Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, Guest
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 9 – Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?, of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s book Science Set Free. Reproduced here with permission. Please visit Sheldrake.org for more of Rupert’s inspiring work.
How an open-minded scientist opened my mind
Telepathy literally means “distant feeling”, from the Greek tele, distant, as in telephone and television, and pathe, feeling, as in sympathy and empathy.
In the course of my scientific education at school and university, I was converted to the materialist worldview, and absorbed the standard attitude towards telepathy and other psychic phenomena. I dismissed them. I did not study the evidence because I assumed there was none worth reading. But when I was a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University, in a conversation in the laboratory tearoom, someone mentioned telepathy. I dismissed it out of hand. But sitting nearby was one of the doyens of British biochemistry, Sir Rudolph Peters, formerly Professor of Biochemistry in Oxford, who after retirement continued his research in our laboratory in Cambridge. He was kindly, his eyes twinkled, and had more curiosity than most people half his age. He asked if any of us had ever looked at the evidence. We had not. He told us he had done some research on this subject himself, and had come to the conclusion that something unexplained was really happening. He later told me the story in detail, and gave me a paper he had published on the subject in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. [i]
A friend of his, E.G. Recordon, an opthalmologist, had a boy patient who was severely disabled, mentally retarded and almost blind. Yet in routine eye tests he seemed able to read the letters very well, apparently by “remarkable guess work”. Recordon said, “It gradually dawned on me that this ‘guesswork’ was particularly interesting; and I came to the conclusion that he must be working through his mother.” It turned out that the boy could only read the letters when his mother was looking at them, raising the possibility of telepathy.
Peters and Recordon did some preliminary experiments at the family’s home. A screen separated the mother and son, preventing the boy from picking up any visual cues. When his mother was shown a series of written numbers or words, the boy guessed many of them correctly. Peters and his colleagues could not observe any sign of cuing by sound or subtle movements. They then carried out two experiments over the telephone, which they tape-recorded. The mother was taken to a laboratory six miles away, while the boy remained at home in Cambridge. The experimenters had a set of cards on which randomly selected numbers or letters were written. The cards were shuffled so that they were in a random order. One of the researchers turned up a card and showed it to the mother. The boy, at the other end of the telephone line, then guessed what it was, and the mother responded by saying “right” or “no”. The mother was then shown the next card, and so on. Each trial lasted only a few seconds.
In the trials with letters, there was a 1 in 26 (3.8 percent) chance of guessing the letter correctly at random. The boy guessed correctly in 38 percent of the trials. When he was wrong, he was given a second guess and was right 27 percent of the time. In experiments with random numbers he was likewise correct far more than would have been expected by random guessing. The odds against these results arising by chance were billions to one. Peters concluded that this was indeed a case of telepathy, which had developed to an unusual degree because of the boy’s extreme needs and the mother’s desire to help him. [ii] As he remarked, “In every respect the mother was emotionally involved in trying to help her backward son.”
As I later came to understand, telepathy usually occurs between people who are closely bonded, such as parents and children, spouses, and close friends. [iii] Peters’ investigation was unusual in that he studied as case where the bonds between the “sender” and “receiver” were unusually strong. By contrast, most experiments by psychic researchers and parapsychologists have used pairs of strangers, between whom the effects were much smaller. Nevertheless, taken together, these experiments produced an impressive body of evidence.
Telepathy in the laboratory
Between 1880 and 1939, dozens of investigators published a total of 186 papers describing four million card-guessing trials, in which subjects guessed which randomly selected card a “sender” was looking at. Most of these tests gave hit rates modestly above the level expected by random guessing, and when combined together in a statistical procedure called meta-analysis, the overall results were astronomically significant statistically. [iv]
Skeptics often argue that such impressive collections of data are misleading, because researchers may publish only positive results, and leave negative studies unpublished in their files, the so-called “file-drawer effect”. This objection is plausible, but it applies to all branches of science, including physics, chemistry and biology, where most data go unpublished. Psychic researchers experience much more sceptical scrutiny that scientists in conventional fields, and are also more aware of the importance of publishing statistically non-significant results, and actually do so. Anyway, calculations show how many unsuccessful studies would be needed to bring down the results of these card-guessing tests to chance levels. There would have to be 626,000 unpublished reports, or in other words 3,300 unpublished studies for every one that was published.[v] This is implausible.
Many card-guessing trials were carried out at the famous parapsychology laboratory at Duke University, North Carolina from the 1920s to the 1960s using a set of five specially prepared cards with abstract symbols on them. By chance subjects would have been right 20 percent of the time. In hundreds of thousands of trials, the average hit rate was 21 percent, only slightly above the chance level, but highly significant statistically because of the large number of trials. [vi]
Unfortunately, the experimenters’ desire to follow rigorous scientific procedures led them to adopt procedures far removed the way telepathy occurs in real life. These repetitive, boring laboratory tests between strangers using abstract stimuli were about as unnatural as it was possible to be.
In the 1960s, a new generation of researchers tried to find ways of doing research that were closer to the conditions under which telepathy occurs spontaneously, particularly in dreams. A team led by Stanley Krippner carried out a series of dream telepathy tests in which subjects slept in a soundproofed dream laboratory. Electrodes were attached to their heads to measure brain waves through an electroencephalograph (EEG), and eye movements were monitored. Rapid eye movements (REM) typically occur during dreams, and hence the researchers could tell when the subjects were dreaming. Before the subject went to bed, she met the sender, who thereafter stayed in another room, and in some cases in another building miles away. When she was asleep and her eyes movements indicated that she was dreaming, the sender opened a sealed package containing a randomly selected picture and concentrated on it, trying to influence the subject’s dream. The subject was then woken by a buzzer and asked to describe her dream. Her comments were tape recorded and transcribed. A panel of independent judges then compared the description of the dream with the pool of pictures from which the test picture had been selected at random, and decided which picture agreed best with the descriptions.
In some cases the agreement was very striking: one subject dreamed about buying tickets for a boxing match while the sender was looking at a picture of a boxing match. Sometimes the connection was more symbolic: for example, the subject dreamed was of a dead rat in a cigar box, while the sender was looking at a picture of a dead gangster in a coffin. [vii] In a total of 450 dream telepathy trials, the overall results were very significantly above the chance level. [viii]
In the 1970s, several parapsycholgists developed a new kind of telepathy test with the subjects were in a state of mild sensory deprivation, because they thought that subjects were likely to do better when relaxed. The subject reclined in a comfortable chair in a special soundproofed room wearing headphones that played continuous white noise. Over their eyes were halved ping-pong balls, held on with tape, and they were bathed in dim red light. This set-up was called the ganzfeld, from a German word meaning “whole field”. Meanwhile, the sender, in a separate soundproofed room, looked at a photograph or a video randomly selected from a pool of four. The subject spoke about her impressions and was recorded. At the end of the 15 or 30 minutes session, she was shown all four images from the pool in a random order and asked to rank them according to their closeness to her experience. If she placed the target image first, this counted as a hit.
By random guessing, subjects would have been right about one time in four, or 25 percent of the time. By 1985, there had been 28 ganzfeld studies in ten different laboratories, and the overall hit rate was 35 percent, highly significant statistically. A well-known academic skeptic, Ray Hyman, agreed that the data showed a significant effect but thought it might have been due to a variety of flaws in the procedure. He and a leading researcher in the field, Charles Honorton, issued a joint communiqué specifying strict criteria that future tests should follow to eliminate possible flaws. [ix]
Subsequent research followed these agreed criteria, and in this new series of studies the average hit rate was 34 percent, again very significantly above the 25 percent chance level. [x] In most of these studies the senders and receivers were strangers. When tests were done between people who knew each other well, for example mothers and daughters, the scores were far higher. [xi]
Sir Rudolph Peters opened my mind to the possibility of telepathy and I am grateful to him for it. But as I began to take an interest in the subject, I soon realized that almost all psychic research and parapsychology concerned humans. Was this because psychic powers were special attributes of human beings? Or was it simply a reflection of the human-centred interests of researchers? Could animals be telepathic too? It seemed to me that if telepathy existed in humans, it might well be an ability shared with other animals.
At this stage, I came across a remarkable book written by an American naturalist, William Long, called How Animals Talk, published in 1919.[xii] Some of his most fascinating studies concerned wolves, which he observed for months on end in Canada. He found that separated members of wolf packs remained in contact with each other and responded to each other’s activities over many miles. Wolves separated from the pack not only seemed to know what the others were doing but where they were. Their responsiveness involved more than following habitual paths, tracking scent trails, or by hearing howling or other sounds.
As Long pointed out, the same abilities may occur in domesticated animals. He was particularly interested by the ability of some dogs to know when their owners were coming home, and he described some simple experiments carried out by a friend of his with a return-anticipating dog. The dog started waiting for its owner soon after he started his journey and waited for more than half an hour before he arrived home, even at non-routine times.
Unfortunately no one followed this lead. The subject of telepathy was taboo, and biologists avoided it. I started asking friends, family members and neighbours if they had ever noticed that their animals could anticipate when someone was coming home. I soon heard some very relevant stories. For example, in my hometown, Newark-on-Trent, in Nottinghamshire, one of my neighbours was a widow who kept a cat that was very attached to her son, a seaman in the merchant navy. He did not tell her when he would be coming home on leave because he was afraid she would worry if he was late. But she knew anyway, because the cat sat on the front-door mat meowing for an hour or two before he arrived. The cat’s behaviour gave her time to get his room ready and prepare a meal for him.
I appealed through the media for people to tell me about their experiences with dogs and cats that anticipated arrivals, and soon dozens of reports. By 2011, on my database I had more than 1,000 accounts of dogs and more than 600 of cats that anticipated their owners’ returns. Many of these stories made it clear that the animals’ responses were not simply reactions to the sounds of a familiar car, or familiar footsteps in the street. They happened too long in advance, and they also happened when people came home by bus or train. Nor was it just a matter of routine. Some people worked irregular hours, like plumbers, lawyers and taxi drivers, and yet the people at home know when they were coming because the dog or cat waited at the door or window, sometimes half an hour or more before the person arrived. More than twenty other species showed similar anticipatory behaviour, especially parrots and horses, but also a ferret, several bottle-fed lambs raised as pets, and pet geese. In random household telephone surveys in Britain and the United States, I found that about in about 50 percent of dog-owning households and about 30 percent of cat-owning households, the animals were said to anticipate the arrival of a member of the family. [xiii]
I carried out experiments with return-anticipating dogs to find out whether they really did anticipate their owners returns, even when they could not have known by “normal” means. The first and most extensive tests were with a terrier called Jaytee, who lived near Manchester, England, with his owner, Pam Smart. Preliminary observations revealed that Jaytee usually started waiting for Pam just before she set off homewards, apparently when she formed the intention to do so. He did this whatever the time of day on 85 out of 100 return journeys. On some occasions he failed to react he was sick; on others there was a bitch on heat in the next flat, showing that Jaytee could be distracted. But on 85 percent of the occasions he seemed to anticipate Pam’s return. [xiv]
In formal, randomized tests, Pam went at least 5 miles away from home. While she was out, the place where Jaytee waited was filmed continuously on time-coded videotape. She did not know in advance when she would be going home and she did so only when she received a message from me via a telephone pager at a randomly selected time. She travelled by taxi, in a different vehicle each time, to avoid any familiar car sounds. On average, Jaytee was at the window only 4 percent of the time during the main period of Pam’s absence, and 55 percent of the time when she was on the way back. This difference was very significant statistically. [xv]
I carried many further filmed observations of Jaytee’s behaviour, [xvi] and did similar experiments with other dogs, notably a Rhodesian Ridgeback called Kane. [xvii] Again and again, on film and under controlled conditions, these dogs anticipated their owners’ returns.
Domestic animals seem to pick up their owner’s thoughts and intentions in other ways: for example, many cats seem to know when they are going to be taken to the vet; they hide. Most dramatically, some animals seem to sense when their owners have had accidents or have died in distant places. On my database, there are 177 accounts of dogs apparently responding to the death or distress of the human companions, most by howling, whining or whimpering, and 62 accounts of cats showing signs of distress. Conversely, in 32 instances, people knew when their pet had died or was in dire need. [xviii]
The most remarkable animal I have come across is an African Grey parrot, N’kisi. His vocabulary of around 1,500 words is probably the largest ever recorded. When he was only about two years old, his owner, Aimée Morgana, noticed that he seemed to respond to her thoughts or intentions by saying what she was thinking. He slept in her bedroom, and woke her up on several occasions by commenting loudly on what she was dreaming.
She and I set up a controlled experiment in which she viewed a series of photographs in a random sequence while she was in a different room on a separate floor, being filmed continuously. The pictures were in a random order and represented 20 words in N’kisi vocabulary, like “flower” “hug” and “phone”. Meanwhile, N’kisi, who was alone, was also filmed continuously. He often said words that corresponded to the image she was viewing, and did so much more frequently than expected by chance. The results were highly significant statistically. [xix]
The natural history of human telepathy
The laboratory investigations of telepathy by parapsychologists provide evidence that it happens, but shed little light on telepathy in real life situations.
When Laurens van der Post was living with bushmen in the Kalahari desert, in southern Africa, he found that they seemed to be in telepathic contact on a regular basis. On one occasion he went hunting with a group of men and they killed an eland about 50 miles away from the camp. As they were driving back in a Land Rover laden with meat, van der Post asked one the bushman how the people would react when they learned of their success. He replied, “They already know. They know by wire…. We bushmen have a wire here” – he tapped his chest – “that brings us news.” He was comparing their method of communication with the white man’s telegram or “wire”. Sure enough, when they approached the camp, the people were singing the “Eland Song” and preparing to give the hunters the greatest of welcomes.[xx]
In most, if not all traditional societies, telepathy seems to be taken for granted and put to practical use. Many travellers in Africa reported that people seem to know when a people to whom they were attached were coming home. The same occurred in rural Norway, where there is a special word for the anticipation of arrivals: vardøger. Typically, someone at home heard a person approaching the house, and coming in, yet nobody physically did so. Soon afterwards the person really arrived. Similarly, the “second sight” of some of the inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands included visions of arrivals before the person in the vision arrived.
Unfortunately, most anthropologists who have lived with traditional peoples have not studied these aspects of their behaviour, or at least they have not reported them. Materialist taboos have inhibited their spirit of enquiry. As a result, very little is known about the natural history of telepathy and other psychic phenomena in other cultures.
In an attempt to find out more about telepathy in modern societies, I launched a series of appeals for information through the media in Europe, North America and Australia. Over a period of 15 years, I built up a database of human experiences, similar to my database on unexplained powers of animals, with over 4,000 case histories, classified into more than sixty categories.
Many cases of apparent telepathy occurred in response to other people’s needs. For example, hundreds of mothers told me that when they were still breastfeeding, they knew when their baby needed them, even from miles away. They felt their milk let down. (The milk let-down reflex is mediated by the hormone oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, and is normally triggered by hearing the baby cry. The nipples start leaking milk and many women feel a tingling sensation in their breasts.) When mothers who were away from their babies felt their milk let down, most of them took it for granted that their baby needed them. They were usually right. They did not experience their milk letting down because they started thinking about the baby; they started thinking about their baby because their milk let down for no apparent reason. Their response was physiological.
With the help of a midwife, I carried out a study of nine nursing mothers in North London over a two-month period. While the mothers were away from their babies, all the times at which their milk let down were recorded; meanwhile the baby-sitters noted when the babies showed signs of distress. After eliminating events that could have been due to synchronized rhythms in mother and baby at regular feeding times, most of the unexpected milk let-downs did indeed coincide with the babies’ distress. The statistical odds against their occurring by chance were a billion to one. In other words, it was highly unlikely that the mothers’ responses were random coincidences.
A telepathic connection between mothers and their babies makes good sense in evolutionary terms. Mothers who could tell at a distance when their babies needed them would tend to have babies that survived better than the babies of insensitive mothers.
Telepathic connections between mothers and their children often seem to continue even when the children have grown up. Many stories on my database concern mothers who went to their children when they were in distress, or telephoned them, when they could not have known by any conventional means.
Until the invention of modern telecommunications, telepathy was the only way in which people could be in touch at a distance instantly. In most respects telepathy has now been superseded by telephones – but it has not gone away. Telepathy now occurs most commonly in connection with telephone calls.
The commonest of all kinds of story about apparent telepathy concerned telephone calls. Hundreds of people told me that they had thought of someone for no apparent reason, and then that person rang in a way that seemed uncanny. Or they knew who was calling when the phone rang before they looked at a caller ID display or answered. I followed up these stories with a series of surveys in Europe and in North and South America. On average, 92 percent of the respondents said they had thought of someone as the telephone rang, or just before, in a way that seemed telepathic. [xxi]
When I talked to friends and colleagues about this phenomenon, most agreed it seems to happen. Some people simply accepted that it was telepathic or intuitive; others tried to explain it “normally”. Almost everyone came up with one or both of these two arguments. First, they said, you think about other people frequently; then sometimes, by chance, somebody rings while you are thinking about them; you imagine it is telepathy, but you forget the thousands of time you were wrong. The second argument was that when you know someone well, your familiarity with his routines and activities enables you to know when he is likely to ring, even though this knowledge may be unconscious.
I searched the scientific literature to find out if these standard arguments were supported by any data or observations. I could find no research whatsoever on the subject. The standard sceptical arguments were evidence-free speculations. In science it is not enough to put forward a hypothesis: it needs to be tested.
I designed a simple procedure to test both the chance-coincidence theory and the unconscious-knowledge theory experimentally. I recruited subjects who said they quite frequently knew who was calling before answering the phone. I asked them for the names and telephone numbers of four people they knew well, friends or family members. The subjects were then filmed continuously throughout the period of the experiment alone in a room with a landline telephone, without a caller ID system. If there was a computer in the room, it was switched off, and the subjects had no mobile phone. My research assistant or I selected one of the four callers at random by the throw of a die. We rang up the selected person and asked him to phone the subject in the next couple of minutes. He did so. The subject’s phone rang, and before answering it she had to say to the camera who, out of the four possible callers, she felt was on the line. She could not have known by knowledge of the caller’s habits and daily routines, because in this experiment, the callers rang at times randomly selected by the experimenter.
By guessing at random, subjects would have been right about one time in four, or 25 percent. In fact, the average hit rate was 45 percent, very significantly above the chance level. None of the subjects was right every time, but they were right much more than they should have been if the chance coincidence theory were true. This above-chance effect has been replicated independently in telephone telepathy tests at the Universities of Freiburg, Germany and Amsterdam, Holland. [xxii]
In some of our tests, there were two familiar callers and two unfamiliar callers who the subjects had never met, but whose names they knew. The hit rate with unfamiliar callers was near the chance level; with the familiar callers it was 52 percent, about twice the chance level. This experiment supported the idea that telepathy occurs more between people who are bonded to each other than between strangers.
For some of our experiments we recruited young Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans living in London. Some of their callers were back home, thousands of miles away, and the others were new acquaintances in England. In these tests, the hit rates were higher with their nearest and dearest far away than with people in Britain they had met only recently, showing that emotional closeness is more important than physical proximity. [xxiii]
Other researchers have also found that telepathy does not seem to be distance-dependent. [xxiv] At first sight this seems surprising, because most physical influences, like gravitation and light, fall off with distance. But the physical phenomenon most analogous to telepathy is quantum entanglement, also known as quantum nonlocality, which does not fall off with distance. [xxv] When two quantum particles have been part of the same system and move apart, they remain interconnected or entangled in such a way that a change in one is associated with an immediate change in the other. Albert Einstein famously described this effect as “spooky action at a distance”. [xxvi]
Telepathy has continued to evolve along with modern technologies. Many people say they have the experience of thinking of someone who then emails them, or sends them a text message. Experiments with emails and test messages using similar methods to the telephone tests have also given positive, highly significant results. [xxvii] As in telephone tests, the effect occurred more with familiar people and it did not fall off with distance. The same was true of automated telepathy tests on the internet. [xxviii]
I do not know to what extent people can learn to be more sensitive telepathically, but several automated tests are now available, including a test that runs on mobile phones, enabling those who are interested to find out for themselves. [xxix]
Telepathy involves picking up feelings, needs or thoughts at a distance, across space. Some other phenomena are also spatial, like the sense of being stared at and remote viewing. By contrast, premonitions, precognition and presentiments are related to future events, and imply links across time from the future to the present.
Animal premonitions of disasters
Premonition means warning in advance, precognition means knowing in advance, and presentiment feeling in advance.
There are many examples of animals seeming to feel when a disaster is about to strike. Ever since classical times, people have reported unusual animal behaviour before earthquakes, and I have myself collected a large body of evidence for unusual animal behaviour before recent earthquakes, including the 1987 and 1994 earthquakes in California; 1995 in Kobe, Japan; 1997 near Assisi, Italy; 1999 in Izmit, Turkey; and 2001 near Seattle, Washington. In all these cases there were many reports of wild and domesticated animals behaving in fearful, anxious, or unusual ways several hours or even days before the earthquakes. Dogs were howling for hours beforehand, and many cats and birds were behaving unusually. [xxx]
One of the very few systematic observations of animal behaviour before, during and after an earthquake concerns toads in Italy. A British biologist, Rachel Grant, was carrying out a study of mating behaviour in toads for her Ph.D. project at San Ruffino Lake in central Italy in the spring of 2009. To her surprise, soon after the beginning of the mating season in late March, the number of male toads in the breeding group suddenly fell. From more than 90 toads being active on March 30, there were almost none on March 31 and in early April. As Grant and her colleague Tim Halliday observed, “This is highly unusual behaviour for toads; once toads have appeared to breed, they usually remain active in large numbers at the breeding site until spawning has finished.” On April 6, Italy was shaken by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake, followed by a series of aftershocks. The toads did not resume their normal breeding behaviour for another 10 days, two days after the last aftershock. Grant and Halliday looked in detail at the weather records for this period but found nothing unusual. They were forced to the conclusion that the toads were somehow detecting the impending earthquake some six days in advance. [xxxi]
No one knows how some animals sense when earthquakes are imminent. Perhaps they pick up subtle sounds or vibrations in the earth. But if animals can predict earthquake-related disasters by sensing slight tremors, why can’t seismologists do so?
Or maybe they respond to subterranean gases released prior to earthquakes, or react to changes in the earth’s electrical field. But they may also sense in advance what is about to happen in a way that lies beyond current scientific understanding, through some kind of presentiment.
Similarly, many animals seemed to anticipate the great Asian tsunami on December 26, 2004, although their reactions were much closer to the actual event. Elephants in Sri Lanka and Sumatra moved to high ground before the giant waves struck; they did they same in Thailand, trumpeting before they did so. According to villagers in Bang Koey, Thailand, a herd of buffalo were grazing by the beach when they “suddenly lifted their heads and looked out to sea, ears standing upright.” They turned and stampeded up the hill, followed by bewildered villagers, whose lives were thereby saved. At Ao Sane beach, near Phuket, dogs ran up to the hill tops, and at Galle in Sri Lanka, dog owners were puzzled by the fact that their animals refused to go for their usual morning walk on the beach. In Cuddalore District in South India, buffaloes, goats and dogs escaped by moving to higher ground, and so did a nesting colony of flamingos. In the Andaman Islands, “stone age” tribal groups moved away from the coast before the disaster, alerted by the behaviour of animals. [xxxii]
How did they know? The usual speculation is that the animals picked up tremors caused by the under-sea earthquake. But this explanation is unconvincing. There would have been tremors all over South East Asia, not just in the afflicted coastal areas.
Some animals anticipate other kinds of natural disaster like avalanches, [xxxiii] and some also anticipate man-made catastrophes such as air raids. During the Second World War, many families in Britain and Germany relied on their pets’ behaviour to warn them of impending air raids before official warnings were given. The animal reactions occurred when enemy planes were still hundreds of miles away, long before the animals could have heard them coming. Some dogs in London even anticipated the explosion of German V-2 rockets. These missiles were supersonic and hence they could not have been heard in advance. [xxxiv]
With very few exceptions, the ability of animals to anticipate disasters has been ignored by Western scientists; the subject is taboo. By contrast, since the 1970s, in earthquake-prone areas of China, the authorities have encouraged people to report unusual animal behaviour, and Chinese scientists have an impressive track record in predicting earthquakes. In several cases they issued warnings that enabled cities to be evacuated hours before devastating earthquakes struck, saving tens of thousands of lives. [xxxv]
By paying attention to unusual animal behaviour, as the Chinese do, earthquake and tsunami warning systems might be feasible in parts of the world that are at risk from these disasters. Millions of people could be asked to take part in this project through the media. They could be told what kinds of behaviour their pets and other animals might show if a disaster were imminent – in general, signs of anxiety or fear. If people noticed these signs, or any other unusual behaviour, they would immediately telephone a hotline with a memorable number for example, in California, 1-800-PET QUAKE. Or they could send a message on the Internet.
A computer system would analyze the places of origin of the incoming messages. If there were an unusually large number, it would signal an alarm, and display on a map the places from which the calls were coming. There would probably be a background of false alarms from people whose pets were sick, for example, and there might also be scattered hoax calls. But if there was a sudden surge of calls from a particular region, this could indicate that an earthquake or tsunami was imminent.
Exploring the potential for animal-based warning systems would cost relatively little. From a practical point of view, it does not matter how animals know; they can give useful warnings whatever the explanation. If it turns out that they are indeed reacting to subtle physical changes, then seismologists should be able to use instruments to make better predictions themselves. If it turns out that presentiment plays a part, we will learn something important about the nature of time and causation. By ignoring animal premonitions, or by explaining them away, we will learn nothing.
Human premonitions and precognitions
Sixteen-year-old Carole Davies was about to leave a games arcade in London with some friends when it began to rain heavily. The entrance became crowded as people came in from the street to shelter.
While standing there looking out into the night, I had a sense of danger. Then I saw what looked like a picture in front of me showing people on the floor and with tiles and metal girders on them. I looked round and up and realized this was to happen here. I began to shout at people to get out. No one listened. I ran through the rain, with my friends following, to a nearby café. After a while we heard sirens that stopped outside the arcade building. We all ran down the road to find out what had happened. It was just as I had seen. A man I had shouted at was being pulled from under the debris.
During wars, people tend to be more alert to danger, and indeed there is more danger. For example, Charles Bernuth, serving in the U.S. Seventh Army in the Second World War, took part in the invasion of Germany. Soon after crossing the Rhine, he was driving along an autobahn at night with two fellow officers.
All of a sudden, I got the still small voice. Something was wrong with the road. I just knew it. I stopped, amid the groans and jeers of the other two. I started walking along the road. About 50 yards from where I had left the jeep, I found out what was wrong. We were about to go over a bridge – only the bridge wasn’t there. It had been blown up and there was a sheer drop of about 75 feet.
People who had these premonitions survived because they heeded the sense of danger.
On my database there are 842 cases of human premonitions, precognitions, or presentiments. Of these, 70 percent are about dangers, disasters, or deaths; 25 percent are about neutral events; and only 5 percent are of happy events, like meeting a future spouse, or winning a raffle. Dangers, deaths, and catastrophes predominate. This agrees with a survey of well-authenticated cases of precognition collected by the Society for Psychical Research in which 60 percent concerned deaths or accidents. Very few were of happy events. Most of the others were trivial or neutral, although some were very unusual.[xxxvi] In one such case, the wife of the Bishop of Hereford dreamed that she was reading the morning prayers in the hall of the Bishop’s Palace. After doing so, on entering the dining room, she saw an enormous pig standing beside the table. This dream amused her, and she told it to her children and their governess. She then went into the dining room and an escaped pig was standing in the exact spot where she had seen it in her dream.[xxxvii]
Many precognitions occur in dreams, although often only the most dramatic or bizarre are remembered. In the early twentieth century, a British aeronautical engineer, J. W. Dunne, made an astonishing discovery, summarized in his remarkable book An Experiment With Time. [xxxviii] He found he often dreamed about events that were about to happen, but usually forgot these dreams. Only by keeping careful records of his dreams, writing them down as soon as he awoke, did the phenomenon become clear. He also found that he sometimes had experiences that seemed familiar – sometimes called déjà vu, French for “already seen” – and by looking back over his records found that they corresponded to recent dreams he had forgotten.
Subsequent studies have confirmed Dunne’s observations. Parapsychologists have also found statistical evidence for precognition in laboratory tests. Although the effects in these very artificial experiments were usually small, taken together they were very significant statistically. [xxxix]
A presentiment is a feeling that something is about to happen, but without any conscious awareness of what it is. Some of the most innovative research in modern parapsychology has shown that presentiments can be detected physiologically, even though the subject is unconscious of them.
In the mid-1990s, in the United States, Dean Radin and his colleagues devised an experiment to test for presentiment in which a subject’s emotional arousal was monitored automatically by measuring changes in skin resistance with electrodes attached to the fingers, as in a lie detector test. As people’s emotional states change, so does the activity of the sweat glands, resulting in changes in electrodermal activity, registered in a computerized recording device.
In the laboratory it is relatively easy to produce measurable emotional changes in subjects by exposing them to noxious smells, mild electric shocks, emotive words, or provocative photographs. Radin’s experiments used photographs. Most were pictures of emotionally calm subjects like landscapes, but some were shocking, like pictures of corpses that had been cut open for autopsies; others were pornographic. A large pool of these “calm” and “emotional” images was stored within the computer.
In Radin’s experiments, when calm pictures appeared on the screen, the subjects remained calm, and when emotional images were displayed, they were emotionally aroused, as shown by an increase in electrodermal activity. This is not surprising. But when emotional images were about to appear, the increase in electrodermal activity began before the picture appeared on the screen, 3 or 4 seconds in advance. The picture that appeared on the screen was selected at random by the computer only a millisecond in advance. No one, not even the experimenter, knew what it would be when the subjects began to react. [xl] Other researchers have found similar results. [xli]
One of the most interesting findings of precognition and presentiment research is that people seem to be influenced by themselves in the future, rather than by objective events. Precognitions are like memories of the future. Presentiments seem to involve a physiological back-flowing from future states of alarm or arousal, a flow of causation moving in the opposite direction to energetic causation. This is in agreement with the way that attractors pull organisms towards their inherited or learned goals, with flows of influence from virtual futures through the present towards the past (Chapter 5). It also agrees with Whitehead’s idea of minds working from the future (Chapter 4).
What skeptics say
Informed skeptics do not deny that there is a lot of experimental evidence that suggests psychic phenomena are real, but they point out that no experiment is perfect, the evidence is not 100 percent positive, and that for such an unlikely proposition, vastly more evidence is needed than in more orthodox science. [xlii] Skeptics feel free to move the scientific goalposts as far as they like. There is not enough evidence yet, they say, and for some skeptics there never will be. [xliii] (Organized skeptics in Britain use the American spelling, with a “k”, rather than the usual English spelling, with a “c”.)
Skeptical organizations are the principal defenders of this belief that psychic phenomena are illusory: they seek to debunk or deny any evidence that suggests they might be wrong. The best established of these groups is the US Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which used to be called CSICOP (pronounced sigh-cop), the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSI’s4publication, The Skeptical Inquirer, has a circulation of about 50,000. Members of skeptical organizations often think of themselves as lonely defenders of science and reason against the forces of superstition and credulity; they see their debunking activities as “battles” against the insidious forces of irrationalism. Their opponents see them as self-appointed vigilantes. [xliv]
These effects of these well organized and well funded skeptical campaigns are not simply intellectual, but political and economic. Through maintaining the taboo against the “paranormal”, they ensure that most universities avoid this controversial area altogether, despite great public interest in the subject. Their main emphasis is on counteracting “claims of the paranormal” in the serious media, either by attacking journalists or publications that report any positive evidence, or by insisting that a skeptic is given the opportunity to deny that the evidence has any scientific validity. [xlv]
I have had many encounters with skeptics, described in detail elsewhere. [xlvi] In almost every case, they were not only ignorant of the evidence, but uninterested in it. Here are three examples.
First, in 2004, I took part in a debate on telepathy with Lewis Wolpert at the Royal Society of Arts in London, with an eminent lawyer in the chair. Wolpert was a professor of biology at University College, London, and a former Chairman of the British Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. For years he had been a faithful standby for journalists as a denouncer of the paranormal, always ready to provide a sceptical comment. We were each given 30 minutes to present our cases. Wolpert spoke first. He said that research on telepathy was “pathological science,” but after saying, “The whole issue is about evidence,” he presented none. He simply stated, “There is zero evidence to support the idea that thoughts can be transmitted from a person to an animal, from an animal to a person, from a person to a person, or from an animal to an animal.” He used up only half his allotted time.
I then summarized evidence for telepathy from thousands of scientific trials and showed a video of recent experiments. Wolpert was sitting on the stage in front of the screen, staring ahead, tapping a pencil on the table, sighing as if bored. He did not turn around to see the evidence behind him. According to a report on the debate in Nature, “few members of the audience seemed to be swayed by his [Wolpert’s] arguments…. Many in the audience variously accused Wolpert of ‘not knowing the evidence’ and being ‘unscientific’.” [xlvii] For anyone who wants to hear both sides for themselves, the debate is online in streaming audio. [xlviii]
Second, I was invited to speak at the 12th European Skeptics Congress in Brussels, Belgium in 2005. I took part in a debate on telepathy with Jan Nienhuys, the secretary of a Dutch skeptical organization, Stichting Skepsis. I presented evidence for telepathy, reviewing research by others and by myself. Nienhuys responded by arguing that telepathy was impossible on theoretical grounds and therefore all the evidence was flawed. He said that the more statistically significant my experimental results were, the greater the errors must be. I asked him to specify these errors, but he could not. He admitted he had not actually read my papers or looked at the evidence. In an account of the debate, an independent observer, Richard Hardwick, a scientist at the European Commission, wrote, “It seems Dr Nienhuys had not done his homework. He did not have any data or analyses to hand, and his attack fizzled out.” [xlix]
Third, Richard Dawkins. In 2006, the British TV company Channel 4 broadcast a two-part Dawkins diatribe against religion, called The Root of All Evil? Soon afterwards, the same production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals for a new TV series. I was reluctant to take part because I expected that it would be as one-sided as Dawkins’ previous series. But the company’s representative, Rebecca Frankel, assured me that they were now more open-minded. She told me, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry.” On the understanding that Dawkins was interested in discussing evidence, and with the written assurance that the material would be edited fairly, I agreed to meet him and we fixed a date. I was still not sure what to expect. Was he going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be fun to talk to?
Dawkins duly came to call. The Director, Russell Barnes, asked us to stand facing each other; we were filmed with a hand-held camera. Dawkins began by saying that he thought we probably agreed about many things, “But what worries me about you is that you are prepared to believe almost anything. Science should be based on the minimum number of beliefs.” I agreed that we had a lot in common, “But what worries me about you is that you come across as dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science, and putting them off.”
Dawkins then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn’t any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand, without going into any details. He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?” He could not produce any evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He took it for granted that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.
We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this is why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The previous week, I had sent Dawkins copies of some of my papers in scientific journals so that he could examine the data before we met. I suggested that we actually discuss the evidence. He looked uneasy and said, “I’m don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. He replied, “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.
The director confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic against irrational beliefs. I said, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.” Dawkins replied, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.” I said that I had been assured that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. In that case, I said, they were visiting me under false pretences. The team packed up and left. The series, broadcast in 2007, was called Enemies of Reason.
Richard Dawkins has long proclaimed, “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans”. Enemies of Reason was intended to popularize this belief. But does his crusade really promote the Public Understanding of Science, of which he was professor at Oxford? Should science be a fundamentalist belief-system? Or should it be based on open-minded enquiry into the unknown?
In no other field of scientific endeavour do otherwise intelligent people feel free to make public claims based on prejudice and ignorance. No one would denounce research in physical chemistry, say, while knowing nothing about the subject. Yet in relation to psychic phenomena, committed materialists feel free to disregard the evidence and behave irrationally and unscientifically while claiming to speak in the name of science and reason. They abuse the authority of science and bring rationalism into disrepute.
What difference does it make?
Dropping the taboo against psychic phenomena would have a liberating effect on science. Scientists would no longer feel the need to pretend these phenomena are impossible. The word “skepticism” would be liberated from its association with dogmatic denial. People would feel free to talk openly about their own experiences. Open-minded research would be able to take place within universities and scientific institutions, and some of this research could be applied in useful ways, for example in the development of animal-based warning systems for earthquakes and tsunamis. Public funding for psychic research and parapsychology could reflect the widespread interest in these areas of research, and increase public interest in science. The educational system would be free to teach students about psychic research instead of ignoring or dismissing it. Anthropologists would be liberated from the taboo that stops them from studying psychic skills that may be better developed in traditional societies than in our own. Above all, research on these phenomena would contribute to a larger and more inclusive understanding of the nature of minds, social bonds, time and causation.
About the Author
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The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Unexplained Powers of Human Minds
[i] Recordon, Stratton and Peters (1968).
[ii] As Peters pointed out, the only possible “normal” explanation could be that the mother was somehow sending the boy some kind of secret or unconscious auditory code over the telephone, but there was no evidence that she could have been doing this. In any case, Peters provided the tape recordings to anyone who was interested so they could try to detect cues themselves. I listened to the tapes myself and there was no trace of any possible code, nor could a professional magician detect any possible kind of cheating.
[iii] Sheldrake (2003).
[iv] Radin (1997).
[vii] Ullman, Krippner and Vaughan (1973).
[viii] The odds against chance were 75 million to one (Radin, 1997).
[ix] Carter, in Krippner and Friedman (eds)(2010), Chapter 6.
[x] Carter, in Krippner and Friedman (eds)(2010), Chapter 12. Several meta-analyses showed there was a highly significant effect, with the exception of a skeptical paper by Milton and Wiseman (1999), which omitted a set of positive results that changed the overall balance to a significant positive effect (Milton, 1999). Also, Milton and Wiseman used a flawed method of analysis that failed to take into account each study’s sample size. When their data were reanalysed correcting for this flaw, the overall effect was positive and statistically significant (Radin, in Krippner and Friedman (eds)(2010), Chapter 7).
[xi] Dalton (1997); Broughton and Alexander (1997).
[xii] My wife found this book in a second-hand bookshop. She immediately realized that it would interest me, which it certainly did, and bought it for me. This book has now been reprinted and is available again: see Long (2005).
[xiii] Sheldrake (1999), Chapter 3.
[xiv] Sheldrake and Smart (1998).
[xv] Sheldrake and Smart (2000a).
[xvi] After an experiment with Jaytee was shown on British television, several skeptics challenged Jaytee’s ability to know when Pam was going home, and tried to explain them away. I invited one of them, Richard Wiseman, a conjurer, psychologist and member of the American Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), to carry out his own tests with Jaytee. Wiseman accepted my invitation and Pam and her family kindly helped him. In his tests, his assistant accompanied Pam all the time she was away from home, and told her when to return at a randomly selected time. Wiseman was with Jaytee, filming him. The results were very similar to my own tests; in fact the effect was even larger. In Wiseman’s tests, Jaytee was at the window 4 percent of the time in the main period of Pam’s absence, and 78 percent when she was on the way home (Sheldrake and Smart, 2000a). Wiseman and his colleague Matthew Smith, however, claimed that Jaytee had failed the test because he went to the window before Pam actually set off, and disregarded their own data showing that his waiting behaviour was very similar to that in my own tests (Wiseman et al., 1998). I replied to their claims (Sheldrake, 1999) and there were two further rounds of response (Wiseman et al., 2000, and Sheldrake, 2000). For a summary of this controversy, see Carter (2010) and Sheldrake (2011). Wiseman now concedes that his results did in fact replicate my own, saying, “the patterning in my studies are the same as the patterning in Rupert’s studies.” (http://www.skeptiko.com/11-dr-richard-wiseman-on-rupert-sheldrakes-dogsthatknow/)
[xvii] Sheldrake and Smart (2000b).
[xviii] Sheldrake (2011a).
[xix] Sheldrake and Morgana (2003).
[xx] Van der Post (1962), pp. 236-7
[xxi] There were more female than male respondents, which is why the average, 92 percent, was not the mean of 96 and 85 percent (Sheldrake, 2003).
[xxii] Lobach and Bierman (2004), Schmidt et al. (2009).
[xxiii] Sheldrake and Smart (2000a, b).
[xxiv] Sheldrake (2003).
[xxv] Radin (2007).
[xxvi] Einstein, in Einstein and Born (1971).
[xxvii] Sheldrake and Smart (2005), Sheldrake and Avraamides (2009); Sheldrake Avraamides and Novak (2009).
[xxviii] Sheldrake and Lambert (2007); Sheldrake and Beeharee (2009).
[xxix] See the online experiments portal at www.sheldrake.org
[xxx] Sheldrake (2003, 2011).
[xxxi] Grant and Halliday, 2010.
[xxxii] Sheldrake (2005c).
[xxxiii] Sheldrake (2003).
[xxxiv] Sheldrake (2011).
[xxxv] Sheldrake (2003, 2011).
[xxxvi] Saltmarsh (1938).
[xxxviii] Dunne (1927).
[xxxix] Radin (1997),
[xl] Radin (1997), Chapter 7.
[xli] Bierman and Scholte (2002); Bierman and Ditzhuijzen (2006); Bem (2011).
[xlii] For example, Richard Wiseman, a well-known British skeptic, conceded that the data from experiments on ESP “meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim”. http://subversivethinking.blogspot.com/2010/04/richard-wiseman-evidence-for-esp-meets.html
[xliii] For a well-informed discussion of skeptics’ attitudes, see Griffin (2000), Chapter 7; also Carter (2007) and McLuhan (2010).
[xliv] French, in Henry (ed.) (2005), Chapter 5.
[xlv] For a skeptical discussions of skeptical claims, see www.skepticalinvestigations.org
[xlvi] See the Appendix to Sheldrake (2011) and the Controversies section of my website, www.sheldrake.org.
[xlvii] Whitfield, 2004.