Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Cleve Backster is best known for hooking up a lie detector machine to a plant and discovering that it had emotional responses. At the time, he was merely curious to find out how fast the leaf he’d hooked up to got the water he’d just given to the plant. Most of us don’t happen to have a spare polygraph machine just lying around, but then, most of us aren’t one the world’s foremost experts on the use of polygraph machines.
In his book: Primary Perception: Biocommunication with Plants, Living Foods, and Human Cells he writes:
My whole fascinating experience started on February 2, 1966 around seven o’clock in the morning when I was taking a coffee break after working in the polygraph lab all night. While watering the two lab plants, I wondered if it would be possible to measure the rate at which water rose in one of the plants from the root area into the leaf. I was particularly curious about the dracaena plant because of its long trunk and long leaves. Because of the polygraph examiner school I directed, there were plenty of polygraphs on hand. The polygraph records apparent electrical resistance changes in the skin. (…)
(…) The plant leaf resistance fortunately fell within the 250,000 OHMS instrumentation range and remained balanced within the GSR circuitry for the 56 minutes that followed. (…) I immersed the end of a leaf, that was neighboring the electroded leaf, into a cup of hot coffee. There was no noticeable chart reaction, and there was a continuing downward tracing trend. With a human, this downward trend would indicate fatigue or boredom. Then, after about fourteen minutes of elapsed chart time, I had this thought: As the ultimate plant threat, I would get a match and burn the plant’s eletroded leaf.
At that time, the plant was about fifteen feet away from where I was standing and the polygraph equipment was about five feet away. The only new thing that occurred was this thought. It was early in the morning and no other peson was in the laboratory. My thought and intent was: “I’m going to burn that leaf!” The very moment the imagery of burning that leaf entered my mind, the polygraph recording pen moved rapidly to the top of the chart! No words were spoken, no touching the plant, no lighting of matches, just my clear intention to burn the leaf. The plant recording showed dramatic excitation. To me this was a powerful, high quality observation.
He decided eventually, not to burn the leaf and in the process find out if the plant would calm down. (It did. And the book displays the original chart recordings.) Like so many groundbreaking discoveries, this one came about while the author was looking for something else. When he discovered something new and interesting, in accordance with the finest of scientific traditions, he pursued it.
At the time, the idea that plants could have consciousness was way way out there. When He first presented his findings to the AAAS he was treated to the kinds of things better left in middle school, Since then, science has come a long ways and it turns out that it isn’t such a far fetched idea after all. (Plant Consciousness? Are You Kidding Me? Nope, It’s True)
He discovered that distance was not important and shielding also made no difference. This is not really surprising as these properties of consciousness have already been observed in hundreds of other parapsychology studies. He made other, more important discoveries however. For instance, he discovered that plants reacted to the death of microbes, which led him to test microbes for signs of consciousness. This was also successful. He tested among other things, yogurt and human cells, all of which reacted to stimulus.
In testing all these various living things Backster made some important observations about the challenges of the scientific testing of consciousness. Everything he tested had the ability to change its response and learn. A process that worked once to elicit a response from organisms or cells would not necessarily work again and these organisms also had the ability to distinguish between real intent and just faking it. This creates a problem in that the scientific method, which demands repeatability, is somewhat ineffective for the purpose of establishing proof of this phenomena. Not to mention the fact that skeptics do not take well to the idea that they cannot fool a cup of yogurt.
This is not an unusual problem in probing emotional reactions of humans. People cannot replicate their emotions on command; for instance, if someone watches a scary movie, they can be frightened only once by it. A study that attempted to replicate a fear over and over again in the same person would be futile. Their fear will diminish greatly with each successive attempt until finally it would be non existent. While there are no studies (that I know of), that specifically address people knowing the difference between real intent and faking it on a purely telepathic level, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people do indeed do this and indirectly, the 1997 Wiseman and Schlitz staring study (link below) confirms this.
Another important hurdle to successful testing was the interaction of the researcher’s consciousness with the consciousness of the living organic material being tested. Just as in other areas of consciousness research, researcher intent can play a decisive role in the outcome of the experiment. This is a confirmation of the groundbreaking staring experiment (Wiseman and Schlitz 1997) where it was shown that in psi experiments, when all other variables were accounted for, skeptics were far less likely to get results beyond mere chance than non-skeptics . However in Backster’s experiments the test subjects were not people, but plants, eggs, yogurt and human cells.
Cleve Backster eventually solved the problems created by interactions of consciousness by minimizing his personal contact with the test organisms. He would have someone buy a new plant for instance and get it set up in his office with minimal contact and then automate the process for getting a reaction. In one case, this involved an automated device dumping brine shrimp into a pot of boiling water at random intervals. Everyone had to leave the office during the experiment and be engaged in something else in order to prevent their intent from interacting with the experiment. Only when this type of protocol was carefully followed, were positive results consistently achieved. You can imagine how hard it would be to get a skeptical researcher who did not take the idea of consciousness seriously to begin with to follow this kind of protocol. He states on page 124 of his book:
The idea I have tried to project is that if you are doing consciousness research you may well be communicating your intent, which could alter the outcome of your experiment. The conventional planned research project, by design, has no spontaneity. I have found spontaneity to be a necessary ingredient for prompting meaningful evidence of the existence of a primary perception and the resulting biocommunication manifested.
Although a lot of people claim that they have replicated my experiments, they in all probability have repeated the capability to witness spontaneous examples of biocommuncation at work. That’s fine; it’s one big step in the right direction. But unfortunately, it doesn’t meet the prescribed repeatability requirements allowing for the accumulation of acceptable empirical data. It does indeed seem that the resent day requirements of the scientific method really restrict one’s success in truly understanding primary perception and the biocommunication phenomena.
Those who did take it seriously though, were able to replicate the experiments. The Advanced Human Technology Agency of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command was successful (1983); by Rollin McCraty at HeartMath Institute and duplicated in Russia in the 1970’s and reported in the Russian textbook entitled, Parapsychology and Contemporary Science by A.P. Dubrov and V. N. Pushkin.
The idea of consciousness at the cellular level in humans lends credibility to the idea of cellular memory (This is a concept that has been formulated following anecdotal accounts of transplant recipients undergoing personality changes.) as well as the theory made popular by Louise L. Hay that we store emotional trauma in various parts of our body and releasing this trauma can heal that area of the body.
To me, this is yet one more demonstration that consciousness is part of reality, (I addressed it in this post: Consciousness Is Part of Reality, Not a Trick of Evolution) The data is completely consistent with this theory. It is yet another piece of science that provides us clues to the nature of consciousness and fills in the blanks for psychic people, such as myself, to better understand what we are dealing with.