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psychokinesis (PK)

"Perhaps in fifty years we will be using psychokinesis to open our garage doors or change channels on our TVs." --Dean Radin

Psychokinesis (PK) is the process of using only the mind to manipulate physical objects. When the manipulation involves only moving an object by mental effort, it is referred to as telekinesis.

Uri Geller claims he can bend keys and spoons, and stop watches with his thoughts. Others claim to be able to make pencils roll across a table by a mere act of will.

The variety of magic tricks used to demonstrate psychokinetic powers is impressive. Conjurers can make objects appear to fly across a room or levitate.

Scientists have been investigating PK since the mid-19th century but with little success at demonstrating that anyone can move even a feather without trickery involving something as simple and obvious as blowing on objects to move them.

While there are countless minimally plausible anecdotes regarding ESP stars, there are very few who claim to be PK superstars. Uri Geller is one. Another is Ted Owens (1920-1987), who found his Boswell in parapsychologist Jeffrey Mishlove. The PK Man is Mishlove's account of Owens as a man with extraordinary paranormal powers, a man many others would call delusional and in need of professional mental health services. Mishlove acknowledges Owens's 'difficult personality' but he doesn't dismiss him because "we have much to learn about the interface between mental illness and the paranormal" (Mishlove 2000: 87). What should we make of a man who shows up at a scientific conference pulling a child's red wagon full of newspaper clippings about his psychic exploits, declares himself "the supreme Earth ambassador of UFO intelligences"? Mishlove claims he was there in 1976 when Owens did just that as an invited speaker at a conference put on by the Institute for Parascience in London, England (Mishlove 2000: 18).

According to Mishlove in his "true story of mind over matter," Owens claims to have experienced spontaneous levitation several times and to have been abducted by aliens who operated on his brain so they could communicate with him telepathically. This allegedly would help the aliens in their project of monitoring Earth (Mishlove 2000: 14, 15).  The aliens are described as manifesting themselves as grasshopper-like insects (two of whom are named Twitter and Tweeter) in Owens's book How to Contact Space People published by Saucerian Books in 1969. He had many encounters with these aliens, which he referred to as "space intelligences" (SIs). He claimed that the SIs had chosen him for some great mission and to demonstrate that he was telling the truth when he claimed to be responsible for such things as the appearance of UFOs, thunderstorms, plane crashes, power outages, and other disasters. (The last person to be so chosen, according to Owens, was Moses.)

Mishlove came to believe in Owens's powers in 1976. Mishlove was a graduate student at UC Berkely when he visited Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ at the Stanford Research Institute where they were doing their work on remote viewing.1 According to Mishlove, Owens had

sent Puthoff and Targ a letter. His letter read, Look, you guys, just to prove to you that I am indeed the world's greatest psychic, I am going to end the drought that is now plaguing you in California. And indeed there was a very serious drought that was going on at that time. He said, I will make it rain and snow and sleet and hail. You will have all sorts of bizarre weather going on, and there will be power blackouts, and there will be UFO sightings. And your local newspaper is going to run a front-page story proclaiming that the drought is over.

Within three days all of these things happened. (VIRTUAL U WITH DR. JEFFREY MISHLOVE) See also ch. 2 of The PK Man.

I've lived in California since 1954 and can attest that we had a drought in the 1970s but droughts don't end in three days. If this were all Owens did, he wouldn't stand out from other psychics who make all kinds of predictions about California weather, earthquakes, floods, fires, and celebrities. Owens, however, claimed not just to predict the weather but to cause it to happen. Mishlove collected numerous anecdotes and some affidavits (many of them provided by Owens himself) testifying to Owens's ability to make it thunder and lightning at will. Owens sometimes claimed that he could affect the weather and other events through his own PK powers and sometimes he claimed that the SIs did his bidding after he telepathically communicated to them what he wanted done.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that Owens worked for noted parapsychologist J. B. Rhine (1895-1980) in 1947 (Mishlove 2000: 50). Though Rhine was able to recognize paranormal powers in a horse, he apparently didn't find anything about Owens worth writing about.

Mishlove's own account of what he thinks might have been happening with Owens, the SIs, and apparent PK is even stranger than Owens's own account:

Some believe that UFOs are created directly by our own minds, while others believe that they are created by a supermind that reflects our wishes and unconscious archetypal symbolism back to us. Yet others believe the phenomenon to be extradimensional, entering into this world through a psychic process set up by the mind. Now, if this general theory is correct - and I believe that at least part of it is - there is no reason to reject the possibility that a UFO could be brought into existence by the creative process of one individual mind.

Owens apparently had possessed remarkable PK capabilities long before his UFO experiences. So he himself may have been responsible for the UFOs--and not vice-versa! (Mishlove 2000: 80).

Yes, and Mishlove could really be an alien grasshopper manifesting himself as a parapsychological investigator! Many strange things are possible if you accept the plenitude principle and reject Occam's razor.

Dean Radin

Dean Radin claims to have gotten some impressive PK results with people using their minds to try to affect the outcome of rolls of the dice, but he admits that he can't be sure his results aren't due to precognition (Radin: 1997). Perhaps he should have considered the possibility that the dice are conscious and sending telepathic messages to his subjects. This would at least be consistent with the plenitude principle.

Radin is also very impressed with the work of Robert Jahn and his colleagues at Princeton. They haven't quite found anyone who can move a feather even an inch using only the power of his mind, but they have found an "anomalous statistic" in tens of millions of tries to affect the output of a random event generator. In short, unable to find anyone with demonstrable psychokinetic powers, the parapsychologists tell us that there are two kinds of psychokinesis, macro and micro. What the rest of the world calls psychokinesis, they will now call macro-psychokinesis. They will study micro-PK and look for small statistical differences between their (very large number of) data points and what would be expected by chance.

Radin thinks that there are “fantastic theoretical implications” to Jahn's work (Radin 1997: 129). In my view, one of those implications is that experience as we know it would be impossible. If people’s minds were able to have a significant direct effect on events, there could be no consistent flow of events and no notion of causality as the regular succession of events. But Radin and others doing these experiments, like Helmut Schmidt, assume that since they are testing mental intention they are measuring mental intention. What they are doing is (a) asking people to make an effort to cause some event with their thoughts and (b) then measuring differences between chance prediction and actual outcome. They’re assuming that the difference is due to some sort of mind-matter interaction.

If these experiments are so wonderful, why does the scientific community continue to ignore them and why don’t more people know about them? Radin's answer is that there is “a general uneasiness about parapsychology.” Also, he says that  "the insular nature of scientific disciplines” hinders the acceptance of the work of parapsychologists by other scientists. There may be another reason why these studies are ignored by the rest of the scientific community: They are unimpressive. Let's look as Radin's own work in this area.

According to Radin, between 1935 and 1987 there were 148 dice experiments by 52 investigators. This resulted in 73 publications involving 2,569 subjects and 2.6 million dice throws. Of 124 studies analyzed, 31 were control studies and involved 150,000 dice throws where no mental influence was tried. (Radin uses the word “applied” instead of “tried”—indicating his assumption that mental influence occurred.)

Radin and Diane Ferrari did a meta-analysis of the dice experiments data and found that the control studies yielded 50.02% (odds against chance of 2 to 1), but the experimental studies (where mental influence was attempted) yielded 51.2% (odds against chance of a billion to 1, according to Radin.) The results were published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, “Effects of consciousness on the fall of dice,” 1991 (Radin 1997: 134).

Radin claims that other analyses showed that the results were not due to just a few investigators. Nor were they due to selecting only studies with positive results for the meta-analysis. Nor were they due to the file-drawer effect, though he doesn’t say how he calculated that one would need 17.974 studies in the drawer per published study to nullify the data. Thus, he says, if the data can't be satisfactorily explained by chance, the file-drawer effect, poor design quality of the studies, or to just a few investigators, then they are probably due to mind having a small effect on matter.

On the other hand, the dice experiments were critically evaluated by Edward Girden of Brooklyn College. Radin makes an oblique reference to Girden’s work by footnoting him, along with G. Murphy’s report on a Girden paper on psychokinesis. (See Radin 1997, page 133, footnote 23, which reads: “By 1989 dice experiments had been reviewed and criticized numerous times over the years, but in spite of all the experiments and review, no clear consensus had emerged.”) This seems to be Radin’s way of admitting that not everybody agreed with his rosy analysis, but he doesn’t go into detail regarding Girden’s concern. Fortunately, C.E.M. Hansel (1989) does. “Only one of the early experiments [1934-1946] employed a control series” and this experiment “provided no evidence for psychokinesis but clear evidence for bias of the dice, since the dice tended to fall with the 6 face uppermost, whether it was being wished for or not” (Hansel 1989: 172). Among the later investigations, out of thirty studies thirteen were positive and the rest didn’t produce above-chance scores (Hansel 1989: 174). Girden also applied criteria that Rhine and Pratt (Parapsychology 1954) had said were conditions for a conclusive PK test—having two experimenters, true randomization of targets, and independent recording of targets, hits, and misses—and on these criteria “none of the thirteen tests giving positive evidence for psychokinesis can be regarded as conclusive, whereas several of the remaining seventeen investigations that failed to provide such evidence do satisfy the requirements” (Hansel 1989: 174).

Bob Park has suggested that the sure-fire test for telekinesis would be to use a microbalance and have individuals or groups try to move it with their thoughts (Park 2008, 138-139). A microbalance can make precise measurements on the order of a millionth of a gram. One suspects that the reason this type of test has not been used is because the researchers know what the results will be before they do the test. They'd have a hard time getting a paper published about how they scrunched up their faces exerting the most powerful thoughts they could muster but were unable to get the scale to budge due to negative energy from skeptics next door or on some other planet.

using brain waves to affect objects

Using brain waves to affect objects external to one's body is not an example of psychokinesis. Brain waves are physical and using one's thoughts to send electrical signals to a physical receiver which can then use the signals to manipulate an external object has been done.

Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging technologies allow the direct interface of machines with the human brain. This ability is made possible through brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and special sensors that can monitor physical processes that occur within the human brain. In BCIs, users explicitly manipulate their brain activity instead of using motor movements in order to produce brain waves that can be used to control computers or machines. The development of efficient BCIs and its implementation in hybrid systems that combine well-established methods in HCI and brain control will not only transform the way we perform everyday tasks, but also improve the life quality of patients with physical disabilities, especially to those who suffer from devastating neuromuscular injuries and neurodegenerative diseases leading to paralysis and inability to communicate.*

A recent example involved using a skull cap with 64 electrodes to manipulate a small helicopter called a quadracopter.

....the subjects were asked to imagine using their right hand, left hand, and both hands together; this would instruct the quadcopter to turn right, left, lift, and then fall, respectively. The quadcopter was driven with a pre-set forward moving velocity and controlled through the sky with the subject’s thoughts.*

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on brain-computer interface, aka mind-machine interface.

See also conjuring, Princeton Engineering Anomalies Project, Project Alpha, Uri Geller, magical thinking, mentalist, poltergeist, psi assumption, and telekinesis.


   1 For a detailed account of the incompetence of the work of Puthoff and Targ see chapter 13 of C. E. M. Hansel's The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited. (Prometheus Books, 1989). See also chapters 2, 3, and 13 of David Marks's The Psychology of the Psychic, (Prometheus Books. 2000) and chapter 7 of James Randi's Flim-Flam! (Prometheus Books, 1982). After reading these accounts of the work done by Puthoff and Targ, the reader will understand why Randi refers to them as the Laurel and Hardy of Psi!

further reading

Alcock, James E. 2003. Jean Burns and Anthony Freeman.  Editors. Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal Imprint Academic.

Christopher, Milbourne. 1970. ESP, Seers & Psychics Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Gardner, Martin. 1957. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Dover Publications, Inc.

Hansel, C.E.M. 1989. The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited. Prometheus Books.

Hansen, George P. 2001. The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris Corporation.

Hines, Terence. 2003. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal 2nd ed.  Prometheus Books.

Hyman, Ray. 1989. The Elusive Quarry: a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research. Prometheus Books.

Marks, David and Richard Kammann. 2000. The Psychology of the Psychic. Prometheus Books.

Mishlove, Jeffrey. 2000. The PK Man: A True Story of Mind over Matter. Hampton Roads Publishing Company.

Park, Robert L. (2008). Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. Princeton University Press.

Polidoro, Massimo. 1997. "Secrets of a Russian psychic - truth behind Alla Vinogradova's psychokinetic ability." Skeptical Inquirer, July-August.

Radin, Dean. 1997. The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins.

Randi, James. 1982. Flim-Flam! Prometheus Books.

Randi, James. 1982. The Truth About Uri Geller. Prometheus Books.

Last updated 12/09/10

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