In a scene straight out of science fiction, a student at University of Washington lifted another student’s hand—with a thought. Seriously. Using a special interface, a student in one building thought about lifting his hand, while through an Internet connection a different student in another building lifted his own hand in response to the first student’s thought. The researchers hope that one day the experiment will have applications for healing major brain trauma, but that almost misses the point. Controlling someone else’s movements? Through the Internet? Wha?

This modern-day version of telekenesis has pretty old roots in science, although the original approaches were somewhat less rigorous. Between the 19th century and the middle of the 20th, scientists tried hard to prove the existence of various supernatural mental powers. A classic experimental set up from the 1930s, discussed in The Philosophical Review, involved two sets of people in separate rooms. One person would think about one particular card out of a set of 5 cards, while an experimental subject in another room would guess what the card was. The idea was that the subject could only know the card by reading the first person’s thoughts. One subject, Mrs. Stewart, was apparently the most successful of those tested, with a whopping 25% success rate on her best days. Since random chance would suggest a 20% accuracy rate, this study—which is a considered a landmark in the field of Extrasensory Perception (ESP) studies—provided at best ambiguous results.

These questionable results did not deter those who were convinced that telepathy and ESP were possible. A study commissioned by the Rand Corporation in 1952 surveyed all available research and concluded that it is impossible to say that ESP does not exist. The report indicated that given the long odds of success, most reputable scientists pursued other fields where concrete payoffs were more likely. Proponents of ESP’s existence felt hurt that anecdotal evidence was ignored, and that faith in science was blinding establishment researchers to paranormal possibilities. Interest in this topic died off after the 1950s. Hardly any ESP research was published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, so it seems that the Rand report was correct. There’s no way to disprove ESP, and nobody wants to bother trying.

Now, faith in science and the scientific method has informed the search for ESP in unexpected ways. Those 1930s experimenters would probably not know what to make of the Internet, but they would be surprised that a primitive form of ESP was created using those same scientific approaches that ESP proponents thought were holding them back. Thanks to actual science, the dream of super mental abilities is almost real and the final use will be a bit more valuable than predicting cards.

 

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The Philosophical Review, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr., 1956), pp. 231-253
Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical Review
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 96, No. 5 (Oct. 15, 1952), pp. 513-518
American Philosophical Society