"I don't care too much what people think," says Dean Radin, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. "I'm much more interested in tracking something which I think is meaningful and which I think eventually will become more and more meaningful. That's what science is all about. We're driven by curiosity."
Nestled in the rolling golden hills on the outskirts of Petaluma, the Institute of Noetic Sciences' (IONS) enclave of wooden buildings almost disappears among the trees. Within one of those buildings, Radin conducts scientific experiments that question whether such seemingly fantastical abilities as telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition could actually be real.
Radin works in the field of parapsychology, or research on psychic phenomena, a phrase often shortened to "psi." He has a master's degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in psychology, both from the University of Illinois. In addition to his position as senior scientist at IONS, he is an adjunct faculty member of the Department of Psychology at Sonoma State University. His two published books, The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, explain his research and ideas to those without access to scientific journals. Radin has spoken at Stanford, Cambridge, Harvard and Princeton, among other universities. The New York Times Magazine wrote a profile on him. Oprah interviewed him.
The public is listening. But what exactly is Radin saying? Wouldn't we all like to have paranormal powers of perception? Is this anything more than Age of Enlightenment fervor to justify secret fantasies with rationalized, scientific research? Radin would argue that there is absolutely more to it than that, and he has the laboratory data and physical theory to back up his claims.
"When we decided to build a lab," says IONS president and CEO Marilyn Mandala Schlitz, Ph.D., "Dean was the first person I thought of to bring in to help us." Founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell, D.Sc., whose outer-space epiphany inspired him to research inner space, IONS is one of a handful of organizations dedicated to studying noetic sciences. Schlitz defines noetics as "the science of inner knowing."
The institute experienced a recent bump in international attention with the publication of Dan Brown's latest thriller, The Lost Symbol. Brown's new protagonist is a noetic scientist who heads an organization eponymous with and almost identical to IONS. "There were whole sections that he quotes right off our website. It was huge," Schlitz says. "We have gotten this year what we estimate to be 200 million media impressions." Schlitz even recognized Brown's protagonist as a composite of herself, Radin and other staff members. "It's the forces of good and evil, and noetic science is the force of good," she glows. "We win out in the end."
Research on psi isn't all that happens on the mostly empty 200-acre IONS campus. All scientists at the institute investigate questions of consciousness, but these inquiries can belong under three main umbrella headings: extended human capacities (which includes Radin's work); consciousness and healing (mind-body medicine, meditation research); and worldview transformation (psychological research on the ways in which people navigate an increasingly complex world). The institute has programs in basic science, applied science and education.
One corner of Radin's IONS lab houses an electromagnetically sealed room in which he conducts his experiments. "We're in a thermos bottle or something, electronically," he says. The walls are made of steel, a layer of wood and more steel, artfully covered on the inside with soft white curtains. The metal is electronically grounded so that any electromagnetic waves that hit the outside layer are channeled down through copper spikes that are driven through the concrete foundation and four feet into the ground. Why shield subjects? Radin explains that the advantage comes into play in telepathy studies. "We can be completely sure that there's no ordinary way [the subjects] can communicate with the other person." He encourages me to pull out my cell phone. I do, and sure enough, there's no signal. "All gone," he sings.
The exercise I try is not yet full-blown. Radin is still perfecting the controls and methodology. "We're getting interesting enough results that I probably will turn it into an experiment," he says. The exercise focuses on establishing a mind-matter connection between a subject's consciousness and a plasma ball, a clear orb with bolts of electric-lilac plasma emanating from its center and touching the inner surface, their tendrils constantly in flux.
Radin instructs me to place my attention inside the ball and "suggest" that it calm down. A webcam on the table next to the ball monitors its internal arrangement and shuttles that information to Radin's laptop. A computer algorithm analyzes the pattern and quantifies its chaos level. It then applies this number to an Indian chant track it's playing; if the orb has become more chaotic, the music gets quieter, and if it has become calmer, the music grows louder. The recorded voice of Radin's assistant, Leena Michel, comes through the laptop speakers every 20 seconds, alternately giving the instruction to concentrate and relax one's attention.
I try this experiment once with the combined efforts of Radin and Michel. Radin consults his computer and declares us statistically significant, but barely. He offers me the chance to try it on my own, since three people at once could possibly interfere with one another's efforts. I accept, but I am not statistically significant. Then again, I am not a frequent meditator; both Radin and Michel are.
Since early childhood, Radin has been fascinated by two things: science and mythology. Psi research is the perfect way to weld his interests together and conduct scientific research on phenomena that some people consider to be fantasies. "The transition for me," he says, "was realizing, as a teenager, that this was a topic that wasn't just fairy tales but actually could be studied."
Neither Radin nor anyone close to him growing up was especially psychic. Radin's interest stemmed not only from subjective reports and mythological stories, but also from a mounting volume of controlled laboratory results suggesting that this was something to be studied. But like any savvy scientist, he didn't allow the recondite nature of the subject alone to seduce him. "Actually," he says, "I remained a skeptic until I started doing experiments myself."
That opportunity arose when Radin was in graduate school. Soon after, he worked on a secret government-funded psi research program at SRI International. The easy acceptance of scientists and government officials affiliated with this project took Radin by surprise. He was used to struggling against the mainstream naysayers, but here, psi was considered common knowledge.
"As the way science should be, the more data you get, the more empirical results that you get, the more it begins to chip away at skepticism, because oftentimes skepticism is a kind of belief," Radin says. "It's a negative belief. Like, 'I don't think I believe this because it doesn't happen to me.' The only way to get over that is either to have an experience yourself or to start doing experiments where you're able to look at it under controlled conditions."
Of course, not everyone is convinced. "It's going to happen if you're doing anything which is even mildly controversial," Radin says. "But that's where the fun is! If you were working on something that was already very well understood, why bother doing that at all?"
"We're not very adept at probabilities," explains Bob Carroll, Ph.D., author of The Skeptic's Dictionary. "We think something that happens is very improbable when it isn't, and we don't realize it's probably just a chance event." Statistical significance, an experimenter's ruling that a set of data shows a strong enough trend to allay explanations of chance, most commonly falls at 0.05 percent or better.
As Carroll points out, this barometer is arbitrary. Statistician Ronald Fisher chose this number at the beginning of the 20th century as a standard at which a scientist can eliminate chance, and it has remained the most conventional measure ever since. Carroll challenges this percentage as reasonable for the number of data points Fisher worked with 100 years ago, but inadequate for the millions of data points Radin and his colleagues manipulate.
Carroll remembers reading about one of Radin's experiments in which Radin asked subjects to attempt to mentally influence a machine to return a specific one of two possible results. According to Carroll, Radin did some 14 million trials over a period of seven years and found that subjects performed at a 50.02 percent success rate when 50.00 percent would have been expected by chance.
"The only reason it's statistically significant is because you have 14 million trials," Carroll says. "If you had a 0.02 difference with 14 trials, it wouldn't be significant. So it just doesn't impress me that there is a formula that does show the odds of this happening are I think maybe beyond a trillion to one. Sorry."
Carroll is convinced that all evidence for psi follows from logical fallacies of statistical misinterpretation, begging the question and affirming the consequent. "There's an assumption made on the part of Dean Radin that any significant departure from the laws of chance is evidence that something paranormal has occurred," Carroll says. "All they're really saying is that if something strange happens, then something strange is happening. That's really not telling you anything."
Radin is quick to assure that he tries to consider every other explanation and control his experiments tightly enough to rule out alternative explanations. But Carroll is not buying it. "If you ask anybody who's in paranormal research to come up with one clear absolutely decisive, unambiguous example of a specific person with a psychic ability," Carroll says, "you will find that the list has nothing on it. Whenever anybody has eliminated all the possibilities of trickery, nobody can move a pencil with their mind. It just isn't done."
Carroll used to teach a course at Sacramento State University called Critical Thinking About the Paranormal and has studied the psychology of belief. "I almost think it's a law that the more important a subject is, the less evidence people require to believe in it," he laughs. "And the more trivial something is, like what color to paint your bedroom, they'll agonize for years over making a simple decision. They can't even choose what flavor ice cream they want. But they'll believe in God at the drop of a pin."
That's not the strangest thing about belief psychology. "What fascinates me are the studies that have been done that find that when people are confronted with evidence that shows they're wrong, the majority of them come to believe what they believed even more," he marvels. "It's just the opposite of what you would expect if people were only seeking the truth. If someone challenges them with evidence that is very strong and conflicts with what they believe, the first reaction of most people is to discredit the source of that contrary information and try to find something at fault with them."
Although Carroll doesn't predict a future for psi research, Radin's work, for him, is not entirely without value. "We are learning an awful lot about human perception and psychology," he says of the skeptical community. Carroll doesn't see any harm in laboratory research on psi "as long as they're not using taxpayer dollars. I don't want them using my money to do that."
Although he will defend his data as long as skeptics continue to challenge it, Radin doubts that he will ever convince them. "For somebody who's a hardcore skeptic, the level of evidence that they require is not something that fits in the world," he says. "It fits in some other fantasy world that they imagine. They can never be convinced."
Radin welcomes constructive feedback and pronounces internal criticism "very tight," which forces him to "do science defensively." He objects to criticisms that are "nasty" and "designed to block inquiry." Although he leans heavily toward the affirmative, he never allows himself to be completely adamant that psi exists. "Science is always about doubt. I would say that my level of confidence is increasing as time goes on, but it's never 100 percent. The moment you get to 100 percent and you have absolutely zero doubt, why bother doing it anymore?" he says.
Physics includes two schools of thought: classical physics and quantum mechanics. Classical physics, Radin explains, involves actions like shooting a bullet or building a bridge that known formulas can mathematically predict to a very precise degree. "What physics is, at least classical physics," Radin explains, "is a refinement of common sense." But when a researcher looks deeper into the fundamental composition and behavior of matter and energy, the rules start to disintegrate.
Here's the kicker. "One of the strange things in quantum mechanics is that our best description of the world—and this is based on mathematics—suggests that there's no such thing as independent objects," Radin says. "When [objects] interact, they actually are never separate afterwards. So since things are interacting all the time, it suggests that at some level, everything must always be connected."
Scientists call this property "entanglement," or nonlocal connection. This isn't just New Age mumbo-jumbo. Radin estimates that quantum mechanics is responsible for 30 percent of the global economy, rendering possible digital machines like computers and iPods. Despite the strangeness, Radin assures that "we know that it's both true and pragmatically useful."
If matter and energy can become entangled with other matter and energy, could the matter and energy of separate minds also affect each other at a distance? If so, quantum mechanics could help explain psychic phenomena like telepathy and precognition. That possibility excites Radin.
"We have a way of tying together weird psychic stuff with the fundamentals of physics," he says, "which is where my interest is."
Like any ability, practice makes perfect. "I think everybody has [psi ability] to some degree," Radin says. "We're dealing with a spectrum of ability. As long as you think of it as a spectrum, it's almost identical to a spectrum of the ability to play golf."
But how exactly does one practice psi? "The first tip is to learn how to suppress your monkey mind, meaning the chatter in your head," Radin advises. "Meditation is number one. If you can sit down for 30 minutes or an hour and pretty much empty your mind of all thoughts, you become very, very sensitive to what's going on in your body and deeper in your subconscious."
The second tip is to refrain from making snap judgments about the images that effervesce in the mind. "The moment that you begin to name what you think is arising in your thoughts," he says, "the game is over. If you took a red flash and immediately said, 'It's like a flag,' that's going to spin out a story about a flag."
These two tips, Radin promises, will elevate a person from zero ability to at least a basic level, just by encouraging the person to receive impressions without needing to define them directly. "And by the way," he says, lowering his voice, "what I just taught you is worth about $3,000 if you took a course in remote viewing."
While Radin pegs his own psychic ability at around an average level, he guesses that perhaps psi skills manifest according to an individual's needs. He's not very good at telepathy. "I don't particularly want to hear other people's thoughts. I have enough trouble with my own thoughts," he half-jokes. "The only advantage in my experience is that I know how to test it."
Even scientists outside of the parapsychology field are reaping the intellectual rewards of Radin's explorations. Sonoma State psychology professor Laurel McCabe, Ph.D., invites Radin to give a guest lecture to her History of Modern Psychology class at the end of the semester. "He turns everything over," McCabe says. "He's saying he thinks [our model of human consciousness] is not adequate to explain actual experience. Students love that, because students like to think outside of the box. There are always some students who say, 'Why aren't more people doing research in this?' and 'I want to do this.'"
Within the psychology community, McCabe reports a wide range of response to parapsychological studies. "It depends on who you talk to and what they know," she says. "Psychology is such a big field." She pegs personality psychologists as typically the most open to the idea, and cites certain neuroscientists who stick to neural network models as the most resistant. Even the legendary Carl Jung was interested in the kinds of ideas with which Radin works, calling entanglement "the collective unconscious."
"Dean gets invitations [to speak] from all over the world," McCabe says. "He's really well-known." Radin, too, uses this as a barometer of his success in communicating his message. "If I were only invited to speak to New Age-y audiences who wanted to hear about the mystical powers of the universe or something and completely ignored by academia, then it would suggest that [psi] is not moving ahead, but that's not the case," Radin says. "I give talks all over the place to all kinds of audiences, including New Age-y but also to lots of universities and to the military and government," Radin says. "There are plenty of people interested in this."
"For a long, long time, the prevailing view was 'ESP means Error Some Place," Radin says. "If you look at the serious, informed skepticism today, many of them are no longer saying this is impossible. The nature of the criticism has changed from 'That's impossible because there's a mistake' or 'It can't exist' to what amounts to technical issues. Other skeptics are saying that if this were any other area of science, this would have been accepted. That's a dramatic change. That's from flatly impossible to an admission that whatever's going on, if this were a normal topic, it would be real."
Psi researchers struggle to abide by the academic maxim of "publish or perish." Mainstream journals just aren't interested. Radin cites experiments by social psychologists on the prejudicial practices of scientific journals. Papers copied word-for-word from a published journal and resubmitted under an unknown name with unimpressive affiliations get rejected. Resubmitted papers identical to their published counterparts except for a different, less mainstream conclusion are turned down.
"By the time a paper shows up in a scientific journal, it has passed through several layers of prejudice, and it's going to reflect whatever the mainstream view is," Radin says. "This makes it exceptionally difficult for anything except for a mainstream view to ever make it into the science literature, and science literature is what major newspapers and magazines use to say here's what science is learning today." Radin and his colleagues turn to alternative journals like the Journal of Scientific Exploration to communicate their findings.
Radin predicts a paradigm shift from the current mainstream viewpoint on psi. Scientists who grew up with quantum mechanics will push discovery forward in the next 50 years because, as Radin says, "they're not scared of the weird stuff."
But the critical experiment, he predicts, will not come from a parapsychologist; it will be easier for someone on the inside to gain mainstream attention. "Some problems in biology and psychology seem very resistant to classical ways of thinking," he says, and proposes quantum psychology or biology as the breakthrough field. He envisions a future experiment in which a quantum psychologist will separate twins in two different rooms, poke one and watch the other one flinch.
"There will be this major discovery of connectivity between people that has quantumlike properties," he says. "Somebody will remind them that there are 100 years of evidence that people have already found that. What you'll find is a revisionist history domino effect going backward. All those people were playing with something, but they didn't know what they had."
Radin is loath to pin down one theory of psi as the correct solution to the mechanistic mystery of entanglement, but uncertainty doesn't bother him. According to empiricist philosophy, which dictates that all knowledge must derive from experience instead of abstract reasoning, it shouldn't.
"I don't care that I don't know how to explain it," he says. "I don't know how to explain all kinds of things." He chuckles, then delivers a statement so central to the scientific ethos of inquiry followed by data, analysis and further inquiry that he confirms, at the very least, his earnestness despite the esoteric nature of his studies: "I am," he says soberly, "an empiricist at heart."