Dr. Charles T. Tart on July 20th, 2010

While reviewing some correspondence with my friend and colleague, Etzel Cardena, Professor at Lund University in Sweden and now one of the leading investigators of altered states of consciousness, I found he had asked me to write a little about how I got into parapsychologial research. As I don’t know if what I wrote him in 2009 will ever be used anywhere, I thought it would be interesting to post it here. If any of you are serious about going in a similar direction, though, be sure to read my Career Advice article on www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart/ in the articles section.

To my conscious knowledge, two major forces brought me into parapsychology.  The earliest was my childhood religion, Lutheranism.  My parents weren’t religious but my maternal grandmother, who lived in the apartment downstairs from us, was very much so.  Grandmothers, as so many of you personally know, are sources of unconditional love, so she took me to Sunday School and church, and what was good enough for her was good enough for me!  I was quite devout as a child and early teenager.

The second major force was science.  As early as I can remember I loved everything connected with science, and by the time I was a teenager I was very widely read, including a lot of “adult” books.  I had my basement chemical and electrical laboratory, became a radio ham and built my own equipment, and wanted to be a scientist or engineer.  Studying electronics and radio on my own, I was able to pass government tests and get a First Class Radiotelephone license, empowering me to operate commercial radio stations.

The teenage years are a time of starting to question what you’ve been taught and to think for yourself.  I became aware, as most idealistic teens do, of the seeming hypocrisy of adults, those church people were not living what they preached!  Worse yet, I now enough science to realize that most, if not all, religious ideas and beliefs were quite nonsensical from the point of view of science, just old superstitions.  How could I reconcile this with the deep religious feelings that had began in my childhood?

From an adult perspective, I know many teenagers go through similar conflicts between science and religion.  A common “resolution” is to go to one extreme or the other: religion is all nonsense and materialistic science is right, or religion is the ultimate truth and science can be ignored when it’s inconvenient.  I put “resolution” in quotes, for as a psychologist I see this extremism as usually an incomplete and often psychologically costly way of dealing with the conflict, too much suppression of parts of our nature are involved.

Luckily my extensive reading – the Trenton city library was my second “home” – had included many older books on psychical research and parapsychology.  I realized that many intelligent people had gone through conflicts similar to mine, and the founders of the Society for Psychical Research had come up with a brilliant idea.  Instead of a wholesale rejection of all religion and spirituality and adoption of Materialism in whatever form was then scientifically fashionable, why not apply the methods of science,  the insistence on accurate data collection, logical theorizing, testing of theories, and full and honest sharing of data and theory, to the phenomena of religion and spirituality?  Why not examine and refine the data and devise more adequate theories?  I was inspired by this idea, and it has been the central theme of my professional work and personal life ever since.  Look at the data of spirituality (my preference is for individual spirituality rather than the group psychology of religion), see how to observe it more accurately, create and test theories about it, share these with colleagues, and slowly work our way toward a spirituality based on observable facts.

My first formal parapsychological experiment was a study of hypnotic suggestion as a (hoped for) way of producing out-of-body experiences (OBEs) while I was a sophomore at MIT, studying electrical engineering.  Looking back it wasn’t bad for a teenager, although I didn’t have an objective way of evaluating the data (nor did the field as a whole).  I didn’t formally write the results up until many years later Tart, C., 1998, Six studies of out-of-the-body experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 17, No. 2, 73-99), by which time I had carried out five others studies of OBEs.

While at MIT I met other students interested in parapsychology and we formed a student club to talk about it and ask speakers to lecture us.  One of those speaker was Andrija Puharich, whom Eileen Garrett, world-famous medium and head of the Parapsychology Foundation, had told me about.  Here was a physician researcher who not only claimed to have a way of making telepathy work better or to shield it, he was doing it with electrical devices, Faraday Cages.  What could be more intriguing to students of electrical engineering and physics?

Some of us visited Puharich’s laboratory in Maine and thought his work seemed basically sound.  He gave a lecture on his findings at MIT for our club, and I was intrigued enough – and needed the money! – to ask him for a summer job.  So I saw some of his research up close for three months in 1957.

I was young and naïve, so didn’t fully realize that, in spite of being rejected by mainstream science, the few parapsychologists around did not all band together in a friendly way to present a united front. There was a parapsychological establishment, centered in J. B. Rhine’s laboratory at Duke, and Puharich was definitely not part of that establishment: he was a “bad boy.”  I had already met Rhine when he came to lecture in Boston several times and corresponded with him.  I wanted to switch from electrical engineering to psychology, to prepare for a career in parapsychology.  MIT had no psychology programs, but Rhine helped me transfer to Duke as a psychology major, and he had indicated he would find a part-time job for me in his laboratory.  Once I spent the summer working for Puharich, though, Rhine decided I did not have sufficient discrimination to make a scientific parapsychologist.  The promised job disappeared: indeed, I was, a friend told me, put on the list of people to be discouraged from visiting Rhine’s lab.  I was a “bad boy” now myself, in a very minor way.

Here’s a photo of me at Puharich’s Maine laboratory, the Round Table Foundation.


Still an idealistic young man, I was naturally miffed over this treatment, although, as I matured, I realized I would have acted the same way as Rhine in a similar situation.  If I had devoted my life to making a case for my field based on very careful, methodologically sophisticated research, I would discourage wild young people from getting involved and undermining my work with questionable work of their own.

On the other hand, J. B. Rhine had given a talk to the entering Freshman women and invited any of them who were interested in parapsychology to visit his lab.  So there I was looking at books in the Parapsychology Laboratory’s library (I did not accept Rhine’s ban) when this beautiful young woman came in and asked if I believed in ESP.  More than 50 years of marriage later, Judy tells me I still use the same response I did with her way back then, that’s it’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of evidence…  So Rhine was the proximate cause of far more happiness than unhappiness for me, and he did decide after another 20 years or so that I had enough discrimination to make a parapsychologist….and the next 50 years were quite interesting….

And just to put a cap on these beginning threads, Puharich became even more of a “bad boy” to the parapsychological establishment by getting involved with things like UFO studies, while I became a part of that establishment.  Puharich eventually got too far out for me, but it’s a shame that his basic findings that Faraday cages may amplify or shield psi have been ignored, as they may be a key to a major advance in getting reliable psi in our work.  As far as I know, I’m the only one who did even a partial replication study of his work (Tart, C., 1988, Effects of electrical shielding on GESP performance. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research,  82, 129-146).

Just a beginning . … lots more since then on psychology, altered states, etc., to be written about some day….

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3 Responses to “How I Got Into Parapsychology”

  1. Love to read more about your history – my mentor worked with Puharich as well, great to see the book you referenced. What a small word, remember your Altered States class in the late 70’s. I do like Puharich’s information on choline.


  2. Wendy Cousins says:

    Interesting piece! By the way, your “How I Got Into Parapsychology” article was published in the Fall 2009 first editition of the PA newsletter Mindfield (pages 8-9)- complete with dashing photo. It’s archived on the PA website in the members section. :-)

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