Features » October 2, 2009
The Frontier of Consciousness
Stacy Horn explores the mysteries of parapsychology and its researchers.
It’s safe to assume that psychic phenomena have been with us since the dawn of humankind. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that certain forms of these phenomena–for example, a sense of the incorporeal presence of others–are somehow hardwired into our DNA. But the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is whether science can adequately explain the apparently inexplicable.
In her sympathetic book Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory (Ecco, 2009), Stacy Horn assesses one of the most systematic scientific efforts ever taken to research the paranormal. And she concludes, against her wishes, it seems, that the phenomena are real. They remain, nevertheless, a mystery.
If in fact unknown, unseen forces really are at work, then either our scientific understanding of the natural world suffers huge gaps or our understanding may, in certain fundamental respects, be wrong. Or both. That’s good news for people who relish a challenge but not such good news for scientists heavily vested in contemporary paradigms. Small wonder that psychic phenomena get short shrift from the establishment.
Still, if something can be measured, if it can be shown to exist, it must be explainable. As we get closer to opening a door into a very different world, two questions arise. What will it mean if we succeed in harnessing the power of telepathy or psychokenesis or remote viewing or other psychic phenomena? And if we do so, to what extent will we continue to rely upon intuition and faith in addressing the larger issues of life and death?
How did writing this book change your thoughts of the paranormal?
When I started out I was a complete skeptic. But after researching the experiments at the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, I changed my mind. In his book The Scalpel and the Soul, Allan Hamilton has a line, “It is easy to say you don’t believe in ghosts when you haven’t seen one.”
As you point out, J.B. Rhine, the director of the former Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke, is really a tragic figure.
Yeah, towards the end he was just not open to a lot of experiments that could have really taken the research further. What was ultimately tragic about Rhine was that over and over his lab would come up with evidence for these effects, which he chose to call “telepathy” and “psychokinesis,” but he was never able to learn how it operated. He could never control it or enhance it or anything.
There’s also Robert Jahn, from PEAR [Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research] laboratory and the work he did on remote viewing.
Jahn had this lab for roughly the same amount of time as Rhine, and he did more modern versions of basically the same experiments, but using computers. And he got pretty much the same results. He showed that people have these abilities, but not to superhuman levels.
Jahn says that he got interested in this when an undergraduate came to him with a project to see how mental efforts might influence electronic chips. And, as an engineer, he said, “Well this is impossible, but go ahead and try it.” When she showed some positive results, he thought, “Well, this is important because if we’ve got chips running everything, and they are susceptible to mental influences, what is that going to mean for us?” And he started doing the research himself.
He published his results and he was subject to the same scorn that Rhine was his entire life. And he retired, with his work still not accepted, the same as Rhine.
In 2007, Jahn and Brenda Dunne, his colleague from PEAR, wrote “Change the Rules!” What was that article about?
They basically say that we have these field theories for gravitation and electromagnetism and that we need to incorporate a field theory for information, and that information propagates in the world the same way electromagnetism does or gravity does and we have to come up with an information field to explain and understand this.
You are also writing about the unwillingness of the scientific community to entertain ideas that are radically at odds with established views.
People do not want to drop their complete worldview for a new idea just like that. When I first started researching this book, I had the most naive idea of scientists. I thought that they were very rational, much more rational than I was. But when I started reading these letters to Rhine in the Duke archive from these scientists all over the world, just dripping with venom, I was shocked. But of course, they’re only human. And humans get nasty and snarky.
Let’s talk about poltergeists. Once you accept the possibility that humans, in whatever way, are a conduit for energy that is making stuff fly around, then you get interest from people in the military. Were you curious about the military investigation into these things?
When I was down at Duke, I copied a lot of letters between Rhine and people in various branches of the military. In Rhine’s time period, the military wasn’t ready to make a full-blown effort into this area, at least not that I was able to find out about, but they were always curious. And then there were the CIA remote viewing experiments that the CIA said were exciting, but I wasn’t able to find where they went from there.
In Unbelievable you mention the University of Virginia’s department of psychiatry’s Division of Perceptual Studies, and their research on reincarnation. About six months ago or so, I approached Bruce Grayson, who now runs that program, and he sent a very polite letter back saying that he was sorry he couldn’t do an interview because he was under some sort of gag order. Were you interested in their work with children?
That’s exactly what I was focusing on–and definitely, like the Rhine work, there is something there that needs to be explained, regardless of how you interpret it.
The question is whether children’s knowledge of other circumstances outside their particular lives could be attributed to some form of ESP as opposed to some form of reincarnation. That seems to be a difficult nut to crack.
Yes, but that doesn’t explain the cases where the children had information that no one in the room knew, that their families didn’t know, and even the families of the person they were said to have been reincarnated as didn’t know–information that the kids provided which turned out to be true. So if it was coming from someone else’s mind, whose was it?
The conclusion that I came to in my book was that it seems there is another source of information out there–I don’t know where it is coming from. I don’t know if it is coming from the dead or from other people’s minds. But there is adequate evidence that people have ways of knowing things that we cannot explain.
When Rhine retired, his lab closed down.
Yeah. In both Rhine’s and Jahn’s cases. When Rhine retired, Duke closed down the lab. But he knew that was going to happen so he opened another lab outside of Duke, the Rhine Research Center. And Jahn, when Princeton closed PEAR down, he opened up the International Consciousness Research Laboratories.
Is there anyone today comparable to those two–an energetic person in the middle of a productive career who’s trying to tackle these problems?
Things are percolating. There’s the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which we talked about, and there’s the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, Calif. When I first started researching for this book, I couldn’t find anything from any mainstream scientist that even had like a tiny window into acceptance.
I have this great quote from Allan Hamilton, the author of the The Scalpel and the Soul: “There are a lot more unseen forces in the universe than we have access to now.” And Michio Kaku–he’s a well known theoretical physicist–wrote Physics of the Impossible where he goes through telepathy, psychokinesis and time travel, and he discusses whether they violate the laws of physics as we know them today. And for both telepathy and psychokinesis, he concludes that they do not violate the laws of physics, and are at least theoretically possible.
Then there’s Andrei Linde, the astrophysicist from Stanford, who said, “Is it possible that consciousness, like space-time, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete?”
What does he mean by “its own intrinsic degrees of freedom”?
Linde is saying that consciousness may somehow operate independently of us. Like it doesn’t depend on us, it doesn’t depend on the brain. There’s a relationship, but it’s not a physical one, it’s not part of our body.
Consciousness does seem to be the new frontier.
Yeah. You don’t?
George Kenney, a former career U.S. foreign service officer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. policy toward the Yugoslav conflict. He is now a writer in Washington, and host and producer of the podcast Electric Politics.