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Parapsychology FAQ 
Part 3
Compiled by UNLV's Cognitive Research Division
A helpful guide to parapsychology and the facts regarding that field.

11 WHY IS PARAPSYCHOLOGY CHRONICALLY CONTROVERSIAL? 

Parapsychology remains controversial today, even with substantial, persuasive, and scientifically palatable results, for three main reasons: 

First, the media and much of the public often confuse parapsychology with sensational, unscientific beliefs and stories about "the paranormal." This widespread confusion has led many scientists to simply dismiss the field as being unworthy of serious study, and thus they think it is not worth their time to examine the existing evidence. 

In addition, understanding the nature of the existing evidence in parapsychology is far from easy. While the meta-analytic results are both substantial and persuasive, meta-analysis requires specialized knowledge to understand that form of evidence. For people who are not familiar with statistics, or don't trust it (which is usually a sign of misunderstanding), the evidence will not look very persuasive. Those same people may then go looking for the big stuff , the psi-in-your-face, self-evident proofs, and they will find enormous amounts of anecdotal evidence but almost no scientifically credible data. They may then view lengthy discussions, such as the one in this FAQ, as proof that no one really knows what is going on, and that scientists are still basically waffling and indecisive about this topic. 

Our response is simple: The scientificevidence for some forms of psi is extremely persuasive. In essence, psi does exist, and we are beginning to learn a little about it, and who has it. Read this entire FAQ, check out the references. 

Second, even if someone wanted to study the evidence, much of the persuasive work is published in limited circulation professional journals. These can be found in most large university libraries, but in many cases, scholars must request reprints and technical reports from authors. This FAQ was produced partially to alleviate the problem, and to provide references to various resources. (See Where can I get more information?) 

Third, some people are afraid that psi might be true. For example, fear about psi arises for the following reasons: 

(1) It is associated with diabolic forces, magic and witchcraft. 
(2) It suggests the loss of normal ego boundaries. 
(3) People might be able to read your mind and know that you secretly (or unconsciously) harbor sexual and aggressive thoughts, or worse. 
(4) If you talk about it, people might think you're crazy. 
(5) If you think you experience psi, maybe you are crazy. 
(6) Before you were six years old, your parents provided negative reinforcement for your little demonstrations of telepathy. 
(7) Thinking about psi leads to a medieval superstitious mentality, which will in turn support a rising tide of dangerous, primitive thinking. 
(8) With ESP, you might learn things that you do not want to know about yourself or other people -- i.e., accidents that are about to happen, and things you would rather not be responsible for knowing about. 
(9) If (8) happens to you, especially as a child, there is a tendency to feel responsible for what has occurred. 
(10) Psi might interfere with the normal human process of ego separation and development. Therefore, we have devised subtle strategies for cultural inhibition. 
(11) If you are telepathic, how will you distinguish other people's thoughts from your own? Perhaps this will lead to mental illness. 
(12) Many people have a self-destructive streak to their personality. What damage will result when psi is used in the service of this factor? Jule Eisenbud writes about this in his book Parapsychology and the Unconscious
(13) If psi exists, how many of my cherished beliefs will I have to give up? 
(14) If psi exists, does that mean that a psychic could watch me while I am using bathroom facilities? 
(15) If psi exists, then perhaps I cannot wall myself off so easily from the pain and suffering in the world. 

Above list courtesy of Jeffrey Mishlove, Director of the Intuition Network, Institute of Noetic Sciences.

12 WHAT IS THE STATE-OF-THE-EVIDENCE FOR PSI?

To be precise, when we say that "X exists," we mean that the presently available, cumulative statistical database for experiments studying X, provides strong, scientifically credible evidence for repeatable, anomalous, X-like effects. 

With this in mind, ESP exists, precognition exists, telepathy exists, and PK exists. ESP is statistically robust, meaning it can be reliably demonstrated through repeated trials, but it tends to be weak when simple geometric symbols are used as targets. Photographic or video targets often produce effects many times larger, and there is some evidence that ESP on natural locations (as opposed to photos of them), and in natural contexts, may be stronger yet. 

Some PK effects have also been shown to exist. When individuals focus their intention on mechanical or electronic devices that fluctuate randomly, the fluctuations change in ways that conform to their mental intention. Under control conditions, when individuals direct their attention elsewhere, the fluctuations are in accordance with chance. 

Note that we are using the terms ESP, telepathy and PK in the technical sense, not in the popular sense. See What do parapsychologists study?

13 WHAT IS THE STATE-OF-THE-THEORY FOR PSI?

Opinions about mechanisms of psi are wide ranging. Because the field is multidisciplinary, there are physical theories, psychological theories, psychophysical theories, sociological theories, and combinations of these. 

On one end of the spectrum, the "physicalists" tend to believe that the "psi sensing capacity" is like any other human sensory system, and as such it will most likely be explained by known principles from biophysics, chemistry, and cognitive science. For these theorists, psi is expected to be accommodated into the existing scientific structure, with perhaps some modifications or extensions. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the "mentalists" assert that reality would not exist if it were not for human consciousness. For these theorists, the nature of the universe is much more effervescent, thus accommodating psi into existing scientific models will require significant modification of science as we know it. Strong theoretical debates are common in parapsychology in part because spirit, religion, the meaning of life, and other philosophical conundrums comingle with quantum mechanics, probability theory, and neurons. 

Some theorists have attempted to link psi phenomena with similar- sounding concepts from quantum mechanics, including non-locality, instantaneous correlations at a distance, and other anomalies. Such suggestions always spark vigorous debates, and at some point it seems the critics are inevitably accused of not properly understanding quantum mechanics. (This is why we do not discuss quantum mechanical theories of psi here. See, however, the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge University.) 

14 WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

Be sure to see the book, The Conscious Universe, by Dean Radin, to be published in July 1997 by HarperEdge (a division of HarperCollins). 

The major international societies interested in parapsychology as a science include the following:

  • Parapsychological Association 
  • Scientific and Medical Network 
  • Society for Scientific Exploration 
  • SPR (Society for Psychical Research, London, UK) 
  • American Society for Psychical Research, New York, NY, USA 
The major, peer-reviewed parapsychological journals today are the following:
  • European Journal of Parapsychology 
  • Journal of Parapsychology 
  • Journal of the American Society of Psychic Research 
  • Journal of the Society of Psychical Research 
  • Zeitschrift fuer Psychologische Grenzgebiete 
Other journals that have published parapsychological articles include:
  • Foundations of Physics 
  • Journal of the Society of Psychical Research 
  • Journal of Scientific Exploration 
  • Proceedings of the IEEE 
  • Psychological Bulletin 
  • Statistical Science 
  • Subtle Energies 
  • Science 
  • Nature 
15 QUESTIONS ABOUT POPULAR PHENOMENA

15.1 ARE GHOSTS REAL?

The prevailing view today is that the mysterious physical effects historically attributed to ghosts (disembodied spirits), such as movement of objects, strange sounds, enigmatic odors, and failure of electrical equipment, are actually poltergeist phenomena (see below). Apparitions that occur without accompanying physical effects are thought to be either normal psychological effects (i.e., hallucinations), or possibly genuine information mediated by psi. 

15.2 ARE POLTERGEISTS REAL?

Poltergeists (from the German, "noisy ghosts") usually manifest as strange electrical effects and unexplained movement of objects. At one time, these phenomena were thought to be due to ghosts, but after decades of investigations by researchers, notably by William G. Roll, the evidence now suggests that poltergeists are PK effects produced by one or more individuals, usually troubled adolescents. The term "RSPK," meaning "Recurrent Spontaneous PK," was coined to describe this concept. 

15.3 IF PSI IS REAL, WHY DO CASINOS MAKE SO MUCH MONEY?

The theoretical house advantage for some casino games is fairly small, e.g., about 1% for optimally-played craps. This means that over the long term, a good craps player might get back 99 cents for each dollar they play. If they hit a "hot streak," they might even win some money. In practice, the actual house take for most games is fairly large (about 25% for table games) because people rarely play consistently, they reinvest their winnings, and the casino environment is intentionally designed to be noisy and visually distracting. Thus, for a given psychic to make any notable differences in long-term casino profits, they would have to (a) understand the strategies of each game they play, (b) consistently play according to those strategies, (c) stop when they are ahead, and (d) consistently apply strong, reliable psi. 

Over the long term casino profits are predictably stable, but given that some psi effects are known to be genuine, in principle a good, consistent psychic (who knows how to play the casino games) might make some money by gambling. In addition, many people applying weak psi may cause small fluctuations in casino profits, but testing this would require analyzing an enormous amount of casino data, and such data is difficult to obtain. 

15.4 IS CHANNELING REAL?

Channeling is the claim that a departed spirit, or other non-physical entity, can speak or act through a sensitive person. In the late 1800s, this was called mediumship; similar claims of communicating with departed spirits can be found throughout history and across most cultures. Some researchers believe that cases of exceptional prodigies, like Mozart in music, or Ramanujan in mathematics, provide evidence of genuine channeling. 

While some of the material supposedly channeled by departed spirits, or other-worldly beings, is clearly nonsense, other works have inspired large numbers of people and serve as continuing sources of illumination. Revealed religions, and some visionary experiences, for example, are versions of channeled information. However, whether the information came from a genuinely paranormal source, or from the channeller's unconscious, is a perennial topic of debate. 

15.5 ARE LARGE-SCALE PK EFFECTS, LIKE LEVITATION, REAL?

Throughout history there have been many reports of spectacular events, such as individuals levitating, holy people materializing objects out of thin air, and people who are able to move, bend or break objects without touching them. Unfortunately, in most cases individuals who make such claims hope to capitalize on their "abilities." Because the potential for fraud is high, and it is relatively easy to create convincing effects that closely mimic paranormal ones (with conjuring techniques), trustworthy evidence for such large-scale effects is very poor. There are a few cases of apparently genuine movement of small objects, but in general the existence of large-scale, or macro-PK, is still open to serious question. 

16 WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF PARAPSYCHOLOGY?

Note: This history is limited to an outline of a subset of English-language developments in parapsychology. As an ancient, cross-cultural phenomenon, psi has been studied by many groups, and in many ways, throughout history. 

1880
Parapsychology, as practiced in the Western world, grew out of a serious, scientific interest in Spiritualism in the late 1800s in Great Britain and the United States. The (British) Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in 1882, and the American Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1885, were created by leading scientists of the day to study mediums who claimed they could contact the dead or produce other psychic effects. Much of the early evidence was descriptive and anecdotal, including reports of precognitive dreams, descriptions of table levitations, accounts of ghost sightings, and so on. Some members of the Societies for Psychical Research attempted to test the phenomena claimed by physical mediums using special instruments they designed. Some of the case studies and books published by members of these societies, most notably the work by Frederic Myers in the UK, and William James in the USA, are enduring classics. 

1900 to 1960s
In 1917, J. E. Coover, a psychologist at Stanford University, was one of the first investigators to apply experimental techniques to study psi abilities in the laboratory. But it was not until 1927 that a new era for psi research was established by biologist J. B. Rhine. Rhine and his colleagues developed original experimental techniques and helped popularize the terms "ESP" and "parapsychology." Rhine's lab at Duke University (Durham, North Carolina), initially part of the Psychology Department, developed a world-wide reputation for pioneering and scientifically sound psi research. In 1935, Rhine created the first academically-based, independent parapsychology laboratory at Duke University. His best-known research involved ESP testing using special cards and PK tests using dice. In 1965, Rhine retired from Duke and moved his lab off-campus. Today, Rhine's legacy, the Rhine Research Center's Institute for Parapsychology actively conducts psi research with Richard Broughton at the helm. 

1960s
Interest in parapsychology exploded in the 1960s, resulting in the establishment of the following programs: William G. Roll founded the Psychical Research Foundation in North Carolina, USA. Roll is best known for his studies on poltergeist and haunting phenomena. Roll is currently active in psi research in Georgia. 

Ian Stevenson began a Division of Parapsychology as part of the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Virginia Medical School. Stevenson emphasized research on spontaneous cases, including precognitive dreams and telepathic impressions, and is best known for pioneering work in survival-related phenomena, primary reincarnation- type cases in children from countries like India, Burma and Thailand. The Division is now called the Division of Personality Studies, and Stevenson is actively engaged in research. 

Karlis Osis became the Chester Carlson Research Fellow at the American Society for Psychical Research, in New York City. Osis conducted research on OBEs, survey research on beliefs and attitudes, case studies of apparitions, and is perhaps best known for his original work on deathbed visions. Osis is now retired. 

Parapsychological research began in the Psychology Department at the University of Edinburgh by John Beloff. In 1985 the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology was established in the department, from a bequest from the author, Arthur Koestler, and his wife, Cynthia. Prof. Robert L. Morris is the first holder of this chair. Morris, his research team and postgraduate students are actively pursuing an approach to parapsychology that emphasizes the understanding and facilitation of psi interactions. For more information, see Koestler Parapsychology Unit

A major research program was established by Montague Ullman and Stanley Krippner at the Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, USA. This team, which later included Charles Honorton, is best known for their work in dream telepathy. As the Maimonides program wound down in 1979, Charles Honorton opened a new lab, called the Psychophysical Research Laboratories, in Princeton, New Jersey, USA. Honorton's lab, which continued operating until 1989, was best known for research on telepathy in the ganzfeld, micro-PK tests, and meta-analytic work. Krippner is currently engaged in active research at the Saybrook Institute, San Francisco, CA. Honorton tragically died in 1993 while pursuing a PhD in parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh. 

Charles Tart, a professor of psychology best known for his pioneering work on altered states of consciousness, taught and conducted parapsychological research at the University of California, Davis. He is retired from the University now, and conducts teaching and research at, among other places, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, in Palo Alto, CA. 

1970s
In 1972, a major psi research effort began at the California think-tank, SRI International, in Menlo Park, California, USA (formerly called Stanford Research Institute). The program was established by physicists Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ; later physicist Edwin May joined the team. The SRI program concentrated on remote viewing research (and coined the term). May took over the program in 1985 when Puthoff left for another position. When May left SRI International in 1989, he reestablished a similar program in the Palo Alto-based Cognitive Sciences Laboratory of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). That program is still engaged in research and is best known for using sophisticated technologies, like magnetoencephalographs to study brain function while individuals perform psi tasks. The Laboratory also develops theoretical models of micro-PK and approaches remote viewing research primarily from the "physicalist" perspective. 

Also in 1979, another psi research program began in Princeton, New Jersey, within the School of Engineering at Princeton University. This was founded by Robert Jahn, then the Dean of the School of Engineering. The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR Laboratory) lab is still conducting research, and is best known for its massive databases on micro-PK tests, PK tests involving other physical systems, its "precognitive remote perception" experiments, and its theoretical work attempting to link metaphors of quantum mechanics to psi functioning. 

1990s
In late 1993, Dean Radin established the Consciousness Research Division, a psi research program within the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The lab conducts basic and applied research on psi effects. 

In 1995, Richard Wiseman began a psi research program began at the Department of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire, UK, and Susan Blackmore began a similar program at the Department of Psychology, the University of West England, in Bristol, UK. 

17 ARE THERE ANY PSI RESEARCH EXPERIMENTS ACCESSIBLE OVER THE NET?

Yes. Psi experiments on the Web are currently running at the University of Amsterdam, see Anomalous Cognition, and at the Consciousness Research Laboratory, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

18 WHERE ARE THE ACTIVE PSI RESEARCH FACILITIES?

19 WHO ARE THE MAJOR CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS FAQ?
  • Editor, Dean Radin, Ph.D., Consciousness Research Division, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV, USA 
  • Carlos Alvarado, MS., University of Edinburgh, Scotland 
  • Dick Bierman, Ph.D., Anomalous Cognition, University of Amsterdam 
  • Topher Cooper, BSc., Voice Processing Corporation, Cambridge, MA, USA 
  • Edwin May, Ph.D., Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, Palo Alto, CA, USA 
  • Roger Nelson, Ph.D., PEAR Laboratory, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA 
  • Ephraim Schechter, Ph.D., University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA 
  • James Spottiswoode, BSc., James Spottiswoode & Assoc., CA 
  • Charles Tart, Ph.D., University of California, Davis (Emeritus), CA, USA 
General Disclaimer: All contributions to this FAQ are personal opinions and do not reflect or imply official positions of any organizations, companies, or universities.

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Copyright © 1997 Dean Radin

Reprinted with permission.