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Parapsychology

Meaning "beside psychology," term used to describe the study of paranormal, or psi, phenomena, the most significant being extra-sensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK).

The study of paranormal activities and phenomena has been riddled with controversy since its conception. It is claimed that some people, utilizing senses beyond the ordinary, exhibit powers that cannot be explained by traditional science. Skeptics of the paranormal point to the fact that in over a century since the first serious studies of the paranormal began, usually dated to the opening of the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882, no replicable demonstration of any such powers has ever been conducted. Yet many people continue to believe in the existence of the paranormal.

The most studied and debated paranormal phenomena are ESP and psychokinesis. ESP is an acronym for extra-sensory perception and encompasses clairvoyance, the ability to perceive something without the use of the senses, and telepathy, the ability to communicate with another person without the use of the senses. (Parapsychologists currently refer to telepathy as "anomalous processes of information or energy transfer.")

Clairvoyance was the first paranormal phenomena to be seriously considered by scientists, probably because devising tests to prove or disprove its existence was easy. In the late 1920s, many such tests were devised by J.B. Rhine, a psychology professor who had left Harvard University to help found the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University. Rhine's tests often produced positive results for clairvoyance, and at the time his work was seriously regarded. In recent decades, however, much of Rhine's work has been discredited as being biased, careless, and, in some cases, utterly fraudulent.

Recent studies have proven more reputable but far from conclusive. One such study revealed statistically significant telepathic abilities among 100 men and 140 women tested in Scotland over six years in the mid-1980s. In the tests, "senders" focused on images or video clips and attempted to send those impressions to a "receiver" in a sensory-isolated room. The researchers reported that one in three sessions led to a "hit," meaning that the receiver reported visualizing images similar to those being sent. A hit is expected to occur by chance in one in four instances. On the other hand, the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States discounted the existence of ESP after conducting its own experiments in "remote viewing." The agency concluded that there were not enough evidence for its existence.

Psychokinesis (PK) is the ability to manipulate physical objects with the mind. Probably the most infamous purveyor of psychokinetic powers was the Israeli psychic and entertainer Uri Geller, who became an international celebrity by bending spoons, supposedly with his mind. During his career, he would never demonstrate his spoon bending ability in a controlled environment, and he was on several occasions shown to be faking. Another form of PK is known as spontaneous PK, in which a physical action occurs in response to psychological trauma. There are personal accounts, for instance, of clocks and watches stopping at the moment of a loved one's death. J.B. Rhine was one of the first to conduct experiments in PK, primarily with the use of dice. He tested a subject's ability to influence the outcome of a toss and found that many people demonstrated a slight ability, beyond chance, of "controlling" the dice.

There are other phenomena studies by parapsychologists, including hauntings, UFOs, near-death and after-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, psychic healing, and many others. All of these share the curious nature of ESP and PK in that, anecdotally speaking, occurrences are widespread, believed by members of many cultures, and discussed throughout history. Yet none have been scientifically demonstrated or reproduced. Despite the lack of proof, many people firmly believe in the paranormal, as evidenced by personal testimony, the popularity of television shows such as "The X-Files," and by the huge profits generated by psychic phone lines and other occult enterprises. One of the reasons the scientific community is skeptical about paranormal phenomena is that there is no apparent basis in physical laws for such phenomena. In every other scientific discipline, it is possible to speculate reasonably that events occur as they do because they follow a recognized natural law, such as gravity or conservation of energy. Parapsychologists have failed to develop adequate theoretical reasons for the existence of the phenomena they purport to demonstrate. Nevertheless, it seems that most people are open to the possibility of the paranormal despite the lack of evidence.

Further Reading

Blackmore, Susan. "Psi in Psychology." Skeptical Inquirer (Summer 1994): 351.

Bower, B. "CIA Studies Fan Debate Over Psi Abilities." Science News (9 December 1995): 390.

——. "Scientists Peer into the Mind's Psi." Science News (29 January 1994): 68.

Irwin, H.J. An Introduction to Parapsychology. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1989.

Jaroff, Leon. "Weird Science: Catering to Viewers' Growing Appetite for Paranormal …" Time (15 May 1995): 75.

Yam, Philip. "A Skeptically Inquiring Mind." Scientific American (July 1995): 34.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaBranches of Psychology