Parapsychology Essay

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The field of parapsychology, or the scientific study of scientifically paranormal claims, dates back to the creation of the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882 (the American Society for Psychical Research, today called the Parapsychological Association, followed in 1885). Belief in the phenomena they attempt to study appears to be as old as humanity itself. Most believers in the paranormal, including the scientists who study it, have become convinced through distinctly nonscientific evidence, including anomalous personal experiences, anecdotes, and folklore, along with credulous television coverage and books. The ultimate goal of parapsychologists is to establish credible, replicable evidence that such phenomena are real and to describe the conditions under which they occur, through application of the scientific method.

The set of phenomena of interest is referred to by many names, including psi powers, psychic phenomena, paranormal abilities, and the most popular of all, extrasensory perception (ESP). This last one is of special interest to psychologists, as perception is typically defined as the brain’s cognitive processing of information received from the senses. Perception is therefore sensory by definition. Ordinarily, the only circumstances under which perception occurs in the absence of sensory input would involve either hallucination or direct stimulation of the brain. This is one of the things that makes psychic research both fascinating and frustrating: if parapsychologists are able to establish convincingly that these phenomena occur, then much of what is known about how the human brain functions (to say nothing of the rest of the physical world, including the basic laws of physics) must be, at best, incomplete and obsolete and, at worst, just plain wrong.

The alleged phenomena include the following:

  • Telepathy—The ability to send or receive information without using the usual sensory apparatus (speaking, hearing, seeing, etc.). Also colloquially referred to as mind reading. Anecdotal evidence abounds for telepathy, as when one “knows” who is calling when the telephone rings, or two close friends or relatives say the same thing at the exact same time (more parsimonious, but far less exciting, explanations exist for these situations). A demonstration used by self-proclaimed psychics that has been repeatedly tested by parapsychologists involves remote viewing, in which the “sender” travels to a remote (and unknown to the receiver) location and proceeds to concentrate on a landmark, picture, or other stimulus. The “receiver” attempts to form a mental impression of what the sender is seeing, then draws or describes it. Under loose testing conditions, remote viewing demonstrations are often successful; under conditions that have been set up to exclude various other ways of accomplishing the feat (several are well known among stage magicians), success is quite rare.
  • Clairvoyance—Knowing information without resorting to ordinary perception, memory, or inference. Again, anecdotes abound about this sort of thing, and it is what dowsers claim to be able to do: detect water or minerals underground, often guided by a gently held stick or other device. Many laboratory experiments have attempted to demonstrate clairvoyance, usually requiring the subjects to detect the identity of a hidden target object, frequently a card.
  • Psychokinesis—Sometimes referred to as “mind over matter,” this is the ability to use the mind to cause physical movement or changes in other objects. Previously known as telekinesis, the term fell into such disrepute in the early days of psychic research, thanks to the many fraudulent manifestations produced by spirit mediums, that psychokinesis is now the preferred term.
  • Precognition—Knowledge of events in advance of their occurrence, again without the usual means of acquisition. Stories of prophecy abound in religion, mythology, and folklore, and so many people are certainly prepared to believe that such a phenomenon exists. As with other psychic gifts, this one has not been reliably manifested by anyone under controlled conditions.
  • Spirit Mediumship—Some practitioners, known as mediums, claim to obtain their extrasensory knowledge from the spirits of the deceased. In the early days of the practice, in the late nineteenth century, this information— often spoken by the medium in an eerie voice—was often accompanied by physical manifestations, such as odd sounds, mysteriously floating objects, ectoplasm, and so on (more information follows below), but most current mediums have completely abandoned this approach in favor of a fully vocal approach (see Cold Reading).

The initial burst of interest in scientific study of the paranormal was a direct result of the explosion in popularity of spiritualism, also called spiritism, in late nineteenth-century America and Europe. In spiritualism, which eventually became an organized church based in New England, people interested in communicating with the spirits of the dead would hold séances, in which they would gather about a table in a darkened room, holding hands, and ask the spirits to communicate with them. The response would usually come in the form of mysterious rapping noises. Over time, the phenomena involved in séances grew to include such things as trumpets floating and mysteriously playing in the air, the table rising briefly off the floor, and the production of ectoplasm, or ghost substance, a mysterious shimmering product that the medium would pull from thin air, or sometimes from various body parts, and wave about.

The precise origin of the spiritualist movement, and thus of all subsequent efforts to demonstrate its authenticity, is actually quite well documented. The first séances were held in 1848, in the Hydesville, New York, home of the teenage Fox sisters, Margaret and Kate, who decided to have a bit of fun at their parents’ expense. Margaret had developed the ability to produce loud rapping sounds with her toes, which seemed to be mysterious communications from beyond when performed in a dark room with everyone holding hands on the tabletop. Very soon the Fox sisters were performing séances with a wide range of people, and others followed their lead until people all over Europe and America were communicating with the dead and performing ever more elaborate variations on their initial deception.

Within a few years, some eminent men of science, believing the phenomena to be real, began to investigate the conditions under which they occurred. At the same time, these men also became interested in investigating the claims of mind readers, hypnotists, and fortune tellers. Soon they had formed formal organizations, and their “psychical research” was a respectable and rapidly growing enterprise. Early in their investigations, they began to document a few things about the conditions under which such phenomena seemed more likely to occur. A successful séance, for example, required darkness—the materializations would not occur in a well-lit room, and the spirits would often not communicate at all. The presence of very skeptical people, who might watch very closely, also seemed to make the spirits less likely to turn up.

Over several decades following the Fox sisters’ initial breakthrough, several “superstar” mediums emerged, among them D. D. Home and Eusapia Palladino. These people were very skilled and were thus instrumental in attracting the interest of scientists. They were also frequently caught cheating by such prominent magicians as Houdini, people who tricked others into believing in the improbable for a living, who began to take notice of these competitors who claimed their miracles were real. Houdini made a whole second career of attending séances and exposing fraud therein. He eventually wrote the book A Magician among the Spirits, in which he revealed many of the most widely used tricks. Ectoplasm, for example, was usually cheesecloth coated with luminous paint.

The impact of such exposures on the popularity of the mediums was quite minimal. A common reaction was: “The spirits don’t always respond, so of course they have to cheat sometimes, that doesn’t mean it isn’t real on the other occasions!” This justification continues as a major part of the arsenal of certain psychic performers today. Popularity didn’t wane even when the originator of the movement admitted her fraud. In 1888, forty years after getting it all started, Margaret Fox, by this time a widow, told her story and gave public demonstrations of how the effects were achieved. Nevertheless, the Spiritualist church still exists today and still holds séances, and there are entertainers (such as John Edward and James Van Praagh, see Cold Reading) who have become wealthy by claiming to communicate with the dead, although they have entirely eliminated physical manifestations from their repertoire. Further testament to the continuing popularity of the séance even today is the perennial sales success of the Ouija board, a do-it-yourself spiritualist board game that has been in continuous production since its introduction in 1890.

By the early twentieth century, psychical researchers had largely tired of the mediums and had turned their attention to telepaths and clairvoyants. As their methods became more rigorous and quantitative, and psychologists began to take over a field previously dominated by physical scientists, the new science began to find a home at major universities. Most prominent among the new American researchers was J. B. Rhine, cofounder (in 1934) and director of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, located in North Carolina. It was Rhine who shook off the phrase “psychical research,” with its attendant baggage and coined the new, more scientific-sounding parapsychology to replace it. He also introduced the terms extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, and was easily the most influential of all parapsychologists, both in his methods and in his ability to popularize the field in his books, articles, and lectures.

Rhine founded the Journal of Parapsychology in 1937, thus providing American parapsychologists with a respectable peer-reviewed journal in which to publish their findings. Twenty years later, he was instrumental in founding the Parapsychological Association. He also developed, with his colleague Karl Zener, the most widely used piece of equipment in parapsychology, the Zener cards. The Zener cards are a deck made up of five simple symbols, one on each card: star, circle, square, cross, and wavy lines. The Zener cards were widely used in ESP experiments, in which the participant was required to identify a hidden target card from a set of five known possible targets. In a telepathy experiment, the cards were viewed by a remote person (the sender) who attempted to “transmit” the information to the participant. In a clairvoyance experiment, the participant would simply attempt to identify the order of the cards, without anyone looking at them first.

In 1962, with several decades of research having failed to conclusively demonstrate the existence of any paranormal phenomena, Duke University followed the lead of most other major institutions and quietly distanced itself from parapsychological research. Without the university’s continuing support, Rhine simply moved off campus and founded the Parapsychological Laboratory’s successor, the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, a short distance away in Durham, North Carolina. Although parapsychological research has continued unabated, it has remained marginalized, with very few degree programs in parapsychology still in existence. This has not halted innovation, however— parapsychology has come a long way from card-guessing experiments.

The most highly touted recent parapsychological paradigm is the ganzfeld experiment, pioneered by Charles Honorton in the 1970s, and widely regarded by parapsychologists as the best evidence for paranormal ability so far. The word ganzfeld means “total field” in German, and is used to refer to a technique of sensory deprivation that creates an absolutely uniform visual field. The usual procedure involves taping halves of ping-pong balls over the experimental subject’s eyes.

A bright light is then pointed at the eyes, creating a visual field without discontinuities. In addition to the bright light, the subject usually wears headphones playing pleasant noise, such as the sound of surf. Parapsychologists believe the pleasant, relaxed state thus produced is highly conducive to the reception of psychic signals. After the subject (receiver) has spent about fifteen minutes in this state, a sender is given a target image, randomly selected from four possible pictures, which were in turn randomly selected from a larger pool of possibilities.

The sender concentrates on the picture for a prearranged interval, while the receiver, in a soundproof room, freely describes all mental impressions that occur during this period. At the end of the session the receiver selects from the four the picture that best matches his impressions. Over a large number of trials, the receiver could expect to get 25 percent correct by chance. An actual rate of correct responses significantly above this level is assumed to be evidence of ESP. Honorton and others have claimed success rates in some experiments as high as 55 percent, but various psychologists (most notably Ray Hyman) have written extensive critiques faulting both the methodology and the statistical techniques involved. Similar experiments on psychokinesis, involving attempts to influence the activity of random number generators, have met with a similarly chilly reception.

The essential problem is that a large portion of the scientific community, including most research psychologists, regards parapsychology as a pseudoscience, due largely to its failure to move on beyond null results in the way science usually does. Ordinarily, when experimental evidence fails repeatedly to support a hypothesis, that hypothesis is abandoned. Within parapsychology, however, more than a century of experimentation has failed even to conclusively demonstrate the mere existence of paranormal phenomena, yet parapsychologists continue to pursue that elusive goal (see also Memory, Past-Life Regression).


  1. Hyman, R. The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989;
  2. Wolman, B. B., ed. Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.

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