Sunday, November 22, 2015

Elusive nature of paranormal phenomena - Follow up with interview at BoA

During the interview I gave to Tim Binnall on Binnall of America, an important question emerged, but we did not have enough time to explore it in full. It is the notion that the more there are control measures to observe possible psi effects, the less likely it is to be observed. This may appear as a paradox at first, and a convenient excuse from the sceptic point of view. However, there are good reasons for it.


This notion is not just a philosophical point. It is rooted in empirical observations of spontaneous anomalies. For instance, anyone familiar with “ghost hunting” has experienced or heard about a strange phenomenon occurring only when the equipment has been packed up, or when the camera is not working, or the battery is dead, or it is at the wrong angle, etc. Similarly, camera dysfunctions have plagued the “UFO hunting” history, and even if it works it produces only vague lights, quite different from what people saw. The Belgian UFO wave discussed in Illuminations provides specific examples of this. Jet fighter radars oftentimes loose the “object” as soon as it can do a lock-on. Both the Belgian and Washington D.C. UFO waves, also discussed in Illuminations, provide well-documented examples of this “elusiveness”.

Most parapsychologists who studied psi in a laboratory setting came to similar conclusions about micro-psi effects. In fact, this notion of evasiveness is one of the key characteristics of psi, supported by a wide consensus among parapsychologists. Already in the early 20th century, the philosopher and psychologist William James was also baffled by the elusiveness of psi. He wrote in 1909:  

“For twenty-five years I have been in touch with the literature on psychical research, and have had acquaintance with numerous “researchers.” I have also spent a good many hours in witnessing . . . phenomena. Yet I am theoretically no “further” than I was at the beginning; and I . . . have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department to remain baffling, to prompt our hopes and suspicions all in equal measure, so that, although ghosts and clairvoyances, and raps and messages from spirits, are always seeming to exist and can never be fully explained away, they also can never be susceptible to full corroboration.” (James, 1960, p. 310).


Since then, many others added their voice to such observation about psi phenomena. Prominent papapsychologists already noted on this blog like Batcheldor, Beloff, Braud, Eisenbud, Hansen, von Lucadou, and White came over the years to very similar conclusions (Kennedy, 2003, 54). The key question is why it is so. There are no definite answer, but there are a few key hypotheses.

The first to propose a hypothesis, without a surprise, was the founder of scientific parapsychology, Joseph Banks Rhine. He noted in 1946 that psi phenomena seem to be caused by mental processes that are deeply hidden in the unconscious part of the human mind (Rhine, 1946). The unconscious mind is not only very hard to access (hence the challenges of clinical psychology in helping people), but it is also something in a constant state of flux with feelings, symbolisms and ideas brewing. Most parapsychologists today would agree that the unconscious part of the mind plays a central role in psi phenomena, but Rhine’s explanation about the elusiveness, in the end, is not helping much. A number of other parapsychologists tried to find other psychological variables to explain why psi is so elusive. Among other variables proposed to explain the situation are: the fear of psi (only happening when the conscious mind is not in charge), losing feelings of spontaneity during lab testing (and thus showing up again only when spontaneity is back), and the loss of confidence and /or belief in producing psi when there are “pressures” to perform (and thus only happening when pressure is off). These various psychological variables are certainly playing a role in one way or another, but it seems that they play only a partial role.


Other parapsychologists like George Hansen considers that psi is something dynamic and it is the resultant of a combination of pressures, where psi will only be observable if people find themselves in an “in-between” zone, what he called “liminality”. Psi seems to be stuck between pressures to be used as normal human expression and the immense pressures against any form of psi, coming from our socialization about what is normal and society in general, but also from representatives of established religions and various economic and political institutions, and of course by the “police of thought and speech” found in the pseudo-sceptics and debunkers of various kinds. In a way, it is as if there are also powerful anti-psi fields around us, and it is only in rare occasions where the pro-psi field energy is strong enough to be observable, and only for a short time.

In this vein, Kennedy notes that “Bierman (2001) suggested that the number of people becoming aware of and potentially influencing psi experiments increases as experiments are repeated. Presumably, the background opposition to psi has an increasing role with replication, while the motivation and novelty for the experimenters may decline. The evidence that psi effects abruptly drop after meta-analyses (Houtkooper, 1994, 2002) is particularly relevant” and that “If these ideas are correct, the optimum conditions for psi results would be for one person or a few people with psi ability to carry out self-tests with the firm constraint that no one else will ever learn of any positive outcomes. This is consistent with the strategy “go and tell no one” recommended by some proponents of psi (e.g., Sinetar, 2000)” (2003, 66).


Finally, and as discussed in Illuminations, others like von Lucadou proposed that psi is something akin to quantum fields, where the very fact that human consciousness is assessing if something exists in a field makes it definite (there are no more in a state of statistical flux). It is known as collapsing a quantum field by measurement. Psi is something that can only happen if the various systems at play, especially the mind of the people involved, are in a state of non-determinacy. As soon as they look carefully for psi, their quantum-like psi field collapses, and there are no more effect possible. For an accessible and detailed discussion of this idea, I suggest Chris Carter’s recent book Science and Psychic Phenomena.


These various explanations are in many ways complementary to each other. The flux of the unconscious mind, the omnipresent anti-psi pressures, and the collapse of quantum-like fields can accommodate each other into a wider explanation.

When one think of the UFO phenomenon, having in view the general elusiveness of the phenomenon, the OZ factor (common altered state of consciousness among experiencers), the active but unconscious role of the ETH ufologists in keeping the topic firmly within the realm of the ridicule and in a near hysterical conspiratorial neurosis, and the unavailability of producing convincing physical evidence, in spite of having very credible experiencers, the parallel with the challenges regarding the elusiveness of psi in parapsychology is striking.




James, W. (1960). The final impressions of a psychical researcher. In G. Murphy & R. D. Ballou (Eds.), William James on psychical research (pp. 309–325). New York: Viking.


Kennedy, J.E. (2003). “The capricious, actively evasive, unsustainable nature of psi: A summary and hypotheses”. Journal of Parapsychology 67: 53–74.


Rhine, J. B. (1946). The source of difficulties in parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology 10: 162–168.