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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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