Durham, North Carolina is a hotbed of parapsychological research, and Jerry Solfvin, interviewed for THE SUN by Julia Hardy, is one of the more genuinely involved and communicative people in the field. The Psychical Research Foundation, where he works, is on Erwin Road and welcomes inquiries (286-0714). (It is not, as is commonly thought, a part of Duke University, nor is it the same as The Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, set up by J.B. Rhine, and also located in Durham). The interview began with Jerry’s account of investigations near Bimini, where an underwater, apparently man-made structure — which some believe is part of the legendary lost continent of Atlantis — has been discovered. We will print those comments next month, as part of a fuller treatment of the Bimini findings and the Atlantis legends.
SUN: Now let’s talk about you — how did you become interested in parapsychology, and how did you become a parapsychologist?
J.S.: I had just moved in the military to a new base in Illinois, and I had a free day while my furniture was being moved, so I went to the store and picked up something to read. It was a book called Venture Inward, written by Hugh Lynn Cayce; I really didn’t know what it was about, something about psychic phenomena, so I brought it home and read it. I finished it that night. I was really fascinated by the contents, by the implication of what this man was saying about his father, Edgar Cayce, who was apparently a mystic, or psychic, or trance medium, or whatever you want to call him, and who had remarkable abilities of healing, diagnosing, and prognosticating medical illness or disease. I said to myself, “If this is true, this is going to be very interesting,” so I went and got another book and another book and another book. I read everything I could get my hands on about Edgar Cayce, and I started reading about other psychics and psychic phenomena, and going through as much of the occult literature as I could find, especially focusing on particular psychics. I joined an Edgar Cayce study group at the time, because I had become fascinated by Cayce himself, and I also joined an informal hypnosis study group at the University of Illinois near where my base was. I got very involved in both those things, and in doing informal experimentation with hypnosis, to see if you could train someone who’s a good subject to do psychic things in trance.
This all fascinated me very much, and I discovered about that time that there was scientific literature involved too, that there were journals and books in the field called parapsychology; that psychic phenomena were being studied within a scientific structure. I had gotten my B.S. in mathematics and I had gone to the University of Texas via the military to get another degree in meteorology, so the scientific study of this interested me most of all. There were some changes that were going on in my life at the time, and I was anticipating getting out of the military in a year, so I made a trip to Durham. A number of parapsychologists were here, whose articles I had read, or whose names I had seen in books, so I came here and went to the Institute for Parapsychology and the Psychical Research Foundation and talked to the people here. I told them I was interested and asked how they would suggest that I pursue parapsychology: If I want to become a parapsychologist, how do I do it? They suggested that perhaps some graduate training in psychology would be very helpful, in experimental design and working with humans. During my last year of service I took some undergraduate courses in Illinois at a local community college to build up some background. I discovered at the University of North Carolina they had a graduate program in quantitative psychology which was statistics and computer oriented; my own background fit very well into that, so as soon as I got out of the military, I came to this area, worked for a few months until the beginning of school, and then moved into the program at UNC.
I studied there for two years, simultaneously spending a good deal of my time over here in Durham, in the evenings and the afternoons whenever I didn’t have class. I did several experiments at the time, and got to know the various people and what they were doing. After I’d been at UNC for about two years, a position at the PRF came open at the same time that my faculty had decided that it wasn’t advantageous for me to be studying there, for me or for them, because they were aware of my interest in parapsychology and that I wasn’t that interested in psychometrics or quantitative psychology. I thought about it and decided that they were right, so I just kind of slipped into this job at the PRF. I’ve been here now for the past two years, as a research associate.
SUN: So now you work for the Psychical Research Foundation. What is the purpose of the PRF?
J.S.: We investigate the question of survival after bodily death.
SUN: How long has this organization been in existence?
J.S.: Since 1960, when it was founded by a grant from the will of Charles Ozanne; he left a sum of money to be put in trust to form this organization. This insures the perpetuity of the organization, and we must supplement our interest income from this trust with grants from private individuals and organizations who are interested in our work.
SUN: That’s a tough question, survival after bodily death. What scientific means do you use to investigate this?
J.S.: We use the standard methods of science, the way science would approach any question. Rather than go into detail about how parapsychology got started on the survival question, let me just say that we are currently approaching the question through what we call altered states of consciousness research. It’s kind of a back door approach, you might say, to this question.
We have found that the meditation state, the sleep state, the dream state, the hypnogogic state, the hypnotic trance, and other such altered states of consciousness have been very productive of ESP. And in a way, we can view death, and possibly the process of dying, as being altered states of consciousness also. We feel that by studying the altered states we know about, we can better understand what kind of altered states death and dying may be. In essentially all the altered states that we know about, people often report feeling as though they could operate without their body, feeling as though they were separate from their body. This happens in deep meditation, in deep hypnosis, at times; this happens in my own experience in dreams — I often feel bodiless, that I am not bounded by this body, but I still have my consciousness, which appears to move around without my body. When we speak of the possibility of survival, we are usually referring to the possibility of consciousness without a body, which is precisely the death-like experience that many living people report when they go into an altered state of consciousness.
the out-of-body experience seems to be the closest thing that people report to death . . . In an out-of-body experience, people report that their consciousness can move to different physical locations, can roam about without the body, in some presumably immaterial form.
SUN: What are some of the specific experiments that have been done?
J.S.: We have, for the past couple of years, done a continuing series of projects on meditation. When we meditate, as in many other altered states, each time it is somehow different than the previous time. We’re trying to find out whether or not the quality of a meditative experience is determinate of the amount of ESP that will come out of that experience, or be available to the person in that experience, if you view ESP as something we all have but just need to have made available to us.
We’ve also been very interested in the out-of-body experience as an altered state of consciousness, not only because of the ESP content of the experience, but also specifically because the out-of-body experience seems to be the closest thing that people report to death; many people describe it that way, actually using the words “death-like.” In an out-of-body experience, people report that their consciousness can move to different physical locations, can roam about without the body, in some presumably immaterial form. We’ve been very interested in this kind of experience, the OBE, as we call it, and we’ve done a number of experiments to explore the various aspects of OBEs.
There are three aspects of this that we’re interested in. One is, when a person has an OBE and moves his consciousness to a distant location, can he bring back accurate verifiable information about that place that he would have no normal sensory knowledge of? We’ve been fortunate to have had one subject who can induce the experience at will in the laboratory. He’s told to go and visit place “X” a quarter mile away; place “X” has been, without his knowledge, set up with targets that have been randomly selected and placed there — he is to see what the targets are and bring back that information to us. These have been successful, in some cases remarkably successful, and on other nights, they’ve been remarkably unsuccessful. The general result is that there seems to be a definite extrasensory ability to bring back information during these experiences, This coincides very well with the reports of people who have had the experience spontaneously, who claim also that they have brought back very accurate information that they had no way of knowing otherwise.
The second aspect of these experiences which we are interested in studying is the detection aspect: can we with equipment or with sensors of some sort, including animal or human sensors, detect the out-of-body presence of that person in the target location while he’s presumably there trying to get information about the targets? This has been more difficult, and has met with less general success.
Our greatest success in this kind of test has been with the subject’s cats as sensors. Now, I’m giving very general ideas, and of course some people out there will ask if the experiments are properly controlled. We make sure that no one knows precisely when the subject is going to do his OBE. That is all randomised, and etc., etc., etc., so as to eliminate, or in some cases where we can’t eliminate, to reduce as much as possible, the psychological aspects of these things when using human detectors, or when a human reads a meter.
The third aspect of the OBE which is of interest is what is happening to the person’s body while he is supposedly out, or when he feels that his consciousness is out of it. What is happening physiologically, to his heart rate, his blood pressure, his EEG, and Galvanic skin response? We have also explored this aspect of the OBE and have found that there are some fairly definite physiological things that occur in the body of an OBE person. The general result, without going into detail, is that the body becomes very relaxed in the preparatory (cool-down) stage but shows arousal during the time he has the experience. In some ways this reminds one of the sleep and dream sequence but the EEG and the lack of rapid eye movements make it clearly distinguishable from sleeping or dreaming.
SUN: Could you tell us about some of the current research being done by the PRF?
J.S.: We have a couple of other projects that the general public would be interested in. One of them is our mediumistic project. People have consulted with mediums or sensitives for centuries, and right now there seems to be an increasing demand for such readings. At the PRF, we’re very interested in the mediumistic reading and what goes on during it, because, primarily, of the aspect of mediums claiming to communicate with the dead. That has long been of interest to people who are interested in survival research, as we are. We are also interested in the more general aspects of what goes on: when is the medium doing ESP things, when is the medium not doing ESP things, is there some sort of interaction between who the sitter is and the medium, does his or her personality affect the medium in any way in terms of the ESP content of the reading, or in terms of whether or not the medium is able to “contact” a deceased relative? There are many, many such aspects that need to be studied and have not been sufficiently, I think, in the past. We now have much more equipment, and a broader methodology in our field to study questions like this; so we’ve embarked on the mediumistic project, whereby people from the general public who are interested in getting a reading from a psychic or medium can call the PRF and make an appointment with us. When they come in, we request that they fill out some questionnaires regarding how they are feeling that day, why they’ve come for the reading, if they’ve had readings before, and about their personality. This will give us some background information with which we can do research. Then they go and have a full mediumistic reading with our consulting medium, whoever it may be that day. Right now, Tomiko Smith is doing most of our readings. At the conclusion of the reading, they again fill out questionnaires concerning their impressions of the reading and how they are feeling now. They make a donation, instead of directly to the medium, to the foundation, and the foundation in turn, pays the medium a portion of that. The rest of the money goes to supporting the research project.
We also have our Theta Project, by which we hope to investigate the question of death and dying directly. In this project we hope to be working with people who are close to their death. Now, we’re all going to die, but some of us will die sooner than others. There are many terminal cancer patients in this area, and elderly folks who realize that they will die in a relatively short time. And there is a growing number of these people who are interested in the question of life after death, and have beliefs one way or the other about that question — religious beliefs that they may have been brought up with, or beliefs developed through their own experiences, or perhaps even from psychic experiences that they themselves have had. Our hope is to get in touch with people who would be interested in volunteering for this project. We will be recording their views on things, how they look at the world, their personality characteristics, the way they say things, their vocal characteristics, their gesticulations, and their psychophysiological parameters, when that’s feasible and agreeable with the person involved: All these are things that really make an individual an individual, that fingerprint us and make us identifiable to each other. Now when that person has died, if there are mediumistic communications that come through that are reported to be from that person, we will have a backlog of data against which we can match the mediumistic communications. The style, the content, and the quality of the mediumistic communication could be matched against the style and content and the quality and the quantity of that person’s living communications. We feel that by doing this, we will be able to begin to explore several questions, such as what part of the personality, the individual characteristics of this person, will come through a medium, and what kind of people will communicate. Some people seem to communicate or are reported to communicate through mediums after death, and others are never heard from, even when they are requested by mediums. Is there something in the personality of the living person before he died, is there some factor that will tell us something about who is likely to be a communicator after death? There are many other such questions that we hope to begin to attack with this project by gathering data on people who are about to die, including ourselves.
Some people seem to communicate . . . through mediums after death, and others are never heard from . . . Is there something in the personality of the living person . . . that will tell us who is likely to be a communicator after death?
SUN: The PRF also does field investigations of hauntings and poltergeist cases, doesn’t it?
J.S.: Yes, reports of ghosts in people’s houses and unusual occurrences that seem to indicate that there may be a ghost in people’s houses have always been of interest to the PRF, and there is an obvious tie-in with the survival hypothesis. We get calls quite often about people that have experienced that sort of thing. I find it interesting that when objects start flying around the house, or objects are tipped over when no one’s around, people often think about witchcraft, think about ghosts, think about somebody — a dead guy — running around invisibly doing these things. We make an investigation of these kind of cases, more of the poltergeist kind than of hauntings.
The poltergeist case is the kind when there are large number of objects that visibly move. A haunting investigation is different in that it has more subjective phenomena such as apparitions, hearing footsteps, or hearing voices. There’s always a question of whether or not, if somebody else were standing right next to the person, that second person could have seen that apparition also, or whether it was purely mental phenomena. Now when I say mental phenomena, I don’t mean to decrease the significance of it any, but just that this is a question for research, and one that’s difficult to deal with in hauntings. Poltergeist cases, on the other hand, deal with objective phenomena. Somebody tells us that a plate that was hanging on the wall flew across the room and crashed on the other side. Well now, there’s clearly a cracked plate. We may question whether or not someone did it normally, or whether there was some other normal cause to it, but there’s no question about the occurrence of the event, and this is nice for science. Scientists like being able to measure things: we can go there with our tape measures and measure the distances traveled, we can record who was in the house at the time, we can record the date and time it occurred, and collect data like this. We can also, in poltergeist cases, measure things about the personality of all those family members involved; this sort of thing usually occurs in a home.
Generally we find in poltergeist cases the phenomena seems to center around a living individual in the home, usually an adolescent, the median age being around 14. And there are usually psychological correlates that turn up in case after case, especially with this central or focal person. This person is usually under some sort of psychological stress or tension at the time of the occurrences and is of a certain personality type. This leads us to believe, together with the fact that this living person is necessary for the phenomena to occur, in the sense that if he or she leaves, most likely all the unusual activities will stop, that this may be a human phenomenon — and that the stress and tension may be the root cause of the object’s moving. We still don’t know the mechanisms behind it, but we have done numerous studies of the poltergeist phenomena: the personality characteristics of the agent, characteristics of the family around him, the energetic aspects of how the objects move, and what objects move in the house. It all seems to fit into a fairly neat and lawful type of phenomenon — that is, there are definite patterns that occur to the family in Bridgeport, the family in Boston, the family in Columbus, and the family in Detroit, none of whom have had contact with the others, and none of whom have read anything about poltergeist or haunting cases.
We’re currently working on a theory that there may be a central nervous system abnormality connected with at least some poltergeist agents. In our research we’ve found that a relatively large number of these people have central nervous system abnormalities, epilepsy, hyperactivity or anomalous brain waves. It may be that some peculiarity in the central nervous system of the poltergeist agent makes him or her susceptible, whereas other people who undergo tension and stress have different outlets.
SUN: Another aspect of these investigations is helping people to deal with this phenomena, trying to keep these things from taking place, keeping people from becoming upset about their taking place, relieving the stress, that kind of thing.
J.S.: That’s right, these events are naturally upsetting to a family, their furniture, their material possessions are thrown around, burned, or otherwise destroyed, and they can’t seem to stop it or find the cause. Our research, of course, goes hand in hand with the general goal of the family to get rid of it. As we learn more about poltergeist activity, we will be more and more able to prevent it from happening in the future, or to stop it once it has started. We have been able, on the basis of our theories and from our research, to make recommendations to families in this situation which have been successful in some cases in stopping the phenomena. This is certainly a valuable part of the whole investigation, to help the family.
SUN: The PRF is also involved in some teaching, is it not?
J.S.: Yes, we started this summer to offer courses to the general public as a result of a demand that is present in this area for information and instruction in parapsychology and related topics. During the summer, we offered a course, Psi and Altered States of Consciousness, “psi” being, the current term, by the way, for ESP and PK (psycho-kinesis, manipulating an object without physical contact). We also offered a course in mediumistic development which was taught by a professional medium. Now I have to be quick to point out that this is a little bit away from the general approach of the PRF. We work with mediums quite often, and often mediums will have specific ideas about where they get their abilities. We don’t necessarily agree with their theories, but we feel it is valuable to give people an opportunity to have a course taught by a medium and there seems to be a lot of demand for this. We try to make it as plain as we can that what they’re learning from the medium is not anything about our research here or the research results, but the medium’s own personal ideas about her own abilities and how to develop them.
Four courses are now in session this fall. One of these is in meditation — there seems to be lot of demand for meditation these days, and a lot of systems are available for meditation, so we’ve decided to offer an exploration of various kinds of meditation. We have a meditation practice called ENO meditation which we developed here for our own research. It’s a philosophy free technique of meditation, very simple to do, and requiring no previous training. We are using this as our basic practice and requesting that the students continue this meditation daily on their own throughout the eight weeks of the course. In addition, every week we visit with a practitioner of some other system to discuss the philosophy and methods of that system. We’re exploring such techniques as Zen meditation, TM, Sufi meditation, etc. There is also specific training in Zen meditation being offered here for those who are particularly interested in Zen.
We also have a course in introductory parapsychology for the more academically oriented. This would be equivalent to and similar to a freshman college course in a basic science. We’re going over the scientific method, the techniques used in our research, the research results. We discuss various aspects of parapsychology, some of the controversial ones, as well as current issues in the research world of parapsychology. We’re also going to visit a laboratory here in Durham, and have an opportunity for the students to get involved in actual research here, as a subject or as an experimenter, if they care to go that route.
We’re sponsoring again two mediumistic development courses both taught by Tomiko Smith, a consulting sensitive here at the PRF. One is a beginning course, and the other is an intermediate course for those who completed the beginner’s course during the summer.
In addition, we are teaching one course at UNC this semester through the extension division, called ESP and Altered States of Consciousness. Hopefully, all of these classes will be continued if the demand is there.
. . . the poltergeist phenomena . . . seems fairly neat and lawful . . . that is there are definite patterns that occur . . . We’re currently working on a theory that there may be a central nervous system abnormality connected with at least some poltergeist agents.
SUN: How can people who are interested in the work of the PRF, but don’t have the time to take one or more of the courses, keep up with what is going on in the field?
J.S.: We publish a quarterly journal on survival research, THETA, which is designed to keep the intelligent lay public informed of our work and the work of other research groups in matters relevant to survival research. It includes cases, news, and other items of interest — what is going on in the field of survival research, current theories and discussions.
. . . regardless of what proof and evidence we may supply, they will constantly say ‘no, you’re cheating,’ . . . ‘no, it’s a hallucination’ . . . We are forced to do our work with inadequate financial support.
SUN: There are, among a lot of people, reactions to parapsychology such as ridicule, or animosity, or fear. Much of this is probably due to misunderstanding about what is actually going on. Do you have any comments about the negative feelings that some people have towards parapsychology?
J.S.: Yes I do. It’s true, there is a lot of animosity that parapsychologists get from various groups. Basically we are most troubled by two groups that are on the extremes of the continuum of belief in ESP and such matters. The first group has made up its mind that these things are impossible. Regardless of what proof and evidence we may supply, they will constantly say, “no, you’re cheating,” or “no, you’re doing your statistics wrong,” “no, it’s not possible,” “no, it’s a hallucination,” etc. This group tends to be more from the academic side; sometimes colleagues in other fields. Now I have no interest in converting people to “believers” — my research is published in journals and available for anyone to see if he cares to — but some members of this group actively make it difficult for us to pursue our research by preventing federal monies from coming our way. We are forced to do our work with inadequate financial support and many potential researchers are turned away from parapsychology because of the lack of respectability and salaried positions.
On the other end of the spectrum, we are hurt also by another group of individuals who are equally dogmatic about their own point of view. I’m referring to those who believe non-critically in anything that is strange or unusual. They claim to know all the answers about life after death and what it’s going to be like and that they know how to use ESP, and how to develop it. Often they are called parapsychologists, for some reason that I don’t know. This group gives a bad name to the research area of parapsychology to the extent that they associate themselves with it, when they are actually a fringe group who aren’t at all involved with using scientific methodology. They hurt us in precisely the same way as the other group — that is, in our ability to get funds to do our work, because the word “parapsychology” tends to bring the image of this fringe group to many people’s minds.
SUN: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your work. Perhaps this article will contribute to the understanding of parapsychology as a legitimate science.
J.S.: Thank you.