Koestler Parapsychology - Edinburgh.

Psi Phenomena:


The term 'psi' was introduced by Thouless and Wiesner (1948) to be a neutral term for a variety of 'paranormal' phenomena, free of the implicit assumptions that are contained within labels such as psychokinesis ('movement by mind') or telepathy ('feeling or perception at a distance'), and of the whole assumption of paranormality. It was originally split into two categories of psi-kappa and psi-gamma, denoting active and passive psi, the first subsuming those phenomena such as psychokinesis which appeared to involve an effect upon another system, the second covering phenomena such as extrasensory perception, which showed a more receptive aspect. The main problem with the terms is that they do not have a precise definition, indicating which phenomena may be counted as psi and which are excluded. Psi has been defined as the 'unknown factor' in psychic experiences, and often this is modified as being a factor which is not reliant on the conventional sensorimotor channels. Any psi experience has essentially two components - the event which is thought to involve psi, and person who experiences it. Most parapsychological research thus concentrates either on the characteristics of the experiencer, or of the event, or a combination of the two. Some examples of possible characteristics of the psi experiencer include:


Personality Variables:


PK studies have looked at variables such as anxiety, field-independence and sex-typing, and general changes in states of attention. ESP studies have looked at many measures including extroversion and defensiveness, hypnotic susceptibility, psychotic symptomatology, and general measures of cognitive style. Findings have been somewhat mixed, possibly due to the lack of repeated testing of the same participants, and have not yet led to any generally accepted measures that should be taken in psi studies. The one exception to this is in the area of belief in psi, generally referred to as the sheep-goat effect (SGE). The name was first used by Gertrude Schmeidler, who metaphorically separated her participants in the believing ‘sheep’ and the doubting goats. Her study, and several since, found that belief was an important factor in predicting success in psi, both under ESP and PK protocols, although whether belief begets psi or vice versa is debatable. While it is generally agreed that psi success depends rather heavily on psychological factors, it is as yet unclear whether this indicates some absolute distinction based on biological differences, or is an indicator that psi is simply a human ability like any other, success depending on how the psi agent feels at the time of the experiment.


Extra-Sensory Perception:


Extrasensory Perception (ESP) is the general term, introduced by the German researcher, Dr. Rudolf Tischner [in his book "Telepathy and Clairvoyance" - originally published (in German) in 1920, and republished in English in 1925] and made popular by J.B. Rhine, used to denote any manifestations of psi that appear to be analogous to sensory functions. It covers the phenomenon of:


Telepathy - lit. remote feeling/perception - where information perceived by one person is gained by another person when the currently recognised sensory channels are unavailable.


Clairvoyance - lit. clear seeing - where a person appears to gain information about their environment when the currently recognised sensory channels are unavailable.


Precognition - lit. pre-knowing - where nondeductible information about a future event is acquired.


Basically, the term used to describe the phenomenon is dependent on the situation in which it occurs or on the viewpoint of the observer - they are not necessarily seperate phenomena. Other terms used in place of ESP are anomalous cognition, anomalous information transfer, second sight, tele- or para-gnosis, fortune telling, prophecy, scrying and divination. Today, many labs use the Ganzfeld ESP experimental technique.




Psychokinesis (PK) - lit. mind movement - is the term, introduced by J.B. Rhine, used for psi phenomena wherein a person appears to directly affect their environment simply by intending to do so. As ESP was thought to be analogous to sensory functioning, PK was the psi equivalent to motor functioning. PK is traditionally split into two categories:


Micro PK - applied to cases where instrumentation and/or statistical analysis is needed to determine if there is an effect (e.g. influence of microelectronic devices).


Macro PK - applied to cases where naked-eye observation suggests there is an effect (e.g. poltergeist, table tipping).


Bio PK - has been used in cases where the target system to be influenced is a living system. However, this has been largely replaced by the DMILS (Direct Mental Influence of Living Systems) acronym.


Currently, most experiments use a desktop computer to collect data from the target system and to display some form of feedback (usually a colourful graphic display) to the participant, although some also use dedicated electronic devices for this purpose (such as Schmidt's famous 'circle of lights' - a ring of bulbs set up so that the lit bulb appeared to move around the circle. A random source controlled the direction and characteristics of movement). Data collection tends to be fully automatic and often has security measures designed to detect unauthorised access to the data.


Typically, the target system in a micro-psychokinesis (as opposed to the macro-psychokinesis often reported in poltergeist cases) experiment consists of a truly random (as opposed to pseudo-random) physical system, usually referred to as a random number/event generator (RNG/REG). Such systems are thought to be completely unpredictable, with the randomness being due to nondeterministic quantum processes. Examples include an electronic noise-based device or a geiger counter that detects radioactive decay. As the magnitude of any PK effect seen in the laboratory tends to be very small, some form of statistical analysis is necessary to detect whether an effect is present. REGs are useful as the statistical distribution of their output is well known. A deviation from this distribution, once any possible artefacts have been allowed for, is taken to be evidence for some form of psychokinetic effect.


It has long been thought anecdotally that psychic abilities were in some way linked to the environment - Magic works better at certain sites, at different moon-phases and at night rather than day; Sensitives talk about good and bad atmospheres; hauntings are associated with cold spots and mysterious breezes - but, until relatively recently, the role of the environment had not been considered in parapsychology.


One aspect of the environment - the geomagnetic field (GMF) - has recently been the focus of several studies around the world (including some at Edinburgh), looking at a possible relationship between the activity of the field and psi. Although the actual relationship remains unclear, and may not be a direct causal link, studies have consistently shown that extrasensory perception (ESP) seems to be more effective at times when the GMF is relatively quiet. There have been fewer and less consistent studies looking at a PK relationship, but some authors seem to show that that an active GMF is associated with good PK performance.


Some researchers are considering other environmental variables, ranging from the ion concentration in the air to the current lunar phase.


One of the problems with studies looking at this topic is that there is no clear idea as to what mechanism(s) could account for a psi-environment relationship. Broadly speaking, the possibilities are:


That the physical characteristic being studied somehow interacts with, or composes, the mechanism underlying psi.


That the environment has some direct effect on human psychology that directly or indirectly affects psi functioning.


And of course, as real life situations are rarely simple, all three possibilities may occur simultaneously!


Participants in psychokinesis experiments tend to be people who have been kind enough to volunteer to help with an experiment. The majority do not claim to have any amazing psychic abilities or experiences, nor do they necessarily subscribe to any particular belief system - some even have an active disbelief in the possibilty of psi ! As with much university-based research, there is a high proportion of student volunteers, although we do have volunteers of all ages.


Typically, participants will be asked to watch some form of feedback display which represents the target system's activity. Depending on the format of the experiment, they may be told details about the target system itself, or they may simply be asked to try to affect the feedback display (this is one of the peculiarities about PK research: that success seems independent of task complexity. That is, even though the target system may be extremely complex, the participant needs only to try to affect the feedback display to achieve a successful outcome). What strategy the participant employs in their attempt to be successful also depends on the particular experiment. In some cases, they may be asked to go through some relaxation exercises and then to passively imagine the display changing as they wish. In others, they may be asked to get as excited as possible, often telling the display how it should be acting! (Incidentally, this latter approach is not often used as studies seem to show that, at least in the laboratory environment, the former strategy - called passive striving - is most effective.)


Dice' Tests:


Participants are asked to attempt to influence the fall of a small physical object, either a die, a coin or similar, with the intention of getting a pre-specified outcome (e.g. a particular number on a die, heads or tails, etc).


Possible Problems:


Bias due to physical construction of object, bias in throwing technique if participant were allowed to handle object.


Example Study:


Mitchell, A.M.J. & Fisk, G.W. (1953). The application of differential scoring methods to PK tests, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 37, pp. 45-60.


Targets at rest or in motion:


Participants are asked to attempt to perturb the target object from it's equilibrium state (e.g. move a compass needle, stop residual oscillations in a torsional pendulum). One of the most famous recent ostensible psychokinetics was the Soviet Woman Nina Kulagina.


Possible Problems:


Need to disallow possibility of 'normal' influences (hidden magnets, draughts, vibrations, etc).


Example Study:


Puthoff, H.E. & Targ, R. (1975). Physics, entropy and psychokinesis. In L. Oteri (ed.), Quantum Physics and Parapsychology pp. 129-144, New York: Parapsychology Foundation. Brought to the public's attention by Uri Geller, such PK tasks ask the participant to attempt to deform the target object (usually some sort of metallic object) without using their physical strength. Participants often have some sort of physical contact with the object, although in controlled experiments this is minimised.


Possible problems:


Need to prevent participant from physically bending the object, or substituting a pre-stressed or pretreated object. Possibility of sleight-of-hand techniques being employed.


Example Study:


Hasted, J.B. & Robertson, D. (1980). Paranormal action on metal and its surroundings, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 50 (784), pp. 379-398.


Also known as 'thoughtography', this phenomenon was made famous by experiments conducted with Ted Serios. The participant attempts to cause an image, or at least some form of anomalous exposure, to appear on an unexposed film emulsion once it is developed.


Possible problems:


Need to avoid fraudulent exposures due to chemical contamination or hidden light sources. Care must be taken during developing to avoid accidental light sources. Possibility of electrostatic or ionising radiation effects.


Example Study:


Watkins, G.K & Watkins, A.M. (1974). Apparent psychokinesis on static objects by a 'gifted' subject: a laboratory investigation, Research in Parapsychologyc 1973, pp. 132-134.


Direct Mental Interaction with Living Systems:


Direct Mental Interaction with Living Systems, or DMILS is another area of ongoing research at the Koestler Chair, and in other parts of the world. In recent years, a large body of evidence has been accumulated suggesting that physiological processes can be influenced by remote individuals with no obvious means of communication. Physiological measures have been used in ESP research almost since the equipment has been available, however, the current methodology used in DMILS arises primarily from the work of William Braud, Marylin Schlitz, and others.


For simplicity I will refer to the Agent as the person who attempts to alter the distant system, and Participant as the system being acted upon. It is unclear who is really doing the 'influencing' or who is being influenced and the number of different descriptors used in the literature reflects this (i.e. 'influencer - influencee', 'sender-receiver' etc.). The acronym DMILS itself is relatively new, arising from Bio-PK, remote staring, distant influence, and others. Direct Mental Interaction allows for contributions from both agent and participant, while Living Systems includes organisms in general (even cellular systems). Throughout this page certain references are highlighted, simply click on them to see the full citation, and then click again on the citation to return.


Remote Staring Studies:


The typical remote staring experiment involves situating the participant comfortably in a sound attenuated, shielded chamber while the Agent either stares at the participant via a closed circuit video, or looks away according to a random sequence previously unknown to the Agent. The participant can be asked to guess when they think staring is occurring, or may be monitored physiologically as an unconscious measure of staring detection. The agent may try several mental strategies during staring in an attempt to gain the attention of the participant. Physiological measures of detection have proved to be more robust than conscious guessing thus far, with physiological arousal being generally higher during staring periods than for non staring periods. Distances between Agent and Participant vary due to laboratory architecture, but most studies occur over at least 20 meters, and with several closed doors between the two.


Remote Influence (interaction) Studies:


Remote influence studies are vary similar to remote staring, in that physiological responses are recorded and the Participant and Agent are separated by sound proofing, shielding, and distance. However, rather than staring or not staring, the Agent uses one or more of several influencing strategies to either calm or activate the remote participant. Influence periods (calm or activate) are broken up by a control periods, where the Agent attempts no influence. These are counter balanced and randomly assigned by computer or by other procedures such that the Agent and Participant are unaware of the sequence of influence period. In many cases, computers are used to prompt the Agent and for physiological feedback from the Participant. Several influencing strategies have been developed for use in remote interaction:


Self-initiation of the desired physiological state

Imagine the distant participant in a situation likely to produce the intended physiological reaction Direct attention on physiological feedback and imagine that it matches the assigned instructions. Use feedback to experiment with different mental strategies. Use previously identified personally relevant emotional memories or situations from either the Agent or Participant that fits the desired reaction in the Agent.


Studies using other biological systems:


Other biological systems have been used as Participants in DMILS studies. Blood cell deterioration rate was measured as a dependent variable in a study by Braud & Dennis, (1989) . Braud has also done some other experiments using fish orientation in a tank and mammal locomotion. I'll build more into this section later, perhaps reviewing more general animal experiments.


Theories of Psi:


There have been many requests for information on theories used in psi research. While a full review of all the theoretical approaches is beyond the scope of this website, there follows a brief introduction to some of the more popular theories which have been put forward in an attempt to further our understanding of psi. Please note that these summaries are only meant to give an idea of each of the approaches and should not be taken as being authoritative. You are urged to look up the references if you have more than a passing interest. If anyone feels their ideas have been misrepresented, please contact us - it wasn't intentional!


Teleological Model of Psi (TM):


Helmudt Schmidt proposed a teleological (goal-seeking) model that postulated psi as representing a ‘modification of the probabilities for different world histories’. That is, the psi agent need concentrate only on the desired outcome of an event. Psi would act to skew the probability of that event happening, or having happened in the case of retrospective psychokinesis (retro-PK). As such, this theory was not a theory of a psi mechanism but rather one which looked at the way psi was experienced by the psi agent. It was one of the first parapsychological theories to include a unified psi: PK, ESP, precognition - all were aspects of one common psi principle wherein reality was altered to match expectation. This theory also meant that psi would be independent of space and time as when and where in the world history psi occurred would be irrelevant, and that psi is independent of task complexity as the psi agent aims only for the desired end-point. As most human actions are essentially teleological - when we want to pick something up, we do not consider in detail which muscles we wish to move, and so on - this brought psi more into the realms of human experience. Feedback was considered to be vital: the psi agent can have an effect only if it is coupled to its environment in such a way that it may receive a stimulus. There was also what was called a ‘divergence problem’. That is, all future psi agents could also have an effect on the present world history. In effect, this meant that for any experiment, the psi agent was not only the experimental participant but all future readers of the experimental paper!


Quantum Mechanical Theory of Psi (QMTP):


Evan Harris Walker identified consciousness with quantum-mechanical hidden variables. In quantum theory, any system may be described in terms a wave-function - a complex superposition of waves, the squared amplitude of each being related to the probability of an individual event occurring. The complete wave-function describes all possible outcomes of that system. Thus the wave-function of a coin-toss will describe the outcomes of heads or tails, with the amplitude of each being equal to the square-root of the 50% probability of getting a head or a tail. The problem is that this wave-function describes all the outcomes at once, whereas conscious experience tells us that we will observe only one outcome. This naturally led to the idea that conscious observation somehow affects the system, causing the wave-function to ‘collapse’ into one specific state - the one we experience. If this is indeed the case, then perhaps the consciousness can actually choose, to some extent, which outcome actually occurs - a process which sounds very much like the concept of psychokinesis.



Koestler Parapsychology Unit - Dept. Psychology

7, George Square, University of Edinburgh, EH8 9JZ

Tel: +44 (0) 131 650 3063

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