What Is Parapsychology? - Definition & History

Instructor: David White
Parapsychology has a fascinating, entertaining, and controversial history. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines the study of parapsychology and explore its evolution from the late 19th century to the present.

Ghost Hunting

Turn on your TV in October and you'll be flooded with a round-up of horror movies, scary stories, and ghost hunting reality shows. These programs are mostly meant to entertain us and maybe scare us, but some of the reality shows want to go a little further than that -- they want us believe they might be true. So they often attempt to inject some science into the story, in the form of a parapsychologist.

Parapsychology is the study of paranormal or superhuman experiences and events, such as hauntings, near-death experiences, and alien abductions. In the present, parapsychology is considered a pseudoscience because it appears to be scientific but lacks any empirical evidence or scientific method to back up that claim. Yet, despite the fact that it is rarely taken seriously in the present, there was a time when parapsychology was believed to be the next frontier in scientific study.

The Birth of Parapsychology

For centuries, existential questions of life after death or belief in otherworldly beings were left up to religious teachings to answer. And many people just accepted things like ghosts or demons as a part of everyday life. This all changed in the latter part of the 19th century with the opening of the Society for Psychical Research in London. The purpose of the society was to bring together people from different disciplines, like scientists and scholars, to find evidence and answers to the paranormal experiences that many people claimed to have had throughout time.

The birth of the parapsychology movement coincided with two similar movements in the US and UK during that same time. The first, Spiritualism, was an American religious movement founded on the belief that people could communicate with spirits through a psychic medium. Shortly after Spiritualism became popular in the US, its British counterpart, Theosophy, began to bring parapsychological and supernatural ideas to the front of many people's minds.

The birth of parapsychology coincides with the rising influence of Spiritualism and Theosophy in the US and UK.

Thanks to the participation of some well-known and widely respected scholars, the Society for Psychical Research grew significantly between its opening in 1882 and the establishment of several offshoots in the US during the first quarter of the 20th century.

20th Century Parapsychology

Though most academic institutions in the United States have been wary of the subject of parapsychology, there have been a few areas that have received some attention, such as extra sensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis.

In the 1930s, Duke University became one of only a few academic institutions that studied such phenomenon, particularly through the Duke Parapsychology Lab. Initially, the lab was headed by a psychologist named William McDougall, but the majority of the work was directed by Dr. Joseph 'J.B.' Rhine, who was a botanist by training but had developed a fascination the paranormal.

Rhine's primary interest was in ESP, and his earliest studies involved testing students to determine the existence of a sixth sense. He started by using a deck of playing cards and would ask volunteers to predict which card he would pick next. Rhine quickly realized that his study was flawed, as many students seemed to have a favorite suit that they would unconsciously pick. To correct this, he and another member of the lab, Karl Zener, created a new deck of cards known as Zener Cards, which had a series of unfamiliar symbols and signs.

Rhine and Zener created Zener Cards to ensure that participants were unfamiliar with the deck of cards.

Using the Zener Cards, Rhine continued his experiment with similar results. There were, however, a few participants that demonstrated incredible ability when it came to ESP, including one that consistently predicted the next card with statistically impossible frequency. These results suggested that there was indeed something to the theory of ESP; however, over the last several decades many people have found several problems with Rhine's methodology that seemingly discredit the results.

The Decline of Parapsychology

Throughout the middle part of the 20th century, parapsychologists continued to study ESP and psychokinesis in private and academic institutions around the country. As a rule, most of these groups would avoid investigating things like hauntings or claims of demonic possession because they never really produced any evidence and tended to undermine their scientific mission.

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