What is ESP Anyway?
Have you ever thought about a friend, then your phone rings--and it’s that friend calling you? Have you ever dreamed about something that actually happened some time later?
Using your brain--and only your brain--to influence, explain or predict an event is known as extrasensory perception or ESP. It is sometimes called a person’s ‘sixth sense.’ ESP researchers, or parapsychologists, work to gather evidence of the human brain communicating across space and time.
Background Image: "ESP Record Sheet" notepad with five Zener cards used by Duke Parapsychology Lab.
Listen to J.B. Rhine describe the event that sparked his life-long interest in ESP. Dial 919-246-9993 ext. 160
A New Science, A New Lab
In 1922, a young Joseph Banks (J.B.) Rhine and his wife Louisa attended a lecture by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Doyle cited scientific evidence for communication with the dead. The Rhines, both botanists, developed a keen interest in questions surrounding the human soul. Could science be used to support or refute communication with those who have passed on?
"This mere possibility was the most exhilarating thought I had had in years." - J.B. Rhine, New Frontiers of the Mind, The Story of the Duke Experiments
J.B. Rhine was inspired to contact Dr. William McDougall, a Harvard professor conducting parapsychology research. When McDougall moved to Durham to chair the Duke psychology department in 1927, he invited J.B. and Louisa Rhine to join him as research fellows.
In 1930, McDougall and J.B. Rhine established the Duke Parapsychology Lab. By 1934, the Rhines published the results of three years worth of research data in a book that received worldwide attention. Public interest in ESP soared.
Background Image: Dr. J.B. Rhine and Dr. Louisa Rhine.
The Golden Age of ESP
Between 1927 and 1965, J.B. Rhine conducted thousands of experiments to determine if people could correctly predict an unseen card or the roll of a die. Louisa Rhine compiled and analyzed decades of accounts from people who described dreams or visions that had come true. Together, the Rhines and their colleagues conducted groundbreaking research that placed ESP in America’s media spotlight.
“Just how does [ESP] come?... A complete answer cannot be given because just what the mind is and exactly how it operates are still deep mysteries to science.” - Dr. Louisa Rhine, McCall’s, 1961
“It isn’t like most things. We are too used to the senses giving us perfect answers.” - Dr. J.B. Rhine, Durham Morning Herald, 1978
Background Image: Undated Zener Test. Courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Tools of a Sixth Sense Scientist
Could people use their minds to predict their future? Communicate with loved ones who have died? J.B. Rhine and his colleagues invented tools — simple and sophisticated — to scientifically answer these questions.
Hundreds of research subjects, many of them Duke students, tried to predict the sequence of Zener cards, a special card deck used to test for ESP, in particular clairvoyance. Great lengths were taken to eliminate physical contact—automated card shufflers ensured that cards were not physically manipulated.
Right Image: Undated test with machine. Courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
THE NEXT GENERATION OF RESEARCHERS
Sally Rhine-Feather and her siblings served as test subjects in the earliest ESP experiments conducted at the Duke Parapsychology Lab. As a teenager, Sally was her father's assistant, rechecking experimental test data. She was a research assistant both during and after college, meeting most of the well-known parapsychologists and various dignitaries who visited the lab. Sally went on to become a clinical psychologist, earning her doctorate from Duke in 1967. She has been active at the Rhine Center since the 1990s.
The Duke Parapsychology Lab closed in 1965, so the Rhines established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man on nearby Buchanan Avenue. In 1995, the organization relocated and was renamed the Rhine Center. The Rhine Center continues ESP and related research in Durham today.
Left Image: Science Digest asked readers to predict which of the five cards on the cover was inside the November 1965 issue.
Dial 919-246-9993 ext. 161 to listen to Dr. Larry Burk talk in the Story Room about his involvement with the Rhine Center.