A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Book Review


The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena

by Dean Radin
(HarperOne 1997)




part ten

Chapter Nine is called “Mental Interactions With Living Organisms” and is the story of people trying to do such things as praying to make bacteria grow faster in a Petri dish or make human diseases go away.

One of the most common superstitions is the practice of praying for people who are sick or dying. Psychologically, praying for sick people might benefit the one doing the praying. The act gives hope to a (sometimes) hopeless situation and a feeling of power to the powerless. From the point of view of conventional science, belief in the power of prayer, or directed mental intention to affect other living organisms, is based on magical thinking and represents a regression to primitive thought. Most adults, as they mature, learn that while it would be empowering to be able to control people and external processes with one's unspoken thoughts, it is not possible. Also, the conventional view of the mind is materialistic: mind is an emergent property of the brain, not a separate reality with efficacious powers that extend beyond the superficies of the body.

Words can affect people, of course. They can make us feel good or bad. They can cheer us up or sadden us, make us angry or sympathetic. But they do not carry healing energy that works independently of the emotional effect that they might have on a person. It is only in our dreams and stories that we can rule the world with our thoughts.

Radin claims that the belief in mind-body interactions is now “widely accepted” (p. 148), but he is not talking about the traditional Cartesian mind-body interaction. In classical philosophy, the mind-body problem is concerned with trying to understand how two distinct substances, mind and body, can interact in one person and how physical substances outside of the body are able to affect the mind that is believed to be piloting that body. Radin's concern is with how one mind can affect another person's body. He cites some evidence in support of this interaction: hypnotherapy for pain relief; the power of suggestion and expectation; effects of beliefs on behavior; and the influence of doctors and nurses on patients. He even cites a couple of studies on multiple personality disorder that found different personalities have different physiological states. Radin makes no effort at considering alternative hypotheses, such as classical conditioning, to explain these phenomena. Nor does he take seriously the consequence of positing several minds piloting one body. It seems he needs some sort of magical thread tied to one's body to keep one from losing one's mind.

One of the studies he cites is a 1984 work by Frank. W. Putnam. An Amazon.com reviewer of Putnam’s Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder writes:

Dr. Putnam "confirmed" a diagnosis of MPD on me in the '80's through his "brain-wave tests". Many painful years later, I realized the "MPD" had been created by the desire to please a "therapist" who wanted a multiple to rival Truddi Chase. Putnam's book is a handbook on how to be a multiple--read it and become--it is readable and logical to someone who is looking for MPD. Reading it again after many years, I found it's [sic] logic inconsistent and scientifically doubtful.

The reviewer's final comments apply equally to Radin.

Radin writes: “if the mind interacts not only with its own body but also with distant physical systems, as we’ve seen in the previous chapter [emphasis added], then there should be evidence for what we will call ‘distant mental interactions’ with living organisms. And there is” (p. 149). However, we didn’t see this in the previous chapter. We saw evidence of a statistical deviation from chance in machine operations that is assumed to be caused by minds. Even if minds could have some minor effect on machines, it would not follow that minds have any effect on biological organisms.

Radin claims that there are credible claims (i.e., anecdotes) that “distant mental healing assists in alleviating pain, promoting spontaneous remission, and accelerating the normal process of recuperation from disease or injury” (p. 149). This evidence is not of the highest quality, he admits, because “mental healers are rarely trained in conventional medical diagnosis, and their records—if indeed they keep any—are rarely useful for judging the merits of their claims” (ibid.). A freshman psychology student familiar with the literature might come up with an additional reason for the inadequacy of this evidence: the studies don't support the claim that healing at a distance occurs.

Radin also cites what he calls “intriguing evidence” for mental healing in “a report in 1983 [published] in the British Medical Journal” that “described reliable witnesses to modern cases of unusual cures attributed to distant mental healing.” The article references the following: “Miracles of healing in Anglo-Celtic Northumbria as recorded by the Venerable Bede and his contemporaries: A reappraisal in the light of twentieth-century experience” by R. Gardner. How any appraisal of an 8th century monk's claims is relevant to the issue of evidence for mental healing is a mystery to me. Shall we consider claims about the healing fire of dragon breath in some ancient cave? Anyway, Radin also cites literature on “spontaneous remission,” and implies that such cases (3,500 of them) support belief in mental healing rather than reveal the state of our ignorance.

He spends a page (p. 151) on the discredited Randolph Byrd study, which he calls “remarkable.” He admits, however, that the study “did not indicate that distant mental healing was a particularly robust method” and that the data were “suggestive but inconclusive and inherently ambiguous.”

Radin claims that there have been dozens of studies that have demonstrated mental effects on biological entities. (To his credit, Radin doesn’t cite Cleve Baxter’s work using polygraphs to argue for plant perception!) He notes that in 1996 the NIH was planning a massive meta-study of mind-body interaction research. I don’t know how that turned out but there was a review of distant healing studies published in 2000 in the Annals of Internal Medicine: “The Efficacy of "Distant Healing": A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials” by John A. Astin, PhD; Elaine Harkness, BSc; and Edzard Ernst, MD, PhD. They studied

A total of 23 trials involving 2,774 patients….Heterogeneity of the studies precluded a formal meta-analysis. Of the trials, 5 examined prayer as the distant healing intervention, 11 assessed noncontact Therapeutic Touch, and 7 examined other forms of distant healing. Of the 23 studies, 13 (57%) yielded statistically significant treatment effects, 9 showed no effect over control interventions, and 1 showed a negative effect.

The authors concluded that

The methodologic limitations of several studies make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the efficacy of distant healing. However, given that approximately 57% of trials showed a positive treatment effect, the evidence thus far merits further study.

Further study has not provided support for the distant healing hypothesis. The authors don’t mention any problems with the file-drawer effect, but Radin notes that it is probably a big problem in this area of research (p. 152). Even so, he maintains that “selective reporting alone probably cannot explain” the success rate of such studies. True, but selective reporting can't explain the failure rate, either.

In a section on “experiments with human beings” Radin mentions staring experiments, but the most interesting of these was done after publication of his book. (Before publication, a meta-analysis of over 80 years of such studies found an overall effect of 63% vs. 50% expected by chance. Radin's motto is always: no matter how bad the data look, do a meta-analysis and the sun will begin to shine!) Rupert Sheldrake’s work on staring is hailed by parapsychologists as evidence of some sort of psi influence on another person. Sheldrake's study on staring suffered from using a random process that had a distinct pattern (Marks and Colwell, SI, Sept/Oct 2000). It was replicated only when the same random process was used. But when a truly random process was used, it couldn't be replicated.

Radin also refers to some studies that measured physiological changes, such as “finger blood volume,” being mentally influenced over vast distances. The details of these studies were not discussed in the book and for some reason I was not inclined to seek out the original sources for this body of work.

The Baud Experiments

For over 17 years at the Mind Science Foundation in San Antonio, Texas, William Baud and Marilyn Schlitz did work that focused “on people attempting to influence the nervous system of remote percipients.” In 1991, a summary of their work was published: there were 37 experiments using seven different physiological response systems (such as blood pressure and muscle tremor); they conducted 655 sessions “with 449 people or animals acting as receivers,” 153 senders, and 13 principal experimenters. The results? According to Radin, they got odds against chance of a hundred trillion to one! With such great odds, you'd think there might be at least one person who could raise my blood pressure just by willing it. (Hey, maybe the real cause of high blood pressure is our doctors' willing it so they can treat us and make us buy drugs from Big Pharma!)

There is no way to do a proper review of all these studies. I am reminded of the work by Russian scientists on psychics who affect the physiological systems of others. The Russian experimenters found similar results to Baud and Schlitz, but they were unable to replicate them after James Randi taught them how to do a double-blind experiment (Secrets of the Psychics). The Russian scientists, who had been getting positive results for years, got them because the evaluators knew what the intention of the sender was before they evaluated the test results. When the judges were blind to what they were looking for, the "psychics" performed at chance levels.

Radin says that 57% of the experiments were “independently significant,” with odds better than 20 to 1.  A subset of 15 studies was analyzed in 1997 by Baud and Schlitz that had over 400 sessions. The effect size was about 53% compared to 50% expected by chance. Odds? 1.4 million to 1, he says. The effect size of these studies was 0.25, which is 6 times larger than the effect size for the aspirin study mentioned earlier in this review. However,  in the case of the aspirin study, we’re pretty sure it’s the aspirin that was having the effect. In the psi studies, we can’t be sure what is causing the results.

I have written a separate review of the healing prayer studies that Radin mentions, as well as of other studies published after his book came out, and will not repeat it here.

end of part ten 

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