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Public Misperceptions & ESP – Psychical Research Under the Microscope

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(Note – Join Craig Weiler and I starting January 15th for a 6 session online learning course dedicated to clearing the air on psychical research and anomalistic science – check out the Evolver Learning Lab for more information!)

A new article in the Guardianhighlights a study conducted by the University of Melbourne  (Click Here for the article) looking at people’s ability to cognate observations that occur below their threshold of immediate awareness. More interesting than the results, however, are how they are being framed as a way to discredit psychical research:

“Howe said he started the research after one his students told him that she possessed a sixth sense.

“She said she had the ability to tell if something bad had happened to someone just by looking at them,” he said.

“She said she knew an acquaintance had been in a car accident even though he had no visual markings or injuries. I told her that she may not have been able to verbally label the markings, but she picked up on them and wasn’t consciously aware of them.

“We receive a lot of information we don’t or can’t verbalise. For example, this often happens when something disappears. If my children are being very noisy in the next room and then they are suddenly quiet, I don’t realise that what has startled me is the lack of noise. I’m alerted to that subconsciously and go into the room and find that they are being quiet because they are doing something naughty. That’s not a sixth sense.”

ESP, a broad term that encompasses everything from telepathy to clairvoyance, has been studied intermittently since the 1930s, but Howe said his research was the first to show that people can sense information they cannot verbalise.

People who believe they possess a sixth sense may take a little more convincing they are wrong, however.”

The idea that Howe’s research is “the first to show that people can sense information they cannot verbalise” should be raising more questions than any claims by a student that she experienced anomalous cognition.  This study is looking at the limits of ‘subthreshold stimulus,’ a subject of study that has been pursued by the organized scientific community since at least the 18th century when Anton Mesmer claimed he could effect change in individuals by manipulating magnetized atmospheric fluids. Founding father of the United States Benjamin Franklin was on the scientific committee that officially put Mesmer’s claims to the test, making this claim about the uniqueness of Howe’s research seem a bit extraordinary. More importantly, it is a bit dishonest to tie this study into an end point for psi research, and doing so is just another example of how the media can sell sensation with a bold claim to either prove or disprove psychical functioning.

George Dvorsky writing on the study for Io9 gives us a clear picture of the difference between these tests and anything related to psychical research:

“Some people claim to have a sixth sense — an ability to innately sense imminent danger or the presence of an unseen person. But scientists now say there’s a more reasonable explanation after discovering that people can reliably detect a change in their surroundings — even when they can’t see or explain what had changed.”

Here we can see clearly how this study has nothing to do with psi tests which use blinded methodologies when testing for anomalous data transfer and control for the subject having any interaction with the source of stimulus. The kind of experimental flaws that are intimated in these descriptions of psi research would have been questionable even in the 19th century, let alone the tests conducted today.  Yet this is par for the course in the public perception of psychical research. Ironically just a few days ago Juan Escobar posted a link on Disinfo regarding Lund University professor Etzel Cardena’s call for a more open discussion of psi phenomena, in his call Cardena states:

“Indeed, the search for knowledge wherever it may lead inspired a group of notable scientists and philosophers to found in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research in London. Its purpose was “to investigate that large body of debatable phenomena… without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems.” Some of the areas in consciousness they investigated such as psychological dissociation, hypnosis, and preconscious cognition are now well integrated into mainstream science.”

Look at that last item on the list – preconscious cognition – now revisit the claim that Howe’s research is unique. Cardena is talking about research that was conducted and mainlined during the late 19th and early 20th century, the Guardian is citing a study conducted in the 21st century. This amnesia is one of the reasons that Craig Weiler and I have attempted to bring an organized webinar together that gives voice to the wider field of research which often goes unreported. Craig’s one of the folks behind the ExTEDx West Hollywood event that came out of the TED controversy involving Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, and we are teaming up with Evolver Learning Labs (for information on the webinar, which starts January 15th – Click Here) to gather together some of the leading thinkers in the field of of parapsychology and anomalistic science to help open up a forum for discussing recent research into these areas, our guests include:

Dr. James Carpenter, president of the Parapsychological Association and author of the groundbreaking theory of psi, “First Sight”

Julie Beischel, PhD. Co-Founder and Director of Research at the Windbridge Institute, whose work investigates the therapeutic value of mediumship and the mysteries of discarnate communication

Dan Booth Cohen and Emily Volden, pioneers of Systemic Constellations, a new form of therapy that works on a trans-generational level

Chris Carter, author of the authoritative book, “Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics”

William Bengston, author of “Energy Cure,” his memoir of researching hands-on healing in a rigorous, scientific environment

In helping to bring this event together I’ve discovered that it’s actually quite difficult to get people to engage with this area without bias even outside the closed minds of academe. That should be obvious I suppose, psychic research is one of the most controversial topics in science, but I was surprised at just how dis-coordinated the conversation is across all fields of media. One of the first posts on the seminar, outside of our own marketing, was on Michael Shermer’s Skeptic forum where I was labeled a conspiracy theorist and woo-meister for trying to give these researchers a voice.  Later when Greg Taylor posted some information on the course on the Daily Grail we were accused of running a scam because:

“If those “leading researchers” would be serious, they at least could offer their “amazing” wisdom for free in an honest effort to disseminate and advance the field…Shame. And shame doing PR for this scam on this site here, which once used to be interesting.”

Notice that Greg was actually ‘shamed’ as well for posting information on the webinar. I’ve been running regular features on Reality Sandwich regarding this research for close to a year, first with the Psi in the News column and now with an entire section focused on psi research, and all of it is for free. Greg’s been hosting The Daily Grail for over a decade at his own expense. This attempt to get a seminar together on the topic with researchers rather than product pundits or ideologues is called a scam because we aren’t doing it on a free Google chat. This is ridiculous since I’m freely available any day of the week to discuss anything we’ll be covering in the seminar, people just won’t be getting virtual face time with the researchers. What the commenter has highlighted more than anything is that they are not serious about engaging in a conversation on this topic, just in airing their opinion in a public arena where there is no real consequences.

The consequences for this pioneering area of science, however, are very real. Julie Beischel sent me a note this evening asking that I highlight the fact that this research doesn’t pay for itself.The Windbridge Institute has been attempting to run a study on mediumship and therapeutic results that is entirely crowd funded (you can find more information on the study here: ) as Julie put it, “when research falls outside the established paradigms, there aren’t grants to support it so researchers rely on public support to fund cutting-edge, ground-breaking studies.  If I can’t do the Bereavement and Mediumship Study, no one else is going to.”  This is one of the reasons that when I read statements like the one in the Guardian article regarding the unique nature of Howe’s study at the University of Melbourne I cringe.

The Guardian cites a standard cognitive study as groundbreaking while muddling it in some half-assed critique of psi research. What Howe’s study says in its abstract is that they used a novel approach in analyzing the data, an approach which had not yet been used in other studies on the same subject. This got regurgitated through the Guardian to play up the idea that they’d disproved ESP, something the study wasn’t even testing for. In all of this miscommunication there are researchers willing to risk their careers to pursue much deeper and more expansive topics who are mocked, derided and ignored for no other reason than opinionated ignorance of the topics they are investigating.

We really need to focus on opening up a conversation in these areas that moves beyond the close minds of both believers and radical skeptics, psychical research is about learning the full extent of the psyche – it is not about proving any personal opinion about whether or not mind reading is possible or anything like that.  This is something that we played with in the description of the webinar, where we figured we’d just go with the term ‘psychic’ as far as we could:

“In this unique course, you will reach a deeper understanding of your own psychic potential, discover what makes the psychic experience distinct, and benefit from the experiences of researchers and high functioning psychics who have paved the way for a new paradigm in consciousness.”

That’s sure to send the average skeptic into a frenzy, but read it again – the term psychic just means ‘pertaining to the psyche’ – essentially all this is saying is that we’re going to explore how to use your mind, specifically your mind in motion since the Greek word psyche is associated with breath. Our mediated world view likes to get heavy handed on terminology, and we easily loose nuances. Perhaps in writing the ad copy we should have erred on the side of the closed minded, but isn’t it time we started really exploring these areas rather than hemming in to allow room for illiteracy?  Media groups are playing these arguments and areas of confusion up to make money on the public’s reactivity, and in the process research and our own individual ability to explore our consciousness is getting short changed.

Former Stanford Research Institute researcher Jacques Vallee, whose work helped develop the ARPANET, had some insight into this a few years back when he attempted to engage the public with a deeper look at the crop circle phenomena on Boing Boing. Rather than develop a mature conversation into the possibilities of military testing and social engineering, he was greeted with comments that questioned his credentials as a scientist, in part for not falling into being either a skeptic or a believer. Keep in mind these questions were not based on his research into anomalies, they were based on the commenters not taking the time to look up who he was. As he later reflected:

“What we have here is a remarkable example of misdirection around a stunning experiment that remains in full view of a wide public that consistently fails to ask the right questions and keeps re-asserting bogus answers.”

The same can be said of the conversation around psychic research. Venture capitalists like Vallee entertain questions that stretch the boundaries of our knowledge because they are interested in furthering human potential rather than keeping it locked in a climate controlled cage. With more independent media we have room to act as we will, but it still seems that we’re hemmed in because so many people want to continue playing the games set up for them by corporate owned outlets.  Reacting to an independently set up seminar on psychical research like it’s a scam when you buy prepackaged food from the store is the kind of cultural illiteracy that goes along with the illiteracy of not allowing words room to breath and freaking out on words like psi, psychic, and the rest.

With the Evolver Learning Labs webinar Craig and I hope to give an opportunity for some of the researchers working in more controversial areas of science to engage the public. With a $129 price tag the opportunity isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s a six session event that gives people a chance to ask questions, gain insight and interact directly with some of the leading thinkers in the field. As with the research itself, funding media in this area is a problem when the market is so niche and there is little advertising to rely on.

One of the things that Ken Jordan, co-founder of Reality Sandwich and Evolver, and I were discussing with this webinar is that psychical research really hasn’t found its place in contemporary culture yet and this webinar is something very new in trying to establish a place for this. In a recent interview Shannon Fisher, a science writer working with Pacific Standard, asked me why more people haven’t engaged this area of science on their own since so much of it involves introspective development and self investigation, and I couldn’t really offer her a good answer. It’s a question that a lot of us in the field are asking ourselves. Jack Hunter, editor for the Paranthropology Journal, just hosted a closed session seminar at the Esalen Institute (Click Here to read about his adventure) with some of the leading anthropologists and cultural theorists in this area to address ways which anomalistic science can be brought forward in a fruitful manner, but this is all untested territory that has no developed cultural ground as yet.

Over 130 years of research have yet to find a place in the wider culture, don’t you think it’s time that we take up Professor Cardena’s challenge and start to change this? It’s obvious from the Guardian article on the University of Melbourne study that it’s going to be an uphill struggle, but it will be worth it if we can discover something of value about ourselves by putting psychical research under the microscope and working on changing some of the public misperceptions that abound about our psychic potentials.

Note: This post originally appeared on

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