Roberts, F. Somerville, A Possible New Approach to the Science-Parapsychology Relationship, JSPR, 61,1996-7, pp. 391-7
Reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Roberts.
List of papers by the author; archived at

A Possible New Approach to the Science-Parapsychology Relationship 

by F. Somerville Roberts

An assessment of the apparently paranormal anomalies of consciousness suggests new directions for psychical research within conditions acceptable to the physical sciences and therefore rendering it acceptable as a discipline of science.

There is no doubt that one scientific experiment showing the existence of a non-physical influence in nature would transform parapsychology into one of the more prestigious disciplines of science. Unfortunately, because of the difficulty of physically experimenting with a non-physical entity and describing its nature and characteristics in physical terms, the chances of proof of the paranormal meeting the criteria of scientific authority seem remote.
There is, however, one means of establishing the veracity of the paranormal beyond all doubt and that is to show that there exists a psychical phenomenon which meets every criterion of the paranormal and yet can be repeated and observed as and when desired and even manipulated to a limited extent.

Several years ago, it was suggested by Susan Blackmore that research into the nature and functioning of consciousness would probably be the most rewarding area for such an investigation and this is proving to be the case, although very slowly. There is a curious but widespread belief, or acceptance, amongst physicists and parapsychologists alike that paranormal behaviour is essentially transient and outside of strict laboratory control, as manifested by telepathy, apparitions, precognition and so on. When full control is a factor, such as in the study of the anomalies of consciousness, it is assumed to be a case for investigation by neuroscientists and psychologists only, and para-psychologists are not wholly welcome.

There are, however, several functions of consciousness which exhibit the characteristics of psychical behaviour, yet they can be observed by anyone at any time. One of the most interesting trends in this respect, in spite of the fact that the experiments cannot be repeated with certainty, is the well-known development in the United States of what is referred to as 'remote viewing'. This phenomenon was previously known by the more seance-inspired term clairvoyance. Unfortunately, this work has not been primarily conducted as a scientific investigation, but is the result of the military authorities taking advantage of what appear to be paranormal faculties in certain types of people. Nevertheless, the results are so remarkable that it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that some people have psychical abilities, but a definite decision must await publication and scientific assessment of the information held by the American military authorities. However, one objection raised by sceptical scientists to the validity of all paranormal investigation, namely the possibility of fraud and deception, certainly cannot be applied in this case.

The origin of the CIA's interest and subsequent participation in 'remote viewing' was in the work carried out by Dr Hal Puthoff, who was a physicist at the Stanford Research Institute. His first subject showed results which so impressed the pragmatic CIA investigators that they organized a future programme of funded research. In one of his tests, the subject was asked to 'remote view' the planet Jupiter at a distance of some 400 million miles. He announced that Jupiter is surrounded by a ring, in the same way as is Saturn. This claim was greeted with more than a little derision by almost the entire astronomical community, who would have detected it decades ago. But two years later, Voyager I recorded the existence of a ring around Jupiter.

The value of 'remote viewing' to the CIA is illustrated by the way police commissioner Patrick Price, who was a psychical viewer, was able to 'see' into a Soviet nuclear research centre and described the construction of a 60-foot diameter globe as part of a beam weapon device. Three years later, US spy satellites had developed to the extent that they were able to confirm the existence of the nuclear research laboratory, of which a 60-foot diameter globe was the main component.

Whilst situations of this type would logically be sufficient to establish the existence of a psychical factor, many scientists maintain that they are merely non-reproducible anecdotal accounts which do not constitute scientific proof of a psychic influence, and therefore they continue to reject such a concept.

There are, however, other functions of consciousness for which no physiological theory has yet been put forward and probably never will be. Take, for example, the fact of universal visual perception. Everybody, with unimpaired eyesight, looking at the same object sees an identical image of it in all respects. Many tests have confirmed this obvious fact and, if it were not so, it is clear that life as we know it would be utterly impossible. It follows that universal perception requires that everybody has a precisely identical procedure, operating in absolutely identical conditions, for the creation of identical physiological visual images through which we are aware of the world.
However, all normal physiological functions and states differ widely between all living people. Everybody speaks differently, writes differently, thinks differently, looks different, and so on, such differences being created by the influence of physical factors in each individual. If image creation is a purely physiological function, then we have physiological activity which is completely unaffected by those physical influences which determine the differences between individuals.
This immunity to physical influence in image creation is confirmed by the effect of time on the functioning of perception. Teenagers and octogenarians looking at the same object will have identical images of it and will paint identical images of it, apart from muscular constraints. The difference in ages will not influence the result. This can be the case only if the elements involved in image creation do not deteriorate with age and we then have a bodily activity which does not grow old as do all bodily functions. This is one of the basic characteristics of a non-physical and non-physiological manifestation and does not require any further scientific proof and fully vindicates the parapsychologists' claim for paranormality in nature.

An equally convincing example of non-physiological conscious activity is shown by the phenomenon of auto-kinesis. If a person is sitting in a darkened room lit only by a lighted cigarette or similar light, he or she will, after a few seconds, see the light move randomly in all directions. However, by the simple expedient of deciding that the light is really moving, say, upwards, he will immediately see it doing so, although at the same time the optical system will actually be registering on the visual cortex the retinal pattern of a static light.
If the volition image is physiological, then we have the situation whereby nothing more than 'wishful thinking' is able to obliterate the retinal sensory patterns of a static light in the visual cortex and then continuously rearrange its own, so as to result in a controlled moving light.
There is an interesting footnote to this situation in that, as Gregory (1966) points out,if a group of people are watching the random light and one member announces that the light is moving, say, upwards, then practically every observer will immediately see it doing so. It follows that, if mental control of vision is a physiological function, we have the situation whereby the sensory retinal pattern in the visual cortex of almost everyone present is designed, created and controlled, not by retinal response, but by the personal opinion of an individual.

All the evidence indicating that the last stages of visual perception function independently of the brain applies also to the other senses, again providing the associated organic systems are unimpaired. A typical example is the perception of pain. The experiencing of pain can, of course, be prevented by the use of anaesthetics and drugs, which by acting on the nervous system or cortex prevent the brain area from registering the appropriate pain configuration or pattern.
However, by merely generating an 'idea' in a person's consciousness to the effect that he or she cannot feel pain, that person will be rendered quite incapable of doing so, irrespective of how severe the pain may be organically. Whilst some people are able to achieve this effect simply by volition, practically everybody can do so if their critical faculty is reduced or suspended by, for example, hypnosis. The situation then is that even the most severe pain can be avoided by nothing more than a suggestion from another person, who does not interfere in any way with the subject's nervous or cerebral systems, which areas continue to register the normal pain signals. This fact has been confirmed by hundreds of surgeons, obstetricians and dentists all over the world. It has, however, been suggested by some neuroscientists that the hypnotist's instruction is in some way able to disrupt the neural transmission of pain signals, thereby preventing pain from being experienced, and that a further instruction is immediately able to rectify such damage to the neural system and allow it to function normally again.
No valid physiological theory appears to have been put forward to explain such an extremely unlikely procedure. The simple explanation is that consciousness is induced to believe that no pain is involved in its functioning at that specific moment and therefore it does not create the experience of pain. It is clear that this situation can exist only if consciousness is at least in part non-physiological. It is a parallel case to the creation by volition of perceptual images, in which consciousness creates images of what it believesexists in the physical world and not what the retinal-cortical system is actually recording.

Another type of experiment indicating a non-physical anomaly of consciousness is that carried out by the eminent investigators Cooper and Erickson (1952), who showed that, under hypnosis, consciousness can undertake mental work, such as mathematical calculations, at a rate far in excess of that of which the brain is physically capable. It is well known, of course, that the brain can substantially increase its operating speed for a short time in an emergency, but not to the extent required by the experimental results. Since cerebral functioning at very high speed can take place only in the hypnotic state, which is an artificially induced condition, the question inevitably arises as to how such a function could evolve by natural selection.
Before high-speed cortical activity can be experimentally investigated, a hypnotic state must be created in the subject and it is doubtful if this practice was sufficiently widespread in primitive humanity (even if it existed at all) for it to sustain the evolution of high-speed cortical activity. At best, it could only be on extremely rare occasions that the hypnotic state and high-speed brain functioning were invoked, yet evolution requires a mutation to be continuously and advantageously in use for it to develop into a characteristic of its host, and this was certainly not the situation in the case under consideration. Moreover, it is quite remarkable that this very valuable faculty has not been acquired as a function of normal cerebral activity.

Experimental work on these lines tends to confirm the numerous anecdotal accounts by observers of the highest integrity and intelligence who have been near to death and during those few seconds have re-experienced all the major events of their lives, which is virtually a cerebral impossibility.
There are various small and repeatable experiments in conscious activity which, if investigated, could help considerably in determining the validity or otherwise of an apparently non-physical situation. One of these concerns regression under hypnosis and was described earlier in this Journal (Roberts, 1991). Many experiments have shown that, when an elderly hypnotized subject is regressed to, say, adolescence, he or she can recall in the most minute detail places and events of his or her early days in a way far beyond the capabilities of normal memory. Even when asked to write something when regressed to, say, ten years of age, the subject will do so in handwriting appropriate to that age. If examples of the subject's writing at age ten are available and a handwriting expert were to compare them with the regressed samples and find the normal variations which could be attributed to the passing y ears, then the regressed effort must simply be the result of heightened memory recall. On the other hand, if he were to decide that there were no significant differences (apart from muscular influences), then we should have a situation duplicating the characteristic of visual perception in that there would apparently be a function of consciousness which remains unchanged throughout life and which therefore does not age. Immunity from physical influences, and immortality because there is no ageing, are not the normal characteristics of a physiological function; they are, in fact, indisputably paranormal.

These are but a few of the examples which illustrate the wide range of situations which are apparently inexplicable on a physical basis and presumably will always be so. They are indisputable facts, yet unfortunately their investigation has received little, if any, attention from those propounding theories on the nature of consciousness. Nevertheless, the existing situation places the parapsychologist in a strong position relative to the materialist, in the science-parapsychology relationship. Traditionally, the parapsychologist is always on the defensive when trying to establish his case. The materialist simply says, 'Show me a repeatable experiment which demonstrates that man has faculties which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis' (the Society's definition of psychical), and in spite of the voluminous and valuable store of research records available on PK, telepathy, card guessing, etc., there is not one case which refutes the materialist's contention.

However, this position is now being reversed through the initial attention given to the phenomena of conscious activity. As a result, the parapsychologist is now in the position of being able to say to the sceptic, 'If you deny that these are paranormal, your claim will be invalid unless you can explain the physiological processes by which they take place'. The difficulty then facing the sceptic is truly formidable. If he tries to explain voluntary control of visual perception, for example, he must show how the wish arises in the brain, whilst avoiding the possibility of an infinite regress, where the active neural signals arise, how they find their way to the visual cortex without an established optic nerve channel, how they know precisely which cortical cells they must activate and which they must avoid, how they activate the cortical cells in the same way as do sensory signals, how they know how to obliterate the existing sensory pattern and, above all, how they acquired all the necessary information and technique by evolutionary natural selection. In addition, all this procedure is necessary in every other case of apparent psychical activity because just one example which cannot be refuted remains as convincing evidence of its existence. If this approach is pursued vigorously by all those interested in the future progress of parapsychology, then its acceptance as a discipline of science will become inevitable, with the benefits such a situation would entail.

It will be seen that no attempt has been made to explain the modus operandi of a paranormal phenomenon; the object has been merely to show that such phenomena exist. How such a system operates is irrelevant to the argument and is an entirely different area of research. It is quite possible that we may never know, because a non-physical element and its characteristics may be beyond the limited comprehension of the human mind. On the other hand, a radical change in our assessment of the physical world and its laws, such as that so comprehensively proposed by Smythies (1951), could indicate an approach offering substantial advancement in this direction.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible that, within the foreseeable future, physical science itself will provide acceptable proof of a non-physical aspect of consciousness. Repeated experiments with atomic clocks have shown that every physical system which changes with the passing of time, such as clocks, plants and all living creatures, alters its rate of change when in relative motion to the Earth—it slows down. For example, a clock in a rocket fired from Earth will always be slower than an identical clock on Earth and this applies to all physical change. A human being in the rocket, suitably protected against space radiation, will grow older at a slower rate than everybody on Earth. If an identical twin spends several years in high-velocity space-travelling, then, when he returns to Earth, he will in all physiological respects be substantially younger than his Earthbound twin.

If, in addition, all conscious activity is also somehow changed in comparison to that of his brother, the inevitable conclusion must be that all consciousness is physical and organic. On the other hand, if some conscious function has remained totally unaffected, then indisputably consciousness must be at least partially non-physical, because there cannot be physical or physiological activity which is immune to the laws of physics. It would, perhaps, be slightly ironical if proof of a non-physical element were the by-product of an experiment carried out by one of the more materialistic disciplines of science.

Ashford, Kindlestown Hill
Delgany, Co. Wicklow



Gregory, R. L. (1966) Eye and Brain. London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Puthoff, H. (1996) CIA-initiated remote viewing program at Stanford Research Institute.
Journal of Scientific Exploration 10 (1), 63-76.
Roberts, F. S. (1991) Some apparently non-cerebral aspects of consciousness. JSPR 58,
Smythies, J. R. (1951) The extension of mind : a new theoretical basis for psi. JSPR 36,