The study of the ability of the mind to perform psychic acts. Psychic phenomena, as the term is applied to the human mind, generally fall into two broad categories: extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK), or PSI, as both are collectively known.
Parapsychology is an outgrowth of the spiritualism movement in the ]ate 1800s in Great Britain and the United States. The British Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, and the American Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1885, both sought to establish whether mediums who conducted spiritualistic seances actually contacted the dead or were merely fakes.
Much of the early evidence cited by psychical societies and others for the existence of psychic phenomena was highly unscientific and anecdotal in nature. They included reports of premonitions and dreams, newspaper stories of spiritualistic levitation, written accounts of ghost sightings, and so on.
More scientifically rigorous investigation using controlled laboratory experiments began in America in 1927, pioneered by the psychologist J. B. Rhine of Duke University in North Carolina. Rhine eventually split with the university psychology department and was allowed to form the first parapsychological laboratory in the country in 1935. Although Rhine was not the first worker in the field to use statistical methods in his investigations, his methodology was regarded as more rigorous and sophisticated than those of earlier investigators. Test subjects were ordinary people, mostly volunteers, not mediums. In a typical clairvoyance experiment, Rhine would seat the test subject in one building and the experimenter in another. The experimenter would shuffle a deck of Zener cards (a specially designed ESP testing deck, each card having one of five boldly printed symbols star, square, circle, plus sign, and three wavy lines). Then the experimenter would draw a card and place it face-down on the table. After a minute the experimenter would repeat the procedure. The subject, who had earlier synchronized watches with the experimenter, would try to guess, minute by minute, which card was lying on the table. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of trials would be made and the results tabulated. Rhine's claims of statistically significant results were controversial, and the experiments often proved unrepeatable repeatability of results being a benchmark of scientific validity. Nevertheless, Rhine's groundbreaking experiments stimulated others to develop more sophisticated testing procedures, and many of the researchers he trained are still active in the field today, mainly in America and Britain.
In the 1960s and 70s interest focused on the psychological processes involved in PSI, with researchers attempting to uncover qualitative information about the psychological state of subjects who supposedly perform well on ESP and PK tests. They claim that subjects who believe in parapsychological phenomena tend to do better on the tests, as do subjects who are given immediate feedback after each guess.
Work has also been performed on subjects in 'altered states' of consciousness, such as under hypnosis, or under the influence of drugs, or in a sensory-deprivation condition called the 'ganzfeld' (see Ganzfeld Stimulation). Others research has focused on the phenomena of remote viewing, the perception of distant objects clairvoyantly or by out-of-body travel.
Most scientists outside of the parapsychological field do not accept the existence of psychic phenomena, although some universities teach parapsychology courses and in 1985 a Chair of Parapsychology was established at Edinburgh University, funded in part by a bequest from the author Arthur Koestler. Parapsychological research has often been attacked by conventional scientists as fraudulent. Rhine himself once discovered that one of his senior researchers had been faking results, and dismissed him.
A more serious charge is that parapsychologists are not well-enough trained to be able to tell when a subject is committing a fraud against them. Parapsychologists claim that such fraud occurs only in an insignificant number of cases. Other critics have charged that in many parapsychological research projects, statistical inferences have been made, experimental design has been shoddy, and data has been misread. A 1988 study by the National Research Council in the United States found that no scientific research conducted in the previous 130 years had proven the existence of parapsychological phenomena, although the council did find probabilistic anomalies in some experiments that could not readily be explained.
Parapsychologists have countered that the study was unfair because the members of the study committee were prejudiced against parapsychology. A final criticism is that for phenomena such as extrasensory perception and psychokinesis to be true, fundamental physical laws would have to be broken. Some parapsychologists adopt the view that psychic phenomena are outside the realm of science, whereas others believe that breakthroughs in quantum physics may one day provide explanations for such phenomena.
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Sources: (1) Dictionary of the Occult, Caxton Publishing; (2) Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, Carol Publishing Group; (3) Shepard, Leslie A and Melton, J. Gordon (Editors), Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Gale Group.
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