On difficult surnames, reputation traps and a loose cable

Leonid Schneider asked me for my thoughts on his post on Frontiers in Paranormal Activities, in response to my sharing of Sam Schwarzkopf’s annoyance with people getting his last name wrong. I’ve got a difficult surname as well – it’s pronounced ‘yolay’, should that be of interest; ‘ij’ is a diphtong in Dutch, Jolij is the Dutchified version of my French ancestors’ name Joly – hence, the understanding. I had read Leonid’s post before, actually, when I saw it in relation to the Bial drug trial tragedy. At that time I did not respond, although I certainly did have a thought or two on the matter, but now that Leonid is asking, here we go.

What is the deal? Early 2014, a special issue in Frontiers in Psychology (or better, a Research Topic) was hosted by Etzel Cardeña and Enrico Facco on ‘Non-ordinary Mental Expressions‘. Some of the papers included in this topic are actually fairly ‘main stream’ (effects of psychedelics on neural activity, for example), but other papers were slightly more radical, including a paper on retro-priming and Cardeña’s editorial calling for an open view to the study of consciousness. These topics are, to say the least, controversial, and I do not think I have to elaborate on why that is so. This entire issue resurfaced this week when Etzel Cardeña published an ‘uncensored’ version of his editorial, and pointed out that research into the paranormal is typically ridiculed, researchers in the field are not taken seriously, and the ideas are basically dismissed without any consideration of data and or theory. There is a reputation trap: once you get associated with ‘weird stuff’, people will not talk with you anymore. Huw Price wrote a very worthwhile piece on this.

As said, Leonid Schneider wrote a long post on the special issue on ‘NOMEs’ in Frontiers, basically asking himself whether this is not one big practical joke on Editor-in-Chief Hauke van Heekeren. Because, you know, paranormal stuff?

The snark is strong in Leonid’s post. It’s quite clear that he does not take the study of psi as serious business. As I have indicated earlier, it does annoy me that skeptics all too easily ridicule researchers who are engaged in this type of research. This sentiment is very clear in Schneider’s piece, and it is also the reason for me not to comment earlier. I simply do not like the tone. What settled it for me, though, is the final addendum in which psi research is linked to the Bial drug trial tragedy. But more on that later.

I have argued before in several posts that I do believe psi can be a valid and relevant topic of study. Given that I am getting more and more involved with this debate, this may be a good occasion to give full disclosure on how and why I arrived at this position and show my true colours to friend and foe. Decide for yourself whether you want to group me with psi opponents, proponents, skeptics, or wafflers (though I am curious to hear from you with whom you would group me!)

First, there is a clear sentiment in Leonid’s post that psi research is not real science. I disagree. The sentiment seems to be based on the idea that psi cannot exist, and therefore researchers studying this topic cannot be taken seriously, and are probably running psychic hotlines next to their day-jobs, or are gullible fools who believe in fairies, Martians, and the Illuminati. More on that later.

With regard to what is science, I think science is not a belief system, but rather a structured method to increase knowledge about the world. As long as you stick to the rules of the game, there should be no taboo research areas. Of course, there may be research areas that make more or less sense than others, but as long as you stick to the scientific method, you’re doing science. In that respect, I do understand that Van Heekeren had no problems with a special issue on non-ordinary mental expressions in Frontiers. People do have weird experiences, after all. Regardless of what is actually going on, people do report out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and so on. These experiences are empirical fact (as in: people report having them). Therefore they are fair game for further study. I mean, if we could not study crazy experiences, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists would be out of a job, right? That said, let me be the first to admit that there is A LOT of god-awful (a.o. self-published) psi research and theories. Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to psi research more than to any other field I know of.

But shouldn’t Sturgeon’s Law for Psi Research not read ‘100% of everything is crap’, because a) psi cannot exist, b) psi researchers are idiots, and b) there is no theoretical framework in psi? No. First, it’s an easy straw man to craft a story about how psi researchers study clairvoyants (or may be clairvoyant themselves), run around with EM-meters to study haunted houses, and commune with the spirits to channel their research results. Admittedly, there are people doing that kind of stuff. And, no, I do not think we should take them very seriously.

However, as a science, experimental parapsychology has known higher methodological standards than many other areas in psychology. Preregistration, Bayesian statistics, publication of negative results – parapsychologists did all that stuff in the 1980s already, way before some main stream psychologists realized such methodological rigor is a must for any serious science. In that respect, if you think parapsychology is not a science, you should be fair and extend that opinion to all areas of psychology, and quite some more fields.

Anyway, there are quite some people who have found odd effects in carefully set up experiments that call for further investigation. Contrary to popular belief, there are some models/hypotheses out there for these lab-induced phenomena that are not completely at odds with our present understanding of physics. I say that as someone who studied physics for a couple of years (although I am the first to admit that the fact I got a degree in experimental psychology in the end is telling about my qualities as a physicist). Although these models rely on a rather specific interpretation of in particular the metaphysical status of consciousness, this is not a reason to dismiss them out of hand. I would like to remind the audience that the mainstream physicalist position on consciousness (i.e., consciousness is a brain process) itself is a metaphysical assumption about the nature of consciousness, and a position that is even slowly eroding.

This is where things got interesting for me. My research focuses on consciousness, and in particular on the mind-body problem. Psi phenomena, should they exist, would shine an entire new light on the metaphysical assumptions we make about consciousness. Just for that reason I think it’s worthwhile to have at least a look into the matter. My research interest in this area goes back to my early years a psychology undergraduate when professor Dick Bierman used to be my academic mentor. We talked a lot about this line of work, but I lost my touch with the area when I started doing my PhD with Victor Lamme, with a very strict materialist agenda. Dick and I got back in touch a couple of years ago when I got back in the Netherlands.

As I briefly mentioned in an earlier post, things got really interesting when anomalous effects started popping up in my own data. For example, using a single-trial EEG classifier I was able to decode the identity of an upcoming stimulus in a visual detection task, on basis of the baseline alone… Upon closer inspection of the data, it turned out there was a randomization problem. Ergo, I thought I had cracked the problem of all these alleged precognitive effects (improper randomization), fixed that by using a combination of hardware RNGs (if you see these odd photos of green glassware from my lab – that’s my hardware RNG ;-), and present that at the conference. Except the precognitive effect was still there. I triple-checked everything – stimulus script, analysis protocol, filter settings, hardware filters in the EEG amplifier: nothing. Yet, the effect is huge (d = 1.44).

So, what do you do? I decided to be honest and report what I found: I could decode the future, which I submitted as an abstract for the bi-annual winter meeting of the Dutch Psychonomic Society. Sure, I could filedrawer this weird effect, but why would or should I do that? I had a hypothesis, tested it, and failed. I was wrong – ‘precognitive’ effects are not caused by improper randomization. For those of you interested: we are going to replicate this study in a multi-lab setup. Drop me a line if you want to have a look at the data and code.

Anyway, to cut a long story short – over past five years I have done several quite large replication experiments on controversial areas (social priming, psi). The bottom line is that all my attempts at replication social priming effects failed, but the psi ones did not… So, hell yeah, I’m fascinated, and all of you would be if you got three whopping psi replications in a row. As a matter of fact, Dick and I are now getting some people together to work on a large-scale, multi-site adversarial collaboration project to run a number of high-powered replication studies to figure out if there really is such thing as a replicable psi effect. The only way to do this is by maintaining the highest methodological standards. Adversarial collaboration, preregistration, high power, open data, open materials, and proper experimental design are essential, otherwise you might as well not do it.

Now, to get back to Leonid Schneider’s post – I already mentioned I did not like the tone. I’ve read some of his other work, and fortunately, this piece is not representative of his qualities as a science journalist. Beacuse, as a science journalism piece, it fails, in my opinion. Audi alterem partem is what is missing here. That is disappointing. Moreover, you don’t have to agree with someone to still show at least some respect (or at least pretend you do). I’m totally fine with people thinking psi research is nonsense. I am also fine with people thinking my research is nonsense (I call such people “reviewers”). I am not fine with making fun of people and bullying them, which is what happens in this post.

Anyway, making fun of psi researchers is one thing, and I guess most are used to it. However, I think Schneider crosses a line when he suggests a link between the psi research and Bial trial incident. Bial is a Portugese pharmaceutical company that got into the news recently because of a clinical trial gone horribly wrong: healthy participants showed a severe adverse effect to a new drug, resulting in the death of one volunteer, and serious brain damage in several others. Schneider flat out suggests a relation between this tragedy and the fact that the Bial Foundation, a foundation sponsored by the founder of the company, funds psi research.

This suggestion is nothing short of slander. First of all, there is no relation between the activities of the company and the foundation, other than that the foundation annually gets a big bag of money from the guy who owns the company. Second, even if there would have been a direct link between the activities of the foundation and the company: as I mentioned earlier, the research standards in experimental parapsychology are at least comparable to those in ‘normal’ psychology. Third, clinical trials are legally regulated and closely monitored by medical ethics committees which assess the protocol and guard participant safety. Even in the case Bial did ask a psychic to develop the protocol for this trial using a crystal ball, or had a necromancer come up with the drug formula, the French authorities would/should have stopped this. All in all, the fact that Schneider uses this tragedy to make a point about parapsychological research is a really, really low blow.

In June, I attended the TSC 2015 conference, which also has quite a large number of talks on anomalous phenomena, and I had the pleasure to meet the kind of the people who are at the receiving end of Schneider’s snarky comments. They turned out to be fairly normal scientists, working at universities, about as knowledgeable or even more knowledgeable about research methods than the average psychologist. Most did not believe in fairies, they did not hold seances during their talks, not a single one brought a crystal ball, and there were no nightly shamanic sessions involving druidic dancing around monoliths (or at least, I was not invited to such happenings). The main difference is that these people work on effects most scientists find very, very implausable.

I think that we should measure psi researchers (or any researcher for that matter) not by their topic of study, but by the way they study their topic. Any researcher who holds up to high methodological standards, and is open to constructive criticism deserves to be taken seriously, regardless of what kind of effect she or he is working on. Period.

However. The fact that some skeptics cannot resist the urge to ridicule is no reason for the self-styled martyrdom some psi researchers engage in. Yes, psi researchers are being bullied, ridiculed, and even silenced. Schneider’s post is an excellent example. There is a reputation trap. That reputation trap, though, is often of one’s own making. Too often, psi researchers engage in wild, unfalsifiable speculation. Quantum teleportation, entaglement telepathy, that kind of stuff. Modesty should prevail: there is no convincing evidence psi effects exist, otherwise we would not have this discussion. Therefore, it is best to stay away from wild theoretical speculations that often involve misrepresented physics until there is at least some consensus between skeptics and proponents on whether anomalous effects are anything more than statistical noise. We’re not there. Yet.

Similar to most psi researchers not being fairy-worshipping druids, most skeptics are not narrow minded, sour critics. Most are actually very willing to discuss anomalous phenomena. But as data. Based on my personal interactions with them, I’d say both EJ Wagenmakers and Sam Schwarzkopf are perfectly willing to discuss experiments and datasets, but not if you come rushing in LOOK OMG HERE I FOUND PSI IN MY DATA LOOKATIT YOU WERE WRONG QUANTUM FTW! No, you found an interesting anomaly that begs for further exploration/explanation, but first we need to make sure your pattern of results is not the result of something trivial or just a random accident. Neither EJ or Sam laughed in my face when I told them about my data containing anomalies. Rather, the reply was “Interesting, what could be going on here?”

The thing is – it’s all about framing. In my mind, the present situation is very much like the faster-than-light neutrino anomaly of 2011. Researchers found evidence of particles moving faster than light, which according to special relativity is impossible. Rather than the entire field going bonkers, skeptics at CERN calling their colleagues at OPERA spirit-channeling fairy lovers, and OPERA researchers starting an anti-oppression movement because they were not allowed to share their result, the general response was “Hey, that’s interesting, let’s figure out what caused this result!” And that is the only reasonable response – if indeed particles can travel faster than light, it means we need to completely re-examine our ideas physics. Awesome! Work for generations of physicists to come!

Why can’t we do the same in psychology? There are people who seem to consistently find weird results. What’s going on? Clearly, we have not settled this matter – there is no conclusive evidence in favour of psi, but oppositely, clearly the psi proponents are also not convinced by the skeptics’ arguments and replication attempts. Skeptics should accept that there are consistent anomalies being found by intelligent, reasonable people all over the world that call for a deeper explanation than “it’s just statistical noise” or “it’s just publication bias” – I mean, weird results are popping up in my lab, FFS! Psi researchers should accept their case for the existence of psi is not strong enough, and that only with adversarial collaboration we can figure out what’s going on.

Oh, and those neutrinos? Turned out to be a loose cable in the Italian setup…

(note to self: check lab cables after the weekend)

Call for suggestions!

Hi all,

Shortly we will be running a pretty cool EEG experiment on perceptual decision making in romantically involved couples. Basically, a couple (let’s call them Alice and Bob) will come into the lab, each be assigned their own computer and then take turns in a perceptual decision making task (see Jolij and Meurs, 2011, for more details on the task itself). So, first Alice will get to see a trial and give a response; then Bob will see Alice her response (as a cue) and will do the trial, and to conclude, both will see each other’s answers. During the experiment, we’ll be measuring EEG (NB: only 8 channels). Before the experiment, both partners fill out a series of questionnaires on relationship duration, quality, etc.

In the spirit of open science, I though it might be useful to ask you all what would make this dataset useful for you. I mean, we are going to test these participants anyway, in a rather non-typical setup (two EEG measurements simultaneously, meaning you can look at all kinds of interpersonal processes, EEG synchronization, ect.), so if there is anything I could add that does not take too much time so this could be an interesting dataset for you, let me know. Think of maybe a block of eyes-closed EEG data during a breathing exercise to study interpersonal synchrony, a particular questionnaire, additional markers, whatever.

As long as it does not add too much time to the experimental protocol, or takes up too much time programming, I am happy to include stuff. Please do get in touch if you want to know more: j.jolij@rug.nl.

Hypnosis workshop materials

Here are the materials I used in the VIP Hypnosis Workshop of 4 December. Feel free to use the induction MP3s, but please do not listen to these tracks while driving, operating a nuclear power plant, performing brain surgery, or doing anything that requires you to be awake. The Power of Boring is strong is these tracks. The background sound has been generated using http://www.naturesoundfor.me.

Slides: Hypnosis workshop

Induction with backing track:

Reversal with backing track:

Recording of my Quantum Mind lecture (12 Nov)

Last week, I have given a lecture for the VIP, our student association, on my not-at-all controversial work and ideas on consciousness, quantum physics, and psi. Thanks to Jeffrey Harris, who made an audio recording, you can now listen to my waffling, whilst looking at the pdf with slides!

Slides: Quantum Mind


Part 1: Philosophy of Consciousness and the Hard Problem

Part 2: Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, in particular the Measurement Problem

Part 3: The Quantum Mind?

Is psi truly impossible?

Over the last weeks, several interesting posts in which psi prominently featured were posted on the web: one by Alex Holcombe, in which he argues that as long as meta-analyses find evidence for psi, our scientific publication system is broken; one by Sam Schwarzkopf in which he replies to a paper by Bem et al. finding new evidence for psi (that will be published in some time in the future; the study has not been conducted yet); and a satirical poster by Arina Bones, in which she argues that Bem’s presentiment effects were actually rather weak compared to the unlikely results tyically published in JPSP…

Now, to be fair, the mentioned blog posts primarily address methodological issues in (mainstream) science, rather than going into the theory of psi, but the posts have one thing in common: psi is implicitly or explicitly assumed to be impossible, because physics! But is psi indeed incompatible with physics?

Some interesting facts

Before going into that question, I’d like to share two interesting pieces of information. Yes, science is broken, and our publication process is largely to blame for it. The fact that we can find evidence for a phenomenon that is allegedly impossible is, according to Holcombe, a tell-tale sign of this. Two important suggestions to improve our practices are preregistration and using Bayesian rather than frequentist statistics. Interestingly, though, psi researchers seem to have a head start in improving their practices. The European Journal of Parapsychology, for example, has offered the option to preregister research, and have a paper accepted on basis of preregistered methods, independent of the actual outcome  since the late 1970s. It was big news in the psychology community when the journal Cortex started offering this service – only last year…

Moreover, the use of Bayesian statistics is presently advocated strongly by ‘professional skeptics’ to stop the surge of spurious research results (including, but not limited to psi). Interestingly, the idea to use Bayesian statistics in psi is not new. The Journal of Scientific Exploration, a journal notorious for “advocating pseudoscience”, published a critical review of psychokinesis research that explicitly called for the use of Bayesian statistics in the analysis of psi data, because, and I quote, “… a small p-value may not provide credible evidence that an anomalous phenomenon exists”. This paper was published in 1990, almost 25 years ago…

What I’d like to state with this: parapsychology as a research field is controversial, and that its topics, theories and results may be outrageous, but that some of its practices may be exemplary for mainstream psychology.

Psi and physics

Anyway, enough about meta-methodology. Time for some physics. Is psi indeed incompatible with physics? Well, yes and no. Psi effects apparently violate basic laws of physics, either because they involve a reversal of the flow of time (e.g. precognition/presentiment) or a direct influence of one body on another without a mediating force (psychokinesis). But which laws are violated?


First, can information travel back into time (often referred to as retro-causality)? There are two often-heard arguments against this idea: first, the Second Law of Thermodynamics gives time a specific direction or arrow; second, the Special Theory of Relativity (STR) states that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, which would be required if one would want to send information back into time.

I’ve argued before that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not necessarily imply retro-causality is impossible – only that it is impossibly unlikely. So, what about this idea that nothing can go faster than light? Well, that’s not entirely correct. The only thing that Einstein proposed is that c (the speed of light) is invariant in all frames of reference of space-time. What follows from the STR is that in order to accelerate matter moving at sub-lightspeed beyond c, one would require an infinite amount of energy. Likewise, to decelerate particles moving faster than light (‘tachyons’) to sub-lightspeed  would also require an infinite amount of energy. So yes, for all practical purposes, nothing can go faster than light, but STR does not strictly forbid v > c.

Moreover, c is only constant within frames of reference. Between frames of reference, speeds exceeding c are permitted. However, this does not mean that retro-causality exists. In particular the ‘causality’ in retro-causality is problematic: in STR, causal relations can only exist between an object and objects in its past light cone (i.e., the points in space-time from which you can potentially see a photon emitted by the object). Even though velocities larger than c are permitted, this does make retro-causality in STR a no-no.

However – there may be a loophole. Or several, actually. Physically speaking, the direction of time is rather arbitrary. Without going into too much detail, there are several interpretations of electrodynamics (in particular the Wheeler-Feynman Absorber Theory) and quantum mechanics (two-state vector formalism and Cramer’s transactional interpretation) that explicitly assume time symmetry. Wheeler-Feynman’s absorber theory, for example, deals with the question why radiation seems to be emitted rather than absorbed. Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetic fields always yield two solutions: one going forward in time, and one going backward in time. We typically discard this latter solution, but for no good theoretical reason. Wheeler and Feynman have tackled this problem by assuming that the waves going backward in time are cancelled out (‘absorbed’) at a macroscopic scale. Dick Bierman has proposed that some retrocausal effects may be explained by assuming that the ‘cancelling out’ of advanced waves (‘information from the future’) has gone astray in some case, in particular when consciousness is involved (paper to be found here).

Speculative? Sure. Impossible? No.

Quantum waffling?

So, we don’t even need quantum physics to save the day, but let’s have a closer look. Quantum physics, with all its strange features, is often invoked when trying to explain more mysterious aspects of psychology, in particular consciousness and paranormal phenomena. An often-heard argument against this practice is that it is simply explaining one thing we do not understand (eg., consciousness) with another (quantum physics). Moreover, quantum physics and mysterious quantum phenomena such as entanglement and quantum superpositions are believed only to be relevant at a microscopic scale, and are completely washed out in the ‘hot and noisy’ environment that is our brain.

Surely, skepticism towards the all-too-liberal use of quantum physical concepts when explaining is warranted. In fringe and pseudo-science, quantum physics is often distorted and misunderstood. However, the same thing sometimes goes for debunking attempts from skeptics. Let’s look at some (mis)understandings.

(Mis)conception #1: Quantum physics is not relevant in biological systems such as the brain, and therefore irrelevant in the study of psi.

Can we use quantum mechanical concepts in order to explain weird mental phenomena, such as psi, or even consciousness itself? No, the skeptic argues – the brain is too hot and noisy to allow for any quantum physical phenomenon, such as entanglement or superposition, to occur. Quantum physics is only relevant when studying tiny particles in isolated systems!

Both these assumptions are not entirely correct. To start with the former, empirical evidence is accumulating that quantum processes (in particular quantum coherence) do play a role in living systems, for example in photosynthesis. Direct evidence of quantum processes in the brain still lacks, though. However, it may not be completely inconceivable that quantum processes do play a role in brain functioning. Does that open up the possibility for all kinds of spooky actions at a distance in human cognition? Well, that’s a really, really long stretch. For starters, the fact that quantum effects have been observed in plants does not mean plants are conscious entities that can do telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis. Second, and more importantly, our understanding of the relation between brain processes at the microscopic scale and cognition is still quite limited. It is very difficult to imagine how quantum processes that play at the scale of single cells or even individual receptor sites would influence cognition and behaviour. However, simply stating that quantum physics by definition has no role in human brain function is not appropriate, I’d say.

Second, is quantum physics only relevant for studying microscopic isolated systems? No. Quantum physics is the best description of reality we have. There is no theoretical limit that states why we cannot describe macroscopic objects in the ‘language’ of quantum mechanics, Actually, we could consider classical Newtonian physics as a special case of quantum mechanics. The discrepancy between the quantum and classical world is rather an empirical observation we do not yet completely understand- there is not a theoretically prescribed boundary of at what scale we should start to use either classical or quantum mechanics to describe Nature. This brings us to a philosophical problem in physics: the measurement problem. According to some (controversial) interpretations of quantum physics (in particular the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation), consciousness has a special statues in physics, because it ‘collapses the wave function’. I will not go into all specifics here, as this is a blog post, not an article (yet), but this is rather significant: if consciousness is instrumental to a basic physical process, this means it cannot be reduced to physical processes, or more specifically, brain activity. From this point of view, whether or not quantum physical processes play a role in brain processes is a completely irrelevant issue.

As I argued earlier, I think the most pressing reason to study psi is that demonstration of psi would falsify physicalism – the assumption that we can reduce consciousness to physical processes. We all too easily make this assumption when talking about consciousness, even to such an extent that we forget that it is an assumption. Back to psi – many psi effects could in theory be explained if we assume that ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ can be directly entered as a system in equations. The calculations would still work – however, the interpretation of the calculations would be rather outrageous… And whilst we’re on that page…

(Mis)conception #2: Quantum physics allows for free will, telepathy, psychokinesis, absolute idealism,  Chopra-ism, etc.!

So, quantum physics, in some interpretations at least, gives us a ‘loophole’ to escape Newtonian determinism – we can have a free will, and if the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation is correct, we can even ‘create’ reality with our minds!

Er… no.

For starters, quantum physics is probabilistic in nature. Even if consciousness does collapse the wave function, the outcome of that collapse (e.g., finding a particle at a given location or not) will be completely random and unpredictable. As I argued in an earlier blogpost, that is not a very desirable feature of free will, or reality shaping in general. So, I would say free will and creation of reality are safely out of the scope of quantum mechanics.

So, what about psi? For the sake of argument, let’s assume quantum effects are somehow related to psi. Suppose that psi effects are the result of quantum entanglement: you, the observer, become entangled with a physical system far away in space and/or time, and for some reason something happens to the distant system. This means it would affect you instantaneously, because you and the distant system are entangled. However, quantum weirdness can never be used to communicate information at supraluminal speeds, which would be needed for causal psi. In quantum information theory, there is such a thing as the no-communication theorem. In order to make sense of the non-local interaction that happened (or even be aware that something happened at all), you need to correlate your state with the state of the distant system. This correlation can only be done via ‘classical’, sub-luminal communication.

This rules out any kind of ‘causal’ psi. With this I mean that quantum-based psi cannot be used to change your behaviour to avoid a given future, for example (i.e., the Final Destination scenario). What may exist in this framework, though, are correlational effects, such as proposed and reported by Von Lucadou and Walach.

Does psi violate physics?

Well, as it seems, not necessarily. There are interpretations of physics that do allow for psi-like effects to occur. However, these interpretations are not your main-stream ones, and do take some background in physics to fully comprehend. As physics laymen, we as psychologists/neuroscientists are often tempted to dismiss any interpretation that falls outside the ordinary stuff we learnt in high school or undergraduate physics courses. Perhaps rightfully so. However, stating that psi is impossible because physics? Hm, I’d be very careful with making that statement. Best not to calibrate our statistical methods using a phenomenon that actually might exist after all…

Making people nicer with eye primes does not work – always.

Quick update here – I got some questions about this study, and to clarify some things:

  • this study is not a direct replication, nor is it intended as a replication. Rather, I was interested in putting my ideas on unconscious perception to the test: based on earlier work, I predicted that priming prosocial behaviour would only work for unmasked stimuli, and not for masked stimuli. Turned out the priming effect did not work for either condition.
  • Because it was not a replication attempt, I did not stick to Simonsohn’s N*2.5 rule. Nevertheless, Bayes factors turned out to be informative, and yield substantial evidence for the null.
  • Did I expect the effect to replicate? Sure as hell I did! The data published here is only our final attempt. In total, we tested almost 400 participants between 2008 and 2010, but since this was all ‘before Stapel’, and there was no effect in the data, I have been sloppy with the earlier data. This dataset, collected by Tineke de Haan for her MSc-thesis, is complete and well-documented; the other data I got in is not. Otherwise I could have presented a huge dataset without any effect. A second experiment, in which we looked at effects of eye primes on responses on questionnaire that measures moral behaviour (N=90), also – no effect at all. If you’re interested in that data, let me know.The only reason I kept on trying is because I truly believed the effect would be there, because it’s so plausible!
  • Is ‘social priming’ anything I expect not to replicate? Nonsense. See new blog post in the making for that one.

Darn, some bad news for the weekend. A paper I submitted to PLOS One got rejected. But in all fairness, it was a non-successful conceptual replication with so many potential moderators that it’s hard to draw any conclusions. We (that is, my master student and I) decided to try to publish it anyway, in line with this paper by Jelte Wicherts et al., but the editor disagreed.

So, too bad, but I can live with this rejection.

However, since I do not have time to shop around to try and get it published somewhere else, but at the same time would like to save the rest of the world interested in making people nicer with eye primes (masked and unmasked) some time, I uploaded the data to PsychFileDrawer, plus as a bonus, the full manuscript and data can be downloaded from this very website.

The manuscript can be found here, the data here. Comments of course welcome via e-mail!

Why no one will win the Randi or Chopra Challenges

Whoa! Deepak Chopra is offering 1 million dollars to anyone able to present a falsifiable theory of consciousness, in response to James Randi’s $1 Million Dollar challenge to show paranormal (psi) effects exist! Of course, Twitter and Facebook are going bonkers over this. And I have been going a little bit bonkers over all the responses, to be frank. Just to blow off some steam, here are my thoughts on Chopra’s challenge, and the responses to it.

First of all, many people responded to Chopra’s call with sarcasm and cynicism, and made fun of Chopra’s lack of understanding of science.

It struck me how many of these people lack any understanding of science themselves, but I guess that’s Twitter for you. I’d like to say to these people who ‘fucking love science’: proclaiming yourself an atheist or tweeting ‘WOO WOO’ to @jref does not make you a scientist any more than making a coherent sentence with the words “quantum”, “universal”, and “spirit”.

 So, what’s this all about? Years ago, James Randi, a professional stage magician, and renowned skeptic put out a 1 million dollar prize to any individual able to show true ‘paranormal’ ability. Anyone who would be able to read the future, do telekinesis, or make money as Ghostbuster, Randi would pay one million dollars. To date the prize remains unclaimed.

Deepak Chopra, on the other hand, is an Indian MD who writes books on consciousness and quantum mysticism using the Deepak Chopra Quote Generator, and apparently makes enough money to throw a million dollars at anyone coming up with a falsifiable theory of consciousness.

Neither of these challenges make sense.

Randi’s challenge does not make sense because it operates on a straw man argument: it makes a caricature of psi and then shoots at it. No, there are no such things as seeing in the future, telekinesis, or mind reading. No matter how sad it makes me to admit this, Professor X and Jean Grey DO NOT EXIST (come on, you all at least fantasized about being able to read minds and get the remote and/or your beer and pizza without having to leave your couch!) Period. Does not work, cannot work – not according to the laws of physics, not according to present theories on psi. What might exist, though, are weak, anomalous effects that if they exist, may only be detected in high-powered studies involving a large number of subjects set up in a very specific manner, that need to be pre-registered, and replicated, and replicated again before we can even start drawing conclusions about the existence of psi. So, no individual will ever be able to show paranormal ability, and thus claim the Randi prize. Safe bet, Mr. Randi.

Chopra’s challenge makes no sense because it is horribly ill-defined. Coming up with a falsifiable scientific theory of consciousness is not possible without properly defining ‘falsifiable’ and ‘consciousness’. What Chopra means to say is he will give a million dollars to anyone who can come up with a falsifiable materialist theory of conscious experience, that is, a theory of the subject of consciousness – the experience itself; not (necessarily) its contents. And that is an impossible challenge, because it is a contradiction in terms. You cannot come up with a falsifiable materialist theory of consciousness, and claim the Chopra prize. Safe bet, Mr. Chopra.

But how does mind relate to matter, then? Why can’t we have a falsifiable theory of consciousness?

I am not going to repeat Introduction to Philosophy of Mind here, but roughly we have four classes of mind/matter-theories:

  1. Only matters exists, mind is an illusion
  2. Mind exists, independent of matter
  3. Mind is dependent on matter (or vice versa)
  4. Only mind exists, matter is an illusion

Now, let’s be good scientists, and shoot at these propositions to falsify them, shall we? Classes 1 and 2 are fairly easy to shoot at, so I’ll use proper bullets 😉 Classes 3 and 4 are somewhat more challenging, though.

Let’s start with 1, which you may call orthodox materialism. It’s easy to debunk (with one caveat, though).

  • Cogito ergo sum. I have conscious experiences. Even if these experiences (including the feeling of being the subject of conscious expriences) are illusions, I am still experiencing these illusions. Therefore consciousness exists – even if all other apparent conscious beings in the universe would be philosophical zombies (that is, beings that act rational, but lack conscious experience).
  • If consciousness exists, there is ‘mind’. This rules out orthodox materialist monism (the notion that there is only matter, and that mind is an illusion).
  • Caveat: I can only falsify this for myself, because I cannot with certainty claim anyone else has conscious experiences. Vice versa, you cannot verify my conscious experiences, so you should not believe my claim, but base your evaluation on your own conscious experience (or lack thereof).

Number 2 is good old Cartesian substance dualism. Let’s shoot!

  • In order to move a body, the mind needs a way to operate it
  • Operating a body requires brain cells to fire
  • In order to make a brain cell fire, energy is required – the mind needs to add energy to the brain in order to make this work
  • Physics (ie our understanding of matter) does not allow the creation of energy within a closed system. How can mind get energy into the brain?
  • The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics will not save you here, Church of the Quantum Spirit. Quantum mechanics describes physical reality at the finest grained level, and contrary to classical mechanics, which is deterministic in nature, quantum mechanics is probabilistic. In other words: the x(t) = v*t gives the position of a moving object at time (t) with absolute certainty; the Schroedinger equation (or better, a transformation thereof) only gives the probability that a particle will be at a given position at a given time. A typical ‘quantum woo’-argument is that the probabilistic nature of QM potentially allows for a mechanism via which mind can influence matter. However, QM is probabilistic – the outcome of a quantum measurement is inherently unpredictable. That may sound very convenient if you want to believe in free will, but in fact it is a terrible property for a cognitive system, or social beings like us. Our entire social network, and our own mental sanity flourish by the mere fact that we are (in general) quite predictable in our actions and thoughts.  Let’s please not introduce fundamental randomness in there, I’d say…

Classes three and four are more difficult to shoot down. Since WordPress does not allow me to use mortar grenade points, but only bullet points I’ll switch back to full text.

Number 3 is the class of what I call ‘weak monism’. We accept mind and matter exist. However, the one substance is dependent on the other (or: one substance can be reduced to the other). This is the category in which we will find main stream theories of consciousness. Weak monist theories come in two flavours. Materialist (or physicalist) theories propose that mind is the result of physical processes, and can be described as such. The Orthodox Skeptics are adherents of these theories, as are most main stream scientists. Idealist theories state that mind is supreme, and that matter is created by the mind. Chopra’s Church of the Quantum Spirit is of this denomination.

Weak monism, though, suffers from the dreaded Hard Problem. How does a change in one substance result in changes in the other? This goes for both materialism and idealism. Materialists need to explain how a change in matter (brain cells) translates into consciousness, and why some physical processes (action potentials) result in consciousness in some circumstances, whereas the same physical process do not in other circumstances. However, also if you’re from the Church of the Quantum Spirit, you have a hard problem. If matter is a result of mind, how come not all mental activity results in changes in matter?

According to many materialists, including Dan Dennett, the Hard Problem is not really a problem at all. Consciousness simply is the sum of all brain activity, period. In slightly more subtle wording: consciousness is believed to be an emergent phenomenon, resulting from the complexity of the neural networks of our brain. This is called supervenience – reality can be described at different levels, and higher levels of description (consciousness, mind) are dependent on features of lower levels of description (brain, neurons). Or, as Kalat has put it in Biological Psychology for generations of psychology students: you can look at the Mona Lisa as a painting of La Giaconda, and talk about in the sense of her mysterious smile, or you can give a detailed descripton of the canvas and pigments used. Same thing, different levels of description. Similarly, mind is the same thing as brain activity, but simply described in different terms. Obviously, we can easily swap around the words ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ to fix the Hard Problem for idealism.

Now, I hate to bring this news to the Orthodox Skeptics, but this is Woo in its purest form. You cannot call any theory that only says ‘if you make something complex enough it becomes conscious’ a serious theory! How complex does a system have to be in order to become conscious? At what level of description does consciousness emerge? Does the physical system need to be a brain, or would any physical system do? In other words – calling consciousness an emergent property of brain activity and leave it at that is hardly any more scientific than declaring universal quantum love and spirit (or insert your favourite Deepak Chopra quantumism here).

There are several problems with the emergence/supervenience theories of consciousness, but I personally think John Searle brought up the best argument against supervenience theories. Let me paraphrase it in terms of the Chinese Room thought experiment: in this thought experiment, we lock up a man who only speaks English in a room. Via a slot in the door he is given sheets of paper with Chinese characters. Using a manual in the room, he is able to look up an appropriate response in English. He writes the reply on another sheet of paper, which he returns via the slot. From the outside, it looks like the man knows Chinese! In reality, of course, he does not. Searle used this to argue that true artificial intelligence does not exist – for example, if you are training a system to respond to a user in natural language, what you’re doing is giving an artificial system a manual. The system does not understand language in the sense we understand language.

The Chinese Room can also serve as a thought experiment on consciousness. Take a system (a body), and pop a computational unit in there  that can map inputs to outputs it (let’s call this magic device a ‘brain’). The brain or parts of it are not conscious in any sense – they simply map inputs to outputs. However, looking at the system, operating in the world, it is conscious, or at least, bears all signs of it. This is pretty much in the line of Alva Noë’s ideas of how consciousness depends on embodiment.

In his book “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking”, Dan Dennett defuses Searle’s argument by stating that the thought experiment is flawed. It does not matter if the ‘guy inside’ understands Chinese or not – the system (that is, the room) does. Digging deeper for ‘understanding’ or ‘consciousness’ makes no sense. There is no ‘Hard Problem’ – conscious experience is just what a system is doing at a particular level of description.

Now, I would like to very explicitly state here that Dan Dennett is probably one of the greatest minds alive, and I am nowhere in his league. I am a great fan of his work, and I feel that it should be compulsory reading for any undergraduate in psychology. However, I think he is wrong here. The reason for that? He plays a trick on us in defusing the Chinese Room.

The trick is this: he smuggles in an external observer. The Chinese Room understands Chinese only if observed by and interacting with an external observer. The ‘understanding’ of Chinese by the room only exists in the mind of the observer! Otherwise, the actions of the Chinese Room are meaningless. Likewise, the brain-in-a-body-operating-in-the-world is only conscious if observed in an appropriate context. Following Searle, I do find this problematic. Consciousness is a first-person perspective. I know I am conscious, because I am both subject and object of my experiences. Who or what is then describing the activity of my brain-body in such a way it enables my first person consciousness? It cannot be me because I am the result of this observation, and unless we allow paradoxical cause-effect relations (which I doubt any materialist would be very keen of), we are left with a very urgent question: in whose mind do I exist?

In sum, I see pretty big problems with materialist theories of consciousness. However, converting to idealism does not solve the problem. As argued earlier, idealism also suffers from the Hard Problem, and the above analysis applies as well. The Hard Problem is deviously difficult to defuse if you accept that mind and matter exist .

One possible solution is to give consciousness a ‘fundamental’ status. Consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, like the universal forces. Hameroff and Penrose’s Orch OR model rests on this assumption, but also Giulio Tononi’s highly fashionable and critically acclaimed IIT 3.0 model of consciousness puts as its ‘zeroth’ postulate ‘consciousness exists‘. In a recent online article, Christof Koch even explicitly explored panpsychism (the idea that everything is conscious) as a solution to the mind-body problem. However, this does not explain why consciousness exists. And given that physicists are not satisfied with merely stating that ‘gravity exists’, we as psychologists should not be satisfied with stating that ‘consciousness exists’.

Anyway, in a rather large nutshell, this is why the Chopra Challenge makes no sense. Apart from the fact it is poorly defined, we are nowhere near an empirically verifiable (or falsifiable) theory of consciousness. All we’re doing now and have been doing since the era of brain scanning is looking for neural correlates of consciousness, which is a very useful enterprise because it provides boundary conditions for consciousness, but we have not been cracking on the Hard Problem at all. The Hard Problem is probably fundamentally unsolvable within a weak monist framework. In itself this does not prove Chopra right, of course.

On a separate note: what would advance our understanding is a potential falsification of  the idea that mind can be reduced to matter. This is actually the reason I started doing psi research, apart from my lifelong wish of being a Ghostbuster when I finally grow up. If we can convincingly demonstrate that certain aspects of mental functioning cannot be reduced to physical processes, we would have a strong case to either revise our physical models, or falsify materialism. Given the potentially huge impact of psi research, and the fact that the present corpus of data does not allow for clear falsification of psi, I think it is a very worthwhile area of research. But that’s my 2c.

Oh, we have one class of theories left, don’t we? Absolute idealism or monist idealism states that only mind exists, and that matter is an illusion. Well, to quote Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” 😉

Woo woo…


PS regarding my last point, I can recommend reading Schroedinger’s “What is Life?” It is a short book, which you can read in a couple of hours, but will stay with you for a lifetime. Yes, I know I stole that quote from the reviews of the book, but it’s very true.