Parapsychology
The name given to the scientific study of psychic or paranormal
phenomena. The Parapsychological Association, refers
to it as, ‘‘The scientific and scholarly study of certain unusual
events associated with human experience.’’ The association
also pointed out in its Parapsychology FAQs, on its website in
2000, that
In spite of what the media often imply, parapsychology
is not the study of ‘anything parnormal’ or bizarre.
Nor is parapsychology concerned with astrology, UFOs,
searching for Bigfoot, paganism, vampires, alchemy, or
witchcraft.
Parapsychology largely replaced the earlier term ‘‘psychical
research,’’ the change indicating a significant shift in emphasis
and methodology. The term ‘‘parapsychology’’ is an old one.
It appears to have been coined in Germany in or before 1889
by psychologist Max Dessoir (1867–1947). Dessoir first used
the term in an article the June 1889 issue of the German periodical
Sphinx. Dessoir’s use of the term ‘‘parapsychology,’’ as
also the term ‘‘parapsychic,’’ predates the later use of the term
by Emile Boirac (1851–1917) in a book in 1908.
The term ‘‘parapsychology,’’ as used currently was popularized
by J. B. Rhine (1895–1980) and fellow pioneers William
McDougall and Louisa E. Rhine to distinguish the laboratory
based study, including the use of careful experimental methodology,
of psychic phenomena in both its mental (telepathy,
clairvoyance, and precognition) and physical (psychokinesis)
form. In 1927, McDougall and the Rhines began research on
mediumship, survival, and telepathy in the Department of Psychology
at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
Rhine established the now familiar outlines of laboratory
method with card-guessing and dice-rolling experiments.
Card-guessing had been used already in scientific tests implemented
by psychical researchers in Britain. It was Rhine who
popularized the use of Zener cards, devised by his colleague
psychologist Karl Zener. This experiement of sorts consisted
of holding 25 cards bearing simple symbols in groups of five
of a kind star, circle, square, cross and waves. The pack simplified
the mathematical calculations involved in evaluating
chance factors in guessing.
In addition to this work, Rhine popularized the terms
‘‘parapsychology,’’ ‘‘extrasensory perception’’ and ‘‘psi.’’ In the
1930s his attempts to find a statistical validation of ESP transformed
parapsychology into a legitimate area for scientific research
for many who had eschewed psychical research previously.
Assisted by J. Gaither Pratt, who later became a prominent
parapsychologist himself, Rhine looked for psychically gifted
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people to study. One prominent subject was a Duke student,
Hubert E. Pearce. In a significant set of 74 runs which Rhine
named the Pearce-Pratt Series, the odds against the successful
guesses being merely chance were estimated as 1 in
10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Many variants in experimental
setup were developed in card-guessing, and the results
were often significantly above chance expectation.
The idea for the classic psychokinetic (PK) experiments developed
after a casual visitor to Duke boasted that he could will
dice to fall so that he could get the numbers he needed to win.
Experimental techniques were devised in which subjects threw
dice for the face of their choice The results were analyzed mathematically.
The results over several years indicated strong evidence
for the reality of PK. Such findings were later confirmed
by experimenters elsewhere, using a variety of experimental
techniques. Various methods were developed to ensure that PK
tests with dice were not influenced by mechanical factors
(weight of dice, etc.) or unconscious skills in throwing. Apparatus
was designed which threw dice automatically.
Some special terms that have developed in the study of PK
are PK-MT (psychokinetic effect on moving targets such as
dice); PK-LT (influence on living matter, such as growth in
plants, healing, influencing animals); PK-ST (influence on static
targets). Another initialism that grew up in evaluating PK was
‘‘QD,’’ which indicated the division of record sheets into four
equal quarters. Study of quarter divisions showed a consistent
pattern of fall-off in scoring results as between upper left and
lower right quarters of the record sheet, with the other two
quarters bridging the gap in success fall-off. It became clear
that this fall-off in success during the course of a series of tests
was a characteristic feature of PK, suggesting the operation of
some unknown mental process which affected the continuity of
PK achievement.
In 1934, Rhine published his first book, Extrasensory Perception,
which caused something of a furor in scientific and academic
circles. For a time it was fashionable to attack his preliminary
findings favoring ESP. The scientific community
especially, and a large portion of the general public, were still
much opposed to, and highly suspcious of parapsychology as
a study. The identification of Duke University with such controversial
and scientifically marginalized research, was also highly
criticized; and eventually Rhine was obliged to open a separate
Parapsychology Laboratory, seeking outside sponsorship for
research. The persistent patient work of Rhine, his associates
and other parapsychologists over decades eventually established
a place for parapsychology as a proper scientific study,
however many skeptics stood by with disbelief.
The early years of parapsychology were chronicled in a book
by Rhine and others Extrasensory Perception after Sixty Years; a
Critical Appraisal of the Research in Extrasensory Perception (1940).
In it they detailed the ESP research at Duke University from
1927 through 1940 in the context of the former period of psychical
research from 1882 to 1927. Valuable scientific investigation
of ESP and related phenomena and some laboratory research
had been conducted during this earlier period by both
the Society for Psychical Research, founded in London in
1882, and the American Society for Psychical Research,
founded in 1885. For example, from 1921 on, an important series
of card tests was conducted by G. N. M. Tyrrell in Britain.
The British experimenter W. Whately Carington did important
tests on telepathy and PK and developed a stimulating ‘‘association
theory’’ of telepathy. Other British experimenters included
G. W. Fisk and Donald J. West working on PK scoring,
S. G. Soal, and Kathleen M. H. Goldney.
In the United States, notable ESP pioneers included Gardner
Murphy and Gertrude R. Schmeidler. Murphy joined the
Society for Psychical Research, London, as early as 1917. He
did graduate work at Harvard University in the field as the
Richard Hodgson Fellow from 1922 to 1925, and also served
as vice-president and president of the American Society
(1940–62).
In 1937, Rhine began publication of the Journal of Parapsychology,
devoted to original publication of experimental results
and other research findings in extra-sensory perception and
psychokinesis.
Rhine’s early work with Eileen J. Garrett, a notable psychic
whom he tested in the early days at Duke, bore fruit in 1951
when she established the Parapsychology Foundation, in New
York City, to promote laboratory parapsychology and fund and
sponsor research. From 1953 on, the foundation published a
bimonthly newsletter, Newsletter of the Parapsychology Foundation,
which was superseded in 1970 by the bimonthly journal Parapsychology
Review. Between 1959 and 1968 the foundation also
published a valuable International Journal of Parapsychology. The
Parapsychology Foundation plays an important role in encouraging
parapsychological research in universities and among
scholars with established scientific reputations.
The Second Generation
A new day arrived for parapsychology with the founding of
the Parapsychological Association in 1957 as the professional
society for parapsychologists. The association projected a
threefold effort to advance parapsychology as a scientific discipline,
engage in public education, and integrate the results of
their research with the findings of other branches of science.
By 1957 parapsychology and psychical research had developed
a working partnership and tolerance of the particular
contributions both made. Boundaries were blurred as individuals
worked both areas. Researchers saw the need to investigate
the claims and phenomena which emerged in the noticeable
revival of the occult and occult religion in the 1960s. As psychical
researchers examined a broad range of phenomena (Spiritualism,
evidence for survival after death, hauntings, poltergeist
occurrences, out-of-the-body traveling, reincarnation,
psychical healing, and magical practices) parapsychologists expanded
the range of topics covered by laboratory experimentation.
Popular interest in psychic and occult phenomena in the
1960s helped create a general climate of belief in the paranormal
at both critical and uncritical levels. The most significant
sign of the changing climate was the acceptance of the Parapsychological
Association into membership of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science in December 1969,
after three previous rejections. This improved scientific status
of parapsychology owed much to the patient laboratory work
on ESP by Rhine and others since the 1930s.
Parapsychology and Fraud
Parapsychology, as science in general, is a very competitive
field. The sense of urgency to produce results is heightened in
this field. Undergirded as it is with the belief that positive results
would necessitate a significant revision of currently operative
scientific models of the universe the pressure is great. With
such high stakes, the field has had to pay constant attention to
improving its methodology and tightening its controls. Consequently,
it has also had to watch out for the occasional production
of fraudulent reports, especially the altering of laboratory
statistics, in order to give significance to mundane or negative
experimental results. With parapsychology being such a controversial
field, it is not unexpected that ideological critics of
the field have seized such revelations of fraud and widely publicized
them. Many of these critics of parapsychology organized
and affiliated with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation
of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).
While parapsychology has some well-publicized cases of
fraud, the cases must be understood in the larger context of
fraud that afflicts every field of science. Most cases of fraud go
undetected as they concern peripheral matters of insignificant
technological or philosophical consequence. Yet it only would
follow that the temptation to fraud is everywhere. This temptation
was vividly illustrated by CSICOP itself in their early investigation
of the work of Michel Gauquelin in astrology. When
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CSICOP results confirmed Guaquelin’s results, data was
changed to conceal that fact. Even after the fraud was pointed
out to the committee, the original papers were republished
without any reference to the cheating that had occurred. That
refusal to deal with internal fraud has blunted much of the usefulness
that the committee might have had as a watchdog in the
field.
Two revelations of fraud have had the most effect on parapsychology.
The first concerned the experiments in telepathy
carried out by S. G. Soal with the percipient Basil Shackleton
from 1941–1943. They had been regarded as highly evidential
for many years. In 1971, serious doubts were raised about the
experiments and Soal’s handling of them. An article by R. G.
Medhurst in the Journal of the S.P.R. in 1971 questioned the
method of constructing quasi-random series in the tests. Medhurst
implied inaccuracy (or worse) in Soal’s methods. As early
as 1960, Gretl Albert, an agent at some of the sittings, had alleged
that she had seen Soal ‘‘altering the figures’’ several times
on the score sheets. Thus the Medhurst article opened a controversy
within parapsychology which resulted in a 1978 article
by Betty Markwick in the Proceedings of the S.P.R. Markwick
presented an overwhelming case for conscious or unconscious
manipulation of data by Soal, based on computer analysis of his
records. (Not all parapsychologists agree that Soal was deliberately
fraudulent; but the validity of his telepathy experiments
with Basil Shackleton has been shown to be inadmissible.)
In another case, the research of Walter J. Levi, Jr., formerly
the director of the Institute for Parapsychology offered a rival
for the Soal experiments as an instance of fraud. In 1974 J. B.
Rhine reported that Levy had been caught falsifying results in
an experiment. Levy was asked to resign and left the field. A
re-examination of all his research in the field, including independent
replication of his experiments, began. His papers
were from that time no longer cited as providing any evidence
of psi.
During the 1980s a controversy developed around the ganzfeld
psi experiments of Carl Sargent at Cambridge University.
An article ‘‘A Report of a Visit to Carl Sargent’s Laboratory’’ authored
by Susan Blackmore (Journal of the S.P.R., vol. 54,
1987) cast serious doubt on the methods and validity of Sargent’s
experiments. A defense of Sargent against the implication
of fraud, ‘‘Cheating, Psi, and the Appliance of Science; A
Reply to Blackmore’’ by Trevor Harley & Gerald Matthews, was
published in the same issue of the Journal.
Contemporary Parapsychology
The general openness to psychic and occult phenomena
that led to the burgeoning of the New Age movement and the
acceptance of the Parapsychological Association into the American
Association of the Advancement of Science served to create
a decade of heightened parapsychological research in the
1970s. The founding of new research organizations such as the
Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (1970); the Institute
of Parascience (1971); the Academy of Religion and Psychical
Research; the Institute for Noetic Sciences (1973); and
the International Kirlian Research Association (1975) created
an optimistic climate. It offered promise that new breakthroughs
were imminent. The reports of new work in parapsychology
at the Stanford Research Institute further inflated the
hope.
Parapsychology had become an international affair before
World War II. During the last half of the twentieth century it
became even more intricately woven into the everyday lives of
people the world over. The decade of the 1970s saw further expansion
of parapsychology. By the end of the 1980s the Parapsychological
Association reported approximately 300 members
working in more than 30 countries. In the United States alone
by 1990, the organization listed over 150 members, including
many professionals and scientists. Additionally, research not affiliated
with the association was being carried out in Eastern
Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Not surprisingly, both the scope and methods of parapsychology
expanded greatly by the end of the twentieth century.
Notable new directions included Kirlian photography, remote
viewing, the investigation of altered states of consciousness (including
alpha-related states and dream experiences) prompted
by the influx of spiritual teachers from the East who made extraordinary
claims for the abilities produced by meditation and
related disciplines; experiments in the paranormal healing of
animals; and, possibly the most controversial of all, the work of
Ian Stevenson in the investigation of the evidence for reincarnation.
The 1970s and 1980s also saw a significant amount of
attention paid to the testing of the claims of paranormal feats
by psychic Uri Geller followed by the emergence of a number
of others, especially in Japan, who claimed similar abilities.
Parapsychologists still found themselves faced with strong
opposition from their academic colleagues. Research and
teaching positions were difficult to obtain, and unstable at best.
No university seemed willing to establish a parapsychological
department. Continued opposition both to parapsychological
findings and the lack of any formal acknowledgement to the
field remained a constant aggravation and threat to the work.
The core of the opposition was focused in the Committee for
the Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal, founded in
1976, (CSICOP) and in its periodical, Skeptical Inquirer.
New lines of hopeful research soon proved to be dead-ends.
The effects of Kirlian photography disappeared as more stringent
controls were applied, as did most of the effects produced
by Geller and his imitators. Stevenson was unable to pass on the
enthusiasm he had for his reincarnation research. The Stanford
Research Institute abandoned its parapsychological research.
The Academy for Parapsychology and Medicine disbanded
and the problem of the nonacceptance of
parapsychology by the academic world continued to provoke
concern and debate in parapsychological circles.
Charles Thomas Cayce, the grandson of Edgar Cayce, and
director of the Edgar Cayce Foundation, and the Association
for Research and Enlightenment, (ARE) reported in 1995 that
the foundation’s Atlantic University, was expected offer the
first Master’s Degree in Transpersonal Studies, much of the
program directed to the readings of the elder Cayce and the
meaning of his psychic revelations. Much of the research that
previously had been conducted at Duke University, was being
conducted through Atlantic and the ARE, as well as programs
and seminars around the United States, and internationally.
ARE’s approach to studying paranormal phenomena consisted
of understanding the whole person. Through holistic medical
clinics, spiritual reflection and meditation the work to develop
psychic ability must be a lifelong process. Again, the true believers
worked hard to overcome the impression the nonbelievers
had that the entire pursuit of uncovering the complexities
of the paranormal world was the domain of the nonthinking
person. While the Parapsychological Association
wanted to specifically exclude paranormal as a part of their ongoing
scientific research, and disassociate from the term,
‘‘paranormal,’’ many outside the organization insisted on using
both the terms and the phenomena in conjunction with any unexplained
occurrence that involved the human mind.
Yet if the experts and scientists were skeptical, in 1991,
American Demographics, reported that a Gallup poll indicated
that people in the age group of 30 to 49, a generation more educated
than any previous one in America, were more likely than
any other to believe in paranormal phenomena. According to
that poll, between 1978 and 1991, certain statistics emerged
1), the proportion of people believing in ghosts increased to 25
percent from 11 percent; 2), belief in devils increased to 55
percent from 39 percent; 3), belief in deja vu, the belief that
a person holds when a new experience gives the feeling that it
has already occured, in this life or another, increased to 55 percent
from 30 percent; 4) 18 percent of adults believe in the possibility
of communicating with the dead; and, 5), 70 percent believe
in an afterlife. That poll also indicated a decline in certain
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paranormal beliefs, including a drop from 51 percent to 49
percent of the people who claimed to believe in ESP. One person
who appeared on television sets at the end of the 1990s was
James Van Praagh. Van Praagh, a world-famous medium,
wrote books and produced audio tapes, recounting his communication
with the spirits of dead people. He received wide acclaim,
particularly regarding his spiritual approach.
Popular television shows and movies at the end of the twentieth
century belied, too, that skepticism was as rampant as CSICOP
claimed. In any case, Hollywood especially took advantage
of the interest the average person seemed to have in the
area of parapsychology—from ghosts to satanic possession.
One popular network show, ‘‘Unsolved Mysteries,’’ featured at
least one piece a week on some paranormal occurrence, right
along with their true-crime mysteries of kidnapping, murder,
and other crime-related stories. The weekly television series,
‘‘The X-Files,’’ had its two fictional heros, FBI agents, experiencing
the ‘‘out of the ordinary’’ phenomena as they hunted
down mysterious criminals and sometimes supernormal forces.
A 1999 hit summer movie, ‘‘The Sixth Sense,’’ even won an
Academy Award nomination for its 11 year-old star. The line
that became most infamous was familiar to those who did not
see the movie, as well as those who had. ‘‘I see dead people.’’
A line that revealed the perplexed youngster’s dilemma, was
pronounced on movie trailers for the months surrounding the
picture’s opening. Indeed, the idea fascinated people enough
to give the movie some of the highest ratings and biggest box
office sales of the year.
Parapsychological phenomena did not abide by the constraints
of time or space, according to those involved in its research.
It does not distinguish between mind and matter—both
are one, inextricably connected to each other. Still, the majority
of parapsychologists believed that all of the unexplained experiences
that included, ESP, PK, and the body surviving after
death, to name only a few, would eventually be explained scientifically
as scientific knowledge expanded.
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