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Biology 202, Spring 2005
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The Limitations of Testing, and the Million Dollar Challenge

Kara Gillich

Want a million dollars? The James Randi Educational Foundation, run out of Florida since 1996, is currently offering any person who can display paranormal activity before a panel of real researchers and scientists, a million dollar reward. Up to this point no one has passed the preliminary testing in order to try for the million dollars, but the search is still eagerly pursued by the foundation ((1)).

There has been a long history equated with the phenomenon of extra sensory perception and other types of paranormal activity. ESP has been defined loosely as the "form of information transfer in which all known sensorial stimuli are absent" ((2)). This definition also assumes that the mechanism by which these interactions are occurring are neither known nor understood. Extra sensory perception has been placed together in the all-encompassing category called phi, which also included telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, and clairvoyance.

Humans abilities to detect stimuli outside the main five senses have only relatively recently in our history begun to be experimental tested. However testing has been unable to prove that it does exist, because of the nature of what they are studying. One of the first researchers to conduct such experiments was Joseph Rhine in the 1930's. He asked people to try and identify what was on the back of five varying playing cards. He concluded that ESP did indeed exist; however in light of new experimental procedures his research was found to be inconclusive at best because of lack of proper technique.

One current innovation in the search for proof of ESP is the Mind Machine in 2002. This highly sophisticated computer program asks its user to predict the random flip of a coin on the screen and records the user's data for analysis. Designed to gather and process a lot of data within a short amount of time, while eliminating any chance for clues given to the tester, the Mind Machine was tested all over Britain's colleges and malls. However this newest wave of "out of the laboratory testing" still found results that were consist with those of chance guessing ((3)). Can this be proof that even when the human element is removed to avoid miscalculations and the experiment is taken out of the lab, that ESP still can not be proven? Believers still say that there are mistakes in the system, the crowds were too noisy, and there was still not enough of random sampling.

There have been many experiments conducted about ESP with little success or inconclusive data since the Rhine experiments. One limitation that all ESP experimenters face, regardless of technique, is the fact that trying to force ESP to occur under experimental conditions is in and of itself a difficult task. Much in the way that animals are known to do opposite or contradictory things when placed in captivity, as compared to when in their natural habitat, humans could work the same way. One newspaper journalist comments, "it is still controversial as a science because any positive results cannot be replicated in the lab, we can't make people be psychic under observed conditions" ((4)). Again this raises the question that if it is so hard to produce successful results in an experimental setting, this hinders the chance that ESP could ever be proven or further studied.

Another limitation that exists is the danger level at which this testing is being conducted. Most or all of the ESP occurrences that occur outside of laboratory testing happen when a family member or close friend is in trouble. Most people claim to get a "feeling in their gut" that something just is not right. This is evidence that ESP might only be working by a mechanism that allows for easier transmittance of unnerving thoughts/events rather than happy ones. However testing this would be very difficult, because most people are not willing to put family members in danger, for the sake of science. So the idea that ESP might only work in extreme and alarming cases, might again mean that may never be able to be prove in a laboratory that ESP exists.

As seen in nature, animals are capable of sensing when earthquakes or storms are coming, and have ample time to get to safety. Can this be considered a form of ESP or precognition? If animals are capable of this type of transmittance why would humans not be as equally able? Humans may potentially be able to respond to environmental stimuli, but we might be blocking such signals with our I-function, or other parts of the nervous system by closing off receptors to everything but our traditional five senses. In an effort to put a more of a focus on these other senses, scientists have proposed the concept of hypnotism to help fine tune the chance of finding information about ESP in the body.

Many successful experiments have used hypnotism to test for ESP, that way the person is more open to suggestion. Again, these types of experiments are believed to work because the subconscious can be focused on, rather than the conscious. Hypnotism allows the body to let the nervous system enter a more relaxed state, potentially allowing for the detection of stimuli below the normal threshold, which can create an action potential and the body can receive the stimuli. One of the major theories of hypnotism applies here: that during hypnotism the ego is suppressed, so that one is more likely to act on natural instincts rather than the rational side ((5)). This theory links the idea that it might be necessary for people who receive ESP to be in a trance-like state that allows their nervous system to essentially suppress or bypass the I-function and focus more on stimuli they are receiving from the subconscious.

In conclusion, the limitations of ESP testing give rise to many implications for future research. As discussed there exist many factors that have hindered and continue to inhibit experiments that could potentially ever give legitimate proof for the existence of ESP. Whether or not ESP exists in animals or humans is debatable, but the most feasible ways for accurately testing would be the continuation of using hypnotism on people. There seems little or no chance for testing ESP in terms of ability of sensing threatening or dangerous conditions, unless there was a way to fake a dangerous situation. Another serious consideration could be to emphasis why animals can sense things humans can not, and then to try and isolate a certain receptor, gene or area of the nervous system that is involved in accepting these stimuli, and relate it back to humans. Research on this highly controversial topic will continue and its only chances for survival as a field of research require reconsiderations of the testing practices and the limitations ESP presents.

Works cited

1. 1)official foundation website, Site with lots of enthusiasm for research

2. 2)official research foundation website

3. 3) Newpaper article

4. 4)Lexis-Nexis

5. 5)an insightful website on hypnotism

Works consulted

1.; website about hypnotism

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