This section provides an overview of
several issues that arise when discussing parapsychology. You can
use the subcontents menu at the right to navigate through the issues.
For over two millennia, people all
over the world have reported experiencing psychic phenomena (referred
to as the second sight, the third, eye, the sixth sense, etc.) 5,
and for almost as long, scholars and scientists have been trying
to understand what these mean. Even in this highly technological
and scientific era, surveys have repeatedly shown that anywhere
from one-half to three-fourths of the population have had experiences
they believe to be psychic. For those that claim there is no evidence
for parapsychological phenomena and no subject matter to study,
these surveys show that there is indeed "a strong subject matter
with a large initial data base" of reported experiences. Thus,
the task that parapsychology is presented with is how to explain
The first step in dealing with these
experiences is to determine how well "normal" or conventional
explanations interpret the experiences. Investigators must consider
such factors as malobservation, faulty memory, or deceit. If all
normal explanations fail to explain the experience adequately, then
there exists what is termed an anomaly, something that science at
its present stage is unable to explain. "Anomalies are what
fuel scientific advances, and persisting anomalies force science
to revise its theories and bring about a new and more complete understanding
Parapsychology (and its predecessor,
psychical research,) deals with confronting those anomalies that
are connected with the human mind. (The foundations for parapsychology
as a science were created by Dr. J.B. Rhine in 1930.) Over the decades,
parapsychologists have developed a classification system of the
phenomena. Broadly speaking, there are two main abilities with which
parapsychology in concerned (collectively termed psi): extrasensory
perception (ESP) and psychokinesis
Many reports have also arisen regarding
hauntings, and poltergeists.
Early psychical researchers proposed that the investigation of these
phenomena could provide evidence to demonstrate that human beings
have a soul, "or an independently existing consciousness that
is separate from the body and even survives the death of the body."
There are also certain types of phenomena
that involve both parapsychology and orthodox medical and psychological
fields. These include near
death experiences (NDE's) and out-of-body
experiences (OBE's). The near death experiences, reported by
people who are brought back from near death, are of interest to
some parapsychologists for what these reports have to offer to the
life-after-death issue. Out-of-body experiences, sometimes called
astral projection or traveling clairvoyance, interest some parapsychologists
because of what they indicate about the possibility of "the
mind detaching itself from the body." Psychologists typically
regard both experiences as hallucinations.
It must be noted that, when dealing
with various scientific anomalies, "the absence of a normal
explanation does not mean that something paranormal is happening.
It only means that there is one more class of unusual phenomena
that deserves further investigation." Typically, there are
three investigative approaches that parapsychologists take when
researching psi phenomena: the case-study approach, the field investigation,
and the experimental method.
The case-study approach to psi phenomena
is a good way for researchers to begin studying psychic experiences.
A case study typically consists of a testimonial about an unusual
experience that a person might label psychic. "However, case-study
investigators have always been aware of the problems inherent in
basing investigations on human testimony. Faulty memory or the natural
tendency to mold perceptions to expectations or to embellish or
reinterpret memories are ever-present hazards, not to mention the
possibility of outright fraud." Even so, in many cases the
evidence is very compelling.
While the case study method remains
an important part of parapsychology today, case collections alone
can never be sufficient to establish the reality of psi phenomena,
primarily because they consist of reports on what people "think
about their experiences, not what those experiences actually are."
The greatest usefulness of case studies has always been "to
shape and guide experimental efforts, to provide hypotheses for
experimental verification, to indicates how psi phenomena occurs
in ordinary life, and to reveal how people interpret and cope with
information that appears to be paranormally acquired."
Field investigations present opportunities
for parapsychologists to investigate apparent psi effects of a magnitude
far greater than what is typically seen in the laboratory, and they
also allow for research into the psychological and sociological
effects of such phenomena (for example, how such phenomena is interpreted
by the witnesses, how it has affected their lives, how their cultural
beliefs have affected their view of the experience, etc). 1
Some of the more well known field investigations usually involve
hauntings or poltergeists.
Unfortunately, field investigations
usually also bring with them "a large number of potential pitfalls.
Typically, a field investigation is hurried and somewhat improvised,
and all too frequently the circumstances are such that conscious
or unconscious fraud on the part of some of the affected parties
is a distinct possibility." As a result, field investigations
are not particularly common in current parapsychological research.
As fascinating as the case studies
and the field investigations are, they ultimately leave the parapsychologist
with nothing more than a collection of stories. Despite the most
detailed documentation, the evidence for psi will not be present
in the amounts necessary to establish scientific fact. For this
end, parapsychologists use the experimental approach.
The experimental method has been a
part of parapsychology from the very beginning. However, it was
the work of J.B. Rhine at Duke University in the early 1930's that
established the experimental method as the primary means of investigating
psi phenomena. "This emergence of parapsychology as an experimental
science finally made the rest of the scientific world take notice."
The early experimental
research, conducted by psychical researchers, used a deck of playing
cards to test for ESP. One isolated person would concentrate on
a card and try and send the identity of that card to another isolated
person. In this experiment, the odds of making a correct guess by
chance alone was 51-to-one, so if the receiver was able to correctly
guess substantially more than one out of fifty-two cards, then the
experimenter could conclude that something other than chance was
Using playing cards, however, had some
shortcomings. For example, even if a person was able to guess cards
correctly quite a bit more than chance would predict, he or she
would still be getting most of the guesses wrong, resulting in lower
morale on the part of the subject. Rhine's solution to this problem
was to create a better card deck.
Working with colleague Karl Zener,
Rhine developed the famous ESP cards, which have been used in thousands
of experiments since the early 1930's (this experiment, however,
has not been used significantly since the 1960's, when new experiments
were designed to eliminate boring, forced-choice guessing). The
five symbols, a star, a circle, a squiggly line, a square, and a
plus sign, were selected because "they are easy to tell apart,
easy to remember, and of roughly equal visual weight." Five
were chosen because a one-in-five chance hit-ratio seemed about
right for holding a subject's interest. Five of each symbol were
included to create a conveniently sized deck of twenty-five cards.
The core procedure
of Rhine's early experiment was to have a subject guess the sequence
of the symbols in a well shuffled deck, and often a subject would
go through many decks in a sitting. For
a deck of twenty-five cards, one would expect on average that five
cards would be guessed correctly by pure chance. This is called
the mean chance expectation, or the MCE. The point of the
experiment, however, is to see whether the subjects can guess correctly
more often than chance would predict. "In order to determine
when someone exceeds chance's boundary, Rhine turned to the field
The aim of the statistical tests is
to determine whether a particular experimental result could be explained
by chance variation in the scores. For example, suppose that a subject
goes through five decks of cards. Of the 250 cards, chance would
predict that they would correctly guess 50 cards. By chance, they
may also correctly predict 55, or 45, but is it just chance variation
if someone correctly guesses 75 cards?
By using a simple statistical formula,
the experimenter can determine what the odds against chance are,
that is, the odds against chance alone accounting for the event.
In social sciences, the convention is that when odds against chance
for a given result are better than one-in-twenty, then chance is
ruled out and the result is said to be significant. In many parapsychology
experiments, however, the experimenter may hold out for odds against
chance of one-in-100, or even one-in-1000 before he is willing to
say that chance is ruled out as an explanation. Using the previous
example, the chance of guessing 75 cards correctly is one-in-1000,
so one would say that chance has been ruled out as an explanation
for that result.
It is important to note that a statistical
test does not automatically determine that ESP was demonstrated.
It merely gives researchers a certain confidence that the results
were not simply chance variation. "Whether or not one is willing
to say that the high score was due to ESP depends on how well the
controls of the experiment were exercised." For example, in
an ESP experiment, the experimenter must make sure there was no
way the person could have inferred the cards from use of the normal
senses. Similarly, in PK tests, the experimenter must ensure that
there was no way the subject could have affected the test equipment
by normal means. "It is precisely the issue of whether or not
the experimenter has ruled out all normal explanations that is at
the heart of the controversy that rages about parapsychology."
If all the controls are adequate, then
the experimenter can claim to have demonstrated "communication
anomalies," which parapsychologists have termed ESP. Parapsychologists
must also determine what is behind these anomalies, what patterns
and regularities can be uncovered. Are certain personality types
more successful in ESP experiments than others? Can conditions be
created in the lab to facilitate ESP? Can it be learned? Parapsychologists
are beginning to develop ideas to answer these questions.
Presently, parapsychologists do not
know for certain if psychic ability is something everyone has, but
they do know that psychic experiences are widespread.
the one hand, there are claims that 'everyone has psychic abilities,
they just have to learn how to use them', but there is no evidence
supporting these claims. "Having an experience does not necessarily
translate into having an ability a person can use at will."
However, on the other hand, there are so many people who report
experiences that seem to involve ESP, or less commonly PK, that
parapsychologists cannot help but entertain the possibility that
psychic phenomena are the result of some sort of ability that may
be widely distributed in the population or perhaps even universal.
What is more certain, however, is the
prospect that psi ability may be something "that is unconscious
in its operation...[meaning that] in most cases people cannot turn
it on and off at will."
This issue, then, raises the question
of what type of people are more apt to display psi abilities. The
results of several dozen experiments have given parapsychologists
the ability to venture a few hypotheses as to the type of person
who is most likely to succeed in an ESP test.
have found that people who believe in the existence of psychic
phenomena (called "sheep") are more likely to do better
in ESP tests, while those who do not believe in the existence of
psychic phenomena (called "goats") often do more poorly
than chance would predict.
The other characteristics that are
considered optimal for ESP test performance is dependent upon the
personality theory developed by Carl Jung, today called the Myers-Briggs
Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI divides the personality into four
main aspects and considers people as one of two types within these
aspects. None of these types are considered negative, however, since
it is believed that all personality types are desirable for a healthy
The first division is labeled extroversion/introversion
(E/I). Extroverts are those who are oriented more towards people
and the world around them, while introverts are those whose orientation
is more inward.
The second division describes a person's
perceptual style as being either sensing or intuitive (S/N). Sensing
types are more comfortable with concrete, practical matters, while
intuitive types are more comfortable with "abstractions, inferred
meanings, and hidden possibilities."
The third division deals with one's
decision-making style, which can be either thinking or feeling (T/F).
Thinking types are best at "organizing material, weighing facts,
and making true-false judgments impersonally", while feeling
types are best at "understanding the feelings of others and
analyzing subjective impressions...and are usually very interested
in human values and interpersonal relationships."
The final division is concerned with
the way a person deals with the outer world, which can be either
judging or perceiving (J/P). Judging types are typically "organized
and systematic...living in a planned, orderly way, aiming to regulate
life and control it." Perceiving types are "more curious
and open-minded...tending to go through life in a flexible, spontaneous
way, aiming to understand life and adapt to it."
So, for example, a person who is an
introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging type would be labeled as
an INFJ. What some parapsychologists have found is that those who
are ENFP's on the MBTI scale are more likely to perform well on
Other factors include whether or not
the person has felt that he or she has experienced any psychic phenomena
in the past and whether or not the person practices any mental discipline,
such as meditation. Those who have had experiences that they believe
to be psychic and those who regularly engage in activities such
as meditation are more likely to perform well in psychic tests.
This is not to say, however, that these
are the only people who display psychic abilities. For example,
extroverts may be labeled as being more likely to possess psychic
ability simply because their personality lends itself to showing
it. Introverts, on the other hand, by nature are not likely to reveal
much about themselves, therefore their ability may not be as easily
witnessed by experimenters. These classifications merely help to
define what type of people are expected to show more psychic ability
Although there is great public interest
in the topic, the popular scientific press often print vicious attacks
on parapsychological research and on the researchers themselves.
Parapsychology is controversial, there is no doubt about that, "but
why this is so turns out to be a fairly complicated issue."
"Fundamental to the controversy
are the claims of parapsychology. Parapsychological hypotheses at
the very least claim that humans can acquire information or affect
external physical systems in ways that science, in its present state,
cannot explain." If these claims are correct, then the existing
worldview that science gives us will have to be modified.
Surveys have shown that an overwhelming
majority of the public accept the reality of ESP or have had psychic
experiences themselves, and that a majority of scientists consider
ESP a likely possibility. Why, then, is it that there are hardly
any parapsychology classes taught at universities or very many active
research groups? The answer lies in the fact that surveys have also
shown that only roughly 25% of those who run the scientific community
believe in the reality of psi.
explanations of psi phenomena basically fall into two categories:
incompetence on the part of the experimenter and fraud on the part
of the claimer. Certainly these objections are not without basis,
as there have been parapsychological experiments in which weaknesses
(most of which have been caught by fellow parapsychologists) have
been discovered, and there have been many people (such as mediums)
who have reported having psychic powers and turned out to be frauds.
However, this does not negate the fact
that experiments have shown that something is happening.
As Charles Honorton and his colleagues began applying meta-analysis
to parapsychology, they have consistently proven that the results
of many parapsychological experiments are genuine and cannot be
easily dismissed as chance, incompetence, or fraud. Also, the work
of Helmut Schmidt has consistently disproved many of the critics'
theories of incompetence, as he as successfully "fool-proofed"
many of his experimental methods. Indeed, even Ray Hyman, a staunch
critic of parapsychology, admitted that "by almost any standard,
Schmidt's work is the most challenging ever to confront critics
such as myself. His approach makes many of the earlier criticisms
of parapsychological research obsolete."
all scientists are skeptics about the reality of psi. Some scientists
"maintain that certain axioms of quantum physics virtually
demand that psi phenomena exist," and that some of the most
convincing evidence in support of psi phenomena comes from experiments
in quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics refers to the "behavior
of matter at the subatomic level, where basic units are neither
particles nor waves, but act like both, [and] where matter cannot
even be said definitely to exist Rather, it has a 'tendency to exist,'
expressed as a mathematical probability." 5
Now take for example the event in which
"an electron and its antimatter equivalent, a positron, collide...and
[create] two photons, which speed off in different directions."
The laws of quantum mechanics state that prior to measurement, particles
such as photons do not have properties such as spin and velocity.
Once the particle is measured, however, it's properties are found
to have discrete values.
This means that the moment an observer
measures the first photon, "causing it to acquire a certain
spin, [the second photon] will acquire the opposite spin, no matter
how far away it is, and despite having no connection with the first
The second photon simply seems to know in which direction
it must spin--hinting at the possibility of something like telepathy.
One question that arises from this
type of experiment concerns the fact that the values that appear
during measurement all have the same probability of occurring. So
what is it, then, that determines the value? Nobel Prize winner
Eugene Wagner suggested that consciousness itself was the hidden
variable that decided which value actually occurs. Indeed, "the
inescapable conclusion from this line of reasoning is that consciousness
plays a role in what reality will be." This explanation resembles
the experimental work being done with micro-PK.
It is on this path of experimentation
that "parapsychology comes face to face with modern physics."
Perhaps the research conducted by parapsychologists will help to
answer some of the most fundamental questions science can ask, thereby
fitting parapsychology into the common scientific worldview.
How does psi present itself in daily
life? The topic of applied psi partially deals with answering this
question. Stories from people who claim to have had psychic experiences,
such as prophetic dreams or escaping death as a result of an intuition,
raise the question of whether this is merely coincidence or applied
If humans have the ability to acquire
information without the normal senses and to alter the probabilities
of events, then this ability is likely to have certain characteristics
in common with other human abilities, and it will probably blend
in seamlessly with these other abilities "so as not to call
attention to itself and its unconventional way of operating."
This, however, raises an important
question: if psi is a human ability like anything else, then what
is it for? Parapsychologists do not know for sure, but Rex Stanford
of St. John's University has come up with a theory known as PMIR
(psi-mediated instrumental response). Stanford believes that a person
uses psi to accomplish something that fulfills certain needs he
or she has (called "functional significance"), though
the person may not even know that they have these needs. (Another
view of psi abilities is that it's purpose is the same as every
other ability, which according to Darwinism, is survival.)
Using the PMIR theory, two possible
examples of psi in ordinary life may be intuition and luck.
The conservative view of intuition
is that it is "a judgment based on information that one already
posseses...below the threshold of conscious awareness." The
most liberal view of intuition is that it is "a direct, nonsensory
perception of a truth...in a situation." It can be considered
as a separate mental function, along with sensation, thinking, and
feeling. Parapsychologists typically view intuitions as a mixture
of normally acquired data and ESP.
Following the theory that psi in human
life probably exists to be useful, one would suspect that PK, partially
the ability to alter the probabilities of random events, "would
look like our commonsense notion of luck." This means that
certain individuals may unconsciously be using PK to get the random
events of life to fall in their favor more often than chance would
This does not mean, however, that every
person has the guaranteed ability to psychically influence their
surroundings. Like most other abilities, psi ability varies from
person to person. "The exceptional individuals who come to
light may simply be the psychic equivalent of rare geniuses or prodigies."
Applied psi also refers to the deliberate
and controlled use of psi. The people who claim this ability, however,
are wildly different. On one end of the spectrum are the "storefront
psychics" who offer "readings" at a modest fee, and
who may or may not be frauds, but for the most part cause no harm.
On the other end of the spectrum are those individuals who claim
astronomical abilities, and who will "demonstrate" them
for outrageous fees. In the middle are those who believe their abilities
to be genuine, and who offer their services to people without charge,
or to cover expenses.
Some believe that practical applications
of psi include using psychics to: help police officers during investigations,
locate and identify archeological artifacts (similar to dowsing
respectively), make business predictions (typically involving the
stock market), and help heal the ill.
One of the principal growth areas for
psi research may revolve around the relationship between the human
mind and emerging technology. Since it has been determined that
people are able to alter the probabilities of random events with
PK, even in electronic systems (operating at suboptimal level and
therefore causing random output), this is a possibility. For example,
theories have been tossed around about creating a "psibot,"
or a robot that is capable of responding to human intention. "Such
technologies would significantly benefit handicapped persons."
While this may be far into the future, it is still a possibility.
Already there have been many studies
performed in this area, such as the "Testing the Plausibility
of Psi-Medited Computer System Failures" research done by Dean
Radin, a scientist with Contel, the investigations done by the Princeton
University's School of Engineering PEAR lab, and the investigations
done by Robert Morris at the Syracuse University Computer Science