Historically, much of the documented
paranormal phenomena from around the world seems to be intermingled
with religious beliefs. The belief in the existence of miracles
and other paranormal phenomena are staples of many Eastern religions,
and even western religious scriptures, such as the Old Testament,
are filled with examples of prophetic dreams and other paranormal
phenomena. In fact, "some of the best-documented early reports
of paranormal phenomena come from the investigations of individuals
declared saints by the Roman Catholic Church." For example,
Saint Joseph of Copertino and Saint Teresa of Avila were often seen
levitating during services or while praying.
Those investigating these events, such
as Prospero Lambertini (who would later become Pope Benedict XIV),
could rightfully claim to be among the earliest psychical researchers.
In fact, Lambertini's treatise, entitled De Beatificatione et
Beatorum Canonizatione, is an accurate assessment of many paranormal
experiences, and many of his observations remain valid today.
Despite the fact that these investigations
took place fairly early on, interest in parapsychological phenomena
continued to thrive well into the 1700's as many noted scholars
and scientists conducted investigations of individuals with unusual
abilities. "The late eighteenth century, however, saw two developments
that led directly to the organized study of psychic phenomena and
eventually to parapsychology as we see it today: mesmerism and spiritualism."
Mesmerism refers to the belief in Franz
Anton Mesmer's theory in the power of "animal magnetism"
and the use of magnets to guide healing forces. After moving to
Paris in 1778, Mesmer's magnetic treatments became a public fad,
and many investigators began researching into mesmerism. Among these
is Chastenet de Puysegur, who is best known for his discovery of
the hypnotic trance. From the start, there were claims that mesmerism
facilitated clairvoyance and other psychic phenomena, and indeed,
the committee charged by the Academies of the Sciences and Medicine
to investigate these claims reported that they were convinced that
the trance state was genuine and that it deserved further research.
However, the leaders of the Academies were not pleased with the
findings, and for decades, the controversy surrounding mesmerism
raged in scientific and medical circles, finally converting into
what is today known as hypnotism.
is the quasi-religious belief that living persons can communicate
with the spirits of dead persons, and that the human personality,
in the form of a soul or spirit, survives bodily death. Emmanuel
Sweedenborg is credited with the development of this belief,
which quickly spread throughout northern Europe, Britain, and the
United States. Spiritualists claimed that the mesmeric trance seemed
to facilitate their communication with the spirit world, giving
rise to a wave of mediums.
The most famous of these mediums were
the physical mediums: those who, while communicating with the dead,
included physical effects such as the movement of objects, sourceless
sounds, and strange lights. In general, physical mediums were regarded
mainly as charlatans, but there were a few individuals who seemed
to posses genuine gifts. Among these was a man by the name of Daniel
Douglas (D.D.) Home.
in Scotland in 1833 but raised in Connecticut, Home's psychic abilities
were apparent since childhood. As a practicing medium, Home attracted
many investigators who tried to determine whether his abilities
(which included being able to conduct seances, move items, levitate,
and play musical instruments without touching them) were fraudulently
produced. The various investigators, which included William Crookes,
a noted British physicist, chemist, inventor, and Fellow of the
Royal Society, came to the conclusion that Home's abilities were
genuine and not the result of "optical illusions."
As a result of the increasing momentum
of Spiritualism, a group of scientists and scholars gathered in
London in January of 1882 to discuss the scientific investigation
of these claims. This gathering resulted in the establishment of
the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), whose aim was "to
investigate that large body of debatable phenomena designated by
such terms as mesmeric, physical, and spiritualistic. It was pledged
to do this without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in
the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled
Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less
The creation of the SPR (and the American
Society for Psychical Research, created approximately three years
later in Boston) led to the establishment of standards of evidence
for case studies and methods for experimental research, as well
as the publishing of a scholarly journal. "In short, psychical
research was becoming a science." In 1886, the SPR also published
what is now the starting point for all case studies in parapsychology:
a 1,300-page compilation, entitled Phantasms of the Living,
of the best documented cases of apparitions.
However, the enthusiasm and energy
of the SPR's founders could not last, and by the early part of the
twentieth century, psychical research had considerably declined.
"The Heroic Age of psychical research had passed, and the young
science had to await the emergence of a new figure to rejuvenate
"figure" was Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine and his wife,Dr. Louis
E. Rhine, who promoted the belief that progress in psychical research
would only occur if it became an experimental science.
In 1928, Rhine was offered a position
in the psychology department of Duke University in Durham, North
Carolina, and in 1930 (upon the creation of the Duke University
Parapsychology Laboratory), he began conducting his own research
into parapsychology (which resulted in the creation of the well-known
By 1932, Rhine felt he was on the verge
of a breakthrough. Not only had he demonstrated the existence of
psychic phenomena (which he termed extrasensory perception) through
the use of his card guessing experiments, but, more importantly,
he was able to show that ESP seemed to obey certain natural, psychological
laws. For example, subjects typically did better when they had some
type of intrinsic motivation or when they were engaged and interested
in the experiment. Conversely, subjects performed worse when they
were tired, bored, self-conscious, or depressed. 5
Rhine felt that these findings "would do more to
make parapsychology acceptable to other scientists than any number
of miracle demonstrations."
By 1934, other researchers in America
and abroad began duplicating Rhine's methods and met with some success.
This proved as corroboration for Rhine's methods and findings. As
momentum built, articles on parapsychology appeared in Time,
Reader's Digest, Scientific American, and many other
publications. This, however, led to much criticism regarding Rhine's
most of which was later retracted. In 1937, the American Institute
of Mathematical Statistics gave its blessing to the statistical
methods used by Rhine and the Duke researchers. 5
Also in 1937, Zenith Radio Corporation
began a series of nationwide broadcasts about psychic phenomena
and began selling special ESP cards for people to test themselves.
A month later, Rhine's popular account of the Duke research program,
New Frontiers of the Mind, hit the bookstores and became
a sensation. By the end of the year, few people in the United States
had not heard of ESP or the research at Duke University.
By the mid 1950's, due to parapsychology's
popularity, many researchers began to branch out from the Duke University
Parapsychology Laboratory, creating many new research institutes.
In 1956, the Parapsychological Association
(PA) was formed to serve as the international organization of professional
researchers investigating psi phenomena. "Its purpose is to
set the standards for parapsychology and facilitate communication
between the increasingly far-flung researchers."
"The annual conventions of the
PA have typically been the main forum for presenting and discussing
new research in parapsychology, and the affiliated professional
journals of the PA are the chief outlets for published research."
These journals are: the Journal of Parapsychology, the Journal
of the American Society for Psychical Research, the Journal
of the Society for Psychical Research, and the European Journal
1969, the PA was granted affiliation with the American Association
for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). "This was an important milestone
in parapsychology's struggle for scientific acceptance."
Since the creation of the Duke Laboratory
and the PA, several other research institutes have also appeared.
In 1979, a small group of researchers began investigating psi phenomena
at Princeton University. The group was started by Robert Jahn when
he was Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science, and
is located in the engineering department. The lab goes by the name
of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Laboratory.
On the West coast exists the SRI (formerly known as the Stanford
Research Institute), and in San Antonio, Texas, a small research
team has its base at the Mind Science Foundation. The Psychophysical
Research Laboratories (PRL) was also located in Princeton, New Jersey,
but recently had to shut down due to funding difficulties.
In Great Britain, home of the Society
for Psychical Research (SPR), there is a long tradition of small
institutes conducting parapsychological research. Presently, the
mainstay of British research is at the Parapsychology Laboratory
of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, endowed in 1983 by the
writer and philosopher Arthur Koestler. In 1985, the university
appointed one of America's leading parapsychologists, Dr. Robert
Morris, as the first Koestler Professor of Parapsychology, and the
lab is attracting researchers from around the world.
Other laboratories exist in Russia,
India (such as the institute at Andhra University in Andhra Pradesh),
and China (such as the Institute of Space Medico-Engineering).
With the advent of such parapsychology
research institutes, the field has been able to progress a long
way from the days of association with spiritualism and mysticism:
parapsychologists have succeeded in bringing psi into the laboratory.
Initially, psi research consisted of efforts to prove that psychic
abilities exist; nowadays, psi research is "aimed at understanding
the fundamental processes [involved with psychic abilities] and
and how they are integrated into human consciousness." 11
It seems that now more than ever before, we are prepared to delve
into the workings of these ancient mysteries.