What is “paranormal,” scientifically speaking?

At this time of year, I try to bring you news about scientific studies on the “paranormal” phenomenon, which many feel may question the Nature of reality. But if scientific studies make these observations, are they really “paranormal”? Or do we need to expand our definition and boundaries for what is normal?

Parapsychological researchers investigate paranormal phenomena, also known as psychical research, or simply “psi” pronounced “sigh.” (When Jack Benny asked Mel Blanc on his radio show about “psi,” the answer was “si.”)

In fact, scientists (psi-entists?) at reputable institutions all over the world conduct psi studies. These biologists, engineers, physicists, and psychologists study “paranormal” activity and extended human capabilities, such as precognition and telepathy.

Precognition is like déjà vu (French for “already seen”). But it’s a bit more than that. It’s knowing that something is about to happen before it happens, not just that it has happened before.

(Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but it’s like Yogi Berra’s “déjà vu all over again.”)

University scientists investigate ESP and déjà vu

The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) project took a comprehensive approach to paranormal science when it ran from 1979 to 2007. They found highly statistically significant evidence for extrasensory perception (ESP) and for what can be called mind-matter interactions.

The University of Virginia Division of Perceptual Studies investigates near death experiences (NDE), out of body experiences (OBE), déjà vu, and even reincarnation, (perhaps the ultimate example of “been there, done that”).

Some paranormal science derives from quantum physics, which Einstein himself once described as “spooky effects at a distance.”

For example, the famous “delayed choice” experiments demonstrate the existence of a quantum eraser. In simpler terms, these experiments show that what happens in the present can change what happened in the past. They illustrate how time can go backwards and how cause-and-effect can be reversed.

Physicist John Wheeler at Princeton (his son was my professor of pathology at Penn) first proposed delayed choice as a thought experiment. And observations conducted at Australian National University repeatedly demonstrated this effect.

The science of healing at a distance

Paranormal science also applies to health. In fact, many experiments demonstrate the ability of a healer to influence patients, and even individual tissue cells, from a great distance away by using intention. For example, evidence shows people and groups of people who pray for others from a distant location benefit patients.

Some studies even show it makes no difference whether or not the person being “healed” or prayed for is aware, or is a believer. Other studies show the belief and expectations of the person being “healed” are important. I discuss “healing at a distance” extensively in my textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Some observers relate this phenomenon to the placebo effect, which is very real and very potent in medicine and rooted in physiology. Skeptics used to dismiss the placebo effect as being “all in your head.” So what? Huge amounts of science show how the mind is connected to the body!

Understanding the mind-body connection

“Out of body” and “dear death” experiences have also been studied at the University of Virginia and testimony has been provided to the United Nations and other bodies.

We have many documented cases of people who were clinically “brain dead” (showing no brain activity), but “regained consciousness” and reported everything that happened to them while they were “dead.”

What we think of as “consciousness” doesn’t appear to be purely a physical state centered in the mind. There are versions of “non-local” consciousness, which play into our awareness and feelings, also consistent with quantum physics and even ancient Ayurvedic writings.

Eugene Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 said, “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”

“Precognition” and “presentiment” have been the subject of many peer-reviewed scientific publications. Experiments indicate that the human body can actually detect randomly delivered stimuli one to 10 seconds in advance of when they occur in terms of physiologic changes in the heart, nervous system, and skin. This finding means the human body appears to become aware of an event before it actually happens. It also confirms what I reported last month: The human body can detect the physical presence of objects that don’t actually touch the body within a zone of “personal space.”

As Shakespeare wrote, when Hamlet and Horatio encounter the ghost, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”