Study finds evidence of ESP phenomenon By David L. Chandler, Globe staff from +quot;AAAS i
Study finds evidence of ESP phenomenon
By David L. Chandler, Globe staff
from "AAAS in Boston," in the Boston Globe, 15 February 1993
A psychologist from Cornell University reported yesterday what he said was the
best evidence yet for the existence of a form of ESP, or extrasensory
perception, gathered from a detailed new analysis of 39 studies that were done
in the 1970s and 1980s.
While a person in one room stared at a picture or video clips of anything from
a Bugs Bunny cartoon to a crashing tidal wave, another person in a room
isolated from the first described whatever popped into his or her mind. Far
more often than could be explained by chance, the "receiver" described images
very similar to what the "sender" was watching, said psychologist Daryl J. Bem
of Cornell University, who was a coauthor of the study.
Surveys have shown that most people believe in the likelihood of some ESP
phenomena -- such as telepathy, or reading the thoughts of another person;
clairvoyance, or "seeing" something in a distant place; or precognition, which
is knowing something before it happens -- are real. Even among natural
scientists, one survey showed 55 percent think the reality of some ESP
experiences is established or likely. But among psychologists, only 34 percent
think so, and research on the subject is almost never reported in mainstream
In an unusual departure from that trend, the analysis of the experiments has
been accepted for publication by the American Psychological Bulletin, which
Robert Rosenthal, chairman of the psychology department at Harvard University,
describes as "the most prestigious journal in psychology."
Results of earlier experiments that claimed to show evidence for ESP have often
been only slightly above the level of chance, but in the latest analysis "the
probability that the results could have occurred by chance is less than 1 in a
billion," says Bem, who presented the results in Boston at the annual meeting
the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Bem, a coauthor of the
study with Charles Honorton, who was a parapsychologist at the University of
Edinburgh [sic]. Honorton died last November.
Rosenthal said in an interview he was "quite persuaded" by Bem's results. He
had been "an agnostic" about the existence of ESP, he said, but "the
statistical evidence [in Bem's analysis] is quite clear to me that there is a
phenomenon there that does require explaining."
In the experiments Bem studied, a sender in one room focused on a photograph,
art reproduction, or video segment that had been randomly selected by a
computer, while a receiver sat in another room with his eyes covered with
Ping-Pong ball halves and earphones blocking any sounds with a steady "white
noise." The receiver then described his or her mental impressions during the
time the sender was viewing the image.
The setup was designed to isolate the receiver from any ordinary sights,
sounds, or sensations on the theory that ESP impressions may be so faint that
they are easily swamped by the ordinary sights and sounds. Also, the images
used for the experiment were chosen to be more interesting than the simple
geometrical symbols often used in many earlier ESP experiments. Subjects often
became bored and did not do well.
Later, the receiver was shown four or more different images, including the one
the sender had been looking at and asked to pick the one that most clearly
matched what they experienced during the test period. With four choices, the
subject had a 25 percent chance of choosing the correct one.
But in a total of 330 tests, the overall "hit" rate was 32 percent -- "the
largest effect we know of," Bem said -- in any experiment on ESP.
It is a rate that Donald B. Rubin, chairman of the department of statistics at
Harvard, said yesterday would provide "strong evidence that the effect is
real," assuming that the experimental procedures were valid.
Two psychologists performed independent reviews in 1985 of a similar set of
experiments, to assess any possible flaws in the methods used. They concluded
at the time that the statistical effect in those tests was overwhelming, but
disagreed on the possibility of flaws in the procedures. They then jointly
signed a statement suggesting how the procedures could be tightened to make the
results clearly valid.
One of those researchers was Honorton, who went on to set up experiments
specifically designed to overcome every criticism that had been leveled at the
earlier experiments. Bem, who performs magic acts in his spare time, was
brought in to check the procedures to guard against any possibility of fraud or
inadvertent communication. Magicians are often used to check experiments in ESP
as a safeguard against trickery.
Creative edge noted
In the most recent experiments, Bem also found evidence to support the widely
held belief that creative people are more receptive to ESP. Twenty students
from the Juilliard School of Music participated in the experiment, and their
results were even more striking than those of other subjects. Compared to the
25 percent chance rate, the students scored 50 percent. And the musicians in
that group did even better -- a 75 percent hit rate.
Ray Hyman, a psychologist at the university of Oregon who wrote the critical
review of these experiments in 1985, remains skeptical, Bem said. But
Rosenthal, who was called in by a professional journal to referee the debate
between Hyman and Honorton in 1985, said "the numbers are so clear now that
it's really incumbent on the critics to try to explain these and make them go
Rosenthal said that one of the things that makes the new study especially
credible is that Bem "is one of the true agnostics in the field, who came to it
without preconceived ideas" of whether the phenomenon was real. "He had the
right background," Rosenthal said.
Bem said the safeguards used in the recent experiments as a result of the 1985
critique "rule out, for me, all other reasonable nonpsi explanations that have
been suggested." Psi is another term for ESP phenomena. Bem is conducting
another set of such experiments to add to the body of evidence on the subject.
The latest results are clear enough, Rosenthal said, that "I think it'll make
it a little more socially acceptable to do such research."
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank