A neuroscientist's take on synthetic telepathy, electrified ESP, and mind control

Telepathy. ESP. The ability to communicate thoughts, feelings, or experiences without using our known sensory channels is a timeless superpower. Soon, advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and computer science will make some kinds of synthetic telepathy possible. Meanwhile though, methods to treat brain disorders through magnetic stimulation of brain circuits could enable crude (or eventually not-so-crude) mind control. National Institutes of Health neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields -- author of Electric Brain: How the New Science of Brainwaves Reads Minds, Tells Us How We Learn, and Helps Us Change for the Better -- wrote a brief essay for Scientific American surveying the present, past, and possible future of this strange field. From Scientific American:

Neuroscientist Marcel Just and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are using fMRI brain imaging to decipher what a person is thinking. By using machine learning to analyze complex patterns of activity in a person’s brain when they think of a specific number or object, read a sentence, experience a particular emotion or learn a new type of information, the researchers can read minds and know the person’s specific thoughts and emotions. “Nothing is more private than a thought,” Just says, but that privacy is no longer sacrosanct....

...The prospect of “mind control” frightens many, and brain stimulation to modify behavior and treat mental illness has a sordid history. In the 1970s neuropsychologist Robert Heath at Tulane University inserted electrodes into a homosexual man’s brain to “cure” him of his homosexual nature by stimulating his brain’s pleasure center.

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"Pick a number and I'll guess it": the math behind the magic

On Vsauce2, Kevin Lieber explains the mathematical magic that enables mentalists to confound audiences by correctly guessing the number they've picked. Even though I know how it's done, it still confounds me.

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Humans have a sixth sense for Earth's magnetic field

A new study suggests that humans can subconsciously sense Earth's magnetic field. While this capability, called magnetoreception, is well known in birds and fish, there is now evidence that our brains are also sensitive to magnetic fields. The researchers from Caltech and the University of Tokyo measured the brainwaves of 26 participants who were exposed to magnetic fields that could be manipulated. Interestingly, the brainwaves were not affected by upward-pointing fields. From Science News:

Participants in this study, who all hailed from the Northern Hemisphere, should perceive downward-pointing magnetic fields as natural, whereas upward fields would constitute an anomaly, the researchers argue. Magnetoreceptive animals are known to shut off their internal compasses when encountering weird fields, such as those caused by lightning, which might lead the animals astray. Northern-born humans may similarly take their magnetic sense “offline” when faced with strange, upward-pointing fields...

Even accounting for which magnetic changes the brain picks up, researchers still don’t know what our minds might use that information for, (Caltech neurobiologist and geophysicist Joseph) Kirschvink says. Another lingering mystery is how, exactly, our brains detect Earth’s magnetic field. According to the researchers, the brain wave patterns uncovered in this study may be explained by sensory cells containing a magnetic mineral called magnetite, which has been found in magnetoreceptive trout as well as in the human brain.

"Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from Alpha-band Activity in the Human Brain" (eNeuro)

"Evidence for a Human Geomagnetic Sense" (Caltech) Read the rest

Scientist uses magic (and psychology) to implant thoughts and read minds

In a new scientific study, McGill University researcher Jay Olson combined stage magic with psychology to make people think that an fMRI machine (actually a fake) could read their minds and implant thoughts in their heads. Essentially, Olson and his colleagues used "mentalist" gimmicks to do the ESP and "thought insertion" but convinced the subjects that it was real neuroscience at work. The research could someday help psychologists study and understand why some individuals with mental health problems think they are being controlled by external forces. Vaughan "Mind Hacks" Bell blogged about Olson's research for the British Psychological Society. From Vaughan's post:

(The subjects) reported a range of anomalous effects when they thought numbers were being "inserted" into their minds: A number “popped in” my head, reported one participant. Others described “a voice … dragging me from the number that already exists in my mind”, feeling “some kind of force”, feeling “drawn” to a number, or the sensation of their brain getting “stuck” on one number. All a striking testament to the power of suggestion.

A common finding in psychology is that people can be unaware of what influences their choices. In other words, people can feel control without having it. Here, by using the combined powers of stage magic and a sciency-sounding back story, Olson and his fellow researchers showed the opposite – that people can have control without feeling it.

"Using a cocktail of magic and fMRI, psychologists implanted thoughts in people's minds" (BPS)

"Simulated thought insertion: Influencing the sense of agency using deception and magic" (Consciousness and Cognition)

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Do you have negative ESP?

Negative ESP, or "psi-missing," is when you score far below chance in an ESP test. According to the textbook An Introduction to Parapsychology (2007):

It is important to note that this does not indicate a lack of ESP (or of psi in general) since the latter would be associated with nonsignificant scores. Rather, psi missing might be viewed as an expression of psi in a way that produces a result opposite to the conscious intent.

(via Weird Universe)

Article below from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1/19/72):

(illustration at top by Rob Beschizza) Read the rest

Drawings from "thought transference" experiment (1885)

Public Domain Review found this illustration from an 1885 issue of Science that was scanned and saved at archive.org. Read the rest

The scientist who studied whether dreamers could be telepathic

In my friend Ronni Thomas's latest short documentary, meet parapsychologist Dr. Stanley Krippner, who in the 1960s ran the sleep lab at Brooklyn's Maimonides Hospital where he tested whether sleeping subjects could experience a form of dream telepathy.

Krippner is loved by paranormal researchers, believers, and skeptics alike. He's been honored with lifetime achievement awards from the mainstream American Psychological Association yet ESP researcher Charles Tart says "Stan belongs on the Mount Rushmore of parapsychology. Krippner famously conducted experiments with Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead. In fact, in 1971, he enlisted the help of the Dead's audience in trying to mentally transmit an image to a sleeping psychic 45 miles away. Irvin Child, the late former chair of Yale's psychology department, wrote in the American Psychologist journal that he believed "many psychologists would, like myself, consider the ESP hypothesis to merit serious consideration and continued research if they read the Maimonides reports for themselves." Krippner's career is mind-bendingly weird and amazing.

"Transmitting Thought: The Maimonides Dream Lab: A New Film by Ronni Thomas for Morbid Anatomy Museum Presents!" Read the rest

SciAM interview with parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake

Over at Scientific American, a fascinating, civil, and open-minded conversation between psi-doubter John Horgan and psi-researcher Rupert Sheldrake about morphic fields, psychic dogs, and other high weirdness. Read the rest

Matmos's Ganzfeld EP: electronica meets ESP

Matmos's experiment with ESP-inspired electronica.