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[updated 28 Feb 2008]

What is this FAQ about?

This FAQ was first compiled in 1995 by an ad-hoc group of scientists and scholars interested in parapsychology, the study of what is popularly called "psychic" phenomena. Since then this document has been translated into German, Portuguese, Spanish and Finnish, and reprinted in several magazines around the world. The authors' disciplines include physics, psychology, philosophy, statistics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, anthropology, and history. The major contributors and their affiliations are listed at the end of this document.

The majority of this group are members of the Parapsychological Association (PA). The PA is an international professional society founded in 1957 and elected an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. While not an official publication of the PA, the contributors to this FAQ include several past-Presidents of the PA and members of the Board of Directors of the PA. The authors' cumulative laboratory and field research experience with parapsychology is estimated at over 400 years.

The authors aimed for consensus on each FAQ item, but as in many topics, especially in young, multidisciplinary domains like parapsychology, there were some disagreements. In spite of these disagreements, the authors believed that because of burgeoning public interest in parapsychology, the lack of reliable information about this topic on the Web, and the many myths and distortions associated with this field, it was important to put some basic information on the Web sooner rather than later.

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Who is the intended audience?

This FAQ was written as a general introduction to parapsychology for individuals ranging from advanced high-school students to professionals with little or no background in parapsychology. Writing for such a broad audience is a challenge, because gaining an appreciation of parapsychology today requires at least a passing knowledge of a wide range of topics, including statistics, experimental design, quantum mechanical theory, the sociology and philosophy of science, history of parapsychology, and the scientific literature on parapsychology.

Because our expected audience is so broad, we have touched only briefly on many technical issues that underlie interesting issues and debates within the field. Therefore, the approach in this FAQ is to clarify the complex topic of parapsychology without glossing over important points and without "dumbing down" the basic content. For a few particularly tricky issues that we do wish to cover here, we've included sections labeled Technical Note.

We are slowly building a comprehensive source of information on parapsychology, mainly through the addition of hyperlinks to other sources on the Web, including details on the major topics of debate, the prevailing theories, discussions of empirical evidence, links to journal papers, reference sources, mission statements and other items from the major parapsychological research centers, individual researchers' home pages, and home pages for relevant scientific and scholarly societies.

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Technical Note: The Audience

The content and style of this FAQ sparked a debate among the authors. At least six potential audiences were identified: physical scientists, social and behavioral scientists, hardened skeptics, New-Age enthusiasts, those interested in ghost and haunting investigations, and readers with little or no background in any of the conventional sciences or in parapsychology.

For physical scientists, we felt it was important to discuss methodology and terminology, and comment on some of the usual criticisms of parapsychology. For social and behavioral scientists, we added some implications of the observation that people throughout history and across all cultures have reported psychic experiences. For hardened skeptics, or people whose knowledge of parapsychology is based solely upon the skeptical literature, we felt it was important to address the fact that there is substantial, scientifically persuasive empirical data available. For people with New-Age or paranormal interests, enthusiasms, or assumptions, we felt that at least part of the purpose here would be to indicate the limits of what claims the scientific data actually justify. For other readers who may know little or nothing about the topic, or about science or scientific methods, we've applied a broad-brush approach to cover as much of the field as possible in a single document. Hyperlinks will be added in future editions to help flesh out this FAQ.

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What is parapsychology?
Parapsychology is the scientific and scholarly study of three kinds of unusual events (ESP, mind-matter interaction, and survival), which are associated with human experience. The existence of these phenomena suggest that the strict subjective/objective dichotomy proposed by the old paradigm (see below) may not be quite so clear-cut as once thought. Instead, these phenomena may be part of a spectrum of what is possible, with some events and experiences occasionally falling between purely subjective and purely objective. We call such phenomena "anomalous" because they are difficult to explain within current scientific models.

Parapsychology only studies those anomalies that fall into one of three general categories: ESP (terms are defined below), mind-matter interaction (previously known as psychokinesis), and phenomena suggestive of survival after bodily death, including near-death experiences, apparitions, and reincarnation. Most parapsychologists today expect that further research will eventually explain these anomalies in scientific terms, although it is not clear whether they can be fully understood without significant (some might say revolutionary) expansions of the current state of scientific knowledge. Other researchers take the stance that existing scientific models of perception and memory are adequate to explain some or all parapsychological phenomena.

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What is not parapsychology?
In spite of what the media often imply, parapsychology is not the study of "anything paranormal" or bizarre. Nor is parapsychology concerned with astrology, UFOs, searching for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, paganism, Satinism, vampires, alchemy, or witchcraft.

Many scientists have viewed parapsychology with great suspicion because the term has come to be associated with a huge variety of mysterious phenomena, fringe topics, and pseudoscience. Parapsychology is also often linked, again inappropriately, with a broad range of "psychic" entertainers, magicians, and so-called "paranormal investigators" or "paranormalists." In addition, some self-proclaimed "psychic practitioners" call themselves parapsychologists, but that is not what we do.

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What is a paradigm?

When one speaks about a topic which is controversial to many, such as parapsychology, it is crucial to understand the concept of a paradigm. A paradigm is an underlying worldview. It can be thought of as a framework of beliefs which are so taken for granted that most folks are not even aware they have made any assumptions. A paradigm helps us to make sense of the world around us. But perhaps more importantly, in terms of science, it not only determines what is true, but how truth itself can be determined. There is an obvious catch to this. If one does not recognize the underlying assumptions one makes with a paradigm, it has the potential to limit our perception of the world, what we can discover, and how we can determine that knowledge.

The old paradigm, which many have held since the days of Descartes, states that the subjective and objective worlds are completely distinct, with no overlap. Subjective is "here, in the head," and objective is "there, out in the world." The Cartesian paradigm presupposes that there are objective ways to define and measure the fixed external world--which the proponents of this paradigm would say is the only world that matters. The classical paradigm favors experimental research design, which presumes to measure the world in an objective way.

Quantum theory triggered a fundamental shift in how we understand the world. Physicists suddenly realized that there is always some indeterminacy in our measurements. This is because the act of measurement itself can define and change that which is being measured. Because of this, the experimenter may always part of the experiment, and all our "objective" facts are, in fact, potentially flawed (with ESP making it impossible to ever have a truly "blind" experiment). This insight led to the idea of a paradigm based on nonlocality. And while not all physicists agree, the new paradigm that is emerging is one in which the universe is a single whole, within which every part is connected on some level to every other part. This new paradigm does not "prove" psi exists. However, it is compatible with the possible existence of psi, and may lead to a better understanding the phenomena.

It should be noted that the conflict between these two paradigms is ongoing. Because these belief systems are both widespread and deeply ingrained, topics that touch on these fundamentally different worldviews may give rise to bitter and violent debate, with little or no room for compromise. The lack of common ground between paradigms means that the question cannot be solved by discussion. Ultimately, the answer will have to be determined by which paradigm does the best job of answering the questions raised by research.

Understanding the role that paradigms play makes it easier for advocates of competing worldviews to agree to disagree with mutual respect. If you wish to read more about this topic, you may wish to pick up a copy of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.


What do parapsychologists study?

Many feel that the strangest, and most interesting, aspect of parapsychological phenomena is that they do not appear to be limited by the known boundaries of space or time. In addition, they blur the sharp distinction usually made between mind and matter. In popular usage, the basic parapsychological phenomena are categorized as follows:

ESP: Extra-sensory perception; a general term for obtaining information about events beyond the reach of the normal senses. This term subsumes telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and presentiment
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Clairvoyance: Sometimes called remote viewing; obtaining information about events at remote locations, beyond the reach of the normal senses.

Precognition: Also called premonition. Obtaining information about future events, where the information could not be inferred through normal means. Many people report dreams that appear to be precognitive.

Presentiment: This is where physiological parameters may change prior to the application of a stimulus, suggestive of the fact that on an unconscious level the person knew what was coming before it occurred (and before it was even randomly chosen).

Telepathy: Direct mind-to-mind communication.

Mind-Matter Interaction: Previously known as psychokinesis or PK; direct mental interaction with physical objects, animate or inanimate.

Anpsi: Psi in animals.

NDE: Near death experience; an experience reported by those who were revived from nearly dying. Often refers to a core experience that includes feelings of peace, OBE, seeing lights and other phenomena.

OBE: Out-of-body experience; the experience of feeling separated from the body, often accompanied by visual perceptions as though from above the body.

Reincarnation: The belief that we live successive lives, with primarily evidence coming from the apparent recollections of previous lives by very small children.

Haunting: Recurrent phenomena reported to occur in particular locations that include apparitions, sounds, movement of objects, and other effects.

Place Memory: the apparent ability of a building or location to hold recorded impressions of people and events that transpired in the past.

Poltergeist: Large-scale PK phenomena often attributed to spirits, but which are now thought to be due to a living person or group of people. Although reported in all age groups, the agent is most frequently an adolescent.

Psi: A neutral term for parapsychological phenomena, inclusive of both ESP and mind-matter interaction. Psi, psychic, and psychical are synonyms.

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Technical Note: Terms

The above terms are representative of common usage, but parapsychologists usually define psi phenomena in more neutral or operational terms. This is because labels often carry strong but unstated connotations that can lead to misinterpretations.

For example, telepathy is commonly thought of as mind-reading. However, in practice, and certainly in laboratory research, experiences of telepathy rarely involve perception of actual thoughts, and the experience itself often does not logically require communication between two minds, but can also be "explained" as clairvoyance or precognition. Keep in mind that the names and concepts used to describe psi actually say more about the situations in which the phenomena are observed, than about any fundamental properties of the phenomena themselves. That two events are classified the same does not mean they are actually the same.

In addition, in scientific practice many of the basic terms used above are accompanied by qualifiers such as "apparent," "putative," and "ostensible." This is because many claims supposedly involving psi may not be due to psi, but to normal psychological or misinterpreted physical reasons.

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Why is parapsychology interesting?

Parapsychology is interesting mainly because of the implications. To list a few examples, psi phenomena suggest (a) that what science knows about the nature of universe is incomplete; (b) that the presumed capabilities and limitations of human potential have been underestimated; (c) that fundamental assumptions and philosophical beliefs about the separation of mind and body may be incorrect; and (d) that religious assumptions about the divine nature of "miracles" may have been mistaken.

As an aside, we should note that many parapsychologists today, including most of the authors of this FAQ, take an empirical, data-oriented approach to psi phenomena, and specifically avoid discussing speculative implications that are not supported by data. However, some researchers regard the current findings of parapsychology as having a wide variety of important implications, including implications about the spiritual nature of humankind. Thus, in deference to the broad readership expected of this document, we present in the following Technical Note some of the possible implications of psi, acknowledging that this section is, of course, speculative.

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Technical Note: Some Implications of Parapsychology

Physicists tend to be interested in parapsychology because of the implication that we have a gross misunderstanding about space and time and the transmission of energy and information.
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Biologists are interested because psi implies the existence of additional, unexplained methods of sensing the world.
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Psychologists are interested for what psi implies about the nature of perception and memory.
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Philosophers are interested because psi phenomena specifically address many age-old philosophical problems, including the role of the mind in the physical world, and the nature of the objective vs. the subjective.
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Theologians and the general public tend to be interested because personal psi experiences are often accompanied by feelings of profound, ineffable meaning. As a result, psi is thought by some to have "spiritual" implications.
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From the materialistic perspective, one of the foundations of the current scientific worldview, human consciousness is nothing but an emergent product of the functioning of Brain, Body, and Nervous System (BBNS). That is, no matter how different mind may seem from solid stuff like bodies, it is generated solely by the electrochemical functioning of the BBNS, and so it is absolutely dependent on it. When the BBNS dies, so does consciousness. From this perspective, claims of survival of bodily death, or ghosts, or apparitions, must be due to wishful thinking. Furthermore, the limits of material functioning automatically determine the ultimate limits of mental functioning, thus ESP and PK appear to be impossible, given our current understanding about how the world works.

And yet, psi phenomena have occurred in all cultures throughout history, they continue to occur, and some of the reported phenomena have been persuasively verified using scientific methods. Because psi seems to transcend the assumed limits of material functioning, and therefore the BBNS, some interpret psi as supporting the idea that there is something more to mind than just the BBNS, that there is some sort of "soul," or the like.

This "non-physical" aspect, an aspect that does not seem to be as tightly bounded by space or time as present scientific models require, might survive bodily death. If so, there may be important truths contained in some spiritual ideas and practices. Of course, parapsychology is a very long way from being able to say that "the data shows that X" (insert your favorite religious group here) are specifically right about religious doctrines A, B, and C but dead wrong about dogmas P, Q and R.

We must emphasize that there is a big difference between simply noting that the findings of parapsychology may have implications for spiritual concepts, versus the idea that parapsychologists are driven by some hidden spiritual agenda. Some critics of parapsychology seem to believe that all parapsychologists have hidden religious motives, and that they are really out to prove the existence of the soul. This is no more true than claiming that all chemists really harbor secret ambitions about alchemy, and thus their real agenda is to transmute mercury into gold. The reasons why serious investigators are drawn to any discipline are as diverse as their backgrounds.

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Practical applications of psi
Studies of direct mental interaction with living systems suggest that traditional mental healing techniques, such as prayer, may be based on genuine psi-mediated effects. In the future it may be possible to develop enhanced methods of healing based on these phenomena.

Psi may be involved in Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will." That is, modern machines based upon sensitive electronic circuits, such as copiers and computers, may at times directly interact with human intention, and as a result, inexplicably fail at inopportune times. Of course, the converse may also be true. That is, the possibility exists to repair, or to control sensitive machines solely by mental means. Such technologies would significantly benefit handicapped persons.

Other potential applications include improved methods of making decisions, of locating missing persons or valuables, and of describing events at locations we cannot go to because of distance, time, or accessibility. This includes the possibility of psi-based historians and forecasters.

Highly developed psi abilities may benefit psychotherapy and other forms of counseling. Psi may be used to provide a statistical edge in the financial markets and in locating archeological treasures.
 

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