Among the Stanford Research Institute’s many classified research projects in the early 1970s was a contract supported by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Technical Service, a division headed by Sidney Gottlieb, perhaps the most notorious scientist ever to work for the spy agency. The secret program was testing different forms of parapsychology, such as whether humans had the ability to use their minds to visualize or even influence remote objects. Believing the work was showing promise, Gottlieb one day invited the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Stephen Lukasik, over to his CIA office to discuss it.
Gottlieb, a chemist by training, was both an unconventional thinker and an unwavering patriot, who believed his work served the good of the nation. “Friends and enemies alike say Mr. Gottlieb was a kind of genius, striving to explore the frontiers of the human mind for his country,” read the 1999 New York Times obituary of Gottlieb, “while searching for religious and spiritual meaning in his life.” In the end, however, Gottlieb would be remembered most for what looked like a willful contempt of common decency.
As the head of the Office of Technical Service, Gottlieb led a wing of the CIA whose failed innovations to assassinate the Cuban leader Fidel Castro included poison pens and exploding seashells. He also worked on one of the agency’s most notorious projects: the use of LSD as a mind-control drug. Under Gottlieb’s supervision, LSD was tested on unwitting human guinea pigs, including, among other unfortunate victims, the mentally ill, prostitutes, and even one army scientist who later committed suicide. When the program was first exposed in 1975 by the Rockefeller Commission, and then detailed by the congressional Church Committee, Gottlieb’s public legacy as some sort of mad scientist was all but assured.
The day Lukasik went to visit Gottlieb—in 1971, as Lukasik recalls it—the CIA scientist was in fine form. What Gottlieb wanted to discuss was bunny rabbits and nuclear Armageddon.
In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a cat-and-mouse game involving nuclear submarines. Submarines equipped with nuclear missiles were difficult to spot when prowling the deep seas, making them a potent weapon. But there was no good way to tell submarines deep underwater that they needed to launch their missiles. And coming to the surface periodically to receive communications would make them vulnerable to detection and attack.
That was where Gottlieb’s new pet project came into play. In 1970, the best-selling book Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain (Prentice-Hall) described the enthusiasm of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries for psychic phenomena of all sorts. “Major impetus behind the Soviet drive to harness ESP [extrasensory perception] was said to come from the Soviet Military and the Soviet Secret Police,” the authors, Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder, asserted. The book detailed dozens of investigations into psychic phenomena conducted behind the Iron Curtain, ranging from Kirlian photography, which sought to capture the “aura” of living things, to telepathic projection of emotions. The idea that the Soviets were investing money in parapsychology quickly became a self-reinforcing justification for the Americans to do the same.
According to Psychic Discoveries, one theory of parapsychology the Soviets were testing involved a projected emotional link between a newborn and its mother, which allowed the mother to “sense” her offspring’s death even over long distances. Because actually killing a newborn human child was not really an option, they resorted to experimenting with baby rabbits and their mothers. The experiment was as ghastly as it sounded: A baby rabbit would be killed out of sight and sound of its mother, while scientists in a separate lab room observed the mother for a reaction.
The Soviets claimed it worked and could be used for communicating with submarines, even if they never quite laid out the protocol for how this would be done. Presumably, a mother rabbit would be kept aboard the submarine, with a submariner assigned to monitor it for signs of distress. The idea was not that an overly excited mother rabbit would prompt a nuclear exchange, but such a sign could be used, as Lukasik put it, as a “bell ringer for Soviet boomers.” It would be a signal for the submarine to surface and get a more detailed message, such as an order to launch its nuclear missiles.
The very absurdity of the scenario did not dissuade Gottlieb. The CIA had begun funding the Stanford Research Institute to conduct a “quiet, low-profile classified investigation” into parapsychology. Gottlieb was interested in having ARPA look at that work and possibly support it.
Although the purported Soviet experiments sounded dubious, antisubmarine warfare was an area that ARPA was pursuing. Perhaps more important, the late 1960s and early 1970s had sparked widespread interest in parapsychology, even among some members of Congress, who were pressuring agencies like ARPA to support it.
“I thought this was a lot of bullshit,” Lukasik admitted, but he figured that at the least the agency could make a good faith effort to see if there was anything worth funding.
The scientist selected to lead the parapsychology investigation was ARPA’s resident expert in counterculture, George Lawrence. The 39-year-old cut a distinctive figure at ARPA. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, the agency was almost as straitlaced as any other part of the Pentagon. It was home to intellectual freethinkers, but they were largely drawn from the hard-science faculties of universities, the defense industry, and the military, not exactly the hotbeds of 1960s counterculture.
Lawrence was an exception. He had adopted at least the trappings of a bohemian, favoring bell-bottoms and wide-collared shirts. Lawrence had a penchant for research that captured the cultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s, when explorations of mind-body interactions and consciousness research combined science and spiritualism. He was also part of a small but growing number of psychologists fascinated by computers.
His first major program, started in 1970, was in biofeedback, a relatively new area of investigation that involved training people to control physiological functions, such as breathing and heart rate, by providing subjects with real-time information from sensors. The idea was that a person could essentially will his or her way to a different physical state. It melded biology with Eastern philosophy and evoked comparisons to Timothy Leary’s promotion of LSD. Scientists thought biofeedback might enable people in stressful situations to slow their heart rates or lower their blood pressure purely through mental concentration.
The justification for ARPA’s interest in this field was to help troops in combat. Biofeedback could, in theory, allow soldiers to shoot more accurately, or even to slow their bleeding after being shot, by letting them control their heart rate. Researchers hypothesized that pilots of damaged aircraft could be taught to lower their heart rate and blood pressure, in order to carry out emergency procedures without panicking. There was little in the way of documented experiments, however, and Lawrence considered biofeedback an area ripe for examination.
His ARPA program was the first systematic exploration of the field, bringing the scientific method to an area dominated by anecdotes. But when Lawrence wanted the researchers to travel to Vietnam to test biofeedback in the field, no one wanted to go. “Someone wrote to a congressman and said I was trying to coerce university professors into going into the jungles in Vietnam,” he said. “I thought they would look at it as an interesting adventure, the way that I did.”
It probably did not matter in the end, because Lawrence concluded that the more ambitious applications for biofeedback, such as soldiers’ ability to slow down their heart rate enough to prevent them from bleeding out, were probably unattainable. On the flip side, Lawrence wrote, at least no one was going to die by consciously willing his heart to stop.
While the biofeedback program was not necessarily successful, it cemented Lawrence’s reputation at ARPA as the go-to guy for counterculture ideas. So it was not a total surprise when Lawrence was assigned to look at the CIA’s parapsychology research to see if it was something that ARPA should fund.
When ARPA launched its investigation into parapsychology, it was hard to tell how seriously anyone, even Lawrence, really took it. At least at face value, Lawrence embraced the assignment. He played with Kirlian photography to see if it could really capture auras, attended a parapsychology conference in Scotland, and traveled around the country meeting witches, psychics, and other purveyors of the paranormal. He liked the witches most of all.
But Lawrence’s most famous psychic investigation—and one that ended up attracting national attention when it was picked up by the press—involved a trip he made in December 1972 to the Stanford Research Institute, where the physicists Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff were being funded by Gottlieb’s CIA office to investigate psychic phenomena.
At the time, that work was focused largely on testing the skills of Uri Geller, a charismatic Israeli entertainer turned paranormalist. Geller’s most well-known spectacle was bending spoons, purportedly with his mind. He also claimed a host of other psychic abilities, such as thought projection and “remote viewing,” the term given to the ability to describe objects in far-off, or at least unseen, locations. Remote viewing was of particular interest to the national security community, because it would in theory enable spying on foreign bases and technology.
Puthoff and Targ, who were eager to get mainstream recognition, agreed to host Lawrence for an informal demonstration but told him he could not observe their controlled experiments. Lawrence invited two other scientists to accompany him: Ray Hyman, an amateur magician and university psychologist, and Robert Van de Castle, a professor of sleep studies who believed in psychic premonitions, including his own. Van de Castle, whom Lawrence knew from graduate school, studied the ability of people to predict the future and receive thoughts while dreaming. “He and Hyman and I made this trip to the Stanford Research Institute, where Geller was going to convince me that his stuff was valid, and I was going to pump a lot of money into it,” Lawrence said.
Hyman and Van de Castle showed up to meet with Puthoff, Targ, and Geller. Lawrence, who’d been drinking heavily the previous night, swaggered in late, looking a mess, according to Van de Castle. And so the day started with one hungover military scientist, one amateur magician turned psychologist, a professor who studied psychic dreams, two seemingly credulous physicists, and Uri Geller, the would-be psychic superweapon. It went downhill from there.
Geller began his repertoire by demonstrating his ability to mind-read numbers. The Israeli performer dramatically covered his eyes with his hand and had Lawrence write down a number on a piece of paper. Hyman, sitting to the side, later recalled that he could clearly see that Geller was peeking, watching the motion of Lawrence’s hand.
In another demonstration, Geller wanted to show his psychic ability to receive someone’s thoughts, so he took Van de Castle aside into a separate room. Geller asked Van de Castle to choose a cartoon from a magazine and draw it by hand, because magazine pictures were harder to “receive.” Both pictures—the original and the hand-drawn duplicate—were placed in separate envelopes. Van de Castle placed the envelope with the original picture in his breast pocket and the one with the hand-drawn image under his elbow. Geller then instructed the professor to close his eyes, stood directly behind him—close enough to touch him—and prepared to receive Van de Castle’s thoughts. Geller soon emerged triumphant: He had drawn a stick figure facsimile of the image, a feat no one observed because only Van de Castle was in the room and he had his eyes closed the entire time.
Hyman was perplexed: What were the conditions of the experiment? Why did no one observe Geller drawing the image? The answers were evasive at best. And so it went with the rest of the demonstrations. Either Geller could not or would not perform under close scrutiny, or when he did seem to get results, there was little credible examination. “Targ and Puthoff, from the way I have encountered them by day in their laboratory, seem to emerge as bumbling idiots rather than as respected, accomplished physicists,” Hyman wrote. He believed Geller’s work had all the classic hallmarks of a trained magician: befriend, distract, and dazzle.
If Hyman was doubtful of Geller’s psychic capabilities, Lawrence was outraged. In one demonstration, Geller moved a compass needle by 5 degrees. Lawrence, stomping his foot to imitate what he believed Geller had done, moved the needle 45 degrees. It was clear that Puthoff and Targ were not going to get ARPA funding.
Although Geller’s demonstration had failed to impress Lawrence, the idea of reading people’s minds captured the ARPA scientist’s imagination. The same year he visited the Stanford Research Institute, Lawrence launched a different sort of mind-reading project: Instead of relying on the paranormal, researchers would use measurable brain signals to control a computer.
The brain-driven computer dreamed up by Lawrence, using what he called “biocybernetic communication,” was outright audacious. The machine would not just be controlled through inputs provided by a keyboard or joystick; it would interact directly with the human mind, using sensors that monitor brain activity.
ARPA’s biocybernetics program funded a raft of researchers tapping brain signals, such as Jacques Vidal, a UCLA researcher who coined the term brain-computer interface. “Can these observable electrical brain signals be put to work as carriers of information in man-computer communication or for the purpose of controlling such external apparatus as prosthetic devices or spaceships?” Vidal wrote in a seminal paper in 1973. Within a few years, Vidal’s research yielded promising results: In one experiment, test subjects were able to move an electronic object through a maze on a computer screen just by thinking.
Those were fantastic times, according to Emanuel Donchin, then a professor at the University of Illinois who was funded by Lawrence for research on detecting and interpreting brain signals. ARPA wasn’t the only agency supporting such work, but it was the most important.
On the other hand, ARPA programs like biocybernetics were often outrageously optimistic about their military applications. “Soon, for example, a computer monitoring electrical brain activity of an aircraft pilot...should be able to determine whether a warning signal not only had been seen but that the pilot understood its significance and intended to respond appropriately,” one early program description read. “I made it up,” Lawrence recalled of some of the more fantastical applications. The challenge of biocybernetics was weighing the fantastical applications it offered—brain-driven computers and mind-controlled aircraft—with the reality that such work was decades away.
Lawrence’s brain-driven computers were on the edge, but so was killing bunny rabbits to communicate with submarines or funding an Israeli magician to remotely view Soviet bases. ARPA was a place in the early 1970s that tolerated and even encouraged exploring such outlandish ideas, but unlike some other agencies, it required good science.
In one final meeting to discuss ARPA’s possible funding of parapsychology, Lawrence sat with Lukasik and CIA officials who had been funding such work. At the end, one of the CIA officials turned to Lawrence and said, “Dr. Lawrence, what do you think about all this?”
At that point, Lawrence’s investigation of psychic phenomena had introduced him to a colorful array of mystics and frauds. “You have been wasting your money,” he exploded in frustration. “Every damn dime of this is nonsense.”
There was dead silence. Lukasik quickly changed the subject, and no one ever asked Lawrence to look at parapsychology again. Nor did ARPA ever fund a psychic program. “I worked so long, and so hard, and dealt with so many fools and charlatans,” Lawrence later recalled. “There is no question in my mind that all of it is bunk.”
Geller’s advocates, who believed the magician could help the United States spot Soviet submarines, looked on Lawrence’s conclusion with great disappointment. But Lawrence helped save ARPA from the embarrassment that befell the intelligence community when it was revealed the nation’s spies had spent tens of millions of dollars on psychics. And for those who questioned whether ARPA’s open-ended investigation of parapsychology was a good idea at all, the reality is that the same attitude that allowed Lawrence to meet witches and psychics also enabled him to pursue the brain-driven computer.
The intelligence community’s support of psychics continued through 1995, producing claims of successful results but little in the way of scientific evidence. Biocybernetics, on the other hand, blossomed. It was an audacious idea in the early 1970s, when the ability to read brain signals was crude at best. By 2013, however, biocybernetics had spawned an entire industry of brain-computer interfaces used for such diverse applications as commercial video games, car sensors, and tools that allow “locked in” patients, those with no way to communicate with the external world, to type messages and control external devices. Applications that were once decades away are now being built, and Lawrence’s early vision is becoming a reality.
As for parapsychology, Lawrence joked years later that maybe he should not have been so forthright with his criticism, instead playing it out even longer. “At the very least,” he said, “I could have met some more witches.”
About the Author
Sharon Weinberger is the National Security Editor at The Intercept, where she directs the publication’s defense and intelligence coverage, and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.