Parapsychology is a pseudoscience concerned with the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena. Parapsychologists study telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, apparitional experiences, and other paranormal claims.
Parapsychology research is largely conducted by private institutions in several different countries and funded through private donations,and the subject rarely appears in mainstream science journals. Most papers about parapsychology are published in a small number of niche journals.Parapsychology has been criticised for continuing investigation despite being unable to provide convincing evidence for the existence of any psychic phenomena after more than a century of research.
Para is from Greek, and means “beside, closely related to, beyond…” The term parapsychology was coined in or around 1889 by the philosopher Max Dessoir. It was adopted by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s as a replacement for the term psychical research in order to indicate a significant shift toward experimental methodology and academic discipline.The term originates from the Greek: παρά para meaning “alongside”, and psychology.
In parapsychology, psi is the unknown factor in extrasensory perception and psychokinesis experiences that is not explained by known physical or biological mechanisms. The term is derived from the Greek ψ psi, 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet and the initial letter of the Greek ψυχή psyche, “mind, soul”. The term was coined by biologist Berthold P. Wiesner, and first used by psychologist Robert Thouless in a 1942 article published in the British Journal of Psychology.
The Parapsychological Association divides psi into two main categories: psi-gamma for extrasensory perception and psi-kappa for psychokinesis. In popular culture, “psi” has become more and more synonymous with special psychic, mental, and “psionic” abilities and powers.
Henry Sidgwick was an English utilitarian philosopher. He was one of the founders and first president of the Society for Psychical Research and a member of the Metaphysical Society.
Early psychical research
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882. Its formation was the first systematic effort to organize scientists and scholars to investigate paranormal phenomena. Early membership included philosophers, scholars, scientists, educators and politicians, such as Henry Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour, William Crookes, Rufus Osgood Mason and Nobel Laureate Charles Richet. Presidents of the Society included, in addition to Richet, Eleanor Sidgwick and William James, and subsequently Nobel Laureates Henri Bergson and Lord Rayleigh, and philosopher C. D. Broad.
Areas of study included telepathy, hypnotism, Reichenbach’s phenomena, apparitions, hauntings, and the physical aspects of Spiritualism such as table-tilting, materialization and apportation. The Society for Psychical Research published a Census of Hallucinations, which researched apparitional experiences and hallucinations in the sane. The census was the Society’s first attempt at a statistical evaluation of paranormal phenomena, and the resulting publication in 1886, Phantasms of the Living is still widely referenced in parapsychological literature today. The SPR became the model for similar societies in other European countries and the United States during the late 19th century.
Early clairvoyance experiments were reported in 1884 by Charles Richet. Playing cards were enclosed in envelopes and a subject put under hypnosis attempted to identify them. The subject was reported to have been successful in a series of 133 trials but the results dropped to chance level when performed before a group of scientists in Cambridge. J. M. Peirce and E. C. Pickering reported a similar experiment in which they tested 36 subjects over 23,384 trials which did not obtain above chance scores.
Largely due to the support of psychologist William James, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) opened its doors in Boston in 1885, moving to New York City in 1905 under the leadership of James H. Hyslop. The SPR and ASPR continue research in parapsychology.
Thomson Jay Hudson was Chief Examiner of the US Patent Office and Psychical researcher, known for his three laws of psychic phenomena, which were first published in 1893.
In 1911, Stanford University became the first academic institution in the United States to study extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK) in a laboratory setting. The effort was headed by psychologist John Edgar Coover, and was supported by funds donated by Thomas Welton Stanford, brother of the university’s founder. In 1930, Duke University became the second major U.S. academic institution to engage in the critical study of ESP and psychokinesis in the laboratory. Under the guidance of psychologist William McDougall, and with the help of others in the department—including psychologists Karl Zener, Joseph B. Rhine, and Louisa E. Rhine—laboratory ESP experiments using volunteer subjects from the undergraduate student body began. As opposed to the approaches of psychical research, which generally sought qualitative evidence for paranormal phenomena, the experiments at Duke University proffered a quantitative, statistical approach using cards and dice. As a consequence of the ESP experiments at Duke, standard laboratory procedures for the testing of ESP developed and came to be adopted by interested researchers throughout the world.
George Estabrooks conducted an ESP experiment using cards in 1927. Harvard students were used as the subjects. Estabrooks acted as the sender with the guesser in an adjoining room. In total 2,300 trials were conducted. When the subjects were sent to a distant room with insulation the scores dropped to chance level. Attempts to repeat the experiment also failed.
The publication of J. B. Rhine’s book, New Frontiers of the Mind (1937) brought the laboratory’s findings to the general public. In his book, Rhine popularized the word “parapsychology”, which psychologist Max Dessoir had coined over 40 years earlier, to describe the research conducted at Duke. Rhine also founded an autonomous Parapsychology Laboratory within Duke and started the Journal of Parapsychology, which he co-edited with McDougall.
Rhine, along with associate Karl Zener, had developed a statistical system of testing for ESP that involved subjects guessing what symbol, out of five possible symbols, would appear when going through a special deck of cards designed for this purpose. A percentage of correct guesses (or hits) significantly above 20% was perceived as higher than chance and indicative of psychic ability. Rhine stated in his first book, ExtraSensory Perception (1934), that after 90,000 trials, he felt ESP is “an actual and demonstrable occurrence”.
Irish medium and parapsychologist, Eileen Garrett, was tested by Rhine at Duke University in 1933 with Zener cards. Certain symbols that were placed on the cards and sealed in an envelope, and she was asked to guess their contents. She performed poorly and later criticized the tests by claiming the cards lacked a psychic energy called “energy stimulus” and that she could not perform clairvoyance to order. The parapsychologist Samuel Soal and his colleagues tested Garrett in May, 1937. Most of the experiments were carried out in the Psychological Laboratory at the University College London. A total of over 12,000 guesses were recorded but Garrett failed to produce above chance level. In his report Soal wrote “In the case of Mrs. Eileen Garrett we fail to find the slightest confirmation of Dr. J. B. Rhine’s remarkable claims relating to her alleged powers of extra-sensory perception. Not only did she fail when I took charge of the experiments, but she failed equally when four other carefully trained experimenters took my place.
The parapsychology experiments at Duke evoked much criticism from academics and others who challenged the concepts and evidence of ESP. A number of psychological departments attempted to repeat Rhine’s experiments with failure. W. S. Cox (1936) from Princeton University with 132 subjects produced 25,064 trials in a playing card ESP experiment. Cox concluded “There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the ‘average man’ or of the group investigated or in any particular individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects. Four other psychological departments failed to replicate Rhine’s results.
In 1938, the psychologist Joseph Jastrow wrote much of the evidence for extrasensory perception collected by Rhine and other parapsychologists was anecdotal, biased, dubious and the result of “faulty observation and familiar human frailties”. Rhine’s experiments were discredited due to the discovery that sensory leakage or cheating could account for all his results such as the subject being able to read the symbols from the back of the cards and being able to see and hear the experimenter to note subtle clues.
Early parapsychological research employed the use of Zener cards in experiments designed to test for the existence of telepathic communication.
Illusionist Milbourne Christopher wrote years later that he felt “there are at least a dozen ways a subject who wished to cheat under the conditions Rhine described could deceive the investigator”. When Rhine took precautions in response to criticisms of his methods, he was unable to find any high-scoring subjects. Another criticism, made by chemist Irving Langmuir, among others, was one of selective reporting. Langmuir stated that Rhine did not report scores of subjects that he suspected were intentionally guessing wrong, and that this, he felt, biased the statistical results higher than they should have been.
Rhine and his colleagues attempted to address these criticisms through new experiments described in the book Extrasensory Perception After Sixty Years (1940). Rhine described three experiments the Pearce-Pratt experiment, the Pratt-Woodruff experiment and the Ownbey-Zirkle series which he believed demonstrated ESP. However, C. E. M. Hansel wrote “it is now known that each experiment contained serious flaws that escaped notice in the examination made by the authors of Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years. Joseph Gaither Pratt was the co-experimenter in the Pearce-Pratt and Pratt-Woodruff experiments at the Duke campus. Hansel visited the campus where the experiments took place and discovered the results could have originated through the use of a trick so could not regarded as supplying evidence for ESP.
In 1957, Rhine and Joseph Gaither Pratt wrote Parapsychology: Frontier Science of the Mind. Because of the methodological problems, parapsychologists no longer utilize card-guessing studies. Rhine’s experiments into psychokinesis (PK) were also criticized. John Sladek wrote:
His research used dice, with subjects ‘willing’ them to fall a certain way. Not only can dice be drilled, shaved, falsely numbered and manipulated, but even straight dice often show bias in the long run. Casinos for this reason retire dice often, but at Duke, subjects continued to try for the same effect on the same dice over long experimental runs. Not surprisingly, PK appeared at Duke and nowhere else.
The Ownbey-Zirkle ESP experiment at Duke was criticized by parapsychologists and skeptics.Ownbey would attempt to send ESP symbols to Zirkle who would guess what they were. The pair were placed in adjacent rooms unable to see each other and an electric fan was used to prevent the pair communicating by sensory cues. Ownbey tapped a telegraph key to Zirkle to inform him when she was trying to send him a symbol. The door separating the two rooms was open during the experiment, and after each guess Zirkle would call out his guess to Ownbey who recorded his choice. Critics pointed out the experiment was flawed as Ownbey acted as both the sender and the experimenter, nobody was controlling the experiment so Ownbey could have cheated by communicating with Zirkle or made recording mistakes.
The Turner-Ownbey long distance telepathy experiment was discovered to contain flaws. May Frances Turner positioned herself in the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory whilst Sara Ownbey claimed to receive transmissions 250 miles away. For the experiment Turner would think of a symbol and write it down whilst Ownbey would write her guesses. The scores were highly successful and both records were supposed to be sent to J. B. Rhine, however, Ownbey sent them to Turner. Critics pointed out this invalidated the results as she could have simply written her own record to agree with the other. When the experiment was repeated and the records were sent to Rhine the scores dropped to average.
A famous ESP experiment at the Duke University was performed by Lucien Warner and Mildred Raible. The subject was locked in a room with a switch controlling a signal light elsewhere, which he could signal to guess the card. Ten runs with ESP packs of cards were used and he achieved 93 hits (43 more than chance). Weaknesses with the experiment were later discovered. The duration of the light signal could be varied so that the subject could call for specific symbols and certain symbols in the experiment came up far more often than others which indicated either poor shuffling or card manipulation. The experiment was not repeated.
The administration of Duke grew less sympathetic to parapsychology, and after Rhine’s retirement in 1965 parapsychological links with the university were broken. Rhine later established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM) and the Institute for Parapsychology as a successor to the Duke laboratory. In 1995, the centenary of Rhine’s birth, the FRNM was renamed the Rhine Research Center. Today, the Rhine Research Center is a parapsychology research unit, stating that it “aims to improve the human condition by creating a scientific understanding of those abilities and sensitivities that appear to transcend the ordinary limits of space and time”.
Establishment of the Parapsychological Association The Parapsychological Association (PA) was created in Durham, North Carolina, on June 19, 1957. Its formation was proposed by J. B. Rhine at a workshop on parapsychology which was held at the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University. Rhine proposed that the group form itself into the nucleus of an international professional society in parapsychology. The aim of the organization, as stated in its Constitution, became “to advance parapsychology as a science, to disseminate knowledge of the field, and to integrate the findings with those of other branches of science”.
In 1969, under the direction of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the Parapsychological Association became affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest general scientific society in the world. In 1979, physicist John A. Wheeler said that parapsychology is pseudoscientific, and that the affiliation of the PA to the AAAS needed to be reconsidered.
His challenge to parapsychology’s AAAS affiliation was unsuccessful. Today, the PA consists of about three hundred full, associate, and affiliated members worldwide.
MKULTRA and The Stargate Project
Beginning in the early 1950s, the CIA started extensive research into behavioral engineering. Various experiments were undertaken in the process of this research, including some using various hallucinogenic substances. The findings from these experiments led to the formation of the Stargate Project, which handled ESP research for the U.S. federal government.
The Stargate Project was terminated in 1995 with the conclusion that it was never useful in any intelligence operation. The information was vague and included a lot of irrelevant and erroneous data. There was also reason to suspect that the research managers had adjusted their project reports to fit the known background cues.
The 1970s and 1980s
The affiliation of the Parapsychological Association (PA) with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with a general openness to psychic and occult phenomena in the 1970s, led to a decade of increased parapsychological research. During this period, other related organizations were also formed, including the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (1970), the Institute of Parascience (1971), the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, the Institute of Noetic Sciences (1973), the International Kirlian Research Association (1975), and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (1979). Parapsychological work was also conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) during this time.
The scope of parapsychology expanded during these years. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson conducted much of his research into reincarnation during the 1970s, and the second edition of his Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation was published in 1974. Psychologist Thelma Moss devoted time to the study of Kirlian photography at UCLA’s parapsychology laboratory. The influx of spiritual teachers from Asia, and their claims of abilities produced by meditation, led to research on altered states of consciousness. American Society for Psychical Research Director of Research, Karlis Osis, conducted experiments in out of body experiences. Physicist Russell Targ coined the term remote viewing for use in some of his work at SRI in 1974.
The surge in paranormal research continued into the 1980s: the Parapsychological Association reported members working in more than 30 countries. For example, research was carried out and regular conferences held in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union although the word parapsychology was discarded in favour of the term psychotronics. The promoter of psychotronics was Czech scientist Zdeněk Rejdák. Rejdák kept enforcing the psychotronics as a physical science on the world-wide scale and for many years, he organized conferences on research in psychotronics. The psychotronics of this era is being understood as a new science in the terms of human bionics. The main objectives of psychotronics were to verify and study distant interactions human organism and its information and energy expressions and subsequently the phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis, to discover new principles of nature.
In 1985 a Chair of Parapsychology was established within the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Robert Morris, a respected experimental parapsychologist from the United States took up the position, and with his research associates and PhD students pursued a comprehensive research programme. Since Professor Morris’ death in 2004 the Chair of Parapsychology has remained vacant.
Since the 1980s, contemporary parapsychological research has waned considerably in the United States. Early research was considered inconclusive, and parapsychologists were faced with strong opposition from their academic colleagues. Some effects thought to be paranormal, for example the effects of Kirlian photography (thought by some to represent a human aura), disappeared under more stringent controls, leaving those avenues of research at dead-ends. Many university laboratories in the United States have closed, citing a lack of acceptance by mainstream science as the reason; the bulk of parapsychology research in the US is now confined to private institutions funded by private sources. After 28 years of research, Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR), which studied psychokinesis, closed in 2007.
Two universities in the United States currently have academic parapsychology laboratories. The Division of Perceptual Studies, a unit at the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychiatric Medicine, studies the possibility of survival of consciousness after bodily death, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences. The University of Arizona’s Veritas Laboratory conducts laboratory investigations of mediums. Several private institutions, including the Institute of Noetic Sciences, conduct and promote parapsychological research.
Over the last two decades some new sources of funding for parapsychology in Europe have seen a “substantial increase in European parapsychological research so that the center of gravity for the field has swung from the United States to Europe”. Of all nations the United Kingdom has the largest number of active parapsychologists. In the UK, researchers work in conventional psychology departments, and also do studies in mainstream psychology to “boost their credibility and show that their methods are sound”. It is thought that this approach could account for the relative strength of parapsychology in Britain.
As of 2007, parapsychology research is represented in some 30 different countries and a number of universities worldwide continue academic parapsychology programs. Among these are the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh; the Parapsychology Research Group at Liverpool Hope University (this closed in April 2011); the SOPHIA Project at the University of Arizona; the Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology Research Unit of Liverpool John Moores University; the Center for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton; and the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Research and professional organizations include the Parapsychological Association; the Society for Psychical Research, publisher of the Journal of Society for Psychical Research; the American Society for Psychical Research, publisher of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (last published in 2004); the Rhine Research Center and Institute for Parapsychology, publisher of the Journal of Parapsychology; the Parapsychology Foundation, which published the International Journal of Parapsychology (between 1959 to 1968 and 2000–2001) and the Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research, publisher of the Australian Journal of Parapsychology. The European Journal of Parapsychology ceased publishing in 2010.
Parapsychological research has also been augmented by other sub-disciplines of psychology. These related fields include transpersonal psychology, which studies transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human mind, and anomalistic psychology, which examines paranormal beliefs and subjective anomalous experiences in traditional psychological terms.