While psychic phenomena have been around since the beginning of time, the serious investigation of such subjects didn't begin until the last half of the 19th century when the British Society of Psychical Research was formed in 1882. Darwin's theory of evolution was a serious blow to the religious institutions and fostered the belief that the universe is soulless, operating blindly without purpose. Classical scholar Frederic Myers and other students of psychic phenomena formed the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to test Darwin's theory by making exhaustive investigation and evaluation of the paranormal, especially the survival of human personality after death.
As spiritualism spread and seances became popular across Britian and America with the start in 1848 and the case of the Fox sisters, critics claimed the girls had faked the poltergeist activity and were now defrauding gullable people as they toured as professional mediums. Myers, Sedgwick and other founders of the SPR were determined to make an impartial scientific study of all paranormal activity. In the beginning, six committees were appointed to study the areas of apparitions, ESP under hypnosis, spiritualistic phenomena and spontaneous cases of telepathy and clairvoyance and to evaluate and collate their findings. The SPR did not at first conduct laboratory experiemnts but would test persons who reported spontaneous experiences. The Society set criteria for accepting or rejecting the validity of such claims through interviewing witnesses and investigating circumstances. The American Society for Psychical Research was formed in 1885 and later became a branch of the SPR. In 1905 it was set up once again as an independent group with James Hyslop, Columbia University professor of logic, as its first director and secretary.
In 1890, the SPR distributed a questionnaire called the "Census of Hallucinations" throughout England asking for psychic experiences. One of the questions read: "Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you can discover, was not due to any external physical cause?" The results were quite interesting and the SPR received over 17,000 replies, 10 % of those answered yes to the above question. Of those replies to the affirmative, 32% said they had seen apparitions of living persons, 14.3% of dead persons and 33.2% of unidentified individuals.
Although German physician Mesmer first coined the term for what is known today as hypnotism -"animal magnetism", it was not until the later half of the 19th century that serious experimentation of ESP under hypnosis was undertaken. French psychologist Pierre Janet, teacher to Sigmund Freud, reported that 20 of his patients had telepathic experiences when he hypnotized them. One such case was that of a patient, Leonie, who was hypnotized in 1884. He was able to send mental commands to her from a great distance to which she would successfully carry out.
A french physiologist of the late 19th and early 20th, Charles Richet was the first experimenter to use statistical methods. He would put playing cards in envelopes and would ask his hypnotized subjects to clairvoyantly see them. He would then score the results mathematically. Since the time of Mesmer, it was assumed that telepathy and clairvoyance were natural to the hypnotic state but Richet believed that ESP could also function when the subject was at his normal state of consciousness.
The first long range ESP tests with playing cards were conducted and published by Dr. John E. Coover describing the 7 years of testing at Stanford University using scientific controls and evaluating the results statistically. The tests, running from 1912 to 1919 covered over 10,000 guesses with the playing cards as targets and 105 students as subjects. Coover at first thought his results were negative until later analysis by parapsychologists showed differently. Another famous experiment called the "checkerboard" experiment was conducted by Dr. Gerardus Heymans and Dr. Henri Brugmans in 1921 at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands using a method closely related to the modern experiments using closed circuit tv. The subject was blindfolded and put into a room with the agent in a room overhead. The agent would then look through a glass covered hole in the ceiling to the hands of the subject below and tried to influence the movements the subject would make from square to square on a checkerboard. The subject was correct 60 times or more in a trial run of 180 moves. Statistically, 2 of 180 would have occured by chance.
Dr. G. H. Estabrooks, a Harvard psychologist, designed another classic experiment in the 1920's that used a red light as sense stimulation. With playing cards as targets, the agent switched on a red light whenever he turned up a red card. Even though the subject in the next room could not see the light switching on, the intention of the experiment was to stimulate his psi abilities clairvoyantly. Amazingly, the test subjects scored quite high. Modern experimenters at facilities such as the Maimonides Medical Center Dream Laboratory and elsewhere are also using sensory stimulation as well but in other forms such as vivid colors, paintings, music for clairvoyant emotional impact on their subjects.
Today parapsychologists study almost anything connected with psychic phenomena including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, ESP between mother and child, ESP under hypnosis, dream telepathy, dowsing, reincarnation, mental healing, out-of-body experiences, psychometry, remote viewing and remote influence.