Psychic Phenomena and the Brain: Exploring the Neuropsychology of Psi by Bryan J Williams
Reviewed by Robert Charman
Bryan Williams who is a Research Affiliate, Psychical Research Foundation, Texas, has written many articles on psi and has contributed the chapters on Revisiting the Ganzfeld Debate: A Basic Review and Assessment and Experimental Examinations of the Reported Abilities of a Psychic Claimant: A Review of Experiments and Explorations with Sean Harribance in Broderick & Goertzel (2015).
With a Foreword by Dr Edward F. Kelly, Visiting Professor, Division of Perceptual Studies, University of Virgina, this AIPRI commissioned peer reviewed monograph with some 250 references is a valiant attempt to bring some order into the complex field of research into the neural correlates of psi activity using electroencephalography (EEG), event related potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). If neuroparapsychologists can determine which areas and which structures of the brain ‘light up’ during different manifestations of psi such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, micro-psychokinesis (microPK) recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK) or macroPK (poltergeistic phenomena), then this would increase the possibility of psi being accepted by the neurosciences on an evidential basis. If research can also demonstrate which of the four brainwave frequency bands predominates during successful psi in terms of voltage amplitude compared to the other bands then maybe we will be able to use this knowledge to train people in psi using brainwave biofeedback.
In his Introduction Williams outlines the scope of his inquiry, discusses the pioneering survey achievements of the early years of the Society for Psychical Research, presents some interesting anecdotal cases, looks at the work of J.B. Rhine and surveys the range of modern neurological research into psi phenomena. The following nine chapters are devoted to a detailed explanation and evaluation of the findings of individual studies and meta-analyses of research into each of these different manifestations of psi. What becomes very clear is that when you are dealing with the ever fluctuating changes of brain activity arising from a multitude of possible confounding causes extracting signal from noise, chance correlation and artefact is not easy.
Before discussing any conclusions the following information may be helpful.
Brainwave frequency bands
- Gamma waves (30-80Hz) have the fastest cycles and have been correlated with complex integration processing of sensory stimuli, perception, problem solving, memory and motor skills.
- Beta waves (13-29Hz) are correlated with conscious concentration, cognition, being alert and aware of the surroundings.
- Alpha waves (8-12Hz) are correlated with relaxed awareness and passive awareness of the surroundings. This is the band most associated with psi activity
- Theta waves (4-7Hz) are correlated with relaxed drowsiness tending towards light sleep.
- Delta waves (1-3Hz) have the slowest cycles and are correlated with deep, dreamless sleep.
Event related potentials (ERPs). These are sudden peaks of brainwave potentials registered as a response to sensory events such as a flash of light or sharp sound. If, for example, the ‘sender’s’ EEG registers an ERP in the visual cortex in response to a light flash that is mirrored by a similar visual cortex ERP recorded from the visual cortex of the quiet, non stimulated ‘receiver’ sitting in another room then a telepathic connection between the pair is cautiously assumed.
fMRI. The functional ‘f’ stands for registering changes in increases or decreases in localised blood flow which is detected by changes in the magnetic field of the blood flow. If, for example, an area of brain receives a sudden increase in blood flow this will be in response to increased neuron activity requiring more oxygen.
At the end of his review Williams comes to some guarded conclusions concerning this field of psi research that may act as a guide to present practice and future research. There seems a good correlation between an increase in alpha wave amplitude relative to the other brain wave bands in successful ESP performance implying that a calm receptive mind increases the likelihood of psi performance. While this finding holds true in general it seems especially true for those with a good psychic record such as Sean Harribance and Michael Bessent. There is a hint of a functional oddness in the brains of high performance psychics with regard to structure and function similar to savants such as Kim Peek. There also seems tentative evidence for an increase in brain wave frequency coming into mutual step between successful ‘sender/receiver’ pairs. Besides some cautious evidence of almost simultaneous ERPs between the brains of ‘sender/receiver’ pairs at the moment of ‘sender’ stimuli there is evidence of a more pronounced ERP response to those screen images chosen later by random computer and flashed onto the screen compared to non-shown control images. This is thought to imply a non-conscious increase in presentiment of what will be experienced and is backed up by other techniques such as recording autonomic nervous system (ANS) anticipatory changes in respiration and electrical skin conductance. There is tentative evidence that right hemispheric activity, particularly in the temporal lobe and hippocampal (memory) area is more associated with successful ESP in men, but this relationship is more ambiguous in females who tend to use their hemispheres more in tandem whatever the task. Successful microPK as in statistically significant but rather borderline deviations towards a desired increase or decrease in non random RNG noughts and ones seem associated with enhanced alpha activity. As for any neural association between episodes of poltergeistic type RSPK and individuals at the scene there has not been much research as such occurrences are not predictable.
What, however, will really fascinated readers are the questions this research raises as to the nature of psi and Williams is to be congratulated for discussing them. Neuroscientists point out that the brain has no mechanism to send or receive nonsensory signals across space and physicists point out that all transmission systems whether acoustic or electromagnetic lose power over increasing distance. So to claim that telepathy is equally effective between people whether they are tens of yards apart or thousands of miles apart means that something must either be fundamentally wrong with our understanding of neurophysiology and physics, or that understanding is correct and ‘ESP’ must for ever stand for ‘Error Some Place’. Where, for example, does telepathic energy come from let alone the psychic energy necessary to perform psycho→kinesis whether as interfering with the randomness of RNGs or claimed feats of table turning? What signal is being given off by those out-of-sight objects that clairvoyants claim to detect? What is imprinted on the objects that psychometrists hold and then claim to know about the owner? None of these claims make any sense at all within the present framework of science. Williams points out that what all these objections share in common is the idea that psi is some form of mental radio in which the brain or mind of the sender brain sends a message across space that is received and decoded by the brain or mind of the receiver when they are neurologically ‘tuned in’ to each other.
What, say Williams, critics do not realise is that parapsychologists do not employ concepts of A to B message transmission across space as in classical physics. On the assumption that well investigated anecdotal cases and experimental findings are valid evidence of psi it is agreed that as they are not explainable in terms of classical physics the eventual explanation is likely to lie in the alternative concept of nonlocality as in the entangled quantum relationship between two photons of complementary ‘spin’ in which the detection or changing the spin of one photon simultaneously determines the spin of the other, even if they are at opposite sides of the universe. For psi, as for those entangled photons, distance is irrelevant. It has been pointed out that unlike sound and vision there is no characteristic sense unique to psi so psi has to employ whatever familiar sense or thought is most relevant to convey its meaning. Neurologically speaking psi expression will always tend to be masked by the accompanying familiar sense. Williams does an excellent demolition job on Moulton and Kosslyn’s (2008) boast that the null results of their one-off neuroimaging experiment did not ‘simply fail to support the psi hypothesis: they offer strong evidence against it’. Hubris indeed!
As no message is sent from A to B in the conventional sense (although, rather confusingly, we use ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ to distinguish their roles) then it is proposed that the information must already exist and an ESP experience, or an experimental detection of ESP-in-action, is the result of selective ESP activation of existing information. Mutual social memory, as in sharing a common cultural stock of knowledge and imagery seems essential. Williams quotes Roll (2006) as saying that ‘ESP has no experience to call its own. When ESP appears in consciousness it comes in borrowed garb. The brain has a storehouse of used apparel in the hippocampus where ESP chooses whatever fits the occasion. When the ESP target is a visual scene, the response may be a visual image or it may be an auditory expression’ (p13). This concept is further captured by the following interesting quote from Harvey Irwin (1979) ‘Suppose that by some extrasensory means you learn of the death of your friend John in a car accident some distance away. Now John has never died before, so there cannot have been a single trace in memory corresponding to John’s death in his car. However…..each discrete piece of information is already contained in memory at the time of the experience: there is stored information about John, about death, and so on (p87). The inference is that while physically separated in space and often in time we are non-spatially related by common cultural and specific personal knowledge and its emotional meaning. In our mental reality it may be that our emotional relationship with each other, which remains the same regardless of distance apart, is our mental equivalent of quantum non-locality.
In psychometry the emotional vividness of imagery held in the mind of the token owner seems to be picked up by the psychometrist. Williams quotes a revealing example from Pagenstecher’s (1922) studies of Senora Maria Reyes de Z (Mrs Zierold) who practiced psychometry under hypnosis. She was handed a piece of string that had once held the identification tag of a German soldier during World War One. Holding it ‘She described a cold, foggy day on the on the frontlines of a battlefield during which she saw a bomb fall from the air and kill several soldiers’. The soldier who had worn the tag confirmed her imagery, saying he had actually witnessed the event adding’
‘I am certain that this was the first great impression I received of the war possibly the greatest of all.’ (my emphasis in line with William’s italics).
As Williams concludes, with the ‘hard problem’ of the relationship between the physical processes of the brain and mental processes of mind and consciousness remaining unsolved further research into the nature of psi including its neurological correlates may add clues to help solve the puzzle. Solve the one and you will solve the other. This book is an important step forward and AIPRI are to be congratulated for sponsoring this monograph and Bryan Williams for undertaking the huge volume of research required for the writing of it.
Broderick, D. & Coertzel, B. (2015) Evidence for Psi: Thirteen Empirical Research Reports Jefferson, NC. McFarland & Co..
Irwin, H. J. (1979) Psi and the mind: An information processing approach. Metuchen, N,J.Moulton, S,T & Kosslyn, S,M (2008) Using neuroimaging to resolve the psi debate. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 20:182-192.
Pagenstecher, G. (1922). Past events seership: A study in psychometry. Proceedings, ASPR. 16. 1-136.
Roll, W. (2006) A discussion of the evidence that personal consciousness persists after death with special reference to poltergeistic phenomena. Australian journal of Parapsychology. 6:5-20.