In London during the late 1930s Irish medium Eileen Garrett (later a US citizen) experienced visions of a large airship crashing in flames. When she learnt that two dirigibles, the R-100 and the R-101, were being constructed at the time, she became convinced that the R-101 was doomed. Sir Sefton Brancker, head of civil aviation, laughed at the premonition and assured everyone the R-101 was as “safe as a house, except for the millionth chance.” The great airship lifted off on October 4, 1930 for a non-stop flight to India. It crashed in France the following day, killing Sir Sefton Brancker and 45 others on board.
During a séance three days later Garrett was visited by several “spirits” from the R-101, including Brancker. They told Garrett that the R-101 had sprung a gas leak – a story at odds with the official explanation. An engine had backfired, said Garrett, and escaping gas had ignited. Government investigators, however, ignored this “testimony” – it was inadmissible in a court of law!
Western scientists generally regard human beings as electrochemical machines receiving information through five senses – hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. Paranormal researchers would add other means of obtaining knowledge – including extrasensory perception, or ESP, which they divide into four classes: telepathy (communication of thought), precognition (knowledge of the future), retrocognition (knowledge of the past not acquired by normal means), clairvoyance (knowledge of distant places acquired independently of the senses and telepathy).
Shamans and witch doctors have always practiced ESP. The Malays interpreted their dreams to find fish, the Zulus to find game. Australian aboriginal people used smoke signals to tell distant friends that telepathic messages were to be sent. Today some researchers believe that ESP occurs in the unconscious (or subconscious) and that it is pushed up into the conscious mind.
Since the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882, scientists have shown that ESP exists and have tried to discover how it works. In the 1930s Dr Joseph Banks Rhine of Duke University in North Carolina, USA, started some laboratory tests, carefully controlling conditions and variables to eliminate coincidence. He called the study “parapsychology.” For telepathy experiments Dr Karl E. Zener, one of Rhine’s colleagues, devised packs of 25 special cards showing five straightforward patterns – square, cross, star, circle and wavy lines. In one experiment Dr Rhine requested his subjects to identify cards that were placed face down. Positive results far exceeded the possibilities of pure chance, but skeptics accused the researchers of dishonesty or mistakes in procedures. Experiments then became more elaborate – independent witnesses were present and in telepathy experiments screens enclosed the subjects. The card tests still produced strong evidence for the existence of telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition.
Perhaps the Ganzfeld experiments have provided the most successful demonstration of ESP to date. Charles Honorton began them in 1971 at the Psychophysical Research Laboratories in New Jersey, USA, and continued them when he moved to the university of Edinburgh, Scotland. Tests take place in a space devoid of patterned sensory input, called a “Ganzfeld” – German for “whole field.” The ESP receiver wears translucent goggles with a red light shining on them and earphones playing “white noise” (unstructured sound). The absence of sensory stimulus is said to allow unconsciously received impressions to reach the conscious mind. The receiver describes and records what he or she is seeing, while in another room a “sender” concentrates on a target image – a picture or film clip – to be transmitted telepathically. The receiver’s description is then compared with the image. Success rates are said to be about 50 per cent; the chances of coincidence are estimated at only 5 per cent.
Recent experiments into precognitive remote perception, carried out at America’s Princeton University by Robert Jahn and colleagues, have also produced positive results. A sender goes to a place far away, selected at random by a computer from a pool of 100 possibilities, and records impressions and takes photographs. The receiver, who does not know the senders location, tries to visualize where the sender is, makes sketches and describes his or her own mental impressions. Over many experiments, the amount of correct information from the receiver about the site was 15 percent greater than could be expected by guesswork. The odds against this result happening purely by chance are about a hundred thousand million to one. The distance between sender and receiver makes no difference, nor does it matter whether the sender visits the site before or after the test is done.