Overview of Psychical Research

Some Definitions

 Psychical research and parapsychology are concerned with the scientific investigation of the ways that organisms communicate and interact with each other and with the environment, that appear to be inexplicable within current scientific models. Stories of the paranormal (apparitions, prophetic dreams and visions, inexplicable awareness of events faraway, divination, miraculous cures etc) have been with us since antiquity, but it was only in the 19th century that the subject began to be studied in a systematic and scientific way.

The definitions used below do not necessarily correctly describe the processes involved, but they are terms that have been in common use over a long period of time.

Mental interactions are grouped under the term Extrasensory Perception (ESP) and include telepathy (direct mind-to-mind communication), clairvoyance (awareness of information unavailable through normal sensory channels) and precognition (foreseeing the future).


Interactions which affect the environment or other organisms physically are referred to as psychokinesis (PK). Large-scale physical disturbances which occur naturally and are generally referred to as poltergeists (from German meaning 'mischievous spirit') have also been described as RSPK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis), while micro-PK, involving minute effects, is and has been the subject of a number of experimental studies. Both ESP and PK are frequently subsumed under the more general term psi.

Phenomena suggestive of survival of death, which have been part of the research since its beginnings, are nowadays often referred to as After-Death Communications (ADC). Near-death experiences (NDE), reported by some people who nearly died, and out-of-body experiences (OBE), a state reported by some people of having conscious exeriences while feeling separated from their bodies, are also areas studied in parapsychology and psychical research.

The term parapsychology was introduced into the English language from German by Dr Joseph Banks Rhine, who, as head of the newly-founded Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory in the 1930s in the USA, might be described as the first professional parapsychologist. The term was introduced in order to distinguish the strictly experimental approach from the wider field of psychical research; however, over the years the two terms have often come to be used interchangeably. 

Title-page and frontispiece of J B RHINE's first published account of ESP, with portraits of the experimenters (1934)


The Subject and Research Methods

While the area of human experience studied within psychical research may be regarded as unusual, the principles of investigation are those which apply in any scientific enquiry: gathering and testing the evidence, evaluating it, and looking for ways of interpreting and explaining it either within the existing models of reality or by postulating new models. The only belief implied by this pursuit is in the intrinsic value of rational enquiry.

The main methods of psychical research have, since the beginning, involved the investigation of spontaneous phenomena, investigation of phenomena produced by mediums/psychics, and experimentation. 

Investigating Spontaneous Phenomena

The founders of the SPR, the first organisation to undertake the scientific study of the subject, began their investigation with data collection. They analysed an enormous amount of material, mainly relating to crisis apparitions (reports of communications from people dying or in life-threatening situations). One of the most important results of these early investigations was the book Phantasms of the Living, by Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore, published in 1886. It presented several hundreds of thoroughly researched cases within a theoretical framework, and turned the subject from a collection of anecdotes to a branch of learning. The accumulation of carefully investigated first-hand testimonies and experimental results provided a body of evidence which is difficult to dismiss.

Collecting reports of spontaneous cases has been an ongoing process; collections and surveys have periodically been published both in the USA and in Europe, while Louisa Rhine, the wife of J.B. Rhine, amassed thousands of such reports between the 1940s and 1970s. Unlike the early SPR investigators, she did not attempt to verify the reports, assuming that having large enough numbers would provide a counterbalance to the inevitable contamination by false or mistaken reports. In spite of the different criteria in collecting the cases, in different periods and different cultures, analyses carried out on the collections indicate that they share a number of important characteristics deserving further studies.

The SPR has continued to publish accounts of spontaneous phenomena and their investigations. There have also been many accounts of investigations of hauntings and poltergeist phenomena published in books and periodicals. One of the current projects being undertaken under the aegis of the SPR aims to create a database incorporating the best and most representative of the spontaneous phenomena for the benefit of future researchers.

No account of research into spontaneous phenomena would be complete without reference to the collections of cases suggestive of reincarnation collected since the 1970s by Professor Ian Stevenson and other researchers such as Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, based on the evidence of memories of past lives provided by very young children.

Working with Psychics

Psychical research began in an era when the idea (associated with the new religion of Spiritualism) that it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead through a medium spread from America throughout Europe. "Raising spirits" through mediumship or private "table-turning" séances became very popular, which inevitably attracted a great many fake mediums and bogus claims. Thus from its earliest days psychical research, with its concern for the quality of evidence, has involved detecting and unmasking fraudulent claims, as well as increasing researchers' awareness of the pitfalls of malobservation, wishful thinking, over-interpretation and falling in with the fake medium's agenda by providing information inadvertently (see Notes for Investigators).

On the other hand, those few mediums who accepted the need for controlled conditions have over the years at times provided psychical research with material of interest. In the early days, apart from the material provided by the mediums' statements, information was sought (and gained) about states of consciousness involved in dissociative states, the production of "secondary personalities" and automatic writing (a semi-trance state in which the writer is not aware of what s/he is writing - although there have been instances of automatists writing while fully awake, and others who appeared asleep). In recent years, experimental work on mental mediumship has employed increasingly stringent protocols for controlling the conditions and measuring the value of the information obtained, bringing it closer to the experimental ideal.

The Search for Reliability and Replicability - Experimental Research

Spontaneous cases are the real-life natural phenomena which scientific theories need to explain. However, they are non-repeatable and are susceptible to all kinds of errors of observation and reporting. Genuine gifted psychics able and prepared to cooperate in research to the extent required have always been few and far between. Therefore, since the earliest days, psychical researchers sought to devise controlled and quantifiable experiments which could be applied to larger populations and which, through their reliability and replicability, would provide irrefutable evidence of psi. Early experiments in "thought-transference" employed all kinds of targets (e.g. playing cards and drawings), variety of conditions (e.g. mental suggestion to "mesmerised" subjects), with varying degrees of control and evaluation.

The "coming of age" of psychical research as a reputable branch of science seemed set to arrive with the establishment of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in North Carolina, USA in the 1930s, under the leadership of Dr Joseph Banks Rhine.  The Laboratory was committed to the science of 'parapsychology', a strictly experimental approach, using large numbers of ordinary people as subjects and simple, standard protocols. Subjects were tested for ESP using a card-guessing procedure (Zener cards, invented by a colleague of Rhine, Karl Zener, consisted of five simple symbols in decks of 25 cards), while testing for PK employed dice, where the subjects tried to vary, through mental influence, the frequency of the designated target face. The experiments were transparent, and quantifiable using statistical methods in general use; it was thus expected that, employed on a large scale, their results would lead to establishing psi as a universal property and parapsychology as an academically respectable science.

Initial research conducted by J.B. Rhine strongly suggested the occurrence of phenomena that could not be explained. Over decades, the principles behind his methodology were widely employed and continuously improved and expanded by parapsychologists and psychical researchers on both sides of the Atlantic, producing a variety of ingenious experiments, but also highlighting the involvement of some unexpected factors. The results of high-scoring subjects would tail off (the decline effect), perhaps because of boredom; subjects could, consistently or intermittently, score well below chance (psi-missing), or score on the item preceding or following the target (displacement); correlations could be discerned between levels of psi scoring and attitudes (sheep/goat effect) and personality traits. The "experimenter effect" - the influence of the experimenter's attitude/ personality/ belief/ psi ability on the outcome - well known from other experimental sciences, seemed particularly pronounced in parapsychology. The early expectation that the simple, somewhat mechanical approach would provide both answers about psi and full scientific acceptability was disappointed. However, the high standards of methodology and analysis employed by parapsychologists were impressive enough for the Parapsychological Association, formed in 1957, to be accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969.

The next stage in the development of experimental research saw a diversification of approaches, aimed at achieving successful results and better understanding of the working of psi. Free response tests using interesting targets became popular again, but with strict procedures for avoiding contamination and for judging; there have been PK experiments with seeds, protozoa, and bacteria. All the while, a transformation was taking place in the laboratory research as new technologies became available and it became possible to minimise the possibility of human error in the randomisation, interaction of subjects and experimenters, and scoring and statistical analysis.

At the same time there was a return to the interest in the human participants and their subjective states, particularly in the altered states of consciousness, a subject also regarded as very important in the early days of psychical research. Striking results in dream telepathy were obtained by some researchers in the 1960s, but the most popular technique developed in the 1970s proved to be the "ganzfeld" - a method still very much in use today, of shielding the subject from sensory input and inducing a relaxed state, to encourage awareness of ESP information during the experiment. Much research has also been devoted to the psi process - testing hypotheses as to the nature of psi, mainly the relationship between success in psi experiments and personality/attitude variables.


The Achievements and the Challenges


It is impossible to provide an assessment of more than half a century of experimental parapsychology in a paragraph. On the 'process' side, it has not been possible to measure subjects' 'innate' psychic ability. However, there is evidence that certain combinations of mental states, personalities and experiments are conducive to psi. On the 'results' side, many competent people who have examined the body of laboratory experimental evidence find it compelling. Critics, however, regard it as inconsistent and contradictory, still lacking replicability.

In recent years, there has been a return of interest in qualitative and phenomenological research in academia. Perhaps this may lead to a reappraisal of the status of spontaneous cases, and development of new methodologies based on the insights from experimental research. However, in view of the fact that the 'anecdotal' evidence gathered so far has failed to convince the critics, there is no reason to believe that new research would change the situation. Opposition to psychical research is often against its implications and not the quality of the evidence. The evidence of psychical research, if accepted, challenges the fundamental assumptions about how the world works generally accepted by the scientific community. Parapsychology today still faces the same problem defined by Edmund Gurney in 1880s: "The fact is so improbable that extremely good evidence is needed to make us believe it; and this evidence is not good, for how can you trust people who believe in such absurdities?" (quoted after Gauld, 1968, p. 343). It seems that until psychical research is able to offer a satisfactory and unified theory to help create a new model, the problem will remain.


Implications of Psychical Research


The findings of psychical research/parapsychology, if accepted, have far-reaching implications for, and connections with, many areas of learning: philosophy, physics, biology, evolution, information theory, consciousness and the mind-brain relationship. But the fundamental challenge is to the assumption that consciousness cannot function independently of sensory channels provided by the body, and obviously, cannot survive bodily death. It is not simply a question of 'adding on' further human capabilities to the existing knowledge; natural sciences have built up a convincing model of human development, both as a species and on the individual level, which has great explanatory power. Evidence of psychical research blurs the consistent picture, and how strongly one reacts against, or in favour of it,  depends very much on one's subjective experience. But it is not surprising that psychical research remains a controversial subject, and still has a mountain to climb when it comes to being generally accepted as a mainstream academic subject and attracting commensurate levels of funding.

Yet, over the recent decades there have been a number of positive developments, particularly in the UK. Since the Koestler Parapsychology Unit was established at Edinburgh University in 1984 under the (late) Professor Robert Morris, a number of its graduates have gone on to do research and teach parapsychology at university level. Postgraduate courses are now offered at a number of UK universities, although those looking for a career in parapsychology should be warned that opportunities in this field are few. Those who are interested in the subject should, however, bear in mind that in such an interdisciplinary area there is always room for independent individual researchers who can bring in and share insights and skills from different branches of learning. There are, and have always been, many views and many approaches within psychical research, but what the researchers tend to share is: "a sense of the strangeness and complexity which lies just below the surface of things, together with the firm conviction that the challenge which this strangeness and complexity make to the mind of man is to be met by rational and empirical inquiry rather than by, on the one hand, a naive love of the marvellous, or, on the other, a determined scepticism which resists all indications that some simplistic scheme of thought does not contain the whole truth about human nature and about our relation to the universe we live in." (Gauld, 1978)

 Zofia Weaver


References and Bibliography


Beloff, J. (1993) Parapsychology: A Concise History.    London: The Athlone Press.

Broughton, R. (1992) Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. London: Rider.

Edge, H. L. Edge, Morris, R. L., Palmer J., Rush, J.H. (1987) Foundations of Parapsychology: Exploring the Boundaries of Human Capability. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gauld, A. (1968) The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.(1978) Psychical Research in Cambridge from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 49, pp. 925-37.

Radin, D. (1997) The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena.San Francisco: Harper Edge. 

T.J.Robertson & A.E.Roy (2001) A Preliminary Study of the Acceptance by Non-Recipients of Mediums' Statements to Recipients. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 65.2, pp.91-107.

Salter, W.H. (1948) The Society for Psychical Research: An Outline of its History. Society for Psychical Research.

Schouten S.A.(1979) Analysis of Spontaneous Cases as Reported in 'Phantasms of the Living'. European Journal of Parapsychology 2, pp. 408-455

Schouten S.A.(1981) Analysing Spontaneous Cases: A Replication based on the Sannwald Connection. European Journal of Parapsychology vol 4 pp.9-48

Schouten S.A. (1983) A Different Approach for Analysing Spontaneous Cases: With Particular Reference to the Study of L.E. Rhine's Case Collection. Journal of Parapsychology 47, pp.323-40

West, D. (2004) Review of:  Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal. Edited by James E. Alcock, Jean E. Burns and Anthony Freeman. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 68.3, pp.179-182