WHAT IS PSI? WHAT ISN'T?
|In the late fall of 1976 I had an experience that would change my life.
While asleep, I heard a female voice call out my name, twice. It resembled
the voice of my sister or my mother. I woke up in a panic, with the
distinct impression that the ceiling was about to collapse on me. I jumped
out of bed and ran outside my bedroom. Moments elapsed, as I moved from
one room to another, not quite sure what to do with myself. I checked the
door locks, thinking that maybe, in my sleep, I had heard the sound of
someone trying to break in. After all, this was Bedford-Stuyvesant -- one
of the roughest neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York. Nothing...
There was dead silence everywhere, and everything seemed quite normal. Yet, never before had I had such a strong sense that something was wrong; my gut was telling me that I was in imminent danger. Eventually, though, I convinced myself that this must have been a very bizarre kind of nightmare. I returned to bed, and fell asleep again.
The following morning I was startled awake by a phone call. A Greek friend of mine was calling to tell me that a terrible earthquake had hit Thessaloniki, the northern capital of Greece, where my family was living at that time. I was practically sick with anxiety, realizing, suddenly, the significance of the episode I had just lived through. When I finally got through to my parents on the phone, I was relieved to discover that they were unharmed, though thoroughly shaken by this unexpected event. My mother, alone in the apartment when the violent shaking had begun, had run out into the street, like thousands of others, fearing that the building's collapse was imminent.
One of our favorite ways for dealing with the unknown is through language. We assign a word to an experience, to something we've seen, and then we feel we have a handle on it. So let's try to get a grasp of this great unknown, the universe of psychic phenomena, by assigning words to it.
To begin with, what do we mean by "psi?" Psi is actually the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet and first letter of the word "psyche." It is the term parapsychologists use to generically refer to all kinds of psychic phenomena, experiences, or events that seem to be related to the psyche, or mind, and which cannot be explained by established physical principles.
To qualify as psychic, an experience must involve interactions that are qualitatively different from our normal ways of exchanging with the world (verbal and nonverbal communication, sensations, bodily movements). A genuine psi exchange can not be based even upon subtle, subliminal forms of perception or action.
Say, for example, Jean fell asleep while listening to the radio, and has a dream about a plane-crash. The next morning, she is startled to read the newspaper's account of a terrible plane crash that had occurred around the time Jean fell asleep. Is this a psychic experience? Though it could have been, a "simpler" explanation involves a normal, psychological process: Soon after the plane crash a news flash came on the radio announcing the tragedy. Jean was asleep at the time, and didn't consciously hear this, but she may well have "subliminally" heard the report and integrated the news flash into a dream (a feat we now know the mind is capable of).
Extreme examples of this process have been recently reported in the press when individuals have miraculously recovered from a coma during which the brain appeared to be dead and then correctly recounted incidents that had occurred around them while they were considered to be completely unconscious.
So not all that appears to be psychic is in fact such. And not everything that goes under the scare-term of "the paranormal" is of interest to psi researchers. For example, UFOs, Bigfoot, and The Bermuda Triangle are not psychic phenomena, and are not studied by parapsychologists. A common misconception is that the subject matter of parapsychology is "anything mysterious" that is not explained by normal science.
We can spend a lot of time talking about what ISN'T psi, but let's stick, for now, to what we think psi IS. A large number of phenomena or experiences are considered psychic, or at least legitimate topics of parapsychological inquiry: these include telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis (or mind-over-matter), psychic healing, out-of-body experiences, poltergeists and a number of others. In the months to come, I'll be covering many of these phenomena in depth -- the evidence for them, the theories which have been proposed, the dynamics which favor or suppress them, and the techniques for discovering them in ourselves. But for now, let's start with telepathy, probably one of the most common forms of psi.
[This article used with permission of the Psi Explorer CD-ROM]