An Interview With Dr Jason Braithwaite
We recently caught up with Dr Jason Braithwaite, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham* with an interest in anomalous experience, hallucinations, and aberrations in self-consciousness. He also has a formidable reputation for being extremely well informed on matters of the brain / mind relationship, and high quality scientific research. We asked him about his research and work, both in the laboratory and in the field. We were particularly interested in his renowned work at Muncaster castle and quizzed him on this most famous and fascinating of cases.
Could you tell us a little bit about your personal background?
I was born and grew up in the Western Lake District (Cumbria). It is my home, a place I love dearly. Although I moved away some years ago I still have close family and friends in the region and visit a few times every year. I will always be connected to that place and intend to return there should I be fortunate enough to make it into old age! My father was born and raised in Eskdale, and we have traced his family in that region back to the 1500s – so I think I qualify as local! It is a stunning part of the world – but then, I’m biased! My hobbies include trying to play the electric guitar (I’m terrible), digital photography (landscapes), and shooting with air rifles (I’m much better at this).
What are your professional credentials?
I have a BSc(hons) degree in Psychology from Lancaster University and a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the Behavioural Brain Sciences centre, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham. I have other training qualifications in research methods, statistics, neuroanatomy, and neurology. I publish widely in top international peer-reviewed journals. When I was at Lancaster it was regarded as one of the best (top 6 I think) Psychology departments in the country. I remember the degree was heavily scientific and highly based on experimental methods and statistics giving graduates an excellent grounding and it provided me with the necessary tools for a PhD and career in academia. I have many happy memories of my time there and I have a great deal of respect for the department. At Birmingham, the school is a leading school of Psychology in the UK and the world. It is a Russell group university which is the UK equivalent of the American Ivy league. Of the 80 or so institutions in the UK, only 20 make it into the Russell Group. Needless to say, it is a leading school famous for research excellence. I was lucky enough to win a PhD scholarship and work with a word leading neuroscientist and psychologist which was a wonderful learning experience. I have been very fortunate to have worked in some of the best institutions and alongside some of the best researchers in the world. What can I say, I love my job!
Could you say a little bit about your work and laboratory?
On completing my PhD I was very fortunate to win three consecutive research fellowships one from the ESRC, The British Academy, and the RCUK respectively, totalling nearly 10-years worth of funding. This is rare, and it allowed me to establish my own laboratory in the school – the Selective Attention and Awareness Laboratory (SAAL). I am currently a Senior Lecturer in the school and my general research interests include the cognitive neuroscience of visual awareness, visual selective attention, visual and multi-sensory hallucinations, anomalous experiences, self-consciousness, embodiment, and dissociation. Current projects in the laboratory are investigating the neurocognitive correlates of the out-of-body experience (OBE), disembodiment, perspective-taking and the OBE, cortical hyperexcitability and hallucination, multi-sensory integration and the OBE, depersonalization and derealization. Recently I was fortunate to procure funding to establish a new research theme at Birmingham on “Aberrant Experience & Belief” which will fund a series of collaborative projects in this topic area and help establish a firm research presence at Birmingham on this topic area. I am also proud and privileged to have been able to have established a presence for this type of research here at Birmingham.
You are well known for being skeptical, and very capable of constructing fierce arguments, would you describe yourself as a skeptic?
Actually no. I would describe myself first and foremost as a scientist. Others may describe me as skeptical – but I think what they mean is that my views are more skeptical (on matters of anomalous experience) than the views of many other people. My approach is to try to ensure, as much as I can, that my conclusions are those which are most consistent with evidence of the highest quality. Simple in principle, hard in practice. This is where training in critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and logic comes to play its role. I am no expert at these skills, but I try to practice them as best I can. When I get it wrong, my peers let me know and I learn from this.
You have written a number of review articles for “The [UK] Skeptic magazine, which are regarded by many as seminal and comprehensive on the topics they discuss. Yet, you do not seem to be as visible as some skeptics, why is that?
Time. I simply do not have the time to tour the country doing lots of skeptical engagements, conferences or meetings. I have a career in a leading institution, I have PhD students, masters students, post-doctoral researchers, funded projects that need to be managed, I have UG students that require top quality tuition and I need to be readily available for them. To do the job properly, at the level I am happy with, all this requires time and effort. To work in an institution like mine, scientists need to be publishing in leading 3* (or above) international journals which again means all the underlying science has to be of the highest quality and this all takes time to do. It takes time to do your extensive reading, to come up with the ideas, to test them critically, to think about an appropriate methodology, to develop your own methodology, and integrate with new and emerging theories. I get asked a lot to collaborate, and this takes time to foster and oversee. I want to be at the forefront of science, not in the background simply doing incremental science hanging on the shirt tails of others. This all takes time. I guess I’m just not as effective as many others are in time management! My priority is to my laboratory, my research, and to my students and I make no excuses for that.
In addition, I do not want to become one of those ‘token’ skeptics and I do not think it actually helps the skeptical movement to have them (in the long run). It should be about the issues, not the personalities. One has to ask oneself, if certain skeptics have the time to attend all these events and promote themselves or their 100th coffee table book, or be on TV so much, how do they get the time to do all the other stuff like that I’ve outlined above? There are two answers. One is, they are simply brilliant at time management. The other is, they do not actually do all the other things I outlined above, are not really at the cutting edge, coming up with the ideas, the methods, the paradigms, and thus spend their time promoting themselves, while really discussing only the research of others. However, good luck to them – they do a great job of promoting science and it means I can stay in the laboratory and not feel so bad about it. Anyway, having said all of this, I try to do what I can which includes helping to support skeptical / scientific organizations and writing articles for their publications. I’d like to do more and intend to in the future, but for me time will always be a factor. I genuinely do want to do more, but I have to be realistic in terms of restraints.
Peter Frost-Pennington once said that you are responsible for making Muncaster castle famous as a reputedly haunted location. How did you become involved with Muncaster Castle?
Peter is very kind and generous on this. I grew up in the area. It always had a formidable reputation for being reputedly haunted in the local community. My late Grandfather, Jack Braithwaite, worked at the castle all his life as a stonemason (except when he fought in the war), so my family have a link to the place and the family that live there (he was a childhood and lifelong friend of the late Sir William Pennington). So that carried a lot of weight when meeting the new generation of the family for the first time as they all knew my Grandfather (he was quite a character) and he was extremely well liked and trusted. Growing up I kept hearing stories about the castle, and then I decided to start to get to the bottom of things. I started by tracking down the sources of the stories, the living eyewitnesses and also the second-hand stories from those who knew people who had passed away and had a story to tell. I did all this before ever contacting the family at the castle as I wanted to approach them with what I had – so this needed a good deal of preliminary work. In addition, I was attracted to the case because it was untouched by anyone else, so it was undiluted by researchers of dubious methods and ideas. I wanted to do serious field-based research – but the case had to be right. Muncaster castle, a small castle hidden away in the lake district and off everyone’s radar at that time, ticked all the boxes. I was the first to investigate the case seriously and scientifically which meant we could plan exactly what we wanted to do and execute that plan without others trying to contaminate the case. I started this around 1990 (gathering anecdotal reports), when I was a student, and then approached the family in 1992 to see if we could do something more formal. They agreed. This latter date is the time the active investigation of the castle begun. It continues to this day.
Why is Muncaster castle different from all other cases?
Well, of course I’m biased but here goes! Firstly, we enjoy the full support of the family. The family know and appreciate what it is we are trying to do, and they are very much behind the project. This project would not exist if it were not for the right combination of people, seeing similar merits, in a sensible approach. It is a rare thing and that makes Muncaster special. When I offered to do the research I explained to the family that I was skeptical and that I needed exclusive control of the research case, and in return, all my work is done free of charge for them and they can use my research however they see fit. Credit to them for endorsing a more skeptical / scientific researcher. We have a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and one that has stood the test of time. So Muncaster castle is unique in that it has its own ‘resident’ researcher overseeing things. Secondly, it is the longest investigation of a reputed haunting ever carried out anywhere in the world. At the time of writing, it spans around 23 years since active investigation and 25 years since I started to look more closely at it. We return to the castle a couple of times a year to carry out projects, so its constantly evolving, though more slowly than I would like. Thirdly, only one group of researchers, headed by the same person (yours truly), has had access to the castle to do serious scientific research. This means we have been able to control the standard of research at the location which also has remained consistent over the duration of the case. Basically we have been able to keep the ‘ghost hunting’ groups out of the serious research and this has had the benefit of adding clarity to research on this topic area and the case specifically. People are welcome to join us, on our projects, as part of our team, but we do not allow other researchers to carry out research there. Fourthly, we have had strict controls on what is and is not an appropriate approach for this case. For example, self-claimed psychics and mediums have no place or role in the serious research we are doing at this castle. Therefore, such aspects cannot contaminate what is, a direct study of a reputed haunting. We have never let ridiculous TV programmes like “Most haunted” cover the case, despite their almost annual pleads to come and film at the castle. This is true for most of these ghost tourist programmes and includes some from the USA as well. Sorry folks, no thanks! In addition, research from the case has been published in scientific journals and presented at scientific conferences. Our research at the castle has also been featured in New Scientist magazine – something we are not aware any other location can claim, at least at the time of writing. Furthermore, direct eyewitness accounts do exist for this location – so we have a clear idea as to what needs to be explained. You would be surprised how many locations that claim to be haunted (in order to make money or get on TV) have no traceable eyewitnesses and none that have been interviewed properly. Not one. This includes, the Tower of London, Glamis castle, and Chingle Hall. Finally, as we have the full support of the family at the castle, who prefer and support the scientific approach, this is crucial in managing the case and protecting it from contamination from those with dubious methods and intentions.
Muncaster castle is now quite prominent on the internet – what do you think about that and does this impact on your research?
It makes me laugh in many ways. I’m the only person who has tracked down and interviewed all the original witnesses from the case (1st hand experiences which go back 80 years, and 2nd hand ones that go back even further). I’m the only person to have collated the stories, interviewed staff at the castle (past and present). I am the only person to have carried out extensive analysis on personal reports, carried out extensive site examinations, and run experiments at the location. I have never written anything on the details of the full case on the internet, yet the internet is awash with all sorts of nonsense. Basically, whatever you read on the internet, that is not written by either me, or the family, is highly likely to be inaccurate. Some people have ‘pinched’ information that we sometimes discuss when people come to the castle to hear updates on the research, and these people have recorded / uploaded or transcribed our presentations (without our permission I might say!). This is disappointing and often out of context. I wish people would not do it as it just muddies the water – something we have tried hard to avoid. We do actually also withhold many of the details of the case in keeping with an ongoing research case where we do not want prior suggestion to play a large role (though at a castle, it will always be difficult to eliminate the role of suggestion). Over the coming years we will release more information but there is no going back once we do this so we do so with some deliberation.
What is your approach to the media at the castle?
We did no media until around 1995 on purpose. We decided with the family that we needed to do the foundation work away from the glare of the media and besides, Muncaster castle was not well known for its reputed haunting at that time outside of the lake district so there were not really many enquiries other than local TV / radio. Then, around 1994 I was contacted by the production company in charge of the first series of an ITV programme called “Strange but True?” which aired on prime-time British television on a Friday evening. I turned them down as I’d heard from other researchers in the country that there were some problems with that production. The following year I was contacted again by the company that were now responsible for the second series, and was given some assurances on certain matters. I approached the castle and we discussed the merits and pitfalls of ‘going public’ on national television. It was not an easy decision. We knew it would be good for the castle, commercially, but we also knew that there would be some consequences for the case. We decided what information we would release and what information we would withhold and then decided we could do it. So that was that. My only regret was that the entire episode is based on my research and I wrote a lot of the detail that made it into the script for the show and yet I get a 5-second segment as being just a ‘researcher’. That’s not much of an acknowledgement for all my hard work. In addition, I did not know that another researcher, who has absolutely nothing to do with the case, had a book deal with the TV company – and thus a chapter in that book is based on a segment of what is purely my work. Muncaster castle received no monies for that chapter and I was not properly acknowledged as the researcher – so I did feel a little ripped off both personally and on behalf of the castle. However, the programme helped to raise the profile of the castle. Other major TV programmes followed, including “The Castle Ghosts of England”, “The A-Z of the paranormal” (Channel 5) and “Paranatural” (Discovery channel). In fact we’ve done the Discovery channel twice, and programmes like “Blue Peter” (BBC) twice as well. We’ve done numerous local TV / radio / newspaper, and our work was a feature article in the “New Scientist” magazine. However, we continue to keep certain information private about a number of experiences in and around the castle and all these programmes simply re-tell the same information we originally released, so there has been no further creep in information since 1995.
The programmes we have done, on the whole, tell the story of the castle, or do re-enactments of eyewitness accounts or try to portray the science we are doing. The re-enactments are obviously ‘spruced up’ for entertainment value, but that’s OK as it is based on a factual narrative. However, we have an embargo on these ridiculous ‘ghost hunting’ programmes that just turn the lights off and have groups of psychics, celebrities or mediums over-acting on them. Utter nonsense, and such shows will never be allowed at the castle. We don’t need them and the case at the castle is something very different. This helps to set us apart I think. We are probably the only famous location in the UK that has not done “Most Haunted” – and we will not do that show. We are happy to do media as it is of commercial benefit to the castle, but we also have standards.
What do you think the contribution of research at Muncaster will be to overall theory?
I guess that is really for others to say, all I can do is outline what my intentions for the research were originally and what they are now. I wanted to carry out a sensible research project at such a location, with an unprecedented level of precision and scientific rigor. It is not easy, and I’m sure we have made mistakes along the way, but on the whole I think we are doing something new, something different, and something much needed. We take the experiences reported at the castle very seriously, and we seek to develop and apply scientific explanations for them and test them directly ‘in the wild’ so to speak. The castle is basically a working, living, field-based laboratory for us to explore how such spaces impact on perception and experience. Muncaster castle is unique in the sense that our research there represents real science applied in a longitudinal manner and we have an established and published record of having done a number of world-firsts at the location. In years to come, I think when people read the science about the case, they will see the difference. Our work is advancing the understanding of anomalous experiences and that’s the point.
What are your plans for future research at the castle?
We will continue to build, develop and test scientific theories for haunt-type experiences at the castle. We are currently measuring psychophysiological variables in observers immersed in that environment and investigating the role of the power of suggestion, prior belief, and experience on haunt-type experiences in the castle. We are looking at why only certain spaces appear to elicit such experiences while other spaces in the castle are utterly benign in this regard – the role of context. It will take many years to complete. We are also keen to involve the public as much as we can, and in so doing, promote science in the public domain. I’d like to secure some funding for the project as it will be costly to take the project to the next level. We keep trying but getting funding in the modern climate can be tricky. Fingers crossed.
The case sounds impressive, will there be a book or film in the future?
Yes. I do have plans to write a book (or two) on the research at some future point. However, it is probably going to be a retirement project for me. If Steven Spielberg wants to make a film on real research, well, his agent can get my contact details! Then maybe I can retire that bit earlier!
Some people may wonder why a scientist like yourself is involved in a case like Muncaster. What would you say to that?
I see no reason why scientists should not be involved in such cases, if they are interested in anomalous cognition. Science has nothing to fear from such experiences. I think some people struggle with the concepts of a scientist doing research at a castle, because they think that this must mean you believe in the ‘paranormality’ of the case. However, my theoretical perspective is one of science, where we seek to understand these experiences in terms of scientific theory. Thus, I do not believe in the paranormal conception of ghosts as to my mind, such ideas are pseudoscientific and untenable. However, people are experiencing ‘something’ and current ideas are limited on this. Cognitive neuroscience contributes to, and benefits from, this type of research and that’s helpful for science.
Thank you very much for your time, do you have anything else you would like to say?
I would just like to thank all my students, past and present for their inspiration. I would also like to thank three generations of the Pennington family of Muncaster castle for supporting my research and in helping me to control the investigation / research to help make it what it is today. They have given an over-enthusiastic researcher a home to explore his research questions. I am, and will forever be, extremely grateful. Special thanks to the late Phyillida Gordon-Duff Pennington who we all miss and is more responsible for the project than many people know! I also want to thank Ian Topham, who has been involved with the case since around 1992 and has been a tireless supporter of the project, often working behind the scenes for little public credit. I am extremely proud of what we have done at the castle. Although others may argue against our approach, or may have done things differently, I hope they realise that it is important that someone do, what we have done, somewhere.
*Jason currently works at the University of Lancaster.