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[updated 28 Feb 2008]

Why is parapsychology so controversial?
Parapsychology has remained controversial, even with substantial, persuasive, and scientifically palatable results, for four main reasons:

First, the media and much of the public often confuse parapsychology with sensational, unscientific beliefs and stories about "the paranormal." This widespread confusion has led many scientists to simply dismiss the field as being unworthy of serious study, and thus they think it is not worth their time to examine the existing evidence.

In addition, thoroughly understanding the nature of the existing evidence in parapsychology is not easy. While the meta-analytic results are both substantial and persuasive, meta-analysis requires specialized knowledge to understand that form of evidence. For people who are not familiar with statistics, or who don't trust it (which is usually a sign of misunderstanding), the evidence will not seem very persuasive. Those same people may then go looking for the big stuff, the psi-in-your-face, self-evident proofs, and they will find enormous amounts of anecdotal evidence but almost no scientifically credible data. They may then view lengthy discussions, such as the one in this FAQ, as proof that no one really knows what is going on, and that scientists are still basically waffling and indecisive about this topic.

Our response is simple: The scientific evidence for some forms of psi is extremely persuasive. By the same standards used to establish proof in other areas of science, we can say with high confidence that psi does exist, and we are beginning to learn a little about it, and why people develop this gift.

Second, even if someone wanted to study the evidence, much of the persuasive work is published in limited circulation professional journals. In the past, these were only found in a few university libraries, with scholars needing to request reprints and technical reports from individual authors (a cumbersome process at best)Fortunately, this situation has recently changed. There is now a subscription-based online library which includes all of the journals and proceedings ever published for the Society for Psychical Research, the Journal of Parapsychology, the European Journal of Parapsychology, the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Research in Parapsychology, and Psi Researcher - Paranormal Review. It also has some books available. Best of all, the database can be searched to pull up particular words, topics, or names. It is available at www.lexscien.org/lexscien/index.jsp (See Where can I get more information?)

Third, some people are afraid that psi might be true. For example, fear about psi arises for the following reasons:
  • It is associated with diabolic forces, magic and witchcraft.
  • It suggests the loss of normal ego boundaries.
  • People might be able to read your mind and know that you secretly (or unconsciously) harbor sexual and aggressive thoughts, or worse.
  • If you talk about it, people might think you're crazy.
  • If you think you experience psi, maybe you are crazy.
  • Your parents provided negative reinforcement for your any demonstrations of psychic ability (or past lives) when you were a child.
  • Thinking about psi leads to a medieval superstitious mentality, which will in turn support a rising tide of dangerous, primitive thinking.
  • With ESP, you might learn things that you do not want to know about yourself or other people -- i.e., accidents that are about to happen, and things you would rather not be responsible for knowing about.
  • Psi might interfere with the normal human process of ego separation and development. Therefore, we have devised subtle strategies for cultural inhibition.
  • If you are telepathic, how will you distinguish other people's thoughts from your own? Perhaps this will lead to mental illness.
  • Many people have a self-destructive streak to their personality. What damage would result if psi were used in the service of this factor? Psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud wrote about this in his book Parapsychology and the Unconscious.
  • If psi exists, how many of my other cherished beliefs will I have to give up?
  • If psi exists, does that mean that a psychic could watch me while I am using bathroom facilities?
  • If psi exists, then perhaps I cannot wall myself off so easily from the pain and suffering in the world.
  • With mind-matter interaction, you might have to take more responsibility for what happens--whether to you, others, or the world around you.
(Most of the above list provided courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, Director of the Intuition Network)
 
Fourth, as noted by Dean Radin in a talk for Google, there is a real taboo in academia about studying the paranormal. Many researchers are afraid to work or publish  in the field for fear of ostracism by their colleagues. Some may even be demoted in their departments or lose their chance for tenure if they publically speak up about their interest--even if they are only reflecting the feelings of the public majority. To put it bluntly, their reputation and careers are at stake.
 
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What is the state-of-the-evidence for psi?
To be precise, when we say that "X exists," we mean that the presently available, cumulative statistical database for experiments studying X, provides strong, scientifically credible evidence for repeatable, anomalous, X-like effects.

With this in mind, ESP exists, presentiment (physical changes in skin reactivity, pupil size, heart rate, and other factors indicating precognition before a stimulus is applied) exists, telepathy (direct mind-mind communication) exists, and mind-matter interaction (previously known as psychokinesis or PK) exists. The survival of bodily death remains unproven, though there is suggestive evidence for this from the reincarnation research performed by Ian Stevenson and others. (Note that we are using the terms ESP, telepathy and MMI in the technical sense, not in the popular sense. See What do parapsychologists study?)

ESP is statistically robust, meaning it can be reliably demonstrated through repeated trials. However, it may vary it but it tends to be weak when simple geometric symbols are used as targets. Photographic or video targets often produce effects many times larger, and there is some evidence that ESP on natural locations (as opposed to photos of them), and in natural contexts may be stronger still. Also, a lot has been learned about what kinds of conditions (such as the partial sensory deprivation used in the Ganzfeld) can enhance psi.

Some mind-matter interaction (MMI) effects have also been shown to exist. When individuals focus their intention on mechanical or electronic devices that fluctuate randomly, the fluctuations change in ways that conform to their mental intention. Under control conditions, when individuals direct their attention elsewhere, the fluctuations are in accordance with chance.

It should be noted that an increasing number of parapsychologists are moving beyond proof-oriented research (feeling that psi has already been sufficiently proven for anyone willing to actually read and consider the experimental research) to process-oriented, qualitative research. These studies are looking at a variety of factors (such as the kind of target used) to better understand these phenomena.

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What is the state-of-the-theory for psi?
Opinions about mechanisms of psi are wide-ranging. Because the field is multidisciplinary, there are physical theories, psychological theories, psychophysical theories, sociological theories, and combinations of these.

On one end of the spectrum, the "physicalists" tend to believe that the "psi sensing capacity" is like any other human sensory system, and as such it will most likely be explained by known principles from biophysics, chemistry, and cognitive science. For these theorists, psi is expected to be accommodated into the existing scientific structure, with perhaps some modifications or extensions.

On the other end of the spectrum, the "mentalists" assert that reality would not exist if it were not for human consciousness. For these theorists, the nature of the universe is much more effervescent, thus accommodating psi into existing scientific models will require significant modification of science as we know it. Strong theoretical debates are common in parapsychology in part because spirit, religion, the meaning of life, and other philosophical conundrums commingle with quantum mechanics, probability theory, and neurons.

Some theorists have attempted to link psi phenomena with similar- sounding concepts from quantum mechanics, including non-locality, instantaneous correlations at a distance, and other anomalies. Such suggestions always spark vigorous debates, and at some point it seems the critics are inevitably accused of not properly understanding quantum mechanics. (This is why we do not discuss quantum mechanical theories of psi here. See, however, the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge University.)
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Where can I get more information?

Be sure to read the books, The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, both by Dean Radin, They provide an excellent summary of some of the research in the field, including the use of statistics and meta-analysis.  There is also an excellent, multimedia CD-ROM on parapsychology called Psi Explorer.

International scientific societies interested in parapsychology include the following:
See our updated list here.

The primary peer-reviewed parapsychological journals today include the following:
See our updated list here.

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Questions about popular phenomena
 

Are ghosts real?

The prevailing view today is that many of the mysterious physical effects historically attributed to ghosts (disembodied spirits), such as movement of objects, strange sounds, enigmatic odors, and failure of electrical equipment, are actually poltergeist phenomena (see below). Apparitions that occur without accompanying physical effects are thought to be either normal psychological effects (i.e., hallucinations), or possibly genuine information mediated by psi.

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Are poltergeists real?

Poltergeists (from the German, "noisy ghosts") usually manifest as loud sounds, strange electrical effects, and the unexplained movement of objects. At one time, these phenomena were thought to be due to ghosts, but after decades of investigations by researchers, notably by William G. Roll, the evidence now suggests that poltergeist effects are actually caused by the living. The MMI itself may be produced by one or more individuals, often (but not always) troubled adolescents. The term "RSPK," meaning "Recurrent Spontaneous PK," was coined to describe this concept. The events themselves--like all forms of spontaneous MMI--are intrinsically meaningful and can be understood much in the same way as a dream metaphor to explain the underlying psychological issues that triggered the phenomena. Investigations are therefore performed in the same manner as would a newspaper reporter, looking at the who, what, when, where, and why. Some parapsychologists believe that poltergeist activity are a way of relieving stress through the physical expression of unconscious feelings.

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Why aren't psychics breaking the bank in Las Vegas casinos?

The theoretical house advantage for some casino games is fairly small, e.g., about 1% for optimally-played craps. This means that over the long term, a good craps player might get back 99 cents for each dollar they play. If they hit a "hot streak," they might even win some money. In practice, the actual house take for most games is fairly large (about 25% for table games) because people rarely play consistently, they reinvest their winnings, and the casino environment is intentionally designed to be noisy and visually distracting. Thus, for a given psychic to make any notable differences in long-term casino profits, they would have to (a) understand the strategies of each game they play, (b) consistently play according to those strategies, (c) stop when they are ahead, and (d) consistently apply strong, reliable psi.

Over the long term casino profits are predictably stable, but given that some psi effects are known to be genuine, in principle a good, consistent psychic (who knows how to play the casino games) might make some money by gambling. In addition, many people applying weak psi may cause small fluctuations in casino profits, but testing this would require analyzing an enormous amount of casino data, and such data is difficult to obtain.

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Is channeling real?

Channeling is the claim that a departed spirit, or other non-physical entity, can speak or act through a sensitive person. In the late 1800s, this was called mediumship; similar claims of communicating with departed spirits can be found throughout history and across most cultures. Some researchers believe that cases of exceptional prodigies, like Mozart in music, or Ramanujan in mathematics, provide evidence of genuine channeling.

While some of the material supposedly channeled by departed spirits, or other-worldly beings, is clearly nonsense, other works have inspired large numbers of people and serve as continuing sources of illumination. Revealed religions, and some visionary experiences, for example, are versions of channeled information. However, whether the information came from a genuinely paranormal source, or from the channeler's unconscious, is a perennial topic of debate. Those who wish to know more about this topic should read Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources by Jon Klimo.

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Are large-scale effects, like levitation or spoon-bending real?

Throughout history there have been many reports of spectacular events, such as individuals levitating, holy people materializing objects out of thin air, and people who are able to move, bend or break objects without touching them. Unfortunately, in most cases individuals who make such claims hope to capitalize on their "abilities." Because the potential for fraud is high, and it is relatively easy to create convincing effects that closely mimic paranormal ones (with conjuring techniques), trustworthy evidence for such large-scale effects is very poor. There are a few cases of apparently genuine movement of small objects and in those cases where spoon-bending is apparently MMI-mediated have melted layers on electron microscopy, instead of fractured ones that one sees when force is used. However, in general the existence of large-scale MMI seems to be limited to a few poltergeist cases, and remains open to serious question even within the parapsychological community.

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Where can I get a degree in parapsychology?
Many students and adults would like to study human consciousness, parapsychology, transpersonal psychology, or some combination of these fields. While these topics are of great interest, the number of courses and degrees available in these topics are - surprisingly - very few. People often believe that there are active undergraduate or graduate-level programs at universities known for having parapsychology labs. Unfortunately, this is not true. At present the only universities that teach graduate-level courses on parapsychology are outside of the United States, in Europe.

If your interest in consciousness research can be focused on a relatively accepted aspect of it (say, biofeedback research) you may be able to find a professor at some mainstream university doing research that you could work with. Check reference sources like Psychological Abstracts and MedLine to see who is doing work in these areas and what institutions they are at, then write them. If your primary interest is parapsychology, things get much tougher. You can forget most mainstream academic institutions if you want to get seriously involved in this topic at the professional level.

In terms of realistic career advice, note that parapsychology is considered "marginal" by mainstream psychology. If your goal is a tenured faculty position at a major university, with plenty of time for research, any degree with an emphasis in parapsychology will not be looked upon with favor. Parapsychologists usually make a living teaching or doing another conventional job.

Some students solve the problem of wanting the advantages offered by a mainstream academic position, but without giving up their greater interests in parapsychology, by going to a mainstream school (where they are wisely discrete about their deeper interests), learning how to conduct research in some well-accepted discipline, and then quietly joining the Parapsychological Association and/or reading the primary parapsychological journals. 

Scientific parapsychology is a minuscule field, with only a few dozen people in the entire world working in it. At present, the chances of landing a decent job are very small indeed. If you are so dedicated that this doesn't stop you, wonderful! But please be realistic.

Pursuing parapsychology as a career also requires strong entrepreneurial skills, enormous persistence and creativity, resourcefulness, solid training in one of more of the conventional sciences or in a scholarly discipline, and the ability to withstand the tides of conventional wisdom. The payoff is that parapsychology, like other scientific frontiers, is an extremely challenging discipline with plenty of room for exploring creative ideas and making significant advancements to the state-of-the-art. If you expect fast solutions to easy problems, or absolute answers to clear questions, then parapsychology is definitely not for you. If you enjoy exploring the full range of human potential and challenging the status quo, then there is no better discipline than parapsychology.

Portions of the above discussion courtesy of Dr. Charles Tart.

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For more information on institutions offering advanced degrees, coursework, or credit in parapsychology:

 

Rhine Research Center, the successor of J. B. Rhine's parapsychology lab at Duke University, offers an excellent summer training program that provides a solid introduction to parapsychology. You can call them at (919) 688-8241 or visit their website for more information. The Rhine Research Center is also a good source of advice about training and careers in parapsychology.

Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, 744 San Antonio Rd., Palo Alto, CA 94303. You can call them at (415) 493-4430. They have a program in spiritual psychology, and parapsychologist William Braud offers courses in parapsychology for residential students.

California Institute of Integral Studies, East-West Studies Program, 765 Ashbury St., San Francisco, CA 94117. You can call them at  (415) 753-6100. The have a program on consciousness and transformation.

American Society for Psychical Research, 5 West 73rd St., New York, NY 10023. You can call them at (212) 799-5050. Their librarian maintains a list of schools that offer some parapsychology courses. For a small fee, they will mail it out to you.

Saybrook Graduate School - Research Center, San Francisco, CA 94111You can call them at (800) 825-4480. Saybrook's non-residential Masters and PhD programs allow students to design their own degree in psychology with an emphasis on parapsychology. Parapsychologist Stanley Krippner teaches there.
 
Pima Community College Tucson, AZ. This offers a undergraduate level beginning parapsychology course under parapsychologist William Everist. Given the school's proximity to Tombstone, students may have the opportunity to be involved in some haunting investigations. The course description can be read at www.pima.edu/aux/course_outlines/psy/psy224.rtf

University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland (UK). The Koestler Parapsychology Unit, which is part of the Psychology Department, grants a PhD in psychology with a concentration in parapsychology. This residential program is unique for providing an accredited program in traditional psychology with emphasis in parapsychology. Parapsychologist Caroline Watt is currently a senior lecturer there, and courses on the psychology of magic and psychic fraud are also taught by Peter Lamont.

University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, England (UK). The Parrott-Warrick Research Unit within the Department of Psychology, explores topics in parapsychology. There are currently a few graduate students pursuing a PhD under the supervision of Dr. Richard Wiseman.
University of Gothenburg, Sweden. This offers a doctoral program that is mainly a dissertation (there is course work but this is in the general area of methodology, research design, and statistics, with a few additional courses, which reflect the candidate's area of interest). Parapsychologist Adrian Parker offers doctoral supervision in the areas of altered states and parapsychology. 

The Center for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology (CERCAP) at Lund University, consists of a group of researchers and associates dedicated to the scientific study of unusual (but not pathological) experiences and events, including purported parapsychological phenomena. They endorse research using many different methodologies, and are open to a variety of perspectives in this area, as long as they are informed and respectful. CERCAP's aim is to continue developing multidisciplinary, national, and international collaborations, and train undergraduate and graduate students in a supportive environment. Currently there is an advanced undergraduate course on Altered States of Consciousness and Parapsychology, and doctoral study possibilities for exceptional students wanting to work under the supervision of parapsychologist Etzel Cardeña on the themes of CERCAP. You can learn more about this on her webpage at www.psychology.lu.se/Personal/e_cardena

University of the Utrecht in the Netherlands, offers some coursework in parapsychology under the direction of Prof. Dick Bierman, through the Department of Psychology. Prof. Bierman also holds a special Chair of Consciousness Studies there.

INTERNET AND DISTANCE PROGRAMS:
 

The Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research, Inc. has two online courses (a certificate
course and an advanced certificate course in parapsychology), which are now available to the public. They are taught by parapsychologist Lance Storm.
 
The Hypnotherapy Institute (HCH) , Lafayette, CA. It offers a certificate course on parapsychological studies with approved CE credit for MFTs, LCSWs, and RNs. The classes on ESP, mind-matter interaction, and survival are taught by parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach. Classes are offered by telephone and as mp3 files (some material is also available on CD-ROM). They can be taken individually or together as the complete 60 hour course for a fee of $1,000 (including texts).

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Where are some of the active psi research facilities?

See our recent listing here.

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Who were the main contributors to this FAQ?
Revision, 28 Feb 2008, Pamela Heath, MD
Editor, Dean Radin, Ph.D.
Carlos Alvarado, Ph.D., Parapsychology Foundation, New York City
Dick Bierman, Ph.D., Anomalous Cognition, University of Amsterdam
Topher Cooper, BSc., Voice Processing Corporation, Cambridge, MA, USA
Edwin May, Ph.D., Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, Palo Alto, CA, USA
Roger Nelson, Ph.D., PEAR Laboratory, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
Ephraim Schechter, Ph.D., Durham, NC, USA
James Spottiswoode, BSc., James Spottiswoode & Assoc., CA
Charles Tart, Ph.D., University of California, Davis (Emeritus), CA, USA
 

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