How Sony Proved That E.S.P. Is Real
Patrick Huyghe investigates the truth behind the closure of Sony's seven year paranormal research effort: A story of quiet success and corporate disappointment
By Patrick Huyghe / Source: Fortean Times
In the summer of 1998, Japan's enormously successful electronics giant, the Sony Corporation, unloaded a bombshell when they announced that ESP exists.
They didn't exactly shout it from the rooftops, however. In fact, the findings of their seven year research programme into a variety of paranormal subjects caused nary a ripple in the summer's news. That's the way Sony wanted it, of course, and the way the company has been running its programme right from the beginning. Totally hush-hush.
Sony's jaw-dropping announcement was paired with another surprise. While psychic powers were real, said Sony spokesman Masanobu Sakaguchi, the company was closing down its ESP research facility.
For those unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty of Sony's programme which involved studies of qi, presentiment, synchronicity, mind-body interactions, consciousness, the sixth sense and supernatural phenomena the visionary company left the distinct impression that it had suffered a sudden loss of vision. Here they were on top of a psychic Mt Everest and the company had decided not to capitalise on their monumental findings. Why?
Two years ago, in Las Vegas, I met Yoichiro Saka, the director of the Sony paranormal lab, heard his presentation before a group of sympathetic scientists, and spoke to him at length. This little peek into what Sony was doing and more importantly, how it was doing it shed some light on why it decided to pull back from the venture and close down the lab. Clearly, all was not well with the Sony programme.
Sony had shied away from discussing the lab codenamed ESPER, which stands for "Extrasensory Perception and Excitation Research" and preferred no publicity about it. There was no mention of it in the company's annual reports, on its web sites, or anywhere else for that matter. But coming to Vegas was Yoichiro Sako, the founder and director of the ESPER lab, to present an invited paper before the annual meeting of the Society for Scientific Exploration, an organisation consisting largely of scientists and engineers interested in UFOs, the paranormal, and other anomalous phenomena.
This was not the first time Sony let the ESPER cat out of the bag. They first came clean about its psi research in 1995 after the nerve gas subway attacks by the Aum Shinri Kyo cult aroused suspicions about occult practices. Despite Sony's reticence, the lab enjoyed widespread popularity in Japan at large, but not within the company itself. While some people in the company were interested in his work, Sako admitted to me that more than a few others thought his work was "crazy."
Yoshihiro Otsuki, a professor of physics at Waseda University, led a blistering attack against the lab when it became public. By pouring money into paranormal research, he said, "Sony might as well be denying that its products can be trusted." Otsuki went on to describe the journal which had published Sako's findings as an "occult journal."
The notion of a trendsetting company like Sony trying to develop psi-based products is rather refreshing if not a little improbable. Why would one of the world's leading technology companies get involved in the marginal world of telepathy and clairvoyance? Certainly not for the greater good of humankind. No, Sony clearly intended to commercialise psi technology. Never mind that most scientists and engineers don't even believe psi exists; their skepticism would be moot if someone could create something anything useful based on psi.
A wealth of ideas based on psi technologies has been bandied about in the literature over the past couple of decades. These range from a wheelchair for quadriplegics controlled solely by intentional thought to a lock based on mental patterns rather than on fingerprints or retinal patterns. When I finally had the opportunity to ask Sako if Sony had any psi-based products in the works, he flashed a great big friendly smile followed after a long delay by a vigorous shake of the head. There are no products. Not yet.
Sako was an unlikely man in an unlikely job. His background was strictly orthodox and, as far as I could determine, he had no more than a passing knowledge of paranormal subjects until his rise to psi fame at Sony. Sako was unwilling to say whether he possesses any psychic powers himself, although he admitted to a long interest in the subject.
In any case, he graduated from the prestigious Tokyo University with a degree in mathematics and computer science and joined Sony immediately after graduation. He first worked on CDs, CD-ROMs, and eight-millimetre video before moving on to voice recognition technology and other areas of artificial intelligence. After covering all these bases, there was only one place left to go over the edge.
In 1989, Sako approached one of Sony's two founding fathers, Masaru Ibuka, about starting a special department to study the "human science," or bioenergy, which the Chinese call "qi." (pronounced ch'i).
Sako's proposal to study bioenergy at Sony was not a shot in the dark. It was no secret that Ibuka was interested in traditional medicine, as well as ESP. Indeed, back in 1988, Ibuka had established the Pulse Graph Research Department, which has worked on a device that claims to identify health problems by measuring the pulse. In any case, Sako's hunch proved correct and by 1990 he was doing qi research at Sony's Corporate Research Laboratory, measuring pulse, skin temperature, and other physiological changes that take place in the body while qi masters tried to alter a patient's qi energy.
By 1 November 1991, Sako had convinced the Sony founders to establish a separate laboratory, ESPER, where he could continue his qi research and range into psi topics as well. Sako was installed as the director of the five-person lab, no doubt a mere closet operation within the enormous Sony universe. But the fact that this research was taking place at all and had been budgeted though to what extent no one would say indicated that Sony believed Sako's paranormal research had some potential.
Clearly, however, Sony was confused over the lab's role within the company during its seven-year existence. On 1 January 1993, Sony established the Research Institute of Wisdom, which oversaw the work both of the ESPER Laboratory and the Pulse Graph Research Department. Then on 1 February 1995, the ESPER Lab was split off from the Research Institute of Wisdom and became part of the company's R&D Division.
As a long-time fan of all things Sony, I expected to be wowed by Sako's presentation in Las Vegas, but the abstract for 'Challenging an Unknown Information System' with its emphasis on "paradigm," "turning points" and the "new age" sounded like gobbledegook. I'd heard this kind of talk from parapsychologists, both university-affiliated and less, for decades, and I expected more from Sony.
But Sako's talk proved both surprising and in a way rather amusing. "If it is difficult for you to understand my talk due to my poor English," he began, "please understand my talk using telepathy." Sako then he pulled out his first viewgraph. Viewgraphs? Overhead projectors? This was Sony? I had expected a laptop-controlled whiz-bang digital extravaganza. I wondered if Sako could possibly be uncomfortable with technology and I noticed immediately that he did not wear eyeglasses or contacts either, though he seemed to need them. Nor did he wear a digital watch or any watch for that matter. Could he be technophobic, I wondered? Would this carry over into his research on matters parapsychological?
But viewgraphs it was, and the first one "Why?" written in large letters was perfect. This was the burning question on everyone's mind, of course; why was one of the world's premier electronics giants researching psi? The answer was less than perfect. "It's quite simple," said Sako, dressed in appropriate executive attire dark blue suit, blue shirt, and a tie striped blue, red and gold "It's a Sony." Sako sounded like he was trying to force a square peg down a round hole. "I think Sony's spirit is making dreams," he continued, "rather than making money." Sure, I thought, and Earth is the centre of the universe.
The ESPER lab's greatest success, Sako went on to explain, had come in the field of clairvoyance, the ability to get information about physical objects or distant events that is beyond the reach of the ordinary senses.
In one series of experiments, clairvoyance was defined as the ability to "see" letters and drawings on a target piece of paper without the use of sight. One subject was a 10-year-old schoolgirl. Children, Sako explained, are better at such things as clairvoyance than adults. Sako then described his amazing experiment. He would take a piece of paper about 1.5in (3.8cm) square and write or draw something on it. He would then fold it once, twice, three times and then crumple it up. Afterward the experimenter would hand the tiny wad of paper with the target on it to the subject to hold pinched between two fingers, or place the piece of paper in the subject's ear. Sako did not smile. Was he pulling our legs?
At first I thought this must be a relic behaviour from using a Sony Walkman but, after further reflection and a look at a paper written by Sako on 'Clairvoyance and Synesthesia' in Journal of International Society of Life Information Science (March 1997) I concluded that this experimental method must be based on the belief that clairvoyance could be due to synæsthesia, a crossing of the senses [see FT113:28-31]. Perhaps the ear could 'see' what was written on the paper? But Sako's own research on the subject showed only the slimmest evidence of synæsthesia in clairvoyance. In a total of 20 trials, there were only two examples for which the first sensation of the target was not visual, but hearing and smell.
The best method, Sako told the audience, was "in the ear." We were into deep weirdness here. And when Sako said best, he meant best. In 35 trials, the recognition rate was an astonishing 97.1 per cent; a success rate unheard of in western parapsychology experiments. There were 18 perfectly matching responses, noted Sako, including the equation "1+ 2= 5" (a result which led Sako to comment "It's wrong, but right".) Sixteen responses were so "closely matching" that most western experimenters would likely call them perfect hits. There was one false response. It was too good to be true.
How did they do this? Sako described the nine step process successful children seemed to use in clairvoyance.
1) Close the eyes, but this was not necessary. 2) Concentrate. 3) Imagine unfolding the piece of paper, but this also was not necessary. 4) A light then appears in the middle of their forehead. 5) The light expands as the surroundings darken. 6) A letter appears within the light. 7) Shift the light or letter to one side in order to read more of the image, like moving the beam of a spotlight across a billboard. 8) Memorise each letter. 9) Write them down. Easy, isn't it?
The simpler the letters and drawings, Sako told us, the easier they are to sense. But the trials were made more difficult, he said, when the target pieces of paper were put in an envelope (though, oddly, it was still possible for the subject to sense the target in the envelope when the room was darkened). This was big news, at least to me. Why this should be true poses a real problem. For decades one of the most solid results of western parapsychological research has been that psi abilities persist regardless of space or time considerations whether the subject or target is shielded in any way, even using lead chambers. So how could a measly envelope prevent psi?
There was one obvious explanation: placing the targets in an envelope thwarted cheating by the subjects. When I questioned Sako about this later, he insisted that no cheating was involved; the subject's tests were all videotaped. But was this enough, I wondered. One scientist who overheard Sako's remark thought that a magician should be present to ensure that no trickery was taking place, and many others expressed skepticism of Sako's results. "In a science laboratory," a professor of astronomy told me afterward, "you look out for a perfect score. If it is, then you know cheating is involved." The ESPER Lab procedures also raised serious doubts.
For others, however, Sako's results made perfect sense. Bill Higgins of PEAR Inc. in New Jersey, a company that is itself attempting to create commercial products based on psi technology see FT106:28-31 thought Sako was onto something. "He's shown the importance of the tactile sense," said an excited Higgins, who was planning to repeat the Sako experiments at home with his own children.
But Sako had also told the audience that clairvoyance works without having the subject touch the paper at all. This seemed to contradict his work in non-visual colour recognition, described in another paper published in the Journal of International Society of Life Information Science, which hints that there might be something to touch sight or "derma-sight."
For me, the really surprising thing about the incredible success of ESPER's clairvoyance results, was its apparent denial of technology. For a company like Sony, the incongruity of the situation was striking. In the western world, modern parapsychological research is the epitome of highly controlled hi-tech studies in which the experimenters write themselves out of the experiment. Sako's approach was so personal (becoming friends with his sensitives rather than keeping an objective distance) and low-tech that I wondered for an instant if he was not hiding Sony's true psi research from us.
Again, I questioned Sako; his reply was disarming and direct: "Yes, it's low-tech. Hi-tech is not necessary." Of course, whether the technology is low or hi matters little, as long as there is a product. But Sony had no product in mind, Sako admitted, and neither did he. And that, it now turns out, seven years after the ESPER lab began its work, was the rub.
"We found out experimentally that ESP exists," Sony spokesman Masanobu told Benjamin Fulford of the South China Morning Post for a story that appeared on 7 July, "but that any practical application of this knowledge is not likely in the foreseeable future." And so, without the promise of marketable products, Sony decided to shut down its ESPER lab.
The decision seemed to make perfect business sense; but the truth is that Sony's vaunted "vision factory" had come up short, without foresight about a subject that demanded it most. Perhaps the real reason the ESPER lab got the boot lies elsewhere. Sony's corporate culture was deeply embarrassed by the research and, when Sony founding father Masaru Ibuka died on 19 December 1997, the writing was on the lab wall.
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