How a controversial study on psychic powers caused a revolution in psychology research.
Among the scientific studies that came out in the past decade, perhaps none were more controversial than the 2011 paper by the American psychologist Dr. Daryl Bem. He proved an explosive notion, that precognition, the ability to see future events, is actually real, setting off a period of soul-searching among psychologists that still persists to this day. How could an eminent Cornell University professor come to such a conclusion, which is so squarely outside mainstream science and props up parapsychology? Could his experiments, which seemed to follow accepted procedures and sound methods in coming up with this unexpected proof, be replicated?
The paper, "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect," reported on nine experiments involving over 1,000 participants, with eight of them successfully showing that a person's responses could be influenced by stimulating events that happened after the responses were already made and recorded.
This possibility strongly supported the notion of precognition, where individuals seem to gain information or energy transfer that no physical or biological process we know of says they should have. Such phenomena, which also include telepathy and clairvoyance or remote viewing, are collectively known as "psi".
The experiments that seemed to prove Bem's thesis ranged in their approach. Some of the stimuli used were erotic in nature, with an early experiment consisting of having research subjects (Cornell undergrads) looking at a pair of curtains on a computer. They were supposed to guess which one had a hidden pornographic image, with the correct answer being randomly chosen after the student made their decision. Interestingly, students performed slightly better than simple guessing would have produced, with 53 percent choosing the correct location of the image.
Another experiment had students examining sets of words that they would then have to type out. Somehow, the students did better at first remembering words they would type out later. It's as if having the second opportunity to practice and remember words had benefits that went backwards in time.
Cognitive neuroscience professor Chris Chambers, one of Bem's critics (and there were many), called the conclusion of the paper "ridiculous." And yet, "this is really interesting because if a paper like this that's doing everything normally and properly can end up producing a ridiculous conclusion, then how many other papers that use those exact same methods that didn't reach ridiculous conclusions are similarly flawed?" Chambers wondered in an interview.
What Could ESP Mean?
Bem said that he chose to conduct experiments that were easy enough to be replicated by others. In a 2010 press release by Cornell, he pointed out that "I designed the experiments to be persuasive, simple and transparent enough to encourage them to try replicating these experiments for themselves."
He offered free packages with detailed instruction manuals on how to conduct such experiments, along with the requisite computer software for running the sessions and analyzing the data. He knew this work would face extreme scrutiny and encouraged other psychologists to get these results on their own. And that's exactly what they tried to do.
A 2010 study carried out by the University of California–Berkeley business school professor Leif Nelson and Carnegie Mellon's professor Jeff Galak used an online version of Bem's word-recall experiment and failed to come up with the same outcome from a sample group of over 100 people. Bem's argument against this approach was that trying to establish ESP online was not going to work.
Other studies, like the 2011 paper led by Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a research methodologist at the University of Amsterdam, also couldn't replicate Bem's finds and took issue with the statistical analyses he employed, saying the psychologist overstated his evidence.
But there were studies that seemed to have replicated what Bem found. In fact, Bem's team published a meta-analysis in 2015 of 90 experiments from 33 different labs in 14 countries, which involved 12,406 participants. Analyzing the results, Bem demonstrated statistical support across all the studies for his conclusions on the existence of ESP, writing that there is "decisive evidence."
Of course, the decisiveness of this evidence is still in the eye of the beholder. In fact, psychologist Jonathan Schooler from the University of California–Santa Barbara, who was one of the original peer reviewers for Bem's work, supports the notion that the bias and even the psychic abilities of the experimenter may have a lot to do with the possible success of psi studies.
"If it's possible that consciousness influences reality and is sensitive to reality in ways that we don't currently understand, then this might be part of the scientific process itself," said Schooler. "Parapsychological factors may play out in the science of doing this research."
Psychology toolbox: How to use skepticism | Derren Brown
In an interview with Slate, Bem acknowledged the firestorm of reactions his research has caused. "The critics said that I put psychologists in an uncomfortable position and that they'd have to revise their views of the physical world or their views on research practice," he shared. "I think both are true. I still believe in psi, but I also think that methods in the field need to be cleaned up."
Indeed, the publication of Bem's paper prompted a call to replicate not just his study but psychology studies in general. After all, if an outlandish result is achieved, it's worth verifying if it can be repeated. Otherwise, the study could have errors and its result could simply be a fluke rather than any scientific discovery. A group of 270 scientists from 17 countries attempted replicating 100 studies from the year 2008, found in peer-reviewed psychology journals with solid reputations.
Their goal was to repeat all 100 experiments exactly as carried out by the original scientists. Unfortunately, and quite strikingly, only 36 percent of the replications managed to get the same results as the initial studies. To put it another way, 64 percent of the studies analyzed were potentially wrong, or at the very least misleadingly or insufficiently presented.
If so many studies could not be replicated, what did that mean for the whole field of psychology? New standards for psychology research were implemented. Researchers now commonly use the process of "pre-registration," whereby they write up how they would conduct the study and what their hypotheses might be, before they carry out the experiments. This limits their ability to manipulate data and report positive results before they are found.
Additionally, hundreds of scientific journals now publish "registered" reports that explain whether they would accept or reject submitted studies before they are undertaken. This makes the decision to publish papers focus on their methodology more than some sensational results.
As far as parapsychology and Bem's research, it is clear that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and it's safe to say the disputed nature of the studies that seemed to support ESP and similar phenomena have not made a real dent on the consensus scientific opinions. More reproducible work with much wider samples and unchallengeable statistical approaches must be done for such dramatic claims as precognition (which would break the second law of thermodynamics among other things in our accepted reality) to be taken more seriously.
Check out Dr. Daryl Bem's study here, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Researchers find an unusual property of a bacteria that can breathe in metal.
- Scientists discover Shewanella oneidensis bacterium can "breathe in" certain metals and compounds.
- The bacteria produces a material that can be used to transfer electrons.
- Applications of the finding range from medical devices to new generation of sensors.
Researchers discovered an unusual property of a bacteria that can "breathe" in some metal and sulfur compounds and create materials that can improve electronics, energy storage, and medical devices.
Specifically, the anaerobic Shewanella oneidensis bacterium can produce molybdenum disulfide, a material that can transfer electronics as well as graphene, explains the press release from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, whose team of engineers carried out the research.
Engineering professor Shayla Sawyer thinks their accomplishment "has some serious potential" once the scientists fully investigate the process involved and learn to control it.
One of the possible applications of this finding could be in developing a new generation of nutrient sensors to be used on lakes and other bodies of water to examine the health of their ecosystems. A bacterial biofilm, a collective of the microorganisms, could track excess nutrients in real-time, helping address harmful algae growth and other water issues.
Postdoctorate researcher James Rees, who led the study, commented on the implications of their work:
"We find bacteria that are adapted to specific geochemical or biochemical environments can create, in some cases, very interesting and novel materials," Rees shared. "We are trying to bring that into the electrical engineering world."
What's unusual about Shewanella oneidensis is that it can create nanowires for transferring electrons, a fact that "lends itself to connecting to electronic devices that have already been made," Sawyer elaborated, calling it "the interface between the living world and the manmade world that is fascinating."
Check out the new study, which also involved Yuri Gorby as the paper's third author, in Biointerphases.
Olive oil leads to the discovery of a law that applies to atoms, superconductors, and even high energy physics.
- Physicists at the Dutch research institute AMOLF used olive oil in an experiment on light phase transitions.
- The scientists found that light would behave the same way in atoms, superconductors, and high energy physics.
- The discovery can lead to applications in new computing and sensing systems.
The dressing in your salad might redefine science if you look carefully enough. Researchers in the Netherlands used a drop of olive oil to discover a new universal law of phase transitions.
The research was carried out by the Interacting Photons group of the AMOLF institute, which focuses on fundamental physics. The experiment involved dropping olive oil into an optical cavity system of photons bouncing back and forth between two mirrors. It was set up to explore how light goes through phase transitions the way it would in boiling water, for example.
What's fascinating, this system had "memory" in how the oil made photons interact with themselves, as the group leader Said Rodriguez explained. "We created a system with memory by placing a drop of olive oil inside the cavity", said Rodriguez. "The oil mediates effective photon-photon interactions, which we can see by measuring the transmission of laser light through this cavity."
The research team, which also included Rodriguez's PhD students Zou Geng and Kevin Peters, increased and decreased the distances between the mirrors at different speeds and noted how light transmitted through the cavity was affected. They saw that the direction in which the mirrors moved influenced how much light got through the cavity, finding that "the transmission of light through the cavity is non-linear." This behavior of light, called hysteresis, is present in the phase transitions of boiling water or magnetic materials.
The scientists also increased the speed with which the oil-filled cavity opened and closed, observing that under such conditions the hysteresis was not always present. This allowed them to extrapolate a universal law. "The equations that describe how light behaves in our oil-filled cavity are similar to those describing collections of atoms, superconductors and even high energy physics," elaborated Rodriguez, adding: "Therefore, the universal behavior we discovered is likely to be observed in such systems as well."
An optical cavity formed by two mirrors used in the experiment. Light going through the cavity bounces between the mirrors until leaving to where the transmission is measured. The scientists filled this cavity with olive oil and moved the mirrors at varying speeds.
Credit: Henk-Jan Boluijt (AMOLF)
The researchers think their discovery may have potential applications in computing or sensing systems.
Check out their new study in Physical Review Letters.
A mind-blowing explanation of the speed of light
Moving the needle forward on psychedelic research.
- Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine has had a psychedelic research group since 2000.
- Funded by a $17 million donation from a number of private donors, the university will be able to open a new center.
- This comes on the heels of an increasing acceptance of psychedelic research and use.
Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine recently announced it'd be launching the largest psychedelics research center in the world. Its new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research was funded by a $17 million donation from a group of private donors. Doctors and researchers at the center hope to learn and examine whether these psychedelic drugs will be able to treat conditions such as depression and opioid addiction.
In recent years, there has been an increased interest in psychedelic research and recreation. A number of tech entrepreneurs have jump started this once-dynamic discipline.
Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical facility at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine is on record stating, "Our scientists have shown that psychedelics have real potential as medicine, and this new center will help us explore that potential."
The school has maintained a psychedelic research group since 2000, but this new initiative will allow them to conduct greater investigations and delve deeper into the psychedelic expanse.
The field has largely been a string of disconnected researchers ever since counterculture legend Timothy Leary and company began investigating the substances in the 1960s.
Progressive psychedelic research
LSD, psilocybin, mescaline and a number of other psychedelics have been illegal in the United States for a number of decades. A small trickle of studies have come out in the intervening years showing that they may be effective medical treatments for a number of issues. This has shifted public perception considerably.
Earlier this year, Denver became one of the first cities in the United States to decriminalize magic mushrooms – the mushrooms that have psychoactive makeup of psilocybin. They did this after consulting research which suggested the compounds in mushrooms could be beneficial for treating anxiety and depression experienced by cancer patients.
A host of these psychedelic substances are still listed as Tier 1 illegal drugs in the United States, which means they're on part with much more harmful drugs like heroin and cocaine.
The new funding for this facility will help spur a five year research study to find out whether or not psilocybin can also treat alcoholism, PTSD and a few other complex mental conditions.
Primarily, they're looking to figure out the physiological effects of the drug on the brain and body. This will transfer over when it comes to treating opioid addiction and even Alzheimer's disease.
In reference to the new organization, Dr. John Krystal, chair of psychiatry at Yale University, stated, "This is an exciting initiative that brings new focus to efforts to learn about mind, brain and psychiatric disorders by studying the effects of psychedelic drugs."
The center at John Hopkins has been producing some amazing research for years. As they've explored the potential of psychedelics and other recreational drugs for psychiatric problems, they've found evidence to suggest that ketamine and its related compounds could help to treat depression.
Breaking the psychedelic taboo
The history of abuse related to psychedelics has kept a great deal of researchers at bay for years. Evidence is mounting for claims that psychedelics have a positive effect on treating a host of these mental issues, but experts are still cautious. Psychedelic treatments can't be used in a double blind experiment in the same way most drugs are tested, that is because participants will know right away whether or not they're experiencing the placebo or the real thing.
Dr. Guy Goodwin, a professor of psychiatry at Oxford mentioned the infamous Leary trials and the debacle that followed in the sixties and beyond.
"It raises the caution that the investigation of hallucinogens as treatments may be endangered by grandiose descriptions of their effects and unquestioning acceptance of their value. Timothy Leary was a research psychologist before he decided the whole world should 'Turn on, tune in, and drop out.' It is best if some steps are not retraced."
A lot has changed during that time. Messianic inklings and a cultural shift of epic proportions helped swell the psychedelic revolution of the era. If we can somehow incorporate psychedelic research in our modern institutions, we may get a second chance to do it all over again.
So far 2019 has been a banner year for psychedelic research and access. On top of Denver decriminalization, there was also the vote that decriminalized entheogenic plants in Oakland, California.
The university announced in a press release:
"The group's findings on both the promise and the risks of psilocybin helped create a path forward for its potential medical approval and reclassification from a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive federal government category, to a more appropriate level."
John Hopkins's new center will be able to continue on the research and hopefully push forth the federal government towards a more equitable and fair treatment of psychedelic use and study.