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Psychic with crystal ball

Feeling the Future

Here’s a fascinating new scientific paper now in press in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Feeling the Future”, by Daryl Bem of Cornell University (download a copy of the article as a PDF.)

Bem notes that recent research in psi has moved from explicit forced-choice guessing tasks to experiments using subliminal stimuli and indirect, physiological responses. One of the areas of research providing curious results – pioneered by Dean Radin in 1997 (not, as Randi claimed in 2008, Radin’s “latest distraction”) – investigates “presentiment”:

[P]hysiological indices of participants’ emotional arousal are monitored as they view a series of pictures on a computer screen. Most of the pictures are emotionally neutral; but, on randomly selected trials, a highly arousing negative or erotic image is displayed. As expected, strong emotional arousal occurs when these images appear on the screen, but the remarkable finding is that the increased arousal is observed to occur a few seconds before the picture appears, before the computer has even selected the picture to be displayed. The presentiment effect has also been demonstrated in an fMRI experiment that monitored brain activity (Bierman & Scholte, 2002) and in experiments using bursts of noise rather than visual images as the arousing stimuli (Spottiswoode & May, 2003). [emphasis added]

Bem then reports on nine experiments carried out at Cornell, involving more than 1,000 participants, that “test for retroactive influence by “timereversing” well-established psychological effects so that the individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur.” All but one of them yielded statistically significant results. Additionally, “the individual-difference variable of stimulus seeking, a component of extraversion, was significantly correlated with psi performance in 5 of the experiments, with participants who scored above the midpoint on a scale of stimulus seeking achieving a mean effect size of .42.”

The article also discusses skepticism about psi effects, theories of psi, and issues of statistical analysis and replication. Plus it ends with a fun comment:

Near the end of her encounter with the White Queen, Alice protests that “one can’t believe impossible things,” a sentiment with which the 34% of academic psychologists who consider psi to be impossible would surely agree. The White Queen famously retorted, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”.

Unlike the White Queen, I do not advocate believing impossible things. But perhaps this article will prompt the other 66% of academic psychologists to raise their posterior probabilities of believing at least one anomalous thing before breakfast.

For more information about Dean Radin’s earlier work on presentiment, check out his book Entangled Minds (Amazon US and UK).

  1. cool
    presentiment seems like the likeliest candidate for the “smoking gun” psi experiment we’ve seen thus far, relying as it does on unconscious processes.

    1. Death Psi
      It’s something Gary Schwartz raised during his afterlife experiments — are the mediums actually psychics, tapping into the target’s emotional/memory/subconscious, and not speaking with the dead at all? It’s a very valid question, because his experiments (which should make any skeptic happy with the scientific care taken) show something is going on. It’s why I still feel that mediums like John Edward do have a genuine psychic ability — but it only amounts to about 10%, the rest is showmanship and cold reading. Given the fickle nature of psi and the pressure of having to bring the goods when performing in front of large crowds, television audiences, and high paying clients, it’s not surprising they cold read and guess.

      Dean Radin, Gary Schwartz, and many others have seen the diamond among the zircons.

      1. SuperPsi
        [quote=Rick MG] — are the mediums actually psychics, tapping into the target’s emotional/memory/subconscious, and not speaking with the dead at all? It’s a very valid question …

        It is one I have pondered too. It is certainly one that investigators are aware of and try to allow for. There was an awareness of the possibility in the early days of the Society for Psychical Research, as discussed by Archie Roy in his book “The Eager Dead”. I think the idea is to test for things that the neither the sitter nor the medium could know in advance.

        But speaking of awareness things only seconds in advance, Roger Penrose, in his book “The Emperor’s New Mind” has this to say:

        “I suggest that we may actually be going badly wrong when we apply the usual physical rules for time when we consider consciousness! . . . My guess is that there is something illusory here. . .and the time of our perceptions does not ‘really’ flow in quite the linear forward-moving way that we perceive it to flow (whatever that might mean!). The temporal ordering that we ‘appear’ to perceive is, I am claiming, something that we impose upon our perceptions in order to make sense of them in relation to the uniform forward time-progression of an external physical reality.”
        Roger Penrose.


        1. 2 seconds
          Maybe this is also related to human time perception on the short side of the scale. Events that happen with 1 or 2 seconds of each other are perceived as simultaneous, while machines can tell them apart quite easily.

          Actually it makes me think about the multiple universes stuff. My speculation is that we are present in many universes, on account of being too big and slow to be present in just a single of the quantum-scale universes.Now suppose that the time scale diverges, and we observe/are-present-in a range of these scales.

          There is a science fiction story in there.

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