Prof Etzel Cardena, of Lund University, kindly invited me to contribute to a symposium on anomalous experiences at the International Convention of Psychological Science meeting in Vienna. ICYMI here is a wee preview of our symposium and my presentation.
Title: Extraordinary (Anomalous) Experiences: Multidisciplinary Perspectives
1. (Re)introducing the Psychology of Anomalous Experience.
Etzel Cardeña, Ph. D., Lund University
2. A Beneficial Cultural Reinterpretation of Dissociative Phenomena.
Yvonne Schaffler, Ph. D., University of Vienna, and Etzel Cardeña
3. Putative Precognitive Dreaming: Psychological Mechanisms and Parapsychological Research.
Chris Roe, Ph. D., University of Northampton
4. The Role of Sensory Habituation (Ganzfeld) in the Possible Occurrence of ESP.
Caroline Watt, Ph. D., University of Edinburgh
Time will be tight for each speaker, but fortunately I will benefit from the groundwork laid by Etzel, Yvonne, and Chris, who will consider links between anomalous experience and possible paranormal phenomena. My own presentation focuses on ganzfeld ESP research. First I discuss the ‘noise reduction’ model that was introduced by Charles Honorton in 1977 and William Braud in 1978, in response to converging evidence that sensory habituation and direction of attention towards internal processes might be conducive to psychic experiences. The noise reduction model assumes that possible extrasensory information resembles a weak ‘signal’ that can be swamped by somatic and cognitive ‘noise’. By relaxing and habituating the participant to homogeneous sensory stimulation, the participant’s attention is directed towards their internal thoughts, images, and impressions, and these impressions are considered to become more salient as other noise and distraction is reduced.
I’ll explain that the ganzfeld method was adopted by parapsychologists in response to the noise reduction model, as a way to create a seemingly psi-conducive internal attention state, for testing hypothesised ExtraSensory Perception (ESP) in the laboratory. (Actually ganzfeld was first used by Gestalt psychologists to study perception.) And since the first ganzfeld ESP studies in the late 1970s, 5 meta-analyses of a total of 112 ganzfeld studies have been published, between 1985 and 2010. (A meta-analysis is a quantitative review of the results of a group of studies using similar methods to test the same hypothesis.)
The ganzfeld ESP meta-analyses are by Ray Hyman in 1985, Charles Honorton in 1985 (both published in Journal of Parapsychology), Daryl Bem and Charles Honorton in 1994, Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman in 1999, and Lance Storm, Patrizio Tressoldi, and Lorenzo Di Risio in 2010 (all published in Psychological Bulletin.) All but one of these meta-analyses found results consistent with the ESP hypothesis (that is, correct identification of the randomly-chosen ‘target’ at a rate greater than expected by chance alone.) This has led to some researchers claiming that the ganzfeld method has produced replicable evidence for psi.
Nevertheless right from the start there has been debate over how to interpret these findings. Those meta-analyses that concluded there was evidence for ESP, as well as those that came to the opposite conclusion, were criticised on various grounds, including: definition of ‘standard’ ganzfeld; statistical methods of the meta-analyses; cut-off dates and inclusion criteria; heterogeneity of results, and how to handle extremely high- or low-scoring studies.
For me, the ganzfeld debate is interesting in part because of what it reveals about the challenges of conducting research into controversial claims. The fact that both psi proponents and psi skeptics have criticised meta-analyses whose conclusions contradict their expectations highlights the limitations of meta-analysis as it is usually conducted (i.e., after the results of the studies to be meta-analysed are known). I am not the first to point out that retrospective meta-analysis is open to researcher bias because the researcher has to make many decisions in conducting the meta-analysis. These decisions can be influenced by knowledge of the outcome of the studies to be meta-analysed. Jim Kennedy and I have recently published a paper in which we expand on these issues and discuss possible solutions, particularly what we call ‘registration-based prospective meta-analysis’ (click here).
Of course any retrospective meta-analysis, including those conducted into less controversial topics in psychology, has the same vulnerabilities. Don’t make the mistake of concluding that just because we are discussing a debate over parapsychological meta-analyses, this means that parapsychology alone faces replication challenges and everything is rosy for other disciplines. It’s just that due to the nature of the claim that is being tested in parapsychology, the field invites greater scrutiny. My argument is that this scrutiny – which often comes from within the field of parapsychology – can drive up standards so that practices in parapsychology can be favourably compared with our sister disciplines.
In their presentations, Etzel, Yvonne and Chris wilI make the point that the study of anomalous experiences can increase our understanding of human capabilities. I’ll conclude our symposium with further examples of how the study of anomalous experiences has helped to develop methodological and statistical techniques that can benefit science more broadly.
The convention is next weekend. I’ve just completed my slides, and will be presenting a dry-run to check timings etc. at Wednesday’s KPU research meeting. To find out more about the ICPS, click on the banner below.