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What is Parapsychology?

This page will define and discuss parapsychology by contrasting parapsychology with psychology, introducing a brief history, and describing two key experiments, the Pearce-Pratt experiments and the Ganzfeld series, and finally describe an influential demonstrator of psychic phenomenon, Uri Gellar.

Parapsychology Defined

Psychical research, psi research (or as it is now known, parapsychology), refers to the experimental and quantitative study of paranormal phenomenon. Paranormal means beside or beyond normal, and is used to describe phenomenon that are not explicable in terms of our ordinary understanding or current scientific knowledge.

As its name indicates, parapsychology is sometimes considered a sub-branch of psychology since it involves the study of apparent mental faculties. In its modern form however, parapsychology is an interdisciplinary field, which has attracted physicists, engineers, biologists, psychologists and those from other sciences. Parapsychology has no formal affiliation with contemporary psychology nor is it studied in most psychology departments.

Psychology vs. Parapsychology





In psychology, the scientific study of human behaviour, psychologists carry out research to understand the nature of and bases for observable phenomena. Parapsychology is the study of "paranormal" occurrences, such as the various types of ESP. Parapsychologists search for evidence for unexplainable phenomena. 
Uses systematic scientific methods in combination with statistical analysis to describe and explain "normal" phenomena. The evidence for ESP rests on paranormal or statistical oddities that cannot be explained by chance or any known natural cause. 
Psychology is a formal academic discipline represented in all major universities, with strong professional societies and scores of peer-review journals. Although parapsychology is not normally a formal university academic discipline, there are over half a dozen peer-reviewed journals dedicated to parapsychology. 

Zener Cards (also called ESP cards), created by Karl Zener, an associate of J.B. Rhine, are often used in parapsychological research. While an agent views a card, participants are asked to guess which of the 5 possible cards the agent is viewing.

Parapsychologists generally accept ESP as proven, and contend that scientific theories need to be amended to include this phenomenon. Critics disagree with the contention that ESP is a fact, arguing that the evidence supporting its existence is plagued by flaws. Historically, much research has been revealed as fraudulent.

J.B. Rhine & The History of Parapsychological Research

Joseph Banks Rhine, initially a botanist by formal training, studied psychology at Harvard and then Duke with William McDougall. Rhine is generally considered to be the founding father of parapsychology (he and McDougall coined the term) as an area of scientific inquiry. Inspired by a lecture by Arthur Conan Doyle on the possibility of communicating with the dead, he initiated formal laboratory and field research on paranormal phenomena at Duke University. He also started the Journal of Parapsychology, founded the Parapsychological Association and edited several editions of the book "Extra Sensory Perception". His Rhine Research Center and Institute for Parapsychology, originally affiliated with Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, later became a wholly independent entity. Although there is evidence that data produced by some of his assistants may have been fraudulent, Rhine himself was known for rigorous lab research and approach to statistical analysis.

The Pearce-Pratt Studies

The Pearce-Pratt studies were the most famous of those emanating from Rhine's lab purporting to provide conclusive evidence for ESP. They were conducted from October 1933 to March 1934, under the supervision of Rhine's graduate student J.G. Pratt. Known as the Campus Distance Series, they centered on one of Rhine's most "successful" subjects, Hubert E. Pearce. The goal of the experiment was to set up experimental conditions to exclude all possible factors other than ESP. Pratt shuffled and then recorded the order of the Zener cards in the parapsychology lab. Pearce, situated in another building, guessed the order of the cards. Pearce's performance was generally well above chance and is often cited as proof for the existence of ESP. Subsequent analysis, however, reveals that the experiments may have been flawed:

  1. Reports of the experiments conflict in regards to the procedures and the results, so ascertaining the facts is difficult.
  2. Essential features of the experiments were not reported so there is no way of knowing whether the experimental safeguards were adequate.
  3. Known features of the experimental design allowed for the possibility of trickery. For example, Pearce was left unobserved while he made his predictions and could have watched Pratt unobtrusively as he recorded the card sort order.

Uri Gellar made a career out of bending spoons with his mind.

Uri Gellar & The Bent Spoons

Uri Gellar is famous for using his mind to bend spoons as well as other metal objects (e.g., keys), with fixing broken watches and clocks with the stroke of a hand, and finding precious metals using only his "special powers". He has also received acclaim for his acts of telepathy and clairvoyance. Gellar became famous in the 1970s when he took his act on the road. He has performed these impressive phenomena in television and radio appearances all over the world. Gellar even convinced a team of scientists at the Stanford Research Institute that his psychic powers were worthy of further scientific study. To some, he is one of the greatest demonstrators of psychic phenomena of all time. While supporters insist that he is a psychic marvel, skeptics claim that Gellar's only powers are those of a master illusionist. Interestingly, Gellar will refuse to perform his psychokinetic feats in front of magicians, and has also refused to bend spoons to which he has not had prior access. While acknowledging that his feats could be accomplished by trickery, he claims that his own are psychic in nature.

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