Wednesday, March 07, 2018

“Phenomena” by Annie Jacobsen – The Top Secret U.S. Telepathy Program

Into the Extra-Sensory Perception Tunnel with Annie Jacobsen

Coined by Frederic W. H. Myers all the way back in 1882, telepathy is a concept which involves the transference of ideas from one person to another without using any sort of physical interaction... in other words, mind-reading. Many experiments were conducted since then in an attempt to prove the concept truthful, but ultimately none of the ones yielding positive results were remotely in line with standards by which reputable scientific trials abide by; they lacked proper control and weren't repeatable. Long story short, no real evidence exists to suggest telepathy to be anything more than fantasy, but that of course hasn't stopped us from believing in it... or more precisely, it hasn't prevented the U.S. government from pouring innumerable funds to research it across multiple decades. In her book titled Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen chronicles the government's research program into what is essentially the paranormal.

In essence, this book deals in facts and alone traces the all the years of research from the beginning. The author attempts to introduce us to all the people responsible who took it from concept to realization, all the different projects and the results they yielded, what made them possible in the first place, the attitude of different social spheres towards ESP (extra-sensory perception) research, as well as the reasoning and motivation behind the various directions that were taken. Jacobsen structures the whole thing like a narrative, but doesn't try to turn it into something novel-esque. It's a factual chronicle, and so the real question the success of this book hinges on is: how accurate is it really?

The Selective Approach

To begin with, I'd like to say that on the whole this book is definitely interesting and worth a read for anyone looking to get acquainted with this topic, but at the same time Jacobsen is unfortunately sometimes a bit selective with the facts she chooses to present and omit. For instance, she doesn't say a single word about Edwin May, an important foundational figure in the field of ESP research and project director at the Stanford Research Institute. Only a small accolade is afforded to the father of American Parapsychology, Joseph Banks Rhine. In the same vein, a little too much credit is given to people who ultimately proved far less consequential than the ones mentioned above, such as Uri Geller and Robert Monroe.

While ultimately this selective presentation doesn't really skew the facts that came out of the research itself, it does present an incomplete and at times inaccurate reconstruction of paranormal research history. It gives too much credit to people that don't deserve, and not enough to those that do. This is indeed a bit of a problem for a book that deals in facts, but in the end I feel my interest on the subject, and that of most people, lies in the actual experiments and results they yielded, rather than who was responsible for what. In those terms, the book doesn't falter one bit, so even though this is a noticeable weakness, it's not one that should stop you from reading the book... especially since it still remains a treasure trove of information.

The Black Project Illuminated

When the book gets to the actual research projects it starts to shine brighter than ever and simply bombards us with tons of juicy facts that come from declassified documents, personal interviews and other sources open to the public. There's an incredible amount of information to take in, and Jacobsen does manage to present it in a way that makes you feel as if you're actually reading some sort of science-fiction novel at times. It doesn't try to push your opinion one way or the other, but rather remains impartial throughout and asks you to draw your own conclusions, if that is indeed even possible at this stage. While personally I haven't really investigated this subject all that much, I'd be willing to bet that at just over 500 pages, this book does have some new information we haven't yet seen elsewhere.

Of particular interest to me was the end of the book, where the author details the reasons for which the project was shut down, some of which weren't entirely full of merit. It kind of branches off into the possibility that black research projects are still being conducted, especially seeing as how the military has been interested in a few subjects that can be linked to the supernatural, such as quantum entanglement and people who have suffered injuries due to “anomalous events”. It takes a very open-minded approach to the whole affair and reasonably leaves the reader to finish the painting on their own.

The Final Verdict

Ultimately, while Phenomena does falter in some regards, when it comes to the parts that truly matter it stands its ground and gives the reader a whole lot of tasty information to mull over. It presents a very detailed account of the research projects themselves, and it doesn't hurt that it's competently written in a simple style that flows easily. If you're interested in the field of paranormal research and extra-sensory perception, then I believe you'll find this book quite engaging and worthwhile.

Annie Jacobsen

Personal site

Annie Jacobsen is an American journalist, author and editor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and is best-known for her 2011 book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base. Her 2014 book, Operation Paperclip was named one of the Best Books of 2014 by the Boston Globe and Apple iBooks.

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