When we think of psychokinesis, (a.k.a. telekinesis) we think of the X-Men and Star Wars. People throw heavy objects with their minds, influence other people’s minds and fly through the air. You have probably heard of spoon bending and you’re familiar with movies where poltergeists throw things.
But in real life you probably haven’t even seen anyone bend a spoon that way or seen a poltergeist in action. Heck, you probably haven’t even seen anyone move a pinwheel. And if you have, it was probably a magic trick. In other words, you would be justified in wondering if this ability exists at all because you’ve never seen it and as far as you know, no one else has either.
Scientists were in the same situation. If you bring a person into a lab and ask them to levitate . . . anything, they won’t be able find anyone to do it. So how do they find out if this is real when everything you would normally think of isn’t going to work?
The First Psychokinesis Lab Experiments
Enter J.B. Rhine: the first parapsychologist to do lab experiments. He tackled this problem in the first year of opening a parapsychology lab in 1933. Rhine stumbled upon a very simple way to test this: throwing dice. The solution was to have his test subjects think intentionally about getting a certain result and then throw the dice. Amazingly, there was a small, but positive effect. But these results didn’t necessarily mean that psychokinesis was real.
There were a lot of questions. What if the dice had small imperfections that gave them tendencies? Rhine tested for this and did not find any problems. He tried the experiment with high quality casino dice and the results remained the same. He instructed the subjects to switch around what number they intended to roll, to make sure that the numbers weren’t the cause. The results came back the same. Just to be on the safe side, Rhine also used machines to roll the dice to rule out physical causes.
And he got the same results. Something was definitely going on. It was a very small effect. It showed up about 1% of the time, but it was repeatable. (If you add up enough small effects, they become significant and if you can do this continually, then you increase the confidence in the results. Significance tells you the odds of something happening, confidence tells you how much to trust the results.) As the number of experimental trials grew, the experimental confidence did as well.
When Skeptics Attack
As this was all underway however, a skeptical psychologist, Edward Girden criticized the early work in a hostile article. (He criticized early studies and experimental issues that had since been corrected.) This had the effect of pushing parapsychologists away from further research in psychokinesis for some time.
As a side note, this kind of criticism wouldn’t even get a parapsychologist out of their chair today. In the 90 intervening years, parapsychologists have grown accustomed to the angry, factually challenged criticism they receive with each new success. When this occurs these days, a parapsychologist just publishes a rebuttal, outlining all the errors in the skeptical critique, and then gets on with more important things. Girden’s criticism had a chilling effect back then, but if he had done this today? Everyone would have just shrugged.
Psychokinesis Gets a Meta Analysis
Moving along, in 1990, (published in 1991) Dean Radin and Diane Ferrari did a meta analysis of the dice studies. They found 148 studies by 39 investigators with a staggering 2.5 million dice throws, and found that the level of significance was a number so high that only an astronomer would be comfortable with it. (Ten to the 70th power.) Then they went through those studies and selected for quality. The level of significance was “only” ten to the 35th power when they eliminated all but the best psychokinesis studies. The conclusion from these experiments is that the effect is small. Only about 1% of the dice throws were affected, but you could duplicate this effect millions of times.
In the 1970’s psychokinesis (the scientific name for telekinesis) research started up again, but instead of dice, which were difficult to control for mechanical artifacts, physicist Helmut Schmidt connected lights to a machine that measured radioactive decay called a random event generator. The advantage of this method, still used today, is that it achieves true randomness.
The Random Event Generator
Software, and other means of creating randomness either aren’t totally random or aren’t methods that are suitable for this kind of research. Radioactive decay is 100% reliable for generating random numbers. In experiments involving small effects, this is extremely important.
In the 70’s, the process of lights connected to a machine measuring radioactive decay was a simple, straightforward affair and after Schmidt established that he could duplicate the effect, he switched to process oriented research. Process oriented research is different from replication research. They expected more psychokinesis studies to fail because they were trying something different to discover more about what was happening. What he discovered was that the process was largely irrelevant. Intent from a human mind was what was driving the results.
In other words, the mind doesn’t interact with the machine in some sort of complicated way. The intent creates the outcome regardless of the method.
Success Brings New Possibilities
As I have stated in previous articles, successful, reliable experiments breed more experiments which discover new things. And this was no exception. Schmidt came up with the novel idea to take his measurements first, but avoid looking at them, and afterwards have his test subjects try to influence them. Schmidt got results that were nearly identical to his other experiments.
Got that? He tasked his test subjects with changing an event that had already occurred. The term for this is Retrocausation. This might sound pretty out there, but it actually falls in line with quantum physics quite nicely. We think of electrons as little balls flying around the nucleus of an atom, but subatomic particles are more like strange waves.
They are called wave functions. They behave like a wave until they are observed, at which point they change to a single position. Or put another way, electrons and other subatomic “stuff” isn’t “real” until it’s observed. (This is a crude description.) Scientists are debating the meaning of “observation, but observation happens. It’s not in question.
What this means is that although the event has already taken place, causality isn’t necessarily broken. The actual results might not be occurring until observation.
This adds fuel to the debate about what actually collapses the wave function. One argument is that it collapses as a result of interactions with other subatomic particles. But this retrocausality experiment apparently shows that observation requires consciousness. (Otherwise the psychokinesis results would have been at chance levels.)
What’s really fascinating about this line of research is that it seems to indicate that we’re “steering” reality. We’re not just choosing how to respond to events in our lives; we’re influencing the events themselves.
Replicating Schmidt’s Work: Elitist vs. Universalist Approach
Schmidt’s successes led others to try to replicate his work. And what happened is as good an indicator about the trickiness of testing for psychic ability as you’re likely to find.
There are two schools of thought. One is the elitist approach, which Schmidt used, where the researcher selects only for gifted individuals. The other is the universalist approach, where researchers select people at random. The universalist approach, if you can make it work, is more easily replicable by a wider range of researchers.
What they found was that the universalist approach produces erratic results. This is because gifted individuals are far more reliable and account for the vast majority of positive results. Because any given group might have a gifted individual, or it might not, they got unpredictable results .
Because of the appeal of the universalist approach -remember that parapsychology is always under attack- researchers ran more process oriented studies in order to understand how to create the most favorable conditions for psychic functioning. It’s here that I’m bringing up a fascinating aspect of this kind of research. In statistical language, they used two tailed studies. People could create a positive effect, but they could also demonstrate psychic ability with a negative effect. Put another way, if you underperform badly enough, that can just as easily be due to psychic ability as a positive effect.
The researchers discovered that motivation and anxiety are big factors. When they set up games, test subjects with anxiety missed enough during competition to demonstrate that their own psychic ability was working against them. Test subjects with a relaxed but engaged intent performed best. Unsurprisingly, boredom played a role. Scores declined as test subjects grew tired or lost interest.
These experiments demonstrated something else that was fascinating. Meditators make excellent subjects and the more experienced they are at meditating, the better they are at the task. That might sound obvious, but it shows that psychic ability is not this random thing that pops up. It can be treated as a skill and improved upon.
If psychic ability was not real, then there would be no decline effect, nor would some people do better than others at psychic tasks. Results from experiments would be all over the map with no sense to them at all. Because there are replicable experiments and psychic ability follows well established patterns, there is no question that it is real.
There is no talking about these experiments without referring to the Princeton Anomalies Engineering Research, known as the PEAR lab. It was liberally mentioned on shows such as the X-Files, so you may have heard of it. The late Robert Jahn ran the lab and concentrated on running millions of very high quality psychokinesis experiments. They were designed in such a way that problems in the study design would show up in both the experimental trials and the controls, thus preventing the possibility of showing an effect where none existed.
The PEAR lab discovered that most of the positive results came from just a few people. Psychokinesis, apparently, is a relatively rare ability. Unlike Schmidt though, the lab did not focus on these people, but opted for the universalist approach. As a result, the effect was even smaller and it took more trials to produce a convincing effect. However, the PEAR lab conducted tens of thousands of trials, so the experiment was successful.
More Useless Skepticism
With good experimental designs and a fairly straightforward test, the skeptics had to really reach to find something they could complain about. In this case Bösch, Steincamp and Boller published a paper in 2006 stating that the file drawer effect was responsible for the positive outcome in the studies. However, as parapsychologist Dean Radin pointed out, the PEAR studies could not be included because those were safeguarded against this problem. This left Schmidt’s work, but it would require a massive number of unreported studies by a small handful of people. The problem was possible only in theory. As a practical matter, it wasn’t.
M. H. Schub, also in 2006, decided that everything was wrong with the studies. In addition to the non existent file drawer problem, he attacked quality assessment, statistical significance, applicability of random effects modeling, optional stopping, repeatability, nonsense hit rates, reduced variance in control studies, ad hoc models and changing z scores. He did not accuse them of eating babies however, so that was a win.
Schub was alone on this one. No one else was willing to make those accusations and they were dealt with easily in rebuttals.
Skeptics also criticized the lack of homogeneity in the results. In other words, they expected all test subjects to perform equally well and since that didn’t happen, the studies must be flawed. If we applied this to basketball, then everyone would have to shoot with the same level of accuracy for a study to be successful. In other words, this was an absurd complaint.
An Important Contribution to Physics
By doing games involving psychokinesis, researchers discovered that subtle mind-matter interactions occurred subconsciously and that psychic ability could be activated by need. The Global Consciousness Project, an ongoing examination of large human events and how they affect random event generators, has shown that human activity affects consciousness on a large scale.
The important thing to know about psychokinesis is that it is an important contribution to physics, even if only a few people see it at the moment. It’s a study area that partly demonstrates the underpinnings of our reality.