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Durham’s home for paranormal activity

The Rhine Research Center explores the paranormal and phenomena like hypnosis and telepathy.
The Rhine Research Center explores the paranormal and phenomena like hypnosis and telepathy.

Some things just cannot be explained, except perhaps through the paranormal.

Located off West Campus, the Rhine Research Center stands as testament to Duke’s historic connection to parapsychology research, which is the study of psychic phenomena like hypnosis and telepathy. Although the center is no longer associated with the University, a number of Duke graduates and professors are involved with the center’s board of directors and advisory board. Using scientific methods as the basis for their studies, Rhine researchers seek to make sense of the unexplainable. Over the years, though, the center has dealt with criticism and doubt surrounding the credibility and legitimacy of the field of parapsychology.

“We admit that we can’t explain everything,” Executive Director John Kruth said. “We are scientists. We’re trying to improve on the science as we move along, just like any science.”

The Rhine Research Center aims to educate the public about parapsychology, build community around the field and provide research based on modern engineering and technological advances, Kruth said. In addition to running a museum and library, the center offers online education classes on parapsychology, brings in speakers—including former astronauts and government officials—biweekly and holds Psychic Experiences Group meetings monthly.

“We study what is called ‘psi’ phenomenon, and psi is consistent with what was previously called extrasensory perception, or ESP,” Kruth said.

He noted that psi consists of four different phenomena—telepathy, psychokinesis or healing, precognition and clairvoyance, also called remote viewing.

Although parapsychologists focus mainly on ESP and psychokinesis studies, they also research survival cases, which are in-depth studies of individuals who have had close encounters with death, Kruth said.

“We’re talking about everything from near death experiences—people who have experiences when they’re clinically dead—to reincarnation research,” Kruth said. “This is also where spirits, haunting and ghosts fit in.”

A pioneer in the paranormal

Parapsychology has a long history with Duke.

Following Stanford University, Duke became the first major institution to study the field in an academic setting. Three years after the University was established, founding scientists Joseph and Louisa Rhine joined William McDougall to research psychical studies. At the time, psychical research primarily questioned the existence of an afterlife and relied heavily on spirits and mediums. The Rhines and McDougall took a more quantitative approach, using special cards and dice machines and soliciting undergraduate students to be test subjects for experiments.

“In a sense they functioned pretty much as normal scientists,” said Seymour Mauskopf, professor emeritus of the history department and member of the Rhine Research Center advisory board.

In the 1930s, the center—then called the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory—was established to support the budding science of parapsychology. Joseph Rhine also created the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke and the Journal of Parapsychology. Still, the field of study remained contentious.

“By the time I came to Duke, which was in the mid-1960s, there were people who felt that Duke was being given a bad name by the association of parapsychology,” Mauskopf said, adding that he is unsure whether the laboratory’s reputation played a role in its disassociation from Duke. 

When Rhine retired in 1965, parapsychology studies became disassociated from the University through a mutual agreement. The new independent institution became known as the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man.

Some of the center’s largest successes include the creation of ESP cards, which were used in place of decks of cards in telepathy and precognition experiments, Kruth said. The experiments today, however, are conducted with computers or physical targets.

Situated in science

Several experiments are currently underway at the center.

Using a light lab—a darkroom with low intensity light detectors for infrared and ultraviolet light—Kruth said Rhine researchers measure the energy emitted from healers and long-term meditation practitioners.

“Normally most people would go in this room, and our gauges register pretty much a flat line,” he said. “But when we put someone who is a healer in there… you get huge spikes and huge light emissions... indicating a release of energy.”

Kruth added that as far as he knows, the light lab is the only experiment of its type where researchers are using electrical engineering technology to detect human energy.

Another experiment relates to electronic voice phenomena, which are recordings of voice or voice-like sounds that are not decipherable to the human ear. When the recordings are played back, some believe they can hear phrases of words. In the experiment, Rhine researchers have participants listen to 12 recordings and note what they think they are hearing, Kruth said.

John Palmer, editor of the Journal of Parapsychology and a member of the Rhine Center’s board of directors, studies motor automatism—during which bodily functions or movements occur without being consciously controlled. Palmer cited Ouija boards as an example.

“[In the experiment,] we set up an analog of an Ouija board,” Palmer said. “Basically the person moves a pen around a grid… and has to stop at the location on the grid where their hand is, telling them that [a] randomly selected target is located.”

Palmer added that in order to surpass the limitations of a conscious, rational mind, he tells participants to clear their minds, as they would do in meditation, or Palmer distracts participants by making them read quotations on a screen while doing the test.

The Ouija board experiment is not meant to conjure spirits but rather is a scientific analysis, Palmer added.

Building a community

The Rhine Research Center also serves as a hub for people who believe in the paranormal.

Kruth said the center catalogues personal accounts of people who have experienced paranormal activity via a submission form on the center’s website. Although the accounts are not used as evidence for paranormal events, they are collected and classified at the center, he said.

In addition, the monthly Psychic Experiences Group meetings give people who experience psychic phenomena at chance to share in an open, judgment-free forum, events coordinator Susan Freeman said.

“We’ve had people that have experiences that they don’t understand, and it frightens them,” Freeman said. “Somehow when they find out that there are other people who have actually had these experiences and feelings, it helps them gain a better perspective.”

Want to hear more about the paranormal? Check out The Chronicle's video supplement.


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