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Updated on January 11, 2012

Parapsychology is the study of apparent exchanges of information between organisms and their environments through means other than those presently understood by the physical and biological sciences. In current usage, the term refers specifically to scientific experimentation aimed at demonstrating and understanding these occurrences. A more general term, psychical research, is often used to describe all investigation of such occurrences. Traditionally, parapsychology has been divided into four areas: telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis.


Commonly, the term telepathy has referred to direct communication of thoughts from one organism to another, or "mind to mind" thought transference, without use of the known senses. More precisely, it includes any circumstance in which one individual responds accurately to information being experienced or thought about at the time by another individual separated by distance or other physical barriers. For example, a family went to Florida, leaving their dog behind with the veterinarian. One day at 10 A.M. the dog became very excited and barked continuously until 11 A.M. The veterinarian reported this unusual behavior to the owners, who stated that during that time they had been trapped on the roof of their car for one hour in a flash flood.


In general, this term has meant the ability to know directly about concurrent physical events (as opposed to another's thoughts) without the use of known physical means. Specifically, it refers to any situation in which one individual accurately responds to information that is available in some part of the environment but is not known to other individuals.

For example, a woman cannot find her wedding ring. She mentions this to a friend who replies, "I get the impression that the ring has fallen down behind a hamper in your bathroom." The statement turns out to be true.


Precognition refers to the ability to know directly about future events and thoughts without the use of any known means. It means specifically any situation in which an individual anticipates accurately information that has yet to develop and that eventually comes about through means having no known linkage with the anticipating individual. For example, as a man passes by a certain corner on the way home from work, he suddenly gets a very vivid image of a milk truck crashing into a bicyclist and severely injuring him. A day later such an accident does in fact happen at that corner.


Traditionally, this term refers to "mind over matter," or the ability to influence environmental events by direct mental action or "will" without using any known physical force. For example, a gambler consistently wins at dice games. He himself does not understand how he does it; he never knowingly cheats, and he is never caught cheating. Yet eventually he is officially refused admittance to major gambling houses.

The first three categories reflect the apparent flow of information from the environment to the organism, and collectively they are referred to as extrasensory perception (ESP). Psychokinesis (PK) represents the apparent flow of information from the organism to the environment. Together, ESP and PK are referred to as psi. A person having psi ability is said to be "psychic" or "sensitive". There are many variations of each of these terms.

Experimental Methods

In general, parapsychological studies are conducted as follows. One or more individuals are selected as the subjects, whose interactions with the environment are to be examined in detail. A portion of the surrounding environment is designated as the target of that interaction. The target can be either one very complex event, such as detailed art print, or a series of simple events, such as the order from top to bottom of a deck of cards.

In an ESP test the target is isolated from any connection with the subject. The subject is then asked to respond to the target, that is, to give an accurate description of it. In a PK test, the target event is physically separated from the subject so that he can exert no known influence over it. The subject is then motivated to "will" the ongoing event, such as the fall of dice, so as to have only one specific outcome among several possibilities.

The subject's response is recorded and measured appropriately, as is the target event, and the two are compared. If the two are related to a meaningful extent, as judged by various mathematical techniques, it is inferred that information was transferred between organism and environment. This mathematical relationship can be of two kinds: psi-hitting, if the relationship is unusually accurate; or psi-missing, if the relationship is unusually inaccurate. Psi-hitting roughly corresponds to "good luck." Psi-missing corresponds roughly to "bad luck".

Early Investigations

Events indicating psi have been described throughout recorded history. However, serious investigation was not begun until the late 1800's in Europe, particularly in England, with the formation of the Society for Psychical Research. This society was composed of many well-respected British scientists interested in investigating apparitions, mediumships, hauntings, poltergeists, and other unusual human experiences. Apparitions are strongly experienced images of persons who are deceased or are some distance away. In mediumship an individual experiences a strong change of mental state during which time another personality, generally deceased, seems to "take over" the medium and express itself in the medium's words or actions, or in other physical happenings.

In hauntings, physical happenings and apparitions that suggest the intelligent presence of a deceased personality seem to occur over and over again in a specific place. Poltergeists are seemingly unexplainable physical disturbances, such as the movements of objects occurring in the presence of a particular person.

The Rhine Experiments

Early investigations produced extensive documentation of such events and many imaginative theories; they also frequently exposed fraudulent mediums. With few exceptions, however, not until the 1930's at Duke University did serious scientific experimentation under controlled laboratory conditions take place. At that time Dr. J. B. Rhine and several Duke associates perfected methods for testing ESP. Their methods consisted of asking the subject to guess which of five geometric symbols appeared on each card in a concealed deck of such cards.

The same workers also devised a method for testing PK by asking the subject to influence which sides of dice fell uppermost or where on a flat surface the dice landed.

Using such procedures, researchers in several laboratories collected a great deal of evidence for the existence of psi. However, this evidence was not generally accepted by the scientific community.

In recent years, however, a wide variety of scientific tools have been applied to studies of psi. These include animal studies, the use of computers, physiological monitoring of internal states such as sleep and meditation, and so on. Such tools have overcome the old objections. In 1957 an international professional association, the Parapsychological Association was formed in the United States, and in 1969 the Association was accepted as an affiliated member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Research Findings

Early studies revealed fairly quickly that psi seemed able to occur under a variety of conditions and that it was apparently not related to physical characteristics or complexity of the target.

Also, it was not connected with any readily identifiable part of conscious experience, and it seemed to occur more when the testing conditions were pleasant and relaxing but also stimulating.

Recently, additional findings have emerged. Animals may be able to show both ESP and PK relatively consistently, perhaps more so than human beings. This may be because with animals it is easier to control more of the possibly interfering factors. With human beings, it now seems evident that the normal waking state of alertness is not particularly conducive to psi.

People seem to do better when they are directing their attention internally and not on their external senses. Perhaps at such times there are fewer competing sources of information from the regular senses.

Theories of How Psi Works

Six possibilities have been suggested.

(1) The experimental procedures did not adequately rule out presently understood means of information exchange.

(2) The mathematics demonstrating that information transfer did occur is flawed.

(3) All things radiate or emit information through some property not yet known.

(4) Living organisms are, in some real sense, capable of extending beyond the boundaries of their bodies so that they may literally overlap with the target in space and time.

(5) There is some external intelligence or force that somehow facilitates the coordination of information throughout the universe.

(6) Some combination of the above theories.

Many scientists say that all parapsychological results can be explained in terms of the first two explanations above. However, an increasing number of scientists feel that the research to date implies something far beyond current understanding.

In recent years, parapsychology has gained increasing scientific respectability. Despite this fact, however, some of its findings have been exploited commercially and by entertainers far beyond that which is justified by accumulated research. At present, there is no known way to teach psychic ability, and no one who claims to predict the future has been adequately assessed for accuracy by scientific means. Also, no stage performance in which the performer sets his or her own conditions should be considered a true psychic performance, no matter how impressive it seems. For more detailed information about parapsychology, consult the Journal of Parapsychology or the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.


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