Funding the Intangible: The Stuff Dreams are Really Made Of
”The job security’s not great,” says Charles Honorton, a stocky young man with short blond hair and a careful, dignified manner of speaking. ”I always keep one suitcase packed.” Honorton – senior researcher in the division of parapsychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn –is one of the less than 20 full-time investigators of ESP and paranormal phenomena in the United States; his statement underlines the paradox that, while public interest in the psychical is at its greatest peak in three decades, the availability of funding for serious research is approaching an all-time low.
Psychokinesis, long-distance telepathy, aura photography, faith healing, out-of-body experience, plant intelligence: In recent months, accounts of parapsychological miracles have appeared in every medium from the Sunday supplements and network television to Time, Nature and Business Week. As has always been the case, the flim-flam is generously mingled with the legitimate – but it’s clear that with the use of new technology, this decade could put either the final nail in the coffin of parapsychology – or the first real foot in the door. The only question that remains is exactly who will be willing to pay for it.
Traditionally, major funding has come from private philanthropists – often substantial sums, and often from individuals one might not associate with even the vaguely occult. Chester F. Carlson – the inventor of the Xerox process – left two percent of his estate for psychical research, a total of around $3 million. A portion of that went to the University of Virginia, the only university in the U.S. with an officially recognized division of parapsychology. W. Clement Stone – the Chicago financier/publisher lately in the news for his lavish funding of Richard Nixon – once donated $200,000 to grand-old-man-of-psi J. B. Rhine’s Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man. (”Stone,” says one researcher, ”should have kept giving something for parapsychology. At least maybe we could have done better on the bugging.”)
Elderly philanthropists have often been concerned specifically with what parapsychology delicately terms the ”survival question” – research into the possibility of life after death and the reality of the soul. The will of Arizona gold miner James Kidd, for example, offered more than a quarter-million dollars for ”research or some scientific proof of a soul” – attracting scores of colorful applicants and sending several Arizona judges through some of the oddest litigation in their careers, until the bequest was finally awarded to two established parapsychological associations. Kidd’s posthumous bid to prove that posthumous it wasn’t is more the exception than the rule: Most survival enthusiasts prefer their findings pre-Void – and Kidd’s will wasn’t even discovered until nearly 18 years after his death.
Parapsychologists generally agree that the era of the Carlsons, Stones and Kidds is gone and that no major new psychical sugar daddies loom on the horizon. One alternative in the past has been the private foundation – groups ranging from the Mellon Foundation in Pittsburgh, to the Fetzer Foundation in Michigan (John Fetzer owns the Detroit Tigers) to sources as major as the Rockefeller Foundation. These grants, however, tended to be limited and short-term; more recently, following a set of Internal Revenue Service rulings that clamp down on the deductible nature of gifts and contributions (the same rules that snared our president), the picture for foundation financing has grown even bleaker. The trend now is toward social projects and education; distinctly away from the mystical, metaphysic and supraordinary.
Thus, the parapsychologist is left with only one real funding alternative – the federal government. Which brings us back to researcher Charles Honorton. Honorton is supported by the first significant federal grant for psychical research in recent years – $52,000 from the National Institute of Mental Health for two years of research into telepathy during the dream state. The Maimonides project is worth looking at in detail, both as an ingenuous use of technology, and as a suggestion of what could be the future of adequately funded psychical research.
Traditionally, dreams seem to be fertile ground for telepathic experience. The literature overflows with anecdotes about premonitory dreams – the most common example being when one dreams of the death or injury of a close friend or relative, only to learn upon awakening that the event in fact occurred just then. The skeptic is apt to take such anecdotes lightly: We have dreams about death often, he’ll argue – and we only recall it when one of them happens to come true.
The objection is valid enough, and so the Maimonides project attempted to nail down the phenomenon more specifically. The subject of the experiment spends the night sleeping in a laboratory in Brooklyn, wired with electrodes to indicate, via an electroencephalogram, exactly when he begins to dream. During his dream periods (most people have three or four per night), a subject in another room attempts to send the dreamer the impression of a randomly chosen art print. When the EEG indicates the dream period is over, the subject is awakened and asked to tell his dreams. At the end of the night, the tape-recorded dream summaries are analyzed by a panel of judges to determine whether the content of the art print had, in fact, entered the dreams.