The mind is a complicated and a still very much unknown entity. The earliest conceptions of the mind didn’t even have it placed in the brain, instead it was very much separate from the body. This is of course all very silly, the only possibility is that the mind wholly and completely resides in the neural system and that system is responsible for every aspect of the mind, from perception, to language, and even for experiencing the presence of a higher power.
With all of these misperceptions of the mind it isn’t surprising that people could think that this soul of ours could interact with other minds, so much so that they could actually communicate with each other. Among all of the psychic phenomena Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) has had the longest and most fruitful history of experimentation, so successful in fact that a number of psychology departments have divisions or faculty members studying this phenomena as well as the military and CIA spending millions of dollars training psychic spies during the cold war. This was also the job of the Ghost Busters before they got fired from their academic positions and entered the ghost extermination business. Some of these researchers (not just in the movies) even have evidence to ‘prove’ that ESP exists!
The most common method to study ESP is by using a Ganzfeld experiment. This experiment usually consists of placing half of a ping pong ball over each eye and shining a colored light onto it in order to create a single color visual field which essentially deprives the subject of useful vision (note that this is different than making a room dark since the eyes/brain are actually being stimulated). Pink or White noise is also played to the ESP receiving subject to accomplish the same goal as the visual noise – to put them in a state of isolation, readying them to receive psychic messages. Once this person is in the correct receiving state a person in another room will be given an image and asked to mentally transmit it to the receiver. This might go a little something like this:
Clearly Billy Murray isn’t using proper experimental protocols but you get the point
Once the image has been transmitted to the receiver they come out of the room and are given a set of 4 images and asked which one they ‘saw’. This would mean that if a bunch of subjects all guessed then they should only get it 25% of the time. This sounds pretty straight forward right?
A meta analysis of all of the studies using a similar (but not necessarily identical) experimental method attained a 37% hit rate which was a statistically significant effect suggesting that people were able to more successfully detect a target after receiving ESP. Or course with the way science works and especially over something like parapsychology, many people objected to both the methods and data analysis. Out of laziness here are the critiques from Wikipedia:
There are several common criticisms of some or all of the Ganzfeld experiments:
Isolation – Richard Wiseman and others argue that not all of the studies used soundproof rooms, so it is possible that when videos were playing, the experimenter (or even the receiver) could have heard it, and later given involuntary cues to the receiver during the selection process. However, Dean Radin argues that ganzfeld studies which did use soundproof rooms had a number of “hits” similar to those which did not. (Radin 1997: 77-89)
Randomization – When subjects are asked to choose from a variety of selections, there is an inherent bias to choose the first selection they are shown. If the order in which they are shown the selections is randomized each time, this bias will be averaged out. The randomization procedures used in the experiment have been criticized for not randomizing satisfactorily.
The psi assumption – The assumption that any statistical deviation from chance is evidence for telepathy is highly controversial, and often compared to the God of the gaps argument. Strictly speaking, a deviation from chance is only evidence that either this was a rare, statistically unlikely occurrence that happened by chance, or something was causing a deviation from chance. Flaws in the experimental design are a common cause of this, and so the assumption that it must be telepathy is fallacious. This does not rule out, however, that it could be telepathy.
the study participant would sit in front of an electronic box the size of a toaster oven, which flashed a random series of numbers just above and just below 100. Staff members instructed the person to simply “think high” or “think low” and watch the display. After thousands of repetitions — the equivalent of coin flips — the researchers looked for differences between the machine’s output and random chance.
Analyzing data from such trials, the PEAR team concluded that people could alter the behavior of these machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000. If the human mind could alter the behavior of such a machine, Dr. Jahn argued, then thought could bring about changes in many other areas of life — helping to heal disease, for instance, in oneself and others.
Of course there are still a number of departments doing ESP research here and there, but now mainly trying to prove that it is complete and absolute junk science. Most recently a group from Harvard University have attempted to demonstrate through fMRI that ESP in fact does not have any effect on the brain. In this study recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience the researchers developed a new method.
To study whether or not ESP exists, Moulton and Kosslyn presented participants with two types of visual stimuli: ESP stimuli and non-ESP stimuli. These two types of stimuli were identical with one exception: ESP stimuli were not only presented visually, but also were presented telepathically, clairvoyantly, and precognitively to participants.
To present stimuli telepathically, the researchers showed the photographs to the participants’ identical twin, relative, romantic partner, or friend, who was seated in another room. To present stimuli clairvoyantly, the researchers displayed the photographs on a distant computer screen. And to present stimuli precognitively, the researchers showed participants the photographs again in the future.
Of course they found absolutely no indications that the brain was changing in any way during the telepathic transmission conditions. But hey, you can’t disprove something like this, after all you can never affirm the null hypothesis. And anyway who knows maybe they didn’t happen to get people with high ESP skills like Shelley Batts from Retrospectacle who claims she is a super psychic – although I’m hesitant to believe her. She did find the Ghost Busters video though so maybe she’s got some abilities.
So does ESP exist? No…there’s no good evidence for it, but the way hypothesis testing is setup we’ll never ever know for sure. If you still think ESP exists you could always head over to this page and download this program to test your skills.