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April 28, 1998

Anomalistic Experiences Can Be Studied for their Own Sake Despite Paranormal Claims

by William F. Vitulli

The cliche, "experience is the best teacher" contains a kernel of truth, yet many experiences are suspect with regard to their pedagogical value. Consider, for example, the feeling of knowing who is about to phone you before the phone rings, followed by confirmation, or the premonition that someone living far away with whom you have had very little recent contact has fallen ill, and you discover (sadly) later that your hunch was correct, or the dream (wish fulfillment) that you have won the Florida Lottery and you learn (delightedly) upon awakening that your numbers did match the winning combination. These are 'prototypes' of experiences that may appear to be 'psychic' in nature. They are cited often as evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena. Yet H. J. Irwin (parapsychologist from The University of New England, Armidale, Australia) made an important distinction between parapsychological experiences and paranormal phenomena. The former (experiences) may give the appearance of extrasensory perception (ESP) while the latter (phenomena) require scientific support to verify their authenticity.

Controversy Over Terminology

Parapsychology as an academic discipline investigates essentially three domains of anomalous experiences, as follows: (1) extrasensory perception (ESP), (2) psychokinesis (PK), and (3) the 'survival' hypothesis (the extent to which some facet of human existence survives death). While there is general agreement among parapsychologists (e.g., L. W. Bailey, H. J. Irwin, W. H. Jones, J. Yates, and L. Zusne) regarding the scope of their subject matter, nevertheless 'ESP' and 'PK' are terms which convey unverified presumptions of the paranormal prompting British parapsychologist B. P. Wiesner (circa 1942) to suggest a generic symbol to cover both of them, viz., the Greek letter 'psi'. Yet quite apart from their premature implications of paranormal processes at work, the terms ESP and PK provide useful distinctions in relation to general psychology. For example, direct awareness of the existence of objects that cannot be seen or detected through 'normal' sensory channels (clairvoyance), or the monitoring of another person's consciousness without the benefit of conventional information (telepathy), or forecasting future events the occurrence of which could not be inferred from present knowledge (precognition) all mimic sensory-like (afferent-input) processes alleged in ESP, whereas exerting conscious effort alone to move an object (mind over matter) suggests motor-like (efferent-output) processes alleged in PK.

The Survival Hypothesis

In the early literature of parapsychology, the survival (life after death) hypothesis revealed itself in claims of apparitions, reincarnations, communications with deceased spirits by means of seances, etc. More recently, however, out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) and near-death experiences (NDEs) have been interpreted (by some researchers) as evidence for life after death. And alleged recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK) has been cited as evidence for survival of a troubled spirit when manifested in the form of the poltergeist experience. Yet prior to any attribution of paranormal authenticity, the complex functioning of the brain (causing illusions and hallucinations) must be scientifically ruled out.

The "Bell Curve" Is Prophetic

The importance of Irwin's distinction between psi experience (apparent ESP or PK) versus psi phenomena (scientific evidence of the paranormal) is that behavioral scientists can and should study the former experiences as components of one's cognitive behavior (consciousness), without concluding automatically that to do so is to give any necessary credence to the validity of paranormal explanations. For example, apparent precognitive experiences (i.e., correct forecasts of future events not inferred from present knowledge) should be analyzed in the context of the normal (bell-shaped) probability curve, yet spontaneous reports of such successes (hits) often do not contain sufficiently complete diaries of the number of forecasts which turned out to be "false alarms". If known, the occasions of failures (inaccurate predictions) would probably outweigh the frequency of hits, and these distributions (of hits and misses) are described nicely by the bell- shaped curve!

Truth May Be Beautiful, Yet Not Necessarily Vice Versa

An heuristic article by J. W. McAllister (university lecturer in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands) entitled, "Is Beauty a Sign of Truth in Scientific Theories?" published in the American Scientist (March-April, 1998) Pp. 174-183, tracks the selections of theories in science guided by their aesthetic beauty as criteria for their endorsement. And one criterion of a theory's beauty is its conformance to scientific 'dogma' (a vicious cycle). For example, Newtonian theory (1687, Principia) was considered beautiful because it fit with prevailing notions of determinism. Quantum theory (capable of explaining some subatomic phenomena such as 'black-body radiation' and the 'photoelectric effect') was perceived by some as downright 'ugly' because it didn't fit commonplace assumptions of determinism, as McAllister noted. Now what does all this have to do with parapsychology? Stated simply, paranormal theories (compared to principles of general psychology) are in a historical position analogous to the early introduction of quantum theory in physics. Paranormal claims are theoretically ugly. They are ugly because they do not fit with established norms of cause and effect. As such, sensation requires stimulation of sensory receptors. The movement of objects (by humans) requires some muscular (motor) contact with the object, per se, etc. If we carry the analogy with physics a step further, the early perceived 'ugliness' of quantum theory may have delayed its acceptance, yet eventual empirical verification of its laws converted the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Will parapsychology receive someday (comparable to quantum theory) vindication for its paranormal claims?

Computerized Testing for Psi Skills in Experimental Parapsychology

Before I give you my opinion on the 'fate' of paranormal theory, I will describe the essence of a series of studies that I did with student research assistants in the 1980s (published in 1982, 1987, 1988, Psychological Reports; 1983, the Journal of Parapsychology; and 1985, 1989 Perceptual and Motor Skills) in the field of experimental parapsychology. I began with decks of cards on which Zener symbols (star, wavy lines, square, cross, and circle) were printed for participants to identify while the symbols were concealed from their view. My data showed statistical significance (correct guesses above chance probability) with certain symbols (circles and stars) under procedures of group-testing. These findings prompted me to control for "sensory leakage" (in parapsychological jargon, the possibility that physical cues from the cards themselves were noticed by subjects). I designed specifications for computer software programmed by Roger Bringmann of Academic Computing (Computer Center), to present symbols randomly on one computer screen while recording subjects' guesses made from a remote terminal, to measure potential clairvoyance, or telepathy (if an agent viewed the symbols). Group results rarely showed scoring above 'chance' probability, i.e., if there were 25 trials with 5 different symbols, the mean of correct guesses approximated about 5. In some studies I used a ganzfeld environment (which has been cited in the literature as a psi-conducive condition). Ganzfeld is a homogenous visual field produced by the wearing of goggles equipped with half ping-pong balls positioned over each eye through which the participant sees a bright red light. Yet the psi scoring (even with ganzfeld) was no better than chance.

With regard to individual differences there have been 'peaks' of performances shown in my data, that is, scores significantly above chance, and scores which J. B. Rhine (pioneering American parapsychologist) would have cited as evidence of ESP (with his card-guessing methodology). The major problem with the generality of these data is that they are not reliable. The same person after further testing could not repeat the 'supernormal' performance. This lack of consistency has been the 'Achilles heel' of parapsychology. Indeed, James Randi, the magician and perennial critic, guarantees a large sum of money to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal skill to his satisfaction, upon demand. To my knowledge Randi has never had to part with his money. Given the cumulative results of my experiments (with the exception of one study which showed marginal statistical significance due to 'feedback' in computerized testing for psi, with a very small sample) and based on the results of other researchers whose experimental controls are rigorous, there is very little data (if any) to support the existence of ESP phenomena with reliability. And that is why I do not believe (in answer to the earlier question) that paranormal theories will enjoy the same fate as quantum theory - theories of paranormal phenomena simply do not have the same degree of empirical support that quantum theory (in spite of its earlier perceived theoretical 'ugliness') has enjoyed.

Anomalistic Behavior Warrants Study

Let us not throw out the baby with the bath water! Irwins' important distinction between experience and phenomena regarding psi points the way to the study of parapsychological experiences for their own sake as a part of the wide spectrum of human behavior. For example, studying 'belief systems' can be useful in explaining decision making. Belief (or disbelief) in life- after-death, whether from the perspective of parapsychology or from a religious orientation, can be helpful information in understanding the choices people make in life and the attitudes they hold, independently of the scientific authenticity of their premises. And claims of alien abduction if sincere should be studied in the light of the percipient's conscious experience. These claims can provide insight into the dynamics of human personality because such beliefs can endure in the light of empirical findings to the contrary.

For example, I gave students an ESP survey (by Crawford and Christensen) which was an index of their endorsement of paranormal concepts both before and after a course I taught in experimental parapsychology (1997, Perceptual and Motor Skills). Throughout the quarter, lab experiences permitted the students to try their hand at scoring above chance on psi challenges. True to the bell curve (including occasional peaks in scoring above chance which fit nicely in the tail of the curve) the performances (mine included) were no better than would be predicted by random fluctuation. Yet in spite of these 'normal' findings, the participants' beliefs in the paranormal (based on the post-test) did not change significantly (compared to the pretest). My explanation for the persistence in beliefs of paranormal phenomena is based on the operant-conditioning principle of intermittent reinforcement (which carries with it a great deal of empirical support); viz., behavior that is occasionally reinforced tends to be highly resistant to extinction. When the occasional psi success ('hit') occurs, this experience constitutes partial reinforcement (for the paranormal belief system) in the light of the many trials of 'false alarms'. Yet Irwin's (1994) cognitive explanation, viz., "By incorporating a system of paranormal beliefs, the individual has a cognitive framework for effectively structuring many events and experiences in life so that they appear (italics mine) comprehensible and thereby able to be mastered, at least intellectually" (from An Introduction to Parapsychology, pp. 298-299) is difficult to test, empirically.

Future Directions in Psi Research

A current interest of mine is the question of how people respond to 'unknowable' future events (i.e., chaos expressed in the form of randomness). A computer game that I designed (1993, Perceptual and Motor Skills) to test for precognition (programmed by Jim Longino of Academic Computing) served to show that men and women use significantly different strategies in their quest to predict random events accurately. Men tended to skew their predictions around extreme values (of random numbers) while women made guesses closer to the center of the bell curve. Even though neither sex showed reliable psi (non-chance) hitting, nevertheless the study revealed some interesting differences between the cognitive behavior of men and women. Moreover, why do some people (called sheep by Gertrude Schmeidler, clinical psychologist and parapsychologist) assume (or even wish for) the existence of paranormal events, while others (called goats by Schmeidler) reject even the possibility of the paranormal on a priori grounds (e.g., D.O. Hebb, physiological psychologist)? Indeed, various scientific journals reflect these diverse views in their editorial leanings; for example, the Skeptical Inquirer (The Magazine for Science and Reason) aims to debunk any claims that hint at paranormal explanations, while the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research is more sympathetic to such claims. The Journal of Parapsychology (published in Durham, North Carolina, and home of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, founded by J. B. Rhine) takes a relatively neutral (empirically driven) stance. These predilections are interesting facets of human behavior for their own sake and should be studied as such.

Concluding Remarks

The human need to satisfy curiosity serves as a beacon for scientific progress. Parapsychological experiences represent fascinating data in and of themselves worthy of further exploration, yet (as Irwin suggested) we should not confuse these experiences per se with the existence of paranormal phenomena unless there are reliable data taken under controlled conditions to support them. Nevertheless, advances in science will be curtailed if the "taint" of the paranormal serves to discourage other scientists from investigating anomalistic experiences because of the appearance of 'non-aesthetic' theory construction.

William F. Vitulli, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama. Send email correspondence to

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