I Don’t Have ESP

The Ganzfeld experiment measures psychic ability, but it also can tell us about how science works.

I begin my Ganzfeld experiment in a small soundproof booth. Dr. Nancy Sondow, the president of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), has taped two translucent ping pong ball halves over my eyes to block visual stimuli. She has also placed over my ears a pair of noise canceling headphones continuously looping white noise to block auditory stimuli. A red floodlight aimed at my face—creating an undiffused pattern of light—completes the full sensory deprivation experience. Following fifteen minutes of guided breathing and relaxation exercises, I am ready for telepathic communication.

As an anthropologist interested in the history of scientific experiments, I study how “science” is and has always been defined against an “other.” The Ganzfeld experiment used by parapsychologists working at the fringes of science can help us understand scientific practices and experiments in other contexts. For instance, the Ganzfeld experiment can tell us about how scientific novelties are often produced by forces—uncertainty, unforeseen contingencies, and as we will later see, surprises—that lie outside of the scientific method. And, it encourages us to rethink experiments not simply as generators of scientific knowledge, but also as provisional relationships that enable researchers access to their otherwise inaccessible objects of inquiry, be they psychic phenomena or elementary particles.

Two floors below the sensory deprivation chamber in the ASPR library, Patrice Keane, the society’s executive director, randomly chooses one out of four images. In this double-blind experiment, she is the “sender,” focusing on an image in an attempt to target it to me in the soundproof booth upstairs. Sensory deprivation is thought to create the optimal conditions for psychic experiences and more practically, it safeguards against potential information leakage. I am told to wish for my target image. It should effortlessly appear in my mind sometime during the sensory deprivation session.

The Ganzfeld experiment is designed to measure what Sondow calls “psi,” or exceptional mental states. Psi encompasses forms of extrasensory perception or anomalous mind-matter interactions that include telepathy (direct mind-to-mind interaction), precognition (perceiving things or events in the future), and clairvoyance (knowing at a distance). The experiment gained traction at the ASPR in the 1970s as an efficient shortcut to the more costly research on dream telepathy. The ASPR currently uses the Ganzfeld experiment in their attempts to correlate telepathy with diverse variables, such as personality types, mood, gender, age, and physiological reactions (e.g., ovulation, hormone levels).

The white noise resumes. It sounds like a whirling engine. I imagine myself hurling through outer space in a shuttle. Sondow’s disembodied voice over my headphones instructs me to “think out loud.” I list out loud the images that randomly appear to me: stars, black sky, blue and purple rolling mist, metal beams, mountains, pine trees, a lake, a teapot. I look out of the window of the shuttle and see a black sky blanketed by glowing stars. As I round a corner, I can see the sun slightly eclipsed by a planet with a slim crescent brightly peeking through. I keep repeating to Sondow, “It feels like I am in outer space.” Flashes of my cat keep appearing to me, but I am too afraid to say this out loud, unsure of the mixing between my own imagination with bits and pieces of the target image. The session ends after thirty minutes.

stars-rocket-cat

As an experimental subject, I am what Sondow considers an “ordinary person,” that is, someone who does not self-identify as possessing extrasensory perception. In the course of her research, Sondow has been surprised to find that many “ordinary” people have positive results in her Ganzfeld experiments. In a 1994 interview, Sondow discussed her belief in the pervasiveness of psi ability: “I [came] to the conclusion that psi is not a rare or extraordinary phenomenon, but is probably a ubiquitous—but unconscious—phenomena that goes on all the time. It’s a matter of interpretation; what some call extraordinary coincidences, others label psi.” For Sondow, the task of finding psi phenomena among ordinary people occurs amidst larger uncertainties over how one interprets the nature of psi (e.g., its origins and mechanics) and its existence more generally.

My particular Ganzfeld experiment was part of Sondow’s recent efforts to correlate psi with levels of creativity. Outside of the sensory deprivation chamber, I fill out a series of surveys and questionnaires assessing my creativity, gauged by my dreaming patterns, open-mindedness, sense of well-being, ability to adapt to change, and overall mood. They also ask me to rate my ease of achieving altered states of consciousness as well as the power of my imagination to generate and interpret visual imagery. Based upon my own assessments, Sondow hypothesizes that I am a likely candidate to be predisposed and receptive to telepathic communication.

In Sondow’s office, I receive a transcript of my observations and a set of four images: A) a green cartoon-like jungle scene with lush tress and vines, B) a red portrait of a king, C) a black scene of outer space, and D) a yellow impressionist painting of a castle. As I glance at the images I am immediately surprised. Image C is nearly identical to what I had visualized during my sensory deprivation session, complete with a black sky blanketed by stars, a blue and purple ringed planet in the center of the image, the metal beams of a satellite in the lower left-hand corner, and most surprisingly, a cat tumbling on the right. Shocked by the uncanny resemblance, I quickly blurt out to Sondow: “That’s the target image, I’m positive!”

Despite my certainty, Sondow directs my attention to a prepared handout. She insists that I categorize each image from my transcript (e.g., teapot, stars, pine trees) into columns labeled A through D representing each of the four possible target images. She then asks me to assign a percentage to each column indicating my level of certainty regarding its status as the target image. I promptly assign the value of eighty percept under column C. Following my lead, Sondow completes her own evaluations and also assigns image C a value of eighty percent.

A sealed envelope containing the target image waits for us at the library downstairs. On the way, Sondow explains to me that the Ganzfeld experiment is a double-blind test and that only the sender knows the identity of the target image. Sondow and I remain oblivious. The double-blind procedure is important because it ensures that Sondow does not in any way influence my evaluations. We open the envelope and I’m surprised again: I had been so sure that the image was C, but inside the envelope was image B, the portrait of a king. Despite its eerie coincidences, my Ganzfeld experiment is a failure. I didn’t correctly identify the target image. As it turns out, I don’t have ESP.

The success of a Ganzfeld experiment, for Sondow, is predicated solely upon her subjects correctly identifying the target image. From an experiential standpoint, however, the success or failure of my test is not so rigidly determined. In fact, it raised some interesting questions for both Sondow and myself. While I did not correctly identify the target image, I did experience visions that remarkably corresponded to one of the four possible target images. If psi is potentially unconscious, Sondow offered tentatively as an explanation, then it could be possible that Patrice consciously chose the image of a king, but unconsciously projected impressions of the other images. Whether or not Sondow and I agree or disagree over the results of my Ganzfeld experiment or whether or not I choose to interpret my experiences as psi or simply a extraordinary accident, my results open a space for Sondow to question other possible trajectories of telepathic communication and to develop alternate understandings of psi.

Parapsychologists conduct their Ganzfeld experiments within a milieu of uncertainty. They don’t possess a working knowledge of the origins or mechanics of psi and—perhaps more significantly—they have yet to establish its existence within the scientific community. Given these murky conditions, parapsychologists often encounter surprises throughout the design, implementation, and analysis process as they attempt to refine their Ganzfeld experiments.

“Surprise” is not often a word associated with science, though other words that might come to mind—including “epiphanies,” “discoveries,” and “breakthroughs”—are often used to describe such “eureka” moments. This could be due to the fact that we most often associate science with rationality, logic, or deductive reasoning that at the outset precludes any notions of serendipity. However, as Hans-Jorg Rheinberger argues in Toward a History of Epistemic Things, scientific novelties are produced by experimental systems that function as “generators of surprise.” He continues: “if [scientific activity is] to allow ‘new observations’ at all, [it] must at first necessarily possess some degree of indefiniteness.”

Surprise facilitates new insights and nuanced understandings precisely because it disrupts existing assumptions about psi. In the Ganzfeld experiment, surprise is not merely an outcome of inconclusive results or the milieu in which parapsychologists conduct their research. It is instead something that they can actively build into the design of their Ganzfeld experiment. Experimental subjects play an active role, alongside researchers, in evaluating their own personalities, psi capabilities, and likelihood to identify the target image. While the evaluations of researchers and their subjects may align at times, this “collaborative imagining” can also produce unexpected results when their interpretations come to a head.

Surprise acts as a generative force, blurring the boundaries between researcher and subject as both Sondow and I attempt to understand what it means to have a psi experience. Seen in this light, surprise can be seen as creating a space to negotiate and potentially reinterpret the nature of psi itself. It is in these moments that Sondow and other parapsychologists can establish new psi-conducive variables, formulate increasingly subtle provisional theories, or address existing methodological problems within the Ganzfeld experiment.

At a glance, the Ganzfeld experiment shares similar features to other “normal” scientific experiments: controlled designs, double-blind conditions, and hypothesis testing. “Academic parapsychologists,” as anthropologist David Hess notes, “generally have graduate training and they view parapsychology as a scientific discipline, albeit one that is not generally accepted by the broader scientific community.” The most striking difference between parapsychologists and scientists, then, can be seen as their objects of inquiry. Parapsychologists investigate psi, a phenomena that is unpredictable at best and at worst, non-existent.

Through my own studies of paranormal researchers in the United States, I examine how my interlocutors engage with science alongside other knowledge traditions (e.g., religion, occult) as coexisting and complementary resources in order to grapple with the uncertainties of paranormal phenomena. I write about the Ganzfeld experiment because it can tell us a great deal about how scientific novelties occur through gradients of knowing that connect mind and body, reason and emotion, and feeling and cognition. In particular, it can tell us about how scientific procedures, like double-blind tests, are supported by hunches, intuition, and personal transformations. In writing about the Ganzfeld experiment, I believe the most interesting questions do not reside in whether or not it falls within “science” or “pseudoscience.” Rather, these labels foreclose more interesting questions concerning their intersecting histories and how they are culturally constructed, coopted by different people with different agendas, and constantly redefined as new ways of thinking about skepticism emerge. And most importantly, they preclude the possibility that parapsychologists at the margins of science can have anything interesting to say to the broader scientific community, or whether the boundaries of what counts as “science” may change in the future.

Janny Li is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research explores the boundaries between science and “other” knowledges, such as religion and the occult, and their broader implications for understanding scientific authority and knowledge.