Recently I was asked a simple, yet profound, question by Steven Frampton, a British radio host. He wanted to know why American scientists don’t believe in ESP. We talked about the fear of changing one’s view of reality, and how ESP research has been a death knell to scientists’ credibility. Shortly thereafter, he and his crew thanked me for my “courageous work” on ESP. I’m accustomed to hearing that my work takes courage, so I didn’t think much about it… that is until I read Arthur Koestler’s book for the first time, right after the interview.
The Roots of Coincidence: an Excursion into Parapsychology was published in 1972, a very optimistic time for parapsychology. It was reassuring to see that literally dozens of eminent scientists from last century thought similarly to myself… and I was surprised at some of the names on the list.
The book was also disturbing, because those from my generation, and younger, have never experienced the academic world described by Koestler… one in which ESP could be a respectable area of research. The book’s back cover boldly said, “those who today ridicule research into such phenomena as ESP, precognition, psychokinesis, telepathy and clairvoyance are in the same position as those who 50 years ago scoffed at Einstein’s physics. It is now accepted that modern physics has broken the “laws of nature” concerning space, time and matter; it (physics) deals with such “supernatural” concepts as negative mass, holes in space and time flowing backward. Then why, asks Koestler, should a similar breakthrough not be possible in matters of the mind?” That is exactly what I have wondered.
Psychic phenomena are still labeled “supernatural”, although they share many parallels with the laws of nature described in modern physics. In fact, as Koestler pointed out, the field of physics is much stranger than parapsychology. And physicists are not only encouraged to think outside the box… they can even talk about a box with a cat inside that is simultaneously alive and dead.
Physicists now have proof for many of their “weird” concepts, such as entanglement, or “spooky action at a distance.” And their mind-warping Standard Model continues to be supported by data, most recently by the discoveries of gravitational waves and the elusive Higgs boson. Meanwhile, parapsychological research has led to intriguing data, but it was declared a pseudoscience and thrown under the proverbial bus. Respected programs at Duke, Princeton, Stanford and elsewhere were dismantled. What happened? This will be a topic of discussion amongst those who know the answers at the 57th Annual Parapsychologial Association Conference, where I’ll be a panelist. The invitation arrived within hours of beginning to write this blog.
Koestler believed parapsychology was becoming a respectable area of study in 1972. By then even NASA had participated in an experiment on telepathy… with positive results from outer space. Koestler received the title “Commander of the British Empire” in 1972, the same year this book was published. He described people’s reaction to him as follows: “Half of my friends accuse me of an excess of scientific pedantry; the other half of unscientific leanings towards preposterous subjects such as extrasensory perception (ESP). However, it is comforting to know that the same accusations are leveled at an elite of scientists, who make excellent company in the dock.”
Among this group of elite scientists was Professor Eysenck, the Psychology Chair at the University of London, and Director of Psychology at the Maudsley and Bethleham Royal Hospitals, where I studied child psychiatry. Eysenck wrote:
“Unless there is a gigantic conspiracy involving some 30 University departments all over the world and several hundred highly respected scientists in various fields, many of them originally hostile to the claims of the psychical researchers, the only conclusion the unbiased observer can come to must be that there does exist a small number of people who obtain knowledge existing either in other people’s minds, or in the outer world, by means as yet unknown to science.”
Strong words. And the list of believers included Sir John Eccles, the physiologist who received the 1963 Nobel Prize for his work on synaptic transmission in the peripheral nervous system. That was also a surprise. And similar to my hypothesis, Eccles believed that “ESP and PK (psychokinesis) are weak and irregular manifestations of the same principle which allows an individual’s mental volition to influence his own material brain.”
I discovered that even Sigmund Freud eventually became convinced of telepathy. He joined both the British and the American Societies for Psychical Research and theorized that telepathy was an “archaic method of communication between individuals, which was later supplanted by the more efficient method of sensory communication.” Freud prepared an essay titled, “Psychoanalysis and Telepathy” to present at the International Psychoanalytic Congress in 1922 and was willing “to lend the support of psychoanalysis to the matter of telepathy.” Ernest Jones feared this would discredit psychoanalysis and prevented Freud from going public, so the essay wasn’t published until after Freud’s death.
Academic thinking used to be progressive, but that is obviously not the case anymore. Academicians not only discount the opinions of ordinary people about psi, they dismiss ideas that have been put forth not just by one, but dozens of geniuses, and ones from their own fields of study.
On the clinical side, psychiatry grew increasingly biological, with psychiatrists becoming just prescribers of medications, while other mental health professionals do the psychotherapy. Now most psychiatrists rarely get to know their patients to the depth possible in Freud’s time, or even mine, which means they miss out on stories that could challenge their view of human consciousness.
In 1988, a patient at Cambridge Hospital rocked my theoretical boat. Within minutes of first meeting, she told me detailed information… about me… from my past, present, and on into the future. Psychiatrists are taught that people who believe they can communicate telepathically are psychotic. Asking patients if they believe in telepathy is part of a screen for psychosis. According to my training this was not possible, yet here it was.
My intellectual curiosity was piqued, leading to research and my book, The ESP Enigma: A Scientific Case for Understanding Psychic Phenomena (2008). But less than two years after its publication, just having “ESP” in the title, along with “scientific understanding”, was enough for the state medical board to question my sanity.
As Professor Eysenck astutely noted, ”Scientists, especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized, are just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.” Dangerous? Yes, indeed. But this is a pendulum with more weight than I realized, and there is one thing we know for certain about pendulums: They swing.
*In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom proposed that “higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.” According to Bloom, deconstructionism, and the “openness” of relativism, had paradoxically led to the end of critical and rational thinking…and the closing of the American mind.