Near as I can figure it, this is the year the debate over whether or not telepathy exists shriveled down to an argument over the statistical analyses common throughout the entire field of psychological research.

As a result, I’d argue the field has reached a kind of crisis point. This development shouldn’t come as a surprise: The period right after I turned in Fringe-ology started with such promise for psi proponents that hardcore skeptics were likely to reach for nuclear options.

Daryl Bem’s paper on retrocausality—can an action taken in the future influence the present?—sparked massive media interest. You can read up on it here. But the upshot is that Bem’s research suggested yes. A storm of coverage ensued, and opponents of all things paranormal leveled a large argument: Not only were Bem’s results flawed, the story went. But, essentially, the entire field of psychology does a poor job of handling statistics, producing false-positive results.

“False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and Analysis Allows Presenting Anything as Significant,” argues that researchers in the field of psychology essentially leave themselves too much wiggle room. For instance, according to the authors, researchers often do not predetermine how much data they will collect before moving on to the analysis phase. Further, they write, “it is common  (and accepted practice) for researchers to explore various analytic alternatives, to search for a combination that yields ‘statistical significance’ and to then report only what ‘worked.’”

To be clear, “psi” comes up in this paper just once, and then only in terms of how statistical data are analyzed. There, the authors list a paper critical of Bem’s retrocausality study. I had read this source material, by Wagenmakers, et. al, but only became aware of  the “false positive” paper when I saw it referenced in a tweet by the skeptic Richard Wiseman:

“Psychologists,” he writes, “this neatly sums up why some studies appear to support psychic ability.”

He then links to the article.

And there you have it—an entire field of research dismissed in a less than 140 character tweet. Only a hardcore skeptic could make so extraordinary a claim. And given the history of the field, it’s hard not to think that skeptics are guilty—again—of moving the goal posts. As sociologist of science Trevor Pinch told me during my research for Fringe-ology, every time parapsychologists cross some new threshold in terms of the evidence they present, skeptics ask for more.

In other words, for many years skeptics cried that fraud was involved in the production of positive results for psi. Then they cried for stricter protocols to eliminate opportunities for fraud or for subliminal means of influencing the results. With all those calls heeded, positive results have continued to turn up. So the new skeptical battle cry is that psi researchers—and psychologists in general—mishandle their statistics. For a fuller discussion of this trend in the argument, please see my discussion of a paper critical of Bem here. For now, I want to offer up a couple of wishes: First, that the current debate ultimately produces more meaningful and congenial dialogue between skeptics and believers than this field usually enjoys. (As usual, the not so great James Randi is more hindrance than help in this regard.) Second, I want to take a moment to suggest an approach that might, not to put too fine a point on it, change absolutely everything.




What I have in mind is a paper from the Journal of NeuroQuantology by Dr. Michael Persinger, who has made headlines many times in the past with his God Helmet.

Persinger is a curiosity to me because his research lands on both sides of the believer-skeptic fence: His God Helmet work leaves little doubt that he is not a believer in God; but his work touting psi or telepathy runs counter to strict atheist-materialist orthodoxy. In other words, where most atheists or materialists seem to hold the position that claims of a God and psi are somehow equal, Persinger is willing to look at these ideas separately. And this paper on Sean Harribance, a psychic he’s studied for many years, advances his argument considerably.

“The Harribance Effect…” includes references to a series of studies Persinger has conducted over the years. He found, for instance, that when Sean Harribance is accessing accurate information the alpha rhythms in his brain increase. Conversely, when the information he is “receiving” proves inaccurate, there is a corresponding decrease in alpha activity. But, as Persinger puts it, those findings are not the wow.

The “wow” is that when Harribance is obtaining information from a human subject whose mind he is supposed to be reading, a correlation occurs between his brain state and theirs’.

“An effect was shown conspicuously in all four separate subjects,” writes Persinger. “As the duration of the proximity increased over the approximately 15 to 30 min period there was increased similarity in the EEG patterns over the temporal lobes of [Harribance] and the subject. The increased similarity was most apparent within the 33 to 35 Hz range. More specifically, there was increased coherence within the 19 Hz to 20 Hz range and the 30 to 40 Hz band for SH’s right temporal lobe and the subject’s left temporal lobe.”

The subjects also reported that Harribance was more accurate when correlations between their brain activity and his was higher. Persinger theorizes, in part, that Harribance might be using his right temporoparietal region to access information from the subject’s left temporal region, an area “associated with the representation and consolidation of experiences that become the individual's memory.”




I won’t argue for or against the validity of Persinger’s study. And I will also acknowledge, for the sake of skeptical readers, that where there is a “wow” there is also a “whoa”—a need to slow down and be sure of our findings. But what I want to stress is that this line of research is worth pursuing.

First of all, if one brain really is sending information to a receiving brain, or one brain really is reading another, we have no idea how such a thing would be possible.

The result is a possible paradigm shift. In the current culture wars, the debate is usually framed as a battle between materialists, who say matter is everything, and those who argue there must be something… more.  The battle lines usually shape up, at least in media portrayals, as materialist-atheists to one side and believers to the other.

This puts me in mind of a lecture I saw given by Dr. Charles Tart to fellow parapsychology researchers. Tart argued that materialism is dead, and a chill wind seemed to sweep through the room. Even parapsychology researchers, men and women dedicated to teasing out evidence in favor of telepathy, are largely materialists. So when Tart concluded his talk, silence reigned for several long, awkward seconds before one of his colleagues finally raised his hand and forced a question out of his mouth. “You-, you-, you’re not advocating dualism, are you?” he asked.

The word “dualism” clearly stuck in his questioner’s throat. But Tart smiled genially.

“Maybe,” Tart replied. “I mean, monism and dualism are not our only choices. It could be one-ism, or two-ism or even three-ism. It could even be 2.5-ism.”

In other words, any assault on materialism throws the windows open and what exactly is outside those windows would be an open question. Of course, that’s a big problem, sociologically and psychologically speaking. But is telepathy research really an assault on materialism?

I hasten to point out here that a scientist like Persinger is looking for material explanations for psi. And such possibilities should not be dismissed out of hand. In other words, a materialist universe could be far stranger—and admit far wilder possibilities—than materialists normally admit. Even controversial quantum theories of mind are, at heart, materialist theories, which also—in some hands—allow for the possibility of telepathy and even an afterlife.

But I think we need to set these larger arguments aside, at times. And psi research is one of them. In fact, I think that rather than worrying over the philosophical implications of parapsychology research, psi proponents and opponents and scientists should do something particularly novel here and just, you know, shut up. And do some more science.

Think about it: If other labs could reconstruct Persinger’s study or conduct a similar study that is itself then replicated, subjective statistical arguments about “Bayesian priors” would likely fall by the wayside. Suddenly, we’d have stats and associated physical findings in, theoretically, two test subjects (the “sender” and “receiver,” or “sitter” and “reader”). We’d have multiple lines of evidence that seem to demonstrate some communication directly—there is no other way to say it—from brain to brain.

Of course, one of the things I learned while attending a parapsychology conference in Seattle is that the field of telepathy research is underfunded and understaffed. The barriers to doing this sort of research, then, let alone replicating it in different labs a few times, is extraordinary. But my response to that is so what?

Yes, putting on this kind of dog and pony show will be expensive and labor intensive, requiring expertise and equipment—in the form of perhaps fRMI machines or SPECT-imaging devices—beyond what’s available in the standard parapsychology lab. But after more than a century of pitched debate about the existence of parapsychological phenomena isn’t the prospect of victory worth putting together what might be the most ambitious set of experiments in the field’s history? Isn’t it time, after all this time, to go for a killshot?

I could be wrong. But I bet the prospect of testing so definitive might persuade a lot of potential funders to kick in a few dollars more.  And I’d also argue that without so definitive a set of tests we are likely to remain in this position—stuck in a debate without end, mired in a pitched battle with people more worried about their worldviews than the data in their hands.  


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Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
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Steve Volk wrote:

Yes, putting on this kind of dog and pony show will be expensive and labor intensive, requiring expertise and equipment—in the form of perhaps fRMI machines or SPECT-imaging devices—beyond what’s available in the standard parapsychology lab. But after more than a century of pitched debate about the existence of parapsychological phenomena isn’t the prospect of victory worth putting together what might be the most ambitious set of experiments in the field’s history? Isn’t it time, after all this time, to go for a killshot?

And that seems, from my perspective, to be an attempt to do an americanization or hollywoodization of the phenomena. I have a theory that the reason why the sp/fx and gore effects in movies are getting so more extreme (my perception) is that American's imaginations are becoming more stunted and, thus, need more UMPH to get a reaction.

Where's the subtlety?

Whereas I think that things like Psi & NDEs are mainstream now...not everyone is going to accept them (just like not everyone accepts things like evolution and General Relativity right now) and not everyone is going to be happy that [insert group name] doesn't accept their pov...

Though I do understand the effectiveness of a good demonstration :3

All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

Myndpeace's picture
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18 May 2012
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Hello Steve.

It seems to me that the very basis of research ultimately rests upon its presumptive foundation. In other words, if a given researcher assumes from the get-go that there is some manner of "universal commonality" which can be confirmed through exploration of "individual" reality interaction - then the outcome of that exploration is, to an impressive extent, predetermined. Put another way, the old chestnut "If you wish to make an Apple Pie, don't use the instructions and ingredients for the making of a Beef Stew." applies quite nicely here.

"Waiter - one order of "Schroedinger's Cat" and, uh, hold the spit please...".

For example, in my own case I subscribe to the "Seth Information" channeled through Jane Roberts. I accept the premise of individual reality creation and interactivity as being probably true - this notion being significantly reinforced (for me, at any rate) by Dr. David Bohm's concepts concerning the "Implicate/Explicate" structuring of existence. These presumptions, on my part, would inevitably provide both the color and flavor to any and all conclusions at which I would arrive if I, personally, was actively participating in the field of PSI research.

Although it may appear to many researchers that this or that observed event [dependably repeated for confirmation, of course, in the laboratory] must indicate this or that probability, reflections of their own assumptions and beliefs would quite probably prove to be the results of the very catalysts which they initially bring to the table - coloring and forming their observations of the event(s) with which they interact. And, for me, Dr. Persinger's "God Helmet" is merely a reflective facet to his own ever-evolving set of beliefs and assumptions made [physically] manifest; a colorful example of artwork contributing to the availability of non-locality offerings.

I "believe" that even F.W.H. Myers himself nods his ethereal head in semi-agreement - although he most probably has a much.more evolved sense of humor than my own at this point.


"A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes."

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Mohandas Gandhi

red pill junkie's picture
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12 April 2007
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It seems that at the moment the only incorporeal communications allowed are the ones which can have enormous opening days in the stock market.

People are not interested in the killshot. They care only about the moneyshot :-/

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie

emlong's picture
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I do not regard the developing massive database on paranormal experiences on the better ghost hunting shows to be non-lab. In many instances lab rigor is applied to the data collected. The Ghost Adventures crew is notable for the controls they put in place and their tendency to debunk first of all. Same with "Ghost Hunters." These people are using high grade equipment to gather EVP's and images. It is in every sense "lab" work.

Tsurugi's picture
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15 March 2013
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red pill junkie wrote:

It seems that at the moment the only incorporeal communications allowed are the ones which can have enormous opening days in the stock market.

People are not interested in the killshot. They care only about the moneyshot :-/

Well, that's okay then. Because real killshots are worth more than enough stacks of green to put a person in the "not paying your fair share" bracket.

Rocket Science: Making everything else look easy since 1926

Jesse M.'s picture
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24 August 2012
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It seems like, if these effects were real, it wouldn't be that hard to design a type of test that would bypass the need for detailed statistical analysis: namely, use psi to encode some fairly complex message (a sequence of fifty 1's and 0's, say) in experimental data, such that another researcher who had no advanced knowledge of the message could "read" it from the experimental data alone (preferably using an algorithm that had been specified in advance, so there could be no chance the second researcher was secretly told the message and then tweaked his methods of analyzing the data in retrospect to ensure he read out the right message).

For example, say that Daryl Bem's claims are correct (despite the failure of other experimenters to replicate it, an issue Steve Volk doesn't mention in the article), and that subject's likelihood of guessing which of two curtains an image would appear behind is higher (Bem gave a figure of 53.1%) when the computer selects an erotic image. In this case the first researcher could give each subject a sequence of 50 pictures, and if the Nth digit of the message the first researcher wants to send is a 1, the Nth picture in the sequence could be an erotic one, while if the Nth digit is a 0 the Nth picture could be non-erotic. Then the experiment could be run, the data on correct/incorrect guesses could be given to the second researcher, and the second researcher could use that to read out the message the first researcher wanted to send.

For example, say there were 5000 subjects, and if more than 2577 of them guess the Nth picture correctly the second researcher will conclude the Nth digit of the message is a "1", while if the number of correct guessers is less than or equal to 2577 the second researcher concludes the Nth digit is a "0". If the Nth picture is erotic and it's true that this gives a 53.1% chance of guessing correctly, the probability that more than 2577/5000 will get an answer right if each individually has a 53.1% chance of getting it is 98.59%, while the probability that less than or exactly 2577/5000 will get an answer right if each individually has a 50% chance of getting it (assuming this is what Bem would predict for non-erotic pictures) is 98.58%. So if this worked, the second researcher could just look at how many of the 5000 subjects guessed correctly for each picture in the sequence, translate that into 1's and 0's, and pretty reliably obtain all or nearly all the digits of the message that the first researcher encoded into the sequence of pictures. Such a result would be very hard to argue with (assuming fraud could be ruled out and it could be replicated by other researchers), there wouldn't be any room for debate about statistical significance tests.

jfly's picture
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13 December 2013
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Unfortunately, statistical methods will still pay a central role in analyzing the results of such experiments - meaning, the same skeptical arguments from statistics can be levied against the results.

Almost identical "brain to brain" telepathy paradigms, like that of the Persinger study referenced, have already been implemented numerous times in psi-research. (Persinger's study is actually a conceptual replication of this research.)

As usual, the "skeptics" are either resistant or totally unaware of the evidence. For example:

Standish, L. J., Johnson, L. C., Richards, T., & Kozak, L. (2003). Evidence of Correlated functional MRI signals between distant human brains. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 9, 122–128

Wackermann, J., Seiter, C., Keibel, H., & Walach, H. (2003). Correlations between brain electrical activities of two spatially separated human subjects. Neuroscience Letters, 336, 60-64.

Wackermann, J., Naranjo, J. R., & Pütz. (2004). Event-related correlations between electrical activities of separated human subjects: Preliminary results of a replication study. Proceedings of the 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association.

Standish, L. J., Kozak, L., Johnson, L. C., & Richards, T. (2004). Electroencephaolographic evidence of correlated event-related signals between the brains of spatially and sensory isolated human subjects. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10, 307-314

Kittenis, M., Caryl, P. G., & Stevens, P. (2004). Distant psychophysiological interaction effects between related and unrelated participants. Proceedings of the 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, Vienna, pp. 67-76.

Radin, D. I. (2004). Event-related EEG correlations between isolated human subjects. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10, 315-324.

Achterberg, J., Cooke, K., Richards, T., Standish, L. J., Kozak, L., & Lake, J. (2005). Evidence for Correlations Between Distant Intentionality and Brain Function in Recipients: a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, 6, 965–971.

Richards, T. L., Kozak, L., Johnson, L. C., & Standish, L. J. (2005). Replicable functional magnetic resonance imaging evidence of correlated brain signals between physically and sensory isolated subjects. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11 (6), 955–963.

Hendricks, L., Bengston, W. F., & Gunkelman, J. (2010). The Healing Connection: EEG Harmonics, Entrainment, and Schumann’s Resonances. Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 655–666.

Delorme, A., Radin, D., Michel, L., Cahn, R., and Vieten, C. (2012). Brain and Physiological Activity of Sender and Receiver During Local and Remote Periods of "Spiritual Transmission". Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson X.

...and more of Persinger's own research with this paradigm:

Persinger, M. A., Koren, S. A, & Tsang, E. W. (2003). Enhanced power within a specific band of theta activity in one person while another receives circumcerebral pulsed magnetic fields: a mechanism of influence at a distance? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 97, 877-894.

Dotta, B. T., Mulligan, B. P., Hunter, M. D., & Persinger, M. A. (2009). Evidence of macroscopic quantum entanglement during double quantitative electroencephalographic measurements of friends vs strangers. NeuroQuantology, Vol. 7, Issue 4, Page 548-551.

Persinger, M. A., Saroka, K. S., Lavallee, C. F. Booth, J. N., Hunter, M. D., Mulligan, B. P., Koren, S. A., Wu, H. P., & Gang, N. (2010). Correlated cerebral events between physically and sensory isolated pairs of subjects exposed to yoked circumcerebral magnetic fields. Neuroscience Letters, 486 (3): 231–234.