Researchers use neuroimaging to study ESP

Jan 03, 2008

Psychologists at Harvard University have developed a new method to study extrasensory perception that, they argue, can resolve the century-old debate over its existence. According to the authors, their study not only illustrates a new method for studying such phenomena, but also provides the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of extrasensory perception, or ESP.

The research was led by Samuel Moulton, a graduate student in the department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University with Stephen Kosslyn, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard and was published in the Jan. 2008 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The scientists used brain scanning to test whether individuals have knowledge that cannot be explained through normal perceptual processing.

"If any ESP processes exist, then participants' brains should respond differently to ESP and non-ESP stimuli," explains Moulton. “Instead, results showed that participants’ brains responded identically to ESP and non-ESP stimuli, despite reacting strongly to differences in how emotional the stimuli were and showing subtle, stimulus-related effects.”

Nearly half of the adults in the United States believe in the existence of ESP, which includes telepathy (direct knowledge of another person's thoughts), clairvoyance (direct knowledge of remote events), and precognition (direct knowledge of the future). People commonly report unexplained knowledge of a loved one's death or a telephone caller's identity, for example, and attribute this knowledge to paranormal mental processing.

The U.S. government lent credence to such claims when it revealed that it had spent millions of dollars recruiting and training psychic spies during the Cold War. Furthermore, research studies have been reported that appear to support the existence of ESP, including an influential series of experiments analyzed by psychologist Daryl Bem of Cornell University. These studies, however, gave little insight into the mechanisms -- normal or paranormal -- that produced the anomalous results. Perhaps more telling, others failed to replicate these results.

To develop a better test of ESP, the authors decided to develop a new method, which directly addressed the presumed source of ESP: namely, the brain. They argue that because the brain enables perception and stores information -- even events people don't consciously perceive or information they can't consciously remember -- it can offer a much more comprehensive test for ESP than self-report or behavior.

"The brain shows a suppressed response to stimuli that a person has seen before, even when those stimuli were presented subliminally, so the person wasn't consciously aware of having seen them; furthermore, it shows an enhanced response to stimuli that a person is expecting," says Moulton. "Because knowledge and expectation bias brain activation, neuroimaging offers us a uniquely powerful test of subtle perceptual or cognitive processes."

To study whether or not ESP exists, Moulton and Kosslyn presented participants with two types of visual stimuli: ESP stimuli and non-ESP stimuli. These two types of stimuli were identical with one exception: ESP stimuli were not only presented visually, but also were presented telepathically, clairvoyantly, and precognitively to participants.

To present stimuli telepathically, the researchers showed the photographs to the participants' identical twin, relative, romantic partner, or friend, who was seated in another room. To present stimuli clairvoyantly, the researchers displayed the photographs on a distant computer screen. And to present stimuli precognitively, the researchers showed participants the photographs again in the future.

Does this conclusively prove that ESP does not exist" "No," says Moulton. "You cannot affirm the null hypothesis. But at the same time, some null results are stronger than others. This is the best evidence to date against the existence of ESP. Perhaps most important, this study offers scientists a new way to study ESP that avoids the pitfalls of past approaches."


Source: Harvard University

Explore further: Working with aggressive children prevents some from becoming violent, criminal adults

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

SDSC joins the Intel Parallel Computing Centers program

1 hour ago

The San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego, is working with semiconductor chipmaker Intel Corporation to further optimize research software to improve the parallelism, efficiency, ...

New iPhones, wearable device expected

1 hour ago

Along with larger iPhones, Apple is poised to unveil a wearable device—marking its first major entry in a new product category since the iPad's debut in 2010.

Recommended for you

Researchers urge psychologists to see institutional betrayal

7 hours ago

Clinical psychologists are being urged by two University of Oregon researchers to recognize the experiences of institutional betrayal so they can better treat their patients and respond in ways that help avoid or repair damaged ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

SDMike
4 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2008
"If any ESP processes exist, then participants' brains should respond differently to ESP and non-ESP stimuli,"
Wow there is a leap of faith! IF ESP is a "normal" brain function they why should it be different?
Idiotic premise.
DrMatt
not rated yet Jan 06, 2008
Cart before horse. First show that the phenomenon exists. THEN theorize that it ought or ought not manifest itself in neurologic activity. No demonstrable phenomenon, nothing to analyze.
Along the way, a review of the half a million dollars Washington University of St Louis spent on the powers of Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards are in line. Keywords: Project Alpha.
DrMatt
not rated yet Jan 06, 2008
Yes, I know, this is Harvard, home of John E Mack. *sigh*
MobyWhite
5 / 5 (1) Sep 25, 2008
The brain of a person who has ESP is able to process information that those without it cannot, but why would they process this input differently than they would anything else. Every brain processes information slightly differently, but generalizations are able to be made because there is some commonality. However, to test ESP based on the premise that those decoding this information would do so in a divergent manner seems completely without merit due to the fact that although the input is different the process would not have to be. If a regular person sees something with their eyes or hears something with their ears, certain things happen in their brain and those active neuropathways are visible to the trained professional. But by way of contrast, who is to say how someone with ESP "sees" or "hears" exactly, shouldn't that understanding come before a critique of the way their brain processes that information? How can you test for an abnormal reading in their brains when if would be normal for their brain to perceive this way? Just a few thoughts, ~MW~