Did the Cold War Heat Up the PK Research Front?
During the “cold war” both the U.S. and the Soviet Union worried that the other side had developed the ability to use psychic powers for military purposes. Researchers Lynne Schroeder and Shiela Ostrander in their groundbreaking book, Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, detailed many experiments carried out in the U.S.S.R. and eastern Europe, including psychokinesis (PK). Others who documented the psychic developments behind the iron curtain included authors Henry Gris and William Dick. Many believe that such disclosures were a major impetus behind the U.S. military establishment’s development of its own capability and that its widely discussed remote viewing program, which came to be known as project Scannate, was the result. Whether the military remote viewers could actually influence remote physical objects which they viewed at a distance is not often discussed, but David Morehouse, a veteran of project Scannate has hinted that it was possible. Others have suggested that even assassination can be accomplished by such mind-only means.
Thanks to the publicity in the West several soviet psychics who, apparently, were able to influence physical objects with mind power alone became internationally famous. Among them were Alla Vingradova, whose husband Victor Adamenko is shown here holding a small electric light bulb which, when placed next to an object which had been influenced by his wife, would spontaneously light. Vingradova is shown moving a metal cigar tube by passing her hand over it. Also pictured is the so-called Russian PK superstar Nina Kulagina in 1977 moving a matchbook by PK. Unlike so-called spoon bender from Israel, Uri Geller, Kulagina complained that her PK efforts for the photography caused her to become physically exhausted.—Editor
In the 1970s, what is perhaps best described as a spoon-bending craze swept across America, and many other regions of the world as well. In large part this was engendered by the Israeli entertainer and “psychic” Uri Geller. Geller was said to be able to bend spoons, keys, and other metal objects by simply stroking them gently with his finger. Among other additional amazing feats, he reputedly could make broken wristwatches and clocks start ticking again, he could “see” inside sealed containers, and he could sometimes read minds. Geller’s “mind over matter” abilities were what really excited the crowds. A bent spoon or key, apparently done without applying any substantial force (just a light stroking of the metal so that it would weaken or “melt” to the point that in some cases it would break), appeared to be “objective” evidence of that which was impossible by any normal standards. A bent spoon or key was proof, for many people, of genuine paranormal abilities.
The concept of matter being influenced by mind or consciousness alone is certainly not new. It encompasses a variety of phenomena, from metal bending to levitation against the laws of gravity and unexplained movements of objects. Sounds heard without any physical source, tables tilting, unexplained temperature changes, breezes, and materializations and dematerializations of objects, are other reputed manifestations of consciousness directly affecting the physical realm. For thousands of years saints have reputedly floated (levitated) free from the normal bonds of gravity while in a state of ecstasy. Victorian era séances, organized around powerful mediums, were attended by all sorts of marvels involving the movement of objects, materializations of objects or even “spirits” taking fully human forms, and sounds produced by unknown means. Such manifestations were formerly referred to as telekinesis (loosely translated as “distant movement;” that is, movement from a distance without any known physical means). The preferred technical term currently for such phenomena is psychokinesis (“mind or soul movement,” that is, movement by the mind), often abbreviated as PK for short.
So, is there anything to PK? Can it possibly be genuine? Many a hardcore, mainstream scientist would emphatically answer with a resounding NO. PK breaks the very laws of physics and thus is, a priori, impossible—or so the argument goes. But does it really, or must we examine the data for PK and then decide whether or not the “laws” of physics, at least as currently understood, must be modified? Indeed, such outstanding minds as the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson and the late quantum physicist Evan Harris Walker have suggested just this. According to some interpretations, quantum mechanics and related fields may even predict that in certain instances PK should occur.
But just because PK might occur, hypothetically, according to one formulation of what is admittedly a new and complex theory of how the world works at a fundamental level, this does not guarantee that we will ever observe PK at a macroscopic level, whether it be a levitating table or a bending spoon. Furthermore, the typical PK practitioner as known to the public generally does little to engender confidence in the validity of the reputed PK phenomena, except perhaps among those who are already “believers” or simply overly credulous. Uri Geller, for instance, is primarily an entertainer and has been both suspected, and reputedly caught in the act, of cheating while performing his “paranormal” and “psychic” tricks. The stage conjuror (magician) James Randi has demonstrated that he can duplicate Geller-style spoon- and key-bending using normal means such as sleight of hand (see Randi’s books, The Truth About Uri Geller and Flim-Flam! ). Countering the Randi allegations, Geller supporters have pointed out that his “powers” have been tested and corroborated, at least to some extent, under controlled laboratory conditions, but the Randi camp counter argues that such “controlled conditions” were not adequately controlled and Geller had the opportunity to cheat and bamboozle the poor, naïve scientists.
Here I do not wish to focus on Geller; however, he is representative of the typical psychokinetic “star” who appears to exhibit extraordinary powers under certain (generally somewhat lax, informal, and uncontrolled) situations, but has also been caught cheating or unable to perform at other times. This pattern has been exhibited among “mediums” for over a century and a half, and probably much longer. Does Geller, or a Geller-type, have any true paranormal abilities? It can often be difficult to say. Just because a “psychic” cheats at times, does not mean that all the reputed paranormal phenomena associated with that individual are fraudulent, although cheating in one instance certainly does not encourage one’s belief in the veracity of other supposed paranormal occurrences. Indeed, for a century and a half serious investigators of the paranormal have found that those very individuals who appear at times to manifest authentic paranormal phenomena are also prone to cheat and deceive when the genuine paranormal phenomena fail. One must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but one must also realize that in some cases the baby (paranormal phenomena) may be totally absent and very dirty bathwater (egregious cheating) is all there is.
So, to address the question of spoon-bending and the like directly: Do I personally think there is anything to it, as far as the paranormal is concerned? My answer must ultimately be nuanced, but when it comes to stage performances (whether before an audience of thousands, or for entertainment in the privacy of one’s own living room) of reputed psychokinetic powers, I remain to be convinced that there is anything to them. I can enjoy a good stage conjuror as a diversion, but I don’t put any stock in such “paranormal” feats. Indeed, based on my studies of what I will refer to unabashedly as genuine paranormal phenomena, I believe it is highly unlikely (if not virtually impossible) that large-scale psychokinetic phenomena (whether bending a spoon or moving an object) could be consistently elicited “on command” in front of an audience. To put it bluntly, in my opinion the garden-variety spoon bending is nonsense.
So, there is nothing to psychokinesis? Not so fast . . . I never said that. Although I was extremely skeptical at first, after spending years studying the topic, based on literature reviews, theoretical analyses, and first-hand experiences, I do believe that at least some PK is real.
A convenient way to classify certain types of psychokinesis is as either micro-PK or macro-PK. Macro-PK is the old standard PK, basically any PK that can be readily observed with the unaided eye, such as a chair levitating or a jar “jumping” off a shelf. Micro-PK is the manipulation of matter at an atomic and subatomic level, and might include temperature changes of the local air in a room. However, the concept of micro-PK in modern times is applicable primarily to atomic and subatomic changes in sophisticated electronic equipment and the like.
Anecdotally, computers and other electrical-based machines seem to malfunction an inordinate amount of the time when certain persons are present. Could this be the result of micro-PK, even if unintentional on the part of the psychokinetic person (who may not even realize she or he is causing the problem)? For over a quarter of a century the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratories, located at Princeton University, researched such topics (unfortunately, the facility closed down in 2007). One of the basic techniques of PEAR was to use random event generators (REGs, also known as random number generators, or RNGs) to test for possible micro-PK. A REG uses some random source (such as radioactive decay or electronic “noise”) to ultimately produce a binary string of, for instance, pluses and minuses or 0’s and 1’s. Being random, all other things being equal, the number of 0’s and the number of 1’s produced over a certain interval of time should be equal (odds are 50/50 that any particular number will be either 0 or 1), and this indeed was the pattern observed with the machines when they were left alone.
The PEAR researchers found, however, that in the presence of a person who focused on the machine the random string of numbers could go non-random. That is, at a significant statistical level, if the “operator” tried to consciously “will” the machine to generate more 1’s than 0’s, such would occur (or vice versa). And this occurred without any physical contact or conventional means of influence (such as holding a magnet to the machine) on the REG whatsoever. Furthermore, it was not “psychic superstars” that were causing such influences on the machines, but average people. And, one does not even need to be in close physical proximity to the machine, but rather simply focused on it. The effect holds even when the operator and the machine are miles apart. Furthermore, the PEAR researchers found that a REG placed in the vicinity of a group of people (for example, an audience at a sports event) would apparently detect, by going non-random, times when there was a collective focus of consciousness, such as when a goal was scored during a soccer game. Clearly, to my mind, the PEAR studies (and similar studies in other laboratories) have demonstrated that micro-PK does exist.
What about macro-PK? Could there be any truth to it? I think so, and I believe the best evidence for genuine mac-ro-PK is found not in the laboratory (although there have been plenty of attempts to induce macro-PK on command), but among spontaneous instances in real life. Specifically, in my opinion there is overwhelming evidence that at least some poltergeist manifestations, which involve macro-PK, such as the falling of objects off shelves or objects flying through the air, are genuine and not simply faked by naughty little boys or girls (or naughty adults, for that matter).
What constitutes a poltergeist incident? Here we can quote from the early physicist and psychical researcher Sir William Barrett.
“There was [is] no exact English equivalent for poltergeist, but as the German word polterer meant a boisterous fellow, so poltergeist was a boisterous ghost. It is a convenient term to express those apparently meaningless noises, disturbances, movements of objects and ringings of bells (even when the wires are severed) for which no assignable cause can be found. The phenomena are sporadic, breaking out unexpectedly, lasting a few days or months and terminating as suddenly. They differ from hauntings, inasmuch as ghostly forms are not seen, and are associated not so much with a particular locality as with a particular (and usually young) person in a particular room. . . . The phenomena take place equally well in broad daylight, under the searching gaze of investigators, or at night time. Of the genuineness and inexplicable nature of the phenomena there can be no manner of doubt, in spite of occasional attempts at their fraudulent imitation (Barrett, 1911, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 15, p. 37).”
Poltergeist incidents (dubbed in modern technical language as Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis, or RSPK) have been noted for thousands of years, and occur among all cultures. In modern times they have been studied extensively by a number of qualified researchers and, after weeding out the frauds, it appears undeniable that some such cases are genuine. I will admit that once I personally observed a minor poltergeist incident (a book “jumping” off a shelf when no one was close to it, and there was no shaking or other tampering with the shelf, and this occurred with a woman in the room who has had other poltergeist incidents occur in her presence).
In my opinion, macro-PK as seen in poltergeist incidents is related to the manifestations of micro-PK as documented in the lab-oratory with REGs. The two, micro-PK and macro-PK, are the ends of a continuous spectrum. However, when it comes to macro-PK, it appears to me that it can seldom, if ever, be elicited “on command.” Genuine poltergeist-style macro-PK always appears to be caused by, or emanate from, an agent who is “emotionally charged” and is plagued with anger, hostility, or anxiety, often directed at another person. In the macro-PK case of a book coming off a shelf that I witnessed, the presumed agent was emotionally charged, and the topic of the book was not random but related to the issues at hand.
Psychokinesis is a “physical” manifestation of the paranormal; whereas telepathy, clairvoyance, and the like are “mental” manifestations of the paranormal (see further discussion in The Parapsychology Revolution, compilation and commentary by R. M. Schoch and L. Yonavjak). But what is the function or value, the value to the organism or species, of such paranormal phenomena? If we could determine the value of paranormal phenomena in a natural context, then we might be able to predict, or at least explain, why such phenomena are manifested at some times and not at other times.
In today’s age (versus perhaps during its evolutionary origins), paranormal phenomena seem to serve psychological and therapeutic purposes; this is an idea that was expressed long ago. Sigmund Freud (1862-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, took an interest in psychical research and was a member of the Society for Psychical Research. Though he never took a strong position publicly, from his private writings it is clear that he was favorably impressed by the evidence for telepathy, an important paranormal phenomenon. Below is a telling quotation from Freud’s private correspondence:
“. . . I already expressed a favorable bias toward telepathy during our trip to the Harz [a mountain range in Germany]. But there was no need to do so publicly; my conviction was not very strong, and the diplomatic aspect of preventing psychoanalysis from drawing too close to occultism very easily retained the upper hand. Now, the revision of Traumdeutung [Dream Interpretation] for the collected edition gave me the impetus to reconsider the problem of telepathy. In the meantime, however, my personal experience through tests, which I undertook with Ferenczi [Sándor Ferenczi, one of Freud’s colleagues] and my daughter, have attained such convincing power over me that diplomatic considerations had to be relinquished” (Freud quote, circa 1925/1926, posted at http://www.freud-museum.at/freud/chronolg/1925-e.htm. Accessed 25 October 2007).
In his 1922 paper titled Dreams and Telepathy, Freud discusses how telepathic experiences, emotional issues, neuroses, and dreams can be intimately entangled, and ultimately serve psychological needs. Ultimately, Freud’s primary point was that telepathy follows the same basic principles of all mental life. There is no sharp demarcation between telepathy and other mental, emotional, and psychological processes.
I believe that the same point Freud made about telepathy, namely that it serves psychological needs, applies also to spontaneous PK. Genuine macro-PK is a spontaneous phenomenon induced by strong emotions and “psychic energy.” Think of an adolescent who is undergoing puberty and all of the confusion surrounding such a life change. She or he lashes out at the world and perhaps at the parents or other close relatives in particular, via normal means and possibly paranormal means (telepathically and psychokinetically). In such a case, PK is on a continuum from mental assaults to verbal violence to physical tantrums of normal mode to, in very rare instances, spontaneous macro-psychokinesis. Note that in most, and perhaps virtually all, cases the agent of the macro-PK poltergeist-type incidents is not even consciously aware that she or he is causing them, and may be just as frightened by the poltergeist activity as anyone else. By this conception, macro-PK by its nature is not something one would expect to be readily manifested on command by an entertainer before an audience. Rather it requires an emotional charging and manifestations will be sporadic.
Besides poltergeist-type activity, could other genuine macro-PK exist? I believe so, but again such incidents are probably highly emotionally and psychologically laden, though in a different way, such as a religious devotee rapt in ecstasy. But such is a topic for another essay.
Robert M. Schoch, a full-time Boston University faculty member, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale. He is best known for redating of the Great Sphinx of Egypt. He takes a serious scientific interest in the paranormal. His forthcoming book is The Parapsychology Revolution (Tarcher/Penguin). Web site: www.robertschoch.com