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The Psychic World of Stanley Krippner: A quest to document ESP 

Wednesday, Apr 25 2012
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If the Feds really wanted to approach Krippner, they should have asked him to collaborate on a book. One pile of loose papers nearly 3 feet high towers over the other paper piles on the L-shaped desk in Krippner's San Francisco office — "that's stuff I'm writing," he notes. Dozens of finished products in the corner are a testament to both his wide breadth of interests and inability to fend off would-be collaborators. Among works on shamans and dreams, however, The Park Avenue Diet seems out of place. Dr. Stuart Fischer, the book's primary author, notes that Krippner's concept of "personal mythology" made him a natural co-writer of a book that deigns to move past merely telling people how to eat. But there's more: "Stan changed my dreams with ESP!" gushes Fischer.

Krippner spent 1964 to 1973 in the basement. Working in the catacomb-like corridors beneath Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, Krippner had the rare distinction of penning "Dream Lab Director" under "occupation" on his IRS forms. Even generations later, it's hard to find a subsequent parapsychological study that has delivered such striking results. "In terms of just knocking your socks off," says U.C. Irvine statistics professor and parapsychology "advocate" Jessica Utts, "What they produced is some of the most exciting stuff."

Those results were wrung out of a time-consuming and costly procedure that, at its core, involved the mind-numbing necessity of observing a subject sleep. All night. Repeatedly.

While the subject dozed away, wired to an electroencephalogram, a scientist in the next room waited for rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to commence. When it did, the scientist would hit a buzzer, and then the process began. That buzzer alerted the "agent," who was ensconced in a remote room somewhere within the hospital. The agent would remove a randomly chosen photograph or art print from a sealed envelope and attempt to mentally "send" it to the slumbering subject. This purported transmission of information from one individual to another is known as telepathy. At the end of each REM session, the subject was awakened and made to describe his or her dreams. These transcripts were delivered to independent judges, who selected which of an array of images the description of the dreams corresponded to. Over the course of a decade, the participants in the telepathy experiments Krippner administered alongside Montague Ullman and Charles Honorton were judged to have dreamed of the agents' images at a hit rate far exceeding the baseline odds of mere guessing. Randomly obtaining these results would require Powerball-like odds.

The knock on parapsychology studies has long been that any so-called evidence of ESP is usually limited to negligible effects only detectable after scouring massive bodies of data. "Those to whom this criticism has any appeal should be aware that the Maimonides experiments are clearly exempt from it," wrote Irvin Child, Yale's former psychology department chair, in American Psychologist, the APA's flagship journal. "I believe many psychologists would, like myself, consider the ESP hypothesis to merit serious consideration and continued research if they read the Maimonides reports for themselves."

Dream telepathy is a field that has treated Krippner well. He doesn't have much company. Prominent skeptic Ray Hyman praises Krippner's dream lab studies as "interesting work" and admits "there's no smoking gun to say they didn't have something." But, he adds, no one has ever duplicated the striking success of the Maimonides dream lab — a charge to which Krippner pleads guilty. "There you have it," he admits with a shrug. This, he notes, is a perfect example of skeptics' standby critique of parapsychology — it just doesn't repeat on demand.

And yet, it's not so easy to dismiss Krippner's overall assertion that something — something — was happening in those experiments to indicate we don't yet understand every last mystery of the universe. As a teenage lab assistant and subject, Fischer dreamed of men struggling to walk against a snowstorm. As the agent that night, Krippner concentrated on a Japanese portrait of just that. Many decades later, Fischer accompanied Krippner to a symposium in Kyoto. As they left for their hotel, a snowstorm whipped up, and the men struggled to walk against it.


Professor Donadrian Rice is now the chair of the University of West Georgia's psychology department. In 1969, however, he was an undergraduate researcher in Krippner's lab and a small-town South Carolina kid in the big city. At one point he told the dream lab director that he'd never tried mescalin. That's an odd thing to say to your boss, but Krippner's response was more unconventional still. He scored Rice a hit and escorted his tripping assistant to a showing of Fantasia. This is a fond memory for Krippner; the movie is one of his favorites, and he recalls he made sure to take Rice to a 3-D showing so "all the characters would be jumping off the screen." Rice, who had never seen Fantasia — let alone while on mescalin — recalls it as "a pretty intense movie to see under those conditions."

The mescalin and other hallucinogens were floating around the lab, in Rice's recollection, for "side research" and "off the record" studies on telepathy. Krippner remembers things differently than his longtime friend — experiments involving illegal drugs, he says, would have put him in a bad place with the hospital board. Hallucinogens around the lab were "only being used during recreational periods." There was, however, that one experiment where, per the words of Bob Dylan, everybody must get stoned. That was the one written up in the Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine. But that wasn't in the lab.

The music died down on a February night at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y., and 2,000 heads gazed up at the stage, nearly all of them "in various altered states of consciousness induced by marijuana, hashish, LSD, and the music itself," per Krippner. On a screen suspended above the Grateful Dead, the following words appeared: "YOU ARE ABOUT TO PARTICIPATE IN AN ESP EXPERIMENT." The concertgoers were informed they would soon be shown a picture, which they should "TRY USING YOUR ESP TO 'SEND'" to Malcolm Bessent, a self-proclaimed psychic dozing in the dream lab, 45 miles off.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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