The Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory really existed and really conducted those kinds of 'experiments'...
Derived from the term 'paranormal', parapsychology is the science that lies beside or beyond psychology; the field of psychology which studies those unique experiences and unknown capabilities of the human mind that suggest consciousness is capable of interacting with the physical world in ways not yet recognized by science, but not beyond science's ability to investigate.
Two types of parapsychological phenomena have been described. The first and less common is 'psychokinesis' (PK) which is the direct influence of the human mind on the environment. In rare cases, this may involve obvious movement of objects, however most contemporary research studies PK influences on atomic or electronic processes.
More commonly known is the second type of parapsychological phenomena, called 'extrasensory perception' (ESP), which is the ability to acquire information without using the known senses. In cases when another person is involved, then it may be considered telepathy, or mind-to-mind communication. This is often common in twins, as many instances have been reported in which one twin can sense the other's thoughts or pain. When it is knowledge of just a distant place or event, then the term 'clairvoyance' is often used. It is mainly this type of ESP which leads people to feel strongly about the existence of past lives, due to experience of 'déjà vu'. In practice, it is often difficult to distinguish among types of ESP, thus investigators generally refer to all instances as ESP. When the information seems to be of some future event, it is called 'precognition'. This category of ESP is also what makes fortune tellers so popular, as they claim to be able to see your future. Real life experiences that appear to involve ESP are commonly termed 'psychic experiences'. Taken together, all of these phenomena are often called 'psi phenomena'.
Scientific interest in the subject is of relatively recent origin, beginning in 1927 when the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory was set up under Dr. J. B. Rhine, an important figure in the advancement of parapsychology, particularly ESP. Dr. J. B. Rhine and his wife, Dr. Louisa E. Rhine, came to Duke University in 1927 to pursue studies of psychic phenomena with Professor William McDougall, chairman of the new Psychology Department. Within a few years, Dr. Rhine was conducting the groundbreaking research that demonstrated certain people had the ability to acquire information without the use of the known senses. He introduced the term 'extrasensory perception', described this ability and adopted the word 'parapsychology' to distinguish his experimental approach from earlier methods of psychical research.
As his work continued at Duke, Rhine and his team found experimental evidence for psychokinesis. They devised procedures for closer examination of both ESP and PK, trained many leading parapsychologists, and established channels of communication that enabled standardization of basic research methods for the new science. In 1962, as Dr. Rhine's career at Duke drew to a close, he saw the need to secure for the still controversial science an independence of the pressures of academic politics and a freedom to follow the scientific quest wherever it led. Thus, with the support of old benefactors who had assisted the Duke efforts and new benefactors who believed in the need for an independently functioning organization, Rhine founded the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man. Rhine envisioned FRNM as a parent organization to a variety of research institutes and publishing and educational activities, and for 30 years it consisted of a major research and educational institute, the Institute for Parapsychology, and a publishing branch, the Parapsychology Press.
In 1995, the FRNM was renamed the Rhine Research Center to honour the Rhines and their unique contributions to this field of science.
However, though it was indeed the Rhines who established parapsychology as a scientific field, interest in the existence of parapsychological phenomena has been around for centuries. As far back as the ancient Greeks' oracle of Delphi, the early Christian beliefs in the revival of the dead, and the medieval stories of ghosts, sorcerers, and mythological beings, it has been a subject of dispute. One of the reasons for interest in psychical research in the last half of the 19th century was the rise of the spiritualist movement that grew out of the acceptance of spirit communication as real and the use of this as the basis of a new religion.
In the present period, along with the decline of behaviourism, psychologists have begun to take a fresh interest in subjective experiences and in altered states of consciousness, such as hypnosis, out of body experiences, and dreams. These interests have been further stimulated by the spread of psychedelic or hallucinogenic drug use among the student population of the U.S. Thus many new experiments have been invented to test whether or not a person had ESP. Instead of Rhine's old method of card-guessing test of ESP, and dice throwing test for PK, electronic random number generators select the target, and the subject registers his/her guess by pressing the appropriate button. The scores are recorded onto punched tape, to be fed later to a computer for storing analysis.
However, the spreading interest in ESP phenomena has also brought about crime. Con-artists claiming to be fortune tellers and psychic hotlines which will tell you your future for half your life savings have taken advantage of the believers. It is this type of behaviour, as well as thousands of unsubstantiated claims which causes official science to look upon parapsychology with scepticism, if not downright hostility. Journals of the scientific establishment, such as Science in the U.S. or Nature in Great Britain are still extremely reluctant to publish articles on the paranormal in fear of loosing credibility. Moreover, critics of paranormal psychology still strive to dispose of all paranormal claims as being either the result of faulty methodology or else products of self-deception or deliberate fraud.
Any summary of what has been achieved so far is bound to appear inconclusive and disappointing. The negative features of psi are the ones that stand out most clearly: the way in which the phenomena appear to defy space time and material boundaries, as well as all known forms of communication, the lack of evidence, the amount of unsubstantiated claims, the inability to obtain consistent results, the list continues. Thus, until greater progress can be made and psi phenomena can be made more stable and reproducible, parapsychology is unlikely to be accepted within the scientific community. However, it is likely to remain an important challenge and an enigma with exciting implications about the power of the human mind.