P is for Parapsychology
Caitlin Crandell Interviews Parapsychology Researcher Dean Radin
My own limited experience in the field of parapsychology wasn’t of much help when it came to deciding how to best go about better understanding what many people write off as a pseudo-science for quacks. The only references I had were a gypsy who accosted me in Spain and told me that according to the lines on my palm I would have seven children, Harry Potter’s experiences in divination class courtesy of J. K. Rowling, and a few episodes of the TV show Supernatural (during which, admittedly, I wasn’t really paying attention to anything other than the hot male leads). Finding a believable and hopefully more intellectual source of information on psychic phenomena looked like a feat that would require some magic in the doing of it.
But then I discovered Dean Radin. With an impressive academic background including a master’s degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in psychology, I was somewhat surprised to find that Radin currently does “consciousness research”; in other words, he studies the psychic abilities of the human brain. Radin is currently on the research staff of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), having held appointments at Princeton University, the University of Edinburgh, and SRI International, among other universities and think tanks.
Radin and fellow researchers have approached the subject of psychic phenomena with all seriousness, the scientific method, and a fair bit of technology, making him an expert in the field of parapsychology, or the scientific study of phenomena such as clairvoyance, extrasensory perception, and telepathy. In addition to having written two books on the matter, Entangled Minds and Conscious Universe, Radin gives lectures and presentations around the world on his studies in what he calls psi (psychic) phenomena. Radin cordially agreed to answer a few questions for me via email which ultimately shed some scientific light on topics ranging from bending spoons to secret government research.
What are the powers of the mind that you study?
I avoid the word “powers” because that word often implies something magical. What I study are commonly reported human experiences suggesting that we have the ability to perceive information that is not mediated through the ordinary senses or constrained by the usual boundaries of space and time, and that we can directly influence aspects of the world through the application of attention and intention.
Do meditation, the power of prayer, or the placebo effect fall into your realm of research?
Indirectly all three do, but directly only prayer when that activity is cast into secular terms, as a form of focused intention.
Can people predict the future, talk to the dead, or move objects with their minds?
Yes, I don’t know, and no, unless by “move” in the last question you mean affect entropic processes at a microscopic scale. I know this is an overly pithy answer, but a comprehensive response would take far longer than I’m willing to type! (I’ve written two books that provide a more complete answer.)
What would be an average experiment at IONS?
We might study the effect of one person’s intention on a distant person’s unconscious nervous system activity. Or investigate whether people can unconsciously perceive an unpredictable event which is about to happen to them a few seconds in the future.
Could you explain one of your experiments of focused intention or secular prayer in detail (set up, measurements taken, findings, statistical analysis or relevance, etc.)?
I’m attaching four recent articles that explain the details. [See links at end of article.] There are many more like this, but these will do for a start.
Do you have any affiliation with the film What the BLEEP Do We Know!?? Are the claims made in the film based on scientific fact or even supported by evidence from research? Do you have any thoughts on the film?
I was interviewed for the Down the Rabbit Hole version of What the Bleep. The film presents a mixture of claims, some supported by solid scientific research, others more speculative or interpretive. I thought the film was a entertaining popular presentation of some leading edge ideas, which was its intent. One hopes that it would stimulate people into looking into the claims in more detail, and there are many books and articles available now, both scientific and popular, that provide more information.
What is the human mind capable of? Or can we even begin to understand the breadth of its capabilities at this point?
At this point we’re not even sure what the right questions are. No one is. But our research confirms hundreds of prior experiments conducted by other researchers over the past century, and innumerable everyday experiences reported by people throughout history and across all cultures. These repeatable experiments and experiences indicate that we are all capable of perceiving in ways that transcend everyday concepts of space and time, and that we may be able to influence the environment in ways that do not involve force (but probably does involve something like a transfer of information). We can experimentally show these things with standard scientific methods, but we’re still working on viable theories.
What are the most exciting or groundbreaking discoveries that have been made in the area of parapsychology?
I think the biggest breakthrough is the idea that one can apply strict scientific protocols, measurements, and means of analysis, to demonstrate that some of these peculiar phenomena are what they appear to be.
How is the study of consciousness and psychic phenomena viewed in the scientific world?
The Parapsychological Association, an international organization of scientists and scholars, is a society affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific organization in the world. So from that perspective it is part of the scientific mainstream. Of course, some individual scientists are sympathetic to these phenomena, and some are very skeptical. In my experience, I’ve found that those who hold the strongest skeptical opinions usually know the least about the actual empirical data. As in any controversial scientific topic, there are lots of polarized opinions, and room for much debate. But prejudice (in the literal sense of pre-judging based on beliefs rather than data) is also rampant, and it often gets in the way of rational discussion.
Where does a scientist or research organization focusing on psychic phenomena get funding? Is it difficult, or are there enough organizations that deem it legitimate research to make it possible?
Private foundations, individual donors, and government grants. The amount of available funding is small compared to funds available for less controversial topics.
From what I understand, some of the studies of psychic phenomena have ultimately culminated in results so minute that they might be written off as chance. Have all studies revealed similar results? If so, how can we rely on these findings when they have such seemingly limited statistical relevance?
Yes, some studies show chance results. But not all. Through techniques like meta-analysis, it is possible to rigorously analyze replications of similar experiments, and through such exercises (which is standard practice in the medical, behavioral and biological sciences) it can be shown that on average these experiments show small but real effects. It is important to note that a small effect size doesn’t mean the phenomenon doesn’t exist. It just means it’s small. E.g., most effects produced by modern pharmaceutical drugs are quite small. But we know their effects are real because clinical trials might involve 10,000 or more participants. I.e., it takes a lot of data to persuasively demonstrate that small effects are not due to chance.
Has (or does) the United States government funded or pursued research of psychic phenomena? If so, what sorts of phenomena has it been interested in?
Yes, mostly from the 1970s through 1990s; primarily applications of remote viewing (clairvoyance) for espionage. In the last decade most government funding in this area has come from the NIH’s (National Institutes of Health’s) interest in alternative and complementary medicine.
Within your area of research is there anything commonly considered a psychic ability that you have discredited or don’t think legitimate as a topic of research?
I would estimate that about 80% of everyday experiences that people think are psychic can be attributed to coincidence, illusion, or delusion. Of the remaining 20%, about half lend themselves to be tested in the laboratory under controlled conditions. Most of those effects have been demonstrated to be beyond chance. The one area where the evidence remains weak, and thus the jury is still out, are macroscopic mind-matter interactions (as in popular claims like spoon-bending, levitation, etc.). It’s not that those effects cannot exist, but rather than the effects are not repeatable under controlled conditions often enough to gain confidence one way or another.
How do you see the outcome of research in the field? Do you think that eventually your findings and the findings of other parapsychologists will be integrated into more widely accepted fields (such as medicine, communication, etc.)?
I think this is inevitable. There is broad, mainstream interest in sister topics like intuition and intention, and privately many of the scientists who are studying those concepts are very interested in psi research. I think as more is learned about the conditions under which quantum effects like entanglement can manifest, and the more those developments are disseminated among many scientific disciplines, the more likely someone will develop a theory that adequately accounts for, and predicts, that what we presently call “psychic” is not spooky magic, but rather an interesting aspect of the natural world that we misunderstood. Science is still very much in its infancy, so anyone who claims that phenomenon X or Y violates this or that “law” of science is far too confident about the current state of knowledge as compared to what’s left to learn.