J. B. Rhine

Joseph Banks Rhine

Widely considered to be the "Father of Modern Parapsychology." Along with his wife Dr Louisa E. Rhine, Dr J. B. Rhine studied the phenomena now known as parapsychology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He coined the term "extrasensory perception" (ESP) to describe the apparent ability of some people to acquire information without the use of the known (five) senses. The Rhine Research Center in Durham still continues to be a thriving center for parapsychological research.

The Start of the Duke Experiments

- J. B. Rhine -

          IN 1930, no American university was investigating extra-sensory perception. When the four members of the Duke psychology department determined to study telepathy and clairvoyance as one of their laboratory research problems, it was the first time in the history of the subject that such a concerted attack had been made upon it by a group of university staff members, and the first time that a college department of psychology had given so much attention to the problem.

In any well-established branch of research a discussion of the actual personnel which conducts it is not necessary, for science is supposed to be largely impersonal. But in a pioneer project such as the one upon which the four of us embarked, the personalities of the men concerned are of obvious importance, if only to explain why they undertook to examine a field in which no other psychology department appeared to be working. For that reason I shall say a few words about these men, Professor William McDougall, Dr. Helge Lundholm, and Dr. Karl E. Zener, and about the circumstances of the origin of our co-operative research.


Professor William McDougall, F.R.S., the head of the department, is a veteran of many fields, among them that of psychic research. From his university days in Cambridge he was more or less in touch with, and often a prominent figure in, the work of the British Society for Psychical Research. After coming to America in 1920 he was for a time a leader in the American Society for Psychical Research in the period when Dr. W. F. Prince was Research Officer. He helped to found the Boston Society for Psychic Research while he was a professor of psychology at Harvard. He was one of those asked by the Scientific American to render a verdict on the Boston medium, Margery.

When he came from Oxford to Harvard in 1920, Professor McDougall brought to American psychology a breadth of viewpoint and a degree of courage in attacking a wide field of problems which were unique and somewhat daring. For example, he reintroduced hypnotism to psychologic research. Until he did so, it had been practically abandoned to vaudeville demonstrations. The reader will remember that it was this same fearless pioneer who at Harvard sponsored Murphy and Estabrooks in their attempts to find evidence for telepathy.

Also, he boldly launched a long and painstaking research into a most unpopular theory of evolution. Although by that time biologists had almost all rejected the old hypothesis of Lamarck (which holds that characteristics acquired during the life of the parents may be inherited by the offspring) in favor of other theories more in keeping with the mechanistic trend of the age, he did not hesitate to reopen the question. With groups of rats which he has trained patiently through forty generations and seventeen years of investigation he is convinced that he finds unmistakable evidence that certain training effects are inheritable. He has given his results to science, regardless of the fact that in doing so he stands practically alone in his conclusion.

Further, when Dr. John B. Watson's theory of extreme behaviorism (every human action and emotion is mechanically determined by physical stimuli and automatic nerve patterns, and the mental process as such can be ignored) was so largely narrowing and shadowing the American psychological outlook, Professor McDougall stood out as certainly the leading champion of purposive psychology, which holds that the mind is not only an actual system, but that in its goal-seeking or striving character it causes people to behave as they do. Few laymen would ever suppose otherwise, since the casual efficacy of mind is a common-sense view. But to the behaviorists mind was a fiction, and to many other mechanistic psychologists it was only a reflection or idle accompaniment of nervous activity.

A knowledge of these facts about Professor McDougall goes far to explain the joint investigation of telepathy and clairvoyance by the members of his department. It is the unusual character of his leadership, exerted not in the least as pressure, but rather as inspiration, that largely explains the fact that this work began at Duke and in its department of psychology.

I used the word "inspiration" advisedly. The three of us who constituted his staff had formerly been Dr. McDougall's students, and the natural respect we bore for his views led us to a certain open-mindedness toward his interest in "frontier" topics such as telepathy and clairvoyance. All three recognized these problems as legitimate for investigation without committing ourselves in advance as to what results to expect. The two men who soon had to discontinue the investigation because of pressure of other duties still retain their interested, inquiring attitude toward these phenomena.

There was, therefore, a genuine and unanimous interest on the part of the members of the department. Professor McDougall did not himself institute any actual experimentation; his time was taken up by the Lamarckian experiment, which was at that time already ten years old. But he was always ready to look into the work the rest of us were doing, and throughout has been probably the research's most interested observer. Many times an apropos suggestion or a guiding hand from him has forestalled misfortune. His fifty years of contact with psychic research gave the Duke experiments a back ground that could not have been found elsewhere. The fact, too, that through his half-century acquaintance with these problems he has kept his scientific poise is of inestimable importance to the dignity of the work. He has always been ready to examine any evidence, but cautious in conclusions. An investigation is enormously favored by having such a sponsor.


Associate Professor Helge Lundholm was responsible for the institution of one line of study which, though relatively short-lived, is extremely important in that it was the foundation for later, more successful work. In the fall of 1930, as the result of a discussion with Professor McDougall, he proposed applying tests for telepathic perception to students either in hypnotic trance or after hypnotic treatment designed to put the subject into a favorable state of mind; that is, posthypnotic condition. Dr. Lundholm was himself an experienced hypnotist and had done important research in connection with it. It was understood that I would furnish the techniques for the telepathic testing and Dr. Lundholm would handle the hypnotization. His devotion to the experiments, his patience through the long hours required for the work, and the thoroughness of his handling of the precautions made his withdrawal a real loss when, after several months and with the opening of a new semester, he found that his other work would not permit him to continue.

We began to work on telepathy with hypnotized subjects because the early mesmerists and hypnotists had reported such unique results with them. We thought possibly hypnotization would increase any latent telepathic capacity in a subject and make its demonstration easier. We had heard tales, too, and read accounts of uncanny knowledge of distant events demonstrated by persons in the hypnotic trance, and wondered if these old stories concealed a useful clue.

Our procedure was to begin by putting the subject into a hypnotic trance if we were able. With most of the students who volunteered for the work we found it possible to do so. After some preliminary tests for the adequacy of his trance, the subject was given the suggestion that when he "awakened" he was to get up from his couch, take a certain chair, and follow the instruction he would then receive. He was assured that he would be able to respond to what was in the experimenter's mind without being told what it was. Dr. Lundholm then brought the student out of the trance condition and we proceeded with the tests themselves. In one series of them the subject was asked to tell what number, from 0 to 9, or what letter of the alphabet the experimenter was thinking about. Another test employed a circle divided into eight sections similar to the slices of a pie. The subject, in his posthypnotic condition, placed his finger in the center of the circle and was told to move it to the particular segment of the circumference which the experimenter had mentally selected. We thought that perhaps such a "motor response," or action, might be an easier form of response than speech, but it did not prove to be so.

The results of these experiments in posthypnotic telepathy and clairvoyance were only slightly positive, and at best could be considered merely encouraging. But under the stimulus of that modest encouragement I went on with the work alone for a while after Dr. Lundholm withdrew. Before then I had learned the technique of hypnosis and was still in hopes of finding a subject who would be able to duplicate the feats reported by the early mesmerists.

Working with hypnotism is necessarily a slow business, and the results of our tests had to be constantly checked against similar tests conducted without any hypnotic influence. These nonhypnotic series produced results that were equally good, and fully as encouraging as the ones conducted with posthypnotic subjects. Accordingly I decided not to bother longer with the hypnotic technique, and to this day no one has determined conclusively whether hypnotism is of any service in the investigation of extra-sensory phenomena. We found only that we could get results more quickly without it.


Types of test cards. (Top) Earliest symbols - The Zener cards. (Bottom) ESP cards, 25 in pack.


At almost the same time that Dr. Lundholm broached the idea of our joint investigation into hypnotism and extra-sensory perception my other colleague, Dr. Karl E. Zener, had become interested in a somewhat different type of work which had come to his attention. This important research had been conducted by a member of the British Society for Psychical Research, Miss Ina Jephson. Miss Jephson had asked her subjects to guess the numbers and suits of ordinary playing cards, and if we accepted the good faith of her subjects and the correct handling of the results, she appeared to have established a good instance of clairvoyance, rather than the telepathy on which we had been working. Like Richet's work with Leonie, her experiments suggested that an object might be perceived without using the recognized senses, just as in telepathy there was presumed to be a perception of a mental image or state of mind in another person.

I, too, had been interested in Miss Jephson's experiments. I had taken a small part in a repetition of them in co-operation with Dr. Gardner Murphy in New York. Therefore, when Dr. Zener suggested that we repeat Miss Jephson's tests, with some changes, I was again eager to participate. Dr. Zener's experience and personality were especially suitable for co-operation in this work. His training and early research had been in the field of psychology of perception - sensory perception, of course - and he is characteristically a cautious and critical man. His judgment was extremely helpful in the choice of suitable means and methods of testing.

Cards seemed the most convenient sort of object to use in these tests, but the problem of what symbols to put on them had never been settled to our full satisfaction. As a practical solution we decided together on five simple, easily distinguishable designs: a plus or cross, circle, rectangle, star, and three parallel wavy lines(1). These figures represented a compromise of the various points that had to be considered.

(1) The most recent test cards, designed while this book was in proof, employ a square instead of a rectangle.

Our aim, in fact, was to select forms as unlike as possible, even in their parts. We wanted a small enough number of kinds of symbols so that all of them could easily be kept in the subjects' minds. On the other hand, the more we used the greater the advantage of variety.

The cards which Dr. Zener and I devised became far better known than either of us, at that time, could have dreamed. At the start of the work I began calling them "Zener cards," and later on when we changed two of the designs the cards were christened "ESP cards." By that time we were employing the term "extra-sensory perception" (or ESP for short) to describe the clairvoyance and telepathy for which the cards served as a testing technique. It is by this name that they are known today, and the cards of various types which we are now using, and which have been made available to the general public, have been modified and improved from the original designs worked out by Dr. Zener and myself.

At the beginning of our work we did not use the newly devised cards exclusively. We also employed others, such as those containing numbers and letters of the alphabet which Dr. Lundholm and I had used in the hypnosis work. But regardless of the symbols on the particular cards, our method of using them was to seal them all in opaque envelopes and hand them out to students in our classes with an invitation to attempt to name the cards contained in the envelopes. The students were to write down their choices and hand in the record. Many of them were amused, and probably most were politely skeptical. By no means all of them ever carried out the instructions. But among those who did - though there were none who did extremely well - a few had scores which stood out well above the average. On the whole those averages were close to what could be expected from chance or luck alone, but we felt it was worth while to follow up the few individuals who showed exceptional scores. It was in this follow-up that the successful trail was found.

Unfortunately, at this point I was once more to lose the companionship of a colleague in research. Dr. Zener was too heavily burdened by other work at this time to go on with the decidedly tedious exploration required in the following up of the individual tests. But again a foundation had been laid. A few promising cases had been discovered and something interesting was suggested, if not assured.


The fourth member of the psychology staff at Duke was, as the reader already knows, the author of this book. In spite of having a great many other things to do, including a regular, full-time teaching schedule, I did not drop out of the research, and to explain my persistence in it requires a discussion of how I came to be a psychologist and why I happened to be at Duke at this time. So many questions have been asked about the reason for my interest in this work, and how I came to acquire it, that I must answer a few of them with some details of what had preceded my work at Duke.

It was with the definite purpose of undertaking investigation into possible unknown capacities of mind, the so-called psychic powers, that I had first got in touch with Professor McDougall. That was in the early twenties, when he was at Harvard and I was a graduate student in biology at the University of Chicago. My interest in psychic research had grown out of my desire, common, I think, to thousands of people, to find a satisfactory philosophy of life, one that could be regarded as scientifically sound and yet could answer some of the urgent questions regarding the nature of man and his place in the natural world. Dissatisfied with the orthodox religious belief which had at one time impelled me toward the ministry and dissatisfied, except as a last resort, with a materialistic philosophy, I was obviously ready to investigate any challenging fact that might hold possibilities of new insight into human personality and its relations to the universe.

This same interest and curiosity had for a time led me into a broad, restless search along the entire frontier of science and philosophy. I had watched hopefully the efforts of such religious leaders as Shailer Mathews to bring all modern science to the aid of religion. They aimed, with the help of religious-minded scientists, to impress us all so deeply with the great mystery of science itself that we would feel religious about it. This left me cold.

The mysterious capacities claimed for the mind by people engaged in psychic research promised something, at least. The mysteries of the atom or of a distant star could not, at best, have much import for those feelings which once had been religious. But the common claims of psychic research enthusiasts are the very substance of most religious belief, stripped, of course, of theological trappings. The primitives and ancients evidently had relied greatly on the strange occurrences that today would be called psychic in forming their concepts of man, his spiritual make-up, and his powers over nature. I wondered if we were throwing away too much in outgrowing these old beliefs. If some people believed such things were happening today, there was certainly a challenge in looking into them.

When I first learned of the early experiments in thought transference made by Professor (later Sir) Oliver Lodge when he was a young physicist at the University of Liverpool, I asked hopefully, "Might we not find some grounds here for new understanding of ourselves?" The searching mind does not need assurance or certainty, it needs only hope. It was in the sense of following a hope of discovering some illumination - just what, I did not know that I turned eagerly toward this realm of mysterious happenings, real or imaginary.

A true description of those early years - and the present as well - would begin with my wife, Dr. Louisa Ella Rhine. She is the granddaughter of a German immigrant who was shipwrecked on Sandy Hook, clung to a mast all night, and lived to write a poem about his experience. My wife and I met when we became neighbors in a small Ohio town and studied at the high school there. We used to hold long, juvenile discussions of religion and our philosophical perplexities, and in the course of them became attached to each other. In our college years we studied side by side in the library and the field and sat together in laboratory and pew. Like myself, she has always been interested in new worlds to explore, and new roads to travel.

As we grew older and had to decide what to do with our lives, we turned by common consent to the field of professional forestry. The woods seemed to offer a free and natural life, one in which we might hope to escape the fog of an increasingly dubious philosophy and work out at least a practical formula for existence. In preparation for careers in forestry we became graduate biology students, but before we had completed our studies in that sphere our imaginations were caught by the possibilities of useful work in the borderland science of psychic research.

The wisdom of meddling with this field seemed to us at the time highly questionable. My wife fully shared the questioning as well as the challenge which this research appeared to offer. Without her I doubt whether I should have gone ahead, but with her support and encouragement the decision was easy.

About this time we went to hear Sir Arthur Conan Doyle give a lecture on spiritualism. I went with many reservations, almost to scoff, and I left with the same reservations. But in spite of my doubts I carried away an impression that I still retain, of what his belief had done to Sir Arthur. It had made him supremely happy. It had banished his religious doubts and made him a crusader, willing to make a fool of himself, if necessary, for what he believed to be a great principle. And clearly if there was a measure of truth in what he believed, misguided though Sir Arthur might be in details, it would be of transcendental importance. This mere possibility was the most exhilarating thought I had had for years.

There is no need to repeat here the psychic adventures, as they are commonly called, through which my wife and I went in the tentative explorations we made. There were years of reading and carefully weighing the literature, of trying to sort out the occasional grain of truth from the unusable chaff that makes up the great part of spiritualistic writing. Explorations among the mediums were discouraging, but they served to sharpen our cautiousness and critical capacities.

Finally an opportunity came to study under Professor McDougall. His books and articles had done much to strengthen our waning interest in the psychic field, and the offer was gratefully accepted. That is how we came to Duke University.

Professor McDougall believed that my background of biological study and research plus my interest in his well-known Lamarckian experiment fitted me to become his research assistant, and he asked me to remain at Duke. In my first year under him, 1927-1928, my wife and I had worked on the criticism and evaluation of the mediumistic material of Dr. John F. Thomas of Detroit, whose studies have now been published under the title Beyond Normal Cognition. In working on Dr. Thomas's material we had had the advice and supervision of Professor McDougall, and when he asked me to remain with him at Duke it was with the general understanding that I was to have opportunity to carry out such investigation as seemed possible in the special field of the Thomas material - the field of parapsychology.

Psychology is the study of mental life, and parapsychology, as the term is used in this book, is a special branch of psychology. The "para" part of the word might be interpreted as "offside" or "unconventional." The problems of parapsychology are those which, like telepathy, for example, do not appear to fit the conventional view in psychology, but nevertheless seem to many people to have some factual basis. The aim of parapsychology is to find out, first, how sound the facts reported are and, second, to go even further and find new explanations for unusual phenomena of the mind. It differs from psychic research in the strictly experimental methods used in its procedure.

My interest in parapsychology was based largely on this last consideration. Psychic research is conducted, in many cases, on a broad and tolerant approach to unusual mental phenomena. As we have seen in the earlier discussion of specific cases, it had been difficult, if not impossible, to make it fit into the experimental techniques of the laboratory and the methods of academic teaching. Parapsychology, therefore, was designed for academic study and is today on the curricula of at least three universities.


Something of my state of mind in the fall of 1930, after two years at Duke, can be seen from this sketch. The suggestions of my colleagues, Lundholm and Zener, could not, I think, have fallen on more eager ears anywhere on the inhabited globe. The encouragement of their offers to cooperate was the only thing needed to overcome the diffidence I felt in introducing these unconventional problems into university laboratories.

It is clear, too, that several persons played an important part in the setting of the Duke research and that it would in no sense be fair to center whatever recognition may be given it on one individual. The continuation of the work in extra-sensory perception has been marked by this same co-operative spirit. When my colleagues stopped their active cooperation several graduate students of psychology joined me. They did a great share of the work, and an enormous amount of work was done. Two of them are still doing it, and now that their psychological training is complete they are on the permanent staff of the laboratory. Others have gone on to more regular careers in psychology, and new assistants have taken their places.


The article above was taken from J. B. Rhine's "New Frontiers of the Mind" (1937, Farrar & Rhinehart).

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