Monday, December 1, 2008

Reading Notes Schnabel’s Remote Viewers

As a related topic to psi research, I read Jim Schnabel’s Remote Viewers: The secret history of America’s psychic spies (New York: Dell, 1997). Although this book is not about UFOs, it opens a window into how some portions of parapsychology has evolved over time. Hence, my comments are not some much about the spy story of the various projects that American intelligence agencies supported over the years, but rather about the background of all this.

The main organization behind the research about remote viewing was the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a scientific think-tank connected to Stanford University, near San Francisco, California. The SRI is essentially an organization doing leading edge research on a contract basis for the U.S. government and the private sector. The SRI was closely involved with the electronic and telecommunication revolution that lead to the creation of the Internet. For instance, Jacques Vallée in his day job was working with the SRI to develop the telecommunication technologies that lead to the “electronic superhighway”. (Jacques Vallée did some work with SRI in the field of remote viewing as well). The SRI is very much part, hence, of the Silicon Valley community. One more point, the famous Bell Labs, also located in the Silicon Valley is the home of another important parapsychologist, Dean Radin.

Psi and people

One of the early findings of the SRI, as part of the remote viewing project, is that they are no particular traits or characteristics attached to people who have abilities in remote viewing. The only predictor, and it was a weak one, was that people who had psychic experience before, or simply believe in the paranormal tended to have more abilities. The SRI conducted later on psychological tests on people who had remote viewing abilities, and they found these people tend to be more intuitive, emotionally sensitive and prone to altered states of consciousness than the average population. Having an easy access to one’s own unconscious mind appears to be the key. This is in line with other research in parapsychology.

The SRI also conducted some research on psychokinesis (PK), with much less success. The only event that was really worth mentioning was the strange apparitions that occurred after they did work with the famous medium Uri Geller. These were unexplained, and were not pursued further by the SRI, although it was figured out that some of those apparitions were symbolic “notifications” about mundane events in the future. The SRI people, and others, figured out quickly that Geller was bending spoons with his hands, not with his mind (although he appeared to have genuine remote viewing abilities about future events).

The apparition events give the impression that Geller, inadvertently, activated people’s psi abilities and these in turn translated into involuntary psi effects. Like with many psychics (and shamans for that matter), there is always a mix of genuine psi abilities and trickery. Such a trickery, is not only useful to increase belief in the paranormal for people around, but to self-deceive the psychic himself/herself in believing in the paranormal (i.e., as we all do to, psychics and shamans are playing “little games” with their own unconscious mind). It appears, once again, that believing in the paranormal is an important component to enable psi effects to occur.

Psi and electromagnetism

It is interesting to note that the SRI conducted remote-viewing experiments where the viewers were inside a special chamber that prevents any electromagnetic emissions to go through. This had no effect on the experiment. Clearly, the idea that psi is some sort of low frequency signal does not hold. The US military did also some research on extremely low frequencies to communicate with their submarines, and found that it could only be a one-way signal from the ground base to the submerged sub, and that it required enormous amount of energy, while telepathic experiment could be done by ordinary remote viewers going both ways. The SRI also did some experiments on the impact of the Earth’s natural magnetic field variations and on the impact of thunderstorms during remote viewing sessions. These experiments were down in the wake of Persinger’s (Laurentian University) finding about the brain and electromagnetism. It was found that they had an impact on the quality of the remote viewing abilities, but such impact was too weak to make any significant differences. These researches, and others, show that Budden in Electric UFOs overestimated the role of electromagnetism on consciousness in the UFO experience. Electromagnetism appears to be yet another enabler, but not the source of psi effects.

Psi and time

One of the problems remote-viewers had was to identify if what they were seeing was actually in the present. Many successful sessions involved seeing scenes that were either in the past or in the future. This is further confirmation that psi is not only unaffected by space, but also by time. Yet, an interesting finding was that it was difficult for remote viewers to see specific numbers or words, such as lottery numbers. One of the explanations given was that they were seeing a probable future, and that the more specific (or probabilistic) an information is, the more difficult it is to find. As well, the further away they were looking into the future the more difficult it was. From that point of view, time was acting a bit like an energy field: the further away one is from the present, the more difficult it is to detect information; and the more tenuous (or highly randomized, e.g., lottery numbers) the information is the more difficult it is to detect. This is a bit odd that psi works like an energy field when it comes to dealing with time while it seems unaffected by spatial distance (and thus appears to be non-local correlations). However, in the case of PK, psi appears to behave like an energy field too. I am just wondering if these inconsistencies are not due to profound unconscious beliefs that emerge from our interaction with reality; matter and time seem so immutable to us that we cannot imagine them otherwise, and thus preventing psi effects to occur in a fully non-local correlation way. Clearly, there is a need to develop a phenomenology of psi.

Psi and consciousness

The SRI researchers found something that the philosopher Immanuel Kant already found 200 years ago. We need the clutter of our mind (words, culture, socialization personal experience, etc) to relate to the world around us, to name things, to make sense of reality. Yet, this clutter is also what prevents us to see the world without bias. It is what is called phenomenology by philosophers. The SRI people, in good positivist, empiricist, and materialistic researchers they were, did not make the connection with Kant, but figured out that the verbal, analytical and mathematical abilities were related to a specific part of the brain, while the unconscious and intuitive faculties were in a different part of the brain. Having to pass from one to the other had the effect of “disconnecting” the psi faculty while the brain was looking for analytical information to make sense of the raw sensations coming from the psi faculties.

Another interesting idea that emerged during that period was that psi in its ESP form seems to be quite similar to subliminal messages. Subliminal messages are flash messages (or very low volume in the case of audition), but long enough to be seen by the unconscious mind. These will be recorded by the brain, but only the key features are retained, not the details. Out of these finding about psi, the SRI developed a technique to assess and re-asses the message (while trying to avoid the analytical part of the brain to insert imaginary elements in the raw psi sensation in trying to make sense of it). This technique, however, did not seem to make any difference in the quality of the remote viewing. It appears that self-correcting intuitive processes remain the only way to depart “noise from signal” in remote viewing, and that it is relatively low success rate constitutes an absolute limitation. But the SRI people were not the first ones to have figure out this issue. René Warcollier, a French psychic researcher of the first half of the 20th century, had already written a book on the topic in 1946. Of course, our very American people at the SRI, did not read the parapsychology work done in other countries (except the Soviet Union, as it was part of a Cold War endeavour).

Other comments

The book is overall a good read, and provides a good overview of the ups and downs of the American remote viewing project. Although there are some rumours about the National Security Agency reviving the remote viewing activities, the project was formally disbanded. Many of the people who were involved went freelance, either as remote viewer for a fee, or as trainers in remote viewing (also for a fee). Some of them, like Russel Targ, gave a mystical/religious twist to remote viewing. Others work mostly with New Age oriented people or groups. From the point of view of sociology of science, it is interesting to note that the people who were involved in the field went from one extreme to the other, from the positivist, empiricist, and materialistic standpoint to a New Age outlook, where one should know, truthfulness, reality, and the like are not important issues. This is a reinforcing lesson for parasociology to ensure that it avoids both of these traps.

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet


Daz said...

Good review of a good book.
There are a few inaccuracies in the book but it does paint an overall picture of what went on during those years and in those projects.

all the best...
Daz Smith

Eric Ouellet said...

Thanks for the comments.

Btw, you have an interesting website and blog.

Best regards,