Can humans affect physical reality with their minds?
Like a frightened hedgehog curling into a ball, photons in light wave form may “collapse” into particles when subject to human attention, according to psychologist Dean Radin. He is chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in Petaluma, California, founded by astronaut Edgar Mitchell to study consciousness.
Explaining this collapse of photons, Radin says nothing about hedgehogs, nor does he imply that light waves have feelings. He does say that experiments he conducted with his IONS colleagues suggest that we subtly affect the objects of our attention.
Radin was testing John von Neumann’s theory about the role of observation in quantum mechanics. According to the theory, before an object is observed it exists only as a multitude of possibilities. So, the chair where you now sit is there, but the properties of its microscopic components are not fixed. You can never be sure what happens when you look away. Arguments about this notion pit materialists, believers that reality is fundamentally physical, against idealists, who believe that awareness is an underpinning of reality.
“This philosophical debate has been going on for 3,000 years and getting nowhere, but experiments sway the argument in one direction or another,” says Radin, who sides with idealists. “Both views give us this reality, but these experiments inform the debate.”
The theory that objects are affected by observation already had support from a 1998 study published in Nature, led by Mordehai Heiblum at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. He used a mechanical observer, called an electron detector, that seemed to influence whether electrons behaved as waves or particles. However, in Radin’s 17 studies, observers were human. This resulted in smaller effects, he said, but with grand implications about consciousness.
To conduct the experiment, Radin built an 8 ft by 8 ft by 8 ft double-walled solid steel room at IONS. “It’s a steel cube, a Faraday cage, with steel walls, ceiling and floor.”
The room is electromagnetically shielded, so no wi-fi, cell signal, radio frequency, or electromagnetism can intrude. Tan muslin cloth lines the walls and ceiling. A brown anti-static rug with metal fibers covers the floor. During the experiment, the room was dim, just light enough to see. It was intended to feel like a tent, Radin said.
In a corner to the left of the metal door, on a wooden table, stood a two-foot long double-slit interferometer, used to observe photon behavior. On one end of it, a laser would shoot rays of light toward a barrier with two slits in the middle. The rays were recorded by a camera on the other end as they came through the slits.
Unlike the Heiblum experiment, in which an electron counter “observed” electrons on the way through the slits, at IONS, photons were not directly observed — only imagined. A computer, perched on another wood table, was wired to the camera and analyzed the photos to compute the amount of “interference” among photons coming through the slits. More “interference” meant that photons as waves were combining to form more waves. With less interference, photons became particles.
However, says Radin, “No one really knows what a photon is. It’s a packet of energy that sometimes behaves like a wave, sometimes like a particle. They’re the electrical impulses that keep living systems alive.”
Diagonally across the room from the interferometer, a subject sat on a comfortable but not too comfortable, chair, where they were asked to focus on decreasing interference among photons coming through the slits for 30 seconds at a time, alternating with 30 seconds of relaxation. Although they could not see photons going through slits, they were told that when a light from the system brightened, interference had increased, and vice versa, so their visualizations were guided by that feedback. For those who preferred a meditative state with their eyes closed, the pitch of an “om” sound indicated whether more or less interference was occurring.
Radin explains that the “intention” required of these subjects is a particular kind of “attention” — “focused attention with a direction,” to help them concentrate on photons in the interferometer. A recording guided them to focus on the photons for 30 seconds at a time, varied by a few seconds, so the pattern would be less predictable. Each session lasted 15 to 30 minutes. When the session was over, they hit a high-pitched chime, and someone would open the big metal door.
“It’s a meat locker heavy door. A lever sucks the door in. We showed people how it worked,” says Radin. “The computer was timed to give us a chance to tell the subject to please concentrate and then get out.”
Many subjects were IONS staff members or visitors who were recruited at lunch.
“They tended to be the kind of people we needed, interested in the research and involved in meditation practices,” says Radin.
Through his previous experiments that required focused attention, Radin believes that artists, musicians, and meditators have stronger results, perhaps because of their honed concentration habits. In this experiment, correlation between subjects’ intent and light interference measures was consistent enough to be statistically significant, though the effect was small, as was typical for this series of experiments.
Since 2008, Radin has done 17 versions of the study, including one in which the computer connected to the interferometer was also connected to a web server. People around the world could be subjects, though only one at a time. They had to wait for an open slot. During 2013 and 2014, a total of 1,479 people from 77 countries contributed 2,985 test sessions. Over the same period, 5,738 sessions were run as controls by a computer programmed to simulate human subjects.
Though effects were minute in these trials, results were consistently significant, ranging from .00001 to .00000000000000001 probability that they occurred by chance. This means that human attention likely affects the material world, although the influence is miniscule. Effects in internet trials were 10 times weaker than in Faraday cage trials, which Radin expected, given the variable circumstances of subjects. Still, results were significant.
“Our effects are much smaller in magnitude than those typically observed in physics experiments exploring the role of observation, which isn’t surprising because as ‘detectors’ we’re using the mind alone,” Radin says. “We’re not using physical hardware like the usual physics experiment. The effects we see in these experiments are so small they would likely not be noticed at all in an everyday context. All we can say is that this type of experiment is relevant to understanding the meaning of observation in quantum measurement and the role of consciousness in the physical world.”
Interactions between objects are common and conducive to building devices like the iPhone, Radin says, but thoughts should not be able to interact with objects at all, by conventional principles. So if these findings are repeatedly and independently replicated, basic scientific principles, the paradigm, would need to change.
At least two other scientists have replicated Radin’s findings. In 1998, two double-slit interferometer experiments similar to Radin’s were conducted at Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR), led by then Dean of Engineering and Applied Science Robert Jahn. He had invoked freedom of inquiry rights to establish the lab to do parapsychology research in 1979 and ran it for 28 years, despite disdain from colleagues. The lab was funded by McDonnell-Douglas and motivated by a student advisee’s experiment showing evidence of psychokinesis — the effect of intention on a machine. Her findings interested Jahn, who did research on electronic propulsion for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. Even small effects could have a mechanical impact.
Now 87 and retired, Jahn and his PEAR colleague, psychologist Brenda Dunne, looked at Radin’s series of interferometer studies.
“We’re delighted he followed up. Dean’s work is first-rate work,” says Dunne, speaking also for Jahn. “In 28 years at the PEAR lab, we also found that effects were tiny, but the statistical shift was toward the human operator’s intention. It was significant only with a large data base, but there was consistency over and over.”
However, physicists at Princeton and MIT declined to discuss Radin’s research. Princeton Physics Department Chairman Herman Verlinde said that neither he nor anyone in the department would comment. Likewise, an MIT physics department staff member, who declined to be quoted, said that no one in the department would comment on Radin’s work because of his association with parapsychology.
Radin has a masters degree in electrical engineering and doctorate in psychology from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, which served him well in developing advanced telecommunications at Bell Labs and elsewhere. But he had been doing parapsychology research since he was 12, and, in 2001, that interest took him to IONS.
Disregard for parapsychology research in academia is longstanding and has resulted in some rather unscientific behavior. In the late 1980s, the National Research Council, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, commissioned Robert Rosenthal, then chair of Harvard Department of Psychology and Social Relations, and Monica Harris Kern, his graduate student, to evaluate the methodology of research in several fields of performance enhancement for possible military use. Parapsychology was included, as well as biofeedback, sleep learning, and others. In their investigation, Rosenthal and Harris found that parapsychology, also called “psi,” research, done by Radin’s colleagues was well designed, with necessary controls and valid statistical evaluations.
“I’m not a devotee of psi phenomena. I’m agnostic about it, and some psi research is bogus,” says Rosenthal. “But the research was elegant, not only better designed than research by the other four performance enhancement sciences — it was better designed than most psychology research. Psi research had been vigorously critiqued, and they’d eliminated problematic cues.”
However, after he and Kern submitted their report, Rosenthal received a call from John Swets, chair of the National Research Council (NRC) committee that commissioned the study. Swets asked him to withdraw their evaluation of parapsychology research methods, as though they had never done it, leaving other parts of the report intact.
“As a serious academic, I wasn’t going to do that,” says Rosenthal. “That would have been intellectually dishonest.”
When the NRC decided not to publish Rosenthal and Kern’s report, Rosenthal wrote a letter to William Estes, editor of the respected journal Psychological Sciences. Estes published the letter which, Rosenthal says, let people know about the unpublished report and how to obtain a copy.
Meanwhile, the NRC published a parapsychology research evaluation by James Alcock, a prominent critic of parapsychology research — not an impartial reviewer. Radin wrote rebuttals and was quoted defending his cohorts in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Monica Kern recalled how angry she was when the report she and Rosenthal wrote was omitted. She sees irony in that long ago rejection. “Now parapsychology research looks a lot like quantum physics,” she says.
The scientific worldview in fashion is materialistic, says Radin. “It’s difficult to accommodate psi phenomena within that worldview, so scientists naturally regard psi with great suspicion. What they don’t appreciate is that scientific worldviews evolve.”
For materialists, consciousness is a meaningless side effect of brain mechanisms, he says. But in his findings he sees indications that consciousness has a fundamental role, even if the impact seems slight.
“A charge on an electron is miniscule, but a gazillion of them run the electrical grid,” he notes.Jessica Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York.