What Is Parapsychology? Definition & Specialties Explained

Updated June 23, 2021
woman participating in a brain study

Parapsychology is a field of study that falls under the social sciences discipline. And while many consider parapsychology a pseudoscience due to its apparently random nature, scientists in the field have amassed an impressive array of evidence about the nature of the unknown.

Parapsychology Definition

Parapsychology is the study of interaction between living organisms and environmental occurrences that fall outside of currently known physical laws of nature.

What Parapsychology Studies

These studies focus on five areas.

Survival of Consciousness

This looks at phenomena that suggest human consciousness continues outside of the body, including after death. Included in this category are:

woman experiencing an OBE


Mind-to-mind communication without verbal, physical, or written cues. Mind reading is an example of telepathy.

Psychokinesis and Telekinesis

Psychokinesis and telekinesis occur when the mind affects matter. For example, someone exhibiting one of these abilities may be able to bend a spoon with his or her mind. Likewise, in poltergeist manifestations, objects seemingly move by themselves or loud sounds occur. This usually occurs as a result of conscious or unconscious energy generated by the mind of a living person, which results in a burst of energy that affects physical matter.


This is a form of psychic ability in which a person with precognitive ability foresees events in the future. This can come in the form of precognitive dreams, or it may occur in a waking state through psychic visions.

Psychic Powers

Psychic powers include being able to detect something that can't be sensed with the physical senses. There are several types of psychic powers.

History of Parapsychology

While history is littered with reports of unusual phenomena, it wasn't until 1882 when the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London, England became the first organization dedicated to scientifically exploring the paranormal. At the time SPR formed, the United States and Europe were in the midst of Spiritualism, a movement in which claims of the paranormal were commonplace. A group of scientifically-minded men, many who were professional scientists, wished to explore these claims dispassionately using scientific processes. The SPR remains an active society for psychical inquiry to this day.

Nearly three decades later, Stanford University entered into psychical research, studying clairvoyance and psychokinesis under stringent laboratory conditions. Later, in the 1920s, Duke University entered the field, led by J.B. Rhine. At Duke, Rhine and his colleagues studied reported psychics and psychokinesis in an attempt to understand the mind's powers. The Duke University parapsychology laboratory became the Rhine Research Center, which operates to this day, publishing the independent peer-reviewed Journal of Parapsychology.

Parapsychological Organizations and Parapsychologists

Today, a number of parapsychological organizations exist that study anomalous phenomena. There are also a number of parapsychologists, who are scientists who have earned a college degree and professionally study anomalous phenomena.

Along with the Rhine Research Center and the Society for Psychological Research, a number of other scholarly parapsychological organizations exist today, including:

group of scientists in a meeting

There are too many parapsychologists to name, although some are more well-known than others. Some of these include:

Is Parapsychology a Pseudoscience?

It depends on who you ask. Scientists working in the field of parapsychology design experiments to test paranormal phenomena using the stringent protocols of the scientific method and feel they have amassed a great deal of legitimate, scientific evidence. However, many in the mainstream scientific fields decry it as a pseudoscience, claiming it fails to meet the criteria necessary for scientific study such as replicability. Since consensus has not been reached, parapsychology is frequently relegated to the fringes of legitimate science not due to lack of scientific method use, but due to how inconclusive results still appear to be.

Ongoing Study of Parapsychology

In spite of challenges from mainstream science, the field of parapsychology remains strong. Several universities have parapsychologists on staff. Likewise, claims of the paranormal continue to invite speculation as to the nature of reality. With so much interest, there is a need for ongoing scientific study of anomalous phenomena via parapsychology.

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What Is Parapsychology? Definition & Specialties Explained