Science

Jacob Jolij's paranormal research

It can't happen, but it still happens

The best way to commit scientific suicide is to study paranormal phenomena, like telepathy, or ‘seeing’ the future. But experimental psychologist Jacob Jolij decided to do it anyway. ‘What I do is tolerated.’
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Can you manipulate coincidence?

Just for the UKrant, Jacob Jolij has set up a little experiment, and you could be involved!

He wants to know what happens when he exposes you to numbers from a random number generator. Will they be completely random, or will some invisible force influence them so they’ll have some kind of meaning to you? Come find out!

Click here to join. The study will take approximately 5 minutes.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could go to a casino and, using only your brain, make sure the ball in the roulette game lands on red instead of black, or make a pair of dice land on six whenever you need it?

You’d not only become richer than god, but you’d also be rewriting the laws of physics. Obviously, no one can influence balls or dice with their brains.

Nevertheless, every once in a while, things happen that defy all common sense. And they don’t just happen in back rooms populated by psychics and mentalists. They also happen in laboratories run by renowned scientists.

What do these scientists do when such an occurrence takes place? Do they write an article about it, risking being ridiculed by the academic community? Or do they decide they made mistake and ignore what just happened? The latter option is probably best if you want to have a successful career. But every once in a while, against all odds, someone decides to write an article. That someone is RUG psychologist Jacob Jolij.

Consciousness

He’s been a scientist for a while now. He started in psychology, because he was interested in the topic of consciousness. He wanted to know what consciousness really was. What are our thoughts, our experiences, made of? ‘I wanted to make a robot that had a consciousness. Kind of like Data from Star Trek’, he says.

But he quickly found out that there was no one in the scientific community who wanted to help him with that. And when a spot opened up in a lab run by Victor Lamme, the neuropsychologist who claimed there’s no such thing as free will and that existence is nothing more than the sum of processes in our brains, his fascination took a back burner.

He obtained a research chair at the RUG. He did his experiments, published articles. But then, in 2011, his wife fell ill and his world was turned upside down. A year later, during a therapy session, he realised that he was totally over the work he’d been doing for so long. ‘I am more than just my brain’, he says. ‘That’s how I feel. And that’s what I want to study.

I am more than just my brain. That’s how I feel

The only question is: how? We may be able to measure exactly when certain brain cells ‘fire’, but we’d never be able to measure what kind of experience it leads to. Jolij is much too experienced a scientist to eschew proper, falsifiable, and replicable research. And he has to be careful about how open he is about it. ‘What I do is tolerated’, he says. ‘But that’s only because I spend the other four days a week doing research support.’

One day, something exceptional happened. One of Jolij’s students was doing a study; test subjects had to look at a screen and indicate whether or not they had seen a person’s face flash by. ‘A random number generator determined whether or not to show the face. My student also did what’s known as a sanity check – a baseline measurement before the face was shown, when the screen was blank, obviously.’

That was their assumption, anyway. But when Jolij and his student took a closer look at the result of the baseline measurement, it seemed to actually predict whether or not people would see a face. They did a second batch of experiments, which confirmed the result; it was small, but significant: 52 percent.

Was this a paranormal phenomenon? Where these people seeing into the future?

‘Actually, no’, says Jolij. ‘In the end, it turned out to be a mistake in the algorithm. But it did trigger something.’

Coincidence

When he explored similar research, he discovered that coincidence more often generated strange results. All too often he’d find wondrous connections that appeared to be significant, meaning they couldn’t be a coincidence. Jolij has been replicating the experiments to figure out what, if anything, went ‘wrong’. He’s succeeded occasionally, but, he says: ‘The weirdest things happen sometimes.’

One example: in 2011, psychologist Daryl Bem published the article ‘Seeing the Future’ in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The article caused a stir. It describes almost exactly what Jolij and his student found during their faces experiment.

Jolij said he knew where the problem was. It had to be the software used. But when he repeated the experiment using a different algorithm, he got the same results. ‘I tried to falsify Bem’s research, but instead I replicated it.’

He went back to work and found another problem, this time in the hardware. But, he says, this is exactly what happens during research like this; you find problems in the measuring process and solve them, only to get the same result over and over again.

Impossible

Even a study using a quantum random number generator, which uses material containing uranium that either does or doesn’t fire off a particle, led to the very same results: in 52 percent of the cases, people ‘knew’ whether or not they would be seeing a face.

Another example: a study in which test subjects had to move a dot on a computer screen to either the left or the right. They did this by entering a certain combination of keystrokes, which they had to figure out themselves through trial and error. But they never succeeded, because they keyboard wasn’t actually connected to the screen; the dot moved on its own, determined by a random number generator.

The study collected data on the test subjects: keystrokes, response time, gender, age, etc. ‘It turned out that during the experiment, there were more connections between the generator’s numbers than after it’, says Jolij.

Those connections don’t make sense, but the result is interesting

The effect is only small: one or two percent every time. Also, the connections make no sense and are completely random. ‘Like a connection between a person’s response time and their shoe size’, says Jolij. ‘Complete nonsense! But it’s still there. I still think it’s an effect of the analysis. It’s still interesting, though.’

The explanation – if it’s not due to statistical noise or mistakes in the measurements – could have to do with how human consciousness works. Some people claim that emotions, thoughts, and experiences can’t actually influence reality, but it is possible that some sort of entanglement enables some sort of interference.

RNG’s

Researchers at the Global Consciousness Project at the University of Princeton believe this as well. In 1998, they installed random number generators in different locations in the world to monitor them. ‘The weird thing is that these RNGs, which are supposed to generate completely random numbers with no discernible pattern whatsoever, end up becoming less random over time’, says Jolij. The effect mainly happens during ‘big’ events. One of these events was 9/11. ‘Or how excited everyone was when Duncan won the Eurovision Song Contest.’

Again: these numbers simply cannot be predicted. ‘But just for a few moments, these particular RNGs would not pass an inspection by the metrological service’, says Jolij.

In 2017, the same Princeton researchers installed an RNG at the famous Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. They predicted there would be abnormalities in the random numbers the moment the thousands of visitors got together to look at the burning figure. ‘They were right’, says Jolij. ‘You can’t help but wonder what’s going on.’

You do wonder: what’s going on here?

Is it more noise, like so many researchers claim? Is it a matter of data selection? Could be. But in science, the way to determine that is by replicating a study.

So this summer, he’ll do that at Lowlands Science. He’ll install RNGs and use an app to measure the visitors’ mood, hoping to find a similar result to what happened at Burning Man.

What are his expectations?

Jolij remains sceptic. No matter the results of the experiment, at least he’ll have an interesting data set. ‘I’d like to use it to research how to manipulate the data to get the same effect the Princeton people did at Burning Man.’

Based on his previous experiences, though, he wouldn’t be surprised if he does find something interesting. ‘You never know.’

 

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