Difficulties in Proving Psychic Phenomena

Psychic Phenomena

The study of parapsychology—metaphysical or psychic phenomena that can’t be explained by conventional laws of science—used to be a fairly common area of research. Early, formative psychologists like Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis; William James, who founded American academic psychology; and Hugo Münsterberg, a Harvard psychologist, studied it. Much of their work focused on exposing fraudulent self-proclaimed psychic mediums. Psychologists frequently engaged with parapsychology and maintained a genuine interest in the subject. But according to new research, contemporary psychologists with similar interests are routinely ostracized and mocked.

Daryl Bem, a professor emeritus and social psychologist at Cornell University, is possibly the most famous modern-day parapsychology-friendly psychologist. Unfortunately, Bem’s 2011 experiments caused a bit of a crisis in his field. Some of his peers contended that his conclusions were a hoax. Others tried to find fault with his methods, but they eventually had to admit they were technically correct. They then argued that if Bem was able to prove something as crazy as psychic abilities by using accepted social science methods, there must be something wrong with accepted social science methods.

Etzel Cardeña, a Swedish parapsychology researcher, analyzed parapsychology-related research and concluded in his new paper that Bem’s results may not have been so outlandish after all. Cardeña wrote that the strongest support for parapsychology could be found in research that uses the ganzfeld experimental method, which tests for telepathy.

In these experiments, blindfolded subjects are placed in a soundproof room and asked to describe a film clip they haven’t yet viewed. That film clip is either being played simultaneously in another room or the test subject views it after the experiment. If judges are then able to use the subject’s descriptions to pick the specified clip out of a group of film clips, this is considered proof of the presence of telepathy. Meta-analyses of ganzfeld experiments have statistically proven that significant support exists for this psychic effect.

Cardeña has concluded that existing meta-analyses support the parapsychology hypothesis. This proves the importance and legitimacy of future research into the topic. Cardeña wrote that parapsychology couldn’t be reliably explained away by experimental or analytical incompetence, selective reporting, fraud, the quality of the studies, or other common criticisms.

Due to the perceived impossibility of parapsychology, the related research is generally held to much higher standards than those of more mainstream areas of research. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it may make results that suggest support for parapsychology that much harder to dismiss. This is certainly the case among people who want to believe or already know that they possess psychic abilities.