Not a usual choice of subject, but stimulated by a typically heated discussion in another place. Browse by all means, but be warned that there’s a fair bit of ill-tempered, foul mouthed, heated discussion in which few people come out of it well, even if they’ve convinced themselves they do, myself very much included.
To précis, the discussion revolves around whether or not the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge is a fair way to allow claims of supernatural powers to be tested, and consequently whether we can consider “PSI” to be real.
To simplify, in this context, I use “PSI” as shorthand to mean “Can I communicate over a distance without using the usual complement of 5 senses”.
Cards on the table first: I don’t believe any human can communicate in this way, or that animals do. I don’t believe in telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, clairvoyants, mediums, homoeopathy, dowsing or God.
None of which in any way ruins the unexpected pleasure at a phone call from an old friend I may have been thinking about, or a chance meeting with a stranger sharing an acquaintance or seemingly eclectic set of interests. Just make sure they’re recognised for what they are; pure coincidence but no less a source of unalloyed delight.
“You can’t tell me there isn’t something to it“
For years my brothers large, fierce dog would spring up and bark loudly at strangers approaching and knocking on the front door. But if I approached and knocked, he never did. I couldn’t be seen approaching; I don’t ape Dicky Rice’s whistle**; I don’t drive an ice-cream van with a customised chime; the ground doesn’t tremble to the unique signature of my footfalls.
What he did, of course, was smell me. Through locked doors and intervening rooms, and down the garden path. He knew I was on my way for that reason before any coarse human sense had a clue, so by the time everyone heard me banging to get in, he knew he could stand and wag his tail and get his ears scratched without any drama.
Oddly, when someone pointed this out to me, far from being disappointed that some mysterious other sense wasn’t involved, I find it almost thrillingly miraculous. Achieving this using a sense that humans apparently blunder around with by comparison seems far more unbelievable than pressing some nebulous and unshared dog-sense into service.
(Compare with the Emperor Moth. Able to detect a female’s scent from 6-7 miles away – a long and possibly fruitless flap ahead before he has a shot at any action; spare a thought for him and his unused moth knackers. And spare a thought for her by the looks of things. No wonder she keeps a distance.)
So my position is that the sort of PSI decribed here doesn’t exist, but what does exist very clearly makes up for it.
Yet I’d still maintain that the existence of PSI is scientific fact.
“Say what now?“
There’s a superb exchange I can only half remember and relate (any pointers would be useful). Two protagonists in a film, one a believer one a sceptic:
Believer: “So do you believe in mind-to-mind communication?”
Sceptic: “Yes. But it doesn’t always work. One makes the right sounds and gestures, but of course sometimes the message doesn’t get through”.
So Question 1 is: “What message?”
Believers in PSI rarely claim very specific powers to communicate detail. No shopping lists or tips on Sudoku. They are usually broader in terms of feelings and intuition, and nothing intrinsically wrong with that.
The barking dog is a good example. His senses told him someone friendly was on the way and he responded accordingly. The very basic message my scent got across was “someone friendly is nearby” and the dog filled in all the blanks.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this: however clumsy it may seem to us by comparison to texting “STK ON BUS WIL B L8“, it confers an enormous evolutionary advantage, especially if your bugle is sensitive enough and everything around you hums with information.
So the message I’d personally find compelling and useful is that someone’s feeling happy / sad / friendly / antagonistic / comfortable / in distress.
“Is that the blower?“
Question 2 is – what equipment do we need to communicate? At it’s most basic level we need a transmitter and receiver and a power source for both.
Supporters of PSI say “we already have all three – the brain”.
Sceptics say “the brain has nothing that can do the job”
I say they’re both right (and wrong).
Transmission of information to and from the brain without any intervening skin, mouth, eyes, ears, nose or tongue is already scientific fact.
Given the right setup, a SQUID is a mind-reader. The important thing about this at the moment is not that you need a huge expensive setup to detect brain activity, but that the brain quite evidently does broadcast what it’s up to.
It does this in a way that doesn’t involve waving your arms or flapping your gums, but by exquisitely modulating the magnetic field generated by clusters of neurons firing. That this is considered something of a waste product of the brain’s activity is of no consequence.
Certainly that broadcast needs significant resource to detect and measure, and interpreting the content is a fledgling discipline, but the basic criterion for transmission is met.
So we can drag a signal out, and it turns out that we can follow roughly analogous means to ensure reception.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is actively used to alter the brain’s processes, once again without “resorting” to the standard means for getting a point across. There is controversy as to how useful a tool it is, however few people deny that it’s a cause, and it has an effect. Determining whether that’s currently of any use or we’re just randomly poking about in there is the subject of ongoing debate.
So to summarise, we have:
- An expensive, fragile means of reading the activity of the brain in a way that we only begin to think we can interpret
- An expensive, fragile way of affecting the behaviour of the brain where we don’t have much of a clue what we’re telling it.
Technologically though, I’d maintain that on this basis PSI is real.
Through the miracle of the internet and suitably vast processing power, the mood of one may be communicated directly to the other. None of the standard senses come into play, it’s genuine mind-to-mind communication. In the fullness of time, experience and expertise, you could extrapolate to see a charming necklace performing the same function.
For me, that would qualify as PSI with some assistance. But it can hardly be regarded as a victory for believers.
The means of transmission, reception and the medium are all there, but you’re faced with crushing problems of interference from other sources, with orders of magnitude more power, and formulation and interpretation of the message itself.
No one could say that there isn’t the possibility that one persons brain activity is picked up and in some way influences that of another unaided, but this is vanishingly small.
And never demonstrated in any replicable way.
** Dicky Rice was/is a council electrician with a legendary whistle so tuneless and piercing that he was, in all seriousness, more than once threatened with a good leathering if he didn’t shut up. We can only aspire to be like him.