Professor Robert Morris was one of the leading exponents of parapsychology, the study of interactions between minds, and between minds and the physical world. Since 1985 he held the Koestler Chair in Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh. During this tenure he undertook many exotic experiments whose results gave credence to the verity of telepathy and life after death.
While he rebutted claims that he was anti-science he was fastidiously rigorous in his empirical methods and approached his experiments in a healthy spirit of scepticism his studies appealed to those interested in the bizarre and paranormal.
Morris was renowned mostly for his studies that suggested that people can transmit images to each other what the layman would understand as telepathy. With his colleagues at Edinburgh, he devised in 1994 an experiment using the Ganzfeld technique, a mild form of sensory deprivation. A subject was seated with headphones that played relaxing music and had half table tennis balls taped over his eyes. When subjected to various coloured lights, the subject was asked to identify, from a choice of four, which image a fellow human guinea-pig in an adjoining room was visualising. While the subject had a 25 per cent chance of correctly identifying his co-subjects image, the experiments among the 32 volunteers yielded 40 per cent correct identifications.
There appears to be an effect occurring that is not just due to chance fluctuations or to a handful of clever cheats, Morris reported. I dont call it telepathy. Instead he described it as anomalous cognition.
Last year, in a lecture, Morris hinted that the mind might exist independently of the brain, thus lending support to the notion that there could be life after death. He related the fact that between 10 and 15 per cent of people have experienced an out of body sensation, in which they perceive themselves floating above their corporeal selves. Many survivors of accidents or operations have accurately recounted events that happened when they were unconscious, and have observed, from above, doctors operating on their bodies or reviving them after an accident.
Morris thus suggested that our sense of self could continue to exist without the support of the body, that we can still think when we are clinically heart- or brain-dead. But this, he conceded, remained conjecture.
To say that our consciousness can exist outside our brain is an extraordinary claim, and it needs extraordinary research and evidence to back it up, Morris said. We have some evidence, but that evidence alone is not the same thing as absolute proof.
Robert Lyle Morris was born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1942, and studied psychology at Pittsburgh University, before specialising in comparative psychology for his doctorate at Duke University, which he completed in 1969. He also studied at the Centre for the Study of Ageing and Human Development and at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in Durham, North Carolina. He taught parapsychology, learning theory and animal social behaviour at the University of California.
After teaching at Syracuse University from 1980 to 1985, he was offered the position as the first professor of parapsychology in Britain, at Edinburgh University.
It was an unorthodox appointment at the time. Today, however, there are ten departments in British universities where parapsychology is studied. This growth owes much to Morris himself: he supervised 32 PhD students, of whom a dozen now teach in other university departments.
Although his subject elicited derision from those who considered it little more than pseudo-science, Morris believed himself merely a free-thinker in the Enlightenment tradition of maintaining an open mind and investigating phenomena through continued re-evaluation and scrutiny of data.
I see what were doing as within the spirit of science, not even slightly anti-science, he recently remarked. Scientists do themselves a great deal of disservice if they say a particular area has a lot of problems and we are going to ignore it. If it has a lot of problems, you shine a spotlight on it. Why should we hide from it? Morris co-edited the European Journal of Parapsychology and co-wrote, with Richard Wiseman, Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants (1995). He co-edited the Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association and served on the council of the Society for Psychical Research. It is a mark of his success in achieving respect for his discipline that he was elected to the council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and served as president of the psychology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Known for his humour, his willingness to aid colleagues and students, and his patience, Robert Morris is survived by his wife, Joanna, and two daughters.
Robert Morris, professor of parapsychology, was born on July 9, 1942, and died of a heart attack on August 12, 2004, aged 62.