The Study of Human Experiences Project

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Two people who helped me with my book, Dr. Carlos S. Alvarado and Dr. Nancy L. Zingrone, have set up a new research website called the Study of Human Experiences Project.

In addition to a project they’re working on with residents of Richmond, Virginia, they’re conducting a new online survey which you can participate in by clicking the link in the above paragraph.

Drs. Alvarado and Zingrone are both Assistant Professors of Research at the Division of Perceptual Studies in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences of the University of Virginia. (I got the picture of them from their website, as you’ll see!)

Update: Drs. Alvarado and Zingrone have also recently taken positions at the Atlantic University in Virginia Beach! Dr. Zingrone is the new Director of Academic Affairs and Dr. Alvarado is the Scholar in Residence.

IBM and ESP Part Two

J. B. Rhine always dreamed of building an ESP machine. In an earlier post I talked about how he first wrote IBM about it all the way back in 1938, and they were excited. “There is no question in my mind,” IBM staffer (and well-known inventor) Reynold Johnson wrote back enthusiastically, that “it would be possible to develop a machine along the lines that you outline.” Nothing ever came of it that I could find.

But in 1961, with Rhine’s help, IBM in Canada conducted an ESP test with Maclean’s, a weekly magazine, and a Canadian Broadcasting Company radio series called ESP.

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A card was inserted in the July 29, 1961 issue of Maclean’s and readers were given instructions. According to letters I found between Rhine and IBM in Canada, the results were inconclusive, and the experiment was not refined or repeated. I tried to find records for the experiment. I contacted Macleans and IBM archivists, and they did their best to locate them, but it looks like nothing from this test has survived.

(You can read IBM and ESP Part One here.)

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IBM and ESP Part One

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One of the most fun finds I made while going through the Parapsychology Laboratory’s correspondence was a 1938 exchange between J. B. Rhine and IBM.

Rhine contacted them first. “I am writing you concerning the possibility of adapting the Test Scoring Machine which you have invented, to the purpose of research we are conducting at the Parapsychology Laboratory here in extra-sensory perception.” Rhine was always trying to refine their experiments and tighten the controls, and part of that quest was the creation of an ESP machine.

The best part in this exchange however, was the response from IBM. “There is no question in my mind,” Reynold Johnson wrote back enthusiastically, that “it would be possible to develop a machine along the lines that you outline.” Again, this was 1938.

Reynold Johnson wasn’t just any IBM employee. He had designed the test scoring machine Rhine mentioned while working as a high school science teacher, and his design was bought by IBM, who then hired him as an engineer. Johnson went on to have an amazing career, with 90 patents to his name and he has been called the “father of the disk drive. (His Wikipedia entry is worth reading, he was an interesting guy.)

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“I have given some thought to the application of the Test Scoring Machine to the problem you describe,” Johnson went on, “and have made out several forms which might possibly work out for the purposes you have in mind.” A detail from one of the forms he sent is shown above.

Johnson wasn’t sure if his machine could do the trick and said, “Undoubtedly a special machine more along the lines you outlined could be developed, but a good deal more information would have to be made available to us,” and then they talked about where the funds would come from in order to pay for the development of such a machine.

In the last letter I found Johnson said he was going to take up the matter with their Engineering Department and get back to him, but I couldn’t find any more letters after that. That isn’t to say they aren’t in there. There are over 700 boxes in the Parapsychology Laboratory archives at Dukes and I didn’t go through them all.

I keep meaning to post about how much else is in there to explore. I just scratched the surface. There are still countless discoveries like this one to be made.

A New Magazine: EdgeScience

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I’m so excited about this new magazine EdgeScience! And it’s coming out from the Society for Scientific Exploration. You can download the first issue for free.

There’s an article about the Global Consciousness Project by Roger D. Nelson that I look forward to reading. Consciousness is one of the areas I’m most curious about.

The article has a great Pierre Teilhard de Chardin pull quote. “It is our duty—as men and women—to behave as though limits to our ability do not exist. We are collaborators in creation of the Universe.”

(Brief aside: I once did a piece for NPR about the Vatican’s search for a patron saint for the internet. A lot of people wanted Pierre Teilhard de Chardin because of his ideas about the Noosphere, and I did too, but he wasn’t eligible because he is not, and likely never will be canonized a saint.)

Here’s why I think this magazine is good news. I was asked to write a “PS” section for the paperback edition of my book. One of the things I go into briefly is the loss to science when anomalies are dismissed. I used the discoveries about audio hallucinations made by Dr. Louisa Rhine as an example. Had the scientists of Dr. Louisa Rhine day paid attention to her papers the recent “discoveries” being made in this area today—that people hear voices more than we knew, and that it isn’t necessarily a sign of mental illness—would have begun fifty years ago and we would be that much further along in understanding what is happening and why.

It reminds me of this professor at Hunter who once got up at one of J. B. Rhine’s lectures and denounced him. Rhine kept his cool and invited the professor, Dr. Bernard Reiss, to try the experiments himself. Reiss did and got statistically significant results. Later, at an APA conference, Dr. Reiss was criticized by a Dr. Britt for publishing his results so soon. Reiss stood and said:

“I undertook the experiment as a way of demonstrating to my classes that ESP did not occur. I did not succeed in that,” he told the crowd. “I do not know whether Dr. Britt believes in throwing away good data just because he doesn’t precisely understand the full implications of that data, but I felt they should be reported.”

A new publication to report findings that would otherwise be ignored or belittled is something to celebrate. So check out EdgeScience!

The Sacred Mushroom

On January 24, 1961, the TV show One Step Beyond aired an episode about ESP and psychedelics which is available on YouTube. I loved hearing the One Step Beyond theme music, and host John Newland using his Ooh-I-Am-Saying-Something-Scary-voice to speak about an area that is actually pretty straightforward and not particularly spooky as unexplored (by science, then).

I referred to this episode in Unbelievable because the lab experimented briefly with synthetic hallucinogens and because two of the people who appear on the show are also part of the story I tell. They are Dr. Barbara B. Brown from the University of California and Riker Laboratories (who would become famous in the 1970’s for her research in biofeedback) and Andrija Puharich, a scientist Rhine never warmed up to.

On the show they conducted a couple experiments with hallucinogenic mushrooms. First a small group of subjects ate the mushrooms and they reported what happened, and later host John Newland took mushrooms and Puharich administered ESP tests.

It’s pretty astounding to watch, considering how things have tightened up since!

Part 1 – Mexico

[Video removed because the link no longer works.]

Part 2 – ESP Tests

[Video removed because the link no longer works.]

Part 3 – The Panel Comments

[Video removed because the link no longer works.]

Another Inventor and the Afterlife: Glenn W. Watson

Watching the History’s Detectives segment about Thomas Edison reminded me of another inventor who had an interest in subjects related to parapsychology: Glenn W. Watson. From my book:

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“Just before Rhine retired from Duke in 1965, a 75-year-old inventor named Glenn W. Watson started writing Clement Stone, one of Rhine’s financial contributors. He was looking for financing for Telepathy-Type, a typewriter that would type out messages received telepathically. Watson, the inventor of the radio typewriter, had come up with the idea 30 years before. AT&T had worked for years on a similar project, Watson said, but had gotten nowhere.

“Stone asked Rhine what he thought and Rhine said the idea had no merit. Engineers young and old had attempted approaching the problem this way, he said. But what they all failed to understand was “that the limiting factor is in the individual, in the deep recesses of human personality, and not in the gadgetry of transmission.” Watson’s plan was “based on a complete misconception of what telepathy is and how it works.”

“Point taken about the limiting factor. But no one really knew what telepathy was or how it worked, including Rhine.”

That came out harsher than I had intended, although technically true. I think in part I was defending Glenn Watson and all the engineers of the world. Watson might have had a different take on the problem, but it was possible that the results of his efforts could have been enlightening.  In any case,  Watson died a few years later sadly, in 1969. But he has an interesting history of inventions and accomplishments.

In 1931, Watson invented something called a radio typewriter. Someone types a message on a typewriter and the message is transmitted via radio waves to a printer. He introduced his invention to the world by sending a message to Admiral Byrd who was in Antarctica at the time. Quite the showman!

A couple of years later Watson developed a machine to read aloud to the blind. Now why isn’t he more well known for that??  Did something come along soon after that surpassed his invention?

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Watson also came up with he called the telepiano. The idea was a pianist would play a piano in one location, and that would be transmitted, again via radio waves, to every properly equipped telepiano which would then start playing whatever the pianist had just played. Fun, but I’m skeptical about how well the telepianos could recreate the subtler aspects of the original performance.

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In the end, according to a Detroit Free Press article, Watson felt “his greatest work—the demonstration of mental telepathy—is still to be recognized.”

“I’ll put it over,” he said with confidence.  “I know how, but people aren’t ready for it yet. No one believes in anything new, so an inventor has to be a salesman, too.” [True, true.] He also said he was working with “Duke University scientists who are studying extra-sensory perception.”

I don’t remember coming across anything to confirm that, but even though Rhine was skeptical about Watson’s device, it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have met with him and heard him out. While looking around to see if I had anything else in my files about Watson I found another Detroit Free Press article (August 7, 1950 ) which says Watson applied for a patent for the telepathy machine, and describes how the machine would operate.

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“The machine would have a revolving belt carrying all the letters of the alphabet and other symbols to make sentences. There would be a key and when you pressed it, as the belt revolved below, it would stamp out a particular letter.

“Now to test out mental telepathy you would use two of these machines. One man, who was going to try to send a message by thought, would have a machine in a place remote from one who was to be the receiver.

“The two machines would be synchronized so the belts would be moving together—the same letters passing under the key at the same time.

“The one who was sending would look at the machine and as the letter—let’s say ‘C’—passed below his key he would send the thought ‘now’ or ‘hit it’ to the receiver.

“The receiver would just punch down his key when he thought he received a ‘thought impulse’ to do it. If mental telepathy was working he should hit the ‘C’ the sender wanted him to get.”

Watson thought he could build his telepathy machine for $2,500, but ultimately the machines would cost $97 a piece when he could build them in the thousands.

[The first picture is from Watson’s obituary, Detroit Free Press November 20, 1969. The second is from Popular Science, 1931, and the next one is from Radio-Craft. The date is cut off, but it’s from the thirties. The last picture is also from Popular Science, 1933, and it’s a picture of Watson with his radio typewriter, not the telepathy machine, which I suspect was never built.]

Edison and the Afterlife Part 2

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History’s Detectives did a very entertaining segment about Edison’s machine (thank you for the pointer, Winifer Skattebol). You can see it here. It’s the first historical mystery they try to solve and it’s really worth watching.

And, one of their Edison authorities, Paul Israel, the Director and General Editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers, didn’t try to downplay Edison’s interest in the possibility of life after death.

So there you go!