Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
In this, the second of the series of author interviews, I have the pleasure to interview Dr. James C. Carpenter, a clinical psychologist and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, who has a long track record in parapsychology. I met Jim some time in 1983 when I was visiting, I think in the Summer, the Institute for Parapsychology, part of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (now the Rhine Research Center).
Jim has published over the years many important experimental studies of ESP exploring psychological variables. In this interview I focus on what is probably his most important contribution to parapsychology, his First Sight Model. This theoretical model has been briefly discussed in articles (here, here, and here) and in greater detail in the book referred to in this interview: First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012; to order the book go here). While there have been other psychological models of ESP proposed before, Jim’s is the most comprehensive one published and one that is well connected to the research literature of parapsychology as well as mainstream psychology.
Can you give us a brief summary of the book?
First Sight is a fairly big, densely packed book, but I can give a partial summary. The first two sections develop a model of the mind and a new theory of psi – what it is and how it works and what it is for in everyday life.
Here’s a big part of the gist of first sight theory. First of all, psi is always going on. That is, every person is always actively engaged at an unconscious level, with an indeterminately huge amount of reality. This engagement has an active, expressive side, and a receptive, becoming-aware-of side.
Our minds are always actively engaged with things, even when we are asleep or feel like we are doing nothing. This engagement is both conscious and unconscious, and involves aspects of reality both within our sensory boundaries, and outside of those boundaries. When the engagement is conscious and within the sensory boundaries, this is what we know as ordinary experience and action. When the engagement has to do with chunks of reality that are outside the ordinary sensory boundaries of the person, we call this engagement “psi.” The active, expressive aspect of this we call “psychokinesis,” and the receptive, coming-to-know side we call “extrasensory perception.”
Think of it this way, focusing just on the familiar stuff, the engagements that are within the sensory boundaries. I sit here with my beautiful Lenovo laptop. If I engage it actively, I peck at the keys. We call this “action” or “intentional behavior.” If I gaze at it in appreciation or consternation (depending upon how well it is working) we call this “seeing” or “taking in.” In one case I’m physically doing something to the computer, in the other I am taking in an awareness of it. Still staying inside the sensory boundaries, we know that “action” and “taking-in” go on unconsciously as well as consciously. I do many things without clearly knowing why I am doing them, or even exactly that I am doing them (say, keeping my balance as I walk to another room). Such actions are automatic, not clearly conscious, but still intentional. On the receptive side, I am constantly bombarded with sensory impressions that are too faint to register consciously, or too much outside of my focus to get my attention. Even though these impressions are unconscious they can still act as unconscious primes and influence my experience in various ways. So, okay, let’s agree about this: within the sensory boundaries, action and taking-in go on both consciously and unconsciously.
First sight theory adds to this picture by saying that unconscious action and taking-in also go on with reality that is ongoing beyond the sensory boundaries. Like what goes on within the boundaries, this out-of-bounds action has both an active and a receptive side, is always going on, and is always guided by our unconscious goals and intentions.
Unlike the sensory engagements, psi engagements are always unconscious. This is a kind of action and a kind of taking-in that is never conscious. Why? Because consciousness comes from sensation. Without sensation there is no consciousness. As the phenomenologists say, to be aware is always to be aware of something. The something is always some kind of sensory engagement (even if it is only an “inner” sensation of memory or imagination). Because psi is beyond the sensory system, it can never be conscious (or remembered or imagined). We can only know about it by inferences we can draw from its effects. Sometimes the inference is especially obvious, and we call it a psychic experience. Some people are especially good at drawing these inferences, and we call them psychics or mediums or healers.
What is it that guides our unconscious transactions with reality, both sensory and extra-sensory? It is our unconscious intentions. Where do our unconscious intentions come from? They primarily come from our conscious intentions, especially the ones that we are strongly holding at the moment, or that we hold habitually. Our goals, our sense of our needs, our deepest wishes, our longings – these things all take up residence within our unconscious functioning and guide it. They guide our sensory transactions and they guide our extrasensory transactions.
If all of this continuous, hypothetical psi is unconscious, is it of any use? Yes, it is very useful! It has the same sort of use that priming studies tell us unconscious sensory information has – it orients the development of experience and behavior. It helps to prepare us to perceive and respond optimally to whatever is about to unfold. Since psi goes on beyond the bounds of any possible sensory experience, it is the first glimmer we get of reality, the first step in all perceiving and acting. We use it every moment.
Of course, there is more to the theory than this, but this is a central chunk of it.
One important implication of the theory is that psi is normal, a continuous part of our normal unconscious cognitive functioning. This means that it must work smoothly and harmoniously with the other aspects of this unconscious processing, such as memory, creative problem solving, and perception. It also means that psi should be affected by the same sorts of things that affect these processes in more or less the same ways. There has been much more sophisticated research about these mainstream concerns than there has been about psi, so borrowing from the findings in these areas is permissible and useful.
In the next two sections of the book I examine this premise and attendant theoretical ideas, with fairly exhaustive reference to a lot of research in parapsychology, along with relevant research from mainstream laboratories, focusing on subliminal perception, various kinds of memory, creativity and openness, and the effects of fear and personality (especially extraversion) on both unconscious sensory processing and psi. I think in the process I do demonstrate how psi fits into these other aspects of unconscious functioning, and also manage to clear up some long-standing problems and apparent inconsistencies in our psi literature. The model works!
The next section of the book takes the theory beyond the research literature, and uses it as a framework to examine other problems, including why psi isn’t much evident in everyday life, how one can try to develop psi functioning, and how psi is expressed in the context of psychotherapy. Then I discuss some prescriptions for further research, and some implications for the next developments in a science of psi.
Some other nice summaries of the book have been offered by reviewers, so your readers might want to consult those if they are considering reading First Sight. For example, they can see Ballard (Ballard, 2014), Bem (Bem, 2012), Leary (Leary, 2012) and Pasciuti (Pasciuti, 2014).
What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of the book specifically?
I’ve been actively involved in parapsychology since high school, when I carried out some sloppy studies in card guessing based on what I read in Reach of the Mind, by J. B. Rhine. The results were good and fascinating so I got myself to Duke for college in order to find out more about it. There I came to hang around the Parapsychology Lab quite a bit, helping out here and there and attending research meetings. I did the only honor’s study the psychology department ever allowed on ESP, supervised by Gaither Pratt and Kay Banham. I got to know Rhine well, and gained a remarkable band of life-
long friends about my age (in particular Chuck Honorton, Rex Stanford, Bob Morris, Dave Rogers, John Palmer, Ed Kelly and B. K. Kanthamani) who were also being groomed by Rhine to succeed him. I was a little more skeptical about psi than most of the others, and I went to Ohio State for a PhD in clinical psychology, but I also kept up some research on ESP as I could find time. I’ve kept the research up ever since. My skepticism faded, but I remained frustrated that psi seemed to make so little sense in light of everyday experience.
What motivated you to write this book?
The long-term motivation was a deep resolve to try to know if psi was real, and if so, how it works. I’ve been pondering this for a long time, wanting to see what our research was telling us, and trying to imagine how it might fit in with all the rest of human functioning. The more immediate spur happened when I was trying to raise funds for the Rhine Research Center and was frustrated with trying to convey to non-parapsychologists why I thought the field was so interesting and important. In particular, I was vexed with the frequent experience of having a great conversation with some research psychologist, bringing psi up, and suddenly hitting an awkward wall of silence. All of a sudden I seemed to be from Neptune. This was extra confusing because I could see that the methods and findings of their field and parapsychology were so similar. I thought, maybe I can develop a model in which I could pose a common language for parapsychology and mainstream psychology, and this could underscore our commonality and make our communication easier. I thought I would work up a nifty little paper in a couple of months. Several years later, I had the book.
Why do you think your book is important and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
I may just be too close to it to see the gaping flaws, but I really do think that I am spelling out a lot about how psi works and where it fits in and how we should go about learning more about it. This is important, but it’s quite different from the way we are used to thinking, and I want other people to get their heads around it. Then I hope they will use it, criticize it, test it, improve it, build on it. Right now, I want people to read the book. If any of your readers do read the book I want to advise them to be patient and thoughtful with it. People who read it carefully tell me that it takes them a while because it is full of somewhat unfamiliar ideas. They say that it is worth it (of course these are the people who are still talking with me). It’s somewhat densely written, but I think well written and quite understandable. I want them to leave Chapter Two until the end, because it is especially dense. Why should people read it? Because I want parapsychology to have a future that is scientifically solid, not just more generations of intriguing odd ideas which appeal to the mystically inclined. Research in any field that just consists of single cool ideas and findings always blooms briefly and then disappears. What lasts is research that is programmatic. We can’t have programmatic research unless we have an overarching model of how things should work and what questions we should ask, and some theoretical ideas to start with that can be pursued. First sight gives this sort of model and theory. I hope it’s true. I hope it isn’t true. I don’t care. What I really hope is that it stimulates sustained research that builds toward a solid understanding of this largely hidden side of our nature and shows how it is not anomalous and aberrant. It’s a solid, useful, potentially predictable but still largely mysterious, part of the amazing privilege of being human.
Ballard, J. (2014, January-February). Review of First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, pp. 59-60.
Bem, D. (2012, December 19). ESP is not a psychological anomaly: A review of First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. PsyCritiques, Article 6.
Leary, M. (2012). Review of First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Journal of Parapsychology, 76. 373-376.
Pasciuti, F. (2014). Book Review: First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 28, 525–529.