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The Daily Need

Some science for ESP, at least when sex is involved

A new paper by a Cornell psychology professor emeritus argues that humans might have an as-yet-undocumented evolutionary ability: when it comes to sex, it seems we can predict the future.

The paper, by Daryl J. Bem, describes a series of simple experiments conducted on hundreds of Cornell undergraduates. Each test attempted to prove the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP) — the ability to predict the future. And Bem’s findings were statistically significant. He concluded that, to some degree, ESP does exist.

The first of Bem’s experiments dealt with the “Precognitive Detection of Erotic Stimuli” — whether or not we know something sexy is going to happen before it happens.

Bem’s team sat 100 students — 50 men and 50 women — before a computer screen that displayed two curtains, one on the left side of the screen and one on the right. Each student read directions explaining that one of the curtains had a picture behind it. Their job was to click on the curtain that hid the picture. Each test included “erotic and nonerotic” images that were “randomly intermixed.”

But the directions sort of lied. When the students sat down, neither curtain hid a picture. Only after the students selected a curtain, in that moment before the computer swept that curtain aside — only then did the computer generate an image behind one of the curtains. This means that the test wasn’t measuring the students’ ability to detect something hidden — it was, instead, measuring their ability to detect the existence of something that did not yet exist. In other words, it was measuring their ability to predict the future.

Each student repeated the same exercise 36 times, selecting curtains over and over. When the image was nonerotic, the students guessed the correct curtain 49.8% of the time — about half (50%) of their tries were correct. But when the image was erotic (“couples engaged in nonviolent but explicit consensual sexual acts”), students guessed the correct curtain 53.1% of the time — a number far enough away from 50% that it is statistically significant. Bem noted that students could choose to see erotic images that depicted heterosexual couples, as well as female and male homosexual couples, to evoke the strongest response from the individual.

The experiment might demonstrate what Bem calls “the possibility of an evolved precognitive ability to anticipate sexual opportunities.” Other experiments detailed in Bem’s paper seemed to indicate humans’ “ability to anticipate and thereby to avoid danger.” Both abilities, Bem hypothesized, would confer “an obvious evolutionary advantage” on our species. The power to detect both future attackers and future lovers and to respond to each appropriately would indeed further our species’ ability to produce lots of babies — a goal that Darwin suggested all creatures share.

Bem’s paper will appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology later this year. The New York Times published an article Tuesday detailing some of Bem’s colleagues’ responses to his study: on the whole, it has generated a mixture of “amusement and scorn,” causing one researcher at the University of Oregon to predict that the whole thing is Bem’s idea of a practical joke. Social psychologists at other universities have already compiled two separate rebuttals to Bem’s paper.

But it seems Bem was prepared for ridicule even before the paper was released; he concluded by appealing to his peers with anecdotal quotes from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”:

“Near the end of her encounter with the White Queen, Alice protests that ‘one can’t believe impossible things,’ a sentiment with which the 34% of academic psychologists who believe psi to be impossible would surely agree. The White Queen famously retorted, ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

“Unlike the White Queen, I do not advocate believing impossible things. But perhaps this article will prompt the other 66% of academic psychologists to raise their posterior  probabilities of believing at least one anomalous thing before breakfast.”

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  • Joseph Irwin

    Students don’t normally think of sex? Please. This is the reason science is becoming a punchline in a teabagger speech.

  • Zack

    I guess PBS isn’t as credible as I thought it was. Talk about pseudoscience.

  • Amanda

    Whatever happened to sitting down and reading a study so it can be critiqued properly instead of condemning it? It’s not like no one here can’t access it easily, I mean it’s on his website open to public viewing. All 60 pages of a reasonably well written paper with detailed explanations (to ensure easy replication) of several experiments performed over a number of years. Do we no longer actually think about what we read, just have an opinion before we finish the reading the Internet article? I’m not saying Bem’s study shouldn’t be criticised, all science should. But if you’re going to be a skeptic at least do it properly.

  • Iustiafiatcaellum842

    For a critique of Bem’s deeply flawed experiments, go here:

  • Muslim

    When you think and are raised to believe that you came from a monkey, a monkey you shall believe that you are. This explains the focus on sex and sexuality. Evolution seems to be turning humans into monkeys.

  • Chad Dunbar

    So, 100 people guessing 36 times each and a 3.1% difference is significant? I guess the scientists involved never played poker or blackjack. Ever heard of “luck of the draw”? If they repeat this experiment about 20 more times and the 3.1% hold true, then they might have something. But for one test run, these are very dubious findings at best.

  • sheeple

    You don’t understand evolution. We didn’t come from monkeys…the closest relative we have is the chimpanzee and we didn’t come from them either. Instead, we share a common ancestor that goes back millions of years before the first homo sapien walked out of africa. There were many hominids that branched off before we evolved.

    To turn your phrase, when you’re raised to believe fairy tales then that is the only explanation you can ever accept. Learn to think for yourself…memorizing a book of myths and superstitions doesn’t count.

  • Sathayasay

    While I do believe some ESP exists in some few people- this study proves nothing- not a large enough population sample, or number of replication, and it makes no mention of statistical percentage of time the computer randomly generated sexual images by the end of the trail- my guess would be greater than 53 percent of time- which could leed to false conclusions- with larger sample population n replications u could program computer for an even number of sexual n non sexual images for entire trail with true random built in for each individual but overall non random ratio of 1:1 but 3600 total reps is too small to draw conclusions- let’s see if he can replicate on larger scale in multiple trials- than I might be able to be less skeptical.

  • Jenni Allen

    Evolution has never stemmed from the idea that we came from monkeys. We came from a common ancestor of the apes, which has a plethora of evidence to support it. Over 99% of our DNA is the same as chimpanzees and share many of the same sexual, social and cultural behaviors as humans. What do you make of animals such as Australopithecus or Homoerectus, were these really humans or just special apes? How do you account for the 99% of species that have died out over 6,000 years, if that’s how old you believe the earth to be?

  • Melodyb2003

    you tell ‘em! that’s awesome!

  • Matt

    Nope. That’s the dominion of religion. And liquor. Both make people act like complete asses.

  • Callingcolleen

    Just because science hasn’t explained it doesn’t mean its bull. I am in love. Prove me wrong. Prove me right. Why am I in love? Can you predict my likelihood to fall in love or with a greater statistical significance? Not really.

    I have that ever so popular gluten intolerance. My primary and most predictable reaction is a grumpy mood. Scientists can’t explain why. There is yet to exist a test to confirm anything is wrong. Most people don’t have this reaction to wheat. Nevertheless, there is some evolutionary theory behind my reaction and there made by others so… I avoid gluten. But because there isn’t anything or anyone telling me to do this other than the sensations I alone experience– according to you skeptics, I must be a total idiot to miss out in all the cookies. Case closed. Let’s never talk about this again.

    I also have remote viewing and precognitive experience. I can’t prove it, no most of the time since I don’t go through life taking down data. I also can’t produce in demand since I don’t know how I do it, so this ability is not repeatable in a lab setting. But I know I can do these things and frankly, I’d be an idiot to dismiss these senses. I mean, if we humans have esp, why not invest some $ and energy into learning more… Der.

    Joseph Campbell once said, “I don’t need faith, I have experience.” To that I would add, I don’t need science, I have experience. Although, I’d sure like it if there was more science going into the explanation for these experiences. I applaud Bem and the folks who fund his research.

    Gotta run. I’m having some pretty erotic images flashing across my mindscape. Must investigate. Don’t wait up, boys. ;)

  • Aakaakaak

    He’s quoting his imam in part it sounds like, so the scientific point is moot.

    Also, wasn’t it the orangutan that was our closest relative? It’s been 6,000 years since I was in school, so they may have recalculated the DNA numbers since then.

  • Joemak44

    uh huh emitrius eh?sounds like someone got caught using university computers and needed a good xcuse

  • Vijay R Asrani

    I think the selection of sex as a subject to validate PSI is not correct.. Sex is a potentially explosive subject always in the undercurrent of peoples thinking. Vijay Asrani

  • Gluten Intolerance

    Now, I know the reason why my wife gives me a massage every time. lol don’t believe in such skill or extraordinary ability but from what I read it seems that it might have a possibility of truth.

  • Dart

    This puts a twist on the phrase ‘Saw it coming’.

  • John

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    found enough resources by your tips about this issue, Thank you.