At the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory, the existence of psychokinesis, the ability to move physical objects solely through psychic power—think X-Men’s Jean Grey—and telepathy, the ability to read minds—think Miss Cleo or Professor X—are being tested with intense scientific rigor. Through the work of PEAR, notions of “mind over matter” and psychic communication that were once solely the stuff of science fiction and 1-900 numbers increasingly appear to be grounded in reality.
To be precise, the PEAR lab has focused in on the subtle yet significant effects that human consciousness can exert on the behavior and outcome of carefully regulated engineering experiments.
The work of the PEAR lab has its origins in senior thesis research conducted by a Princeton undergraduate in the late 1970s who sought to determine whether a person could psychically influence the outcome of an otherwise random experiment. The student sought to test the existence of this type of psychokinesis with the use of a random events generator (REG), which essentially functions as a glorified coin-tossing machine. The undergrad aimed to see if the focused thoughts of the REG’s human operator could, over the course of numerous trials, produce an unambiguously non-random outcome (i.e. more heads than tails). The students’ finding suggested a small but statistically significant difference between those REG trials that involved a human participant and those that did not.
Impressed and even somewhat amazed by her success, the student’s thesis adviser, Professor Robert G. Jahn, then dean of the Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, adopted the study of psychokinesis as one of his research pursuits. In 1979, Jahn founded the PEAR laboratory in order to pursue further experimentation into human-machine interactions.
In one of PEAR’s hallmark studies, Jahn sought to see if human consciousness could affect the behavior of a device that randomly dropped 9,000 billiard balls into a series of 19 cartons. When the balls were dropped without any human interaction with the experiment, there was a consistent cascading effect in which the center carton received the most balls while those to its left and right received progressively fewer. After a human participant was asked to concentrate intently on psychically altering the experiment’s outcome, however, the bulk of the ball distribution shifted to the right of center. PEAR has used these findings and others like them to bolster its claims about the physical power of the human psyche.
While human-machine interactions formed the basis of PEAR’s studies, the PEAR lab also pursues research in other less-explored scientific fields. Another branch of PEAR’s studies, for instance, focuses on the human capacity for remote perception—what a layman might call extra sensory perception (ESP).
In a remote perception experiment conducted by PEAR, a research participant was placed in a remote and very distinct geographical location, where he was asked to take note of his physical surroundings and record any significant impressions he might have of the experience. At the same time, another participant, stationed in a distant and randomly selected location, was asked to divine the character of the location being simultaneously experienced by the other participant.
PEAR repeated this experiment hundreds of times, with consistent results that pointed to the ability of the remote participant to telepathically divine the general surroundings of the other participant. Moreover, PEAR research purports to show that this sort of remote perception is unaffected by distance or even time constraints: A person could sense where you were yesterday, or even the day before, no matter how far from her you might have been.
As one might expect, these more outlandish scientific inquiries have at times placed PEAR on the fringe of the modern scientific community. “Obviously we have encountered a certain degree of resistance and skepticism from many of our professional colleagues,” says PEAR spokesperson Arnold Lettieri.
But much of the criticism of PEAR disregards the lab’s sound scientific practices and procedures, according to Michael E. Yank ’02, who assessed the integrity of PEAR’s scientific articles as part of his history and science senior thesis. “The PEAR articles follow a very textbook methodology,” Yank says. “This is very pristine science.”
Yank attributes much of the criticism of PEAR to most scientists’ reluctance to use modern scientific techniques to address subjects like psychokinesis and ESP that have long been seen as ridiculous on their face. He says the scientific community often refuses to consider claims that exist outside of the scientific mainstream, no matter how seemingly compelling the data that PEAR compiles. Yank says that one can see evidence of this bias in the fact that established scientific journals, such as Nature or Science, almost never publish articles by groups like PEAR.
This reluctance to explore nonstandard scientific frontiers creates serious problems for PEAR scientists, who seek credibility among their peers but are often barred access to the very means of attaining credibility, such as publication in the most preeminent scientific journals. “It’s like a chicken and egg scenario,” Yank says. “Groups like PEAR can’t get [scientific] authority until they become established but they can’t get established until they have some authority.”
But Lettieri says he believes the PEAR lab and the study of psychokinesis and telepathy more generally are slowly earning due respect for their contributions to modern science. According to Lettieri, “[Skepticism] appears to be abating in the past few years, as more serious scholars from established disciplines have become increasingly interested in the scientific study of consciousness.”
Regardless of how legitimate PEAR’s methodology and findings may or may not be, one wonders what will ever amount from research that tracks the “small but significant” effects of human consciousness on highly specified engineering experiments.
Lettieri stresses that PEAR’s work, at least for the moment, is centered more on theoretical study and less on practical applications. Nonetheless, Lettieri foresees everyday uses of PEAR’s research emerging in the future. “[PEAR’s research] may one day lead to substantial changes in medical education and practice, as well as breakthroughs in distant healing, intuitive diagnosis, therapeutic touch, intercessory prayer and the clinical applications of subtle energies such as biophoton emissions,” he says.
In the meantime, there are perhaps more practical directions in which PEAR could point its research. How might the human mind be used to manipulate lotto numbers or roulette? As handy as knowing that one could slightly alter the average trajectory of 9,000 billiard balls is, everyone could use the first five numbers to the next Powerball drawing.