What Do We Know about Psychic Phenomena?

By Lawrence LeShan

Originally printed in the Spring 2010 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: LeShan, Lawrence. "What Do We Know about Psychic Phenomena?." Quest  98. 2(Spring 2010): 66-69.

LawrenceLeShanWhat has come out of the last hundred-years-plus in which a great many men and women, often of the highest caliber, have studied psychic phenomena? This is not the place to review the voluminous literature of this work. This has been well done elsewhere, and references at the back of my book A New Science of the Paranormal will lead anyone there who wants to go. What I will do is summarize what we know to be true from this extensive exploration and what we believe extremely likely to be true. We do know much more than we think we know. Let us take a hypothetical situation.

There are two pairs of individuals. The first, Joe and Jim, are both corporate lawyers, both are six feet tall, both have one brown eye and one gray eye, and both have a dog named Spot. One lives in New York, the other fifteen hundred miles away in Chicago. They have never heard of each other and have never crossed paths. The second pair is Harry and Lucy. He is an artist, she is a scientist. He likes the opera, she prefers baseball games. He is five feet, eleven inches tall; she is five feet two. He lives in Baltimore; she lives three thousand miles away in Los Angeles. Ten years ago they had a brief, intense affair and have not spoken to or heard anything of each other since then.

One person dies unexpectedly in an automobile accident. The other person in the pair sees a deathbed apparition of the other. The one who dies suddenly appears to the other in a form so real that the living one believes he (or she) is actually seeing the person, then makes some sort of eye or other contact and disappears just as suddenly.  The number of such well-attested cases is so large that we have pretty much stopped publishing them in the psychical research journals.

In which pair does the deathbed apparition appear—Joe and Jim, or Harry and Lucy?

For anyone with any experience in this field, and for most of the rest of us, there is no question. It is clearly Harry and Lucy.

We do understand certain aspects of the paranormal. Research over the past hundred-plus years has led us some distance. The following facts have emerged and now can be considered definitely proven.

1. Sometimes people unequivocally demonstrate having specific, concrete information that could not have been attained through sensory channels or from extrapolation of data achieved through the senses. If this information was known to any other individual at that time, we arbitrarily label this phenomenon telepathy. If the information was not known to anyone else but existed in some testable form, we call the phenomenon clairvoyance. If the information does not yet exist in clock-calendar time, we call the phenomenon precognition.
2. Space or other physical factors (such as walls or the curvature of the earth) between the source of the original information and the person who demonstrates having it is not a factor. Telepathy seems to operate in about the same manner whether it comes from a thousand miles away or from only as far as the next room.
3. Emotional factors are the major (and indeed only) factors we know of linking the apparent origin of the information and the person who demonstrates having the knowledge. But there are almost certainly other kinds of links that we do not now know about.
4. Many people become anxious when they hear or read of examples of psi, or encounter affirmations of the existence of psi.

The strength of this anxiety should not be underestimated. It has led to the wholesale rejection of the data of parapsychological research by a large number of people in terms far more extreme than they would use in other areas. Consider, for example, the early nineteenth-century natural philosopher Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists of recent centuries. He stated that no matter what the evidence for the existence of psi was, he would not believe it: "Neither the testimony of all the Fellows of the Royal Society, nor even the evidence of my own senses, could lead me to believe in the transmission of thought from one person to another independently of the recognised channels of sensation. It is clearly impossible." He chose to give up his lifelong attitudes toward science and the scientific method rather than consider changing them. Here is a great scientist stating that he knows so much about reality that the universe holds no more surprises for him. No doubt this is a comforting and reassuring belief, but it is an astonishing one for a scientist to hold.

In any event, this is all we know for certain about large, meaningful psychic events. At this point we must be very careful about the ways we formulate this knowledge. Terms such as sender, receiver, energy, transmission, and many others carry a heavy baggage of implications. These can unconsciously influence our thinking and our attempts to solve problems.

So much for what we know in psychical and parapsychological research. After more than a century of study, the verdict is in on these facts. Whoever questions them simply has not done his or her homework.

Other particulars in this field are less certain. These are particulars that anyone familiar with the field regards as almost certainly true, but about which a small doubt remains. These include:

1. Neither of the two most widely talked-about hypotheses to explain the data is adequate. The first hypothesis, referred to as "super-ESP," is that all the evidence can be explained by some form of telepathy or clairvoyance. The second hypothesis is that the evidence can be explained by the existence of discarnate entities. That these two, or either of them, might or might not be valid is not the point here. Neither of these two precludes the other. Each seems to be a reasonable explanation for some of the events, but together or separately they are far from satisfactory as a way to formulate or explain all the events of which we have solid evidence. A third explanatory system is needed, which might conceivably include either or both of the first two.
2. Relative physical motion between the source of the information and the person who acquired it is not a factor.
3. Large-scale psi events are related to the constellation of emotions surrounding the person or thing involved.
4. The laws sometimes said to apply to magic (in the sense used, for example, by J. G. Frazer in his classic study The Golden Bough) do not apply to the psychic. These primary laws of magic are:
The law of similarity. If two things resemble each other in one way, they resemble and affect each other in other ways also. If a plant has heart-shaped leaves, it can affect the heart. If I sprinkle water on the ground in the proper ceremony, it is likely to bring rain.
5.The law of contiguity. If two things were once connected, they are always connected. If I put your discarded fingernails on a doll and stab the doll, you will feel the pain.
These two laws do not govern the formation of large-scale psychic events.
6. The time barrier can sometimes be breached. In both large-scale and small-scale studies, people have shown knowledge of events that could not have been extrapolated from presently existing data and that had not yet occurred in clock-calendar time.
7. If a person has information that he or she very much desires to keep secret, it cannot be attained psychically by other persons.
8. If a person attains psychic information and knows that it came from another person, the recipient cannot tell whether it was on the surface of the other person’s mind or was far from her present awareness.
9. Under rare conditions, the specifics of which are unknown, psychological intent can affect the movement of matter.
10. There is something in or relating to the human personality that does not cease to exist at the moment of bodily death. (A large percentage of deathbed apparitions occur a measurable interval after the death of the body.)

A fascinating suggestion was made by two of our most knowledgeable and careful workers in the field of psi, Justa Smith and Charles Honorton. Although new (at least to me), and not accepted in the field to the degree the other concepts listed here are, it has such potential that it seems worth adding to the list. At the very least, I believe it would make most students of psi deeply thoughtful.

Justa Smith, a biochemist, had been working with a very well-reputed psychic healer named Oskar Estebany and some other healers. They were trying to influence enzymes in test tubes. To her surprise, if the enzymes had been in a human body, the effect in each case would have been to improve the person’s health. Smith commented, in part:

We used three different enzymes with all the healers. Each had their own samples. We used trypsin, NADH, and glucophosphotase. The trypsin was increased in effect which would be a helpful thing. The phosphotase decreased its activity which would be helpful in a positive direction. The NADH was not affected, but NADH is in balance so any change would have been unhelpful. My conclusion is that the effect on enzymes by a healer is always in a positive, helpful direction. The healers did not know which enzymes were being used or in which direction change would be helpful. None of them had any training in enzymology.

Honorton observed:

That sounds extremely important. When we are working on PK [psychokinesis, or mentally influencing physical objects] with a random generator in the next room, the effect on the generated series of numbers is in the direction of greater order. When the participant shows evidence of PK, the random numbers become less random and more orderly. It does not matter what the source of the randomness is, thermal noise, radioactive delay, etc., the ordering is in a positive direction. It seems to be goal-directed.

Everything we know, including all the data from psychic healing, seems to indicate that psi effects have a positive, goal-directed orientation. Furthermore, this direction goes beyond the learned knowledge of the participants. Knowledge of medicine, for example, does not help people get better results with psychic healing.

If you are a participant in any developing field of human knowledge and you survey your colleagues, you will find that they fall into three classes. On your left are those who believe more than you do (the wild-haired, soft-headed group). On your right are those who believe less than you do (the rigid, uptight conservatives). Immediately in front of you is a small group of colleagues who agree with you on what to believe and disbelieve (these are the intelligent, knowledgeable people!).

This is certainly true in the field of psychic research. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that the centrist approach outlined here is in agreement with the overwhelming majority of those who have studied this area. Some may wish to move one or more of the statements from the "probably true" list to the "already proven" list. But I do not think that anyone seriously conversant with the field would move any of the statements in the opposite direction or take them off both lists. This, then, is the present state of affairs in our knowledge of psi. We do know a good deal. It is a solid base from which to set out on the next phase of our foray.


Lawrence LeShan, Ph.D., is the author of the best-selling How to Meditate and many other works on psychotherapy, cancer treatment, and mysticism. This article is adapted from his book A New Science of the Paranormal: The Promise of Psychical Research, published by Quest Books in 2009.


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