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The Nature of 'psi'

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The term 'psi' (psychic ability or psychic functioning) has been adopted to describe the range of seemingly anomalous effects which seem to arise from man's interaction with the external universe. Such effects include clairvoyance (information about remote objects / events obtained by non- physical means); telepathy (communication between one mind and another without any form of physical transmission); precognition (predicting the outcome of future events to a greater degree of accuracy than would be expected given the currently available information) and psychokinesis (pk, mind having a direct and measurable influence on physical reality).

Clairvoyance, telepathy and precognition are often termed extra-sensory perception (ESP) and may be likened to a weak and unreliable sixth sense, e.g. a success rate of 27% opposed to a chance level of 25% over a large number of trials in a psi experiment would be considered a success. In contrast to ESP in which the subject appears receptive to non-physical information, pk involves the mind of the subject 'reaching out" to influence the external world.

One of the strangest forms of psi is the phenomenon known as retro-pk, in which subjects appear to be able to use pk to reach back in time and influence the outcome of already completed experiments. Considerable research has been done in this field by Helmut Schmidt, with experiments consisting of a subject attempting influence sets of pre- recorded randomly or pseudo-randomly generated data (truly random data arises from a process such as radioactive decay, pseudo-random data is generated from a suitable algorithm initiated by an arbitrarily chosen 'seed'). Schmidt has obtained statistically significant results in such experiments [1] with such results casting doubt upon the very nature of time.

Throughout history there have been accounts of unexplainable phenomena - apparitions, poltergeist activity, premonitions etc. Science turned its attention toward such phenomena in the late 19th Century when eminent scientists of the day began to investigate the claims of the increasingly popular subject of spiritualism. The British Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 and continues to investigate anomalous phenomena to this day.

Why has mankind felt the need to invent 'supernatural' theories of creation and the universe? The skeptic may suggest it preferable to facing the inevitability of eventual oblivion - but that begs the question of what within us is able to dread the concept of our ultimate insignificance.

The 'science' of parapsychology effectively began with the work of J B Rhine at Duke University in the 1930's. Rhine sought to investigate esp under laboratory conditions by means of card guessing experiments.

A survey of more than 1,100 college professors in the United States found that 55% of natural scientists, 66% of social scientists (excluding psychologists), and 77% of academics in the arts, humanities, and education believed that ESP is either an established fact or a likely possibility. (Wagner & Monnet, 1979), quoted in [2].

A collective analysis by statistician Jessica Utts and Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson of a range of 'remote viewing' experiments (including those conducted by the U.S. government) 'argues strongly for the phenomena being real and not artifactual'. Analysis of forced-choice experiments (e.g. card guessing) revealed a consistent 27% success rate opposed to 25% by chance (Honorton & Ferrari and US government); 'If chance alone were the explanation for these results, it would be truly remarkable to achieve a 27% success rate over thousands of trials, and it would be even more remarkable to see identical results in the government work' [3].

The document "Frequently Asked Questions about Parapsychology" (ed. Dean Radin, Dec 1995) states that "ESP exists, precognition exists, telepathy exists, and PK exists. ESP is statistically robust, meaning it can be reliably demonstrated through repeated trials' where the definition of existence is 'that the presently available, cumulative statistical database for experiments studying X, provides strong, scientifically credible evidence for repeatable, anomalous, X-like effects." This document was produced by a group of scientists and scholars from the disciplines of physics, psychology, philosophy, statistics, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, anthropology, and history, hardly a group prone to the excesses of imagination.

Traditionally it has been thought that psi is more acute in those individuals seeking to satisfy some positive and selfless purpose, the 'spiritual ideal'. This is the central tenet of religion. 'First find deep within self that purpose, that ideal to which ye would attain. Make that ideal one with thy purpose in Him." [4]

It has been demonstrated that psi can operate just as effectively in a negative direction as it does in the positive, i.e. some subjects consistently score significantly below chance. The direction of scoring has been found to be correlated with the subjects attitude to psi and has been called the 'sheep-goat" effect (sheep are believers in the possibility of psi, goats are hostile to the idea) [5]. Assuming that negative and positive psi are equally likely, the implications for large-scale multi-subject experiments would be for the mean outcome of the experiment to be close to the value predicted by chance; however the range, or deviation, of scores should be greater than chance.

Psi appears to vary greatly among individuals. Just as some are gifted at sport, art, writing or academic discipline so there have been some remarkable psi subjects while in most of us, for most of the time, psychic abilities are sadly non-existent. To name but a few - the Victorian medium D.D.Home exhibited incredible physical phenomena before audiences consisting of the most notable scientific figures of the day; the Russian woman Nina Kulagina was able to consistently demonstrate macro-pk (moving small objects by power of thought) under controlled conditions; Uri Geller sprang to prominence in the early 1970s with his ability to bend spoons and other metal objects by lightly stroking them, later confirming his abilities under laboratory conditions [5]. Geller also has the ability to reproduce unseen drawings at a distance.

Psi appears to be more prominent in subjects experiencing altered states of consciousness e.g. relaxation, meditation, hypnosis, dreams or the effects of drugs. These effects are confirmed by a number of successful experiments using the Ganzfeld method which seeks to provide a monotony of input to the senses. The subject's body is cushioned while s/he is fed 'white noise' through headphones and a soft red light is filtered through halved ping-pong balls covering the eyes [2]. It would appear that when the senses are switched from their usual preoccupation with the external world, and toward the inner world, they are more able to perceive subtle psi influences.

Paradoxically, it has been found [2] that extroverts (i.e. those whose attentions are mainly directed outwards) tend to be better psi subjects. It may be that extroverts also reach deeper within, as well as beyond themselves. It is possible that psi may be a perfectly natural talent that has been hidden by the artificial constraints imposed by modern society with its emphasis on objective reality. Note how flocks of birds or shoals of fish are able to change direction instantaneously, or stories of domestic animals which appear to possess heightened sensitivity or a sixth sense.

A major criticism by skeptics is that psi effects tend not to be replicable on demand. The researcher Charles Tart pointed out "there is an important experimenter effect in all psi research; some people have the 'magic touch' and regularly get results, others don't and we have little idea as to why' quoted on [RetroPsychoKinesis Project Home Page]. It has been suggested that the positive results obtained by some could be due to their working methods, it is at least as valid to suggest that a psi experiment is influenced by the whole environment in which it is conducted (including the experimenter).

Can psi be trained or developed by practise? If psi is considered as a natural but undeveloped faculty then it should respond to favourable conditions (e.g. meditation, Ganzfeld), and also to exercise - i.e. consciously trying to use it to transmit thoughts between oneself and a willing partner, prediction of winning horses, lottery numbers etc. Books on developing one's psychic abilities are plentiful, and at least one organization offers to train remote viewing ability in students (at a cost), however the degree to which psi can successfully be enhanced by exercise is an area for further research.

The scientific theories of Newton and Darwin implied a mechanistic, or clockwork, universe in which the current state of the world was determined entirely by its preceding state and so on ad infinitum. The Marquis de Laplace suggested that a powerful enough intelligence given complete knowledge of the universe at any one time would be able to predict its entire future in the minutest detail. This philosophy of determinism left no room for soul, spirit or God, and left man a mere automata. Mind and consciousness were but side effects of the physical body and free-will no more than illusion.

The reign of determinism was finally overthrown by the emergence of relativity and quantum theory in the early twentieth century. Although the deterministic or classical theories were remarkably successful at describing the workings of the universe (accurately enough to put a man on the moon), they were found not to hold at speeds approaching the velocity of light and at the very small (sub-atomic) level. Quantum theory suggests that the fundamental components of the universe sometimes behave as particles and sometimes as waves depending on the mode of observation. The act of observation inevitably alters that which is being measured. The equations of quantum theory no longer predict the outcome of experiments, only the probabilities of different possible outcomes. The new situation could be summarized as "You can't predict the future. You can only state the odds" [6].

While quantum theory is more optimistic than the rigidity of determinism, it still suggests that the universe is governed by chance rather the actions of Will. Despite its success at describing the universe where classical theories fail (Quantum theory 'correctly describes the world to a level of precision and detail unprecedented in science' [7]) many scientists, unhappy at its inherent randomness, still felt it to be an incomplete theory and that certain 'hidden variables' existed behind the apparent randomness exhibited at the quantum level. This view prompted Einstein's famous assertion that "God does not play dice".

Max Planck, a founder of quantum theory and a firm believer in determinism, conceded '...we have our most direct and intimate source of knowledge, which is the human consciousness telling us that in the last resort our thought and volition are not subject to ... causal order', quoted in [8]. Once we admit to the existence of a distinct thought or volition not subject to physical law psi becomes a distinct possibility.

Physicist Henry Margenau (quoted by Sir John Eccles in [9]) states that the components of the brain 'are small enough to be governed by probabilistic quantum laws' and are 'always poised for a multitude of possible changes, each with a definite probability'. Margenau believes that such changes may be influenced by the mind, which 'may be regarded as a field in the accepted sense of the term. But it is a non-material field... And so far as present evidence goes it is not an energy field in any physical sense, nor is it required to contain energy in order to account for all known phenomena in which mind interacts with brain." It is plausible that this thing called 'mind' could lay beyond the probabilistic quantum effects observed at the limits of physical science.

Traditional Mysticism describes existence as occurring in a number of 'worlds' or "planes' (typically four or seven) of which the physical plane is the lowest and densest. In this model higher planes cause effects to occur on the lower planes, therefore the physical or earth plane is considered as the plane of effects. Could the higher worlds of the occultist be the elusive hidden variables of physics as well as the home of the spirit or soul that drives the body throughout this life?

Modern science is also in accord with the Mystical philosophy of the holistic or inter-connected nature of all things. Even Newtonian physics described fields (gravity) connecting every particle with every other, however this concept has been greatly strengthened with the principle of non-locality arising from quantum theory in which a change made to one particle may instantaneously affect another particle elsewhere. Thus it is impossible to consider any individual entity in isolation from the whole.

See also Parapsychology on the Web


[1] PK Tests with prerecorded and pre-inspected seed numbers; Helmut Schmidt; Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 45 No. 2, June 1981.

[2] Does Psi Exist? Replicable Evidence for an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer; Daryl J. Bem and Charles Honorton (1994); Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 115, No. 1, 4-18.

[3] The Paranormal: the Evidence and its Implications for Consciousness; Jessica Utts and Brian D. Josephson; Times Supplements 1996.

[4] American psychic Edgar Cayce quoted in: Understand and Develop your ESP; Mark Thurston PhD; A.R.E. Press, 1977.

[5] Parapsychology - A Concise History; John Beloff; Athlone Press, 1993.

[6] Space, time and quanta: an introduction to contemporary physics. Robert Mills, pub Freeman 1994.

[7] The Ghost in the Atom. ed. P.C.W. Davies & J.R. Brown; pub Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[8] New Pathways in Science. Sir Arthur Eddington MA, DSc, LLD, FRS; pub Cambridge University Press 1935.

[9] Mindwaves: thoughts on intelligence, identity and consciousness. Ed. Blakemore & Greenfield; pub Blackwell 1987.

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