In sum, just as the magical traditions have maintained, belief modulates psi performance. In other words, if you don’t believe in magic, then no magic for you.
Real Magic, by Dean Radin
For the first time in the 14 years I’ve been writing about parapsychology, I’m writing about a group of experiments directly from the original studies and only from the original studies with help from the researcher. Why? Because I’m one of the first people outside of the research team and faculty committee members that’s read them. These experiments focus on psi missing (missing targets in excess of chance rates) which has some pretty interesting ramifications.
What usually happens is that by the time I see a particular area of research, it’s already been picked over like a Christmas turkey at a homeless camp. There are typically lengthy technical summaries, news articles, blog posts, skeptical commentary and other explanations that paint a picture of the research through various eyes.
It is quite strange to have no skepticism to wade through, no other articles examining the research and no one else to talk to about it aside from the original researcher. Outside of the original papers, which have been online, hidden in plain sight for a few years, this research is being shared with the world for the very first time in this article.
Most people have very little contact with scientific research into psychic ability outside of the occasional item they might see in a magazine or newspaper about a new study. Very few people, scientists included, know that credible research even exists.
Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet, by Craig Weiler
Meet Russell Gruber, PhD, who ran a parapsychology lab at Eastern Illinois University (EIU) for 18 years.
Russell Gruber image credit: Russell Gruber
He grew up in White Plains, a suburb north of New York City, with a social worker mom, a father who built animatronic puppets, an older sister and a younger brother. He remembers being an introspective child, and recalls, from a young age, being fascinated by the ability to vividly imagine things in daydreams and the more vivid realities created in dreams at night. These early interests eventually led him to a career in psychology with a focus on the study of consciousness.
Recently retired, Gruber summarizes his professorship at Eastern Illinois University:
After earning a BA from Stony Brook and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Cincinnati in 1988, I joined the psychology department at Eastern in 1991. My early research focused on lucid dreaming, nightmares and uncovering styles and functions of dreaming but I shifted in mid-career to the study of parapsychology.
During my 28 years at Eastern I taught primarily as a member of the Clinical Psychology master’s program, including courses on psychotherapy, cognitive assessment, and internship seminars. I also really enjoyed the chance to teach at the undergraduate level. My favorite course, each spring semester, was a capstone seminar titled the psychology of mind that allowed me to integrate my interests in consciousness, dreaming, mind-body health, and parapsychology.
In addition to teaching and conducting my own research, I chaired over 30 Masters theses, supervised over 100 interns and many undergraduate researchers.
Gruber also won 5 awards for teaching excellence from EIU along the way. Like many parapsychologists, his personal psychic experiences initially drew his interest towards psi research, but because controversy follows parapsychology everywhere, he wisely followed the well worn path of waiting until he had tenure to open a parapsychology lab. As he says: “I feel like what I’ve been doing for my job is more entertaining than what a lot of other people do for fun. Once I started finding psychic stuff in the lab, I was hooked.”
Gruber’s research was done completely independently of the parapsychology community for many years while using his own novel methods, and in the process he replicated many important findings in this field of research. This is huge for parapsychology because it means that these findings confirm that previous research results didn’t occur because of peculiarities or flaws in the original studies.
Innovations in Psi Research
Gruber and his team of undergraduates and graduate students did not set out to prove the existence of psi. Given the many successful experiments dating back to the 1950’s, that would not have contributed much to the field. After examining the literature, they concentrated on finding out more about what it takes to successfully test for psychic ability.
Gruber, along with many other parapsychologists operate from a field theory perspective, which assumes an underlying, unseen interconnectedness between people. He began by placing people in social groups (this creates a social field) to test the theory. The experiments were essentially replications of phenomena that had already been observed in other studies. Gruber and his team, with this one simple methodology, explored multiple phenomena including the effect of belief, psi missing, differentiation and field effects.
The Answer is a Battleship
The team began with an experiment where the group attempted to psychically help the receiver find a target in a series of Where’s Waldo pictures. It didn’t work. The pictures they used had so much information in them that may have overloaded any telepathy that might have occurred. Gruber describes this as “way too much noise.”
Next, the team tried an experiment with unscrambling anagrams, but again, it just wasn’t a good task for psi research.
Then, one evening, during a research meeting, one of the assistants, Mike Steinhour, suggested using the board game Battleship, and it worked.
Pencil and paper version of the game “Battleship.” Image: Actam, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Using the battleship game as a model, the team ran a pilot study using a nine grid square to see how the test subjects would do. They were allowed to keep trying until they got a hit. The results were promising right away and then here’s what happened on the 12th run:
Image: Russell Gruber
This research assistant got six direct hits out of twelve possible. The odds of this happening by chance are less than one in a thousand. Gruber and his team felt pretty sure that they were on to something.
We tried a grid of nine targets (allowing repeat calls) and very quickly got strong evidence of psi – but the task was tedious and frustrating. We then tried a rectangle with four targets – one in each corner and this became the forced choice, spatial location task that we used for the majority of experiments. I consider these to be mental telepathy experiments, (as opposed to clairvoyance or precognition) as senders were an integral part of the method.
Nine Theses Tell the Tale
This kicked off 18 years of process oriented research. Many of the findings from the experiments were written up in the form of 9 master theses by his students over the course of several years. An advantage of master theses over published experiments is that they go into far more depth both in the literature review and the explanation of the experiments themselves. The students spent a lot of time and effort on these theses, making them clear and thorough. As a result, they are easier to follow than most experiment write ups.
Gruber ran the studies with a team of research assistants while graduate students performed the task of literature review and write up. (There are actually ten parapsychology theses, but one of them is a telephone telepathy replication.) There are a number of studies that didn’t make it into theses, some successful, some not. While many directions were explored over the years, the nine theses represent the core of the work.
When the masters theses are read in chronological order, they lay out the evolution of an increasingly sophisticated, yet relatively simple experiment that lends very convincing support to many previous researcher’s findings. In addition, the research shows glimpses into how we are all shaping our own realities. More on that later.
Running in Silent Mode
Gruber made the decision early on to run his parapsychology lab with a low profile, which is why the research hasn’t gone the route of formal publishing, which in turn is why it’s only now being widely shared. There were several very good reasons for this.
First, he would have had to spend time publishing instead of doing experiments, so he and his team would have accomplished far less. Once the research got out into the world, he would have to fend off skeptics and defend the experiments rather than improve them.
Second, this is process oriented research, not proof oriented, so the emphasis was on learning from previous experiments as a guide to designing the next, not proving a specific hypothesis. Dealing with criticism while you’re still working things out isn’t helpful. Third, the low profile meant that the lab wasn’t drawing unwanted outside attention, so Gruber and his team were left alone.
Hits and Psi Missing
A key component of this research centers around a well known phenomena in parapsychology known as “psi missing.” In testing, you typically measure for psychic ability by comparing it to purely chance results. Success is typically called a “hit” and a failure is called a “miss.” Since the objective is to produce results that are not the result of pure chance, you can do this either by succeeding in excess of chance rates or missing in excess of chance rates. The latter is what’s called “psi missing.”
Gruber’s research leaned into examining the psi missing effect and found that it was often easier to trigger than psi hitting in a lab setting.
The experiment evolved over the years, centering around the relatively simple concept of choosing between four locations with one space randomly designated as a hit and one randomly designated as a miss. If you got a hit or a miss, you stopped there, but any other result allowed you to keep trying.
This eventually evolved into a challenge for money. For example, in some studies test subjects got paid for hits, while in others, they competed with each other in teams. This was primarily intended to keep them actively engaged and focused. Even with a monetary incentive for correct answers, psi missing was often the expected outcome.
Speaking of money, the research was self funded by Gruber. On the days he ran experiments he withdrew $100 of his own money in $1 bills occasionally clarified to the tellers that this was for scientific experiments, not a strip club. Parapsychology research is rarely properly funded and he spent thousands of dollars of his own money to support the research.
This is a foam board from one of the earlier studies, before the studies were automated as a computer program. Image: Russell Gruber
Heather Warner-Angel explained the methodology in her thesis:
An example of a typical methodology is as follows: A receiver, picked at random from a group of senders, sits in an isolated room in front of a foam board marked with four target circles (one in each corner). Three red discs with strips of Velcro adhered to the backs are used as target markers.
The receiver is viewed via closed video feed by a group of senders who are facing an identical foam board in a separate room with only two red discs, one marked (+$) and the other marked (-$). Target locations for the (+$) and (-$) discs are selected in the sender room by using random numbers. The receiver is signaled by a bell tone that the target locations have been chosen. The senders try to transmit the (+$) target location to the receiver telepathically and the receiver attempts to locate it marking it on the foam board with one of the discs.
The receiver continues to place discs on the board until either the (+$) or (-$) target is found. If the (+$) is selected by the third attempt, a bell is sounded to indicate that the receiver has scored a “hit.” If the (-$) target is chosen, a buzzer is sounded to indicate that the receiver has scored a
“miss.” Several trials (usually 16) are run. The receiver is returned to the sender room and another receiver is randomly selected from the group. A single response is referred to as a trial, a set of trials constitutes a run, a series of runs constitutes a session, and several sessions comprise an experiment. (Warner-Angel, 2017)
Gruber explained that this methodology uses a number of innovations. He pointed out that a problem with forced choice psi tasks is the strong tendency of participants to avoid repeating previous answers. He explained that by allowing more than one try to locate a target, and using location instead of a picture or a symbol, and adding a “miss” target, this tendency may be significantly diminished.
Another advantage of adding the miss target is that it makes hits and misses equally likely to occur by chance, which in turn may allow better measurements of “psi defensiveness” – the unconscious creation of a defensive state of mind- leading to the rejection of useful psychic information.
In an early study, the experimenters created an artificial social situation by separating people into two groups to test the field theory hypothesis. In-groups (people who were members of a large group of senders) did much better than Out-groups (people who were excluded from the group).
Image: “The Effects of Social Fields on the Telepathic Reception of Information” Yarnell (2003)
The graph shows the In-group beating the Out-group 12 nights in a row. (12 hits on the graph is a chance result.) While In-group participants scored significantly higher than chance, the far stronger effect was the psi-missing of the Out-group members.
Psi Missing or Psi Defensive
The problem is that if all you were to do was simply combine everyone’s results in a psi experiment, the combined results would mostly cancel each other out and the experiment would appear to get chance results.
The concept of psi missing is not new in parapsychology literature and this study replicates previous findings, but it does so in very clever ways.
Certain people have a tendency to score in opposite directions because of personal characteristics or experimental conditions. Gruber’s team manipulated and measured this, whether it was belief, friendliness, group membership or other criteria, and the results were striking.
Image: “Psi Performance, Belief in Psi, and Competition in a Game-Show Format” Warner-Angel (2017)
The high belief group and the low belief group mirror each other. For each belief group, the number of people who scored below chance are blue and the number of people who scored above chance are orange. For high believers 21 scored above chance, while 7 scored below chance. While for low believers, 8 scored above chance, while 15 scored below chance.
Image: “Social Fields, Belief In Psi, And Their Effects On
Mental Telepathy” Brandy McWhorter 2005
You can see in the second chart from a different study that this effect was not a one-off. The odds that this kind of lineup would happen by chance is thousands to one.
The phenomena of missing in excess of chance tells us something important here. You can’t consistently miss in excess of chance unless you’re psychic on some level. It means that the low believers must subconsciously know the correct answer and are going out of their way to avoid it (aka psi-defensiveness). At a subconscious level, these test subjects seem to be attempting to confirm their belief that psi doesn’t exist, but paradoxically, the effort requires psychic ability.
There were more tests to do in order to confirm this observation. Gruber and his team did experiments where they asked low and high believers to hit the targets. As expected, the high believers scored above chance and the low believers scored below chance.
Great, Now Please Miss the Target
In two experiments they asked the test subjects to intentionally miss the target. In the first experiment, (Parker, 2006) the participants missed the targets, exceeding expectations. In the second experiment however, high believers performed the task asked of them, but amazingly, the low believers actually started getting hits in excess of chance. It appears that the psychic ability is functioning, but that the low believers are using it to act against the requested intent of the experiment.
High believers and low believers operate with the same information but process it differently, solely due to what they believe is possible. I have suggested that this be called “The Mirror World Effect” and Gruber agrees.
Like the Mirror Universe in Star Trek, where people from the mirror universe have a darker frame of mind, which has led them into a darker, more hostile society, low believers have the same access to their useful psychic abilities, but subconsciously reject the correct information because they don’t believe in it. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that this kind of rejection is probably carrying over into other areas of their lives.
Even in their unconscious rejection of their own psychic ability, low believers seem to use it anyway, although at cross purposes with their own intentions.
The Mirror Worlds Effect
While differences in the belief in psychic ability were the strongest indicator of this mirroring effect, it occurred in other areas as well. In-group vs. out-group, enthusiastic vs. bored, men vs. women, previous experience vs. novice, known vs. unknown senders and friendly vs. unfriendly interactions. What makes the mirror effect stand out is that you have both significantly above and significantly below chance results from the same procedure within the same experiment when you divide the data according to these dichotomies.
This effect is not entirely unknown in parapsychology. Ramakrishna Rao referred to this as the differential effect in his book “The Elements of Parapsychology” (McFarland & Company, Inc. 2017). By assigning equal probabilities to hits and misses, Gruber’s methodology is particularly sensitive to this differential/Mirror Worlds effect.
The experimenters made no attempt to select participants based on any psi ability they had. They did make sure to ask questions in order to distinguish, in various experiments, between high and low believers; they rated friendliness vs. non friendliness and noted enthusiasm vs. boredom. Or they created competing teams or divided participants into in-groups and out-groups using an experiment that measured hits and misses the same way. That’s because they weren’t looking specifically for psi hits or psi misses, but rather the mirror worlds effect, which is the opposing tendencies between the results of these groups.
Gruber and his team did the seemingly impossible: regularly getting significant results from an unselected population. This is rarely accomplished in psi research.
The results of these experiments strongly support “First Sight” theory, which holds that psychic ability is “on” all the time. The theory states:
• Psi is not unusual or non-normal; it is a characteristic of all living organisms.
• Psi is not rare; it is continuously ongoing for each organism.
• Psi is not an ability; it is a perpetually active aspect of our engagement with reality.
This research also sheds some light on why psychic ability can be so hard to measure. If it’s functioning all the time, then the noise of randomness that is measured in experiments is as much a part of psychic functioning as any of the more obvious displays of it, but we only notice it when it rises above the noise of randomness. “Water? asked the fish, what water?”
Out of curiosity, I asked Gruber how the low believers approached the psychic task. Did they instinctively clear their minds and focus on the task? This led to a broader discussion. Gruber explained:
It’s hard to say for sure how any one participant felt ….in the first place you have to understand that these experiments were taking place at six in the evening in the science building on a college campus for people to receive course credit.
Depending on the time of semester and other characteristics of the individual groups, it was a challenge to get people to participate enthusiastically . . . We had groups of researchers and an interesting study, a chance to win money . . . But, now imagine that you’re a little bit annoyed about having to be here . . . and somebody asks you “on a seven point scale do you believe in mental telepathy“ and you say “one“ very unlikely to exist . . . . My sense is that most people who answered low on the belief scale didn’t really try (consciously) at all and thought that it was silly.
[A] lot of these things are related to why it is easier to get people to miss targets then to hit them in a lab. Sometimes people with high belief scores, possibly because they are psychically sensitive, score well below chance. [There is] a psychic sensitivity that allows them to know where the targets are and the same sensitivity [also] causes them to reject the targets as intrusive information.
. . . The problem was getting students in the sender room to focus – a lot of times they were distracted and we considered this a problem… But again not so much for psi missing.
I think the people with high belief scores took the task much more seriously and tried hard to find the targets. Unfortunately, for low believers, the data appears to show that they actually are missing without thinking… Maybe to maintain [their] belief system… Maybe to be stubborn.
One thing that has become clear to me in my years of running a parapsychology lab focusing on social situations on a college campus, is that creating an atmosphere that is perceived by most participants as psi conducive (warm, friendly, spontaneous, and open) is not easy. Doing this under strictly controlled laboratory conditions with an unselected population (subject pool), is harder. And doing this in a consistent, replicable way, with multiple groups, over multiple evenings, over the course of a semester, is almost impossible.
Another thing that has become clear to me is that significant psi missing is much easier to elicit in a lab than psi hitting. It seems to me that psi defensiveness is omnipresent, unconscious, and is, for many people, a natural reaction to day-to-day life – particularly in the individualistic, competitive society we live in. I have found that this is easily exaggerated in an unselected population by the laboratory conditions in psi experiments.
What these experiments show us, by focusing on psi missing, is that our subconscious appears to be presenting us with the reality that we believe in. This includes active subconscious avoidance of things that we don’t think are true, causing us to reject useful information. We are left to wonder how this might be affecting us in our daily lives.
The Effects of Belief, Gender, and Setting on a Psi
Task (Hinman, 2017)
Psi Performance, Belief in Psi, and Competition in a
Game-Show Format (Warner-Angel, 2017)
Social Fields, Belief In Psi, And Their Effects On
Mental Telepathy (McWhorter, 2005)
Knowing whose [sic] calling: Telephone telepathy (Clint Harvey, 2011)