TWM

Parapsychology FAQ
Compiled by Dean Radin, PhD of UNLV's Cognitive Research Division
A helpful guide to parapsychology and the facts regarding that field.

Editor's Note: While the Amazing Randi and other sceptics maintain that there is no concrete evidence to prove the existence of any paranormal phenomena, groups such as the CRD are conducting respectable experiments and producing statistically significant results. What do the sceptics have to say about this? That most of these results are not reproducable is a powerful weapon in the hands of the sceptics. Or is this just an indication of our seeming inability to isolate the conditions that produce parapsychological phenomena? This FAQ should help you understand the facts as they stand today and serve as a lesson in clear thinking for anyone.

Last update: April 27, 1998
Table of Contents
  1. Who compiled this FAQ? 
  2. Who is the intended audience? 
  3. What is parapsychology? 
  4. What is not parapsychology? 
  5. What do parapsychologists study? 
  6. Why is parapsychology interesting? 
  7. What are some practical applications of psi? 
  8. What are the major research approaches? 
  9. What are the major psi experiments today? 
  10. What are common criticisms and responses about parapsychology? 
  11. Why is parapsychology chronically controversial? 
  12. What is the state-of-the-evidence for psi? 
  13. What is the state-of-the-theory for psi? 
  14. Where can I get more information? 
  15. Questions about popular phenomena 
  16. What is the history of parapsychology? 
  17. Are there any psi research experiments accessible over the Web? 
  18. Where are the active psi research facilities? 
  19. Major contributors to this FAQ 
1  WHO COMPILED THIS FAQ? 

This FAQ was compiled by an ad-hoc group of scientists and scholars interested in parapsychology, the study of what is popularly called "psychic" phenomena. The disciplines represented in this group include physics, psychology, philosophy, statistics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, anthropology, and history. The major contributors and their affiliations are listed at the end of this document.

The majority of this group are members of the Parapsychological Association (PA). The PA is an international professional society founded in 1957 and elected an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. While this FAQ is not an official publication of the PA, the contributors do include several past- Presidents of the PA, including the current (1995) President, and past and present members of the Board of Directors of the PA. The authors' actual laboratory and field research experience with parapsychology is estimated at over 400 years.

The group aimed for consensus on each FAQ item, but as in many intellectual pursuits, especially in young, multidisciplinary domains, there were some sharp disagreements. In spite of these disagreements, the authors believe that because of burgeoning public interest in parapsychology, the relative lack of reliable information, and the many myths and distortions associated with this field, it was important to put some basic information on the World Wide Web sooner rather than later.

To submit questions to the FAQ, send email to Dean Radin (dradin@nevada.edu ).

2 WHO IS THE INTENDED AUDIENCE?

This was written as a general introduction to parapsychology for individuals ranging from advanced high-school students to professionals with little or no background in parapsychology. Writing for such a broad audience is a challenge, because gaining an appreciation of parapsychology today requires at least a passing knowledge of a wide range of topics, including statistics, experimental design, quantum mechanical theory, the sociology and philosophy of science, history of parapsychology, and the scientific literature on parapsychology.

Because our expected audience is so broad, we have touched only briefly on many technical issues that underlie interesting issues and debates within the field. Therefore, the approach in this FAQ is to clarify the complex topic of parapsychology without glossing over important points and without "dumbing down" the basic content. For a few particularly tricky issues that we do wish to cover here, we've included sections labelled Technical Note.

We eventually plan to provide (mainly through links to other sources on the Web) a comprehensive source of information on parapsychology, including details on the major topics of debate, the prevailing theories, discussions of empirical evidence, links to journal papers, reference sources, mission statements and other items from the major parapsychological research centers, individual researchers' home pages, and home pages for relevant scientific and scholarly societies.

2.1  TECHNICAL NOTE: AUDIENCE

The content and style of this FAQ sparked a vigorous debate among the authors. At least five potential audiences were identified: physical scientists, social and behavioral scientists, hardened skeptics, New-Age enthusiasts, and readers with little or no background in any of the conventional sciences or in parapsychology.

For physical scientists, we felt it was important to discuss methodology and terminology, and comment on some of the usual criticisms of parapsychology. For social and behavioral scientists, we added some implications of the observation that people throughout history and across all cultures have reported psychic experiences.

For hardened skeptics, or people whose knowledge of parapsychology is based solely upon the skeptical literature, we felt it was important to address the fact that there is substantial, scientifically persuasive empirical data available. For people with New-Age interests, enthusiasms, or assumptions, we felt that at least part of the purpose here would be to indicate the limits of what claims the scientific data actually justify.

For readers who know little or nothing about the topic, or about science or scientific methods, we've applied a broad-brush approach to cover as much of the field as possible in a single document. Hyperlinks will be added in future editions to help flesh out this FAQ.

3  WHAT IS PARAPSYCHOLOGY?

Parapsychology is the scientific and scholarly study of certain unusual events associated with human experience.

A long-held, common-sense assumption is that the worlds of the subjective and objective are completely distinct, with no overlap. Subjective is "here, in the head," and objective is "there, out in the world." Parapsychology is the study of phenomena suggesting that the strict subjective/objective dichotomy may instead be part of a spectrum, with some phenomena occasionally falling between purely subjective and purely objective. We call such phenomena "anomalous" because they are difficult to explain within current scientific models.

These anomalies fall into three general categories: ESP (terms are defined below), PK, and phenomena suggestive of survival after bodily death, including near-death experiences, apparitions, and reincarnation. Most parapsychologists today expect that further research will eventually explain these anomalies in scientific terms, although it is not clear whether they can be fully understood without significant (some might say revolutionary) expansions of the current state of scientific knowledge. Other researchers take the stance that existing scientific models of perception and memory are adequate to explain some or all parapsychological phenomena.

4  WHAT IS NOT PARAPSYCHOLOGY?

In spite of what the media often imply, parapsychology is not the study of "anything paranormal" or bizarre. Nor is parapsychology concerned with astrology, UFOs, searching for Bigfoot, paganism, vampires, alchemy, or witchcraft.

Many scientists view parapsychology with great suspicion because the term has come to be associated with a huge variety of mysterious phenomena, fringe topics, and pseudoscience. Parapsychology is also often linked, again inappropriately, with a broad range of "psychic" entertainers, magicians, and so-called "paranormal investigators." In addition, some self-proclaimed "psychic practitioners" call themselves parapsychologists, but that is not what we do, as this FAQ will help to clarify.

5  WHAT DO PARAPSYCHOLOGISTS STUDY?

Many feel that the strangest, and most interesting, aspect of parapsychological phenomena is that they do not appear to be limited by the known boundaries of space or time. In addition, they blur the sharp distinction usually made between mind and matter. In popular usage, the basic parapsychological phenomena are categorized as follows: 

  • Telepathy : Direct mind-to-mind communication. 
  • Precognition: Also called premonition. Obtaining information about future events, where the information could not be inferred through normal means. Many people report dreams that appear to be precognitive. 
  • Clairvoyance : Sometimes called remote viewing; obtaining information about events at remote locations, beyond the reach of the normal senses. 
  • ESP: Extra-sensory perception; a general term for obtaining information about events beyond the reach of the normal senses. This term subsumes telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. 
  • Psychokinesis : Also called PK; direct mental interaction with physical objects, animate or inanimate. 
  • Bio-PK : Direct mental interactions with living systems. 
  • NDE : Near death experience; an experience reported by those who were revived from nearly dying. Often refers to a core experience that includes feelings of peace, OBE, seeing lights and other phenomena. 
  • OBE : Out-of-body experience; the experience of feeling separated from the body, often accompanied by visual perceptions as though from above the body. 
  • Reincarnation: Reports, typically from children, of apparent recollections of previous lives
  • Haunting : Recurrent phenomena reported to occur in particular locations that include apparitions, sounds, movement of objects, and other effects. 
  • Poltergeist: Large-scale PK phenomena often attributed to spirits, but which are now thought to be due to a living person, frequently an adolescent. 
  • Psi : A neutral term for parapsychological phenomena. Psi, psychic, and psychical are synonyms.
5.1  TECHNICAL NOTE: BASIC TERMS

The above terms are representative of common usage, but parapsychologists usually define psi phenomena in more neutral or operational terms. This is because labels often carry strong but unstated connotations that can lead to misinterpretations.

For example, telepathy is commonly thought of as mind-reading. However, in practice, and certainly in laboratory research, experiences of telepathy rarely involve perception of actual thoughts, and the experience itself often does not logically require communication between two minds, but can also be "explained" as clairvoyance or precognition. Keep in mind that the names and concepts used to describe psi actually say more about the situations in which the phenomena are observed, than about any fundamental properties of the phenomena themselves. That two events are classified the same does not mean they are actually the same.

In addition, in scientific practice many of the basic terms used above are accompanied by qualifiers such as "apparent," "putative," and "ostensible." This is because many claims supposedly involving psi may not be due to psi, but to normal psychological or misinterpreted physical reasons.

6  WHY IS PARAPSYCHOLOGY INTERESTING?

Parapsychology is interesting mainly because of the implications. To list a few examples, psi phenomena suggest (a) that what science knows about the nature of universe is incomplete; (b) that the presumed capabilities and limitations of human potential have been underestimated; (c) that fundamental assumptions and philosophical beliefs about the separation of mind and body may be incorrect; and (d) that religious assumptions about the divine nature of "miracles" may have been mistaken.

As an aside, we should note that many scientific parapsychologists today, including most of the authors of this FAQ, take an empirical, data-oriented approach to psi phenomena, and specifically avoid discussing speculative implications that are not supported by data. However, some researchers regard the current findings of parapsychology as having a wide variety of important implications, including implications about the spiritual nature of humankind. Thus, in deference to the broad readership expected of this document, we present in the following Technical Note some of the possible implications of psi, acknowledging that this section is, of course, speculative.

6.1  TECHNICAL NOTE: IMPLICATIONS

In general, physicists tend to be interested in parapsychology because of the implication that we have a gross misunderstanding about space and time and the transmission of energy and information. Biologists are interested because psi implies the existence of additional, unexplained methods of sensing the world. Psychologists are interested for what psi implies about the nature of perception and memory. Philosophers are interested because psi phenomena specifically address many age-old philosophical problems, including the role of the mind in the physical world, and the nature of the objective vs. the subjective.

Theologians and the general public tend to be interested because personal psi experiences are often accompanied by feelings of profound, ineffable meaning. As a result, psi is thought by some to have "spiritual" implications.

From the materialistic perspective, which is one of the foundations of the scientific worldview, human consciousness is nothing but an emergent product of the functioning of Brain, Body, and Nervous System (BBNS). That is, no matter how different mind may seem from solid stuff like bodies, it is generated solely by the electrochemical functioning of the BBNS, and so it is absolutely dependent on it. When the BBNS dies, so does consciousness. From this perspective, claims of survival of bodily death, or ghosts, or apparitions, must be due to wishful thinking. Furthermore, the limits of material functioning automatically determine the ultimate limits of mental functioning, thus ESP and PK appear to be impossible, given our current understanding about how the world works.

And yet, psi phenomena have occurred in all cultures throughout history, they continue to occur, and some of the reported phenomena have been persuasively verified using scientific methods. Because psi seems to transcend the assumed limits of material functioning, and therefore the BBNS, some interpret psi as supporting the idea that there is something more to mind than just the BBNS, that there is some sort of "soul," or the like.

This "non-physical" aspect, an aspect that does not seem to be as tightly bounded by space or time as present scientific models require, might survive bodily death. If so, there may be important truths contained in some spiritual ideas and practices. Of course, parapsychology is a very long way from being able to say that "the data shows that X" (insert your favorite religious group here) are specifically right about religious doctrines A, B, and C but dead wrong about dogmas P, Q and R.

We must emphasize that there is a big difference between simply noting that the findings of parapsychology may have implications for spiritual concepts, versus the idea that parapsychologists are driven by some hidden spiritual agenda. Some critics of parapsychology seem to believe that all parapsychologists have hidden religious motives, and that they are really out to prove the existence of the soul. This is no more true than claiming that all chemists really harbor secret ambitions about alchemy, and thus their real agenda is to transmute mercury into gold. The reasons why serious investigators are drawn to any discipline are as diverse as their backgrounds.

7  WHAT ARE SOME PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS OF PSI?

Studies of direct mental interaction with living systems suggest that traditional mental healing techniques, such as prayer, may be based on genuine psi-mediated effects. In the future it may be possible to develop enhanced methods of healing based on these phenomena.

Psi may be involved in Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will." That is, modern machines based upon sensitive electronic circuits, such as copiers and computers, may at times directly interact with human intention, and as a result, inexplicably fail at inopportune times. Of course, the converse may also be true. That is, the possibility exists to repair, or to control sensitive machines solely by mental means. Such technologies would significantly benefit handicapped persons.

Other potential applications include improved methods of making decisions, of locating missing persons or valuables, and of describing events at locations we cannot go to because of distance, time, or accessibility. This includes the possibility of psi-based historians and forecasters.

Highly developed psi abilities may benefit psychotherapy and other forms of counseling. Psi may be used to provide a statistical edge in the financial markets and in locating archeological treasures

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Copyright © 1997 Dean Radin

Reprinted with permission.