Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Faith and the Duke Experiments in ESP

Many of us occasionally intuit things that our normal senses fail to register. My first guess that this was a real possibility came when I was in junior high school. I was at that awkward stage in life when I started noticing girls and feeling very self-conscious. It was also a time that I became aware of many things I had ignored before.

One behavioral change that was quite common among my peers was the game of sneaking looks at cute girls. This was a game that I was too shy to participate in for the most part, although privately I did notice a couple of girls that I secretly liked.

It was at this impressionable time that I developed the odd notion that some of these girls could tell when I was looking at them even when it seemed that they couldn’t see me. I decided that they must have better peripheral vision than I had, although this didn’t explain the cases that involved looking completely in the opposite direction. I found it a bit ironic when, a few years later, a girl named Lisa (whom I admired) was in charge of testing peripheral vision and blind spots for a driver education class. I unreasonably assumed she had been given the job because of her feminine expertise.

I’m still a bit undecided on this issue. But I’m half convinced that women do have a better sense of being watched than men do. I hear them commenting on such things occasionally. Men almost never do. Of course such ability, if it is real, would be classified as paranormal. And in recent decades, the paranormal has been pretty much banished from serious discourse.

This is too bad. Some varieties of what has been called extra-sensory perception (or ESP) have been fairly convincingly established – like the ability to sense the image on a card without seeing it (sometimes called clairvoyance) or of the ability to detect what someone else is thinking or concentrating on (sometimes called telepathy). Other claims are a bit more sensational and not well established – like the ability to predict the stock market. Overall, it’s a shame that we aren’t paying more academic attention to these sorts of things. They used to be a lot more popular.

Both the US and Soviet military spent resources on paranormal studies – as did the Nazis. And between the two World Wars, it actually became somewhat respectable for universities to support these kinds of studies too.

Perhaps the most famous were the Duke Experiments conducted by Joseph Banks (J.B.) Rhine, a botanist who took up paranormal studies at Duke University. He became interested in the possibility of measuring paranormal activity after being impressed by comments made by Arthur Conan Doyle. Rhine ended up spending several years and much of his career studying clairvoyance. He categorized his area of study as a branch of abnormal psychology.

Based on his findings, Rhine claimed that 1 person in 5 had some extra-sensory ability. Sometimes gifted persons were aware of their abilities. Very often, however, they were not. Sometimes students would come to his lab to be tested and discover their ability for the first time using a simple card test that Rhine had developed. It was a fairly straightforward test using a deck of 25 cards. These cards consisted of 5 cards each of 5 different shapes (star, plus sign, square, circle, and wavy lines). Subjects were then asked to intuit the face of the card without seeing it. A purely random score would be 5 correct out of the 25 cards (a score that could be easily made if someone chose the same shape all 25 times, for example). Rhine then calculated the significance of the scores based on the number correct above 5 and the number of tests conducted for each subject.

Over the period of several years, Rhine studied hundreds of subjects. A handful of these were particularly gifted and averaged scores well above 5. In some cases correct runs of over 10 in a row were recorded. On three occasions, scores of 25 correct (out of 25) were reported – representing odds astronomically improbable.

Rhine’s recounting of these studies makes for fascinating reading. And for me, with an abiding interest in the religious principle of faith, I find a couple of things similar between them – I mean that faith and ESP have some things in common. I also see a couple of things that are quite (and importantly) different between them.

The first and most obvious similarity between ESP and faith is the importance of optimism. This is what Rhine has to say on the matter: “The better the investigator can communicate a wholehearted enthusiasm, confidence, and encouragement to the subjects, the better are his chances of success.”

Very often Rhine would test a subject who would record high scores at first and then, as the tedium of the studies wore on, would eventually record scores no better than random hits (close to a score of an even 5). Very few subjects could maintain high scores over the period of months and years. It wasn’t always easy to keep a subject’s confidence up. I am reminded of Peter’s initial effort at walking on water towards Jesus. Astonishingly, he succeeded at first and then he sank.

I believe that this principle of optimism, or confidence, also held true for the evaluators – even true for Rhine himself. This is suggested by the fact that these Duke studies often yielded successful results that other institutions were unable to duplicate. Over time this changed and Rhine’s successes were achieved by many other institutions and individuals. But among those that were successful there seems to have been an element of optimism in the validity of the studies.

One of the benefits of using Rhine’s ESP cards is that it is not an all-or-nothing test of clairvoyance. Subjects can score a card incorrectly and still get an indication of extra-sensory ability from the overall score. And as each subject is not told of the correctness of her “guesses” until the end of each run, there is little pressure in having to establish or maintain a sensational effort.

That said, there were only a few cases recorded where subjects were able to record more than just 5 or 6 correct in a row. It is easy to see why if you look at the odds. If a subject has a 1 in 5 chance of scoring each card correct (since there are 5 shapes to choose from), then the odds of getting 5 right in a row is a simple calculation of 1 in 5 multiplied 5 times. Or in other words the odds are 1 in 3,625 of getting a run of 5 in a row correct due just to chance. Or put another way, a subject without ESP ability would be expected to get 5 correct in a row only once every 3,625 tries.

Getting a run correct beyond this becomes exponentially less likely for every try. Even so, it wasn’t rare for a gifted subject to get a spectacular run on occasion – even a nearly impossible run. Yet, no matter how gifted the subject was, these unusual events could never be predicted or controlled.

For someone with a religious frame of mind, it’s easy to see the similarities between this truth and the principle of faith in the efficacy of prayer. Many people, like me, have great faith in prayer even though we don’t always see the hand of God in our lives. Sometimes our Heavenly Father seems to want us to handle things the best we can on our own. At other times, answers come in remarkable ways.

Just recently I found myself confronted with a small crisis in one of my research projects at work. I wanted to see if a molecule extracted from a particular bacterium could protect a plant from pests. Unfortunately, the day was windy and I was having trouble getting the solution where I needed it to be on the plants. So I decided I needed a bit of help from Mother Nature’s boss, and I said a prayer. Needless to say, the wind stopped and I was able to conduct my experiment.

These kinds of answers to prayers are not uncommon for me. As I look back on them, I realize that they are fairly insignificant from a certain historic or global perspective, but they are definitely important to me. And yet, it often happens that my prayers for much bigger issues seem to go unresolved.

Through the years, Kathy and I have often prayed for our handicapped daughter Alicia. Over time, though, our prayers have changed. We used to ask for her epilepsy and mental handicap to be fixed. Yet we never saw any significant change because of these prayers. We now pray for Alicia’s general well-being and for our own personal strength to help her. These prayers have a much higher success rate.  It is clear to us, that we can’t control how our prayers are answered any more than we can guarantee a successful “guess” in an ESP experiment. It seems clear that there are some things that we are not made (or meant) to understand with precision.

Another image stuck me as quite interesting in Rhine’s story. It involved research by Hans Bender at the University of Bonn in 1933. Dr. Bender had discovered a young woman (a graduate student) with extra-sensory gifts and he subjected her to several tests. Bender used different methods than Rhine. His cards consisted of letters instead of shapes. This woman also showed an ability to draw shapes of objects she could not see – shapes that an observer had identified. Her drawings were not always exactly like the image, but the overall similarities were unmistakable.

This study is quite similar to a series of studies that the American author Upton Sinclair did with his wife back in the 1920’s. Sinclair’s wife was known to have telepathic abilities and would frequently demonstrate them to her husband who ended up writing a book about their experiments together. This book Mental Radio is full of the drawings of these experiments which consisted primarily of Sinclair drawing a random object (often something that he would find in a magazine or around the house) that he would then concentrate on. His wife, in another room, would then try to draw the same object by concentrating on what she thought Sinclair had in mind.

According to their own calculation, about a fourth of the attempts were quite good and impressively accurate. Several of them are illustrated in the book – including a six pointed star, a kitchen fork, a bird’s nest, etc. About half of the attempts were not extremely clear but similarities were noticeable – for example a shrub would have lines and circles similar to branches and leaves. And about a fourth of the attempts showed no similarity at all.

Sinclair did not know how to statistically evaluate the probabilities of these similarities. In fact, I’m not sure that statisticians today would be up to the task. How do you calculate the odds of drawing a random object out of countless possibilities? Clearly the odds of drawing a fourth of the objects correctly are extremely low and not due to chance.

But what about the many drawings that are only somewhat alike? Dr. Bender described some of these efforts as similar to object that you or I might see through dim light. There is a shadowy kind of similarity but crisp details and outlines are missing.

Consider this finding with the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly…” This remarkable image is the Apostle’s description of how we perceive Heavenly things in a fallen and imperfect world. It comes at the end of his magisterial treatment of charity and the gifts of the spirit. It comes just before his statement that, “now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three…”

Faith isn’t a perfect knowledge of things. Sometimes we only get a glimpse, or a hint, or a suspicion. The outlines aren’t clear and yet we proceed. We were made to live much of our lives this way. We are not mere calculating machines that have to mechanically estimate probabilities or be completely convinced by logical certainty. We are beings that make many of our decisions on imperfect information. We make our best guess. We are forced to “see through a glass darkly”.

What makes this image particularly arresting is that in all probability, Paul is referring here to an early Jewish equivalent of a crystal ball or magic mirror. I know this may sound sacrilegious to some Christians but let me explain.

An important element among those that have extra-sensory gifts is the ability to dilute the sensory overload that normally exists all around us. The sights, sounds, odors, etc. that fill our world keep us focused on our immediate surroundings. Individuals that claim to be able to access things beyond these senses very often have to put themselves in a trance-like state to be more effective.

Various ways have been devised by mystics through the years to do this. Sometimes random ink blots on paper have been used. Sometimes gazing into an opaque glass or a crystal ball has been effective. At other times, forms of mirrors have been used.

These sorts of things, oddly enough, do show up in the Bible. Saul is known to have visited a type of soothsayer and the Book of Revelation contains references to magical stones and seals, etc. For our purposes, two Biblical references are particularly noteworthy. In the 44th chapter of Genesis, Joseph has a favorite (and presumably expensive) cup secretly placed in his brother Benjamin’s bag. He does this in order to accuse him later of theft which will enable him to stay longer with Joseph who at this point has not revealed his own true identity. The account indicates that this cup is used by Joseph for drinking and for divining. And in fact it is an example of a well-known type of vision aid with ties to magic mirrors. In this case a silver cup is filled with water which acts as a kind of mirror.

Another reference is our account of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. His statement of “seeing through a glass darkly,” is very likely a reference to gazing at various forms of glass as a visionary aid. This is what Professor Tenhaeff from the State University of Utrecht wrote about some of these kinds of attempts by clairvoyants to reduce sensory inputs: “Some subjects attempt to achieve a lowered level of consciousness by means of a crystal ball or a piece of glass… The use of the magic mirror to achieve a state of diminishing inhibitions and to stimulate the manifestation of paragnostic powers is mentioned repeatedly, not only in the ethnological literature but also by classical authors and those of the Middle Ages.”

Not only is Paul’s image of darkened glass appropriate as a metaphor for life and faith, it is likely a description of how he knew others to be looking for answers. I find this to be an impressive truth. To this day, over eight decades since the Duke Experiments have been conducted, the results of Dr. Rhine’s experiments are essentially ignored by the academy. And yet the best criticisms never take his rigorous testing methods seriously. For those of us (perhaps the 1 in 5) that have experienced paranormal things, this is unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that the very fundamental principle of religious faith is also questioned by the same academy.

I don’t mean that every associate professor lacks faith or never succumbs to mystical hunches now and then. But the fact remains, that we cannot manipulate or control either faith or extra-sensory perception. And because of this, very few scholars are willing to bet their careers on such things.

Among religious believers, too, there is a hesitancy to acknowledge the existence of ESP. Part of this hesitancy may be due to ignorance of its similarities to faith. Other reasons are, I think, a little more fundamental. In particular, the historic relationship between organized religion (specifically Christianity) and the paranormal has often been strained.

This Christian history extends back to the very beginning when many of the Roman mystery religions practiced mystical rituals that were unacceptable to the early followers of Jesus. Later in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was the purveyors of the magic world view that often found them at odds with the established church.

Our ancestors living at this time made a real distinction between dark magic and white magic. The former was of the Devil. The latter included things like angels, deceased saints and miracles. But the distinction between dark and white magic was not always clear. There was a broad area of overlap that included such things as talismans, fortune-telling, dowsing, etc., Many Christians – especially rural congregations – lived in this area of overlap. These Christians were very often comfortable with ideas such as hunches and dreams – experiences that they were familiar with and that wouldn’t have been too different from certain kinds of clairvoyance and telepathy.

Today most Christians live in a scientifically informed culture that leaves us suspicious of both black and white magic. Not only do we wink at the thought of devils and angels but we dismiss the more commonly experienced manifestations of ESP. It isn’t scientifically or religiously acknowledged.

This is in a way a limiting development. It puts us outside of our heritage.We are no longer shackled by credulity and are not nearly as gullible as our ancestors must have been. Or so we imagine. 

And in at least one sense, we are probably more grounded doctrinally too. ESP is not a principle that leads anyone necessarily to God. Rhine worked at a respected institution founded by Methodists and Quakers (Duke University) but he became interested in clairvoyance from Arthur Conan Doyle. And Doyle was known to have often been critical of organized religion and of religious faith.

During recent decades, if you were to have patronized bookstores with large New Age holdings (a common occurrence, I might add), you would have noticed that titles dealing with ESP were stacked right next to titles dealing with black magic. This is fairly revealing. The people buying books on ESP were more likely to be interested in witches than in a Heavenly Father.

If former Christians would have been comfortable discussing telepathy and dreams after church – or buying a related book at their local Christian bookstore – modern Christians prefer talking about technology while leaving anything smacking of mysticism to the cultural underground. And while it might be doctrinally safer to separate these two worlds, it is also true that we are probably missing out on a very human – and a very Christian – part of our natures.   

There is no need to be ashamed of this. We were made to exercise faith and to act on hunches – even, dare I say it, on dreams. Of course we make mistakes while we’re at it. But if J.B. Rhine was even partially right – and I’m convinced that he was – than acting on these “extra” senses might not always be a bad idea. We might be right more often than we might think. 


For a fascinating account of the Duke experiments see J.B. Rhine’s New Frontiers of the Mind, published by Farrar & Rinehart, in 1937. Upton Sinclair’s book Mental Radio was published by Albert and Charles Boni in 1930. The quotes of Paul come from 1 Corinthians 15: 12-13. Tenhaeff’s quote comes from page 38 of Telepathy and Clairvoyance, Views of Some Little Investigated Capabilities of Man, published in 1972 by Charles C. Thomas, Publisher. 

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