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The term parapsychology refers to the scientific study of certain paranormal phenomena, referred to as "Psi" phenomena. The scientific reality of parapsychological phenomena and the validity of scientific parapsychological research is a matter of frequent dispute and criticism. The field is regarded by some critics as a pseudoscience. Parapsychologists, in turn, say that parapsychological research is scientifically rigorous. Despite the controversy, a number of organizations and academic programs have been created to conduct research into the existence, nature, and frequency of occurrence of such phenomena. Thus, while the explanation of such phenomena still eludes scientific understanding, the possibility that human beings may have senses beyond the known physical senses that allow communication of information is recognized as worthy of study.



The term parapsychology refers to the scientific study of certain paranormal phenomena. Coined in German by psychologist Max Dessoir in 1889, the term was adopted into English by researcher J. B. Rhine, and has largely superseded the older expression, "psychical research." In contemporary research, the term "parapsychology" refers to the study of Psi, a blanket term used by parapsychologists to denote paranormal processes or causation.[1]

The types of anomalies studied by parapsychology fall into three main categories:

  • Physical Phenomena: This category includes unusual physical occurrences, such as psychokinesis (often referred to as telekinesis), poltergeists, materializations, and bio-PK (direct mental interactions with living systems). These types of phenomena involve the mind influencing its physical surroundings as well as physical manifestations from unknown sources.
  • Survival Phenomena: Survival phenomena deal with the survival of consciousness after physical death. Included in this category are ghosts, out-of-body experiences (OBEs) (also known as astral projections), reincarnation, and near-death experiences (NDEs).

While these three categories are common, individual organizations may have their own standards for determining the scope of parapsychology. Additionally, subjects may fall into different categories for different researchers. For example, some parapsychologists believe that ghosts are evidence of the survival of consciousness, but others believe them to be psychic impressions left by living people. There are also a number of paranormal topics that are considered by most to be out of the scope of parapsychology, such as Bigfoot and other legendary creatures, which fall within the purview of cryptozoology.


Early psychical research

Parapsychology has a rich history dating back to at least the 1800s in both the United Kingdom and the United States. While psi phenomena were certainly observed throughout most of human history, it was not until during the Spiritualist Movement of the mid-nineteenth century that researchers first began to take an significant interest in psychic phenomena.

Before the Spiritualist Movement, there had been some investigation into psi phenomena by the followers of Franz Anton Mesmer, who believed that forces he termed "animal magnetism" could be manipulated to heal illness. In the 1780s, one of Mesmer's followers, the Marquis de Puységur, discovered a state he termed "experimental somnambulism" (later termed "hypnosis") in those that he had attempted to "magnetize." While in this state, patients demonstrated telepathic abilities, vision with the fingertips, and clairvoyance.[2] It should be noted that the early magnetists believed that the telepathy and clairvoyance demonstrated by the entranced subjects had a physiological cause, and were not paranormal in nature.[3]

With the Spiritualist Movement came an influx of purported psychic phenomena. Mediumship was nearly ubiquitous throughout England, parts of Europe, and the United States, and prominent members of the scientific community began to investigate the validity of such phenomena. The early psychical researchers concerned themselves with studying mediums and other spiritualist claims. The need for a learned, scientific society to study psychic phenomena started to become evident, and in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London. Similar societies were soon set up in most other countries in Europe as well as the American SPR in the United States, founded with the support of William James. While most of the early SPR research had an anecdotal flavor, where experiments involved testing the abilities of specific mediums and other "gifted individuals" with claimed psychic abilities, there were some probabilistic experiments involving card guessing and dice throwing. However, it was not until the efforts of J. B. Rhine and his colleagues in the 1930s that the term "parapsychology" began to replace the term "psychical research," and concerted efforts were made to adopt scientific methodology.

Parapsychology as scientific inquiry

Although parapsychology has its roots in earlier field research, such as the work of Sir Oliver Lodge in England, the experiments by J. B. Rhine at Duke University are often thought of as the beginning of parapsychology as a science. Rhine is perhaps best known for his methodology of using card-guessing and dice-rolling experiments in the laboratory in an attempt to find a statistical validation of extra-sensory perception.[4] This type of experimental approach has characterized much of contemporary parapsychology. Rhine also popularized the term "extra-sensory perception" (ESP).[5]

The so called "Rhine revolution" attempted to accomplish several things. Not only did Rhine attempt to provide parapsychology with a systematic, "progressive" program of sound experimentation, which would characterize the conditions and extent of psi phenomena rather than merely trying to prove their existence, but he also wanted to give the field of parapsychology academic and scientific legitimacy. Rhine helped form the first long-term university laboratory devoted to parapsychology in the Duke University Laboratory, and later founded the independent Rhine Research Center. As a result of Rhine's work, much of experimental parapsychology today is geared toward "ordinary people" as subjects rather than a few select mediums or "gifted psychics." Rhine also helped found the Journal of Parapsychology in 1937, which has remained one of the most respected journals in the field, and the Parapsychological Association in 1957, an association that was accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1969.

During the 1970s, a number of other notable parapsychological organizations were formed, including the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (1970), the Institute of Parascience (1971), the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, the Institute for Noetic Sciences (1973), and the International Kirlian Research Association (1975). Each of these groups performed experiments on paranormal subjects to varying degrees. Parapsychological work was also conducted at the Stanford Research Institute during this time.

With the increase in parapsychological investigation, there came an increase in organized opposition to both the findings of parapsychologists and to granting of any formal recognition of the field. Criticisms of the field were focused in the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in 1976, now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and its periodical, Skeptical Inquirer. CSI continues to review parapsychological work and raise objections where it is felt necessary.

Experimental research and methodology

Some of the first studies in what would be later termed ESP were conducted by William Barrett in 1881, shortly before he assisted in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research. Barrett investigated the case of the five Creery sisters, who were between the ages of ten and seventeen and could apparently use telepathy to psychically identify an object that had been selected in their absence. After sending one sister out of the room, Barrett would write the name of an object on a piece of paper, which he would then show to the remaining sisters. The first girl was then called back in, and usually correctly guessed the name of the object. Later, a second set of experiments was done involving playing cards. It was not until after the investigators had published their results that it was discovered that the girls had used a number of signals, including slight head movements and coughing, to tell their sister what to guess, thereby nullifying the results of the experiments.[6]

Zener cards

In the 1920s, investigator G. N. M. Tyrrell created automated devices to randomize target selection, and others experimented with drawings or token objects. The most well-known results, however, were not until the 1930s, when Rhine began his series of experiments. To test ESP, Rhine would use decks of Zener cards, consisting of five different designs. In some experiments, cards were laid face down for the subject to guess, to test clairvoyance; in others, the researcher would hold the card so only he could see it, to test telepathy. Because of the laws of chance, it would be expected that participants would be able to guess one out of five symbols correctly, but Rhine found that subjects often exceeded these expectations, even if it was only by a small percentage.

Participant in a Ganzfeld Experiment which proponents say may show evidence of telepathy.

In the 1970s, parapsychologists began using ganzfeld tests to test for ESP ability. Ganzfeld tests attempt to test for telepathy by separating two individuals into isolated rooms, where one attempts to send a telepathic image to the other. The sender of the message is generally shown either a still image or a short video clip, which they then attempt to send to the receiver. The receiver sits in a comfortable reclining chair under a red light, wearing headphones that play white noise or pink noise, and with their eyes covered with halves of ping pong balls. These conditions help the receiver enter what is termed the "ganzfeld state," a trance-like state similar to being in a sensory deprivation chamber. After the sender has attempted to send the image for a set amount of time (generally 20 to 40 minutes), the receiver is asked to choose the correct image out of a group of four images. Parapsychologists collected the results of approximately 700 individual ganzfeld sessions performed by about two dozen investigators, and claimed the correct image was selected 34 percent of the time.[7] This increase above the 25 percent that would be expected from chance alone has been cited as proof of the existence of telepathy, although critics point out numerous ways in which ganzfeld experiments may be flawed.

Researchers have found that ESP abilities are apparently heightened under hypnosis. The results of experiments have been found to be consistently higher when subjects are put into trance than when they retain normal consciousness. Since hypnosis typically involves relaxation and suggestion in an atmosphere of friendliness and trust, it is thought that perhaps one of these factors, or a combination thereof, may be responsible for heightened psi scores.[8]

The absence of psi ability is also sometimes considered significant. Researchers employ the term "psi-missing" to denote situations where the subject consistently scores below what would be expected by chance. According to experimental results, believers in psi tend to score higher, whereas skeptics often score significantly below chance. This phenomenon, referred to as the "Sheep-goat effect" (where believers are "sheep" and non-believers are "goats"), has been observed by many researchers. This phenomenon lends itself to the idea that one's attitudes may affect one's reality; disbelievers may create a void of psi experiences, while believers experience the opposite.[9]

Computers are often used in testing for abilities like psychokinesis, where subjects attempt to influence the output of random number generators. Computers can help rule out a number of possible corruptions of methodology that can occur with human administration of tests. Despite controversy over parapsychological work, new experiments and a refinement of older methodologies continue in the field.

Criticism and debate

Many professional scientists study parapsychological phenomena. It is an interdisciplinary field, attracting psychologists, physicists, engineers, and biologists, as well as those from other sciences. Despite this, parapsychology is often accused of being pseudoscience. Skeptical scholars like Raymond Hyman and James E. Alcock have pointed out several problems with viewing parapsychology as a true science.

One of the most glaring problems facing parapsychologists is the fact that few psi experiments can be replicated. Parapsychologists argue that psi phenomena are indeed real, but do not lend themselves to experimental replication. Hyman also points out that, unlike every other branch of science, parapsychology has a shifting, rather than cumulative, database. Historical experiments and results are often discarded and found not to be valid. Some, like the case of the telepathic Creery sisters, were proven to be fraud, while others are considered to have had flawed methodology. Unlike other sciences, parapsychology relies heavily on "statistical inference" to prove its case. In other sciences, slight deviations from chance that follow no set pattern or rules and cannot be reliably replicated are usually abandoned.[10]

Noted skeptic James E. Alcock also questioned the significance of such deviations from chance, suggesting that there is a logical fallacy in assuming that significant departures from the laws of chance are automatically evidence that something paranormal has occurred.[11]

Proponents of parapsychology counter these arguments suggesting that several branches of science are based on the observation of unexplainable anomalies, including quantum mechanics. Utts has argued that parapsychology does, in fact, build upon previous experiments, learning from them and using that knowledge to design better experiments. Additionally, the statistical nature of psi experiments is more similar to the connection of cigarette smoking to lung cancer; a result that would also be impossible to "replicate" in an individual experiment.[12]

Parapsychological journals and research centers

There exist numerous journals and research centers whose aim is to further developments in the field of parapsychology. Among the peer-reviewed journals dealing with parapsychology are the The Journal of Parapsychology, the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, the European Journal of Parapsychology, the International Journal of Parapsychology, and the Journal of Scientific Exploration.

There are also numerous research centers, both independent and affiliated with universities worldwide.[13]

Independent research organizations

University research organizations


  1. Parapsychological Association, Glossary of Key Words Frequently Used in Parapsychology. Retrieved May 1, 2007
  2. Luiz Saraiva, Bibliography of Scientific Research on the Spirit Phenomena (GEAE June 1998). Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  3. The Mystic, Mesmerism. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
  4. J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology (Gale Research, 1996). ISBN 081035487X
  5. Parapsychological Association, Glossary of Parapsychological Terms. Retrieved May 4, 2007.
  6. Harry Price, The Story of ESP. Retrieved April 26, 2007.
  7. Dean Radin, Parapsychology FAQ: Part 2. Retrieved April 26, 2007.
  8. Jeffrey Mishlove, Extrasensory Perception (ESP). Retrieved April 26, 2007.
  9. Mario Varvoglis, The Sheep-Goat Effect. Retrieved April 26, 2007.
  10. Ray Hyman, Evaluation of Program on Anomalous Mental Phenomena. Retrieved May 7, 2007
  11. Robert Todd Carroll, Psi Assumption. Retrieved May 7, 2007
  12. Jessica Utts, Response to Ray Hyman's Report. Retrieved May 7, 2007.
  13. Koestler Parapsychology Unit, Research Centres. Retrieved May 8, 2007.


  • Alcock, James E. 1981. Parapsychology: Science or Magic? Pergamon Press. ISBN 0-08-025773-9
  • Beloff, John. 1993. Parapsychology: A Concise History. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-09611-9
  • Blum, Deborah. 2006. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death. Penguin. ISBN 1-59420-090-4
  • Broughton, Richard S. 1991. Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-35638-1
  • Charpak, Georges, Henri Broch, and Bart K. Holland. 2004. Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience. Johns Hopkins University. ISBN 0-8018-7867-5
  • Edge, Hoyt L., Robert L. Morris, Joseph H. Rush, and John Palmer. 1986. Foundations of Parapsychology: Exploring the Boundaries of Human Capability. Routledge Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710202261
  • Flew, Antony (ed). 1987. Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-385-4
  • Hyman, Ray. 1989. The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-504-0
  • Kurtz, Paul. 1985. A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-300-5
  • Milbourne, Christopher. 1970. ESP, Seers & Psychics: What the Occult Really Is. Thomas Y. Crowell Co. ISBN 0-690-26815-7
  • Mishlove, Jeffrey. [1975] 1997. Roots of Consciousness: Psychic Liberation Through History Science and Experience. Marlowe & Co. ISBN 0-394-73115-8
  • Radin, Dean. 1997. The Conscious Universe. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-251502-0
  • Radin, Dean. 2006. Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. Paraview Pocket Books. ISBN 1416516778
  • Roach, Mary. 2005. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Norton 2005. ISBN 0393059626
  • Sudre, Rene. 1960. Parapsychology. New York: Citadel Press.
  • White, John, ed. 1974. Psychic Exploration: A Challenge for Science. Edgar D. Mitchell and G. P. Putman. ISBN 0399113428
  • Wolman, Benjamin B., ed. 1977. Handbook of Parapsychology. Van Nostrand Reinhold. ISBN 0-442-29576-6

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