by Dean Radin, Ph.D.
When most people think about psychic phenomena, they think about psychic phone lines, palm readers, and television shows like the X-Files. They dont think about rigorous experiments conducted in scientific laboratories. And for good reason theres an enormous amount of money poured into "paranormal entertainment," but precious little spent on scientific research investigating these controversial topics.
The disparity is understandable, because while a sizable portion of the general population enthusiastically embraces all things psychic, from a scientific perspective this topic is just another perplexing branch of that bramble-bush called "the paranormal." Scientists are conservative by nature, not much interested in blazing trails through career-shredding brambles, so the mainstream has shied away from the serious study of psychic phenomena.
But despite all the nonsense associated with psychic phenomena, and despite all the skeptics who insist its all just a grand delusion, popular and scientific interest persists because thousands of ordinary people continue to report the same strange experiences that have been reported throughout history and across all cultures. These experiences have been labeled telepathy (mind to mind communication), clairvoyance (gaining information without the use of the ordinary senses), precognition (gaining information about the future), and psychokinesis (mind-matter interactions at a distance).
So, is it really possible to get information about people or objects from a distance, forecast the future, or heaven help us influence people by thinking certain thoughts? Until recently, many scientists have confidently assumed that the answers were "no, no," and "no." It was assumed that all such claims simply reflected common misconceptions about the workings of human perception and memory, or were due to wishful thinking or delusion, or misunderstandings about coincidence and chance. Mainstream scientists further assumed that psychic phenomena were theoretically impossible because they appeared to violate some cherished scientific principles, and they assumed that the effects reported in laboratory studies were not repeatable.
It turns out that most of these assumptions were wrong. Over the past century, scores of scientists around the world have quietly and rigorously tested whether psychic experiences may actually be what they appear to be. Today, after a century of laboratory testing, and an enormous amount of empirical data, we know with very high degrees of scientific certainty that sometimes information does indeed flow in ways that transcend space and time. We now know that some "psychic" effects are repeatable in the laboratory.
Most scientists and the general public are only dimly aware that this laboratory data exists, and even fewer realize that the existing data present a tremendous challenge to conventional scientific wisdom. Tremendous challenges are both loved and hated in science: loved because they mean that something new and exciting is on the horizon, and hated because they require a massive reconsideration of our understanding of the natural world. Often, as the history of science shows, hate overshadows love, and it can take decades before science even acknowledges the existence of a challenge. For psychic phenomena, this acknowledgment has been particularly slow and has resisted mainstream attention for generations, but opinions have radically changed in the last few years.
Perhaps the easiest way to see this change is revealed by the significant shift of skeptical opinion about the value of studying psychic phenomena. For example, the late astronomer Carl Sagan vigorously debunked beliefs about the paranormal throughout his professional career. Yet, in one of his last books, entitled The Demon Haunted World (1995), and in the midst of four hundred pages drenched with skeptical criticism, he wrote that he considered three areas of "ESP research" to be worthy of serious study. These were telepathy research, direct interactions between mind and matter, and evidence suggestive of reincarnation. This is in contrast to his opinions of a decade before, in which he viewed ESP as equivalent to "a Soviet elephant that speaks fluent Russian."
The reason Sagan changed his mind was not due to a single, breakthrough discovery, or even a particularly convincing series of experiments, but because he had paid attention to the fact that hundreds of researchers around the world had methodically accumulated thousands of successfully repeated laboratory studies. This is a point worth emphasizing: The scientific case for psychic phenomena is not based on claims made by one experimenter, or even by one laboratory. Instead, in science the existence of a controversial effect can only be established through examining the entire body of data produced by independent investigators.
Emphasis is always placed on independent replications because in cutting-edge science it is all too easy to overlook subtle design flaws that can invalidate your results. The only way to ensure that an experimenter has not made a mistake is for others to independently confirm the same results. Because of the unexpected nature of psychic phenomena, hundreds of researchers over the years have attempted to replicate these experiments.
For nearly a century, psychic effects observed in the lab were frustratingly elusive, and this elusiveness was equated to a lack of repeatability. Quite reasonably, the apparent inability to replicate psychic effects fueled continuing doubts over the existence of the phenomena, but over the last decade, new methods have been developed to rigorously assess whether elusive phenomena have in fact been replicated. These assessment techniques called meta-analysis have also become extremely popular in the behavioral, social and medical sciences because they all deal with the highly variable living systems called human beings.
With meta-analysis, we combine the results of dozens or hundreds of studies to judge whether an observed effect is real or an illusion. The results of such analyses are now in and the answer is unequivocal: Some psychic phenomena are real. The effects observed in lab studies are usually much weaker than the experiences reported in the real world, and it is not yet possible to say exactly when a given person will obtain a given successful result, but overall we are justified in soundly excluding chance, design flaws, selective reporting practices, fraud, and collusion as possible explanations. In short, once all plausible normal explanations have been eliminated, what remains bears a striking resemblance to what people have reported as psychic experience.
What is the basis of our high confidence? As an example, lets consider experiments testing for telepathy. The basic experiment is conceptually quite simple, although in practice the best studies are strictly controlled to rule out all known design flaws. These experiments have been conducted by investigators at 15 laboratories around the world, including labs at Cornell University, Edinburgh University in Scotland, Gotëburg University in Sweden, and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In the basic experiment, one person plays the role of a "receiver" and another plays the "sender." The experimenter isolates the receiver and sender in separate rooms, and then an assistant randomly selects one picture out of a large pool of pictures. The sender is asked to try to mentally "transmit" the picture to the distant receiver over the course of about twenty minutes. Meanwhile, the receiver is asked to speak aloud any thoughts or impressions that come to mind.
Over the last decade, new methods have been developed to rigorously assess whether elusive phenomena have in fact been replicated.
After the twenty-minute sending period, the receiver is shown four pictures, one of which was the actual picture that the sender was concentrating on, and three of which are decoys. By pure chance, the receiver should select the correct picture about one in four times, or 25% of the time, but if information somehow passed between the sender and the receiver, we would expect more than a 25% "hit rate."
By early 1997, over twenty-five hundred such experimental sessions had been conducted around the world, and the overall hit rate was 34% rather than the chance-expected 25%. That is, rather than selecting the right target about one in four times by chance, it was selected about one in three times. This nine percent over chance doesnt sound like much, but we have very high confidence that this isnt a fluke: The odds against chance of getting 34% rather than 25% after 2,500 trials is over a billion to one. For some special populations, like musicians, and for some "bonded pairs," like siblings or mother-daughter pairs, the hit rates are a remarkable fifty to sixty percent rather than 25%. There is no question that somehow information has indeed passed from the sender to the receiver in these experiments, even under conditions where we know that there was no sensory leakage, and the results are not due to deception, selective memory, wishful thinking, delusion, or any other plausible explanation.
In 1993, a cover story on recent telepathy experiments appeared in the popular science magazine, New Scientist, and the results of a rigorous series of telepathy studies was published in 1994 in the top-ranked academic psychology journal, Psychological Bulletin. Other studies have been published in mainstream academic journals such as Science, Nature, Statistical Science, Physical Review, Foundations of Physics, and American Psychologist.
Because the existence of telepathy and other psychic phenomena present possible threats for national security, the U.S. government has paid attention to the accumulating evidence, and over the last 15 years, five different government agencies commissioned scientists to review the laboratory evidence for psychic phenomena. The five final reports, issued between 1981 and 1996, unanimously agreed that because no plausible normal explanations could be offered for the best research, psychic phenomena were indeed worthy of serious scientific study.
One of the implications of experiments on psychic phenomena is that at fundamental levels, nature consists of a deeply interconnected fabric, where the warp of the physical universe and the weft of subjective experience are constantly interacting and blending into what we call reality. However, the metaphor goes beyond the concept of interdependence as suggested by, say, an ecological network. Psychic experiences suggest that this interconnected fabric is not only intimately connected through space, but also through time.
While we do not yet have adequate theories explaining how these strange interconnections work, it seems that what weve called "psychic" may simply be how we personally experience this deeply interconnected fabric called nature. We are beginning to glimpse that past assumptions about sharp distinctions between the subjective and the objective were probably overly simplistic, and instead there is something like an inter-subjective, or perhaps an "omni-jective" reality, in which the world of inner experience and the external world are blurred in subtle ways.
Precisely how our growing scientific understanding of psychic phenomena will reshape the scientific landscape of the next millennium is uncertain, and it is likely to be decades before more comprehensive implications or pragmatic applications develop. New ideas will inevitably result in new technologies and new images of who and what we are. One thing is already perfectly clear glimpses of a new reality are shimmering on the horizon, and exciting times are ahead.
Dean Radin is the director of the Consciousness Research Division at the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, P.O. Box 454009, Las Vegas, NV 89154-4009; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; telephone: (702) 895-1454.
For more details about the scientific evidence, speculations about implications and applications, and hundreds of references, see his book, The Conscious Universe, published by HarperEdge.