What are the boundaries of psychical research ? Which purported “paranormal” phenomena concern the parapsychologist and which do not ?
Most psychical researchers would readily exclude UFOs, cryptozoology, astrology, numerology, etc. from the preoccupations of parapsychology. The “demarcation” of the field, however, is far less obvious when it comes to the question of post-mortem survival – whether some aspect of the human mind continues to exist, beyond corporeal death.
On the one hand, there is little doubt that there are historical links between the “survival” question and say, telepathy or psychokinesis research. Indeed, psychical research partly grew out of interest in the phenomena associated with “sprit circles” – apparent communication with discarnate spirits (presumably through telepathy) or large scale psychokinetic phenomena (represented as spirits’ action on the physical world). On the other hand, most psychical researchers today manifest little professional interest in the overall question of survival, or the phenomena associated with it (“channeled” information from mediums, apparitions, Instrumental Trans-Communication, OBEs, “spirit” photography, reincarnation investigations, Near Death Experiences, etc.) Why?
Investigations in these areas either tend to be subsumed under psychological, medical, or neurological studies (this is most obvious with NDEs and OBEs), or seen as explorations of “living psi” (e.g., mediumnistic communications seen as a form of clairvoyance or telepathy).
Thus, though notable exceptions do exist, (e.g., Erlendur Haraldsson and the late Ian Stevenson who have studied children with “past life” memories) it is clear that research on the issue of survival research has been on the decline for many decades. .
The question, of course, is whether this trend is justified. Is it true that all evidence cited in favor of the survival hypothesis can be accounted for either by psychological or neurological models, or, by living-psi explanations? While this is the “mainstream” view, some would argue that the retreat from survival research reflects social, cultural, or political reasoning, rather than substantive scientific arguments : simply put, such research is essentially too “risky” for most scientists, being too far removed from contemporary conceptions of consciousness.
While the IMI has no “official” position on the issue of survival, its history since the 1930s, attests to the fact that we identify with the “mainstream” outlook, that underscores living-psi perspectives rather than survivalist positions. Nevertheless, it seems important to pay more attention to survivalist views and research, for two reasons. First, a careful examination of some cases and investigations suggests that psychological or living-psi models are not completely satisfactory; one might say that the debate, in these cases, is still open. Second, even if the phenomena explored by “survivalists” ultimately turn out to be due to living psi, it must be admitted that survivalists’ approach is unique, and quite removed from typical psi research. Parapsychologists could therefore benefit by studying survivalists’ tools and preoccupations and learning from them.
Thus, we are creating this separate section, to present investigations of phenomena traditionally associated with survival, as well as debates concerning these approaches. The positions expressed, of course, represent solely those of the authors of these papers, and not of the IMI.