Biology 202
1999 Second Web Reports
On Serendip

Why Psi: Perceptions of Anomalous Cognition

Debbie Plotnick

Why would I risk the ridicule of my peers to explore a topic as controversial and inflammatory as that which is known as "psi" phenomenon? And more importantly how and why is it relevant to the study of neurobiology? Given the nature of the topic, it may not always be easy to discuss such scientifically or diplomatically. It is my contention; however, that serious review of the scientific evidence, legitimate scientific discourse and funding for research has been seriously impeded because of its controversial nature. And, furthermore, that it is as relevant a topic for investigation as are other methods by which information is perceived by humans.

There are some valid reasons for the prejudice that surrounds this topic. Often when one thinks of psi phenomenon some strange themes come to mind such as UFO's and Alien Abductions, ESP, crop circles, Astrology, Ghosts, Mediums, Channeling and Angles. Most of these come under the heading of "paranormal" and are decidedly difficult to examine scientifically. The plethora of information on such subjects that floods the internet is more likely to reference mysticism, faith and spiritually than offer scientific theory or experimental outcomes and I will leave such to those realms.

I, therefore, in this paper will not be referring to alien astrologers channeling their horoscopes through mediums who have been abducted. Only the concepts that comprise that which is known as "anomalous cognition will be discussed." Its components are telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition (1).

My first exposure to the term "anomalous cognition" came as a result of my research for this paper. I just had always called it "knowing." Ever since I was a little girl, however, I have been repeatedly told that my experiences were "all in my head." That had been exactly my position also. But what my critics, who included my family members, friends and my husband, really meant was that my experiences existed only in my imagination. They argued, as is commonly believed and sometimes verified, that experiences like mine could be caused by selective or faulty memory, wishful thinking or subliminal clues (2). And for many years, I tried to believe that one of those explanations applied to me.

My husband the scientist, engineer and amateur magician has been telling me for years what he believed to be the prevailing opinion about psi within much of the scientific community. The picture was not very flattering. He explained that it is widely believed (and my research confirmed these mistaken perceptions) that studies were poorly constructed and that the research had been found to be not reproducible. And he related common knowledge about how famous magician, James Randi (3) and the "skeptical community (4)." uncovered proven wide spread fraud. And I tried to believe these things were true.

But during the birth of my first child, when the labor was at a difficult point, a member of the birth team asked for speculation as to the baby's gender. Without realizing it, I had the opportunity to honor a long-standing request by my husband and tell him in advance "if I think I know something." I therefore that I believed to be telepathy (mind to mind contact) (1) had just occurred. I announced to those present that the baby had informed me that "he was a boy (and that, in-spite of the difficulties I was experiencing with the birth process) and that he was fine." Without regard to my pronouncement more than an hour before, my husband, upon the birth of our son, proudly made an announcement, that on my part was wholly unnecessary; "Deb, it's a boy." I had otherwise "sensed" the information about the baby, but as my husband and most other people believe evidence, such as in this case, needed to arrive via his eyes to be processed by his brain. And as he reminded me the odds of my being right were 50/50.

But recent advances in understandings about sensory mechanisms have reveled some surprising places in the human body that are responsible for perception. The enteric nervous system, located in the gut has been found to have as many neurons than the spinal cord and to contain the same neurotransmitters, as does the brain (5). And if one did not know and had to guess the location in the body that is responsible for directional orientation and the detection of gravity, the otolith organ (6) of the inner ear might seem far-fetched. Or that people as well as animals detect sexual receptivity, by way of the vomeronasal organ (VNO) located in the nose (7). Might one postulate that other types of sensory perceptions that are reported actually do exist, even though they are not presently associated with a specific receptor sight?

Before the possibilities regarding "the how" of anomalous cognition can contemplated, more of "the what" needs to be delineated, because there is much overlap. For example I believe that an experience of unequivocal knowing, that grew in intensity, that I perceived as it was happening ("real time") was an instance of clairvoyance (clear seeing) (1). On a particular evening, I knew that I would I encountered my friend. I absolutely was sure that he was in the shopping mall, I was about to enter, as soon as I parked my car. And I found him waiting outside of the store that was my destination. And he also had an unusual perception, that I believe to have been clairvoyance orpremonition (in the future) (1), as he greeting me by stating "I knew you'd be here tonight."

It has long been noted that increases in psychic abilities are associated with altered states of consciousness. Various cultures have worked to achieve such using methods, which include hallucinogenic drugs (Native American), prolonged meditation (ancient and modern Hindu texts), extreme vestibular stimulation (Sufi practice), and solitary, repetitive and isolated prayer (Kabblah). Therefore it should not have (although it did) come as a surprise to me that under hypnosis I would have an experience with a particular form of precognition, that which researches call remote viewing (1).

The intense feeling of "knowing," that I and others report, does not always accompany these experiences. And without realizing I was doing so, I finally honored my husband's request for documentation (beforehand) of an experience. The notes of my therapist, a widely respected psychologist, hold a transcript of a scene that I witnessed and described before I had ever been to that location. I related to my therapist, early one morning, the details of a farm with a little dog (bearing disproportionately large teeth) and further described a scene, which included me standing by a pasture fence with a particular friend, while many horses of varying descriptions ran past. That evening my friend and I, although I had never before been in that vicinity (nor did my friend know about my morning conversation) found ourselves at the aforementioned farm and witnessed the scene unfold exactly as I had described.

But personal experience, anecdotal evidence and extrapolations are not science. My story and others like it that have been recorded though out history have only "face validity" (2). However, face validity and extrapolation have historically been motivations for scientific inquiry. And while intuition and hunch are recognized as useful to scientific exploration, it is replication that is the hallmark of good science.

Because the nature of anomalous cognition is elusive and the experiences tend to be spontaneous, they are difficult to replicate under laboratory conditions. However, experiments with a set of targets, (objects or places to be identified) defined in advance, have been conducted for over one hundred years.

Formal experiments into psi phenomenon began in the late 1800's in Britain and the U.S. Tests for what was then known as mental telepathy, using cards were being carried out at such prestigious institutions such as Stanford and Harvard. And in 1920 professor J.B.Rhine of Duke University (8) developed the famous "ESP card" that consist of five groups of five symbols (square, circle, wavy lines, star, and triangle) that is most commonly associated with laboratory experiments. In spite of the fact that card experiments did not mimic spontaneous experiences, they did during sixty years of use, between 1880 and 1940, as reported in over a hundred publications with thousands of participants did show persuasive evidence of psi phenomenon (2).

What makes experimental evidence persuasive and repeatable? Theoretically repeating an experiment under the same conditions should yield the exact same results. But the same results are statistically achieved only 50% of the time owing to what is known as "the power" of a statistical test (9). (Perhaps part of the reason for this phenomenon can be attributed to The Harvard Law of Animal Behavior) And the standards for replication with regard to psi experiments are often held by skeptics to be much higher than in other empirical sciences. Positive results are defined as an effect greater than what could be expected by chance. And if analysis of results comparing two or more experiments yields the same statistical odds over chance then it is considered replicated. However it is also true, as skeptics have claimed that methodology in many psi experiments has left room for researcher bias. Using a technique called "meta-analysis" (10), where a large body of evidence (consisting of multiple studies) is examined, is believed to account for methodological flaws. Meta-analyses of older psi experiments have verified the probabilities for psi over chance to be millions to one (1) (2).

Skeptics have actually helped psi researchers design better studies. Since the 1970's experiments have been computer controlled and have incorporated what has been learned experimentally and anecdotally to reduce bias. Some of the most impressive, although controversial studies have been on remote viewing. The studies were funded by the U.S. government for military purposes during the 1980's (11). However, what is best known and best remembered and most damaging to further research are a series of hoaxes. Magician James Randi (as my husband stated) did expose that several research facilities including Yale and Stanford Research Institute (SRI) had been duped by self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller. Randi demonstrated that the researchers were taken in by Geller's use of magic tricks that Randi or other similarly trained magicians could easily duplicate. And in order to drive his point home, Randi himself set out to fool researchers. In 1981 Randi trained two young men in various magic techniques and sent them into the lab researching psi at Washington University in St. Louis. Over the course of two years the young men, were taught increasingly sophisticated tricks. And after two years of experiments and the publication of the results, Randi exposed his chicanery (12). Of course the possibility for fraud is present in all areas and has occurred been documented in other areas. However a major result of these highly publicized incidents is that funding for psi research has been seriously reduced and respected journals are at best reluctant publish findings and this is what is best remembered and referenced by scientists and laypeople with regard to psi research.

However, there are about forty laboratories worldwide that are presently engaged in research into psi phenomena of various forms. The majority of them study anomalous cognition. Because altered states of consciousness both in religious practice and from historical psi experiments involving hypnosis and dream states have produced an increase in reported anomalous cognition many of today's experiments use what is know as the Ganzfeld (13). The Ganzfeld, a sensory neutral status, was designed to alter mental state via "mental noise reduction." Meta-analysis of Ganzfeld experiments yielded the "better than a 95% confidence intervals beyond chance expectation." (2).

It is commonly believed, among researchers that anomalous cognition operates like other senses in that perceptions result from the detection of subtle change (1). Theories cover a large range of possibilities. Some possibilities include non-visual wave motions, non-visual oscillating patterns, magnetic fields, infrared radiation and electrical energy (14). Other areas of investigation include examination of what physical organs may be involved in these types of perceptions. One area of speculation is that cylindrical structures located within neurons called "cyotoskeletal microtubles" maybe the involved in detection of such subtle changes. Research regarding these structures with regard to many aspects of consciousness is ongoing (15). Investigation is also underway regarding a theory that anomalous cognition also occurs when inhibitory systems are reduced in the same manner that occurs in schizophrenia (16).

Much misinformation and widely publicized half-truths, and negative pubic opinion continue to hamper wide spread investigation into anomalous cognition. Psi researchers, however, no longer feel the need to prove that this phenomenon exists (1) (2). And at this time there are no theories that can be verified. But I do believe as the neruosciences continue to reveal more of the complexities of human perception the question of "how" regarding anomalous cognition will soon be forthcoming.

WWW Sources

1)"An Assessment of The Evidence for Psychic Functioning;" Professor Jessica Utts; Division of Statistics; University of California, Davis

2)Radin, Dean. The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins; New York; 1997

3)"About James Randi"

4)"About the Skeptical Community"

5)"The Brain in the Belly:" The New York Times Article

6 "Medical Effects of Space Flight." The New York Times Article

7)"The Vomeronasal Organ"

8)" History of Rhine Research Center

9)"Replication and Meta - Analysis in Parapsychology" - Professor Jessica Utts

10) Definition of Meta -analysis

11) Cognitive Sciences Laboratory

12) Gardner, Martin. The New Age Notes of A Fringe Watcher. Prometheus Books. Buffalo, New York. 1988.

13) "Ganzfeld Phenomena"

14) "On-Going Scientific Discovery of Sensory Receptors Which Account for Many Subtle Perceptions"

15) "Quantum coherence in microtubles: a neural basis for Emergent Consciousness? In the Journal of Consciousness Studies"

16) "Neuropsychological Approach to the Study of ESP"




| Course Home Page | Back to Brain and Behavior | Back to Serendip |

Send us your comments at Serendip
© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Monday, 07-Jan-2002 14:39:49 EST

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page