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Synchronicity at Duke

Remembering the days of parapsychology research in the Rhine lab

J.B. Rhine also conducted ESP studies on animals, including this dog.  The military sponsored research on the possible telepathic powers of homing pigeons.

When C.G. Jung wrote about human extra-sensory connections in Synchronicity, most of the first half of the book covered research conducted at Duke University. Author Shirley Jackson grounded her horror story The Haunting of Hill House in real-life fact by citing Duke research using ESP cards (see video below).


This wasn't something that could have been predicted in Duke's early days. It isn't even something that gets talked a lot about at Duke anymore. However, it wasn't long ago that in popular culture, Duke was well-known as a center of parapsychology research.

Now the story of J.B. and Louisa Rhine and parapsychology research at Duke has been told by author Stacy Horn in Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory.


Horn came to Duke's Rare Book Room Thursday to discuss Rhine's research and her new book. When she started exploring the Rhine papers in Duke's Special Collections Library, Horn said she "expected to find ghosts and poltergeists."

What she found, she said, was science and long discussions of statistics and experimental procedures. She also discovered lots of letters from people dealing with phenomena they couldn't understand.

"I found letters from Albert Einstein," Horn said. "I found letters from ordinary people. Whenever anything strange happened, Duke was where people wrote. The underlying message of every letter was, ‘help me.'

"My book came out of the letters that these people wrote."


Rhine came to Duke in 1927 to work with his mentor William McDougall. He was already famous in the press for his application of the scientific method on the study of mediums and for his expose of a well-known Boston medium named Margery.

At Duke, he developed experimental methodology for parapsychology, concentrating in the areas of telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance and precognition. Publication of a 1934 book on extra-sensory perception -- based on research using Duke students and local residents -- made him famous.

"He became a rock star," Horn said. "By 1935, anyone interested in this field was talking about his lab."


Over the next three decades, Rhine and lab colleagues corresponded with Einstein and Jung and celebrities such as Jackie Gleason. The Rockefeller Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan (of General Motors and Sloan-Kettering fame) and the military provided support, Horn said. The CIA bought ESP cards from him, Horn said.

They did research on students, residents, faculty members and all sorts of animals. The military funded research on honing pigeons to see if they had telepathic powers, Horn said.

They investigated police reports of poltergeist episodes in New Jersey. They were in contact with a priest whose exorcism of a young boy was later the basis of William Peter Blatty's book The Exorcist.

"He got missing persons letters," Horn said. "People wrote him asking for his help finding the Boston Strangler. In the letters with (the exorcist) priest, the priest described an incident in which the kid was sitting in a chair and words appeared on the skin. Then the chair slides back and falls against the wall. In many ways, this was like every other letter Rhine received -- ‘Something weird happened, can you please help me.'"

But what did it add up to? Horn said Rhine changed discussion about ghosts and poltergeists and mediums. When he started, Arthur Conan Doyle was publishing as fact photographs of fairies.

"When Rhine applied the scientific method, he ended the idea of mediums or fairies or parlor tricks," Horn said.


However, his research for the most part remains unduplicated, an essential element of accepted science. Rhine himself believed spiritual powers to be uncontrollable, and he never developed a theory of how such powers worked.

To the end of his career, Rhine remained in a difficult place, Horn said. Scientists rejected his research, and the public kept hoping it would lead to powers Rhine would not promise, such as communication with the dead.

Horn, however, says she has an open mind about the research.

"I'm not a scientist, but I can't dismiss the evidence. It points to the possibility that there seems to be another source of information out there in the world," she said. "We don't know how it's transmitted, but experiments show that there are information processes out there that some people pick up on that we don't understand."

J.B. Rhine tests a women subject using his ESP cards. A female lab assistant is also present. Photo courtesy Duke University Archives.