Drawing from available science to attempt to create a realistic framework for psychic powers in a science fiction universe


Jun 30, 2023
I'm sure this is a thoroughly studied topic with at least a small percent of science fiction writers.

With a healthy dose of skepticism, a science fiction writer may explore parapsychology as a method of providing a realistic fictional explanation of psychic phenomenon.

Telepathy has been tested for by the ganzfeld experiment, wherein the probability of accuracy occurring accidentally, causing a false positive, should have been 25%.

The first meta-analysis of ganzfeld was conducted at the annual convention of the Parapsychological Association in 1982, when Charles Honorton provided a paper summarizing the results of all known ganzfeld experiments to date. 34 published reports by 10 researchers. 42 experiments. Only 28 experiments reported actual hit rate. 23 of these 28 reported greater than chance hit rates. When the hit rate for all 28 studies were combined, odds against chance were calculated as ten billion to one.

Autoganzfeld experiments were then conducted attempting to put as strict a variety of controls on the ganzfeld procedure as possible (starting in 1983), and the final result was a probability telepathy had been successfully demonstrated of forty-five thousand to one.

As of 1997, the overall odds against chance promoted that telepathy is reliably demonstrated by ganzfeld, all published experiments taken into account, is beyond a million billion to one.

Telepathy source: the Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena by Dean Radin, PH. D. Chapter 5.

Remote viewing
experiments were done in the 1970s when various US government agencies initiated a program at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a think tank affiliated w/ Stanford University. In 1990, the program moved to Science Application International Corporation (SAIC), a defense contractor. The program finally settled down in 1994, after 24 years of support from the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, the Army, the Navy, and NASA.

In a typical experiment, the remote viewer was asked to sketch, describe, or both, a distant target not visible to the naked eye.

All but the earliest studies at SRI (and all SAIC experiments) evaluate results using “rank-order judging”: after a remote viewer had sketched, described, or both, the target hir was instructed to scry out, a judge blind to the true target looked at the viewer’s response along with photographs or videos of four decoy targets and one actual target. The judge was asked to assign a rank to each possible target, 1 for most likely, 5 for least likely to be the one described by the remote viewer. The results were then scored based upon how close the judge was to the target the remote viewer had been assigned.

Results of these experiments were published and subjected to open criticism, which tightened the controls on the experiments.

In 1988 Edwin May & colleagues analyzed all psi experiments conducted at SRI from 1973 until then. 154 experiments, more than 26,000 separate trials. Just over a thousand trials were laboratory remote-viewing tests. Statistical analysis of data indicated odds against chance that remote viewing was demonstrated to be more than a billion billion to one.
Is this thread to provide realistic ideas for psychic abilities to exist within an SF (rather than a Fantasy) story?
Or, are you providing evidence from actual experimentation that they actually exist for real?

Because I see them as two very different things. I'm quite happy to have psychic abilities (only partially explained) within my SF because I think that even if they aren't proven today, they 'might' be proven in the future. However, despite your current science literature reviews, their existence is not widely believed today. Something like Anthropological Global Warming is agreed by 99% of climate scientists (with a few very vocal deniers.) You cannot say the same for Psychic Powers, where the figures would be very much lower (maybe even the reverse.) There are some very convincing experiments undertaken in laboratory conditions, of that I have no doubt, but then I also find some stage magicians and illusionists to be very, very convincing too.

As for explanations, there are many to be found within the SF literature itself, from recessive genetic traits caused by a series of mutations, that we have either lost from being early hominids, or are the first next stage of being a more advanced hominid; to an effect of puberty in young females. There is still much we do not understand or know. If Pigeons can have an internal compass as a sixth sense, I can accept the existence of other senses that we don't understand yet.

I think that for myself, "where the energy comes from" is more of a problem than the "how to tap into it" part. The law of conservation of energy requires that it must come from somewhere. If the energy comes from the Brain itself (which is a muscle) then that is still a lot of energy required to move an object across a desk, or to read another mind at a distance. If the energy is being taken from some "other" dimension, then I expect it will be quite some time for Physics to be able to prove that. I am, however, happy with Arthur C Clarke's explanation that "Magic is just Science we don't understand yet."
I meant to provide an example of the kind of research that could be plugged into a story to make psychic abilities look real within the context of the fiction. I didn't intend to prove psychic phenomenon exists.

The research, as sporadic as it is in suggesting the reality of psychic phenomenon, is not reliable.

I agree with you completely, Dave. And your post generates exactly the kinds of ideas I was looking for.
Do you want useful powers in your story, or just something as vague as your example?
But remote viewing is an extremely useful ability, if it exists i.e. espionage, corporate espionage, criminal activities, and journalists would love it too. I find that the possession of that ability to be much more plausible than exploding heads or lightning bolts.
I happen to be trying a story along these same lines. Here are some points I used to formulate my environment.
  • Narrowly define what psychic abilities are available.
  • Balance the energy needs of the person with the energy needed for the action. Lifting cars by thought would be unbalanced.
  • People emit emotional auras that are readily understood by others and resonate in other's emotions. Think desire between two individuals or mob violence in crowds.
  • Brainwave scans can, to a limited degree, reveal what people are thinking.
  • Psychics are said to 'read' people's thoughts by interpreting body language. What if they are actually interpreting thoughts?
But remote viewing is an extremely useful ability, if it exists i.e. espionage, corporate espionage, criminal activities, and journalists would love it too. I find that the possession of that ability to be much more plausible than exploding heads or lightning bolts.
Sure... but it doesn't appear to exist in a practical manner. You can't base espionage on visions that you can never confirm are accurate, so no intelligence agency would use it, even if you can demonstrate the principle in a lab.
I'm not much into this kind of thing, because it seems a little like pressing magic into service for an SF plot without actually doing the SF thing of citing the origin.

But my idea on the Force in SW has long been that it might be an ancient alien artifact that can affect normal space when 'users' think the right protocols. In other words, a networked mechanism embedded in hyperspace that some people can learn to crudely access to accomplish things that are also possible using SW technology - levitation, tractor beams, force fields, etc.

So I like the idea of some intervening system doing all the heavy lifting as long as the person figures out how to control it.
With liberal use of text I think one could chalk up any kind of physic events to quantum events. So many of the words of magic and physics and magic tricks themselves have correlations with quantum terminology. One doesn't have to say how it works, just use enough words to get across the understanding gap of how it works. These are rationalizations partly based on ideas that could easily be linked to real life events. Ignorance of how things could be done protects those who have no idea of how to go about getting outside of the standard dimensions.

Spooky action at distance certainly seems like fertile ground for mentally connecting to things outside of the body.

One could proclaim the brain to be a quantum computer. It works with energy at the molecular level, no leap at all to go sub atomic. One reason why people won't know the connection is there as well as being extremely hard to connect to is because the mind could tap into streams of information from the cosmic framework that could literally suck the personalized components of the mind straight out into the middle of nothing that would support the personalized components.

There could be up to 10 dimensions or more hidden in plain sight where it might be possible to tap into another dimension not visibly connected to the standard four dimensions where power could be obtained by redirection. The mind could be looked upon the same as a gate in any electronic device where an extremely small amount of power controls another stream of power that is much larger than the gate power. We don't know anything about this because if one were to carelessly fool around it could be like trying to connect your own extension cord to one of those high voltage tower lines. You can inductively tap into the high power line's emf emissions without a direct connection but you couldn't hook the cord up directly to the high power line without getting fried, unless one knew exactly how to do it.
Interesting topic @SaintJzearuth

As a card carrying Fortean, I've read in and around such topics, although I have to admit to be somewhat on the sceptical side - (the old cynic in me thinks it is not surprising that all these researchers, doing all these tests, tell us that they show something working!)

Which reminds me have you read Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats?

However, putting that aside, let's assume that such abilities do in fact exist. If telepathy, remote viewing, talking to the dead, ESP or PK etc. really do exist why are such abilities not common among all of us? Yes there are people who will claim this, and they tend to be the ones making money out of it as psychics - although cold-calling, tricks and illusions are really all that are required for their trade. So again, lets put them to another side and leave them.

Perhaps we do all experience such things, but the results of these powers are so trivial and mundane no-one actually notices or registers that anything has actually happened? It is only the one-in-a-billion billion event, like a very vivid premonition, or a poltergeist attack* that really sticks in the mind and gives us a "big result". Most of time, however you move a cup a few atom-widths, or get a vague premonition that you will be breathing tomorrow! Such powers could be random, usually very weak, essentially uncontrollable for virtually all of us and impossible to interpret correctly.

Unless, of course you can train your mind, like certain members of the US and Russian military establishment tried (see Ronson's book above), to achieve better results. So for a fictional 'realistic' approach, perhaps I'd go along with:

1) I'd assume that the brain does indeed contain structures that give rise to ESP and all that. I'd have some way to augment or boost these structures to work much better. So perhaps it years of mental training, drugs or using magnetic fields via a MRI-type device to fire up brain structures... (or all three!) but, my plotting manager in my head likes powers to be balanced by downsides so...

2) ...as it seems, even "rigorous training" doesn't really seem to really boost such powers, perhaps a person's brain needs to be totally re-wired and effectively destroyed to activate these abilities. So perhaps remote viewers would be keep in vegetative states in a ward, kept alive by dripfeeds, manipulated by analysts to RV, who record the mumblings and brain waves, or perhaps zombie-like PK users, conscious and able to walk about, but mentally sub-normal therefore need handlers to actually direct their abilities and also take care of them. If you want to speak to the dead, then perhaps the 'operator' needs to be kept in a state between death and life...

3) That way, it's not a good thing to have psychic powers, it is something big bad people do, exploiting others. And to get 'real' psychic powers the individual has to sacrifice everything.

To be honest writers like Philip K. Dick used ideas like this a lot - the Pre-cogs in Minority report come immediately to mind, so it's probably a bit tropey, but that is my first draft take! I'd be more interested in taking a darker approach and exploring that, rather than having a bunch of cool psychic warriors doing secret agent/hero shenanigans and having no downsides to their powers.

*I am more on the side of the fence that poltergeist activity is related to something in the mind, not a ghost - however the more you go into that topic the muddier it becomes!

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