ASSAP News, after taking over from Vernon as Research Officer, in which he described the aim as to ‘discover the relationship between time, space and paranormal events, with particular reference to physical phenomena’. The physical mediumship research group was announced as active as early as 1982. It already had a basis of mediums for direct voice, levitation of furniture and materialisation, as well as some equipment. In ASSAP News Maurice called for more of the same and more members to take part all around the country.
Merlin’s regressive hypnosis module also proved popular. An Anglo-Saxon character calling himself first Cedric and then Cerdic appeared during regression sessions held at Hugh Pincott’s flat in Blackheath, London. The man who seemingly regressed to the time of the Battle of Hastings discovered a new talent for drawing and produced a series of Anglo-Saxon camp and battle scenes. Paul Bew’s 1985 front-page article in ASSAP News lists the other characters from the past that the experimenters uncovered. A number of hypnotists were trained up by Hugh, and several groups went on to investigate the enhancement of ESP under hypnosis and other related matters. Group hypnosis sessions were attempted in Blackheath, but also in the cold, damp surroundings of Chislehurst Caves in Greater London during an all-night investigation that formed part of Project Minotaur in 1987.
Research for all
By 1985 it was recognized that the make-up of ASSAP meant we had to shift the research effort away from projects requiring huge commitment and towards projects for individuals. While still retaining Merlin for groups, a number of successive Research Officers tried to get the general membership involved in DIY research. Under Barbara Russell, Annice Neville and their successors we had members encouraging seeds to sprout or die, participating in remote-viewing exercises and trying to influence which side up coins landed when tossed.
Remote viewing became a firm favourite. It requires no specialist equipment at all. Alan Cleaver announced the first ASSAP RV experiment back in 1984, asking members to ‘tune in’ on a certain day and describe where he was. Since then we’ve had people tracking the movements of numerous members, including Val Hope, Maurice Townsend, Clive Seymour and Susan Laws, or attempting to see inside a sealed envelope or locked box. RV experiments have at times been built into investigator training events as one of the activities during the overnight vigil, specifically at Charlton House, and we have also run them as part of our UnConvention appearances. Clive described the ideal preparation for sending and receiving in The Paranormal Investigator's Handbook.
The difficulty of getting people to commit to long-term research also led to the launch of ‘Operation Lightning Strike!’ in 1986. ASSAP members were encouraged to work for just one year on a subject from their own specialist area, aimed at producing a quick burst of intense activity to achieve a breakthrough. Subjects suggested included a study of psigenics, the genetic traits showed by psychics, or a study to see if psychics had better memories than non-psychics. Take-up was disappointing.
Short-lived and intermittently revived projects
Unfortunately, most premonitions we receive or read about are anecdotal, coming after the event - this makes them worthless for research purposes. In an attempt to change this, Roger Morgan launched our first Premonitions Bureau in 1984 and appealed for people to phone or write to him about their premonition before it came true. For a while Anne Spencer was the recipient of these records, but we now have an email address to accept them. We also accept them in writing to ASSAP’s postal address. Before the 2005 Training Day, Lionel Fanthorpe received a sealed package believed to relate to some event in the future. It is now in safekeeping, sealed until the specified date.
A series of monthly research study evenings was launched in 1989 by Tony Pritchett, who thoughtfully provided his north London flat as the venue. The series kicked off with Ralph Noyes talking about research into crop circles. A meeting in 1990 featured Dr Rupert Sheldrake, who had long been a member of ASSAP. He explained his theory that it was possible for some people to tell if they were being stared at, and Research Officer Barbara Russell wrote up her account of the theory in ASSAP News, reporting that 54.8% of the guesses at that meeting were correct. She organized a bigger trial later: a line of people stood facing the wall at the Polytechnic of Central London, while another person singled out one of them for the staring treatment. Unfortunately, memories have grown foggy over the years and the level of success at this second event seems not to have been recorded. Eventually Tony's meetings became quarterly, held on Saturdays to encourage greater participation, and attracted such speakers as George Wingate (crop circles) and Lynn Picknett (poltergeists). And then they ceased altogether.
A series of Skywatches began under Phil Walton’s leadership with the 1997 summer solstice. Phil was BUFORA’s Skywatch coordinator at the time. As well as providing a network for skywatchers searching for that elusive UFO, these quarterly events were aimed at training participants to spot the range of normal aerial phenomena to be expected in the night sky. Now that amateur astronomer Phil has moved on, we no longer coordinate such events. However, activity in the night skies is still reported in ASSAP News as an aid to independent skywatchers.
Mike White was in the Research Officer seat for a while and felt that this area was viewed as the ‘poor relation’ of investigations. He took the opportunity of reminding members of past achievements in the pages of ASSAP News. He called for members to put forward their own suggestions for research projects, publicize their projects or request help from other members. There was, unfortunately, little take-up. James Clark then took over and encouraged members to join up with Mick O’Neill, a computer programmer who had won an SPR grant in 2003 to investigate the possibility of psychically predicting the lottery numbers. Jim also ran a dream research project in 2004-2005, with volunteers trying to dream the identity of an image in a sealed enveloped. They were asked to note down details of their dreams and, after a pre-arranged date, check their notes and submit a short description or make a sketch of the target. Subsequently they were asked to pick out the image that best matched their dream content from among a set of pictures. The results for the ten participants who completed both parts of the experiment were presented in ASSAP News 106.
Orbs, streaks and simulacra
Photographic anomalies have always been an ASSAP strong point (despite a surprisingly low score for popularity in the 1999 membership survey), with hundreds of photos submitted to the National Investigations Coordinator or direct to Hugh Pincott's office over the years. Most showed lights in the sky, faces in trees or reflections. The trickier ones used to be submitted to Vernon Harrison, a past president of the Royal Photographic Society. In the archives we hold a series of photos taken by Vernon, a down-to-earth and open-minded scientist. One set of photos comprised casual snaps, but for the other set he ‘concentrated mentally’ on trying to produce anomalous images. In ASSAP News 99 Hugh reports that there are faces by the dozen in those photos, composed of grass and twigs but clearly resembling humans, animals and goblins.
Some photos submitted for comment were clearly instances of people seeing patterns in random shapes, while others were photos of camera straps and smoke. Relatively few were clear hoaxes, while some remained genuinely unexplained, such as the photo of a shape on the stairs at the Ancient Ram Inn, taken by the late Julie Hunt. While Michael Lewis filled the role of NIC he received a series of family photos from a woman in Bolton who remained unidentified to all but Michael. The photos were spoiled by black shadows, blue arcs and misty patches suggestive of thoughtography; they were seemingly meaningful, as the marks were said to identify trees later chopped down, people who later succumbed to illness and so on.
A famous photo we were called to give a view on was of a girl apparently standing in the flames at the burning town hall in Wem, Shropshire, a case dealt with by ParaSearch. When a photo was obtained of the same spot taken from another angle it was clear that a random collection of burning debris was making up a simulacrum. However, the media chose not to report that finding, preferring mystery over a dull solution. A falling leaf captured on CCTV at Belgrave Hall, Leicester, also provided much fun for the media, who promoted the belief that the image showed the ghost of a named past occupier of the house. It took a team of ASSAP investigators with a step ladder to duplicate the event and show it for what it was before the more fanciful story went away. For a while.
Nowadays we largely receive digital photos showing orbs, and a great deal has been said elsewhere about the causes of these blobs. See, for instance, Paul Lee’s article in ASSAP News 100 and the technical articles on orbs on the website, written and illustrated by Maurice Townsend. Anomalous photography subject coordinator Simon Earwicker wrote a short article in ASSAP News 89 on how to preserve and present photographic evidence, discussing the relative worth of the JPEG and TIFF formats and the benefits of old-fashioned film cameras. Simon also gave instructions elsewhere on building a cheap stereo camera for taking to investigations.
The future for ASSAP research
ASSAP now has a Research Panel, led by Dr Hugh Pincott as the National Research Coordinator. Its task is to give research the same status as investigations. The panel assesses applications for ASSAP research grants and is an indirect descendant of earlier attempts to encourage research, but this time it seems to have caught members' imagination. Perhaps it's the money that acts as an incentive! Individuals and groups are encouraged to submit applications for funding to support their research. Applicants do not even have to be ASSAP members. Guidance on writing up project protocols is given, as is feedback to help knock protocols into shape. The scheme was described in ASSAP News 108.
However, this is not the first time we have contributed financially to research - back in 1993 we helped to fund Andy Collins’ Orgone project, aimed at testing whether crop circles were related in any way to Wilhelm Reich’s orgone. The research resulted in a publication and a conference. We also gave small grants to a few members for Project Albion publications. And, of course, there's MADS.
© Valerie Hope 2007