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The Psychic Cold War

The 2009 film "The Men Who Stare at Goats," based on the book by Jon Ronson, dealt with the U.S. Army's exploration of the paranormal.

Image courtesy Overture Films

Paranormal research is hardly a hotbed of credibility these days, but for a time it wasn't just a topic of serious discussion, it was a matter of national security. The Cold War between the Soviet and American superpowers saw an arms race, a space race and, believe it or not, a struggle for dominance of paranormal forces.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) reportedly sunk millions into its 1970s psychic spy program. All of this federally funded research took place in an effort to keep up with the Russians, who had been researching telepathy since the 1920s [source: Greenemeier].

Can you imagine a world where submarine crews use telepathy to communicate with the surface? How about a space race in which cosmonauts use precognition to dodge orbital collisions and psychics meld their mind with that of a computer? The Soviets could imagine such things, and they funded the research to determine their feasibility.

It's impossible to single out a winner in the psychic cold war. According to an 1973 DARPA-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation, the Russians and Americans both put roughly the same amount of effort into their paranormal programs.

The big difference, according to the report, was that the U.S. study tended to rely more on psychology while the Soviets focused on biological and physical theories. In their conclusions, the RAND Corporation determined the U.S. program a failure while the Russian were more likely to excel -- providing there's a shred of truth to any of the hypnotists and spoon benders they studied. How's that for a backhanded compliment?

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about strange experiments, mad scientists and the paranormal.

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