[An ESP experiment] “immediately appeals to his [or her] unconscious readiness to witness a miracle, and to the hope, latent in all [people], that such a thing may yet be possible. Primitive superstition lies just below the surface of even the most tough-minded individuals, and it is precisely those who most fight…”
C.G. Jung, 1952.
It is of natural science to investigate nature, impartially and without prejudice.
J.R. Smythies, 1967.
One ingredient of an interesting life is anomaly
An anomaly that defies explanation adds spice. Beyond spice, anomaly offers hope, the hope that something – whatever it may be – exists beyond the everyday. We humans live in hope eternally. But what exactly is an ‘anomaly’? I do not mean the kind of oddness or peculiarity in human behaviour that is everywhere to be seen. I am referring to things that really should not be so, the weird, the spooky, the face in the mirror that isn’t you. Anomalistic experiences are curious, strange, ‘funny peculiar’. As we engage with the experience itself, we freely ruminate and craving to understand, we dig to discover something new. The goal here is to do precisely that, to dig below the surface of anomalistic experience, to take a close look at the psychology of the paranormal, to put psi ‘under the microscope’. One should not be surprised if all is not as it seems and we can expect surprises aplenty here.
I approached this book with anticipation
wondering where the adventure might lead. I hoped it would lead towards new insights, explanatory theory and nuggets of new knowledge.
[In the end, I reached an altogether unexpected conclusion…]
How, you may well ask, can that be? Surely, an ‘expert’ about psychology and the paranormal should already have reached an opinion one way or the other, a strong point of view?
I genuinely have no idea where this new investigation will lead. I write as a zetetic. I have a map and a set of place names, but what exists at each place is uncertain. I last visited this field 20 years ago. Now, with ‘new eyes’ and new evidence, one’s understanding could be significantly different compared to 20 years ago. Unlike previous visits, I am giving the psi hypothesis an initial probability of being a real, authentic and valid experience of 50%.
Please take a minute to consider your own current degree of belief in ESP. Indicate your current belief with an arrow on the Belief Barometer below.
is to cut a path through the vast, tangled jungle of publications with a machete that is sharp and decisive. With each new claim, one must reads, reflect, question, reflect some more, and ultimately decide at one particular moment the degree of plausibility that each specific claim possesses. Belief Barometers will be used to mark your and my degree of belief for each individual claim. The amount of variation in one’s degree of belief indicates a sensitivity to evidence. If somebody simply says ‘0%’’ or ‘100%’ to absolutely everything, that surely indicates intransigence and intolerance of ambiguity.
One cannot profess definite explanations in advance because that would be blinkered. If we already KNEW the answers, we would cease to investigate, I would not be writing, and you would not be reading. The truth would already be out and we would be picking at the flesh of dead learning like vultures at a dead elephant.
No true zetetic starts from a fixed position. She/he suspends judgement while seeking and exploring with an open mind. In any science, all ideas are provisional, pending further investigation. Those who assert a fixed point of view before looking at the evidence break the ‘Golden Rule of Science’, which is to let conclusions follow the evidence.
Anomalistic psychology – what is it?
The field includes the entire spectrum of conscious experience in all of its glorious splendour. By examining in-depth the evidence both pro and con any particular claim, one gains an entitlement to offer conclusions. Even then, the conclusions are tentative, pending further investigation by independent investigators. I am also minded to recall Heraclitus’ well-known dictum, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” Having stepped into the paranormal river on a few occasions, it was each time a different river.
It is impossible here to include everything in Anomalistic Psychology. The selected exemplify phenomena that have received significant attention from researchers over the last 50 years. Fun though they may be: Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, Clever Hans, mediums, Ouija boards, and stage mentalists didn’t make the cut. See them in the ‘red tops’ and on YouTube.
Part One is about basic principles, theories and processes. In Chapter One I define the field of this book as the ‘Science of Anomaly’. In Chapter Two I present an integrative review and theory of paranormal experience. In Chapter Three I discuss some of the key psychological processes that are helpful to understanding anomalous experiences and beliefs.
Part Two is concerned with empirical and theoretical perspectives on the best known subjective anomalous phenomena that are claimed to be paranormal. For three of these, Coincidences, Remote Viewing and Psychic Staring, I report original studies. In Chapter 4 on Coincidences, we enter a mysterious zone of subjective meaning and objective improbability. The chapters on the Ganzfeld, Precognition, Dreams, and Psychokinesis summarize the evidence from the world’s most distinguished investigators.
Part Three concerns three subjectively anomalous experiences (SPEs) that are usually not given paranormal interpretations: the Hypnotic Trance State, Out-Of-the-Body Experience (OBE), and Near Death Experience (NDE). For the Hypnotic Trance chapter, I carried out original laboratory research. For the OBE chapter, I needed to rely on research by others. For the NDE chapter, a lucky escape offered intriguing insights supported by others’ systematic investigations. Chapter 11 contains a new scientific framework for the complete spectrum of conscious experience.
Part Four provides a conclusion and ‘take-home message’.
Part Five is an Appendix that provides concepts, methods and measures for readers wishing to design studies of their own.
It is helpful to take a quick look at the general terrain of ‘Anomalistic Psychology’. I discuss SPEs that are claimed by some authorities to be paranormal and other SPEs not claimed to be paranormal. There are intriguing differences between the two. The paranormal world is a metaphorical ‘war zone’. On one side there are ‘believers’ (so-called ‘sheep’) and, on the other, ‘skeptics’ (‘goats’). The two armies battle against each other with no holds barred. The stakes are high, and, all too often, the battle become personal. They fight not only about the rights and wrongs of empirical studies, but about the very nature of science, the meaning of life and the substance of reality. Unfortunately, the debate quite often descends into acrimony. A more productive approach is suspension of belief and open inquiry. A person is never wrong, only an idea.
Returning to the world of psi
after a 20-year respite, I am curious to see what has changed. Anomalistic Psychology is now the battle-ground of psi (Luke, 2011) and there is a growing stockpile of sophisticated methods and findings that can be considered to be supportive of paranormal interpretation.
My return to the field is not without some amount of trepidation, for now I risk being the target for pot-shots from both sides!
However, a strongly partisan view is unhelpful to making any progress in this, or any other part, of science. Progress requires a dialogue between advocates of differing positions. I wish to put down a marker that says: “Peace. Nobody won. Stop fighting.” That’s not to say there won’t be criticism; there must be, otherwise there can never be progress.
Differences in belief
To help establish dialogue, I invited six leading psi advocates and one ex-advocate to contribute their expert viewpoints. These world-leading investigators responded to my criticisms and questions:
I warmly thank them all!
Evidence, critique, new theories
I present evidence, critique it, and present new theories based on that evidence. I use verbatim quotations to represent the views of advocates concerning specific claims. Nobody can ever legitimately say that a claim has been ‘disproved’; if the truth of a claim is undecided, it is only possible to say that it is neither confirmed nor disconfirmed.
I accept full responsibility for the views, opinions and beliefs that I assert in this book. They represent nobody’s views but my own. Whatever one thinks, the world is always independent of how we might wish it to be. There is nothing wrong about believing in psi if one chooses to, and scientists have no place disparaging such beliefs. Belief in the paranormal is normal. Sociologist Andrew Greeley (1991) put it this way:
“The paranormal is normal. Psychic and mystic experiences are frequent even in modern urban industrial society. The majority of the population has had some such experience, a substantial minority has had more than just an occasional experience, and a respectable proportion of the population has such experiences frequently. Any phenomenon with incidence as widespread as the paranormal deserves more careful and intensive research than it has received up to now….People who have paranormal experiences, even frequent such experiences, are not kooks. They are not sick, they are not deviants, they are not social misfits, they are not schizophrenics. In fact, they may be more emotionally healthy than those who do not have such experiences.” (Greeley 1975: 7)
Scientists should be agnostic about the ontological status of paranormal experience and examine the circumstances that constrain or facilitate exceptional experiences. In approaching each claim, I maintain a zetetic viewpoint, neither believing nor disbelieving, attending to the evidence. Only after one has completed a thorough survey of evidence is one entitled to an informed opinion. A zetetic must not be naïve, however.
As a zetetic, I follow Marcello Truzzi (1987):
“The ground rules of science are conservative, and in so far as these place the burden of proof on the claimants and require stronger evidence the more extraordinary the claim, they are not neutral. But, we also need to remember, evidence always varies by degree, and inadequate evidence requires a tolerant reply which requests better evidence, not a dogmatic denial that behaves as though inadequate evidence were no evidence” (p. 73).
Carl Sagan also offers wise advice:
“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones.” (Sagan, 1995, p 25).
Progress in science
The first 20 years of the 21st century brought many astonishing scientific discoveries: the first draft of the Human Genome, graphene, grid cells in the brain, the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cells, the Higgs boson, liquid water on Mars and gravitational waves. Not bad going in such a short time! During this same period, Anomalistic Psychology has grown at an enormous pace with increased numbers of investigators and publications (Figure P2). Disappointingly, however, new discoveries or theories are few and far between. If there has been one discovery, it might be stated thus: The science of anomalistic experience is more complex and obscure then most psychologists ever imagined. When we are at the beginning of new venture like this, we must not be deterred by having no real answer to two of the hardest questions in science: What is consciousness and what is it for? 
One of the greatest scientific minds of the last century, Stephen Hawking,said that: “Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations” (Sample, 2011).
It has been said that advances in science come not from empiricism but from new theories. Parapsychology, like its ‘big sister’ Psychology, has always been heavily empirical. Its rapid growth is indexed by multitudes of empirical studies in the absence of notable theoretical developments. By becoming more theory-driven, the field of ‘Psychology + Parapsychology’ as an integrated whole seems likely to make faster progress.
It seems counterproductive to treat Parapsychology and Psychology as separate fields.
Bringing the ‘Para’ part back into mainstream Psychology helps to integrate the discipline. This book takes a step in that direction. Parapsychology and Psychology contain myriads of variables, A,B,C…N…X,Y,Z. An established strategy for developing new research in Psychology and Parapsychology is for the investigator to identity ‘gaps’ in the field and to set about filling those gaps with correlational and experimental studies with almost every possible permutation and combination of variables. The gap filling approach is one strategy for keeping productivity high but, often, it is at the expense of developing new theories. As already noted, the academic world is based on quantitative measures of performance and the number of publications a researcher can claim matters. This drive towards publications leads to what I call ‘Polyfilla Science’.
For every ‘hole’ investigators can fill, they are almost guaranteed a peer-reviewed publication. ‘Polyfilla Science’ exists on an industrial scale, keeping hundreds of thousands of scientists busily occupied in hot competition. The ‘winners’ of the Polyfilla competition are the ones who tick the highest number of boxes and harvest the most citations.
‘Polyfilla Science’ can be represented as a multidimensional matrix of cells where the task of science is viewed as filling every last cell in the matrix (Figure P3). This method of doing science is more akin to a fairground shooting gallery than to theory-driven science. In the absence of theory, many researchers use a Polyfilla ‘shotgun’ by testing a dozen or more “hypotheses” in one shot. Popular though it is, ‘Polyfilla Science’ isn’t the only game in town, and a theory-driven approach is also available. Theory is used to identify the principles behind questions that need answering in a process of confirmation and disconfirmation of predictions. When one considers the fact that there are one hundred thousand psychology majors in the US alone, all needing a research project, it is no wonder the Polyfilla approach is so popular.
In comparison to the scientific discoveries in other fields, Psychology or Parapsychology have made no world-changing discoveries in the last 50 years. By this, I mean discoveries that are worth telling your grandchildren. In my opinion, the lack of significant theoretical developments, and the Polyfilla Approach, are two of the main reasons for this lack of progress. All this needs to change.
The book is geared towards the needs of teachers, researchers and students interested in Anomalistic Experience, Parapsychology and Consciousness Studies
all exciting, fun areas where nothing can be taken for granted. These are the areas that every psychology student want to learn but traditional course structures and more stuffy professors won’t put them in the main curriculum. But that is all (…slowly…) changing. I review here the best and most recently available evidence across a wide range of areas. My focus is post-2000 up to and including 2019. Whenever possible, I use a theory-driven approach to integrate vast swathes of complex and disparate empirical literature into theories and hypotheses about cause and effect.
One must beware – and avoid – the otherwise known as the drunkard’s search principle – the bias of searching only where it is easiest to look. You will probably already know the parable:
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his wallet and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost it here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost it in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.
We must look wherever psi could be found, not only where it is easiest to look.
The search for psi is a complex, winding trail of traps and pitfalls. When we observe evidence, we must not, a priori, rule it out as subjective validation or confirmation bias. An openness to being wrong may cause uncomfortable feelings, but knowledge and truth are never givens. When we are lucky enough to discover something new, this is hard-won treasure.
I present here new theories in the spirit of open inquiry. There’s a saying that ‘today’s theories make tomorrow’s fish-n-chip paper’. Possibly, probably, these theories are wrong. So be it. If possible, falsify my theories, throw them out, and develop better ones. By testing and falsifying existing theories, newer, better theories can be obtained and so on indefinitely. As I share thoughts and conclusions, the reader will be able to contest and challenge and contrary evidence.
We’ve walked on the Moon and are heading to Mars, but we still don’t yet know the function of consciousness. One of the starting points must be to separate fact from fiction in anomalistic psychology.
 Zetetic from the Greek zçtçtikos, from zçteô [ζητέω (zéteó) — to seek] “to seek to proceed by inquiry”.
 Belief Barometers appear throughout this book.
 The majority of so-called ‘skeptics’ are disbelievers and/or deniers who have adopted the label ‘skeptic’ for its more temperate connotations. The late Marcello Truzzi was one of two co-founding chairman of the leading US skeptical organisation CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Truzzi became disillusioned with the organization, saying they “tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion… Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them.” Using the title of ‘skeptic’, Truzzi claimed that this association of debunkers could claim an authority to which they were not entitled: “critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves ‘skeptics’ are actually pseudo-skeptics and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label.” Genuine or ‘classical’ skepticism is the zetetic view to suspend judgement and enter into a genuine inquiry that assumes any claim requires justification. Maintaining a zetetic position of open inquiry requires a steady hand and a critical mind. There is no room for naivety but a touch of Socratic irony may at times be helpful. A protracted correspondence between Martin Gardner and Marcello Truzzi , indicating their two contrasting viewpoints, has been published by Richards (2017).
 Nagel (2013) and Strawson (2006), among others, argue for the ancient philosophy of pan-psychism, in which all physical objects from atoms to the cosmos all have conscious experience. Elsewhere, I have described Consciousness as “a direct emergent property of cerebral activity” (Marks, 2019)..
 Numbers of publications, citations, grant monies, prizes, promotions and awards.
 One of the world’s most published and ambitious ‘Polyfilla’ psychologists told me a self-effacing story about the occasion he went for an interview at the University of Oxford. A member of the panel asked: “Dr X, you have a huge number of publications. But what does it all mean?” He didn’t know the answer and got rejected for the post.
 Polycell Multi-Purpose Polyfilla Ready Mixed, 1 Kg, i#1 best seller on Amazon.co.uk, 16 May 2019.
 The history of the field is adequately reviewed by others e.g. John Beloff (1993) or Caroline Watt (2017).Follow me at: