Many people are convinced that psychic phenomena exist and some believe that they actually have these powers. Testing these abilities has always been a hit and (mostly) miss affair with anecdotes offered as data, sloppy methodology and debates over the significance of findings. Now a pair of Harvard psychologists have devised what they think is the definitive study. It involves using fMRI to look at subject’s brains while they perform psychic feats. The technique is based on the idea that our brains react differently to novel stimuli than to something we’ve seen or experienced before. So show me the same photo twice and the scan of my brain will look different each time.

Three types of ESP phenomena were looked at in the study- telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. Each category had a different way for the subjects to psychically view a set of pictures on a computer screen: telepathy had a sender in one room and a receiver in the MRI, clairvoyance consisted of a computer displaying the pictures in a different room and precognition had the subjects viewing the pictures at a later time. In each case the fMRI showed no difference between ESP and non-ESP stimuli. In other words the subjects brains did not, even on a subconscious level, receive any hint of the photos through any means other than clapping their very own eyes on them.

Unfortunately absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and taken on it’s own this study does not prove that psychic effects do not or cannot exist. But it is a very unique way to look at the evidence and looked at along with other well-designed studies does show that there is a severe lack of plausible evidence for this kind of non-standard perception. This will of course have as much lasting impact on the ESP community as skipping a pebble across a pond. What ripples there are will be small and fleeting because once the search for truth becomes a crusade for an ideology then no evidence can be enough to change minds. 

Resources

http://dlc.sun.com/seti/podcast/AWA_08-01-28.mp3 SETI pocast that includes an interview with Samuel Moulton

http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=521471

http://www.sciam.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=60FE3CDE-BE0E-750F-B9A775FC118CD8C5 Sci-Am 60second Science