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ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena

ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena

by Diane Hennacy Powell

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Psychic phenomena have long been relegated to the fringe of scientific examination, but several rigorously supervised studies have proven that such phenomena as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis have a scientific basis. Dr. Diane Powell, a Johns Hopkins-trained neuropsychiatrist, proposes a fascinating new paradigm for consciousness that demystifies


Psychic phenomena have long been relegated to the fringe of scientific examination, but several rigorously supervised studies have proven that such phenomena as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis have a scientific basis. Dr. Diane Powell, a Johns Hopkins-trained neuropsychiatrist, proposes a fascinating new paradigm for consciousness that demystifies psychic phenomena. She explores why psychic abilities ate stronger among prodigies, autistic savants, people with bipolar illness, and in individuals with certain brain injuries and other neurological conditions. Brain imaging and other recent research explains which parts of the brain are more dominant and how the mind of a mystic or psychic could have an organizational effect on the physical world. Using reliable scientific research, The ESP Enigma establishes a common ground among psychic phenomena believers and skeptics.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In science it is axiomatic that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Powell, a neuropsychiatrist who has taught at Harvard Medical School, certainly makes extraordinary claims about "the four basic psychic abilities": telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance and precognition. But her evidence is consistently below par. She relies on self-reported claims by psychics, hundred-year-old newspaper accounts and the results of studies published by organizations like the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research rather than in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals (and sometimes she cites no source at all). Powell is woefully short on mechanisms to explain the phenomena she claims are so common, although she does turn to quantum physics to assert that molecular resonance and the space-time continuum are likely responsible, and she finds evolutionary explanations for the existence of psychic phenomena. She claims, for instance, that psychic events are related to dreaming, which may have evolved so babies, who mostly sleep, can detect threats and communicate them psychically to their parents. Undaunted by the weak evidence, Powell asserts that she is on the forefront of a "Copernican revolution" of the mind. (Jan.)

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From the Publisher

“In her new book The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena, former Harvard professor Diane Hennacy Powell combines philosophy, physics, and empirical data to examine supernatural traits like telepathy (the ability to access someone else's consciousness), psychokinesis (the ability to use one's consciousness to affect external objects), clairvoyance (the ability to broaden one's consciousness to remote time and space) and precognition (the ability to see into the future).” —Time Magazine

“A cogent argument offering many striking examples of the power and potential of the unconscious...human history is rich with mythology about extrasensory perception, most famously employed by the seers at the ancient oracle of Delphi, but its relationship to the brain remains unexplained. Is consciousness a surrounding force that we are capable of tapping into, or is it a result of the billions of synapse connections occurring in our brains? Can mere coincidence explain the vast number of Jung's "synchronicities," or is consciousness a virtual medium for universal interconnectivity? Powell's theory of consciousness seeks to resolve some of these mysteries. Einstein and Hawking, she reminds us, wrote about time being malleable, existing totally and simultaneously. This would explain prescient visions and telepathic instinct shared by loved ones during crises even when they're located far from each other. In easy-to-understand language, the author describes carefully controlled studies involving telekinesis, clairvoyance and precognition, presenting the results as evidence of the brain's latent psychic tendency. She also theorizes that dreams, near-death experiences and out-of-body sensations may be manifestations of our inherent ability to relax the constructs of three-dimensional perception. Perhaps even memory is an instance of our minds accessing outside psychic information from "all of space and time." Powell dubs this intertwined, inextricable relationship between the individual's internal world and the external world "the Mobius mind," named for its cyclical and symbiotic nature. This concept persists in Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism; meditation is one technique to reach a state of collective enlightenment. Particle physics, too, relies on underlying theories of resonance and symmetry, notes the author. She makes a persuasive argument that with the spectacular advances in particle physics will come a scientific revolution of thought, and with it a deeper understanding of the brain. Phenomenal brain abnormalities, such as the unexplained expertise of the savant, demonstrate incredible feats of brainpower that can't be described or explained.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS

“Psychic power has had trouble gaining scientific respectability, but Powell makes a game effort to propose serious consideration of its existence.... Incorporating Powell's knowledge of neuroscience, this work should appeal to those open to the idea that ESP exists.” —BOOKLIST

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Read an Excerpt

The ESP Enigma

The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena
By Diane Hennacy Powell

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2009 Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1606-4


Whether we consider ourselves believers in psychic phenomena or not, many of us have had something happen to make us wonder about the subject. It could have been someone telling us that she was just thinking about us when we called, or vice versa. It might have been a gut feeling to drive a different route from our usual one, only to discover later that a large accident occurred on the road we didn't take. Such experiences may not happen often, but they can leave us with a profound feeling that we are interconnected, that we can know things without understanding how, and that there must be more to our universe than we detect through ordinary senses.

People have believed in psychic abilities since the beginning of recorded history. Certain individuals report more experiences with psychic phenomena than others. Since these experiences usually only occur spontaneously for most of us, many cultures developed divination aids in order to access psychic information more readily. The Dogon in West Africa toss cowrie shells into a basket and interpret the patterns. The Chinese devised the I Ching, and Egyptian priests slept in special temples in order to have prophetic dreams.

Perhaps the most famous divination practice was the Delphic oracle, who drew the rich and famous from all over the Greek world from the sixth century B.C. until the fourth century A.D. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the Delphic psychic spoke in a trance induced by natural gases that seeped through the rocks. This was discounted as a myth until 2001, when Jelle de Boer, a geologist at Wesleyan University in Middleton, Connecticut, analyzed the hydrocarbon gases emitted by the temple's nearby spring. He reported in Geology that he found ethylene in sufficient concentrations to have created a narcotic effect that would have been experienced as a floating or disembodied euphoric state.

The most widespread form of divination is scrying, from the old word descry, which means "to catch sight of" and involves deep concentration on a smooth reflective surface until an image appears. Ancient Greeks looked for answers in spring waters; in ancient India, warriors peered into vessels filled with water to see if they'd return from battle; Tahitians poured water into a hole at crime scenes to scry the image of the culprits. The most famous tool for scrying has been the crystal ball, which became a tool of Gypsies, among others.

The Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible contains numerous accounts of prophets, but Christianity forbade all forms of prophecy except for divine revelation and astrology. As Christianity spread, many forms of prophecy declined or went underground in Christian areas, lest the practitioners be accused of heresy or witchcraft. In the Middle Ages, popes still consulted astrologers to provide them with propitious dates for coronation, but after the Copernican revolution changed our understanding of planetary movements, the Catholic Church declared divine revelation to be the only acceptable form of prophecy.

Westerners' growing disbelief in psychic abilities was influenced by the development of the scientific method. During the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, the universe became increasingly viewed as a mechanistic system, accurately known only through observation, calculation, and reason. Anything associated with the supernatural or psychic phenomena lost credibility.

Skepticism about psychic phenomena was further fueled by scandals that linked claims of psychic abilities with con artists who preyed upon people's vulnerabilities. Also, as the psychiatric profession arose, reports of psychic experiences were often accompanied by signs of irrational thinking and became interpreted as signs of brain pathology, rather than innate gifts or capacities.

Added to this was the belief that the mind exists solely within the brain. This is an idea that has grown since Francois de La Peyronie, an eighteenth-century French surgeon, observed changes in human behavior that accompanied specific brain injuries. The scientific model of the brain and consciousness that evolved in this historical context did not have to account for psychic phenomena.

The scientific model is based on these facts: The brain is a biological machine with over a hundred billion neurons, or brain cells, each of which has an average of five thousand connections to other neurons. Electrical signals pass along the neurons, causing them to release chemical messengers, such as serotonin and dopamine, from their terminal ends. These messengers land on the receptors of neurons on the other side of the synapse, or region between neurons for chemical connection. Once neurons receive enough stimulation from their connecting neurons, they send signals along their axons to other neurons. There are almost an infinite number of possible patterns of activity along the neuronal network, and specific patterns are believed to represent concepts, thoughts, or memories. Francis Crick, the late codiscoverer of DNA's structure, summarized this model when he said, "The astonishing hypothesis is that 'You,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Even though scientists, including Crick, admit that they do not know what consciousness is or how it is generated, proponents of the current model consider consciousness to be a byproduct of a brain that can access new information only by direct sensory input. The body has receptors for sound, taste, sight, touch, smell, and proprioception (detection of body movement and placement), but there is no hardware to access sensory information from distant points in space and time, let alone to send information directly from one brain to another. The current concept of consciousness cannot accommodate the existence of psychic abilities, and as rational beings, we are skeptical of that which cannot be explained scientifically.

Yet some psychic phenomena have been measured and verified scientifically. One example is the work by Adrian Parker and Joakim Westerlund at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. They placed the "receivers" of telepathic information in isolation and minimized their sensory input, thereby preventing any potential interference. The "senders" sat in an isolated room watching a film, while the receivers simultaneously commented upon what information came to mind. A real-time recording of the receivers' comments was then superimposed upon the transmitted film for analysis. One participant described accurately, in real time, a full sequence of events as they occurred in the film.

Another example is the research at Stanford Research Institute by Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff, two laser physicists, which provided valuable information to almost every branch of the U.S. intelligence community during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Much of their work was done on remote viewing, in which the sender went to an undisclosed location and the receiver drew a picture of it. One of their best receivers was Pat Price, a retired policeman who had helped the Berkeley police in their search for Patty Hearst. In his first attempt at remote viewing for SRI he achieved 90 percent accuracy in his psychic drawing of a swimming pool complex that included its dimensions, size, location, and the function of the pools and adjacent buildings.

Despite such experiments, the scientific community still questions the validity of psychic phenomena, demanding research data that is reproducible under tightly controlled conditions in order to accept phenomena as true. At least on a public level, most scientists have taken the stand that something as extraordinary as psychic phenomena requires the data to be extraordinary as well.

A critical review of the laboratory data for psychic phenomena reveals cumulative data would have been sufficient evidence for other areas of research. If one wants to prove whether or not telepathy can exist, one strong convincing case for its existence should be sufficient, because that is analogous to one living brontosaurus being proof that the species isn't extinct. William James, the late professor of psychology at Harvard, shared this same view on what is sufficient proof. He described paranormal experiences as "white crows" and said that "if you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you must not seek to show that no crows are [black]; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white."

Applying James's analogy to the status of psychic research, there have been several sightings of white birds. Scientists haven't disputed that they are white, just whether they are crows. One has to capture the white bird, inspect it closely, and perhaps even test its DNA to prove that it is a crow. Anything short of this would be insufficient for a scientific revolution. Technology has advanced such that we can better identify the "white bird" in psychic research, and it does appear to be a crow.

But proof of the existence of some psychic phenomena would mean we need to reconcile how they are possible given our understanding of consciousness and the brain. This would pose more of a challenge if the current model was complete and psychic phenomena were the only mystery. Instead, relatively little is known about consciousness. For example, no one has been able to answer what has been called the "hard question" of consciousness: how can something as nonmaterial as consciousness arise from something material like the brain? The model also doesn't explain free will or our feeling that there is an "I" that has experiences. On top of that, there are reports of near-death survivors that suggest that consciousness can continue even when the brain has shut down, whereas the current scientific paradigm continues to regard consciousness as a product of brain chemistry and wiring.

A primary reason psychic phenomena are hotly contested by the scientific community is that the validity of such phenomena would mean a major scientific revolution, similar to the Copernican revolution that forced us to accept the sun as the center of the solar system. Scientific revolutions are not easy matters. Thomas Kuhn, the late physicist and professor of the history of science at MIT, compared scientific revolutions to political revolutions, with good reason. They involve a lot of politics. Some interested scientists have openly stated that they were afraid that they would lose their credibility should they investigate psi, the technical term for psychic abilities. Partly as a result of these concerns, today there are no more than fifty scientists across the globe involved full-time in this area of research. But it is the study of anomalies, such as psychic experiences, that will provide a better understanding of consciousness.

When a scientist has devoted his or her career to studying psychic abilities, it has usually been because of a thought-provoking personal experience. One of many examples is Hans Berger, the inventor of the electroencephalogram (EEG), which is used clinically to measure brain waves. Berger invented this device as a means of investigating telepathy after an extraordinary experience with his sister, who sent him a telegram saying she was very concerned that something bad had happened to him. Her timing was impeccable. Earlier that day he was almost killed while riding a horse. His sister's timely concern was so striking that Berger hypothesized that brains must be capable of sending signals to one another. Because this was during the time when electromagnetism was an exciting new field of inquiry, he thought that he'd find the answer by designing a machine that measures the electromagnetic activity of the brain. Although the EEG did not provide proof of telepathy, it has been of great help in advancing our understanding of the brain.

My own interest dates back to when I was thirteen years old. Through a good friend, I met a circus magician known primarily for his Houdini escapist tricks. In my friend's living room, he demonstrated something astonishing. From twenty feet across the room, the magician read, word for word, the contents of any book that I randomly chose from among hundreds on the bookshelves. There were no mirrors behind me, and I knew that these books belonged to my friend, not the magician. Even if he had memorized all of the books, he would also have needed exceptional luck to guess which pages I chose. There was no rational explanation at the time for what I observed, but it fostered a deep, abiding curiosity.

I was already familiar with extraordinary mental abilities in one sense. I was a math prodigy as a child, someone who could do ninth- and tenth-grade math at seven years of age. And at age four my grandmother was a musical prodigy who could play songs accurately after hearing them only once. Much later I learned of autistic savants and other prodigies whose abilities were well documented but, like psychic phenomena, were not explained by the current understanding of consciousness and the human brain.

My interest led me to study neuroscience in college and specialize in neuropsychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. While on faculty at Harvard Medical School, I encountered a patient who claimed to be psychic. She then told me several accurate details about my life and made specific predictions about my future, all of which eventually came true. After this encounter, I decided to systematically investigate psychic phenomena. And over the past twenty years I have gained invaluable insight from patients who shared details of their psychic experiences.

The ESP Enigma presents a summary of the research on the four basic psychic abilities: telepathy (the ability to access someone else's consciousness), psychokinesis (the ability for one's conscious intention to directly act upon physical matter), clairvoyance (the ability to see something remote in space or time), and precognition (the ability to access the future). Some studies looked at large groups of individuals with the hypothesis that psychic abilities may be an innate capacity in all of us. Others have researched individuals who seem to possess these abilities to an extraordinary degree.

The book also addresses another question: how could psychic phenomena be possible? There have been enough advances in science over the last twenty years to now propose an acceptable mechanism by which psychic phenomena could occur. This new model for the brain and consciousness has the potential to reshape not just our attitudes toward psychic phenomena but also our understanding of our own minds.


Excerpted from The ESP Enigma by Diane Hennacy Powell Copyright © 2009 by Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D., completed her training in medicine, neurology, and psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is a former member of Harvard Medical School's faculty and of a part-time think tank on consciousness at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and has published articles in neuroscience and neuropsychiatry journals. She lives in Medford, Oregon, and Los Angeles, California.

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