An upcoming study claims that test subjects were able to accurately predict future events—and that pornography was one of the tools used in research for the project. Crazy, right?
But the methodology is sound. Skeptics are impressed. Do humans really have extra-sensory perception (ESP)? Can it really be triggered by the latest issue of Penthouse?
The paper, "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Effect," has a pre-publication version available online. Professor Daryl Bem of Cornell University carried out nine separate experiments with 1,000 university students. These experiments were intended to find evidence of "psi"—precognition or premonition. Bem defines it this way:
The term psi denotes anomalous processes of information or energy transfer that are currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms. Two variants of psi are precognition (conscious cognitive awareness) and premonition (affective apprehension) of a future event that could not otherwise be anticipated through any known inferential process. Precognition and premonition are themselves special cases of a more general phenomenon: the anomalous retroactive influence of some future event on an individual's current responses, whether those responses are conscious or nonconscious, cognitive or affective.
The most interesting of the nine experiments used pornography to test for ESP. Experimentees were asked 36 times to guess whether an image of "couples engaged in nonviolent but explicit consensual sexual acts" or a blank picture would show up on different sectors of a video screen. Subjects were able to predict the appearance of the pornographic picture 53.1% of the time—significantly above the statistical average of 50%.
That number, while low, is significant enough to imply something more significant than a simple statistical anomaly. Bem's conclusion: there is a "precognitive detection of erotic stimuli" and a "precognitive avoidance of negative stimuli."
Bem is a prominent social psychologist who is currently Professor Emeritus at Cornell and who has written extensively on sexual orientation and personality theory. In his paper, Bem states his wish to make it more socially acceptable in the academy for studies to be conducted on psi and related topics.
Critics are taking the paper seriously. Writing in Psychology Today, Brown University's Joachim Krueger—a noted skeptic—praised the paper's methodology and scientific rigor while still damning psi as "belief in processless causation." But we doubt we've heard the last of ESP in academia—or the study of porn's predictive powers.
[Image via Flickr user brain_blogger]
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