Quantum Mechanics And The Collective Unconscious

Chapter Two: The PSI Story 


The word 'psi', pronounced 'sigh', is conventionally used as a convenient shorthand for describing paranormal phenomena, which can be roughly classified as follows:

  • telepathy, or direct communication between human or animal minds independently of the known sense organs and regardless of distance or the presence of material obstacles;
  • clairvoyance, or the perception of events or physical objects other than through the known senses;
  • precognition, or the knowledge of future events or mental states; and
  • psychokinesis, or the action of mind on matter without the interposition of physical means such as nerves or muscles.

The first three of these are often described as extrasensory perception (ESP), while the last is often abbreviated as PK.

As a sweeping generalization, one can say that belief in psi phenomena, whether or not they actually existed, was a normal part of life in early human communities, and can still be observed today among primitive tribes in Africa and elsewhere, particularly in the person of the 'shaman' or equivalent.

Continuing to be sweeping, it is roughly true, at least in the West, that as the partnership between the Christian religion and the Newtonian scientific consensus described in the last chapter took hold between say 1500 and 1900, the study of paranormal phenomena was increasingly denied scientific respectability. The alchemists, who can fairly be described as the progenitors of modern scientific method, would not have made such a hard-and-fast distinction, but by the seventeenth century at latest alchemy was giving way to modern science, and witch-burning had become popular. Witches were often condemned as a result of carrying on what we would now call paranormal activity. It's ironic that the persecution of witches amounts to an acceptance that paranormal phenomena were real; but the feeling that to study or practice the paranormal is somehow irregular or even wrong has persisted into modern times.

It was not until the nineteenth century that some sort of quasi-scientific study of psi began, on a very haphazard and occasional basis, and in terms of academia it was too late: through most of the 20th century, it was academically suicidal for a researcher to specialize in the paranormal. While it is thus easy to understand that an excluded discipline finds it ever harder to clamber onto the academic band-waggon, it is more difficult to explain the violent and deep-seated antipathy of some conventional scientists to studies of the paranormal. Given that survey after survey has found belief in the existence of the paranormal among a majority of scientists, as indeed among the general population, one has to conclude that the 'sceptics', as they are conventionally described, are in some way psychologically challenged by psi, and thus resort to what one can only call highly unscientific methods in order to discredit psi research and researchers. They are only a minority, but they have had an impact out of proportion to their numbers. It's worth noting that many, although by no means all of the sceptics are highly religious.

Against this kind of resistance, it has taken a long time, and the painstaking accumulation of a mountain of convincing, scientific evidence, for study of the paranormal to gain some sort of fairly grudging acceptance on the fringes of conventional science, something that one can say happened in the final quarter of the 20th Century. In the long march from pseudo-science to quasi-respectability, it is impossible not to mention the work of J B Rhine (1895 - 1980), who created the still-existing Rhine Foundation in the 1930s.

The existence of the UK's Society for Psychical Research and the equivalent US-based American Society for Psychical Research, both founded in the 19th century, and both of which continue their activities, testify to the high level of interest in the para-normal among professional psychological researchers. Many of the most illustrious of them have been and continue to be members of these societies.

Given that much of the funding for scientific research comes from commercial entities, one of the problems that besets psi research is the apparent lack of usefulness for paranormal phenomena in the world of business and industry. The US military however did pursue aspects of ESP through research programs in the 20th century; and many police forces around the world routinely use psychically gifted individuals in the pursuit of criminals and missing persons. Most of the military programs are classified, as you might suppose, so we don't know much about them. Of course, if precognition exists, it would have obvious uses in finance and investment; and people using it in that way might also be inclined not to talk about it! It's easy to believe that successful investors may be using their own psychic skills as part of their trading equipment, so to speak, and perhaps without even knowing that they are doing it.

Evidently, one of the problems that psi researchers face is the lack of a demonstrated mechanism for psi effects. The research that has taken place has therefore largely been directed to studying the phenomena of psi, without much in the way of attempts to create a mathematical or physical basis for whatever forces or effects are involved in the paranormal.

PSI Researchers

Among prominent researchers who have studied paranormal phenomena and its causative mechanisms, we may mention:

William James, who throughout his life applied scientific discipline as rigorously as anyone could wish, and who witnessed and studied psychic phenomena over a period of 25 years. He concluded, shortly before he died, that, while he was personally convinced of the reality of the paranormal, he could not point to conclusive evidence for or against its existence. He imagined the existence of a psychic 'sea' pervading our universe:

Out of my experience, such as it is (and it is limited enough) one fixed conclusion dogmatically emerges, and that is this, that we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves, and Conanicut and Newport hear each other's fog-horns. But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean's bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir. Our "normal" consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to our external earthly environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connection. Not only psychic research, but metaphysical philosophy, and speculative biology are led in their own ways to look with favor on some such "panpsychic" view of the universe as this.

We will return to such 'field' theories in later parts of this book. As to the paranormal, James regarded observed phenomena as haphazard incursions into everyday reality from the psychic sea.

Rex G Stanford, b 1938, PhD in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin, Professor of Psychology St Johns University, Jamaica, NY, was President of the Parapsychological Association (PA) in 1973 and 2007, and has written more than 100 books and peer-reviewed articles. He has particularly studied the causative mechanisms that underly psi phenomena, developing a theory that needs, often unconscious and non-intentional, are a major driving factor. He believes that the operation of psi is indeed normally unconscious. The theory is termed the psi-mediated instrumental response (PMIR), seen as being essentially goal-oriented.

Michael A. Persinger (born June 26, 1945) is Director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. With more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, his specializations are Neurotheology, Neuroscience and Parapsychology. He has published reports of rudimentary 'telepathic' communication between pairs of subjects in the laboratory. In a 2002 study, Persinger et al established a correlation between bursts of unusual 7 Hz spikes in neural activity in the occipital lobes of the cortex and periods of successful 'remote viewing' of pictures of local scenes by an adept in such viewing. The researchers considered that such neural activity was likely to be have sub-cortical origins. Working with remote viewer Ingo Swann, he measured increases in viewing accuracy in experiments involving 40 experimentally blind participants during stimulation with complex magnetic fields using a circumcerebral (around the head) eight-channel system. The abstract of a report on the Swann experiments (see reference) says: "A neuropsychological assessment and Magnetic Resonance Imaging indicated a different structural and functional organization within the parieto-occipital region of the subject's right hemisphere from organizations typically noted." Some of Persinger's work has been heavily criticized, but, as noted above, this is often the fate of anyone brave enough to study parapsychology.

Grover Cleveland Backster (1924 - 2013) was primarily a polygraph expert, but became interested in psi and conducted a well-known series of experiments in which the polygraph showed that plants reacted to a mental intention to harm them, and to damage done to living animals (specifically, brine shrimps) in their vicinity. Backster proposed the existence of a 'field' which interconnects all life forms, and allows a form of biocommunication which he termed 'primary perception' and some commentators have likened to esp. Backster's experiments have been replicated on a number of occasions, but there has been some methodological criticism of the work.

Robert G. Jahn, Ph.D. (born April 1, 1930) studied psychic and parapsychological phenomena for many years. With Brenda Dunne, he established the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) in 1979; PEAR reported statistically significant causal relationships between intention in subjects' minds and the behaviour of electronic random event generators, i.e. that the results generated are non-random. These effects are termed low-level PK (psychokinesis). Jahn is given fuller coverage in the next chapter. PEAR was closed in 2007.

Joseph Banks Rhine (1895 – 1980), mentioned above, was originally a botanist, and founded scientific research in parapsychology as a branch of psychology at Duke University. The Rhine Research Center continues his work alongside the University, led after his death by his wife Louisa Rhine. Rhine wrote extensively; of particular interest is Extra-Sensory Perception After Sixty Years (1940), a meta-analysis of the existing literature. Predictably, the work of the Rhine continues to be attacked by non-believers.

The pattern of publication of experiments that have significant results, only to have them rebutted by failed attempts to replicate, continues. In 2011, the respected Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an account by Daryl J Bem of nine experiments which appeared to show evidence of precognition. A fierce controversy ensued, and the Journal finally published a rebuttal in 2012 which reported seven experiments testing for precognition that 'found no evidence supporting its existence.'

The longest-running and most thorough series of experiments aimed variously at proving or disproving the existence of psi effects must be those labelled 'ganzfeld'. Such experiments involve attempts by a 'sender' to transmit randomly selected data to a 'receiver' who is in a state of mild sensory deprivation. As usual, many such studies, often dealing with meta-data, obtain significant results, only to have them denied by opposing sceptical studies. Bem conducted one such positive study.

Brain-To-Brain Communication

Telepathy, as discussed above, if it exists, may or may not constitute direct brain-to-brain communication. That could be what is happening; but it is also possible that telepathy takes place via a 'collective unconscious' which is external to individual human brains. Either way, the mechanism is obscure. As of 2016, there continues to be a lack of peer-reviewed publication on the subject of PSI, which may be due to the absence of actual research, but may equally well be due to the reluctance of researchers and their reviewers to put their heads above the parapet. There is however a plethora of reports of brain-to-brain communication between humans and/or other mammals. This is not telepathy, of course, which as described in this section is involuntary, unconscious, and usually highly specific to a pair of individuals; however, the work being done does scratch at the surface of interpersonal communication outwith conventional sensory channels.

A group of mostly Spanish researchers (see Grau) has described the conscious transmission of information between human brains through the intact scalp and without intervention of motor or peripheral sensory systems. In fact, what was being recorded and then transmitted was a string of '0's and '1's, needing conversion on arrival into the words from which they had been derived, and the actual conversion process was fairly ungainly. This may be altogether a blind alley: whatever format nature uses in actual telepathy, it is fairly sure not to be digital. The authors make grand claims for the future of their technique, but a more useful route may have been mapped out by Nicolelis et al, who used implanted cortical electronic arrays to connect two rats, who appeared able to utilize the signals coming from each other's brains, a signal consisting of actual neuronal events. Not allowed in people, of course, but presumably it is only a matter of time before it is possible to record, or even just transmit actual brain states between people in a non-invasive way. But none of that will amount to telepathy.

'Real' telepathy, whatever that is, continues to be reported from time to time, even if not in scientific journals. Diane Powell, a classically trained neurophysiologist, has written over a period of twenty years on the cases of apparently telepathic youngsters, although she seems not to have gained access to mainstream periodicals (surprise! surprise!). She herself regrets that the circumstances of her subjects most often prevented fully controlled experimental conditions. Still, her evidence is convincing enough, amounting to a supposition that the two young 'savants' that she particularly studied had telepathic access to the minds of their mothers.

"I have met privately with many people," says Powell, "who have said they would never publicly state that they believe in telepathy but tell me that they have actually experienced it or witnessed it themselves. "Many of them say the reason they don't come forward and say anything is that they are actually afraid that they would be ridiculed or possibly even lose their job. It's very risky to one's credibility to take on a subject like this - but I knew that when I got into it."

PSI Theories

What is one to make of scientists' perpetual failure to reach consensus on the basic question of the very existence of paranormal phenomena, after 100 or more years of trying? Is there any other discipline in which so many of its participants spend so much time trying to discredit their colleagues? Are there any meta-studies that compare rebuttal rates across disciplines?

There are no easy answers to such questions; in the end it is a matter of personal choice, and this author chooses to line up with William James, based at least partly on personal experience.

As with quantum mechanics, there are theories a-plenty about how, say, telepathy may operate, and some of them are described later in this book; but they are speculative and lack experimental foundations. From this perspective, the study of psi, even more than the study of quantum mechanics, is at what one could call the 'phlogiston' stage of development.

It is no coincidence that psi and quantum mechanics have been mentioned in the same breath: given that they both involve 'spooky action at a distance' it is very tempting to hypothesize that the same mechanism may be involved in both, and some people have done so. Many writers have also proposed a role for quantum effects in the operation of the brain; if quantum effects do exist in the brain, it is tempting to want to associate them with theories about 'psi' (extra-sensory perception or psychokinesis), since both seem to operate regardless of distance, and instantaneously. The interaction of quantum mechanics and consciousness will be the subject of the next chapter.


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