readers since July 1995.
This FAQ was compiled by an ad-hoc group of scientists and scholars interested in parapsychology, the study of what is popularly called "psychic" phenomena. The disciplines represented in this group include physics, psychology, philosophy, statistics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, anthropology, and history. The major contributors and their affiliations are listed at the end of this document.
The majority of this group are members of the Parapsychological Association (PA). The PA is an international professional society founded in 1957 and elected an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969. While not an official publication of the PA, the contributors to this FAQ include several past-Presidents of the PA, including the President and President-Elect, and members of the Board of Directors of the PA. The authors' cumulative laboratory and field research experience with parapsychology is estimated at over 400 years.
The authors aimed for consensus on each FAQ item, but as in many topics, especially in young, multidisciplinary domains like parapsychology, there were some disagreements. In spite of these disagreements, the authors believed that because of burgeoning public interest in parapsychology, the lack of reliable information about this topic on the Web, and the many myths and distortions associated with this field, it was important to put some basic information on the Web sooner rather than later.
To submit questions to the FAQ, send email to Dean Radin or see the Consciousness Research Laboratoryhome page.
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This FAQ was written as a general introduction to parapsychology for individuals ranging from advanced high-school students to professionals with little or no background in parapsychology. Writing for such a broad audience is a challenge, because gaining an appreciation of parapsychology today requires at least a passing knowledge of a wide range of topics, including statistics, experimental design, quantum mechanical theory, the sociology and philosophy of science, history of parapsychology, and the scientific literature on parapsychology.
Because our expected audience is so broad, we have touched only briefly on many technical issues that underlie interesting issues and debates within the field. Therefore, the approach in this FAQ is to clarify the complex topic of parapsychology without glossing over important points and without "dumbing down" the basic content. For a few particularly tricky issues that we do wish to cover here, we've included sections labeled Technical Note.
We are slowly building a comprehensive source of information on parapsychology, mainly through the addition of hyperlinks to other sources on the Web, including details on the major topics of debate, the prevailing theories, discussions of empirical evidence, links to journal papers, reference sources, mission statements and other items from the major parapsychological research centers, individual researchers' home pages, and home pages for relevant scientific and scholarly societies.
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The content and style of this FAQ sparked a debate among the
authors. At least five potential audiences were identified:
physical scientists, social and behavioral scientists, hardened
skeptics, New-Age enthusiasts, and readers with little or no
background in any of the conventional sciences or in
For physical scientists, we felt it was important to discuss methodology and terminology, and comment on some of the usual criticisms of parapsychology. For social and behavioral scientists, we added some implications of the observation that people throughout history and across all cultures have reported psychic experiences. For hardened skeptics, or people whose knowledge of parapsychology is based solely upon the skeptical literature, we felt it was important to address the fact that there is substantial, scientifically persuasive empirical data available. For people with New-Age interests, enthusiasms, or assumptions, we felt that at least part of the purpose here would be to indicate the limits of what claims the scientific data actually justify. For other readers who may know little or nothing about the topic, or about science or scientific methods, we've applied a broad-brush approach to cover as much of the field as possible in a single document. Hyperlinks will be added in future editions to help flesh out this FAQ.
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Parapsychology is the scientific and scholarly study of certain unusual events associated with human experience.
A long-held, common-sense assumption is that the worlds of the subjective and objective are completely distinct, with no overlap. Subjective is "here, in the head," and objective is "there, out in the world." Parapsychology is the study of phenomena suggesting that the strict subjective/objective dichotomy may instead be part of a spectrum, with some phenomena occasionally falling between purely subjective and purely objective. We call such phenomena "anomalous" because they are difficult to explain within current scientific models.
These anomalies fall into three general categories: ESP (terms are defined below), PK, and phenomena suggestive of survival after bodily death, including near-death experiences, apparitions, and reincarnation. Most parapsychologists today expect that further research will eventually explain these anomalies in scientific terms, although it is not clear whether they can be fully understood without significant (some might say revolutionary) expansions of the current state of scientific knowledge. Other researchers take the stance that existing scientific models of perception and memory are adequate to explain some or all parapsychological phenomena.
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In spite of what the media often imply, parapsychology is not the study of "anything paranormal" or bizarre. Nor is parapsychology concerned with astrology, UFOs, searching for Bigfoot, paganism, vampires, alchemy, or witchcraft.
Many scientists have viewed parapsychology with great suspicion because the term has come to be associated with a huge variety of mysterious phenomena, fringe topics, and pseudoscience. Parapsychology is also often linked, again inappropriately, with a broad range of "psychic" entertainers, magicians, and so-called "paranormal investigators." In addition, some self-proclaimed "psychic practitioners" call themselves parapsychologists, but that is not what we do.
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Many feel that the strangest, and most interesting, aspect of parapsychological phenomena is that they do not appear to be limited by the known boundaries of space or time. In addition, they blur the sharp distinction usually made between mind and matter. In popular usage, the basic parapsychological phenomena are categorized as follows:
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The above terms are representative of common usage, but parapsychologists usually define psi phenomena in more neutral or operational terms. This is because labels often carry strong but unstated connotations that can lead to misinterpretations.
For example, telepathyis commonly thought of as mind-reading. However, in practice, and certainly in laboratory research, experiences of telepathy rarely involve perception of actual thoughts, and the experience itself often does not logically require communication between two minds, but can also be "explained" as clairvoyance or precognition. Keep in mind that the names and concepts used to describe psi actually say more about the situations in which the phenomena are observed, than about any fundamental properties of the phenomena themselves. That two events are classified the same does not mean they are actually the same.
In addition, in scientific practice many of the basic terms used
above are accompanied by qualifiers such as "apparent,"
"putative," and "ostensible." This is because many claims
supposedly involving psi may not be due to psi, but to normal
psychological or misinterpreted physical reasons.
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Parapsychology is interesting mainly because of the implications. To list a few examples, psi phenomena suggest (a) that what science knows about the nature of universe is incomplete; (b) that the presumed capabilities and limitations of human potential have been underestimated; (c) that fundamental assumptions and philosophical beliefs about the separation of mind and body may be incorrect; and (d) that religious assumptions about the divine nature of "miracles" may have been mistaken.
As an aside, we should note that many parapsychologists today, including most of the authors of this FAQ, take an empirical, data-oriented approach to psi phenomena, and specifically avoid discussing speculative implications that are not supported by data. However, some researchers regard the current findings of parapsychology as having a wide variety of important implications, including implications about the spiritual nature of humankind. Thus, in deference to the broad readership expected of this document, we present in the following Technical Note some of the possible implications of psi, acknowledging that this section is, of course, speculative.
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From the materialistic perspective, one of the foundations of the current scientific worldview, human consciousness is nothing but an emergent product of the functioning of Brain, Body, and Nervous System (BBNS). That is, no matter how different mind may seem from solid stuff like bodies, it is generated solely by the electrochemical functioning of the BBNS, and so it is absolutely dependent on it. When the BBNS dies, so does consciousness. From this perspective, claims of survival of bodily death, or ghosts, or apparitions, must be due to wishful thinking. Furthermore, the limits of material functioning automatically determine the ultimate limits of mental functioning, thus ESP and PK appear to be impossible, given our current understanding about how the world works.
And yet, psi phenomena have occurred in all cultures throughout history, they continue to occur, and some of the reported phenomena have been persuasively verified using scientific methods. Because psi seems to transcend the assumed limits of material functioning, and therefore the BBNS, some interpret psi as supporting the idea that there is something more to mind than just the BBNS, that there is some sort of "soul," or the like.
This "non-physical" aspect, an aspect that does not seem to be as tightly bounded by space or time as present scientific models require, might survive bodily death. If so, there may be important truths contained in some spiritual ideas and practices. Of course, parapsychology is a very long way from being able to say that "the data shows that X" (insert your favorite religious group here) are specifically right about religious doctrines A, B, and C but dead wrong about dogmas P, Q and R.
We must emphasizethat there is a big difference between simply noting that the findings of parapsychology may have implications for spiritual concepts, versus the idea that parapsychologists are driven by some hidden spiritual agenda. Some critics of parapsychology seem to believe that all parapsychologists have hidden religious motives, and that they are really out to prove the existence of the soul. This is no more true than claiming that all chemists really harbor secret ambitions about alchemy, and thus their real agenda is to transmute mercury into gold. The reasons why serious investigators are drawn to any discipline are as diverse as their backgrounds.
Studies of direct mental interaction with living systems suggest that traditional mental healing techniques, such as prayer, may be based on genuine psi-mediated effects. In the future it may be possible to develop enhanced methods of healing based on these phenomena.
Psi may be involved in Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will." That is, modern machines based upon sensitive electronic circuits, such as copiers and computers, may at times directly interact with human intention, and as a result, inexplicably fail at inopportune times. Of course, the converse may also be true. That is, the possibility exists to repair, or to control sensitive machines solely by mental means. Such technologies would significantly benefit handicapped persons.
Other potential applications include improved methods of making decisions, of locating missing persons or valuables, and of describing events at locations we cannot go to because of distance, time, or accessibility. This includes the possibility of psi-based historians and forecasters.
Highly developed psi abilities may benefit psychotherapy and other forms of counseling. Psi may be used to provide a statistical edge in the financial markets and in locating archeological treasures.
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Last Updated: November 23, 1997
Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 by Dean Radin