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13 University-Sanctioned Paranormal Research Projects

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Wikimedia Commons

By Jill Hanson, JFK University 

The existence of paranormal phenomena is one of those things you’re usually either heartily for or against. In case you’re on the fence about the subject, here’s a list of 13 of the most prominent university sanctioned (and unsanctioned) odysseys into paranormal research, and what they found.

1. Stanford University (1972 - 1980s)

Stanford University has many claims to fame when it comes to paranormal research: For starters, the esteemed university can rightfully assert itself as the first academic institution in the United States to study extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK) on an official basis. In 1911, John Edgar Coover began conducting experiments into ESP. Other claims to fame include a rigorous scientific exploration of the purported psychic abilities of the famous “spoon bender” Uri Geller (there is no spoon!), which were studied intensively at the affiliated Stanford Research Institute (SRI) over a five week period during the 1970s.

Maybe even more exciting and curious than the possibility of bending metal with one’s mind was the CIA-sponsored Stargate Project, which took place at SRI in the 1970s. This secretive project was an effort by the CIA to explore the practical applications of Remote Viewing. Unfortunately, during the mid-90s, Stargate Project research officially ceased due to claims that the project failed to yield useful applications and intended objectives—but word on the street is that claims of failure were overexaggerated, and that research merely continued unofficially under the popular radar.

2. Duke University: Parapsychology Laboratory (1935 - 1965)

In 1935, Duke researchers J.B. Rhine and William McDougall made that university the second in the nation to officially enter into paranormal research when, after an exceptionally fascinating lecture by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the possibility of communication with the dead, the men formed the Parapsychology Laboratory as part of the university’s main psychology department. Laboratory research focused mainly on the critical study of extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK). 

To this day, Rhine is commonly accepted to be the father of parapsychology, not only for having coined the term with the help of his trailblazing partner McDougall, but also for having almost singlehandedly established parapsychology itself as a field of scientific and academic inquiry. While the Rhine name is no longer associated with Duke University directly, J.B. Rhine’s purported success in the vein of paranormal inquiry lives on at the Rhine Research Center.

3. Princeton University: Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (1979 - 2007)

From 1979 to 2007, the tiny basement of Princeton University’s engineering building was home to the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) project, which aimed to determine whether there was factual basis for theories in mind/matter interaction—or in layman’s terms, extrasensory perception (ESP) and telekinesis (TK). While officially expressed by university administration to be an embarrassment, the program claimed success when it was all said and done: Over the project’s 28-year run it was determined by PEAR researchers that compounded data from the many trials did in fact reflect highly significant statistical deviation from what one could expect from chance alone. In other words, minds intelligent enough to teach at Princeton believe that ESP and PK exist.

4. Harvard University (1990s - 2008)

Not everyone conducts paranormal research with the hope of finally harnessing proof of its existence. Recently, a team of Harvard scientists set out to disprove the existence of ESP, and even introduced a new method of research into the mix in order to do it.

To conduct their research, the Harvard duo included use of brain scanning with the aim of deciphering whether individuals have knowledge which cannot be explained through “normal” means (AKA the five senses). While researchers admit that technically the project’s results do not disprove the existence of ESP, they assert that findings from their experiment provide the most persuasive evidence to date against the existence of ESP. Professional skeptic James Randi is beaming with pride, I’m sure.

5. University of Virginia: Division of Perceptual Studies (1967 - Present)

With six years of research in the area of past lives (reincarnation) already under its belt, UVA’s Division of Perceptual Studies (DPS), a research unit within the Department of Psychiatric Medicine, was established by Dr. Ian Stevenson in 1967. The division is still kicking today, holding the field of Parapsychology afloat in North America as one of the only university-sanctioned paranormal research programs remaining in the U.S.

DPS research has explored such phenomena as reincarnation (most specifically through its focus on children who claim to remember past lives), near death experiences (NDEs), apparitions and after-death communications, altered states of consciousness, as well as many other psychic (psi) experiences. The Division credits its persistence over time with the great success it has had in substantiating claims within its reincarnation research.

6. The University of Arizona: The VERITAS (2006 - 2008) and SOPHIA (2008 - present) Research Programs

The Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona is parent to an interesting and ever-evolving body of paranormal research. The VERITAS and SOPHIA research projects at UA were created with the primary aim of exploring the possibility that human consciousness might survive the experience of physical death. From 2006 to 2008, VERITAS explored survival (existence of the personality beyond death) and mediumship, until the decision was made to create a more comprehensive body of research including broader claims of after-death communication, such as communion with discarnate entities (spirit guides, angels, divine higher power) under the program name SOPHIA.

7. The University of California, Los Angeles (1968 - 1978)

Barry Taff

Remember that “based on actual events” movie from 1982 called The Entity? Well, here you go: Over a ten year period, UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI) was home to a “non-sanctioned entity” of paranormal research which studied clairvoyance, telepathy, haunted houses, Kirlian photography and even boasted a psi development group (1971 to 1980) which sought to help "normal people" develop latent psychic abilities. The lab operated on the fifth floor of what is now the Semel Institute, and existed by effort of a small group of passionate volunteer researchers—including Dr. Barry Taff and Kerry Gaynor, the very team who conducted the real-life poltergeist investigation on which The Entity was based.

After a little over ten years of research, the toll of political tension and pressure from unapproving university administration over ongoing media attention got the best of the project, and research was forced to conclude abruptly. Today, the lab itself is a ghost of sorts: UCLA and Semel Institute officials deny that the lab ever existed—other than a few flyers advertising the parapsychology classes which were taught on campus by the researchers, no evidence of the lab or its research even exist.

8. Cornell University (2002 - 2010)

In 2010, Cornell University's Daryl Bem concluded a rigorous eight year study on the subject of precognition, which involved 1000 Cornell undergrads over nine experimental runs and resulted in unprecedented, almost incomprehensibly positive results. Through a unique “backwards” approach to psychological phenomena, Bem’s experiment affirms the likelihood of "retroactive" psi effects—or in this case, the ability of a person’s physiology to “predict” an upcoming event regardless of the individual’s conscious awareness of its impending occurrence.

As if that wasn’t wild and exciting enough, Bem’s findings seems to be re-affirming theories within quantum physics. In total, an overwhelming eight of Bem’s nine experiments confirmed his hypothesis that psi is a real phenomena—and, according to Bem, the odds of getting such a combined result due to chance or statistical flukes are about 1 in 74 billion.

9. University of Edinburgh (1985 - Present)

A Chair of Parapsychology was established within the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh in 1985. This entity of research is the esteemed Koestler Parapsychology Unit (KPU), which prides itself on its interdisciplinary approach to parapsychology. Scientific research at KPU examines such phenomenal claims as extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK), as well as the nature and consequences of belief in the paranormal itself.

In 2010, KPU brought research into the 21st century when it used Twitter as the platform for conducting a mass-participation research project in the area of remote viewing and ESP. While the study itself did not conclusively show evidence for remote viewing per se, it was determined that Twitter was an excellent tool for future studies conducted by the Unit.

10. Goldsmiths, University of London

Among one of the more hip experiments taking place in current paranormal research is the Mobile Telepathy Test being carried out by The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) of the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. This Mobile Telepathy Test seeks to explore instances of possible telepathy involving individuals receiving a phone call from someone they have just thought about. Through its research and experimentation, APRU hopes to determine whether this apparent phenomena is simply a coincidence, or possibly indicative of psi phenomena such as telepathy or precognition.

Also on the menu at APRU are studies in altered states of consciousness and hypnosis, as well as a series of recently concluded projects including the Joint Telepathy Test, which aimed to determine the possibility of sensing, for instance, when individuals are looking at the same photo simultaneously.

11. University of Adelaide: Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (2003 - Present)

In 2003, a division of dedicated research was established at the University of Adelaide in South Australia in order to further the scientific and academic study of psi phenomena. This division of the university’s Department of Psychology, named the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU), was the brainchild of respected parapsychologist Lance Storm and his colleague, Dr. Michael A. Thalbou. One of APRU’s interesting ventures into the paranormal seeks to scientifically test the hypothesis that the blind are able to compensate for deficits in sight by naturally developing psi abilities that are statistically superior to those of individuals with normal abilities in ocular vision.

12. Lund University

The ever-progressive Lund University of Sweden is currently involved in a long-term research project, investigating states of consciousness and parapsychology. The program aims to find a correlation between hypnotic suggestibility and incidence of psi phenomena during experiments. This inquiry follows previous experiments which found that highly suggestible individuals are found to experience a high rate of anomalous experiences such as telepathy and clairvoyance.

13. Utrecht University (1953 and 2008)

The Netherlands is definitely known for its proclivity to produce open-minded thinkers. In 1953, Ultrecht University in The Netherlands definitely lived up to this reputation when it was host to the “First International Utrecht Conference on Parapsychology”—the first ever conference of its kindfrom July 30 to August 5. The event, considered to be one of the most critical moments in the history of modern scientific parapsychology, brought together 78 scientists and parapsychologists from 13 countries, who lectured and held exciting roundtable discussions about current research and to plan for the future of the field. In 2008, the followup “Utrecht II” conference was held, where lectures were once again offered by a who’s who of the field on subjects such as the reality of psi phenomena, ESP in dreams, field investigations of hauntings and poltergeist activity, self-organized reality, clinical parapsychology, and even physics as it applied to the field.

And the Honorable Mention goes to…

University of Amsterdam: Anomalous Cognition Section (1990s - Present)

During the 1990s, The University of Amsterdam took on an interesting project in order to hone its students’ and faculty’s empirical research skills: it created the Anomalous Cognition Section (ACS), which in addition to making rockstar researchers out of its pupils, sought to explore the possibility of anomalous cognitive effects (which is simply parapsychology-speak for telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition). This section was created under the oversight of the university’s Psychology Department, where as early as 1982 and 1986, student-run experiments had been conducted under university sanction in order to study the possible existence of psi phenomena. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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