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Charles Tart (1937-)

"Anyone who thinks the brain is the total answer is ignorant."--Charles Tart

A parapsychologist with a Ph.D. in psychology (University of North Carolina, 1963), known for his work on lucid dreams, astral projection, LSD, marijuana, and ESP. After retiring from the University of California at Davis psychology department, he joined the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto and spent a year developing a curriculum for Robert Bigelow’s endowed Chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Bigelow, a wealthy Las Vegas businessman with a penchant for funding paranormal research, gave nearly $4 million to UNLV in 1997 to teach courses on such subjects as dreams, meditation, hypnosis, out-of-body experiences, telepathy, and the ever-popular subject among college students, drug-induced altered states of consciousness. Bigelow pulled the plug on the program in 2002. No explanation was given but perhaps the fact that in five years the program had produced nothing of interest might have had something to do with it. (In 1971, Tart authored On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication.)

Early in his career, Tart edited a psychology text, Altered States of Consciousness (1969) and authored several of the articles in his anthology. He defined an altered state of consciousness (ASC) as one in which an individual “clearly feels a qualitative shift in his pattern of mental functioning.” For those who prefer a behaviorist definition, he offered the following: “an ASC is a hypothetical construct invoked when an S’s behavior (including the behavior of verbal report) is radically different from his ordinary behavior.” Tart believes that Yoga and Zen had long been tapping into ASCs and that there was something mystical or spiritual, something superior or higher, about these altered states of consciousness. For Tart, ASCs are a gateway to a higher consciousness, to the realm of the paranormal and the spiritual.

Tart considers a hypnotized person to be in an altered state. One of the more unusual uses of hypnosis is described in his article “Psychedelic Experiences Associated with a Novel Hypnotic Procedure, Mutual Hypnosis.” Tart’s scientific experiment involved two people, or Ss, called A and B. Tart had A hypnotize B. Then, while under hypnosis, B hypnotized A. Then A would deepen B’s hypnotic state; then B would deepen A’s hypnotic state, “and so on.” He wanted to see if he could increase the depth of hypnosis a given S could reach by having S en rapport, defined as “the special relationship supposed to exist between hypnotist and S.” Says Tart: “I reasoned that if rapport was greatest in deep hypnotic states, a technique which markedly increased rapport would likely increase the depth of hypnosis” (292). Tart concluded: “Although this report is based on only two Ss, the results with them were dramatic enough to warrant considerable research on mutual hypnosis” (307). He notes that mutual hypnosis “might offer a way to produce psychedelic experiences in the laboratory without the use of drugs and with more flexibility and control than is possible with drugs” (308).

Tart explains how he first got interested in the paranormal in the following story told at a talk he gave in Casper, Wyoming:

There was a time, years ago, when I was highly skeptical of any paranormal claims of any kind. One of the things that convinced me that there must be something to this is a strange experience that I personally went through. It was wartime. I was at Berkeley, California, and everybody was working overtime....the young lady who was my assistant at the time worked with me until very late this one night. She finally went home; I went home. Then the very next day she came in, all excited....She reported that during this night she had suddenly sat bolt upright in her bed, convinced that something terrible had happened. “I had a terrible sense of foreboding,” she said, but she did not know what had happened. “I immediately swung out of bed and went over to the window and looked outside to see if I could see anything that might have happened like an accident. I was just turning away from the window and suddenly the window shook violently. I couldn’t understand that. I went back to bed, woke up the next morning and listened to the radio.” A munitions ship at Port Chicago had exploded. It literally took Port Chicago off the map. It leveled the entire town and over 300 people were killed....She said she had sensed the moment when all these people were snuffed out in this mighty explosion. How would she have suddenly become terrified, jumped out of bed, gone to the window, and then - from 35 miles away, the shock wave had reached Berkeley and shook the window? (Randi 1992)*

There is no need to perceive this event as paranormal, according to James Randi, who tape-recorded the story. A shock wave travels at different speeds through the ground and through the air. The difference over 35 miles would be about 8 seconds. Most likely the shaking earth woke up the young lady in a fright and 8 seconds later the window shook. She and Tart assumed that the explosion took place when the window shook, making her experience inexplicable by the known laws of physics. This explanation only makes sense, however, if one ignores the known laws of physics.

Tart once wrote, “The implications of ESP for understanding human nature are enormous, and call for extensive, high quality scientific research” (letter to the New York Review, February 19, 1981). Yet, Tart and other parapsychologists seem to have made little headway in justifying the first claim or in living up to the second (Randi 1982, 153; Gardner 1981, 211).


Note: The Randi article suggests that Tart is the one working in Berkeley with a lab assistant. Tart was born in 1937 and the Port Chicago explosion occurred in 1944. Tart may have been a prodigy but I doubt that at age seven he had his own lab. The point of the story is that Tart preferred the paranormal explanation to the mundane one, as do many true believers.

Randi's talk was given without notes or text, and was edited by the publisher of Skeptic magazine. I asked him about the story and he very kindly sent me a transcription of what Tart said. The gist is that Tart told the story about the girl much as Randi recollected it. However, the girl was working for Tart at the time he was telling the story and she had worked in an electronics factory at the time of the explosion. Here is a bit of the transcript:

One night she had gone to bed exhausted as usual, in the middle of night, she suddenly found herself awakened and she jumped out of bed, being overwhelmed by a feeling of absolute horror. She knew that something absolutely horrible was happening that she desperately wished she could stop and she didn’t have the slightest idea in the world what it was. She was not used to jumping out of bed in the middle of the night with feelings like this. So, this was very puzzling to her. Such incredibly strong emotions. As she stood there, about a minute after she got out of bed, the windows rattled, the house shook a little bit. Well, it turned out it wasn’t one of those things – California earthquakes. But that what had happened, she found out the next day, was that about 30 miles away in a little town called Port Chicago a munitions ship had exploded and killed several hundred people simultaneously. It takes about one minute for a shock wave to travel from Port Chicago to Berkeley. She felt in retrospect that somehow some part of her mind had reacted to the horror of all those people dying simultaneously.

Tart tells the story as one that doesn't "make sense in terms of physics." He goes on to say that many people have similar stories and that "What you make of them depends very much, I think, on your prior convictions."

Finally, Tart uses the story as an example of the kind of thing that he thinks justifies doing parapsychology.

See also Raymond Moody and  my review of Tart's The End of Materialism (2009).

further reading

books and articles

Alcock, James E. Parapsychology: Science or Magic (Pergamon Press 1981)

Alcock, James E. Science and Supernature: a Critical Appraisal of Parapsychology (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Alcock, James. Jean Burns and Anthony Freeman. Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal (Imprint Academic 2003).

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981).

Gordon, Henry. Extrasensory Deception: Esp, Psychics, Shirley MacLaine, Ghosts, Ufos  (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987).

Hansel, C.E.M. The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Hansen, George P. The Trickster and the Paranormal (Xlibris Corporation, 2001).

Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry : a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Randi, James "The Amazing." "Randi at Caltech: A Report From the Paranormal Trenches," Skeptic vol. 1, no. 1, Spring 1992, pp. 22-31.

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Marks, David F. "The Case Against the Paranormal," Fate, January 1989, reprinted as "Paranormal Phenomena Can Be Explained," Paranormal Phenomena/ Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991).

Marks, David. The Psychology of the Psychic (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000).

Last updated December 23, 2013

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