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Throughout recorded history, people have reported ‘extraordinary human experiences’ (EHEs) – strange phenomena lying on a spectrum from intuition and dream insights through to the paranormal and extra-sensory perception (ESP). However, in the modern, rational world, many of these experiences are associated with superstition and delusion, and described as ‘woo-woo’ by skeptics and scientists.

As such, it is often assumed that scientists and engineers likely do not experience such strange phenomena – and even if they did, would be much less likely to report them to anyone. But there have been very few studies done to actually evaluate whether this is truly the case.

So researchers Helané Wahbeh, Dean Radin, Julia Mossbridge, Cassandra Vieten and Arnaud Delorme set out to change that, by surveying a cross-section of the population divided into three groups – paranormal ‘enthusiasts’, ‘scientists and engineers’, and the general public – to find out if there were differences in the number of EHEs reported by each:

The aim of this study was to evaluate the prevalence of EHEs among three categories of adults in the United States, and to investigate factors such as occupation, paranormal belief mental health, and personality that might predict subjective EHE reports. Individuals in the three groups were randomly selected to receive an invitation to an anonymous survey. Those who decided to participate were self-selected. The first group was drawn from scientists and engineers, who we hypothesized would have the lowest belief and reported prevalence of EHEs.

The second sample was from among members of [BLINDED], who we hypothesized would have the highest belief and reported prevalence (we refer to this group as enthusiasts). The third sample was drawn from the general population, whose belief and experiences we hypothesized would likely be between the other two groups. We further hypothesized that higher levels of belief in EHEs would be correlated with higher reports of EHEs.

However, the results of the study, published in “Exceptional experiences reported by scientists and engineers“, were surprising: 93.2% of scientists and engineers “endorsed at least one EHE”, which was pretty much the same level as the general population (94.0%), while 99.3% of ‘enthusiasts’ reported at least one instance of an extraordinary experience.

The researchers were certainly not expecting such a high rate of EHEs being reported by scientists and engineers, not least because…

…biases against such topics exist. For example, college psychology textbooks uncritically dismiss EHE topics. The fact that EHEs are not considered empirically attested to the satisfaction of the majority of the scientific establishment, plus long-standing academic taboos that restrict open discussion about these experiences, and lack of research funding, likely conspire to discourage scientists and engineers from publicly expressing their beliefs about or describing personal EHEs… Opinions in the scientific community about EHEs are usually skeptical, often passionately so.

However, there are two important factors that should be noted when considering those high percentages.

First, the participants were “self-selected”: they were the scientists and engineers who responded to an email invitation to participate, and then completed the 15-minute survey. So more skeptical participants may have decided not to take part in the survey – though it should be noted that both the invitation, and the survey, purposefully avoided using terms such as paranormal, psychic, psi, extrasensory perception, etc., “to reduce the risk of bias.” Nevertheless, the researchers do acknowledge that “our results might be distorted by self-selection bias with people having a greater affinity or sympathy for these notions being more likely to complete the survey.”

Secondly, the most reported EHEs were not particularly ‘paranormal’, but instead were more tied to intuition/possibly unconscious processes in the brain. The most endorsed EHEs were “Felt another person‟s emotions”, “Just known something to be true or having a clear sensation or feeling of knowing something that you would otherwise have no way of knowing”, as well as lucid dreaming (“Known you were dreaming during your dream or been able to control your dreams?”), which were in the top five endorsed EHEs for all three groups.

However, it is worth pointing out that, according to the researchers, “these numbers stayed above 80% when items that could potentially be construed as normally perceived with the traditional five senses were removed”.

In summary, they note:

It is possible that the experiences people report are the products of imagination, rather than verifiable experiences of extraordinary perception. It is also possible that these experiences point to unconventional sources of information that deserve further exploration. For scientists and engineers in particular, whose work relies on creative problem solving and generation of innovative ideas, it may be useful to entertain the broader notions of perception that could complement conventional methods of achieving insight.

(And regardless of how you want to interpret the data on extraordinary human experiences reported by scientists and engineers, I think we can all take some solace from a minor individual statistic that can be found in the paper’s data: the responses to the question “Created fire using only your concentration or will?” appears to show that there aren’t too many psychokinetic fire-starters out there: 0% of scientists and engineers reported it, while just 1.1% of enthusiasts did.)