A Crowdfunding Appeal
Savant Syndrome and Psi

Science as Propaganda

In the comments to a recent post a sceptic tried, in the usual way, to convince us to abandon our delusions. He cited various references, including a fMRI study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2008, which claims to have demonstrated that psi does not exist.

Again, as is often the case, the study says more about the urgent disbelief of debunking psychologists than it says about psi. It's shortcomings were widely noted at the time, but since sceptics take it so completely at face value I thought I'd give it another look.

The experiment was carried out by Samuel Moulton, a Harvard psychology graduate, and his mentor Stephen Kosslyn, who is well-regarded for his brain studies on mental imagery and visual perception. The authors consider that the evidence for psi so far is highly dubious. Anecdotal experiences can be attributed to cognitive illusions, while the outcome of ESP experiments is ambiguous. By contrast, they think that brain scanning technology is sufficiently reliable to settle the matter. If psi exists then, ergo, it ought to show up in fMRI scans.

Accordingly they recruited 19 bonded pairs of people - twins, couples, friends - which they whittled down to 16, one acting as sender and the other placed in the scanner as receiver. The receiver was shown two pictures, one being 'sent' by the sender and the other a control, and asked to guess which by pressing a button. The results came out at 50%, as expected if chance alone was operating, nor did anything unusual show up on the scans.

They conclude:

Analyses of group data revealed no evidence whatsoever of psi. Psi and non-psi stimuli evoked widespread but indistinguishable neuronal responses . . . The results support the null hypothesis that psi does not exist.

The study shows an impressive attention to detail, and in its technical aspects looks extremely solid, eg:

Functional series were analyzed using FMRIB's Improved Linear Model (FILM; Woolrich, Ripley, Brady, & Smith, 2001), which removes nonparametrically estimated temporal autocorrelation in each voxel's time series before applying the general linear model (GLM). For each series we modeled neural responses to the psi stimulus, non-psi stimulus, and feedback stimulus, as well as their temporal derivatives by convolving the basic waveforms (based on onset time and duration) of these variables with a double-gamma canonical hemodynamic response function (Glover, 1999). The same temporal filtering that was applied to the data was also applied to the model. For every functional volume, the following linear contrasts were employed to create statistical parametric maps (SPMs): non-psi > psi, and psi > non-psi.

So these guys know their stuff. Or do they?

Moulton and Kosslyn talk as if they're pioneering a new method which will settle the psi controversy once and for all. But they make no mention at all of any of the successful previous psi research using scanners, which even by this time was quite significant. Critics gave them such a hard time about this, they eventually went to Dean Radin to ask him what they'd missed (see a description here) - something they might have usefully done at the outset.

Then there's their method of producing ESP, which I did not at all recognise. If it wasn't tried and tested, it's not surprising that it was unsuccessful here. The more so, considering that the receiver is in a noisy machine and being asked to perform tasks in quick succession - hardly conducive to the relaxed state of semi-disassociation that is known to be ideal for generating psi.

And interestingly, despite their insistence that their methodology beats 'behavioural' research, it still centred on a cognitive process, of conscious knowing. At least one of the earlier fMRI studies bypassed this by looking to see if a light flash stimulus on the sender provoked the same response in the receiver's brain as in the sender's - it did.

In the earlier studies, moreover, efforts had been made to find participants that really could have produced psi. These authors knew enough to understand that bonded pairs are more likely to produce psi interactions than those that are not. But they seemed to think that alone would guarantee it. Earlier successful fMRI experiments selected people who had demonstrated psi abilities, for instance having worked as healers or taken part in a successful previous study.

There are other possible explanations for the negative results. Perhaps the ESP activity was there, but masked by the activity relating to visual perception. Or the signal might have simply been too weak to pick out from the noise. It's not clear why the experimenters were impressed by the absence of activity in the brain relating to psi if there was no psi in the first place - unless they saw the sender's intention as a material entity that was bound to register visibly among the receiver's neurons.

What really catches the eye is that one of the receivers actually did show potential evidence of psi - in the form of a relative absence of brain activity that correlated positively with the psi stimulus. The authors concede this would count as a positive result, but devote the best part of two pages trying to explain it away as an 'uninteresting artefact'. Having discussed and rejected two hypotheses, they eventually decide that the anomaly reflects the participant's 'idiosyncratic reactions to perceptual, conceptual, or affective differences between the psi and non-psi stimuli'.

Their reasoning is highly technical and difficult to appraise. But it begs a number of questions. If a single positive result can be neutralised in this way, could not similar arguments be applied in the event that other participants showed positive effects? Is there any guarantee that any of the three people whose data was rejected did not also show positive results? And what is the point of looking for evidence in the first place if it can be so easily dismissed? Surely this weakens the authors' insistence on the power of fMRI scanning to settle matters once and for all.

This is one of the more curious features of debunking studies. The sceptics embark on a process in the expectation of getting null results, are embarrassed to get positive results after all, but save the day with post hoc reasoning such as, 'yes but it wouldn't have happened if we'd done the randomisation differently'. (Radin references a wonderful study published in the The Humanistic Psychologist in 2006 by two psychologists, who carried out eight ganzfeld experiments and were shocked to get the usual 32% significance rate. To deal with this they redesigned the experiment to their own specification, and got a null result, which they then used to explain away all the rest.)

Someone who is not an out-and-out sceptic might spot the authors' hostility towards the idea of psi and wonder what effect this might have on their reasoning. To those of us who know about psi research, it stands out a mile. Their preamble makes it abundantly clear. They go to the trouble of quoting in full a rather good example of a crisis ESP episode - a woman waking one night experiencing powerful symptoms of choking and blood falling down her head, and learning two days later that her son was shot in the head at this time - but wave such testimony away on the grounds that it's probably all caused by confirmation bias, clustering illusions, etc. Even if ESP was proved, they say, it would just be an unexplained anomaly. They admit that claiming a single null result to be proof of non-existence is problematic, but consider that their results are so clear-cut it's fair to make an exception.

As an exploratory experiment it has value, and arguably forms an interesting addition to the parapsychological database. But their ambition is manifestly not to add to the database but to discredit it, backed by the big guns of contemporary neuroscience. The real story here is one of individuals setting out to rid themselves of their uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. Hence the triumphant press release that one can guess generated headlines around the world: 'ESP does not exist, Harvard scientists prove.'

The result is a curious illusion - an apparently careful, well-designed and thoroughly scientific study which is in fact only superficially so, and whose real effect is to reinforce materialist prejudices. Science as propaganda, one might say.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Skeptics apparently believe that methodological flaws and confirmation bias explain everyone's findings but their own...

It sounds like the way they went about it wasn't psi-conducive but there are a lot of variables which can effect psi performance including the mindset of the study's experimenters.

Although it may not factor into this case, the experimenter effect is one aspect of psi studies that needs to not be forgotten. The psychic Matthew Manning was tested by many different researchers from 1977 to 1979. He was able to produce positive evidence for psychic ability consistently with some researchers but just as consistently couldn't produce positive results with some others.

So, I think research by skeptics can fail in two ways. Either the methodology is wrong (the experiment is designed to fail by not taking into account those factors that will increase the psi ability) OR the skeptic's mindset affects the participants negatively or somehow blocks their psi ability.

When you're dealing with a mental phenomenon like psi, it makes sense that the mind of the researcher could interact with the participants mind positively or negatively, although this makes proving the case for psi even harder as skeptics will be quick to brush this fact aside and just say they couldn't replicate the results.

It brings to mind studies of the placebo effect. Dr. Herbert Benson brings up the fact that some medical treatments of the past were used by some doctors with high success rates. But once skeptical researchers came along and tested the procedure against a placebo they found that it wasn't better than a placebo and success rates for that procedure dropped and its use was eventually discontinued. In other words, when doctors had a lot of faith in the procedure it worked well, but when that faith was taken away the very same procedure stopped working so well.

So, let's not forget about experimenter effect and the extent to which an experimenter's mind affects research.

Moulton and Kosslyn should have just gone for a straightforward replication of a previous procedure instead of trying to innovate. I've been doing research into psi myself and it seems like it's critical to clear out all distractions. Having the subjects passively observe stimuli would work; requiring them to perform rapid tasks is very likely to destroy the effect. Clearing out distractions is very much related to the observation the psi is most powerful in the Ganzfield or in meditation. I've been trying to think about why this is and perhaps an analogy can be made to a quantum optics experiment where noise decoheres effects like entanglement.

Pavonis, I think you're on to something in regards entanglement. I've always considered telepathy a form of "conscious entanglement". It makes sense that the noise (of our environmental stimuli and conscious thinking) can destroy that coherence.

I may have missed the point here but how does not finding something prove it doesn't exist?

Why have I never had a lightning bolt strike the top of my head? Why have I never seen a meteorite fall from the sky? Why have I never had a lucid dream?

Oh please stop your whining. There are plenty of rare things which everyone will agree do occasionally occur although no one can predict exactly when and where they will. Certain people, known as psychics, do seem to have a greater number of occurances of psi in their lives, but it can happen to anyone at any time. However, you can't just snap your fingers and make it happen whenever you want, just like you can't snap your fingers and make a bolt of lightning strike your head. Nevertheless, it can and has happened.

Psi is well attested both anecdotally and experimentally. It is rare. It is often unpredictable. But it does exist.

I rest my case.

"Psychic" is a generic term, just like "athlete." Is Michael Phelps equivalent to Mike Tyson or Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson? Is Lance Armstrong equivalent to Babe Didrikson Zaharias or Tiger Woods or Hulk Hogan? Is Joe Dimaggio equivalent to Nadia Comaneci or Jesse Owens or Rosie Ruiz? Why can't they athletes all successfully compete against each other? These are all famous athletes -- why aren't they interchangeable? Different physical and natural abilities, strengths and weaknesses, training schedules, encouragement when they were younger. They all had role models to look up to. And all are/were very human. Do we dismiss athleticism as fraudulent just because we personally or our neighbors and buddies can't marathon or enter the Olympics? Are "weekend athletes" false compared to Gold-medal winners? Can "weekend athletes" perform superbly on command in a large arena or for the media? Does a Sports section in the newspaper, teams for youths and schools, and massive corporate sponsorship add to the legitimacy of "athletics" compared to "psychics"? "Psychics" are similarly not interchangeable. There are different forms of "psychic ability." Maybe increased cultural acceptance would allow "psychics" to "perform" better...

In my experience, psi is most often not something we do, it's something that happens to us. Laboratory settings are not conducive to it. The less conscious control there is, the more it happens. Emotional urgency is a great amplifier of the effects.

In a scientific protocol an hypothesis generates experiments which verify or falsify the hypothesis. From what I know of lab experiments in psi, they begin one step back by demonstrating that the hypothesis concerns something that actually exists. Since psi effects don't follow from any standard scientific model, it's probably not possible to proceed even to the fruitful hypothesis stage. Or in plain language, when we say "psi", we don't know what we're talking about; we can only demonstrate that something is happening.

I think that at least some of these effects are real, but I can speak only from experience. I think they might be indicative of the presence of a deep level of reality, perhaps something like David Bohm's Implicate Order, but what do I know?

BTW, I am totally opposed to so-called communication with dead people.

I'm struggling to think of a worse way for testing people for PSI. An MRI scanner? For pitty's sake! Are they serious?

I can't think of a single person I've known who's been inside of one of those things who hasn't described it as an unpleasant ordeal.

The sample size is also pitifully small. I can imagine what skeptics would have had to say about that if the exercise had produced a positive result.

What a waste of electricity.

The best repeatable set of lab experiments so far that demonstrate psi are the ganzfeld/autoganzfeld experiments. In these, conditions are set up that are conducive to psi.

I think a somewhat comical, but useful analogy is to compare it to picking up beautiful women at the bar. For this example, we'll make the stakes real high and say that the woman has to be the one to approach you and ask for your number.

We all know that some guys/gals are really good at this and seem to almost always be successful. This could be compared to the psychic that seems to be able to consistently demonstrate psi ability. For others, it never happens. But, you can set up conditions that will increase the likelihood of it occuring. In the ganzfeld this is the reduction of "noise", or environmetal stimuli, and relaxation. In our analogy, there are many things you could do to facilitate picking up a woman at the bar. You could wear expensive clothing complete with a rolex watch. You could appear amiable and as if you're having a good time. Whenever you bought a drink you could flash a 100 dollar bill. You could also make eye contact and smile at various women.

In both cases, these facilitating conditions don't gaurantee a positive result but do increase the chances of it happening as we see in ganzfeld experiments, which have generated the highest consistent level of psi among members of the general population.

The article in this post assumes that if psi exists, then psi must be reflected in brain activity. As a experiment, no difference between brain activity associated with psi seems to happen when they do not, then no psi.

But this article is very weak. First, the assumption of the article may be false, that is, psi may exist but not be reflected in brain activity, because such experiments have been done that show that thinking one word and saying this word cause similar brain activities when there is a difference between thinking one word and saying this word:


That is, two things can be really different, like psi and no psi, yet cause very similar effects on the brain.

And second, the experiment sample is too small to make conclusions, so anecdotal and experimental evidence of psi remains strong enough to conclude that psi exists.

Note from the management: we've run into the troll turbulence that has hit other blogs too recently. I've deleted a large number of comments, and will continue to do so as necessary. Apologies if any of them are non-troll.

"...we've run into the troll turbulence that has hit other blogs"...

Hang in there Robert. I know it's a seemingly never ending game of whack-a-mole, but I suspect the clown is a U.S. citizen. If so, then it's a matter of time before he/she ends up in prison.
Everybody knows that's where we send our mentally ill.

Robert it is Jon Donnis who calls the claim. He is now to Spiritualism with hate and calling names woo and ignorant.


"...we've run into the troll turbulence that has hit other blogs"...

Can't you automatically block these idiots before they post a comment?

"Science" propaganda is the rule rather than the exception nowadays. In fact, I'm convinced that if most of the historical greats had to do their research in the culture of limited thinking that exists currently, we'd be close to being stuck in the dark ages. Most of the people labelled scientists today are simply pedestrian thinkers who have accomplished the not-too-difficult feat of earning a degree in a field in one of what we term the sciences. Not a difficult achievement. They have little in common with the bold thinkers and experimenters - the genuine scientists - who the term was first applied to.

The comments to this entry are closed.