science of us

So Are Psychics Real or What?

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Parapsychology, also called “psi” — the study of mental or “psychic” phenomena which can’t be explained by the laws of science as we know them — used to be a pretty common research subject among early, formative psychologists: Freud studied it, William James (the founder of American academic psychology) studied it, and Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg studied it. While much of this work focused on exposing fraudulent self-proclaimed psychic mediums, those psychologists who engaged with the subject of psi maintained a genuine interest in the subject, for which similarly interested contemporary psychologists are routinely mocked, according to new research.

Perhaps the most famous modern-day psi-friendly psychologist is Daryl Bem, whose 2011 experiments inspired a crisis in his field. Some of his peers thought his paper was a hoax. Others took issue with his methods, which they admitted were technically correct — but if Bem could “prove” something so outlandish as psychic ability with accepted social-science methodology, they said, there had to be something wrong with accepted social-science methodology.

In his new paper, parapsychology researcher Etzel Cardeña analyzed psi-related research and came to the conclusion that Bem’s results might not have been so crazy after all. Cardeña writes that the strongest support for psi can be found in research which utilizes the “Ganzfeld procedure,” in which blindfolded subjects in a soundproofed room are asked to describe a film clip they have not seen, which they’re either shown after the fact, or which is played simultaneously in another room. If experimental judges can use these descriptions to choose the specified clip from other “distractor” clips, this is considered positive evidence for psi. Startlingly, meta-analyses of Ganzfeld procedure studies show statistically significant support for this psychic effect. (!!)

Cardeña concludes that existing meta-analyses are supportive of the psi hypothesis, and thus defends the legitimacy (and importance) of future research on the subject. Psi, writes Cardeña, “cannot be readily explained away by the quality of the studies, fraud, selective reporting, experimental or analytical incompetence, or other frequent criticisms.”

Indeed, because of the perceived impossibility of the subject matter, psi research is held to higher standards than other areas of research, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it might make those results that do suggest support for psi all that much harder to ignore. Or so those among us who want to believe/already know we’re psychic can hope.

So Are Psychics Real or What?