readings> psi - the ganzfeld experiments

Does the mind have paranormal powers? Many would love to believe so. But what is the scientific evidence? The ganzfeld experiments are the best current hope of psi researchers.

Isolated inside a steel-lined cubicle with foot-thick walls, the subject lay back in a chair with two halves of a ping- pong ball taped over his eyes and headphones filling his ears with white noise. Three metres away, in a second padded and shielded cubicle, a sender was concentrating on a TV picture of an eagle landing and trying to transmit the image telepathically.

Something seemed to be coming through in the receiver's chamber: "A black bird. I see a dark shape of a black bird with a very pointed beak with his wings down...Almost needle- like beak...Something that would fly or is flying...like a parrot with long feathers on a perch. Lots of feathers, tail feathers, long, long, long...Flying, a big huge, huge eagle. The wings of an eagle spread out." Success! Another direct hit for the parapsychology experiment - or so it would appear.

Most scientists view psychic research with frank disbelief. The sceptics say parapsychology is the preserve of cranks, frauds and ageing hippies. They say a hundred years of study has failed to come up with any concrete evidence of psychic abilities and when an experiment does get a result, invariably this can be blamed on a design flaw, a statistical fluke or downright cheating.

But there is one experiment which seems to have got the sceptics at least temporarily on the back foot and which has so caught the imagination of parapsychologists that it will be the subject of no less than four replication attempts this year. The experiment was carried out by the veteran researcher, Chuck Honorton, who died shortly before Christmas at the age of 46, from a long-standing heart condition. Honorton's experiment took place at the Psychophysical Research Laboratories in New Jersey. At the time of his death, Honorton had joined Edinburgh University's Koestler Chair of Parapsychology to organise a replication.

The idea behind Honorton's work was straight-forward. If psychic powers exist, everyday experience shows that they must be quite weak for most people. So to maximise the chance of these powers being demonstrated under laboratory conditions, investigators should use sensory deprivation techniques to give subjects the best chance to detect any signals that might be getting through.

In his experiments, subjects were shut in a ganzfeld, a simple sensory deprivation chamber where bright, red lights are shone onto ping-pong balls taped over the eyes and white noise is played in the ears. For subjects the effect is much like staring into a formless fog. After quarter of an hour or so of such perceptual blankness, most people begin to experience brilliant dream-like images much like the "hypnagogic" images that are often seen on the point of falling asleep.

Senders - usually a friend or relative to maximise any psychic connection - sat in a second acoustically shielded cubicle. Their task was to transmit the target image, a minute-long sequence of video film that featured either a "dynamic" target, such as a clip from an old gangster film, or a static image such as a picture of a landing eagle.

The strength of the experiment's design compared with many previous parapsychology experiments was that the targets were selected automatically under the control of a computer employing a random number generator. This method meant that even the experimenter should have no way of knowing which target was being used in a particular trial. A total of 160 targets were used, sorted into groups of four. The computer would select a pool for a session and from this pool it would then select a target. Honorton's belief was that if telepathy existed, the target imagery should turn up in the hypnagogic visions being experienced by subjects in the ganzfeld.

Subjects were asked to describe aloud any images passing through their minds. Both experimenter and sender were able to listen in on this mentation over a one-way intercom, allowing the experimenter to record what was being said and the sender to give extra telepathic encouragement if the subject appeared to be nearing the target image. At the conclusion of a session, the subject would be shown all four images from the pool and asked to pick the one that seemed to best match the imagery experienced in the ganzfeld.

In a controversial step, this judging process was aided by the experimenter whose job was to point up correspondences that the subject might otherwise miss. Honorton felt it was essential that the experimenter help the subject who often emerged somewhat drowsy or disorientated from the experience. But, of course, the experiment would have been immediately invalidated if the experimenter had any idea of which target had been used.

If such an experiment were ruled by chance, subjects should pick the correct target only one in four times - a "hit rate" of 25 percent. Honorton was disappointed to find that, despite a few impressive-seeming matches, scoring was not significantly above chance levels with the static photograph targets (45 hits in 165 trials) and so gave no evidence of psychic abilities.

However with the film and TV clips - a much richer source of target imagery, Honorton argued - the hit rate was 40 percent (77 hits in a total of 190 trials). This was a highly significant result with just a two in a million chance of being a statistical fluke.

Parapsychologists often joke that the last thing they want from an experiment is a positive result. "Immediately you know that either your competency or your honesty is going to be questioned - usually both," said one. Many might argue that this doubt is well founded. The field of parapsychology has been dogged by a history of wishful thinking and outright cheating. In the 1940s, the English researcher, Samuel Soal, claimed great success in the telepathic transmission of numbers. But later, evidence surfaced that Soal had faked his data, altering the target record to match his subjects' guesses.

Since then, there have been many other cases of experimenters either boosting their results or being duped by cheating subjects. A spate of spoon-benders and card manipulators destroyed a number of academic reputations in the 1970s. Sceptics such as the magician, James Randi, and the former Scientific American columnist, Martin Gardner, have had a field day rubbishing the work of the gullible. Such is the battering that parapsychology took that by the end of the 1980s, the field looked to be in full retreat. Over half the laboratories in the United States had to shut their doors as funds dried up - including Honorton's PRL labs.

But parapsychology still survives and after its earlier excesses, is striving to become a model of empirical science. Robert Morris, the professor who has run Edinburgh University's parapsychology unit since it was set up with a bequest from the Koestler Foundation in 1985, represents the new reassuring face of parapsychology.

The first surprise for any visitor to Morris's labs is that they are part of Edinburgh's psychology department. "We are completely integrated here. I am just another member of faculty and my post-graduate students get their qualifications in psychology," says Morris. Morris is also insistent that the unit splits its time evenly between parapsychology experiments and the study of the psychology of magic and deception: "It is important that our work goes in both directions. We are looking for evidence of psychic phenomenon but we also want to know about the things that are not psychic but look like it. Unless you understand the techniques of deception or the power of coincidence, you can't begin to do proper work in this area. Also, these subjects are interesting in their own right," he says.

Another cultural change in parapsychology is a new modesty about theory. Morris says each week he receives over 200 pages of speculation about possible explanations for paranormal abilities (most from retired people and centring around quantum mechanical effects). But Morris says parapsychologists need to pursue a strictly bottom-up approach to their studies. "We can't be committed to a religious belief in psi. Our job is to establish effects and approach their explanation neutrally." he says. As part of this theoretical caution, Morris prefers to talk about "communication anomalies" rather than use presumptive terms such as telepathy in his work.

"We have to create the correct atmosphere if we are to do credible research. It is no use if we sound like cranks and any student thinks they are instantly going to blight their careers by coming here. We have to have an atmosphere where people are not afraid to report positive results, but equally importantly, not afraid to report when they get flat nothing," says Morris.

Morris invited Honorton to Edinburgh to recreate his automated ganzfeld set-up after his New Jersey lab closed. Honorton's sudden death left the project in pieces, but other experimenters have now been recruited and with the ganzfeld equipment nearly debugged, new experiments should go ahead as planned this spring.

The evolution of Honorton's ganzfeld work is an example of how parapsychology has steadily changed in response to criticism. Ganzfeld experiments began in the mid-1970s and were so popular that by 1980, nearly 70 studies had been reported. However, the methodology of most of these experiments was so poor that their results were easy to dismiss. In one notorious case, glossy photographic prints were used as targets. Critics pointed out how easy it would have been for subjects to pick out the picture handled during the sending procedure from the fingerprints that would have been all over it. Even without such obvious flaws, the majority of the studies had too small a sample size to hope to give statistically significant results. The early ganzfeld work ended in a stalemate between parapsychologists who felt they were getting results and sceptics who saw problems with every experiment.

Then in 1986, there was a breakthrough. The chief protagonists from each side, Chuck Honorton representing the parapsychologists and Ray Hyman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and a member of the sceptics' organisation, CSICOP, were about to publish another round of claim and counter-claim. However, by chance, they met up at a conference and over lunch realised that their real argument should be not about the theoretical existence of psi but about how to do work that was methodologically rigorous. The two decided to stop wrangling and issue a joint communique on how future research should be done. Out of this dialogue came the automated ganzfeld set-up that Honorton used at his New Jersey labs.

One of the most important advances was to use a computerised system manager and video-tape system to select the targets and record data. This reduced the possibility of both deliberate fraud and inadvertent "sensory leakage" such as fingerprints on photographs. The automation of data collection made it harder for an experimenter to fudge results by abandoning trials that were not going well or altering the tally of hits at a later date. Honorton also went to great lengths to protect against possible collusion between subject and sender. The subject was isolated in an industrial-standard acoustic chamber with foot thick walls. The sender's room was less secure but still had four inches of acoustic padding. Copper screening was used as a precaution against concealed radios and the only doors to the cubicles opened onto the experimenter's room.

As well as these physical safeguards, Honorton's set-up had methodological changes to protect against deception. Rather than using "star" subjects as many previous studies had done, Honorton used over 240 subjects with the majority contributing only a single session. He also used a total of eight experimenters to conduct the sessions. Spreading the load like this meant that alarm bells should ring if only certain subjects or certain experimenters were getting positive results.

Finally, Honorton carried out a meta-analysis of all previous ganzfeld work. A major complaint of the sceptics had been that parapsychology research lacked cumulativeness. Each experiment stood alone and did not build towards some conclusive picture. By using the statistical technique of meta-analysis, Honorton could lump together the results of previous work and calculate the effect size he should be dealing with. This meant that for the first time he could go into an experiment knowing how many trials he would need to do to get a result that was sure to be statistically significant. The number turned out to be five times as many as typically had been run in the past.

Honorton published the fruits of his work in 1990 and some more detailed analyses in 1992. The results had their curiosities. For instance, two of the experimenters, Mario Varvoglis and Patricia Derr, produced results that were only fractionally above chance levels while the other six experimenters had significantly positive results. However, overall, the series produced an average hit rate of 34 percent compared with the 25 percent that would be expected by chance. As noted, for static targets, the hit rate was 27 percent which - while slightly positive - could not be treated as statistically significant. For dynamic targets, however, the hit rate was 40 percent which, given the number of trials, allowed Honorton to claim with 95 percent confidence that the "actual" effect size must lie somewhere between 34 percent and 47 percent.

The reaction of sceptics since the publication of Honorton's results has been mixed. Ray Hyman, the most consistent critic of previous ganzfeld work, says he is reserving judgement until there is an independent replication of the results: "Given the strong claims that are being made here, I would like to see these results being replicated by others. Remember this is only one piece of kit and one lab. The strength of the ganzfeld design was that it was supposed to produce effects that would be straight-forward to replicate." Hyman does concede that the many methodological improvements Honorton made provides sceptics with their stiffest test to date: "There are a lot of minor things I could quibble with but Honorton met most of the objections I had." However Hyman adds that the study has not changed his views. He expects time will show that Honorton's results can be explained as some kind of experimental artifact just like so many other parapsychology claims before them.

Nicholas Humphrey of Cambridge University, a psychologist currently working on a four year study of parapsychology, is more robust in his criticisms: "I think the experiments are interesting and somewhat better done than others before them, but they certainly are not foolproof or conclusive. There are enough questions about the way they were done that nobody need take them seriously until there are replications."

Yet some believe the sceptical community has failed to give Honorton his due. Susan Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of Western England, says if she had to put her money on the table, she would still guess that psi does not exist. However she feels that while parapsychologists have moved with the times and improved their methods, the same cannot be said for sceptics. "I have come to the conclusion that Honorton has done what the sceptics asked, that is he has produced results and they cannot be due to any very obvious experimental flaw. I think he has pushed the sceptics like myself into the position of having to say it is either some extraordinary flaw which nobody has thought of, or it is some kind of fraud - or that it is genuine ESP." "Too many sceptics have been condescending in their attitude. There arguments are ad hoc and poorly referenced. I think a real challenge has now been presented," Blackmore says.

While sceptics have yet to put a confident finger on where they think the ganzfeld experiments are flawed, they do see several weaknesses. Humphrey says his most serious concern is over an admission by Honorton that three-quarters of the way through the experimental series, it was discovered that a faulty soldering connection was allowing the target soundtrack to leak through the system's wiring into the subject's headphones. Honorton claimed this leakage could have had no effect - even subliminally - as it was only audible with special amplification. Under experimental conditions, with ordinary amplification and white noise playing over the top, no sound could have been detected by subjects. Besides, argued Honorton, there was no decrease in scoring once the fault was corrected.

"I'm sorry but the possibility of leakage means that the early data just has to be discarded," says Humphrey. "It's tough but we don't know enough about what was going on there. And when you take those trials out, you don't have enough for a significant result."

Others see the possibility of more direct fraud. Despite the degree of automation in Honorton's set-up, it is conceivable that the record of the results had been tampered with. Each session was taped, giving a means of corroborating the results recorded on the computer's disk. But this would make selective recording or fabrication of results difficult rather than impossible.

Another possibility was that the experimenters somehow knew which target segment was playing and deliberately, or even sub-consciously, encouraged subjects to select the correct clip during the judging process. The tape counters and VU meters of the video player used by the system were concealed by nothing more than a cardboard cover and it would have been possible for experimenters to work out which target was playing from a quick peek. Some critics have suggested that even hearing the time it took tapes to rewind may have given away subliminal clues.

Humphrey stresses that he feels Honorton was an honest investigator and his results are likely to be the product of an unforeseen flaw rather than deliberate deception. But it is galling for parapsychologists that even just the possibility of fraud or artifacts tend to be treated as reason enough to ignore their results.

Edinburgh University's Bob Morris agrees that no experiment will ever be fraud proof: "However, what I think you can say is that if fraud is the explanation of Honorton's results, it would have to have been a very organised and systematic sort of fraud given the number of subjects and experimenters involved." Morris says one experiment was never going to decide the question of whether or not paranormal powers exist, anyway. As in any other research field, the evidence will have to be cumulative: "We have stopped searching for an instant 'yes' or 'no'. The answer of whether we are looking at an artifact or a genuine phenomenon is going to come gradually."

Attention is now turning towards attempts to replicate Honorton's results. As well as work at Edinburgh, ganzfeld systems are being set up by Daryl Bem at Cornell University, Richard Broughton at the Institute of Parapsychology in North Carolina, and Hans Gerding at the Parapsychologish Instituut in Utrecht. Morris says Edinburgh plans to start with a faithful copy of Honorton's system, even down to using the same target pool. If they get a positive result, they will then vary conditions to try and eliminate some of the steps that have been criticised, such as the experimenter's participation in the judging process. "We would bounce that out and see if the effect persists. Ideally, we would take a transcription of the subject's mentation and submit it for blind judging, letting a third party match the descriptions to the targets," Morris says.

Given the heavy workload involved - an experiment will have to reach 200 trials before it begins to produce statistically reliable results and that represents at least 400 hours of laboratory time - it is unlikely that any of the four groups will have much to report before the end of this year. In the meantime, regardless of what the ganzfeld work eventually has to say about the existence of psychic phenomena, somewhere in the clash between sceptics and parapsychologists must lie a fascinating thesis for someone on the sociology of science and the construction of knowledge.

the common-sense argument

Simple common-sense would seem to rule out the existence of psychic powers. We only need to consider how different the world would be even if people had slight abilities.

For a start, how could the gambling industry survive? A roulette ball would seem light enough to be affected by the power of psychokinesis. If Uri Geller can bend spoons, then surely the crowds who spend fortunes at Las Vegas casinos could influence the spinning wheels and tumbling die in their favour often enough to affect the finely calculated odds? Gambling bosses seem to be able to rely on slot machines which pay out on odds accurate to a fraction of a percent, yet no one would accuse punters of failing to will games of chance to come out in their favour. Likewise, if people were clairvoyant - even slightly - there should be a noticeable number of last-minute cancellations for every ill-fated airline flight.

However Professor Robert Morris of Edinburgh University's parapsychology unit says such common-sense assertions can usually be countered. For example, in a game of roulette or a lottery, many different people would be willing their number to come up and so they should cancel each other out. Morris says casinos also have a habit of banning people who win too consistently. The odds on slot machines would be adjusted if a casino found it was not making money. "Common-sense only seems to tell us that psi abilities, if they exist, must be weak in everyday circumstances. But such arguments cannot completely eliminate psi. That is why you need the controlled experiments to really look into the matter," Morris says.

a further interview with Bob Morris

It's a scary thought. What if telepathy is real, and we can read each other's minds? And what if the paranormal is a genuine artefact of our fabulously complex brains rather than statistical hogwash or fraud?

Will Robert Morris be the man to find out? For 15 years he's run the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh, one of a handful of centres dedicated to studying the paranormal. This lab is best known for the Ganzfeld experiment, run since the early 1990s and the result of years of negotiations between researchers and sceptics to devise a watertight test of so-called psychic phenomena. The apparent success of this experiment made headlines. John McCrone grilled him at the time, now he's back to find out whether Morris thinks he's made any progress

Q: What results are you getting?
A: The most recent Ganzfeld work has produced results showing that the odds against there being some paranormal effect would be in the millions to one.

Q: That sounds spectacular. But isn't your problem always going to be that no matter how good your results, outsiders will say the experiments are fixed?
A: Well, yes. There is one definition of ESP as "error some place"--as in "I can't quite find it but I know there is an error in there some place." My feeling is that as we've progressed, and as people have read our research in detail, more and more are saying that our research looks harder to beat than they thought. Researchers need to get away from the notion of believing or disbelieving. People don't talk about believing in other fields. I don't use the word belief. It looks to me as though there is something new going on, but it wouldn't blow me over if it turned out that  there wasn't.

Q: So what does parapsychology need?
A: Two things. One, effects of sufficient strength and consistency, so you know something is going on that isn't readily understood by other means. And secondly, coming up with a mechanism. One big question is whether we are talking simply about one mechanism or three or four. If it is the latter, then our job is a bit more complex because we may be lumping evidence for more than one mechanism together.

Q: Haven't you become more of a "believer" now than when you started running the lab?
A: When I came here, I set the odds at about 85 per cent that we were studying something that would turn out to be above and beyond what present-day science could account for. And during those years I've probably drifted into the low to middle 90s.

Q: So what's been happening to your results over the years?
A: Our results have been getting better. The two most recent studies that we did actually have the highest outcome.

Q: This success you claim has all been built round the Ganzfeld experiment. How does it work?
A: Basically, the receiver in the experiment sits in a sensory deprivation chamber, isolated in a steel-lined cubicle with walls a foot thick, halved ping-pong balls taped over his or her eyes, white noise playing through headphones, and dim, red lighting. After some time, the person drifts into a dreamlike state that is supposed to maximise any chance of picking up telepathic messages. Meanwhile, in another room, a sender is concentrating on a photograph or video clip selected by a computer from four options.

Q: What happens next?
A: The receiver describes aloud any thoughts or images being experienced at the time. The experimenter, who can hear what she or he is saying but does not know which image it refers to, sits in during the judging when the receiver decides which of the four seems the best match. If the choice is random, the "hit rate" will be only 25 per cent. The isolation of sender and receiver should prevent cheating. Inadvertent hints have been cut out, such as the greasy fingerprints that might have been left when we used to handle photographs rather than have them selected by computer. Our latest set-up uses images downloaded from a hard disc, which eliminates even obscure clues, such as the time it might take a video machine to rewind between clips. And we've dealt with any possibility of experimenters cheating by tightening everything up. Data collection is automated, duplicated and encrypted so that we can't simply bin or alter trials that don't turn out right. The judging process is recorded so we can check if an experimenter was nudging a subject to the right result.

Q:  So, with a choice of four options, subjects should score 25 per cent by chance. What are you getting?
A: One of my colleagues,  Kathy Dalton, and a student of mine called Charles Simons have achieved a hit rate in the very high 40s overall. The main experiment, by Dalton, gave a rate of 47 per cent correct, based on 60 first choices out of 128 sessions--all involving different people.

Q: Do any particular subjects produce high scores?
A: Our best results were obtained with creative people--musicians and visual artists. As far as personality was concerned, we didn't get any consistent links between extroverts versus introverts or things like that.

Q: How does all this square with a recent review in the Psychological Bulletin, [Milton J and Wiseman R, Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer, Psych Bull, 125 (4): p387-391, 1999] which pooled the results of 30 Ganzfeld studies and found no significant evidence for an anomalous effect?
A: That report didn't include the data that I've just been talking about. Some of the studies they looked at represented a variety of different procedures that people were trying--for example, to explore what kind of conditions might be favourable or unfavourable. That meant they included some that had quite strongly negative results--a product of processes we've been trying to learn from. If you lump everything together, however, the results certainly are statistically significant.

Q: But the review was by former lab members Richard Wiseman and Julie Milton. Has that hurt the Ganzfeld work?
A: One thing it certainly did was to clarify that some of the claims being made for the Ganzfeld were a little premature. There were some who were beginning to say we've always wanted an experiment in parapsychology that just about anybody can use and get good results. And that's just not the case with the Ganzfeld--you still have to use rather special conditions if you are going to make some use of it. 

Q: What is the secret of using it properly, then?
A: Taking a lot of care with how you recruit participants, how you welcome them into the lab, how you help them to get relaxed and comfortable and feeling as though it's OK to do well or succeed at these kinds of procedures. That isn't always easy.

Q: So the person running the experiment can affect the result?
A: That's where some of the work by Wiseman, now at the University of Hertfordshire, and Marilyn Schlitz of the Noetic Institute in Petaluna,, California comes in. Wiseman has had a history of not getting good results while Schlitz has done fairly well. Now they're trying to use a similar approach, not with Ganzfeld but another kind of experiment. Wiseman still gets chance results and Schlitz is still getting positive ones. So they are also trying to do now is to look at films of themselves, and see the different ways that they work with people.

Q: What is that new experiment?
A: It involves something called DMILS--direct mental interaction with living systems--where one person attempts to increase or decrease the measured arousal of another individual.

Q: So would the target person have electrodes attached to monitor their heart rate?
Q: It tends to be electrodermal activity, so it would be like galvanic skin response--basically, sweat.

Q: What about doing imaging studies to show the brain in action, and get close to what is really happening?
A: We are literally at the planning stages now and we would expect to have the experiment designed and running in the next five or six months. If this effect is real, we want to identify which parts of the brain seem to be involved.

Q: What other new experiments are there?
A: There are two experimental paradigms. One is DMILS. We are getting increasingly interested in one experiment where one person attempts to increase the concentration of another. The recipient is given a concentration task and asked to press a button whenever they feel their concentration has flagged. Meanwhile, another person has randomised time intervals when they are either trying to help the person concentrate or leave them alone.
Another kind of procedure is one called a presentiment procedure where you show somebody a series of slides, some with very startling or disturbing images. You then use EEG equipment to see if they are starting to show a shift in arousal several seconds before the startling slides actually appear on the screen.

Q: What do your peers think?
A: Scientists view the work of parapsychology more favourably if they see a researcher is coming at it from the bottom up rather than from the top down. We may simply be uncovering some additional aspects of brain functioning that we haven't understood very richly so far. We're basically saying people have anomalous experiences which they don't seem to understand, and we can help by applying the tools of science.

Q: Do you get personal attacks?
A: Perhaps because people know we are trying to do as good a job as we can, we don't get people insulting us to our faces. Wiseman, for instance, got his doctorate at our lab by studying some of the strategies for faking special abilities. And we now have Peter Lamont on our staff, who is a former president of the Edinburgh magic circle. So we are actively looking at deception and the tricks of the trade, how we can fool ourselves and fool each other. And most serious sceptics, the informed ones we deal with, are saying that we've accounted for a lot of things, that there's been a lot of sloppy research, but if it's possible to get some sort of new effect with really well-done research, count us in.

Q: In the wider context--didn't the CIA admit wasting $20  million on their psychic spying programmes?
A: If you look carefully at what was concluded, they did not have evidence of an effect that was strong enough to be reliably used in the field. But they did not conclude that they had found a complete lack of evidence. Also, there have been counter-debates about how much of the total scientific evidence the hired-in evaluators really had access to.

Q: What got you interested in the first place?
A: When I was in my early teens I found an aluminium box containing coloured marbles that was sitting at the back of a shelf. It turned out to be a device my parents had had built for testing parapsychological ability. I asked them if they really thought these abilities existed. They said, well, scientists don't seem to know. I asked why, and they said, as near as we can tell they are not looking at the evidence. And so that was really the motivation. Not to demonstrate that this stuff exists, or that it doesn't. But just to say, let's take a hard look at the evidence and see how good it is.

Q: Were your parents academics or psychics then?
A:  My mother just barely got out of high school and my father - he actually was mostly making his living as a trombonist at the time. We lived in a small suburb of Pittsburg and some people they knew had an interest in the topic and I guess they just took an interest as well and had this one friend who was very good with tools. I’m not even sure whether they requested this box or if he just gave it to them as a present.

Q: Do you ever wish you had picked another line of research?
A: It depends. Sometimes I really wish I worked in something where all I was doing was manipulating a few variables and life was easy. I could have confidence that every time I did a study I would automatically get a nice tidy result. But on the other hand, I don't think that would have been quite so much fun. I've adapted to having people thinking I'm wasting my time a bit. Frankly, if I had it to do all over again, I'd enter the same area.

still no easy answers

SO ARE there any even semi-plausible theories about how psychic powers might work? Morris carefully explains the position that sober parapsychologists like himself have to take.

The first rule is not to start theorising until you have some hard data. According to Morris, too many psi-enthusiasts want to leap straight in with talk about a quantum entanglement of brain states, a generalised mind-field that pervades space, or some other wild mechanism.
A parapsychology experiment is only actually able to detect a communication anomaly--apparent communication where there should be none. And given a standard communications theory approach, the simplest possible theory of psi is that some sort of "noise" reduction must be responsible for allowing it operate.

Morris likes the idea that the psi signal is so weak that it can only be picked up when the internal neural noise of the brain has been stilled. This is his rationale for the Ganzfeld experiment.

But others, claiming correlations with fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field or even the position of the stars, have suggested that the noise might not be in the brain at all, but instead be some kind of geophysical force that masks our everyday experience of psi.

The Ganzfeld work at least rules out certain kinds of signal. The shielding around the room--there to prevent subjects communicating via a more prosaic medium such as their mobile phones--means that psi is unlikely to be an electromagnetic wave.

Where things get sticky is that it doesn't seem to matter whether there's a sender or not. Ganzfeld experiments that claim a positive result do just as well if the computer is displaying images to an empty room. Nor do distance or time appear to come into it. In psychokinesis experiments, where subjects try to influence the output of a random number generator, results have been just as good when the subject was on the other side of the world, or did their stuff several days before or after the recording session.

For sceptics, this has simply strengthened their view that the source of all positive results must have something to do with the set-up or analysis of parapsychology experiments. For parapsychologists, it leaves them even further away from concrete ideas about mechanism.

home> back to readings