Psi Denialism

The biggest ‘reveal’ about human nature coming from recent historical events is people’s complete misunderstanding of how science works – specifically the divide between our understanding of scientific process and what public elected officials have termed specific models/science.

Social behaviour researchers already know that people are far more likely to trust their family/friends, or even a religious leader, as a higher knowledge status than that of scientists, or that of “the science”. Scholars have often chalked this up to a lack of trust in scientific consensus amongst the public – but it actually appears that people do not fundamentally understand scientific method or elementary principles. From vaccine theory to mRNA technologies, people were actually discouraged from ‘doing their own research’ the last couple of years, evidently because they would be horrified about what they would have found if they did!

For me I’ve often seen this divide in the field of parapsychology – the common discourse that “paranormal phenomena” cannot and does not exist prevalently held by those such as Richard Dawkins, and the perspective that ‘spooky events’ do occur all the time, held by scholars such as Rupert Sheldrake. Meanwhile, people seldom look at what the data actually tells us (for example, meta-analyses on psi, which have been done extensively); it’s easier often to trust “the science”. But is “the science” ever settled? Forget about fringe and novel areas of inquest, what about in any field that has ever existed?

“Is Anti-Science not-Science?” – TJ Pinch 1979

from Plato’s symposia

Save the like of Iain McGilchrist, Tony Wright, and others, few scholars have recognised formally that our rational representation makes up only 10% (if that) of our understanding and modelling the world around us. Philosophers such as Plato made this very apparent in their observations. We cannot just throw the baby out with the bathwater, and begin to regard all myth and tradition as an artefact no longer relevant in modern scientific societies (as scholars like Comte would have it in an ideal world).

For Platonic scholars, like Carl Jung, myth also can be taken as a realistic account of consciousness, if we concede that both hemispheres of the brain are relevant in our understanding of the human condition (see for instance Erich Neumann’s analytic consciousness thesis). The mythologizing brain and the predicting brain can be seen as two coins on the discourse balance of dreamers like Joseph Campbell and taxonomists like Jean Piaget and George Kelly.

Consciousness provides the whole-picture view of human experience, even in the most sceptical representations of it… In Jung’s recollection of the woman who had dreamt of being on the moon, the symbolic nature of the account had a greater realism than the metaphorical recollection for this patient. Jung has written works such as ‘Flying Saucers’ and ‘Seven Sermons to the Dead’ which can be taken as allegories in the one sense, but as lived myth in the other.

Why no psi in science?

One utmost stunning example related to psi research can be noted in the mass misrepresentation of Howe and Webb’s study on change perception, which was published in the Public Library of Science in 2014. Change blindness is a common occurrence in which participants are naïve to certain stimuli in cognitive science experiments. The authors in their sequence of experiments found that participants could identify a minor (almost undetectable to the human eye) change in visual stimuli but were not able to spot the nature or location of the change. The disparity between the participants being sure there was a change, but not being able to identify it, was of interest to the research team. Any other cognitive scientist that could have been asked to interpret their dataset would clearly suggest that unconscious processes had a role in participant’s recognising slight changes in their visual perspective.

Remarkably, although these authors did not use the terms ‘psi’, ‘ESP’, ‘sixth sense’, or related vernacular in the study in any capacity, on January 21, 2014 (8 days after the research was published), National Geographic Daily News printed an article entitled ‘ESP Is Put to the Test—Can You Foretell the Results? It’s just hokum, say researchers, who offer a new experiment as proof’. A barrage of other media outlets published similar interpretations echoing that same sentiment within a week of the results being published (including The Guardian and the Huffington Post). The original data had no relation to psi research in any scope whatsoever, yet media outlets used the results to allegedly prove there exists a lack of evidence for clairvoyance. It is clear to any scientist or science reader that the experiment was a test of perception, not ESP in the slightest, even by the muddiest inference. Yet, this incident remains just one spotlight example amongst many on how media outlets grasp at straws to dissuade public discourse on a given range of topics from the outset.

The issue of bias also extends to social media fora. Claims of clairvoyance, telepathic communication, or afterlife studies are often underpromoted on social feeds, tagged with misinformation guidance and fact-checking tabs, or sometimes even outright censored, as we can note in the cases of Rupert Sheldrake and that of Russell Targ, both of whom have encountered extensive censorship via platforms such as Wikipedia and YouTube. Sheldrake’s TED Talk was broadcast on February 13th, 2013. In his discussion, Sheldrake pointed out some of the limitations in scientific discourse that stifle debate about positive psi effects in mainstream literature. The program was later removed and censored from further media dissemination after a scientific panel deemed Sheldrake’s work unscientific and not suitable for a public media platform (note, this occurred approx. 1 month after the talk was broadcast and accessible to the public via the TED platform).

Within the previous decade, TED Talks had broadcast programs which have broadly spanned ideas from speakers such as Edward Snowden, to innovators such as Steve Jobs, for instance, thus TED is not a scientific discussion platform as such — it represents the public banner of ‘Ideas worth spreading’, TED’s slogan. Yet, it is curious that claims relevant to parapsychology are often outright banned from such platforms, no matter how well-substantiated by science. Conversely, talks that apply poor science and questionable methodologies (e.g., from power poses to linguistic persuasion) are seldom put into scientific question on such platforms and even upvoted and promoted in the social domain.

Let’s stop pontificating… does psi actually exist or not?

Some scholars are sceptical about whether properties of consciousness can be reduced to neuronal populations at all, whilst others demand it. The idealist material view that affirms we eventually will map cognition perfectly to neuronal activity, like hand-in-glove, continues to exact exorbitant funding tethered to the tall promise of higher-and-higher resolution brain-scanners. In a related fashion, positivist monism has appropriated traditions of times past. We can see clear examples from mesmerism to the practice of various virtues in traditional Buddhism, for instance. What are known in 2022ce as clinical hypnotherapy and short-term mindfulness intervention appear to have all-but divorced from their traditional esoteric roots and antecedent funds of knowledge. Our sanitised vernacular of gold-standard evidence-based practice has in turn kept such traditions locked out of broader deserving conversation.

When Olaf Blanke electro-stimulated the left temporoparietal junction (LTPJ) of participants in his laboratory, he appeared to trigger a ‘shadowy person’ illusion otherwise commonly reported in sleep paralysis. We could claim too — “crikey, look at that, the demon who blocks you from the spirit realms is a mere artefact of neuroelectric vestibular interruptions”. As we fall asleep our body schema become more fluid and our sense of balance can be slightly off due to breakdowns in multisensory processing. Yet again here we see a sharp divorce between the demands on empirical truth, and a mythic and archetypal meaning to an individual, the soul and heart of an experience.

An approach of pure rationality v a holistic appraisal of Mind?

David Chalmers posited that the quality of consciousness presents a ‘hard problem’ in science: how do we explain the phenomenal experience of being in the first place? Mark Solms has elaborated on Chalmers’ contention, by highlighting that quale appears not just a happy accident of creatures big and small but are actually a deeply emotional and affective experience of living one’s life. We do not have consciousness (as a property) in that sense; we are conscious (and conscious too of our self-consciousness). Whilst sceptics such as Blackmore and Dennett are swift to dispose of such intuitions, we can empirically observe the nature of consciousness in meditation practices, and too in the normative waking state of all animals. The ‘I am’ presence has been heralded as the centre of experience, from mystics of ages to avid scholars-turn-spiritualists such as ex-Harvard academic Baba Ram Dass.

There are (broadly) my thoughts on the topic of psi, parapsychology, and transpersonal states of consciousness. What do you think? Post your thoughts on the only social media platform that supports open science discourse!


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Alex De Foe is based in Melbourne, Australia. He mostly writes academic work, but from time to time also publishes more informal articles on the topics spanning social neuroscience and embodied cognition.