Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Psychics, Parapsychology, and Faking It

When I would come home on furlough, I would always visit my grandmother who helped raise me. Loving to test her extra ordinary abilities, I would never let her know I was coming. Every time, as I sneaked in the door (those days, people left their doors unlocked), her familiar voice would ring out “Donald, is that you?”

Because my grandmother’s paranormal abilities were so amazing, no one should be surprised that when I became a psychologist, I would have a great interest in the field of parapsychology

Paranormal abilities seem to run in families, and as a psychotherapist, when I first began listening intensely to my patients, I would sometimes hear what they were thinking. Believing they had spoken aloud, I would respond back to them. When they realized I had read their thoughts, both my patient and I would be startled. Sometimes however, my intuition would misfire, so over time, relying more on training and experience, I dampened down the ability until it nearly disappeared entirely. (I hope to write more about that later.)

In America, William James began the first scientific study of the paranormal in the late 1800's at Harvard. Of course he was criticized by colleagues because so many psychic practitioners were being exposed as fakes. He tells a funny story on himself when he faked once.

His story goes like this. Scientists of his time were very excited over the discovery that electrical impulses stimulate reactions in the nerves. In order to demonstrate this phenomenon in front of his class, James would apply an electrical impulse to the muscles of a frog, creating movement. However, one day, he applied the stimulus and nothing happened. (He discovered later that the muscles had just worn out from use.) Quickly, he secretly jammed his finger inside the frog and as he continued his lecture, kept the dead frog wiggling.

He would tell that story to make a point. The point was, sometimes from many experiences, you know a thing is supposed to happen but it doesn’t. He knew those failures could unexpectedly happen to genuine psychics. When the expected didn’t happen, they sometimes faked it. Sometimes they were caught.

James was willing to cut them some slack and continued studying paranormal experiences throughout his life and so have I.