Harvard researchers devise new way to test ESP claims.

You’d think such research would be unnecessary in an enlightened society such as ours, but with almost half of all American adults professing a belief in various ESP phenomena, not to mention the ongoing popularity of charlatans such as Sylvia Browne, I suppose it’s a good thing that someone sat down and devised a way of testing for ESP:

The research was led by Samuel Moulton, a graduate student in the department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University with Stephen Kosslyn, John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard and was published in the Jan. 2008 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The scientists used brain scanning to test whether individuals have knowledge that cannot be explained through normal perceptual processing.

To develop a better test of ESP, the authors decided to develop a new method, which directly addressed the presumed source of ESP: namely, the brain. They argue that because the brain enables perception and stores information—even events people don’t consciously perceive or information they can’t consciously remember—it can offer a much more comprehensive test for ESP than self-report or behavior.

“The brain shows a suppressed response to stimuli that a person has seen before, even when those stimuli were presented subliminally, so the person wasn’t consciously aware of having seen them; furthermore, it shows an enhanced response to stimuli that a person is expecting,” says Moulton. “Because knowledge and expectation bias brain activation, neuroimaging offers us a uniquely powerful test of subtle perceptual or cognitive processes.”

To study whether or not ESP exists, Moulton and Kosslyn presented participants with two types of visual stimuli: ESP stimuli and non-ESP stimuli. These two types of stimuli were identical with one exception: ESP stimuli were not only presented visually, but also were presented telepathically, clairvoyantly, and precognitively to participants.

To present stimuli telepathically, the researchers showed the photographs to the participants’ identical twin, relative, romantic partner, or friend, who was seated in another room. To present stimuli clairvoyantly, the researchers displayed the photographs on a distant computer screen. And to present stimuli precognitively, the researchers showed participants the photographs again in the future.

So did they find anything that suggests ESP actually exists?

“If any ESP processes exist, then participants’ brains should respond differently to ESP and non-ESP stimuli,” explains Moulton. “Instead, results showed that participants’ brains responded identically to ESP and non-ESP stimuli, despite reacting strongly to differences in how emotional the stimuli were and showing subtle, stimulus-related effects.”

Does this conclusively prove that ESP does not exist” “No,” says Moulton. “You cannot affirm the null hypothesis. But at the same time, some null results are stronger than others. This is the best evidence to date against the existence of ESP. Perhaps most important, this study offers scientists a new way to study ESP that avoids the pitfalls of past approaches.”

I predict we’ll see a lot of charlatans use the age-old “but those people weren’t REAL psychics” defense that has worked so well for other True Believers™.