Public Misperceptions & ESP – Psychical Research Under the Microscope


A new article in the Guardianhighlights a study conducted by the University of Melbourne (Click Here for the article) looking at people’s ability to cognate observations that occur below their threshold of immediate awareness. More interesting than the results, however, are how they are being framed as a way to discredit psychical research:

“Howe said he started the research after one his students told him that she possessed a sixth sense.

“She said she had the ability to tell if something bad had happened to someone just by looking at them,” he said.

“She said she knew an acquaintance had been in a car accident even though he had no visual markings or injuries. I told her that she may not have been able to verbally label the markings, but she picked up on them and wasn’t consciously aware of them.

“We receive a lot of information we don’t or can’t verbalise. For example, this often happens when something disappears. If my children are being very noisy in the next room and then they are suddenly quiet, I don’t realise that what has startled me is the lack of noise. I’m alerted to that subconsciously and go into the room and find that they are being quiet because they are doing something naughty. That’s not a sixth sense.”

ESP, a broad term that encompasses everything from telepathy to clairvoyance, has been studied intermittently since the 1930s, but Howe said his research was the first to show that people can sense information they cannot verbalise.

People who believe they possess a sixth sense may take a little more convincing they are wrong, however.”

The idea that Howe’s research is “the first to show that people can sense information they cannot verbalise” should be raising more questions than any claims by a student that she experienced anomalous cognition. This study is looking at the limits of ‘subthreshold stimulus,’ a subject of study that has been pursued by the organized scientific community since at least the 18th century when Anton Mesmer claimed he could effect change in individuals by manipulating magnetized atmospheric fluids. Founding father of the United States Benjamin Franklin was on the scientific committee that officially put Mesmer’s claims to the test, making this claim about the uniqueness of Howe’s research seem a bit extraordinary. More importantly, it is a bit dishonest to tie this study into an end point for psi research, and doing so is just another example of how the media can sell sensation with a bold claim to either prove or disprove psychical functioning.

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