The Cabbage Patch Kid: Charles Tart’s Contributions to Parapsychology

May 2, 2024
IONS Science Team

In a recent article, Dean Radin, PhD, Chief Scientist of IONS, writes an homage to the legendary Charles Tart, PhD, an influential figure in parapsychology for over 60 years. Tart co-founded the discipline of transpersonal psychology (a branch of psychology that explores the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience), he advanced the idea of post-materialist sciences (a movement that challenges the traditional materialistic paradigm of science), published some 210 journal papers, including influential articles in the esteemed scientific journals Science and Nature, and co-authored 14 books. He is also the person who popularized the term “altered states of consciousness” to characterize the spectrum of consciousness whereby typical everyday awareness is just one specialized form.

The article outlines Tart’s contributions to parapsychology and includes a chat between the two psi researchers. Radin also shares how Charley – as his friends call him – influenced his own life and career. In fact, had it not been for a kind letter from Tart, Radin may have abandoned his interest in the frontiers of consciousness and never provided us with the solid experimental foundation for psi phenomena that we have today.  

Four of Tart’s Primary Contributions to Parapsychology

Tart’s work significantly influenced psi research in many ways, but four are spotlighted in Radin’s homage. First, drawing on insights from his previous work in electronics, Tart drew parallels between electronic noise and the signal-to-noise ratio in psi experiments, concluding that improving feedback mechanisms for participants would help maintain motivation and skill on psi tasks, and as such, would also enhance results. The importance of feedback in psi research was solidified with this work, suggesting that it’s crucial to not only use participants tested beforehand and selected for their psi abilities, but also to give them feedback immediately after each trial to avoid any performance decline over time. This significantly improved results in the field.

Next, Tart discovered an unconscious strategy that seemed to improve psi abilities in forced-choice precognition tasks, or tests where participants had to predict outcomes from a set of options. He called this technique “transtemporal inhibition,” playing off the more conventional idea from psychophysiological studies of “temporal inhibition,” which is when one stimulus can suppress the response to a second stimulus. Tart’s term highlighted that this effect seemed to work even when predicting future events.  

The third breakthrough was using physiological signals to study psi abilities. As technology gets smaller, cheaper, and more advanced, we can measure things like heart rate and brain activity without invasive methods. This approach is important in understanding how unconscious information processing in the brain and body affect psi performance.

The fourth contribution is how Tart extensively explored the reasons behind the contentious nature of psi in his writings, musing on why intelligent scientists and scholars would react emotionally as though personally attacked when psi was broached. This behavior contradicts the open-mindedness expected in scientific discourse. Tart’s analysis of this phenomenon identified six common causes, including deeply held personal beliefs, dismissal of evidence based on unspecified scientific laws, negative associations with the paranormal, dismissal due to perceived lack of practical applications, fear of revolutionary scientific implications, and the tarnishing of psi research due to fraudulent psychics. Despite these challenges, understanding the underlying reasons for the pushback can help in presenting and discussing psi research in less contentious ways.

A Lifetime of Insights

In preparation for writing the article, Radin and Tart had a friendly chat about Tart’s career and background, discussing his experiences and insights gained from years of work in parapsychology. 

In addition to discussing how he came to the conclusion that feedback is important for psi research (see above), Tart also emphasized the importance of studying both experimenters and participants in psi research because of the social nature of the experiment. Throughout his career, he has also advocated for a shift toward practical applications of psi, such as the use of remote viewing in government espionage. His visionary ideas set the stage for refining experimental approaches and encouraging a more nuanced take on exploring psi phenomena.

Out-of-body experiences are another of Tart’s interests. To him, they pose fundamental questions about consciousness and spirituality because of the way they suggest the spiritual body or consciousness can separate from the physical body. He challenged the narrow scope of some peers who fixated on psi experiments, overlooking the mysterious depths of spiritual exploration. He urged for a richer, more holistic investigation into the mystical realms of paranormal phenomena.

Tart is also known for his revolutionary “probabilistic predictor” experiments, which were designed to address common criticisms of early psi studies: the challenge of ensuring truly random target sequences. For years, he, like many others, accepted this criticism at face value. However, he began to question this all-or-nothing approach and developed an innovative program to calculate how much a target sequence deviates from randomness by analyzing feedback from previous targets and adjusting probabilities for future guesses accordingly. Through this, he discovered that humans outperformed computer simulations, suggesting the presence of psi phenomena – and also that many previous experiments that were apparently nonsignificant might have been dismissed too quickly. Tart’s innovative method offered a fresh perspective on the analysis of psi data and highlighted the need for creative ideas.

Tart and Radin also discussed the fascinating idea that psi results might improve when electromagnetic radiation is blocked with use of a Faraday cage, and when the cage is connected to Earth ground. In Tart’s experiment, when the cage was left ungrounded, psi performance was reportedly at chance levels. This setup seemed to act like a psi amplifier or an off switch. Despite its potential significance, he notes that with few exceptions (one being a study conducted at the California Institute of Integral Studies) psi researchers have yet to systematically follow up on this intriguing possibility. 

Throughout his life, Tart faced numerous challenges, particularly from skeptics, but he found the journey of exploring the unknown consistently exciting and rewarding. He shared a charming anecdote from his childhood where his curiosity about life’s origins led him to ask his mother where he came from. Her answer, that they plucked him from a cabbage patch, ultimately didn’t mean anything to him and may have caused his life-long tendency to question authority figures. That early experience laid the foundation for his pursuit of psi phenomena and his willingness to challenge established beliefs. As he contemplates his legacy, Tart hopes to share more personal anecdotes and technical insights in his future writings, reflecting on a life filled with curiosity and the courage to question the status quo.

Read the publication this blog is based on.

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