Duke, Durham Have Long Probed Paranormal


Very early on, when one Duke student correctly guessed the symbol on a card an average of 9.6 times out of 25 in 1,000 attempts, the Rhines believed they were on to something.

 By Robert Chapman, board of directors, Museum of Durham History
 For 85 years Durham has been a center for the study of psychic experiences. Researchers affiliated with the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory in the 1930’s, with Duke’s Institute for Parapsychology and the Psychical Research Foundation through the 1970s, and with later organizations including the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man and today’s Rhine Research Center have been attempting to determine whether ESP can be scientifically proven or disproven.

This month the Museum of Durham History is focusing on ESP Research in Durham. The first organized scientific study of the paranormal began in the 1880s in London and soon was championed in America by Harvard psychologist William James. The earliest academic studies of ESP occurred at Stanford in 1911. Research in Parapsychology began at Duke in 1927 with the arrival from Harvard of Dr. William McDougall to head Duke’s psychology department. President William Preston Few supported McDougall’s interest in paranormal research, including his desire to find proof of life after death.

McDougall invited Joseph Banks Rhine and his wife Louisa Rhine, both of whom had earned Ph.D.s (in Botany) from the University of Chicago, to come to Durham. J. B. Rhine joined the faculties of Psychology and Philosophy.

Earlier J. B. had heard a lecture by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on communicating with the dead. He wondered whether he, as a scientist, could design repeatable experiments and use statistical analysis to find the truth. He left plants behind and began working with the Boston Society for Psychical Research. J. B. and Louisa authored an article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology that exposed a very popular Boston medium, one of Doyle’s favorites, as a fraud. It is said that Doyle responded “J. B. Rhine is an ass.”

By 1935 J. B. Rhine had coined the term extrasensory perception (ESP), and defined four forms of ESP: telepathy (mind-to-mind communication without known physical means), clairvoyance (seeing things not present), precognition (knowing things before they happen) and psycho-kinesis (mind over matter). He believed by proving ESP was real and that it operated independently of the physical and mortal body, there might also be something about humans that could survive death of the body. 

More than chance

Over the next five decades Rhine would conduct thousands of iterations of the same experiments, often using decks of 25 cards, five symbols, five cards with each—a circle, a plus sign, wavy lines, a square, and a star.

By simple chance anyone should be able to guess right once in every five tries. Very early on, one Duke student reportedly had an average of 9.6 hits (correct guesses) out of 25 in 1,000 trials. The Rhines believed they were on to something.

Duke’s Parapsychology Laboratory started in an office in the medical school and for 30 years was housed on East Campus. Louisa joined J. B. full time in 1948. The lab became the Institute for Parapsychology and when J. B. retired in 1965, sponsorship was transferred from Duke to the new Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man. The work continues today at the renamed Rhine Research Center near West Campus.

My experiences with Dr. Rhine’s work began with freshman orientation in 1965. A speaker from the Duke News Bureau told us to frequently check out a bulletin board in Alumni Lounge where current news clippings from around the country mentioning Duke were posted. She also said that clippings mentioning Dr. Rhine’s lab were never posted, because if they were, they would take up most of the space.

I became a Philosophy major and our department was also in West Duke Building, so I often saw Dr. Rhine. He introduced himself and I dropped in now and then to see what they were doing.

After they moved across Buchanan, I made a point of taking visitors to tour. I don’t think it ever really happened, but I liked to say that when we walked into the lobby the receptionist would look up and say, “Oh, Bob, I had a funny feeling you would be dropping by.”

Everyone would be invited to participate in a psycho-kinesis test using a large contraption in which small ball bearings were released to bounce off pegs and fall into slots forming a Gauss curve. Your goal was to shift the curve slightly to the left or right while the little balls were still bouncing. Amazingly, it seemed that you could. It also seemed that most people had beginners luck and that their psychic abilities tapered off and even became negative as they got bored.

Individuals from around the world with reputed psychic abilities came to live in Durham, a few to work with the Rhine Lab, others with a parapsychology group affiliated with Duke’s Electrical Engineering department, and others with the Psychical Research Foundation, a spin-off from the Rhine lab run by Bill Roll. Roll was a well-known ghost hunter and Dr. Rhine really wasn’t interested in things that couldn’t be studied in a lab. Oddly, I met Dr. Roll several times while I was hitchhiking. Talk about ghost stories.

One snowy day

I remember one other strange event that happened one very snowy day in 1976.

I was involved with the Duke student FM station. A filmmaker was promoting a new movie named William Shatner’s Mysteries of the Gods with a very nice elderly lady named Anna Mitchell Hedges. She owned an anatomically correct crystal skull that she said she found in the Mayan ruins of Labantuum. It was a very eerie object believed by some to have strong occult powers. I asked her if we could carry it over to Dr. Rhine’s lab on the other side of campus so he could look at it. She said, yes, “but you will have to carry it, it is quite heavy.”

I will never forget walking across a snow covered East Campus carrying the skull in its velvet box. When we got to the lab, no one knew where the Rhines were. “Don’t worry,” we were told “they’ve never missed a day of work—regardless of the weather. They will be here.”

Finally Louisa called in and was told about the skull. They called again later and said they wouldn’t be able to come in after all. Crystal skulls really weren’t what the Rhines were interested in. They wanted to concentrate on things that could be tested and measured.

A friend of mine, Irwin Kremen, is a retired Duke psychology professor. I recently asked him what he made of Dr. Rhine’s work.

First he recommended Duke history professor Sy Mauskopf’s book (with Michael McVaugh) “The Elusive Science,” (1980). Dr. Kremen then said, “unless any independent reputable investigator anywhere— not the founder—can replicate it with whatever are the necessary controls, it is not a phenomenon and don’t pay any attention.”

The work of J. B. and Louisa Rhine and others continues today at the Rhine Research Center, 2741 Campus Walk Avenue, Durham.

Originally published in The News & Observer 01/09/2015

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