Parapsychology is a field of study concerned with the scientific investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena which includes telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation and other apparitional experiences.

The term ‘parapsychology’ was coined in 1889 by philosopher Max Dessoir. Para is from Greek, and means, ‘beside’, ‘closely related to’, ‘beyond’. In parapsychology, ‘psi’ is the unknown factor in extrasensory perception and psychokinesis experiences that is not explained by known physical or biological mechanisms. The term is derived from the 23rd letter ψ of the Greek alphabet and the Greek ψυχή psyche meaning the human soul, spirit or mind.


A general blanket term, proposed by B. P. Wiesner and seconded by R. H. Thouless (1942), and used either as a noun or adjective to identify paranormal processes and paranormal causation. The two main categories of ‘psi’ are psi-gamma (paranormal cognition and extrasensory perception) and psi-kappa (paranormal action and psychokinesis). The purpose of the term ‘psi’ is to suggest that they might simply be different aspects of a single process, rather than distinct and essentially different processes. Strictly speaking ‘psi’ also applies to survival of death. Some thinkers prefer to use ‘psi’ as a purely descriptive term for anomalous outcomes, as suggested by Palmer (1986), who defines it as a correspondence between the cognitive or physiological activity of an organism.


Parapsychology has a rich history dating back to at least to the 1800s in both the United Kingdom and the United States. While ‘psi’ phenomena were certainly observed throughout most of human history, it was not until during the Spiritualist Movement of the mid-nineteenth century that researchers first began to take an significant interest in psychic phenomena.

Before the Spiritualist Movement, there had been some investigation into ‘psi’ phenomena by the followers of Franz Anton Mesmer, who believed that forces he termed, ‘animal magnetism’ could be manipulated to heal illness. In the 1780s, one of Mesmer's followers, the Marquis de Puységur, discovered a state he termed, ‘experimental somnambulism’ (later termed ‘hypnosis’) in those that he had attempted to magnetize. While in this state, patients demonstrated telepathic abilities, vision and clairvoyance. It should be noted that the early magnetists believed that the telepathy and clairvoyance demonstrated by the entranced subjects had a physiological cause, and were not paranormal in nature at all.

With the Spiritualist Movement came an influx of purported psychic phenomena. Mediumship was nearly ubiquitous throughout England, parts of Europe and the United States; and prominent members of the scientific community began to investigate the validity of such phenomena. The early psychical researchers concerned themselves with studying mediums and other spiritualist claims. The need for a learned, scientific society to study psychic phenomena started to become evident and, in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London. Similar societies were soon set up in other countries in Europe as well as the American SPR founded with the support of William James. While most of the early SPR research had an anecdotal flavor, where experiments involved testing the abilities of specific mediums and other gifted individuals with claimed psychic abilities. There were also some probabilistic experiments involving card guessing and dice throwing.

The scientific reality of parapsychological phenomena and the validity of scientific parapsychological research is a matter of frequent dispute and criticism. The field is regarded by some critics as a pseudoscience. Parapsychologists, in turn say that parapsychological research is scientifically rigorous. Despite the controversy, a number of organizations and academic programs have been created to conduct research into the existence, nature and frequency of such phenomena. Thus, while the explanation of such phenomena still eludes scientific understanding, the possibility that human beings may have senses beyond the known physical senses that allows communication of information that is recognized as worthy of study.

Types of Anomalies

1. Mental - Often described as extrasensory perception, this category includes unusual mental states or abilities, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychometry, mediumship, clairaudience and clairsentience. These types of phenomena involve some form of information transfer occurring outside the confines of the traditional five senses.

2. Physical Phenomena - This category includes unusual physical occurrences, such as psychokinesis (often referred to as telekinesis), poltergeists, materializations, and bio-PK (direct mental interactions with living systems). These types of phenomena involve the mind influencing its physical surroundings as well as physical manifestations from unknown sources.

3. Survival Phenomena - Survival phenomena deals with the survival of consciousness after the change called physical death. Included in this category are ghosts, out-of-body experiences (OBEs) (also known as astral projections), reincarnation and near-death experiences (NDEs).


1881 - Some of the first studies in what would be later termed, ‘extrasensory perception’ were conducted by Sir William Barrett, shortly before he assisted in the founding of the Society for Psychical Research. Barrett investigated the case of the five Creery Sisters, who were between the ages of ten and seventeen and could apparently use telepathy to psychically identify an object that had been selected in their absence. After sending one sister out of the room, Barrett would write the name of an object on a piece of paper, which he would then show to the remaining sisters. The first girl was called back in, and usually guessed correctly the name of the object. Later, a second set of experiments was done involving playing cards. It was not until after the investigators had published their results that it was discovered that the girls had used a number of signals, including slight head movements and coughing to tell their sister what to guess, thereby nullifying the results of the experiments.

1882 - The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London. Its formation was the first systematic effort to organize scientists and scholars to investigate paranormal phenomena. Early membership included philosophers, scholars, scientists, educators and politicians, The SPR’s first president was Henry Sidgwick, professor of moral philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, a man of great standing in intellectual circles. His chief associates in the early stages were Frederic Myers, a classical scholar with wide-ranging interests, and the brilliant Edmund Gurney, who was to develop a pioneering interest in hypnotism and psychological automatisms. Other prominent figures were the physicists William Barrett and Lord Rayleigh; Arthur Balfour, philosopher and Britain’s prime minister in the years 1902-1905; his brother Gerald Balfour, classical scholar and philosopher, and Eleanor Sidgwick, the Balfours’ sister (and wife of Henry Sidgwick), a mathematician and later principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. Areas of study included telepathy, hypnotism, Reichenbach's phenomena (Odic force given to a hypothetical vital energy), apparitions, hauntings and the physical aspects of Spiritualism such as table-tilting, materialization and apportation.

1884 - Early clairvoyance experiments were reported by Charles Richet. Playing cards were enclosed in envelopes and a subject was put under hypnosis who attempted to identify them. The subject was reported to have been successful in a series of 133 trials, but the results dropped to chance level when performed before a group of scientists in Cambridge.

1885 - Due to the support of psychologist William James, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) was founded in Boston, later in 1905 moving to New York City under the leadership of James H. Hyslop. Notable cases investigated by Walter Franklin Prince of the ASPR in the early 20th century included Pierre L. O. A. Keeler, the Great Amherst Mystery and Patience Worth.

1911 - Stanford University became the first academic institution in the United States to study extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK) in a laboratory setting. The effort was headed by psychologist John Edgar Coover, and was supported by funds donated by Thomas Welton Stanford, brother of the university's founder. After conducting approximately 10,000 experiments, Coover concluded, statistical treatments of the data fail to reveal any cause beyond chance.

1920 - Investigator G. N. M. Tyrrell created automated devices known as ‘Zener cards’ to randomize target selection, and others experimented with drawings or token objects.

1930 - Duke University became the second major U.S. academic institution to engage in the critical study of ESP and psychokinesis in a laboratory setting. Under the guidance of psychologist William McDougall, and with the help of others in the department - including psychologists Karl Zener, Joseph B. Rhine, and Louisa E. Rhine - laboratory ESP experiments using volunteer subjects from the undergraduate student body began. As opposed to the approaches of psychical research, which generally sought qualitative evidence for paranormal phenomena, the experiments at Duke University proffered a quantitative, statistical approach using cards and dice. As a result of the ESP experiments at Duke, standard laboratory procedures for the testing of ESP developed and came to be adopted by interested researchers throughout the world.

The publication of J. B. Rhine's book, New Frontiers of the Mind (1937) brought the laboratory's findings to the general public. In his book, Rhine popularized the word 'parapsychology', which psychologist Max Dessoir had coined over 40 years earlier. The term, ‘parapsychology‘ was adopted by J. B. Rhine in the 1930s as a replacement for the term, ‘psychical research‘ in order to indicate a significant shift toward experimental methodology and academic discipline. Rhine also founded anautonomous Parapsychology Laboratory within Duke and started the Journal of Parapsychology, which he coedited with McDougall.

Early parapsychological research employed the use of Zener cards in experiments designed to test for the existence of telepathic communication, or clairvoyant or precognitive perception. Rhine, along with associate Karl Zener, had developed a statistical system of testing for ESP that involved subjects guessing what symbol, out of five possible ones would appear when going through a special deck of cards designed for this purpose. A percentage of correct guesses (or hits) significantly above 20% was perceived as higher than chance and indicative of psychic ability. Rhine stated in his first book, Extrasensory Perception (1934), that after 90,000 trials, he felt ESP is an actual and demonstrable occurrence.

Although parapsychology has its roots in earlier field research, such as the work of Sir Oliver Lodge in England, the experiments by J. B. Rhine at Duke University are often thought of as the beginning of parapsychology as a science. Rhine is perhaps best known for his methodology of using card-guessing and dice-rolling experiments in the laboratory in an attempt to find a statistical validation of extra-sensory perception. This type of experimental approach has characterized much of contemporary parapsychology. Rhine attempt to provide parapsychology with a systematic, progressive program of sound experimentation, which would characterize the conditions and extent of psi phenomena rather than merely trying to prove their existence. He also strove to give the field of parapsychology academic and scientific legitimacy.

1933 - Irish medium and parapsychologist, Eileen J. Garrett, was tested by Rhine at Duke University using Zener cards. Certain symbols that were placed on the cards and sealed in an envelope, and she was asked to guess their contents. She performed poorly and later criticized the tests by claiming the cards lacked psychic energy what she called, ‘energy stimulus’ and that she could not perform clairvoyance to order.

1938 - The psychologist Joseph Jastrow wrote that much of the evidence for extrasensory perception collected by Rhine and other parapsychologists was anecdotal, biased, dubious and the result of faulty observation and familiar human frailties. Rhine's experiments were discredited due to the discovery that sensory leakage or cheating could account for his results such as the subject being able to read the symbols from the back of the cards and being able to see and hear the experimenter to note subtle clues.

1950s - Rhine and Joseph Gaither Pratt wrote, Parapsychology: Frontier Science of the Mind. Because of the methodological problems, parapsychologists no longer utilize card-guessing studies. Rhine's experiments into psychokinesis (PK) used dice, with subjects willing them to fall a certain way.

In the early 50s the CIA started doing extensive research into behavioral engineering. Various experiments were undertaken in the process of this research, including some using various hallucinogenic substances. The findings from these experiments led to the formation of the Stargate Project, which handled ESP research for the U.S. government. The Stargate Project was terminated in 1995 with the conclusion that it was not useful in any intelligence operation.

1969 - Under the direction of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the Parapsychological Association became affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest general scientific society in the world. In 1979, physicist John A. Wheeler said, that parapsychology is pseudoscientific and that the affiliation of the PA to the AAAS needed to be reconsidered. His challenge to parapsychology's AAAS affiliation was unsuccessful. Today, the PA consists of about three hundred full, associate and affiliated members worldwide.

1970s - During the 1970s, a number of other notable parapsychological organizations were formed, including the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (1970), The Institute of Parascience (1971), The Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, The Institute for Noetic Sciences (1973) and the International Kirlian Research Association (1975). Each of these groups performed experiments on paranormal subjects to varying degrees. Parapsychological work was also conducted at the Stanford Research Institute during this time.

The scope of parapsychology expanded during these years. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson conducted much of his research into reincarnation during the 1970s, and the second edition of his Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation was published in 1974. Psychologist Thelma Moss devoted time to the study of Kirlian photography at UCLA's parapsychology laboratory. The influx of spiritual teachers from Asia, and their claims of abilities produced by meditation, led to research on altered states of consciousness. American Society for Psychical Research, director of research, Karlis Osis conducted experiments in out of body experiences. Physicist Russell Targ coined the term, ‘remote viewing’ for use in some of his work at SRI in 1974.

In December 1972 Uri Geller was invited by Dr. Andrija Puharich to become the subject of a scientific study undertaken at the prestigious Stanford Research Institute at Menlo Park, California. There he was introduced to astronaut Edgar Mitchell, and physicists Hal Puthoff and Russel Targ. Geller was at the laboratory of SRI for six weeks where he showed remarkable ESP perceptual ability, and was able to describe and draw hidden pictures. He was by no means the best person to visit the lab and carry out this type of remote viewing, but he was certainly better than the average in this capacity. He did not bend any metal under acceptably controlled conditions, but had done paranormal bending at other times under excellent conditions. The results of the experiments and studies presented the existence of one or more perceptual modalities through which individuals obtain information about their environment were written up in Nature Magazine.

1980s - The Parapsychological Association reported members working in more than 30 countries. Research was carried out and regular conferences held in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, although the word ‘parapsychology’ was discarded in favour of the term ‘psychotronics’. The main promoter of psychotronics was Czech scientist Zdeněk Rejdák, who described it as a physical science, organizing conferences and presiding over the International Association for Psychotronic Research.

In 1985 a Chair of Parapsychology was established within the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh and was given to Robert Morris, an experimental parapsychologist from the United States. Morris and his research associates and PhD students pursued research on topics related to parapsychology.

Since the 1980s, contemporary parapsychological research has waned considerably in the United States. Early research was considered inconclusive, and parapsychologists were faced with strong opposition from their academic colleagues. Some effects thought to be paranormal, for example the effects of Kirlian photography (thought by some to represent a human aura), disappeared under more stringent controls, leaving those avenues of research at dead-ends. The bulk of parapsychology research in the US is now confined to private institutions funded by private sources.

2000s - Two universities in the United States currently have academic parapsychology laboratories. The Division of Perceptual Studies, a unit at the University of Virginia's Department of Psychiatric Medicine, studies the possibility of survival of consciousness after bodily death, near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences. The University of Arizona's Veritas Laboratory conducts laboratory investigations of mediums. Several private institutions, including the Institute of Noetic Sciences, conduct and promote parapsychological research.

Over the last two decades some new sources of funding for parapsychology in Europe have seen a substantial increase in European parapsychological research so that the center of gravity for the field has swung from the United States to Europe. Of all nations the United Kingdom has the largest number of active parapsychologists. In the UK, researchers work in conventional psychology departments, and also do studies in mainstream psychology to boost their credibility and show that their methods are sound. It is thought that this approach could account for the relative strength of parapsychology in Britain.

As of 2007, parapsychology research is represented in some 30 different countries and a number of universities worldwide continue academic parapsychology programs. Among these are the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, The Parapsychology Research Group at Liverpool Hope University, The SOPHIA Project at the University of Arizona, the Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology Research Unit of Liverpool John Moores University, The Center for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton and The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Parapsychological research has also included other sub-disciplines of psychology. These related fields include transpersonal psychology, which studies transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human mind and anomalistic psychology, which examines paranormal beliefs and subjective anomalous experiences in traditional psychological terms.

Experimental Research and Methodology

Researchers have found that ESP abilities are apparently heightened under hypnosis. The results of experiments have been found to be consistently higher when subjects are put into trance than when they retain normal consciousness. Since hypnosis typically involves relaxation and suggestion in an atmosphere of friendliness and trust, it is thought that perhaps one of these factors, or a combination thereof, may be responsible for heightened ‘psi’ scores.

The absence of psi ability is also sometimes considered significant. Researchers employ the term, ’psi-missing’ to denote situations where the subject consistently scores below what would be expected by chance. According to experimental results, believers in ‘psi’ tend to score higher, whereas skeptics often score significantly below chance. This phenomenon, referred to as the ‘sheep-goat effect’ (where believers are ‘sheep’ and non-believers are ‘goats’), has been observed by many researchers. This phenomenon lends itself to the idea that one's attitudes may affect one's reality; disbelievers may create a void of ‘psi’ experiences, while believers experience the opposite.

Computers are often used in testing for abilities like psychokinesis, where subjects attempt to influence the output of random number generators. Computers can help rule out a number of possible corruptions of methodology that can occur with human administration of tests. Despite controversy over parapsychological work, new experiments and a refinement of older methodologies continue in the field.

Famous ESP Experiments

The Ownbey-Zirkle ESP experiment at Duke was criticized by parapsychologists and skeptics. Ownbey would attempt to send ESP symbols to Zirkle who would guess what they were. The pair were placed in adjacent rooms unable to see each other and an electric fan was used to prevent the pair communicating by sensory cues. Ownbey tapped a telegraph key to Zirkle to inform him when she was trying to send him a symbol. The door separating the two rooms was open during the experiment, and after each guess Zirkle would call out his guess to Ownbey who recorded his choice. Critics pointed out the experiment was flawed as Ownbey acted as both the sender and the experimenter, nobody was controlling the experiment, so Ownbey could have cheated by communicating with Zirkle or made recording mistakes.

The Turner-Ownbey long distance telepathy experiment was discovered to contain flaws. May Frances Turner positioned herself in the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory whilst Sara Ownbey claimed to receive transmissions 250 miles away. For the experiment Turner would think of a symbol and write it down whilst Ownbey would write her guesses. The scores were highly successful and both records were supposed to be sent to J. B. Rhine, however, Ownbey sent them to Turner. Critics pointed out this invalidated the results as she could have simply written her own record to agree with the other. When the experiment was repeated and the records were sent to Rhine the scores dropped to average.

A famous ESP experiment at the Duke University was performed by Lucien Warner and Mildred Raible. The subject was locked in a room with a switch controlling a signal light elsewhere, which she could signal to guess the card. Ten runs with ESP packs of cards were used and she achieved 93 hits (43 more than chance). Weaknesses with the experiment were later discovered. The duration of the light signal could be varied so that the subject could call for specific symbols and certain symbols in the experiment came up far more often than others which indicated either poor shuffling or card manipulation. The experiment was not repeated.

Participant in a ganzfeld experiment which proponents say may show evidence of telepathy.

In the 1970s, parapsychologists began using ganzfeld tests to test for ESP ability. Ganzfeld tests attempt to test for telepathy by separating two individuals into isolated rooms, where one attempts to send a telepathic image to the other. The sender of the message is generally shown either a still image or a short video clip, which they then attempt to send to the receiver. The receiver sits in a comfortable reclining chair under a red light, wearing headphones that play white noise or pink noise, and with their eyes covered with halves of ping pong balls. These conditions help the receiver enter what is termed the ‘ganzfeld state’, a trance-like state similar to being in a sensory deprivation chamber. After the sender has attempted to send the image for a set amount of time (generally 20 to 40 minutes), the receiver is asked to choose the correct image out of a group of four images. Parapsychologists collected the results of approximately 700 individual ganzfeld sessions performed by about two dozen investigators, and claimed the correct image was selected 34 percent of the time. This increase above the 25 percent that would be expected from chance alone has been cited as proof of the existence of telepathy, although critics point out numerous ways in which ganzfeld experiments may be flawed.

Researchers at the Rhine have observed psychokinesis (PK) with a number of different participants in a controlled setting. Effects have been observed repeatedly on an Egley Wheel (a pinwheel device like a ‘psi’ wheel that is commercially produced), and Rhine researchers have not found any physical forces responsible for the observed effects. There is an indication from another lab that there may be physical forces that are affecting this device, and research is continuing to determine what is making the wheel turn.

In addition, one participant has demonstrated a consistent micro-PK effect. This participant is demonstrating effects on random number generators and other electronic systems. The effect is produced on-demand and the results far exceed variations expected by chance. With a participant that can consistently demonstrate this effect, it is possible to begin to explore the nature of this effect and the limitations. Controlled studies are being conducted to determine whether the observed effect is magnetic, electrical, related to heat or light. These studies are being conducted in the laboratory, but also from a distance of hundreds of miles using a Skype connection.

Criticism and Debate

With the increase in parapsychological investigation, there came an increase in organized opposition to both the findings of parapsychologists and to granting of any formal recognition of the field. Criticisms of the field were focused in the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in 1976, now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and its periodical, Skeptical Inquirer. CSI continues to review parapsychological work and raise objections where it is felt necessary.

Many professional scientists study parapsychological phenomena. It is an interdisciplinary field, attracting psychologists, physicists, engineers and biologists as well as those from other sciences. Despite this, parapsychology is often accused of being a pseudoscience. Skeptical scholars like Raymond Hyman and James E. Alcock have pointed out several problems with viewing parapsychology as a true science.

One of the most glaring problems facing parapsychologists is the fact that few ‘psi’ experiments can be replicated. Parapsychologists argue that ‘psi’ phenomena are indeed real, but do not lend themselves to experimental replication. Hyman also points out that, unlike every other branch of science, parapsychology has a shifting, rather than cumulative database. Historical experiments and results are often discarded and found not to be valid. Some, like the case of the telepathic Creery sisters were proven to be fraud, while others are considered to have had flawed methodology. Unlike other sciences, parapsychology relies heavily on statistical inference to prove its case. In other sciences, slight deviations from chance that follow no set pattern or rules and cannot be reliably replicated are usually abandoned.

Noted skeptic James E. Alcock also questioned the significance of such deviations from chance suggesting that there is a logical fallacy in assuming that significant departures from the laws of chance are automatically evidence that something paranormal has occurred.

Proponents of parapsychology counter these arguments suggesting that several branches of science are based on the observation of unexplainable anomalies including quantum mechanics. It has argued that parapsychology does, in fact, build upon previous experiments, learning from them and using that knowledge to design better experiments. Additionally, the statistical nature of ‘psi’ experiments is more similar to the connection of cigarette smoking to lung cancer; a result that would also be impossible to replicate in an individual experiment.

The scientific reality of parapsychological phenomena and the validity of scientific parapsychological research is a matter of frequent dispute and criticism, and is regarded by some critics as a pseudoscience. Parapsychologists, in turn say that parapsychological research is scientifically rigorous. Despite the controversy, a number of organizations and academic programs have been created to conduct research into the existence, nature and frequency of occurrence of such phenomena. Thus, while the explanation of such phenomena still eludes scientific understanding, the possibility that human beings may have senses beyond the known physical senses that allow communication of information is recognized as worthy of study.

Alan Ross