Sunday, January 06, 2008

Trends in ESP Research

Figure 0: Participant in a Ganzfeld Experiment which proponents say may show evidence of telepathy.

This month's TIER features the new new new neuropsi-imaging article by Moulton and Kosslyn (2008).

As described in the Harvard press release,
Neuroimaging fails to demonstrate ESP is real

But researchers note they can't prove a negative
January 3, 2008
Amy Lavoie

Psychologists at Harvard University have developed a new method to study extrasensory perception that, they argue, can resolve the century-old debate over its existence. According to the authors, their study not only illustrates a new method for studying such phenomena, but also provides the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of extrasensory perception, or ESP.

The research was led by Samuel Moulton, a graduate student in the department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University with Stephen Kosslyn, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard... The scientists used brain scanning to test whether individuals have knowledge that cannot be explained through normal perceptual processing.

Oh my. Where to start? What was the motivation for such a study (other than getting media attention or perhaps to be nominated for an Ig Nobel Award)?
Despite widespread public belief in such phenomena and over 75 years of experimentation, there is no compelling evidence that psi exists. In the present study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used in an effort to document the existence of psi. If psi exists, it occurs in the brain, and hence, assessing the brain directly should be more sensitive than using indirect behavioral methods (as have been used previously).
And why, oh why, do the authors assume that psi occurs in the brain? Believers will not be swayed, because extrasensory perception must be extracerebral!!

Who funded such a study? Surely not NIH (one might imagine William Proxmire turning over in his grave). No, the $$ were from the Bial Foundation1 (Grant 118/02)2, whose
main objective is to encourage the scientific study of Man, from both the physical and spiritual perspectives, by honouring, supporting and promoting the work and efforts of all those who seek out new paths along the route of Research, Science and Knowledge.
They've also funded staff members of the Parapsychology Foundation, among a long list of other paranormal (and normal) investigators.3

What were the experimental hypotheses?
In the present experiment, we operationalize the psi hypothesis by asking the following question: Does the brain respond selectively to psi stimuli? By "psi stimuli" we mean stimuli that not only are presented through the usual senses (e.g., visually), but also are presented telepathically (mind to mind), clairvoyantly (world to mind), and precognitively (future to present); by "non-psi stimuli," we mean identical stimuli that are only presented through normal sensory channels. Under the null hypothesis, these psi and non-psi stimuli are one and the same (because the additional aspects of psi stimuli do not in fact exist) and thus should evoke indistinguishable neuronal responses. Under the psi hypotheses, the stimuli are categorically different and should evoke different neuronal responses.

...On the one hand, psi might provide participants with specific, implicit knowledge of stimuli. In this case, we would expect a suppressed brain response to psi stimuli compared to non-psi stimuli... On the other hand, psi might increase participants' attention to stimuli without providing them with stimulus-specific content. In this case, we would expect an enhanced brain response to psi stimuli, given the evidence that attention enhances brain activity. In the present experiment, we tested for suppression effects, enhancement effects, or some combination thereof (with different effects in different brain areas). By hypothesizing merely a difference in activation—without specifying a direction or neuroanatomical locus—we make minimal assumptions about psi and offer the broadest possible test of the psi hypothesis.

Figure 1 (from Moulton & Kosslyn, 2008) A schematic of one trial. In this trial for the receiver, the non-psi stimulus appears first and the psi stimulus second. The third stimulus presentation (feedback) in each trial is always the same as the psi stimulus. The sender sees only the psi stimulus for each trial.

And of course, the results conformed to the null hypothesis...


Footnotes

1 Bial is a Portuguese pharmaceutical company.

2 Title: “Differential Responses to target vs. Non-Target Psi Stimuli: An Event-Related fMRI Study”
Researchers: Prof. Stephen Kosslyn, Dr. Sam Moulton
Institution: Harvard University Psychology Department and NMR Center (USA)


3 Other funded projects include:

Title: "Automated testing for telepathy using emails and telephone calls"
Researchers: Prof. Rupert Sheldrake, Ms. Pamela Smart, Dr. David Luke
Institution: Perrot-Warrick Project, London (UK)

Title: “Mystical experience, thin boundaries, and transhumanation as predictors of psychokinetic performance with a Random Number Generator”
Researchers: Dr. Michael Thalbourne
Institution: Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, University of Adelaide (Australia)



References

Moulton ST, Kosslyn SM. (2008). Using neuroimaging to resolve the psi debate. J Cog Neurosci. 20:182-92.

Parapsychology is the scientific investigation of apparently paranormal mental phenomena (such as telepathy, i.e., "mind reading"), also known as psi. Despite widespread public belief in such phenomena and over 75 years of experimentation, there is no compelling evidence that psi exists. In the present study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used in an effort to document the existence of psi. If psi exists, it occurs in the brain, and hence, assessing the brain directly should be more sensitive than using indirect behavioral methods (as have been used previously). To increase sensitivity, this experiment was designed to produce positive results if telepathy, clairvoyance (i.e., direct sensing of remote events), or precognition (i.e., knowing future events) exist. Moreover, the study included biologically or emotionally related participants (e.g., twins) and emotional stimuli in an effort to maximize experimental conditions that are purportedly conducive to psi. In spite of these characteristics of the study, psi stimuli and non-psi stimuli evoked indistinguishable neuronal responses—although differences in stimulus arousal values of the same stimuli had the expected effects on patterns of brain activation. These findings are the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of paranormal mental phenomena.

[See also Does ESP exist? (including this comment), and this link for a great accompanying image.]


The five symbols developed by
Dr. Karl Zener for use in tests of extrasensory perception.

In the early 1930s, a Swiss psychologist named Zener, a partner of Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine, designed a set of cards bearing five symbols which he felt were sufficiently different from one another that they would be ideal for conducting certain tests, among them extrasensory perception (ESP) tests. These symbols are: circle, plus sign, wavy lines, square, and star.

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2 Comments:

At January 08, 2008 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This study shows nothing. With fMRI we cannot distinguish different thoughts, for example. But that does not mean there aren't different thoughts, of course.

 
At December 29, 2008 6:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is an interesting point about thought not being distinguishable.
It shows that we are tryng to measure something that we don't understand.

I myself have had a number of what I consider to be ESP experiences. Most of them are between myself and my wife.
For example, before we were married, we had dated and then broke up. During the breakup, she would sometimes come to visit. She never called before visiting and we never spoke otherwise. On the days that she visited, I would get butterflies in my stomach. hours before the visit. This never happened on days she didn't visit.

 

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