The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is well known for pushing the boundaries of science and technology in search of ways to give the U.S. military an edge—robotic pack animals, self-navigating vehicles and plant-based jet fuel, to name a few. Less well known is the agency's Cold War-era investigation into how paranormal phenomena like extrasensory perception might be used by the U.S. to get a leg up on the former Soviet Union and, perhaps more importantly, by the USSR against the United States.

Working with Washington, D.C., think tank RAND Corporation, DARPA determined that paranormal research by the Soviets focused on physical science, engineering and quantifiable results, whereas their U.S. counterparts tended to be psychologists looking instead to explore the human mind. The bottom line, according to a 1973 DARPA-commissioned study entitled "Paranormal Phenomena": "the U.S. has failed to significantly advance our understanding of paranormal phenomena."

As Halloween approaches, the report serves as a reminder of our fascination with paranormal forces (for more on this, visit's "Science of the Occult" in-depth report). The authors were worried that the Soviets might win the race to use the supernatural to its advantage much as they had threatened to win the space race decades earlier when they launched Sputnik. "If paranormal phenomena exist," RAND analysts P. T. Van Dyke and Mario L. Juncosa concluded, "the thrust of Soviet research appears more likely to lead to explanation, control and application than [does] U.S. research."

The authors acknowledge that the study was limited, because it was based on but a sampling of works available at the time. Among them: a decade of abstracts from the parapsychology section of Psychological Abstracts, a print version of the PsycINFO abstract database of psychological literature. They knew even less about Soviet efforts, they admitted, noting that their conclusions on that front were based on a "somewhat impressionistic" sample  and "some not always reliable and frequently imprecise reports of Western visitors to the Soviet Union."

Soviet research on telepathy dates from the early 1920s when a program was established at the Institute for Brain Research at Leningrad State University. The Soviets appear to have been fascinated with telepathy, which they called "biological communication," as a ship-to-shore way of communicating with submarines without using electronic equipment. They also considered training their cosmonauts to develop and use precognitive abilities  to "foresee and to avoid accidents in space."

It seems the Soviets also were quite taken with the possibility of psychokinesis (using mental imagery to move objects) as a way of "disrupting the electrical systems associated with an ICBM's [intercontinental ballistic missile] guidance program."

The Soviets were more inclined than American scientists to believe that paranormal phenomena might be the result of "bioenergetics," or the energy given off by the metabolic processes of living things. This theory stated that people exuded "bioplasma," (a theoretical energy field) that, under certain conditions, was capable of emitting charged coherent radiation beyond the body surface in the form of electrons and possibly protons.

Although the Soviets did not reach a consensus on the existence of bioplasma, RAND concluded, "the very pursuit of this theory indicates that Soviet parapsychologists were attempting to explain alleged paranormal phenomena with a greater degree of specificity than their Western counterparts."

(Images courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Duncan Walker and RAND Corp.)