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History of Parapsychology

Anecdotal reports of psi phenomena have appeared in every culture since at least the dawn of history up to the present day. (Some observers have opined that this will, in the long run, continue to provide impetus to parapsychology, though some skeptics are optimistic that eventually this will decline with sufficient "education" of the populace.) Historically the existence of such phenomena was commonly accepted even among the learned, and so many of the forerunners of modern science expressed interest in such phenomena.

The beginning of modern science, the period now labelled the Scientific Revolution, is often delineated as spanning the time of Galileo (b 1564 - d 1642) to Newton (b 1642 - d 1727), and culmintating in the publication of Newton's Principia in 1687. The British Royal Society, chartered in 1662, was one of the first scientific academies, which began the distinction between "natural philosphers" (later to be termed "scientists" in 1834) and other philosphers. Many of the natural philosphers, including Newton, were adherents of Renaissance magic (alchemy and the like).

The period known as the Enlightenment followed in its wake, with its apex in the 18th century, and featured the ideas that life should be lead by reason as opposed to dogma or tradition, and the universe as a mechanistic, deterministic system that could eventually be known accurately and fully through observation, calculation, and reason. As such, the existence or activity of deities or supernatural agents was discounted, and so the beginnings of antagonism towards the existence of psi phenomena along with all forms of magical thinking.

Franz Anton Mesmer[?] (b 1734 - d 1815), a Viennese physycian, wanted to be considered a man of the Enlightenment. At the time, electricity and magnetism were thought of as invisible "fluids". Mesmer believed that he had discovered another type of natural fluidwhich he called "animal magnetism", and which he could harness to heal various ailments without resorting to the supernatural. He developed a technique, today called mesmerism, for inducing an altered state of mind which today most people equate with hypnosis. Of import here is that it was discovered that some individuals exhibited "higher phenomena" such as apparent clairvoyance while in the mesmerized, "somnambulistic" state, much like the latter day psychic Edgar Cayce.

The mesmeric movement never gained scientific acceptance, and in 1784 commissions of the French Royal Society of Medicine and the French Academy of Sciences made investigations and issued negative reports. Though elements of the mesmeric movement remained well into the 19th century, by the 1850s the movement had pretty much died out. However, due partly to shifting religious attitudes, the feats of the mesmeric somnabules were soon to be repeated, without resorting to mesmerism, by the mediums of the newly emerging Spiritualist movement who claimed contact with the spirits of the dead. By the mid-1850s, mediums and "home-circles" were to be found throughout Europe and in every stratum of society.

The idea for a learned, scientific society to study psychic phenomena seems to have originated with the spiritualist E. Dawson Rogers, who hoped to gain a new kind of respectability for spiritualism. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London in 1882, and by 1887 eight members of the British Royal Society served on its council. Soon after its founding many spiritualists left the SPR due to differing priorities and skeptical attitudes within the SPR to some prominent mediums. However the SPR continued work on its research program, publishing its finding periodically in its Proceedings. Similar societies were soon set up in most other countries in Europe as well as the American SPR in the United States. Of these, the British SPR remained the most respected, conservative, and skeptical of these societies.

While most of the early SPR research had an anecdotal flavor, where experiments involved testing the abilities of specific mediums and other "gifted individuals" with claimed psychic abilities, there were some probabilistic experiments involving card guessing and dice throwing. But it was not until the development of statistical tools by R.A. Fischer and others about the 1920s that modern experimental parapsychology came into its own, with the efforts of J.B. Rhine[?] and his colleagues. It was during this time that the term 'parapsychology' largely replaced the term 'psychic research'.

The "Rhine revolution" had three aims: First to provide parapsychology with a systematic, progressive program of sound experimentation, progressive in the sense of trying to characterize the conditions and extent of psi phenomena rather than merely trying to prove their existence; Second, to gain academic status and scientific recognition. Rhine helped form the first long-term university laboratory devoted to parapsychology in the Duke University Laboratory, later to become the independent Rhine Research Center; And third, to show that psychic ability was not restricted to a few gifted individuals, but was widespread, and perhaps latent in everyone. While not wholly successful in any of these aims, Rhine did much to move the field in these directions. By the end of his era, now the modern era, we find that much if not most experimental psychology today is geared toward "ordinary people" as subjects rather than mediums or "gifted psychics". Rhine also helped found the Journal of Parapsychology in 1937, which remains one of the most respected journals in the field today, and the Parapsychological Association in 1957, the foremost professional body of parapsychologists today, that was accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1969. Rhine also popularized the term "extrasensory perception" (ESP).

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