"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Thursday, February 26, 2009


Inexplicable Powers of Mind...

"Extraordinary Knowing" by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer

This book was published in 2007, though the author, clinical psychologist and UC Berkeley Professor Elizabeth Mayer died in 2005 shortly after its completion (her obituary

Let me say at the outset, I liked this book. A lot of scientific-minded folks may not care for it, but... I liked it.
Those of us who frequent flea markets and garage sales do so in part because we enjoy sorting through rubble looking for the occasional gem amongst the riff-raff. I've always viewed scientific "fringe" writings in a similar manner. I enjoy perusing fringe science, even if much of it is unpersuasive and dismissable, because from time to time there is a gem, or at least, as in this instance, a worthy read.

This book has endorsement blurbs from certain advocates of the paranormal which may put off some readers. However, it also has a foreward from one of the great physicists and thinkers of our time, Freeman Dyson, who cautiously confesses he finds Mayer's story "convincing" and offers his own open-minded view of parapsychology later in the book. This is a book about intuitive or anomalous "knowing" --- knowing things without understanding how we know them. In a second foreward, psychologist Carol Gilligan writes that this is a book about "knowing through connectedness" or knowing in the way "children know;"
what some would simply call 'gut instinct.'

Elizabeth's story begins in California when a special harp belonging to her young daughter is stolen after a concert and no amount of publicity or searching, brings it back (she relates the story in a YouTube video here). Months later a friend tells her that if she really wants the instrument back she should be willing to try anything... including using a dowser!
...For those who are still reading, and to cut to the chase, a dowser (and complete stranger to Mayer) 2000 miles away in Arkansas remotely locates the harp for Elizabeth. And for her 'this changed everything" in her life; changed her work, her research, and her "sense of how the world adds up." Mayer began collecting stories/anecdotes from her medical colleagues of odd, inexplicable experiences of 'knowing' things at a distance or ahead of time, and found herself inundated with examples, as they related instances often never revealed to anyone else before. Depending on your openness to such anecdotes, you will either find many of these intriguing... or dismissable as unempirical.

The book goes on to quickly recount the "strange history of paranormal research" chiefly from the late 1800's (including the Society for Psychical Research" and William James, who is liberally quoted through the volume) through the work of Joseph Rhine at Duke University in the 1930's; on analysis Mayer finds Rhine's work to be much better than his harshest critics made it out to be.

Next comes a chapter on the work (in part for the CIA) of Puthoff and Targ at the Stanford Research Institute largely on so-called "remote-viewing," which is easily as controversial as the studies carried out by Rhine. "Ganzfield" studies, in which a "sender" attempts to mentally send a picture or image to a "receiver" in another room, are one type of highlighted study. Others who show up in the book are Dean Radin, Ray Hyman, and Cornell's Daryl Bem, for those familiar with these names, and Freud rears his head repeatedly as well, as befitting the author's background in psychoanalysis.

Mayer ends up arguing that just as in "Gestalt psychology" where certain illusions are based on the inability of a viewer to focus simultaneously on both the background and foreground of a picture, thus forcing a focus on one or the other, so too many scientists are incapable of viewing "anomalous" experiences objectively in their normal rational mode, and thus too quickly dismiss phenomena that are dissonant with the empirical career world they inhabit.

Another chapter reviews some of the experimental research on the effects of prayer on patients, a topic about which much has been written in the last couple decades, and the last chapter is the now almost obligatory one all such books must have on "quantum uncertainty," relating how this concept from physics, and the related concept of "nonlocality," may apply in the cognitive world. Here, a 4-part mind/matter, conscious/unconscious model of dynamic interaction is hypothesized to try to account for some of the paranormal research findings (and also account for why such findings are often difficult to achieve or replicate). Prior to this chapter the notion of "entrainment," wherein people are shown to have synchronous physiological responses to a given stimulus, is also mentioned as a possible explanation (or at least analogy) for some paranormal effects.

At the end, despite her trepidation of 'New Age fads' and human 'credulity,' scientist Mayer is left shaken by what she finds on her "journey" through examples that are difficult to make sense of, yet real enough, she believes, to need serious investigation. It is unfortunate she passed away (from illness) before getting to pursue these areas further.

Personally, I believe there exist multiple ways of "knowing" of which the scientific method is one way. And from that perspective this volume is worth a read; others who view science as the only proper way of knowing may find the volume lacking. In the end, Mayer's book is a call to remain open to possibilities that we can't comprehend with our current operating logic; to neither dismiss nor ignore such mysteries of life, but look them square in the eye, and acknowledge their presence, without pre-judgment or bias.
.. and that, afterall, is part of the scientific method.



Sally said...

I agree. No mystery, no science. Try this one for another provocative view.

Anonymous said...

"... look them square in the eye, and acknowledge their presence, without pre-judgment or bias... and that, afterall, is part of the scientific method."

Not quite - the scientific method requires that a phenomenon be *repeatable* before it is taken seriously and investigated.

This is the problem with anecdotal evidence. Like UFOs, sure you can get a million people willing to recount inexplicable events. All you can say from that, is the following: Lots of people believe this stuff. That's ALL you can scientifically say. Nothing else about it is reliably repeatable, otherwise science WOULD be all over it like a rash.

The reason science discounts a lot of this stuff is that, in the end, all we have is a lot of people who say they've experienced something, whether it's "psi" or UFOs or whatever.

That itself deserves a lot of study : ie. "why do people have these experiences", not "what is this phenomena and how do we access it" - I think that's rather putting the cart before the horse.

ARJ said...

well, not all science is replicable; some is strictly theoretical in nature, and only becomes testable decades later if at all ("string theory," one of the most popular and widely written-about topics of modern science, is indeed slammed by its critics for being largely untestable).
I think I made it clear in the review that many scientists won't find the subject matter to their interest; I just wish they'd be equally rigorous in critiquing other typical published science where controls and definitions of interacting variables are often inadequate or non-existent, and where underlying assumptions are made but not spelled out.