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‘This Is a Target-Rich Environment’: Inside the Rhine Research Center’s Parapsychology Probes

Five minutes from Duke Hospital, in a quiet office park that also houses the offices of U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a real-estate agent, a financial coach, and a dentist, the Rhine Research Center is open for its eighth decade of business.

At first glance, the space could pass for the home of any other association—cookie-cutter office chairs, fluorescent lights, and shelves of old volumes collecting dust. It’s the details that suggest something different. A bust of J.B. Rhine, the center’s long-deceased founder, glowers at visitors across from a kitschy glass goblet full of bent spoons, and every now and then the phone rings, with someone calling to report a paranormal experience.

John Kruth stands in the “receiver’s room” at the Rhine Research Center. This is where research subjects attempt to perceive observations made by people in another room, a process that is being revised. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

John Kruth, the executive director, sits at a table with his laptop and cell phone. Wearing glasses, a goatee, two silver rings and a turquoise collared shirt, Kruth doesn’t look like a stereotypical scientist. HIs phone’s ringtone is a Star Trek sound effect. He refers to the movie “Ghost” a lot, usually in a derisive way. Kruth has spent the past ten years researching in a field most people believe to be pseudoscience. The Rhine Research Center investigates parapsychology: extrasensory perception, psychokinesis, precognition, hypnosis, and energy healing, among other phenomena. He feels like he’s found his calling, and his work at the Rhine is only getting started.

Kruth has had an interest in parapsychology since his childhood growing up in Pittsburgh, but says conversations with skeptics inspired him to wonder how to communicate about parapsychology with people who don’t know anything about it. That’s when he realized he needed a science degree, and earned an M.S. in research psychology.

“I actually grew up in a family and a community where it was very well accepted, these types of activities. I was practicing hypnosis and meditation from the time I was a very, very small child, and did visualization techniques, had different people in my family who were healers and doing energy healing, so it was not uncommon for me,” Kruth says. “But when I tried to talk to other people about it, they thought I was nuts!”

Kruth moved to Durham from Philadelphia in the 1980s because the Rhine was located here, but it took him years to first walk through the door. Kruth has now been at the Rhine for 10 years and executive director for seven, and he says he’s doing what he’s wanted to do his whole life: researching parapsychology and communicating the findings to as many interested people as possible.

The Rhine Center is still one of the leading parapsychology laboratories in the country. It’s also one of the few left. But there was a time when the laboratory was cutting-edge science and one of Duke University’s claims to international fame. Parapsychology arose from late-19th century English research into communication with the dead and apparitions. In 1930, Duke became the first American university to grant parapsychology a foothold, largely under the leadership of William McDougall. A British eugenicist and well-known social psychologist, McDougall became head of Duke’s psychology department in 1927 and brought with him to Durham two telepathy and clairvoyance researchers, though they were botanists by training: Joseph Banks Rhine (who Kruth calls “J.B.” in conversation) and his wife, Louisa E. Rhine.

In 1933, Duke awarded the first American doctorate in parapsychology. The student, John F. Thomas, later published the thesis as a book called “An Evaluative Study of Mental Content of Certain Trance Phenomena.” For his thesis, Thomas tested different psychic mediums, primarily a woman named Gladys, to see how accurately they could transmit messages from his own wife, who died nine years before he received his doctorate. Thomas’s research found an overall success rate of 92 percent.

Two years later, with the support of University President William Few, McDougall created the country’s first parapsychology lab, appointing Rhine, “mop-haired ex-Marine sergeant,” as director. The lab quickly captured a great deal of media attention, with The Chronicle reporting in 1937 that “nearly every important journal in England and France during the past year has given accounts to the researches in extra-sensory perception carried on by Dr. J.B. Rhine.”

After McDougall’s death in his home on East Campus in 1938, Rhine dreamed of cleaving the lab from the psychology department, where his colleagues found him to be overly self-promotional. In 1947, the Rhine Lab split from the department but continued on campus with support from the Duke statistics department, which generally found his analysis to be sound. In 1962, Rhine established the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in a big building a stone’s throw from campus. Though he retired from Duke in 1965, he continued working until 1976, searching for a suitable successor. Rhine died in 1980. His last words to his wife Louisa were reportedly, “The work must go on.”

The work goes on. Sometimes, there are experiments in the labs upstairs. At other times, the center hosts educational events, plus two monthly meetings: the psychic experiences group and the dream studies group. This month, its very Web. 2.0 site advertises two events, one called “Are you an Empath in a World of Chaos?” and the other “Healing through Qigong – Creating Balance.” Four days a week, the book collection, one of the largest parapsychology libraries in the country, is open to all. There’s a small section on aliens, a lot on ESP, plus a complete set of the Journal of Parapsychology, a peer-reviewed journal published in Durham since 1937. On the website, 15 donors have donated $1,040.00 toward a $5,000 fundraising goal to “keep the library current.” (Dr. Sally Rhine Feather, J.B. and Louisa’s daughter, celebrated her 89th birthday in January and is executive director emerita of the center.)

The Rhine Research Center Past collects past issues of the Journal of Parapsychology, which it publishes. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Along with Rhine’s bust, the library is decorated with old technology like Zener cards and the goblet of bent spoons. The cards, which you might remember from the opening scene of “Ghostbusters,” were developed by Karl E. Zener, a Duke professor, for use in ESP experiments. The spoons are leftovers from the Center’s “PSI games,” which Kruth describes as a more entertaining throwback event when compared with the rest of the Center’s business. Kruth says about a third of the participants in PSI games are able to usual visualization techniques to find the strength to bend the spoons. Some people bend so many that they leave them behind at the Center.

“Typically it gets soft, and they become very easy to manipulate and bend,” Kruth says. “My first thought is, oh, they’re using their strength. But the first time we did a session here, we had a woman who was walking from station to station, she had an oxygen tank. Every time we got there she would have to sit down—she was very weak, she was an older woman. And when it came time for the spoon bending, she had two bent spoons. And I was like, ‘There’s no way she used her muscles to do this. This woman can’t even stand up for more than 10 minutes at a time.’”

The center has a sense of humor about itself, but Kruth wants people to know that the research itself is serious.

“I always say this is a target-rich environment,” he says, smiling. “There’s a lot of opportunity, there’s a lot of things that could be studied. There aren’t a lot of parapsychologists in the world who are trained in the scientific aspect of it, and who are trained in the language of math and statistics and the scientific method, and who can also understand the phenomena really well.”

Kruth says that the scientific community can be “dogmatically materialist” in its thinking, and that this paradigm is also generally accepted by the public. Because of this, Kruth says, he doesn’t try to win over dyed-in-the-wool skeptics. But many people are eager to share their own psychic experiences when they find out what he does for a living. Others, he admits, can be derisive.

“One of my very good friends who I spend a lot of time with, as soon as she found out I was here, she was like, ‘You don’t believe that crap, do you?’” Kruth remembers. “She was completely on the materialistic side, but she had no scientific background, had no knowledge of any of the studies, no information about anything that was being done.”

Kruth can’t identify when he first developed an interest in parapsychology. It’s always been a part of his life. Growing up, he and his siblings played with a set of Zener cards, pre-Ghostbusters fame. They would warn friends not to read the answers in Trivial Pursuit silently before they guessed, because otherwise, the Kruth siblings would “get the answer from somewhere.”

“We played games a little different from other people did,” Kruth says with a laugh. He also practiced self-hypnosis and visualization as a child. He recalls a trip to a baseball game where, amid the chaos of a van filled with kids, he sat quietly.

“Somebody asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m doing my visualization for the game. I’m visualizing what’s gonna happen,’” Kruth says. “It surprised me that they didn’t understand what I was talking about and that they thought I was weird for doing this. I thought they were weird for not doing it. To me, this was just what you do; it’s how you make your performance better.”

Today, Kruth runs studies in the Rhine’s lab on whether visualization really can improve real-life goal realization. His primary research interest, however, is energy healing, or bioenergy. He compares parapsychology to quantum physics: Both fields step outside the materialist paradigms, and observer effects are part of both. Kruth predicts that ideas in parapsychology will soon permeate quantum physics, and perhaps his research will be a part of that.

Kruth knows how kooky the notion of energy healing can sound. But he says he’s observed healers emitting low levels of ultraviolet light as they work. He links the light emitted by living organisms, called biophotons, to recent findings in physics and biology. Biophotons are a type of bioluminescence—the same biological process that allows fireflies to produce their own light—though biophotons, unlike firefly bioluminescence, are not visible to the human eye.

“We’re using standard physics and equipment to do this. What it seems that we’re detecting is something that could related to the type of energy that people have been describing for so many years,” Kruth says. “When I have chi masters in there, I can see that some of them can carefully control the light emissions in the studies that we’ve done.”

John Kruth walks through the Rhine Research Center towards rooms where the he and others probe the paranormal. Portraits of former researchers and study subjects line the walls. (Photo by Katie Nelson)

Kruth wants to bring younger researchers into parapsychology. In addition to their groups and PSI games, the Center hosts two online courses, one on “advanced field investigations,” which Kruth says is not like T.V. ghost-hunting, and one taught by himself on qualitative analysis methods, a type of research method gaining popularity in the social sciences which uses information impossible to quantify, like interviews and observation. Kruth estimates that the Center has taught more than 500 students via online classes, mostly people who “want to know the real evidence” for the existence of paranormal phenomena.

“For so many years that the work has been done in this field, it has been either marginalized or pushed aside, and a lot of it has to do with the publicity that the skeptical movement has gotten recently,” Kruth says. “This is why we’re kind of changing the way people look at it, and letting them know we’re doing serious science here. We have peer-reviewed journals, we have replications that are going on all the time, and we’re trained as scientists. We’re not just sitting in our basement trying to do this; this is a formal research facility.”

When Kruth considers which phenomena he’s observed in his lifetime has been most surprising to him, you can almost forget he’s not just another materialist scientist in an orthodox discipline.

“We design experiments for our lab. We’re very careful about the way we design them. We’re blinded, we try to make sure there’s no way to cheat: we’re very careful and controlled and everything about how we set them up. We’re so careful about it, that we second-guess ourselves over and over again,” Kruth says. “I’ve done everything I could to make it impossible for someone to do this, and it happens anyway? It surprises me every time. This is why I’m doing this work, I guess. It’s phenomenal, the things that I see. It’s amazing that these things actually happen.”

Frances Beroset

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