Control group outperforms mediums in psychic test

Some volunteers performed above chance. They weren't the psychics.

Control group outperforms mediums in psychic test
Photo: Goffkein / Adobe Stock
  • A control group outperformed professional mediums in a psychic test.
  • This contradicted previous research the team performed in which mediums scored above chance levels.
  • For this study, every volunteer had to guess the cause of death after being given three choices.

Magician and renowned skeptic James Randi passed away in October. In 1996, he famously offered $1,000 to anyone that could prove they had paranormal abilities. Over time, the prize money grew to $1,000,000. Even with that kind of money on the table, no entrant ever made it past the preliminary tests. A public list of the thousands of contestants lives on his foundation's site.

Numerous paranormal powers were claimed by entrants: dowsing circles, energy healing, spirit reading, and communion with the dead. The latter has been stated as fact as long as we have written records; ouija boards are still popular among certain sects. As with Randi's challenge, scientific studies have investigated whether mediums can truly communicate with the dead.

A recent study by researchers in Petumula and La Jolla assessed whether mediums could tell what had caused a person's death. The short of it: a control group of non-psychics performed better than self-professed mediums.

William James believed mediumship worthy of scientific investigation. Botanist JB Rhine devoted his career to parapsychology, the branch of psychology he founded. While he claimed extrasensory powers to be scientifically valid, his results were never replicated and his methods were questionable. Numerous psychics, clairvoyants, and channelers continue to claim to hold paranormal powers today.

The research team behind this study, led by brain researcher Arnaud Delorme, has previously analyzed brain activity, skin conductance, respiration, heart rate, and peripheral blood flow of self-professed mediums. During one 2013 study, four mediums produced results above chance. Seeking a neural correlate to psychic powers, they write,

"One medium showed a decrease in EEG frontal midline theta waves during accurate responses, suggesting a possible decrease in executive functions associated with successful responses. A limitation of that experiment was its low statistical power due to the relatively small number of participants and number of trials."

How to Squash a Paranormal Claim | Big Think

A follow-up study was conducted in 2018. The researchers wanted to know if mediums could identify whether a person was alive or dead based on photographs. After looking over 404 photographs, five of a dozen mediums performed better than chance. As there was no control group, however, the team had to keep testing.

For this study, a dozen professional mediums and a dozen volunteers were recruited. Every photograph was of a deceased individual. This time the task was to identify whether the person died of a heart attack, a car accident, or from being shot. Each image was cropped in such a manner so that you couldn't easily recognize the cause of death. While giving answers, every volunteer was scanned for changes in neural blood flow and heart rate. The results surprised the team:

"Overall, participants were able to detect the cause of death of deceased individuals at statistically robust above-chance levels. Contrary to our expectations that mediums would perform better than controls, the controls performed significantly better than the mediums."

While there were different neural responses between controls and self-professed mediums, they didn't correlate to correct answers. Even from beyond the grave, James Randi is still waiting—though it appears no one will be able to verify his impatience.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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