Predicting the Future: The Science of Psi, Part One

Ask a handful of people if they believe in the abilities of psychics, and you will find a bitter divide between several distinct camps: some put full faith in a psychic’s capacity to predict the future, while others are staunch in their skepticism. The subfield of science that seeks to gather empirical evidence regarding psychic ability (as well as other paranormal events, such as telepathy and telekinesis) is known as parapsychology. It’s an esoteric study often automatically met with doubt and disregard by scientists in other fields. However, an exploration of the evidence suggests that it may be worth taking a second look.

In this post, we will focus specifically on the scientific study of psychic potential. This falls under the broader category known in the field of parapsychology as “psi phenomena.” The term originates in the eponymous “twenty-third letter of the Greek alphabet, which means ‘psyche’ or ‘soul.’” One preeminent researcher on the subject, Dr. Daryl Bem, defines it as, “Anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms. Two variants of psi are precognition (conscious cognitive awareness) and premonition (affective apprehension) of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process.”

Bem conducted nine experiments involving over 1,000 participants that documented statistically significant precognition. The experiments were published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He explains his methodology: each experiment “[tested] for retroactive influence by ‘time-reversing’ well-established psychological effects so that the individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur.” For instance, one study suggested that memory recall could be influenced by future events. In this experiment, college students better remembered words on a surprise recall test when they rehearsed them after the test had already taken place.

Another experiment involved the manipulation of well-documented priming effects. Usually, “In a standard priming set-up, affectively positive or negative words appear on a computer screen and then positive or negative pictures appear briefly and the subject has to hit a button as quickly as possible to indicate whether the picture is pleasant or unpleasant. Generally what happens is that if the positive picture comes after the positive word reaction times (RTs) are faster, [and vice versa].” In Bem’s variation on this experiment, a picture was shown, the subject categorized it, and then a prime was displayed. Even when the prime was shown after categorization had already occurred, the response time was quicker. One point worth noting: the statistical significance of his results equal “odds of more than a billion to one against chance.” Furthermore, Bem found “that certain people demonstrate stronger effects than others. In particular, people high in stimulus seeking – an aspect of extraversion where people respond more favorably to novel stimuli – showed effect sizes nearly twice the size of the average person. This suggests that some people are more sensitive to psi effects than others.”

Let’s assume, for a moment, that the results of these nine studies can be successfully replicated. What, then, could cause such a counterintuitive outcome? The answer may lie in the quantum mechanical concept of entanglement. Many physicists have long suggested that time is not the linear animal we perceive. Some “entangled” particles “share information at a rate that’s seemingly instantaneous—faster than the speed of light…. But according to the theory of relativity, nothing can travel that quickly.” Thus begets the idea of retrocausality. If nothing in physical space can move faster than the speed of light, then perhaps these particles are communicating temporally. In other words, “Maybe entangled particles whisper information in each others’ ears across the vastness of time. Then it, in turn, brings that information with it to the future.

This is Part One in a series examining current research on psi phenomena, particularly that which studies our experience of the future. Join us next week for The Science of Psi: Part Two. 

-By Betty Vine

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