Friday, February 26, 2010

The psi circuit: A tentative model (part 2)

This post is describing in greater details the proposed model to study the social dimension of psi effects, and UFO events in particular. The emphasis is placed today on the overall architecture upon which the model is built, and the rational for such architecture. The next post will look in more details at the individual elements of the model.


Split between the empirical and the interpretative
The overall architecture of the model is based on a synthetic view of a number of researches in parapsychology, and especially research on psychokinesis (PK). One important finding in parapsychology is that psi effects are most likely the outcome of unconscious mental processes. This conclusion was expressed by the founder of the discipline, J. B. Rhine, already in 1954[1], and remains one of the most enduring issue in parapsychology. The issue is that if unconscious processes are at the centre of the phenomena, then it becomes very difficult to study it. North American psychology is particularly adverse to the study of the unconscious, as cognitive psychology (emphasizing conscious perception) and behaviourist psychology (emphasizing a “black box” approach through an input-output stimulation view of the human mind) are the dominant perspectives. North American parapsychology also suffered from this problem, and it can be clearly noted by the undervaluing of researchers who focussed on the unconscious such as Fodor Nandor and Jule Eisenbuld. In spite of these internal debates within psychology and parapsychology, any models of psi (and social psi included) need to locate the most dynamic portions of the phenomena under the threshold of empirical observation.

It is for this reason that the proposed model for social psi has a built-in ontological assumption that divides between empirical sociology (i.e., what can be observed through social behaviour), and what requires interpretation to understand such behaviours. The interpretative sociology has a long history and is well-established but it would be beyond the scope of this discussion to present such history here. Suffice to say that there are many sociological tools available, developed by classical sociologists such Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and more recent ones like Erving Goffman, Herbert Blumer, Alfred Schutz, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, as well as all the research conducted in the present field of “cultural studies". The key here is to not ignore what is beyond the threshold of direct observation, which would otherwise lead one to the same trap as the one positivist psychology found itself, and in my opinion the greatest barrier to the advancement of parapsychology.

The role of consciousness
The proposed model is also synthesizing some of the key findings on PK research. If unconscious processes are at the centre of psi effects, then consciousness is very much in the way when it is time to produce psi effects. It is for this reason that most parapsychologists think that spontaneous psi effects are stronger than the ones produced in laboratory or experimental settings, and that “ongoing psi on demand” is all but an impossible task. Batcheldor[2] noted that in his group PK experiment he had to use all kind of tricks to get people mind off the experiment (like using humour, playing illusionist tricks, etc.) so that the unconscious can act without interference from the consciousness. Pamela Heath, in her extensive survey of PK research[3] found that the suspension of the intellect, altered states of consciousness, dissociation, openness to emotions, meditative states were keys to produce PK effects. Once again, the conclusion is that consciousness has to be circumvented.

This fundamental issue in parapsychology is represented in the model by the difference between the red and green lines. The red line represents spontaneous psi effects which are circumventing consciousness, while the green line represents the conscious task to produce psi effects in experimental conditions that is then setup in a way where the unconscious is given a chance afterward to circumvent consciousness. Batcheldor was able to do so in his group PK experiment, although it was not easy. It is less than clear if a social-level experiment could be produced in such a way. The fact that an action would be socially known as being “an experiment”, and then finding “social-level distractions” afterward to make the social consciousness “forget” about the experiment so that a social psi effect could occur might be impossible. In other words, given the nature of social relations and social communications, I think it is nearly impossible to do social psi experimentation. The only exception would be to use unethical deception (for instance hooking up with a group of UFO believers, feeding them with believable stories about UFOs having a very particular content, and then see if some of that content emerges in future sightings where a degree of objectivity can be assessed—like multiple unconnected observers). [4] The net result, however, is that there are serious reasons for limiting research on spontaneous social psi. In turn, this has serious consequences. Predictive statements cannot be verified experimentally (the preferred approach in Western science), but only through confirming after the fact how a social psi event unfolded. This is essentially the approach used in the 1952 Washington case study.

Circular nature
The model was not presented as circle essentially due to my very limited artistic abilities. But once a psi effect occurs, it can modify behaviour, which in turn becomes a new element of one’s memory about psi. If one sees a UFO, or has a telepathic feeling, it is very likely that he or she will have a much different attitude in the future about UFOs or ESPs. The circular nature of psi is certainly validated through the well-known notion of declining results in parapsychology. When someone tend to guess correctly more often than normal, then his or her confidence is boosted which in turn is both helping the process in reinforcing the unconscious belief in psi and disabling the process by causing stressful expectations to perform. The more loops in the circuit are completed, the less likely someone will perform because the conscious stress eventually overrides the unconscious belief. In cases where expectations to perform are neutralized, then it is boredom that replaces stress but with the same declining results in the end.

In the case of spontaneous psi, however, the circuit works somewhat differently. A psi event will reinforce the belief in the paranormal, which reinforces the unconscious belief that there is “something” to it. Yet, this “something” has to be attributed to a non-human force or entity so that there is no stress related to performing (it is not me but “it” that does that), and no boredom as it is seen as something extraordinary. This issue is clearly addressed in von Lucadou’s model with the notion of “displacement”, and discussed at length in the 1952 Washington case study. From a social psi perspective, it is critical for spontaneous social psi effects to continuing occurring to have a community of believers, be it about aliens, ghosts, demons, etc., to create such a displacement. In the proposed model, this translates in the creation of new social representations, or the reinforcement of existing representations. UFOs, which are simply Unidentified Flying Objects, were rapidly equated with extra-terrestrial visitors in spite of having very little evidence to support such a view. But without such social representations, a “semi-permanent” displacement towards the non-human to explain social psi effects cannot occur at the social level. In other words, contrary to von Lucadou’s model which is dealing with small groups of people’s (family or co-workers) belief that a ghost is responsible for the events and where the events eventually dissipates , social-scale phenomena like UFOs need to be continuously reinforced by an ongoing active belief system (what would be in von Lucadou’s terminology an “ongoing displacement”). That’s one of the key differences between the individual level and the social level.

This synthesis from parapsychology plays in particular ways at each step of the circuit, and these will be discussed in the next post.

[1] Rhine, J.B. (1954). “The science of nonphysical nature”. Journal of Philosophy 51: 801-810.
[2] Batcheldor, Kenneth J. (1984). “Contributions to the theory of PK induction from sitter-group work”. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 78(2): 105-122.
[3] Heath, Pamela Rae. (2003). The PK Zone: A cross-cultural review of psychokinesis. Lincoln: iUniverse.
[4] For those who are strong believers in conspiracy theory, such an experimental scenario might be the most realistic one about UFOs, science, and governmental authorities.

Eric Ouellet © 2010

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