Thursday, 22 April 2010

first week of parapsychology course...

So I decided a few weeks back to enroll on the Koestler Parapsychology Unit's (Universirty of Edinburgh) online Parapsychology module. It's a 9-week programme covering ESP, PK (or psi, as they are collectively known) and 'survival hypothesis'. The latter is basically the study of life after death. The course is led by Dr Caroline Watt, and so far, it is really interesting!

For the first week, we are introduced to basic terms, and reminded that the course is about the study of parapsychological experiences as opposed to paranormal phenomena. In other words, the assumption is that people really do have these parapsychological experiences, the question is why and how they have these experiences. Anyhow, students on the course are required to engage in online discussion with eachother on the course blog (only accesible to students and course leader), and these discussions are proving really informative. It is clear that people who do this course are very knowledgeable, and have read a lot on the subject.

A key question that was posed by Dr Watt to stimulate discussion in this first week of blogging was: why have people throughout time reported paranormal experiences?

As one of my fellow-students suggests - it is simply because they do have paranormal experiences. Of course, one has to clearly delineate what a paranormal event entails. This involves taking into account cultural and sociological differences in reporting of paranormal events i.e. what is considered paranormal to one person or culture, may be considered completely normal to another person or culture. I think we all agree, however, that a paranormal event is something outside the range of normal experiences, and for which there is no scientific explanation (the moment at which the paranormal event can be explained scientifically, it can no longer be classed as paranormal, but normal).

One of my fellow students provides a series of examples of apparent paranormal events that have taken place publicly, and hence can be corroborated by other witnesses. For example: on 3rd June 1875, Georges Bizet, composer of the opera "Carmen", died at the age of 36 from a heart attack in Bougival, France. During a performance of Carmen in Paris, Madame Galli-MariƩ (who perfromed as Carmen) was overcome by a strong sense of foreboding, and had to leave the stage mid-performance. Two hours later, Bizet died of a heart-attack.

Another example provided is that of Laurens van der Post, who was writing about the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert. One day, whilst the men were out hunting, the women began jumping up and down with joy. When van der Post enquired as to the reason, he was told that the hunters had made a kill - this turned out to be correct. (Thanks to fellow-student for the examples!!)

Another more famous example is that of Abraham Lincoln's premonition of his own death - ten days before his assasination, he dreamt about his death, and wrote about it in a journal. The dream recurred over several days. Ten days later he was shot.

There are countless other anecdotal accounts of apparent paranormal phenomena. A simple google search will bring them up.

Anyhow, as I read through the examples provided by my fellow-student, and more online, some common themes appeared to emerge:

1. These anecdotal reports of people experiencing apparent paranormal phenomena generally relate to events associated extreme loss (or very significant gain, as in the case of the Kalahariu bushwomen)...

2. ..and significant emotional involvement with the affected party (oneself, a loved one) or affected resource (e.g. one's house or personal property).

My question is: could these events be replicated in a lab-based setting? An experiment mimicking these events would involve one subject, and a selection of people and/or things they care about.


..what? Smash the subject's new car whilst they're in the lab, and see if they 'know'? Administer electric shocks to a subject's loved one and see whether they 'know'? Hand over a million pounds to the subject's spouse whilst they're elsewhere, and see the subject's reaction?

Damn damn. I thought I was onto something there. But I don't think any of those would get past the ethics board...not for humans, not for animals.

So much for great ideas. Seems that to replicate actual paranormal events in a controlled setting would entail some pretty dastardly activities. So, for now, its back to card-guessing and random event generators I guess....

Monday, 5 April 2010

to live in a psi world would be so cool!! (??)

Would it really change our lives for the better if psi phenomena became practicable and usable?

Consider PK, for example - mind-powered computer games are already in the marketplace. Other mind-powered technologies, namely wheelchairs, are being fine-tuned as we speak. In both cases, the technology involves a skullcap embedded with sensors that pick up the user's brainwaves, and a computer that analyses the user's brain activity and identifies the brainwaves that correspond with particular commands, such as "move left" or "move forward" (see my post from 1st Jan 2010 for more info on mind-controlled wheelchairs).

It is only a matter of time before a wide range of mind-controlled appliances, such as mind-controlled kettles, televisions and towel-folding robots (more on this later...) appear on the market. This is as good as PK - isn't it?

What about telepathy. Why do we need it when we have mobile phones, email, twitter, facebook etc? These technologies provide as good as, if not better, means of distant communication than telepathy.

Clairvoyance? What a bore poker games would be if everyone around the table could 'see' the cards. Goodbye card games, board games, surprise birthday parties, the fun of opening presents, blind dates and holidays to new places. And if clairvoyance doesn't take care of those fun things (as well as the less fun things like exams), then precognition should do the trick..

Life after death? I'm not sure I can properly assess the implications of this. Makes me think of a short sory by Borges about a community of immortals whose lives, as a consequence of their immortality, are infinitely dull: because they are immortal, everything possible will befall them at least once, and as a result life has no surprises...

So that leaves ghosts - to live in a world of ghosts would be interesting at first...but aren't we overcrowded as it is? Mightn't we experience a rise in a sort of 'nationalism of the living'? Would be tire of ghosts pestering us with demands to cohabit with us in our houses? What rights would ghosts have, and how would they impinge on our rights?

I'm not sure that living in a psi-world would be so cool.

Monday, 22 March 2010

taking the wide view of psi..

It has been a while since I posted anything on this blog and I want to re-engage by stepping back a few paces and taking a wide view of the whole paranormal thang (meaning not only PK, but other forms of ESP too) with the idea of seeing the forest in its ground-hugging entirety....

Parapsychology researcher and lecturer, Dr. Lance Storm, has written two review articles covering all ESP domains. These articles review the meta-analytic literature within parapsychology. Briefly, meta-analysis involves bringing together data from many different studies, so that statistical analysis may generate more conclusive findings. The idea is that the more data you have, the more reliable the results of the statistical analysis.

The first of these papers reviews the meta-analytic literature on the Ganzfeld parapsychology experiments. The second paper reviews all other psi domains excepting Ganzfeld. Without falling into the trap of reviewing the review, I would like to flag some of the findings which I think are particularly interesting...

..starting with the second paper. This article covers studies in six areas of ESP**. For more info on each of these and methods used, take a look at the original papers (links provided). Overall what is being found across all meta-analytic studies is a consistent effect which is statistically very significant. The identified effect however is tiny, tiny. PK studies (dice-throwing and REG) yield the smallest effect sizes booo, whilst DMILS studies yield the greatest effect sizes (DMILS studies involve subjects trying to mentally influence biological organisms or systems, such as the blood pressure or skin resistance of a target subject.)

Another major finding, mostly from DMILS studies, but also found in relation to PK, is that effects occur in a 'goal-directed manner' - in other words, subjects are able to bring about effects without knowing how those effects take place. For example, in DMILS studies, subjects do not know the physiological or biological processes behind blood pressure changes, yet manage to affect these. In PK studies (I have to find the reference, but I have it somewhere), subjects who attempt to influence a moving ball as it drops through a series of pegs are significantly less likely to succeed than those who cannot see the ball's trajectory and who simply will it to land left or right.

Now this is interesting! It suggests that if you focus on what you want, the how resolves itself. Somehow by focusiung on the final aim, you have a greater chance of succeeding.

One thing about all this irks me - how do we isolate the mental influences of the experimental subjects on the cards, dice, REGs etc, from the mental influences of the experimenter? It is all very well for the subject to sit there trying to make dice land on sixes, or someone else's blood pressure rise, but surely the experimenter - with his/her own set of goals - has an influence too? Furthermore, the experimenter is likely to have quite a lot of emotional energy invested in the study, and so their goal-based intentions are most likely much stronger than those of the experimental subject? And if this 'experimenter effect' is real, doesn't that imply that the intentions of other people (skeptics, for example) also have an effect?

I've read (no time to find reference right now!) that physical distance doesn't influence the size of an ESP effect. So someone on the other side of the planet could have just as important an influence on an experiment as the person sitting in the lab. As long as there are people who are aware that a particular ESP study is taking place, and as long as these people have some kind of goal-based intention regarding this study, the outcome of the study will be dependent not on the subject's intention only, but on the intentions of the different people.

This might account for the fact that the big research consortiums looking at various types of ESP, such as the Freiburg, Giessen, and Princeton collaboration started in 1996, failed to produce consistent effects or significant results (see Jahn et al, 2000, Mind/Machine Interaction Consortium: PortREG Replication Experiments, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 499–555). A widely-publicised collaboration such as this, engaging proponents and skeptics from the various organisations is likely to produce a mish mash of results depending on the strength of intention of the many different people involved. If goal-based intentions are key to producing results, then no-one needs to know the details of the experiments, but only need to have a goal in mind ("I want the consortium to succeed", or "it must fail") to influence the data. What if they had kept their experiments secret? Would they have produced consistent effects which were statistically significant? Who knows, but it is an idea...

** 1. DMILS (direct mental influence on living organisms), 2. forced-choice ESP (e.g. "what card am I holding in my hand?" kinda thing), 3. free-response ESP (aka - same as forced-choice but the thing that the person has to guess at could be anything at all!), 4. dice-throwing (macro-PK, e.g. "land on a three! land on a threee!"), 5. REG (micro-PK - see previous posts for description), 6. dream-psi (i.e. clairvoyance and telepathy in dream state).

Thursday, 11 February 2010

monkey controls robot with thoughts!!!

this is hilarious - not sure why they chose to use a monkey rather than a human, but still, pretty cool stuff...not really PK, but hey...

Thursday, 4 February 2010

its "just" the placebo effect...

I'd always considered myself the robust type, immmune to all those flus and colds and throat infections that felled everyone around me. Then I had kids. It's been one cold after another, and it's not me I worry about. I can take it. I can also pretty much take any medication the doctor throws my way. But what's a 3-month old to do?

I took him in with a minor cough some weeks back; the doctor said they couldn't give him anything, too young and all that. We have to wait and see if it develops. Which it did. Into bronquitis. "What about prevention?" I yelled at the doctor, as my son wheezed and choked on his snot. "Now the poor bugger is on cortisone! Surely this can't be right?!" And he says to me: "Well, if you want prevention, you can try homeopathy. It doesn't have any scientific basis, but there is a significant placebo effect."

I didn't know whether to pull his or my hair out. "Who is it a placebo to?" I cried, my neck veins about to pop. "Because the baby doesn't know shit!" At which point the doctor decided he was extremely busy, and politely booted us out. But he had got me thinking...

At home, between screams from the little one, I started reading up about the placebo effect. The placebo effect has been well-researched (see UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute for research on placebo effect) although its existence - as the existence of virtually anything - is disputed by some placebo skeptics skeptics.

According to the UCLA NPI "Between 30 - 60% of patients with illnesses ranging from arthritis to depression report a substantial improvement in their symptoms after receiving a placebo." They also note that it is not clear that placebos (usually inert sugar pills) actually cure illnesses, but rather improve symptoms and reduce pain. A 2005 study by the UCLA NPI research team (in the context of antidepressant medication) found that placebos had an effect on brain activity (specifically the prefrontal area, "implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making and moderating correct social behavior" (source: wikipedia)). This was the first study to identify a link between brain function and placebo effects, thus shushing the skeptics with their claims that placebo effects found in studies are mostly due to methodological flaws, experimenter effects etc etc...

The secret of placebos lies in the power of expectation and belief. The more you believe the pill/medical intervention will work, the more likely it will relieve your symptoms - and the larger the effect. And the opposite is also true - the lower your expectation, the less likely there will be an effect. Even more interesting, if you believe the medical intervention will have a negative effect, the more likely this will be the case (known as a 'nocebo' effect)!

So we return to the theme of expectation and belief - brought up in previous posts in the context of psi activity.

If I believe something will be good for me - I get better. Well not really. As I mentioned earlier, placebos haven't actually been found to cure illnesses, but rather, relieve symptoms. So let me rephrase that: if I believe something wll be good for me, I'll feel better.

Nothing too wow-wee about that. I was hoping for some evidence of the paranormal. Instead, all this reading has led me to one conclusion: the placebo effect is not mysterious or magical or paranormal. Its downright normal. As Descartes put it: 'I think therefore I am'. So gullibility can be a good thing!

Now I have to convince the baby that these little sugar pills are going to make him feel better.

Oh drat.

Bring on the energy healers...

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

training my psychokinetic powers...

The Psychic Science website has quite an arsenal of rudimentary ESP tests, games and 'training 'devices (if indeed you can train for something as yet unpoven).

I've been 'training' for a few days now in order to develop my psychokinetic abilities (e.g. making dials turn left or right with my mind), and have the aching muscles (over my eyes and skewering my skull diagonally like a spit-roasted pig) to prove it. Despite the pain, my z-statistics remain sufferingly poor. Maybe I should stick with saturday crosswords and paper airplanes, things I'm actually good at...

In my frustration, I reach out to the various sources of info and 'techniques' for developing PK, and turns out I've been doing it all wrong! Apparently, the harder you try, the less likely it is to work (or something to that oxymoronic effect)!

I sigh. This has something of the Buddhist one-hand clapping logic about it (none). How am I supposed to develop something without effort? I read more in order to understand. Numerous informal accounts of macro-PK activity (briefly, macro-PK refers to instances where a person mentally moves objects such as chairs and clocks, or bends spoons, etc, whereas micro-PK refers to the generation of a non-random distribution of outcomes, such as when a person tried to make dice land on a six more than 1/6 times) suggest that it is not so much that PK events happen without effort, but rather, that they often occur when the person stops trying.

This anecdotal evidence is further supported by study by Pamela R. Heath (2000), which used a phenomenological approach (i.e. study of subjective experiences (Psychology)) to identify experiential factors that correlate with PK activity. The study examined the experiences of eight individuals who had had a PK experience. Fifteen factors were identified (e.g. altered state of consciousness, investment, openness to the experience) that correlated with PK experiences, including what is termed: 'release of effort/ attention'. Thus, according to this study, PK events tend to occur once the subject has stopped concentrating or trying to achieve an effect. So in fact, effort is required (one of the key factors identified in this study), but the PK event only happens upon release of that effort.

Of course, these findings, although interesting, are barely conclusive given that the study is based on eight individuals. However, reading this has reminded me of something I came across last week when I was writing about the thought-controlled wheelchair (posted 1st January) - according to Andrzej Cichocki, the project leader at the RIKEN research centre (which has produced the wheelchair in collaboration with Toyota), the wheelchair is piloted best if you don't try too hard. Again, the 'trying too hard' theme.

Could it be that trying hard isn't the problem, but trying hard with the wrong set of tools? Am I failing to move that stubborn dial in the right direction because I'm trying to hammer when I should be twisting? Or banging when I should be plucking? Or....alright, you get the picture: we're trying to swat mosquitoes with canon-balls.

So which is the right tool? What exactly is happening when there is a release of effort or concentration? What brain waves (or other magnetic/electrical force) are you emitting when you're not trying too hard? What mechansim comes into play at those times when you're slacking? Should I find the right tool, will it allow me to move mountains whilst staring into space, a mild hangover numbing my skull? Will lying in bed all day become not just acceptable, but obligatory? Are the lazy going to inherit the earth?

Friday, 1 January 2010

mind-controlled wheelchair

So I was watching a programme covering notable events of the year 2009, and amongst the obvious falling wall anniversaries and global financial collapses, a cursory mention was made about Toyota's release of a new faster-than-ever 'mind-controlled wheelchair' onto the market in mid-2009.

The wheelchair user's intentions ("turn left", "turn right" etc) produce definable electrical impulses which are picked up by a network of sensors that are embedded in a cap that the user wears on her head. These electrical impulses are analysed by an onboard computer, which translates the results to movement in a speedy 125 milliseconds. Check out the video on youtube.

Ok, so this isn't psychokinesis, but still pretty amazing - only difference with PK is that the process of converting an intention into an external response (without assistance of a finger or toe) is not only understood but made useable. Think of a future with this technology (with improvements)! The possibilities multiply exponentially with each aha!...

Think: sensor-embedded skullcaps indispensable as shoes. Think also: models skulking down catwalks sporting the latest fashion in sensor-embedded caps. Then think: doors and elevators, cars and motorbikes, lawnmowers, computer games and household appliances, all connected to your sensor-cap, picking up the electrical pulses and carrying out the commands. Imagine a world like this! Hands-free!

Maybe it would be fun for a while.

In the long run, however, the elimination of necessary physical activity to convert intention into a physical outcome could have some pretty disastrous consequences. Imagine arriving home from an exhausting day at work (where you were expected to work mind and hands in tandem), and throwing yourself on the sofa, where you proceed to switch on the lights, turn on the kettle in the kitchen, zap through the tv channels and make a few phone-calls without moving a finger! Man would you get FAT!

Or what if you don't really know what you want? What if you want something, but aren't aware of it? Could the technology pick up on an image, a memory, something you saw on tv earlier? What about clashing commands from different users?

Despite the long list of possible problems, I'm a believer in all things new. After some decades of lying in our sofas (it's not like we don't do that already), and setting fire to the kitchen, new ways of using the mind-matter technology would probably emerge that we haven't even thought of yet. Can't wait. Bring it on.