27 August 2013

Biased and unbiased psychology

Recently I wrote about Charles McCreery’s ability to pick out which reports of ostensibly religious experiences had been written by someone who had previously been diagnosed as psychotic, and that he was the only person at the Department of Experimental Psychology at that time who was found to be able to do this. I also said that by that time he had discussed psychological ideas with me quite extensively, but I would not want to give the impression that his ability in this direction was dependent on his awareness of my ideas. Actually he had taken a great deal of interest in psychology and psychiatry before I knew him, as he was trying to work out what he thought of what was going on and how best he might make a career in it.

Charles McCreery outside the
SheldonianTheatre, Oxford, 
after receiving his doctorate, 1993
Probably he could have picked out cases with a psychiatric background before he knew me, since he had taken a vacation job in a mental hospital in Oxford in order to observe what was going on, and he had listened to the patients recounting their experiences.

What was going on was horrific; patients being knocked out with Largactil (the liquid cosh, as it was known) and carted off by force to be subjected to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). ‘Psychiatry’ had become dominant very quickly at the onset of the Welfare State; I am sure it is even more obviously appalling now, fifty years on. Neither Charles nor I have any confidence in the methods of diagnosis and treatment employed by qualified psychiatrists; and a large part of what happens, in depriving people of their liberty, including the right to refuse medication, is downright immoral.

Charles was also unimpressed by the ‘psychology’ being purveyed at the Department when he was an undergraduate, and this certainly contributed to his difficulties in deciding whether to pursue a career as an Oxford academic or to go to the Tavistock Clinic in London to be associated with the goings-on in ‘psychiatry’ as a clinical psychologist.

In fact he regarded the research which we might do, if we could get our Institute set up, as far more genuinely in line with academic standards, taking ‘academic’ as implying ‘realistic’, ‘objective’ or ‘unbiased’. So it would make his future career more meaningful if it was providing support to work which was indubitably of high quality, whereas he regarded the activities of both the Department of Experimental Psychology and of the Tavistock Clinic as reductionist and circumscribed in the case of the Department, and dubious to say the least in the case of the Tavistock.

However, either of them might be a way of gaining status and salary, both of which would contribute to our war effort in expanding the work of the Institute, and there would be more point in working for increasing academic status and salary if it was to the advantage of the Institute, which would be doing something meaningful, if it was able to do anything at all.
Unfortunately, Charles, like others who became associated with me, found his way into a suitable academic career blocked and hindered by the widespread hostility which we aroused. So none of those who are here now have academic appointments and salaries, although they should have, and they apply for Professorships as often as the shortage of manpower permits.

Also we are very badly in need of an active senior supporter, without which no application for funding has any hope of success. Therefore we are still urgently in need of help of all sorts and appeal for people to come and spend holidays in Cuddesdon or Wheatley as a way of gaining information about our needs for financial support and workers. This information they could at least pass on to other people if they do not want to provide help themselves.

originally posted 18 April 2011; reposted with image added

21 August 2013

My beloved newspaper

Celia Green at 18 months
I do not think anyone should think my parents were very wicked in letting me learn to read young. Once I had conceived the idea of learning to read, no power on earth could have stopped me, unless my mother had been forbidden to move her finger along the lines when she read to me, and my parents had been forbidden to answer my persistent questions about the sounds which the different letters represented. But the permissive society proceeds apace, in fact faster than I can keep up with, and perhaps by now it is accepted doctrine that any child who asks questions about letters of the alphabet before the socially approved age should be slapped down pretty sharply; and certainly not answered.

But the initiative was entirely mine. I can assure you that I was surrounded by toys of every description and even with social interaction. My mother was always bringing home children for me to play with – a few sizes larger than I was, usually, but I took little notice of that. It was simply that I found the printed word more interesting than anything else.

My investigations centred on the newspaper, which I found an object of the utmost charm. When my father read it, so would I. My first finding was that the same letters recurred. Then I would ask what sound a given letter was, and go down the page picking it out. I found out about capitals when they told me that a letter meant the same sound they had already told me for a different letter. (They were surprised I remembered). ‘Is that two letters with the same sound?’ I said. ‘It’s the same letter,’ they said, ‘but it’s a different shape if it’s big or if it’s small.’ I considered that very carefully. There was the headline with big letters all right, and the smaller print down below. But then I found one of the headline letters among the small print at the start of a sentence. ‘But that's the same shape,’ I said, ‘but it's big there and small there.’ ‘Well, it’s bigger than the others in the same line,’ they said. ‘And it comes at the beginning.’

So I knew there were two sets of letters to learn. How far I got in teaching myself to read before I was formally taught I don’t know, but it seems to me I probably could, very nearly, read before they got round to teaching me. I had a rag book to which I paid great attention, containing as it did fascinating and useful information such as ‘A for Ape. B for Bear’ - and so on. I was always asking questions about letters, and when my mother read to me I followed her finger along the lines with avidly attentive eyes.

Now I am sure you need not think my parents gave in too easily. They were very thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that children should never and on no account be ‘pushed’. But at last, my father’s ability to notice the obvious, combined with a certain natural generosity of disposition, overcame indoctrination, and he produced the really brilliant observation: ‘That child wants to learn to read.’

And so, about the time of my second birthday, an elementary reading primer was procured, and my mother set about giving me lessons, reading some each day with me. Now whether I am right that I had really by this time learnt most of the letters and picked up a good deal about reading, I don’t know, but I believe that I remember reading certain things before I was two, and in particular I think I read over my comic when my mother had once read it to me.

At any rate, the speed with which I now learnt supports the idea that this systematic practice of all the various letters and combinations was all that was needed to put the finishing touch. My mother says I went through the primer very fast; the lessons lasted only a matter of days. I never finished the primer though, as I she found me reading a book before I had reached the end of it.

The book she found me reading was The Story of Peter Pan. ‘What are you doing?’ she enquired. ‘Reading,’ I said. ‘You can’t read that,’ she said. ‘Yes I can,’ I said. By this time, she says, she was very curious. ‘If you can read it ,’ she said, ‘read it out to me then.’

This, of course, I did. Still sceptical, my mother thought I might have learnt it by heart as she had read it to me more than once, so she gave me another book which she had not read to me, and I read that out too.

When my father came home, she told him, and he gave me my beloved newspaper and asked me to read him that. My mother says it was quite surprising how I rattled off the long words.

My mother, of course, had taught many children to read, but said she never knew one who leapt at it as I did, nor one who learnt with so complete an absence of transitional stages. Many children sound the letters aloud to themselves for a time; I never did this, but read silently to myself from the start.

For the next couple of years my reading matter consisted of Chick’s Own, Sunny Stories, and – the newspaper.

‘Celia Green is a person of exceptional gifts, as the above piece demonstrates.She should be given the funding to develop the many research ideas she has been prevented for decades from developing. I make this appeal to all universities, corporations and individuals who consider themselves to be in a position to give support to exceptional individuals.’ Charles McCreery, DPhil

myths about early development

16 August 2013

The near-death red herring, yet again

One regularly sees articles in the newspapers to the effect that so-called near-death experiences (NDEs) have an explanation that does not involve references to the supernatural. This has been the case now for decades. However many times it is supposed to have been ‘proved’, there always seems to be another research team willing to undertake a research project to prove it again. Each time the papers triumphantly report: NDEs (or whatever other experience they are talking about) are ‘all in the mind’.

The latest such article (Daily Mail, 13th August) refers to a University of Michigan study which looked at the brain activity of rats before and after their hearts were stopped.

Apart from the dubious ethics involved, this research in itself tells one nothing about NDEs, or about any other quasi-perceptual experience. Even if, as the researchers claim, the rat’s brain shows activity after clinical death, this does not get you very far in understanding the hows and whys of the kinds of experience people report in analogous circumstances.

The key issue raised by hallucinatory and quasi-perceptual experiences – whether they occur in sleep, near death, under normal conditions or otherwise – is the question of what they tell us about the way the brain, or mind, generates representations of its environment from external and internal data. This is a fundamental issue in psychology, and therefore ought to be of the greatest interest to psychologists, philosophers and neurophysiologists. However, it has been ignored in favour of whether or not there is an afterlife, ever since I established these phenomena as suitable subjects for scientific study over 40 years ago.

Having placed the phenomenon of out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) on a scientific footing, we should have been provided with finance to take the work further, leading to the possibility of important advances in our understanding of conscious experience and its relation to brain physiology. As we did not have an institutional environment with residential and laboratory facilities, we need funding to set this up in the first instance. Such funding should still be provided now, even more urgently, to prevent the continuing waste of our abilities which could and should be being used in making significant advances. This would be true even if people other than ourselves had shown any sign of adopting a sufficiently analytical and open-minded approach. In fact they have not. The resistance to the possibilities suggested by the phenomena, which had prevented their being recognised by academia before our book on them was published, continues to restrict and distort the work carried out, and leads to the unsatisfactory conclusions drawn from it.

more on out-of-the-body experiences

05 August 2013

Sir Henry Keswick

edited text of a letter to an academic

Dear ...

Herewith a copy of a letter from Charles to Sir Henry Keswick, who was page with him to Lord Alanbrooke at the Coronation.

There have been some dos in London celebrating the 60th anniversary, to which former pages were invited. We wondered whether someone would try to get at Charles on behalf of his family, as people in the modern world like to think that if a person interacts socially with a given person or group, he is supposed to have written off the need for reparation for any wrongs done to him, no matter how serious.

In fact this Keswick did attempt to strike up conversation with Charles, but in a way which seemed very artificial as he had never had anything to do with him throughout the intervening years. Charles asked him for financial support and he refused. It may be pointed out that he is quite rich enough to relieve our position significantly without his noticing it. According to the Sunday Times, the Keswick family has a £2.3 billion stake in Jardine Matheson.

In common with many other people related to or known to Charles’s family, Henry Keswick could no doubt change our position significantly overnight. This in part explains Charles’s family’s motivation for slandering Charles and making him into an outcast, because if he had been allowed to remain a normal member of his social class, financial support from all quarters would have been more or less automatic.

Sir Henry Keswick is said to be a major donor to the Conservative Party. He should therefore be particularly interested in giving financial support to a research organisation which, while not being politically affiliated, does not subscribe to the leftist ideology that prevails in academia.
text of a letter from Dr Charles McCreery to Sir Henry Keswick

Dear Henry,

I am withdrawing any invitation I may have given you, implicitly or explicitly, to visit me here in Cuddesdon.

I was very aware, before our recent meeting at the lunch for the Queen, of the fact that I had written to you a number of years ago and invited you to support my research, and that you had declined, in very much the same terms as you did in person following the lunch.

I do not find it possible to have normal social relations with people who I know are in a position to support my work but who have chosen – in your case, not once, but twice – to reject my request.

I also consider that you should put pressure on my family to reverse the financial effects of their slanders and disinheriting over the last 50 years. I was obliged to describe some of their disgusting behaviour in a series of letters to a recent biographer of my father, and I have published them here:


They are grouped under the heading ‘Charles McCreery and his family’ (see ‘Topics’, some way down the column on the right of the page).

My brothers and sister were all complicit in the slanders, and in at least one case actively promoted them, and they have all benefited directly (and in the case of their children indirectly) from the disinheriting.

Yours sincerely,
‘We hereby apply for financial support on a scale at least adequate for one active and fully financed research department. We make this appeal to all universities, corporations and individuals who consider themselves to be in a position to give support to socially recognised academic establishments.’ Charles McCreery, DPhil

* first published 28 June 2013; republished, with illustration added, 6 August 2013