J.B. Rhine investigated ghosts, telepathy, poltergeists, and other unseen parapsychology phenomena from 1927 to 1965 at his Duke laboratory. Stacy Horn, author of Unbelievable, a recent history of his research, spent countless hours in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library combing through more than 700 boxes of archives. She describes the collection as "a survey of everything weird in the U.S. during that period." Oddly enough, the epicenter of all this weirdness was on Duke's campus.
How did Rhine get his start at Duke?
Academic researchers were curious to see if the scientific method could be used to find evidence for life after death, and they were open to that possibility that it could. J.B. Rhine was a scientist, and he was willing to give it a try. So Duke's administrators, like President William Preston Few, were willing to let him.
How did Rhine begin trying to prove this?
Basically, Rhine said we know that when we die, the body dies, the body decays, it's over. We need to find something about ourselves that exists independently of the body. Otherwise, when we die, that's it. So if telepathy operates independent of the body, it opens the door to a possibility that there is something within us that can survive death.
What kinds of experiments did he perform while searching for the existence of telepathy?
He started with a test of simple playing cards. He began with children, but then moved on to Duke students. It was basically a simple test: "Can you tell me what playing card I'm holding?" without seeing it. And he found that they could.
He was using a regular deck of playing cards, and he found that people had certain biases—they would guess certain cards more often than others because they were very familiar with a regular deck. So he had a psychologist, Karl Zener, design him a set of cards with completely different symbols. And these are the ESP cards that a lot of people are familiar with, the ones with the wavy lines, a star, a box, a circle, or a cross. Using these cards, he repeated the test with students and found that they were again able to tell him what symbol was on the cards without seeing them.
What other experiments did Rhine and his colleagues conduct?
The ESP cards really were their staple until the end. They refined the experiments over the years—first, they separated the student and the experimenter with a screen. Ultimately, they were in separate rooms, and the tests were done double blind, so that even the person conducting the experiment didn't know what symbols were on the cards.
The other experiments that they're known for are tests in psychokinesis, the ability to move objects with your mind. Again, the test that they used was a very simple one—rolling dice. They would see if the students could influence the roll of the dice. The experimenters would use their hands and throw the dice against the wall, but, later on, they were using machines to roll the dice, so it would be more random and the experimenter could not be accused of influencing the roll.
And they found, again, that the students did seem to have some ability to influence the roll of the dice, but the effect was a lot weaker. It's not like somebody can go to Las Vegas and win a billion dollars with this ability. It was infinitesimally small.
What did Rhine credit these effects to?
Rhine always felt that ESP was something that operated independently from the physical body. He also thought that someday the answer would be found in the study of consciousness and that when we had a better idea of how consciousness worked, or even what it is, it would explain the effects that he found in his experiments.
And Rhine became a household name?
Well, it's interesting. Rhine is often portrayed as a publicity hound, but he really wasn't. In the beginning, he turned down a lot of interviews because he saw himself as a serious scientist and an academic, and he thought this kind of publicity was undignified. And so he would say yes to some but not to anything that he didn't think was serious.
But from the minute they [Rhine and his wife and co-researcher, Louisa] published their first book, Extra-Sensory Perception [in 1934], there was hostility to their experiments from the scientific community. So he started to agree to more interviews than he had originally, mostly just to get the word out that he was in fact doing serious science, and to attract more scientists who might have an open mind—and more subjects—as well.
How did Duke administrators react?
Unfortunately, his two big supporters, William McDougall, the head of the psychology department who lured him to Duke, and Few died not long after the lab opened. So for the rest of his career, he was always on shaky territory. Every time Duke got a new president, they had to make the decision to keep the lab going or not; one by one, they always decided to keep it going. I guess because it brought the university a lot of publicity and, ultimately, a lot of money.
Where did Rhine and his fellow researchers get their research funding?
They got money from Alfred P. Sloan and Chester Carlson, who was the inventor of the Xerox process. The Office of Naval Research gave them money; the Army, at one point, conducted a test with them; the Rockefeller Foundation; and the list goes on. He was very well funded but mostly from the outside. Duke paid his salary and his assistant's salary and gave them space—desks and stuff like that. It was its own independent lab, and Rhine reported directly to the president.
Where is this kind of work done now?
The lab closed in 1965 when Rhine retired. There was a period where Duke was considering keeping the lab going, and administrators were in talks with Rhine about how that would happen and what it would look like. I found the administration's initial idea of what it would look like, and I loved it. It was going to be a much more multidisciplinary operation involving representatives from all the different academic disciplines within Duke: people from the hard sciences, psychology, religion, and philosophy. They were going to put people with different expertise to work on the problem.
But Rhine was afraid that if that happened, parapsychology, and the people with expertise in parapsychology, would just be subsumed by all the others and eventually kind of shoved away. And he was actually right. I found memos between certain administrators who basically said that was what was going to happen. And then they started to talk to other professors who were even more adamant; they were like, "No! No! No! This is our chance to get rid of parapsychology once and for all."
So a couple of years before he retired, Rhine set up the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, and when he retired, he moved over there. It exists today, near West Campus, and is now called the Rhine Research Center.
How would you sum up Rhine's work?
Rhine—and I would include his wife, Louisa, who was equally critical to all this research, too—refined the controls and the statistical methods for analyzing their results in a way that nobody had before. I went through all the various objections, the critics over the years who accused them of fraud or making mistakes with the math, and I examined all these claims and found that they had no basis.
You might want to come up with other explanations for these effects, but you can't say they are the result of sloppy controls, fraud, or wishful thinking. Based on these experiments, there does seem to be an unidentified source of information out there. Unfortunately, we don't know how it's transmitted or how it's processed, but these effects nonetheless seem to be real. We also have a lot more to learn about consciousness.
Read alumni experiences with the Rhine Institute and submit your own.
Read Horn's Unbelievable blog.