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Parapsychology and Its Contributions to Knowledge

by Carlos S. Alvarado

(Adapted from the 2002-2003 Presidential Address
to the Parapsychological Association)

For many critics parapsychology is a colossal waste of time. Nothing has been accomplished, no useful or practical knowledge has been produced. At best, some unexplained results have been found in research. But these findings are not replicable, may have conventional explanations, and simply do not deserve the time and resources devoted to them. While I disagree with these views, in these short comments I will not focus on the existence or not of the phenomena nor on the validity or not of particular explanatory concepts. I would instead like to take a broader view and argue that our efforts as parapsychologists have contributed to knowledge in a variety of ways.

There is More to Learn about Human Functioning than Science Suggests

Over a hundred years ago Frederic W.H. Myers (1900) stated that the duty of psychical researchers was “the expansion of science herself” (p. 123). Much of our work indicates that the communication with the environment we refer to as ESP and PK requires at least an extension of current physics and psychology. In other words, there is more to human capabilities than official science teaches. Parapsychological research serves as a reminder of other possibilities, of challenges we only hope science at large will take on. Certainly official science has not accepted that we have established the reality of phenomena that require an expansion of physical and psychological principles. Nonetheless, I agree with Emily Kelly (2001) when she states: “If psychical research does nothing more than continually shake complacent assumptions about fundamental questions concerning mind, consciousness, volition, that alone is a significant contribution to science” (p. 86).

Studies of apparitions and out-of-body experiences show hidden dimensions of the functioning of the mind (Green, 1968; Tyrrell, 1953). Even if we reduce them to hallucinatory productions, they show the potential of the mind to construct complicated experiences that affect people’s lives in profound ways. Another example is the phenomena of mental mediumship. As argued by Flournoy (1911) and Sudre (1926), among others, in addition to veridical productions, we also have learned from the studies of psychical researchers that the mind has a tendency to create personalities in ways that show amazing capabilities of creativity and imagery, not to mention story telling. Psychical research was a significant force to the idea that: “The talents of the unconscious show even more variety than those of consciousness” (Richet, 1923, p. 44).

The above mentioned phenomena, whatever their explanation, also tell us much about the powers of the subconscious mind. This is clear in Myers's (1903) discussions of sensory and motor automatisms, and in similar later discussions of spontaneous ESP experiences (e.g., L.E. Rhine, 1981).

Study of the Frequency and Complexity of the Features of the Phenomena

Our studies show that claims of psychic experiences are more common than previously realized. Questionnaire surveys -- such as those reported by Palmer (1979), Usha and Pasricha (1989), and Zangari and Machado (1996) in the United States, India and Brazil, respectively -- support this view. While it is true that these are questionnaire responses with no follow up, they open the door for further research.

Simply put, many parapsychological studies document the variety of human experience and thus expand the views of their range derived from the behavioral sciences. In addition, when one gets into the study of the features of the experiences, the forms ESP takes, the complex patterns of features found in apparitions and in OBEs and NDEs, one realizes our field has contributed much to the cataloging and mapping of a variety of experiences and states of consciousness (for an overview see Irwin, 1994). Particular examples of such efforts include Edmund Gurney's analysis of the development of telepathic hallucinations (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886), Ernesto Bozzano's (1907) study of symbols in ESP, Celia Green's (1968) study of OBE features, Ian Stevenson’s (1970) analysis of ESP impressions and Graziela Piccinini and Gian Marco Rinaldi’s (1990 ) study of veridical (sometimes apparitional) phenomena reported in relation to deaths.

Some of this work — Sybo Schouten’s (1979) analyses of ESP experiences and my own work with OBEs (Alvarado & Zingrone, 1998-99) — shows the further complexity of the experiences by documenting the interaction of its features with other features and with other variables.

This view of complexity is further enhanced when we pay attention to our past history and study the investigations conducted around mental mediums. The detailed studies that Théodore Flournoy (1900) conducted with medium Hélène Smith and Eleanor Sidgwick’s (1915) analyses of work conducted with medium Leonora Piper have taught us much about stages and features of trances, and the imagery involved in the mentation.

Contributions to the Development of Ideas in Psychology

I have recently briefly reviewed some historical work supporting this view (Alvarado, 2003). Some historians of psychology, such as Régine Plas (2000), have argued that interest and research in psychic phenomena were an important element in the development of psychology. The unconscious mind was intimately related to interest in telepathy and the like, as seen in the work of Pierre Janet and Charles Richet, among others.

The early work of members of the Society for Psychical Research in England contributed much to the development of ideas of the subconscious mind as well as to the study of dissociation. This was particularly true of the work of Edmund Gurney on stages of hypnosis and Frederic W.H. Myers's writings about the subliminal mind. While not everyone agreed on the psychical research aspects of this work (e.g., telepathy), these writings were known and cited by many both in Europe and in the United States (Alvarado, 2002).

Furthermore, parapsychology has contributed to the development of ideas about the mind, particularly those which treat the mind-body problem and ideas of the non-physical. Examples of this are the ideas Myers (1903) stated in his hundred-year old classic Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. In Myers's view telepathy “is exercised by somewhat within us which is not generated from material elements, nor confined by mechanical limitations, but which may survive and operate uninjured in a spiritual world” (Vol. 1, p. 24). This phenomenon represented a principle of the metetherial, or a “spiritual or transcendental world in which the soul exists” (Vol. 1, p. xix). In his view the mind and the spirit used the nervous system to communicate but were independent of it. As he wrote in relation to mediumship, but also describing his view of the mind-body problem: “The spirit selects what parts of the brain-machinery he will use, but he cannot get out of that machinery more than it is constructed to perform” (Vol. 2, pp. 190-191). So while Myers postulated mind-body independence, he believed that the expression of consciousness was conditioned by the physical configuration and limitations of the nervous system.

There are several additional examples of ideas about the independence of the mind from the body in relation to parapsychological phenomena. J.B. Rhine argued that: “The psi researches show the natural human mind can escape physical boundaries under certain conditions ... Accordingly a distinct difference between mind and matter, a relative dualism, has been demonstrated by the psi experiments ...” (J.B. Rhine, 1947, p. 205). Further examples include the writings of John Beloff (1990), Charles Tart (1979), and Robert Thouless and B.P. Wiesner (1947). Today we study ideas about the mind of Aristotle, Galen and Descartes, some of which are not considered valid today by psychologists and psychiatrists. But they are considered valuable as contributions of humankind's attempts to understand themselves, as the eternal quest for self-knowledge. In the same way all of the above mentioned concepts are contributions to the history and philosophy of ideas that should be acknowledged even if psychic phenomena are controversial.

On another issue, there is a beginning of studies of the transformative effects of parapsychological experiences, a topic parapsychologists have been reticent to study. We have made contributions to the study of personal transformations related to psychic experience, as seen in the work of Palmer (1979), Kennedy and Kanthamani (1995) and in my own work with OBEs (Alvarado & Zingrone, 2003), all of which has been published in parapsychological journals.

In recent times most of the studies on the relationship of OBEs to psychological processes or experiences such as dissociation (Irwin, 2000) and dreams (Alvarado & Zingrone, 1999), as well as studies of the features of the experience (Alvarado & Zingrone, 1998-99, 1999), have been published in parapsychology journals. There is no doubt that, as I have argued elsewhere, a good part of the contributions to our understanding of the psychology of OBEs have come from parapsychologists (Alvarado, 1992). In fact OBE work represents one of our most recent contributions to psychology and to the more specific area of altered states of consciousness.

Combating Superstition and Evaluating Popular Claims

There are many ideas and traditions about psychic phenomena that have been regarded as superstitions. One of them is the relationship between death and psychic phenomena, a relationship supported in the case of apparitions in such early studies as the Census of Hallucinations (e.g., Sidgwick et al., 1894). In addition, these associations were reinforced by later work that admittedly suffered from sampling problems. This includes case collections studies of death-related phenomena by Ernesto Bozzano (1923), Camille Flammarion (1922-1923) and more recent work (Piccinini & Rinaldi, 1990; Wright, 2001).

The claim that mediums can communicate with the dead is still debated among psychical researchers, but a variety of studies from the nineteenth century to our own time have produced evidence for the acquisition of veridical statements by mediums (for an overview see Braude, 2003). In contrast, many of the early discussions in which automatic writing was seen as the production of the subconscious mind were published in psychical research journals by Frederic W.H. Myers (1884) and William James (1889). This contributed to the idea that not everything that appears to come from discarnate spirits is necessarily so. Our contributions to demystify all kind of claims are particularly important in terms of public education.
In other instances, such as the investigations of the levitation claims of practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, there has been no supportive evidence to back the claims in question (Mishlove, 1983). The evaluation of Transcendental Meditation claims brings us to the testing of psychic development claims. Two studies done in the 1970s did not support the claims of followers of Silva Mind Control (Brier, Savits & Schmeidler, 1975; Vaughan, 1974).
This is an important line of research in which parapsychologists may contribute useful information to consumers of development programs.

An additional line of research valuable in this context could be empirical investigations on the claims of many occult systems of thought. Is there some way we can test for concepts discussed by authors such as Allan Kardec and Annie Besant? In my own OBE research I have tested hypotheses based on some Robert Crookall's ideas (Alvarado, 1984) and on the experiences of Sylvan Muldoon (Alvarado & Zingrone, 1998-1999).

Contributions to Statistical Techniques

Philosopher and skeptic Ian Hacking (1988) has argued that some of the early use of randomization and probability calculations took place in the context of nineteenth century studies of telepathy. A particularly influential paper was that published by Charles Richet (1884) in the Revue philosophique which inaugurated the use of probability theory in psychical research at a time when psychologists were using statistical methods only infrequently. Following this, British researchers continued the use of statistical calculations in such classic works dealing with spontaneous experiences as Phantasms of the Living (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886) and the “Census of Hallucinations” (Sidgwick, et al., 1894), not to mention experimental work. Later parapsychologists, from H.F. Saltmarsh and S.G. Soal (1930), J. Gaither Pratt (1936) and Charles Stuart (1942), to later contributions (summarized by Burdick and Kelly, 1977), developed ways by which to evaluate experimental free-response material quantitatively. It may be argued that the best of our current techniques may be adapted to aspects of the study of subliminal perception, unconscious learning and dream and waking imagery.

Contribution to Critical Thinking and to the Study of Fraud and Self-Deception

Parapsychologists are frequently criticized for their so-called gullibility, for having being duped, and for their acceptance of research with fraudulent subjects. While this may apply to some individuals, it is also important to remember that psychical researchers have a track record in terms of a tradition of self-criticism and the detection and exposure of fraud.

Awareness of methodological problems has been frequently discussed in the literature. This includes evidential problems in nineteenth century spontaneous cases (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886) and the later discussions of D.J. West (1948) and Tony Cornell (2002). Workers in the field have also been liberal with criticism of each other’s work. Examples of this include methodological criticisms of Akers (1984) and Hansen (1990). While criticism can, and has sometimes gone overboard, there is no question that parapsychologists as a profession have made important contribution to critical thinking.

Instructive cases of fraud have been reported since the nineteenth century. In Edmund Gurney's (1888) famous note about the early SPR studies of thought-transference with the Creery sisters he stated: "It is necessary ... to state that in a series of experiments with cards ... two of the sisters ... were detected in the use of a code of signals; and a third has confessed to a certain amount of signaling in the earlier series. ... " (p. 269). Other examples include the fraudulent poltergeist manifestations discussed by Hereward Carrington (n.d., pp. 2-19), the hand substitution tricks of physical medium Carancini (Baggally, 1910), and Eugene Osty's (1930) photographic detection of fraud with physical medium Stanislawa P. More recently we could mention the writings of Ejvegaard and Johnson (1981) on an apparition case, Delanoy (1987) on metal bending, and Stevenson and colleagues (Stevenson, Pasricha & Samararatne, 1988) on cases of the reincarnation-type.

Some have focused on psychological aspects of fraud. A good historical example is the important but almost forgotten paper by Ochorowicz (1896) on unconscious fraud with Palladino. There was also the investigation of medium Anna Burton in which unconscious fraud was documented (Hamilton, Smyth & Hyslop, 1911). The reporting of cases with no motivation or no apparent reason for fraud was the subject of papers by Sidgwick (1894) and Feilding (1905). The latter referred to poltergeist manifestations fraudulently produced by a solicitor that brought financial disaster to the perpetrator. Delanoy's (1987) more recent discussion of a fraudulent metal bender also touches on motivations for fraud.

Concluding Remarks

While these are important contributions, the problem we face as parapsychologists is that our work is generally ignored. Very few scholars outside the field cite our findings. Many psychologists interested in the mind-body problem, spirituality, the dying process, dissociation, altered states of consciousness and in human potential at best pay no attention to parapsychology, and at worst seek to suppress the enterprise. The same may be said of many historians of science and of psychology and psychiatry.
The situation regarding the acceptance of the contributions of parapsychology discussed in this short note mirrors the debate over the ontological status of psi phenomena. That is, while many parapsychologists tend to have a positive outlook, this outlook is not shared by many outside our field. While we may comfort ourselves by saying others are unreasonable or ignorant of the evidence (which sometimes is true), we will not help our field much if we do no more than this. If we are the only ones who see parapsychology as providing contributions to knowledge we will do little but talking among ourselves. It is for this reason that we need to continue, not only the research, but also the attempts to communicate it to others that do not attend our conventions nor read our literature.

Fortunately there are some weak trends suggesting the acknowledgement of at least some aspects of our work (e.g., Alvarado, 2002; Barušs, 2003; Cardeña, Lynn, & Krippner, 2000). But experience has taught us to be hesitant to accept these few triumphs to get our work into the outer world. At this point in the history of parapsychology we need to continue our efforts hoping that our contributions will eventually be recognized in wider intellectual circles.


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