Thomas Robisheaux, Fred W. Schaffer professor of history, has research interests that include parapsychology and witchcraft. He is the author of an book chronicling a woman accused of witchcraft in a German smalltown in 1672. Just last month, Robisheaux delivered the annual J.B. Rhine banquet address at the 55th Annual Parapsychology Convention, detailing the historical pathway of the development of parapsychology—the branch of psychology dealing with such paranormal phenomena as clairvoyance, precognition and telepathy. The Chronicle’s Ashley Wong spoke with Robisheaux about his work.
The Chronicle: You were the keynote speaker at the annual Parapsychology Convention hosted by the Rhine Research Center here in Durham. How did it feel to receive the honor?
Thomas Robisheaux: Well, it was an honor to me for several reasons. One, Professor J.B. Rhine was a distinguished professor at Duke in psychology in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and he retired in 1963. He was known for his path-breaking work in parapsychology. Controversial, of course, but he really had an open mind. To me, he represents one of those scientists in the social sciences who was willing to ask bold questions and take the flack for doing research that others found at the time not worthy of pursuing. That was a great honor.
The other reason is that I teach this course, “Magic, Religion and Science,” and students from my class often go to the Rhine Center. We’ve been the guests of Sally Feather-Rhine, who’s the daughter of J.B. Rhine, so I’ve come to know her.
The third reason was being able to meet several of the top researchers in the field right now. One in particular is fascinating to me—Daryl Bem of Cornell University—who’s recently done work on precognition. His work is now receiving a lot of intense interest among a number of psychologists, so I say that it was very stimulating in that regard.
TC: It seems that you have a pretty strong affiliation with the Rhine Research Center.
TR: It’s not an official affiliation—I’m just interested in their work, and I’ve known the directors for a number of years. I’m a historian of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and they’re very interested in the historical context for understanding the development of psychology and anomalous experiences. In that regard, we’ve had an affiliation.
TC: You have quite an expressed interest in parapsychology. What particularly attracted you to this unique subject matter?
TR: Because the persistent reports that there are “anomalous experiences”—that’s the term that most scholars that are interested in the field call it now.... These are reports that we’ve known about for quite a long time, which indicate a whole range of human psychological experiences or perceptions that are difficult to reconcile with experimental work done in laboratories for psychology. Some psychologists developed laboratory conditions for experiments in psychology, but so many of these anomalous experiences have not lent themselves readily to that environment. Rhine was trying very hard to develop lab experimental methods for that and they’ve been controversial.
But more recently in the 1990s and 2000s—now I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t assess this research on the vantage point of experimental psychologists. But my colleagues who know something about this work using the Ganzfeld experiment, which is about communication with which we might call telepathy, [find it] very convincing. I find it fascinating that consciousness studies that have emerged in the nineties and early 2000s is a whole field of research, and, in some respects, this new evidence about precognitive studies, clairvoyance or telepathic communication fits with a view of the mind that’s not easily reconciled with physical models of the mind.
TC: Do you think society as a whole can derive some sort of use from the study of parapsychology?
TR: If you look at any of the polls or samplings of public opinion, most people have experiences that cannot be readily explained, whether it’s the so-called crisis communication—knowing that a family member is in a crisis, has passed away or is seriously ill or threatened—and that’s very common. A lot of people have these experiences, and many people think that there’s something to them. It’s very difficult to establish the protocols that will satisfy some experimental psychologists, but the public is very interested. Part of it has to do with its possible applications. For example, some of the work done on medical clairvoyance suggests that there are some people who particularly are acutely aware of sources of illness through means we don’t really know. Precognition, which suggests that time is actually flowing backwards, would actually be consistent with some models of theoretical physics and a bit more consistent with the way quantum mechanics works.
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TC: Your interests run the gamut from parapsychology and witchcraft to medieval and early modern history. Do you see many ties between the fields?
TR: Absolutely. These are different disciplines that are looking at often similar phenomena but from different vantage points. I look at them historically and from the lenses of religion and concepts at the time that you might call magic. But they have persisted. For example, William James, the great Harvard psychologist, who was really the founding figure of psychology in this country, was very much interested in the phenomenology of religion as a psychological phenomena just when psychology was developing. That was set aside by mainstream psychology in America in the 20th century, but there was a broad interest in that there was something about psychology of religion.
TC: You’re a professor, speaker, a published author—how do you juggle it all?
TR: These are passions of mine, so I’ve been very fortunate at Duke to have my research supported very well. It takes a number of years of dedicated research, working carefully in archives and painstaking research that takes years to pull together. And part of the way I juggled that is by setting aside a certain amount of time even during the semester. But part of it, too, is linking my research to my teaching. I created one of my classes, “Magic, Religion and Science,” so I could explore some of the scholarly literature that would help me with my research. As it turns out, my students have helped me a great deal in that regard.
TC: You have a reputation for being a rather terrific and passionate teacher. How does it feel to be held in such a high regard by your students?
TR: It humbles me, and I’m mostly not aware of that. I just think about wanting to inspire my students to do the best they can possibly do. I think about individual students and what they’re interested in or figure out how to pitch this material that can connect with them. I don’t really think about a reputation that I have. I just really want my students to do well. That’s really what it’s all about.