Experiments on telepathy, psychokinesis and premonition


* Experimentos sobre telepatía, psicokinesis y premonición

The pseudo-scientific folklore usually tells cases where the human mind would be able to obtain information, or still, manipulate matter, in an almost magical way. These assumptions have been repeated so often that scientists have paid attention. Here is what has been discovered so far.

Science seeks answers that are in the World around us, beyond our ideas, in order to show it to us as it is and not as we would like it to be. And in the struggle to separate the subjective from the objective, or in other words, to separate what we believe it happens from what actually happens, we follow Galileo's recipe: we perform experiments and see what happens.


In 1936, Professor Joseph Rhine published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology an article about a series of novel experiments performed in 1933 and 1934 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA. A student named Hubert Pearce Jr. had come forward to him and said he believed he had inherited paranormal powers from his mother.

Rhine used a series of letters especially designed by his colleague Karl Zener to investigate so big an affirmation. The deck has a total of 25 cards of five different types: a cross, a star, a square, a circle and wavy lines. An assistant, Gaither Pratt, sat at a table in the laboratory and synchronized its clock with Pearce's. Pearce then left the lab and went to the library, which was in another building on campus, about 100 m away. Through a window Pratt could see that Pearce actually entered into the library. Pearce sat in a cubicle, and when the preestablished time came Pratt, in the laboratory, took a deck of Zener cards, mixed them, and then took out the first card and put it on the table for one minute. During that time Pearce, 100 meters away in the other building, tried to guess what the figure was, and wrote it down on paper.

When finished, Gaither Pratt reviewed the deck and recorded the order of the cards. He made a copy of the record, placed it in an envelope, sealed it, and handed this document to Professor Rhine. Meanwhile Hubert Pearce also sealed in an envelope a copy of his guesses. Professor Rhine later verified the success or or not of Pearce.

Between August 1933 and March 1934, 74 runs of the deck were performed, so Pearce tried to guess 1850 cards. Statistically he would have had a probability of 1 to 5 of striking them right, i.e., 370 times. He hit 558 times.

Professor Joseph Rhine was so convinced that years later he founded the Rhine Research Center to investigate the phenomenon. In the following decades this professor conducted similar experiments with many candidates, with several positive cases.


In 1979, Robert Jahn, then Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, New Jersey, USA, founded the Laboratory for Engineering Anomalies Research. One of its main financiers was aviation pioneer James McDonnell, one of the founders of giant McDonnell-Douglas. The old McDonnell wanted to know if, under stress during a dogfight, the human brain generates signals that would interfere with the sophisticated electronics of modern fighter aircraft.

Professor Jahn and his colleagues devised a computer randomly generating a sequence of zeros (0) and ones (1). As the numbers were generated randomly, a thousand times per second, and there were only two possibilities, after a certain time the machine ended putting together a long series of digits with one (1) appearing in 50 % of the total and zero (0 ) making up the other 50 %. It's like flipping a coin: statistically it has to yield face in 50 % of cases and cross in the other 50 % of cases. The task of the candidates was to see if they could alter this probability, by making the machine yield more zeros (0) or more ones (1).

Through the years, at least 1262 experiments with 108 candidates were performed. In many cases a slight alteration in the sequence of numbers appeared, and in at least one case a proportion close to 51 % for one side and 49 % for the other side was reached.

A variant of this experiment was trying to control the fall of little balls of polystyrene. A mechanical device dropped a cascade of polystyrene balls on a vertical panel from which many bolts protrude. The bolts are positioned symmetrically so that the balls may hit them and therefore deviate to the right or to the left, and was constructed with great care so that the balls had the same chance of falling to either side. At the base of the board several special containers collect and count the balls that fall inside each of them. After the fall of 9000 beads, 50 % of these beads would pile up on the left side and 50 % on the right side. Candidates would try to make most of the balls fall to the left or to the right, using just their mind.

Over the years nearly 200 reports of such experiments have been published, mostly in the Journal of Scientific Exploration.


But certainly the most controversial experiments were the ones conducted under the leadership of Dr. Russell Targ and Dr. Harold Puthoff at Stanford University, California, USA. In 1972 a hypothesis about the possibility of studying the effects of quantum physics in living beings came to the ears of a New York artist named Ingo Swann. This alleged to have powers of a kind, let's say, nothing common, and he convinced researchers to receive him for an interview.

In the Department of Physics at Stanford there was a complex shielded magnetometer used in experiments of subatomic particle detection. To the surprise of researchers Swann proceeded to describe in great detail the internal constitution of the novel device, which until then had not been published.

Puthoff wrote a report on the event, and within just a few weeks, two men who identified themselves as CIA agents reported to the laboratory. They said they were receiving rumors that the Soviet Union was using people like Swann in spy missions. They offered an initial funding of US$ 50,000 to study this alleged potentiality.

Early experiments were simple, like trying to see objects hidden in boxes, but over time became more bold, like trying to describe the premises in the city where certain collaborators were. This later evolved into a series of attempts in which the candidate was given the coordinates of a place and had to describe what was there. Various tests were made with barracks and secret bases. Over time the team enrolled more individuals with supposed powers, and attempts to see locations inside the Soviet Union began to be done.

To gauge the reliability of the descriptions, various experiments were performed in the laboratory. Most involved placing 5 photographs in a room, of which then one was chosen by lot. Meanwhile, in another room and with no contact with the researchers, the candidate tried to draw a picture of the randomly picked photograph, unknown to her or him. Finally, a third person, without contact with the candidate or the researchers, compared the new drawing with the 5 photos and judged to which one it resembled more. Two decades of work indicated that the best candidates were getting a hit of between 30 % to 40 %, when the normal statistical probability would be 20 %.


Other experiments, with candidates in an environment of deep relaxation, were made by Dick Bierman at the University of Amsterdam, Holland, and Robert Morris and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Also tested positive.

But the team of Robert Jahn of Princeton agreed to join, between 1996 and 2000, to the teams of Johannes Mischo, of Freiburg, Germany, and Dieter Vaitl, of Giessen, Germany, to repeat their experiments: this time the results were negative.

Stanley Jeffers, in the "Journal of Consciousness Studies", June-July of 2003, exposes a number of similar experiments that also were negative.

No indication that someone has managed to reproduce independently the Stanford experiments exists. Moreover, Ray Hyman noted in 1996 that in recent times the only person who was judging the guessworks was the program director, which calls into question the objectivity.

The Duke experiments were repeated in the University of London (by Samuel Soal in 1937), Colgate University (Adams, 1938), Stanford (Kennedy, 1938), Florida State (Henlein, 1938), Dallas (Crumbaugh, 1938) and Cambridge (Thouless, 1939), besides Princeton University, Johns Hopkins, Southern Methodist and Brown. All results were negative. Even worse, experts point to a strong suspicion that professor Rhine was deceived, Specialists point to a strong suspicion that Professor Rhine was misled by the experimental group, for example by marking the cards or tabulating the results by themselves. The nail in the coffin was that after some time Prof. Rhine went on to work exclusively with "promising candidates", thus eliminating any hint of a control group.

Meanwhile, magician James Randi keeps saying that everything that has been shown so far can be done with simple illusionist tricks. And he issued a challenge: since 1964 he is offering a cash prize (which at present time has already reached US$ 1 million) to anyone who prove that there are paranormal powers.

We must remember that Science is not what scientists say. Science is about what everyone can see and touch. And is in this so important requirement that psychic experiments are failing.

Aldo Loup.

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 7 January 2007. Illustration: Zener Cards. Illustration credit: Eloy / Elembis / King of Hearts, 2006-2008.