E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.01 - May 1995

Reward Systems

By Rogier Van Bakel

Come on, sweetheart, you can do it. Oh, now, show me what you're made of. Thaaat's it!"

I am alone in a room with a woman I met barely an hour ago. She is talking softly, seductively, in a voice that is both sweet and persuasive. Not to me, mind you. She is directing her words - saccharine mutterings that other people might reserve for a sick child or a cute puppy - to an ugly electronic box with a red digital display. She is Brenda Dunne, the manager of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory, and she is giving me a demonstration of how she might "will" a random event generator (REG) to come up with more high than low numbers. She is somehow using the power of her mind to achieve it. And the power of her voice. She coos. She crows. She coaxes.

In case you were wondering: Dunne, a developmental psychologist, is far from the mad scientist type. But she is doggedly determined to prove what most physicists have never thought possible: that the human mind can change the performance characteristics of machines. Mind over matter, as it were. Sound crazy? The work at the PEAR lab has consistently shown that "normal" volunteers - not people who profess to have any psychic powers - can influence the behaviour of micro-electronic equipment with their minds, with their consciousness. This is done without the benefit of electrodes and wires - and without anyone being permitted to give the machine a good whack. Nearly 100 volunteers have conducted 2.5 million REG trials during the 15 years of the lab's existence, and the research shows a tiny but statistically significant result that is not attributable to chance. The volunteers didn't even have to sweet-talk the machine into its deviations the way Dunne has just done. Some of the "operators" merely stare broodingly at the display, focusing their minds to beat the silicon into submission. Others let their thoughts wander or read a book. Two-thirds of the volunteers have been able to affect the REG in the direction they had intended (to select more high or more low numbers), while only half of them would have produced those results by chance. A few of them have produced results that, when expressed in a graph, are so distinct the PEAR scientists can recognise these volunteers' patterns or "signatures" at a glance.

The volunteers achieve amazing effects, even if they are on a very small scale. "The operators are roughly altering one bit in 1,000," explains Michael Ibison, a British mathematical physicist who has come to work for a year at PEAR after stints at Siemens, IBM, and Agfa. "That means if you had a coin toss, psychokinesis could affect one of those coin tosses if you tossed a thousand times."

The metaphor is apt. The REG, in its simplest form, is nothing more than an electronic coin flipper. It is designed to come up with as many heads as tails. That is precisely what the carefully calibrated instrument does when humans leave it alone. But sit an operator in front of it, and the REG obligingly produces slightly more heads than tails - or vice versa, depending on the operator's intentions.

If that sounds weird, then consider this: you don't have to be in the same room as the REG to get results. Or, for that matter, in the same city, or even country. Volunteers as far away as Hungary, Kenya, Brazil, and India can influence Princeton's REG just as if they were sitting three feet away.

What's love got to do with it?

Another surprising finding occurred when Dunne and her team asked couples to interact with the REG. The effects generated by two people with an emotional attachment were much larger than those produced by an "unattached" pair of operators.

The PEAR team uses other instruments to get similar, perhaps even more striking, results. There's the Random Mechanical Cascade known as Murphy (after Murphy's Law), a 9-foot high vertical contraption that drops 9,000 small polystyrene balls from a spout at the top onto a grid of 336 evenly spaced nylon pegs. The balls land in a horizontal row of 19 bins at the bottom, in a distribution pattern that looks like a bell-shaped curve. Volunteers can "think left" or "think right," and a majority of them can cause a modest but measurable shift in where the balls land. A more recent experiment involves operators trying to control the swing of a custom-built pendulum. In another one, they're seated in front of a computer displaying two superimposed pictures, and are told to try to suppress one and bring the other to the foreground.

Sceptics have examined the lab's instruments, its data-processing software, its protocols. Environmental, non-consciousness-related influences such as temperature differences, passing traffic, earth tremors, and vibrations from a nearby machine shop have been ruled out as a cause for the anomalies. Other scientists have been able to replicate PEAR's experiments - just as PEAR's own work builds on other academic research. But the Princeton University lab has amassed so much scientific evidence of the consciousness effect that, by sheer quantity of data, it has become the foremost player in this field.

If the empirical proof seems to be strong and solid, the theoretical part - how does it happen, and what does it mean - is uncharted territory. That doesn't stop Brenda Dunne from developing some theories of her own. She points to a clipping on the wall of her chaotic office. It's a cartoon of two scientists. One says: "I actually prayed to receive this grant money, you won't tell anyone, will you, Charles?" After we've finished laughing, Dunne strikes an earnest note.

"It's human nature to pray, to hope, to desire. Where does this fit into a scientific world view? How can you talk about a reality that has no place for human consciousness - the very human consciousness that created that world view in the first place, the consciousness that designs the models and observes the data?"

Dunne has come to believe that human consciousness establishes a "resonance" with the physical world that can reduce some of the randomness around us. "One form of this resonance is what we know as love," she says, referring to the experiments with the bonded-pair operators. "Do we dare theorise that love has a palpable influence on random noise? I don't know. I think I would be willing to at least raise the question. This emotional bond, the 'being on the same wavelength,' somehow reduces the entropy in the world a little bit. And random processes seem to reflect this reduction by showing a more organised physical reality."

Heresy versus recalcitrance

It's easy to scoff at such notions - call them scientific heresy, or new-age drivel. And, to be sure, PEAR has a number of detractors. The editor of a prominent scientific journal once told the lab's founder and senior scientist, Robert Jahn, that he might consider publishing Jahn's recent paper, provided the author would transmit it telepathically.

Dunne copes with the barbs, she says, "without flying off the handle, without getting angry or defensive. We welcome the criticism, and have frequently made changes at the suggestion of other scientists. I think it was Nietzsche who said: 'Love your enemies, because they bring out the best in you.' Unfortunately, many of our critics basically say: 'This is the kind of nonsense I wouldn't believe even if it were real.' They're people who have made up their minds that this is all hogwash, without having studied the data."

Robert Jahn agrees. "We were not fully prepared for the degree of recalcitrance that we would encounter in otherwise learned, professional circles," he says, rather testily.

Jahn is a thin, hollow-cheeked man in his 60s who is inseparable from his baseball cap. He holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, a master of science degree and a PhD in physics, is a professor of Aerospace Sciences at Princeton University, and holds the position of Dean Emeritus of its School of Engineering and Applied Science. He started the PEAR Lab in 1979, putting his reputation, if not his career, on the line. Jahn avoids words like "paranormal", "psychic" and "parapsychology" like the plague. The phenomena he looks at are "engineering anomalies", he insists.

It was clear from the start that the subject was mired in controversy. Princeton administrators did not hide their concern over Jahn's unusual career turn. They nodded their approval only after an ad hoc committee had been established to ensure that Jahn's research met scientific standards.

Although that committee has since been disbanded, a Princeton colleague, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Philip Anderson, has since attacked PEAR's work, arguing that "if the effect of human consciousness on machines existed, hundreds of people would be beating the bank at Las Vegas." Anderson also believes that it is not up to serious scholars to disprove Jahn's data, smirking that this task should instead be handled by "those who are used to dealing in flim-flam, such as magicians and police officers."

Jahn dismisses the Vegas comment as "a spurious red herring." The effects PEAR has measured are much too small to have any usefulness at the roulette table, he counters. And, for the same reason, you can forget about trying to get the ATM machine to slip you an extra twenty, or about "willing" the traffic lights to turn green as you're speeding along. Your chances would be infinitesimal.

Virtual zoo

Robert Jahn's office is a virtual zoo of stuffed animals, mostly given to him by friends, colleagues, and students. In a corner, Jahn proudly displays his collection of small carousel horses, the fruit of a one-time subscription to the Franklin Mint's Horse of the Month Club. The book he co-authored with Dunne, Margins of Reality (Harcourt Brace & Co, 1987), a tome on the role of consciousness in the physical world, is dedicated to the scientist's respective pets, "and to all our other animal friends, who kept watch and understood it all."

He is quick to explain his fascination for animals. "I believe that the capacity for the so-called anomalous interaction between consciousness and the physical environment is best utilised by other-than-human life forms. You see it in the migration capabilities of birds and fish, and in the group consciousness that is evident in swarming insects. It is a capacity of consciousness that we have largely bred out of ourselves, as humans, by our preoccupation with the development of the analytical and intellectual capabilities of the mind, leaving the intuitive aspects to wither." PEAR has never done experiments with animal consciousness. However, scattered data from researchers who have, seem to support Jahn's notions (see left).

One floor down from his office, in the engineering school's basement, the PEAR lab is populated by an array of teddy bears and other furry friends, clustered on the velvet orange couch that looks like yesterday's Salvation Army special. On a wall is an official-looking certificate from a group called The Giraffe Project, proclaiming Jahn a giraffe because he "sticks his neck out."

But perhaps more telling are the two signs over the copying machine. One simply identifies the machine as "Baby." That's the name the copier was given by the lab people, who are seeking its full co-operation by using a flattering moniker. "This machine is subject to breakdowns during periods of critical need," warns the other sign. "A special circuit called a critical detector senses the operator's emotional state in terms of how desperate he or she is to use the machine. The detector then creates a malfunction proportional to the desperation of the operator. Threatening the machine with violence only aggravates the situation. Likewise, attempts to use another machine also may cause it to malfunction. They belong to the same union. Keep cool, say nice things to the machine. Nothing else seems to work. Never let anything mechanical know you're in a hurry."

It's pretty standard office humour. Identical signs must be hanging over thousands of computers and copiers throughout the US and the world. But nowhere is it more appropriate than at PEAR, where a team of scientists ponders if "technical" glitches might not, sometimes, be the result of operator anxiety.

"It's funny," critiques Dunne, nodding at the placard. "And on the surface, that's all it is. But taking that kind of attitude toward a machine, humorous though it may be, means treating the machine as if it were alive. To a degree, we all anthropomorphise the sophisticated equipment we work with: our computers, our cars. The way you treat a machine is going to have a great deal to do with the way it behaves. If you slam it, if you bang it, if you treat it like a thing, that reflects an attitude. If you consider the world an extension of yourself, it becomes a better place. Is that engineering? I don't know. Probably, yes. At the very least, the equipment is simply going to last longer because you take better care of it."

Murphy's Law

Some people, it seems, only have to get near a computer system and it breaks down. And, modern lore would have it, your hard drive is most likely to give up the ghost when you absolutely need that report you forgot to back up last night. Is Dunne implying that Murphy's Law is more than a whimsical piece of pseudo-science; more than a propeller head's version of a generic urban legend? "Most people who work around technology laugh - nervously - when they hear about such phenomena," she says, smiling. "They may dismiss it, but they know exactly what you're talking about."

The sentiment is echoed by Dean Radin, a Nevada researcher who worked for Bell Labs in Columbus, Ohio, and later at Princeton. "In technical circles, Murphy's Law is revered as the Gospel; and on the other hand, the same people laugh about it. Employees get reputations as jinxes or as people who make systems work. At Bell, whenever we were under the gun for an important demonstration to a VIP, the jinxes were not allowed to be present. I thought this was interesting behaviour for people who were otherwise highly analytical and quite bright."

Radin, who has a master's degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in psychology, got his bosses to OK a study into a possible link between operator anxiety and a machine's performance. "The reason I was able to sell this to management was that if one of the big telephone switching machines goes down for a second, we lose US$1 million in revenue," he explains.

Tenacious attempts notwithstanding, the link he sought to establish was elusive at best. "I did find, however, that there is a relationship between an operator's intention and the performance of a machine," Radin enthuses. He was able to replicate the random generator experiments that physicist Helmut Schmidt did at Boeing Scientific Research Labs in the '60s. In late 1993, Radin started the privately funded Consciousness Research Laboratory through the University of Nevada. He conducts studies there that he calls both "similar" and "complementary" to PEAR's.

Is there not even a shadow of a doubt in his mind that the mind-over-matter effect really exists? "No. The criticism of this type of research by other scientists is just the usual knee-jerk reaction to unexpected data."

That the effects of the human/machine resonance are tiny doesn't mean they can't be important in an exceedingly pragmatic way. For starters, the effects are arguably greater than those of the flaw in Intel's Pentium chip that caused such a brouhaha late last year.

And small effects can have big consequences. In the late '70s, Bob Jahn observed how certain aerospace technology was becoming so sensitive that it had to be protected against a passing cosmic ray. So, he told himself, it wouldn't necessarily be a stretch to imagine some small effect that a human operator - someone who sits in front of a delicate machine, stares at it, and interacts with it for hours on end - might have on that same piece of equipment.

Jahn is not much closer to the answers than he was 15 years ago. "We're far short of understanding the parameters. It's not at all clear how you shield a sensitive device to ignore the cross talk between the information processor that is our mind and the information processor that is the machine. But we know that the cross talk exists, under certain circumstances at least. And I still have the concern that it is the source of some of the gremlin effects that pilots report, and of the events that occur in emergency situations where the stress among the operational crew is bound to be very high."

PEAR may be laying the groundwork for technology that could eventually lead to more reliable vital computer systems, such as those used in air-traffic control or spacecraft. From the most pragmatic of perspectives, though: how will Dunne's and Jahn's notions about the properties of consciousness change our lives?

"Given what we see in the way of volunteers' signature patterns, a personalised switch is a definite possibility," Dunne muses. "It would open the garage door when you mind-beam your request at it. If you want to get really science fictiony, you might envision a car that's been attuned to you, and when you're very tense and nervous, a sensor in the car picks this up, and won't allow you to drive over 40 miles an hour."

Does she believe we'll reach a point where we can interact with our machines by the sheer force of our minds? "It's long-term, but I wouldn't be surprised," she allows. "We are moving in that direction, with technology being developed for handicapped people, in which they can wire the device to brain waves or eye movements.

"We already have voice-activated computers, and voice locks that recognise the voice patterns of authorised users. That's damn close. If you have something that you might call a psychic signature, how different is that from a voice pattern? Not very."

Dunne also sees a medical component to PEAR's ventures into human/machine relationships. "Our own bodies are perhaps the most complex and sensitive of information processing machines. That raises the question: Is it possible that some of the processes that go on in the body - for example, random fluctuations in functions like heartbeat, immune response, neuronal connections and the like - might be susceptible, or indeed might be designed to respond to the directives of our consciousness?

There are many stories about patients who refuse to accept a diagnosis and get better in spite of every expectation. There are also tales of patients who seem to refuse to get better even though there is nothing terribly wrong. If we could get a handle on this thing, it might make a vast difference in how we heal ourselves. I know this is very speculative, but it's an area that is worthy of investigation."

Cutting off your arm

The technology we use shapes our self-image, theorises Dunne, and therefore becomes an integral part of who we are. "When radio was invented, our brain was compared to a box with transmitters and receivers. Now we're into computers, and the brain has become an information processor, a complex computer. These technologies and metaphors are a reflection of our self-perception, of our own evolution; we develop them as extensions of ourselves. But how can you detach that extension from notions of self and ideas of consciousness? That's like cutting off your arm."

But is she serious when she recommends pampering and coochy-cooing your equipment? "I'm half-serious," she insists. "I make fun of it, because yes, sometimes it gets silly."

Dunne likes to tell a story about Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who supposedly had a horseshoe over his barn door. During a visit, a colleague noticed the horseshoe and inquired, "Come now Niels, you don't believe in that nonsense, do you?" Whereupon Bohr smiled agreeably, and replied: "Of course not, but I am told that it works whether you believe in it or not." n

Rogier van Bakel (rogiernl@aol.com) almost missed the deadline for this story because operator anxiety caused his Mac to crash.