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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
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
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
- 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
- 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 a
bove list provided
courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, Director of the
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.
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
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.)
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
International scientific societies interested in parapsychology include the
See our updated list here.
The primary peer-reviewed parapsychological journals today include the
See our updated list here.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 (
visit their website for more information
Center is also
a good source of advice about
training and careers in parapsychology.
, 744 San Antonio Rd.,
CA 94303. You can
call them at (
493-4430. They have a
program in spiritual psychology, and
William Braud offers courses in parapsychology
for residential students.
of Integral Studies
, East-West Studies Program,
765 Ashbury St., San Francisco,
CA 94117. You can
call them at (
753-6100. The have
a program on consciousness and transformation.
American Society for
, 5 West 73rd St., New York,
NY 10023. You can
call them at (
maintains a list of schools that
offer some parapsychology courses. For
a small fee, they will mail it out to you.
School - Research Center
, San Francisco, CA
can call them at (800) 825-4480.
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.
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
, Edinburgh, Scotland (UK). The
Koestler Parapsychology Unit, which
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.
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).
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
University of the
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
course and an advanced certificate course in parapsychology),
which are now available to the public. They are taught
by parapsychologist Lance Storm.
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).
Where are some of the active psi research facilities?
See our recent listing here.
were the main contributors to this FAQ?
Revision, 28 Feb 2008, Pamela
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