Professors Robert G. Jahn and Brenda Dunne of the Princeton Engineering Anomallies Research Lab.
No matter how boring and unimaginative you are, you’ve probably fantasized about having superpowers. The idea of rising above it all and being able to fly, or control objects with your mind, firmly squishes everyone’s universal daydream g-spot.
This collective childhood fantasy culturally manifests itself in everything whether you’re talking about comics, television, religion, folklore, or film. Unfortunately, if you start believing you have superpowers IRL, people will think you’re insane.
That’s exactly what people think of Brenda Dunne, a researcher based out of Princeton University. Along with her team of researchers she’s been testing (and according to her, finding evidence for) parapsychological phenomena for 35 years. She joined the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research—PEAR—lab in 1979 with the intention of testing things like “human/machine anomalies” (basically mind control of computers) and remote viewing (visualizing things from separate locations).
The lab, which turned into International Consciousness Research Laboratories in 2007, reported finding something fascinating. The results from millions of trials at PEAR showed a slight, but statistically significant effect. That is, with a 4/1000 chance of coincidence, the population they tested showed a small ability to control computers with their minds, and visualize things in a different location.
Perhaps because the premise and the findings of PEAR seem so ridiculous, nobody in the scientific community has really ever taken them seriously. But when I read about the project, I was intrigued. People have brought up some possible methodological flaws, but with the Ivy League pedigree these researchers have, I can’t help but wonder if some of the criticisms are unwarranted. Wanting to find out more, I reached out to Brenda to chat about her hard-to-believe research.
VICE: Hi Brenda. Could you tell me a little bit about how the PEAR Lab started, and how you got involved with it?Brenda Dunne: At Princeton University in the late 1970s, an undergraduate student created a computer that made random numbers and began experimenting with it for a class project. The project, which tested the influence of people’s thoughts on the computer, was supervised by distinguished aeroscientist and professor Robert G. Jahn. Prof. Jahn saw some interesting things that he couldn’t ignore as an engineer. So he set up a small research program in a storage space at Princeton University. He interviewed a number of people, finally hired me, and PEAR Lab was born. My background is in psychology and the humanities, so along with Professor Jahn, we brought a multidisciplinary perspective to the whole thing.
What exactly were you testing?
The basic question we asked was: does consciousness, does the mind, the spirit, life force, have the ability to influence the underlying probabilities of physical systems?
There were two main bodies of experiments. The first was called Human Machine Anomalies. People interacted with various devices that were based on a random process, to see if the human operators’ intentions could affect the way the device produced its output. So the computer would be producing some random sequence of numbers or patterns and we’d say, “We want you to try to try to influence it this way, to alternately produce higher or lower numbers, or to make the balls bounce in this direction just with your thoughts.”
The second component was a body of experiments which we called remote perception. This was where people attempted to describe the surroundings of another person at a far away location.
Experimental Room II inside PEAR Lab, with “pendulum, fountain, and robot equipment."
What were your findings?
With the human/machine anomalies, we conducted thousands of experiments with millions of trials along these lines. Overall the result was that there were small, but consistent, shifts in the means of these output distributions that could not be attributed to chance.
With remote perception, we were impressed with the results, but we were concerned with the reliability of the analytical program that was being used. Rather than having some human judge saying, ‘‘Hey that looks pretty good to me,” we worked on standardizing it a bit more. In the course of this, however, we did some 650 trials and the bottom line showed beyond any chance probability that people were acquiring more information in this process than you could possibly do than just by guessing.
The entry and conference area at PEAR Lab.
People in the scientific community have mostly discounted the results, calling the lab an embarrassment to science, a joke, or an example of pseudoscience. How have you reacted to the criticism?
We ignore it. If it’s a legitimate criticism, and if the critic has taken the time to review the evidence and has a point to make about the data, about the statistics, about the design, then we take the time to respond as we always have. But usually it isn’t dismissed on scientific terms, it’s dismissed on emotional terms. The dismissals are usually quite illogical. As one critic put it very well: “It’s the kinda thing I wouldn’t believe even if it was true.”
What’s an example of a legitimate scientific criticism of your research that you have responded to?
Some people have accused our computer of not being truly random—that the effects could be due to faulty machinery. These accusations were based on a misinterpretation of the implications of its baseline behavior. The baselines, which were originally intended as a control condition where the operator was not trying to influence the device, did indeed occasionally display non-random behavior. But when the device was allowed to run in calibration mode, where no one was present or interacting with the REG, the output was consistent with chance predictions across many millions of trials.
So how can you explain these seemingly superhuman effects?
We have three models, but keep in mind that we are blatantly speculative. The first one we call the quantum mechanics of consciousness, where we demonstrate how quantum mechanics reflects human consciousness as well as the physical world. For example, using the concept of wave-particle duality, our view is that sometimes consciousness looks at reality from a wave-like perspective and sometimes from a particulate perspective, which can affect the nature of the thing being observed.
The second one we call M5, which is best described using a square.
You have the conscious and unconscious world on the left, and the tangible and intangible manifest physical world on the right. When you look across the two bottom domains, they are both dealing with probabilities. And indeed the deeper you look, the less of a distinction exists. Now the model suggests that the mind effects matter indirectly, by putting an intention into the unconscious domain that somehow merges with this unconscious potentiality of the physical reality, which then trickles up in the physical world. So basically we’re shifting probabilities in a subtle sort of way.
The final model has to do with filters—how we have psychological, physical, cultural, and emotional filters through which we experience the world out there. Those filters affect what we experience and how we might describe it. If we became conscious of these filters we might learn how to tune them, so that we could realize that reality does have a subjected component and can be affected mentally at least by some modest degree.
Experimental Room I in PEAR Lab, with “benchmark Random Event Generator” and “DrumREG equipment.”
Interesting. So did you find some people were better at producing these effects than others?
We found all sorts of fascinating things. There was this tendency to see a stronger effect the first time—sort of a beginner’s luck, there were differences in performance between men and women. Male operators tended to produce baselines that remained very close to chance expectation and had reduced variances. The females, on the other hand, frequently produced baselines with larger than expected variances and means that exceeded chance. Also, people working as couples produced larger effects if they were opposite sex couples who loved each other.
“Random Mechanical Cascade Apparatus” inside PEAR Lab.
Would you like to see a different theory of human consciousness to be taught in school?
I would like education to move in the direction of opening our minds to consider consciousness in ways other than what we’ve been taught in our formal education. To start thinking, to ask questions, and to be entitled to ask questions. To be able to carry out a real science of the subjective, where you can study those dimensions that science today ignores, but using scientific methods. Science is fundamentally a method, it’s a way of learning, of testing ideas. It isn’t a body of knowledge.
I think it was Max Planck who pointed out that you don’t change a scientific worldview by convincing people to think differently. You change it by waiting until a new generation grows up that has a different outlook from the beginning. So one of our goals is to encourage young people to think differently. Not to believe us but to be willing to challenge—to ask the tough questions.
Thank you, Brenda.