The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

The Scientific Challenge of Testing for Consciousness


It’s been studied for over a century and yet very little is known about it even to this day.  On the one hand, everyone has an opinion, and on the other hand, very few people have any facts.  This goes as much for the PhD scientist as it does for the average person.  In the scientific literature it’s clear that even teh parapsychologists do not have a firm grasp of what consciousness is or does.  Despite the ubiquitous presence of consciousness in our lives and the fact that we are effectively and quite literally dead without it, the mechanics of consciousness are virtually ignored as an area of study.

This is odd because of course, consciousness  affects absolutely every area of science by the mere fact that studying something requires consciousness.   It is either taken for granted, innocently or deliberately ignored or simply misunderstood out of ignorance.  Yet consciousness has some very specific mechanics to it and understanding these mechanics is critical to any testing of consciousness of any living systems.

Here is a brief overview of some of the conditions that consciousness imposes on testing.

The first and most important aspect of consciousness as it relates to testing is the ability of any form of consciousness to quickly desensitize itself to unimportant stimulus.  (Unimportant to the conscious entity that is, not the researcher!)  Which is a fancy way of saying that every living system gets bored quickly by repetition.  This is not necessarily related to intelligence (as we understand it.)

This was first discovered by J.B. Rhine, the first parapsychologist to do lab work, while running people through an experiment with Zener cards.  Basically, boredom can easily reduce psychic ability to chance levels.

A spectacular example of this had to do with testing an octopus. Researchers were having no luck getting octopuses to react to any sort of TV or video.  It wasn’t until they used HDTV that they managed to fool the creatures enough to get them to respond.  Yet even then, they reacted inconsistently, leading these scientists to speculate that they possessed something called “episodic intelligence.”  Seriously.  As if these creatures had some sort of intelligence timer.  Oops.  I was smart a minute ago, but I ran out of time and now I’m dumb again?  The scientists had intended to create a repeatable experiment but were foiled in their attempt because they failed to recognize this completely common aspect of consciousness.  (The comments on this Huffington Post is a reminder that non scientists were able to grasp both the error of the scientists and the reason for the error rather easily.)

Treating living systems as something entirely mechanistic is a byproduct of a materialist mindset.  (Materialist refers to the belief that all things can be explained by the functioning of their parts.)  Consciousness does not fall within mechanistic boundaries and is incompatible with this way of thinking.

In studies of consciousness, many of the creatures that are studied display intelligence and will voluntarily focus on a task for the researcher.  The ability to have attention and to be able to focus it is an ability of consciousness; but this is not a steady thing.  There is a mental and physical exertion required and at some point this focus will begin to wane whether the intelligent creature wants it to or not.  Focusing attention is subject to wild fluctuations and individual creatures may vary considerably in this ability.  This is part of what personality is.  Such nebulous issues as interest and fun come into play making a repetitive experiment somewhat more challenging.

Learning is also an anathema to the scientific method.  Cleve Backster experienced this in his experiments with plants, human cells, bacteria and yogurt.  You could telepathically scare a plant a couple of times with the same threat, but after that the plant would fail to react.  You could not do the same threat over and over again because the plant would not take it seriously.

This alone is a lot to deal with, but the challenges go even deeper.  To get a reaction out of a conscious entity, you must be able to convince it that what it is reacting to is real.  Faking intent does not always work.  Some conscious entities can tell the difference between faked intent and the real thing.  This affects even people.  The well known staring experiment conducted by Wiseman and Schlitz (1997) demonstrated that the results of a psi experiment could change depending on the attitude of the experimenter.

Although Wiseman surely maintained the appearance of being a disinterested scientist, his deeper and strongly emotional skeptical sentiments were what mattered.  Deeper emotions cannot be controlled in any way.  They will not go away on command, they exist regardless of any ordinary intent and cannot be turned off for the experiment.  Suppressing them does not alter their effect.

This is an important aspect of consciousness experiments that skeptics regularly fail to grasp.  Telepathy and emotions do not turn on and off and have no boundaries.  Emotion, not thoughts are broadcast and received with the most intensity.  Your deeper emotional attitudes are going to be in play in the experiment and they will color every interaction with the test subject(s) whether this is intended or not.  Anyone who acts as though this situation does not exist will greatly diminish the potential of his or her experiment.

What makes this truly difficult is the sheer complexity of emotions which can combine in any number of different ways.  Fear for example, can be direct fright, dread or worry or even be manifested as indirect avoidance.  It is possible to be afraid without being aware of it and it can be mixed with other emotions as well.  Very few people are ever aware of all the emotions they experience, and scientists are typically the worst of the worst at this skill, yet all of this will have an impact on any experiment into consciousness.

Because science attracts and rewards people with a strong tendency towards a less outwardly emotional and more rational and logical personality, much of this rich emotional information will be completely unconscious and utterly ignored.  It is a catch-22.  People who are more emotional and aware of the complexity of their emotions will be more likely to be considered biased, yet the ability to recognize all these different emotions is also important for success.

Psi ability is strongly related to emotion in most creatures for the very good reason that this has the most usefulness for survival.  Out of these emotions comes bonding, and this can occur between any number of creatures and plants.  Bonding occurs quickly and decisively and creates an interaction that may interfere with an experiment.  It is an unconscious act of love that people do all the time.  (If you don’t believe me, pick up a kitten and see what happens.  The bonding is nearly instantaneous.)  Cleve Backster mentioned several times in his book Primary Perception that strict protocols had to be put into place to reduce or eliminate bonding between things being tested and the researchers otherwise the test subject was prone to putting its attention on the researchers and not the intended task.

This also works the other way.  If you want a creature/plant to react to you, you first need to establish a strong emotional bond with it.  Because this sort of thing can’t be faked, a skeptic who doesn’t believe in any of this, would find such a task to prove rather challenging if it was necessary to do so with a plant or yogurt culture.

Finally, there is the matter of intent.  This is a feature of consciousness that has a clear impact, (demonstrated by the psychokinesis experiments,) but whose full impact is unknown and perhaps unknowable given all the variables.  The intent of the researcher and test subject may collide, may agree, may form together to produce a larger intent, may be altered by a research assistance,  may be muddied by unconscious emotions and fears of pretty much anyone involved.  (A researcher may want a favorable outcome, but this may be overcome by emotional insecurities.)  Generally, the strongest intent will prevail, but who has the strongest intent?  While we normally ascribe this to the lead researcher, the psi ability of intent does not adhere to such structure.  Intent requires emotional strength, not intellectual training and has nothing to do with status.

The interconnectedness of all living things poses some interesting challenges to psi research, but it can be done.  Because science is stripping the emotional content in almost all cases, the psi effect is likely to be very small, but it is there.  What is needed is for science to respect and understand the limitations that consciousness imposes and accept that there will be no such thing as true objectivity.

2 comments on “The Scientific Challenge of Testing for Consciousness

  1. insomniac
    June 7, 2010

    Good job!

    • craigweiler
      June 10, 2010

      Thank you. It took awhile to write it.

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