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

Wednesday, Apr 25 2012
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Asking a member of the Grateful Dead if he remembers any particular concert is akin to asking Willie Mays if he recalls a random midseason ballgame. But band members haven't forgotten "the ESP shows."

"Oh, I remember," confirms Mickey Hart, one of the band's drummers. The Dead, in Hart's recollection, stopped playing while the crowd read the instructions. But as soon as the images were projected onscreen "we began playing really hard to be totally engaged in that experiment. We were the vehicle, the thing at the center of it all."

On four of the six concert nights, a pair of independent judges deemed Bessent's dreams to be highly relevant to the image sent his way by the Deadheads. On Feb. 19, 1971, for example, concertgoers were shown a painting titled The Seven Spinal Chakras, picturing an ethereal man hovering in the lotus position with symbols projected onto his spinal cord. That night, Bessent reported dreaming about a man who was "suspended in mid-air or something.... I was thinking about ... a spinal column."

In their subsequent writeup, Krippner and his colleagues remarked on the need for "future work" to explore the "intriguing" notions that being high on LSD, miles away from your telepathic subject, and having thousands of senders might have an effect on the yet-unproven power of telepathy. That didn't exactly happen. Krippner, however, did later that year debrief an auditorium full of Soviet scientists about his work with the Dead ("a band with a keen interest in both ESP and altered states of consciousness") and gifted his hosts with several of the group's LPs.

For decades, this study was known only to those Soviets and the most staunch aficionados of psychosomatic dentistry. Then it was exhumed by the Dead.

The burgeoning ranks of academics analyzing the Grateful Dead unearthed Krippner's works in the late 1980s, declaring them to be the first scholarly papers on the band. In the ensuing decades, members of the Grateful Dead Scholars Caucus have published hundreds of papers and dozens of books. The group has held a national gathering for 15 consecutive years; Krippner is a frequent guest and is hailed as the field's godfather. "The proper way to contextualize Stanley's work is that it was a way of measuring the bond between the fans and the band," says Nicholas Meriwether, director of U.C. Santa Cruz's Grateful Dead Archive and founder of the Scholars' Caucus. "Even though he wasn't making this claim, that's the great claim found there." Hart agrees, noting "the powerful buzz" and "great union" pervading the ESP shows.

Hart credits Krippner with an even more seminal role in the lore of the Dead. On a number of occasions, Krippner hypnotized Hart and Kreutzmann to better synch their drumming. "We'd find the inner workings of rhythm, a special lock between me and Bill. We found what we would call 'The Root Lock,'" Hart recalls. In hypnosis, the drummers could play for eight, 10, or 12 hours straight without a break. "Bill and I were able to go deep. Sometimes he'd play with his right arm around me and I had my left arm around him; we were one organism." It was only with two drummers in deep unison, Hart continues, that the band could produce the Dead's signature sound. And it was only with Krippner's direction that Hart and Kreutzmann managed to start their own long, strange trips. "We never got into that before we met Stanley," Hart says. "He was the catalyst."


After Meriwether kindly volunteers to send SF Weekly the latest edition of Dead Studies, the quarterly of the Grateful Dead Archive, he is momentarily flummoxed by the newspaper's address. The newsroom's suite number, 710, is identical to the address of the Dead's famed Ashbury Street abode of the 1960s. "Dude, that's a great number," he says. "Serendipity and synchronicity abound. You just proved that."

If only it were so easy.

Had Isaac Newton set out to formulate the laws of parapsychology instead of gravity, he'd have been in for a challenge. Because in the world of parapsychology, the apple does not observably fall from the tree every time — or even consistently. Perhaps only people sympathetic to the notion of falling apples will see the apple fall, and only then in ideal apple-falling conditions. Parapsychology, laments skeptic Ray Hyman, is "the only field of scientific inquiry" that lacks even one established experiment to "be assigned to students with the expectation that they will observe the original results." There is, he continues, no demonstration of telepathy, clairvoyance (mind-reading), or psychokinesis (the ability to mentally move or influence objects) for which parapsychologists "can confidently specify conditions that will enable anyone — let alone a novice — to reliably witness the phenomenon."

Psychic ability, counter its advocates, cannot be reproduced on cue. Statistician Jessica Utts, also a Parapsychological Association board member, compares the situation to baseball: "Even the best hitters ... cannot hit on demand. Nor can we predict when someone will hit or when they will [hit] a home run," she writes. "We cannot even predict whether or not a home run will occur in a particular game. That does not mean that home runs don't exist."

Krippner likens it to America's other national pastime: "Whatever psychic ability is, it's not something you can turn on and off. It's a bit like sexual experience — you can't guarantee every experience will be ecstatic or blissful. The conditions have to be just right for it. Sex doesn't operate on demand. It's just too complicated."

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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