The Best Case for ESP?

Matt Nisbet

Imagine for a moment that you are recruited to participate in a ganzfeld experiment, one of the world’s most exotic laboratory exercises, and touted as the best known method for testing for “psi” ability. As the subject in the ganzfeld experiment, you are sequestered in a soundproof room, your eyes are covered with ping-pong ball halves, a red floodlight is cast toward your eyes, and white noise is pumped into your ears through headphones, depriving you of sensory ability.

Then a “sender,” another individual located in a adjacent soundproof room, attempts to transmit to you a specific picture, referred to as a “target”. During this signaling period, you are asked to report all mental imagery that comes to mind. Afterwards, the experimenter shows you a set of several pictures, only one of which is the picture viewed by the sender, and you are asked to rate the extent to which each picture matches the mental imagery you experienced during the signaling session. If you score better than chance in rating the signaled picture, you may be classified as having psi ability.

Psi (pronounced sigh) refers to the “anomalous” process of information or energy transfer. More commonly recognized names for phenomena that would be defined as psi include Extrasensory Perception (ESP), telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis. Psi research has been conducted for decades, and has been a controversial topic of academic debate in the sciences and social sciences.

However, in 1994, psi research received a boost in credibility with the publication in one of psychology’s top journals of an article co-authored by Cornell University psychology professor Daryl Bem. I first met Bem last fall during my orientation as a graduate student in the Cornell department of communication. At that time I asked Bem to discuss his psi research, and I came away impressed by his summary of findings, and his extensive knowledge of the topic. During this past year, I discovered that Bem’s reputation as a top scholar and colorful figure stretched across campus. His name was often mentioned with reverence by professors, and my fellow grad students raved about their experience in his psychology seminar “Beliefs, Attitudes, and Ideologies.”

I was intrigued. Daryl Bem was a psychologist of top academic and research merit convinced of the existence of psi, and had published a review of evidence in support of his conviction in a leading psychology journal. Certainly there was a story to be told here. I gathered my notebook, sat down at my computer for a literature review, and requested interviews with Bem and his arch-nemesis, University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman.

Reading the Mind of Daryl Bem

The existence of ESP is a popular notion among the general public, with close to 50 percent of respondents in a 1996 Gallup poll indicating that they believe ESP exists. Other surveys have revealed that belief in ESP is just as prevalent among the highly educated, including university faculty in the sciences and social sciences.

ESP poll - general population


ESP poll - college professors

The strongest skeptics of psi are often psychologists. Compared to their colleagues in other fields, psychologists are probably most familiar with the type of extraordinary evidence needed to support the claims of psi, as well as the failures of past research. Psychologists are also very familiar with the deep flaws in anecdotal accounts of psi phenomena that often capture the public’s imagination. They recognize that most accounts are the likely product of human shortcomings and biases in interpreting everyday events.

Not surprisingly then, research into psi has historically been on the outskirts of academia and the social sciences, with psi researchers calling their field “parapsychology,” publishing their research in parapsychology journals, and holding parapsychology conferences that receive little notice and credit from psychology or other fields.

Even parapsychology’s strongest supporters and most recognized researchers admit that the field is riddled with inferior research methods and standards, plagued by a chronic inability to replicate supposedly groundbreaking findings, and characterized by shifting tides of paradigmatic experimental designs and theories on how to test, identify, verify, explain, and define psi phenomena.

Occasionally, however, parapsychological research will break into mainstream academic outlets, as was the case in 1994 when Bem and University of Edinburgh parapsychologist Charles Honorton published “Does Psi Exist? Replicable Evidence for an Anomalous Process of Information Transfer,” a 14-page review of past ganzfeld experiments in Psychological Bulletin.

Bem started his academic career as a physicist, earning a B.A. from Reed College in 1960, and heading to MIT for graduate work. The civil rights movement of the early 60’s captured his interest in social psychology, and led Bem to switch disciplines and transfer schools. He earned his Phd in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1964, and proceeded to embark on a distinguished career. Bem’s list of published articles is pages long, spans five decades, and includes almost every major psychology journal. He is a full professor at Cornell, and has held positions at Harvard, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon Universities.

So I wondered why such a credentialed researcher, a man of science, would put his reputation on the line and embrace a topic many might group in the same category with cold fusion, free energy, and alien abduction. I contacted Bem via e-mail about arranging an interview, and in mid-June I hiked up the hill to the Cornell campus and Uris, the main building for the Cornell psychology department. After winding and twisting through the expanse of hallways, I arrived at Bem’s office a bit late.

I knocked on the door and entered. His office was spacious, even by full-professor standards, without trappings, uncluttered, and modern in a late 70’s to early 80’s way. Bem did not rise from his desk to greet me, and as I sat down and re-introduced myself, explaining the direction and topic of my column, I had the sense that he was evaluating me, assessing my motives with the trained eye of a psychologist.

I began by asking Bem how he became interested in psi. Sitting up in his desk chair, obviously enjoying the prospect of telling the story, Bem launched into a tale that he had undoubtedly crafted and told many times.

An amateur magician as a youth, Bem began ESP shows at the age of 17, a pastime he continues today as a professional mentalist and member of the Psychic Entertainers Association. In 1983, as a mentalist and top research psychologist, Bem was asked to evaluate Charles Honorton’s laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey. According to Bem, at the time Honorton had just initiated a new series of ganzfeld studies (dubbed “autoganzfeld” because the targets were randomized by computer) that complied with stringent research protocols. Bem’s visit to Honorton’s laboratory left him convinced that results of the ganzfeld research deserved to be published in a mainstream journal. “I looked over the protocol, and was quited impressed,” Bem recalled. “I had read Honorton’s debate with Ray Hyman, and thought that the one talent I have is that I am able to reach the mainstream journals.”

At that point, I interjected to ask what he had thought of psi research prior to arriving at Honorton’s laboratory. “Before ganzfeld, I was a skeptic,” he answered quickly and assertively.

So when the newly appointed editor of the prestigious Psychological Bulletin wrote in his inaugral editorial that he wanted to take more risks in publication, and contacted Bem about the submission of recent research, Bem responded with a review article co-authored with Honorton on the ganzfeld experiments.

In their article, Bem and Honorton described the results of their meta-analysis of eleven ganzfeld studies. In a meta-analysis, statistical tools are used to combine data from a series of similar experiments conducted over a period of time. The subjects in Bem and Honorton’s meta-analysis obtained overall target “hit” rates of approximately 35 percent, far above the 25 percent that chance performance would predict. Bem and Honorton also detailed several theoretically interesting findings. The ganzfeld subjects who exhibited high hit rates were more likely to have scored high on emotional and perceptual orientation indices, to be artistically creative or possibly extroverted, to have had previous ESP-like experiences, or to have had previously studied a mental discipline like meditation. Experimental conditions using dynamic visual stimuli also yielded higher hit rates than those using static visual stimuli.

“I recommended four reviewers, and all four recommended publication,” Bem said. But it wasn’t that simple. As Bem admits, he considers the sociology of science as having worked in his favor. The authors of submitted journal articles in psychology are known to the reviewers, and Bem considers his reputation as contributing to the article’s acceptance. “Is there a prejudice? Would the same reviewers publish Honorton? But there is a prejudice in favor of me. Reviewers are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. And that is rational in a sense, that they should trust me.”

The statement left me scratching my head. Double-blind peer-review is the standard throughout other fields in the sciences and social sciences for the explicit reason of preventing reviewers from giving authors “the benefit of the doubt.” I am sure that Bem’s reputation assisted the publication of the article, but the scenario falls short of a “rational” outcome.

I asked Bem if there was a physical explanation or mechanism for how psi operated. “No, but there will be a physical explanation,” he answered.

I wondered whether an explanation would occur in Bem’s lifetime. “I’m only in my fifties,” he chuckled in response. He followed by making reference to several comparisons often used by supporters of the unknown. “There are phenomena in quantum physics that physicists don’t have an idea how they work.” Besides physics, Bem also made reference to alternative medicine. “When it was discovered that acupuncture releases pain-masking endorphins, suddenly there was a mechanism, and acupuncture became more respectable.”

Bem is correct in pointing out these comparisons, but drawing analogies to other cases in the history of science do not offer arguments for the existence of psi, but rather offer an argument to keep an open and skeptical mind.

The second major criticism I put forth to Bem was that ganzfeld experiments lacked replicability. Bem accepted the criticism. “I can’t do a ganzfeld study and guarantee results,” he said. Again however, Bem turned to the history of science to support his case, arguing that in early experiments in lasers, scientists couldn’t replicate results either.

According to Bem, his critics simply hold a different world and scientific view. For a phenomena like psi, Bem decribed critics like Ray Hyman as rightfully demanding “extraordinary” evidence. However, the controversy develops over what constitutes “extraordinary.”

Journey to the Center for Inquiry

ray hyman

Ray Hyman

A week before meeting Bem, I drove on a Saturday afternoon from Ithaca to Buffalo, New York to interview University of Oregon psychologist Ray Hyman who was in town at the invitation of the Center for Inquiry-International, headquarters of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Besides hosting the editorial and business offices of Skeptical Inquirer, the Center includes a 50,000 volume library stacked to the ceiling with books on the occult, the paranormal, science, philosophy, and religion, a museum of oddities and curios from paranormal and pseudoscientific lore, and a 100-plus seat conference center that has featured a roster of prominent speakers this past year including Voodoo Science author and physicist Robert Park, SETI astronomer Jill Tarter, professional skeptic Michael Shermer, and flim-flam investigator James “The Amazing” Randi.

Arriving at the Center for Inquiry, and passing through the security procedures at the front entrance, I was greeted in the hallway by Hyman and CSICOP executive director Barry Karr. Hyman is an instantly likable man with an air of calming ease about him. In his seventies, standing about 5’6” with a sleight build, Hyman walks with a stage entertainer’s nimbleness and carries a constant smile. A magician since his youth, Hyman often frames his conversations with the crisp, deft, and agile hand gestures of a well-practiced conjurer.

Like Bem, I began by asking Hyman how he became interested in the investigation of psychic phenomena. Growing up in Boston, Hyman’s interest in magic often led him to attend message readings and spiritualist gatherings, but he soon grew disillusioned. “At the age of fifteen or sixteen, it became pretty obvious what was going-on,” Hyman said. “Other people refused to not believe. I thought to myself that these people don’t want to see the obvious, and began to ask what do these people get from their belief system.”

As a magician, Hyman learned that audiences preferred mentalist tricks and palmistry, and he became quite good at palm reading. “I was getting fantastic hits, and it was reinforcing. I became a bit of a believer.”

In 1946, he enrolled at Boston University to study journalism. As Hyman recalled, while at BU, the chair of the department learned of Hyman’s palm reading, and called him into his office to admonish him. Hyman protested, and offered to read his palm. The professor acquiesced, Hyman gave the palm reading, and the professor then dismissed him, only a few weeks later to call Hyman back into his office to read his palm again. The experience helped confirm in Hyman an interest in the study of false beliefs, and Hyman later transferred to Johns Hopkins University to earn his Ph.D. in psychology.

Trained as a magician, mentalist, psychologist, and statistician, Hyman first became involved in the evaluation of parapsychological research in 1967 at the request of the American Statistical Association. Since then, he has published over 250 articles critical of parapsychology, has chaired the National Research Council’s sub-committee on parapsychology, and has served as an independent reviewer of the CIA’s “Stargate” research program into remote-viewing.

For all his experience and efforts, the review of parapsychology is not a duty that he relishes. “Parapsychology is incredibly uninteresting and boring. It is not what everyone thinks,” he complained to me. “I really don’t want to be involved any longer, but there is really no one I can trust to hand it off to, to do a good job.”

Hyman described most of the popular critics of parapsychology as not rising to the level of sophistication of current parapsychological research. “Most of the criticism of the field is of straw people. The criticism has been very bad.”

During the early to mid-eighties, Hyman published a series of debates with Charles Honorton over the proper protocols for Ganzfeld experiments. Given his decades of experience, and past debate with Honorton, Hyman was a natural choice to be a reviewer of the 1994 Bem and Honorton Psychological Bulletin review article. Hyman recommended publication, but was asked to contribute a response in the same issue of Psychological Bulletin.

Hyman’s criticisms of the ganzfeld studies and parapsychology in general range from the heavily methodological to the philosophical and epistemological. First, Hyman questions the reasonableness of arriving at conclusions from meta-analysis. He maintains that the proper use of meta-analysis should be to generate hypotheses, which then must be independently tested on new data.

Second, Hyman told me that in thoroughly probing the data reviewed in the Psychological Bulletin article, he uncovered what he considered “peculiar” patterns. He noticed that all of the significant “hitting,” the correct rating of a target by the receiver, was done on the second or later appearance of a target. When Hyman examined the guesses against just the first occurrences of targets, the result was consistent with chance. Adding to his suspicions, Hyman also discovered that the hit rate rose systematically with each additional occurrence of a target. Since all the targets were displayed on video to the receivers, Hyman suggests that to correct for a non-paranormal reason why one target video clip might appear different then another, all the targets be run through the video machine an equal number of times before they are shown to the receiver.

Hyman also severely questions the non-replicability of the ganzfeld experiments and other experiments in parapsychology. “The most serious weakness of parapsychology is that there is a failure of replication by rivals in independent laboratories,” Hyman said. “Every field has ‘paradigm experiments’ where you can get results. There are thousands of experiments in psychology that can be replicated, but in parapsychology there isn’t one where you can get that. In no other field is there something similar.” As Hyman has maintained for several decades, he believes that the ganzfeld experiments continue to need independent replication with tighter controls.

I asked Hyman why he thought Bem had taken such an interest in the ganzfeld research of Honorton. “Most of the criticisms of parapsychology are unfair. I think Bem may have had the feeling of defending the underdog.”

Making Einstein and Newton Look Puny

Albert Einstein

Do the ganzfeld experiments provide convincing evidence of psi? No, but the results do suggest the possibility, and call for further laboratory investigation, efforts at replication, and confirmation.

Bem told me that he would like to see a large scale series of ganzfeld experiments using as subjects what he termed “superstars”-individuals previously believed to demonstrate psychic ability. “If you were to test for high jumping ability, you wouldn’t take random people; you would use the superstars,” Bem said. He regards psi as a topic that deserves the attention and resources of mainstream psychology. “It is far more interesting than the hum-drum stuff that gets funded.”

Though Hyman doesn’t see much promise in current and past psi research, he agrees that a confirmation of psi would be of wide interest and importance. “The first person to make a breakthrough is going to make Newton and Einstein look puny,” Hyman predicted.

The history of parapsychology has not offered much hope that future generations will witness the scientific confirmation of psychic ability, but the prospect remains provocative and tantalizing to the imagination. Daryl Bem’s research may stand as a major guidepost on the road to discovery, or go down in future decades as one of many promising findings never to be replicated nor confirmed.

Recommended Web Sources

Recommended Further Readings

  • Hyman, R. (1985) The ganzfeld experiment: A critical appraisal. Journal of Parapsychology, 49, 3-49.
  • Hyman, R. & Honorton, C. (1986). A joint communiqué: the psi ganzfeld controversy. Journal of Parapsychology, 50, 351-364.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and a CSI technical consultant.