Friday, November 12, 2010

Stop the presses! Psychic Phenomena are Real!!!!

Now, this might be the coolest thing ever! Some researchers claim that they have conducted experiments that show that psychic phenomenon (pre-cognition, i.e. telling the future!!!) exist. Here´s the article that alerted me to this (which was sent to me by one extra-special Craigory Craig, who I won´t link to because he´s a professional now or something), and here´s a pre-print of the paper.

To begin, this is by far my favorite sentence from the paper:
After responding to two individual-difference items (discussed below), the participant had a 3-min relaxation period during which the screen displayed a slowly moving Hubble photograph of the starry sky while peaceful new-age music played through stereo speakers.

Why am I not surprised that this was the set-up researchers in this field would choose? I must be psychic.

In the above patchouli-scented experiment, they present the participants with two doors to choose between, one of which had a picture behind it and the other had nothing-- sort of like Let´s Make a Deal / Monte Hall game except instead of a car, you are rewarded with a picture of people doing it, and instead of a goat, you just get a blank screen. No, seriously, some of the pictures that were behind the curtain were "erotic pictures" (i.e. people doing it). The awesome thing here (if you have the sense of humor of a 13 year old boy, much like I do) is that people were able to guess with statistically better than 50% accuracy which curtain the picture was behind... as long as it was an erotic picture. My first thought is that this sort of psychic power explains why I miraculously turned up at my dorm room pretty much every time my freshman year roommate wanted it to herself. The force is strong with this one.

In another section of the paper, they talk about retroactive priming.  Each person was asked to indicate whether a picture was pleasant or unpleasant. In the retroactive experiment, a word was then flashed on the screen that was either congruous or incongruous with "pleasant" or "unpleasant". In the plain vanilla version, the  priming word was flashed first. In these experiments, we´d apparently expect to see that it takes a person longer to select "pleasant" or "unpleasant" if the prime was incongruous with what they were trying to choose, and I guess this has been shown in forward priming experiments. Between pictures, a photograph from the Hubble telescope again made an appearance... because apparently photographs from the Hubble telescope are to psi-sense as sorbet is to tongues.

So, here´s what I´m thinking:

Why are people only able to have pre-cognitive powers related to erotic images? Is this what the researchers set out to prove in the first place? If not, it seems that one could partition the pictures into categories such that one of the categories proved statistically significant. I actually don´t think they were being dishonest in that way, though. Just sayin´.

Certainly there have been other priming experiments done in the past in which a series of primes and pictures were presented without the delicious raspberry Hubble telescope in between. If retroactive priming is real, could they not re-analyze those old studies to see if the retroactive priming effect was present when it was not the explicit purpose of the study? It would be awesome if it were, as evidence of this would have just been sitting around waiting to be discovered.

If it´s not, I am actually not so quick to take that as evidence that these sorts of psychic abilities are´t real. Could that not be evidence that people have psychic abilities that lean in the direction of pleasing the experimenter by confirming the hypothesis of the study, even if the hypothesis was unknown to the participant? I mean, shit, if they were psychic enough to know what the word was before they saw it, they ought to be psychic enough to know what the experimenter was trying to get at. And, how crazy would that be??? That would certainly call into question all designed experiments in psychology, as effects could also then be attributed to the participants´ inclination to confirm the hypothesis, even if the hypothesis was not disclosed.

In any case, this is not a math-busters style post. I´ll leave the replication of this study to the ghost-busters / psychologists. Until then, I´ll be eagerly waiting to see if this ends up getting busted...

 So, what do you think? Do psychic phenomena exist? If you don't believe this, how much evidence would you need to overcome your prior?


  1. "photographs from the Hubble telescope are to psi-sense as sorbet is to tongues" - my favorite phrase!

  2. Granted, the study seems better-designed than most others of this type, but I remain skeptical. In fact, I bet the effect size will vanish under the scrutiny of future, more rigorous studies, like what happened with the Ganzfeld experiments. If it doesn't I'll eat my hat (and post the video on Youtube).

  3. Yeah, atn. If I had to make a guess, I'd say that someone will probably debunk this. That's not to say that I don't think that there could be something to psychic phenomena in general.

    But, now that there is the chance to see you eat a hat, I'm definitely pulling for it to all be legit. :)