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Biology 202
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Something Happens Sometimes: A sample and critique of "psi" research

Sarah Feidt

"Do you remember how electrical currents and 'unseen waves' were laughed at? The knowledge about man is still in its infancy." - Albert Einstein


Perception of future events (precognition), communication through thoughts (telepathy), material manipulation without physical contact (telekinesis), sight of an object or place millions of miles away with enough accuracy to draw it (remote viewing) these are a few cases of what is referred to as "psi phenomena," also known as parapsychological or psychic phenomena. "Psi" refers to "anomalous processes of energy or information transfer... that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms."(1) Long dismissed by scientists and other skeptics all over the world, these occurrences are often attributed to trickery, hallucination, lying, chance, and even spiritual influence. Claims of psychic ability come from many varied sources. From the friend who has premonitory dreams and the dog who knows when the master has decided to come home, to the glamorous astrologer with a 900-number and the clairvoyant with a TV show, stories of paranormal abilities range from personal and thought-provoking to distant and Hollywood-esque. Are these things really possible? What does the scientific community actually know about these phenomena? Ultimately, one must ask the question, what can the scientific community know about these phenomena?

This paper is intended to provide a small sample and critique of the available scientific research on these unexplained and often dismissed phenomena. The examples which form this review are: research on unexplained phenomena not associated with "psychic" individuals, large-scale research centering on many individuals with "psychic talent," and an investigation of the claimed abilities of a single internationally celebrated "psychic."

Despite the historical and prevalent stigma and sensationalization associated with this field, many respected educational establishments have laboratories involved in the research of psi. The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program, instituted in 1979 to investigate mind-matter interactions (2); the Parapsychological Association, a 1957 offshoot of the Duke Laboratory (3); the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh (4); and Stanford University's 1946 endeavor, Stanford Research Institute are four of these. It should be noted that Stanford Research Institute separated from the university in 1970, and became SRI International. (5)


Impersonal phenomena
If a person is asked to identify the color of a rectangle, and is subsequently asked to read a randomly generated color name, it is well-known that a matching color name will be called out faster than a mismatching color name. This pattern of outcome, the Stroop effect, has been used since the 1930s to measure cognitive interference. By recording the time it takes to announce the rectangle's color (T1) and comparing that to the time it takes to read the subsequent color name (T2), researchers can approximate how long it takes individuals to process these inputs. (6)

Holger Klintman, a clinical psychologist at Lund University in Sweden(7), was attempting to improve the sensitivity of these measurements when he discovered another interesting pattern there was correlation between T1 and T2. Specifically, if the color name and the rectangle color matched, then T1 for that trial was faster than if they mismatched. That is, if the subject was shown a red rectangle, and the randomly generated color name in the future was going to be the word 'red', the subject announced the color of the rectangle faster. This is a startling correlation since the color name was randomly generated only after the rectangle image was taken away and T1 recorded, there was no logical way for the future word to have affected T1. And yet, it did. In fact, in five experiments designed to rule out the possibility of mechanical or design influence, he reported a surprising cumulative p-value of 10^-6. Dean Radin of the Boundary Institute revisited this phenomenon with a paper published in July of 2000, where he reported similar correlation with a different experimental design, and a highly significant p-value of 0.001. (6)

Government Research
In 1969, US intelligence sources concluded that the Russian government was investing large amounts of time and money into development of 'psychotronic' weaponry, which included psychic spies. In response, the US government began research in 1972 into the viability of remote viewing as an intelligence tool. The program, originally the SCANATE program under the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was maintained for 23 years under various names. In that time, several hundred projects involving thousands of remote viewing sessions were completed. Psychics from this program were made available to several intelligence branches, including the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA), the US Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), the Army Chief-of-Staff for Intelligence (ACSI), and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). (8)

The SCANATE program, eventually termed the STAR GATE program, combined active operational training in psychic intelligence gathering with intensive laboratory research. The laboratory component began at SRI in 1972. The researchers collected individuals who they thought showed natural psychic ability, with a minimum accuracy rate of 65%; 23 remote viewers in total were involved in the STAR GATE program. One of the fruits of this program was a set of instructions developed by professed psychic Ingo Swann, which supposedly allow any human being to develop the ability to remote view. This instruction set was used in the training aspect of the program. The National Academy of Science's National Research Council reviewed the program unfavorably in 1984, and the American Institutes for Research released a report in 1995 that stated a statistically significant effect had been demonstrated in the program, with a 15% accuracy rate, but which was overall a negative review. The CIA concluded that no useful intelligence data had ever been provided by the program, and terminated it in 1995. (8)

Professional Psychic
Uri Geller, an Israeli psychic, is an unabashed showman. He has been internationally famous since the 1970's for his purported ability to bend spoons with the lightest touch, and often no touch at all. He has been demonstrating this ability to friends since he was five years old, and has been giving paid public performances since 1969. An author, artist, inventor and controversial figure, he has been alternately praised and condemned by the media as a true psychic and a dramatic magician, respectively. He claims many abilities telepathy, telekinesis, remote viewing, dowsing (detecting specific metals and minerals in the ground), precognition, the ability to erase digital media, and the ability to make seeds sprout in his hand within seconds, are among them. He credits himself with helping certain sports teams win, with influencing the US Army, and with possibly averting World War III by mentally bombarding a Russian-American diplomatic meeting with thoughts of peace. Like other psychics, his abilities do not work under all circumstances, and while his successes support his claims, his failures often lead to wholesale dismissal of them. (9) (10)

Uri Geller was brought to the Stanford Research Institute in 1973 by respected physicists Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ (11) of the SRI Electronics and Bioengineering Laboratory. They carried out a series of blind and double-blind experiments in a controlled environment, during which Geller was asked to demonstrate extra-sensory perception in two protocols: remote viewing of selected images, and remote viewing of a die shaken in a steel box. In the first series, Geller produced drawings of images which were sketched by people not in contact with Geller, and which were sealed in multiple opaque envelopes which he could not touch and often was not allowed to see. In the second series, he determined the upward face of a die shaken in a box. While Geller on occasion did decline to provide a response when he was "unsure," all of the responses he did provide were without error: the die faces were correct in each of the eight trials, and the target pictures were correctly matched with Geller's sketches by two SRI scientists unassociated with the project. The probabilities of these outcomes occurring by chance were 3x10-7 and 1x10-5 against, respectively. While Puthoff and Targ reported also observing Geller's metal-bending abilities, they concluded that the control conditions were not sufficiently stringent as to provide data supporting the paranormal claim. (12)


Claims of this nature are difficult to assess. Support for them is often largely anecdotal, and full of uncertainty. A psychic can rarely perform before a group of expert magicians; it could be that they create a stressful and inhibitive environment that is by its nature detrimental to the psychical mechanism, or it could be that the psychic dare not reveal himself as a charlatan while surrounded by those who would surely catch him. While the psychics ply their trade, the skeptics seek to debunk them at every possible turn. (13) And yet, while the skeptics ply their trade, others seek to debunk their debunkings! (11) In many cases the believers document their cases just as well as the skeptics.

Even controlled research presents a fundamental problem: how does one even begin to design an experimental protocol for phenomena which defy biology and physics as we know it? The fact is, experiments designed to test the existence of psi cannot in reality be trusted to do just that. All such experiments can do is provide possible evidence about the nature of psi. Without knowing what exactly one is testing, one cannot narrow down the possible factors affecting it, and therefore one cannot effectively interpret any results.

In many ways, such research is simply running in circles. For example, Dean Radin's Stroop-based experiment yielded significant results; the same experiment does not always yield significant results. What if the mechanism he was observing was affected by the wavelength of the lights in the lab, the gravitational pull of the moon, the collected moods of those involved with the study? Without knowing the nature of the mechanism, we cannot know what is capable of influencing it, and therefore can reach no significant conclusions from either its success or failure at materializing. All we can say, from Radin's or SRI's research, is that something happens sometimes. Which, ultimately, is what Uri Geller or any psychic would say.

These examples were presented as a variety of sources both of data and interpretations. While there are fundamental limits to the ability of this data to actually describe any mechanism clearly, it does afford us the opportunity to acknowledge that there may indeed be aspects of biophysical interactions that we have seldom observed and never explained. Neither parapsychologists nor skeptics can prove that psi is real or not real. All they can do is interpret the data, whether it be data from a primary paper or data from one's own experience.


Cornell University, Psychological Bulletin,1994, Vol. 115, No. 1, 4-18. Does Psi Exist? Replicable Evidence for an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer by Daryl J. Bem and Charles Honorton. A very clear, useful online paper concerning parapsychology.

The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research: Scientific Study of Consciousness-Related Physical Phenomena website.

The Parapsychological Association website.

The Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh website.

The SRI International website.

Evidence for a retrocausal effect in the human nervous system. Radin, D. and E. May. One of several primary papers available on the Boundary Institute website.

The Lund University website.

The Federation of American Scientists' intelligence projects database's STAR GATE entry.

Uri Geller's website.

A columnist's personal experience with Uri Geller.

A critical review of James Randi's skeptical book, Flim Flam Flummery!

The text of the SRI report documenting experiments with Geller and others. Found on Geller's website.

The James Randi Education Foundation. Instructional skeptical resource from professional magician and self-proclaimed psychic debunker "The Great Randi".

Fun resources:

Psychic Students in Search of Guidance online community. Offers peer instructions, media files, and community activities.

Personal site of a professed fork-bender. Offers photographs, descriptions, and instructionson how to mentally channel energy into metal to render it soft enough to twist into tight spirals and interesting shapes before it rehardens.

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