Parapsychology has been unfairly sidelined, claims a new review of the field

GettyImages-488839452.jpgBy Alex Fradera

A number of notable figures from psychology’s past held an interest in parapsychology or psi (the study of mental phenomena that defy current scientific understanding), including William James, Alexander Luria, Binet, Freud, and Fechner. But today the field is cordoned off; and when it encroaches into mainstream publications, as with the “Feeling the Future” experiments conducted by Daryl Bem in 2012, furore typically follows. To sceptics, the fact that these experiments produced positive results is ipso facto proof that psychology’s methods must be broken.

However, it’s only logical to take this view if you have already ruled out the existence of psychic phenomena and, at least among the US public, the majority haven’t. Even in the chronically suspicious British culture, one quarter of people have consulted a psychic. I too am personally quite open to the existence of such phenomena, so I’ve been eager for an accessible overview of the field of parapsychology as it currently stands. This is what parapsychology researcher Etzel Cardeña, Director of the Centre for Research on Consciousness and Anomalous Psychology at Lund University, attempts to provide in his new review in American Psychologist. 

One of the main areas that Cardeña focuses on is “anomalous cognition”, which involves coming to know something without using the normal senses. Cardeña cites a pair of meta-analyses combining previous data that involved a forced-choice procedure popular in the middle of the last century (imagine a set up similar to Peter Venkman’s experiment in Ghostbusters where he asked participants to guess which of a series of symbols was printed on a concealed card). The meta-analyses indicate consistently small but significant effects (around .02) – that is, participants were able to detect the correct answer better than if they had been guessing.

Related, but new to me, are so-called “hidden reward” experiments. In one example, participants choose from an array of kanji characters (Japanese writing using Chinese letters) the one they prefer aesthetically, unaware that choosing a certain character will produce benefits for their partner in another room. Cardeña cites a review that suggestst participants tend towards the characters that help out their partner.

These forced-choice approaches are still used, but the psi research community has turned more enthusiasm towards a free-response technique called the “Ganzfeld procedure”. Blindfolded participants in a soundproofed room say what comes into their mind in an attempt to describe a film clip that they have not seen (they are either shown it later, or it may be playing simultaneously in another location). If judges can use these descriptions to pick between this clip and other distractor clips, this is used as evidence that the participant detected information about the clip without using their physical senses. Meta-analyses of the field suggest a statistically significant effect of about .14 to .15. Some critics have suggested that the effect size goes down when lower quality studies are excluded, but others contend that the opposite is true, with the best studies showing the strongest evidence. Either way, the effects are strikingly larger for selected participants – those who were familiar with the studies or who were chosen because they had traits previously associated with stronger psi effects, such self-efficacy, extraversion and openness-to-experience.

A similar pattern is found in remote viewing, an analogous procedure where a sender attempts to provide information about where they are to a participant located elsewhere. 

Similar to Bem’s controversial “Feeling the Future” experiments, Cardeña also reviews findings from “presentiment studies”, where effects are looked for prior to an event, such as skin conductance changes before seeing emotionally-charged images. Here there is a significant effect size across 26 data sets, with the higher quality studies having larger effects than the lower quality ones.

Another field of psi research considers psychokinesis, which is mental action altering physical objects without the “normal” mechanism of thought affecting the body first. This is typically investigated using subtle changes, such as influencing the fall of a dice or perturbing the action of a random number generator. While meta-analyses suggest significant effects, these are generally flimsier than those in the area of anomalous cognition: smaller and less robust – for example, some show clusters of significant findings near p=.05, which researchers now use as a marker of questionable research practices. The research into non-contact healing effects also suffers from these criticisms and is additionally hard to shield from potential placebo influences.

Cardeña concludes that “overall the meta-analyses have been supportive of the psi hypothesis” (i.e. indicating that anomalous effects are real), with the strongest findings for free-response experiments on anomalous cognition like the Ganzfeld work, and weaker for forced-choice designs and work in the psychokinesis sub-field. On this basis, it is arguable that, as much as any other field of psychology, there is at least something meriting investigation. 

But psi isn’t any other field of psychology. Because of its claims, it is understandably held to high standards and many dismiss the findings as being due to poor quality methods. In fact this scrutiny has forced psi research to be ahead of the game on many research practices. It pioneered randomisation with masking (concealing group allocation from participants and researchers, to reduce bias); produced some of the earliest meta-analytical work; and has been preregistering studies for over forty years. Cardeña also argues that, rare for psychology, this is a field in which non-replications are incentivised.

However, even if there is solid supporting evidence, sceptics allege the endeavour is fundamentally ascientific because there are no mechanisms or models to understand the putative effects. To address this criticism, Cardeña lays out the model most psi researchers ground their work in, which centres on three concepts well-established in physics. The first is “non-locality” – while science tends to focus on demonstrating direct cause and effect – one billiard ball striking another – quantum mechanics (QM) shows evidence of “spooky” action at a distance, raising the possibility that all things are in some way fundamentally entangled. 

The second idea is that objects are in themselves not fully determined, but remain as probability functions until they are measured by a sentient observer.  

The third idea relates to the post-Einsteinian notion that events in the future of a slow-moving individual may have already happened to a faster moving one. Some theories account for such issues by positing that all times co-exist simultaneously. Cardeña gives the example that measuring the spin of a particle appears “to retroactively determine the spin of a delayed photon entangled with it.” 

These three ideas add up to an interpretation in which objective matter and subjective perspective are not firmly separate, but interlace, where reality may be (mostly) experienced in a sequential temporal fashion but is in some sense simultaneous or eternal. These ideas are absent from certain influential modern world views such as Marxism and positivism, and they understandably clash with the causal metaphors that most people – especially the scientifically minded – use to organise their experience. But it’s worth remembering that they are preeminent historically in almost every philosophical and folk tradition across the world, including tallying with idealism, in which mind is primary to the material (idealism can also accommodate counterintuitive takes on time). 

 But yet another criticism is that if psi effects are real, why aren’t we all Professor Xs with amazing telepathy and why are the effects so small? Well, the fact that something exists doesn’t mean it needs to operate like in the movies. It makes sense for our fragile bodies to be organised to mainly respond to sensory and bodily stimuli – hearing or seeing something new or threatening should always win in the battle for attention, potentially masking psi effects most of the time. 

The small effects found in studies may also reflect the fact that the stakes are especially low – far lower than the situations in which people spontaneously report such experiences, such as around the sudden sickness or death of a loved one. The effect sizes also reflect the average of all people, and the studies seem to show that subsets of individuals are more receptive to psi experiences, producing much higher effects when they alone are tested.  Cardeña also points out that some of the psi meta-analysis effect sizes approach those found in social psychology research, and are larger than for some evidence-based practices such as using aspirin for heart conditions.

Cardeña concludes that psi has vertical and horizontal support: “vertical” meaning that different protocols have provided consistent effects over years or decades of investigation, even as protocols have become more rigorous; and “horizontal” meaning a pattern of results across different areas (e.g. similar profiles of people who perform better at tasks). According to researcher Dean Radin, findings from parapsychology suggest “that there is some way that humans are connected with the rest of reality in non-local ways.” Should psychology and funding bodies be paying more attention? 

The experimental evidence for parapsychological phenomena: A review

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

27 thoughts on “Parapsychology has been unfairly sidelined, claims a new review of the field”

  1. Read Richard Dawkins ‘the Magic of Reality’ How we know what is true.

    Psychology is supposed to be a science. Allowing ‘parapsychology’ and related belief -systems to contaminate the field is a recidivist move that should be resisted .

    Just because there are phenomena we don’t yet understand, does not equate with belief in ‘supernatural’ causation. Astrology, religion, luck and ‘fairies at he bottom of the garden’ have no place in modern psychology. Just like the phenomena of ‘deja-vue’ ((the sense of having done something or been somewhere before or having the sensation of having met another before),now explainable, the illusion of precognition occurs because of our assumption of cause and effect being so improbable that there is no such thing as coincidence, that it cannot happen by chance. Which of course, it can.

    You are correct in your suspicion that psychology is ‘broken’, It is now more belief- system than science in a number of fields.

    For very scientific- constraint reasons imposed by chemistry and physics (which have fixed variables that measurably limit and predict their sphere of influence) on biology (Alan Turing) and the influence of evolutionary processes that at the same time ensure optimal diversity and adaptation- potential necessary to continuation of all life.

    As a result, living organisms cannot be studied in the same way as non- living organisms i.e. using the scientific method, because the variables are constantly in spectral (as in spectrum) flux. Fact.

    Explanations for human behaviour and thought patterns can only be sought from the greatest experiment ever conducted with the greatest number of participants. Its called life.

    Humans do not respond in the same way in real- life situations as they do in experimental conditions. Some of them will, some of the time, within some samples, at a particular time in their human development AND evolutionary development and when that happens, you get a P=<0.5 and everyone starts running about and celebrating a new discovery and getting rewarded for it within the belief- system that has replaced real science in Psychology in the 21st century.

    If you want to know and understand why we do what we do, then the fields of cultural, social and evolutionary sciences based on observation of contempory adaptation- strategy is where you will find answers.

    Fortunately, the Field of Psychology is not immune to evolutionary forces. This is a conversation we need to be having, just not in the direction of 'parapsychology'

    1. The text describes some research that I have been doing in the area of the prison system in Brazil. I have been working with prisoners for a few years and daily practice has led me to study and seek to understand a little more about the incarcerated personality.
      In my book, I write about the offender with Mental Disorder, before, during and after arrest. Following this line of research, I continue the work speaking of criminal accountability versus what we call “resocialization” in Brazil, because as the latter is developed and, I see little or almost no results.
      Here, this type of work is little recognized because the crime rate is very large, including the politicians themselves.
      Unfortunately, my voice has become an echo on the horizon ….
      Congratulations on the article.
      Raíssa Cólen Moreno
      Psychologist and lawyer.
      Specialist in Legal and Forensic Psychology. Master of Public Safety

    2. //Read Richard Dawkins ‘the Magic of Reality’ How we know what is true.//

      Richard Dawkins is a scientist, not a philosopher. I’ve never heard him ever say anything that might suggest he has anything useful to say here. Admittedly I’ve never read any of his books, but I’ve read plenty of articles by him. He’s philosophically clueless.

      //Psychology is supposed to be a science. Allowing ‘parapsychology’ and related belief -systems to contaminate the field is a recidivist move that should be resisted//.

      No idea what is meant by a “recidivist” move. If this phenomena exists, why isn’t it a good idea to investigate it? Or is your position that we *know* it doesn’t exist? But this goes against the collective experience of humankind as well as parapsychologist research. If you have any reasons for supposing this phenomena doesn’t exist, then please enlighten people.

      //Just because there are phenomena we don’t yet understand, does not equate with belief in ‘supernatural’ causation.//

      What do you mean by “supernatural”? Is mental causation an example of “supernatural causation”?

      Your post is just so much meaningless twaddle…

    3. //the illusion of precognition occurs because of our assumption of cause and effect being so improbable that there is no such thing as coincidence, that it cannot happen by chance. Which of course, it can.//

      I’m not sure who has ever claimed there’s no such thing as coincidence. But obviously coincidence is wholly inadequate to explain something like, say, a detailed dream of the future.

  2. I am very happy to see this published article. I think the reason why these phenomena are ignored is because “scientific people” like to believe (yes, it is a mere “belief”) that the mind is neatly packed inside the head. But if you explore other ideas (such as the Buddhist philosophical teachings) the mind is described as being everywhere. Regarding this, think of the following: it is the mind (consciousness) that thinks about everything in the world including the external environment, about our body structures such as the digestive system, nervous system, the organ brain, and even about the mind itself. When you consider this, psi- phenomena can certainly be real.

  3. Psychokinesis is potentially the most easily demonstrable (or refutable) psi effect.
    Indeed, if PK is subtle but real, we could get a very large group of people to work on a PK task together.
    When all those people contribute their weak influences, the overall effect could be strong enough to be clearly visible.
    Otherwise, PK is discredited.

    1. You appear to be making assumptions about the nature of PK, namely that it can be added together, that people can switch it on and off on demand etc.

      1. @RK, To address the latter first, I imagine one needs to be in a certain emotion state for psi to occur, an emotional state that one cannot simply switch on at will. Compare to those times where human beings have exhibited phenomenal strength when their lives or other lives are in danger etc.

        Whether PK influences can be added together? I honestly don’t know if they can or not, and I’m not aware if there’s been any investigation of this. But you’re assuming as a given that they can be added (should PK exist). I think we should be careful not to simply assume things.

  4. Absolutely. If thoughts could travel or exist independently of the brain there would have to be some demonstrable mode of doing so. Years of research have produced no evidence to show any evidence for psychokinesis . I don’t know why we are even having this debate.

    1. Mr appliedpyschologysolutions, are you talking about telepathy or PK? Of course there’s plenty of evidence, I have no idea why skeptics say this. But even if there were no scientific evidence, as I have mentioned to you before people have experienced psi throughout history and across all cultures. So with what good reason do you have to suppose it doesn’t exist?

      I agree there’s no point in any debate, and indeed there isn’t any debate anyway since you’ve as of yet not said anything substantive.

    2. To – appliedpyschologysolutions:
      Do you know that consciousness is not understood by science? You simply assume that everything is perfectly known and everything is material. Also, regarding your statement about the brain being essential for thoughts – no one is denying that. However, this understanding regarding the brain comes from analyzing from the third-person perspective. But there are other epistemologies (ways of understanding). The following article written by a physicist describes the whole world and the universe as being ‘entirely mental’ and spiritual:

      Henry, R. C. (2005). The Mental Universe, Nature, 436, 29.

      Also, the article below gives more details that can enable one to understand how this happens, and how subjective experience manifests:
      Karunamuni, N.D. (2015). The Five-Aggregate Model of the Mind. SAGE Open, 5 (2).

      Hope you will think outside the box and move beyond your confirmation biases!

      1. I am a naked ape, who has no awareness of ‘spirituality’. Zero. I don’t want to believe, I want to know. I require proof – cause and effect, that I can see, hear, touch, smell or taste, because that’s all evolution has equipped me with. I need my confirmation biases 🙂 otherwise how would I know what is real or ‘true’? so, as for ‘thinking out of the box’ if you mean keeping an ‘open mind’ and allowing for all possibilities regardless of their impossibility, that is not very helpful for me when making decisions, because the possibilities would be endless. One has to set some kind of boundaries around what is and what is not, possible,for practical reasons.

        Parapsychology is the study of paranormal and psychic phenomena which include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, apparitional experiences, and other paranormal claims. It is identified as pseudoscience by a vast majority of mainstream scientists, because scientists seek measurable proof by falsification of hypotheses.

        A ‘scientific parapsychology’ would be an oxymoron, decades of research having provided no evidence for the existence of parapsychology phenomena occurring independently of the brain. When your brain is damaged or dies, so does the ‘person’ If there was a ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ that could exist separately, this would not happen. The psychology of the constructed ‘self’ explains without resorting to magic and illusion, and is quite fascinating enough for me inside my box.

      2. kdn026 addressing Mr appliedpyschologysolutions said:

        //Also, regarding your statement about the brain being essential for thoughts – no one is denying that.//

        Those who believe in a “life after death” would certain deny this. We simply do not know if the brain is essential or not, the mind-brain correlations don’t force this conclusion.

        Why not? Let’s consider the following argument:

        It surely must be obvious to everyone that spectacles (i.e. eyeglasses) actually create vision. Changing the lenses affects the vision in certain characteristic ways. One can make one’s vision worse, or better. One can make one be able to see in the distance, but not close up; or conversely, to see close up, but not at a distance. We can invert peoples’ vision. We can make people see everything in blue, or red, or green, you name it. Or all blurry. By painting the lenses black we can even eliminate one’s vision completely! And all these effects are consistent across different people.

        Of course, we know that spectacles don’t create vision. Indeed, we know in principle that spectacles could not create vision all by themselves since there is no appropriate mechanism, or conceivable causal chain, whereby vision could be created. Extra ingredients are required; namely eyes and the part of the brain dealing with vision.

        Other examples apart from spectacles can be considered. Thus, consider a prism. The mixture of coloured lights obtained is not wholly produced by the prism all by itself. Something extra is involved, in this case, the white light that enters the prism. Or consider a TV set. The internal components all by themselves do not produce the programmes. Similar to the prism something else is involved, in this case, TV signals. More generally, if changes in x somehow precipitate changes in y, this might be because x somehow produces y all by itself, but it is also possible that y originates from z, or have no origin at all, with x merely altering the form that y takes.

        It is my belief that when we consider the mind-body relationship there is likewise an extra ingredient involved. We cannot derive consciousness from the interactions of material particles and forces.

      3. Mr appliedpyschologysolutions said:

        //When your brain is damaged or dies, so does the ‘person’ If there was a ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ that could exist separately, this would not happen.//

        Yeah, if you identify the soul or self with one’s current mind states. But then, of course, we have ceased to exist since childhood. Indeed we cease to exist after a few alcoholic drinks, only to pop back into existence again when sober.

        People who believe in a “life after death” do not share the materialist’s conception of the self. Indeed, it’s only the so-called “scholarly” community who hold such a preposterous conception of the self, and that’s because they’re overwhelmingly materialists so that they are compelled to adopt this conception. To use your conception of the self is transparent question begging.

    3. //The psychology of the constructed ‘self’ explains without resorting to magic and illusion//

      There’s absolutely no reason to suppose the self is constructed. If you think otherwise, then give those reasons.

  5. I was very glad to see this article and it made me think better of the BPS research digest for publishing it. Rupert Sheldrake writes and talks very well about the unscientific refusal of “science” to consider certain things because they don’t match the current orthodoxy of what can and can’t exist. It is a deadening attitude.

    1. @Anthony, I see nothing of any note in that link. He says nothing of any substance to advance the notion that psi is implausible. Not surprising really of course, he is a scientist and not a philosopher. Although that invites the question of why you think he has anything interesting to say on this topic?

      He says:

      //These claims are inherently implausible because there is no way to account for them with known phenomena. They appear, therefore, to violate well-established laws of physics.//

      This statement only makes sense if we were to assume that current physical laws are a complete description of reality. 2 problems here:

      a) This is not what we learn from the history of science. The history of science teaches us that our theories give approximations *only*, even if those approximations might be very close approximations. Generally, our old scientific theories are often perfectly adequate to describe a given domain, but break down when attempting to describe that which resides outside that domain. Thus, the science prior to relativity and quantum mechanics is “wrong”, however, that does nothing to prevent the Newtonian mechanical description of reality being able to be used to get us to the moon and back. In addition, the classical mechanics espoused before the advent of Quantum Mechanics is perfectly adequate to describe the macroscopic realm, even though it might be “wrong”. Quantum Mechanics is only needed when we describe the microscopic realm.

      b) Unless we assume some variety of materialism, then our current physical laws wholly leave out consciousness in their description of reality. So a certain ability of consciousness such as psi violates these physical laws, and so too does the causal efficacy of consciousness. More importantly they rule out the very existence of consciousness!

      But if these physical laws rule out the very existence of consciousness, then a fortiori, necessarily they also rule out abilities of consciousness such as psi and the causal efficacy of a (no-material) consciousness.

      In short, such claims cannot be said to be inherently implausible for the reason that Steven Novella and so many other skeptics suppose.

      1. You keep trying to dismiss the opinions of knowledgeable experts because they are “a scientist and not a philosopher”. Science is the systematic study of reality. If you are interested in reality then you should not be dismissing science. If you are not interested in reality, well, frankly tough – you’re stuck with it.

      2. @Grimbeard

        I never dismissed what Steven Novella said, I gave a lengthy response. Why don’t you actually address what I say?

        And if Steven Novella is such an expert on this topic, then why doesn’t he saying anything of substance, or indeed relevance?

        Whether psi exists is a question of one’s position on the mind-body problem (a metaphysical issue), and knowledge of the scientific research carried out in this area. Steven Novella is not an expert in either.

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