Is controversial research into telepathy and other seeming ‘super-powers’ of the mind starting to be more accepted by orthodox science? In its latest issue, American Psychologist – the official peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Psychological Association – has published a paper that reviews the research so far into parapsychological (‘psi’) abilities, and concludes that the “evidence provides cumulative support for the reality of psi, which cannot be readily explained away by the quality of the studies, fraud, selective reporting, experimental or analytical incompetence, or other frequent criticisms.”
The new paper – “The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: a review“, by Etzel Cardeña of Lund University – also discusses recent theories from physics and psychology “that present psi phenomena as at least plausible”, and concludes with recommendations for further progress in the field.
The paper begins by noting the reason for presenting an overview and discussion of the topic: “Most psychologists could reasonably be described as uninformed skeptics — a minority could reasonably be described as prejudiced bigots — where the paranormal is concerned”. Indeed, it quotes one cognitive scientist as stating that the acceptance of psi phenomena would “send all of science as we know it crashing to the ground”.
To address this, the paper quickly outlines some current theories in physics and psychology that might help to explain psi effects without smashing the pillars supporting the scientific establishment: quantum physics, ideas on the nature of consciousness, theories of time, and psychological and evolutionary theories of psi.
Cardeña also notes that, despite its current, controversial reputation, the field of psi research has a long history of introducing methods later integrated into psychology (e.g. the first use of randomization, along with systematic use of masking procedures; the first comprehensive use of meta-analysis; study preregistration; pioneering contributions to the psychology of hallucinations, eyewitness reports, and dissociative and hypnotic phenomena). And some of psychology’s most respected names, historically, have also shared an interest in parapsychology, including William James, Hans Berger (inventor of the EEG), Sigmund Freud, and former American Psychological Association (APA) president Gardner Murphy.
The meat of the Cardeña’s paper, though, is in the listing of positive results in various areas of research that support the psi hypothesis.
Research on ganzfeld has been meta-analyzed repeatedly and is the most consistently supportive database for psi of the last few decades… The most recent and comprehensive meta-analyses of the database by Storm et al. (2010b) and Williams (2011) supported a psi effect.
In implicit anomalous cognition studies, volunteers respond to a psychological task, with a hidden psi aspect to it… Although there has not been a meta-analysis of these studies, Palmer (2015b, p. 227) concluded in a review that studies with a hidden reward had more significant outcomes than would be expected by chance.
Related to this paradigm, studies designed by Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem (2011) tested the hypothesis that a future stimulus might have a retroactive influence on a previous response… Bem (2011) reported on nine different protocols with more than 1,000 participants and found that all but one of them was independently significant and that the mean effect size was significant.
In everyday life, ostensible anomalous cognition often occurs during dreams. The first comprehensive analysis of controlled studies was carried out by Yale psychologist Irvin Child (1985) on the dream psi studies conducted at the Maimonides Medical Center sleep lab… Child reported that in 20 out of 25 experiments the dream content on average had been correctly matched (blindly) to the target directly or on the top half of a binary division of multiple choices at a better than chance level, with a probability against chance of 1.46 x 10-8.
RV (remote viewing) is a technique in which an individual describes a place, chosen at random, where a sender is located at the present or at a future time (there may also be just a location chosen without any observer there)… [In] Baptista et al.’s (2015) summary of the available data the overall effect remains significant (Baptista et al., 2015).
In forced-choice studies, the guessing possibilities are finite and the possibilities are known by the person, for instance cards in a randomized deck. The protocol measures whether the participant can guess correctly more often than would be expected by chance. Honorton and Ferrari (1989) conducted a meta-analysis of forced-choice precognition research conducted between 1935 and 1987 by 62 investigators…the analyses for all of 309 experiments and for the 248 homogeneous ones [reveal] highly significant but very small effect sizes.
…A second meta-analysis of forced-choice experiments was carried out by Storm, Tressoldi, and Di Risio (2012) on 91 studies conducted between 1987 and 2010, and on 72 homogeneous studies. They concluded that there was a small but significant effect, and no evidence that the results could be explained by low-quality designs…or selective reporting.
Anomalous perturbation refers to the ostensible influence of intention on nonobservable systems, evaluated statistically (there are no meta-analyses of anomalous force).
Schmidt (2015) summarized his meta-analyses of three areas: (a) direct mental interaction in living systems, such as measuring the electrodermal activity (EDA) of a receiver while a distant agent is, at random times, trying to make that person aroused or calm; (b) remote staring, or changes in the EDA of a receiver as an agent looks at him/her through video at random times from a separate room; and (c) remote helping (or attention-focusing facilitation), in which a remote helper tries at random times to help a meditator focus on a target. [Schmidt’s data] shows that all three research paradigms were supportive of psi.
Trying to affect the fall of dice, typically in a machine to avoid possible manipulation, was a common research paradigm used in the mid-20th century. Radin and Ferrari (1991) meta-analyzed 148 studies involving more than 2 million dice throws, in which participants intended to affect the fall of dice without touching them, and which produced a highly significant but small effect.
Bösch, Steinkamp, and Boller (2006) metaanalyzed 380 studies on attempts to affect random number generators (RNGs). [The data] shows significant but very small effects.
Overall, Cardeña concludes, this overview of meta-analyses of various different research protocols “supports the psi hypothesis”, satisfying the criteria of a critic of psi “who demanded replicability, consistency of effects, and cumulativeness”.
The meta-analyses, conducted on studies using different protocols and by different researchers, provide cumulative vertical and horizontal support of psi. Vertical in the sense that across time different protocols have continued to produce positive results beyond what would be expected by chance, and with increasing methodological rigor; horizontal in the sense that there is support for psi across research areas. If only one or a few protocols out of 10 were significant and the rest were not, it would be easier to speculate that the supportive results might be due to an artifact. In addition, the rigor of the psi meta-analyses has increased with time and typically include evaluation of possible selective reporting, quality of studies, and so on.
Cardeña finishes with some suggestions for researchers to integrate into future studies of psi – in particular, the need for using more ‘selected participants’ (that is, those people that seem to be ‘better’ at psi than others). He notes that while psi laboratory results are scientifically significant, they are also small in size – and this could be because they are the result of the ‘averaging’ of larger effects of talented individuals mixed with the smaller (or even null) effects of others.
According to Cardeña, “characteristics shown to increase the likelihood of performing well in a psi experiment include a belief that one will do well in the study, some psychological traits (e.g., extraversion and openness to experience), a mental practice such as meditation, and previous experience in a psi experiment”. Artists in particular “tend to score better than chance and other groups”, he says, and “there is evidence that testing while a participant is in a different state of consciousness than the ordinary, waking one is conducive to psi performance”.
But the paper also mentions one more suggestion to help psi research become more accepted by mainstream science: the need for “a change in the editorial policy of some journals so that the default position is not to automatically reject papers on psi but to have them evaluated on their own merits by knowledgeable and open reviewers”. Given the appearance of this paper in American Psychologist, that may now be happening.