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An Introduction to Parapsychology.

AN INTRODUCTION TO PARAPSYCHOLOGY (5TH ED.) by Harvey J. Irwin and Caroline A. Watt. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. Pp. viii + 312. $39.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-7846-3059-8.

This may very well be the most popular introductory text to parapsychology (notice that it is in its 5th edition, a record that is probably unrivaled in recent parapsychology books). As such, it deserves special scrutiny from the psi community, as this may be the first and only exposure that university students have to the field. After acknowledgments, the book starts with an Introduction that defines parapsychology as the scientific study of experiences that seem to transcend human capabilities as currently conceived. The emphasis on reputed anomalous experiences rather than events (see also Targ, Schlitz, & Irwin, 2000) may not sit well with some parapsychologists, as the authors readily accept, and the text often crosses the line into dealing with psi as implicitly referring to veridical events rather than just experiences. I sympathize with the authors' dilemma as the nature of ostensible psi events, often defined negatively as information transfer in the absence of sensorial or logical explanations, remains a very tough nut to crack. Psychology and other fields have their own brand of categorization by exclusion, as in the diagnosis of conversion disorder, but perhaps no other discipline has a foundational definition by exclusion (although this may be changing, with ongoing theoretical advances in parapsychology). Irwin and Watt revisit their decision to define parapsychology mostly in phenomenological terms at the end of the book, where they also push for the integration of parapsychology into other fields (e.g., psychology and physics), a development being forged in various universities in the UK and in my own department, among others. Even were it to be found that all reputed psi events can be understood through current conventional explanations, which I doubt, there are many reasons why a thorough study of anomalous experiences, including psi, is necessary for a comprehensive psychological science (Cardena, Lynn, & Krippner, 2000).

The second chapter centers on the history of psi phenomena, with some detailed discussion of mesmerism, spiritualism, and the careers of the mediums D. D. Home, Leonora Piper, Helene Smith, and Charles Bailey. The overview is very competent, but I missed reading more about developments in non-English speaking countries (e.g., France and Germany). The following chapter, on the phenomenology of ESP, initiates the most important section of the volume, devoted to a scholarly, intelligent, and updated review of the main areas of research in parapsychology. The chapter on phenomenology emphasizes case collections from various sources, especially those of Louisa E. Rhine. Although attention is paid to the limitations of spontaneous case material, a case is made that ultimately it is such material that the field ought to explain. Furthermore, as Palmer (2006) cogently expressed, evidentiality is a matter of degree for both experiments and case material; experiments have their own serious limitations, and the best validity is obtained by converging evidence from both case material and experiments. I find that the evidence from both sources of information is fairly consistent. For instance, in "real life," putative psi events typically happen unpredictably, are not controllable (with very few possible exceptions), and are usually related to emotional content; a similar description can be made for the most consistent results from the lab.

The fourth chapter discusses experimental research on ESR Alter a historical overview, there are good discussions on the benefits and limitations of meta-analyses, an excellent section (almost a primer) on methodological precautions in ESP research, and very up-to-date discussions of the current status of research on central topics such as process research and target, situational, and participant variables. Because the authors have made important contributions to a number of these areas, they provide an authoritative and probing perspective.

The fifth chapter provides a solid introduction to the research on ESP for past and future information (i.e., retrocognition and precognition, respectively). Irwin and Watt state that in these areas the compatibility of ESP and science "becomes rather strained" (p. 83). Such a conclusion is arguable considering physicists' own discussion about the nature of time (e.g., Folger, 2007), as contrasted with the common sense, lay understanding of time. Chapters 6 and 7 of the book discuss past and current research on psychokinesis, including process-oriented research and the possibility of parapsychological experimenter effects (applicable to all areas of psi research), and they provide good sections on macro-PK, psychic healing, and an exciting area with some of the biggest effects in psi, direct mental interaction with living systems (DMILS), including research on the sense of being stared at. An important recent study by Achterberg et al. (2005) should be added to their sources.

The following chapter on theories of psi is clear and well organized, arranging the contributions into theories of psi mediation (e.g., energy field and observational theories), theories of the experimental phase of psi, noncybernetic theories, and skeptical approaches. The authors aptly finish the chapter by underlining the fact that parapsychology is rapidly growing up as a theoretical field.

Chapters 9 through 14 discuss studies that either have a direct bearing on the possibility of survival alter death (e.g., research with mediums and cases "suggestive of reincarnation"), or may be construed as bearing a relationship to the possible survival of mental events without a body (e.g., poltergeist, apparitional, near-death, and out-of-body experiences). In all of these chapters, the authors show a good grasp of the vast relevant information and a healthy respect for the problem, which precludes an easy conclusion regarding possible survival, partly because of the nature of the evidence and partly because of competing explanations (e.g., super-psi versus survival).

Research on belief in the paranormal is covered in chapter 15. As other evidence offered in the book shows, belief in psi can be held on purely scientific grounds, but belief in reputed paranormal events may also be held independently of scientific, logical, or sometimes even experiential bases. Irwin and Watt provide thorough coverage of this issue, showing that, among other variables, belief in ESP may depend on the propensity to have other anomalous experiences and a need to perceive a controllable world.

A recent study by Roe and Bell (2007) shows the need for sophisticated multivariate analyses to disentangle the relationships between many of these variables.

In chapter 16, the authors delve briefly into topics that, although usually tangential to the interest of psi researchers, are inherently-interesting and even important, such as the relationship between parapsychology and clinical psychology as well as other areas of practical application. A case can be made that knowledge of psi and other anomalous experiences should be a prerequisite for every psychotherapist (see also Targ, Schlitz, & Irwin, 2000). The last chapter, an evaluation of parapsychology as science, is one of my favorites, as the authors challenge many of the specious and unfair criticisms of parapsychology while simultaneously pointing out the current limitations of the field. They reinforce their notion of a phenomenological approach to parapsychological phenomena while also pointing out that some of these experiences may have a veridical external referent.

An Introduction to Parapsychology is an up-to-date and authoritative account of the field by two important contributors. My criticisms of the volume are mild. At times I found the language unnecessarily convoluted and in one case even offensive (referring to nontechnological societies as "primitive"). Also I would have wished for more coverage of literature in languages other than English. Overall the authors continue to provide an excellent introduction to the conceptual minefield of parapsychology.


ACHTERBERG, J., COOKE, K., RICHARDS, T., STANDISH, L., KOZAK, L., & LAKE, J. (2005). Evidence for correlations between distant intentionality and brain function in recipients: A functional magnetic resonance imaging analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 11, 965-971.

CARDENA, E., LYNN, S. J., & KRIPPNER, S. (EDS.). (2000). Varieties of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

FOLGER, T. (2007, June 12). Newsflash: Time may not exist. Retrieved August 30, 2007 from in-no-time.

PALMER, J. (2006, August). Some thoughts on OBEs, NDEs, and the study of spontaneous ESP. Paper presented at the meeting of the Parapsychological Association, Stockholm, Sweden.

ROE, C. A., & BELL, C. (2007). Paranormal belief, anxiety, and perceived control over life events. Proceedings of Presented Papers: The Parapsychological Association 50th Annual Convention, 102-112.

TARG, E., SCHLITZ, M., & IRWIN, H. J. (2000). Psi-related experiences. In E. Cardena, S. J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.), Varieties of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence (pp. 219-252). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


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Author:Cardena, Etzel
Publication:The Journal of Parapsychology
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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