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3. The Evidence for Psi: Spontaneous Phenomena

This chapter and the next will examine the evidence for psi phenomena such as telepathy (direct mind-to-mind, or at least brain-to-brain, communication), precognition (the ability to “see” the future), clairvoyance (the ability to gain direct knowledge of a physical object by means other than the recognized physical senses) and psychokinesis  (the ability of mind to directly influence matter remote from the physical body).  Collectively, these ostensible phenomena are called “psi phenomena,” a term introduced by the parapsychologists Robert Thouless and B. P. Wiesner (Thouless & Wiesner, 1948; Wiesner & Thouless, 1942).

As the reader is no doubt aware, there is a vast (or, by orthodox science standards, moderately large) literature regarding attempts to demonstrate the existence of paranormal phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK) in experimental studies.    As will be discussed in detail in the next chapter, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding this literature.  Many observers within the field of parapsychology contend that the existence of psi phenomena has been conclusively established and that the task of experimental parapsychology should now be to explore the nature of psi and the conditions that facilitate or inhibit the expression of psi rather than to amass further evidence that such phenomena exist.  Skeptics, who comprise the vast majority of the orthodox scientific community, assert that that the existence of psi phenomena has not been conclusively established and that the existing body of experimental evidence for psi can be explained away by a combination of procedural and statistical flaws or outright fraud.

We will discuss this controversy in considerable depth in the next chapter.  To do so now would be getting ahead of our story and putting the cart in front of the horse.  The true story begins with a discussion of apparent instances of psi that occur in everyday life outside of the laboratory.  Such cases of “spontaneous psi” have occurred throughout recorded history.  Studies of such cases preceded experimental investigations of psi and formed the rationale and motivation for experimental investigations.

Spontaneous Psi

Classification into Subtypes

One of the foremost investigators of spontaneous psi phenomena was Dr. Louisa Rhine, the wife and colleague of Dr. J. B. Rhine, the man who is widely regarded as the founder of the field of experimental parapsychology.  Over a period of several decades, she amassed a vast collection of over 10,000 cases of apparently paranormal events, which were mailed to her, often in response to articles in the popular press, over a period of several decades. Her anecdotal, theoretical and statistical studies of such cases led to a long list of publications, spanning several decades (e.g., Rhine, 1951, 1955, 1961, 1962a, 1962b, 1963, 1970, 1977, 1978, 1981).  She partitioned the experiences suggesting the operation of an ESP capacity into four main groups: hallucinatory experiences, intuitive experiences, realistic dreams and unrealistic dreams. She established a fifth, “wastebasket” category of “indeterminate type” for experiences that were difficult to assign unambiguously to one of the four previously mentioned categories. Cases involving hallucinations while falling asleep (hypnagogic imagery) or while waking up (hypnopompic imagery) might fall into this indeterminate category, along with cases involving mixed features.

 Hallucinatory cases sometimes involve auditory, tactile, or olfactory hallucinations.  However, visual hallucinations are by far the most predominant mode in such cases (unlike in schizophrenia, where auditory hallucinations predominate).  One famous subcategory of visual hallucinations comprises  “crisis apparitions,” in which someone has a vision of another person at the time that the appearing person is undergoing a crisis (often death).  Such crisis apparitions were a predominant interest of the earliest psychical researchers (e.g., Gurney, Myers and Podmore, 1886a, 1886b), who viewed such hallucinations as possible instances of ghosts or “astral bodies” come to bid their friends farewell (although many observers, such as Edmund Gurney, proposed that such visions were in fact hallucinations induced by paranormal awareness of the crisis being experienced by the appearing person, rather than an actual appearance of the departing spirit of the appearing person).

 Intuitive cases involve a sense of foreboding or “hunch” that something has occurred.  For instance, a woman may be driving to work and be overcome with a sense of foreboding that something is wrong at home.  She turns her car around and drives back to her house, only to find it on fire, her toddler and babysitter huddled on the front lawn.  

 Lousia Rhine’s third category of spontaneous ESP experience was that of realistic dreams.  Such dreams involve a more or less literal and accurate portrayal of the confirming event.  Unlike intuitive experiences, which primarily involve contemporaneous events, dreams are more often precognitive, that is to say involve events that have yet to happen at the time of the dream.  For instance, a mother may dream that her son is a fiery car crash on the night before the actual crash occurs.

 Rhine’s fourth category is that of “unrealistic” dreams, which appear to represent events symbolically rather than literally.  For instance, rather than dreaming of the car crash in more or less realistic detail, the woman in the last example might dream that her son hands her a single rose and then begins walking into a dark cave.  

 Louisa Rhine employed a fifth “wastebasket category” of cases involving mixed features.

 Several types of spontaneous ESP experiences appear to be left out of Rhine’s categorization scheme.  The most prominent of these is the “psi-mediated instrumental response” (PMIR) discussed by Rex Stanford (1974, 1990a).  A case of PMIR might involve a man’s sudden impulse to enter the art museum he normally walks past on his way home from work.  Once inside, he runs into an old flame who lives in another country but who is now on vacation and touring the gallery.  This case could be an instance of psi powers operating at a wholly subconscious level, in which the man became clairvoyantly aware of his old girlfriend’s presence in the art galley, with this subconscious awareness giving rise to the impulse to enter the art gallery.  This category of spontaneous psi would seem to fall outside of Louisa Rhine’s categories of ESP experiences, all of which involve a more or less conscious awareness of the psi message.

 Another category of receptive psi seemingly missed by Louisa Rhine’s classification scheme is the phenomenon of psi-trailing, in which a animal pet animal is lost at distant location yet is able to find its way home (in some instances, even if the pet’s owner has moved to a new location previously unknown to the pet).  Instances of psi-trailing were studied by the Rhines’ daughter, Sally Feather (Rhine & Feather, 1962).

 Another phenomenon suggestive of operation of psi is the common experience of déjà vu, in which a person has the sense that the events she is currently experiencing are strangely familiar and that she has already experienced them at least once before.  One possible explanation of the déjà vu experience is that the person has precognized the events in question, possibly in a dream that has since been forgotten.  Alternative explanations for the phenomenon of déjà vu that do not involve psi powers abound and will be discussed below.

 Some spontaneous cases involve puzzling physical effects such as clocks that stop or portraits that fall off the wall at the time of a persons’ death.  There are also cases that involve anomalous physical phenomena that occur repeatedly over a longer time period.  These are known as poltergeist cases or, in the parapsychologists’ parlance, recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (or RSPK for short).  Poltergeist cases may involve anomalously moving objects such as cups that fly off the kitchen counter or rocks that pummel the house from outside as well as strange behavior of electrical apparatus, such as radios that seem to turn themselves on or phones that malfunction in odd ways.  Even stranger phenomena have been reported, including bite marks appearing on a victim’s skin.  While the term “poltergeist” literally translates as “noisy ghost,” most modern observers attribute poltergeist phenomena to living agents.  In a typical poltergeist case, there is a “focal person” or “poltergeist agent” involved.  Anomalous physical phenomena generally occur in close proximity to the focal person and few, if any, phenomena are observed in the focal person’s absence.  For this reason, the RSPK effects are generally thought to be caused either through the focal person’s psychokinetic powers or through fraudulent behavior on the part of the focal person.

Examples of Spontaneous Psi

Having outlined the major categories of spontaneous psi, I will now present examples of each of the major subtypes listed above.

Hallucinatory Experiences. 

 Hallucinatory experiences are perhaps the most dramatic category of spontaneous experiences that are suggestive of the operation of ESP.  They may involve visions of persons at the time of death (crisis apparitions), auditory hallucinations (often of a voice calling one’s name), and even olfactory and tactile hallucinations.  

McKenzie (1995) reports a case involving a seemingly precognitive vision of a fatal fire.  On October 27, 1971, a six-year-old boy reported seeing a fire out of the front window of his aunt’s house.  According to his aunt, the boy shouted, “Look at that fire over there - get some water quick!”  The aunt went to the window and saw nothing and took the boy home because she thought that he must be tired.  

The boy’s sister, then nine, corroborated this story, saying that she had gone to her uncle’s house after school on that day and her brother was looking out of this window at the house across the street at about 3:30 PM on October 27.  She stated that her brother had a vision of the house being on fire, including fire engines and stretchers being brought out of the house with the bodies covered by blankets.  She noted that it seemed to be nighttime in the boy’s vision, as he stated that it was dark outside.  She stated that her brother ran out into the street and urged his uncle to get some water.  She stated that her brother then ran home and later got smacked for making up stories.  (Note that this account is at variance with the aunt’s on this point.  This indicates that not all the witnesses’ memories have remained perfectly intact and undistorted between 1971 and McKenzie’s interviews in 1995.).

The boy himself (by then of course a man) reported to MacKenzie that he was looking through the window of his uncle’s house and saw the house across the street on fire.  He said that he could see a pram under the window, with glass and wood falling into it.  He could hear people screaming and could see smoke. He states that, though it was daylight in reality, the events seemed to be taking place at night.  He said that he called his uncle, but by the time he had looked out, the scene had reverted back to normal.   He said that he was smacked for telling lies and that the actual fire happened the next evening.  (A report in the October 28, 1971 number of the Bolton Evening News, the local evening newspaper, confirms that a fire in the house in question did take place.  The blaze was described as an inferno, and two brothers, aged two and three, perished in the conflagration.  MacKenzie notes that it is odd that the fire is described as having occurred “today” in the account in the evening newspaper.  He speculates that the paper was a very late edition or that the fire had in fact occurred the previous evening.

That the fire occurred at night was corroborated by the boy’s father, who stated that his son had in fact run into his shop on the afternoon of the day in question, talking about the fire and telling him to come quickly.  He also confirmed that the boy said that the fire was occurring at night despite the fact that it was late afternoon.  He also stated that the actual fire occurred the next day while his son was fast asleep in bed.

This case is of interest in view of the large number of corroborating witnesses.  As noted above, however, the memories of at least some of these witnesses appear to have become somewhat distorted over time.

The boy’s father stated that he had heard that the fire had been investigated as a possible arson.  Thus, there is the possibility that the boy had subconsciously picked up cues from the arsonists’ activities, which were then manifested as a vision.  Such possibilities aside, this case is suggestive of a precognitive hallucination.  This is somewhat unusual in that most ostensible psi experiences taking place in the waking state involve contemporaneous events, whereas dreams are much more likely to be precognitive.   

 The following is an apparent case of hallucinatory ESP taken from the early investigations of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), an organization of prominent scientists and scholars founded in England in 1882 to study such anomalous events and which is still in existence today:

On Thursday evening, 14th November, 1867, I was sitting in the Birmingham Town Hall with my husband at a concert, when there came over me the icy chill which usually accompanies these occurrences. Almost immediately, I saw with perfect distinctness, between myself and the orchestra, my uncle, Mr. W., lying in bed with an appealing look on his face, like one dying. I had not heard of him for several months, and had no reason to think he was ill. The appearance was not transparent or filmy, but perfectly solid-looking; and yet I could somehow see the orchestra, not through, but behind it. I did not try turning my eyes to see whether the figure moved with them, but looked at it with a fascinated expression that made my husband ask if I was ill. I asked him not to speak with me for a minute or two; the vision gradually disappeared, and I told my husband, after the concert was over, what I had seen. A letter came shortly after telling of my uncle’s death. He died at exactly the time when I saw the vision (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886a, p. 194).

Another case involving a visual hallucination was provided to the Society by a Mrs. Bettany:

I was walking along in a country lane at A, the place where my parents then resided. I was reading geometry as I walked along … when in a moment I saw a bedroom known as the White Room in my home, and upon the floor lay my mother, to all appearance dead. The vision must have remained some minutes, during which time my real surroundings appeared to pale and die out; but as the vision faded, actual surroundings came back, at first dimly, and then clearly.  I could not doubt that what I had seen was real, so instead of going home, I went at once to the house of our medical man and found him at home.  He at once set out with me for my home, on the way putting questions I could not answer, as my mother was to all appearance well when I left home. I led the doctor straight to the White Room, where we found my mother actually lying as in my vision. This was true even to minute details. She had been seized suddenly by an attack of the heart, and would soon have breathed her last but for the doctor’s timely advent. I shall get my mother and father to read and sign this. (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886a, p. 194.)

In response to questioning, Mrs. Bettany stated that she was not feeling anxious about her mother at the time of her death. She also noted that she had found a handkerchief with a lace border beside her mother on the floor, a detail which corresponded to her vision. Her father, upon being interviewed, corroborated his daughter’s statement and added that, so far as he was able to tell, his wife was taken ill after his daughter had left the house.  Of course, in this case a determined skeptic could argue that the daughter might have subconsciously noticed subtle signs of cardiopulmonary distress before the full-blown heart attack occurred. Such a phenomenon is known as “sensory cueing” and will be discussed in more detail below.

As noted above, hallucinatory experiences frequently involve senses other than vision.  However, vision is the most frequent modality among seemingly psi-induced hallucinations, whereas the hallucinations of psychotics most frequently involve the auditory modality.  A typical auditory hallucination suggestive of the operation of psi might consist of hearing your mother’s voice calling you at the exact time that she is experiencing some sort of physical crisis at a distant location.  Smell, kinesthesia (muscle sense), pain and other sensory modalities may also be involved.  The Finnish folklorist Leea Virtanen (1990) notes that cases involving the parallel experiencing of physical symptoms of disease and injury are quite common and most often occur between parent and child.  The following is such a case taken from the early investigations of the SPR:

I woke up with a start, feeling I had had a hard blow on my mouth, and with a distinct sense that I had been cut and was bleeding under my upper lip, and seized my pocket-handkerchief and held it (in a little pushed lump) to the part, as I sat up in bed, and after a few seconds, when I removed it, I was astonished to not to see any blood, and only realized it was impossible anything could have struck me there, as I lay fast asleep in my bed, and so I thought it was only a dream! - but I looked at my watch, and saw it was seven, and finding Arthur (my husband) was not in the room, I concluded (rightly) that he must have gone out on the lake for any early sail, as it was so fine.  

I then fell asleep.  At breakfast (half-past nine) Arthur came in rather late, and I noticed he rather purposely sat further away from me than usual, and every now and then put his pocket handkerchief furtively up to his lip, in the very way I had done.  I said “Arthur, why are you doing that?” and added a little anxiously “I know you have hurt yourself! But I will tell you why afterwards.”  He said, “Well, when I was sailing, a sudden squall came, throwing the tiller suddenly around, and it struck me a bad blow in the mouth, under the upper lip, and it has been bleeding a good deal and won’t stop.”  I then said, “Have you any idea what o’clock it was when it happened?” and he answered, “It must have been about seven.”

I then told what happened to me, much to his surprise, and all who were here at breakfast.

I happened here about three years ago at Brantwood to me. (Gurney, Myers, & Podmore, 1886a, pp. 187-189.)

This woman’s story was corroborated in a statement made by her husband.

A very similar case was provided to me by one of my students.  According to the student, his father was suddenly knocked off the bench he was sitting on by an invisible blow to the jaw.  A few minutes later, he received a call from the health club where his wife was working out informing him that his wife had just broken her jaw on a piece of gymnastic equipment.  One skeptical explanation of psi experiences is that they are the product of coincidence.  For instance, women may frequently dream of their husbands’ deaths, so one would expect that some of these dreams may occur at or shortly before the husband’s death.  In the case of my student’s father, such an explanation is much less plausible, as the baseline probability of the event is virtually zero.  It would be absurd to argue that men are frequently knocked off benches by invisible blows and that some of these blows are likely to coincidence with an injury to a family member by chance.

Intuitive Experiences  

The second major category of experiences that are suggestive of the operation of ESP is that of intuitive experiences.  Intuitive experiences typically occur in the waking state and most often involve a feeling that something is wrong at a distant location that is later corroborated.  The following intuitive experience is taken from Stevenson (1970b).

Around the middle of June, 1964, Linda and I decided to visit the Travis’ [sic] to congratulate them on their new child.  After supper we put the children to bed and we asked Linda’s grandmother to babysit for a while.

We arrived there and Paul Travis fixed our drinks.  As he was showing me the blueprints of his new house I stopped and had a feeling as if something bad had happened at home, the nature of which I was not aware.

I asked Linda to call home.  She said: “I will in a few minutes.”  I said: “You’d better call now.  Something is wrong.”

Linda went into the bedroom where the phone was and I followed and my feelings were then of distress.  Our…neighbor answered the phone.  Both children were screaming in the background.  She informed us that Linda’s grandmother had hurt her back just a few minutes earlier and [that] the children were so frightened…

We arrived home and the neighbor met us at the door, saying that Linda’s grandmother had called upon her after she hurt her back.

Scott, my son, was frantic and refused to go to Linda and clutched me for comfort.

What is surprising about this incident is the sudden feeling of distress and my insistence on Linda to call home and my premonition that something bad [had] happened.  (Stevenson, 1970b, pp. 49-50.)

This statement was corroborated by the informant’s wife, who added that the informant had never previously displayed strong anxiety about something being wrong at home and had never previously asked her to telephone a babysitter while they were away.


The third major mode of psi experience is that of dreams.  In her classification system, Louisa Rhine divided such cases into those involving realistic dreams, which correspond closely in detail to the confirming event, and unrealistic dreams, which she defined as containing “a bit of imagination, fantasy and even symbolism” (Rhine, 1977, p.71).  As an example of symbolism, she offered the case of a woman who dreamed of heavy black smoke prior to tragic events.  Virtanen (1990) in her study of spontaneous psi experiences used a category that she called “symbolic dreams,” which is analogous to Louisa Rhine’s unrealistic dream category.  As examples of symbolic dreams depicting death, Virtanen cites dreams of a person going on a journey, ascending to heaven, departing toward black trees, swimming in black ice, and well as the snuffing out of a candle and a black butterfly flying by.  About one-third of Virtanen’s dream experiences fell into this category.

The following account, taken from Louisa Rhine’s collection, is an example of a realistic dream.  It was provided to Rhine by the district manager of a sheet and tin plate company. The experience occurred shortly before he and several business associates were to return home from a two-week vacation in the wilderness, where they had been cut off from all news sources.

The night before they were to return home, the district manager had a dream, so clear, so vivid, he could not sleep afterward. In it, he writes, “one of our locomotive cranes that was unloading a car of scrap iron, together with the car, was on the track near the bank of a river alongside the water tower which served the locomotives. For some unaccountable reason, as the huge magnet swung around with a heavy load of scrap, it suddenly toppled over the river bank. The operator, whom I called by name, jumped clear of the crane and landed below it as it came bounding, tumbling and bouncing down the river bank, and he finally disappeared from view as the crane came to rest twenty feet below at the water’s edge. I particularly noted the number of the crane and the number and positions of the railroad cars, and was able to tell how the crane operator was dressed. Furthermore, I noticed the approximate damage done to the crane. I did not know, however, what had finally happened to the operator. He had disappeared under or behind the crane after it had come to rest. In other words, I was observing the accident from somewhere in or across the river.

“Upon my return to the mill the following day, the first man I met was the master mechanic. He told me to come with him to inspect the crane of my dream, to talk with the operator who had emerged from the accident without a scratch. The operator explained his lack of injury by the fact that the crane had fallen over in front of him as he made his last jump and as it made its last bounce. The record showed the smallest detail to be as I had dreamed it, with one exception. The exception was that the accident had happened two hours after the dream”  (Rhine, 1961, pp. 43-44).

Among Rhine’s examples of symbolic dreams is a case in which a woman had a series of dreams in each of which the symbol of an avenue of trees seemed to be used to dramatize an impending death (Rhine, 1961, pp. 49-50). The first such dream occurred when the woman was a 12-year-old girl.  She had fallen asleep in a swing in the yard of her house and dreamed that she had seen her mother walking down a beautiful avenue of trees.  She ran after her, realized that she was not going to be able to catch up to her and then called out to her.  She turned, put up her hand and said, “Go back my daughter, your father needs you.” 

When she woke up, she immediately went into the house.  Her father greeted her, embraced her and informed her that her mother had just died.

About 12 years after the first dream, the second dream occurred.  Her brother was ill in a hospital in another state. She was herself ill and could not be with him.  The night he died, she dreamed that he too was walking down the same avenue of trees.  She tried to catch up to him but he told her to go back. (As we will see later, these dreams bear some resemblance to near-death experiences, in which the experiencing parties are told that it is not yet time for them to die and that they must return to life.)  As it turned out, her brother died at the approximate time of the dream.

In the third dream, she saw her husband quickly walking down the same avenue of trees. He too put up his hand and said, “Our precious children need you—go back.” The dream frightened her and she put her arms around her husband awakening him. He announced that he was feeling very sick, and he died a few minutes later.

Of course, the astute skeptic might note that in each of the above dreams, the woman might have had some reason to expect that the person’s death was imminent.  In the last case, she may have subliminally heard sounds of her husband’s physical distress as she slept.  Such objections would be more difficult to raise in the case of the fourth dream, in which the woman dreamed that her daughter and her girlfriend, who had gone to a dance, were involved in a fatal accident in front of her home.  The same avenue of trees came into play in the dream.  Needless to say, the woman was quite relieved when the girls returned safely home from the dance around 1:00 A.M.  The very next night, her daughters had a dance in their house. The girlfriend of her daughter that had appeared in the dream was in fact killed within a block of her house as she was on her way home. The woman noted that the accident was “just as I had dreamed it.”

It is of course possible that the woman had observed that the girlfriend was a reckless driver; Rhine’s account provides us with no information on this point.

The psychiatrist Berthold Schwarz provides the following case, which incorporates both realistic and symbolic elements.

Bartholomew A. Ruggieri, M.D., my friend and hardworking neighbor pediatrician, wrote this memo: “On the afternoon of Sunday, June 2, 1968, I went up to my room to nap. I slept fitfully, from about 2:30 P.M. to 5–5:30 P.M. During this time I dreamed that I was at an upper story window facing Avenue B and Sixth Street in New York City, and saw a ‘parade’ of mourners approaching as pictured [diagram drawn by Dr. R]. It was more a mass of mourners than a parade. They carried a banner with a religious connotation and ending with the words: ‘…KENNEDY ASSASSINATION.’ I know the area very well, having lived my youth there, but to my knowledge I have never lived on Avenue B.  I awoke, vividly recalling all the words on the banner, felt I should get up and write them down, but did not do so.  I lay in bed and, after a period of drowsiness, again fell asleep.  Somehow in my mind I associated this to the imminent assassination of Robert Kennedy (Bobby).  The Avenue B would support this.  The same evening (6/2/68) sitting at my desk at 9:30 P.M., I phoned Dr. B. E. Schwarz, described the dream, and said I felt Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated on the 6th of June. Note ‘Sixth’ Street: June is the sixth month” (Schwarz, 1980, pp. 247-248).

While it is true that Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, he died on the sixth.  Dr. Schwarz told his wife of Dr. Ruggieri’s dream on the evening of June 2, 1968.

Virtanen (1990) provides a few examples of a novel form of dream telepathy, in which the confirming event is the dream of a second person.  She calls such cases “shared dreams.”  As one example of a shared dream, she cites a case in which a man was awakened by a dream in which he hit his son on the head with a stick.  The son woke up crying and said, “Father hit me on the head with a stick” (p. 99).

Van de Castle (1994) has also related several examples of shared dreams.  A few involved some of his own dreams during a night when he was serving as the “sender” in one of the experiments on telepathic dreaming conducted at the Maimonides Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn New York.  One of Van de Castle’s dreams involved a barking dog.  The “receiver” in the experiment also had a dream with a dog in it.  In another of Van de Castle’s dreams, his wife took a car trip and encountered a man with whom she talked about music. The “receiver” in the experiment dreamed that she was on a car trip with other people and was later talking with one of the same people involved in the car trip of Van de Castle’s dream.  Van de Castle cites work by Rechtschaffen (1970) indicating an unusual degree of correspondence between the dreams of subjects sleeping at the same time in a sleep laboratory.  In one case, a subject dreamed about singing in Russian, while another subject dreamed about students doing some kind of interpretive singing.  In a second instance, the first subject dreamed about taking a violin lesson while the second was dreaming about learning a guitar melody.  In a third instance, both subjects dreamed about watching gangster movies.  A skeptic might conjecture that, if the subjects in the sleep lab were friends, it is possible that similar interests (e.g., in music or violent movies) and experiences may result in similar themes appearing in the dreams.

One case cited by Van de Castle, taken from Green (1968), involved lucid dreams (dreams in which the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming).  In this case, both a mother and her son experienced lucid dreams on the same night.  The mother felt that she had contacted her son and had spoken a sentence to him in her dream, which the son repeated back to her when they met for lunch the following day.

Psi-mediated Instrumental Response 

Stanford (1974, 1990a) has pointed to one possible type of psi experience that may be missed in Louisa Rhine’s classification scheme. This category encompasses cases in which a person takes an action that is appropriate to a situation when the person has no normally acquired knowledge (or any conscious paranormally-acquired knowledge) that the situation even exists. Presumably, in such cases the person is acting on the basis of information provided by ESP at an unconscious level.  Stanford uses the term “psi-mediated instrumental response,” or PMIR, to describe such events.  As an example, he cites the case of a retired New York attorney who was traveling to Greenwich Village to drop in on two artist friends.  He had to change subway trains, and upon leaving the first train, he claimed that he “absent-mindedly” walked out through the gate and was halfway up the stairs to the street before he realized that he had intended to switch trains.  Not wishing to pay another fare, he decided to walk the additional six blocks south. He then ran into his friends, who had left their home and were walking north along the same route on their way to an appointment.  

One reason why examples of PMIR may be relatively rare in collections of spontaneous cases may be that the people involved in such cases do not typically have any awareness of possessing paranormally-acquired knowledge and are consequently likely to attribute their experiences to luck or coincidence rather than to the operation of ESP or PK (psychokinesis).  Stanford suggests that cases of PMIR may be occurring frequently without the people involved being aware that anything unusual is going on.

Physical Effects

Louisa Rhine’s second major category of paranormal experiences involves puzzling physical effects, such as the stopping of a clock at the time of the owner’s death or a person’s portrait falling off a wall at or near the time of the person’s death. One of her cases involved a man in Wisconsin who died in an easy chair in his living room. The watch in his vest pocket and the large clock in the living were both found to have stopped, each at the approximate time of the man’s death (Rhine, 1961, p. 243).

Sometimes the timepieces involved are at a considerable distance from the dying person, as in the following case:

A woman in New Hampshire reported that when she was a girl of about 12 she came home from school one day and her mother told her about a queer occurrence.

Her mother said she was sitting knitting in the kitchen about 2 o’clock that afternoon when the clock stopped for no apparent reason.  It was not run down for it soon started running again and kept going until evening, the time that it usually was wound.

Three days later a cable came from overseas saying that her mother’s sister had died.  It was the day and hour the clock stopped.  (Rhine, 1981, p. 196).

Not all of Rhine’s clock cases involved the stopping of timepieces. Occasionally, timepieces were reported to have behaved aberrantly at the time of a death. One woman gave an account of a case in which a clock that normally chimed only on the hour chimed once at 7:20 P.M., surprising the woman and her parents. Five minutes later, they received a phone call informing them that their mother’s sister had died of a heart attack at 7:20. This was the only occasion on which the clock chimed at a time other than on the hour (Rhine,1961, p. 244).  

Ian Wilson describes a similar case involving the late Pope Paul VI. At the time of the Pope’s death (9:40 P.M. on August 6, 1978), his bedroom alarm clock, which had always been set to 6:30 A.M., inexplicably rang (Wilson, 1987, p. 183).  However, Mary Roach (2005), in a detailed investigation of several famous cases suggestive of survival after death, interviewed several witnesses in connection with this case.  In the course of those interviews, Archbishop Pasquale Macchi, one the pope’s associates, stated that on the morning of the Pope’s death, he had rewound the pope’s clock, as it was stopped, and likely inadvertently set the alarm time to correspond with the pope’s death.  Of course, even if this explains the anomalous ringing of the alarm, the fact that it was accidentally set to the moment of the pope’s death could be another instance of Stanford’s PMIR.    

Objects are occasionally reported to fall or break at the time of a significant crisis to a person associated with the object, as in the following case from Louisa Rhine’s collection:

A woman in Nevada tells of an experience which centered on her elder brother Frank. He was an especially thoughtful boy who did many things to please his mother, to whom he was very close. She says: “One day he came home with a beautiful cut-glass dish. Mom thought it was just about the most wonderful thing that ever happened to her and put it on our sideboard.

“When the rest of us had chicken pox, my brother Frank was sent down to my grandmother’s in Grand Haven, Michigan, which was about forty miles from where we lived, although Mother was reluctant to have him go. Two days after Frank left, Mom and our neighbor were having their morning coffee and talking, and we children were told to be quiet. All of a sudden, this cut-glass dish that Frank had given Mother popped and broke right in two. It was just sitting on the sideboard. Mother screamed and said, ‘My God! Frank has just been killed.’ Everyone tried to quiet Mother, but she said she just knew.

“About an hour after, or a little more, we received a telegram from Grandpa which said to come right away, something had happened to Frank. Mom said, ‘I know.’ She cried all the way going to Grand Haven, and Grandpa met us at the train. Before Grandpa could tell us what happened, Mom cried, ‘At what funeral parlor is he?’ Grandpa just stood there with his mouth open and Mom ran right up the street and went to the place Frank was without being told. They wouldn’t let her see him because a terrible thing had happened.

“The boy next door to Grandfather was home from school and his parents were not at home, so he started playing with his father’s shotgun, and came outside, showing it to Frank. The boy, not knowing it was loaded, pulled the trigger and killed my brother. The strange thing—Frank was shot at the same time the dish broke.” (Rhine, 1961, pp. 245-246).

Cases involving physical effects are relatively rare. Rhine (1963) noted that her case collection at that point contained only 178 physical effect cases, in comparison to over 10,000 ESP cases.  Of those 178 cases, 65 involved falling objects, 49 involved the stopping or erratic movement of timepieces, 21 involved breaking or exploding objects, 17 involved lights turning on and off by themselves, 14 involved the sudden opening or closing of doors and 12 involved rocking and moving objects (half of which were rocking chairs). In 37 of the 49 clock cases, the clocks stopped at the time of death of a person associated with the clock.  In 18 of the 65 cases involving falling objects, the object in question was a picture or portrait of a person undergoing a crisis, such as a serious accident or death, at the time of the object’s movement.  Thirteen other such objects bore a special relationship to a person undergoing a crisis at the time of the event.

Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a physical effect or an hallucination is involved.  For instance, perceived raps or voices could simply be auditory hallucinations.  On the other hand, they might be caused by real physical sound waves.  One way to decide which is the case would be to see if such sounds can be collectively perceived (that is, can be heard by more than one person).  In an attempt to resolve this issue, Louisa Rhine (1981) examined instances in which more than one person was present when the sound was heard.  In 68 such cases involving vocal sounds, the sounds were heard by a second person only 28 percent of the time, whereas mechanical sounds, such as raps, were collectively perceived in 93 percent of the 63 cases involved.   In her study of Finnish cases, Virtanen (1990) also found voice sounds to be collectively perceived less frequently than “noisy” sounds such as bumps, thuds and rattles, as did Rinaldi and Piccinni (1982) in their door-to-door survey of cases in the South Tyrol section of Italy.  Taken together, these data suggest that cases involving mechanical or “noisy” sounds involve real physical effects more often than do cases involving vocal sounds (which are more likely to be hallucinations).

A similar controversy surrounds cases in which someone experiences the apparition of a person near the time that the person was dying or experiencing a serious crisis at a location distant from the observer.  In a case unearthed by the early investigators of the Society for Psychical Research, a man who was staying in Paris, and was consequently separated from his five-year-old son in London, was awakened by the sound of his son’s voice at 7:30 A.M.  He then saw a bright, opaque white mass before his eyes, and in the center of the light he saw the smiling face of his son. He later learned that his son had died at the exact time of the apparition  (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886a, p. 144).

In this case the child’s apparition could be interpreted as a telepathically induced hallucination or some sort of ghost existing in physical space. If several observers are present when an apparition appears and only one of them sees it, it would seem reasonable to assume that the apparition was an hallucination. On the other hand, if several of the witnesses simultaneously see the apparition, it would seem more reasonable to assume that some sort of physical ghost had put in an appearance.  To see which was the case, G. N. M. Tyrrell (1953), a prominent authority on ghosts and apparitions, looked at 1,087 apparitional cases collected by the researchers of the Society for Psychical Research (Sidgwick et al.,1894).  He found that in 283 of those cases more than one person was present at the time the apparition was seen.  In 95 of these 283 cases, more than one person saw the apparition.  In a later study, Hornell Hart (1956) found 46 cases in the literature satisfying the more restrictive criterion that the secondary witnesses present were clearly situated in such a manner that they would have been able to see the apparition had it been a physical object.  In 26 of those cases, the apparition was seen by at least two observers.  In a more recent survey of apparitional experiences conducted through the mail, the Icelandic parapsychologist Erlendur Haraldsson (1991) found that a second potential observer was present in about half of the apparitional encounters reported. In about one-fourth of these cases, the respondent stated that the apparitional experience was shared by such secondary observers.  Thus, it is difficult to tell on the basis of collective perception whether such experiences involve mere hallucinations or physical ghosts. 

The physical ghost theory was favored by the early psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers (1903), who called his ghosts “metetherial presences.”  Myers’ contemporary Edmund Gurney believed that cases in which apparitions were sighted by more than one person could be explained by assuming that hallucinations could spread telepathically from one mind to another (Gurney, Myers & Podmore, 1886a, 1886b).  Myers argued against Gurney’s theory that hallucinations can spread telepathically on the basis of the fact that the hallucinations of the insane are not in general particularly contagious.  Other theorists, including Tyrrell and the philosopher H. H. Price (Tyrrell, 1953; Price 1939, 1940, 1948, 1953, 1959, 1961), speculated that witnesses to apparitional cases share a deep region of the unconscious mind that may be termed the “collective unconscious” and that it is in this deep region of the mind that the apparitional image is constructed (which then emerges from the collective unconscious into the individual consciousness of the witnesses).  Finally, the American parapsychologist Karlis Osis (1981) suggested that we call it a draw and assume that some apparitions are ghosts and others are hallucinations.

Research Findings Relating to Spontaneous Cases

Incidence Rates

A large number of surveys have been conducted in an attempt to determine how many people have had experiences suggestive of ESP or PK. The results of these surveys, taken together, suggest that somewhere between one-third and one-half of the population claims to have had some sort of psi experience, and that this proportion seems to be fairly independent of culture and nationality.

Dreams appear to be the most common type of ESP experience, with intuitive experiences being the next most common and hallucinatory experiences the least common form.  For instance, in one statistical analysis of her own collection reported by Louisa Rhine (1962a), 65 percent of the experiences were dreams, roughly a quarter were intuitive experiences and the remaining 10 percent were of the hallucinatory variety.  One finding that is fairly consistent across case studies is that dreams tend to be precognitive (that is to involve the apparent paranormal perception of future events), whereas waking experiences (including intuitive and hallucinatory cases) seem more often to refer to contemporaneous events (Rhine, 1981; Schouten ,1982).

In terms of incidence rates in the general population, in a survey involving interviews with 1100 German citizens, Schmeid-Knittel and Schetsche (2005) found that 49.5% of the survey participants reported having experienced the sensation of déjà vu (discussed in more detail later in the chapter), 36.7% reported having dreams involving ESP, 18.7% reported experiencing crisis-related ESP, 15.8% reported apparitional experiences, 15.3% reported experiences involving ostensible psi on the part of animals, and 12.1% reported having experienced phenomena suggestive of hauntings. 

Dream experiences usually contain more detail and more complete information about the event than do intuitive experiences, whereas intuitive experiences tend to produce a greater sense of conviction that the experience refers to a real event and is more likely to lead the percipient to take some sort of action related to the event (see Schouten, 1979, 1981, 1982; and Rhine, 1978, 1981). 

A great many more women report having ESP experiences than do men. Whether this is due to enhanced sensitivity or psychic powers on the part of women or is due to a lesser reluctance on the part of women to report such experiences is not clear.  As might be expected, spontaneous cases typically involve the anomalous knowledge of events happening to members of the percipient’s immediate family rather than events happening to strangers or casual acquaintances.  In general, the events that are perceived through ESP are negative ones involving death or serious injury to a close family member. Hardly ever does the experience relate to damage to material objects rather than to people (see Schouten, 1979, 1981, 1982). 

Link to Geomagnetic Activity

Several researchers have reported links between the activity of the Earth’s magnetic field and the incidence rate of spontaneous psi cases.  Foremost among these investigators is the Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger, who has authored a series of papers on the subject (Persinger, 1985, 1986, 1987; 1988; Persinger & Krippner 1987, 1989; Persinger & Schaut, 1987).  In analyzing several case collections, Persinger has found global geomagnetic activity typically to be lower on the days of reported ESP experiences than on the days surrounding the day of the experience. This finding applies chiefly to cases in which the alleged psychic experience was nearly simultaneous with the confirming event.  It does not hold in cases of apparent precognition nor does it hold for apparitional experiences that occur some days after the perceived person’s death. 

Persinger proposes two theories to account for apparent cases of spontaneous ESP (Persinger, 1988; and Persinger & Krippner, 1989).  The first theory involves a direct signal transmitting information between the two parties involved in an apparent case of telepathy.  In the second theory, it is assumed that some external factor causes the two people to have similar experiences.  For instance, it might be possible that low barometric pressure could cause the “percipient” in an apparent case of spontaneous telepathy to be in a gloomy mood and also to cause one of the percipient’s closest friends, who is a chronic depressive, to commit suicide by driving her car off a cliff.  The percipient might then interpret his apparent gloom as being due to a paranormal awareness of his friend’s death.  Persinger’s second theory is thus a theory of pseudo–ESP phenomena rather than of true ESP in that it denies the existence of an anomalous channel of information transmission.  It is obviously conceivable that geomagnetic activity may have similar effects on the mood or behavior of two related persons and thus may generate a case of pseudotelepathy as suggested by Persinger’s second theory.

With regard to the first theory, Persinger conjectures that geomagnetic activity may enhance the receptivity of the brain to extrasensory signals, noting in particular that sudden decreases in geomagnetic activity may decrease the likelihood of certain types of electrical seizures in the brain.  Persinger contends that increases in geomagnetic activity tend to lower seizure thresholds and may even precipitate convulsions in epileptics. Some scientists (e.g., Radin, McAlpine & Cunningham, 1994; and Adair, 1991) have, however, expressed skepticism that changes in the geomagnetic field would have sufficient strength to produce any physiological effects on the human body at all.  

As a second possibility, Persinger suggests that lowered geomagnetic activity might enhance the signal carrying the ESP message, which he has speculated may consist in part of extremely low frequency electromagnetic radiation.

Psychological Processes

Many parapsychologists have proposed that extrasensory perception is a two-stage process from a psychological point of view.  Both G. N. M. Tyrrell (1946) and Louisa Rhine (1978, 1981) proposed that the information obtained through ESP is first received at an unconscious level of the mind and then emerges into consciousness in the form of an hallucination, dream or intuitive feeling that something is wrong. Rhine suggested that emotional reactions, impulses toward action, and feelings of conviction about the reality of the sensed situation may emerge into consciousness independently of the factual information relating to the sensed event, especially in intuitive cases. K. Ramakrishna Rao, J. B. Rhine’s successor as Director of the Institute for Parapsychology in Durham, North Carolina, observed that minor details may have more difficulty penetrating the barrier between the unconscious and conscious regions of the mind than more emotionally important elements might have. He indicates that this may be a reason for the failure of many experiments in the laboratory that require subjects to guess the identity of emotionally trivial targets such as ESP cards (Rao, 1986).  His views in this regard are similar to those of the psychoanalyst Jan Ehrenwald (1977, 1978), who postulated that the weakness of ESP effects in the laboratory may be due to the fact that the ESP message is typically much less relevant to the needs of the subject in laboratory experiments than it is in spontaneously occurring cases of extrasensory perception. Thus, Ehrenwald suggested, laboratory cases of extrasensory perception depend for their success on flaws in the “filter” that the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1914) proposed existed to screen out noncrucial information so that the conscious mind could focus on immediate problems relevant to the biological survival of the body. 

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, proposed a model of telepathy similar to Tyrrell’s and Rhine’s.  Freud had a lifelong interest in parapsychology, or psychical research as it was called at the time.  He was a member of both the American and British Societies for Psychical Research, and in 1921 he went so far as to write the American psychical researcher Hereward Carrington that, if he were at the stage of embarking on a career rather than ending one, he would perhaps choose psychical research!  The psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey (1992) reports that Freud even claimed to have had telepathic contact with his fiancée Martha Bernays.  Many of his thoughts on telepathy were, however, suppressed from publication during his lifetime under the influence of his disciple Ernest Jones for fear of undermining the credibility of the psychoanalytic movement.

Freud assumed that, if telepathy existed, the same dynamic processes would govern the emergence of psi information into consciousness as governed the emergence of other unconscious material.  As an example, Freud (1963) reported the case of a man who dreamed that his wife gave birth to twins at the same time that his daughter gave birth to twins in real life. Predictably enough, Freud attributed the distortion of the telepathic message to the man’s unconscious wish that his daughter be his wife.

The Australian psychologist Harvey J. Irwin likewise feels that repression may prevent ESP messages from emerging into consciousness.  As a possible example of such suppression, he cites a case of Louisa Rhine’s in which a woman began to sob uncontrollably for 20 minutes before a huge decorative vase fell off its shelf. Later she learned that her father had died about that time. Presumably, as her conscious mind blocked out the ESP signal, her unconscious mind was forced to move the vase psychokinetically in order to dramatize the message and get it through to consciousness (Irwin, 1989). 

Skeptical Explanations of Spontaneous Cases

Critics of spontaneous case investigations are quick to point out that there are many explanations besides ESP and psychokinesis that might account for apparent cases of paranormal phenomena. First, the cases may be due to coincidence. For instance, consider a case in which a man is overcome by a sense of impending doom, breaks out in a cold sweat and refuses to board an airplane, and then later learns that the plane crashed upon landing at its destination. It might be quite plausible to assume that many people back out of imminent airplane flights because of sudden feelings of nervousness and anxiety. Occasionally, the planes involved in some of these flights may crash, thus producing what looks like a spontaneous case of intuitive ESP when really all that is involved is simple coincidence. Similarly, people may frequently dream of the death of one of their parents. When such a dream happens by chance to fall on the night preceding the parent’s actual death, another spurious precognition case is generated.

Richard Broughton (1991), a former Director of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, has noted that explanations in terms of coincidence are not particularly plausible when applied to experiences involving hallucinations or psychosomatic pain.  For instance, recall the case of my student’s father who was knocked off a bench by an “invisible blow to the jaw” at the time that his wife broke her jaw on a piece of gymnastic equipment.  Surely, it would be absurd to argue with regard to such a case that men are constantly being knocked off benches by invisible blows to the jaw and that sooner or later one of these events is bound to occur simultaneously with the breaking of the jaw of a member of the man’s immediate family.

Despite the implausibility of coincidence explanations in hallucination cases, the early investigators of the Society for Psychical Research attempted to perform a statistical analysis to rule out the coincidence hypothesis in the case of crisis apparitions. They conducted what they called a “Census of Hallucinations” in order to find out how often people experienced apparitions of human figures. (Sidgwick et al., 1894).  They found that, of the apparitions reported to them, one in 63 occurred within 12 hours of the death of the person whose apparition was experienced. Based on existing death rates, the investigating committee concluded that only 1 in 19,000 such hallucinations would occur so close to the death of the appearing figure by chance.  One could certainly quibble with this analysis. For instance, it could readily be imagined that cases in which a person’s apparition was experienced in close proximity to the time of his death would make a deep impression on a person and might therefore be more easily remembered than other hallucinations of human figures, thus artificially inflating the proportion in the sample.

A second, more informal statistical argument is provided by the Italian investigators Rinaldi and Piccinini (1982), who conducted a door-to-door survey related to psychic experiences in the South Tyrol region of Italy. By interviewing informants about deaths in the family, they found that one in twelve deaths were accompanied by a paranormal experience related to the death.  When only sudden deaths were considered, one in six deaths were the target event in a reported psi experience.  It strains one’s credulity, they argue, to assume that such a high proportion can be accounted for by chance coincidence.

A special form of the coincidence explanation is what the Dutch parapsychologist Sybo Schouten calls the “worry” hypothesis.  Schouten (1979, 1984) observes that the large number of psychic experiences that involve death or injury to members of the percipient’s immediate family might be due to a combination of coincidence and the tendency of persons to think and worry about close family members.  In a survey aimed at examining this hypothesis, Schouten found people’s predominant worries to be about daily matters, material things, their present psychological situation and events happening to themselves rather than the traumatic events to others that are frequently the subject matter in spontaneous cases of ESP.

In general, any attempt to assess the actual probability that the evidence from spontaneous cases is due to chance coincidence, whether performed by the proponent of psi phenomena or the skeptic, is fraught with pitfalls.  Such calculations rely on too many debatable and hidden assumptions, and the data are subject to too many distorting factors to allow any definitive assessment to be made. This is one of the reasons why parapsychologists have largely turned from the study of spontaneous cases to the study of psi processes in experimental situations, in which the probability that the results are due to chance can be more or less precisely calculated.

A second problem pointed out by critics of spontaneous case investigations is that what appears to be anomalously acquired knowledge may in fact represent information that has been consciously or unconsciously acquired through the normal sensory channels or may be based on unconscious inference from such information. For instance, a woman’s husband may be exhibiting a depressed mood, increasingly reckless driving, and a decidedly morbid interest in automobile accidents on the evening news while polishing off his final two six packs of beer.  She may then unconsciously infer that he is becoming suicidal or at least dangerously alcoholic, and her unconscious mind may present this conclusion to her in the form of a dream in which her husband is involved in a fatal car accident.  If her inference is accurate and her husband is subsequently killed when his car collides with a pickup truck, an apparent case of spontaneous psi, which is really due to unconscious inference, is generated. Similarly, a trapeze artist may subliminally perceive a frayed wire and consequently have an apparently premonitory dream of her partner’s fall to his death. I myself once had a dream that my wife had run out of gas in her car. About two hours after the dream, she called me up to tell me that she had run out of gas on her way to work. The gas gauge on her car was broken at the time, so it is quite possible that I had unconsciously inferred that she was about to run out of gas due to the fact that the gas tank had not been filled in quite some time.

Sometimes no direct signal may be involved in an apparent case of ESP, but rather a third factor may cause both the percipient’s mood and the target event.  For instance, the parapsychologist Ed Cox, famous for his invention of innumerable Rube Goldberg–like devices for testing for psychokinesis, found that trains involved in accidents tend to carry significantly fewer passengers than comparable trains not involved in accidents (Cox, 1956).  Cox interpreted this finding as evidence that people use their precognitive powers (consciously or unconsciously) to avoid being involved in accidents.  Physicist John Taylor (1980) on the other hand points out that a third factor, such as bad weather, may contribute to both the passengers’ decisions not to travel and to the increased probability of an accident.

A third line of criticism of spontaneous case evidence centers around the possibility that the testimony provided by the informant may not be an accurate portrayal of the events as they occurred, due to distortions of memory, delusions, conscious or unconscious embellishment of a case to make it seem more impressive, and possibly even outright fabrication of a case in a conscious effort to perpetrate a hoax.  For instance, in the fictional case considered above, the woman may merely have dreamed of a car accident, but reported that she dreamed of her husband being killed in a collision with a pickup truck because she viewed her dream as a premonition of that event and wished to communicate that fact.  Alternatively, she may have consciously added the details regarding the truck to make the dream more impressive to the researcher, a form of falsification which she may take to be benign.  A third possibility is that her memory of the dream and the actual event may have been confused, so that she came to believe that she saw a pickup truck in the dream when in fact she had not. This process is known as confabulation as (or, more often these days, as “false memory”).  

In some instances, the testimony of independent witnesses can help bolster one’s confidence that the experience occurred as the informant described it.  For instance, a percipient may have related a precognitive dream to her family before news of the confirming event was received.  In such a case, the family members may be interviewed to obtain independent confirmation that the dream in fact occurred.  Such independent testimony would then constitute evidence against the hypothesis that the percipient simply made up the precognitive dream after hearing of the confirming event or that she came to believe falsely that she had had such a dream through a memory distortion process.  It was the practice of the early psychical researchers, who sought to prove the existence of ESP through the analysis of spontaneous cases, to obtain such independent testimony when available, and that is still the practice of a large proportion of case investigators today.  As a result, there are many cases on record in which such independent testimony corroborates the existence of the ostensible psi experience.

Memory distortion can also be minimized if written descriptions of the experience are made as soon as possible. This criterion is met by dream diary studies in which the dreams were immediately recorded, such as those reported by Schriever (1987), Sondow (1988) and de Pablos (1998).  The subject in Schriever’s study sent all her dream reports to a research institute, and Schriever eliminated all reports that did not reach the institute before the confirming event occurred.  This method carries the advantages both of allowing corroboration by witnesses and of immediate recording of the experience.

Schouten (1981) found that the number of details in case reports and the length of such reports fell off as the time interval before reporting the case increased. He attributes this effect to the percipients’ forgetting of details over the course of time.  This finding could be cited as evidence against the hypothesis that spontaneous case informants tend to “improve” their testimony or embellish their reports over time.

Recent research by Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues has amply demonstrated that false memories may easily be implanted in people’s minds through the use of leading questions and the provision of misleading information (e.g., Loftus, 1995; Lynn, Loftus, Llienfeld & Locke, 2003).  Loftus and her associates have obtained evidence in support of this view from several studies they have conducted (e.g., Hall, McFeaters & Loftus, 1987; Loftus, 1981; Loftus & Greene, 1980; and Loftus, Miller & Burns, 1978). In one such experiment, subjects were lead to believe that they had once been lost in a shopping mall as a child.  In a second study, they found that subjects’ memories could be biased by questions about a stop sign when in fact a yield sign had been presented to them.  In another study, subjects were misled by questions about a nonexistent mustache.  Clearly, psychical researchers must be wary about altering their informants’ testimony and possibly even their memories through the use of leading questions.

A less innocent possibility is that the informant may fabricate the case. Harris (1986) notes for instance that one story, in which British troops were said to have been helped in battle by an apparition of St. George and some accompanying angels, was shown to be a falsification concocted by persons not present at the battle.  In a study of reported premonitions, Hearne (1984) found that his respondents had elevated scores on the Lie-scale of the Eysenck Personality Inventory, which is designed to detect dissembling subjects.  Furthermore, the Lie scores correlated with the alleged accuracy of the reported premonition.  Such findings provide fuel to skeptics wishing to ascribe much of the spontaneous case evidence to fabrication.

Of course some cases of reported psi phenomena are the product of delusion or even outright insanity, as in the case of a schizophrenic man who believes that his garbageman is the reincarnation of Noah and is telepathically commanding him to build a second Ark.  Such cases rarely, if ever, find their way into the serious parapsychological literature. 

Conclusions Regarding Spontaneous Cases

Most parapsychologists today do not feel that the existence of ESP and psychokinesis can be proven on the basis of spontaneous cases, as skeptics can always explain away such cases by ascribing them to coincidence, sensory cues, delusion, memory distortion, and outright falsification.  While the construction of such skeptical explanations for any given case is frequently possible, often such constructions involve so many mental gymnastics that the brusque dismissal of spontaneous case material seems far too cavalier an approach to take.  It is sometimes argued that, while each individual spontaneous case is like a twig that may be broken by counterexplanations in terms of normal processes, when taken as a whole the spontaneous case evidence constitutes an unbreakable bundle of sticks.  Tyrrell (1953) termed this the “faggot” theory, using the word “faggot” in the British sense as denoting a bundle of sticks.  It is true that spontaneous cases follow certain patterns (the events foreseen in precognition cases are predominantly serious health crises to close relatives, for instance) and that they do not resemble the consciously invented ghost stories that appear in the fictional literature.  It could still be maintained, however, that the similarities are simply due to common patterns of human thought and behavior rather than reflecting the characteristics of an anomalous channel of information transmission.   

Louisa Rhine herself initially rejected the position that the existence of psi powers (ESP and psychokinesis) could be established on the basis of spontaneous case evidence.  She maintained that the existence of psi abilities had already been established through the program of experimental research led by her husband, J. B. Rhine. She saw spontaneous cases as being valuable primarily for the insights they might provide into the psi process and particularly for any suggestions they might yield for experimental work.  However, Haight (1979) notes that case investigations and experimental work have become essentially separate approaches to the study of psi, with very little interaction between them.  Rhine herself became less confident in her later years that spontaneous cases would have much of an impact on experimental approaches. She came to see the study of spontaneous cases, not as an enterprise subordinate to experimentation or as justified primarily in terms of its suggestions for experimental work, but as an independent means of investigating paranormal abilities that had value in its own right.  In her words: 

Instead of isolated and concrete suggestions for experiments, the continued study of the [spontaneous] material permitted a more fundamental concept of the psi process than I could have anticipated. (Rhine, 1970, p. 150.)

The brusque dismissal of spontaneous case material by many parapsychologists does a grave disservice to the field. Surely naturalistic observation is of inestimable value in any science. Much remains to be learned from the observation and study of psi phenomena as they occur in their natural setting.

Déjà vu and Psi-trailing

I have held off until now discussing two types of phenomena that do not fall unambiguously into the category of human ESP experiences. These are déjà vu experiences and “psi-trailing” in animals.

Déjà vu

Déjà vu is the fairly familiar experience of having lived through a current situation before.  For instance, a woman may be engaged in a conversation with two friends when a diminutive girl scout cookie salesperson appears at her door. She then gets the eerie sense that this exact sequence of events has happened to her before.  Surveys (e.g., Palmer, 1979; McClenon, 1990) show that the vast majority of people have had such a déjà vu experience.  In a recent review of 50 such surveys, Brown (2004) concludes that approximately two-thirds of the population have had déjà vu experiences.  In their interview survey of the German population, Schmeid-Knittel and Schetsche (2005) found that 49.5% reported déjà vu experiences.  Most individuals report multiple déjà vu experiences.

One explanation of the déjà vu experience would be that one has experienced a very similar situation in the past and that the resultant feeling of familiarity gives one the misleading impression that one has experienced the exact sequence of events before (as opposed to merely a similar sequence).

Efron (1963a, 1963b) proposed a neurological explanation for the sense of déjà vu.  He hypothesized that one hemisphere of the brain may receive information about an event slightly before the other hemisphere does. The second hemisphere will consequently find information regarding the event stored in memory by the time it becomes aware of the event, leading to the conclusion that the event has occurred previously.  However, it takes considerable time for a long-term memory trace to consolidate.  For instance, if you elect to have electrical shock applied to your brain in order to treat a recalcitrant case of severe depression, you may wake up from the treatment to find that your memories for events that occurred in the hours preceding your treatment may be gone.  You may even have spotty amnesia for significant events occurring days, weeks or even years before the treatment.  A similar memory loss may occur following a traumatic head injury.  Neuropsychologists attribute such retrograde amnesia to the disruption of the process by which long-term memories are consolidated in the brain.  Thus, full consolidation of a long-term memory trace may take years; it certainly involves more than the few milliseconds proposed by Efron.  At best Efron can assert that the memory trace is merely the sort of short term trace normally ascribed either to short term memory or the very short term sensory “buffers” proposed by cognitive psychologists. It would seem likely, however, that such a short-term memory trace would be recognized as referring to an immediately recent event, and would not evoke the sense of déjà vu that a long-term memory trace would.

A similar hypothesis has recently been proposed by Brown (2004), who proposes that a neurochemical event may alter the speed of neural impulses in one pathway to the higher sensory centers of the brain, leading to a false sense of recognition when the second bundle of impulses arrive.  Brown notes that a similar theory had been long ago proposed by E. B. Titchener (1928), who thought that déjà vu was caused by a person getting a brief glimpse of an object or situation prior to full conscious perception, resulting in a false sense of familiarity.  Brown also suggests that such experiences may be due to a match between a present situation and an old perception or fantasy.   

A second type of explanation of the experience of déjà vu is that one has in fact experienced the exact situation before, mainly through a precognitive experience such as a dream that has subsequently been forgotten but is still available at a subconscious level.  Louisa Rhine (1961) in fact proposed an explanation of this type.  

Some writers, such as Stevenson (1987) and Fisher (1984) have even proposed that some cases of déjà vu might be explained on the basis of reincarnation.  For instance, a feeling of familiarity on entering a strange city might be due to having lived in that city in a previous life.  Stevenson sees most cases of déjà vu as being susceptible to other kinds of explanations, although he notes that the few instances of déjà vu on record in which a person displays knowledge of a location he has not visited before suggest an explanation in terms of some anomalous process such as precognition or reincarnation. 

It is also possible that such cases might be explained in terms of cryptomnesia, or forgotten knowledge (for instance, a person may have seen a travelogue about the place in question but does not remember having seen it).   In any event, instances in which a person displays detailed anomalous knowledge of a strange or unique site or situation, such as by describing what is around the next corner, go beyond the mere sense of familiarity that constitutes the experience of déjà vu and perhaps should be classed as a probable case of ESP.  The experience of déjà vu itself, which involves only a strange sense of familiarity and not the anomalous possession of knowledge, is probably best not classified as a paranormal phenomenon at all (although it remains possible that such cases may involve forgotten precognitive dreams, as we have seen).


In psi-trailing cases, it is animals rather than humans who display the apparent extrasensory ability.  A typical case of psi-trailing involves a pet getting lost and then apparently making its way to its owner at a distant and unfamiliar location.  J. B. Rhine and his daughter, Sara Feather, compiled a collection of 48 cases of psi-trailing (Rhine & Feather, 1962).  Of these cases, 22 involved dogs, 22 involved cats, and 4 involved birds.  

In one case, a business executive and his family were moving from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a new home in Memphis, when their pet cat, Smoky, jumped out of the car 18 miles into the journey.  Neighbors reported seeing Smoky two weeks later in the vicinity of the old Tulsa home.  A year later, Smoky reportedly arrived on the front porch of the Memphis home.  The cat was identified on the basis of its physical appearance, including a distinctive tuft of dark red hair under its chin as well as unusual behavioral characteristics, such as the cat’s jumping on the daughter’s right side and putting his paws on the keyboard when she was playing the piano.  In a similar case, a cat was identified on the basis of a deformity in the hip joint.

In yet another case, a dog apparently found its way from Aurora, Illinois, to its owner’s new home in East Lansing, Michigan.  In this instance, the dog was identified on the basis of its physical appearance as well as its distinctive collar.  Rhine and Feather point out that in many cases the identification of the pet cannot be considered definitive.  Also, the majority of their cases (18 of the 22 dog cases, 10 of the 22 cat cases, and 1 of the 4 bird cases) involved fairly short distances (less than 30 miles), raising the possibility that the animal might have been guided by its sense of smell or may have used some other sensory cue to find its owner.


Poltergeist phenomena will be considered separately from the spontaneous cases described above in that poltergeist outbreaks are more rarely reported than the types of spontaneous cases considered above and in that poltergeist outbreaks last over a longer period of time, typically weeks or months, but sometimes several years.  A poltergeist disturbance typically involves strange physical events that occur repeatedly in a specific location or in the vicinity of a specific person or group of people.  

These physical phenomena generally include inexplicable movements of objects, such as a glass spontaneously flying off a kitchen table and hitting the kitchen floor at a considerable lateral distance from the table.  Sometimes quite large objects such as heavy cabinets are involved in such movements. Frequently the motion of the object is described as being unusual in terms of curved trajectories or abnormal slowness of flight.  Levitation effects have also been reported.  In such cases, the beginning of the object’s motion is hardly ever observed.  This is sometimes called the “shyness effect,” and it has been interpreted by some observers as evidence for an inhibiting effect of observation, while for others it suggests the possibility that the motions may have been fraudulently produced.  William Roll (1977a), perhaps the world’s foremost investigator of poltergeists, attributes the failure to observe the beginnings of movements to the fact that people do not typically attend to an object until after it is already moving.

Apparent materialization and teleportation effects are also reported. Occasionally, rocks are reported to materialize inside a room and drop to the floor. An apparent teleportation event might involve the sudden disappearance of an object at one physical location and its reappearance at another.  Objects in poltergeist cases are usually inferred to have been teleported when they are found at an unexpected location.  Again, the actual moments of disappearance and rematerialization are almost never witnessed.

Another frequently occurring poltergeist effect is the aberrant behavior of electrical apparatus.  In some instances, machines such as radios, lights, and dishwashers are inexplicably turned on or off.  Strange sounds, most prominently including rapping, are sometimes heard in poltergeist cases.  Less frequently, apparitions or disembodied voices are perceived, although these are more commonly a feature of hauntings, as will be discussed below.  Truly strange phenomena such as showers of rocks or even frogs on or toward a house, as well as the spontaneous ignition of fires, have been reported. 

The term “poltergeist” literally means “noisy ghost,” and poltergeist phenomena were sometimes suspected to be caused by such entities. (Some writers still assert that spirits of the dead may be involved in some poltergeist cases, as will be discussed below.)  It has been discovered that poltergeist phenomena generally tend to center around a single person or group of persons in that the phenomena only occur in their presence and in their immediate spatial vicinity.  Such a person is called a focal person or, less commonly nowadays, a “poltergeist agent.”  The prevailing view among those parapsychologists who believe that some poltergeist effects are truly paranormal is that the focal person or persons cause the poltergeist phenomena through the (largely unconscious) use of their psychokinetic powers.  For this reason, many parapsychologists use the term “recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis” or “RSPK” to describe such outbreaks.  Skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that the focal person produces such effects through fraud and trickery.  They also believe that some residual effects may be due to the witnesses’ misinterpretation of normal physical events.

Three Case Studies

 We will now consider three poltergeists cases in some detail.

The Rosenheim Poltergeist.  One famous case that centered on electrical apparatus was the Rosenheim poltergeist, investigated by the German parapsychologist Hans Bender (1968). The events in this case occurred in a lawyer’s office in the town of Rosenheim, Bavaria, in 1967.  Neon lights were frequently found to be nonfunctioning and occasionally to have been unscrewed from their sockets.  Electrical light bulbs exploded, bangs were heard, and electrical fuses blew for no apparent reason.  The developing fluid in the copying machine was repeatedly found to have been spilled.  The office telephones became disturbed, calls were cut off, and occasionally all four phones would ring simultaneously, with no one on the line.  The telephone bills were inordinately high and reflected large numbers of calls to the number announcing the time of day.  Large deflections in the power supply were found to coincide with some of the phenomena, and these continued even after a special power supply was installed to circumvent the problem.

The phenomena seemed to center around a 19-year-old girl named Annemarie Schneider.  The power supply surges often occurred when she arrived for work.  When she walked down the corridor, the electrical lights would start swinging behind her as she passed, a phenomenon that was successfully videotaped.  When light bulbs exploded, the fragments tended to fly toward her. In general the phenomena tended to occur only in close proximity to her.

Two physicists from the Max Planck Institute were called in to monitor the power supply.  They observed electrical surges accompanied by loud cracks, such as those produced by electrical sparks.  They were able to rule out several normal causes, but were unable to explain the surges.

Paintings began to swing and rotate.  These motions were also captured on videotape.  Drawers came out by themselves, documents were found to have been displaced, and at one point a 175 kilogram cabinet moved 30 centimeters from the wall.

Toward the end of the manifestations, Annemarie was getting more and more nervous and began to display hysterical contractions in her arms and legs. When she was on leave from the office nothing happened, and when she departed for another job, the phenomena ceased altogether (although they started up at her new place of work!).

The Rio Tercero Poltergeist.  A more recent, rock-throwing poltergeist is reported by Parra (2004).  The phenomena occurred in the city of Rio Tercero in the province of Cordoba, Argentina and began on February 15, 2004 and continued through May 18, 2004 (the date when Parra’s article was written).  The phenomena consisted entirely of the anomalous appearance and movement of stones.  The size of the stones involved were typical of those found in the Cordobese hills as well as on the road to the family’s house.  The stones increased in weight as the phenomena progressed, eventually reaching a weight of 1.3 kilograms.  The stones broke several windows and blinds, including the windscreen of the family’s car.  

The family initially thought that someone was throwing the stones and had the house surrounded by 16 policemen.  No stone thrower was detected and several policemen observed that the stones sometimes followed “impossible trajectories.”  All the family members, the sheriff and many of the neighbors attributed the events to the psychic powers of Andres, an 18-year-old boy living in the house.  The stones only entered the house when Andres was present and awake.  Also, no phenomena were reported during a 17-day period during which Andres was hospitalized.

At one time, Andres’ 44-year-old mother Monica was reading to her son Ezequial when a stone passed between them without hitting either of them and then came to a sudden stop on the table.  In Monica’s view, the momentum of the stone should have caused it to continue to slide on the table rather than coming to a sudden stop.

At one point, the family heard a loud noise and then found a stone embedded in the television set.  All windows and doors were shut at the time of this incident, and Andres was standing in the living room.  Shortly later, another stone broke a large window and curtain. Another impact on the television screen occurred when Andres and the family dog were playing in the kitchen.  Andres’ sister Denise felt a strange sensation, which she described as somewhat like a breeze, just prior to hearing the impact of the stone on the television set.  An older sister, Veronica, reported that a stone came from behind her (Andres was visible at the time) and left a small scratch on the television set and cabinet before hitting the window violently.  She described the trajectory of the stone as highly anomalous.

Andres was taken to a psychiatrist, who found that Andres frequently manifested aggression toward family members, but seldom were these aggressive impulses directed toward strangers.  Parra’s own psychological testing indicated that Andres manifested emotional instability, irritability, impulsivity and feelings of inadequacy.  Andres has also been diagnosed as hyperactive as well as suffering from neurological disorders involving the frontal lobes.  Parra also notes that Andres suffers from photosensitive epilepsy and has been subject to convulsions since age 12 and “blank spells” since age 9.  At the time of the disturbances, he was taking anticonvulsive and antiepileptic drugs and receiving neuropsychological treatments.      

The Oakland Poltergeist.  A poltergeist case involving a variety of phenomena was reported by Hastings (1978).  The phenomena occurred in a business office in Oakland, California, and seemed to center around John, a 19-year-old typist. The reported phenomena included the malfunctioning of telephones and typewriters, the breakage of coffee cups and glasses, and the movement of heavy objects.

Many of the anomalous movements involved falling objects.  Phones and a glass ashtray fell off desks, usually with no witness present to observe the motion.  One 15-year-old witness claimed to have seen (out of the corner of his eye) a stapler move off the left side of a table and fall to the floor, landing about three and a half feet from the table.  A fluorescent tube from a light fell, although the only one present at the time of this event was the focal person, John.  A second tube fell when another witness was in the room but was distracted by a phone call.  John was present on this occasion also.  A large number of other objects were discovered to have fallen.  In some instances, the objects were heard to fall by someone outside of the room involved.  When these witnesses entered the room, no one was present.  A floor plan of the office, however, reveals that most rooms had multiple exits.

Exploding coffee cups also figured prominently among the events.  In one case, a witness saw a cup explode without John touching it (he was adjusting a clip-on bow tie at the time).  No trace of explosives was found.

Cabinets were seen to undergo strange movements on two occasions. In one instance, a cabinet was observed to rotate 90 degrees and then to fall over.  Witnesses claimed that John was six feet outside of the room at the time of the incident.  In all of the above incidents, John was either present or in an adjoining room at the time of the event.

At one point a water cooler fell over.  John claimed to have been in the adjoining room at the time; however, his trouser cuffs were wet, and he was later observed to be picking glass fragments from them.  The police took John to the station for questioning, whereupon the phenomena ceased except for a brief resurgence on one occasion.  John confessed to the police that he had used tricks to produce the effects, such as pushing over the water cooler and throwing light bulbs behind his back.

Psychological testing showed John to be under a great deal of tension.  Personality testing, including the California Personality Inventory and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), revealed prankster tendencies, with the TAT indicating a large amount of projected aggression.  John was also under a great deal of stress.  He was a slow worker and was constantly being reprimanded by his bosses.  In addition, he was newly married and making double payments on his car.

Arthur Hastings, the case’s investigator, felt that some events were unlikely to be explained by fraud and may therefore represent true psi phenomena.  These events include the above-mentioned movements of the stapler and the cabinet.  Furthermore, Hastings observed that the smallness of the fragments of the “exploding” coffee cups make it seem unlikely that they were broken by impact.

Actuarial Investigations

As already mentioned, one of the most prominent investigators of poltergeist cases has been William G. Roll. In a series of publications (Roll, (1977a, 1977b, 1978a, 1978b, 1982b), he has reported the results of a statistical analysis of a sample of 116 published poltergeist cases.  Roll estimates that parapsychologists in the United States learn of approximately five promising poltergeist cases per year, of which two or three are investigated and about one per year reaches the professional literature in the United States.  On the other hand, in Palmer’s mail survey of the greater Charlottesville, Virginia area, six percent of the student respondents and eight percent of the townspeople claimed to have experienced poltergeist phenomena, suggesting that many more cases may exist than reach the attention of professional parapsychological investigators (Palmer, 1979).

Among Roll’s findings was that in the vast majority of cases (92 percent) the phenomena appeared to focus on the same object or area, inasmuch as the same object or area of the house was repeatedly involved in the effects.  The average duration of a case was about five months, although half of the cases lasted for less than two months.  In 41 percent of the 105 cases that involved moving objects, the objects displayed unusual trajectories of movements, such as wavering, zigzagging and hovering.  In 17 percent of the cases, the apparent teleportation of objects was reported.  Such teleportation might involve an object previously inside a house suddenly appearing outside the house or the apparent passing of objects through ceilings or walls.  

Some of the poltergeist cases displayed features that are more commonly associated with hauntings.  Twenty-three percent of the Roll’s 116 cases involved apparitions or “hallucinations.”  These visual hallucinations included human figures, animals, demons and amorphous shapes.  In eleven percent of the cases, intelligible voices were heard; often these were associated with apparitions.  In five cases, one or more persons were wounded or slapped by an unknown agency or displayed stigmata (spontaneously appearing wounds).  In five cases people were pulled or lifted by an unseen force.  In most instances the victim was the poltergeist agent (or focal person).  

One recent such case with mixed features has been reported by Kokubo and Yamanoto (2003).  This case occurred in an apartment complex in Tomika-cho, Gifu Prefecture, Japan in 2000.  Among the phenomena reported were noisy footsteps (heard in more than half the apartments), sounds similar to the sonar signals of a submarine, the rapid death of flowers, two sightings of “ghosts,” anomalous movements of curtains and cans, a fan and a hair dryer that worked despite the absence of a power supply, the turning of a doorknob, the spontaneous opening of doors to two cupboards, the movement of a rice bowl from a cupboard, resulting in its being chipped, a television set that switched channels, a gas cooking stove that spontaneously turned on, the breakdown on several machines, the rotations of magnetic compass needles, and the malfunctioning of cameras.  The phenomena were reported by a variety of tenants occupying at least twelve apartments.  Notably, this case investigation did not identify a focal person.  

The British researchers Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell (1979) used a statistical technique called cluster analysis to examine reported cases of recurrent anomalous events, such as those in poltergeist cases and hauntings.  Their computer analysis indicated that the cases tended to fall within two primary “clusters,” meaning that the cases tended to group into two types with distinctive characteristics.  Furthermore, these clusters seemed to correspond to the traditional categories of hauntings and poltergeist cases. Haunting cases were longer lasting than poltergeist cases and tended to center on a house or location rather than a person.  Haunting phenomena were primarily nocturnal, as opposed to poltergeist phenomena, which are more likely to occur during the day, when the focal person is awake.  (No RSPK phenomena occurred with the focal person asleep in Roll’s 116 case sample.)  Hauntings are more likely to involve raps, imitative noises, voices, phantasms, luminous effects, and movements of doors and door handles. Poltergeist cases were found to be shorter in duration, especially if the focal person is quite young. Finally, poltergeist cases were more likely to involve thrown objects, displaced objects, and objects carried through the air.

Still, there are a few cases that display mixed features.  George Zorab and Andrew MacKenzie (1980) report a haunting case in which the phenomena seemed to center around two focal persons.  Zorab speculates that some hauntings may, like poltergeist outbreaks, center around a focal agent and suggests that haunting apparitions may represent actual physical objects that are materialized by the focal person’s psychokinetic powers.  A similar theory was proposed by D. Scott Rogo (1977).

H. W. Pierce (1973) also reported a case that seemed to display features of both poltergeist and haunting cases.  This case involved a split-level house. The upstairs apartment was occupied by Ellsworth Cramer, an industrial engineer, his wife Naomi, a psychiatric nurse, and their child.  The downstairs flat was occupied by Peter Henry, a nuclear training engineer, and his wife Claire.  All four were in their mid-twenties, and the men described themselves as cynical or skeptical about the existence of psychic phenomena.

Most of the events were witnessed by Naomi Cramer. She found her lights on repeatedly when they should have been off.  At one point she heard a switch click as the living room lamp turned on.  She found that the radio station had been changed when no one was in the apartment, and at one point she heard the radio come on spontaneously (it was tuned to a 24-hour broadcasting station at the time).  She then saw an “oblong white cloud” for five or six nights in a row sitting in a chair in the dining room table.  The cloud was about four feet tall. She was not initially disturbed by it, thinking that it was an illusion caused by light passing through the drapes, but after the third or fourth night, it “began to bother her.” She also reported hearing the cupboard doors in the downstairs apartment opening and closing when no one was supposed to be there.  At one point, she went to answer the phone after disassembling a salt shaker, leaving the pieces of the shaker on the table.  The pieces came flying at her, hitting the floor just behind her, traveling about nine feet laterally in the process. This scared her because she thought the manifestations were becoming hostile.

Later, she heard a thump and saw a “shadow” dart into the baby’s room.  Once, when she was downstairs, she heard a lot of noise in her apartment. When she went up to her apartment, the furniture had all been moved around. She thought it unlikely that an intruder had entered, as a ladder would be required to enter the apartment without going through the front entrance.

Once, when she was rocking in her chair, it started to rock more violently, causing her to jump up so that her baby would not be harmed.  Three days later, she heard “childlike laughter” while changing her baby.  It seemed to come from her baby, although the baby was definitely not laughing. The sound was loud enough to wake her husband.

At one point, Naomi was in bed when she heard the dog barking.  She ran into the living room, where the dog continued to bark.  There was a dancing cloud in the middle of the room, from which emanated a laugh “more eerie than childlike.”

Her husband, Ellsworth Cramer, confirmed that he had heard the childlike laughter, which woke him.  He also testified that he too found lights turned on and off unexpectedly and said that he saw a light in the lower hall seemingly turn itself off on one occasion.  He also reported seeing a mist, which was somewhere between three and four feet high, standing at the foot of his bed and that he saw it pass right through the door.

Claire Henry testified to finding lights on in both her apartment and Naomi’s when they should have been off.  She also saw a chair rocking by itself on two occasions.

Peter Henry stated that he saw a three-dimensional shadow.  He believes he was the first to see such a form, but says he did not mention it to the others.  He confirmed that he and his wife Claire both saw a rocking chair moving “several inches” up and down with no deceleration.  He lit a match and circled the chair to test for air currents and found none.  Later, he saw a rocking horse moving up and down in the closet.  He deemed it too dangerous to light a match on this occasion. He also heard a child’s giggle, which he described as “musical,” and had no doubt that it was the voice of a little boy.  No one focal person existed in this case, as no particular person’s presence seemed to be required in order for the phenomena to occur.  Pierce speculated that the agent could be the ghost of the son of the building’s former owner.  The son had manifested symptoms of childhood schizophrenia and hyperactivity.  He also was reported to have displayed strong hostility and frustration in expressing his needs and was subject to nocturnal roaming.  These are all features that one might associate with a living poltergeist agent, as will be discussed below.

Stevenson (1972a) has also argued that some poltergeist phenomena may be caused by deceased agents, and Irwin (1994) feels that it may be premature to adopt the theory that poltergeist cases are necessarily characterized by one living focal agent.  Irwin argues that sometimes several agents may be involved and that the rejection of the discarnate (dead) agent theory is just a special case of modern parapsychologists’ antipathy toward the idea of the existence of ghosts.

The Poltergeist Agent  

Focal persons were involved in 92 of the 116 poltergeist cases examined by Roll.  Most of the agents (61 percent) were female, although Roll notes that this proportion has declined over time and that the sexes are nearly equally represented in recent cases.  Poltergeist agents are also typically young.  Half the focal persons in Roll’s sample were under thirteen years of age, and Irwin (2004) reports that 70% of poltergeist agents are under twenty years of age.

Roll found that slightly more than half of the agents suffered from some form of “debilitating ailment.”  These ailments were often psychological or neurological in nature.  About a quarter of the agents had disorders involving seizures or dissociative states, including muscular contractions, convulsive disorders, fits, trances and so forth.  In 41 percent of the cases with focal persons, a change or problem in the home preceded the onset of the RSPK phenomena. (Such changes might include a move, illness or death.)

Roll conjectures that RSPK incidents may substitute for medical symptoms in some cases.  He and his co-investigator Steven Tringale report a case with features of both typical haunting and poltergeist phenomena in which there was an inverse relation between the RSPK phenomena and migraine attacks in the focal person (Roll & Tringale, 1983).  The witnesses in this case involved a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Berini, and their two children.  This family experienced some rather bizarre phenomena in their house, which lasted from the time they moved in (May of 1979) until late August of 1981.  The phenomena began when Mr. and Mrs. Berini heard a voice at night that seemed to belong to a young girl, who gave her name as Serena and who was crying for her mother.  Mr. Berini’s father later informed him that his sister Serena had died in the house at the age of five.  Three of these voice incidents occurred on the night preceding a death or an illness (respectively, the daughter’s tonsillectomy, a stroke suffered by Mrs. Berini’s grandmother and her later death).

In March of 1981, Mrs. Berini awoke and saw the figure of an eight- to nine-year-old boy, dressed in white.  Mr. Berini thought it might be Giorgi, his father’s brother, who had died at eight and was buried in a white communion suit.  Four days later, Mr. Berini saw a similar apparition, which seemed to be trying to pick up the rug in the hallway.  They later removed the rug and the floor boards and found a medallion of the Virgin Mary underneath the floor. The apparition continued to appear sporadically, two or three times a week.  It occasionally made short statements, sometimes in response to questions.  On some of these occasions only one of the Berinis saw the figure.  The apparition seemed to cause physical movements, including the repeated opening and closing of the closet door.  After two attempts by Catholic priests to exorcise this ghost, it seemed to depart.

Unfortunately, it was soon replaced by another less savory figure, a dark, caped and humpbacked entity.  This figure was first seen by Mr. Berini, with Mrs. Berini seeing it a few nights after its initial appearance.  On one occasion when Mr. Berini and his mother were in the bedroom, he saw it twice, but she saw nothing.  This bestial figure was not particularly well-behaved during its week’s tenure in the Berini household, and it had the temerity to say “really disgusting things” in a gruff male voice, usually when Mrs. Berini was attempting to pray.  When they inquired as to its identity, it replied “I am a minister of God.”  Lest we conclude on this basis of this last remark that the exorcisms had been successful, it should be noted that the RSPK phenomena started up soon after this ethereal “minister” appeared.  In fact, the night after his arrival, the bedside phone kept flying across the room and the bedside lamp fell on Mrs. Berini’s head several times.

Further incidents involved the breaking of dishes, crosses and religious statues.  The furniture then seemed to get restless. A china cupboard turned over four times, and a bookcase on the top landing moved downstairs twice.  The daughter’s desk meandered out of her room and down the stairs.  The retractable staircase to the attic opened and slammed shut repeatedly, causing the ceiling in the hall to crack.  The incidents continued until the daughter’s birthday in August, when a carving knife was found stuck in the kitchen table.  The family then moved out, and a priest performed a third exorcism. This final exorcism attempt was apparently successful, as the phenomena finally ceased.

Some of the events were witnessed by outside observers, including a friend of the son’s, a neighbor, and Mr. Berini’s sister.  These include the flight of a candle, the movement and toppling over of a table lamp, the levitation of a comb, and one of the bookcase’s frequent sojourns down the stairs.

This was a particularly nasty poltergeist that frequently attacked people.  Mr. and Mrs. Berini and their son were all hit by moving objects.  On four separate occasions when they were in bed, Mr. Berini saw his sleeping wife lifted from the bed and moved out into the room, where she was dropped to the floor. In fact, the poltergeist seemed to have a particular aversion to Mrs. Berini.  Once she experienced a burning sensation, and three bleeding scratches were found on her chest and an upside down cross was found to be scratched on her back. She was scratched twice more. On one of these occasions, her sister was present and was on the phone to the police. Her sister experienced a burning sensation on her face and found a scratch on her own cheek.

The phenomena seemed to center around Mrs. Berini.  Virtually all the incidents took place when she was in the house, and she tended to be the person closest to any strangely behaving object.  She was also the one who experienced the first two apparitions.  She had suffered from migraine headaches and vomiting since she was a child.  The phenomena tended to occur during periods when she was free of migraine attacks.  Roll and Tringale speculate that the RSPK manifestations could have served as a substitute for the migraine symptoms.  They compare the apparitions in this case to the visual “auras” that frequently precede epileptic attacks and speculate that such apparitions may be an externalized form of such auras.  In fact, Roll (1978a) had earlier postulated that both apparitions and voices in such cases may represent externalized hallucinations.   

In an article written with Elson de A. Montagno, Roll draws further parallels between RSPK phenomena and the symptoms of epilepsy.  Both types of phenomena are most frequently exhibited by people in their teens.  Knocking and rapping sounds in poltergeist cases may be analogous to the rhythmic tonic-clonic movements of epilepsy.  Sudden movements and the existence of visions and apparitions constitute other similarities.  Finally, Montagno and Roll note that the onset of RSPK phenomena frequently coincides with the abatement of hysterical or epileptic symptoms in the agent (Roll & Montagno, 1983). These facts, combined with the high incidence of convulsive-dissociative disorders in poltergeist agents, lead Roll to suspect that some forms of brain dysfunction may play a role in causing RSPK phenomena.  Irwin (1994) has, however, argued that Roll’s epilepsy theory of RSPK phenomena may be premature.  He notes that only four percent of Roll’s agents manifested clear-cut symptoms of epilepsy per se, and that this may not represent much of an elevation above baseline rates in the general population.

Many other investigators have postulated that psychopathology or aggression in the agents may be responsible for the generation of the psychokinetic phenomena.  Indeed, for years the stereotypical picture of the poltergeist agent was that of the disturbed adolescent girl, which formed the basis of Carrie, Stephen King’s first best-selling novel.  The psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor (1964) saw RSPK phenomena as being analogous to hysterical conversion symptoms resulting from emotional tension.  D. Scott Rogo (1974) postulated that RSPK phenomena are due to projected hostility and constitute a psychokinetic form of the “acting out” of displaced aggression.  In support of this contention, he cited a case in which RSPK phenomena (raps) occurred during a psychotherapeutic session with a 32-year-old man who claimed to be persecuted by a poltergeist.  Owen (1978) cites a number of poltergeist cases in which the focal person displayed signs of hysteria.

Alfonso Martinez-Taboas and Carlos Alvarado (Taboas, 1980, 1984; Taboas & Alvarado, 1981) have criticized the body of research indicating psychopathology in poltergeist agents.  They argue that much of this evidence has been produced through clinical interviews in which the interviewer knew that the subject was a suspected poltergeist agent.  The interviewer may thus have been biased by this knowledge and his or her own stereotypical ideas about poltergeist agents.  They also fault the researchers for their use of unreliable projective psychological tests, such as the Rorschach inkblot test, which are open to multiple interpretations, as well as the fact that the researchers may be seriously underestimating the prevalence of psychological disorders in the general population.

The Problem of Fraud  

Skeptics contend that most, if not all, poltergeist effects are produced by trickery on the part of the apparent poltergeist agent, often in an attempt to gain attention.  In some cases direct evidence of such fraud on the part of the focal person has been obtained.  Roll (1969, 1972) used a one-way mirror to observe a 12-year-old focal person in another room together with his grandmother.  His coinvestigator (J. G. Pratt) saw the agent hide two measuring tapes behind his shirt and then later throw them after his grandmother.  The grandmother then reported this as another poltergeist incident, evidencing no suspicion of any fraudulent activity.  The boy was later administered a polygraph test.  That test indicated that he was telling the truth when he was in fact lying in denying that he had thrown the tapes (which shows you why the results of polygraph tests are not admissible as evidence in most courts).  Roll (1977a) reports another case in which the poltergeist agent was found to be producing “knocks” by stamping his foot.

James “the Amazing” Randi (1985), a skeptical magician who has written several books debunking parapsychology, has presented photographic evidence suggesting that one of Roll’s subjects, Tina Resch, the focal person in a poltergeist case in Columbus, Ohio, threw a phone when no one was looking and produced an apparently anomalous movement of a couch by hooking it with her right foot.  A videotape also suggested that she pulled a lamp toward her in order to make it fall.  Roll (1993) has, however, continued to argue for the genuineness of the RSPK phenomena in this case, noting that Tina was not in the area when many of the events occurred.  He also documents an apparent attempt by the prominent skeptic Paul Kurtz to doctor the evidence in this case by implying that two photographs that were actually taken an hour apart were taken within seconds of each other.  On the other hand, the fact that Resch was recently sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her daughter does nothing to enhance her credibility as a poltergeist agent (see Frazier, 1995, and Roll & Storey, 2004, for the details of the circumstances surrounding this murder).  Roll and Storey (2004) also note that Resch’s phenomena displayed the “shyness effect” that is characteristic of many poltergeist cases in that no ostensible psychokinetic phenomena were observed if Tina knew she was being filmed.  More generally, the term “shyness effect” is used to denote the fact that the beginnings of object movements are rarely observed in poltergeist cases.  The “shyness effect” is consistent with what would be expected if the poltergeist phenomena were being produced through fraudulent means.  The shyness effect is thus evidence in favor of the fraud hypothesis.

Roll (1977a, 1977b) notes that the focal person was detected in fraud in 19 of the 92 poltergeist cases in his sample in which a focal agent could be identified.  Gauld and Cornell (1979) report a somewhat lower incidence rate of detected fraud.  Fraud was detected in 41 of the 500 poltergeist cases in their sample, yielding an incidence rate of eight percent.  Gauld and Cornell note that the initial stages of object movements in poltergeist cases are rarely observed, which would be consistent with the fraud hypothesis, as noted above.  Roll (1977b) notes that, in 105 cases involving anomalous object movements, visual fixation of objects by witnesses seemed to have an inhibiting effect in 47 cases and no effect in 43 cases. (In the remaining 15 cases, the effect of visual fixation could not be determined.)  Several writers, while admitting the existence of fraud in some cases, suggest that the fraudulent activity is merely the agent’s way of maintaining the attention he received when genuine phenomena were occurring. In particular, Munson (1987) attributes fraud in poltergeist cases to the agent’s “owning” of impulses (such as aggressive impulses) that were previously projected into the environment via PK.

Theories About Poltergeists  

Several writers have offered theories about how poltergeist effects are produced, assuming they are not the result of deliberate fraud.  G. W. Lambert (1955) proposed that reported poltergeist phenomena may be due to motion of underground water and the resulting stress on houses.  While it is easy to imagine that poltergeist raps and creaks might be due to such motion of underground water, it is hard to believe that such motion could produce the large horizontal movements of objects frequently reported in RSPK outbreaks.  In order to test Lambert’s theory, Gauld and Cornell (1979) conducted an extraordinary experiment in which houses were mechanically shaken. They concluded that serious structural damage to, and even collapse of, such houses would in all likelihood occur well before any substantial lateral movements of objects were induced. They also feel that such jolting and vibrations would be immediately apparent to anyone inside the house. With regard to Lambert’s observation that poltergeist cases tend to cluster around bodies of water, Gauld and Cornell note that this may simply be due to the fact that the population in general tends to congregate in such locations.

William Roll, Donald Burdick, and William Joines (1973) have postulated that RSPK agents produce a type of force field in the area surrounding their bodies. Based on an analysis of the locations, directions and magnitudes of movements of objects relative to an ostensible poltergeist agent, they suggest that these movements could have been produced by three rotating “beams” of force emanating from portions of the agent’s body.  They do not hazard a guess as to the type of force involved or as to how the field is generated.  As arbitrary models can rather easily be constructed to “retrodict” observed patterns of movements, their model must await confirmation with new poltergeist agents.

More recently, Roll (2003) has postulated that poltergeist effects may be produced through the focal person’s influence on the “zero point energy” field pervading the universe, thus temporarily freeing the object from the force of gravity.  He also cites measurements indicating weight changes in two poltergeist agents, possibly indicating a transfer of mass-energy between the agent and the affected object.

Michael Persinger and Robert Cameron (1986) have proposed that some poltergeist episodes may be a product of electromagnetic fields produced by geological stresses. They postulate that extremely low frequency (ELF) components of such fields may directly stimulate the brains of persons involved in such cases and induce apparitional experiences or hallucinations of an olfactory or auditory nature.  They further suggest that electromagnetic transients may be responsible for such phenomena as current surges, anomalous telephone rings and light bulb failures.  They report on a case in Sudbury, Ontario, which they feel might support such an interpretation.


Poltergeist cases constitute a dramatic and striking category of possible spontaneous psi phenomena. The number of agents who have been detected in fraud together with the “shyness effect,” wherein the beginnings of motions are rarely observed, suggest that RSPK phenomena will have to be approached cautiously and investigated thoroughly from a skeptical viewpoint before they can be accepted as genuinely anomalous phenomena.  Investigations of the personalities and other characteristics of poltergeist agents will have to be conducted more rigorously and with more appropriate experimental blinds before they can be considered definitive.  Finally, theories to account for poltergeists will have to be constructed that are fully capable of predicting new phenomena rather than merely “retrodicting” phenomena that have already occurred. Theories failing to meet this criterion may well have to be considered as no more scientific than one of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So” stories.

Miscellaneous Phenomena

 There are a variety of phenomena suggestive of the operation of psi that fall outside of the category of spontaneous psi experiences in that the phenomena are deliberately induced but also occur to a large extent outside of the laboratory and thus may involve a number of uncontrolled factors.  These phenomena include dowsing, psychic prognostication, psychic healing, and the work of psychic detectives.  We will also examine in this section a few instances of truly strange phenomena, including the alleged ability of certain Christian saints, to levitate, an instance of possible weather control by a Tibetan shaman, and spontaneous human combustion. 

Psychic Predictions. 

 Every year, several tabloids, including the National Enquirer and the always thought-provoking Weekly World News, publish the predictions of “leading psychics” for the upcoming year.  It is not easy to perform a statistical analysis on such predictions to see whether or not they come true more often than one would expect by chance. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that such predictions are not in general very accurate. 

Recently, Farha (2005) reviewed the predictions made for 2004 by psychic Sylvia Browne on The Montel Williams Show (an American television talk show) on December 31, 2003.  Unlike many psychics, Browne’s predictions were relatively mundane and reasonable extrapolations from current events.  Nonetheless, most of Browne’s predictions were not fulfilled, including her predictions that American troops would be out of Iraq by June or July 2004, that Osama bin Laden was already dead, that the fashion mogul Martha Stewart would not go to jail (she entered prison on October 8, 2004), and that Pope John Paul II would die in 2004.  This last prediction was a reasonable extrapolation from the Pope’s failing state of health.  Nonetheless, the Pope did not die until April of 2005.

Sometimes psychics go out on a limb and make predictions that are far less likely than those made by Brown.  Emery (1996) for instance observes that Hugh Hefner did not give up his Playboy empire to become a cultivator of sunflowers, as predicted by psychic Shawn Robbins, no child genius constructed a working time machine from parts of a microwave oven as an entry in a seventh grade science fair, as predicted in the National Enquirer, and disgraced skater Tonya Harding did not attempt to open the nation’s first all-nude ice skating rink, as forecast in the same publication.  Predictions such as these seem to be offered in an attempt to entertain the audience and are not to be taken seriously.

Radford (2005b) has reviewed the predictions of several psychics for 2001 and found no mention of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.   Similarly, Posner (2005) notes that the prediction of three psychics in the newspaper Florida Today that Hurricane Jeanne would miss Florida failed to be fulfilled.

In some cases, an apparently successful prediction may be fabricated. Quite a splash was made in the early 1980s by a videotape of an apparently accurate prediction of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley that was allegedly made by psychic Tamara Rand on a talk show.  President Reagan was shot in the chest on March 30, 1981, by John Hinckley, a blond-haired former member of the American Nazi party.  Hinckley claimed that he made the assassination attempt in order to impress actress Jodie Foster, who had played the subteenage flame of a psychotic assassin in the movie Taxi Driver.  The tape of the alleged prediction was broadcast on NBC’s Today show and ABC’s Good Morning America as well as on Ted Turner’s Cable News Network, on April 2, 1981.  The tape showed Rand, a Los Angeles area psychic who catered to Hollywood celebrities, making the prediction that Reagan would be shot in the chest by a sandy-haired young radical having the initials “J. H.” and that the assassin’s name would be something like “Jack Humbley.”  Rand further predicted that the assassination attempt would take place during the last week in March or the first week in April.  The tape had supposedly been aired on March 28, 1981, two days before the actual assassination attempt took place.  It turned out that no such tape had been aired and that the tape was in fact made the day after the assassination attempt but was fraudulently dated to make it appear to have been made before the attempt.  Dick Maurice, the host of the talk show in question, confessed to involvement in the hoax.  (See Frazier & Randi, 1986; Lyons & Truzzi, 1991; and Nickell,1994, for an account of the Tamara Rand hoax.)

Sometimes predictions may be worded so vaguely that many events may be interpreted as fulfilling them.  This is particularly true of the poetic quatrains of the sixteenth century prophet Nostradamus, as has been pointed out by Christopher (1970).  One of Nostradamus’ most prophetic quatrains begins, “The King-King will be no more, of the Gentle One destroyed” (Christopher, 1970, p. 106).  This was taken (after the fact) to be a prediction of the slaying of Henry III, King of both Poland and France, by a man named Clement (a synonym of “gentle”).  Nostradamus’ quatrains are, however, like Rorschach inkblots, onto which the reader may project any message she wants. For instance, Paul Kurtz cites the following quatrain (Kurtz, 1986, p. 262).

An emperor shall be born near Italy

Who shall be sold to the Empire at a high price.

They shall say, from the people he disputed with,

That he is less a prince than a butcher.

As Kurtz points out, this particular quatrain is so vaguely worded that it could be taken as a prediction of the reign of Napoleon, Hitler or even Ferdinand II, the king of Bohemia and Holy Roman emperor.  Such vague predictions as are contained in Nostradamus’ quatrains are effectively no predictions at all; as no dates or specifics are given, they can be interpreted to fit any suitable event in the last four centuries.

Occasionally, formal divination systems such as the I Ching or tarot cards are employed to make predictions, read a person’s character, or offer advice.  As the message of the cards, yarrow stalks or stars may be interpreted in several ways, there is an opportunity for the reader or diviner to select the appropriate interpretation by means of intuition or even ESP.  There is also the “Barnum” effect, the tendency for people to believe that a vaguely worded statement holds a deep message meant specifically for them.  Most studies that have been conducted to test the efficacy of such divination systems have yielded null results.  For instance, in a test of divination with tarot cards, Blackmore (1983b) found people unable to distinguish between tarot card readings meant for them and readings meant for other people.  Roney-Dougal (1991) repeated Blackmore’s experiments and obtained essentially the same results.  Two similar experiments with the I Ching divination system also produced null results (Rubin & Honorton, 1971; Thalbourne, Delin, Barlow & Steen, 1992-1993).

Psychic Detectives

There are frequently accounts in the popular press of cases in which psychics have been able to use their powers to help the police solve crimes. Unfortunately, newspaper accounts are not always noted for their accuracy. Studies of psychic detectives from a skeptical vantage point have been published by Melvin Harris (1986) and Piet Hein Hoebens (1982, 1986a, 1986b).  Hoebens focused his investigations on the Dutch psychic Gerard Croiset and his primary investigator from a parapsychological point of view, Wilhelm Tenhaeff.  According to popular accounts, Croiset has displayed an astonishing success in helping the police find bodies and solve crimes.  Yet when Hoebens interviewed the Utrecht police, they denied that any of Croiset’s attempts to locate missing persons or to solve crimes had been successful.  Hoebens also notes certain inconsistencies in Tenhaeff’s accounts of Croiset’s successes.  In addition, Tenhaeff distorted many of Croiset’s statements in his summaries of them. Initially vague statements were made to seem much more detailed and accurate than they really were.  Errors made by Croiset were deleted.  Tenhaeff also distorted his descriptions of confirming events to make them better conform to Croiset’s predictions.  Hoebens also reviews one instance of an apparent gross falsification by Tenhaeff. Thus, what you read in the popular press may not necessarily correspond to the facts when it comes to the area of psychic detection.

Similarly, Radford (2005a) notes that the Oxford Press reported “uncanny similarities” between the location where the body of Charles Capel, a wandering victim of Alzheimer’s disease, was found and the description provided by psychic detective Noreen Renier.  However, Radford notes that the police, acting on this description could not locate Capel’s body.  After several months, Capel’s body was found less than a mile from his home.  Radford points out that missing Alzheimer’s patients are generally found less than a mile from home and that Renier’s description of a wooded area would match most locations in the area of Capel’s house.

Lyons and Truzzi (1991) report on the fairly impressive case of psychic Greta Alexander, who was called in by police to find the missing body of Mary Cousett, a woman who had disappeared in April of 1983.  Alexander correctly predicted that the body would be found near the intersection of several roads, that it would be missing a leg or foot, that the head would not be found with the body, and that it would be found by a man with a crippled hand.  In fact, the body was found in such a location by an officer who had had several fingers on his left hand damaged in a drill press accident.  It should be noted, however, that these statements were embedded in a fairly large number of other statements that were either too vague to be called predictions or were in fact incorrect.  Further, the body was found outside the area on the map circled by Alexander.

In a recent investigation of four prominent psychic detectives, Nickell (2005a) found that the police officers involved generally deny that they have worked with such detectives or that the psychic detectives provided any useful information.  Nickell notes that the predictions offered by such psychics are often vague and can be “retrofitted” to fit the facts (such as when an abandoned railroad track is interpreted as a “bridge”).

What is clearly needed are more rigorous and skeptical field investigations of psychic detectives. It would also be possible to conduct laboratory studies in a forensic format with such persons. To date, only a handful of studies have been conducted (see Wiseman, West & Stemman, 1996b, for a review of such studies).  The preliminary results indicate that “readings” provided by psychic detectives are no more accurate than those provided by normal persons claiming no psychic ability.  For instance, Wiseman, West and Stemman (1996a) report a controlled laboratory experiment in which the ability of three self-proclaimed psychic detectives to provide accurate descriptions of (previously solved) crimes was put to the test.  When provided with materials related to the crimes, the psychic detectives were no more successful than a control group of three students claiming no psychic abilities in providing accurate details relating to the crimes. 

Thus, the evidence for psychic abilities on the part self-proclaimed psychic detectives is less than compelling.


Dowsing is a technique in which the practitioner (called a “dowser”) employs a device such as a forked stick or dowsing rod to locate some object (usually a body of underground water, although other sorts of objects such as buried mines have served as target objects).  When the dowser is located over the target object, the dowsing rod signals that fact by making a movement.  Most scientists believe that the movement of the rod is caused by unconscious muscular movements on the part of the dowser, although Kaufman (1979) has reported strain gauge measurements on dowsing rods that he claims reveal a force unexplainable by gravity, muscular jerking or thumb pressure.  As the dowser is in physical proximity to the target object, it is possible that some physical signal serves as a sensory cue to guide him to the object.  Thus, dowsing may not involve the operation of ESP at all.  Kaufman, for instance, notes that many geological features are associated with magnetic anomalies and that human beings have been shown to be capable of detecting such magnetic fields.  Such sensory cueing may be less prominent in cases of “map dowsing,” in which the practitioner holds his apparatus over a map of the area rather than walking over the area itself.  Even maps, however, provide clues as to the geophysical makeup of an area.

Hansen (1982), in a detailed review of the literature relating to dowsing, concluded that many of the studies of dowsing that have been conducted have used quite sloppy experimental procedures and in many cases the reporting of the methodology that was used is unclear.  Despite these shortcomings, many of the studies showed dowsing techniques to be ineffective.  Since Hansen’s review, Hans-Dieter Betz has reported a massive field study of dowsing in several countries (Betz, 1995a, 1995b).  Betz’ results indicate that the use of dowsing can enhance the efficacy of searches for underground water sources.  As with virtually any field study, Betz’ methodology is not adequate to rule out the hypothesis that the dowser may be responding to physical cues. Because of the poor reliability of the dowsing procedure and the methodological inadequacies of field studies, it is not clear that dowsing offers a more effective means of demonstrating the existence of ESP than do more traditional ESP experiments.

Psychic Healing

 “Psychic healing” is a generic term employed to describe a variety of techniques whereby diseases and other ailments are healed or alleviated by an apparently paranormal process. Stanley Krippner (1980) has proposed a typology of practitioners of such healing techniques, which he calls “folk healing.”   Krippner’s first category of folk healers is that of shamanic healers.  Shamans are persons, usually in “primitive” cultures, who are ostensibly able to enter a trance and visit the world of spirits, a vocation typically entered as the result of a “calling” in youth.  Their healing rites may consist of literally retrieving lost souls or departed animal spirit guardians that have deserted the ailing patient.  

McClenon (2004) has hypothesized that humans have developed a genetic tendency to enter dissociative states, possibly due to shamans’ successful use of their psi abilities while in such states (although McClenon remains neutral regarding the question of whether psi actually exists).  He notes that shamanism is universal among hunter-gatherer societies and that cave art suggests than shamanism has been practiced for more than 30,000 years.  He notes that humans’ dissociative/hypnotic capacities could not increase infinitely, because these traits had negative consequences, including psychosomatic and dissociative disorders.  It should added that a complete dissociation from the physical body would be maladaptive in terms of survival, thus the development of some sort of “filter” restricting the mind’s attention largely to the needs of the physical organism, as suggested by Bergson (1914), may be necessary.

Spiritist healers comprise Krippner’s second category of psychic healers. Spiritist healers are distinguished from shamanic healers by the fact that the former undergo possession by a spirit in the course of performing their healing rituals.  The Condomble and Umbanda sects of Brazil are examples of this tradition. Krippner’s next two categories are esoteric healers, who follow an occult tradition such as alchemy, astrology, tarot-reading, or tantric Buddhism, and religious ritual healers, whose healing takes place in the context of a religious ritual, such as a Mexican sacred mushroom ceremony.   Krippner would classify faith healers, such as Kathryn Kuhlman, who operate in the context of a Christian religious service, as religious ritual healers.  

Krippner’s final category is that of intuitive healers, who (unlike shamans) undergo no special training or initiation but who chose their vocation based on an inner sense of a calling (sometimes described as a “call from God”).  Such practitioners frequently employ the technique of laying-on-of-hands, which has been the subject of much parapsychological investigation (to be discussed below) and often describe themselves as tuning in to a “universal energy field.”  As examples of this type of healer, Krippner offers Olga Worrall and Oscar Estabany, both of whom have been extensively studied by experimental parapsychologists.

For the purposes of the present analysis, we will subdivide psychic healing by the type of technique employed rather than by the type of practitioner, as there is considerable overlap in the techniques employed by practitioners of different Krippnerian types.

Faith healing. The term “faith healing” will be used primarily to refer to healing carried out in the context of a (usually Christian) religious meeting in which ailments are ostensibly cured by the power of God or the patient’s own religious faith rather than the cure being ascribed to any “energy” emanating from, or physical manipulation performed by, the healer.  Faith healing may be accomplished with or without any physical contact between the patient and the healer. Extensive physical contact between the healer and the patient would probably result in the classification of the technique as either psychic surgery or the laying-on-of-hands (to be discussed below).  Examples of modern day faith healers would be Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, Peter Popoff, Ernest Angley, the noted Christian broadcaster and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, and the more infamous Jim Jones.

Some cures that occur in the context of faith healing may be due to the fact that the original ailment was psychogenic in origin.  Some apparently serious conditions, such as paralysis and blindness, may have no organic basis but may merely be hysterical symptoms that reflect the patient’s psychological distress.  Even apparently genuine physical conditions such as visible rashes, ulcers and asthma attacks may be aggravated or even caused by psychological factors. Such illnesses are typically referred to as psychosomatic illnesses to distinguish them from hysterical ailments.  Obviously, as both types of conditions are at least partially caused by psychological factors, it would not be surprising if a religious ritual, which may have a considerable emotional impact on the patient, had the effect of alleviating these symptoms.

Sometimes people with a genuine physical illness may experience a surge of excitement, possibly involving the release of endorphins (the brain’s “natural opiates”), during a religious ritual and may overcome their symptoms for a brief time.  (The alleviation of pain through the administration of placebos or hypnosis is a well-known effect and is thought to be governed by the release of endorphins in many cases.)  The symptoms may, however, return once the fervor of the ritual has waned.  For instance, Hines (2003) cites a case in which the faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman “healed” a woman who had cancer and who could only walk with a back brace.  The woman threw off the back brace and ran across the stage.  However, two months later the woman died from the cancer that Kuhlman had supposedly cured.  

Cases in which documented serious physical illnesses, such as cancer and lupus, were cured through faith healing do exist, although they are extremely rare; however, cancer and other serious illnesses do sometimes improve without medical intervention, in a process known as spontaneous regression.  What is needed in order to document the efficacy of faith healing are controlled studies showing that such spontaneous regression occurs more frequently among patients undergoing religious rituals than for control patients not undergoing such rituals.  Such studies have not been done.

The activity of the immune system and the course of diseases are known to be affected by psychological conditions such as stress.  It is well established that physical diseases occur more frequently following traumatic life events such as the loss of a job or the death of a spouse.  There are cases on record of voodoo death, in which a victim who learns that he has been cursed by a witchdoctor suddenly dies.  It is commonly thought that this is an example of what is known as parasympathetic death or “death by helplessness,” as described by Martin Seligman (1975).  In such a death, a person facing what he perceives to be a hopeless situation essentially relaxes himself to death, stopping the heart.  The central nervous system is also known to interact directly with the immune system through the hypothalamus, and immune responses in animals have been conditioned to occur in response to certain tastes or even in response to the presence of particular persons (Ader, 1981).  Thus, it might not be too surprising if participating in a faith healing ritual served to bolster a patient’s immune system.  This would not be a paranormal phenomenon, however, as the bolstering of the immune system could be due to the brain’s normal channels of influence over the immune system operating in response to suggestion.  Some evidence against the hypothesis that all forms of psychic healing are placebo effects or due to suggestion is provided by a survey conducted by Haraldsson and Olafsson (1980), in which they found that prior belief in the efficacy of psychic healing did not correlate with the perceived benefit the patient received from the healing session. Their study was not specific to faith healing, but encompassed healing in general.

Several faith healers have been exposed in using fraud to aid their practices.  James Randi’s book The Faith Healers (Randi, 1987) contains an extensive documentation of such fraudulent activity.  Perhaps the most common ploy used by faith healers is to “heal” a stooge sitting in the audience who is only faking an illness.  Morris (in Edge, Morris, Palmer & Rush, 1986) describes how the Reverend Jim Jones used such stooges and other forms of deception to dupe his followers into believing he had magical powers.  Some of these people later followed Jones into death in the infamous Jonestown massacre in Guyana, in which hundreds of Jones’ followers drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid at his command.

In general, there is no compelling evidence that any paranormal process is involved in faith healing. The more spectacular miracles are chiefly the result of fraud, and other cures may be due to the effects of suggestion and normal psychosomatic and psychoimmunological processes.

Psychic diagnosis. Some healers claim the ability to diagnose illness by psychic means.  One such person was Edgar Cayce.  Given the name and address of a patient, Cayce would enter a trance, diagnose the patient’s ailment and prescribe a (typically unorthodox) method of treatment.  Cayce’s recommended cures have been the subject of study by physicians at the Association for Research and Enlightenment, an organization dedicated to the study of Cayce’s readings based in Virginia Beach, Virginia.   James Randi (1979) has provided a skeptical analysis of Cayce’s diagnoses, pointing out that Cayce was often inaccurate and even provided diagnoses of people who were in fact already dead.  However, this negative evidence may not prove much, as Cayce’s proponents concede that he was accurate in only about one-third of the cases he attempted to diagnose.  A well-controlled statistical study might have settled the issue of whether Cayce displayed any paranormal ability in his diagnoses, but unfortunately Cayce died before any such study was conducted.

Randi (1987) has cast more definitive doubt on the paranormal diagnostic capability of the faith healer Peter Popoff.  In his services, Popoff claimed the ability to obtain the names and medical conditions of people in his audience through paranormal means (described as a revelation from God).  Randi and his associates were able to intercept a radio signal transmitted from Popoff’s wife to an earpiece worn by Popoff giving him names and medical data for various audience members. In this instance at least, the psychic diagnosis was achieved through fraud.

Ray Hyman, a well-known skeptic regarding psi phenomena, and his associates Richard Wiseman and Andrew Skolnick conducted a controlled experiment in which the claimed psychic diagnostic capabilities of a seventeen-year-old Russian girl, Natasha Demkina, were put to the test (Hyman, 2005). However, despite the fact that at least two of the investigators (Hyman and Wiseman) are known for their criticisms of flawed procedures in parapsychological experiments, their own experimental procedure allowed Natasha to see the subjects she was attempting to diagnose at short range.  Thus, she could have picked up sensory cues (e.g. breathing and movement patterns) that could have her helped to match medical diagnoses to subjects.  Interestingly, Hyman declared the experiment a “failure” despite the fact that Natasha successfully matched four of the seven diagnoses to the correct subject.  Such success would happen less than two times out of one hundred experiments by chance.  As one could not reasonably expect lower probabilities in any experiment with only seven trials, the results would actually seem to support the claim that Ms. Demkina can provide more accurate diagnoses than would be expected by chance. While this experiment is inconclusive regarding Ms. Demkina’s psychic diagnostic abilities due to the investigators’ failure to screen our sensory cues, it serves as a cautionary example regarding the interactions between parapsychologists and their critics.  

Psychic surgery. In the technique of psychic surgery, the healer purportedly enters the patient’s physical body, sometimes using only his bare hands, as in the case of the Philippine healer Tony Agpaoa, and in other cases using an unorthodox implement, such as the rusty knife wielded by the Brazilian healer Arigo (see Fuller, 1974, for a comprehensive discussion of the phenomena produced by Arigo). In a typical psychic surgery session, the healer might massage the patient’s stomach muscles, seemingly penetrate the abdominal cavity with his bare hands, and apparently remove a “tumor” (which is frequently immediately destroyed because of its “evil” nature).  Although bleeding may be profuse during the surgery, the alleged incision usually heals immediately, without a trace of a scar.

Psychic surgery is now widely regarded by scientists both within and outside the parapsychological research community as a fraudulent activity. The illusion of an incision is thought to be produced by kneading the patient’s skin.  The illusion of bleeding is achieved by the psychic surgeon’s releasing blood or some other red liquid from a source he has palmed as if performing a cheap magic trick.  The tumors removed by the surgeons are thought to be samples of animal tissue that have also been palmed by the surgeon.  An early investigation of psychic surgery by the American physician William Nolen (1975) failed to uncover even one case in which a physical illness that had been documented to exist before a psychic surgery session was found to be absent following the session.  Nolen also detected many instances of fraudulent activity on the part of the psychic surgeons he observed.  In one case, a “kidney stone” was found to be composed of sugar.  In an earlier investigation, Granone (1972) had found such “kidney stones” to consist of table salt and pumice stone.  David Hoy (1981) also describes sleight-of-hand techniques he witnessed during psychic surgery sessions, including the palming of objects.  Lincoln and Wood (1979) identified “blood” produced from a patient during psychic surgery as pig blood rather than human blood.  Finally, Azuma and Stevenson (1987) analyzed two more kidney stones removed from patients during psychic surgery and found them to be pebbles.  By now it should be apparent that the rampant fraudulent activity on the part of psychic surgeons casts extreme doubt on the hypothesis that any paranormal effect has been demonstrated in this procedure.

Laying-on-of-hands and remote healing. In both the technique known as the “laying-on-of-hands” and in the technique I will call “remote healing,” the healer is conceptualized as being the source or channel of a healing effect or healing “energy.”  The chief difference between the two techniques is that the laying-on-of-hands involves more or less direct physical contact between the patient and the healer, whereas the healer is isolated from the patient in remote healing.  In practice, the distinction between the two techniques becomes blurred by the fact that many experimental studies of healers who would normally use the laying-on-of-hands in their daily practice have of necessity used experimental protocols that remove the healer from direct physical contact with the patient to be healed or from the biological system to be influenced.  Unlike other forms of healing, a great many experimental tests of the efficacy of these two techniques have been performed.  A surprisingly high proportion of these experiments have yielded evidence of some sort of healing effect.  Healers have been found to be able to retard the growth of goiters in mice and to accelerate the recovery of such goiters (Grad, 1977), to speed the healing of experimentally induced wounds in mice (Grad, Cadoret & Paul, 1961), to accelerate the recovery of mice from anesthesia without physical contact (Watkins & Watkins, 1971; Watkins, Watkins, & Wells, 1973; Wells & Klein, 1972; Wells & Watkins, 1975), to speed the regeneration of salamander forelimbs (Wirth, Johnson, Harvath & MacGregor, 1992), to heal malaria in rats, remotely and retroactively (Snel & Van der Sijde, 1990-1991), and to facilitate the healing of surgically induced wounds in humans. (Wirth 1989, 1990, but see also the nonsignificant study of the effect of healing and prayer on diabetes mellitus by Wirth & Mitchell, 1994). 

Radin, Taft and Yount (2003) report a study on the influence of practitioners of Johrei, a Japanese spiritual healing practice, on the proliferation of cultured human brain cells (astrocytes).  Radin et al. report a significant increase in treated cells relative to control cells, although this difference was only significant on the third day of treatment.  They also found that the Johrei healers could influence the output of a quantum-based random event generator (REG).  The psychokinetic effect on the REG declined with distance, which the authors interpret as supporting the hypothesis that the healing effect involves some sort of radiation.

Bengston and  Krinsley (2000) report a significant difference between healers and skeptics as they attempted to inhibit the growth of transplanted breast cancer cells in mice.  However, this study was flawed in that the healers were allowed to place their hands just outside of the mice’s cages, which would allow the transmission of sensory cues (e.g., the movements of the hands of the healers might be gentler and less threatening that those of the skeptics).  Another flaw in this experiment is that the control group of mice were housed in a different city than the treated group; thus, the differences between the treated and control mice might have been due to differences in weather, pollution levels, or other factors.

A large number of studies have shown that the growth of plants may be accelerated when they are irrigated with water previously held by healers or when they are grown from seeds held by healers (Grad, 1963, 1964; MacDonald, Hickman & Dakin, 1977; Solfvin, 1982; Saklani, 1988a, 1988b, 1989, 1990, 1991,1992; Scofield & Hodges, 1991; and Roney-Dougal & Solfvin, 2004). There have also been claims of changes in the light absorption properties of samples of water held by healers, (Grad 1964, 1965; Dean 1983a, 1983b; Dean & Brame 1975; Grad & Dean, 1984; Schwartz, De Mattei, Brame & Spottiswoode, 1987; Saklani, 1988a, 1988b; Rein & McCraty, 1994: but see also Fenwick & Hopkins, 1986).  Healers have also been found to produce effects on the activity levels of enzymes (Smith, 1968, 1972; Edge, 1980b; Bunnel, 1999).  

Experiments have shown that even ordinary citizens may be able to influence biological systems at a distance. Ordinary subjects in such bio-PK experiments have been found to be capable of affecting the growth rates of fungal and bacterial cultures (Barry, 1968a, 1968b; Tedder & Monty, 1981), the mutation rates of bacterial genes (Nash, 1984b), the electrical activity of plants (Dolin, Davydov, Morozova & Shumov, 1993), the electrodermal and brainwave patterns of human subjects (Braud & Schlitz, 1983, 1989; Braud, Schlitz, Collins & Klitch, 1985; Dolin, Dymov & Khatchenkov, 1993; Radin, Taylor & Braud, 1993), the firing rate of individual neurons of the sea snail Aplysia (Baumann, Stewart & Roll, 1986), and the rate of hemolysis of red blood cells (Braud,1988, 1990; Braud, Davis & Wood, 1979), to name only a few of the effects that have been reported.  

To be sure, not all investigators who have looked for such effects have found them, but the success rate is rather substantial.  In a “meta-analysis” of 149 psychokinesis experiments using living organisms as targets, Braud, Schlitz and Schmidt (1990) found that 53 percent of them produced significant evidence of a psi effect.  As in any other area of research, the methodological quality of the studies is uneven.  While the procedures in many of the studies are quite sound, others suffer from various defects.  One common defect is that the person caring for or measuring the target organisms may not be blind as to which experimental group the organisms are in.  If the person watering a plant or placing a fungal colony in an incubator knows whether the plant or fungus is in the “healed group” or the control group, this may affect his treatment of the organism.  This was in fact a problem in some of the plant and fungus experiments (e.g., Nash, 1984b; Saklani, 1988a, 1988b).  Another defect occurs when the target and control organisms are not housed in the same areas or under comparable conditions, as was the case in some of the wound-healing experiments with mice (e.g., Grad, Cadoret & Paul, 1961), or when the healing and control procedures are carried out at different times or locations, as was the case in some of the mouse anesthesia experiments, some of the enzyme studies, and some of the human wound experiments (e.g., Watkins & Watkins, 1971; Rein, 1986; Wirth, 1989, 1990).  In such cases the target organisms or systems may simply be responding differently to different locations or times of day rather than to the treatments. A third defect occurs when the healer is allowed to be in close physical proximity to the patient or target organism, as the possibility then arises that any effects may be due to suggestion or to the comforting of an animal. 

One criticism that has been leveled against parapsychological experiments in general is that the results may be due to experimenter dishonesty.  Flamm (2004, 2005) raises such questions regarding the investigator Daniel Wirth.  Flamm notes that Wirth and his coworkers conducted a study in which infertile women who were prayed for in Christian prayer groups became pregnant at twice the rate of women in a control group (Cha, Wirth, & Lobo, 2001).  It should also be noted that Wirth’s work has been widely cited above in connection with other areas of psychic healing.  Flamm notes that Wirth has received a five-year prison sentence on thirty counts of fraud and that he often assumed false identities in connection with his embezzlement schemes.  Joseph Horvath, who collaborated with Wirth on some of his psychic healing studies (e.g., Wirth, Johnson, Horvath & MacGregor, 1992), has also gone to prison for embezzlement and the use of false identities.  Among their crimes, Wirth and Horvath were convicted of bilking the Aldelphia Communications Corporation out of $2.1 million by infiltrating the company and then having it pay for unauthorized consulting work.  Flamm also notes that Horvath posed as a medical doctor when performing biopsies on human subjects and that Dr. Rogerio Lobo, who was listed as a coauthor on the study regarding the effect of prayers on infertility in fact had no involvement in the study.

Nonetheless, when the work of Wirth and his collaborators is removed from consideration, there remains a large number of seemingly methodologically sound studies that appear to show that humans are capable of affecting biological systems at a distance, and that therefore there may well be reason to believe that there could be some validity to the claims of laying-on-of-hands or remote healing.  The reason this evidence is largely ignored by the medical and scientific community is probably related to scientific community’s general rejection of psi research; the data just do not fit into established theories.  On the other hand, while there may be prejudice against this research, any person seeking treatment should understand that the magnitude of the healing effects found in these studies tends to be far less than the effects produced by orthodox medical treatment, and they are also much less reliable.

Summary of healing studies. In conclusion, there is not much solid evidence for the existence of paranormal effects in the areas of faith healing, psychic diagnosis, or psychic surgery. With regard to the techniques of laying-on-of-hands and remote healing, there are hints from the existing experimental evidence that some sort of paranormal effect could be involved in these techniques.

Psi Phenomena in Nonwestern Cultures

Several anthropologically-oriented investigators have explored beliefs about and practices relating to psi phenomena in cultures markedly different from our modern Western civilization. These studies may be broken into roughly two types: (a) those that merely seek to describe such practices and beliefs, and (b) those that seek to evaluate the hypothesis that psi phenomena are actually involved in such practices.

With regard to studies of the first type, Shiels (1978) reported the results of a survey indicating a widespread belief in out-of-body experiences (OBEs), in which the subject’s conscious mind seems to travel to locations outside of the physical body, among nonwestern or “primitive” cultures.  Haynes (1984) notes that witches’ brews and ointments frequently contain hallucinogenic chemicals that could produce sensations of flying and hence precipitate OBEs.  Magical or psi-like powers are frequently attributed to shamans or medicine men in “primitive” cultures. The belief of the Australian aborigines that their “clever men” may project themselves at will has already been discussed.  

Reichbart (1976) describes how Navajo hand tremblers are thought to be able to find lost objects and to diagnose the causes of illnesses. In a general essay on shamanic practices, Reichbart (1978) notes that the following powers have been attributed to shamans: (a) the ability to direct the movements of game animals, (b) healing abilities, (c) the ability to find lost objects, and (d) the ability to predict and control the weather.  He notes that shamans frequently do rely on sleight-of-hand techniques and use normally acquired information in their practices.  He suggests that the use of such fraudulent practices may facilitate the occurrence of actual psi phenomena, and he compares it to the technique developed by Kenneth Bacheldor and employed by Brookes-Smith (1973) of using fraudulently-produced table movements to create an atmosphere in which paranormally produced table movements may be more likely to occur in a seance situation. (Unfortunately, there is little in the way of hard evidence that any of the table movements produced using Brookes-Smith’s technique were in fact genuinely paranormal.)  

Winkelman (1983) has traced several similarities between techniques used in experimental parapsychology to elicit psi and shamanic practices.  Like parapsychologists, shamans may use altered states of consciousness and visualization techniques to facilitate psi.  Shamans and other nonwestern diviners may use random processes, such as tossing coins when using the I Ching, as a part of their divination practices.  It is possible that such random devices could be susceptible to psychokinetic influence by the shaman, allowing the production of meaningful messages.  (On the other hand, we have of course already seen the lack of effectiveness of such techniques when subjected to experimental test.)

Studies of the second type go beyond mere description and attempt to evaluate the paranormality of the purported effects.  Some investigations are essentially anecdotal in nature.  McKee (1982) describes a case involving voodoo-like effects on the wife of the manager of a Ford agency in Swaziland.  This woman had been experiencing migraine headaches for a period of time before a clay effigy was discovered hidden in an unused cupboard.  The woman had told her maid that she could work for her if she were sick.  Her headaches went away after a ritual in which the effigy was destroyed and prayers were said.  This cure could of course, like the cases of voodoo death discussed previously, be purely psychosomatic in nature and no more paranormal than the usual placebo effect.   

Some experimental investigations of the psi powers of nonwestern shamans and healers have been reported.  In an investigation of the psychokinetic powers of the practitioners of an Afro-Brazilian healing cult, Giesler (1985) found that such practitioners were more successful in an experimental test of their PK abilities than were control subjects.  Their scoring was facilitated when a cult-relevant form of feedback (the display of a deity figure) was used to signal success in the PK task.  The significance of Giesler’s results may, however, be questioned due to the large number of statistical tests he performed on his data.  Saklani (1988a, 1988b) found Himalayan shamans to be successful in using PK or “healing energies” to accelerate the growth of plants.  In this context, it would be good to keep in mind the previously discussed negative verdict on psychic surgery.   

Firewalking is a technique practiced by people in diverse cultures, ranging from fakirs in India to (in fairly recent times) account executives in California.  The ability to walk on fire is often taken as an indication of the firewalker’s mental discipline, spiritual development or faith.  In back-to-back articles in The Skeptical Inquirer, Dennett (1985) and Leikind and William McCarthy (1985) observe that many of the materials used in such firewalking escapades, such as wood, coal and volcanic pumice, are noted for their low heat capacity or poor thermal conductivity.  Leikind and McCarthy also suggest that the “leidenfrost effect” may protect the feet of firewalkers.  Water vapor is a poor conductor of heat, and sweat from the feet of the firewalker may form an insulating layer, or leidenfrost, protecting the feet from burning.  Therefore, there may be nothing paranormal about a person’s ability to walk on fire for reasonably short distances at a fast enough pace.  Thus, a high degree of spiritual development may not be a prerequisite for successful firewalking, and so Hollywood celebrities and other “New Age” types need not balk at treading the coals.

Probably the most outlandish anecdotal case in the professional literature is David Read Barker’s claim to have witnessed a possible instance of weather control by a Tibetan shaman (Barker, 1979).  This shaman was commissioned by the Dalai Lama to perform a rite designed to stop a huge storm long enough for a mourning ceremony to take place.  The storm was reduced to an area of cold fog within a radius of 150 meters of the site of the ceremony, although the rain continued to pour elsewhere.  Of course, this is an isolated observation, so a coincidence explanation cannot be ruled out.

While anthropological investigations have yielded tantalizing hints of dramatic phenomena such as Barker’s anecdotal report of weather-engineering, such studies have been sparse indeed.  A more systematic effort may be needed to sort the wheat from the chaff in this area.  Such an effort would of course cost money, and, given the present state of funding in parapsychology, it is not likely to happen soon.


There are a wide variety of truly strange phenomena that are sometimes linked, albeit tangentially, with phenomena that form the subject matter of more “orthodox” parapsychology.  These bizarre occurrences are sometimes designated “Forteana,” in honor of the early twentieth century paradoxer Charles Hoy Fort, who amassed a large catalogue of anomalies that seem to fly in the face of modern science.  Forteana include such diverse subjects as UFOs, sightings of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, weeping statues, the Bermuda triangle, and spontaneous human combustion.  While none of these topics have been given extensive consideration by mainstream parapsychologists, relationships between these phenomena and more typical psi phenomena have been drawn by several “fringe” writers.  Therefore, for the sake of completeness (as well as the reader’s entertainment), a very brief discussion of Forteana is given in the paragraphs to follow, with an emphasis on the connections that have been alleged to exist between Forteana and the psi phenomena more typically studied by parapsychologists.

In cases of spontaneous human combustion, people are alleged to burst into flames for no apparent reason, with their bodies being more or less completely incinerated.  While this might seem to be intimately related to the spontaneous ignition of fires that occur in some poltergeist cases, parapsychologists have shown remarkably little interest in spontaneous human combustion.  A skeptical explanation of this phenomenon has been provided by Nickell and Fischer (1987), writing in the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer.  In their view, many cases of ostensible spontaneous combustion death may be explained in terms of careless cigarette smoking by intoxicated persons of high body fat content.  The body fat and the alcohol provide the fuel for the fire, with the body fat liquefying in what the authors colorfully term “the human candle effect.”   

Paranormal phenomena are frequently linked with Christian saints and holy men (and women) of other religions; indeed, such phenomena often constitute the miracles prerequisite to the canonization of such saints.  Among the psi phenomena that have been ascribed to Christian saints are the materialization of food, the ability to prophesy, bilocation, levitation (as in the famous cases of St. Joseph of Copertino and St. Teresa of Avila, both of whom were reported to frequently ascend into the air in fits of religious ecstasy), and immunity from the damaging effects of fire (see Rogo, 1981 and White, 1982, for a review of such phenomena).  Schwarz (1980) has described cases of fire immunity, fire handling and apparent immunity from snakebites among Pentacostal worshippers, and Alvarado (1987) notes that luminous auras have often been reported around both saints and mediums.  

Alvarado (1983) has also reported on a case in which faces kept appearing on a kitchen floor as well as on a mirror and on the hearth of a house. When the offending spot on the kitchen floor was cut out, bones were discovered under the site of the face.  Not to be forgotten in this context is image of the Virgin Mary that recently manifested in a grilled cheese sandwich that fetched a price of $28,000 in an eBay auction.  However, the human brain is hard-wired to detect human faces, and it seems that, whenever anything remotely resembling a human face appears, Marian enthusiasts interpret it as an image of the Blessed Virgin.  In recounting the tale of the grilled cheese sandwich icon, Nickell (2005b) notes that the Virgin’s likeness has also appeared on a cinnamon bun in a coffee chop and that Jesus has appeared in a tortilla as well as in a giant forkful of spaghetti.  Lest it be thought that divine appearances are restricted to food items, it should be noted that the Blessed Virgin has also recently manifested Herself in a salt stain on a highway overpass in Chicago (Associated Press, April 20, 2005). 

The list goes on and on, and encompasses bleeding statues, sightings of the Virgin Mary, UFOs, Sasquatch, crop circles and cattle mutilations.  It would take us too far afield to give a comprehensive review of such fields as ufology and cryptozoology here.  Readers interested in such phenomena are invited to consult such specialty journals as the Journal of Scientific Exploration and The Skeptical Inquirer. 

D. Scott Rogo (1977) hypothesized that many strange, seeming external and physically objective phenomena such as flying saucers and Bigfoot are really materialization phenomena or psychic projections that are produced by the minds of the observers themselves.  As such, these would be analogous to the “thought forms” that are alleged to be projected by Tibetan shamans, as described by Alexandra David-Neel (1971). Because there is little in the way of scientifically rigorous evidence for the existence of materialization phenomena and because many of the cases that Rogo cited in support of his theory are of dubious credibility, the parapsychological community has been slow to embrace his theory.

General Summary of Field Investigations

The evidence discussed in this chapter has been largely of an anecdotal nature. A determined skeptic might be inclined to dismiss all of it on the basis of coincidence, unconscious inference, memory distortion, delusions, hallucinations and outright fraud.  It is largely because of these counterexplanations that parapsychologists have turned to experimental investigations as the primary means of establishing the existence of psi phenomena and investigating their modus operandi.  These investigations form the subject of the next chapter. It should be noted, however, that these experimental studies have themselves been subject to repeated attacks by skeptics on the basis of methodological errors, lack of repeatability, and possible experimenter fraud.  Sometimes spontaneous case material may be more convincing than an array of experiments.  I have talked to several skeptics who, while dismissing experimental investigations, were left with a nagging feeling that psi might be real after all due to their own personal psi experiences or those of their acquaintances.

A summary dismissal of the evidence from spontaneous cases as nonrigorous and hence unworthy of serious consideration is not appropriate.  Not only may spontaneous cases provide unique insights into the operation of psi in naturalistic settings, which may not be obtainable from contrived and artificial experimental situations, but they may provide important clues as to possible productive lines of experimental investigation.  Also, many skeptical counterexplanations of spontaneous cases are quite implausible.  Thus, spontaneous cases form an important body of evidence for psi in their own right, and supplement the evidence obtained by experimental parapsychologists.  A past president of the Parapsychological Association, Rhea White, has even gone so far as to urge the abandonment of the experimental approach in psi research in favor of the study of spontaneous cases (White, 1985, 1990).  She has contended that reliance on statistical and laboratory methods may lead to a suppression of awareness of clues to the nature of psi arising from spontaneous experiences and informal practices, and she suggests adopting a “depth psychology” approach to the investigation of parapsychological phenomena. She has further contended that sounder data have arisen from surveys of spontaneous experiences than from unreliable laboratory effects.  In all probability, however, it will take evidence of both types to convince a skeptical scientific community of the existence of psi. A total abandonment of the experimental approach would probably disqualify parapsychology from any claim to be a real science in the eyes of the scientific establishment.  Experimental approaches must be an integral part of any science of parapsychology.  It is to an examination of such laboratory studies that we now turn.



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