The Weiler Psi

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

Is participating in Psi research a good idea?


This is a question that comes up every so often, and there is no simple answer. Craig asked me a while back to write an article for his blog about the good and bad aspects of being a study participant for Psi/PK research. It’s taken me some time to get back to him on this. I have mixed feelings about my own experiences with researchers. I’ve taken part in Psi research a number of times with a variety of researchers, and even under the best of circumstances it can be a challenging experience. I couldn’t in good conscience tell people to do this kind of thing without pointing out a few potential risks.

To begin with, it’s important to make sure you are working with actual scientists involved in research likely to lead to peer-reviewed published work. I hate to bring up the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, but it’s thrown in the face of psychics all too often despite the fact it is an unscientific endeavor. The MDC is a publicity stunt, not a scientific study. Any pretense that the MDC is designed to produce scientifically defensible work is unethical. If a self-proclaimed skeptic asks “why haven’t you applied to do the MDC?”, tell them it’s because you would prefer to contribute to the better understanding of Psi experiences through the use of proper scientific methodology instead.

It’s important to know the track record of any scientists you might choose to work with. Are they scientists or are they politically motivated debunkers? A case in point is that of Natasha Demkina, a Russian schoolgirl who was treated deplorably by well-known media skeptics, Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. Despite the fact that they presented themselves to Natasha as “scientists”, it was clearly a CSICOP (now known as CSI ) debunking exercise rather than a scientifically defensible study of her abilities.

Natasha Demkina, a 17-year-old Russian schoolgirl celebrated in her home town of Saransk for making accurate diagnoses of people’s medical ailments just by looking at them, was brought to New York (a grueling 24-hour journey by train, flight and bus) to have her ‘paranormal claims’ tested by the self-styled world authorities. She was required to match seven written diagnoses against seven corresponding test persons wearing black-lens spectacles to avoid any eye contact. She said from the outset that two of the diagnoses were outside her range, but she was kindly reassured by Wiseman that she would pass her test if she scored five out of five on the other trials. Under these fairly taxing conditions she was in fact correct in four out of the seven trials, a result yielding a significant p value of .02, an outcome calling for a fair degree of congratulation.

But there were no congratulations for Natasha. While noting (in passing) that the odds against this result being due to chance were around 50 to 1, Wiseman told her that she had failed, and the patronizing Hyman advised that she should forget her delusions and pursue her proposed medical studies (his own delusion being presumably that the diagnoses of medical practitioners are invariably correct). The commentator crowed that the girl would now return to Russia discredited. Mission accomplished!

Natasha admirably stepped up and did her best to contribute to the scientific understanding of Psi. Even under the difficult circumstances presented to her by debunkers Hyman and Wiseman she produced results above what would be expected purely by chance. Anyone with the tiniest smidgen of real scientific curiosity would have seen that as an indication that something interesting was going on, something worthy of a more comprehensive study. But the role of a debunker is to quash any scientific interest in Psi, and that was what the CSICOP members attempted to do. There has certainly been criticism of their handling of this case, but it comes too late for Natasha. She learned the hard way that not everyone who claims to be a scientist has any interest in doing a proper scientific investigation of a case involving ostensible Psi. My heart really goes out to this young woman.

So now that the obvious things to avoid, such as CSICOP fellows and JREF representatives, have been covered, what’s left? Well, I have to be honest here, there are not a lot of well-qualified researchers with the funding available to study Psi. The better known researchers are often inundated by emails from people who have had unusual experiences. I’ve never found it easy to admit to having anomalous experiences. It’s even more difficult to do so in a clear, concise, not-too-emotional tone that won’t be off-putting to researchers.

It’s good to be clear on why you want to talk to a researcher. Many people contacting parapsychologists want help in coping with anomalous experiences.  Most parapsychologists are not mental health professionals. And participating in research is not a substitute for health care.  I would recommend anyone wanting that kind of help should instead consider talking to a therapist who has experience in dealing with spiritual experiences.

I contacted the first researcher who I worked with through the message boards of the Parapsychological Association.  Without a PA membership, it’s not likely I would have made such a contact. I had a student membership at the time, and the researcher was impressed that I had taken an interest in learning as much as I could about Psi/PK from the available literature.

That brings up another important bit of advice I have for anyone interested in participating in parapsychological research. Familiarize yourself with the literature. There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, you might discover that just reading the literature is enough for you. Many people go to researchers looking for answers, without realizing that there already is an established body of work out there just waiting to be discovered. Reading the literature taught me that I wasn’t alone, that other people have these experiences too and that having unusual experiences doesn’t make you crazy.

Familiarity with the literature will also tell you who the researchers are and what specific areas of interest they work on. There is nothing wrong with sending a well-informed email to a researcher to ask questions about their work. I’ve made some very helpful contacts by doing so.

Finally, a better-informed participant makes better research possible. I want to be more than just a passive subject of research. I’ve tried to learn about Psi so I can contribute to the success of whatever work I’m involved with. Good parapsychological researchers are interested in how Psi works and people who have frequent Psi experiences can provide important insights. And don’t forget to read the published work by the researchers in question before agreeing to participate in a study. (It’s OK to ask questions too.)

Do a bit of internet research before committing to a project. Check out references too. Make sure the researchers follow guidelines for the ethical treatment of human subjects in scientific experiments and read the guidelines before agreeing to participate. They should protect your privacy, anonymity, and dignity. I didn’t do this in my first experience as a research participant, and there were some issues. (My husband still jokes that if a scientist doesn’t make me sick to my stomach, maybe he isn’t a real scientist.) If you don’t find a suitable researcher to work with, then consider the option of doing your own research and publishing it yourself.

On a personal level, it’s quite exciting to be away from home, working with researchers and feeling “special” instead of “different” for a change. My first experience as a research participant took me away from a stressful situation at graduate school, where I didn’t dare talk about my experiences to anyone, and put me in a place where it was OK to admit to what I saw and felt. I had a nice little old parapsychologist to discuss PK with over breakfast at the hotel. And afternoons were spent being fussed over by grad students, who were very excited about the research possibilities. The hours were long, and it was pretty exhausting, but it was still pretty cool. After a few days it was over and I was back home. I found it hard to go back to the same old  same old after all was said and done. Emotionally, when it was over there was this terrible let down that I wasn’t expecting.

It’s important to keep in mind that unless you live close to a research facility, it will just be a few days working with researchers and then you are on your own again. I quickly realized that those few days were not necessarily representative of my abilities or experiences, even when getting positive results in the lab. The stuff I live with every day is much more important. That led to a certain amount of frustration with the limitations of short term studies done under the supervision of established researchers. In the end, the only remedy I could come up with was to do my own experiments at home.

Doing your own research at home can start off as simply as keeping a journal. I’ve learned a lot from from logging my day-to-day experiences. It’s helped me feel more in control and better about having unusual experiences. I’ve also set up simple experiments that can be done at home on a daily basis. That has opened up more opportunities to work with various researchers because I have a much better idea of what can be done successfully in tests.  But truthfully, the main reason I do my own work is that I hated the feeling of it all being over after just a few days in a lab. I couldn’t get my answers in just a few days. And I couldn’t wait for the next researcher to come along with answers to my questions either.

In spite of the pitfalls, I’m glad that I’ve participated in Psi research. It’s had a positive effect on my life and helped me to better accept who I am. I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to work with some well-qualified scientists who were interested in learning about Psi/PK. I’ve made contacts with researchers and I’ve initiated my own research into Psi/PK, which I hope to start getting published soon. I’ll admit that I didn’t follow all the advice listed in this post. And I did run into a few mishaps along the way. But I’ll leave those stories for another day.

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About Sandy

I'm an NDEr who is still trying to figure out why I came back. I usually just post on my own blog (http://psisigh.blogspot.ca/ ), but it's nice to visit The Weiler Psi Blog too.

26 comments on “Is participating in Psi research a good idea?

  1. Pingback: Anomaly Archives eNews – May 2013 « SMiles Lewis

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  3. Fran Theis
    May 5, 2013

    Craig,

    Just in case you haven’t seen Dean Radin’s new “show me” page for skeptics, I thought you might enjoy having one more arrow for your quiver. Or perhaps this data is better described as a shoulder rocket.

    The next time I am/you are inspired to suggest a skeptic “do the homework”, this data is what we can reference:

    http://noetic.org/research/psi-research/

    Best wishes,

    Fran

    On Wed, May 1, 2013 at 8:54 PM, The Weiler Psi

  4. Sly
    May 3, 2013

    I am convinced that participating in psi research is one of the greatest thing a psychic can do. It profits to anybody.

    It has been shown that the scientist’s opinion and attitude will influence the outcome of the experience. This has been dubbed the “experimenter effect”; here is a very interesting read at this subject: http://www.deanradin.com/evidence/Wiseman1997.pdf.

    One possible explanation of the experimenter effect is that sometimes the experimenter himself unconsciously influences the experiment through his own psi capacity in the direction he wishes. That may be why it has consistently been observed that “convinced skeptic”, when themselves tested, actually obtain significant results … in the opposite direction. This effect is called “psi missing”. The irony is: it does show psi. When they are explained that, these skeptics then perform at random chances in further experiments, seemingly adjusting their performances to their wishes to show that psi does not exists.

    This is very sad but I have to admit that militant sceptics do not actually behave like scientists that are truly motivated by discovering the truth about the universe, but a lot more like biggots on a religious war. If you work with one of them, chances are you are going to feel their hostility.

    Psi is like any other human endeavour… well, human. That means the emotional and psychological context in which we perform is actually an essential factor in the outcome.

    Allow me to give a personal example: I am a skilled and experienced programmer that have a lot to show for him in this domain. Now, let say I claim I am able to deliver a complex software under stringent timing _without any bug_. In the real life, I know I can because I have already done that in the cosy and familiar environment of my work place – this was one of my best piece of work ever.
    But this is the holy grail of programming, and let say official science denies it to be possible because, you know, every software has bugs (this last opinion is sadly actually shared by something like 95% of the professionals in the field).

    I can not show what I have actually done (in this particular case, this would be because the software is the very valuable intellectual property of a company that wouldn’t allow inspection by some external researcher), so I go out to be tested to prove this is possible, and have to program under uncomfortable laboratory conditions under the suspicious eyes of a moron whose hostility is palpable and that loudly thinks I am a fraud.

    In your opinion, how good would I perform? Would I be able to repeat the same feat? I doubt that.

    The question here is: with who are you going to do this work? Is the researcher sympathetic, agnostic but genuinely curious, or hostile to the psi idea? This is an essential thing to find out before participating in any kind of test.

    • Sandy
      May 3, 2013

      Hi Sly,
      I agree, it is important to get to know a researcher before making a commitment to work with them. Some Psi-sympathetic researchers are also materialists looking for a materialist explanation for Psi, so it’s a real judgment call on who to work with sometimes. I’m actually OK on working with materialists, just so long as they are interested in the evidence and looking for real answers rather than ways to dismiss uncomfortable data.

      I also think it’s good to do Psi-research under the right circumstances and with the right people. But I wouldn’t say that’s the best or only way a psychic can make a positive contribution in life. There are many positive things one can do that don’t involve participating in research. For all I know, someone having a personal experience of psi just because I’m around to facilitate such a thing could make a greater difference in the world than any of the research I’ve been involved in. I think everyone has to decide for themselves how best to live their lives and contribute to society. Becoming a research participant for parapsychology is a very personal decision and I wouldn’t push anyone, particularly a sensitive person, into making such a decision lightly.

      I do think psychics should know that scientists are not the enemy. Science isn’t in and of itself against spiritual experiences.

      • Sly
        May 3, 2013

        Hi sandy,
        thank you for your interesting response.

        First, I do not believe either that participating to psi research is _the_ best thing to do. I said _one of the greatest_ and I stay to that.

        I think it is great because:
        1. Thanks to that, one day science will integrate psi, however reluctantly, and most importantly, find how to optimize its use. Who knows what we will collectively be able to achieve then?
        2. Today, probably, a lot of people with psychic or spiritual abilities are stuck in an intellectual world hostile to these concept and are having hard time to make sense of what they live. Learning about psi research is important for these people to free themselves of internalized barriers.

        Note also that for science to integrate psi does not implies reducing psi to today physics; no scientist that accept the reality of psi thinks that today science is complete enough to describe it; current quantum based theories are very tentative; the end result will probably be like a blend of advanced modern physics and esoteric teachings.

        As for the term “materialist”, I am a bit uneasy with it because it is completely outdated, in the sense that the science of these last 100 years or so integrates the concept of energy, information and fields, which are all immaterial in the traditional sense; so a better term for a scientificaly-literate modern that refutes the ontological existence of the mind would be “aspiritual physicalist” (my own term). But I would like to point out that one can be physicalist and still accept psi and spirituality, that would be “monism”. So I guess the philosophical debate is between “aspiritual physicalists”, “monists” and “dualists”. A bigotic and epistemologically illiterate “aspiritual physicalist” would be a “pseudo-skeptic”, but there is no question of philosophical debate with somebody like that 😉

        Of course you’re right with your point that this is a personal decision. For the record, I don’t believe I qualify as a psychic, so I can not speak for one of them (but I still can bring an external point of view).

    • Stephen Leslie
      May 3, 2013

      I’ve been trying to develop a psionic application for a brain-computer interface. And like many technical endeavors, there are many more ways to muck up than to make a working system. One of the most annoying, I’m realizing, is that you can’t push psi too hard. It’s a depletable resource. I’ve noticed that if you try to run hundreds upon hundreds of precognition trials without break, the psi goes away (Daryl Bem noticed this too). You have to rest and recover and then the psi will be back for you. I hypothesize that pushing too hard depletes the entangled states in the brain necessary for psi to work (so there’s your neo-materialist interpretation!).

      The psi null-result Harvard fMRI study that skeptics love to cite (despite all the other positive studies) pushed the research subjects way too hard and probably burned out the psi.

      • Sandy
        May 3, 2013

        Hi Stephen,
        What I’ve found by doing my own at-home experiments with PK is that I originally got very good results – a kind of beginner’s luck – and then I reached a point where getting positive results suddenly became very difficult, but as I persisted and kept doing experimental runs each day I slowly got better again. Eventually I was able to get better results even than my original “beginners luck” attempts, and consistently so. It took that kind of dedicated practice to get the kinds of results that made it possible for me to go to Rhine Research Center and do well in experiments.

        I suspect that most people go through the first two stages – beginners luck and then the sudden decline – and then give up before they start to get better again.

        • Sly
          May 3, 2013

          Sandy, I would love to learn which experiences you have done at home.

          • Sandy
            May 3, 2013

            You mean experiments? I published one article anonymously about my preliminary experiments with the pinwheel in the journal Paranthropolgy (Diary of a PK Experiment, Paranthropology, Vol 2 No 3, pages 46-48. https://www.box.com/shared/namkaf0chc08vnzuqglj ). I’m currently doing experiments with a commercially available Egely Wheel instead of a homemade pinwheel.

            I’m hoping to get some of my current work published as well.

            • Sly
              May 3, 2013

              Yes, I meant “experiments”. In my mother tongue we actually use the word “experience” for “experiment” and it sometimes slip in.

              Thank you very much for this very interesting publication!

              You are really the sandy that commented on D. Radin’s blog, aren’t you? I have read your comments, your anxiety at this time was palpable and I would have like to try and comfort you. I relate because I have recently had spiritual experiences that have shaken my world view.
              I am really happy to see you are coming to terms with all this.

              • Sandy
                May 3, 2013

                Yes, I’m that Sandy. 🙂

      • Sly
        May 3, 2013

        Stephen, thanks for this interpretation of the Harvard fMRI study results!

      • Sheila Joshi
        May 5, 2013

        Stephen Leslie – I know generally what you are referring to by entangled states in the brain, but your whole comment is very intriguing. Could you say more about how you think an entangled brain state gets “depleted”? Thanks very much!

        • Stephen Leslie
          May 5, 2013

          I was thinking in analogy to University of Washington Professor Jon Cramer:s quantum-optical retrocausal signalling machine he’s been working on. You can find the talk here,
          http://faculty.washington.edu/jcramer/PowerPoint/Norwescon_20100403.ppt
          Last time I checked, Prof. Cramer was trying to upgrade his laser as he had too much noise to create retrocausal signalling. I briefly considering helping Jon with his machine but couldn’t move to Seattle and so decided to build a psionic system instead. I haven’t told him yet about my project but maybe he’s figured it out.

          Anyhow, one hypothesis I had is that, like Cramer’s machine, the brain prepares entangled states for use in telepathy or precognition, stores them, and then conscious observation collapses the entangled states when necessary. It’s only a hypothesis; I could be completely wrong. Plus, it’s unclear how the whole conscious observation part works.

          I hope Prof. Cramer wins the Nobel prize in physics for his bold project. Unfortunately, this may not happen if the “skeptics” raise a hissy fit and smear the entirely business as pseudoscience like they did with cold fusion. Sigh…

          • Stephen Leslie
            May 5, 2013

            I mention cold fusion because it seems like evidence is mounting that something interesting is, in fact, going on. It’s still an open question whether practical applications are possible or whether fusion, per se, is actually happening. But the organized skeptical movement has created a cold fusion taboo like the psi taboo which drastically slows down research in that area.

            One more thing: the way the skeptical movement picks its targets is very revealing. For example, I’ve worked with physicists who were involved in the controversial pentaquark discovery and subsequent undiscovery. A few experiments (like Spring-8 in Japan) announced the astonishing discovery of a weak signal for a 5-quark particle called a “pentaquark”. But other experiments (like RHIC and Jefferson Lab in the USA) failed to replicate. Eventually null results piled up and the pentaquark discovery was discarded. Compare with psi:

            1) The scientific community was able to resolve the pentaquark mis-discovery internally without the input of outside activists.
            2) Unlike psi, supposed pentaquark signals vanished as more and more nuclear collision data were accumulated.

            Why do particle physicists get away with announcing discoveries of particles which don’t exist (the pentaquark isn’t the only example)? It all shows you that the skeptical movement is all about protecting status quo economic (in the case of cold fusion) or religious/atheistic (in the case of psi) dogmas rather than being on a quest for good science.

          • Sheila Joshi
            May 5, 2013

            Stephen – So, Prof. Cramer has to produce entangled photons in order to run his retrocausality trials. (I looked at the PowerPoint – thanks!) And you’re hypothesizing that the brain creates and stores some kind of entangled somethings analogous to that?

            Maybe it happens in Hameroff’s microtubules.

            Then, the brain has to use these entangled somethings to do psi – to transcend space or time in some way. And they get used up.

            This is so interesting to me. Theoretically, I don’t think you need a brain at all to be psychic, but most people do use their brains, and this is an interesting hypothesis about what’s going on neurologically.

            It could also explain how changing your brain literally changes reality around you. There is a non-local entanglement process starting in your brain and reverberating outward.

            If I use this idea in a blog post, can I credit you using your pseudonym?

            Craig and Sandy – sorry for this tangential conversation!

            • Sandy
              May 5, 2013

              Don’t be sorry, Sheila. I’m quite interested! 🙂

            • Stephen Leslie
              May 6, 2013

              Sure thing! There is still a timescale issue between Jon Cramer’s system and presentiment/precognition. Prof. Cramer’s system has a range of roughly 0.00005 seconds while a presentiment-based system has a range of a few seconds. But evolution has had an entire planet and eons of time to figure it all out.

              Anyhow, Jon Cramer is waiting for a new laser from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab which should be good enough to find retrocausal signalling. My problem is that the Radin paper my retrocausal signaler is based on requires meditators with 5000+ hours of experience which I’m nowhere close to having. But I have developed a feedback system which appears to allow even novice meditators to operate the system but much more data and testing are needed to confirm. I do not want to fool myself with a false-positive signal.

      • Peter
        May 6, 2013

        A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.
        Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

  5. Peter
    May 2, 2013

    The problem with psi “research” is that it is doomed to failure. It insists on applying linear modalities to non-linear psi phenomena. Natasha’s experience is is an example of this as well as how many psi “researchers” are not actually interested in research but rather are intent on discrediting psi. Assuming a conclusion and imbedding that conclusion in the argument/investigation procedure is a logical error – a strange occurrence for a group that claims to value rational/logical process.

    Awareness of which part of the brain lights up on a psi subject, for example, is irrelevant because the genesis and operation of psi does not occur in the brain. These researchers are assuming that because there may be a co-relation between some psi phenomena and brain activity that there is direct causal connection between the two and that it is brain activity that causes the psi phenomena. The emphasis on brain is yet another example of prematurely imbedding a conclusion to the argument/investigation procedure – another example of incorrect logic.

    • Stephen Leslie
      May 2, 2013

      The “researchers” who worked with Natasha’s were not scientists but activists. But I disagree that general scientific research on psi is fruitless. Like many phenomena in science such as the famous ideal gas (PV = nRT), psi seems to be obeying statistical laws. If you run a Ganzfeld experiment enough times, you WILL get a hit rate of 33%. Similarly, presentiment and precognition experiments can be expected to follow known patterns based on variables such as gender, personality, and state of consciousness. True, we don’t know the equations of psi, but there seem to be strong parallels with the properties of quantum mechanics. And, rationally, there must be a bridge somewhere (in quantum wavefunction collapse?) between psi and the physical world it effects.

      This area of science desperately needs more than $0 in public funding and more researchers other than the crackpots working for Randi. 

      • Peter
        May 2, 2013

        “rationally, there must be a bridge somewhere (in quantum wavefunction collapse?) between psi and the physical world it effects.”

        Does psi effect the physical world or does psi create what appears to the senses as the physical world?

  6. Rupert McWiseman
    May 2, 2013

    Concerning the Million Dollar Challenge….

    I find it revealing that the self-proclaimed “critical thinkers” on the “skeptic” forums are simply unable to see what should be blindingly obvious to anyone with a modicum of critical thinking ability – that the MDC bears no resemblance to the way proper science is done, and that it is quite clearly a publicity stunt which maintains the JREF profile and keeps the money flowing in.

    (I really quite admire James Randi for coming up with the whole idea; I’ve always maintained it’s his greatest illusion. All magicians want to fool people, and they always get their biggest kick out of fooling skeptics. Well, dear old Randi has fooled all the JREF “skeptics” for decades now, and that must give him a great sense of satisfaction! What can top the idea of fooling a whole legion of skeptics recruited and nurtured by the illusionist himself?)

    So the next time some JREF “critical thinker” asks a psychic why they haven’t applied for the MDC, the psychic’s answer should surely be:

    “Because it’s not science – as you would know if you were REALLY a critical thinker!”

  7. Sandy
    May 1, 2013

    I think many psychics have negative ideas about scientists. A lot of that is due to the MDC, which has nothing to do with science at all. Real scientists are curious and want to know how things work. Poor Natasha didn’t get to work with real scientists, despite what they misrepresented themselves as. I agree that we need to send her some good wishes.

  8. moniquestevenson
    May 1, 2013

    Interesting…maybe because everyone always used research as a ‘test’ to discuss with me (why haven’t you taken the MCD? Why haven’t you revolutionized science?), I never thought of research as anything but testing…that it could be a good experience is a fun thought. And poor Natasha–we need to send her an email with hugs and virtual kittehs!

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