26 January 2015

Psycho-physical correlation: taboo area

EEG waves
People on the outside of the Oxford academic world imagine that it is far more objective than it actually is. People who get research grants to do higher degrees are supposed to be, in some meritocratic way, ‘better’ than those who apply for them but do not get them. In fact it is necessary to be accepted by a supervisor who is going to oversee your work. No one in the faculty is obliged to accept a graduate student, however relevant the subject matter of a potential supervisor’s previous work may seem to be to the candidate’s proposed thesis.

Many factors may enter into whether the university wants to promote a certain person or a certain area of work. A supervisor is likely to want to believe that his students’ theses will develop or reinforce the ideas expressed in his own research. Hence tightly enclosed areas of permissible research may be expected to, and actually do, develop. Opening up new areas, or expanding those already existing, is almost impossible.

It is also easy to set graduates on tracks which will soon reach a blockage, so that although they may appear to have been accepted to work for a certain degree, it is determined in advance that no positive outcome for them will be possible. In effect, this is what happened to me.

When Professor H.H. Price had agreed to become my DPhil supervisor, my college, Somerville had telephoned him to try to dissuade him. On the face of it, he had not gone back on his acceptance, but from then on he never supported me in getting any financial or other advantages, although he continued to write glowing reports about my work to the Perrott electors at Trinity College, Cambridge, which was only allowing me to go on doing what I had already been accepted to do.

My potential DPhil thesis, for which I was awarded only a BLitt, was said to be interdisciplinary, and it appeared that it might include analyses of both physiological and psychological observations. What I did not realise was that avoidance of correlations between the physiological and the psychological, or the physical and the mental, had been a powerful determining factor in the revolutionary restructuring of the modern academic world. (My thesis was all about such correlations.)

As there was no precedent for a graduate degree in this area, I asked my supervisor Professor Price whether it would be necessary for a successful DPhil thesis in the area I was proposing to include experimental work. Professor Price reported to me that he had been told it would be possible for a thesis in this area to make a contribution to the field, sufficient for a DPhil, without including any experimental work.

If Professor Price had been acting in my interests rather than those of the academic establishment, he would have asked not whether it was a theoretical possibility, but whether it was the best possible way of ensuring that I got the DPhil. When I submitted my thesis, it was turned down for a DPhil and only awarded a BLitt, the reason given being that it did not include any experimental work. Professor Price then applied on my behalf for the thesis to be ‘referred back’, as it was called, so that the necessary additions could be made to it. This was refused, on the grounds that experimental work would not arise naturally out of the thesis in its present form, so such work would be an ‘unnatural addition’ to it.

In fact, this could hardly have been less true, as the thesis consisted of discussing correlations between the psychological states said to be favourable to successful extrasensory perception (ESP), and the electrophysiological activity of the brain as reflected in readings on an electroencephalogram (EEG). This had led me to conclude the thesis with a prediction of the outcome of EEG experiments on ESP subjects. Carrying out some of those experiments would seem to be the most logical development possible of the observations and analyses made throughout the thesis.

Experimental work arose very naturally out of the prediction in my thesis that successful ESP would be correlated with an acceleration in the subject’s alpha rhythm, as measured on an EEG. For example, two experiments carried out in America by Rex Stanford and others at the University of Virginia, after the publication of my thesis, measured correlations between scoring above chance on card guessing, and the frequency of the subjects’ alpha rhythm.

Professor Price entered into no further conflict with the examiners, but apparently accepted their judgement, or rationalisation, on this point without argument. Clearly Somerville had been opposed to my being accepted to work for a DPhil with Price as my supervisor. It is not difficult to suspect that the ultimate abortive outcome was anticipated, and planned for, in the faculty’s original replies to Professor Price about the desirability of experimental work.