Funding the Intangible: The Stuff Dreams are Really Made Of - Rolling Stone
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Funding the Intangible: The Stuff Dreams are Really Made Of

Is parapsychology the wave of the future?

Sleeping, Electrodes, LaboratorySleeping, Electrodes, Laboratory

Sleep tests being carried out by The US Testing Company under supervision of psychologists and physiologists, 1955

Hulton Archive/Getty

”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.
The results have been impressive. While not consistently successful, certain of the ”hits” are so close as to be remarkable – a Japanese print called ”Downpour at Shono,” for example, showed a man walking in a driving rain, and resulted in dreams reported as ”something about an Oriental man . . . a fountain, water spray that would shoot up. . . . Walking with someone on the street. . . . Raining” – and sufficient others are close enough, according to the judges. to make the record statistically far above chance.
The Maimonides studies were collected last year in a book called Dream Telepathy (Macmillan. 1973). In all it is a persuasive – if not entirely airtight – case for psi phenomena; more importantly, one conducted under strict scientific conditions. ”At this point,” Honorton claims, ”the controversy over the existence of ESP is nearly over.” His associate on the project. Dr. Montague Ullman – a New York psychoanalyst who also travels in the more traditional scientific circles – isn’t so sure. ”The controversy is alive and kicking,” Ullman says. ”If you took a vote, say, among the people who subscribe to Science, the majority would probably come out against.”
But both Honorton and Ullman see the dream experiments as only a crude beginning. Ultimately, they would like to use the sophisticated new tools of physiologic psychology – instruments to measure everything from the electrical activity of the brain to galvanic skin response – and determine exactly what internal physical conditions exist during psychic ”hits.” That, in turn, could lead to the design of a biofeed-back system to teach subjects how to reach a mental state conducive to telepathy. ”I’m not that interested in working with gifted individuals,” says Honorton. ”I’m much more interested in developing techniques that will increase latent ESP abilities in unselected individuals.”
The direction is promising, and also expensive. The dream experiments cost around $100 a night, and additional hardware for extended research will cost even more. And. if funding is difficult for all sciences at present, it is nearly impossible for parapsychologists.
The NIMH grant to Maimonides is due to run out this summer, and renewal is as yet uncertain. NIMH has financed only one other project in parapsychology – a small grant that yielded little – and, since the Maimonides grant, several other proposals have been rejected. The National Science Foundation – in general a more generous source of funding than NIMH – has financed one project involving the history of parapsychology, but has funded no original work itself. ”We’re in sort of a parapsychological catch-22,” says Ullman. ”The people with the resources to do the funding want a little more in the way of palpable data – but for us to get more palpable data, we need more funding.”
There is, as well, a political factor. ”If HEW [under which NIMH operates] announced it was giving half a million to parapsychology,” says one sympathetic HEW official, ”the next week Weinberger would be down in front of some subcommittee who wanted to know what the hell he thought he was doing. Public interest simply hasn’t crystallized on the Hill.” Yet – at least judging by the media – the interest exists. This summer, a loose coalition of parapsychological groups plans to launch a letter-writing campaign to make that interest evident.
”A government that will spend hundreds of thousands on the military applications of the frisbee,” says one parapsychologist, ”should be able to spare something for this work.” Some researchers fear that the government is already doing just that – clandestinely. Department of Defense interest in parapsychology was sharply piqued by reports that the Soviet Union was spending massive amounts on psychic research. DOD publicly sent a team from their Advanced Research Projects Agency to observe Israeli psychic Uri Geller; the team returned home unconvinced. A number of years ago, DOD funded research into the possibility that man-dog teams could locate land mines using ESP.
Whether there is clandestine funding of research at present is a matter of dispute in the field and rumors abound. ”As we develop techniques for inducing psychic potential in normal persons,” says Honorton, ”the danger of misuse grows. DOD can likely do in five years what we could do in 25 with our limited funding.”
A program of rigorous psychic research would be a relatively inexpensive national investment – compared, say, to particle physics or even military frisbee design. ”A few hundred thousand dollars,” says Honorton, ”could make a major difference in the field.” And if, at some point, even a tiny percent of paranormal phenomena turn out to be real and replicable, future generations will likely consider it a particular insanity of our era that, beleaguered by the thousand social problems engendered by exploding technology, we refused to spend a relative pittance to explore one other tiny and suggestive avenue. From that future perspective, it will appear an almost inconceivable oversight. The new promises of parapsychology – tenuous as they are – demand a fair examination. If hollow, all we lose are old fantasies – but if even a single one proves out solidly, we might stand to gain a brand new reality.

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