The Frontier of Consciousness

By Kenney, George | In These Times, October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Frontier of Consciousness


Kenney, George, In These Times


It's safe to assume that psychic phenomena have been with us since the dawn of humankind. Indeed, it's not unreasonable to speculate that certain forms of these phenomena - for example, a sense of the incorporeal presence of others - are somehow hardwired into our DNA. But the

sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is whether science can adequately explain the apparently inexplicable.

In her sympathetic book Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory (Ecco, 2009), Stacy Horn assesses one of the most systematic scientific efforts ever taken to research the paranormal. And she concludes, against her wishes, it seems, that the phenomena are real. They remain, nevertheless, a mystery.

If in fact unknown, unseen forces really are at work, then either our scientific understanding of the natural world suffers huge gaps or our understanding may, in certain fundamental respects, be wrong. Or both. That's good news for people who relish a challenge but not such good news for scientists heavily vested in contemporary paradigms. Small wonder that psychic phenomena get short shrift from the establishment.

Still, if something can be measured, if it can be shown to exist, it must be explainable. As we get closer to opening a door into a very different world, two questions arise. What will it mean if we succeed in harnessing the power of telepathy or psychokenesis or remote viewing or other psychic phenomena? And if we do so, to what extent will we continue to rely upon intuition and faith in addressing the larger issues of life and death?

How did writing this book change your thoughts of the paranormal?

When I started out I was a complete skeptic. But after researching the experiments at the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory during the '30s, '40s and '50s, I changed my mind. In his book The Scalpel and the Soul, Allan Hamilton has a line, "It is easy to say you don't believe in ghosts when you haven't seen one."

As you point out, J.B. Rhine, the director of the former Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke, is really a tragic figure.

Yeah, towards the end he was just not open to a lot of experiments that could have really taken the research further. What was ultimately tragic about Rhine was that over and over his lab would come up with evidence for these effects, which he chose to call "telepathy" and "psychokinesis," but he was never able to learn how it operated. He could never control it or enhance it or anything.

There's also Robert Jahn, from PEAR [Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research] laboratory and the work he did on remote viewing.

Jahn had this lab for roughly the same amount of time as Rhine, and he did more modern versions of basically the same experiments, but using computers. And he got pretty much the same results. He showed that people have these abilities, but not to superhuman levels.

Jahn says that he got interested in this when an undergraduate came to him with a project to see how mental efforts might influence electronic chips. And, as an engineer, he said, "Well this is impossible, but go ahead and try it." When she showed some positive results, he thought, "Well, this is important because if we've got chips running everything, and they are susceptible to mental influences, what is that going to mean for us?" And he started doing the research himself.

He published his results and he was subject to the same scorn that Rhine was his entire life. And he retired, with his work still not accepted, the same as Rhine.

In 2007, Jahn and Brenda Dunne, his colleague from PEAR, wrote "Change the Rules!" What was that article about?

They basically say that we have these field theories for gravitation and electromagnetism and that wc need to incorporate a field theory for information, and that information propagates in the world the same way electromagnetism does or gravity does and we have to come up with an information field to explain and understand this. …

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