Staring at a Red Sky: A History of Psi Research in the Ganzfeld, by Andrew Endersby

Reviewed by Nemo C. Mörck

In 2005, Skeptic Report uploaded A History of Psi in the Ganzfeld, by Andrew Endersby. Later, Endersby started a blog, on which he occasionally covers parapsychological research from a sceptical perspective. In 2014, after having read numerous declassified documents, he published America’s Imaginary Hostage Crisis, which concerns the remote viewing that took place during the Iran-Contra hostage crisis. Now he has returned to ganzfeld research and relates what has happened since the first ganzfeld studies were conducted.

Endersby remarks that Staring at a Red Sky is not “an exhaustive history” (p. 7), each chapter focuses on what happened at one institute. There are two exceptions: Separate chapters are devoted to the papers by Hyman and Honorton (1986), and to the meta-analysis by Milton and Wiseman (1999). As a result of his approach, John Palmer and Rex Stanford, do not get the attention they deserve, and Endersby apologizes for this. 

Parapsychologists became interested in doing ganzfeld studies thanks to an article reprinted in Altered States of Consciousness (Tart, 1972). One of the first adopters was William Braud, “an unassuming man, bearded and bespectacled, thoughtful and reserved with a sharp enquiring mind” (p. 10). However, the ganzfeld procedure could not keep his attention, and he is better remembered for other work. His interest would come to shift away from parapsychology towards transpersonal psychology, he became more interested in the meaning of psychic experiences. 

In contrast, Charles Honorton is best remembered for his ganzfeld studies. Honorton has just joined the Dream Laboratory at Maimonides Medical Center when the reader encounters him. The lab was referred to as the bunker by the researchers: “It was windowless, cramped and accessible only through a heavy, thick vault door. In an attempt to make the place more welcoming to visitors they had colorful posters attached to the grey cinderblock walls and music playing” (p. 21). 

In Honorton’s first ganzfeld study “thirty volunteers, most of whom were casual visitors to the laboratory” (Honorton & Harper, 1974, p. 160) participated and achieved a 43% hit rate, statistically significant. Honorton and Harper (1974) included illustrative correspondences: Endersby does not, but sometimes he takes the reader with him and gets close to the researchers. Ambitiously, Honorton hoped to conduct a ganzfeld study in which ten pairs completed ten trials each. Experienced researchers can probably predict what happened: “only six pairs managed all ten … The sixty trials reported a hit rate of 45% where 25% would be expected by chance” (p. 24). After nine months Honorton decided to end the study (Terry & Honorton, 1976). Endersby rightly notes that “there is a question mark over the unpublished incomplete results” (p. 24). This is a methodological problem (Kennedy, 1979): it is possible that the pairs that had no success dropped out. In addition to commenting on the studies conducted Endersby also comments on Honorton’s leadership style and behaviour. 

Endersby leaves the US and takes the reader to the University of Edinburgh and Adrian Parker, another of the initial adopters of the ganzfeld procedure. After his first ganzfeld study, initiated in 1973, Parker turned his attention to experimenter effects and ended up devoting his Ph.D. dissertation to the subject (Parker, 1977). Deborah Delanoy was also at the University of Edinburgh, and Endersby takes the time to relate how she discovered that a psychic claimant had engaged in fraud (i.e. Delanoy, 1987). 

Carl Sargent, at the University of Cambridge, was probably the only man there to graduate, in 1979, with a Ph.D. in parapsychology. I gather that Sargent was intelligent, arrogant, driven and had a tendency to create enemies. He had visited Honorton in the US and saw potential in the ganzfeld procedure. Back in the UK Sargent gathered a group and initiated his own set of studies. They found plenty of evidence for psi. However, during a visit Susan Blackmore observed irregularities and argued that experimenter fraud could have occurred. Today she appears certain that she observed evidence of fraud (Marks, 2020), but she was far less certain back then. In a note on her website she now claims: “Only by visiting his laboratory and seeing how the experiments were actually carried out did I discover that his published results were worthless.” This is, however, not evident from her report (i.e. Blackmore, 1987). Chris Roe has reconsidered the Blackmore-Sargent controversy. Rumors about Blackmore’s findings spread and may have contributed to Sargent’s decision to leave the field. Endersby speculates that his “abrasive nature had left him isolated within the parapsychological community such that when these accusations came to light he was allowed to be cut adrift so the research could move on without him” (p. 57).

Endersby covers the backstory to the important joint communiqué (Hyman & Honorton, 1986), but he does not seem to realize that the now well-known critic Ray Hyman had been interested in parapsychology long before Uri Geller emerged on the scene in the 1970s. Among the declassified documents that emerged from the Star Gate program was his CV (dated Sep 1994): “Since 1953, I have been called upon by various governmental agencies to investigate or evaluate paranormal claims.” His first publication concerning parapsychology appears to be a review of Modern Experiments in Telepathy (Hyman, 1957). In addition to covering the joint communiqué Endersby also comments on the commentaries on it that were published in the same issue of the Journal of Parapsychology. Several of them seem pertinent to contemporary readers. 

In passing it can be noted that some years before Hyman and Honorton (1986) another critic, Nils Wiklund, had collaborated with a parapsychologist, Adrian Parker, but their evaluation of the ganzfeld studies, conducted 1974-1980, did not appear in print until 1990 (i.e. Parker & Wiklund, 1990). However, the paper had been circulated and Sargent (1987) refers to it in his answer to Blackmore (1987). Parker and Wiklund (1987) also shared a summary with readers of the Journal of the SPR. 

The laboratory at Maimonides Medical Center closed in 1979 and Honorton went on to establish Psychophysical Research Laboratories (PRL): “The environment was a huge change: from the previous environs of a basement in a Brooklyn neighbourhood to a well-lit office space in a tree-lined research park on the outskirts of a university town” (p. 81). More ganzfeld studies were carried out there. Endersby highlights a mystery: “One of the targets sets, number 20, had been chosen far more frequently than would be expected by chance. They tested and re-tested the random number generator but found nothing that could explain its preference for this particular choice” (p. 86). In one ganzfeld study at PRL only that target set was used and “… it became apparent that the random number generator had, somehow, mostly chosen the Bugs Bunny cartoon” (p. 86). It might be noted that Bugs Bunny is a trickster figure.

Dick Bierman visisted PRL and once back in the Netherlands conducted several ganzfeld studies. However, I must admit that I found a study by Wezelman, Gerding, and Verhoeven (1997) more interesting: “... they devised a method in which the ganzfeld is not thought of as a method of physically reducing regular sensory input so that psi can be received but is instead a ritual ...” (p. 101) that allows the participants to experience psi. 

It should be made clear that our procedure is a syncretic body of rituals and ideas taken from traditions of magic that we felt comfortable with … Preparatory ceremonies would follow a definite schedule and would involve cleansing and consecration of the the lab-setting using candles, incense, and powerful quintessential symbols to transform it into a sacred place, isolated from its profane surrounds (Wezelman, Gerding, & Verhoeven, 1997, pp. 33-34).

Endersby also covers research conducted at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM), in the US, and introduces the reader to Kathy Dalton. She became rather well-known in the field for the high hit rate in her ganzfeld studies. The reader encounters her again in the (second) chapter about the research undertaken in Edinburgh, in the UK. Endersby writes: 

Why did Dalton do so well when other researchers didn’t? She was a diligent researcher. Having helped to set up computer-controlled ganzfeld equipment twice (first at FRNM, then at Edinburgh) she was knowledgeable enough to be one of the authors on a paper “Security measures in an automated ganzfeld system” which became a standard for future research. But at the same time, she was charismatic and likeable. She had considerable experience in the field, investigating claims of unusual phenomena for several years before she joined the FRNM and this experience surely made her more empathetic than those researchers from a purely academic background (pp. 132-133).

During one of her presentations Dalton showed an example of a ganzfeld session in which “the receiver seemed to describe the target video exactly as the action progressed.” Joakim Westerlund, a psychologist from Sweden, was impressed and later sorely disappointed when he learned that the video had been edited. However, the clip inspired Westerlund. In the chapter about Adrian Parker’s ganzfeld studies, at the University of Gothenburg (in Sweden), Endersby covers the development, by Parker and Westerlund, of the real time digital ganzfeld: “The main feature that this system introduced was that it could record the spoken mentation of the receiver synchronised to the playback of the videoclip” (p. 147). Parker has shared some personal thoughts and recollections about the ganzfeld research elsewhere (see Marks, 2020).

Endersby devotes one chapter to the meta-analysis by Milton and Wiseman (1999). In the abstract they had written “the ganzfeld technique does not at present offer a replicable method for producing ESP in the laboratory.” Much discussion followed in the wake of this finding. Milton and Wiseman (1999) wrote: “Only studies that began in 1987 or later (the date established by writing to the authors, if necessary) and published by February 1997” were included: this cut-off criterion excluded a very successful study by Dalton. She presented her results at the 40th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, in August 1997. When Milton and Wiseman revised their paper in 1998 they were certainly aware of it (they presented their meta-analysis at the same convention). Endersby covers the discussion that followed the apparently provocative meta-analysis, and then devotes his final two chapters to research conducted at the Instituto de Psicología, in Argentina, and at the University of Northampton, in the UK. 

In his conclusion Endersby does not really try to tease out why some ganzfeld studies were successful while others were not, but it seems to me that the personal dynamics are important and not only how the participants are treated. Eventually, Endersby concludes: 

Parapsychology remains where it has been for the last century: tantalisingly close to a breakthrough and, while other methods have had their fleeting periods of success, the ganzfeld’s tenacity in the face of constant demands for improvement is a remarkable achievement and it remains the closest that parapsychology has to a replicable anomalous event (p. 200).

It needs to be acknowledged that Staring at a Red Sky suffers from the same issues as many other independently published books. It would have benefited from a bit of editing and proper proofreading by someone familiar with the literature. The relevance of everything Endersby includes is also not evident to me (e.g., Delanoy 1987), but he really manages to put a spotlight on people and give the reader some idea about their background and research. I do not hesitate to recommend this book. 

Blackmore, S. (1987). A report of a visit to Carl Sargent’s laboratory. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 186-198.
Delanoy, D. L. (1987). Work with a fraudulent PK metal-bending subject. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 247-256.
Honorton, C., & Harper, S. (1974). Psi-mediated imagery and ideation in an experimental procedure for regulating perceptual input. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 68, 156-168.
Hyman, R. (1957). [Review of the book Modern Experiments in Telepathy (2nd Ed.), by S. G. Soal & F. Bateman]. American Statistical Association Journal, 52, 607-610.
Hyman, R., & Honorton, C. (1986). A joint communiqué: The psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50, 351-364.
Kennedy, J. E. (1979). Methodological problems in free-response ESP experiments. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 73, 1-15.
Marks, D. F. (2020). Psychology and the Paranormal: Exploring Anomalous Experience. SAGE Publications. 
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Parker, A. (1977). Experimenter effects in ESP research. University of Edinburgh: Ph.D. Dissertation. 
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Sargent, C. L. (1987). Sceptical fairytales from Bristol. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 208-218
Tart, C. T. (Ed.). (1972). Altered States of Consciousness (2nd Ed.). Anchor Books
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Wezelman, R., Gerding, J. L. R., & Verhoeven, I. (1997). Eigensender ganzfeld psi: An experiment in practical philosophy. European Journal of Parapsychology, 13, 28-39.