From the writer: I wrote this piece over a year ago for WRT 209 on a topic I had great interest in many years ago. As I researched this paper, I became both re-interested in the topic, and disappointed that such an interesting and potentially vibrant field of research was slowly withering away. Hopefully, in the future, the fascination with this great unknown will inspire others to research and explore the greater unknown.
From the teacher: Jason and I worked together in a Studio 209 linked to the School of Management although it often includes non-management majors. The course focuses on the rhetoric of research, and much of the semester involves a lengthy research project designed by students, however loosely, around the theme of Organizational Life. To accommodate the task of including a social dimension in his work, Jason transformed his original impulse to take on the supernatural into a paper about the trajectory of the field of parapsychology. It is at the same time a nicely researched history, a tale of ghost hunting and psi events, and the story of a discourse community struggling to prove itself.
From the editors: Popular culture has made hauntings and paranormal activity a common part of our daily lives. We are presented with stories of ghosts and ESP regularly enough to take them for granted, regardless of our belief in them. Stefanik explores the history of these beliefs in his essay, probing what truly lies beyond the threshold of parapsychology.
"I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything
I cannot explain as a fraud."
-C.G. Jung (Society for Psychical Research)
"Parapsychology is a belief in search of data rather than data in search
of an explanation."
-C.E.M. Hansel (Alcock ix)
For years, ghosts and poltergeists have been a part of our popular lexicon. From stories told around the campfire, to motion pictures like The Haunting, to books like the Scary Story series, everyone has heard a good ghost story or two. Many people claim to have actually been party to a few supernatural experiences themselves. But for as long as we have told these frightful stories, science has been attempting to explain them beyond the typical bump in the dark.
This investigation into the paranormal eventually evolved into the field
of parapsychology. Current research in parapsychology has three focuses:
psychokinesis (PK), extrasensory perception (ESP), and survival-after-bodily-death
experiences. Psychokenisis is direct mental interaction with objects animate
or inanimate. Extrasensory perception is a general term for obtaining information
about events beyond the reach of the normal senses ("Parapsychology FAQ").
Survival-after-bodily-death is the investigation into events and phenomena
dealing with life after death.
In this paper, I intend to look at parapsychology and the study of survival-after-bodily-death. This area of parapsychology is perhaps the most recognizable, yet also the least investigated. I intend to look at the rise of this field of inquiry as a science, the arguments for it and against it, and why survival-after-bodily-death is not as prominent a field as it once was.
Parapsychology's roots can be traced back to the Spiritualist movement
of the late 1900s. There have always been reports of otherworldly phenomena.
The Bible is full of apparitions and visions, and legends are full of the
like. But actual investigation into such events began during the Victorian
Age. This fascination with the supernatural was attributed to people's
hope that there was life after death, partially due to anxiety over the
end of the century.
The Spiritualist movement actually began in central New York, in March 1848, in the Fox household. The house had been disturbed for years by loud raps and knocks. When the Fox family came to occupy the house, the disturbances continued with renewed vigor. The unique thing was that the Fox sisters claimed to be able to control the raps and communicate with the spirits causing them. They used seances to contact and speak with the spirits. This attracted a great deal of attention and ushered in this new public interest.
The Spiritualist movement of the late Nineteenth Century brought mediums, Ouija, channeling, and apparitions to the forefront of popular consciousness. Seances became popular parlor activities, and a lucky few made a decent living from the paranormal fancies of the Victorian Age. As these pursuits gained notoriety for their entertainment value, however, science sought to find fact behind them. It was around this time that the study of the paranormal began to emerge. This originally consisted of debunking the popular mystics of the day. Harry Houdini popularized this as he traveled the country, half-looking for truth and half indulging his passion for exposing frauds. But actual experiments into psychical phenomena were few and far between, and were almost never done in a scientific manner. For years, anecdotal evidence was the only research done in the field. However, as stories of paranormal activity rose, academic interest began to mass. The London Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was created in 1882 by a group of Cambridge scholars, representing the first organization dedicated solely to such research. Many scholars who would later become prominent in the field were born out of this group, including J. B. Rhine and Harry Price.
The writings and published work of the London SPR influenced a number of researchers and scientists in America, largely within the Ivy League schools. Scientists at Harvard, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale all debated the logistics and possible science of psychical research. Letters published in Science, other academic journals, and the popular press fueled the debate and eventually led to a conference in Boston to discuss the formation of an American outreach of the Society for Psychical Research. Three years after the formation of the British society, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) was launched in January 1885. As the first organized body devoted to experimental psychology in America, it's journal, Proceedings, was actually published before the American Journal of Psychology, which was not created until 1888 (Weiner and Radner 189).
The Society set out to study all forms of psychic phenomena by means of objective scientific methods, but not specifically to prove the reality of life after death. Much of its early research involved mediums and seances, as the Spiritualist movement offered ample subjects. The main distinction between the research at the time and that which came later was that the ASPR did not do closed tests under controlled conditions at that time. Much of their research, while using scientific method, was done on site and was therefore prone to fraud. This method of research changed with the arrival of William McDougall and his protégé, J.B. Rhine.
Actual scientific psychical research got its start in America thanks to Dr. William McDougall, head of psychology at Duke University in the 1920s. McDougall was the head of the Society of Psychical Research in England before coming to America to teach at Harvard and then, later, at Duke. His interest in the Behaviorist Movement and the possibility of nonphysical reality influenced a cadre of Harvard researchers during his time there (many of these researchers would later fill out the ranks of the ASPR). McDougall's research also caught the attention of J.B. Rhine and his wife, then undergraduates at Harvard. The Rhines continued to follow McDougall's work with the ASPR as they moved to the University of Chicago to complete their doctorates in plant physiology. After finishing their program at Chicago, they returned to work under McDougall on psychical research at Duke University. Eventually, they were offered professorships, and in 1935 J.B. Rhine founded the Parapsychology Lab at Duke University. For the next thirty years, until the early 1960s, the Rhines experimented in and defined the field of parapsychology (including coining the terms parapsychology and ESP). Parapsychology became the new name by which psychical research became known and the all-encompassing term for research into the paranormal.
The important thing about J.B. Rhine was that he was the first researcher in parapsychology to perform controlled laboratory experiments. Rhine dodged the field research in mediums and apparitions to focus on controlled ESP and PK experiments. He used statistical testing, controlled variables, and test repetition to prove that his experiments were more than anecdotal and questionable. The Rhines are largely credited with bringing credibility and accountability to the field of parapsychology. They also created the Journal of Parapsychology to report on research in the field.
As J.B. Rhine's career was coming to an end at Duke and he was approaching retirement, he saw the need to create an independent institution to continue his work. In 1962 he founded the Rhine Research Center and Institute for Parapsychology to continue investigation into parapsychology without academic or corporate influence. The center is located off the Duke University campus and works independent of the school.
Today, there are several other journals reporting on parapsychology, including the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, the Journal of the American Society of Psychic Research, and the European Journal of Parapsychology. There are also yearly conferences sponsored by the Parapsychological Association, in which parapsychologists from around the world discuss their research and present papers. Also, there are numerous organizations around the globe that have done, or are doing, research into parapsychology.
While parapsychology is far more credible than the methods of the ghost hunters and debunkers of the Victorian Era, the subject matter of parapsychological research is no less controversial, nor less fantastic. Obviously, the field is one that attracts a great deal of scrutiny from scientists. Indeed the number of actual practicing parapsychologists is small. Duke University closed down its parapsychology department following the retirement of J.B. Rhine. There is only one university in the U.S. today offering any field resembling parapsychology, and it is not accredited.
Survival After Bodily Death
Survival after bodily death has been one of the most hotly contested
areas of parapsychology. Much of the argument over this phenomenon comes
from its popularity in the media. The plethora of ghost, poltergeist and
haunting movies has put considerable stress on the credibility of psychical
research in this area. The near impossibility of producing such events
in a controlled laboratory has also added to the difficulty of research
in this field. Despite these problems, research and investigation has continued
in earnest in this area, although rather sporadically. In 1990, at a panel
discussion on ghost research, Michaeleen C. Maher of the New School for
Social Research made the following statement regarding the existence of
The systematic study of spontaneous cases has demonstrated unequivocally, I think, that healthy, rational persons do, on occasion, have genuinely unaccountable perceptions of a visual, tactile, auditory, or even olfactory nature. These perceptions have often comprised veridical information that was previously unknown to the percipients. (Where these perceptions come from) remains obscure . . . . Field investigations, which generally fail to support the fraud hypothesis, have indicated that ordinary persons, who are neither deranged nor asleep, sometimes collectively experience baffling physical phenomena, which trained observers (police, newspaper reporters, and parapsychologists) are unable to explain.
The two most popular facets of survival research are poltergeist and hauntings. Poltergeist is German for "noisy ghost" and as of late has become an all-encompassing explanation for much of the visual and physical sides of parapsychology. Poltergeist activity usually centers on one individual, usually an adolescent who is under some form of emotional stress. These individuals often have problems at home; it could be they have been abused, have personality conflicts, or are depressed. The anger and upset from these problems somehow manifests itself in a physical way. Their feelings of discontent result in objects moving, flying, or breaking. These occurrences are also often accompanied by sounds, vibrations, and other unexplainable physical phenomenon.
There are several theories of how this happens, but the main theory deals with PK (which is why PK is currently the most researched area of parapsychology). The theory holds that there is a super PK which is a sort of energy field exuded by certain individuals which has the ability to affect the environment around them. Another notion concerns the idea of actual electrical impulses from the brain. It argues that what we consider to be thought is actually a series of electrical impulses and charges in the brain. Many believe that subjects exhibiting PK ability are somehow distributing these charges and impulses externally. They have managed to take what were originally interior electrical impulses controlling thoughts, emotions and feelings, and extended that outside to cause disturbances in the external environment. In other words, individuals with PK, or people at the center of poltergeist phenomena, are releasing energy and disrupting this field. These individuals are either causing ripples in this field or discharging excess energy which, in turn, creates physical disturbances to the environment around them. This manifests itself in the aforementioned phenomenon.
There have been many documented cases of this activity, not just by parapsychologists and people of like-minded belief, but trained observers (police, clergy, officials, scientists). Below are two documented cases that best exemplify this activity:
Case 1: In 1939, the home of a prominent British physician was disrupted by poltergeist activity. Mysterious knockings and raps were heard throughout the house. The walls sounded as if they were being pounded on with mallets, yet they lacked any vibration from physical pounding. The raps also came from unoccupied portions of the house. While investigating the premises, the detectives noticed one of the servant girls listening in on their conversation. The seventeen-year-old girl was named Florrie. Upon discussion with the girl, it was found that her home had been plagued by similar events several years earlier, when she was thirteen. Eventually, her father had sent all of the children away for several weeks, and upon their return home the events had ceased. With this in mind the investigators recommended her dismissal. That evening, the house was shaken by explosive raps and knocks, akin to that of machine gunfire. The next day she was let go. For the next five days, the knockings continued, each day with diminished vigor, until they eventually faded away (Fodor 76).
Case 2: In 1878 in Amherst, Nova Scotia there was a well-documented poltergeist case called the Amherst Mystery. The story began with Esther Cox who, at age eighteen, began dating a young man named Bob McNeal. In August, during the course of a date, Mr. McNeal attempted to rape Ms. Cox, but when a passing car came close to interrupting him, Mr. McNeal quickly took Esther home. Shaken and upset, Ms. Cox told no one of the rape, and Mr. McNeal left town shortly thereafter. A month later, unexplained rustling noises emanated from a box beneath Ms. Cox's bed. When the box was moved to the center of the room, it rose up and levitated above the floor. The following night, Ms. Cox's room was filled with the sound of loud banging noises that came from beneath her bed. Scratching noises and raps came from the wall, and pieces of plaster fell to the floor. Despite Esther's move from one family member's home to another, the knocks and raps continued. When a doctor was called in, there were repeated rappings and continual thumps from the roof. After being given morphine, Ms. Cox fell asleep and told of the rape for the first time. Shortly thereafter, the raps began to diminish slightly (Wilson 463).
In both of these cases, the activity centered around one person, regardless of location. While the exact psychological cause of Florrie's disturbances was not known, it is very clear that Ms. Cox had repressed feelings of anger and upset over her rape. It was not until after discussing that traumatic event that the disturbances subsided. The anger and sadness seemed to have worked its way out through other means.
Because poltergeist cases usually involve a troubled individual, there have been reports of psychologists ending disturbances by resolving the subject's cause for distress. It has also been found that many of those individuals at the center of poltergeist cases also have some sort of natural PK ability.
While there is a viable theory to explain the existence of poltergeists, there is less of a viable theory behind apparitions. Perhaps because ghosts and poltergeists have always been linked, theories behind the two have become intertwined. As it stands now, the explanation of poltergeists has actually come to incorporate apparitions as well.
Apparitions are perhaps the most recognizable of all parapsychological phenomena. Everyone has seen a ghost, whether in movies or in real life. Actual apparitions, though, tend to differ greatly from their cinematic counterparts. Ghosts tend to vary from glowing spheres of light to fully detailed human shapes, to shadows of human forms. They are completely harmless and are usually silent as well. They tend not to last very long, often appearing for only a brief moment before dissolving or disappearing into a doorway or wall.
It was previously thought that ghosts were site-specific, in that they would inhabit one specific place. While this remains the case, the belief that they haunt a certain place is in doubt. It was once believed that a ghost would haunt a house where someone had died, usually in a traumatic fashion: through murder, live burial, suicide, etc. The ghost would then haunt that place indefinitely.
This was long held to be the case for hauntings. Recent theory, however, has rejected this. There are now two beliefs as to the existence of apparitions. The first is that hauntings, like poltergeist activity, stem from a focus person. This distraught person, instead of creating physical disturbances, creates a visual one. They somehow manifest energy into a light pattern, or create the impression of a form, which other observers interpret as a ghost. The second theory, and the one held by skeptics, is that ghosts are entirely imagined.
It is a fact that people who have just undergone a traumatic event, the death of a family member or a friend, are more likely to see a ghost, usually of that person. The belief is that, in their grief, people's minds will cope with the loss by recreating that person. So the morning after the death, the widow will rise to see her husband standing by the window. She will blink in surprise and he will disappear. The mind will hallucinate her husband standing there, as a way of coping with the loss. When there are multiple observers, it is not so much a mass hallucination, as one person swearing they saw something and everyone else wanting to believe that they did too, badly enough that they create the vision for themselves. While they may have all seen basically the same thing, they will often fill-in parts of their memory that either do not coincide, or that they do not remember, to help corroborate a story they want to believe.
The following story is a good example of this. It was told to me by a group of friends who I spoke with several times after the incident. A group of teenagers was trespassing at a local cemetery, when they suddenly heard a noise behind them. They turned to see the door of the groundskeeper's house open. Several of them gasped in fright as they ran to the car and sped off. Afterward, some of them reported seeing the groundskeeper in the doorway. Some reported seeing him carrying a gun, some didn't see him at all. Others said that the door was already open when they arrived and some even said that the light was on. However, during the next several days of retelling, everyone eventually seemed to recount the same story: While walking through the cemetery the groundskeeper's door burst open and he came to the door holding a shotgun. While all of the teens heard something, they eventually all came to see the same thing. It is contested that this corroboration is the same way numerous people come to see the same apparition.
Whether of not any of these theories on apparitions or poltergeist are true is not known and may never be. Because of this violent ongoing debate, the more fantastic, and potentially more bombastic, study of survival-after-bodily-death has fallen by the wayside. To argue for the validity of parapsychology, concrete facts and findings must be obtained. Statistical data must be used to prove points to persuade the nay-sayers. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, survival cases do not convert to statistical factoids, as they are more anecdotal and observational. Due to this caveat to this research, parapsychology has moved away from survival issues. The field has not been abandoned, but it is not as heavily researched as before. When cases come along (as there is not exactly a steady flow of poltergeist cases), they are examined and reported in journals. One way of coping with study in this area has been the rise of thanology, or the study of death, in looking into survival issues. Thanology, though, does even less research in this area than parapsychology.
Because of J. B. Rhine's extensive testing of PK and ESP, much of parapsychology went in that direction. Of course, it is also much easier to hold a laboratory test on thought transference than on a ghost sighting. A laboratory setting also brought parapsychology closer to the other sciences in appearance. At the end of the 1960s, when parapsychology was defining itself, the last thing it needed was roving bands of ghost hunters. Unfortunately, this fear towards PK resulted in survival-after-bodily-death research falling into experimental apathy. Of the two main focuses of survival-after-bodily-death, poltergeist activity received the most attention, as there was a focal person around which the research could be done.
Consequential research in parapsychology is primarily done on PK in the laboratory setting. The research has mostly been on precognition and ESP. The four most common PK research practices are:
PK on Random Number Generators. In these experiments, a subject attempts to mentally change the distribution of numbers from a computerized random number generator. The generator spits out random sequences of 1 and 0s and the test subject attempts to use PK to alter the sequence to attain ratios significantly greater than 50/50.
PK on Living Systems. In these types of experiments a subject attempts to use PK to affect and contact other humans. The most common way of doing this is by testing the common feeling that one is being remotely watched. In these experiments there is a starer and a staree. These two subjects are then placed in isolated locations, often connected by live video feeds, and the starer is asked to gaze at the staree. The staree's nervous system is then monitored to detect any changes or jumps in relation to the starer.
ESP in the Ganzfield. The Ganzfield is an alternate state wherein outside noises and stimuli are reduced if not eliminated by isolation and the equivalent of white noise. Once put in this state, a subject is asked to look at a series of videos or images and then attempt to mentally transmit them to the receiver, who is in a different isolated location. The receiver is later shown four images or videos and attempts to pick the correct one which was projected to them.
Remote Viewing. This experiment is essentially the same as the one above, except that there is no person projecting the images. Instead, an image is chosen and put in a remote location. The subject then attempts to receive the image. The subject is shown several different images and attempts to pick the target ("Hot Rod").
All of these experiments collect statistical data that can be analyzed. Most of these tests look at the expected mean response and then the statistical deviation from the expected value. Scientists examine what would be expected. For example, a receiver shown four images, one of which had been transmitted earlier by a sender, would statistically be expected to choose the correct image 1/4 of the time by chance alone. The experimenters look to see if the numbers show a selection rate greater than 25%.
These statistics are run through common statistical tests for significance and correlation. The tests also use the three standard testing procedures: control, randomization, and replication. In most tests, experimenters have noted a continuous statistical effect. In a meta-analysis of PK on Random Number Generator tests a deviation of fifteen points from the standard was found in the 800 person sample. This means that the average results diverged from the expected results by fifteen points.
In PK tests on living systems, there was strong evidence that the starer was having an impact on the staree. Recent tests have found that there was statistical evidence to support the possibility of PK on living systems in the starer/staree tests.
In a meta-analysis of over 700 individual sessions on ESP in the Ganzfield, a significant difference was found. In tests in which four images were used, the predicted outcome based on chance would be 25%; however, worldwide tests showed a statistical mean of 34%.
In remote viewing experiments, it has been shown that there are significant statistical results supporting the hypothesis. Tests have shown that there are results beyond that of chance, indicating that some test subjects have remote viewing capabilities. Positive results have piqued even government interest. There is a government-sponsored ESP/PK lab at the Laboratories for Fundamental Research in Palo Alto, California.
While parapsychologists point to the data derived from these and other experiments as proof, parapsychology has long been lambasted by skeptics, both within and outside the scientific community. Because of parapsychology's recent devotion to statistical reasoning, as opposed to anecdotal evidence as in the past, skeptics have waged battle against the experimental evidence.
There are three main arguments against the statistical evidence used by parapsychologists:
oSuccessful statistical results in parapsychology experiments are due to incorrect testing procedures, statistical errors, selective reporting, and biased researchers.
oPsi phenomena violate basic limiting principles of science, and are therefore impossible.
oParapsychology does not have a repeatable experiment ("Parapsychology FAQ").
Most parapsychology tests look at the statistical possibility of occurrence. The tests mentioned above, specifically the ESP in the Ganzfield tests, compare their results to the statistical possibility of occurrence. As mentioned, we would expect a chance result of 25%. By receiving results of 34%, parapsychologists claim that there is an effect of ESP on the outcome, because it would be beyond normal statistical possibility to receive such results. This means that significant results are found when an occurrence has results that cannot be attributed to chance, or namely: non-chance results.
This basic tenet of testing has drawn a large amount of fire from the scientific community. One of the major arguments against this testing theory is that obtaining non-chance results does not mean that Psi or ESP exists. It just means that there are non-chance results, the likes of which could be attributed to many other factors. No one can be sure whether or not the difference from chance is actually due to Psi or ESP. Professor James Alcock compares this non-chance testing to circular logic:
Q. "How do you know that the subject used ESP?"
A. "He obtained non-chance results."
Q. "How did he obtain non-chance results?"
A. "He used ESP."
Professor Alcock also compares this "logical fallacy" to "affirming
All birds have two feet.
Beavers have two feet.
Therefore beavers are birds (Alcock 147).
These criticisms question fundamental concept of parapsychological research.
Another common argument is that parapsychologists, by virtue of being parapsychologists, are biased in that they are subconsciously looking to support their science. Indeed ESP experiments have been done testing the Sheep-Goat Effect hypothesis. The sheep-goat hypothesis uses the analogy that a sheep (or someone who believes in the premise they are being tested for) is more likely to follow along (show positive results), whereas a goat (a non-believer) is stubborn and less likely to follow (show less positive results). This hypothesis is that by simply believing in the existence of ESP or PK, a subject is more likely to show ESP or PK. Some skeptics apply this theory to parapsychologists as well.
In addition to questioning the non-chance theory of testing, many skeptics question the results of ESP/PK testing. First of all, due to the non-chance testing, the actual proof derived from tests is interpretable, but the actual statistics are considered questionable as well. One of the most cited stories of statistical questionability was the work done at the end of the century by Charles Richet. Experimenter Charles Richet was having phenomenally positive ESP and PK response rates to all of his tests. However, when stricter testing procedures and protocol were applied to his experiments, his positive results dropped off the chart. When the strict procedures were lifted, his positive results skyrocketed again.
There is a lot of argument against the data presented by parapsychologists, and as mentioned above, the bias of the researcher. Of course parapsychologists argue that the skeptics are biased. Many scientists are quick to say that paranormal phenomena, especially ESP and PK, have not been proven to exist, and that scientific data arguing this belief is flawed. Many of these scientists, though, have not actually looked at the data, nor investigated the field even topically. So who is biased and who is correct? Both sides are to blame for bias, but that does not let parapsychology off the hook. As the group trying to prove paranormal activity, parapsychologists have the burden of proof, and they have an uphill battle to wage with few supporters. Another problem with survival issues is that, when dealing with death, or anything extraordinary, the question of religion comes into play. Where do God and heaven stand in all of this? Not surprisingly, parapsychologists dodge this issue. Getting into debates over theology in relation to science is one that experimenters wish to avoid greatly. Including religious phenomenon in the field of research has been refuted. There are too many other issues outside of cases that make such inquiry difficult and dangerous.
While science continues to argue over parapsychology as a field, the general public opinion seems to believe that there are some occasions of paranormal activity. Recent surveys in Britain found that a significant portion of the population had either experienced, or knew someone who had experienced, some form of psychic phenomenon. Indeed, ask several people on the street whether or not they have ever experienced an unexplained event and you're likely to have quite a few stories at the end of the day.
There are also numerous sites online devoted to paranormal activity around the globe. There is even a site called ghosthunter.org, which has over 100 different paranormal investigation groups in close to 70 cities. Syracuse even has its own parapsychologist in the phonebook. His line is open 24 hours a day should you have a disturbance.
Parapsychology is over one hundred years old and has gone from a parlor activity to a subject of scientific inquiry, and from an anecdotal research activity to an controlled experimental one. But despite all of the changes and growth, parapsychology and its research pursuits have not diminished any in controversy or skepticism, which, if anything, has increased.
Science may never find an answer to many of the questions parapsychology asks, especially considering that parapsychological research is diminishing, and that for every researcher in the field there are several out to debunk them. Often, this debunking is based solely upon pre-existing bias, or it stems from unreliable data and testing procedures. Whatever the case, parapsychology may not be as large as it once was, but it continues in earnest and with resolve.
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