Psychical Research Foundation
Exploring the Science of Parapsychology
About the PRF
Since it was first established in 1961, the Psychical Research Foundation has had a long history of conducting scientific research on psychic (or "psi") phenomena, with particular emphasis on those phenomena which seem to have a bearing on the issue of survival after death, such as apparitions, hauntings, mediumship, and out-of-body experiences. To give a general overview of the history of the PRF, we provide here the following personal retrospective, written in 2010 by the PRF's first research director, the late William G. Roll:
The Psychical Research Foundation: 1961-2010
by William G. Roll, Ph.D.
The Psychical Research Foundation (PRF) came into existence at Duke University in 1961, but the seed was planted long before. When I was 16 I began having what I later learnt to call out-of-body experiences. I would wake up at night, seem to move out of my body and walk about the room, sometimes looking back at my body. Once, as an experiment, I tried to stick my hand through a wall and got it partway in, but the feeling was too strange and I pulled it back out. I left the room only once, not considering how I got through the closed window, but I ventured no further than the backyard. The first experience was spontaneous, subsequent ones needing some effort. I later learnt that out-of-body experiences (OBEs) sometimes follow a crisis, which was true for me because my mother had died shortly before. In any case, I had no doubt that my real self was my out-of-body self and that when I would eventually die, this would result in a permanent out-of-body experience. I lived in Birkerød, a small town north of Copenhagen, Denmark, and asked a neighbor, the author Jacob Paludan, who reviewed books for the newspapers, if he had heard about experiences like mine. Paludan lent me books about parapsychology, and I learnt that out-of-body experiences are fairly common. When the PRF began operating many years later, OBEs would be a central part of the research, but more about this later. Paludan also lent me books about Eastern religion, including the Bhagavadgita, an old text from India, which said that the real self is part of an infinite mind that includes everything there is, including material things. I found the big self much more interesting than my OBE self, and tried to meditate as instructed by the Bhagavadgita, but the big self ignored the effort.
My interest in the big self was reinforced by the situation in Denmark. We had been occupied by Nazi Germany, since 1940, and the progress of the war was of daily concern. I thought that if everyone knew that we are part of the same big mind, war and conflict would surely cease. I fell in love with a Jewish girl, who along with most other Danish Jews escaped to Sweden with the help of the Danish resistance movement, before all Jews were to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps in Germany. Shortly afterwards, the chief of the resistance in Birkerød, Peter Tegner, a former navy captain, asked if I wanted to join as his liaison to the group leaders in town because it was too dangerous for him to do so himself. I jumped at the chance. Until the liberation, May 5, 1945, I felt I was doing something useful for the country and the world. Of course, had I been caught, I would have been tortured in the hopes that I would reveal the names of the group leaders, after which I would have been shot. Like Tegner, I was living underground to avoid capture, that is, with families who were courageous enough to take the chance of harboring a member of the resistance.
Oxford University, England
I had been separated from my father all these years. He lived in California, but was now part of Eisenhower's staff and in 1945 came to Denmark with the American army, after Germany capitulated. I had graduated from high school and was now ready for college. I chose Berkeley University, because it was close to my father's home. I hoped to learn more about OBEs and the big self, but the faculty at Berkeley ignored such topics. I then came upon articles about parapsychology by H. H. Price, a professor at Oxford, and asked to be his student for a year. He agreed. In the meantime, I had married Muriel, also a Berkeley student, and after graduating we moved to Oxford in 1950, my father providing the necessary means. The year stretched to eight, and I became a regular Oxford student by joining St. Catherine's Society. This became St. Catherine's College, and is housed in an elegant modern structure, designed by a Danish architect. I also took over the Oxford University Society for Psychical Research, a student society of which Michael Scriven, a D.Phil. candidate from Australia, had formerly been President. The OUSPR invited people with a track record in psychical research to give talks, out-of-town speakers usually staying at our home. In this way I became acquainted with many of the psychical researchers in England.
We were able to stay at Oxford as long as we did through one-year grants from St. Catherine's, from the Oxford Committee for Advanced Studies, from the Society for Psychical Research, London and finally, from a three-year grant from the Parapsychology Foundation, New York, which was facilitated by its president, the medium and author, Eileen Garrett. The grant from the Committee for Advanced Studies had enabled us to set aside two rooms in our house, which was near the center of Oxford, as a parapsychology laboratory and student reading room. Mrs. Garrett visited the lab and reading room. In 1953 the Foundation sponsored an international parapsychological conference at the University of Utrecht, Holland to honor the appointment of W. H. C. Tenhaeff as the University's first Professor of Parapsychology. Mrs. Garrett invited me to come from Oxford and address the group. It was exciting for a newcomer to meet people I only knew from their writings. Tenhaeff's talk about the Dutch psychic, Gerard Croiset, was especially interesting because his ability to find lost persons and objects was verified by the police, and because he used psychometric objects from the people to do so.
My ESP experiments at Oxford followed the guidelines of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, as laid down by articles in the Journal of Parapsychology, Rhine sending me ESP cards and a personality inventory that had enabled researchers at his laboratory to distinguish successful from unsuccessful ESP subjects. I used it on my fellow students, and found I could do the same.
In 1957 Rhine invited me to join the staff of the laboratory, and Muriel, my daughter Lise, and I moved to Durham, North Carolina. In the meantime, I had produced a 467-page thesis, entitled Theory and Experiment in Psychical Research, for which I hoped to receive a D.Phil., but my examiners decided it was worth only an M.Litt. However, I later received a consolation prize, when the thesis was chosen as one of the books Arno Press published under the title, Perspectives in Psychical Research. Arno is a New York Times Company. Later still, I received a Ph.D. from the University of Lund, Sweden, for a thesis about survival after death.
Duke University, North Carolina
The Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke was to a parapsychologist, what the Vatican is to a Catholic, and Mecca is to a Muslim, the very center of the world. I felt certain that my ESP results would now soar, but they were lower than at Oxford. When I became one of the editors of the Journal of Parapsychology or JP, I discovered why the ESP tests published there were all significant, Rhine explaining that if an ESP test did not show evidence of ESP, it had no place in the JP. This sounded reasonable, but was not. When Dr. Martin Johnson a parapychologist at Lund University, Sweden, visited the lab, he told Rhine and the staff that it reduces the statistical significance of successful tests, if insignificant tests have also been conducted but not published. Rhine then changed the JP policy. Johnson would later be my supervisor for the Ph.D. at Lund. I also did a series of psychometry experiments with psychics through the mail, using locks of hair as psychometric objects, but they too were insignificant.
Something promising did happen at Duke in 1957. Rhine founded the Parapsychological Association as an international professional society in the field, and appointed its first council, which was then duly elected by the new membership. The principal activity of the PA was to be an annual convention, which has in fact occurred every year since then. Along with seven others, I became a member of the PA council. The PA eventually became affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal, Science.
Early in 1958, something happened that would direct my research in a new and promising direction. The newspapers told of a home north of New York where objects moved on their own. Rhine phoned the family and the detective, who was in charge of the police investigation, and decided that the case was worth looking into, and asked Dr. Gaither Pratt, Assistant Director of the Laboratory, and me to visit the home. After 10 days of our questioning police officers and the family, and being present during an incident, we thought the events were real. Occurrences like these are commonly attributed to spirits called poltergeists; but the spirit that caused the incidents had to be the mind of the family's 12-year-old son because they only took place when he was home, so we called them recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, or RSPK. I explored several more such cases in the years to come.
In 1959 Rhine held a conference at Duke about the question of survival after death. Several factors contributed to his decision. The lab had received a large number of letters in which readers of the JP said they knew when a relative or friend in another location would die, and thought the spirit of the departed had told them. Rhine's wife, Dr. Louisa Rhine, analyzed the reports and wrote about her findings in the JP. Mrs. Garrett had produced highly significant scores in ESP tests at Duke; Gaither Pratt had devised a method of statistical analysis of the extent to which statements by mediums corresponded to the facts, a method I had used in my psychometry tests with psychics; Prof. Price had created a theory of survival after death; and I had studied reports by the Society of Psychical Research (SPR) in England whose mediums seemed to communicate with the departed. The SPR, which was formed in 1882, was also a center for telepathy studies, and resulted in similar societies being formed in America, and eventually the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke. The speakers at the conference were the four of us (Pratt, Price, Rhine, and me). A keen member of the audience was Mr. Charles E. Ozanne, a retired schoolteacher, who had invested wisely and amassed a small fortune. The following year, Mr. Ozanne and Dr. Rhine set up a Psychical Research Fund at Duke to explore the survival issue, and in 1961, this became the Psychical Research Foundation. Rhine appointed Gaither Pratt President, Prof. Price Vice-President, and made me Project Director, and thereby in charge of the research. My work at Duke under the Fund and the PRF resulted in five journal articles and a book.
In 1964, Dr. Rhine reached the mandatory age limit for Duke faculty. We had hoped he would hand the reins of the Laboratory to Gaither Pratt so that it would remain at Duke, but Rhine was not ready for retirement and, with permission of the University, withdrew the funds and bought a house next to the campus for another laboratory, library, and offices. At the same time, Gaither and his family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and he began a new career at the Division of Parapsychology, the University of Virginia. Dr. Ian Stevenson, chair of the Psychiatry Department, had formed the new center as a base for his investigations of reincarnation cases around the world. By inviting Gaither to join, he built a bridge to mainline parapsychology. Gaither in turn was energized by the new and freer environment and did some of his best work there. He was soon appointed Professor of Psychiatry. Gaither remained PRF President, and Ian joined the Board of Directors.
I later participated in some of Gaither's experiments, and he joined my investigation of RSPK at a warehouse for tourist items in Miami, Florida. The incidents were associated with Julio Vasquez, an 18-year-year old shipping clerk.
Also in 1964, I was elected President of the PA and, with the help of Prof. Dodds, arranged its first European convention at Christ Church College, Oxford. My presidential address, "The Psi Field," had been improved by suggestions from several scholars, especially Dr. John Artley, of the Duke Department of Electrical Engineering, and Sir Cyril Burt.
Until then, PA presidential addresses had been published in the JP, but Rhine disliked the article, perhaps because of its physical orientation, and refused to have it appear in the JP. Instead we started an independent PA publication, Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association, where this and other PA convention papers could be freely published. The Proceedings later became a hardcover book, Research in Parapsychology, that was published annually.
The Psychical Research Foundation Returns to Duke
With the loss of our space at Duke, I moved the PRF to two rooms in our house in Durham. A few years later, the PRF moved back to Duke, now as a sponsored program at the Department of Electrical Engineering. This happened because the Dean of the School of Engineering, Dr. Aleksandar Vesic, was interested in our work, and because of our collaboration with two professors at the E. E. Department, John Artley and William Joines. Artley retired early from Duke and left Durham, but Joines remained and has made important contributions to the physical understanding of RSPK.
The PRF rented two small houses from Duke, one for our library and offices, the other for our laboratory. Later a grant from Dorris Carlson, enabled us to rent a third house as a center for meditation and meditation research. Our research included studies of the psychic, Sean Harribance, and Keith Harary, who reported frequent OBEs. Keith was sometimes on target and sometimes off. Ingo Swann visited our lab out-of-body from his home in New York, achieving striking success in a test by Jerry Solfvin and Keith Harary. About the same time, I had an OBE at home one night. I got out of bed in my OBE form and walked down the hallway to the living room, which I found bathed in moonlight. As I stood in the doorway, I was struck by the clarity of the scene but also felt frustrated because I was unable to check if I was actually there or not. I then noticed that a circular side-table cast a shadow partway across the central rug, and told myself that I could not have known that the moonlight would cast the shadow precisely there at that time. I went down hands and knees on the rug, and used my right hand to measure how far the shadow extended beyond the rug. With this measurement in mind, I went back to the bedroom, roused my body and returned to the living room. It was black as soot, no moonlight and no shadow. I speculated that my OBE might have been displaced in time to another night when the moon was out, but it turned out that this particular shadow could not be produced either by moonlight or by the electric lights in the room. I had to conclude that the OBE and probably the others were hallucinations or possibly lucid dreams. After that I had no more such experiences.
Our research team included Dr. Robert Morris, who later became Koestler Professor of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and guided many students to PhDs on parapsychological topics. Dr. Fritz Klein, of the Duke Department of Anesthesiology, resuscitated a comatose brain-wave machine, which Dr. Montague Ullman had donated to the PRF, and which he had used for his dream-telepathy tests. It was with the aid of this machine that we discovered that the alpha brain wave was essential for Sean's ESP. Bob Morris being the principal experimenter. Fritz's wife, Judy, had the magical touch needed for Sean to produce ESP. John Stump had the same skill, so most of the work with Sean was done by Judy and John. John also took part in our investigation of 12-year-old Roger Callihan, a center of RSPK. It was in the presence of Roger that I saw the most striking RSPK incident I had witnessed. As I was looking directly at the boy, the kitchen table by his side, flew up in the air, rotated 45 degrees and fell down on the backs of the chairs that stood around it, all four legs off the floor.
Then Dean Vesic, our guardian angel at Duke, died, and the University discovered that the PRF was located on a valuable resource, parking space. Our three houses were bulldozed and the land paved over. But sometimes, when the moon is full, you may see three little houses rise from the macadam.
Professor of Psychology and Psychical Research
The PRF moved to an office in the Methodist Center in Chapel Hill, close to the University of North Carolina. When we investigated the RSPK of Tina Resch, this was our location. After I visited the 14-year-old at her home in Columbus, Ohio, and discovered that genuine movements of objects occurred when she was present, I brought her to Spring Creek Institute in Chapel Hill, NC, so that her PK could be better understood. Dr. Stephen Baumann was doing PK tests at the Institute, and Tina was enrolled, but the most striking events were movements of lab tools and equipment when she was being watched. The fact that she, Julio Vasquez, and Roger Callihan were regularly observed when RSPK happened, has been a significant help in our investigation and has thrown new light on RSPK. Steve was a neuroscientist at UNC and had Tina undergo a test that identified her brainstem as the place where her PK energy was transmitted to the environment.
Dr. Myron Arons, Chair of the Psychology Department at West Georgia College then approached the PRF about coming to the College. Ian Stevenson had resigned as PRF President, and Jerry Conser, a long-time friend and supporter of the PRF had accepted the Presidency. Jerry thought that being part of an academic setting would be good for the PRF. By adding teaching to our research, students would learn about the implications of parapsychology for their lives, not only academically but also for their day-to-day interactions with others. Mike Arons' own teaching emphasized experiential exercises to widen the minds of his students, and we would do the same for their latent psychic abilities. I had tested the psychics who taught at the Patricia Hayes School of Inner Sense Development and in the process had learnt several of her methods. These seemed effective and were also enjoyable to students and instructors. The School was first located outside Durham, then moved to a suburb of Atlanta, and finally to a rural setting in North Georgia. I participated in workshops at the three locations, and in return instructed the staff and students about discoveries in scientific parapsychology. Coming to West Georgia College would enable me to share what I had learnt from Patricia with college students as well the PRF's scientific findings and the work of others in the field. Backed by the positive response of Jerry and me, Mike approached the Regents of the University System about establishing a professorship at his Department. They accepted, providing that the professorship be supported financially by PRF, a condition that the PRF accepted.
The upshot was that I became Professor of Psychology and Psychical Research at the College, beginning with the 1986 academic year. There was an unused lecture room, which Mike converted to the home of the PRF; he named it the William James Room. James was a brilliant American psychologist and psychical researcher in the beginning of the 20th century. The College later became the University of West Georgia.
When the PRF moved to West Georgia College, Mike Arons, and Chris Aanstoos, Professor of Psychology, joined the PRF Board.
Haunted houses are less rare than cases of RSPK, and we investigated the more promising ones. The phenomena were quite different from RSPK. Instead of daily movements of objects, the occupants would feel invisible presences or would see full-fledged apparitions that resembled living people who suddenly vanished. There were often electrical disturbances, light bulbs would pop, electric equipment would malfunction, and there would be sudden drops in temperature. Inspired by Dr. Michael Persinger's theory that the phenomena are due to the effect of anomalous physical fields on the brains of occupants or directly on electric installations in the homes, we tested for such fields. TV documentaries supplemented the PRF's financial support. Unsolved Mysteries was the first to approach us, and we worked with them in seven haunting cases and in a review of the Tina Resch case of RSPK. We also worked with Sightings and the Discovery Channel. In the early 1990s we received a grant from a parapsychological institute at the University of Freiburg, Germany, which had been founded by the late Dr. Hans Bender, the principal investigator of RSPK in Europe, and a friend of mine. The grant enabled us to conduct studies of hauntings in the US and Europe without being followed by TV cameras. The haunting cases showed little evidence of moving objects, but we detected anomalous magnetic fields that originated in the houses themselves or in the ground underneath (using, respectively, an eletromagnetometer and a geomagnetometer). In two cases we worked with Dr. Dean Radin, who is best known for his ESP and precognition experiments. Dean brought his computer-controlled Geiger counter to the sites and detected anomalous ion radiation that apparently produced the ghostly sightings.
Aside from the scientific findings, it seems that the anomalous fields can be dangerous for the health of occupants, including their animal pets.
Dr. Persinger, who is head of a neuropsychology laboratory at Laurentian University, Ontario, Canada, is interested in ESP, RSPK, and haunting. To learn more about the ESP of Sean Harribance, we brought him to Persinger's lab. The work by him and his group lead to important discoveries about Sean's ESP that were published in a mainline neuropsychological journal. We also brought Ingo Swann to Persinger`s lab, which resulted in additional discoveries and publications.
Bryan Williams, a student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM has now joined the PRF as Research Associate. Nearly all my recent publications have been co-authored with Bryan; Bryan sometimes being the first or only author.
What about survival after death? Our study of psychometry says that traces of our lives persist after death and may be perceived by psychics. But will our consciousness as individuals, who are separate from others, also endure? The question remains. It turns out that we have two minds, one associated with the left brain hemisphere, the other with the right hemisphere. Most of us are unaware that we have two minds, but psychics know, and they know the difference. In their everyday lives, driving their cars, paying bills, and so on, they are governed by their left hemisphere like the rest of us, but when they work as psychics, they seem to shift to the right hemisphere. While the left hemisphere distinguishes sharply between self and others, to the right hemisphere selves may overlap, which could be the source of the psychic sense. Because psychics do not insist on a definite distinction between self and others, they are able to perceive the psychic side of their clients, of which the clients themselves may be ignorant. If our psychic side is in fact more collective and social than our lives as individuals, it seems possible that life after death may also be more collective and social. When the physical brain dissolves at death, the borders created by the brain between self and others may also dissolve. Whether this is true or not, the issue may best be explored by the study of psychics and how their brains differ from the brains of non-psychics. This issue is one that the PRF is well prepared to explore.