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Friday, July 4, 2014

Dial P for Paranormal: ESP Experiments Involving Phones, Text Messages, and Email

Skeptics like to say over and over again, “There is no evidence for extrasensory perception.” But actually there is a huge mountain of evidence for ESP that has been carefully and systematically accumulated for over a hundred years. Attempting to refute all this evidence bit by bit would take a long time. So skeptics just take a convenient shortcut by saying, “There is no evidence for extrasensory perception.” Not an accurate claim, but at least it saves time.

It is sometimes said that systematic experimental work on ESP started out with the work of J.B. Rhine at Duke University, although in truth evidence for the phenomenon has been carefully collected since the 1880's. Rhine conducted tests involving over a million trials. 27 of 33 of his studies produced statistically significant results, including a test with results that had a chance of only 1 in a million.

Some of the most compelling recent evidence for ESP comes from what are called ganzfeld experiments. A ganzfeld experiment is one in which a test for extra-sensory perception is combined with sensory deprivation achieved through methods such as cutting a ping-pong ball in half and taping it over someone's eyes, and having someone wear an earphone transmitting white noise. In these ESP experiments, the expected chance hit rate (matching of a user's selection and a random target) is 25%. But as wikipedia reports here, “In 2010, Lance Storm, Patrizio Tressoldi, and Lorenzo Di Risio analyzed 29 ganzfeld studies from 1997 to 2008. Of the 1,498 trials, 483 produced hits, corresponding to a hit rate of 32.2%.” That success rate of 32.2% is hugely above the expected by-chance success rate of 25%.

But this year there may be new experimental evidence even more compelling than the ganzfeld studies. This year the biologist Rupert Sheldrake published a paper describing experiments involving ESP and telephone, E-mails, and text messages. It is supposedly not uncommon for people to get a phone call from a distant acquaintance, and to say something like, “Funny, I was just thinking of you.” Sheldrake did experiments to try and verify whether there is anything more than just coincidence behind such thoughts. 

ESP
 
Sheldrake and Pam Smart tried a phone call test in which participants get a call from one of four different people, and must guess beforehand who the person is. Testing 63 subjects in a total of 570 trials, the average success rate was 40%, hugely above the expected 25% success rate. This 40% success rate had a probability of less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000. Four of the subjects who did best were then retested under rigorous videotaped conditions. In 271 trials, the average hit rate was 45%, even more dramatically above the expected success rate of 25%., with a probability of less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000.

Sheldrake and Pam Smart also did email experiments in which participants get an e-mail from one of four different people, and must guess beforehand who the person is. Testing 50 subjects in a total of 552 trials, the average success rate was 43%, hugely above the expected 25% success rate. This 43% success rate had a probability of less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000. Five of the subjects who did best were then retested under filmed  conditions. The average hit rate was 47%, even more dramatically above the expected success rate of 25%.

Sheldrake and Smart also did similar tests with text messaging and ESP, although the results were much less impressive than the very dramatic results mentioned above for phone calls and emails. Overall, these tests provide dramatic evidence for extra-sensory perception.

I can predict what the reaction of certain minds will be to these results: a reaction of absolute denial. What seems to go on in such minds is the following type of thinking:
  1. I believe in the theory that human consciousness is a mere by-product of brain activity, nothing special.
  2. There are many ESP tests that seem to cast grave doubt on such a theory.
  3. Therefore, such tests must absolutely be bogus or bungled.
But there is a more intelligent way to react to such experiments. It would be to think along these lines:
  1. I have been believing in the theory that human consciousness is a mere by-product of brain activity, nothing special.
  2. There are many ESP tests that seem to cast grave doubt on such a theory.
  3. Therefore, there is a good chance that my theory is wrong.
Please don't rebut this post with a statement such as “8 out of 10 scientists don't believe in ESP.” That might be true, but if you investigated further you would find that 8 out of 10 scientists have no detailed familiarity with the experiments which indicate that ESP exists. Your opinion on something carries no weight if you don't know anything about it, regardless if you have a PhD in some other subject that you know a lot about.

Let me conclude by giving a personal recollection that is most highly suggestive of the reality of ESP. I was recently at the Queens Zoo in New York City with my two teenage daughters (we go to the zoo about once a year). We were looking at a feline animal called a puma, which we could see distantly, far behind a plastic barrier. Suddenly (oddly enough) I had a recollection of a zoo visit I had ten years ago, when I saw a gorilla just behind a plastic barrier, at the zoo at Busch Gardens in Florida. About three seconds later (before I said anything), my younger daughter said, “Do you remember that gorilla we saw close-up in Busch Gardens?” I was flabbergasted. It was as if there was telepathy going on. The incident seems all the more amazing when you consider that teenagers live very much in the present or the near future, and virtually never talk about things that happened 10 years ago. There was nothing in our field of view that might have caused both of us to have that recollection at the same time. On that zoo visit we hadn't seen a gorilla, nor had we seen any animal near a plastic barrier.

When we moved to the next zoo exhibit, just for laughs I asked my older daughter whether perchance she also was thinking of that gorilla we saw 10 years ago, before anyone mentioned the gorilla. My jaw dropped when she reported: yes, she also was thinking of that gorilla we saw ten years ago in Busch Gardens, before anyone had said anything about it. So apparently before anyone said anything, we had three out of three people all recalling the same very distant memory – a memory of seeing a gorilla ten years ago. How do you explain such a thing without a hypothesis of something like ESP? The odds of such a coincidence seem less than 1 in a billion.

We have been conditioned to bury such coincidences when they occur. When such things happen, we may visualize a stern, scowling man wearing a white lab coat, a man who says, “Pay no attention to such things – it's just coincidence or chance.” My advice to you is: ignore such a visual. Instead, whenever something happens to you that seems like something that might involve ESP, precognition, or anything paranormal, write it down, in the same notebook or the same text file. Document it carefully, calmly, and objectively. As the years go by, the evidence in that file or notebook may accumulate in a way that causes an alteration of your worldview.