Review | Book review: Phenomena – secrets of US military’s ESP tests and other paranormal investigations revealed
From examining the potential of psychic healing on the battlefield to understanding Uri Geller’s spoon bending powers, Phenomena charts the US military’s attempts to gain a paranormal advantage in warfare
Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis
by Annie Jacobsen
There are two kinds of people who read books like Annie Jacobsen’s latest work: the ones who already believe in the paranormal and are looking for affirmation, and sceptics looking (and failing) to find proof.
Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis is an entertaining narrative about the US government’s forays into psychic phenomena.
The usual suspects of the paranormal all make cameo appearances in the book: from extrasensory perception (ESP) and clairvoyance to out-of-body experiences, telepathy and spoon bending. The difference is that this time, the suspects are sometimes in uniform.
Jacobsen begins with a man named Andrija Puharich who, after going to medical school, persuaded a roster of rich people to fund his experiments in ESP. They established a research laboratory in Maine called the Round Table Foundation, where Puharich promised to prove once and for all that we all possess an untapped potential beyond our five senses.
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As fate would have it, Camden, Maine, was (and still is) a favoured retreat not just for US east coast aristocracy but for the intelligence community as well, and it was there that Puharich began his on-again, off-again relationship with the US government.
At parties in seaside mansions, Puharich met key leaders in the military who ended up funding his experiments. He was asked, among other things, to investigate ESP and see whether it could be used as a means of long-distance communication in submarines, and to explore the potential “for psychic healing on the battlefield”.
“US government military efforts to explore psychic phenomena remained mostly out of the public eye until December 1959,” Jacobsen writes, “when an article about a secret government ESP programme appeared in a French magazine called Constellation … [The article] reported that ESP tests had been conducted aboard the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, the year before.”
The French journalist reported that a sailor aboard the Nautilus had been isolated inside a cabin under the sea and had been asked to connect with a technician on the East Coast of the United States. The civilian scientist helping with the experiments told the magazine that “about 75 per cent of the telepathic tries are said to have been successful” (a contention the navy later denied – officials said the story was a hoax).
Even so, the Soviets and the Chinese took notice, and an undeclared ESP war began.
For sceptics, Jacobsen’s meticulous reporting on the government’s experiments into the paranormal won’t prove to be very satisfying.
She describes how psychics were tested by believers, who ended up giving new meaning to the idea of confirmation bias (the contention was that non-believers would skew results with their negative energy). Time and again, experiments were presented to military and intelligence officials as earth-shattering, but without peer review or meaningful attempts to re-create the supposed breakthroughs, they tended to disappear into the ether.
Among the characters with whom Puharich became obsessed was an Israeli named Uri Geller. For readers who watched variety shows in the 1970s, you may remember Geller as the guy who bent spoons on camera with his mind. He would do so by placing two fingers near his neck, concentrating hard and saying, “Bend, bend, bend.” He asked the viewing audience to try it for themselves at home.
His party trick went to the next level when he was giving a telepathy demonstration in a theatre in Tel Aviv and said he needed to sit down. He claimed he was woozy because a historical event was about to happen or had just occurred.
“Geller claimed that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt – Israel’s sworn enemy at the time – ‘had just died or is about to die’,” Jacobsen writes. “Twenty minutes had passed when someone ran into the room shouting. Radio Cairo had just announced that Present Nasser was dead. At 6.00 that evening, he had suffered a heart attack and died. With this news, Uri Geller’s reputation skyrocketed.” Not long after, Puharich arrived in Israel and asked Geller to come to his lab for testing.
Phenomena is about the US government’s efforts to understand people like Geller. Jacobsen makes clear that some were sympathetic figures and others were clearly charlatans.
For much of the book, Jacobsen seems firmly ensconced in the sceptics’ camp, but in the final chapters she seems to succumb to her own evidence. One of her most convincing examples involves a clandestine unit in army intelligence known as Detachment G, or Det G.
Weary of having to decide whether the people who claimed to have special mental powers were taking officials for a ride, the army dipped into its own ranks to find soldiers who appeared to have some extrasensory gifts.
In September 1979, after satellite images suggested increased activity inside a massive building at Severodvinsk Naval Base in Russia, about 1,000km north of Moscow near the Arctic Circle, the National Security Council called on these psychic soldiers. The council wanted Det G to use its “remote viewing” powers to figure out what was inside the building.
The military turned to a man named Joe McMoneagle. He was asked to concentrate on a photograph concealed in an envelope, and he immediately described seeing a building near a shoreline. He said that it smelled like gas and that there was some kind of vessel inside.
“I’m seeing fins,” he said, “but they’re not rocket fins or plane fins. They’re … they look like shark fins.”
Four months later, Jacobsen writes, new satellite images “made clear to the CIA that the Soviets had covertly constructed a prototype for an entirely new generation of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The Soviets called this clandestine effort Project 941, codenamed ‘Shark’ in Russian. The Shark submarine would become known in the West by its Nato reporting name ‘Typhoon’.”
Almost everything involved in the experiment is classified, so we don’t know exactly how McMoneagle came up with this description. It’s unclear whether a sympathetic Det G official had slipped something to McMoneagle that allowed him to make a lucky, educated guess. What we do know is that the Typhoon submarine viewing became fraught with meaning.
Jacobsen never comes up with a dollar figure on how much the government has spent on its paranormal programmes; after reading her book, many readers will suspect it was too much. Many would like to believe that there may be something in the mists, but neither science nor Jacobsen has confirmed it.