Harvard Neuroscientists Investigate ESP

This may come as a shock if you’re one of the fifty percent of Americans who believes in ESP, but it turns out that psychic powers don’t show up in fMRI brain scans. A group of Harvard researchers scanned the brains of people who were receiving mental imagery from their relatives in another room, and discovered that . . . well, nothing happened. The best part is how they tested “precognition.”

According to a release from Harvard:

To study whether or not ESP exists, Moulton and Kosslyn presented participants with two types of visual stimuli: ESP stimuli and non-ESP stimuli. [Samuel Moulton is a graduate student in the department of psychology at Harvard –ed.] These two types of stimuli were identical with one exception: ESP stimuli were not only presented visually, but also were presented telepathically, clairvoyantly, and precognitively to participants.

To present stimuli telepathically, the researchers showed the photographs to the participants’ identical twin, relative, romantic partner, or friend, who was seated in another room. To present stimuli clairvoyantly, the researchers displayed the photographs on a distant computer screen. And to present stimuli precognitively, the researchers showed participants the photographs again in the future.

Does this conclusively prove that ESP does not exist” “No,” says Moulton. “You cannot affirm the null hypothesis. But at the same time, some null results are stronger than others. This is the best evidence to date against the existence of ESP. Perhaps most important, this study offers scientists a new way to study ESP that avoids the pitfalls of past approaches.”

How do you show something to somebody “again in the future”? Even though the brain scans revealed that nothing happens when you do any of this stuff, the Harvard researchers still have hope. They say this doesn’t conclusively prove ESP does not exist.

Read the press release

via io9 ? la Medgadget


  1. Moulton: ?You cannot affirm the null hypothesis.”


    ‘There are no numbers that are five and not-five at the same time and in the same way.’ This is a null hypothesis. It can be confirmed.

  2. Ooh interesting!

  3. Technoccult Pundit

    January 4, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Yeah, I had a bit of trouble with that article also, Trevor. Thanks for the confirmation of the disaffirmation of the signifyin’, testifyin’ null hypothesis!

  4. I dunno, I think what the guy meant was that you cannot experimentally prove the null hypothesis, you can just provide really really strong evidence that it’s true. And if that’s the case, I agree with him.

    For example, the above statement about the number five is something that can be proven analytically, not empirically. In other words, you cannot prove it by making a one-to-one comparison of the number five against every conceivable number. Instead you must use a deductive argument based upon the axiomatic foundations of the number system. And this deductive approach that is used in mathematics is fundamentally different than the empirical approach used in sciences like neurobiology.

  5. oops, please ignore the italics – i meant to italicize the word “experimentally” but accidently did the whole damn paragraph!

  6. Mathlete: Can you give me a proof that does not rest on axioms?

  7. Absolutely not, and that’s exactly my point. One can either pick a set of axioms and logical operations and use them to form a deductive argument, which is what’s done in pure mathematics and logic, or you can form a hypothesis about something and then test it experimentally over and over and over again to provide evidence for or against it’s validity.

    The second procedure will never produce a “proof” in the strict sense, but it generates so strong enough evidence that you can for all intents and purposes safely say whether or not something is true.

    That’s why in sciences like neurobiology, physics, or chemistry you cannot “prove” the null hypothesis to be true, you can merely say that it’s been supported over and over again and so it’s probably true. On the other hand, any good scientific hypothesis should be able in theory to be proven false, by demonstrating a counterexample. That’s the critical condition of “falsifiability” that’s required for good science.

  8. Nicely put, Math.

  9. If you put people in a scanner and ask them to think about an apple and about a pear, the fMRI scans will find no differences. Ergo, thoughts don’t exist. This study is embarrassing. The spatiotemporal resolution and sensitivity of all our neuroimaging techniques is too poor. Not that I believe in ESP, I just find it disgraceful that resources are wasted this way.

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