Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception

SOME REFLECTIONS ON MY — Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (book cover front)

My last year in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, I was doing my dissertation research on seeing if I could change the way nighttime dreams unfolded as a result of giving subjects posthypnotic suggestions to dream about specified content.  The main dream theory at that time, Freud’s, claimed that you could not deliberately influence dream content, the unconscious did all the work.  I get interested when anyone says something can’t be done…  My suggestions worked out very effectively.  But it also meant I spent a lot of nights staying awake all night operating the brainwave recording equipment so that I could find when my subjects were dreaming and wake them to get reports.  And there was still one required course I had to take in order to graduate, a course on learning theory.

Learning theory was a major subject in psychology back then, it probably still is, but I always found it rather boring.  Worse, this course happened at 8 o’clock in the morning, so after being up all night to run a subject, I would have to go to class.  I remember a number of times at the end of class I would go up and apologize to the instructor in case I’d made any off-the-wall remarks, reminding him that I was quite sleep deprived and my mind was running a little loose.  He graciously accepted my apologies and occasional too sharp comments.  But I did learn a great deal about the psychology of learning.

A few years later, I applied that to the way extrasensory perception (ESP) was tested for in the laboratory, and while that style of testing had produced a lot of very solid evidence that ESP was real and could happen, I also saw that, from the point of view of learning theory, the testing procedure was what was called an extinction paradigm, a way of getting any organism, pigeon or rat or person, confused about what they were doing and eventually losing whatever talent they had to start with.  To extinguish behavior, you basically make someone do the desired action over and over, but don’t give them any feedback as to whether it’s correct or not.  Eventually they get confused and can’t respond correctly.  If you reframed ESP testing as you weren’t testing a skill someone already possessed and wanted to know how good it was, but that they had to learn how to do it, the common way of repeating guessing at hidden decks of cards with no feedback until it was far too late to allow any sense to be made of your attempts was an extinction paradigm.  Supporting this analysis, one of the most common findings reported in ESP research, was what was called the decline effect.  As you kept testing people, even the really good ones got worse and worse and eventually showed no evidence for ESP!  Chance doesn’t get tired or bored, humans do.

This was not a welcome idea for people who had carried out parapsychological research in spite of great prejudice against anyone doing it.  I was sorry to remind them of this, but that’s what a learning paradigm analyses showed.

Learning to Use ESP is about two studies I did several years later.  I was teaching a course on experimental psychology and decided the best way to teach it was to apprentice the students to me in a real experiment, rather than just do textbook examples that everybody already knew the answer to.  To make a long story short, by pre-selecting subjects who showed some possibility of ESP talent and giving them repeated training with immediate feedback, so they could start figuring out what kind of mental actions went with being successful and which kind didn’t, the decline effect disappeared and there were suggestions of learning.  This Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception book is the full report on how it was done and the initial results.  I did not do too much study of feedback after this, as I got involved in remote viewing research, where fast feedback was routinely employed and declines were rare, but I feel sketching out how ESP talent can be taught was one of my biggest contributions to understanding parapsychological phenomena.


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