This series originally begin 3 January 2009. This is only Part I; the remaining parts are linked below.
On 20 September 2004, in the Physics Department at MIT, sponsored locally by the Body and Brain Student Club, I proctored a test I had designed to probe the psychic powers of three Korean children.
The kids were under the tutelage of Ilchi Lee and the Korean Institute of Brain Science (KIBS). That group claimed that kids who had training in their methods of Brain Respiration and Dahn Yoga would be able to “read” the colors of cards inside opaque envelopes while blindfolded.
KIBS called this ability “non-visual, heightened sensory perception”, or HSP. They insisted that this is not the same as extra-sensory perception, or ESP, though the differences seem largely semantic.
This, in five parts, is the story of that experiment, what events led up to it, what happened during, and the sad but predictable aftermath.
I have written about this experiment before, but this is the first time I present all details. This will take us some time, and might even be tedious at times, but it is, you will see, necessary to be explicit as I can be.
In the fall of 2004, Dr Sung Won Lee was an attending physician in the department of General Internal Medicine and Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the Cornell University Medical School. I was there, too, as an Assistant Professor of Biostatistics.
Sung and I were friends. He is one of the sweetest humans on the planet. We had been to each other’s homes for meals, compared grievances about our boss, and so on. We used to argue the physics and biology and what it means to be conscious, what constitutes evidence for or against a theory, the strictures of philosophical systems, what is and isn’t “science”. Sung put a lot of thought into his beliefs and was suspicious of logic.
Dr S. Lee got involved, a couple of years earlier, with Dr Ilchi Lee (no relation), KIBS, and Dahn Yoga. As part of an official experiment he was conducting at Cornell, Dr S. Lee was teaching adults Dahn Yoga to measure their improvement in various quality of life measures. Sung had many close social associations with other members of Dahn Yoga.
Sung knew that I had written a book about testing psychic phenomena—So, You Think You’re Psychic?—and that I was interested in magic, particularly mentalism, which is the art of fooling people into thinking you have psychic powers. So he asked whether I’d be interested in designing a test for KIBS.
He explained that his friend, Dr Ilchi Lee, had developed a method called brain respiration that would allow people to develop extraordinary sensory powers. For examples of these claims, click here. Note that this is only one of the many dozens of sites run by that group. More on this later.
Sung thought that training in brain respiration methods would allow kids to be able to “feel” colors—without, of course, using their eyes. He said that KIBS-trained kids could, while blindfolded, hold colored cards in their hands and correctly identify the color of those cards by touch. Sung had a promotional video tape from KIBS showing these miracles.
He brought the tape to my apartment and we watched it. The tape was in Korean, but Sung provided the translation. It started by showing a batch of children about six to twelve years old attending a brain respiration orientation. Before they knew its secrets, they tried reading the colors of cards blindfolded, but failed. They also tried to stick spoons on their face by “magnetizing” themselves but failed that, too. The kids then underwent training and afterwards could read colors blindfolded and could stick spoons to their faces. There might have been other abilities, but I’ve forgotten them.
I was exasperated by the performance because I thought the kids were obviously cheating. Sung believed they were not. I got a spoon from the kitchen and demonstrated it not sticking. I then “magnetizing” myself and—lo!—the spoon stuck. This is a simple trick, the simplest maybe, of all magic tricks. To get a spoon to stick, simply press it hard so that as large a surface area of the spoon touches your skin as possible. Make sure the bowl sticks outwards. It helps if your skin is not dry. I put mine on my forehead and nose.
I fashioned a blindfold and Sung handed me colored cards. I could easily “feel” their colors by cheating. Blindfold tricks are the next easiest and cheating is so easy a KIBS child could do it. Try it and you’ll find how simple it is to see anything, as long as you’re able to move the object to an advantageous spot, which the KIBS kids could.
I warned Sung that there were two ways to be fooled in psychic tests: the investigator could see things he wanted to see but weren’t there, and the person under study could cheat, knowingly or not. Psychic phenomena are supposed to occur by other than normal means, but most people do not appreciate how perceptive we are, and how we can sense subtle clues from our environment that might not allow us to, for example, say exactly what object is held in an opaque bag, but will let us guess better than randomly.
The temptation to cheat is strong, especially in kids, who are anxious to please adults and who enjoy praise when successful.
The stronger an experimenter wants to believe the more likely he will miss clues that his subjects are cheating, or to dismiss the times he did catch his subjects cheating as aberrations, or even as necessary to “relieve testing stress.” This has happened countless times in psychic testing.
In short, psychic tests are difficult because you have to work hard to eliminate all possible avenues of sensory leakage, remove the subtle clues that people unconsciously use, and make it impossible for cheating to occur.
You already believe, I told Sung, but others do not. The only way to convince outsiders that brain respiration was real was to produce incontrovertible evidence of its abilities under the strictest possible conditions. Sung agreed with this.
I told him that if a controlled experiment succeeded, I would be willing to believe in brain respiration, but given my experience with situations like this, I did not think it would work.
Then came my big warning. I explained what happens when people who believe strongly in psychic powers are presented with positive evidence that the powers are false. They refuse to acknowledge that evidence. They dismiss it, explain it away, insist it is flawed, or a fluke. In no way do they lessen their belief in the power; if anything, their belief strengthens.
They also blame others for the failure.
Sung said none of this would happen. He was confident that the KIBS trained kids would pass any test, and was excited about the prospect of demonstrating to the world the amazing possibilities of Dahn Yoga and brain respiration and training.
I said, OK, I would design the experiment.
Next: The design