What about Parapsychology?

When I decided to get a master’s it was more or less on a lark. I’d been looking for paranormal conferences my wife might want to attend with me in the area, and decided to see what, if any, parapsychology programs still existed in the US. The results of that search led to me finishing my degree and learning a lot to refine my understandings. But one unexpected take-away was contextualizing my advocacy of parapsychology.

JB Rhine working with a female subject on a Zener task. This kind of testing is extremely boring but also extremely important! From the Duke University Archives.

Growing up, I didn’t always have full support of people around me in pursuing the occult or paranormal. At times, I debated with myself whether the experiences I was having were even real.  I think most people have experiences like this. I dealt with this for myself by leaning heavily into parapsychology research. I made FOIA requests for information on Stargate, Grill Flame, Sun Streak, and so on. I read reports by Honorton, Tart, and others. I familiarized myself with the parapsychological field, and this became my shield; a little validation. Someone out there would understand my accounts, even if I couldn’t convince those around me (in truth, I was too shy to even try).

Parapsychology is incredibly important. There’s no reason we shouldn’t study natural phenomena in the real world using the tools of science. Psychic “stuff” doesn’t “belong to” religion or spirituality, and empiricism is the perfect tool for trying to discover the “why’s” or “how’s.” Because of the efforts of skeptics, most psychic effects have now been demonstrated with a level of statistical certainty that exceeds even medical research.

There was a time when I would have said that if you’re working in psychic spaces and not working from within a strictly empirical parapsychological framework you were gravely mistaken, possibly even a fraud. I didn’t have much patience for the New Age movement or for spiritual claims regarding psychic ability. Of course certain levels of spiritual advancement could bring about psychic benefits, but this only demonstrated that those spiritual techniques brought about physical, measurable changes.

My view here has softened over time, and now it’s almost reversed course. Parapsychology is a fantastic tool and framework for studying the paranormal, but it’s not a great framework for developing psychic ability. A fixation on statistical significance leads to a fixed mindset that undercuts learning. An insistence on lab replicability in tasks doesn’t acknowledge that most psychic experiences don’t happen in a laboratory. As early as Rhine, psychics were pointing out that the sterile conditions of a lab can impair functioning, and that a psychic can best work in familiar circumstances. The skeptical crowd insists that this is meant to facilitate fraud; but the psychic crowd acknowledges the obvious: psychic ability requires a calm and engaged mind, and labs are often unfamiliar and so it becomes difficult to work.

The parapsychological approach is essential for demonstrating that psi effects exist. It is the method by which we will someday understand how psi functions in the physical world. If one’s goals are to demonstrate the reality of psychic functioning, I would always advocate they look into parapsychological research instead of demanding demonstrations from intuitives or psychics. But most psychic experiences happen not in the lab, but “in the wild.” Ian Stephenson’s Telepathic Impressions (1970) didn’t detail Zener cards at the Rhine institute in a sterile, shielded room – it detailed accounts of people just knowing in their day to day lives.

The program I’m developing takes this into account. Parapsychological measures are used in certain tasks in their own niche, to demonstrate an effect or where it is helpful for the student; but it’s not the focus. Parapsychological research is shared, including works by Alvarado, Auerbach, Tart, Honorton, Puthoff, Targ, and others; but it’s not the only information. To develop a robust course for learning psychic abilities, I’ve had to step outside the strict paradigms I once followed, while at the same time not forsaking what I’ve learned along the way. Because not every approach is the best approach for every given task, and in the domain of exceptional human experience, there’s no One True Way.

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