Paranormal world subject of scrutiny

Professor Jessica Utts does parapsychology by the numbers. But her work does not involve counting tarot cards or dialing psychic hotlines. Rather, Utts is a statistician who scrutinizes the design and data of experiments that attempt to explain some eerily perplexing events.

According to the Parapsychological Associat-ion, of which Utts sits on the board of directors, parapsychology is the study of extra-sensory perception, or ESP, which includes telepathy and precognition, psychokinesis, or direct mental interaction with physical objects, as well as survival after bodily death, such as reincarnation or near-death experiences. These strange phenomena (except survival after death) are collectively known as "psi," and researchers like Utts labor to establish the credibility of psi in the greater realm of science.

Do not think that these psychic powers are just the stuff of folklore, reserved for gypsy palm readers or blind soothsayers — Utts says that ESP may be more ordinary than extraordinary. "I think it's probably like music ability or sports ability," she said. "Everybody has a little bit, but some people have more than others."

Although Utts double-majored as an undergraduate in math and psychology, it was not until she spent a sabbatical at Stanford University that she linked her statistical prowess to matters of the mind. Utts consulted a series of remote viewing experiments conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency at SRI International, in which subjects were asked to draw or describe an unknown "target" picture located with three "distracter" pictures in a separate room. A panel of judges then decided which picture the drawing most closely resembled.

When thousands of subjects, in those and related experiments elsewhere, produced drawings or descriptions accurate enough for judges to select the target image more than 30 percent of the time, instead of the expected 25 percent, the numbers convinced Utts that a force other than chance was at play.

While deviations from the outcome predicted by chance may be subtle in such experiments, they are noteworthy if consistent over a large sample. Utts says skeptics often ask why psychics cannot get the right answer 100 percent of the time.

"To me, that's like saying if home runs are possible, then why doesn't a batter hit one 100 percent of the time?" she said. "I think that it's going to be physically impossible."

While she encourages keeping an open mind, Utts cautions not to believe every spooky tale you hear this season: "I am more skeptical now, not about the existence of phenomena, but about the stories I hear or studies I read. One of the things I've learned is how easy it is for people to fool themselves or others."

Nevertheless, Utts points out that hundreds of tightly controlled, published parapsychology studies meet the rigorous scientific criteria established to weed out flukes and shams. She shares some of these studies with students in the "Testing Psychic Claims" class that she occasionally teaches for the Integrated Studies honors program.

"I think students are surprised by how much research there's been on this subject, and the quality of it," says Utts, who also directs the Davis Honors Challenge.

However, Utts finds that even among honors students, people's beliefs (or disbeliefs) about parapsychology are often so entrenched that reams of published data are not enough to change their minds.

"We are much more likely to believe one poorly done study in the newspaper about how some food prevents cancer," she said for perspective. "Nobody questions those kinds of studies."

Psychology professor emeritus Charles Tart explains that the existence of psi is not an emotionally neutral topic. "People love to deny it with great vehemence, which is interesting to me as a psychologist. There must be deeper roots of fanatic disbelief or belief."

As a member of the psychology department from 1966 to 1994, Tart explored the nature of human consciousness through such avenues as hypnosis, sleep and dreams. His 1969 best-selling book Altered States of Consciousness examined topics from psychedelic drugs to Zen meditation. Though he began as an electrical engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before turning to psychology, Tart has decades of experience dealing with the paranormal and strange.

For example, Tart conducted experiments at UC Davis with a few students that possessed a particular talent for falling into deep hypnosis. So "talented," in fact, that they did not react to a whiff of ammonia held under their noses, even at concentrations 10 times more powerful than the commercial grade.

While such studies illustrate that much about the mind begs understanding, some scientists have trouble reconciling the mystic nature of certain psi experiences, which may carry religious overtones. "There is some evidence that we might survive death," Tart said. "But how objective can you really be about death, about evaluating that evidence?"

That is not to say that science and spirituality are mutually exclusive. "It is quite possible to be rational and scientific, and also develop yourself along spiritual lines," Tart said. "A great number of people report having spiritual or mystical experiences, of which one minute is likely to change their life."

After giving talks at conferences, Tart was often approached by other scientists seeking to confide their own lucid premonitions or out-of-body experiences. "They were sharing what to me were garden variety parapsychological experiences, but to them were extraordinary," he said. He recalled that many colleagues showed visible relief upon learning the name of their experience, hearing that it was commonplace, or that it was not connected to mental illness.

Such exchanges prompted Tart to develop an online journal called The Archives of Scientists' Transcendent Experiences, a forum where scientists could openly discuss their brushes with psi, anonymously if desired, and without fear of derision or retribution —

Tart attributes the hesitancy for such discussion among scientists to the irrational opposition facing parapsychology. "Research is underfunded and actively discouraged. In other fields, if you don't like the results of someone's study, you do an experiment yourself or offer suggestions about how they could to do a better experiment," he said. "You don't try to prevent them from getting funding or punish them by refusing them a promotion."

"It's a bit different being a statistician," Utts said. "Our work is the same regardless of what field you study. But I'm the only statistician in the country doing this kind of work. We need to get rid of the taboo of studying this field."

As a means to taking psi experiences seriously and integrating them into everyday life, Tart serves today as a core faculty member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, a field that he helped establish with his 1975 book Transpersonal Psychologies. This unique graduate school seeks to develop the mind, spirit and body through classes like meditation, aikido and spiritual psychology. Utts also notes that children today embrace psi phenomena in the form of a Pokémon named Psi and Harry Potter's magical connection with Lord Voldemort.

With society's increased acceptance and the dissolution of prejudice and superstition, scientists could better search for the logical causes behind otherworldly events.

"I think (the explanation has) something to do with physics, that somehow we don't understand time," Utts said. She likens psi phenomena to the discovery of electricity, which, if understood and harnessed properly, could be used to better the world. "To communicate directly with someone in danger — how much better that would be than a cell phone!"

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