Placebo Effect, Coincidence, and Mediumship

May 17, 2016
Arnaud Delorme, IONS Scientist

Based on the lifelong interest of Luís Portela, the CEO of the BIAL pharmaceutical company, the BIAL Foundation finances frontier research. While it also funds mainstream research, it is one of the only foundations in the world to consistently request proposals in unusual phenomena and parapsychology.

The focus of this year’s BIAL symposium was placebo research. Renowned placebo researcher, Tor Wager, brilliantly presented a review on his research of neurochemical actions of placebo in the brain. Despite being a mainstream researcher (and to my understanding not particularly interested in atypical phenomena), he did mention that he believed that “voodoo death” (curse of death) could be a possible “no-cibo” effect—the inverse of placebo. In other words, in some cultures, people might be so convinced that they have been cursed that they might actually die—a truly fascinating line of thought that could have interesting ramifications in mind-body research.

Sometimes the mixing of different types of researchers leads to heated debates at these meetings. And sometimes the mix leads to unusual connections. An interesting synchronicity happened on the first night while I was having dinner with two researchers from the UK. I learned that one of them had been evaluating the scientific article on mediumship IONS had submitted for publication. Despite not believing in the efficacy of mediumship, the researcher could not fault or argue with our research methodology, so he recommended our paper for publication. The likelihood of me meeting this particular researcher by chance was small, and although it could be just a fortuitous coincidence, it still made me smile.

Over the course of the symposium, I gave two presentations to explain our work at IONS, specifically our experiments on mediums and presentiment, both of which were supported by the BIAL Foundation.

The medium experiment involved 12 mediums from the San Francisco Bay area who were asked to detect deceased individuals in photographs while we recorded their brainwaves. We were able to find some brainwaves associated with correct detection, and our work was recently published in the Frontiers journal–one of only a handful of articles on mediumship ever published in a mainstream scientific journal.

I also reported on the presentiment experiment that partially reproduced the famed Professor D. Bem experiment (featured in the New York Times and other national media), which showed that under controlled conditions people’s responses might be influenced by events that have yet to happen in the future. We tested about 1152 individuals, instead of 100 in the original Bem experiment, and also assessed how the belief of both the experimenter and the participant influenced the outcome. Preliminary results show encouraging partial replication of the original results.

Overall, the BIAL symposium was a great intimate meeting, where I made new friends and connections with a variety of inspiring individuals.

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