Frequently Asked Questions about Parapsychology

Last update: July 28, 1995





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 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 )
or see the Consciousness Research Laboratory home page.

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:

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.

Version 1.4: July 28, 1995

Copyright 1995 Dean Radin PARAPSYCHOLOGY FAQ2

8 WHAT ARE THE MAJOR RESEARCH APPROACHES?

As in any multidisciplinary domain, there are many ways of conducting research. The five main methods used in parapsychology are:

(1) Scholarly research, including discussion of philosophical issues and historical surveys. (2) Analytical research, including statistical analysis of large databases. (3) Case studies, including in-depth studies of personal psi experiences, field investigations, and comparisons of cross-cultural beliefs and practices related to psi. (4) Theoretical research, including mathematical, descriptive and phenomenological models of psi. (5) Experimental research, including laboratory studies of psi effects.

Although all five of these approaches contribute to the field, today the primary source of "hard evidence" in parapsychology is controlled laboratory experiments. By applying the exacting standards of scientific method, researchers over the past six decades have developed an increasingly persuasive database for certain types of psi phenomena.

Several major experimental designs have been developed during this time, and a select few experiments have now been repeated hundreds of times by dozens of researchers, world-wide. Sometimes these experiments are conducted as strict replications, but more often they are conceptually similar experiments that add controls or extend the range of questions addressed.

9 WHAT ARE THE MAJOR PSI EXPERIMENTS TODAY?

Through popular books and portrayals of parapsychology in movies like "Ghostbusters," many people assume that psi experimenters today primarily use "ESP cards." This is a deck of 25 cards, with five repetitions of five cards showing symbols of a square, circle, wavy line, cross, or star. Such cards were developed and used extensively in early psi experiments primarily by J. B. Rhine and his colleagues from the 1930's through the 1960's. ESP cards provided persuasive evidence for ESP, but today they are rarely used by professionals. Four of the most prolific and persuasive of the current experiments are the following:

9.1 PK ON RANDOM NUMBER GENERATORS

Click here for more information on PK.

The advent of electronic and computer technologies has allowed researchers to develop highly automated experiments studying the interaction between mind and matter. In one such experiment, a Random Number Generator (RNG) based on electronic or radioactive noise produces a data stream that is recorded and analysed by computer software.

In the typical RNG experiment, a subject attempts to mentally change the distribution of the random numbers, usually in an experimental design that is functionally equivalent to getting more "heads" than "tails" while flipping a coin. Of course the electronic, computerized experiment has many advantages over earlier research using, e.g., tossed coins or dice. In the RNG experiment, great flexibility is combined with careful scientific control and a high rate of data acquisition.

A meta-analysis of the database, published in 1989, examined 800 experiments by more than 60 researchers over the preceding 30 years. The effect size was found to be very small, but remarkably consistent, resulting in an overall statistical deviation of approximately 15 standard errors from a chance effect. The probability that the observed effect was actually zero (i.e., no psi) was less than one part in a trillion, verifying that human consciousness can indeed affect the behavior of a random physical system. Furthermore, while experimental quality had significantly increased over time, this was uncorrelated with the effect size, in contradiction to a frequent, but apparently unfounded skeptical criticism.

9.2 PK ON LIVING SYSTEMS

This has also been called bio-PK, and more recently some researchers refer to it as Direct Mental Interactions with Living Systems (DMILS). The ability to monitor internal functions of the body, including nervous system activity using EEG and biofeedback technologies, has provided an opportunity to ask whether biological systems may also be affected by intention in a manner similar to PK on RNGs.

A DMILS experiment that has been particularly successful is one that looks at the commonly reported "feeling of being stared at." The "starer" and the "staree" are isolated in different locations, and the starer is periodically asked to simply gaze at the staree via closed circuit video links. Meanwhile the staree's nervous system activity is automatically and continuously monitored. The cumulative database on this and similar DMILS experiments provides strong evidence that one person's attention directed towards a remote, isolated person, can significantly activate or calm that person's nervous system, according to the instructions given to the starer.

9.3 ESP IN THE GANZFELD

ganzfeld ("whole field") technique was developed to quiet this external noise by providing a mild, unpatterned sensory field to mask the noise of the outside world. In the typical ganzfeld experiment, the telepathic "sender" and "receiver" are isolated, the receiver is put into the ganzfeld state, and the sender is shown a video clip or still picture and asked to mentally send that image to the receiver.

The receiver, while in the ganzfeld, is asked to continuously report aloud all mental processes, including images, thoughts, feelings. At the end of the sending period, typically about 20 to 40 minutes in length, the receiver is taken out of the ganzfeld, and shown four images or videos, one of which is the true target and three are non-target decoys. The receiver attempts to select the true target, using perceptions experienced during the ganzfeld state as clues to what the mentally "sent" image might have been. With no telepathy, chance expectation allows us to predict that the correct target would be selected about 1 in 4 times, for a 25% "hit rate." After scores of such experiments, presently totalling about 700 individual sessions conducted by about two dozen investigators, world-wide, the results show that the target image is selected on average 34% of the time. This is a highly significant result, suggesting that telepathy, at least as operationally defined in this experiment, exists.

9.4 REMOTE VIEWING

The ganzfeld technique indicates that information can be exchanged mentally after the receiver is placed in an altered state of consciousness (the ganzfeld). The remote viewing experiment, in one of its many forms, investigates whether information can be gained without requiring a special altered state, and without a sender. For example, in one type of remote viewing experiment, a pool of several hundred photographs are created. One of these is randomly selected by a third party to be the target, and it is set aside in a remote location. The experimental participant then attempts to sketch or otherwise describe that remote target photo. This is repeated for a total of say, 7 different targets. Many ways of evaluating the results of this test have been developed, including some highly sophisticated methods. One common (and easy) method is to take the group of seven target photos and responses, randomly shuffle the targets and responses, and then ask independent judges to rank order or match the correct targets with the participant's actual responses. If there was real transfer of information, the responses should correspond more closely to the correct targets than to the mismatched targets.

Several thousand such trials have been conducted by dozens of investigators over the past 25 years, involving hundreds of participants. The cumulative database strongly indicates that information about remote photos, actual scenes, and events can be perceived. Some of these experiments have also been used to successfully study precognition by having a participant describe a photo that would be randomly selected in the future.

9.5 TECHNICAL NOTE: METHODOLOGY

Parapsychology uses methods commonly employed in other scientific disciplines. Laboratory studies use research methods from psychology, biology and physics. Field research uses methods from sociology and anthropology. There are plenty of textbooks on research methods in these fields, and we won't attempt to summarize them here.

What's special about parapsychology is the need to pay very close attention to "conventional" explanations. This is because we've defined psi phenomena as exchanges of information that do not involve currently known (i.e., conventional) processes. For instance, we talk about "ESP" when people know about things going on in their environment without getting the information by seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or through any other known sensory input, or without being able to figure out the "target" information. We talk about "PK" when physical systems appear to react to people's intentions and there's no known physical contact between the person and the "target." Words like "without," and phrases like "no known," show up a great deal in descriptions of psi phenomena.

Therefore, an important part of parapsychological research is eliminating known contact methods from laboratory setups and thinking carefully about them when evaluating reports of people's experiences. In ESP research, this requires knowing about the psychology of sensation, perception, memory, thinking, and communication, and about the biology and physics of sensation and movement. In PK studies, it is important to know about the physical characteristics of the "target," how it works, and what might affect it. In field studies, and in most laboratory studies, it's important to know about the ways in which people can interact with each other. Of course, in field studies it is much more difficult to eliminate conventional explanations than it is in the laboratory because you can't set things up beforehand to eliminate conventional contact between the people and the "targets."

Even when known contact methods are well controlled or eliminated, there is always the possibility that what we observe could have occurred by chance. That is, a person's apparent ESP knowledge about some distant event might be a random guess that just happens to resemble the target. Or, what looks like a PK effect on a physical system might be a random change in that system that just happens to occur at the right time. So it's important to know the statistical methods used to measure how likely it is that the event could have occurred by chance, and how to decide when that's so unlikely that it makes more sense to think there really was some kind of psi contact.

Sometimes field research is not concerned with whether the experiences people report were really psi phenomena, but instead asks questions like, "What do people report about experiences they think were psi?", "How does having these experiences affect their lives?", and "Do people's psychological or cultural characteristics influence how likely they are to interpret experiences as psi?" This is straightforward anthropological, sociological, or psychological research and does not require the same kind of strict attention to eliminating conventional explanations. The value of field research methods is that they investigate the experiences that people actually report. These include experiences such as precognitive dreams, out-of-body experiences, telepathic impressions, auras, memories of previous lives, hauntings and poltergeists and apparitions. Research on these issues results in information about incidence, phenomenology, demographic and psychological correlates of the experiences.

While field or spontaneous case research is less technical, and often more exciting to read, it is wise to avoid jumping to conclusions about the nature of psi from individual cases. Such studies examine how people report or think about their experiences, not what those experiences actually are. However, because spontaneous case studies concentrate on the "raw experience," they offer a valuable view of psi that is often missing in controlled laboratory experiments. Case studies provide a chance to discover the personal meanings and the psychodynamics underlying the experiences, which in turn may provide important hints as to possible mechanisms of psi.

An important goal of laboratory research is to determine the degree to which experiences reported in field and spontaneous-case research can be verified using current scientific methods. If they prove to be verifiable in the lab, the major intent of the lab work usually shifts from "proof-oriented" research to "process-oriented," in which the goal is to discover the psychological, physiological, and physical mechanisms of each phenomenon.

10 WHAT ARE COMMON CRITICISMS AND RESPONSES ABOUT PARAPSYCHOLOGY?

Constructive criticism is essential in science and is welcomed by the majority of active psi researchers. Strong skepticism is expected, and many parapsychologists are far more skeptical about psi than most "outside" scientists realize.

However, it is not generally appreciated that some of the more vocal criticisms about psi are actually "pseudo-criticisms." That is, the more barbed, belligerent criticisms occasionally asserted by some skeptics are often issued from such strongly held, prejudicial positions that the criticisms are not offered as constructive suggestions, but as authoritarian proofs of the impossibility of psi.

It is commonly supposed by non-scientists that skeptical debates over the merits of psi research follow the standards of scholarly discussions. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Disparaging rhetoric and ad hominem attacks arise too often in debates about psi. The social science of parapsychology, and the way that science treats anomalies in general, is a fascinating topic that starkly illuminates the very human side of how science really works. A more complete description of this topic is beyond the scope of this FAQ.

10.1 CRITICISM 1

Criticism: Apparently successful experimental results are actually due to sloppy procedures, poorly trained researchers, methodological flaws, selective reporting, and statistics problems. There is therefore not a shred of scientific evidence for psi phenomena.

Response: These issues have been addressed in detail by meta-analytic reviews of the experimental literature . The results unambiguously demonstrate that successful experiments cannot be explained away by these criticisms. In fact, research by Harvard University specialists in scientific methods showed that the best experimental psi research today is not only conducted according to proper scientific standards, but usually adheres to more rigorous protocols than are found in contemporary research in both the social and physical sciences. In addition, over the years there have been a number of very effective rebuttals of criticisms of individual studies, and within the past decade, experimental procedures have been developed that address virtually all methodological criticisms, even the possibility of fraud and collusion, by including skeptics in the experimental procedures.

10.2 CRITICISM 2

Criticism: Psi phenomena violate basic limiting principles of science, and are therefore impossible.

Response: Twenty years ago, this criticism was a fairly common retort to claims of psi phenomena. Today, with advancements in many scientific disciplines, the scientific worldview is rapidly changing, and the basic limiting principles are constantly being redefined. In addition, the substantial empirical database in parapsychology now presents anomalies that simply won't "go away," thus this criticism is no longer persuasive and is slowly disappearing. Given the rate of change in science today, assigning psi to the realm of the impossible now seems imprudent at best, foolish at worst.

10.3 CRITICISM 3

Criticism: Parapsychology does not have a "repeatable" experiment.

Response: When many people talk about a repeatable psi experiment, they usually have in mind an experiment like those conducted in elementary physics classes to demonstrate the acceleration of gravity, or simple chemical reactions. In such experiments, where there are relatively few, well-known and well-controllable variables, the experiments can be performed by practically anyone, anytime, and they will work. But insisting on this level of repeatability is inappropriate for parapsychology, or for that matter, for most social or behavioral science experiments. Psi experiments usually involve many variables, some of which are poorly understood and difficult or impossible to directly control. Under these circumstances, scientists use statistical arguments to demonstrate "repeatability" instead of the common, but restrictive view that "If it's real, I should be able to do it whenever I want."

Under the assumption that there is no such thing as psi, we would expect that about 5% of well-conducted psi experiments would be declared "successful" (i.e., statistically significant) by pure chance. But suppose that in a series of 100 actual psi experiments we consistently observed that 20 were successful. This is extremely unlikely to occur by chance, suggesting that psi was present in some of those studies. However, it also means that in any particular experiment, there is an 80% probability of "failure." Thus, if a critic set out to repeat a psi experiment to see if the phenomenon was "real," and the experiment failed, it would obviously be incorrect to claim on the basis of that single experiment that psi is not real because it is not repeatable.

A widely accepted method of assessing repeatability in experiments is called meta-analysis. This quantitative technique is heavily used in the social, behavioral and medical sciences to integrate research results of numerous independent experiments. Starting around 1985, meta-analyses have been conducted on numerous types of psi experiments. In many of these analyses, results indicate that the outcomes were not due to chance, or methodological flaws, or selective reporting practices, or any other plausible "normal" explanations. What remains is psi, and in several experimental realms, it has clearly been replicated by independent investigators.

Version 1.4: July 28, 1995

Copyright 1995 Dean Radin PARAPSYCHOLOGY FAQ3

11 WHY IS PARAPSYCHOLOGY 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 instantly dismiss the field as being unworthy of serious study, and thus they are unaware of the existing evidence.

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?

Check here for more references.

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

The major, peer-reviewed parapsychological journals today are the following:

Other journals that have published parapsychological articles include:

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 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, and (c) 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 channelled 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 Laboratory, 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. Others experiments will be running soon from the Consciousness Research Laboratory, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, SAIC.

18 WHERE ARE THE ACTIVE PSI RESEARCH FACILITIES?

19 WHO ARE THE MAJOR CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS FAQ?

General Disclaimer: All contributions to this FAQ are personal opinions and do not reflect or imply official positions of any organizations, companies, or universities.

Send comments or queries to Dean Radin

Version: July 28, 1995

Copyright 1995 Dean Radin