Skip to content

OU on the BBC: Background Brief - Science and the Psychics: The Story So Far

Updated Tuesday, 8th August 2006

Janice Acquah asks what happens when science attempts to explore the paranormal

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

BBC ONE's Sea of Souls dramatises the tension between science and the paranormal Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Surveys show that over 50% of us believe we’ve experienced some sort of "psychic" event in our lives. On the other hand, sceptics are usually able to deconstruct such happenings to show how perfectly ordinary coincidences and chance occurrences could be happily misinterpreted by the uninitiated.

You might imagine that this stand-off between believers and non-believers could never be settled by scientific analysis. But there are currently academic researchers attempting to do just that. They’re not interested in fairground fortune-tellers, haunted houses or people who have spooky dreams every night. What they’re interested in finding out is whether we humans might have a genuine, if weak, sixth sense. And they claim to be getting somewhere ...

Edinburgh But how can serious scientists investigate the paranormal and keep their professional credibility intact?
Janice Acquah set off to the hotbed of psychical research in the UK: in Edinburgh University’s Psychology Department.

The research unit was set up over 15 years ago, with money from the psychically-curious author Arthur Koestler’s estate – and it’s been going strong ever since.

Janice Acquah There are two main types of psychical phenomena being studied:
* ESP, or Extra-Sensory Perception. This includes telepathy, or mind-to-mind communication, and clairvoyance, where the individual gains information about the outside world, without any of the normal sensory channels such as sight and hearing being involved.
* PK, or Psychokinesis. This is basically mind-over-matter, and involves moving or influencing an object simply by intending to do so ...

Like many other research organisations, the scientists at Edinburgh are not particularly interested in testing people who claim to have special psychic abilities. Instead, what they want to find out is whether all of us have some faint ’sixth sense’, perhaps as a residual ability from way back in our evolutionary past. But if we do, it’s clearly not used much, or else we’d all be avoiding accidents, winning the lottery and reading each other’s minds…. The only way to try and prove it then, is to conduct numerous identical trials, the results of which can be analysed statistically to pull up any effects which are not what you’d expect by chance.

Janice was invited to take part in one of the classic experiments used in this kind of work, the Gantzfeld ESP experiment. The aim of this experiment is to investigate telepathy.

Janice in experiment chair Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University The experiment involves two people, the ’sender’ (in this case research associate, Chiara) and the ’receiver’ (Janice).




They are esconced in secure separate rooms, some distance from each other. The receiver’s environment in particular is geared towards total relaxation – she lies in "the world’s comfiest chair", with soft pink light playing on her eyes, and white noise playing in her ears.
Janice with goggles on








The sender’s job is to watch a video clip, which has been randomly selected by the computer. And the receiver’s job is simply to lie back and notice any images that float into her mind during the time the sender is doing her watching and ’telepathing’.
Chiara watching video

Eventually, the receiver is roused, and based on what she’s ’experienced’ during the preceding 35 minutes, she has to watch four video clips – and pick the one that seems most like the images she was seeing in her head.

Chiara Once a choice is made, the sender – the only person who knows the answer – is invited to join the receiver and reveal what the correct answer was…

In Janice’s case, the clip featured some particularly large snakes moving around across rocks. But after much indecision, she plumped for a clip of children watching a clown.

So: it was negative result that time. However, the Edinburgh researchers have published research in which 1 in 3 guesses were correct. That might not sound much, but remember, out of four film clips, the average number of correct guesses would statistically only be 1 in 4 … Furthermore, they report higher than average results with ’creative types’ such as artists and poets.

Why doesn’t everyone agree that weak ESP exists then?

For a start, sceptics point to other experiments which do NOT show results like this. And secondly, there simply aren’t that many results to analyse anyway, even internationally, since this is a small and relatively new area of research. Some scientists also feel that the lack of a coherent theory of how such a mechanism would work is a problem – they feel the theoretical model should be a starting point, not something to aspire to later.

Paul Stevens and Janice Acquah Paul Stevens is a researcher at Edinburgh, who does have a theoretically-based research project in action. He’s a physicist and is interested in the theory that changes in the Earth’s magnetic field affect psychical ability. He’s conducting part of his research on the internet, so as to get huge numbers of participants who of course, are distributed right around the world … (check out their website on our LINKS page if you want to take part).

Janice with computer The idea in this particular experiment, is that once online, you have 30 seconds in which to try and influence a Random Number Generator situated in a secure room in the Edinburgh centre. Paul admits, "It sounds crazy, but that’s what people do. And over time, we get a very slight, but very distinct effect." Around 2000 people have taken part so far - and he’s still hoping for more participants before he analyses the results.

Again – it’s much too soon to rewrite the psychology text books, but whichever way it goes, this will be an interesting story to watch unfold over the next few years.

First broadcast: Friday 15 Oct 1999 on BBC TWO





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?