Joseph Banks Rhine and scientific parapsychology



The method issue

For half a century, from 1875 to 1925, psychical research investigated and documented a significant amount of mediumistic phenomena and other paranormal events, yet – despite the commitment of organizations such as the SPR – the scientific community as a whole remained skeptical, if not openly hostile, towards the recognition of the authenticity of these phenomena and their acceptance in the context of scientific research. The reason was always the same: every type of investigation always referred to spontaneous cases that, although checked in the testimonies, verified and authenticated by the researchers, could not be experimentally reproduced and therefore were not 100% ascertained. In addition to the numerous cases of fraud, which inevitably ended up making suspected even the phenomena validated as authentic, the skeptics always doubted that the testimonies presented in good faith by the people who had witnessed paranormal events were contaminated by memory errors or deformations produced by their psychic orientation. These forms of doubt, incongruous in front of the great amount of testimonies collected and published over the years, were also due to a specific psychic orientation, however the need for precision, reliability and validation required by the scientific method had a good game in excluding psychical research from the sphere of science.    

He who sought – with tenacity, energy, commitment and patience – to devise and apply a method of investigation that could be recognized as valid and accepted by the scientific community, was Joseph B. Rhine, rightfully considered as the founder of modern parapsychology. As we will see, his efforts were only partially successful: on the one hand he succeeded in obtaining that the Parapsychological Association, which he organized and made active since 1957, was accepted in 1969 within the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), which so recognized it as a scientific society; on the other hand the anomalies of the experimental validation results, typical of the phenomena investigated, and recognized by Rhine himself, made so that the reliability of his methods of investigation and the correctness of the published results were subsequently questioned by other scholars.   

Joseph Banks Rhine

J. B. Rhine  (1895-1980) was born in Pennsylvania, but from 1927 until his death lived and worked in Durham, North Carolina. For more detailed biographical information, see the Wikipedia page dedicated to him. After graduating in botany in 1925, Rhine followed the psychology course of William McDougall (1871-1938) at Harward University for one year. Rhine's interest in parapsychology was encouraged by McDougall (then president of the American Society for Psychical Research), who for a long time supported the need to apply a scientific method to parapsychology. McDougall, who had always been very critical of spiritualism, thought that the phenomena should be investigated by professional researchers in the academic field, and his efforts were aimed at ensuring that parapsychology was a branch of a university faculty. Thus, when McDougall in 1927 obtained the chair of Psychology at Duke University, he entrusted Rhine with the task of organizing and directing there a parapsychology laboratory under his supervision. For over a decade the Duke University Laboratory was the most followed and most accredited experimental center in the academic field, for the investigations carried out by Rhine and assistants first on the ESP faculties (Extra-Sensory Perception), which include telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance, and then on PK (psychokinesis).

In 1937 Rhine and McDougall founded the Journal of Parapsychology, an independent professional journal based on peer-review (before publication, the articles are evaluated by other professional scholars who check their scientific correctness), which still today is published every six months. In 1940 Rhine and Joseph G. Pratt (1910-1979) published Extrasensory Perception After Sixty Years, a text that summarized the results of the experiments conducted by the authors in the previous decade, as well as recalling the most important investigations conducted in the field of psychical research since the last decades of the nineteenth century. During the years of the Second World War, Rhine and his assistants had to suspend their investigations to collaborate with the military services. After the war, the activity of the Duke University Laboratory resumed, but some contrasts arisen within the academic environment, regarding the validity of the experiments conducted by Rhine and his assistants, caused that around 1960, Rhine, now close to retirement, began to think about an autonomous organization for the study of parapsychology.    

So it was that in 1965, with the financial support of some friends like Chester Carlson, the founder of Xerox, Rhine could give life to his Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM), within which it was created, also in Durham, a Parapsychology Institute independent of academic institutions. Thirty years later, on the occasion of the centenary of Rhine's birth, the denomination of the Foundation was changed to Rhine Research Center to honor the spouses Rhine and their fundamental contribution to the study of parapsychology. In the meantime, both Joseph Banks Rhine (nel 1980) and his wife, Louisa E. Rhine (Louisa Ella Weckesser, 1891-1983) had died: she had given a remarkable personal contribution to the research methods for the study of spontaneous phenomena, publishing various books.

The Rhines' orientation

J.B. Rhine and Louisa had met when they both attended the Botanic faculty at Chicago University: they married in 1920 and raised four children, remaining united until death in life and work. Louisa, who was a few years older than her husband, probably helped him to orient himself in the choices of his youthful years. Joseph had joined the Marines during the First World War and, after being dismissed in 1919, had undertaken the study of theology, driven by his desire for knowledge about the nature of the human being and his doubts about the existence of a soul. Louisa, daughter of a gardener who was an expert in the cultivation of orchids, had already undertaken the study of plant physiology, and so convinced Joseph to study Botany, until their graduation. Both were later hired as lecturers by West Virginia University.       

For a long time the Rhines had been interested in psychical research topics: they read the books of English scholars such as Oliver Lodge, Arthur Conan Doyle and William McDougall and, when they could, they attended the lectures given by these authors. It is therefore not surprising that in the years 1926-27 they attended the training courses taught by Walter Franklin Prince (1863-1934), founder of the Boston Society for Psychical Research. Prince became a sincere friend of Rhine, and wrote the introduction to his book Extrasensory Perception After Sixty Years. Prince's orientation towards mediumistic faculties was skeptical, and when within the American Society for Psychical Research the spiritualist current took over, he broke away and found the Boston Society, with the help of his friend William McDougall. In the two years 1930-31 Prince was also president of the SPR. In 1926 J.B. Rhine enrolled in the Faculty of Psychology at Harward University, where he attended for a year the lessons held by William McDougall: his abilities as a researcher were noticed and appreciated, so that the following year McDougall, who had obtained the chair of Psychology at Duke University, suggested that Rhine follow him there. The Rhines accepted, and Joseph was given the task of holding a course in Philosophy and Psychology, but above all he was entrusted with the organization of the Laboratory of Parapsychology, to which he devoted himself with all his energies for the rest of his life. 

It can be said that both in J. B. Rhine and in his wife Louisa, a strong cognitive interest in human nature, and in the possible survival to death of the conscious Ego, was combined with the devising and application of rigorous methods aimed at obtaining scientifically irreproachable, and experimentally repeatable, results. The tenacity and commitment with which both strove to pursue their goal were unanimously recognized, regardless of the criticisms made by other scholars regarding gaps and inaccuracies detectable in some aspects of their research. In any case, we must recognize to Joseph B. Rhine the intellectual honesty of having believed in the possibility of applying the scientific method also to the study of some aspects of parapsychology, even if he himself was well aware of the fact that: «since the beginning... we knew very well that the experimenter himself had something to do with the success or failure of the experiment». 

Method and experiments

Rhine first began by limiting the field of experimentation to only two aspects of parapsychology: telepathy and clairvoyance. He realized how telepathy, which required a transmitting subject and a receiving one, could not exclude clairvoyance in the case that the receiving subject, if he had been a particularly gifted psychic, could have guessed the target independently of the transmission of the thought of the other subject. «Now, ...starting in 1927 – he wrote – telepathy was first tackled after the discovery that clairvoyance had not yet been ruled out, as a counter-hypothesis, in telepathy tests». It was easier to devise experiments aimed at demonstrating clairvoyance: it was enough to eliminate the transmitting subject, asking the subject being tested to guess the target card: «Of all the phenomena studied by parapsychology at the time, clairvoyance seemed the most easily provable. Only one subject was needed. The target object had to be only chosen randomly and conveniently hidden. The recording was the simplest because only one was enough: that of the subject's response». 

But even in this case difficulties were not lacking: in fact, the target was usually formed by that particular deck of cards, called ESP cards or Zener cards (because they were designed by Karl Zener, another researcher at the Duke University Laboratory). It is a deck of 25 cards in which five symbols (square, circle, cross, star and wave) are shown, each on five cards. Obviously the deck had to be shuffled before each test, and it was necessary to be sure that the person who shuffled the cards did not acquire any information about their order, that could then be transmitted telepathically to the receiving subject. Shuffling cards machines were also designed. 

Rhine started from the pragmatic assumption that psi should be considered as a kind of biological energy resource of which not only humans, but also animals, are endowed to varying degrees. Psi determines the phenomena studied by parapsychology, both in the form of ESP (telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition) and in the form of PK (psychokinesis). The term psi is nothing more than the name of the corresponding Greek letter, and should not be considered an acronym of psyche, since in this case it should be written psy. As for the goal of psi investigations, so he stated: «The ascertainment of the reality of psychic phenomena and their elementary types was the main line of research... But it was only a slightly more remote objective to know whether these various phenomena represented distinct powers, faculties, or abilities, or were fundamentally unitary in their principle, differing only as phenomena. A second and wider relationship would have made clear if the research on skills had been successful, and depending on it. It was a matter of discovering if the faculties were consistent with the rest of psychology and biology, and in what relation they were with the physical world».    

It can be observed that the reality of psychic phenomena had already been ascertained by Charles Richet and other scholars, yet within the scientific community the skeptics current remained the majority. Rhine was convinced that, in the face of a method unassailable under the experimental point of view, the results would have the value of incontrovertible and definitive proofs. However, it did not take into account the fact that, in the scientific field, the objective validity of the experimental methods is due to their repeatability and the assurance that, once all the conditions required for the experiment are met, the results must inevitably be the same. Experiments on psychic phenomena, on the other hand, are characterized by the aleatory nature of the results, which depend on various variables such as the subject, the experimenter, the moment, the place, the interest, etc. It is therefore a field of research that has much more connection with psychology than with actual scientific investigation. In fact, once repeated in other locations, the experiments devised by Rhine and his assistants gave very different results compared to those obtained by him, and consequently they also the method he adopted began to be criticized, and doubts about the correctness of the results he published were advanced.       

Rhine, who was obviously an intelligent researcher, openly acknowledged these difficulties: «It was recognized, already at an early stage, that anyone who wants to experiment on the psi faculty must, of course, be able to prove it and that this was the number one obstacle that every experimenter had to overcome... From the beginning... we knew very well that the experimenter himself had something to do with the success or failure of the experiment».  And further on: «Perhaps the most important development... related to the control of experiments on psi was the discovery that the most important condition in the psi test is the experimenter – or rather the subject-experimenter relationship – and that the greatest limitation in the research field was probably the lack of a group of properly chosen and sufficiently trained researchers, because almost everything in this field depends on them. It was painful to see how some of the best subjects could not work well with certain experimenters, and even more painful to realize that some experimenters could work well only with subjects who, with the help of other experimenters, had already gained confidence in their own faculties... Toward the end of this period we were at least aware of the need to find or create good psi experimenters, just as we had already realized the need to find and train good subjects».  

It could be affirmed that precisely the correctness of the control methods developed by Rhine may lead us to consider as a valid scientific discovery the ascertainment of the aleatory nature of the results obtained and their dependence on variables of a psychic nature. But unfortunately scientific knowledge is not based on these premises: in the very moment in which an element of uncertainty is introduced, it is necessary to find out a law that allows to delimit the field of knowledge with respect to that of the unknowability. In an article published in 1977, Rhine recognized that: «There is indeed a crisis in the parapsychological methodology. So far most of our methods, like those of other sciences, have been based on physical principles. Now, however, I recognize that any reliance on physical conditions to channel the psi has been in vain, founded as it was on a now discredited assumption: discredited by the same psi research. All the major researches of the past have shown that psi can not be hindered by physical barriers, such as space, time or any other known physical condition. I was forced to convince myself of this when it became necessary to decide whether the PK results were due to the subject or the experimenter. It had to be recognized that no physical separation of the two could be considered adequate. This fact came to a decisive crisis especially in animal research in recent years, when it was necessary to consider carefully, before drawing a conclusion, if the animal was indeed the real subject... When I came to recognize the smashing consequences of the fact that the physical methods were inadequate for an experimental psi methodology, I realized that I had been aware for a long time that we had already started using non-physical methods in psi research without generalizing the extent of the important difference involved».      

Analysis of Rhine's method

Rhine thought he could ascertain the existence of psi by relying on mathematical methods based on probability calculation and statistics. Probabilitiy calculation has two aspects, the first of which anticipates a certain result, while the second confirms the probability that an event will occur on the basis of a long series of recorded events. For example, since in a deck of 25 ESP cards each of the symbols is shown on five cards, the probability that the subject can guess a randomly drawn card is 20%. This does not mean that on five attempts the subject will undoubtedly guess a card and only one: he could guess two or three as well as none. It is only on a long series of hundreds or thousands of attempts that a coincidence exists between the probability of guessing the target and the percentage of the targets actually guessed by a subject not endowed with particular psi faculties. Then there are mathematical methods to evaluate the percentage deviation of the results obtained by a given subject compared to the mere statistical probability given by probability calculation: if this deviation exceeds a certain range, it is said to be significant. For example, if on a thousand tests performed with a deck of ESP cards each time shuffled and intact (open series) a subject guesses the target 300 times (30% of correct answers) instead of the 200 (20%) provided by probability calculation, the deviation is significant and the experiment is considered a success. But if the correct answers were 205 the gap would not be significant, because it would fall within the normal margins of variability with respect to the statistical average.     

Significant results were obtained by Rhine and his assistants, over a period of more than ten years, experimenting with various subjects, some of which particularly gifted. Rhine therefore thought to have proved the existence of a psi faculty whose action does not fall within the physical laws we know. However, what Rhine could claim to have shown is that some subjects, in certain circumstances, predict a certain target a number of times higher than the one predicted by probability calculation, but failed to find out both the causes that determined successes or failures, and an adequate method of training that could ensure, at least for the most gifted subjects, the success of the experiment. On the contrary, he had to recognize the dependence of psi on some variables of a psychic nature, due above all to the relationship between the subject and the experimenter, to the attitude of the latter, and to a feeling of fatigue and progressive indifference, provoked in the subject by long-term experiments, consisting of repeated and monotonous series of tests.      

In this regard, Rhine wrote as follows: «We can say that we do not know anything that affects the real quantity of psi if not the general motivation of the subject. If the subjects are indifferent, uninterested, and yet take part in the tests for some reason, they will most likely score at standard level. If they are interested, their characteristics, measured by these psychological tests, more or less familiar and in current use, simply divide them into two groups that show tendencies to score higher or lower. They are then, in these particulars tests, psi-positive or psi-negative. As this became more clear in our minds in a couple of decades, it turned out to be anything but a minor discovery. It helped us to explain many things that had disappointed us in the psi trials and showed us that the research work on the psi processes was becoming, first of all, typically psychological rather than parapsychological. It consisted in untangling the elusive psi capacity from the most familiar functions of mental life, and the methods for working with this psi-differential tendency were becoming distinctly psychological».

The nature of psi according to Rhine

Rhine, while considering psi as a non-physical energy, recognized its ability to exert effects on the physical world: «At this point, another aspect of the relationship between psi and the physical world became even more important. If psi processes and the physical order of nature are so different, how can they interact?... But this recognition of a non-physical quality of psi reminds us that we have suitable methods not only for the physical side of this interaction, but also for the mental one; in short, with the elementary methods of physics itself, we have ruled out physicality as a property of the psi function... It has been found, with the same criteria of the physicist, that psi is not physical; and yet it has shown the characteristics of a hypothetical principle of physical-human nature. It exerts influence. It shows the ability to produce work that is the general definition of energy. What kind of energy can it be?». 

Furthermore, Rhine regarded psi as a biological function: «Without any doubt, psi is also a biological function. To hypothesize a biological function, which was at the same time not physical, was to introduce into biology something unknown and very little welcome; but it is interesting to notice that the discoveries made on psi in the living organism accord very well with the fact that psi is not physical. No localization of the psi functions (analogous to that of the sense organs or muscles in the sensorimotor system) has so far been seriously suggested. No definitive proof of the function's localization in the nervous system has been given, although some speculative suggestion has been made. However, even without any direct experimental proof, we must assume that psi faculty is part of the organism's genetic system... The working hypothesis emerged... is that probably every individual of the human species has, to some extent, potential psi skills, and that the big differences between individuals are the result of psychological factors (and perhaps other unknown) that can affect its limits and its use».   

Beyond the rather convoluted way of expression of Rhine, also accentuated in the Italian translation (not exactly exemplary) by Ugo Dèttore of the chapters written by him in Wolman's Handbook of Parapsychology (1977), it is not clear why Rhine had to consider psi as a biological function, without explaining – as it would have been appropriate – if this meant referring to it as a faculty dependent on brain activity. On reading his writings, we get the impression that Rhine considered a priori psi as a biological function, by bias and not on the basis of the results of the experiments carried out. It is as if he stated: «Since everything concerning living beings is biological, even psi must be a biological function», without bringing any evidence on the matter, indeed declaring openly that: «no definitive proof of this... has been given». A rather questionable way of arguing for a man of science.        

Psychological aspects of psi

Another issue which raised many doubts on the experiments carried out by Rhine with the intent to prove the existence of psi in front of the scientific community, was given by the dependence of the test results not only on the subjects' psychic orientation, but also on the experimenters' one. It is evident that the importance of these typically subjective factors represented an unavoidable obstacle to the objectivity required by the scientific method with regard to the independent validation of a certain experiment. In fact, in science, experiments conducted with the same method must give identical results, provided they are performed correctly, regardless of who performs them. Although Duke University researchers thought they had made an important psychological discovery in establishing that there are phenomena related to mental activity whose manifestations depend on the subjective psychic attitude of the experimenter, this discovery took parapsychology back on the field of human sciences, much more insecure than that of physical sciences, despite the optimism with which Rhine wrote: «Now psychology had a valid objective argument for being more than a dark branch of the less enlightened side of physics. In a word, the mind, after all, was experimentally real. More immediately important, if anything could be, was the discovery (or rediscovery) of the fact that psi is an unconscious function. Parapsychology was thus adding to psychological sciences an objectively experimental entry into the area of unconscious mental processes».   

It is necessary to highlight once again the improper use made, also by Rhine, of the term «unconscious» to designate those phenomena of mental activity that escape the voluntary control of the conscious Ego, but which are conscious in their manifestations. On the other hand, as we have seen, some of the paranormal phenomena occurring in a trance state or in a state of hypnosis can be really unconscious for the subjects that determine them, as the conscious Ego of these subjects is absent just while the phenomena occur. The observation of Rhine and his collaborators on the reality of psychic phenomena determined by mental activity did not represent any new discovery, and the «valid objective argument» on which Rhine believed he could rely was in conflict with the psychic subjectivity of the experimenter, which added to that of the experimented subject. In fact, soon Rhine's experiments, instead of being considered as a definitive proof of the existence of psi, irreproachable in the method and in the correctness of their execution (according to the intentions of the researcher), began to be criticized by various academic personalities, who also came to denounce the bad faith of some of Rhine's collaborators who would have manipulated test results to their advantage. So what was supposed to remain forever outside the door came in through the window again, since the doubts about the ambiguity of parapsychology as a field of scientific research reappeared on time.    

The desire to gain control over psi

One of the reasons that arouse in people the desire to know is given by the control power that the conscious Ego can have towards the phenomena falling within the sphere of knowledge. Also in the case of phenomena studied by parapsychology, the aim of the researchers was to understand how mental faculties that determine such phenomena could be activated, developed and properly used under the control of will. Rhine declared it openly: «The main orientation of psychological studies on psi has been the search for mental states more suitable to the functioning of psi. Hypnosis, the first great hope of the past, did not seem to justify so many expectations over time».

However, there are various manifestations of genius and creative talent, not only artistic but also mathematical, which, although determined by mental activity, are not controlled by the conscious Ego's will. Rossini, for example, said that when he was young, the musical themes of his compositions flowed in his mind spontaneously and in large quantities, and he had only to put their notes on paper. But at some point his creative vein was exhausted, and for many years he became depressed and stopped composing music. Other famous composers, such as Mozart, were endowed with exceptional creativity throughout their short lives. Precisely these aspects of spontaneous creativity, not subject to deliberate control by the conscious Ego, led Frederic W. H. Myers to hypothesize the existence of a Subliminal Self, to which paranormal faculties could be attributed, as ve have seen in the page dedicated to the theories about spirit.

Rhine's efforts to identify those elements of psi that could be brought under the deliberate control of the gifted subject or the experimenter were unsuccessful. In manifesting or not manifesting, psi always showed a random and elusive quid that, despite the adjustments of test methods, could not be avoided or controlled. The same predictions of the subjects about the results of the tests conducted on them revealed to be random or unfounded and, as we said, the attitude of the experimenters could influence the success or failure of the tests, without being able to find out which elements consciously controlled determined this influence, which was generically attributed to some temperamental or psychological inclination of experimenters towards psi  (sheep-goats effect, where sheep represented those experimenters who had faith in psi existence and in the success of the experiments, and the goats those who were more skeptical about it). Over time, the desire to investigate the various psychological and environmental factors that could have an effect on test results led the researchers to devise increasingly complex experiments, whose results – often controversial – rather than clarifying things, ended up further confounding a conceptual framework already in itself critical.      

The origin and cause of the phenomena

The fact that the existence of paranormal phenomena has been ascertained (even if not unanimously recognized), and the inability of the conscious Ego to obtain a satisfactory cognitive framework on the causes of such phenomena and on their modes of manifestation, so to be able to use them at will, they determine a psychic uncertainty that, at least until today, has not been solved. On the one hand there are those who believe, like Rhine, that these are biological phenomena, which occur both in man and in other animals, therefore linked to the life and functioning of our body, without the need to hypothesize other entities involved in psi occurrences. The fact that the conscious Ego can not know and control these phenomena, and that the will – in many cases – is an obstacle to their manifestation, causes the psi to be relegated to the obscure and controversial area of the so-called unconscious. But the way in which these presumed unconscious faculties can be traced back to the physiological activity of the brain, remains to be demonstrated and verified.   

On the other side there are those who believe that paranormal phenomena are caused by the interference of autonomous energies (more or less intelligent and more or less conscious) with our dimension. These entities would succeed, under certain circumstances, in interacting with the psychophysical system of particularly suitable subjects, thus making possible for phenomena to occur. However, even on the basis of this hypothesis the cognitive framework remains far from satisfactory: anyway, there are many well documented telekinetic mediumistic phenomena (PK) that validate the existence of an energetic substance capable of performing physical work, as Rhine pointed out. This substance, often called ectoplasm (using the term coined by Richet), shows itself as a product of the transformation of the psychophysical system of the medium (and partly also of the sitters) into something different, having elusive features towards physico-chemical and biological tests, but nevertheless able to exert concrete and often permanent actions on the physical world. Now, that such a transformation can be attributed exclusively to the physiological functioning of the human brain, even in its unconscious dynamics, without the intervention of other alien energies, seems frankly incredible and, in the light of current scientific knowledge, also impossible to explain. Both Rhine and his collaborators, as well as many other researchers, have committed themselves tenaciously, but without success, in an attempt to solve the problem of the direct influence of human mind on matter.    


Kant & Swedenborg
Hypnotism & psyche
Hypnosis research
Research hypotheses
Myers' research
Frederik van Eeden
Dualism of theories
Research in Italy: 1
Research in Italy: 2
Research in Italy: 3
Ernesto Bozzano
Theories about spirit
Joseph B. Rhine
G. A. Rol's faculties
Ugo Dèttore
Limits of paranormal
Psyche, reality & will
Two levels of reality
Beyond the Ego