My Town is famous for many things including the Durham Bulls, the Duke family that made Durham the world's tobacco capital for over a hundred years and endowed Trinity College which became Duke University, and for the old Rice House and rice diet program that brought the rich and famously fat to Durham to lose weight (including Elvis, it's said). And on the outskirts of Durham Station on April 26, 1865 at the Bennett Farm, the largest surrender of Confederate forces ended the Civil War.
Yet to me, My Town's most fascinating claim is as the birthplace, in 1930, of the more formal scientific, quantitative and statistical study of "parapsychology", begun by J.B. Rhine with and under the auspices of William McDougall, head of the Psychology Department at Duke University. Parapsychology--or extra-sensory perception (ESP)--is a still controversial offshoot of psychology (and more recently electrical engineering, due to the electrical nature of the brain) that studies (simply put) the possibility of human knowledge not derived from the five senses. ESP is "the sixth sense."
There had been much earlier research. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882. In 1885 the American Society of Psychical Research was formed in New York. And in 1911 Stanford University began laboratory experiments, yet these groups were primarily engaged in qualitative psychical research more aligned with mediumship, spiritualism and the possibility of life after death. Through the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory's use of dice and specialized cards, a statistical model of research evolved and became the standard for other researchers.
Areas of research include(ed) Telepathy (transfer of information on thoughts or feelings between individuals by means other than the five classical senses); Precognition (perception of information about future places or events before they occur); Clairvoyance (obtaining information about places or events at remote locations, by means unknown to current science); and Psychokinesis (the ability of the mind to influence matter, time, space, or energy by means unknown to current science).
The investigation of things that go bump in the night would sometimes be undertaken, but for the trained scientist, in the context of the other areas. As an example, William Roll, a researcher at the Duke Lab for many years, investigates poltergeists but from the perspective that the paranormal activity may derive from the psychokinesis ability of someone associated with "the haunting" of a place rather than from the possibility of some ghostly or demonic activity.
Through the years, J.B. Rhine and Louisa, his wife and research collaborator, became the preeminent researchers in the field and the faces of parapsychology. Upon his retirement from Duke in the early 60s, Rhine founded the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM) in Durham. The study of Parapsychology at Duke--already on the rocks due to the university's concern over negative publicity generated by skeptics--ceased.
The 60s and 70s were active periods for parapsychology research, but research generally has waxed and waned in the US since. Yet there are still many groups and researchers dedicated to the field. The UK became and remains a strong foothold for study. In 1995 the FRNM was renamed the Rhine Research Center and is still active from its headquarters in Durham, having persevered through the years.
This Lucky Dog is honored to be associated with the RRC. I have fostered a curiosity and appreciation for the field since a science project in seventh grade found me calling upon the FRNM for help and information. I was assisted in my research by Dr. John Freeman who was a Baptist minister and researcher. He was studying ESP in children at the time and I was to become his "assistant" in rounding up kids from my school to volunteer for testing on Saturdays.
Within the last few years I have re-established a relationship with RRC and count Sally Rhine Feather (J.B.'s daughter and RRC Director) and others associated with The Rhine as personal friends. The Rhine and other groups such as Windbridge Institute, Institute of Noetic Sciences, Parapsychology Association and other organizations do important work in the field of human consciousness.
Interest in paranormal activity seems to be in vogue again. I'm wondering what has fueled the interest. Often, bad times move us closer to spirituality and we look inward to our consciousness for solace. We want to connect to some Higher Power, whether our God or the vast unknown of human potential. The last decade certainly has been a trying time for many. We search for something bigger and stronger than ourselves. Perhaps it's just a cyclical, generational lift. Baby Boomers and their children are, in my mind, decidedly more open than previous generations to the possibility of "human potential".
Certainly television is helping fuel interest in the paranormal. Cable channels are full of ghostly reality t.v. like Paranormal State on A&E. Dan Brown's new novel The Lost Symbol includes a "noetic scientist" character supposedly patterned after the Director of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Their web site is experiencing significant hits since publication, I've heard.
And The Rhine is experiencing an uptick in layman membership and general interest in part due to the recent publication of the book Unbelievable, the story of J.B. Rhine and the Duke Parapsychology Lab, by Stacy Horn. There is a movie screenplay being prepared. Horn has a great active blog about the subject of parapsychology and the book (linked above).
By following this link you will be taken to the vimeo site where you can view various videos about The RRC and parapsychology, including a program with Stacy Horn and Dr. Sy Mauskopf, whose book on parapsychology and the Rhine Center, The Elusive Science, was published in 1980.