Science of the Supernatural: An Interview with Dr. Nancy Zingrone

74 – Science of the Supernatural: An Interview with Dr. Nancy Zingrone

Ever since seeing Bill Murray use the Zener Deck in an experiment in the beginning of Ghostbusters, I wanted to become a parapsychologist. After all, what could be cooler than investigating psychic phenomena? There’s a “science of the supernatural”? People get paid to do research into ESP? You can have that as a job? Sign me up!

Zener Deck
The symbols of the Zener Deck

I even made my own Zener Deck in fifth grade and did an experiment  with the other kids in the class. Sunspot’s guitarist, Ben and I got 21 out of 25 cards correct when we did it. And spookily enough when I did a Ganzfeld procedure (that’s a sensory deprivation experiment) in college, Ben and I got a 100% hit rate when it was our turn the experiment, so I guess we don’t have an excuse when we mess up onstage anymore!

ganzfeld procedure
I can’t believe that ping pong ball eyeglass invention hasn’t taken off yet!

Well, as the years passed and I started getting more and more into music and entertainment, my dreams of becoming a research scientist faded into the background for the glamorous life of being an independent musician (ha!) But I always told people (with my tongue only half in my cheek) that being a parapsychologist was my Plan B. Now, with the podcast and haunted history tours I get the best of both worlds, but a part of me still yearns to do research of a more scientific kind into the unknown. That’s why it was such a delight to have Dr. Nancy Zingrone on the show to talk about her parapsychological journey. She’s a parapsychologist and professor originally from the Chicago area who has been conducting research in the field for over three decades.

We start this episode with a quick aside about Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead, who passed away shortly after Christmas. In his last interview, he must have known that the end was coming because he talked a lot about death as well as if he ever came back to haunt other musicians, it would be Tears for Fears! We always loved a little Motörhead in the Sunspot van while traveling, where Lemmy would sometimes make his presence known by one of us singing “It’s time to play the game!” at random times.

Interviewing Nancy was especially exciting because she worked as a Visiting Scholar at the Rhine Research Center at Duke University for over a decade. Just a little background, J.B. Rhine and his wife Dr. Louisa Rhine were scientists who viewed psi phenomena as a branch of abnormal psychology and they worked to professionalize the field in the United States in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  They developed a research center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina where they studied phenomena like ESP, poltergeists, ghosts, and telekinesis.

In the interview, Nancy tells us how she got interested in the field, how she found love in psychic research (her husband Dr. Carlos Alvarado is a formidable researcher and teacher in his own right) and some her favorite experiments. She also discusses the challenges that a budding scientist faces in a field that’s often considered outside of the scientific mainstream. In fact, many of the research centers that are set up (like the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh) only exist because of a monetary donation from someone rich that’s fascinated with the topic. Like in Scotland, the research unit exists because an author named Arthur Koestler donated his entire estate to a university that would research the paranormal. Oxford and Cambridge declined, Edinburgh University didn’t.

Nancy has some excellent advice, though, for people who are looking to get into the field:

  1. Follow your passion
    If you’re interested in history, physics, psychology, etc… then get trained in it. You are encouraged to start on the conventional academic path and develop your science-y skills (even J.B. Rhine started out as a botanist!)
  2. Get collateral education in parapsychology
    There are lots of courses that you can take online from real scientists so that you can get introduced to the methodology. Nancy and Carlos have a Massively Open Online Course that starts this month and is FREE, so you can see lectures and discuss these topics with top experts in the field. Really, you should sign up for this right away if you’re interested!
  3. Find a professor that will let you write your papers on parapsychological themes
    When I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, I had the chance to write some of my reports on parapsychological topics in my psychology courses. That was in the 90s, but there should even be more opportunities now. After all, universities are the cultural center for independent thought, right?
  4. Check out the schools that take on graduate and doctorate students in parapsychology and go there!
    Sure, you might have to go to Germany or Brazil, but travel is good for you! Here’s an awesome list of resources of universities and colleges that offer courses in parapsychology.

You can find more about Nancy and her husband’s teaching and research at The AZIRE website (The Alvarado Zingrone Institute for Research and Education) where they have lots of information about their online courses (they’re even in Second Life, which sounds like a lot of fun!) and you can even read their published papers.

And make sure to check out their Facebook community for Parapsychology Online, it’s a great place to talk more about research, experiences, and advances in the field of easily the coolest science!

This week’s Sunspot song is all about reading minds, just like that “Zener Deck” experiment.

Can you read my mind?
do you know what I mean?
Can you tell what I’m thinking?
Because there’s nothing clean.
You’re inside my head,
it’s just a bottleneck,
these words don’t need to be said,
like a Zener Deck.
I felt you on the edges, taking a peek inside,
Seeing a couple stick figures making wavy lines.
You don’t need to be psychic to unlock,

my intentions are as clear as circle, a cross, a star, and a box

Can you read my mind?
do you know what I mean?
Can you tell what I’m thinking?
Because there’s nothing clean.
You’re inside my head,
it’s just a bottleneck,
these words don’t need to be said,
like a Zener Deck.
What do you think you’re going to find out?
I don’t know what you think you know.
A brain on the lookout for a freakout.
I don’t know what you think you know.
Can you read my mind?
do you know what I mean?
Can you tell what I’m thinking?
Because there’s nothing clean.
You’re inside my head,
it’s just a bottleneck,
these words don’t need to be said,
like a Zener Deck.
I can read you like a Zener Deck.
I can read you like a Zener Deck.
I can read you like a Zener Deck.
I can read you like a Zener Deck.

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