Princeton researchers: Thoughts come true

By Shankar Vedantam
Knight Ridder Newspapers

In a basement lab at Princeton University's engineering school, highly trained scientists believe if they concentrate really hard, their thoughts can alter reality.

The "X-Files" it's not, but it's weird work for the austere halls of science at an Ivy League school.

In a recent experiment, psychologist Brenda Dunne pressed a button and then stared hard at her computer screen. The computer was hooked up to a drum. She was trying to will the drum to beat harder.

"Boom-BOOM," it went. "BOOM-BOOM-boom-BOOM."

"When people look at the computer with intense intent and concentration, can they produce bizarre, unexpected, inexplicable events?" said Dunne.

Testing that theory at Princeton's Engineering Anomalies Research, or PEAR, lab "over tens of millions of trials, we have a very strong case that people's intentions can have a small but persistent effect on the results," she said.

A tossed coin, in other words, will come down heads more often than tails -- if you will it so. It may require thousands of coin tossings for the small effect to show up, but Dunne said the results were real.

It's the sort of work that leaves most scientists aghast, or snickering.

"I think I represent 95 percent of the physicists that I know in not believing that this kind of work is sound or worth doing," said Philip Anderson, professor emeritus of physics at Princeton and a critic of the PEAR lab. "I don't think (the lab) has reproduced any effects that have convinced any unbiased observers."

Word of the research has spread widely in academia. Many scientists interviewed for this article, including the chairman of Princeton's physics department, declined to comment.

Dunne and Robert Jahn, director of the PEAR lab, said critics such as Anderson knew little about the lab's work.

"Radical points of view are challenged, and they should be," said Dunne, speaking of the lab's research. "But when the challenge is, 'You're nuts,' then the response is, 'Hey, you're nuts too.' "

Jahn has a doctorate in physics from Princeton and is now a professor of aerospace engineering. It was in 1979, during his 15-year stint as dean of the school of engineering, that he established the lab. The lab receives no tax-dollar funding and has been supported by private donors, including aircraft manufacturing magnate James McDonnell.

Jahn said he, too, reacted with disbelief when he first saw the data but later became convinced when experiments repeatedly came up with the same results.

"The study of anomalies is one of the most important weapons of science -- it explains where we go wrong," he said. "The anomalies we study are correlated with consciousness, and that is anathema to modern science.

"How do I explain it?" I don't. I can't explain it. My plea is that we not relegate it from the rest of science. We have every right to study it as much as we study electrons in a cloud chamber."

Do people who claim psychic ability show more success in these experiments? No, Dunne said, although some of them may be a little more consistent in their results. But she is eager to distance the lab from psychics.

The central idea behind Dunne's and Jahn's experiments is simple.

Toss a coin 10 times. The odds are there will be five heads and five tails. But say it lands on heads six times out of the 10. It's unlikely, but hardly surprising.

Now toss it 100 times.

If you get 60 heads, that means "we would have to have that unlikely thing happen 10 times," said Michael Steele, a statistician at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who is not connected to the PEAR lab. "That's more unlikely."

Now toss the coin 1,000 times, then 10,000 times.

"If you get 6,000 heads out of 10,000, it would be an astronomical effect," Dunne said. "This can't be attributed to chance."

Jahn said experiments in the PEAR lab have shown that the mind can affect about 1 in every 10,000 random events. That's too small an effect to make anyone a killing in the gambling casinos, he said.

Although the effect is small, Jahn and Dunne have conducted so many experiments that they believe the data have been verified. Jahn said the chance that the results are a fluke is less than one in a trillion -- virtually impossible.

When people concentrate together, Jahn and Dunne say, their collective will affects the random process even more.