The Science Behind Testing for Psychic Abilities

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A large percentage of Americans believe in the existence of psychic ability. Photo: Chris(tian)/flickr

About 41% of Americans believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), and 55% believe in psychic or spiritual healing.

But, scientists find it difficult to test for psychic ability to learn if it's plausible or a made-up piece of one's mind.

In general, scientists don't consider psychic ability to be an exact science and many don't consider it even possible.

Still, researchers continue to make breakthroughs with studies that could potentially prove psychic abilities exist...

...and they have the scientific results to prove it.

The Problem for Scientists

Science is research and evidence-based. When those in the scientific community find a problem, they investigate it through their studies, analyzing the results of others, and drawing up evidence-supported reports based on their findings. The problem with psychic abilities is that there has been little evidence to support the sixth sense that some people claim to have.

In fact, scientists have taken it upon themselves to debunk the sixth sense theory by completing studies to disprove it exists. One study conducted in 2014 aimed to show that what people believe to be the sixth sense is simply a trick our brains play on us when it doesn’t have enough time to process what it’s seen.

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The capacity for a "6th sense" may be more real than some realize. Photo: Alina/flickr

For example, a woman might witness a fatal car accident. The woman’s brain picked up the information, like the sight, sounds, smells, and even the taste of the air. But, since everything happened so fast, her brain didn’t fully process the information.

Once the brain does sort through everything the woman's senses picked up, it relays the information to the woman. However, she already had the information stored, just not processed, so the woman already feels as though she sensed the impending car accident before she realized it happened.

The researchers of the study tested their subjects using photographs of the same woman, whose appearance would occasionally change. Although most participants couldn't pinpoint the exact change in each photo, they could sense that something had changed.

Researchers concluded that they had identified something changed because their brains had picked up a change, yet had not had time to process what it was. The car accident scenario, demonstrating what many people believe to be a sixth sense, explains the researchers' findings on a larger scale.

The Case for Scientific Psychic Ability

Science needs overwhelming proof of evidence to define something as possible.

There simply hasn’t been enough evidence yet to show that there is science behind psychic ability. But, those who believe in it are trying to change that. Interestingly, many of those who challenge science are scientists themselves.

Whereas most people see psychic ability as something they can't understand because it has no logical explanation, scientists and researchers with a high interest in psychic ability have set out to prove that it's much more than an intangible skill. They want to show that it's science.

Combating the “How?”

It stands to reason that those with psychic abilities have a lot of questions surrounding them and their skills. When they do something we can’t do, touch, or see, how do we know it exists?

To help explain psychic abilities in scientific terms, researchers have been leaning on the science of physics heavily.

The Role of Quantum Mechanics

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The study of quantum mechanics can help explain psychic ability. Photo: Clairvoyant8/flickr

Diane Hennacy Powell is a former Harvard professor of neuropsychiatry. As a scientist with ties to the medical field, Powell has found links between science and psychic ability. She believes the two can, and do, work together to give some people telepathic, clairvoyant, and other psychic powers. Specifically, she believes that the study of quantum mechanics can help explain psychic ability.

Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics focuses much on the unknown of the world, rather than the things we can hear, see, touch, smell, and do right now. In its simplest form, quantum mechanics studies everything else that makes up the physical world in which we live. Light and sound waves, particles, and space are all factors of the field of study.

Interestingly, this branch of science, according to Powell and other like-minded researchers, can explain the subconscious mind and psychic ability. Quantum mechanics states that objects are unpredictable. At one time, they can be in one place, and at another time, they'll exist in a different location. Additionally, electrons and other particles can be in two places at one time. Those who study quantum mechanics know that objects are uncertain.

But, this field of study goes one step further to say that our brains can, and should, be treated as “objects,” in the sense that they can also be uncertain and may be able to hold information from two different places or times at any given time.

Einstein’s Futurist Ideas and the Brain

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Science experts believe that space-time, combined with quantum mechanics, can help explain psychic ability. Photo: douggerman/flickr

Albert Einstein lent his brilliance to science, challenging the quantum theory and taking it even further to lay the foundation for modern quantum mechanics.

His ideas about the space-time continuum in addition to the uncertainty of objects based on quantum theory have helped modern scientists explain how psychic abilities are probable.

Einstein held the belief that human-made time did not equate to space-time. Space-time, instead, is something more intangible than human-made time and can be used to explain the world as it exists. According to his theories, everything that's going to happen already exists as particles along a line in the space-time continuum. Therefore, the future already exists; we just haven't seen it yet.

Science experts, like Powell, believe that space-time, combined with quantum mechanics, can help explain psychic ability. Those with the capacity to see into the future may have brains that allow them to see further into the future that already exists than others can.

Experiments of Psychic Ability That Have Tested Science as We Know It

Although Einstein’s theories and other theories of physics have been in existence for decades, it wasn’t until more recently that scientists and researchers began to connect science with psychic ability through research. The science community still negates that psychic ability is a science; however, researchers have made remarkable progress in proving the science behind psychic ability and how to test for it.

Daryl Bem’s Testing

Perhaps one of the biggest breakthroughs anyone has had in establishing the science behind testing for psychic ability is the 2010 report by Daryl Bem, a physicist, psychologist, and professor at Cornell University. Bem studied his students for ten years in a series of nine different experiments to prove his belief that ESP is real. Not only did he want to prove that psychic ability exists, though; Bem also wanted to make it clear that you can use science to test people for the ability.

One way that Bem tested the psychic ability of his students was with a word memorization task. Bem showed the students a list of words and asked them to memorize as many as possible, as they'd later need to recall them. After they had recalled as many as possible, they were then asked to type a select few of the words. Bem found that most participants could more easily remember the words that he'd later ask them to type, which indicated that they could, to some degree, sense the future task.

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Testing for ESP has resulted in surprising discoveries. Photo: Kristie Michele Art/flickr

Another experiment involved hidden photos on two different computer screens. One computer would show a racy photo, and the other a regular photo. Bem only showed the students the computer screens, which each displayed a picture of a curtain, and told them that one would show a racy photo. He told the students to pick a screen.

The computers would only decide what photo to show randomly after the students made their choice. Interestingly, students often picked the computer that would show the racy photo. Bem and his supporters believe this proves that people can influence future events, as the students were more curious to see racy photos over regular ones.

Critics have widely refuted the science of Bem’s study and experiments. But, Bem believes psychic ability is more than something other-worldly; his scientific experiments prove that you can not only test psychic ability but that psychic ability also has a place in the world of science.

Robert Jahn’s Remote Perception Testing

Robert Jahn is a former physicist and Dean of Engineering at Princeton University. In the midst of his career, he began fervently searching for answers into the world of psychic ability based on his experience with science, specifically engineering physics. Jahn participated in decades of research at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program, which was dedicated to understanding how the conscious mind interacted with the physical world.

Jahn was particularly interested in testing remote perception. This form of psychic ability makes it possible for people to sense something that's happening in another location. Remote perception is largely based on the theories of quantum mechanics, of which Jahn studied meticulously as an engineering expert.

In the report that details his findings from remote perception testing, Consciousness and Anomalous Physical Phenomena, Jahn makes it clear that much of the foundation of science also lies in metaphysical theories.

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The metaphysical and scientific worlds coexist, creating legitimate science and theories. Photo: Thomas Hawk/flickr

Early scientists, such as Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, recognized that the metaphysical world and the scientific world coexist to create the science and theories that they knew.

Jahn experimented on his students in a series of 411 trials to test their remote perception abilities. He asked one participant to describe the hidden location of another participant, based only on the image in their minds. Both participants then used a checklist to verbalize their descriptions of the hiding place, with the hidden participant providing an exact description of his or her location.

The secret participant could be hidden at any time, though, which wasn't necessarily the same time as the other participant made a mental image of the location. The guessing participant was not aware of the distance or time the other participant would be hidden. Most of the time, the guessing participant could describe in close detail the location, regardless of the distance and when the other participant was hidden.

Conclusion: The Science Behind Testing for Psychic Ability

Scientists with a passion for understanding the metaphysical world and how it relates to science are becoming more invested in proving the link. Researchers like Bem and Jahn are two of several to bring awareness to a possible indication that scientific experimentation can test for psychic ability. But, they aren’t without their critics.

Psychic testing has come a long way in the past few decades. Still, more fail-proof research is necessary before the scientific community grows to accept the evidence. Until then, groundbreaking researchers continue to provide their theories and experiments that may one day change the way science things about the psychic world.