Psychical Research

Psychical research is a branch of science concerned with the study of Extrasensory Perception (ESP), Psychokinesis (PK) and evidence that consciousness survives bodily death. Modern psychical research is often called parapsychology, though some prefer to restrict this term to the experimental part of the field.

Organized psychical research may be dated from the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882. An American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) followed in 1885. In 1919, the French Institut Metapsychique International (IMI) was formed.

The main impetus for these societies was the claim of Spiritualism to have provided Scientific evidence for Survival After Death, though investigators became disenchanted early on with the amount of fakery they found in physical Mediumship, and turned attention instead to Apparitions. The discovery of Leonora Piper by William James in Boston in 1890 reoriented the field toward Mediumship, this time of the mental variety, and the study of mediumship became the backbone of the field into the 1930s.

As research progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that both apparitions and Séance communications could in theory be explained by ESP (see Super-PSI), and it therefore became imperative to learn more about ESP and its characteristics. This led to an extensive program of experimentation under the direction of J.B. Rhine at Duke University (see Rhine Research Center), and to another reorientation of the field. Psychical research today is largely devoted to experimental work on ESP and PK, or “psi” (a term introduced to cover both phenomena, which are intertwined).

Although there are many independent psychical researchers, the field has increasingly received university support, with a corresponding weakening in the importance of the psychical research organizations.

Besides psi, Apparitions, and mediumship, psychical research is concerned with several other phenomena that relate to consciousness and survival. These include Out-of-Body Experience and Near-Death-Experience, which hint at the separation of consciousness from the body; Poltergeist, many of which are explainable in terms of PK; and Reincarnation. However, psychical research does not embrace some other classes of anomalous phenomena sometimes thought to fall under the heading of parapsychology. Astrology, ufology, cryptozoology and Fortean phenomena, although they may touch on psychical research at times, are all distinct from it.

Because many of its findings and theories challenge mainstream Scientific views, psychical research has always been a controversial field in the Western world. At the same time, its critical approach to its subject matter has sometimes earned it the disdain of persons who are confident in their beliefs about the same things psychical research studies. Perhaps for these reasons psychical research has not been in a position to respond to occasional public credulity in the psychic realm, ground it has ceded instead to organized skepticism under the auspices of the COMMITTEE FOR THE SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION OF CLAIMS OF THE PARANORMAL (CSICOP).


  • Broughton, Richard. Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
  • Edge, Hoyt, Robert L. Morris, John Palmer, and John Rush. Foundations of Parapsychology: Exploring the Boundaries of Human Capability. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
  • Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
  • Inglis, Brian. Science and Parascience: A History of the Paranormal, 1914–1939. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
  • Mauskopf, Seymour, and Michael McVaugh. The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychical Research. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1980.
  • Moore, R. Lawrence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Rogo, D. Scott. Parapsychology: A Century of Inquiry. New York: Taplinger, 1975.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

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