Thursday, June 26, 2014

More Studies Like This, Please!

Academic scientists who want to study anything associated with the paranormal face serious hurdles, both in terms of obtaining funding and maintaining their professional reputations. That's a real problem for anyone wanting to do formal scientific research in these areas, and in my opinion has a lot to do with how few decent studies ever are performed.

This story, though, shows that sometimes interesting work gets done anyway. Two years ago a Canadian research team made up of Dr. Ron Rensink, Helene Gauchou, and Dr. Sidney Fels set up a series of experiments involving the use of Ouija boards. The intent of the study was not to investigate the paranormal properties of the boards themselves. Rather, the experiment was designed to determine whether a person who believed someone else was using the board with them would be able to answer questions more accurately.

What the team found surprised them: When participants were asked, verbally, to guess the answers to the best of their ability, they were right only around 50 percent of the time, a typical result for guessing. But when they answered using the board, believing that the answers were coming from someplace else, they answered correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time. “It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions than if they answered to the best of their ability that we were like, ‘This is just weird, how could they be that much better?’” recalled Fels. “It was so dramatic we couldn’t believe it.” The implication was, Fels explained, that one’s non-conscious was a lot smarter than anyone knew.

The robot, unfortunately, proved too delicate for further experiments, but the researchers were sufficiently intrigued to pursue further Ouija research. They divined another experiment: This time, rather than a robot, the participant actually played with a real human. At some point, the participant was blindfolded—and the other player, really a confederate, quietly took their hands off the planchette. This meant that the participant believed he or she wasn’t alone, enabling the kind of automatic pilot state the researchers were looking for, but still ensuring that the answers could only come from the participant.

It worked. Rensink says, “Some people were complaining about how the other person was moving the planchette around. That was a good sign that we really got this kind of condition that people were convinced that somebody else was there.” Their results replicated the findings of the experiment with the robot, that people knew more when they didn’t think they were controlling the answers (50 percent accuracy for vocal responses to 65 percent for Ouija responses). They reported their findings in February 2012 issue of Consciousness and Cognition.

As the Ouija board's planchette is physically moved by small, unconscious motions of the fingers and not directly manipulated by spirits, the researchers concluded that the board somehow gave the subjects access to factual information that they were not consciously aware that they knew. An example of such information might be a factoid they heard somewhere in passing but didn't really remember clearly.

Of course, one possibility that these researchers ignored is that the board could be tapping into the user's psychic ability to obtain the answer. But it is also true that the board could work more like hypnosis, bypassing some of the usual self-censorship that people tend to apply when asked to answer questions directly, and this is a relatively safe non-paranormal explanation that fits the data so far.

In fact, it should be pretty easy to test whether or not a psychic component is at play using a similar procedure. If the effect disappears for factual questions that the subject could not possibly know ("My assistant is in the next room and has just drawn a playing card from a regular deck. Is it red or black?" or something to that effect). If the effect continues at the 65% rate with the board, some investigation of a possible psychic effect is probably in order.

Even if the resulting data disproves the psychic hypothesis by dropping back to chance, the insight this provides into the workings of cognition is still significant. And if these experimenters had never been able to experiment on a Ouija board because of its paranormal history, it's information that we wouldn't otherwise have.

That's why I'm very much in favor of scientific research in this area, whether or not it winds up validating my own personal hypotheses regarding paranormal phenomena. Greater insight into how the world really works is always an improvement.

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