Sunday, May 4, 2008

Psychical and Parapsychology Research

To understand what I do, it's important to understand the boundaries of psychical research and parapsychology research.

Psychical research began around 1885 in Western Europe and England. The most well-known Western organization and the earliest formed was the Society for Psychical Research in London. Psychical research focuses mostly on attempting to answer the question of survival of bodily death. Early attempts were characterized by careful analysis of anecdotal statements. Only those statements that met strict guidelines were considered. For example the stories reviewed had to have secondary substantiation in some form. Stories were grouped and rated. Of the thousands considered only a small percentage were ever considered satisfactory for incorporation into the initial body of evidence. At this phase, the research was far more speculative and less scientific in nature. Statistical analysis had yet to be incorporated.

The first President of the SPR was Henry Sidgwick, a Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University. Significant co-founders of the SPR included Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney. Two great works were published by the SPR during this early period.

The first book was "Phantasms of the Living", written by Edmund Gurney, together with Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore, published in 1886 . This book was a collection of historical evidence and was the first landmark in psychical research. It contained over 700 carefully analysed cases, presented within the telepathic theory of crisis apparitions (interpreting reports of communications from people dying or in life-threatening situations as telepathically generated hallucinations).

The second book was "Human Personality and Survival of Bodily Death" written by F.W.H. Myers and published posthumously in 1903. The work spans two volumes and more than 1,000 pages. The eight chapters are: "Disintegrations of Personality," "Genius," "Sleep," "Hypnotism," "Sensory Automatism," "Phantasms of the Dead," "Motor Automatism," and "Trance, Possession and Ecstasy." This book is an expansive synthesis of Myers' thinking, presenting his theory of the "subliminal self". See Dr. Carlos Alvardo's SPR Journal review of "Human Personality".

The introduction of quantitative measurements and the use of laboratory procedures began in the 1920s with the likes of George Tyrell who explored a variety of methods for inducing altered states of consciousness, techniques to differentiate between telepathy and clairvoyance, and made attempts to automate the randomisation of targets.

In the 1930s, J.B. Rhine extended this work in the United States. Rhine was a prime exponent of the "experimental approach" which is used today in refined forms in modern research parapsychology. Replication and new quantitative methods were employed in everything from studies on "extra-sensory perception" (E.S.P) to experiments attempting to influence normally random pattern events, such as the outcomes of dice tosses. Rhine's original laboratory was on the campus of Duke University. The Rhine Research Center carries on and now extends this significant work off-campus.

Modern parapsychology research focuses on two key areas, anomalous cognition and anomalous perception. Anomalous cognition has been known as E.S.P. in the past. It includes claimed abilities such as telepathy (the ability to send and receive symbols, phrases, words and numbers between two living subjects). Anomalous perception was formerly known as 'clairvoyance' (the ability to see at a distance or perceive unknown facts visually).

Anomalous cognition has been demonstrated in well-controlled experiments worldwide. It has been successfully replicated in telepathy tests under strictly controlled conditions. It is one of the two scientifically proven phenomena that continue to replicate in modern experiments.
A related ability, known to many as 'remote viewing' was of great interest during the Cold War when governments recognized the ability to potentially incorporate these abilities into intelligence programs.

Dr. Edwin C. May organized a small team of remote viewers under a government contract to study this phenomena at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California. Later this research continued at SAIC. The outcome was a series of experiments that clearly demonstrated the viability of Anomalous Perception as it was known in the 1970s. Key parapsychologists who designed and executed these and related experiments were Dr. Harold Puthoff and Dr. Russell Targ. Dr. Jessica Utts performed a meta-analysis using this aggregate data. Her seminal 1996 paper, "An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning", demonstrates the statistical validity of this work in the latter half of the 20th century.

There are many other references that demonstrate the broad nature of and interest in the field of research parapsychology. One example is "The PK Zone" by Dr. Pamela Heath. This has been called a 'tour-de-force in PK research'. Psychokinesis (PK) is the apparent ability to move or affect objects with the mind, in other words, mind over matter.

Another recent work worthy of some time is Dr. Dean Radin's "Entangled Minds". Radin has capably outlines the broad field of research parapsychology in this book, and makes the compelling case that not only is parapsychology a legitimate discipline based on scientific methods and principles, but that it is also far more expansive than most readers might otherwise believe.

Parapsychologists study Anomalous Cognition (AC) and what has come to be called Anomalous Participation (the new name for PK or psychokinesis). Anomalous Participation (AP) has been studied both at the micro- and macro levels.

Micro-PK experiments attempt to influence the outcomes of what should be random events. Random event generator technology is used to create the events. Subjects are asked to attempt to de-randomize these events. Modern experiments of this type are conducted online. See the Parapsychological Association website for the currently ongoing experiments in this area worldwide.

Macro-PK experiments are less common since they don't lend themselves as well to control evironments. However similar effects are often reported in anecdotal cases as 'poltergeist' phenomena. Some of the principle work in field PK and poltegeist phenomena was done by Dr. William G. Roll beginning in the 1960s. Dr. Andrew Nichols has studied this phenomena as well. Only recently has one U.S. researcher been able to create a sufficiently large database of case study data to be able to predict the primary causal factors involved in such incidents. Dr. Barry Taff now believes that he not only is beginning to understand the basis of this phenomena, but that it could even be created on demand in a laboratory setting.

Adjunctive studies such as the effects of electromagnetic fields on human perception and the potential induction of hallucinations as a result, have been studied by Dr. Michael Persinger. Following on his work, Dr. Jason Braithwaite et al. have pioneered magnetic anomaly detection using high-quality fluxgate magnetometers and spectrum analysis software. They have successfully detected suspicious patterns in various locations around the UK where anomalous phenomena has previously been reported. For a more complete discussion see the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) research website.

While the field of parapsychology is potentially expansive, with many areas of adjunctive study. However, from the most conservative parapsychologist's point of view the field is currently restricted to AC and AP investigations, principally in laboratory settings or other well-controlled environments. The primary reason for this control conditions can be truly and repeatably established in such settings. This is one of the reasons that most parapsychological research is done in the lab and not in the field.

There is a growing trend to move (again) out of the lab. With this comes the attendant issues of how to maintain control conditions and document findings in such a way the relevance and replicable data is gathered. This is the 21st century challenge for parapsychology research as the field evolves to an even more mature science.