Cold War Dreams of Paranormal Warfare

Think about it, won't you? ©

Imagine a different world grew from the Cold War's thawing soil, one defined not by a decades-long space or arms race, or even by oil-fueled expansionism -- but by the rise of the psychic soldier.

Picture an intercontinental ballistic missile rising in a plume of smoke and fire from its buried silo. Set in silhouette against the flames, a lone figure rises from the nearest shrubs. She places fingertips to temples and, in a single feat of telepathy, she thinks her way into the circuitry of the rising death spire. She disarms the nuclear warhead and alters its trajectory, saving millions of lives half a world away.

Obviously, this rather fantastic encounter is sheer fiction, but American and Soviet paranormal researchers were at least interested in gauging the possibility of using psychic abilities on the battlefield. According to a January 1973 study compiled by the RAND Corporation for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), scientists on both sides investigated paranormal phenomenon and explored potential military applications.

Researchers were interested in all forms of extra sensory perception (such as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition), psychokinesis (physically moving objects via the mind) and such paranormal miscellanea as auras, voluntary nervous system control, faith healing, the use of dowsing rods and demro-optics (the ability to, for instance, "see" with one's hands).

The RAND study specially mentioned the possibility of using psychokinesis to disrupt an ICBM's electronic guidance systems, as well as the possibility of using telepathy and psychokinesis to establish a "quasi-symbiotic relationship" between the human brain and computing equipment.

Think about that: Psychics mind-merging with surveillance equipment or a vehicle's navigation systems. They also briefly discussed the possibility of faith healers healing wounded on the battlefields and the ability of an operative to hold out against torture or brainwashing via self-healing or voluntary nervous system control. On top of all that, the possibilities for espionage and communication are rather obvious.

It all makes for an interesting bit of pseudo-scientific history, summoning images of fantastic futures that never were, as well as the ridiculous notion of federally funded investigations into spoon bending. The film "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which opens this weekend, takes a comedic take on such research.

But what about psychics in orbit? Head on over to my post at Discovery Space to learn all about the Russian dream of a psychic cosmonaut.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.