Dec 05 2013


I was recently asked to analyze a study looking at electroencephalogram (EEG) tracings for people separated in two different and shielded rooms and claiming to show correlations between the two – the suggestion being that some sort of unusual communication (anomalous cognition) was taking place.

This study was from 2003, so it’s not exactly news, but this line of research is worthy of a skeptical analysis. Using EEG to look for ESP effects goes back to the 1960s. Like all of ESP research, this paradigm produced some anomalies but not a consistent and replicated effect, Every now and then someone tries to replicate it, with varying results.

As a research tool using EEG can be very problematic – or useful, depending on your perspective. EEGs work by placing electrodes (called leads) in a specific pattern along the scalp. An EEG channel – one tracing of squiggly lines – is produced by recording the difference in electrical potential between two adjacent leads. An EEG montage (the French pioneered much of EEG technology and so EEG jargon is largely French)  is a particular pattern of channels covering the available leads.

The challenge in using EEG for research purposes is that you have many channels (13 or 21 are common) producing lots of data with lots of noise. EEGs are noisy, with many sources of artifact: eye blinking, movement of facial muscles, heart beat, and ambient electrical noise.  The underlying brain activity itself can be noisy, changing with sensory stimulation, level of consciousness, and eyes open or closed.

This is an ideal situation if your goal is to pull spurious signals out of all this noise. There is a lot of raw material to work with, and it does not take much creativity to squeeze an apparent effect from the background. Just keep torturing the data until it confesses.

It is also a setup for Simmons et al’s “researcher degrees of freedom.”

Let’s take a look at this 2003 study. The researchers claim:

” Significant departures of Q ratios from reference distributions, based on baseline EEG in non-stimulation periods, were found in most non-stimulated subjects. The results indicate that correlations between brain activities of two separated subjects may occur, although no biophysical mechanism is known.”

But, in the discussion the admit:

“We did not see any VEP-like wave-forms in the averaged EEG of the non-stimulated subjects: a more sophisticated data-analytic technique was necessary to detect an effect opposing the null hypothesis. There was no preferred direction of the effect; both increasing (Q>Ṽmax) and decreasing (Q<Ṽmin) effective EEG voltages were observed in non-stimulated subjects. Neither was there any ‘locus of maximal effect’; the outliers occurred not only at occipital locations, i.e. homotopic to the areas primarily affected in the stimulated subject, but also in parietal and central regions.”

So – there were random fluctuations from random noise, sometimes down, sometimes up, and in various regions of the brain, not in any way (except temporally) correlating with the EEG changes in the subject. There were also such departures, but not as big, in the control samples, when the subject was not being stimulated. This sounds like random noise, requiring a “sophisticated data-analytic technique” – for which you can read, “torturing the data.”

Looking at the data itself (graph above) there does not appear to be any effect. It just looks like random noise to me. The effect size claimed here is also very tiny – a tiny variable effect indistinguishable from noise. I doubt the researchers could have looked at the tracing for subject B and determined from that when A experienced the stimulus.

An attempted replication of the study in 2008 by a different researcher was also completely negative.

Dean Radin performed a similar experiment in 2004 and found correlations in 3 of 13 pairs of subjects. He declared this a positive result “in certain circumstances” – also known as cherry picking. This is also a good example, common in dubious ESP research, of overpowering a study so that tiny random fluctuations can be made to have very small p-values (statistical significance).


Once again we have an ESP research paradigm with the following features:

– Tiny and inconsistent effect sizes

– Overpowered studies and creative statistical analysis in order to create false positive results with impressive p-values

– Lack of independent replication

– The usual suspects showing positive (but not compelling) results.

What we never seem to get with such ESP research are clear results, with significant effect sizes in a consistent pattern, and independently replicated – also known as the standard threshold for scientific acceptance.

The pattern of results we do see are consistent with the null hypothesis – no actual real effect at work. What we do end up with is documentation of how noisy systems and motivated researchers can use creative statistical analysis to create false positive results.

13 responses so far

13 thoughts on “EEG ESP”

  1. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Print all of the EEG outputs on loops of paper and see if a dozen psy researchers can agree on where they line up.

  2. superdave says:

    I wonder if they put all the electronics on battery and had adequate RF shielding.

  3. Davdoodles says:

    And what other “shielding” was in place? Were the rooms completely sound- and light-proofed? ie to rule out correlated psy-wiggles appearing when a car backfires on the street outside, etc.

  4. Davdoodles says:

    Oopsie, abstract says “accoustically shielded”…

  5. Davdoodles says:

    We are told there are two “subjects”. One is being “stimulated”, the other is relaxing, “non-stimulated”.

    The EEG of one is said to resemble the EEG of the other. When one subject is “stimulated”, the other’s EEG spikes, right?

    We are told the first subject’s brain is somehow remotely stimulating second person’s brain, and the corresponding EEG spikes are the evidence.

    BUT… IF these two (presumably normal) brains share this wondrous connection, we’d have to conclude that ALL 7 billion human brains are similarly connected, and that they are all simultaneously stimulating and being stimulated, such that everyone on the planet’s EEGs would resemble everyone else’s.

    Further, given how much stimulation the 6.999 billion other brains would be experiencing at any given moment, which would all be thundering into the non-stimulated subjects head at once, why would we realistically expect that the stimulation being experienced by the single “stimulated” subject make any impact whatsoever on the non-stimulated subject’s brain, over and above the impact of the 6.999 billion other brains, such that the former’s particular stimulation was visible in the latter’s EEG over, and distinguishable from, the noise created by the billions of other brains?

  6. I think the question of shielding is irrelevant. The bottom line is that there was no effect. The researchers were quite simply anomaly hunting and exploiting degrees of freedom to manufacture a “positive” result.

    The non-stimulated subject’s EEG did not “spike” along with the stimulated subject. There was a tiny fluctuation, in various parts of the brain, either up or down. In other words – noise out of which a spurious signal was creatively extracted.

  7. Ekko says:

    To play devil’s advocate a bit, isn’t ESP supposed to be a skill? Maybe the participants in the study were just bad at it. It seems like they were all volunteers. If ESP were some kind of real, emergent human skill, it would be unlikely to be found in most people. Only a tiny percent of the population is capable of Olympic athletic feats. Studies like these are like asking random volunteers to climb Everest and then saying it’s impossible when they fail. Shouldn’t the researchers be recruiting people who claim they are skilled at ESP rather than random volunteers?

  8. BillyJoe7 says:

    “Shouldn’t the researchers be recruiting people who claim they are skilled at ESP rather than random volunteers?”

    Would it make any difference? 😀

  9. sonic says:

    It seems this ESP study shows that given a noisy data set and proper motivation, any result is possible using ‘advanced statistical techniques’.

    I believe the researchers in this field think everyone has ESP to some extent- much of the original material comes from Rhine, who used ordinary people.
    I’m not sure anyone has demonstrated they could practice or train in a manner that improved the ability (assuming there is one).

  10. Ekko says:

    “Would it make any difference?”
    I don’t know – probably not but it would certainly make for a better study regardless of the results. Lucid dreaming is something humans can do and it can be viewed as a “skill” you can hone but I don’t think lucid dreams are very common for most people. I kind of lump ESP into the “haphazard and intermittently rare mental phenomena” you hear about – like premonitions and things. Could also be explained by coincidence for sure.

  11. steve12 says:

    I’m actually pretty impressed with this study. My main research modality and grad training is ERPs, so I read this paper with delight! Having built of few of these labs I can tell you that it is exceedingly difficult – almost impossible – to completely shield EEG chambers such that no ambient noise of any sort, be it EM, sound, or whatever is present in the traces.

    Yet, they’ve done it! They did such a good job that they had to resort to the worst kind of treasure hunt to try and find something common in the 2 data sets. I was so sure that the correlation would be 60 Hz hum form their outlets or some such other nonsense. But no.

    I really cannot underscore how much of an achievement this is.

  12. humanoidfactoid says:

    I doubt the authors are intentionally trying to manufacture evidence in favor of esp – they are all (especially Wackermann) pretty hard-core skeptics of the existence of esp. Unfortunately, have replicated the effect at least once:

    –Wackermann, J., Naranjo, J. R., & Pütz. (2004). Event-related correlations between electrical activities of separated human subjects: Preliminary results of a replication study. Proceedings of the 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association.

    Also, there have been a few other similar eeg replications. These studies need refuting:

    –Persinger, M. A., Koren, S. A, & Tsang, E. W. (2003). Enhanced power within a specific band of theta activity in one person while another receives circumcerebral pulsed magnetic fields: a mechanism of influence at a distance? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 97, 877-894.
    –Standish, L. J., Kozak, L., Johnson, L. C., & Richards, T. (2004). Electroencephaolographic evidence of correlated event-related signals between the brains of spatially and sensory isolated human subjects. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10, 307-314
    –Kittenis, M., Caryl, P. G., & Stevens, P. (2004). Distant psychophysiological interaction effects between related and unrelated participants. Proceedings of the 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, Vienna, pp. 67-76.
    –Dotta, B. T., Mulligan, B. P., Hunter, M. D., & Persinger, M. A. (2009). Evidence of macroscopic quantum entanglement during double quantitative electroencephalographic measurements of friends vs strangers. NeuroQuantology, Vol. 7, Issue 4, Page 548-551.
    –Persinger, M. A., Saroka, K. S., Lavallee, C. F. Booth, J. N., Hunter, M. D., Mulligan, B. P., Koren, S. A., Wu, H. P., & Gang, N. (2010). Correlated cerebral events between physically and sensory isolated pairs of subjects exposed to yoked circumcerebral magnetic fields. Neuroscience Letters, 486 (3): 231–234.
    –Hendricks, L., Bengston, W. F., & Gunkelman, J. (2010). The Healing Connection: EEG Harmonics, Entrainment, and Schumann’s Resonances. Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 655–666.

    EEGs are indeed noisy, so the results are much harder to interpret. However, in more dire need of rebuttals are those studies that involve fMRIs, where the data is much clearer:

    — Standish, L. J., Johnson, L. C., Richards, T., & Kozak, L. (2003). Evidence of Correlated functional MRI signals between distant human brains. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 9, 122–128
    — Achterberg, J., Cooke, K., Richards, T., Standish, L. J., Kozak, L., & Lake, J. (2005). Evidence for Correlations Between Distant Intentionality and Brain Function in Recipients: a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, 6, 965–971.
    — Richards, T. L., Kozak, L., Johnson, L. C., & Standish, L. J. (2005). Replicable functional magnetic resonance imaging evidence of correlated brain signals between physically and sensory isolated subjects. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11 (6), 955–963.

  13. fMRI scan are more noisy than EEG, if anything. They are another perfect set up for hunting for signals amidst the noise.

    Most of those references are in journals that I do not take seriously. In any case – they are all of the same basic type – small, or with inconsistent results (5 positive out of 60 subjects, and only 1 out of 4 retests replicated, for example). They are all just more noise hunting. They are mostly not replications either, except that they are studying the same basic alleged phenomenon, but they use different methods.

    In the end we have a handful of poor quality studies with noisy results. Not enough to change the prior probability, which is close to zero.

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