In 1870, British explorer Sir Richard Burton allegedly coined the term “extrasensory perception” or ESP. But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the term became popular thanks to Joseph Banks (J.B.) Rhine (1895-1980).
Rhine was actually a botanist who became interested in parapsychology after listening to a lecture from Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, according to an article in APA’s Monitor on Psychology by Nick Joyce and David B. Baker, Ph.D. Doyle declared that there was scientific evidence to prove that it was possible to talk to the dead.
Rhine wanted to validate parapsychology and began working with his wife Louisa and Professor William McDougall at Duke University in 1927. According to the Rhine Research Center, before Rhine, researchers mostly explored psychic phenomenon by working with mediums to see if an afterlife really existed.
Rhine, however, wanted to know first whether the living had ESP capabilities, so he focused on testing Duke University students instead.
What did he find out?
In the early 1930s, along with Duke researcher Karl Zener, the Rhines started conducting experiments using a special set of cards. Again, the goal was to test students’ extrasensory abilities. Zener, a perceptual psychologist, designed the 25 cards.
(By the way, you could actually buy these cards at a newsstand for just 10 cents! Today, you can still purchase the cards along with Rhine’s manual, though they’re a bit pricier now.)
According to the Monitor: “Inside were five cards each of five different designs–a circle, cross, wave, square and star–chosen because each had one more line than the other. The back side of the card had a blue background with a design and a Duke building.”
The experimenter would hold up each card and ask participants about what design they thought was on the other side of the card. Rhine tried a variety of conditions to eliminate confounding variables. For instance, as Joyce and Baker write, Rhine used a card-shuffling machine to prevent shuffling errors and didn’t tell participants whether they were right or wrong to prevent card counting.
Rhine published this research in his 1934 book Extra-Sensory Perception. A year later, Rhine opened the doors to the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, where he and Louisa worked with a team of grad students and colleagues conducting additional experiments on parapsychology.
Again, Rhine worked tirelessly to transform a field seen as phony and unscientific into one supported by empirical evidence. In addition to founding the lab at Duke University, Rhine also established the Journal of Parapsychology in 1937 and helped in starting the Parapsychological Association in the late 1950s.
On a side note, Rhine would no doubt be disappointed that today ESP’s reputation hasn’t improved in the eyes of mainstream psychology. Last year, The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, one of the most well-respected journals in psychology, published a paper that supposedly provided strong evidence for the effectiveness of ESP.
Authored by renowned Cornell University professor and researcher Daryl J. Bem, the paper presents nine experiments with over 1,000 participants. Many psychologists were outraged that Bem’s paper was published in such a reputable and top publication, and have disputed both the validity of ESP and the statistics used. Here’s a bit about the experiments from a New York Times piece by science reporter Benedict J. Carey (definitely read the whole article; it’s very interesting):
In one classic memory experiment, for example, participants study 48 words and then divide a subset of 24 of them into categories, like food or animal. The act of categorizing reinforces memory, and on subsequent tests people are more likely to remember the words they practiced than those they did not.
In his version, Dr. Bem gave 100 college students a memory test before they did the categorizing — and found they were significantly more likely to remember words that they practiced later. “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words,” the paper concludes.
In another experiment, Dr. Bem had subjects choose which of two curtains on a computer screen hid a photograph; the other curtain hid nothing but a blank screen.
A software program randomly posted a picture behind one curtain or the other — but only after the participant made a choice. Still, the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent, at least when the photos being posted were erotic ones. They did not do better than chance on negative or neutral photos.