BOOK REVIEW: Unbelievable by Stacy Horn

Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology LaboratoryUnbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory by Stacy Horn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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For 50 years a laboratory operated at Duke University that studied extra-sensory perception (ESP), ghosts, and other paranormal events. Today one can’t imagine an academic laboratory devoted to paranormal activity surviving, especially at such a prestigious university. Horn’s book takes one through the life of this lab. It describes phenomena debunked as either fraud or poor methodology, but it also discusses events and outcomes that have remained unexplained.

The central character in the book is J.B. Rhine, Director of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory. Rhine was a botanist by training, but he developed an interest in parapsychology– eventually becoming the foremost expert in the, albeit dwarf, field.

When the lab opened in 1930, the universe of unknowns was much greater than when it closed in 1980. This was exemplified by Albert Einstein’s correspondence with Rhine, and the author of relativity’s attendance at a séance on one occasion. By 1980, having recorded some unexplained phenomenon, but having produced neither well-validated results nor explanations, the lab was looking increasingly like a boondoggle.

The phenomena studied included some that could be systematically studied  in the laboratory, as well as others that could only be observed in the field. The former being exemplified by the use of cards with shapes on them to study telepathy (as depicted by Bill Murray’s character in Ghostbusters.) The latter included the study of poltergeists or interviews of children about the lives of people who lived before their time (e.g. as Tibetan lamas are selected).

One of the questions confronting the investigators was whether those phenomena that could be studied in the lab were best studied there. While telepathy studies sometimes showed a weak but positive result, some thought that more robust results could only be attained under real world conditions.

In the 60’s, Timothy Leary came to call on Rhine. Leary, of course, thought hallucinogens were the key to unlocking the hidden powers of the mind. Rhine apparently took LSD on a couple of occasions before concluding that there was nothing but vivid chaos coming out of the experience. Still, there remained adherents to the notion that mind-altering drugs might unlock hidden potentials. Horn devotes several pages to the work of Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the CIA parapsychology program. It should be noted that the government programs were not stopped until the mid-90’s, fifteen years after Duke’s Parapsychology Lab shut down.

The last gasp of parapsychology was an attempt to determine if quantum entanglement might have any ramifications for ESP. Quantum entanglement is the situation in which two particles separated at great distance can influence each other instantaneously. Could the particles in two minds behave accordingly, and, if so, to what result?

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