"How could you have known she had cancer?" her oncologist asked. "Are you some kind of psychic?"
I didn't know she had cancer, of course, only that I felt the sudden, alarming sense of her impending death. In fact, although it might surprise those familiar with my unusual reputation, I don't claim, at least these days, to have any special extrasensory abilities. But the doctor's first question—how had I known?—is one that I just may be able to answer.
How can we access information seemingly beyond the reach of inference or sensory perception? That question has driven the entire field of psychical research, known in contemporary parlance as parapsychology. It has also been pivotal in my personal career—in my younger days as a reputed psychic participating in some of the most publicized parapsychology experiments of the last century, and more recently, as a scientist with expertise in cognitive psychology, personality and altered states. Despite more than a hundred years of research, this question remains controversial and unresolved, although the distinctly nonmystical realms of neurology, physics and mathematics may play a role.
The first person to subject psychic claims to statistical tests was Duke University researcher J.B. Rhine, who pioneered controlled experiments on what he termed extrasensory perception (ESP), later known as psi. Rhine adopted the term parapsychology and asked whether ESP was more than a matter of chance. Rhine's experiments were simple. "Senders" focused on randomly shuffled cards marked with symbols: star, cross, circle, wavy lines or square. "Receivers" guessed at the symbol in the sender's mind. By 1940, after 33 experiments and nearly a million trials, Rhine said he'd found an overall effect. But the evidence was inconsistent, and mainstream scientists were not convinced.
Seeking more compelling results, the next generation of parapsychologists tried to induce psi through altered states like dreams and sensory deprivation. They also recruited those considered capable of delivering consistently better results—in other words, psychics.
Becoming Boy Blue
My induction into the psychic Hall of Fame began with a casual experiment. I was only 17-years-old—I knew little about scientific research, and not much more about myself. I knew only that I had a deep interest in human nature, instilled during childhood as my closest friend slowly died from a rare connective tissue disease that seemed to dissolve him from the inside out.
That focus deepened in the summer of 1970, as I wandered the cliffs of Acadia National Park in Maine with a group of friends. Many of us had nicknames and mine was Blue, for my love of the peaceful sky and water around the park. Late one night, I climbed a cliff and fell, saving myself by grabbing a tree instead of smashing on the rocks about a hundred feet below. Days later, a friend committed suicide by jumping from a different cliff. I felt we had traded lives. Soon after, I met two women who told me about Arizona gold prospector James Kidd, who left a quarter of a million dollars in his handwritten will for scientific research into the existence of the soul.
Returning to my home in New York, I'd spent the day visiting the Museum of Natural History on Manhattan's Upper West Side only six blocks from the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), where the Kidd Estate Project was headquartered. After wandering the museum, I called the Society from a phone booth and was put right through to a graduate student working on the Kidd Project.
"Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?" she asked. I associated the term with an exercise I'd originally practiced with my dying friend when his pain made other activities unbearable: We lay in the grass, relaxed our bodies and let our imaginations run free. It was the only introduction I needed. I agreed to come right over.
"By the way, what's your name?" she asked before hanging up.
"Blue," I said.
As soon as I arrived I was invited to participate in an experiment that required I relax in one room while trying to describe objects hidden in another room. The notion was that if the mind could "leave" the body to see the objects, perhaps it could also survive bodily death.
"Project your mind into the room upstairs and describe what you see on the table," the grad student instructed.
In response, I named a few objects: A statuette, antlers, a circle with an "X" in its middle and a rectangular, wire-filled box. These items, it turned out, matched a statuette of a reindeer and an actual reel-to-reel tape recorder on the table in a room upstairs, where I'd never been. In truth, invoking the images hadn't been that difficult. I'd spent the afternoon staring at stuffed animals with antlers (among other objects) at the museum. And the lab equipment surrounding me might remind anyone of a wire-filled box. But the graduate student conducting the test was impressed. "You're a psychic," she pronounced. To a teenager seeking transcendent experience, she was an authority.
I continued to visit the ASPR often during the next couple of years, and found that Kidd researchers were attracted by my easy ability to enter the out-of-body experience, or OBE—the altered state deemed essential for investigating the soul. To me it was a familiar state of mind I had practiced since childhood. I just relaxed my body as deeply as I could and imagined how it would feel to be someplace else. The more I relaxed, and the more intensely I focused, the more I felt as though I were no longer in my body but mentally present in that other place.
It only makes sense that when I moved to Durham, North Carolina, as a Duke University undergrad in 1972, I found a home at the Psychical Research Foundation (PRF), which shared the Kidd legacy with ASPR. My mentor was the bald, bespectacled psychologist Robert Morris, who had recently earned his Ph.D. from Duke. Our experiment, still considered the classic research on the OBE, used heart and brain wave sensors to establish the signature physiology of the OBE, an underlying arousal coupled with deep, overt relaxation. Whatever the OBE was, Morris concluded, it was the same every time.
We also asked whether the OBE was purely subjective, in the mind of the "traveler" alone, or might somehow be noticed by a distant observer. To pin it down experimentally, we set out to see whether living creatures could detect my mental "presence" when I focused on them from afar.
Human subjects reported that they could somehow sense my presence, but eventually it became clear that they were picking up everything from passing cars to creaks in the floorboards. Gerbils had no apparent reaction. A black rat snake banged his head against his box exactly when I focused on him during our first experiment, but appeared docile the next time out. A more consistent and statistically significant response came from my pet kitten, Spirit, who relaxed whenever I focused on him from a distance. That research was published in the peer reviewed ASPR Journal and to this day, Spirit's behavior has never been explained away.
My participation in those startling experiments became fodder for a host of misleading press reports, from a supermarket tabloid to the front page of the Wall Street Journal, where I was falsely quoted as saying I'd contacted discarnate entities. Even as a naive 19-year-old college student, I felt discomfort with my role and realized I was being used. Attending classes, I spoke with professors who had contempt for Rhine and the parapsychology scene around campus. I was relieved when they failed to grasp I was the controversial psychic "Blue," by then living in a closet-size back room in an old clapboard house on the edge of campus that served as the PRF lab.
I lived at the lab because the rent was low—just $35 a month—and, with no help from family, I barely had enough to pay for food. What I lacked in money I made up for with work. There at night alone, I tended the animals—not just my cat Spirit and his brother, Soul, but the hamsters and gerbils, too. I felt like I was part of the menagerie, a psychic mascot always on hand, not just to participate in experiments but also to build bookshelves and help write papers. When the PRF was called to investigate the famed Amityville haunted house, I was encouraged to go along. But after a local friend checked it out for me, I concluded it was a fraud and stayed home. It seemed clear to me that Morris and others benefited when I took the spotlight and drew the fire, allowing them to play the scientist role without being tarred by the "psychic" brush.
These were sacrifices I was willing to make as long as whatever truth we found might survive. But the truth was ambiguous. One researcher I knew was dismissed from Rhine's laboratory after throwing out data he deemed too negative to support his conclusions. Another discarded data he thought too positive. Despite these abuses, most researchers seemed to shoot straight. Even so, when one researcher reported spectacular results, efforts at replication by other researchers often failed. Even the most dramatic results in a parapsychology laboratory, I learned, couldn't be reproduced on demand. Had we tried to replicate the kitten experiment, for instance, it would have been impossible to achieve the same conditions. The kitten became older and more independent. Other pets' owners would, inevitably, have different dynamics with pets of their own. It appeared to me that something real might be going on, but pinning it down in the lab was going to be hard.
Researchers weren't the only people intrigued by the possibility of psi, of course. The concept was especially attractive to a tight circle of adherents in the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill. Hoping to gain advantage on the world stage, they cobbled together a million dollars a year over the course of 20 years for a classified program eventually revealed as the Stargate project. Given my background, I was asked to consult along with reputed psychic superstars Hella Hammid and Ingo Swann.
Almost every day, we were taken to a stark white room at the renowned Menlo Park, California, think tank, Stanford Research Institute International (SRI). There, acting as veritable psychic spies, we used the free response technique called "remote viewing" to train and focus on targets from foreign government offices to clandestine weapons projects until impressions flowed through our minds.
It was in July 1980, in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis, that I received an urgent morning call asking me to report to SRI. I met with a tall, expressionless man who served me a cup of hot coffee before we retired to the white room and got to work.
"We have a person who needs a description," the monitor said, offering me not a clue. Though I hardly understood the process, the question triggered a cascade of impressions about a person in a debilitated state of health. "He seems to be suffering from nausea," I said. "One side of his body seems damaged or hurt." I wondered whether the person I was describing might be some business person or a head of state.
"Where will he be in the next few days?" the monitor asked, again without inflection. I suddenly felt the sensation of sitting on an airplane that was taking off.
"On an airplane," I said.
The target turned out to be the hostage Richard Queen, held by Iranian militants and now desperately ill with multiple sclerosis that affected his nerves on one side. In part due to my input, I was later informed by contacts at SRI, President Carter dispatched a plane to bring Queen home.
Were my impressions psychic? The hostages had been flooding the news for months.
Reports about Queen's health problems, including the issue of "a lame shoulder," had been in the news as well. I don't know whether such reports infiltrated my unconscious without my realizing it, but it would make sense to consider that possibility before the paranormal alternative.
In fact, if remote viewing worked, the idea that it required special psychic talents, while admittedly seductive, struck me as unlikely. I noticed that some of those nurturing psychic reputations seemed prone to exaggerate their claims and willing to compete for celebrity through any means possible. But people without psychic pedigree could sometimes achieve striking results.
In a session filmed live at the ASPR for British television, for example, a volunteer from the production crew with no claim to psychic ability described a randomly chosen target: a small, quiet park with trees and gazebo, a statue with wings and small shops, including one with a red and white-striped awning. That description matched the unusual location point for point.
Reshuffling the Deck
As time went on, my questions continued to mount. One refrain from friends and colleagues, though a joke, was perceptive, indeed: "If you're so psychic, why aren't you rich?" In 1984, I joined two partners in a company called Delphi Associates, with the mission of investing in silver based on predictions of whether the price of that metal would rise, fall or stay the same. In one sense it was a wild, spontaneous adventure, but in another, it provided a serious chance to see what I could do outside the boundaries of the lab. Could I predict the market? It was impossible to know until I tried. We managed to predict the direction of the silver market nine times in a row before failing twice. That's when we pulled the plug. I later found my name used to promote the technique to the public, something I couldn't support, in part because our intentionally informal experiment had not been scientifically rigorous enough to establish any proof.
I was also troubled when a team of "psychic archaeologists" asked me to help find a mythical wreck, a billion dollar Spanish galleon that had probably never existed at all. The expedition director, who needed to satisfy his investors, homed in on a downed ship of trivial financial value in a section of the ocean known to be littered with wrecks, then word got around that I had helped guide him to it as a "significant" find. In fact, the ship had already been found and excavated months before I arrived. False or exaggerated information damaged the credibility of those who were doing legitimate research and made it harder to discover the elusive truth.
Back Door to "Psychic" Abilities
As Blue Harary, I was anointed a "superpsychic" by parapsychologists and a "psychical Paul Bunyan" by the press. Even though I didn't understand myself, much less the nature of the universe, people hounded me for the secrets of the afterlife, as if I were hooked, by IV drip, to spirits and the dead.
Today, as a researcher, writer and consultant in industries from automotive to high-tech, I've created an original personality test with colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, designed an award-winning publicity campaign based on psychology principles for Budget Rent-a-Car and headed up corporate human resources. Few of my present-day associates know of my so-called psychic past. And to those who knew me well before, the work I do today might seem mundane. But I still study the mysteries I encountered when young, and still believe there are connections we don't understand.
I'm the first to admit that striking correspondences between individual descriptions and targets in various experiments have sometimes seemed incredible. I've seen subjects describe stuffed animals, architectural details and hidden pictures with such fine detail it appeared impossible to describe them better. It seems difficult to fathom that such correspondences could be the product of coincidence—but many coincidences appear to be impossible, too.
Mathematician John Allen Paulos has memorably stated that the most amazing coincidence of all would be the complete absence of coincidence. Any sequence of events rich enough in details always leads to some coincidence, asserts Paulos, author of Innumeracy and Its Consequences: "If you look at a sequence of correspondences and ask what is the probability of that occurring by chance, the answer is always minuscule," he says. "The right question is, what is the probability of anything that will seem meaningful? It's very high. There are many ways for all kinds of correspondences to occur in daily life."
Parapsychologists try to accommodate the math of coincidence in experimental design, of course, and statistical significance entails multiple trials of the same controlled experiments, not just evaluation of anecdotes or one-time events. Pooling results from multiple trials of one free-response technique, the "ganzfeld" (a sensory isolation technique thought to enable freer flow of images), parapsychologists reported meeting the bar for statistical significance of psi, overall. But when psychologist Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. redid that work by adding in more recent data, he found the opposite. Some parapsychologists suggested that had he waited to include even more recently published experiments, the outcome would have supported their findings.
"What if I waited longer?" asks Wiseman. "A positive result? But what if I waited longer after that? A negative result? At what point do you stop?"
Parapsychology must move beyond the debate over its inconsistent data for progress to be made. One sphere of interest may be the realm of pattern recognition, including the processing of information sometimes too subtle to announce itself to the conscious mind.
In my Valentine's Day experience, there were probably subtle clues to my wife's ovarian cancer. It may have been something I learned from previous situations in which she wasn't feeling well, suggests Paul Lewicki, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Tulsa—some differences in her speech or appearance that were too complex to consciously process. "The human mind can't interpret beyond two or three variables on a conscious level," says Lewicki, "but the unconscious can."
There is so much we still don't know. Consider how phenomena at the frontiers of physics can look similar to the paranormal. In a process Einstein called "spooky action at a distance," two fundamental particles that have interacted become "entangled" and immediately correlate their actions no matter how far they are separated; in this strange effect of physics, the information passing between them isn't even limited by the speed of light. It seems reminiscent of the kind of information transfer parapsychologists attribute to ESP. Whether this or any other quirk of physics is related to paranormal claims remains unknown. In the end, we may discover that experiences we think of as "psychic" exist, but their foundation may turn out to be grounded in the natural world and the human brain.
During the course of my extraordinary journey through the labyrinth of parapsychology I played the part of both psychic and researcher. In the beginning I was excited to explore the boundaries of the mind. But as I developed the skills of the clinician and scientist through graduate work toward my Ph.D., I came to understand the fallacy of the otherworldly designation, "psychic." In the face of something so inexplicable and potentially powerful, almost all of us, even scientists, can sometimes make the wrong assumptions or get confused.
It was in 1987 that I attended a meeting at Esalen, the birthplace of the human potential movement, with a handful of players in the paranormal limelight. I sat on pillows and gazed over the bluffs of the Pacific as my doctoral advisor spoke out: As the elite corps of thinkers in parapsychology, "what would we do if we had a formula for perfect telepathy," he asked. Everyone in the room could handle the responsibility, he felt, but was the rest of humanity ready to take it on?
Each person in the circle weighed in on the issue. From my former partner in the silver study to the researcher who later led the hunt for the ghost galleon, the consensus was virtually unanimous. Those present could make the leap in evolution, but given their reservations about humanity at large, they'd better keep it to themselves.
I was the only dissenting voice. "Even if I accepted the premise that we're the elite," I said, "I don't think anyone here is qualified to handle 'perfect telepathy,' much less withhold it from the world."
"Oh, you just want to be psychic," the galleon hunter responded, seemingly for everyone.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. "All I want is to know what's going on," I said. "Philosophizing about what we would do if we had all the answers isn't as important as the questions themselves." It was a point I would press home directly more than two years later, when I rejected an effort to credit me with helping to find a sunken ship.
If I had never traveled the maze of my own uncertainty, never been cast as the embodiment of the controversy I hoped to resolve, I might have lived a simpler life. But the questions I faced might have been much the same. In the end, those questions have as much to do with our humanity as our perceptions of the paranormal. How do we truly intuit anything? When somebody demonstrates evidence of "knowing" something in a way that isn't presently understood, the knowledge may come by inference, a lucky guess, or subtle and unconscious cognitive cues. But even when someone gains access to information in ways that seem inexplicable, it doesn't make the person a psychic standing apart from the rest of humanity. It doesn't confer magical abilities, or mean the information is right in every way.
My wife, after all, didn't die.
At the time of this publication, Keith Harary, Ph.D., was a research director of the Institute for Advanced Psychology in Portland, Oregon, focusing on cognition and altered states of consciousness. His book, Who Do You Think You Are? Explore Your Many-Sided Self with the Berkeley Personality Profile, is published by Plume.