Science and the Psychic Taboo
Parapsychology researcher Dean Radin on ESP, spirituality, and how the consciousness of individuals is connected
David Ian Miller
It often seems like science and spirituality are bitter enemies, incapable of playing nicely together. Scientists are not fond of ideas that can't be tested; spiritual people say that the important things in life are beyond quantifying.
But Dean Radin firmly believes that both can get along, at least out on the far fringes where most of his work is done, investigating the extreme reaches of human consciousness.
Radin has been conducting experiments on psychic (or "psi") phenomena since he was 13, an interest that led to appointments at Princeton University, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Nevada, SRI International and Interval Research Corporation.
At SRI International he worked on a then-secret government-funded program of psi research, now declassified and dubbed Stargate.
In 2000, he cofounded the Boundary Institute and since 2001 he's been the senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, in Petaluma. He's the author of the book "Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality," which looks at how theories of quantum physics and other scientific discoveries may provide a logical explanation for psychic phenomena.
I spoke with Radin last week about mind-matter interaction, intentional thinking, New Age guilt and the power of chocolate.
SF Gate: You recently gave a talk at Google Headquarters in Silicon Valley called "Science and the Psi Taboo." What did you talk about?
Dean Radin: The theme of my talk was that there are 17,500 institutions of higher learning around the world, but only about 30 of them have at least one faculty member who has seriously written about psi, either pro or con. That's a very small fraction of 1 percent. And I think that's because it's a taboo topic.
Were you trying to suggest that Google employees shouldn't view this as a taboo?
I don't see my job as trying to convince anyone of anything. I want people to make up their own minds. I'm interested in countering what amounts to a myth a popular myth that there is no scientific evidence (for psychic phenomena), or if there is scientific evidence, then it is not any good. Both of those really are myths.
Do you think people can predict events that will occur in the future?
Predict is a little bit too strong. I think that sometimes people have experiences that turn out to be true, and they know it in advance, but prediction implies that I'm going to sit down and figure out what is going to happen. I don't think that the phenomenon is exactly like that. But the fact that people can gain information about future events, of that I'm nearly convinced.
What is the most compelling evidence, in your view, that people can sense what might happen?
I would say that the experiments that I've done which I call "presentiment experiments" are among the most compelling, primarily because the results are more robust than what you typically see in these kinds of experiments.
Can you describe what those are?
They're a class of experiments where you don't ask the participant to consciously try to do anything. You just measure their body's response as a way of detecting that something is happening. So we measure skin response, pupil dilation and things like that.
We ask a person to sit in front of a computer and look at a blank screen, then push a button. A few seconds go by, and then the screen makes a random decision to select a stimulus that is either calm or emotional, and then it goes away after maybe 10 or 15 seconds. And then this process is repeated again and again. The analysis looks at what's happening while you are waiting for the computer to make that random decision about which picture to show. We are wondering whether people would get an unconscious sense of what their future is about to bring them.
When you do this experiment with lots of people on lots of trials, what you end up with is evidence that people significantly show different physiological conditions or states just before emotional pictures are shown as compared to calm pictures, and in the direction that you can predict, as if in fact they were somehow aware of what their future was about to bring.
Do you think that we all have some extrasensory abilities?
I think we do in the same way that we can all play golf, but we are not all going to win the Masters.
Any idea how to improve your psychic skills? Is it like golf, you have to practice?
I think the single method that seems to work is meditation. These abilities have something to do with the subtle aspects of mind. The phenomena seem to bubble up from our unconscious, so the more that we are aware of what's going on in our unconscious, the better people are likely to do. There haven't been that many experiments working with both meditators and non-meditators, but of those that have been done, the meditators almost always do better, usually significantly better.
Can you tell me about what you did on the Stargate project?
I was a visiting scientist for a year on the project, before it got that code name, Stargate. Part of my job was to look at literature that had been translated primarily from China and Russia, and on a few occasions to interview defected scientists from those countries who had claimed to be working on something having to do with psychic phenomena. We also conducted our own experiments.
What did you learn from that work?
I guess the primary thing was, I learned a new way that a person could become frustrated. At the time, and it's still true somewhat today, there were lots of rumors about what the government may or may not be doing related to psychic phenomena, and most mainstream scientists thought that there actually wasn't anything going on, nothing worth looking at.
Once I went through all of the months and months of background reviews and so on to get the classification, I finally got the briefing that is given to the military officers and intelligence officers with the right clearance, and when you get to the end of that briefing the idea that there is no evidence is so ludicrous that you want to somehow let everybody know this.
It is amazing! There are some people who are extremely good, highly reliable remote viewers. And not simply in terms of experimental studies, but in real world applications, typically intelligence-backed applications. There are dozens and dozens of government agencies that were actively using these people, and there are dozens of examples of amazing gifts. The psychics were able to describe things that turned out to be not only true, but pragmatically useful.
Last year you conducted an experiment with something you call "intentional chocolate." You had several Tibetan monks and a Mongolian shaman bless chocolate, and then you tested the moods of people who ate it. What prompted the idea?
It came up during a discussion with a chocolate maker from Hawaii. I'm not much of a foodie, so I don't think about these things very often, but I certainly know that there is something that seems different when food is cooked by someone you love. It feels better. It tastes better. And a lot of chefs swear by the idea that somehow their attitude, their intentions, make a difference in terms of how people respond to food. It occurred to me that this was a testable idea. So we did double-blind experiments to see what would happen if you exposed some chocolate to the highly trained intentions of expert meditators. It came out with results that significantly supported the idea people report having a better mood when eating the intentional chocolate as opposed to the placebo.
It was probably the strangest experiment that I've done so far because it implies not only that intention changes substance, but whatever is being changed also results in a behavioral difference.
I'll admit I had mixed reactions when I heard about this. On the one hand, I have a general feeling that when food is being created with love and attention that it actually tastes better. But another part of me was thinking: "Oh, come on! This is a scam." Has this experiment been replicated anywhere else?
I don't think it's been replicated; the study was just recently published. But I think I point out in the paper that there are previous studies that suggest that something like this probably should work. These are mostly studies involving water and people who do hands-on healing, like therapies of touch, perhaps. And they are asked to hold vials of water while they are doing the healing with the idea that maybe the water will be changed as a result of what's going on. Then you see if the water makes a difference when it's used on plants and seeds, as opposed to control water that is not handled. And most of the studies do show that there are small effects that can be detected.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual person, and how might you define that for yourself?
If spiritual means that there is more than meets the eye, absolutely yes. I feel that is confirmed by looking at the history of science, which in a very cartoonish way has gone from the refinement of common sense to further and further away from common sense. In almost any scientific discipline you can imagine right now, such as physics, the leading edge doesn't look like common sense at all. It looks more like science fiction.
It doesn't take a great leap of faith to imagine science a few thousand years into the future will be very different from what it is today. Down the line, I imagine what we intuitively feel or describe as spiritual will fall into the domain of science, but it will be a type of science that in today's terms we wouldn't recognize at all.
Do you believe in a God or gods?
Not in a personal God. We tend to think of it in those terms, because we have little tiny pea brains that can only imagine things in human terms, so we psychologically project out into the world that maybe that's the way it is. But I think that whatever is going on is so far beyond our ability to imagine that I don't like to limit myself.
What do you think God is?
Perhaps a form of intelligence that is distributed, or larger than what we would think of as intelligence. Perhaps it's built into the fabric of reality itself. I don't see why not.
Can we communicate with this intelligence?
Certainly a lot of people believe that. I guess I don't know. I'm open to all possibilities.
The problem is that we are also dealing with the possibility of psychopathology, and so people can fool themselves and fool others very easily. So, while I think the answer probably is yes, it also requires a huge amount of caution.
Albert Einstein had this notion of "spooky action at a distance," the way two objects remain connected through time and space without communicating in any conventional way long after their initial interaction is taken place. That is also a part of many cultures' folk magic traditions. Do you think science is proving that magical theories are correct?
A scientist has to be very careful about the word "proof." I wouldn't use that word. Only mathematicians can provide proofs. I would say that there is some evidence for this, yes. In quantum entanglement, for example, we have the idea that things that interact remain connected when separated this is the essence of contact magic. But I don't think anything is truly supernatural. It's either natural or it's not. Magnetism used to be considered magic, but of course we know it really works. I think a lot of what used to be described as magic will transition into language that is more descriptive about what is actually going on.
Over the years, you have had your share of arguments with skeptics. You told me that's something you kind of enjoy. Why do you enjoy it?
Well, it keeps both sides sharp. It is necessary in science to take the skeptical viewpoint, because life is short, and it's not so much fun to fool yourself, even if you can get away with it. So, I'm always grateful to the skeptics who point out things I may have overlooked. What I'm not so grateful about is a kind of stubbornness or, worse, a kind of arrogance whereby people believe their side so strongly that they are not even willing to question it or protest it.
Have you ever had what you would call psychic experiences?
I think so. Most of them have been extremely mundane. To give you an example, one day my wife and I were both reading our e-mail on our own PCs, within earshot of each other, but we couldn't see what was on the other person's screen. So I was just reading an e-mail from a colleague who had just written a book on deja vu some years ago and had just rewritten it as a new issue, and he was going to call it "Deja Vu Revisited." I thought that was a clever title, and I was going to look it up and tell my wife about it. At that instant, she suddenly looked up from her e-mail and said, "I just had the strangest deja vu!" She had never said anything previously about deja vu, so here was a coincidence of a particular topic at a particular time that looks a lot like telepathy.
There has been this craze of late about "The Secret." And I wonder if you have any thoughts on that, since a lot of the work you do relates to how our minds affect reality.
Well, craze is a good word. I mean, it's a little overblown and embellished, but I think the general idea that intention can help either push us or pull us towards goals that we have is not a bad idea. It's not significantly different from the power of positive thinking, nor is it too different from the effects that we see in our intentional chocolate experiment and many other experiments like that. There is something about intention that seems to be the underlying focus for a mind-matter interaction.
One reason people cringe when they hear about "The Secret" is that it suggests we have far more control over our lives than we probably do. So if you get cancer, let's say, you should be able to cure yourself with your thinking.
It does create this sort of New Age guilt, and actually I think that the intentional effects that we see in the lab (from positive thinking) are pretty small. It's not as if you're in a boat without a paddle and you're about to go over Niagara Falls you can't simply zoom off to the shore by wishing that it will happen. But you can, if you pay a little bit of attention beforehand, move it very slightly, and if you do it systematically you might be lucky enough to move it to a place of safety. Obviously, if you are near the falls, it's too late.
RELATED ARTICLE: The ESP of Espionage