Evidence for psychic phenomena?

Daryl J. Bem: Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Cornell University

In Lewis Carroll’s  Through the looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that in her land, “memory works both ways”.

Not only can the Queen remember things from the past, but also remembers “things that happened the week after next”.

Alice argues, “I’m sure mine only works one way – I can’t remember things before they happen.” The Queen replies, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University, comments that our lives would be much better if we could live in the White Queen’s kingdom, where memory worked forwards and backwards.

Dr Burkley  says that according to a recent series of scientific studies by Professor Daryl Bem, we are already living in that world.

Bem’s studies uniquely represent standard scientific methods and rely upon well established principles in psychology.

Rehearsing a set of words makes them easier to recall in the future, but what if the rehearsal occurs after the recall? In one of the studies college students were given a list of words. After reading the list, they were given a surprise recall test to see how many words they remembered.

Next, a computer randomly selected some of the words and the participants were asked to type them several times. The results showed that the students were better at remembering the words on the surprise recall test. According to Bem, practising the words after the test somehow allowed the participants to “reach back in time to facilitate recall”.

In another study, people are shown a photograph and have to quickly indicate whether it represents a positive or a negative image. If the photo is of a cuddly kitten they had to press the “positive” button. If it is of maggots on rotting meat, they had to press the “negative” button.

Research has examined how subliminal priming can speed up the ability to categorise the photographs. This occurs when a word is flashed on a computer screen so quickly that the conscious brain does not recognise what we saw, but the non-conscious brain does. We just see a flash, and we can’t remember. But deep down, the non-conscious brain saw the word and processed it. People who are primed with a word consistent with the photograph will categorise it quicker.

If the word “happy” is flashed before the kitten picture, we click the “positive” button even quicker, but if the word “ugly” is flashed before the kitten photo, we take longer to respond. This is because the word “happy” prepares the mind to see happy things.

In Bem’s retroactive priming study, he simply reversed the time sequence by flashing the primed word after the person categorised the photo. Not only did his subjects categorise the kitten when it was preceded by a good word, it was also categorised quicker when it was followed by a good word. It was as if, while categorising the photo, students’ brains knew what word was coming next. This facilitated their decision.

Bem’s other studies showed similar “retroactive” effects, clearly suggesting that average “non-psychic” people seemed to be able to anticipate future events. There are several good reasons why we shouldn’t just disregard these results based on small, but highly consistent effect sizes.

Bem found that certain people demonstrated stronger effects than others, suggesting that some people are more sensitive to psi effects than others.

Einstein believed that the mere act of observing something here could affect something there, a phenomenon he called “spooky action at a distance”.

Modern quantum physics has demonstrated that light particles seem to know what lies ahead of them and will adjust their behaviour accordingly, even though the future event has not yet occurred.

Although humans perceive time as linear, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is so. We should not let our preconceived beliefs and biases influence what we study.

Professor Bem’s work is thought provoking, and like good cutting-edge science, is supposed to do, it offers more questions than answers. If we suspend our beliefs about time, and accept that the brain is capable of reaching into the future, the next question becomes “How does it do this?”

Just because the effect seems “supernatural”, it does not necessarily mean that the cause is. Many scientific discoveries were once considered outlandish and more suited to science fiction (e.g. the earth being round).

Future research is greatly needed to explore the exact reasons for these studies’ effects. Like many novel explorations in science, Bem’s findings may have a profound effect on what we know and have come to accept as true.

But for some, perhaps these effects are not such a big surprise, because somewhere deep down inside, we already knew we would be reading about them today!

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