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An Introduction to Parapsychology, 2d ed.

An Introduction to Parapsychology is a fully revised and updated version of Harvey Irwin's (1989) respected introductory textbook on parapsychology. The organization of the chapters remains much the same as it was in the first edition of the book, with the exception of a new chapter that deals with psychological correlates of belief in paranormal phenomena. The remaining chapters do, however, appear to be fully updated and to refer extensively to recent literature. Each chapter ends with a list of key terms and concepts and a series of study questions.

Irwin begins by defining parapsychology as the investigation of ostensibly paranormal experiences, some of which may ultimately prove to have an explanation in terms of conventional scientific principles. He sees parapsychological investigations as being restricted to three primary domains of content, comprised of extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK), and the survival of death; and he notes that certain other forms of experience (such as Bigfoot and UFO encounters) that are sometimes classified as paranormal by some writers would fall outside the traditional scope of parapsychology. He maintains that the study of parapsychological experiences (i.e., experiences that seem to involve the operation of psi, or are suggestive of survival) is of value whether or not such experiences ultimately prove to have a basis in the operation of paranormal principles.

The second chapter, on the origins of parapsychological research, deals primarily with the history of mesmerism and spiritualism. It contains an excellent summary of the mediumship of Mrs. Piper. The chapter might profit from the inclusion of a more detailed and explicit taxonomy of mediumistic phenomena (e.g., automatic writing, direct voice, etc.). The author is also somewhat inconsistent in the way he introduces new terms. For instance, although he is careful to define psychokinesis several times, he uses the word apport without prior definition.

The third chapter deals with spontaneous case investigations. Irwin contrasts the Society for Psychical Research's early approach to the investigations of spontaneous cases, which emphasizes authentication, with Louisa Rhine's approach. He provides a good, concise overview of spontaneous case research, and he cautions that the adoption of certain sampling procedures and criteria for inclusion of cases in a case collection may result in a distorted statistical picture of the distribution of various types of cases.

The ensuing chapter, on experimental investigations of extrasensory perception, is by far the longest in the book. It contains an excellent summary of the early (pre-Rhine) experimental investigations. With regard to Rhine himself, Irwin notes that botanists were in the forefront of statistical methodology because of their investigations of genetics, and he observes that Rhine's background in botany consequently provided him with a good foundation for launching his statistical investigations of ESP. In presenting the critical ratio statistic (z score) for analyzing the results of parapsychological experiments, Irwin omits the continuity correction, although he does provide the correction for increased variance when guessing a closed deck of ESP cards (i.e., when sampling the deck without replacement).

Regarding the possibility that certain "definitive" experiments conclusively establish the existence of ESP, Irwin tentatively nominates the Pearce-Pratt series conducted at Duke University in the 1930s. He notes that, even if we seriously consider Hansel's allegations that Pearce could have used fraudulent means to gain access to the identity of the targets, the skeptic will still have to contend with the fact that later analysis detected a within-session decline effect, a characteristic "signature" of psi effects. This analysis was not planned at the time of the experiment. One could argue, of course, that it is a common practice when a subject cheats for him to "improve" the data early in a series and then quit. The decline analysis, therefore, may not be as definitive a piece of evidence against fraud as Irwin thinks it is. In fact, Irwin ends this section by concluding that, because of the ever-present possibility of fraud, there can be no such thing as a definitive single experiment; rather, the entire body of research must be taken into account.

In any event, Irwin contends, to establish that the significant results of psi experiments are due to the operation of an ESP faculty (as opposed to a principle of synchronicity, etc.) will require investigations into the modus operandi of such a faculty. He turns therefore to an examination of "process-oriented" research, where he provides a good summary of research into experimenter effects, differential effects, decline effects, displacement effects, the effects of personality and attitudinal variables, and the effects of the subject's mood. He states that the possibility of psi-mediated experimenter effects poses "special difficulties" for parapsychological investigations. Of course, if such effects exist, they pose difficulties, not only for parapsychological investigations, but for many different types of studies in orthodox areas of science as well.

The following chapter is entitled "Extrasensory Perception and Time," and in it Irwin discusses experiments on precognition and retrocognition. He also reviews philosophical treatments of precognition. In this chapter, as in others, he does a good job of referring the reader to existing reviews of specialized topics, such as those in the Advances in Parapsychological Research series, rather than attempting to provide a comprehensive review of each and every topic himself.

Irwin then turns to the subject of psychokinesis, to which he devotes two chapters. He first reviews cases suggestive of spontaneous PK and experimental work on micro-PK. He notes that, in contrast to the ESP research, there is little evidence for a sheep-goat effect in PK studies. He then considers studies of macro-PK effects, including psychic healing, metal-bending, psychic photography, and the electric voice phenomena promoted by Konstantin Raudive and others. He provides an interesting discussion of the phenomenological experiences of healers during treatment sessions. His discussion of metal-bending effects is appropriately cautious, and he is careful to point to the existence of several possible methodological flaws in such experiments.

He next examines theories of the psi process, which he divides into theories of mediation of the psi signal (including the observational theories as well as those that propose that the psi message is carried by physical particles such as photons and neutrinos) and "theories of the experiential phase," which consider the psychological processes by which the psi message emerges into consciousness after it is received. Irwin distinguishes between the "pseudosensory" model of psi and the "memory model," which proposes that ESP is mediated by the activation of appropriate memory traces rather than being analogous to a sensory experience. It is not clear, however, that psychological theories could be easily partitioned into sensory and memory models, inasmuch as even in orthodox psychology sensory experience is viewed as being influenced by previous experience (i.e., memory traces) in terms of the interpretation of ambiguous signals, priming effects, and so forth.

Irwin also discusses Rex Stanford's "psi-mediated instrumental response" model of psi as well as "noncybernetic models" such as Jung's synchronicity theory and Stanford's conformance behavior theory. He also discusses theories attributing apparent cases of psi to flaws in probability theory, such as those proposed by Spencer-Brown and Gilmore.

Chapters 9 through 14 deal with the subject of survival research. The first of these chapters provides a short introduction to the survival problem and a very brief treatment of mediumship (which Irwin had previously discussed in Chapter 2). The next chapter is on poltergeist phenomena (which Irwin subsumes under survival research because he does not entirely buy the theory that ascribes poltergeist outbreaks to the PK powers of living agents). He reviews Roll's statistical studies of poltergeist outbreaks, and downplays the possibility that poltergeist cases are the product of fraud because of cases involving strange events such as the spontaneous ignition of wet rolls of toilet paper. In Irwin's view, the incidence of fraud may be overestimated because many cases of detected fraud may be cases in which some of the parties involved have tried to prolong activity that was originally genuine. With regard to Roll's theory that poltergeist effects may in many instances be due to epileptic or epilepsy-related disorders on the part of the focal person, Irwin argues that Roll's finding that 4 percent of focal persons manifest symptoms of epilepsy may not indicate any great increase over baseline rates of such symptoms in the general population. In any event, Irwin argues, this figure is much too small to support a general theory of poltergeist agency. He argues that explanations of poltergeist effects in terms of a single living agent may be premature and proposes that, in interpersonal situations involving a great deal of conflict, several agents may be involved. He contends that the deceased agency (or spirit) hypothesis may not be getting a fair treatment because it is unpopular in the modern parapsychological zeitgeist. He further notes that many poltergeist effects, such as spontaneous fires, far exceed any PK effect that has been demonstrated in the laboratory.

Irwin then turns to the subject of near-death experiences (NDEs). He adopts a somewhat skeptical approach toward them, and cites a study by J. E. Pope showing equivalent attitude changes in people who have had a close brush with death, regardless of whether they have undergone an NDE. He also cites a study by P. M. H. Atwater indicating that family members are frequently upset by what they perceive to be the smug and sometimes silly behavior of people who have returned from an NDE. Thus, Irwin concludes, the personality changes engendered by NDEs may not be as positive as they are frequently depicted to be by the NDEers themselves. Irwin also reviews skeptical physiological and psychological theories of the NDE, but he retains his own skepticism about the validity of many of these.

The next chapter is devoted to an examination of out-of-body experiences (OBEs). Irwin states that in experiences of autoscopy (in which one experiences an apparition of oneself while still subjectively located in the physical body), the body image seen is typically a mirror image of the real body, although he cites no evidence in support of this claim. He cites this as evidence that the body image in autoscopy is not that of an externally existing entity but is a hallucinatory image constructed on the basis of viewing oneself in mirrors. In view of this observation, it might be equally interesting to ascertain whether the image of the physical body in an OBE is also a mirror image of the real body, which would of course strongly support the hallucination theory of OBEs. Irwin provides a good summary of research on the psychological differences between persons who have experienced an OBE and those who have not. He cites a theory of Munro and Persinger with which Journal readers may not be familiar (it was published in Perceptual and Motor Skills) which attributes the OBE to the left cerebral hemisphere's becoming aware of itself as a separate entity from the right hemisphere. Irwin himself favors the view that OBEs are simply hallucinatory experiences, and he therefore concludes that the OBE is not strong evidence for the survival of the personality in an ecsomatic state after death.

He then considers apparitions. In fact, he objects to the term apparition, because in his view it presupposes the existence of an external entity having an objective existence, and for this reason he prefers the phrase apparitional experience. I am not really sure that the term apparition carries the connotations that Irwin ascribes to it. My understanding of the term is that it is equivalent to what Irwin means by apparitional experience, whereas other terms, such as ghost or astral body, clearly do refer to external entities.

Irwin reviews the results of research into psychological differences between persons who have and those who have not had an apparitional experience, noting that the former have been found to be higher in the traits of absorption and fantasy proneness. There are no differences between the two groups in terms of mental imagery ability. Irwin is also careful to distinguish between projected apparitions and OBEs. He concludes the chapter by reviewing the theories of apparitions proposed by Hart, Gurney, Myers, Tyrrell, and others.

After a chapter on reincarnation, Irwin takes up the subject of belief in paranormal phenomena. He notes that research findings relating to psychological correlates of belief in the paranormal may be skewed by the investigator's own bias toward the paranormal, the selection of psychological traits to be examined, the demand characteristics of the experiment or questionnaire, and the investigator's definition of paranormal phenomena.

Irwin then devotes a chapter to clinical practice and applications of psi. He covers the subjects of psi phenomena that occur within the psychotherapeutic relationship and the counseling of persons who report ostensible psi experiences.

The final chapter is entitled "Evaluation of Parapsychology as a Scientific Enterprise." In it, Irwin contends (somewhat strangely for a parapsychologist) that, in order to qualify as a science, a discipline must be practiced in laboratories within a university setting by full-time professional investigators. In addition, he says, the field must have professional associations and journals. Thus, Irwin gives a sociological rather than a methodological definition of science. Fortunately for us, he claims that parapsychology qualifies as a science under these criteria. Later in the chapter, he discusses parapsychologists' lack of access to mainstream journals as well as financial and institutional barriers to the pursuit of parapsychological investigations. One wonders whether, if the scientific establishment were to succeed in repressing parapsychological research altogether in university settings, the field would thereby cease to be a science in Irwin's view.

Elsewhere in the chapter, he discusses the issues of experimenter and subject fraud as well as the behavior of critics and the role of CSICOP. Following Susan Blackmore's lead, he concludes that parapsychology's acceptance as a discipline might be increased were it to portray itself as the study of parapsychological experiences rather than paranormal phenomena.

The second edition of An Introduction to Parapsychology is a good introductory text. I would recommend it particularly to the intelligent layperson who is interested in gaining a quick overview of the entire field. The book may place too much emphasis on spontaneous cases at the expense of experimental work to suit the taste of many experimental parapsychologists, but it would generally make a fine textbook for most introductory courses of parapsychology.

DOUGLAS M. STOKES 548 Foxwood Lane Paoli, PA 19301-2039
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Author:Stokes, Douglas M.
Publication:The Journal of Parapsychology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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