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Progress on Psi

Edinburgh University's Koestler Parapsychology Unit

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This review of the state of the art in Psi research is based on an article Scepticbusters by Adrian Turpin, Financial Times April 1 2005   Scepticbusters is available in full at http://news.ft.com/cms/s/a299da3e-a0e3-11d9-95e5-00000e2511c8.html
© Copyright © 2005 by Adrian Turpin


Arthur Koestler

Contrary to the impression in BBC Television's Sea of Souls the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University, on which the drama series is loosely based, is staffed with serious academic parapsychologists. Irked as they are to be misrepresented as ghostbusting fruitcakes, the publicity gained for their subject may not be unwelcome. Part of the university’s psychology department, the unit is located in sparse rooms in a labyrinthine building in George Square.
Caroline Watt, acting head, is a psychologist whose work includes studies on the childhoods of people who claim paranormal experiences.
Peter Lamont is a former professional magician and authority on the history of deception. Fiona Steinkamp is a philosopher, interested in predicting the future. Physicist, Dr Paul Stevens is involved in testing people to see whether they react to the emotional state of a person in another room, then comparing this to the effects of weak magnetic fields.


Much of the work at the Koestler unit would sit happily within other disciplines. They adhere to scientific method and peer review. Yet many of the things they investigate - telepathy, precognition and psychokinesis, for example - are still regarded as anathema within “mainstream” science. This puts academic parapsychology in a peculiar position. If they can explain how and why apparently paranormal phenomena happen and explain them, then they are scientific pioneers. If they fail, years of endeavour will have left them with a handful of fool’s gold.

The Koestler Legacy
The history of parapsychology in the UK was largely shaped by Arthur Koestler, novelist, science writer and Zionist. Born in Hungary in 1895, Koestler became a committed communist. His experiences in Spain during the civil war and in Nazi Germany led him to settle in Britain, where he spent much of his later career attacking Soviet totalitarianism.

Subsequently, Koestler's controversial life, including the suicide of his third wife and the alleged rape of Jill Craigie, the wife of Michael Foot, overshadowed his achievements. On his death, almost his entire estate of £1m was given to establish a chair in parapsychology at a British university. The origin of Koestler’s fascination with psychic phenomena is not clear. Early on, he was influenced by Jung’s writings on synchronicity, but it was after his disillusionment with Marxist materialism that he became increasingly interested in the paranormal - perhaps a natural reaction. The legacy got a cool reception. Oxford, Cambridge and London universities are said to have regarded thhe subject matter as ridiculous and the bequest as a likely source of derision rather than enrichment. Through the influence of the philosopher, John Beloff the Koestler chair finally went to Edinburgh where it became, and remains, Britain’s only university professorship in parapsychology. With its establishment, the subject took a step towards respectability.

The First Koestler Professor
Robert Morris, a psychologist who had worked under the paranormal researcher, J.B. Rhine, became the first Koestler professor in 1985. Some of Morris's early work was of debatable value, but he quickly adopted a cautious approach which was to pay dividends. He steered the unit away from the more extreme forms of paranormal research, such as UFOs. In an interview he gave to New Scientist in 2002, he said that "when he came to Edinburgh University he set the odds at about 85% that we are studying something that would turn out to be above and beyond what present-day science could account for. During those years, I’ve probably drifted into the low to middle nineties". On the other hand, he warned that "researchers need to get away from the notion of believing or disbelieving. People don’t talk about believing in other fields... It looks to me as though there is something new going on, but it wouldn’t blow me over if it turned out there wasn’t."

UK Parapsychology Makes Progress
Largely througn Morris’s measured approach there are now five parapsychology units in British academic institutions. In the US, where researchers show greater willingness to express belief in the reality of psychic phenomena, academic parapsychology has almost disappeared. On the other hand, cautious endeavour has led to no definite conclusions.

What exactly have the unit’s researchers and their colleagues in academic parapsychology learnt? In parapsychology, the unknown factor in paranormal phenomena is known as “psi”, conventionally divided into extrasensory perception (ESP), where information is acquired without the use of any recognised human sense, and psychokinesis (PK), in which the mind acts directly upon matter.

Methods of lab-parapsychology have changed. In J.B. Rhine's day attempts to influence numbers rolled on dice were used as tests of PK. The advent of random electronic number generators, made these obsolete.

In ESP research, card-guessing experiments have disappeared. The most popular ESP experiment is known as the ganzfeld, from the German "whole field". In a typical Ganzfeld procedure the subject is sensorily deprived. This is done by covering their eyes with ping-pong ball halves and shining a red light at them. At the same time, white noise is played through headphones. After a short period of relaxation, the "sender" in a room in another part of the building concentrates on a target image (usually a video clip) with the aim of transmitting it telepathically to the subject. At the end of the session, the subject is then shown four images from which he or she tries to pick the target.

The ganzfeld reveals a lot about the state of parapsychology. By chance, ganzfeld subjects should guess the right target 25% of the time. In fact, the overall success rate often quoted for ganzfeld is slightly more than 33%.

Statistically, that is a huge discrepancy: taken at face value, ganzfeld results form almost incontrovertible evidence for the existence of psi. However, nothing can be taken at face value. Ganzfeld has proved highly controversial.

The Existence of Psi "Proved"
In 1985, the parapsychologist Charles Honorton claimed that the ganzfeld had proved the existence of psi. In response, the American skeptic Ray Hyman published a review in which he pointed out 99 flaws in the original experiments.Eventually, Hyman and Honorton issued a joint statement in which they agreed that the ganzfeld experiments seemed to show something happening that couldn’t be accounted for by statistical error. But they disagreed about whether this effect constituted evidence for psi.

This outcome encouraged experimenters to tighten up their procedures. Honorton developed a computerised version of the experiment designed to eliminate many of the flaws noted by Hyman - in particular the possibility that target images chosen by researchers were not truly random.

Claims of positive results re-emerged. From a six-year autoganzfeld study, Honorton’s lab claimed a hit rate of 34%, a conclusion supported by the Koestler unit's findings, reported in the 1990s.

The Skeptics Strike Back
However, in 1999, the British parapsychologists Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman published a statistical overview of 30 new-generation autoganzfeld studies. This meta-analysis claimed that collectively, the results were much as would be expected by chance. The issue was hotly debated without definite outcome.

According Caroline Watt, "There seems to be something going on but we are not sure what it is - the existence of psi or a flaw in the methodology somewhere."It seems extraordinary that researchers worldwide could conduct variations on the same experiment for three decades only to reach this position. Even if the existence of psi were proved, there is no convincing model of how it works. Among many parapsychologists, it is held that psi operates independently of time (thus allowing effects such as precognition) and across distances that conventional signals could not cover. If this is true, then the physical laws that govern our universe will need amending, possibly even rewriting entirely.

The Replication Problem
Granted that resources are limited, the inability to reproduce "successful" experiments at will is the biggest obstacle to taking psi-research seriously. Replication is an essential feature of the scientific method. Why should parapsychology be any different?

Wiseman himself does not dismiss the possibility that psi exists. But he argues that parapsychologists have moved from one type of experiment to another without persisting to a conclusion. Wiseman's approach would be to identify the most promising approach, concentrate research on that area, and "see what we get."If that fails it may be time to stop looking.

Dean Radin claims that the problem is that the skeptics are refusing to concede in the face of conclusive evidence. Radin is director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory (CRL), part of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a Californian organisation founded by the Apollo XIV astronaut Edgar Mitchell in order to study the "potentials and powers of consciousness". Radin’s credentials are solid. He has conducted paranormal research for, among others, the telephone giant AT&T and the US government. Academic work has included periods at Princeton and at the Koestler unit, where in the early 1990s he worked on ganzfeld experiments. Radin’s 1997 book The Conscious Universe - a popular science bestseller - presented what he called the irrefutable evidence for the reality of paranormal phenomena.
Why the Skeptics don't give up -Dean Radin
For a neutral opinion, Radin says, you need only look at the findings of official scientific committees. Five US government panels assessed the findings of psychic research during the 1980s and 1990s. "All five decided that something was going on."

Even when the CIA decided to stop its Stargate paranormal research programme, it wasn’t because they’d failed to find effects but because it was felt that the practical intelligence applications for those effects were limited.

While Wiseman asserts that psychic researchers are often mystics in disguise, Radin believes that skeptics are often out of touch with modern science. In particular, he argues that developments in quantum physics - the branch of science that explains the often downright weird behaviour of sub-atomic particles - mean that "our understanding of the physical world is becoming more compatible with psi".

Support from Quantum Physics
For example, one of the biggest barriers to accepting that psi exists has always been the apparent impossibility of transferring information instantly, regardless of distance. In the late 1990s, however, a research team managed to pass information in just this way between two “entangled” atomic particles.

Recent theories of consciousness suggest that quantum processes within the brain are responsible for puzzling effects such as free will and the sense of self, and the implications for psi research are huge. If psi is a quantum phenomenon and consciousness a quantum machine, what could be more natural than the former manifesting itself in the latter?

It hardly needs saying that many biologists and physicists disagree. Again, parapsychology drags the neutral observer through the looking glass - before dispatching him back to the “real” world, full of wonder but little the wiser.

Revolutions Take Time
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1963) the historian Thomas Kuhn observed that history was divided into long periods of "normal" science followed by shorter bursts of "revolutionary" science. Normal science does not aim for novelties of facts or theory, and when successful finds none. In times of revolutionary science, by contrast, the most fundamental scientific ideas are there for the taking - just as they were when Copernicus first declared that the earth went round the sun.

Kuhn called such changes from one scientific world model to another "paradigm shifts" and noted that they often required a generation to accomplish. He argued that reason alone can never compel a scientist to switch allegiance from one paradigm to another, however good the evidence: in part, this kind of mindshift would always have to be an act of faith.

For pro-psi researchers, Kuhn’s ideas offer comfort and ammunition. To them, science is undergoing a paradigm shift during which acceptance of psychic phenomena will eventually become the norm among scientists, meanwhile, opposition is only to be expected.

What We Might Do With Psi
A psi that could be manipulated might have many practical applications. Psychic healing would be a boon to any health service and psi-responsive chips could transform computing. Mind-power might even be used to stimulate crop growth, hunt for oil or change weather patterns. For some researchers, wider social implications are more interesting. For example the idea that individual consciousnesses can be joined for a collective purpose.

Foundations of Parapsychology - an introduction to the subject co-written by Bob Morris - declares that a post-psi world promises "a societal organisation in which there will be less competition and more co-operation, and the feeling of the unity of society being greater than the assertions of the individual; less of a work ethic and more of a merging of work, play and learning; a greater tolerance of difference..."

Meanwhile, back at the academic coalface, the members of the Koestler unit chip away diligently. Maybe in another 20 years, they will know whether their discipline is based on a chimera or not. Top of Page

Research on global consciousness - Dean Radin

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