M any students can give examples of a time they followed their intuition or experienced something oddly coincidental. Most would not necessarily label these as psychic experiences or think twice about why they happened
But what if they could tap into that ability to get ahead on Wall Street or to find a missing child? Scientists at the Rhine Research Center, located off East Campus, believe these experiences are more than coincidental and hope that some day, their research can be applied to help businesspeople and police officers.
"This isn't some kind of wizard's den and the field isn't some kind of true believers," said Richard Broughton, director of the Rhine Institute. "What motivates me is the same thing that motivates other scientists. We just have different subject matter."
The Rhine Research Center is dedicated to studying the paranormal through the scientific method. In 1935, J.B. Rhine founded the parapsychology laboratory in the University's psychology department. Rhine moved the lab off campus when he retired from the University in 1962, and Duke cut its ties with him and the center, which is now funded by grants and private gifts.
Today, the Rhine Research Center is one of the foremost institutes dedicated to studying parapsychology. It publishes The Journal of Parapsychology four times each year and conducts a summer study program for college students and professionals interested in the field.
But still, the center attracts little mainstream attention.
"It seems interesting that there can be so much history to an object or a place and most people will just pass by it every day without giving it a second thought," said Trinity sophomore Lisa Rying, a work-study student at the Rhine Center. "Whatever you may think about parapsychology and its validity, you cannot deny how much of Duke's history involves its relationship with the Rhines."
Although the house in the Trinity Park neighborhood is full of history and memorabilia that draws crowds during the Halloween open house or alumni reunion weekends, the research that goes on there is a subject of great scientific controversy.
John Palmer, senior research associate at the Rhine Center, believes parapsychology is a science. Palmer is currently working with a neuropsychiatrist in Seattle to determine if the temporal lobe of the brain can be linked to spontaneous psychic experiences.
He is also conducting controlled experiments with a Ouija board-like device called an "alphabet board." In these experiments, the "sender" sits in one room and tries to convey a word to a person in another room using the mind. The "receiver" moves toward the letters he feels he should and then records them into a tape player. At the end of the experiment, the receiver is given five word choices and is asked to pick one of them based on the letters and impressions he received.
"The public is usually pretty supportive; most scientists usually are not," Palmer said. "The main reason is it doesn't seem to fit in well with the rest of what we know. I don't think [parapsychology] contradicts those theories. It just doesn't fit in well with them."
Traditional scientists also argue that these experiments are not replicable on demand and that parapsychologists still do not understand the intricacies of psychic ability. "A repeatable effect is needed in order for parapsychology to be accepted by the scientific community as a phenomenon that needs to be considered further," said Greg Lockhead, professor of experimental psychology.
"There is a huge need for basic research," said Broughton, the institute's director. "It's so poorly funded. It's always been a small number of intrepid scientists pursuing this through academic and funding hurdles."
Despite the skeptics, researchers at the Rhine Center push on, optimistic about the possibilities that could come from applying their research. "For the average person, psychic ability may be more like what people call intuition," Broughton said. "You don't need to know how something works to use it."