What are the major psi experiments today?
Through popular books and portrayals of parapsychology in movies like
Ghostbusters, many people assume that psi experimenters today primarily use
the well-known ESP cards. This is a deck of 25 cards, with five repetitions of
five cards showing symbols of a square, circle, wavy line, cross, or star. Such
cards were developed and used extensively in early psi experiments primarily by
J. B. Rhine and his colleagues from the 1930's through the 1960's. ESP cards
provided persuasive evidence for ESP, but today they are rarely used by
professionals. Four of the most prolific and persuasive of the current
experiments are listed in the four items below.
[View a list of some online psi
experiments] [View a list of some
online psi surveys]
(1) PK on random number generators
The advent of electronic and computer technologies has allowed researchers
to develop highly automated experiments studying the interaction between
mind and matter. In one such experiment, a Random Number Generator (RNG)
based on electronic or radioactive noise produces a data stream that is
recorded and analyzed by computer software.
In the typical RNG experiment, a subject attempts to mentally change the
distribution of the random numbers, usually in an experimental design that
is functionally equivalent to getting more "heads" than "tails" while
flipping a coin. Of course the electronic, computerized experiment has many
advantages over earlier research using, e.g., tossed coins or dice. In the
RNG experiment, great flexibility is combined with careful scientific
control and a high rate of data acquisition.
A meta-analysis of the database, published in 1989, examined 800 experiments
by more than 60 researchers over the preceding 30 years. The effect size was
found to be very small, but remarkably consistent, resulting in an overall
statistical deviation of approximately 15 standard errors from a chance
effect. The probability that the observed effect was actually zero (i.e., no
psi) was less than one part in a trillion, verifying that human
consciousness can indeed affect the behavior of a random physical system.
Furthermore, while experimental quality had significantly increased over
time, this was uncorrelated with the effect size, in contradiction to a
frequent, but unfounded skeptical criticism.
parapsychologists believe that these results can be accounted for by ESP if
the experimenter (or their participants) intuitively know the right moment
to start their studies to get significant results. This is known as Decision
Augmentation Theory. However, the apparent effect of focused mass
consciousness on a world-wide network of RNGs (see the
Global Consciousness Project)
suggest that at least some of the time, there is an element of mind-matter
(2) PK on living systems
This has also been called biological system mind-matter interaction or bio-PK,
and more recently some researchers refer to it as Direct Mental Interactions
with Living Systems (DMILS). The ability to monitor internal functions of the
body, including nervous system activity using EEG and biofeedback technologies,
has provided an opportunity to ask whether biological systems may also be
affected by intention in a manner similar to mind-matter interaction on RNGs.
A DMILS experiment that has been particularly successful is one that looks at
the commonly reported "feeling of being stared at." The "starer" and the "staree"
are isolated in different locations, and the starer is periodically asked to
simply gaze at the staree via closed circuit video links. Meanwhile the staree's
nervous system activity is automatically and continuously monitored. The
cumulative database on this and similar DMILS experiments provides strong
evidence that one person's attention directed towards a remote, isolated person,
can significantly activate or calm that person's nervous system, according to
the instructions given to the starer.
(3) ESP in the ganzfeld
Ganzfeld ("whole field") technique was developed to quiet this external noise by
providing a mild, unpatterned sensory field to mask the noise of the outside
world. In the typical ganzfeld experiment, the telepathic "sender" and
"receiver" are isolated, the receiver is put into the ganzfeld state, and the
sender is shown a video clip or still picture and asked to mentally send that
image to the receiver.
The receiver, while in the ganzfeld, is asked to continuously report aloud all
mental processes, including images, thoughts, feelings. At the end of the
sending period, typically about 20 to 40 minutes in length, the receiver is
taken out of the ganzfeld, and shown four images or videos, one of which is the
true target and three are non-target decoys. The receiver attempts to select the
true target, using perceptions experienced during the ganzfeld state as clues to
what the mentally "sent" image might have been. With no telepathy, chance
expectation allows us to predict that the correct target would be selected about
1 in 4 times, for a 25% "hit rate." After scores of such experiments, presently
totaling about 700 individual sessions conducted by about two dozen
investigators, world-wide, the results show that the target image is selected on
average 34% of the time. This is a highly significant result, suggesting that
telepathy, at least as operationally defined in this experiment, exists.
(4) Remote Viewing
The ganzfeld technique indicates that information can be exchanged mentally
after the receiver is placed in an altered state of consciousness (the
ganzfeld). The remote viewing experiment, in one of its many forms, investigates
whether information can be gained without requiring a special altered state, and
without a sender. For example, in one type of remote viewing experiment, a pool
of several hundred photographs are created. One of these is randomly selected by
a third party to be the target, and it is set aside in a remote location. The
experimental participant then attempts to sketch or otherwise describe that
remote target photo. This is repeated for a total of say, 7 different targets.
Many ways of evaluating the results of this test have been developed, including
some highly sophisticated methods. One common (and easy) method is to take the
group of seven target photos and responses, randomly shuffle the targets and
responses, and then ask independent judges to rank order or match the correct
targets with the participant's actual responses. If there was real transfer of
information, the responses should correspond more closely to the correct targets
than to the mismatched targets.
Several thousand such trials have been conducted by dozens of investigators over
the past 25 years, involving hundreds of participants. The cumulative database
strongly indicates that information about remote photos, actual scenes, and
events can be perceived. Some of these experiments have also been used to
successfully study precognition by having a participant describe a photo that
would be randomly selected in the future.
These studies measure physiological parameters,
such as skin resistance, heart rate, pupil size, EEG, fMRI results, and other
variables to look at unconscious precognition. Typically, they involve the
randomized application of stimuli, which may involve sounds or images while an
individual is hooked up to monitoring equipment. Although neither the
experimenter nor the participant knows which stimulus is coming up next (whether
neutral, erotic, violent, or something else), their physiological parameters
show a change 1-3 seconds before the actual stimulus occurs, and, perhaps even
more interestingly, before it has even been randomly chosen by the computer.
This finding has been independently replicated by a variety of experimenters and
laboratories around the world, whether one looks at reactions in the autonomic
nervous system or central nervous system.
Technical Note: Methodologies
Parapsychology uses methods commonly employed in other scientific disciplines.
Laboratory studies use research methods from psychology, biology and physics.
Field research uses methods from sociology and anthropology. There are plenty of
textbooks on research methods in these fields, and we won't attempt to summarize
What's special about parapsychology is the need to pay very close attention to
"conventional" explanations. This is because we've defined psi phenomena as
exchanges of information that do not involve currently known (i.e.,
conventional) processes. For instance, we talk about "ESP" when people know
about things going on in their environment without getting the information by
seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or through any other known sensory input,
or without being able to figure out the "target" information. We talk about "PK"
when physical systems appear to react to people's intentions and there's no
known physical contact between the person and the "target." Words like
"without," and phrases like "no known," show up a great deal in descriptions of
Therefore, an important part of parapsychological research is eliminating known
contact methods from laboratory setups and thinking carefully about them when
evaluating reports of people's experiences. In ESP research, this requires
knowing about the psychology of sensation, perception, memory, thinking, and
communication, and about the biology and physics of sensation and movement. In
PK studies, it is important to know about the physical characteristics of the
"target," how it works, and what might affect it. In field studies, and in most
laboratory studies, it's important to know about the ways in which people can
interact with each other. Of course, in field studies it is much more difficult
to eliminate conventional explanations than it is in the laboratory because you
can't set things up beforehand to eliminate conventional contact between the
people and the "targets."
Even when known contact methods are well controlled or eliminated, there is
always the possibility that what we observe could have occurred by chance. That
is, a person's apparent ESP knowledge about some distant event might be a random
guess that just happens to resemble the target. Or, what looks like a PK effect
on a physical system might be a random change in that system that just happens
to occur at the right time. So it's important to know the statistical methods
used to measure how likely it is that the event could have occurred by chance,
and how to decide when that's so unlikely that it makes more sense to think
there really was some kind of psi contact.
Sometimes field research is not concerned with whether the experiences people
report were really psi phenomena, but instead asks questions like, "What do
people report about experiences they think were psi?", "How does having these
experiences affect their lives?", and "Do people's psychological or cultural
characteristics influence how likely they are to interpret experiences as psi?"
This is straightforward anthropological, sociological, or psychological research
and does not require the same kind of strict attention to eliminating
conventional explanations. The value of field research methods is that they
investigate the experiences that people actually report. These include
experiences such as precognitive dreams, out-of-body experiences, telepathic
impressions, auras, memories of previous lives, hauntings and poltergeists and
apparitions. Research on these issues results in information about incidence,
phenomenology, demographic and psychological correlates of the experiences.
While field or spontaneous case research is less technical, and often more
exciting to read, it is wise to avoid jumping to conclusions about the nature of
psi from individual cases. Such studies examine how people report or think about
their experiences, not what those experiences actually are. However, because
spontaneous case studies concentrate on the "raw experience," they offer a
valuable view of psi that is often missing in controlled laboratory experiments.
Case studies provide a chance to discover the personal meanings and the
psychodynamics underlying the experiences, which in turn may provide important
hints as to possible mechanisms of psi.
An important goal of laboratory research is to determine the degree to which
experiences reported in field and spontaneous-case research can be verified
using current scientific methods. If they prove to be verifiable in the lab, the
major intent of the lab work usually shifts from "proof-oriented" research to
"process-oriented," in which the goal is to discover the psychological,
physiological, and physical mechanisms of each phenomenon.
Common criticisms about parapsychology
Constructive criticism is essential in science and is welcomed by the majority
of active psi researchers. Strong skepticism is expected, and many
parapsychologists are far more skeptical about psi than most scientists realize.
However, it is not generally appreciated that some of the more vocal criticisms
about psi are actually "pseudo-criticisms." That is, the more barbed,
belligerent criticisms occasionally asserted by some skeptics are often issued
from such strongly held, prejudicial positions that the criticisms are not
offered as constructive suggestions, but as authoritarian proofs of the
impossibility of psi.
It is commonly supposed by non-scientists that skeptical debates over the merits
of psi research follow the standards of scholarly discussions. Unfortunately,
this is not always the case. Disparaging rhetoric and ad hominem attacks arise
too often in debates about psi. The social science of parapsychology, and the
way that science treats anomalies in general, is a fascinating topic that
starkly illuminates the very human side of how science really works. A more
complete description of this topic is beyond the scope of this FAQ, but is
contained in the 1997 book,
Universe, by Dean Radin.
Apparently successful experimental results are actually
due to sloppy procedures, poorly trained researchers, methodological flaws,
selective reporting, and statistics problems. There is therefore not a shred of
scientific evidence for psi phenomena.
Response: These issues have been addressed in detail by meta-analytic reviews of
the experimental literature . The results unambiguously demonstrate that
successful experiments cannot be explained away by these criticisms. In fact,
research by Harvard University specialists in scientific methods showed that the
best experimental psi research today is not only conducted according to proper
scientific standards, but usually adheres to more rigorous protocols than are
found in contemporary research in both the social and physical sciences. In
addition, over the years there have been a number of very effective rebuttals of
criticisms of individual studies, and within the past decade, experimental
procedures have been developed that address virtually all methodological
criticisms, even the possibility of fraud and collusion, by including skeptics
in the experimental procedures.
Psi phenomena violate basic limiting principles of
science, and are therefore impossible.
Response: Twenty years ago, this criticism was a fairly common retort to claims
of psi phenomena. Today, with advancements in many scientific disciplines, the
scientific worldview is rapidly changing, and the basic limiting principles are
constantly being redefined. In addition, the substantial empirical database in
parapsychology now presents anomalies that simply won't "go away," thus this
criticism is no longer persuasive and is slowly disappearing. Given the rate of
change in science today, assigning psi to the realm of the impossible now seems
imprudent at best, foolish at worst.
Parapsychology does not have a "repeatable" experiment.
Response: When many people talk about a repeatable psi experiment, they usually
have in mind an experiment like those conducted in elementary physics classes to
demonstrate the acceleration of gravity, or simple chemical reactions. In such
experiments, where there are relatively few, well-known and well-controllable
variables, the experiments can be performed by practically anyone, anytime, and
they will work. But insisting on this level of repeatability is inappropriate
for parapsychology, or for that matter, for most social or behavioral science
experiments. Psi experiments usually involve many variables, some of which are
poorly understood and difficult or impossible to directly control. Under these
circumstances, scientists use statistical arguments to demonstrate
"repeatability" instead of the common, but restrictive view that "If it's real,
I should be able to do it whenever I want."
Under the assumption that there is no such thing as psi, we would expect that
about 5% of well-conducted psi experiments would be declared "successful" (i.e.,
statistically significant) by pure chance. But suppose that in a series of 100
actual psi experiments we consistently observed that 20 were successful. This is
extremely unlikely to occur by chance, suggesting that psi was present in some
of those studies. However, it also means that in any particular experiment,
there is an 80% probability of "failure." Thus, if a critic set out to repeat a
psi experiment to see if the phenomenon was "real," and the experiment failed,
it would obviously be incorrect to claim on the basis of that single experiment
that psi is not real because it is not repeatable.
A widely accepted method of assessing repeatability in experiments is called
meta-analysis. This quantitative technique is heavily used in the social,
behavioral and medical sciences to integrate research results of numerous
independent experiments. Starting around 1985, meta-analyses have been conducted
on numerous types of psi experiments. In many of these analyses, results
indicate that the outcomes were not due to chance, or methodological flaws, or
selective reporting practices, or any other plausible "normal" explanations.
What remains is psi, and in several experimental realms, it has clearly been
replicated by independent investigators.