The Frontier of Consciousness

Stacy Horn explores the mysteries of parapsychology and its researchers.

George Kenney

Stacy Horn explores the science of parapsychology in her new book Unbelievable.

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 naïve 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.

You think?

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.
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