Stories about how completely kooky our brains really are

This Guy Will Make Your Mind Go in Circles...

A mind-bendingly beautiful piece of visual poetry for you all on this fine spring/autumn day...

Do Humans Have the Ability to Sense the Future? This Survey of Experiments So Far Says....Yes!

Crystal Ball

Can we sense the future before it happens? That question was at the heart of a set of nine experiments that sparked widespread controversy and debate when Professor Daryl Bem published his results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011. The reason: Bem's results were positive, suggesting that we can in some way do the seemingly impossible, and somehow 'know' (precognition) or 'feel' (presentiment) things before they even occur. The controversy grew even further, however, with widespread coverage in science media outlets of attempted replications from others that failed to find the same astonishing results. A number of scientists and 'skeptics' poured scorn on Bem's experiments, and prominent skeptic James Randi was even moved to award his infamous 'Pigasus Award' to Bem "for his shoddy research that has been discredited on many accounts by prominent critics".

In a previous post I pointed out that this focus on replications with negative results had glossed over the fact that there had also been a number of positive replications, suggesting that there might just be something to Bem's original results. And now, a meta-analysis of 90 experiments which replicated Bem's research, performed in 33 different laboratories (in 14 different countries and involving 12,406 participants), has offered significant support for the theory that humans can indeed sense the future:

The primary question addressed by the meta-analysis is whether the database provides overall evidence for the anomalous anticipation of random future events... the answer is yes: The overall effect size (Hedges’ g) is 0.09, combined z = 6.33, p = 1.2 × 10-10. The Bayesian BF value is 1.2 × 109, greatly exceeding the criterion value of 100 that is considered to constitute “decisive evidence” for the experimental hypothesis.

A subsidiary question is whether independent investigators can successfully replicate Bem’s (2011) original experiments...the answer is again yes: When Bem’s experiments are excluded, the effect size for the replications is 0.07, combined z = 4.25, p = 1.1 × 10-5, and the BF value is 757, which again greatly exceeds the criterion value of 100 for “decisive evidence.”

The meta-analysis paper, co-authored by Daryl Bem, Patrizio E. Tressoldi, Thomas Rabeyron and Michael Duggan, began with a search for all potential replications of Bem's method between the year 2000 and September of 2013. The experiments were then categorized according to the type of effect tested for, the number of participants involved, the statistical techniques needed to measure the effect, whether the study was published through peer-review, and the type of replication (exact, modified, or independently-designed). They found that 51 of the 90 experiments (56.6%) had been published in peer-reviewed journals or conference proceedings.

But could the positive results have been an outcome of the 'file drawer effect', where mostly positive results were published but negative replications were not - put in the file drawer, so to speak, due to no interesting findings? The authors of the paper did the math, and found that the number of 'missing' experiments needed to reduce the overall effect size to a trivial value was (conservatively) 520. This seems unlikely.

Another possible criticism addressed by the authors is the effect size. While the meta-analysis offered highly significant results, statistically, the actual 'precognitive' effect was very small. But, the authors note, "even very small effects can have both theoretical importance and practical utility":

One frequently cited example is the medical study that sought to determine whether a daily dose of aspirin can prevent heart attacks. The study was discontinued after six years because it was already clear that the aspirin treatment was effective (p < .00001), and it was considered unethical to keep the control group on placebo medication. Even though the study was considered a major medical breakthrough, the size of the aspirin effect is actually quite small (d ≈.07), about one third the size of the presentiment experiments and Bem’s (2011) original experiments and about one half the size of the exact replications in our database.

Skeptics also often raise the lack of an explanatory theory as a problem when it comes to psi results. The authors of the meta-analysis argue, however, "that this is still not a legitimate rationale for rejecting all proffered evidence a priori. Historically, the discovery and scientific exploration of most phenomena have preceded explanatory theories, often by decades or even centuries (e.g., the analgesic effect of aspirin; the antidepressant effect of electroconvulsive therapy; and Maxwell’s field equations of electricity and magnetism, which were formulated centuries after the phenomena were first explored)".

The meta-analysis also revealed possible refinements for future testing. 'Fast-thinking experiments', where the speed of the test reduced conscious cognition, produced more positive results than 'slow-thinking experiments': "every fast-thinking protocol individually achieved a statistically significant effect, with an overall effect size of 0.11 and a combined z greater than 7 sigma. In contrast, the slow-thinking experiments achieved an overall effect size of only 0.03, failing even to achieve a conventional level of statistical significance (p = .20)". According to the authors, "fast-thinking protocols are more likely to produce evidence for psi because they prevent conscious cognitive strategies from interfering with the automatic, unconscious, and implicit nature of psi functioning".

Another discovery (which might well dominate some news reports on this paper) was that the experiments which tested for precognitive detection of erotic stimuli achieved "a larger effect size (0.14), a larger combined z (4.22), and a more statistically significant result (p = 1.2 × 10-5) than any other protocol". The experiments were also the most reliable in producing substantial effect sizes, with 10 of the 11 achieving effect sizes between 0.12 and 0.52 (perhaps notably, the one replication failure in the erotic stimuli group was a study which used a set of erotic photographs "that were much less sexually explicit than those used by Bem and other investigators").

This latest meta-analysis adds to previous data collections which suggest that precognition/presentiment is a natural (if very weak) human ability. Just last month I reported on a meta-analysis of results from seven independent laboratories testing physiological responses to stimuli, that concluded the human body "can apparently detect randomly delivered stimuli occurring 1-10 seconds in the future". And a 1989 meta-analysis of all forced-choice precognition experiments appearing in English-language journals between 1935 and 1977 - 309 experiments conducted by 62 different investigators involving more than 50,000 participants - also found a small but highly significant hit rate (p = 1.1 × 10-9). Both of those meta-analyses also reported that the file-drawer effect was an unlikely explanation, given the number of experiments that would be needed to overturn the positive result.

Other scientists - and skeptics - will no doubt have their say on this paper in due course, which will hopefully bring some clarification to the validity and overall importance of this meta-analysis. From the data presented in it though, it appears that the debate over human precognition and presentiment is a long way from settled. If only we could look into the future to see how this all plays out...

Until then, follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter to keep up with the latest news from the fringes of science and history.

Paper: Feeling the Future: A Meta-Analysis of 90 Experiments on the Anomalous Anticipation of Random Future Events

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Waking Up to the Devil in Your Room

Fuseli - The Nightmare

During the summer of 2012, film-maker Carla MacKinnon would frequently wake to find herself unable to move, deeply afraid and convinced there was someone or something in the room with her. On occasions she would see or hear people around her bed, and one night even woke up to find a giant spider hovering over her.

MacKinnon was suffering from 'sleep paralysis', a term used to describe the experience of waking to find your body paralysed, a crushing pressure on your chest, a feeling of fear or dread, and sometimes also hallucinations (both auditory and visual) of people or even monstrous creatures beside, or on, your bed. It crops up in the history and folklore of many cultures - the modern word 'nightmare' actually has its origins in this experience, with the Old English 'mære' denoting "an evil spirit or goblin in Germanic folklore which rides on people's chests while they sleep".

Inspired by her experience, MacKinnon created Devil in the Room - an "experimental docu-horror" film supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and made as part of an MA in Animation at Royal College of Art:

For more on the folkloric aspects of sleep paralysis, take a look at David J. Hufford's seminal book The Terror That Comes in the Night, and for online information (including a list of resources) check out The Sleep Paralysis Project, which MacKinnon's film is a part of.

For a survey of the experience in lecture format, see also Professor Chris French's presentation "Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis":

Do you, or have you, suffered from sleep paralysis? Rodney Ascher, director of the cult documentary Room 237 (about perceived meanings in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining), is currently making a film about the phenomenon and is looking to talk to people about it:

I've been obsessed with it ever since it used to happen with me (in my case, I saw sort of a living, 3D shadow looming over in me in judgement)... The film is going to be largely built on interviews with people who've had vivid, first-person experiences with it (and have given some serious thought to what's really happening to them) - if anyone wants to share their stories, the easiest way is to contact us via the film's Facebook page.

(via Mind Hacks and Boing Boing)

Scientists Study Woman Who Can Have Out-of-Body Experiences On Demand

Out of Body Experience

Plenty of attention being given to a new study with a subject who can apparently have out-of-body experiences (OBEs) on demand:

After a class on out-of-body experiences, a psychology graduate student at the University of Ottawa came forward to researchers to say that she could have these voluntarily, usually before sleep. "She appeared surprised that not everyone could experience this," wrote the scientists in a study describing the case, published in February in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

...The 24-year-old "continued to perform this experience as she grew up assuming, as mentioned, that 'everyone could do it.'" This is how she described her out-of-body experiences: "She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving “real” body. The participant reported no particular emotions linked to the experience."

An unusual find, wrote the scientists, University of Ottawa researchers Andra M. Smith and Claude Messier - this is the first person to be studied able to have this type of experience on demand, and without any brain abnormalities. Instead of an "out-of-body" experience, however, the researchers termed it a "extra-corporeal experience" (ECE), in part because it lacks the strong emotions that often go hand-in-hand (such as shock & awe, for example).

To better understand what was going on, the researchers conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of her brain. They found that it surprisingly involved a "strong deactivation of the visual cortex." Instead, the experience "activated the left side of several areas associated with kinesthetic imagery," such as mental representations of bodily movement.

I'd love to see researchers employing subjects such as this young woman in tests of so-called 'veridical OBEs' - out-of-body experiences in which the OBEr reports accurate details of their surroundings (see for example number one on this list). There have been a number of NDE reports that have included an OBE component during which the 'dead' person 'saw' accurate details that they should not have been able to - such as the one reported by pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Lloyd Rudy. So many in fact that a project has been initiated in which hidden 'targets' have been placed in cardiac rooms in hospitals to see if NDErs can 'see' them - the 'AWARE' study.

Using a conscious, healthy OBEr would have advantages over the AWARE study, not least that the OBE could be produced, on-demand, in a controlled environment (see my book Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife, paperback version here, for discussion of the difficulties involved in the AWARE study). On demand OBEs in a controlled environment - with a healthy person - would also allow for the placing of a more noticeable target (or alternately a number of targets).

On the downside, some might say that an OBE in a healthy person might not be the same thing as an OBE that occurs as the body shuts down, so any negative results would instantly be dismissed (perhaps fairly). But if a positive result was obtained - that is, if a target was identified by the OBEr, as apparently occurred in the 1968 test of 'Miss Z' by Professor Charles Tart - the ramifications for our understanding of human consciousness would be paradigm-shattering.

Link: The Woman Who Can Will Herself Out Of Her Body

Link: "Voluntary out-of-body experience: an fMRI study"

Redefining 'Bird Brain' - Crow Shows Amazing Intelligence in Solving a Complex Puzzle

Multi-step puzzles can be difficult for humans, but what if I told you there was a bird that could solve them on its own?

In this BBC special, Dr. Alex Taylor has set up an eight-step puzzle to try and stump one of the smartest crows he's seen in captivity. They describe the puzzle as "one of the most complex tests of the animal mind ever."...

...This bird, dubbed "007" for its crafty mind, flies into the caged puzzle and spends only seconds analyzing the puzzle before getting down to business. Despite the puzzle's difficulty, the bird only seems to be stumped momentarily. At the end of the puzzle is a food reward, but how he gets there is what will really blow your mind.

Link: This Crow is the Smartest Bird You've Ever Seen

Man Can Listen to Four Symphonies in his Head - Simultaneously!

Bob Milne

Bob Milne is one of the best ragtime piano players in the world, but his talents go further than that - right into the land of amazing. Bob's brain works a little differently to the rest of us, as he can compartmentalise various functions, which allows him to play complex piano pieces while carrying on a conversation. But when Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Betterman decided to investigate Bob's incredible ability, she discovered something even more amazing: he can 'play back' four different symphonies at the same time in his head, and what's more, he says he 'sees' these symphonies being played in his head in three dimensions, and can fly around within this audio-visual space and listen to the music change from different perspectives. Here's an NPR Radiolab feature on Bob Milne and Kerstin Betterman from a couple of years ago that tells the story:

Sometimes you really do wonder what sort of latent abilities we all hold that we might one day all be able to harness.

(h/t @thecoverlap)

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How to Turn your iPhone into a Global Consciousness Sensor

In the past, we've explored the potential applications the ubiquity of modern smartphone technology could have in improving our understanding of human consciousness --See 'An App to Remember your Dreams'-- and we regularly link to updates with the famous Global Consciousness Project, which relies on random number generators (RNGs) to gauge whether significant social events could have any detectable impact in what they call 'the unified field of consciousness', a.k.a. the Noosphere.

The GCP currently operates with about 70 of such generators, distributed all around the world. But what if we could increase that number ten-fold, a thousand-fold, or even a million-fold?

Enter the Collective Consciousness App:

If you like the idea of exploiting consumerist snobbishness in favor of noetic research, then be sure to support the app's Indiegogo campaign.

[H/T Who Forted? & @anomalistnews]

Is Precognition Real? Positive Replications of Daryl Bem's Controversial Findings

Crystal Ball

I've previously mentioned the odd way in which most of the science press has covered the controversial 'feeling the future' experiments by Daryl Bem of Cornell University - in that a number of news stories have since been posted pointing out the failed replications of Bem's experiment, but very little has been said about positive replications. So, in the interests of balancing things up, here's a list of the positive replications courtesy of Daily Grail reader John Flynne:

There are, in fact - and this seems not to be widely known - quite a few positive replications of Bem's research. I was hoping you could bring these replications to light, so that public audiences interested in this matter will get all the facts regarding the issue of replicating Bem (2011), and recognize the bias in the view propagated by many pseudoskeptical journalists. If this information was more widely available, the "climate" surrounding the Bem controversy would, perhaps, be a bit different.

Here is a list of several positive Bem replications - these are not all extant conceptually similar "implicit precognition" experiments (which Dean Radin says are under meta-analytic review, presently), but only those studies that specifically replicate the experimental paradigms in Bem (2011):

  • Batthyany, A. (2010). Retrocausal Habituation and Induction of Boredom: A Successful Replication of Bem (2010; Studies 5 and 7). Social Science Research Network, Working Paper Series.

 (Link)
  • Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2011). Using retrocausal practice effects to predict online roulette spins. A talk presented at the Society for Experimental Social Psychology, Washington D.C., U.S.A., October, 2011.

 (Link)
  • Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2011). Using retrocausal practice effects to predict random binary events in an applied setting. A talk presented at Towards a Science of Consciousness, Stockholm, Sweden, May, 2011. {more recently: Franklin, M., and Schooler, J. (2012). Using retrocausal practice effects to predict random binary events in an applied setting. Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson X}.
  • Tressoldi, P. E., Masserdotti, F., & Marana C. (2012). Feeling the future: an exact replication of the Retroactive Facilitation of Recall II and Retroactive Priming experiments with Italian participants, Universita di Padova, Italy
  • Subbotsky, E. (2012). Sensing the future: The Non-standard observer effect on an ESP task. Lancaster University, UK
  • Bijl, A. & Bierman, D. (2013). Retroactive training of rational v.s. intuitive thinkers. Proceedings of the 56th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association. (Link)
  • Parker, A., & Sjödén, B. (2010). Do some of us habituate to future emotional events? Journal of Parapsychology, 74, 99–115.

 (Link)
  • Savva, L., Child, R. & Smith, M. D. (2004). The Precognitive Habituation Effect: An Adaptation Using Spider Stimuli. The Parapsychological Association Convention 2004, pp. 223 – 229. (Link)

{Regarding Savva (2004): In 2003, Bem presented preliminary data for this paradigm that would later be subsumed in his now infamously controversial 2011 publication, under "Experiment 5". The latter citation above by Savva et al. was a replication of this.}

There are several important findings in some these studies (besides the fact that they are positive). Franklin and Schooler (especially the latter) are two distinguished, mainstream scientists; in their research, they demonstrate an ability to utilize the precognitive habituation effect in "real world" events. Subbotsky found evidence of a psi-mediated experimenter effect. In Parker (2010), only participants who showed a standard habituation effect showed psi-mediated precognitive habituation. The correlation between the two was highly significant.

Thanks John!

Update: Andreas Muller has sent in links to abstracts and summaries for some of the papers, which I've added above. Thanks Andreas.

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Evolver Learning Lab: 'Discovering Your Psychic Potential'

Discovering Your Psychic Potential

We talk about psi research a lot here on TDG, but how many of us proactively work on trying to bring this mysterious/controversial 'latent ability' to the fore in our own lives? If you're interested in doing so, Evolver Learning Labs have a course starting this week that is sure to be fascinating: "Everybody's Psychic: Discovering Your Psychic Potential and What To Do with It". Hosted by one of our own admins, David Metcalfe, along with Craig Weiler, the course is made up of 5 weekly sessions featuring some of the world's leading experts on a number of psi-related topics.

Despite what debunkers would have you believe, many respected scholars, scientists and researchers feel that we’ve moved beyond proving that psi exists. Now it's time to start thinking about how to integrate psychic functioning into our daily lives. Are you ready to learn to live with psi?

In this unique course, you will reach a deeper understanding of your own psychic potential, discover what makes the psychic experience distinct, and benefit from the experiences of researchers and high functioning psychics who have paved the way for a new paradigm in consciousness.

Craig Weiler, of the Weiler Psi Blog, and David Metcalfe, Reality Sandwich contributing editor and “Psi in the News” columnist, have gathered together some of the leading thinkers in the field of of Parapsychology and Anomalistic Science to help you understand, integrate and learn to use the most recent research in this new frontier of psi. They include:

  • James Carpenter, president of the Parapsychological Association and author of the groundbreaking theory of psi, First Sight.
  • Julie Beischel, PhD. Co-Founder and Director of Research at the Windbridge Institute, whose work investigates the therapeutic value of mediumship and the mysteries of discarnate communication
  • Dan Booth Cohen and Emily Volden, pioneers of Systemic Constellations, a new form of therapy that assumes that consciousness is nonlocal
  • Chris Carter, author of the authoritative book, "Science and Psychic Phenomena: The Fall of the House of Skeptics"
  • William Bengston, author of Energy Cure, his memoir of researching hands-on healing in a rigorous, scientific environment

Through in-depth discussions of the latest findings, we’ll clear up the misunderstandings that have arisen due to the skeptical sub-culture’s tenacious efforts to defend an outdated understanding of science. In this course, you will discover what contemporary research has to say about the physiology, psychology and social importance of psi experiences and how that applies directly to you and your daily life!

You’ll gain a better understanding of your own psychic potential by discovering exciting new theories on how psi really works.

You will be part of the discussion, able to ask your questions on camera, just like a Skype call. If you happen to miss a live session, you can view a video recording at any time. These sessions will be filled with provocative information, clear instruction, and practical advice from teachers who are among the world's leading experts in their respective fields.


Learn about:

  • Working therapeutic programs that utilize psychic intuition and theories of non-local consciousness
  • Fascinating experiments in non-invasive healing techniques
  • War stories from the battle to keep research on psi objective to foster scientific progress
  • Insights into the characteristics of high functioning psychics
  • Research that explores the reality and social function of mediumship.

The course starts in a few days, so head on over to the Evolver site and sign up for the course - should be a real treat.

An App to Remember Your Dreams

    Way back in September, Greg posted news of a Kickstarter for SHADOW, a dream recording app & online community. The app's creator, Hunter Lee Soik, assembled an impressive team of dream experts to help shape SHADOW -- Kelly Bulkeley, Deirdre Barrett, Scott Sparrow, and the oneiroboss Ryan Hurd himself, to name a few. I'd planned to interview Hunter recently, but a near-miss with a car saw my phone get run over. Then my mac decided to go to the great apple tree in the sky. Thankfully, Hunter was unfazed by this conspiratorial Pauli Effect and kindly took time from his extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions via email (one for each hour of sleep you should all be getting).

    As I type this, there are only forty winks hours to go until the Kickstarter ends. The pledge goal has been reached (which is fantastic news for the SHADOW team, congratulations!), and this is your last chance to snag some terrific swag and gain early access to SHADOW before it's officially released next year. In the meantime, give your spinning top a whirl and enjoy the interview.

    RMG: In a nutshell, what is SHADOW and how did it come about?

    HLS: SHADOW is a mobile alarm clock that helps users remember and record their dreams in a global dream database. The idea came about when I finally started dreaming again after a dozen years of hard work and little sleep. I wanted to remember what I was experiencing in my sleeping life, but I couldn't find an app that melded a social dream journal with the kind of sophisticated design aesthetic I was looking for. So I learned as much as I could about sleep and dreams, approached some dream researchers with the idea, and SHADOW was born.

    RMG: How does the app actually work?

    HLS: You set the alarm like any other alarm clock, but when it wakes you up it uses a series of escalating sounds that helps preserve your dreams. Traditional alarm clocks destroy dreams by transitioning you out of sleep too quickly. Once you're awake, SHADOW prompts you to record your dreams via voice or text (you can speak directly into the app or type what you remember). Then, with your permission, we pull