Omni Brain

Does ESP exist?

i-f9aa50d14845b76beb9d6d20fd76fe36-esp-screenshot_352x425.gifThe 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.[19] However, Dean Radin argues that ganzfeld studies which did use soundproof rooms had a number of “hits” similar to those which did not.[1] (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.[20]

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.

ESP and parapsychology in general has largely died out in reputable academic departments such as Princeton, where they did experiments that went a little bit like this:

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.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    January 4, 2008

    “Dogs and Cats, living together, mass hysteria.”
    Dr. Peter Venkman

  2. #2 Mark P
    January 4, 2008

    Back in my previous life as a newspaper reporter/newroom fill-in, I was sorely tempted to put a headline on one of those little meeting blurbs: “Psychic group predicts meeting on Thursday”.

  3. #3 Anon
    January 4, 2008

    I am a bit disappointed with your conclusion; “probably not” is a tremendous understatement. The odds are vanishingly small, for many varied but convergent reasons.

    First, your history omits a rich tradition of fraud which has dogged this field since its inception. From the Fox sisters through Uri Gellar’s new TV show, the performances within and around the field of ESP research (it has traditionally been linked with spiritualism, as well as laboratory and field studies of extraordinary and ordinary people) have been tainted by accusations, evidence, and confessions of cheating. Part of the reason we know the names of Houdini and James Randi is their dedication to exposing such fraud.

    Second, there is much known in many diverse areas of psychology and biology which argues against the need for such an extraordinary concept as ESP. We know enough about our sensory, perceptual and thinking processes to explain, say, the honest belief that we had discovered “N-rays” when in fact a combination of threshold-type visual events, misplaced trust in inadequate experimental controls, and confirmation bias (all very mundane explanations, but backed by evidence) was sufficient to explain the observations. We know enough about sensory processes to know that in order to sense something, there must be an energy available, an organ of transduction, and brain pathways dedicated to this processing. Psychophysicists have studied sensation since before Psychology was a science; we know how to do this. We know enough about eyewitness testimony and the plasticity of memory to know to take anecdotal accounts of ESP with a grain of salt (same for UFO sightings, for that matter–a good understanding of what we do know in psychology leaves considerably fewer mysteries for bad investigators. (incidentally, the most recent surveys I have seen show that the scientists least likely to believe there is evidence for ESP are experimental psychologists.)

    Third, the very concept of “mind”, as understood by such ESP proponents as Rupert Sheldrake, is a prescientific mess. Our entire understanding of, say, inertia would have to go out the window in order to accommodate anecdotal accounts that can easily be explained through an understanding of sensation, perception, cognition and memory. Inertia. This is not a trivial matter. For ESP to work (that is, for our physical neurons to fire in a fashion meaningful for us), there must be an energy. There has never been evidence of one associated with “mind”. Of course it feels to us like our thinking is somehow different from other behaviors (walking, running, etc.); we have no sensory neurons in the brain to say “ah, this is the action of the anterior cingulate cortex”. Ignorance feels like magic. But a sunrise, though it looks like the sun climbing in the sky, is more accurately described by earth’s rotation. Thinking is something we do, not something our minds do. There is no mind/brain dichotomy (and, I would argue, many current brain/body dichotomies have simply re-worded Descartes without addressing the problem; the brain is part of the body, not a separate entity. We act as whole organisms, not as meat puppets of wetware masters.)

    Fourthly (and I’ll make this lastly), we see a trend in ESP research that we can recognize from other areas (and BTW, the fraud and ignorance arguments are not unique to ESP research–we do see them in other areas of science; they are simply the proper arguments to bear on this particular argument). To wit: When we apply greater levels of experimental control, we tend to see effects more clearly if those effects are actually real. If the effects are noise, or randomness, or an artifact of some experimental condition, then with greater experimental control these effects fade away. In most of science, this is simply a truism. If, under increased control, an effect disappears, it was likely not real in the first place (again, N-rays serve as an example, but there are many others). In ESP research, however, people write about “the fade effect” and “the shyness effect” as if they were a characteristic of the ESP power. Psychic powers can be very strong when nobody is watching, but when cameras are on, or skeptics are watching, you end up like Gellar on the Tonight Show, unable to perform. ESP proponents make grandiose claims outside the laboratory, and inside the laboratory they make claims that vary inversely with the degree of control in that lab.

    So does ESP exist? We have no reason to think so, and every reason not to. A scientific stance does not require us to leave this particular door open. We can close it firmly, lock it securely, and forget about it. If ESP proponents accuse us of being closed-minded, they can come to the door and knock. We can look through the peephole, and if they are carrying evidence sufficient to overturn a century of psychological experiments and some fundamental concepts of physics, we will be overjoyed to unluck the door again. In the meanwhile, I won’t hold my breath.

  4. #4 baryogenesis
    January 4, 2008

    If I may, I will try to speak for probably many who hold on to anecdotal evidence as possible “proof” of some sort of esp. It usually involves a very personal connection with someone that can never be tested in a lab (people would believe) because of those rare emotional states that aid in forging the “connection”(it’s hard to get emotional about Zener cards). Everyone has experienced the amazingly coincidental phone call, whether one is making it or on the receiving end. Then there is the death of a friend or loved one where someone says they had a strong feeling or thoughts of that person concurrent with the unfortunate time.These things can usually be dismissed with statistics. I once had strongly anxious thoughts about a roommate while I was visiting a friend hundreds of miles away. When I returned, I asked him if there had been any problem while I was gone and he said that he had burned the crap out of my best cooking pot and knew I would be upset. I now believe that there is probably a way to explain these things and that the long post by “anon” is pretty much right on, but just saying, these are the kinds of experiences that people hold onto and have a difficult time shaking their beliefs…Must go out now.

  5. #5 Anon
    January 5, 2008

    You might find this interesting–Podblack Blog reports here (http://podblack.wordpress.com/2008/01/06/ick-in-so-many-ways/) about a neuroimaging study at Harvard (http://www.physorg.com/news118598986.html) that “provides the strongest evidence yet against the existence of extrasensory perception, or ESP.”

  6. #6 Brian
    January 7, 2008

    I totally agree, baryogenesis, our brains are designed to cling to salient events, so we remember the amazingly coincidental phone call even if it only happens once or twice in our lives. There’s no arguing with people who are already convinced, because they’re set up to view the stats differently.

    It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll win the lottery, but try telling that to a lottery winner.

  7. #7 Anon
    January 7, 2008

    Bary, that is a good description of the power of the anecdote for the individual… however, there really is no excuse for the scientific community to pay any lip service to the possibility of ESP. The tools of science allow us to overcome our individual cognitive heuristics that bias our perception. We know, as scientists, to sample disconfirming as well as confirming events; we know to apply Occam’s razor to our explanations; we know, in short, how to recognize our human characteristics and limitations, and to use the methods and tools of science to see further and better.

    Remaining open-minded means being willing to follow the evidence that says there’s nothing there, no matter how much we may wish for it to be different.

  8. #8 fashion
    November 30, 2009

    So many of you discussed your love for vintage clothing in the comments section of my previous posts, which made me smile from ear to ear because I love history. I think it’s important to understand how fashion has evolved and why it has changed over the years. So I am going to go through the decades starting with the 1920s through 1990 and talk about what was popular in the world of fashion. We’re trying something new this week.

  9. #9 mike hunt
    March 26, 2010

    cool beans homez. hope to read more from ya :-)

  10. #10 jeff bohn
    March 26, 2010

    So many of you discussed your love for vintage clothing in the comments section of my previous posts, which made me smile from ear to ear because I love history. I think it’s important to understand how fashion has evolved and why it has changed over the years. So I am going to go through the decades starting with the 1920s through 1990 and talk about what was popular in the world of fashion. We’re trying something new this week.

    love jbohn

  11. #11 york hunt
    March 26, 2010

    So many of you discussed your love for vintage clothing in the comments section of my previous posts, which made me smile from ear to ear because I love history. I think it’s important to understand how fashion has evolved and why it has changed over the years. So I am going to go through the decades starting with the 1920s through 1990 and talk about what was popular in the world of fashion. We’re trying something new this week.

  12. #12 lolololololol
    March 26, 2010

    your people Must go out now

  13. 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.[20]