Tag Archives: Parapsychology

George Hansen at the Observatory – Brooklyn

Shannon Taggart and Liminal Analytics: Applied Research Collaborative recently hosted George Hansen, author of the seminal Trickster and the Paranormal, for a series of talks at the Observatory in Brooklyn, NY. For those who were unable to attend in person, the talks are now available on Youtube!

A History of Parapsychology and Psychical Research

Whatever Happened to Parapsychology?

George Hansen was professionally employed in parapsychology laboratories for eight years—three at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina, and five at Psychophysical Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey.  His experiments included remote viewing, card guessing, ganzfeld, electronic random number generators, séance phenomena, and ghosts. His papers in scientific journals cover mathematical statistics, fraud and deception, the skeptics movement, conjurors in parapsychology, and exposés of hoaxes.  He has been active in a number of psychic, UFO, and New Age organizations, and he helped found a skeptics group. He is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

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Psi & the Subliminal Mind – Thoughts on an Excerpt from Sir William Barrett’s On the Threshold of the Unseen

“It is doubtless a peculiar psychical state that confers mediumistic power, but we know nothing of its nature, and we often ruin our experiments and lose our results by our ignorance. Certainly it is very probable that the psychical state of those present at a seance will be found to re-act on the medium. We should get no results if our photographic plates were exposed to the light of the room simultaneously with the luminous image formed by the lens. In every physical process we have to guard against disturbing causes.

If, for example, the late Prof. S.P. Langley, of Washington, in the delicate experiments he conducted for so many years – exploring the ultra red raditation of the sun – had allowed the thermal radiation of himself or his assistants to fall on his sensitive thermoscope, his results would have been confused and unintelligible. We know that similar confused results are obtained in psychical research, especially by those who fancy the sole function of a scientific investigator is to play the part of an amateur detective; and accordingly what they detect is merely their own incompetency to deal with problems the very elements of which they do not understand and seem incapable of learning. Investigators who, taking an exalted view of their own sagacity, enter upon this inquiry with their minds made up as to the possible or impossible, are sure to fail. Such people showuld be shunned, as their habit of thought and mode of action are inappropriate, and therefore essentially vulgar, for the essence of vulgarity is inappropriateness.

Inasmuch as we know nothing of the peculiar psychical state that constitutes mediummship, we ought to collect and record all conditions which attend a scucessful seance. Mediumship seems in some points analogous to ‘rapport’ in mesmeric trance, and it would be interesting to know whether a mesmeric sensitive is more open to mediumship than the rest of mankind. Again, are those who are good percipients in telepathic experiments also percipients in spontaneous telepathy, such as apparitions at the moment of death, and are these again hypnotic sensitives? Similar questions also arise as to somnambulists; in a word, is there anything in common between the obscure psychical states of these different classes of sensitives? Very probably there is, for all psychical phenomena, as we shall see directly, involve to a greater or less extent the operation of an unconscious part of our personality, a hidden self which in a medium emerges from its obscurity, as the normal consciousness and self-control subsides. This fact does, indeed, afford some clue to the peculiar psychological condition of mediumship.”

- from p. 120-122 of On the Threshold of the Unseen, by Sir William Barrett, F.R.S. (1917)

In researching parapsychology it has been fascinating to see how these studies have developed over 130 years of scientific scrutiny since the official founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. Existing in a liminal realm of inquiry which penetrates both the center and the periphery of human experience, studying the history of investigation into exceptional human experiences provides a very potent ground for understanding the intellectual development of the past century.

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The Entity – A Discussion of the Poltergeist Phenomenon with Dr. Barry Taff

Dr. Barry Taff, who holds a doctorate in psychophysiology with a minor in
biomedical engineering, is a world-renowned parapsychologist who worked out of  UCLA’s former parapsychology laboratory from 1969 through 1978 as a research  associate.

During his 43-year career, Dr. Taff has investigated more than 4,500  cases of ghosts, hauntings, poltergeists and conducted extensive studies in telepathy and precognition, which led to the development of the initial protocols and methodologies for what was later termed “remote viewing.”  He was also himself investigated as a psychic subject in 1969, the results of which were published in Behavioral Neuropsychiatry, “A Laboratory Investigation of Telepathy: The Study of A Psychic,” Vol. 6, Nos. 1-12, April-December 1974-January-March, 1975.

In the spring of 2010, Dr. Taff’s new book; Aliens Above, Ghosts Below:
Explorations of the Unknown was published by Cosmic Pantheon Press, whose title is self-explanatory.

Note: Biographic information taken from Dr. Taff’s website.

Paranormal America – Curiosities in Religion & Culture

“As psychical research evolved into parapsychology, the
emphasis shifted from the descriptive phenomenology of concrete psi experience to the promise of decisive proof furnished by controlled experiment. Thereby, the nature and meaning of “nature” was itself transmuted.No longer appreciated as immediate felt and sensed quality,nature was reduced to the category of sheer abstract quantity. The new assumption was that only the experts could understand nature and properly interpret its signs and (mathematical) formulae. Furthermore, only those adepts capable of producing effects on demand would be of interest to researchers. Psi was thus removed from its native (public) habitat of everyday life and, like some rare specimen of exotic fauna, confined to the tightly controlled environment of private zoos, the exclusive property of an élite cohort of scientific experts and psychic celebrities.”

- Joseph M. Felser, Philosophical Sensitives and Sensitive Philosophers: Gazing into the Future of Parapsychology

Dogmatism dots the line when it comes to investigating the unseen dimensions of life. Skeptics and believers both muddy already murky water when they force their hand on hypotheses that support preconceptions rather than open the door for honest inquiry.

For nearly a century psychologists argued over the existence of lucid dreaming, when it was always in their ability to simply try the recommended techniques (which are relatively simple) for achieving that state. Even today lucid dreaming is considered a “possibility” rather than a straight fact despite the prevalence of evidence as well as testimony of a multitude of practioners. The concept of lucid dreaming complicated the behaviorist paradigm that provided the basis for much of the 20th centuries economic and industrial philosophies, so it was inconvenient and brushed aside.

On the opposite end we find enthusiasts that use base line phenomenon, such as lucid dreaming, to provide evidence for unverifiable (and often incredibly fantastic) metaphysical and cosmological theories. When the debate over anomalous phenomenon only bounces between these two sides it becomes as ridiculous as the faith vs. reason debates when posed by fundamentalist or creationist groups and radical atheists.

As Professor Joseph M. Felser points out in his article Philosophical Sensitives and Sensitive Philosophers: Gazing into the Future of Parapsychology, the original methodology of groups such as the Society for Psychical Research was more in terms of sociological or anthropological investigations. Collecting data, including subjective experiences, was the basis for understanding the anomalous phenomenon and allowed for the investigations to meet the phenomenon where it was active.

This approach allows some ability to avoid the pitfalls of theorizing a meaning before relating to the experience itself. When anomaly research is justified on the basis of industrial application and results, it’s impossible to honestly investigate the phenomenon.

Chicago anomaly investigator Howard Heim ran a popular ‘Ghost Tour’ in order to privately fund his research. This allowed him the freedom to approach his investigations without expecting cash compensation. When faced with a situation where the anomaly was nothing more than a glass of vodka and a vivid imagination he was given an opportunity to better understand what constitutes potential explanations for reported experiences, something to rule out next time. When there’s money in question, such as with the Stanford PSI experiments, too many of these kinds of disappointments shut down research.

The power of the anomalous is not in it’s profitability,  but rather it’s ability to lead to realization. Joseph Feltzer points to the fact that in the past philosophers such as Socrates (and Peter Kingsley would add Parmenides, Empedocles, and Pythagoras) were the ones whose interactions with what is presently called the paranormal lead to the creation of Western civilization. Mystery is the matrix of creation, it verifies our cultural myths, imports meaning and movement to time, and provides the ground for communion with the interplay of life and death.

“The fear of ridicule and the anxious silence that grows out of that fear, insidiously spreading itself like a metastasizing cancer, are potent obstacles to a genuinely rational inquiry. In theory, science should welcome anomalies as the harbingers of new discoveries. The scientific intelligence should derive joy from being surprised by new and hitherto unexplained phenomena. After all, isn’t that what science is all about?”

- Joseph M. Felser, Outsiders, Anomalies, and the Future of “Forbidden Science”

Fortunately a few intrepid sociologists have taken it upon themselves to brave the ridicule and present a collection of baseline data that brings an interesting angle to the field of anomaly research. In Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, Christopher Bader (Baylor Univ.), F. Carson Mencken (Baylor Univ.), and Joseph Baker (East Tennessee State Univ.) have used the data from the Baylor Religion Survey, and relevant field work, to provide a demographic profile of paranormal beliefs in the United States.

This is not a book that addresses anomalies or outre phenomenon in themselves, rather it is an in depth look at the statistical demographics for paranormal belief and it’s relation to race, gender, social class, and religious beliefs. The areas covered are limited to the popular understanding of UFO’s, ghosts, professional psychics, and cryptozoology, each explained through specific field work that the authors undertook.

The strength of Paranormal America lies in it’s ability to avoid joining the debate on either extreme. Reporting the field work in a straightforward manner, the book allows for the statistics to stay in the foreground.

Belief in UFO's by Gender - Statistics from Paranormal America

For all sides with an interest  this presents a valuable picture of factors attending belief in, and claims of experiences with, anomalous phenomenon. For parapsychologists and researchers this data is a useful tool for understanding the sociological factors that surround the phenomenon. This broad spectrum of data is the first of its kind, and represents the most in depth statistical analysis of paranormal beliefs and experiences in the United States.

Belief in UFO's by Race -from Paranormal America

Using the language of economy and marketing the book approaches the paranormal from a purely demographic perspective. The book focuses on statistical averages, even in conducting the field work itself. For instance, rather than immerse themselves in the culture of former military intelligence assets, professional remote viewers, or scientists who have participated in psi research, the authors go to a Texas psychic fair and immerse themselves in commercial clairvoyance and astrology.  This middle road serves the book well in it’s purpose, providing a good picture of the U.S. paranormal market, and leaves deeper investigation to the numbers themselves.

Their field work with Pentecostal and Holiness congregations provide excellent alternatives to the focus on secular phenomenon. The relationship between paranormal beliefs and religious beliefs forms a main component of the book’s analysis.   A historical approach may disspell some of the authors conclusions, but the statistical data brings  attention back to the original methods of phenomenal investigation and that gives a great value to the work.

Adding a deeper qualitative element to each of the categories the book covers, and getting into the correspondences from the other areas of the Baylor Religion Survey will be the work of subsequent investigators.  As it stands Paranormal America provides a good base line for future research.

Note: Thanks to New York University Press for providing a copy of Paranormal America for research and review.