Center studies paranormal phenomena
Two anesthetized mice lie on a laboratory table, separated by a wooden partition. Someone suspected to have psychic healing abilities attempts to wake up one of the mice with his mind.
Although experiments like this may seem out of place at Duke today, they were not a few decades ago.
For 30 years, Duke was home to a parapsychology lab within the psychology department, led by Joseph Rhine, who received his Ph.D. in botany from the University of Chicago in 1925. Established in 1935, the lab was a center for the study of extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis, by way of dice machines and Zener cards—special cards used to test extra-sensory perception. Duke students were often participants in experiments.
In 1965, after tension between Rhine and his wife and other Duke researchers escalated, the Rhines left the University to create the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man a few miles from campus. It was renamed the Rhine Research Center in 1995, on what would have been Rhine’s 100th birthday.
Today, the center pays homage to its past with a museum of bent utensils, Ouija boards, pendulums and dice-throwing machines.
Sally Rhine Feather, the current RRC director, is the daughter of Joseph and Louisa Rhine and earned a Ph. D. in psychology from Duke in 1967. Part of Feather’s job is continuing her mother’s research, which began in the 1940s and consisted of collecting case studies of individual parapsychological experiences, including premonitions and communications with the dead.
Still, research at the RRC has experienced some changes since the 1960s. In ESP experiments, for example, instead of asking participants to guess the image on the back of Zener cards, they are now asked to guess what movie clip a telepathic “sender” was watching.
“Our research is done very carefully here,” Feather said.
Feather said the center is open to more involvement with the University. But electrical and computer engineering professor William Joines said he does not think a reconnection would be possible. University research involves more established scientific techniques, he said, but this has not discouraged him from working with the RRC.
Joines collaborates with the RRC to research photon emission from individuals who believe they have psychic abilities. In a 2008 experiment, he said he measured approximately 1,000 times more photons per second than average radiating from the head of a Buddhist monk.
“I admire what they’re doing, and I think there may be something to it,” Joines said. “Once you explain [paranormal phenomena], they become science rather than parapsychology.”
Still, others like Gregory Lockhead, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience, remain skeptical.
Lockhead wrote “Guess for Success: Sequential Behavior and Parapsychology” in 1970, a 12-page paper in which he stated that guessing, when it occurs in a sequence, follows a pattern.
Through several experiments, Lockhead found that a participant believed to be psychic follows the same guessing procedure as the general population.
“As a scientific topic, it’s not worth pursuing,” he said. “If I explained their findings as common things, there’s nothing left for parapsychology to do for you.”
But some find value in the RRC beyond scientific experiments. History professor Thomas Robisheaux has invited Feather to speak to his class about four or five times over the more than 10 years he has taught “Magic, Religion and Science Since the Renaissance.” In addition to exposing students to parapsychology’s history, he said he wants to make students aware of Duke’s own relationship to the field.
“I’m not terribly interested in the pro-con debate,” he said, referring to the scientific controversy. “What I’m really interested in is... how a field of science, in this case, psychology, developed over time.”