Psychical research refers to the investigation of phenomena that appear to be contrary to physical laws and that suggest the
possibility of mental activity existing apart from body.
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882. Its formation was the first systematic effort to organize
scientists and scholars to investigate paranormal phenomena. Early membership included philosophers, scholars, scientists,
educators and politicians, such as Henry Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour, William Crookes, Rufus Osgood Mason and Charles Richet (l-
Areas of study included telepathy, hypnotism, Reichenbach's phenomena, apparitions, hauntings, and the physical aspects of
Spiritualism such as table-tilting, materialization and apportation. The Society for Psychical Research published a Census of
Hallucinations, which researched apparitional experiences and hallucinations in the sane. The census was the Society's first
attempt at a statistical evaluation of paranormal phenomena, and the resulting publication in 1886, Phantasms of the Living is
still widely referenced in parapsychological literature today. The SPR became the model for similar societies in other European
countries and the United States during the late 19th century.
Early clairvoyance experiments were reported in 1884 by Charles Richet. Playing cards were enclosed in envelopes and a
subject put under hypnosis attempted to identify them. The subject was reported to have been successful in a series of 133
trials but the results dropped to chance level when performed before a group of scientists in Cambridge. J. M. Peirce and E. C.
Pickering reported a similar experiment in which they tested 36 subjects over 23,384 trials which did not obtain above chance
Largely due to the support of psychologist William James, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) opened its
doors in Boston in 1885, moving to New York City in 1905 under the leadership of James H. Hyslop. The SPR and ASPR
continue research in parapsychology.
In 1911, Stanford University became the first academic institution in the United States to study extrasensory perception
(ESP) and psychokinesis (PK) in a laboratory setting. The effort was headed by psychologist John Edgar Coover, and was
supported by funds donated by Thomas Welton Stanford, brother of the university's founder. In 1930, Duke University became
the second major U.S. academic institution to engage in the critical study of ESP and psychokinesis in the laboratory. Under the
guidance of psychologist William McDougall, and with the help of others in the department—including psychologists Karl Zener,
Joseph B. Rhine, and Louisa E. Rhine—laboratory ESP experiments using volunteer subjects from the undergraduate student
body began. As opposed to the approaches of psychical research, which generally sought qualitative evidence for paranormal
phenomena, the experiments at Duke University proffered a quantitative, statistical approach using cards and dice. As a
consequence of the ESP experiments at Duke, standard laboratory procedures for the testing of ESP developed and came to be
adopted by interested researchers throughout the world.
George Estabrooks conducted an ESP experiment using cards in 1927. Harvard students were used as the subjects.
Estabrooks acted as the sender with the guesser in an adjoining room. In total 2, 300 trials were conducted. When the subjects
were sent to a distant room with insulation the scores dropped to chance level. Attempts to repeat the experiment also failed.
The publication of J. B. Rhine's book, New Frontiers of the Mind (1937) brought the laboratory's findings to the general
public. In his book, Rhine popularized the word "parapsychology", which psychologist Max Dessoir had coined over 40 years
earlier, to describe the research conducted at Duke. Rhine also founded an autonomous Parapsychology Laboratory within
Duke and started the Journal of Parapsychology, which he co-edited with McDougall.
Rhine (below, left), along with associate Karl Zener (below, center), had developed a statistical system of testing for ESP that
involved subjects guessing what symbol, out of five possible symbols, would appear when going through a special deck of cards
(below, left) designed for this purpose. A percentage of correct guesses (or hits) significantly above 20% was perceived as
higher than chance and indicative of psychic ability. Rhine stated in his first book, ExtraSensory Perception (1934), that after
90,000 trials, he felt ESP is "an actual and demonstrable occurrence".
Eileen Garrett (below) was tested by Rhine at Duke University in 1933 with Zener cards. Certain symbols that were placed on
the cards and sealed in an envelope, and she was asked to guess their contents. She performed poorly and later criticized the
tests by claiming the cards lacked a psychic energy called "energy stimulus" and that she could not perform clairvoyance to
order. The parapsychologist Samuel Soal and his colleagues tested Garrett in May, 1937. Most of the experiments were carried
out in the Psychological Laboratory at the University College London. A total of over 12,000 guesses were recorded but Garrett
failed to produce above chance level.In his report Soal wrote "In the case of Mrs. Eileen Garrett we fail to find the slightest
confirmation of Dr. J. B. Rhine's remarkable claims relating to her alleged powers of extra-sensory perception. Not only did she
fail when I took charge of the experiments, but she failed equally when four other carefully trained experimenters took my place."
The parapsychology experiments at Duke evoked much criticism from academics and others who challenged the concepts and
evidence of ESP. A number of psychological departments attempted to repeat Rhine's experiments with failure. W. S. Cox
(1936) from Princeton University with 132 subjects produced 25, 064 trials in a playing card ESP experiment. Cox concluded
"There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the 'average man' or of the group investigated or in any particular
individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable
factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects." Four other psychological departments failed to replicate
In 1938, the psychologist Joseph Jastrow wrote much of the evidence for extrasensory perception collected by Rhine and
other parapsychologists was anecdotal, biased, dubious and the result of "faulty observation and familiar human frailties".
Rhine's experiments were discredited due to the discovery that sensory leakage or cheating could account for all his results
such as the subject being able to read the symbols from the back of the cards and being able to see and hear the experimenter
to note subtle clues
Illusionist Milbourne Christopher wrote years later that he felt "there are at least a dozen ways a subject who wished to cheat
under the conditions Rhine described could deceive the investigator". When Rhine took precautions in response to criticisms of
his methods, he was unable to find any high-scoring subjects. Another criticism, made by chemist Irving Langmuir, among
others, was one of selective reporting. Langmuir stated that Rhine did not report scores of subjects that he suspected were
intentionally guessing wrong, and that this, he felt, biased the statistical results higher than they should have been.
Rhine and his colleagues attempted to address these criticisms through new experiments described in the book
Extrasensory Perception After Sixty Years (1940). Rhine described three experiments the Pearce-Pratt experiment, the Pratt-
Woodruff experiment and the Ownbey-Zirkle series which he believed demonstrated ESP. However, C. E. M. Hansel wrote "it is
now known that each experiment contained serious flaws that escaped notice in the examination made by the authors of Extra-
Sensory Perception After Sixty Years". Joseph Gaither Pratt was the co-experimenter in the Pearce-Pratt and Pratt-Woodruff
experiments at the Duke campus. Hansel visited the campus where the experiments took place and discovered the results could
have originated through the use of a trick so could not regarded as supplying evidence for ESP.
In 1957, Rhine and Joseph Gaither Pratt wrote Parapsychology: Frontier Science of the Mind. Because of the methodological
problems, parapsychologists no longer utilize card-guessing studies. Rhine's experiments into psychokinesis (PK) were also
criticized. John Sladek wrote:
His research used dice, with subjects 'willing' them to fall a certain way. Not only can dice be drilled, shaved, falsely numbered
and manipulated, but even straight dice often show bias in the long run. Casinos for this reason retire dice often, but at Duke,
subjects continued to try for the same effect on the same dice over long experimental runs. Not surprisingly, PK appeared at
Duke and nowhere else.
The Ownbey-Zirkle ESP experiment (below) at Duke was criticized by parapsychologists and skeptics. Ownbey would
attempt to send ESP symbols to Zirkle who would guess what they were. The pair were placed in adjacent rooms unable to see
each other and an electric fan was used to prevent the pair communicating by sensory cues. Ownbey tapped a telegraph key to
Zirkle to inform him when she was trying to send him a symbol. The door separating the two rooms was open during the
experiment, and after each guess Zirkle would call out his guess to Ownbey who recorded his choice. Critics pointed out the
experiment was flawed as Ownbey acted as both the sender and the experimenter, nobody was controlling the experiment so
Ownbey could have cheated by communicating with Zirkle or made recording mistakes.
The Turner-Ownbey long distance telepathy experiment was discovered to contain flaws. May Frances Turner positioned
herself in the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory whilst Sara Ownbey claimed to receive transmissions 250 miles away. For the
experiment Turner would think of a symbol and write it down whilst Ownbey would write her guesses. The scores were highly
successful and both records were supposed to be sent to J. B. Rhine, however, Ownbey sent them to Turner. Critics pointed out
this invalidated the results as she could have simply written her own record to agree with the other. When the experiment was
repeated and the records were sent to Rhine the scores dropped to average.
A famous ESP experiment at the Duke University was performed by Lucien Warner and Mildred Raible. The subject was
locked in a room with a switch controlling a signal light elsewhere, which he could signal to guess the card. Ten runs with ESP
packs of cards were used and he achieved 93 hits (43 more than chance). Weaknesses with the experiment were later
discovered. The duration of the light signal could be varied so that the subject could call for specific symbols and certain
symbols in the experiment came up far more often than others which indicated either poor shuffling or card manipulation. The
experiment was not repeated.
The administration of Duke grew less sympathetic to parapsychology, and after Rhine's retirement in 1965 parapsychological
links with the university were broken. Rhine later established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM) and
the Institute for Parapsychology as a successor to the Duke laboratory. In 1995, the centenary of Rhine's birth, the FRNM was
renamed the Rhine Research Center. Today, the Rhine Research Center is a parapsychology research unit, stating that it "aims
to improve the human condition by creating a scientific understanding of those abilities and sensitivities that appear to transcend
the ordinary limits of space and time".
Rhine Research Center
The affiliation of the Parapsychological Association (PA) with the American Association for the Advancement of Science,
along with a general openness to psychic and occult phenomena in the 1970s, led to a decade of increased parapsychological
research. During this period, other related organizations were also formed, including the Academy of Parapsychology and
Medicine (1970), the Institute of Parascience (1971), the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, the Institute of Noetic
Sciences (1973), the International Kirlian Research Association (1975), and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research
Laboratory (1979). Parapsychological work was also conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) during this time.
The scope of parapsychology expanded during these years. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson conducted much of his research into
reincarnation during the 1970s, and the second edition of his Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation was published in 1974.
Psychologist Thelma Moss devoted time to the study of Kirlian photography at UCLA's parapsychology laboratory. The influx of
spiritual teachers from Asia, and their claims of abilities produced by meditation, led to research on altered states of
consciousness. American Society for Psychical Research Director of Research, Karlis Osis, conducted experiments in out of
body experiences. Physicist Russell Targ coined the term remote viewing for use in some of his work at SRI in 1974.
Dr. Ian Stevenson
The surge in paranormal research continued into the 1980s: the Parapsychological Association reported members working
in more than 30 countries. For example, research was carried out and regular conferences held in Eastern Europe and the
former Soviet Union although the word parapsychology was discarded in favor of the term psychotronics. The promoter of
psychotronics was Czech scientist Zdeněk Rejdák. Rejdák kept enforcing the psychotronics as a physical science on the world-
wide scale and for many years, he organized conferences on research in psychotronics. The psychotronics of this era is being
understood as a new science in the terms of human bionics. The main objectives of psychotronics were to verify and study
distant interactions human organism and its information and energy expressions and subsequently the phenomena of telepathy,
clairvoyance and psychokinesis, to discover new principles of nature.
In 1985 a Chair of Parapsychology was established within the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh.
Robert Morris, a respected experimental parapsychologist from the United States took up the position, and with his research
associates and PhD students pursued a comprehensive research program. Since Professor Morris' death in 2004 the Chair of
Parapsychology has remained vacant.
Since the 1980s, contemporary parapsychological research has waned considerably in the United States. Early research
was considered inconclusive, and parapsychologists were faced with strong opposition from their academic colleagues. Some
effects thought to be paranormal, for example the effects of Kirlian photography (thought by some to represent a human aura,
below), disappeared under more stringent controls, leaving those avenues of research at dead-ends. Many university
laboratories in the United States have closed, citing a lack of acceptance by mainstream science as the reason; the bulk of
parapsychology research in the US is now confined to private institutions funded by private sources. After 28 years of research,
Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR), which studied psychokinesis, closed in 2007.
Two universities in the United States currently have academic parapsychology laboratories. The Division of Perceptual Studies,
a unit at the University of Virginia's Department of Psychiatric Medicine, studies the possibility of survival of consciousness after
bodily death, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences. The University of Arizona's Veritas Laboratory conducts
laboratory investigations of mediums. Several private institutions, including the Institute of Noetic Sciences, conduct and
promote parapsychological research.
Over the last two decades some new sources of funding for parapsychology in Europe have seen a "substantial increase in
European parapsychological research so that the center of gravity for the field has swung from the United States to Europe". Of
all nations the United Kingdom has the largest number of active parapsychologists. In the UK, researchers work in conventional
psychology departments, and also do studies in mainstream psychology to "boost their credibility and show that their methods
are sound". It is thought that this approach could account for the relative strength of parapsychology in Britain.
As of 2007, parapsychology research is represented in some 30 different countries and a number of universities worldwide
continue academic parapsychology programs. Among these are the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of
Edinburgh; the Parapsychology Research Group at Liverpool Hope University (this closed in April 2011); the SOPHIA Project at
the University of Arizona; the Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology Research Unit of Liverpool John Moores
University; the Center for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton; and the
Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Research and professional organizations include the Parapsychological Association; the Society for Psychical Research,
publisher of the Journal of Society for Psychical Research; the American Society for Psychical Research, publisher of the
Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (last published in 2004); the Rhine Research Center and Institute for
Parapsychology, publisher of the Journal of Parapsychology; the Parapsychology Foundation, which published the International
Journal of Parapsychology (between 1959 to 1968 and 2000–2001) and the Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research,
publisher of the Australian Journal of Parapsychology. The European Journal of Parapsychology ceased publishing in 2010.
Parapsychological research has also been augmented by other sub-disciplines of psychology. These related fields include
transpersonal psychology, which studies transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human mind, and anomalistic psychology,
which examines paranormal beliefs and subjective anomalous experiences in traditional psychological terms