Humanity has a long history with and documentation of anomalous experiences like déjà vu, extrasensory perception, and even ghostly encounters. In fact, many of us have likely had a paranormal experience or know someone who has had a strange encounter. It’s no surprise then, that a 2005 Gallup poll found that “about three in four Americans profess at least one paranormal belief.” This includes belief in things such as ghosts, ESP, reincarnation, haunted houses, and more. The Gallup polls aren’t the only sources that show how pervasive paranormal belief is. For example, a study by scholars at the University of Manitoba found that paranormal belief is a “common” thing.
Given the pervasiveness of these beliefs, it makes sense that we all likely know someone who has experienced something strange. We might have heard some of these encounters as they are passed around at gatherings or in private conversations. Maybe we read about them in books or listened to them on podcasts. People love listening to, reading, and even sharing these strange encounters. And really, what’s more fun than an evening full of spooky stories?
What’s equally interesting, at least to a strange librarian like me, is that there are researchers keen to study the nuances of these paranormal experiences. Many of these folks are parapsychologists – scientists who study psi phenomena such as ESP, psychokinesis, poltergeist activity, and a whole host of other anomalies. In an article titled “Eight Decades of Psi Research,” Carlos Alvarado presents a brief history of this topic. You can read the article to learn about the Journal of Parapsychology, J.B. Rhine, the Duke Parapsychology Labs, and much more!
I always like to remind readers, though, that parapsychologists are not the only scholars who investigate psi activity. Take for instance, a cardiologist who wishes to learn more about the near-death experience (NDE). Dr. Pim van Lommel and his colleagues set out to study just this and published their research in the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet. Inspired by their curiosity to know what factors might influence the occurrence of a near-death experience, the cardiologists studied 344 patients who were resuscitated after having a heart attack. Of the 344 patients, 18% of them experienced an NDE. Interestingly, Dr. van Lommel and colleagues were not able to pinpoint certain physiological patterns that might cause or facilitate an NDE. Each patient seemed to be unique, though they did discover than younger patients tended to report NDEs at a higher rate than older patients.
Personally, it’s fascinating to me that we can read scientific reports about anomalous topics. It’s refreshing to see researchers, like cardiologists, dive into these unknown events for the simple sake of learning more about ourselves. The paranormal impacts not only our experiences but also our curiosities and the quest to learn more about the world around us.
Luckily for us, Dr. van Lommel and his colleagues aren’t the only researchers who see the value in investigating the anomalous. In 2018, a group of scholars decided to investigate the personal paranormal experiences of a certain group of people: scientists and engineers. The research, conducted by Drs. Helané Wahbeh, Dean Radin, Julia Mossbridge, Cassandra Vieten, and Arnaud Delorme, dismantled the stereotype that there is a certain “type” of person who experiences the paranormal. In their abstract, the researchers tell us about the exact motivation behind their study:
“throughout history, people have reported exceptional experiences that appear to transcend the everyday boundaries of space and time, such as perceiving someone’s thoughts from a distance. Because such experiences are associated with superstition, and some violate currently accepted materialist conventions, one might assume that scientists and engineers would be much less likely to report instances of those experiences than the general population.” (p. 329).
To investigate the idea that paranormal belief and experience are more prevalent among certain groups of people, the researchers wondered what it would look like to compare the anomalous experiences of paranormal enthusiasts, the general public, and scientists and engineers. Their results show that the paranormal seems to be a shared human experience.
For example, participants were given a list of 25 ‘exceptional human experiences’ (EHEs) and asked to report if they had any. These EHEs (a term created by researcher Rhea White in the 1990s) include things like lucid dreaming, extrasensory perception, prophetic dreaming, telepathy, and astral projection. Interestingly, 67% of scientists and engineers indicated “yes” to the EHE “just known something to be true or had a clear sensation or feeling of knowing something that you would otherwise have no way of knowing.” (p. 334) Nearly 22% of scientists and engineers indicated that they had experienced seeing colors or energy fields around people or objects – a percentage that actually ranked higher than that of the general population. They also found that scientists and engineers’ belief in the paranormal ranked slightly higher than that of the general public surveyed in their study.
This last point is particularly poignant to me – that scientists and engineers held a slightly higher belief in the paranormal than the general public. This finding resonates because I think we tend to forget that not all scientists disregard the merits of paranormal inquiry. The pursuit of knowledge is, after all, the core foundation of science, so why wouldn’t there be researchers who see the value in investigating the unknown? The voices of critics may be loud, but we forget that they might not be the majority. The study by Wahbeh and colleagues reveals a more nuanced look at the relationship between the academy and the supernatural.
In their conclusion, the authors tell us that their “study suggests that various types of exceptional human experiences are highly prevalent not only among enthusiasts, but also among the general population, and scientists and engineers.” (p. 339) This study helps dismantle the stereotype that paranormal belief and experiences are relegated to a certain ‘type’ of person or educational level. It illustrates that the paranormal is both a natural and ubiquitous part of what it means to be human.
You can read the entire article for free at the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
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Alvarado, Carlos S. “Eight Decades of Psi Research: Highlights in the Journal of Parapsychology.” Journal of Parapsychology 82 (2018): 24-35.
Moore, David W. “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal.” Gallup. (June 16, 2005). Accessed March 22, 2023 from https://news.gallup.com/poll/16915/three-four-americans-believe-paranormal.aspx.
Ross, C. A., and Joshi, S. “Paranormal Experiences in the General Population.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 180 (1992): 357–361.
van Lommel, Pim, Ruud van Wees, Vincent Meyers, and Ingrid Elfferich. "Near-Death Experience in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands." The Lancet 358, no. 9298 (Dec 15, 2001): 2039-2045.
Wahbeh, Helané and Dean Radin, Julia Mossbridge, Cassandra Vieten, Arnaud Delorme. “Exceptional Experiences Reported by Scientists and Engineers.” Explore 14, no. 5 (Sept/Oct 2018): 329-41.