Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

Parapsychologist John Palmer published an interesting study in his paper “Training Anomalous Cognition in a Motor Task with Subliminal Auditory Feedback” (Journal of Parapsychology, 2018, 82, 132-147; for reprints write to the author: john@rhine.org). Here is the abstract:

“On each of 60 trials, 5 participants (Ps), selected based on high state and trait dissociation scores in a previous motor automatism experiment, explored with a computer pen a 16 x 16 inch grid affixed to a computer writing tablet, stopping to register a response to a randomly selected target square. The grid is conceptually divided into 16 squares (4 in each of 4 quadrants). The dependent variable was the average of 2 z-scores representing square and quadrant hits. Ps attended 2 1-run baseline sessions and 2 1-run test sessions. In between, they completed 15–20 1-run training sessions with subliminal auditory feedback. The feedback stimulus was the spoken word(s) “good” (quadrant hit) or “good good” (square hit) superimposed on brownian (similar to pink) noise. 1 of the 5 Ps significantly confirmed the hypothesis of higher scoring on test than baseline runs. There was significant or suggestive evidence of anomalous cognition in the baseline and/or test results of 4 Ps and the 5 difference scores showed significant between-subjects variability. There was no evidence of learning in the training sessions. According to the underlying theory, conditions for learning were not met because Ps did not successfully blank the mind and were overly attentive to the feedback sounds.”

For me the interesting aspect of the study was that related to dissociation. As Palmer wrote: “The general hypothesis tested in the overall research program is that psi is facilitated by dissociated states of consciousness and that the most dissociated form of psi expression is motor automatism, such as automatic writing and dowsing, where conscious cognitive processing is minimized.”

Commenting on the history of the dissociation-ESP relationship, the author wrote in his introduction: “The first experiment to test for anomalous cognition (AC) using motor automatisms was by Brugmans (1922), who had a special participant (P) point to a square with a letter-number on a grid while blindfolded, with the hope that he would point to the randomly selected target for the trial. Highly significant results were obtained, but the randomization method was poor. One of the card-guessing methods used in J. B. Rhine’s famous card-guessing experiments was ‘screen-touch matching,’ in which P pointed to one of five ‘key cards’ representing the five Zener cards symbols. This technique was used in the prominent and controversial Pratt-Woodruff experiment (Pratt & Woodruff, 1939).” However, this history is incomplete.

Not only there is no mention about the earlier attempts to use motor automatisms to test for ESP (as seen in: F.W.H. Myers, Automatic Writing.-II. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1885, 3, 1-63; and C. Richet, La Suggestion Mentale et le Calcul des Probabilités. Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger, 1884, 18, 609-674), but there is no acknowledgement of the general interest in dissociation showed by early psychical researchers, as seen in the publications of the Society for Psychical Research during the Nineteenth-Century (see C.S. Alvarado, Dissociation in Britain During the Late Nineteenth Century: The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1900. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 2002, 3, 9-33).

Palmer was also interested in training ESP performance. “The motivation to follow up [a previous study] with a training study had to do with my belief that in order to demonstrate the reality of psi to the mainstream scientific community, it is necessary to increase the strength, and especially, the reliability of psi in the laboratory. It seems to me that the best way to do this is through training of psi ability, and such attempts should be made, even if they are ‘long-shots,’ as this experiment arguably was.”

“There were a considerable number of statistically significant or suggestive results in the study . . . These outcomes with Ps selected on the basis of dissociative tendencies encourage further research on the dissociation-ESP relationship . . . However, no such success appeared during the training sessions. This lack of improvement in the training sessions indicates that whatever genuine AC [anomalous cognition] occurred was not due to learning, and there was no evidence of learning in any of the Ps’ data.”