Why ESP can never be found inside the laboratory. A new approach to the investigation of the paranormal


From the Preface

[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.


  • something 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 the writing of 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?

Not so.

I genuinely have no idea where this new investigation will lead.I write as a zetetic.[1] I have a map and a set of place names[2],  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.[3]

My objective

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

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.

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.

To establish a dialogue, I invited seven *stars* of the field to respond to my criticisms and questions: Daryl Bem, Susan Blackmore, Stanley Krippner, Dean Radin, Hal Puthoff, Rupert Sheldrake, and Adrian Parker. Warm thanks to one and all.

Evidence, critique, new theories

In this book, I present evidence, critique, and new theories. Whenever possible, I use verbatim quotations 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.

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.

Master zetetic, 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).

Astronomer, Carl Sagan (1995) 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).

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? [5]

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One of the greatest scientific minds of the last century, Stephen Hawking, stated:


“Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations” (Sample, 2011).

It has also 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 and short on theory. The 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[6] and the number of publications a researcher can claim matters. This drive towards publications leads to what I call ‘Polyfilla Science’.

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.[7]

‘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.[8]

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The book is geared towards the needs of teachers, researchers and students interested in Anomalistic Experience, Parapsychology and Consciousness Studies.

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.

Avoiding the drunkard’s search

One must beware – and avoid – the drunkard’s search principle – searching only where it is easiest to look. You 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.


[1] Zetetic from the Greek zçtçtikos, from zçteô [ζητέω (zéteó) — to seek] “to seek to proceed by inquiry”.

[2] [2] Tópos, the Greek name for “place” (τόπος); ‘topic’ in English.

[3] Belief Barometers appear throughout this book.

[4] 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).

[5] 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)..

[6] Numbers of publications, citations, grant monies, prizes, promotions and awards.

[7] 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.

[8] Polycell Multi-Purpose Polyfilla Ready Mixed, 1 Kg, i#1 best seller on Amazon.co.uk, 16 May 2019.

[9] The history of the field is adequately reviewed by others e.g. John Beloff (1993) or Caroline Watt (2017).

Investigating the Paranormal: Part II


Parascience has so far failed to produce a single repeatable finding and, until it does, will continue to be viewed as an incoherent collection of belief systems steeped in fantasy, illusion and error.

Originally appeared in Nature Vol. 320, 13 March 1986, pp. 119-124. 
The first part of this article is here.

Psychological Factors

Many factors of a psychological nature foster paranormal beliefs and make them a common feature of human thinking and behaviour. Our cultural traditions are steeped in religion and magic, many features of which lend themselves to belief in supernatural agencies. Scientific thinking is a recent departure in human history and scientific ideas have had little time to affect the magical thinking from which science itself evolved.

Sociologist D. O’Keefe argues that paranormal research has evolved from within the traditions of magic which themselves evolved from religion51. The current occult revival is seen as a reaction to the excessive rationalism which many perceive in science. O’Keefe argues that religion created the ‘cloud-cuckoo land’ in which magic, and thence the paranormal, can flourish. Yet scientists are often ill-prepared to provide the necessary counterbalancing rational account of the paranormal. Against this background of magi co-religious entrenchment, there are some extra psychological processes that make paranormal beliefs an inevitable characteristic of human consciousness and thinking.

Mental Imagery

A mental image is a quasi-perceptual experience in the absence of an objective stimulus. There are huge individual differences in the reported vividness and controllability of images. In Western cultures 1-5% of the population appears regularly to experience fantasies which seem as real as actual events even though they are entirely fictional52. Such individuals often experience vivid, uncontrollable ‘eidetic’ images of almost hallucinatory quality53, are highly suggestible and can be easily hypnotized52. They report more putatively paranormal experiences, such as telepathy, precognition, ghosts and out-of-the-body experiences. While mental imagery has a large number of practical uses in thinking, memory and problem solving, it can also occur in altered states of consciousness in which the normal level of lucidity is no longer present53.

Research conducted a century ago by E. Gurney and F. W. H. Myers described 27 cases of ‘spirit communication’ from deceased persons54. Eighteen of the apparitions occurred in sleep-related states normally associated with highly vivid and autonomous images which are easily mistaken for reality. The remaining cases occurred in subjects who were fully awake and these could easily have been structural eidetic images stimulated by thought-processes of the daydreaming kind53. H. Sidgwick noted that 9.9% of 17,000 subjects had experienced at least one vivid visual, auditory or tactile image of a living being or object while completely awake55. The appearance of ghosts is shaped by cultural expectancies and beliefs about what a ghost should look like56. Mental images can be easily misinterpreted in terms of pre-existing beliefs57.


Otherwise known as mental set, expectancy provides the framework within which we organize new experience. Human cognition is not a simple copying process but entails a constructive striving or ‘effort after meaning’. What we experience is often more a confirmation of belief than a matter of plain fact. Beliefs are not automatically updated by the best evidence available, but have an active life of their own and fight tenaciously for their own survival. They tell us what to read, what to listen to, who to trust and how to rationalize contrary information4,5,57.

Selective exposure protects beliefs from more dramatic forms of contradiction. When the mentalist U. Geller visited the city of Dunedin in New Zealand there were seven different opportunities to obtain information abut his alleged psychic abilities: four media interviews, two newspaper stories and one stage performance. Of 17 subjects who, before Geller’s visit, were already ‘believers’ 15 selected three or more of the available exposures. Of 20 ‘non-believers’, only 10 selected as many as three exposures (X2(1) = 6.13; P<0.02).

A further problem is that when we are exposed to relevant information, our opinion revisions are often less than optimal, and we act like conservative Bayesians58, with a confirmation bias59. In a recent ‘ESP’ demonstration to a class of 226 psychology students, presented as an exercise in observation, I performed five mentalists’s tricks consisting of: (I) correctly naming a colour written out of sight; (2) correctly transmitting a colour name to a volunteer who, like me, had not previously seen it; (3) helping a volunteer correctly to read messages sealed inside envelopes or to appear to transmit messages to me; (4) producing bent keys which I had not previously touched; and (5) moving or stopping the hands of a watch in a mysterious manner.

Although at no time did I claim to be psychic, 90% of the class stated that I had demonstrated psychic ability. When the results from subjects who had previously been classified as ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ were analysed separately, 79% of believers thought at least three of the five effects were psychic compared with only 43% of sceptics (P < 0.001).

Naturally, we often encounter information that is unexpected or ambiguous. In such instances, there is a second line of defence: the data can be selectively perceived or even misperceived so that they still appear to support our beliefs by ‘subjective validation’4. One illustration of this powerful cognitive defence in the context of ESP research is the strong conviction that one has successfully viewed a complex target site by ESP in a remote-viewing experiment even when one is completely wrong (Fig. 2).

There are many now-classic examples of subjective validation: the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle and Nostradamus60, the discovery of N-rays61, phlogiston, Vulcan, the canals on Mars, flying saucers, Freud’s interpretation of dreams, prejudice, faith-healing, the placebo effect, bone pointing and the ‘evil eye’. Beliefs of all kinds tend to be self-perpetuating.


Psi phenomena consist of an experience, image or thought matched by some other similar experience, image or thought. Collections of such coincidences have been published by A. Koestler62, L. Rhine,63 and others based on the assumption that odd-matches of events cannot occur purely by chance.

Probability theory shows that an event which is improbable over a short run can become highly probable over the long run. If five coins are tossed all at once on a single occasion the probability of obtaining five heads is 2 -5 or approximately 0.03. If the coin tossing is repeated 100 times the probability of five heads somewhere in the series is approximately 0.96.

The principle of the long run is easy to grasp in simple situations but much less visible in the more chaotic world of spontaneous human experience. Calculation shows how easily Koestler could obtain his 40-plus odd-match anecdotes. Assuming that in an ordinary day a person can recall 100 distinct events, there are 100Cor 4,950 pairs of events per day. Odd-matches can be remembered for years, perhaps 10 yr or 3,650 days. If Koestler knew 1,000 people, he could draw upon a total pool of 4,950 x 3,650 x 1,000, or more than 18 x 109 pairs of events. That Koestler obtained 40 striking odd-matches seems hardly surprising.

Koestler’s fallacy (see ref. 4) is certainly not unique to him, although he was one of a small group of analysts who wanted to make a scientific revolution out of it. The fallacy is widespread and several biases contribute to it. First, we notice and remember odd-matches. Second, we do not notice non-matches. This triggers the short-run illusion that makes the oddmatch seem improbable. Third, we are normally poor estimators of probabilities, especially for combinations of events.

Unseen Causes

Another class of psychic-looking experiences is generated by invisible chains of cause and effect which bias the probabilities away from chance levels. Failure to randomize target stimuli properly in ESP experiments is a good example of this. Thus, Tart reported a successful ESP experiment in which his subjects learned to score above chance in guessing which of 10 digits was displayed by an apparatus in another room following the presentation of feedback)4. The random number generator mistakenly avoided using the same digit twice in succession, a bias which is matched by the pervasive ‘gambler’s fallacy’. When Tart removed this bias, the ‘ESP’ also disappeared65.

Another unseen factor, used by illusionists, is the ‘population stereotype’. The performer ‘sends a message to the audience, saying “I am thinking of a number between 1 and 50, both digits are odd, and different“. Controlled experiments show that the most common response for the 1-50 problem is 37, which accounts for 30-35% of all responses, and the second most common response is 35 (20- 25%)4. If the performer always says he had been thinking of 35 and then changed his mind to 37, at least 50% of the audience will be thinking of the ‘correct’ number.

Human beings never behave randomly. Our experiences contain many culturally shared elements such that particular items are associated with particular verbal contexts. This causes associative networks to be set up and a tendency towards nonrandom, stereotypical responses even when there is freedom to choose.

Other unnoticed causes of putatively psychic effects include subliminal and non-verbal sensory cues66 which may lead to common thought patterns in different people, presenting the illusion of telepathy.

The ‘Will to Believe’

What factors differentiate believer from sceptic? Psychologists down the ages have puzzled over the question of what motivates different world-views and the so-called will to believe. Research conducted by J. Waugh used Kelly’s personal construct theory. In this framework67, people vary in the quality and extent of their investigatory procedures so that, while some may be working to establish an ordered and meaningful world which is not highly predictable or readily explained, others may be content that they already have all the necessary explanatory constructs.

In Kelly’s theory, each individual deals with the world in terms of a hierarchial system of constructs with which people, objects and events are compared, contrasted and predicted. Core constructs have relatively superordinate positions and a large range of convenience while peripheral constructs are relatively subordinate and more easily altered. Waugh compared the personal construct systems of sceptics and believers in the paranormal using a belief questionnaire. Ten subordinate and ten superordinate67constructs were generated using standard procedures and each subject’s constructs were tested for their relative resistance to change and the number of implications entailed by changing the subject’s preferred pole on the 20 constructs and 10 paranormal beliefs (Fig. 3).

Believers’ core constructs were significantly more resistant to change and there was a parallel difference in the number of implications resulting from changes at the superordinate level. Compared with sceptics, believers seem to possess much tighter construct systems in which any change at the core level implies a significantly greater upheaval or threat. Waugh also found that believers had significantly higher neuroticism scores than sceptics (see also ref. 68). These data are congruent with those reported by Zusne and Jones57 who found that believers are less flexible than sceptics when confronted with disconfirming evidence. Content analyses of believers’ construct systems indicate the presence of spiritual, non-materialist constructs at superordinate level. Such core constructs are not easily shaken because they are closed off from empirical considerations and appear to be impermeable to rational persuasion. Hence the feeling of futility experienced in trying to hold rational discussion between believer and sceptic; one could well be arguing about the existence of God. Belief in the paranormal is metaphysical and therefore not subject to the constraints of empirically based science.

Parascience has all the qualities of a magical system while wearing the mantle of science. Until any significant discoveries are made, science can justifiably ignore it, but it is important to say why: parascience is a pseudo-scientific system of untestable beliefs steeped in illusion, error and fraud.

I thank Jerry Andrus, Bob Audley, Ray Hyman, A. R. Jonckheere, Peter McKellar, J. Randi, Christopher Scott, Jean Waugh and many colleagues in CSICOP for useful discussions and information. The late Richard Kammann contributed substantially in the earlier stages of this research.


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View or download original article here.

Psychology and the Paranormal

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

So the well-worn saying goes.

Are there? If so, what are they? And how does one obtain solid evidence? These questions have taxed human beings for millennia.

A zetetic approach

I approach psychology and the paranormal  in a spirit of enquiry, wondering where it may lead. I hope it might lead to new knowledge and theory.  I have no fixed ideas on the subject. My previous skepticism has relaxed somewhat.

How can that be?  Surely, a so-called ‘expert’ must already have an opinion one way or the other? Wrong!

The truth is that I started a new inquiry having no fixed ideas about which direction the evidence will lead. In fact, that inquiry led me into a most unexpected direction – my critique of laboratory ESP research became stronger as did my conviction that spontaneous ESP was worthy of serious consideration.   

One thing I know – it is necessary to step beyond old assumptions, seek alternative ways of discovering new knowledge.

If we already KNEW the answer, the TRUTH, why would we bother to read, write or even THINK for that matter, because the truth must already be determined, already written by somebody, somewhere and all that would be left would be to pick up established learning.

Believers vs. Disbelievers

It is apparent to any observer that the paranormal field is divided between two armies of believers (so-called ‘sheep’) and skeptics (so-called ‘goats’, who are actually dis-believers) battling it out with no holds barred.

The stakes are high. The fight is not about empirical studies, observations and anecdotes.  The very nature of science, life and reality are being contested.

There are ‘dead bodies’ and ‘unexploded land mines’ all over the place and one would be lucky to leave the field in one piece. One can surmise that there can only be losers, never winners, in this futile type of war. In the end every soldier in the affray is a loser. It’s an intellectual version of World War I with permanent trenches and barbed wire fences that has been waging for over a century.

I know this because I have been there on the battle field.  I entered the field and did several tours of duty. Then, battle-weary with the affray, I walked away.

Recently I returned to see if anything has changed.

As I stuck my head over the trench top waving a white flag of peace, a few warning shots were fired. The same old battle is raging but with the difference that many new foot soldiers have been recruited and there have been scores of  new studies over the last 20 years. These studies have been weaponised to provide increased power, precision and impact.

The army of non-believers now possesses a stockpile of findings consistent with scientific explanations of the paranormal. The believer army, meanwhile, has accrued an equally large stockpile supportive of paranormal interpretations.

White Flag of Neutrality

Offering the white flag of peace and neutrality causes no small amount of trepidation. One risks being a target for both sides. In the battle of the paranormal, nobody is permitted to be neutral?  It’s a ‘do or die’ scenario like no other in science.


The blog posts here are written from a dispassionate point of view. My purpose is to create a balanced and even-handed review based on the best contemporary evidence on paranormal claims in science and medicine.

I present here the evidence, both pro and con, explain the relevant psychological processes, present scientific arguments, and eventually produce a final balance sheet.

Improbability and Impossibility in Nature

The Science of the Impossible

When the sun, moon and earth all fall into alignment, something improbable happens – a solar eclipse. A solar eclipse in improbable but it is not impossible, because it actually can happen. Not very often, of course, but on a few rare, predictable occasions. On average a solar eclipse occurs in any particular location only once every 375 years.

This example indicates the need to keep an open mind because there are phenomena in Nature that are rare and some that were once thought impossible, but have later been observed or made to happen. French philosopher Auguste Comte wrote about the stars that: “We can never learn their internal constitution, nor, in regard to some of them, how heat is absorbed by their atmosphere.” Comte said of the planets: “We can never know anything of their chemical or mineralogical structure; and, much less, that of organized beings living on their surface.”

Yet William Hyde Wollaston and Joseph von Fraunhofer independently discovered that the spectrum of the Sun contained a great many dark lines which, by 1859 had been shown to be atomic absorption lines. Each chemical element present in the Sun could be identified by analysing the lines, making it possible to discover what a star is made of.



Another example is teleportation.


This word was coined by Charles Fort in his book Lo! and was subsequently copied by legions of science fiction writers including the “transporter” in Star Trek. Thanks to entanglement, physicists have achieved teleportation  Particles that are entangled behave as if they are linked together no matter how wide the distance is between them. If you change the “spin” of one entangled electron, the spin of the twin electron will also change.

Entangled particles therefore  “teleport” information. In 2002 a theoretical way of entangling  large molecules, was described. “Classical teleportation” even occurs when a beam of rubidium atoms disappear in one place and reappear in another. This method transmits all the information about the atoms through a fibre optic cable so that they can be “reconstructed” elsewhere.

Yet entangled particles, it can be argued, are part and parcel of ‘one thing’ and teleportation may not be valid in this context. If by unfortunate accident somebody severs a finger from their hand, the finger is still a part of their hand. A severed finger can survive for 12 hours or more in a warm environment and up to a couple of days if refrigerated. It can be re-attached to the hand by reconnecting the arteries and restoring the blood flow. So the finger and the hand remain a part of one body.


Julia Mossbridge and Dean Radin (2018) review the evidence for precognition or ‘prospection’  in a recent paper  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cns0000121 As they point out, scientists generally consider prospection involving influences from the future to be ‘flatly impossible’. They present empirical evidence challenging the assumption. If this evidence can be replicated using preregistered designs and analyses, then the consequences would be profound.   Such replication studies are keenly awaited.

My review of the literature shortly to be published suggests that we may be waiting in vain if we are looking for evidence inside the laboratory.

Impossible Today, Possible Tomorrow?

The paranormal is the investigation of phenomena that are thought, on current knowledge, to be IMPOSSIBLE.  Yet some of those very things may be possible in the future. The question is which ones?

The field of the paranormal has changed enormously in the last half-century with a massive growth in numbers of investigators and publications on extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis, precognition and homeopathic medicine (Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2018-11-23 at 12.21.34

FIGURE 1. Growth in numbers of research publications about specific topics within the paranormal in 20-year periods, 1960-2019.

What is Here

The ‘Anomalist Psychology’,  ‘Paranormal’ and ‘Coincidence’ sections of this blog site present authentic, first-person accounts of anomalistic phenomena and their often compelling nature along with laboratory studies, research syntheses, and critical analyses.

This blog site covers the entire field of Anomalistic Psychology – ESP, psychokinesis, precognition, ganzfeld, dissociative states, out-of-the-body experiences, near-death experiences, hypnotic trance,  and their relevance to theories of consciousness.  Many of the same psychological processes are involved in these different areas, i.e. the will to believe, magical thinking, subjective validation, confirmation bias, expectation and placebo effects, and many more.

The blog site is supported by a new book, Psychology and the Paranormal, to be published in 2020.


Some of the most common obstacles in teaching students in this field are: readiness to believe almost anything without sound reasons, misunderstanding of laws of chance and probability, lack of statistical sophistication or understanding of scientific methodology. The critical tools necessary for scientific appraisal of the paranormal are not generally available.

On the surface paranormal phenomena all appear to defy rational explanation. The blog encourages readers to acquire the critical skills to appraise scientific claims for the paranormal.  After reading both ‘sides of the story’, readers should be in a position to express informed opinions and have the tools and methods for critical thinking about the paranormal and scientific claims more generally.

The blog is geared to the needs of teachers, researchers and students interested in Anomalistic Experience, Parapsychology and Consciousness. These are exciting, challenging and fun areas on the fringes of mainstream science.

The Requirement of Impartiality

Here I do not take a fixed believing, sceptical or disbelieving stance on the paranormal. I offer a neutral gaze which seeks the evidence both pro and con. This approach keeps the door open to whatever conclusions the evidence leads.

The best evidence from studies and meta-analyses across a wide range of areas are reviewed. A particular focus will be studies from the post-2000 period up to and including 2019 as other books adequately review the history of the field (e.g. Caroline Watt: Parapsychology. A Beginner’s Guide).

There are instances where the evidence is so strong that I have changed my own position over recent years. For half of my life I was a dyed-in-the-wool ‘skeptic’ or, to put it more plainly, a disbeliever. That situation changed. I steadfastly maintain the neutrality of the dispassionate scientist, neither believing nor disbelieving, attending to the evidence. I hope that other ‘skeptics’ will strive to keep their minds untainted by prejudice and show the moral courage to go where the evidence takes them.

I humbly encourage every reader to avoid being ‘intellectually whipped’ into any fixed view of the truth. Comfortable though it may be to have a fixed view, that view could well be misplaced, and, unwittingly, lead into a cul-de-sac.

Be aware of the streetlight effect or drunkard’s search principle, the bias that occurs when we search only where it is easiest to look:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.

F1.large.jpgLooking where it is easiest to look

We must learn to look where the evidence is, not where it is easiest to look.

This blog provides critical analysis and motivation to challenge, defend and justify scientific claims of the paranormal.

If the evidence is there to guide you, changing your mind is a strength not a weakness.

Let’s stop acting like the drunk who is looking where the light is brightest; let’s look with sobriety in the cold daylight where there might be something significant to be discovered.

Under the Wallpaper

One never really knows what might be under the wallpaper. Redecorating reveals secrets, a veritable archeology of habitation. When my parents sold up and bought a house about 50 years ago, they left few traces.  I often look down the street from the main road as I go past, to see if the place is still there, but only once have I walked to the house to see it at close quarters. One day when my nostalgia got the better of me I visited the building to take a closer look at our former dwelling, a ground-floor maisonette in Landport, Portsmouth.

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 14.33.04.png

Three bright orange murals

Quite fortuitously, the owners were redecorating. I took the opportunity to knock on the door, but nobody was home.  Curtains were down, ladders were up,  paint cans, brushes all around, and – surprise, surprise –  peeled back wallpaper. I couldn’t resist taking a quick peak through the window at the bedroom where my brother Jon and I slept and dreamed over a ten-year period (see red arrow).

On Jon’s side of the room, as bold as brass, I could see three bright orange paintings – a trumpet, a bugle and a banjo. Immediately I knew these paintings were Jon’s. I knew how Jon would doodle and sketch things. Jon loved jazz.  If Jon painted anything, it would have to be these. I was seeing them for the very first time.  Jon must have done them after I had moved north in September 1966, shortly before Jon had moved to London as a professional jazz musician.



What are the odds of seeing Jon’s musical murals on my only visit to the building in 50 years?

A) We need to estimate how likely it was that Jon had ‘received approval’ to do these paintings in the first place. It is difficult to put a hard-and-fast figure on this, but it is unlikely to have been more than one in 10.

B) Next, we need to make an assumption about how often the walls were repapered. I expect on average around once every five years, which would be 10 times in 50 years.  The probability that the wallpaper was peeled off on any particular day over 50 years (18,250 days) = 10/18250 = .000548 = 5.48 x 10 to the minus 4

C) Next, we need to calculate the probability that I would pay a visit on any particular day over the 29.5 years (10,767 days) that I was living in Britain over this 50-year period, which is  1/10767 = .0000928 = 9.28 x 10 to the minus 5

The odds for P (A +B+C) = 1/10 x (5.48 x 10 to the minus 4) x 9.28 x (10 to the minus 5)           = 50.85 x 10 to the minus 10 = 5.08 x 10 to the minus 9


5 chances in one billion



Reality or Illusion?

I have provided accounts of five striking coincidences over my lifetime. The five events individually have odds in the range 10-9  to 10-18.  What are the odds that all five coincidences could happen to one individual?

To determine the probability of five independent events, A, B, C, D and E, all occurring, we need to multiply the probabilities of the individual events:

P(anB and C and D and E) = P(A)×P(B) x P(C)×P(D) x P(E) 

The five coincidences, which were independent of each another, are as follows:

A) The Chiswick Coincidence: P=10-18 = one chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000  = one in one quintillion (a million, million, million)

B) Coincidence or Luck?: P = 10-10  = one chance in ten billion.

C) Citizen 63 – Marion Knight: P= 4.5 x 10-10  = 4.5 chances in ten billion

D) The Flying Horseshoe:  P = 1.3 x 10-12 = 1.3 chances in a million, million

E) Under the Wallpaper:   P = 5.08 x 10-9 = 5 chances in a billion

The combined probability of the five events is :

P =   10-18 x 10-10 x 4.5 x 10-10 x 1.3 x 10-12  x 5.08 x 10-9

P = 3 x 10-58 

This is one of the smallest probabilities imaginable. 

Yet, according to the accepted scientific theory, coincidences are chance events, and so there is nothing extraordinary here. 

The Flying Horseshoe

A Mysterious Horse Shoe

It is one of our cultural beliefs that horseshoes are lucky. Almost everybody knows it. Many respect it. There is a cottage industry around it. Almost every “olde worlde” pub and inn in Europe displays one or more horseshoes. Almost anybody who has had contact with horses, and many who have not, keep a horseshoe on the mantle shelf, on a wall, or hanging on a door, myself included. Although skeptical about astrology, the Loch Ness monster, and leprechauns (to name but a few) I am today as capable of superstitious behaviour as anybody when it comes to horseshoes. Let me explain why.


DM & Horse Shoe.png


One day I was clearing the junk out of my garage with the help of a local odd-job man, Bert, who had called by one day to see if I needed any assistance. After a couple or so years of neglect the garage was neck-high in newspapers, boxes, and various other recyclables. Bert and I set about the task and spent the better part of a morning cleaning it out very thoroughly.

Before Bert set off with a fully loaded van, he pointed to a rusty old horseshoe lying on the garage floor. I had certainly not been consciously aware of it and, presumably, the previous owners had left it there. “Look,” Bert said, “what’s this doing on the ground? You should hang it up. It’ll bring you luck.” I was surprised that he took this old rusty horseshoe quite so seriously, but, without further ado, Bert placed the horseshoe outside on the garage window sill next to the door. That was the last I thought about the horseshoe for two or three years.

On Sunday, November 1, 1998, I was making a hurried attempt to tidy up my back garden. I noticed the horseshoe lying on the ground. I hesitated for a few seconds, but decided not to pick it up, and left it on the ground. I remember consciously thinking to myself, What on earth are you doing almost taking this silly lucky horseshoe stuff seriously!? As usual in those days, I was fairly busy. After sending off a batch of edited manuscripts to the next issue of the Journal of Health Psychology on Monday, giving a lecture to the fifth-year medical students at Cambridge University on Tuesday, I was off to Milan on Wednesday to visit two research project leaders in northern Italy.

I was accompanied by my colleague Catherine Sykes. Following the two visits, Catherine and I had spare day on Saturday, November 7, to do some sightseeing. We were staying in Breschia, and decided to take a train to nearby Verona to spend a few hours there before returning home to London.

A Mysterious Horse Show

After arriving at Verona train station, we discovered that centre of the city was a bus ride away. We walked out of the station and across the plaza to a bus stop with a mob of excited people, many of whom were foreign (i.e. non-Italian)  clearly in a hurry to go somewhere. Almost as soon as we arrived at the bus stop, a bus arrived and everybody crowded on, us included.  Mistakenly we assumed the bus was going to the town centre. It was absolutely crammed full of people like sardines in a can. After a minute or two of pushing and shoving to get a position in the jam, we asked one of our fellow travellers where exactly the bus was going. “Why, to the horse show, of course!”

So here we were being swept along by a chance decision to a horse show in Verona that we didn’t know existed until that moment! The bus was absolutely buzzing with people excitedly anticipating what – for them, and also for me – was to be a very special event.

Rather than get off at the next stop, we decided to stay on board and see what all the fuss was about. It was, we discovered on arrival at the show grounds, the 100th Fieracavalli, Verona 5-8/11/98.” This was certainly no ordinary horse show.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 11.52.49

We were directed to the entrance gate for foreign visitors to discover hundreds of people crowding around with their passports. All foreigners with valid passports were to be admitted free of charge. After a few minutes we managed to get to the front of the line and were given our admission tickets. We entered the stadium and found thousands of people walking around many dozens of stands and marquees with every imaginable equine thing on display. There were saddles, riding gear, horse feed, anything that horses and riders could possibly want. Catherine and I strolled around the park with no real sense about what to look for, deciding to spend an hour there and leave…

A Flying Horse Shoe

After a few minutes of exploration, we came to a large marquee. We could hear applause from an audience inside and we ventured in to find a few hundred people viewing a pony and rider contest from the tiered seating. We found some spare seats near the top of a tier in the second row from the back, and sat down. We observed a contest of skill and speed. Each pony and rider entered the arena and galloped at full speed around a small course marked out by posts, then raced to the exit. We watched three pony and rider teams. Then a fourth pony came into the arena and began its gallop through the course.

Suddenly, without warning, we became aware of a fast-spinning object flying through the air. In a split-second it became apparent that it was hurtling straight toward us. Catherine shouted out, instinctively I ducked, and like a huge bullet, the fast-flying object passed a few millimetres above my head. I felt its slip stream across my hair.

The object hit a man seated directly behind and above me squarely in the body. His wife screamed, but he was unharmed, the padding of his coat having protected him. It was a flying horseshoe!

Had I not quickly lowered my head beneath the horseshoe’s trajectory, I quite possibly would not have survived. At best I would have received a serious head injury. At worst it could have been fatal.

I thought immediately of the horseshoe lying in my garden. I had faltered over it but picked it up. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that I should have picked the horseshoe up and put it back where it belonged, on the windowsill.

We left the stadium is a state of mild shock. As we discussed the incident, the ‘take-home message’ was clear: Horse shoes are lucky.  Handle with respect!

The next time I was in the garden I immediately put the horseshoe back ‘where it belonged’ – on the shed windowsill.

What would you have done?


We can calculate the odds of the flying horseshoe events as follows:

A) Find a horseshoe in the garden shed – 10 to the power -1 = 1/10

B)  Find the horseshoe lying on the ground immediately before visiting Italy, faltering, and finally leaving it there – 10 to the power -2 = 1/100

C) Following a crowd on a bus in Verona – 10 to the power -1 = 1/10

D) Discovering the horse show — 10 to the power -2 = 1/100

E) Entering a particular marquee – 10 to the power -1 = 1/10

F) A horseshoe flying precisely toward me. There are 360 degrees horizontally and 360 half-degrees vertically – 1/(360 x 360) = 1/129600 = 1.3 x 10 to the power minus 5

The combined probability of above A – E,  P = 1.3 x 10 to the power minus 12.

This represents odds of 1.3 in one million, million.

This coincidence was originally published in: Marks, D. F. (2000). The Psychology of the Psychic (2nd ed.), pages 248-250.


Citizen 63 – Marion Knight

What I Missed Seeing

It was 1963. I had played a minor role in a BBC documentary film “Marion Knight’ but had missed seeing it because I was travelling abroad. This was an era without video recorders or YouTube. If you missed something, you missed it, and that was that.

The ‘Citizen 63’ series received critical praise. The series was described as “One of the most significant TV shows of 1963“. Five individuals had been shown dealing with their everyday lives, their pressures, problems, beliefs and values: a businessman, a police inspector, a shop steward, a scientist and a ‘rebellious’ teenage schoolgirl, Marion knight.  The director, John Boorman, was working for the BBC in Bristol.  He later directed other documentaries, such as The Newcomers (1964). A few years later he was in Hollywood (Point Blank, 1967, Hell in the Pacific, 1968). Boorman returned to the UK to make Leo the Last (1970), Deliverance (1972), Zardoz (1974) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). He became more famous for Excalibur (1981), The Emerald Forest (1985) and Hope and Glory (1987) which brought a second Academy Award Nomination.

Commenting on Citizen 63, one reviewer wrote: “1963 was very much the coming-of-age for those children born in the aftermath of the Second World War. Free of the threat of war and no longer constrained by National Service and of the austerity years that followed there was a new found hope for the future that manifested itself in pop, fashion and a rejection of Victorian values and the social taboos that Britain had been steeped in since the turn of the century…Citizen 63 is an extraordinary record of a transitional period when conventions were being challenged at the very point when youth culture was about to explode in a way that would define the whole era.”

To quote Philip Larkin's poem:

"Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP."

Citizen 63 - Marion Knight








‘Marion Knight’ was screened on 11th September 1963.  Marion was depicted as a so-called “rebellious girl” from a secondary-modern school in Portsea.  Marion was a follower of the trad jazz scene and dismissive of the pop music explosion that was erupting at the time. Selected for “her feisty, opinionated approach to life…with qualities of “leadership and grace”, Marion was the girl-friend of my school mate, Nigel Banister. 

John Boorman – Director and Narrator opened with the comment: This film is about one person, you may admire her, you may dislike her but from her we may learn something about ourselves, for she is part of our society – a “Citizen ’63”.

I saw or heard nothing more about this film for 42 years.

Citizen 63 pic 2Still from Marion Knight (1963) with Nigel Banister (left) and Marion Knight 

What I Finally Saw

On 24th October 2005,  I was napping in front of the TV.  This was not a casual nap.  It was a definite mini-sleep, fully prone on the sofa.  When I opened my eyes, astonishingly, there on the TV was a B & W film showing two people I knew, Nigel and Marion, riding a motor bike. In one of life’s circles, this was the opening scene of ‘Marion Knight’, the film I had missed seeing in ’63.

IMG-8917.JPGWhat caused me to wake at that particular moment, I will never know.  I thought I must be dreaming. As I opened my eyes, this is what I saw: my two teenage friends Marion and Nigel, on a film made 42 years earlier.

The clip was included in a BBC2 documentary  The Battle for Britain’s Soul  about the decline of the Christian church in 1960s Britain.  The BBC website states: “Angels over battlefields, the birth of the welfare state, US evangelism and a revolution in sexual freedom are all factors in the evolution of today’s largely secular society.”  The film was presented by the ‘Hippie Vicar’, the Rev Peter Owen-Jones.  According to Peter Owen-Jones, Marion Knight’s comments about free love among teenagers were emblematic of the ‘sexual revolution’ that is alleged to have taken place in the 1960s, when church congregations went into  a sharp decline.

What Were the Chances of Seeing This Clip?

I obtained copies of both programmes from the BBC Preservation Services Department. The Marion Knight clip lasted 40 seconds.  I normally watched TV during the evenings for around three hours. With four channels, I need to calculate how much television content was available for the whole time I lived in Britain in the 29 years from September 1986 to August 2015.  Removing holidays or trips abroad would reduce this time by about six months, leaving 28-and-a-half years.

The calculation follows:

ACTUALLY VIEWED (AV) 180 minutes a day for 28.5 years = 180 x 365 x 28.5 =  1,872,450 minutes of TV. Multiplying by 60 gives 112,347,000 seconds.

Bearing in mind that the total amount of evening television across 4 channels over this time would have been a lot more than this. Let’s say an evening lasts for 6 hours from 18:00 to 24:00.  Then the total evening TV content would have been:

TOTAL TV CONTENT AVAILABLE (TA) 6 hours = 360 minutes a day for 28.5 years = 360 x 365 x 28.5 x 4 = 14,979,600 minutes of TV which is 898,776,000 seconds.

The probability that the clip would have occurred in the TV content I actually saw would have been: AV/TA = one-eighth ( .125).

The clip lasted only 40 seconds. What are the chances of seeing this 40-second clip at the precise moment that I awakened?  Bear in mind the entire amount of TV I had actually viewed over the 28.5 years was 112,347,000 seconds.  The answer is:

40/112,347,000 = .0000003560

To allow for the fact that I only saw one-eighth of the total evening TV available, we must multiply this figure by 1/8, which gives: .00000004450

or 4.45 x 10 to the minus 8.

A Boundary Condition

There is another factor to consider. The only possibility to view this clip was dictated by the fact that the producer of the 2005 BBC documentary ‘The Battle for Britain’s Soul’ decided to include this particular clip from the 1963 BBC film ‘Marion Knight’.  The chances of this event are difficult to estimate.  In round figures we could guess that it would have been be in the region of one in a hundred (10 to the minus 2).

This would put the combined probability of seeing the clip at around:

4.45 x 10 to the minus 10


4.45 chances in ten billion. 








Coincidence or Luck?

How many striking coincidences can we expect in a single lifetime? Setting the bar high, let’s define ‘striking’ as a probability of less than one in a billion. I list here a few of my own. The first set of coincidences was an incredible run of luck while travelling as a student. I feel entitled to count these as coincidences because, in each case, whatever we set our minds to, happened a few minutes later. It was a case of coincidence combined with luck. I estimate the probability of each of the four events as we go along, and give a final probability estimate at the end.

1) No Money in Cologne

In August and September 1963 I went travelling with a school friend Graeme Locke.  We travelled through the UK, Scandinavia and the two Germanies.  The trip of 2000+ miles took us over land by road and rail, and over sea ferry routes. For the road parts, we couldn’t hitchhike the whole time but we did so whenever we could. In East Germany, we travelled by train from Berlin to Cologne, one of the few approved routes available.

On arriving at Cologne station, we had a slight problem – we still needed to get back home in Portsmouth but were completely out of money. I say ‘slight’ problem, because it was soon resolved. We started a ‘porter service’ for people in need of help with their luggage. We stationed ourselves at the taxi drop-off point and, within no more than 3 minutes, arrived an elderly lady in furs with a luxurious set of four suitcases.

Möchten Sie eine Hand mit Ihrem Gepäck? 

Sure enough, the dear lady needed some help to take her considerable luggage set to platform 13. We took it over, about three minutes work. Thanking us, the lady gave us a tip – a very large tip. From memory, is was 40 Deutsch marks – four of these:


In today’s money, it must have been worth at least €60, enough to buy our train+ ferry tickets to Dover, plus some change for a slice of pizza  [p = 10 to the minus 4].


2) No Money on the Ferry

OK, so far so good, we were aboard the Calais-Dover ferry, but now we were skint once again. In those days, before health and safety regs took over everyday life, people would be crammed into every available space on board the ferry. On every deck from aft to stern and from port to starboard, passengers were sitting cheek by jowl.

We got chatting to a Turkish student squatted next to us on his way to Fresher’s week at Newcastle University. He had a lot of questions because this was his first visit to England.

The bell rang for the first sitting of lunch. C’mon he said, let’s go for lunch. We explained our predicament, and instantaneously he just said, no worries, lunch is on me. We enjoyed a fulsome lunch with our new found Turkish friend [ p = 10 to the minus 2].

3) No Money at Dover

Here we were in Dover, as skint as badgers, and so we started hitching again. A vehicle driver stopped within a couple of minutes offering to take us to Brighton. The driver kindly dropped us at Brighton station with a 10/- shilling note for our fares to Portsmouth [p = 10 to the minus 2].

4) Ten Bob in Brighton

No way were we about to waste ten bob on train fares!  Off we went to the A27 hitching the last remaining stage to Portsmouth.  Our final driver, in the first car that came along the road,  lived at Havant, a few miles east of Portsmouth. He kindly took us to his house, cooked us beans and poached eggs on toast, and drove us to our respective homes in Portsmouth.

After our 2000-mile journey, we arrived home with a crisp 10 shillings profit! [p = 10 to the minus 2].


Probability of the Sequence

The four events are estimated to have the following probabilities:

1) Lady gives us 40 D-marks at Cologne station: p = 10 to the minus 4

2) Student buys our lunch on the ferry : p = 10 to the minus 2

3) Man gives us lift to Brighton and a 10 shilling note : p = 10 to the minus 2

4) Man cooks us a meal and takes us home: p = 10 to the minus 2

The combined probability of these four events is: 

P = 10 to the minus 10 = one in a 10,000,000,000

or one in ten billion.


A New Ponzo Illusion (or something more?)

Most visual illusions are produced using carefully contrived drawings or gadgets to fool the visual system into thinking impossible things.  Recently,  waiting at a train station, I encountered a real-life Ponzo illusion.

The Illusion

The traditional form of the Ponzo illusion is produced by drawing a pair of receding railway lines. The context suggests different depths in the drawing. An object towards the top of the drawing appears larger than an identical object near the bottom of the drawing.  Using a principle of size constancy, the visual system estimates the size of any object as its retinal size multiplied by the assumed distance. Thus, the ‘most distant’ of the two identical yellow lines appears to be longer.


The Setting

The setting of this new Ponzo illusion is a railway station situated at Vitrolles Airport, Marseille (see photo below).  The station has glass panelled shelters on the platforms on each side. The glass panel at the front of each shelter displays two rows of grey rectangles. Apart from their decorative function, one assumes that these rows of rectangles are intended to help prevent people from walking into the glass panel as they move in and around the shelter. The photo below shows the arrangement of the two rows of rectangles on the shelter.


The Stimuli

The stimuli for the illusion consist of rectangles that are slightly longer than a credit card, approximately 10.0 cm long x 1.5 cm wide with a separation of about 3.0 cm between successive rectangles. The plate glass window is about 5 mm thick and is marked with rectangles on both sides of the glass in perfect alignment so that a 3-D effect is created indicating a false sense of solidity to these rectangles. This ‘3-D look’ may strengthen the Ponzo effect illustrated below.


The Illusion

The illusion is demonstrated in the photo below.  Two people sitting directly in front of the shelter are waiting for a train. The upper set of rectangles appears as a set of columns positioned along the railway lines at a distance of approximately 7 metres in front of the two passengers. In this case, the upper set of rectangles appear to have a height of around 2-3 metres. The lower set of rectangles are perceived at their correct location and size on the plate glass window, behind the two passengers. The lower set are actually physically smaller, owing to the camera angle, but the illusion exaggerates the size difference enormously.


Further illustration of the effect indicates how the brain scales the stimuli to the context. When the rectangles are projected onto the opposite platform they appear huge – almost as high as the lamp post of around 5 metres.

When the rectangles are projected onto the nearby platform, however, they appear proportionately smaller (1.0-1.5 metres).


IMG-9389.JPGOwing to the camera angles, the actual size of the rectangles in the upper picture is larger (5-10%) than in the lower picture, but nowhere near the illusory ‘expansion’ that takes place when they are projected by the brain to the opposite platform.

Blocking the Distance Cues

The magnitude of the Ponzo illusion becomes somewhat indeterminate when the distances cues were fortuitously blocked by a passing freight train. In this case the rectangles are ‘drawn into’ the scale of the passing wagons, stretching in size beyond the appearance when the wagons are not there.



The Ponzo illusion can be most easily explained in terms of linear perspective. The rectangles look longer when they are projected to the distance of the opposite platform because the brain automatically interprets them as being further away, so we see them as longer. An object located farther away would have to be larger than a nearby object to produce a retinal image of the same size.


The more visual cues surrounding the two vertical lines, the more powerful the illusion. The passing freight train obliterated some of the distance cues and so the length of the lines was more difficult to assess.

A new post explores the possibility that the illusion described above may be more than another form of the Ponzo Illusion.