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Psychics, the CIA and more – ‘Phenomena’

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Book explores the U.S. government’s history of psychic research

Do you believe in ESP?

Few subjects are as universally divisive as the idea of mental powers beyond the norm. Those who believe in things like extrasensory perception or telekinesis or clairvoyance or what have you tend to be fairly fervent in that belief. Meanwhile, the skeptical are adamantly, almost militantly so – they consider such notions to be nonsense.

But did you know that for many years, numerous agencies connected to the United States government – military and intelligence services alike – conducted research that placed them firmly in the former camp?

That’s the story being relayed by journalist Annie Jacobsen’s new book “Phenomena” (Little, Brown and Company, $28). Subtitled “The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis,” the book promises a deep dive into the longstanding relationship between psychic research and the American government.

Ever since the CIA spent time in the 1950s searching for drugs that, while intended to aid in interrogation practices, were also alleged to enhance ESP and similar psychic phenomena in some users, there has been an ebbing and flowing relationship between the U.S. government and the metaphysical fringes.

This dynamic was rendered even more complicated by the Cold War; rumors of Soviet investigation into the psychic realm led to American officials insisting that our side keep pace in what was perceived as a sort of paranormal arms race. Instead of a missile gap, a psychic gap.

From the early days of the Round Table Foundation and Dr. Andrija Puharich – considered by many to be the father of the New Age movement – to the experiments of the Stanford Research Institute, from the CIA to the NSA to the DoD – “Phenomena” explores the complicated and tenuous relationship between clandestine government forces and the research into the powers of the mind.

Noted names of varying familiarity slide in and out of the story. Perhaps the most famous is Uri Geller, who is one of the more polarizing figures in the history of parapsychology – some were steadfast in hailing his powers, others deemed him a fraud and a charlatan – but other noted figures make appearances; Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell (a noted advocate for psychic phenomena), for example.

Jacobsen traces the ever-shifting state of governmental psychic research over the years by following some of the major players. She does so by swimming through reams of recently declassified documentation and assembling an impressive selection of interviews with dozens of prominent figures from that world – some of whom have never before spoken on the record about their involvement with these programs.

Now, if you’re a skeptic that doesn’t believe in ESP or related mental abilities, then it isn’t likely that “Phenomena” is going to change your mind. If you’re a believer, then it’s probably just going to confirm what you already thought. One suspects that the author’s perspective – one that seems fairly clearly oriented toward the belief side of things – might bias the story in that direction, though not so much as to force the door closed on skepticism.

However, there’s no question that it is a narratively engaging and well-written book. Jacobsen has definitely left room to wonder – there’s far more conjecture than conclusion to be had here. As to actual historical veracity, well … that’s a tougher one. Despite the complete and thorough divide between the believers and the skeptics, it may well be that there’s considerably more grey area here than either side would care to admit.

“Phenomena” is a fascinating peek at worlds colliding, an engaging and enlightening look at the decades-long intersection of psychic powers and government bureaucracy. Anyone with interest in the idea of psychic phenomena and its history in this country will almost surely be swept up by this weird and compelling tale.

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