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It’s about Time – Psi Research at a Tipping Point

by Cassandra Vieten

Later in this article, I'm going to use an example that will involve a garden, a sailboat, a running man, or a train. Can you accurately guess which one? In a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) Cornell psychology professor Daryl Bem has published an article that suggests you can, more often than you might expect just by chance.

Entitled "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect," the paper presents evidence from nine experiments involving over 1000 subjects suggesting that events in the future may influence events in the past – a concept known as "retrocausation." In some of the experiments, students were able to guess at future events at levels of accuracy beyond what would be expected by chance. In others, events that took place in the future appeared to influence those in the past, such as one in which rehearsing a list of words enhanced recall of those words, with the twist that the rehearsal took place after the test of recall.

As Director of Research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, where we study, among other things, experiences that seem to transcend the usual boundaries of time or space (generically called "psi" experiences), I've already received a slew of comments and queries regarding the pre-print of the article that is making the rounds.

The comments range from "Wow, that's amazing!" to "That's not possible - there must be some mistake." But most responses are along the lines of "Hello?? This isn't news. Hundreds of articles reporting significant results on psi experiments have already been published in dozens of academic journals. What's the big deal?"

So what is notable about the current publication? To begin, Bem is not just any psychologist; he is one of the most prominent psychologists in the world (he was probably mentioned in your Psych 101 textbook, and may have even coauthored it). And JPSP is not just any journal but sits atop the psychology journal heap; the article, especially given its premise, was subjected to a rigorous peer-review (where scientific colleagues critique the article and decide whether it is worthy of publication). Also, Bem intentionally adopted well-accepted research protocols in the studies, albeit with a few key twists, that are simple and replicable (they don't require lots of special equipment, and the analyses are straightforward). Even so, whether the larger scientific community will pay attention to this study remains to be seen.

Which begs the question: Why is the existing literature on psi phenomena routinely dismissed by the scientific community and virtually ignored within the broader academic community? As science journalist Jonah Lehrer writes about research findings on psi phenomena: "They've been demonstrated dozens of times, often by reputable scientists... Why, then, do serious scientists dismiss the possibility of psi? Why do rational people assume that parapsychology is bullshit? Because these exciting results have consistently failed the test of replication."

Such assertions drive some of my colleagues crazy, who point to a large body of literature in which psi experiments have been replicated numerous times over many decades, involving dozens of independent scientists and thousands of subjects, and published in peer-reviewed journals. Still, the majority of the scientific community has largely dismissed the concept of psi – no matter how reputable the investigator or prestigious his or her affiliation – as frivolous, artifactual, not replicable, or having effect sizes that are so small as to be meaningless regardless of statistical significance. Worse, skeptics accuse psi researchers of being outright fraudulent, or well-meaning but delusional. Young scientists are regularly advised to stay far away from studying psi and warned about the ATF (the anti-tenure factor) that is associated with such interests. Senior scientists, including Nobel Laureates, have been known to be disinvited from giving talks if their interest in psi is discovered. Even religious scholars who make it their business to examine the spiritual aspects of human experience have trouble with psi.

With respect to effect sizes, yes - if you look at the results of lots of studies combined, psi effects are statistically significant, though small. However, a double standard is applied to the potential importance of small effects. The effect sizes reported in Bem's study and in many previous psi studies are generally much larger than the effect sizes associated with many well-accepted “scientific facts," like taking aspirin to prevent heart attacks, for example, or the risks of blood clots from taking Tamoxifen, used in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer.

More importantly, even if we were to agree that "size does matter" and that these effects are generally small, let's remember that it shouldn't be possible to peer into the future at all, even a little, given what we generally understand about how the world works. Time is only supposed to go one way. Perception is supposed to be limited to the past or the present and only to those phenomena immediately and locally accessible by our five senses. When exceptions to these rules are observed, particularly under controlled laboratory conditions, they deserve a closer look.

Take running the four-minute mile. If we as scientists had studied even thousands of people in the 1950's, we might have concluded that running a four-minute mile was not humanly possible. Over time, however, it was found that a few people could actually do it – an extremely small effect to be sure, but these anomalies proved that it was, in fact, possible. Not only do we now know that running a four-minute mile is possible, it is the standard for professional middle-distance runners (for those of you paying attention, this was the answer to my mini-psi test).

Perhaps the oft-quoted maxim "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" should be accompanied by a counter-maxim: "extraordinary anomalies deserve special attention." For example, a new drug to treat depression that resulted in some relief in one out of 100 people might not be worth a second glance, but if a new drug was claimed to cure AIDS in one out of 100 patients, it would justify further examination. When evidence runs contrary to prior probabilities, it calls for special consideration, not a knee-jerk out-of-hand dismissal.

As for the issue of replication, psi proponents argue that there have been numerous replications – often far more than many other scientifically supported "facts" that are taken for granted. Indeed, scientists familiar with this area of research view Bem's studies as clever conceptual replications that rest upon a large body of previous work. These scientists are now going beyond the idea of mere existence of these effects and forging ahead into studying what conditions may enhance them – inherent individual traits, training, genetics? In small, underfunded labs around the world, scientists are working to improve research designs, measures, and methods to better study psi.

There is also a growing recognition that it might not be quite so simple as developing one good experiment and then replicating it to death. An article published in the December 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker magazine highlights a phenomenon that is well-known to scientists, not only in the field of psi but across many disciplines: the “decline effect.” Initial experiments can show very strong results, but when the experiments are repeated again and again, the effects can decline. Gamblers may recognize this phenomenon as "beginner's luck." Of course this isn't true for all natural phenomena. When you drop a rock it will head toward the ground pretty much every time. But for more complex phenomena we may need to contend with the decline effect, along with observer effects and other design and measurement complexities.

Does this mean that the effects aren't real and that these topics are inherently "unscientific" and shouldn't be studied? Of course not. Many research topics are extremely complex, requiring decades of research and all kinds of new measures, methods, controls, and technologies to adequately explore them. Back in the early 19th century, it took many years for Faraday to demonstrate the existence of electromagnetism to his colleagues, but he did not live to see the validation of his theory that electromagnetic forces extended into the space around them. Cancer remains a profound mystery despite the efforts of tens of thousands of scientists and billions of dollars spent looking for a cure. Sequencing the human genome was a vast and complicated undertaking. Even "evidence-based" drugs for treating depression, on which a multi-billion dollar industry is based, are being called into question as being not much better than a placebo after all. Unless the object of study is extremely simple, science is mostly a long, winding, painstaking, incremental, and challenging pursuit.

Problems with fluctuating effect sizes, experimenter effects, finding adequate controls and so on, are inherent in studying phenomena with complex interactions and poorly understood mechanisms. So I don't think we can attribute resistance to evidence for psi to these, nor can we blame complexities of measurement, difficulties with replication, or even the challenge of pinning down an underlying theory. I think it's fear that some of our most cherished beliefs, about how the world works and about who and what we are, may be wrong. On a deeper level, there may be a collective, protracted, post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from that period in human history when reliance on blind faith in supernatural explanations of reality led to a very dark time when priests determined what was true and rational thought and systematic observation were prohibited.

Bem's article and its supporting body of literature, combined with serious discussions of retrocausation in physics, suggest that retrocausation in human experience may indeed be possible. But the real significance of the article lies in the fact that the dialogue about psi has been brought once again into the arena of intelligent debate in a public forum, where it deserves to be. While a long period of cautiousness regarding the commingling of science and anything considered supernatural – like perceiving the future or the impact of consciousness on physical systems – has been an understandable and adaptive response, surely we can trust ourselves in the 21st century to examine these issues reasonably without losing our heads. Such examination may lead to radical revisions in our understanding of how the world works and our human potentials.

  • 17 Comments
  • Anonymous Icon

    photios Dec 17, 2010

    I accurately choose the running man, fyi.

  • Gretchen Dreisbach Dec 18, 2010

    Dear Dr. Vieten, I believe that what you touched on at the end of this article is true.
    I believe that many people are carrying past/parallel lives where they were burned
    or tortured for speaking the truth. (Including the women who simply were herbalists and were
    burned for being so called witches). If we see these traumas as blockages in their energy
    systems then there is hope that they will be moved somehow and more and more of the skeptical,
    (fear of humiliation), based scientists will awaken and will stop shutting others down already!
    They need to build a new brain map that they no longer will be condemned to the tower.
    How can any scientist not be open to ANYTHING I wonder? It seems so strange that there
    is a need to prove what is right in front of our faces. The biggest illusion that I was ever
    expected to adhere to is that time is linear. My memories of something, say that happened
    at eight years of age, are just as vivid as something that happened last week. I am in a state
    of constant recall of everything that has happened in my entire life. There is no "fading" of
    an experience, no PAST memory, just OTHER. Everything is NOW. We humans use up
    so much energy hiding behind falsehoods. Not speaking the truth can cause illness to the
    throat chakra. We do need some large doses of collective heaing indeed. The freedom to just be
    as we were intended to be is close. I can feel it. There still is a modern day version of heretic
    stifling however called the psyche ward. with gratitude for your work, love, Gretchen Grace
    (who always knew that the emperor was naked!)

  • GoldenStateTouch Dec 19, 2010

    Thank you for this outstanding and well-presented article. I found this part especially insightful:

    "When you drop a rock it will head toward the ground pretty much every time. But for more complex phenomena we may need to contend with the decline effect, along with observer effects and other design and measurement complexities."

    Well said. If, for example, you had written four different versions of this article, alternating the four potential examples instead of just using the running example? How would the rate of correct guesses by a group of 100 people who read four articles with the examples evenly distributed (25 articles with each example) versus a group of 100 people who read the article as presented above? How would one even go about measuring something like that, or hypothesizing about what it might mean?

    For what it's worth, I guessed correctly. I read the opening two sentences a few times, then fixed my eyes on the four options. My eyes kept finding their way back to "a running man," so that's what I picked.

    It would also be interesting to see if any tendencies could be seen if the sequence of the potential choices were altered, or if "a running man" were phrased a different way. Linguists might find something in the construction or sequencing that they suspect of tipping the guess one way or another, so offering multiple ways to present the choices would be another way of adding a level of validity to the test.

    I'm looking forward to seeing how the JPSP article is received and hope an update will be forthcoming in one of your future articles.

  • GoldenStateTouch Dec 19, 2010

    I noticed upon rereading that the word "versus" should have been changed to the words "compare with." My apologies to those who stumbled over that sentence.

  • Reta Brenna Dec 22, 2010

    “…it's fear that some of our most cherished beliefs, about how the world works and about who and what we are, may be wrong.”

    I agree with you, fear is expressed in many ways and denial that something different than current accepted beliefs might be possible is an expression of that fear.

    I admire your ability to step beyond the ramifications that this fear creates to answer those questions that seem unanswerable. Science should be about looking at all the possibilities, which includes looking with intelligent eyes at occurrences that don’t fit inside the box.

    Thank you for looking outside the box.

  • Anonymous Icon

    desmond9999 Dec 25, 2010

    Thank you Cassandra (Dr. Vieten) for your warmth and wisdom expressed throughout the article. It feels like a homecoming invitation to me since it recalled my experiences with Dr. J.B.Rhine and his Wife at their E.S.P.Lab at Duke University, and Dr. Larry LeShan and his wife who were at New York University. Dr Ross L. Mooney in his Perception Lab at Ohio State University had identified and studied my experiences and determined that Goddard College in Vermont under its President Dr. Tim Pitkin was the environment most suited to my growth. Besides feeling the running man to be the answer in your experiment eye am in full agreement with you that there is a perceptual lag in our overall development which prevents us from feeling our oneness with ourselves and the rest of our Universe.
    In my continued study and growth eye have identified shallow breathing as a major contributor to this condition of inadequacy, fear and lack of wholeness and natural bonding with the rest of the universe. In my book "THE PRACTICE" eye introduce conscious deep breathing as the alternative to shallow breathing and its ills.
    Thank you and the rest of your community for becoming the spring board for introducing the human family to this aspect of ourselves which must be activated at this to ensure our further growth and usher us safely into our new states of absolute abundance and limitless potentials.
    Thanks again for this feast.

  • Anonymous Icon

    kelmankitty Dec 28, 2010

    I also selected the 'running man.' Retrocognition may have a number of explanations, including the concept of multiple timelines or alternate realities that connect in some way with our central experiential reality. This concept may also bear on such phenomena as spontaneous or accelerated healing.

    Thanks for this stimulating article.

  • jim cranford Jan 03, 2011

    Good stuff!

    “…it's fear that some of our most cherished beliefs, about how the world works and about who and what we are, may be wrong.”

    I agree with you and Reta Brenna. Cherished beliefs like, it is all right to exploit the environment for profit. When psi is fully understood as the Natural communications system uniting all living things in an intelligent neural network, such exploitation, and our civilization in general, takes on the look of a cruel cosmic joke, with us playing the fool. Nobody really wants to go there, but that's where this line of inquiry eventually leads.

    Keep up the good work, but don't expect any changes in the acceptance level within the mainstream. =-)

  • Anonymous Icon

    desmond9999 Jan 03, 2011

    Expectation is the quick sand of consciousness which inevitably leads to endless frustration. However it is as we accept ourselves as the main stream generating all changes from within, we can march boldly in our chosen directions knowing that in time with practice all changes are wrought.

  • JeremiahStanghini Feb 04, 2011

    It seems that because of the complex system of structures in our world, the presence of psi is not useful to the powers that be where the powers that be is the flow of money. It's a whole lot easier to turn a profit on selling pills to someone for their headache than it is to give people their power back in telling them that they are actually capable of extrasensory perception.

    In time...

    With Love and Gratitude,

    Jeremiah

  • Anonymous Icon

    Eldad Jun 01, 2011

    Shalom (In Hebrew: Hi/Hallo, Welcome, Peace),
    I enjoyed your article, as psi fan of many years - actualy since childhood. I'm new to this website and to the word Nuetic Science, but throughout my life I believed and experienced many phenomena described here. Therefore, I can easily relate to it.
    At times, I shared my beliefs and experiences with others, at times I didn't. Sometimes I felt people were listening with interest, other times with disbelief and redicule.
    I've come to believe that we are truely more than the sum of our body parts, and that reality and events do not necesarily occur in a liniar fassion.
    If ever a way will be found to initiate them intentionaly and consciously, I guess it's what - among other things - this institute and others around the world are trying to find.
    I support your work, at least spiritually for now, and will keep on using this site for further reading and information.
    Eldad

  • Anonymous Icon

    lafayetteann Sep 15, 2011

    I chose 'running man'. Do I have precognition? No. My hypothesis is that the words are arranged so that the majority of people would choose 'running man.' The mechanism I surmise is that the phrase 'running man' comes directly before the comma, so it is emphasized. I'll read the Bem article with a critical and open mind.

  • Anonymous Icon

    joematto Oct 30, 2012

    Dr. Vieten, I am delighted to read your article as well as the responses. If getting IONS into Dan Brown's Book didn't demonstrate PSI-research approaching a tipping point.... and emerging into the cultural zeitgeist... the plethora of projects at IONS and throughout the world devoted to the evolution and transformation of human consciousness is a clear reflection that we are there. Finally moving from having to prove it to learning how to use it. A lifelong experiencer of random but unmistakable PSI I am finally gathering the courage to commit to the process of developing those skills consistently and purposefully...a singular Tipping-Point in one point of the holographic matrix.

  • Joseph Smith May 23, 2013

    The Bermuda Triangle is noted as an area where time warps occur. I was in a time warp in the Bermuda Triangle that nobody ever heard of. Mine was unique in that instead of being lost at sea and no trace I was placed at my destination at my estimated time of arrival.

    Certain time warp factors were the same in my case. On my way from Nassau to Palm Beach, I sailed into tropical storm Dottie in late August 1976. To allow for the north moving Gulf Stream, I was on a southwesterly course. When the storm hit, I changed to a northerly course. With the north moving Gulf Stream, and ten hours on the northerly course, I should have been far to the north of my course and far out to sea.

    I was at my destination at my estimated time of arrival. There were breakers completely across Lake Worth Inlet. Something told me to go for it. Seas were breaking on both sides. The one behind never broke. I slid down it into the inlet.

    After my two years at sea, I remained living a charmed life.

  • Joseph Smith May 23, 2013

    Having now read Jeremiah Stanghini's comment, let me further comment. While at sea, God's hand on my wheel, and God has been with me ever since I challenged the powers that be, It seems that I'm a messenger.

  • Anonymous Icon

    dabrowsa Sep 02, 2013

    Regarding the mainstreaming of psi, why doesn't IONS just put the whole issue out of its misery once and for all by taking on the JREF $1M challenge? It would be worth much than $1M in PR and opened possibilities.

  • Anonymous Icon

    donsalmon Dec 11, 2013

    D. A. Browsa (real name?)

    I assume you know the JREF is a hoax? Randi himself has said, "I always have an out." Scientists have applied and when they pass the test, Randi just makes up a new one and says the old one doesn't count.

    But you don't have to believe me - take the $1M challenge from attorney Victor Zammit. He offers a million dollars to anybody who can prove that Randi's challenge is legitimate.

    So far, no winners:>))

    By the way, I initially focused on "garden" then read a few more sentences, had no idea what to choose, let my mind get quiet and "running man" - actually, a picture of someone running - came to mind.

    One of the problems with psi research is they don't incorporate enough phenomenological analysis. Here's a simple example of what a profound difference it would make.

    Debunkers (like our friend the "browse") often cite people's naivete (when they're not calling people who accept psi "stupid") in regard to "knowing" when someone is calling on the phone. Obviously, if you think of someone 10 times and one of those times they happen to call, it's not a big deal.

    And it's hard to prove "phone psi" if you only look at outer behavior and simplistic self report.

    However, i've noticed that about 10 times in my life, I got a very distinct, recognizable feeling that someone was trying hard to get in touch with me. Shortly afterward, I got a phone call from them. I've NEVER had this feeling and then not gotten some indication they were trying to contact me, like a phone call or an email (it works the same way for email).

    Now, if I simply had to report how often I thought of the person and then they called or wrote, there would be many false hits.

    If people were trained to notice subtle, subliminal feelings and thoughts, and further, learned how to connect this with their external experience, we'd find psi happening virtually all the time. It's not surprising in a civilization with extreme left-mode (it's not quite right to call it "left hemisphere") emphasis, we don't find much strong evidence for psi (well we do actually, but not enough with large effect sizes).

    And it's also not surprising that there would be many with overactive left hemispheres (or left mode functioning, since both hemispheres are involved in all brain activity) who - cut off from their emotions and sensations, as is characteristic of left mode functioning - would be clueless in regard to the nature of psi.

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