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What is Parapsychology?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Parapsychology is the study of behaviors, events or perceptions that are outside of what most would traditionally accept a human can perceive. In other words, it evaluates such things that may be considered sixth sense abilities, like mental telepathy, medium abilities, psychometry, and telekinesis. These abilities taken together are called psi or paranormal abilities. Para is a prefix that translates to "above and beyond," and thus paranormal can be described as things above and beyond what is considered normal in mainstream scientific thought.

Most of parapsychology can be viewed as an attempt to study paranormal events or abilities. Some feel this is not true science, since it is seldom possible to practice parapsychology adhering to regular scientific methods. Others complain that work in parapsychology is simply too subjective, and there are few ways to make it objective and truly scientific. No studies based in parapsychology have been considered verifiable, since the results of most studies cannot be duplicated, which is considered a hallmark of scientific testing.

Parapsychology does not tend to concern itself with things like aliens, the verity of astrology or whether or not witchcraft works. It is an attempt to find and describe things that are unusual and outside the realm of traditional experience. There are many subjects which a parapsychologist might undertake to study. Some of the more publicly accepted studies have evaluated things like out of body or near death experience.

Many associate parapsychology with the idea of hauntings and poltergeists. It is true that some parapsychologists may attempt to investigate allegations of such, but not every person studying parapsychology is a potential “ghostbuster.” Others are more interested in evaluating human abilities that are outside the normal range, and might evaluate or attempt to test a person’s ability to read minds, to communicate mind to mind (telepathy) without speech, to predict the future, or to move objects with their minds. There are a vast range of supposed human abilities which have never been scientifically proven to exist, and yet are of extensive interest in parapsychology.

Parapsychology emerged as a field of interest in the late 19th century, and was normally called psychical research. The 19th century had brought excessive interest in the paranormal and the Spiritualism movement. Many people in the mainstream, including several sects of Christianity began to believe that communication with the dead was possible. Though some in the Spiritualism movement were exposed as fraudulent, many still believed that paranormal events were possible, even when they could not be scientifically proven. Parapsychology arose about 40 years after spiritualists had begun to try to study and account for the paranormal.

Paranormal phenomenon remains of intense interest to the general public. There is a fascination with what might be possible. This is evidenced in the numerous books, films and television shows that deal with one or more aspects of the paranormal. In the 2000s, there have been as many as 7-8 television series running at the same time which concern themselves with main characters who have paranormal abilities.

This interest has led to the support and formation of parapsychology departments at some universities, and several large parapsychology organizations. Organizations like the Institute for Psychical Research, the Parapsychology Foundation, and the International Association for Near Death Studies are proliferate. Additionally, numerous journals publish results of parapsychology research, including, the Journal of Parapsychology and the International Journal of Parapsychology.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By WGwriter — On Sep 13, 2008


Thanks for your comments and questions. I think it might be helpful to start from the basis that seeing or hearing unexplainable things is out of the common way. Even parapsychologists would admit that not everyone has gifts to see things, and the most reputable would want to look at whether there are other causes for what is occurring to you-- My suggestion: take yourself to a good medical doctor and talk this out. There are a number of things that can make you see/hear things that aren't there, not all of them bad, and not all of them true psychic phenomena. You should definitely get a beat on what appears to be causing this problem or rule out medical causes prior to investigating whether what you see or hear may be caused by other things that are less easy to define. Hope this helps. Tricia EC

By beliefseeker — On Sep 12, 2008

I don't know where to turn and do not feel like I can just ask anyone, you know? I also don't think that I need to just keep all of this to myself and don't understand what is happening but at night when I lay down to go to sleep, just before I doze off, I get mental pictures of scenes that I know I have not experienced and even hear (in my mind, not in my ears) names of people sometimes. They are so strange from a tragedy that may happen or just a picture of something. I don't watch a lot of weird things on TV or even like horror films, I know they are not images I have seen on TV or seen in a newspaper. Please tell me what this could be and how to pursue it further. This has been happening for years but off and on, not every night. These thoughts or images are not in the past but modern day. For instance, I am standing near the exit of a busy freeway and see a little boy coming up the feeder road and there is a vehicle exiting about the same time. I don't see what happens to the little boy or the driver of the car or even their faces, just the event. It scared me so bad I wanted to call the police and ask them if anything had happened that night as far as an accident. This is the kind of stuff I am talking about. Also the name of a woman just popped into my head one night and I got up and wrote it down in the event I saw it on the news the next day but I did not. I had another occurrence last night. I see a man, light brown hair with glasses on, nicely dressed, walking to my front door, kind of in a hurry. This is just like I am standing there at my kitchen window watching him. I have no idea who he is and have never seen him before but he is walking like he has a purpose of coming to my door. These don't occur when I am drifting off to sleep, only when I am very relaxed. When it does happen, I just all of a sudden think, "who the hell was that", or "where in the world did that come from". Please help me to understand what this is so that I can learn more about it

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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