A New Conception Guided by Two Analogies
Thus, the task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees. —Erwin Schrödinger
First Sight offers a new understanding of what psi is. It proposes that psi is a primary aspect of an organism’s engagement with an extended universe of meaning that is carried out perpetually and almost entirely unconsciously. In the most basic terms, psi is the direct, unconscious expression of unconscious intention as it is engaged with things that are outside the sensory boundaries of the organism. If the expression is an effect upon the organism’s own experience and behavior, and parts of reality distant from the organism are consulted in the process, we speak of this as extrasensory perception: the receptive or afferent side of psi. If the expression is an effect upon parts of reality outside the ordinary sensory boundaries of the organism, and no ordinary physical action upon those things is involved, we call it psychokinesis, the active or efferent psi domain. I will suggest some modified terms for these things in chapter 6.
The First Sight model is based upon a pair of related analogies. They can be expressed in the form of questions. What if ESP is like subliminal perception? What if psychokinesis is like unconsciously but psychologically meaningful expressive behaviors? These two things can be seen to imply each other. Subliminal perception (and ESP) can only be discerned by the inadvertent but meaningful behavior that it evokes. Inadvertent behavior can only be seen to be psychologically meaningful by virtue of the unconscious events (subliminal or extrasensory) that have evoked them. We will take these two guiding questions in turn.
ESP AND SUBLIMINAL PERCEPTION
Most people think of subliminal perception as a freakish and somewhat frightening way to manipulate people. First published in 1957, Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders created a firestorm of interest in this sort of manipulation, and it has since gone through nine more editions.1 However, in its common, moment-by-moment function, subliminal perception is actually a useful part of the history of every sensory perception.
Turn and look at something, anything. Perhaps you see a certain book on a shelf. Your eye moved to it, and you saw it. However, just before you formed a conscious perception of the book there was a very brief time, a few hundredths of a second, when photons bouncing off the book reached your nervous system before you became conscious of it. These preconscious photons also contributed to your visual experience, even though they were unconscious and you had no awareness of them. Why do we believe this? Because of experiments on subliminal perception. In such an experiment, the researcher controls the flow of light that reaches the retina and interrupts it by some sort of shield after that split second and before you are able to form an experience. Participants staring at a screen in such studies are aware only of a brief flicker of light, and perhaps not even that. No book.
And yet, these preconscious flickers have effects. Psychologists call them primes, because they facilitate the development of particular kinds of responses. If these flickers are of something emotionally disturbing or something happy, you will find yourself a few minutes down the road feeling a little more upset or happy, depending. Suppose the flicker is a picture of one person hitting another. You are not conscious of having seen anything, but if the experimenter then asks you to associate to the spoken word beat (or beet), you are more likely to think of a blow than a vegetable. This very early stage of a perception primes you to feel or think or understand in particular directions that are appropriate for the experience that is about to form.
This shows that even before you have had time to have any conscious awareness of anything, you are already beginning to respond to what you will become aware of shortly. Like a grossly detailed map, it does not show you the house you are headed for, but it directs you to the neighborhood. What is this good for? Surely it speeds up your ability to recognize what you are about to see and respond to the situation in an apt way. From an evolutionary angle, this extra speed could sometimes have important advantages. It probably helped some of your ancestors reach childbearing age and make your existence possible. It is true enough that advertisers can try to sway our purchases or our votes in certain directions using such preconscious primes, but in the common way we all use them, they are ubiquitous and helpful. This whole subject of subliminal perception is so central to the First Sight model that it will be discussed further later on, in chapters 4 and 9.
For many decades the reality of subliminal perception was hotly debated among psychologists. The controversy was almost as heated as the controversy over parapsychology, and for some of the same reasons. It seems an insult to common sense to think that something so brief or faint that it is not consciously experienced can act as if it were a kind of experience by arousing meaningfully related responses. Much research was occupied with trying to demonstrate that subliminal perceptions were genuinely unconscious, or that they were not. One criterion used recently has been to set the stimulus at such a minimal level that the participant cannot accurately guess whether or not any sort of stimulation has even occurred. In recent years this controversy has died down, and many researchers have become so comfortable with the reality—and the power—of subliminal primes that they are widely used in research on such other questions as how opinions are formed, how moods affect actions, and how persons are perceived.
The point to emphasize here is that these subliminal primes are not available to conscious experience. It is really inappropriate and misleading to speak of them as perceptions at all. The problem came partly from the fact that consciousness is not simply all or nothing; it is a continuum. We can be partly aware of something. This is how the study of subliminality began, with perceptions that were somewhat clear but partly uncertain. When research progressed to the point that effects were being described with stimuli that were deeply subliminal, however, to call them perceptions at all became problematic. They are not conscious. Someone exposed to them does not know what they are (knowing is something we do consciously). We may not even know that anything has occurred. And yet they affect us, somewhat in the manner that a prime affects a pump.
WHAT IF EXTRASENSORY PERCEPTION
IS LIKE SUBLIMINAL PERCEPTION?
If extrasensory perception is like subliminal perception, then it, too, works as an unconscious prime, affecting our experiences and behaviors but never being consciously available as such. The main difference is that in an extrasensory perception the intensity of the stimulus has dropped down to zero, as far as the sensory system of the person is concerned. Like a subliminal perception, it will not be conscious, not be known, and not in fact be any sort of perception at all. Might this be the case? Exploring this question was an important stimulus in developing the First Sight model. In fact, I believe that extrasensory perception is exactly like that. Just how this is so will be elaborated further in chapter 4.
PSYCHOKINESIS AND UNCONSCIOUSLY EXPRESSIVE BEHAVIOR
Sigmund Freud made Western society familiar with the notion that the symptoms of various psychiatric disorders could be understood to be unwitting expressions of unconscious mental processes. He and his followers developed an elaborate theory of these unconscious processes, their origins, their dynamics, and their treatment through techniques of conscious uncovering. Partly due to the influence of a powerful pharmaceutical industry, this idea that symptoms have implicit meaning is perhaps less widespread today in favor of a model that understands people as isolated organisms with hypothetical brain diseases to be altered by medications. In everyday psychotherapeutic practice, however, uncovering unconscious meanings is a staple. In a single day an average therapist might find that a case of depression is an expression of the shame aroused by a loss, a teenager’s falling grades speak for loyalty to a divorced and missing parent, and an anxiety before groups communicates a sense of guilt over some earlier failure. The shame, the loss, the loyalty, and the guilt are all unconscious. Making them conscious, seeing the connections, helps to unravel and relieve the symptoms.
It is not only in the realm of psychiatric dysfunction that such behavioral expressions of unconscious issues go on. They go on with everyone, all the time. Freud (1958b) himself moved in this direction, by writing about the “psychopathology of everyday life.”
We needn’t speak of psychopathology at all, however. Consciously inadvertent behaviors can regularly be seen to speak for meanings that are out of sight at the moment, if we wish to go to the trouble of untangling the connections. It isn’t only painfully avoided meanings that may be implied by our behaviors. It may be anything that we simply don’t have in mind at the moment, and it may be many things that are simply (by virtue of our constitution) never amenable to direct awareness at all. Mr. X is intent on what he is trying to communicate in his conversation with Ms. Y. As he speaks he takes a step toward the next room, then stands still again as he continues to talk. If he bothers to reflect on the meaning of the step, it will occur to him easily: he had decided a minute before to check on something going on in the next room. In the conversational moment his intention was temporarily forgotten, but he still expressed it inadvertently as his thinking and talking and listening flowed on. Reflect upon your own behavior and that of others around you, and I believe you will see a wealth of this going on continually and smoothly.
Sometimes unconscious behaviors and subliminal primes work hand in hand. The unconscious meaning prompting the behavior may not be just forgotten at the moment, it may have been apprehended subliminally and was never conscious at all. Consider the findings of Aarts et al. (2008) that were reported in the prestigious journal Science. Some of their participants were exposed to very brief presentations of words having to do with exertion. Half of the people were also consciously shown very positive scenes to observe while they were so primed, while half were not. Then all participants were asked to exert by squeezing on a hand grip. Those persons exposed unconsciously to the exertion primes gripped more quickly and aggressively than those who were not exposed. And those who were primed while looking at the positive scenes squeezed the hardest of all. As the author conclude: “The mere activation of the idea of a behavioral act moves the human body without the person consciously deciding to take action.”
Is this surprising and mysterious? It may seem so, but if these psychologists could capture this so easily in their laboratory it must be going on very frequently for everyone every day. Does it seem insulting to think that you are constantly being influenced by unconscious stimuli? Perhaps, but remember how wonderfully adaptive this is. It is not so much that the subliminal primes are controlling our behavior as that we are unconsciously using subliminal information to respond in a quick and optimal way to what will come to be seen as the demands of a situation. We use the primes implicitly in the service of our unconscious intentions.
WHAT IF PSYCHOKINESIS IS A KIND
OF UNCONSCIOUSLY EXPRESSIVE BEHAVIOR?
If psychokinesis is unconsciously expressive behavior, then it also functions as an inadvertent statement of our unconscious intentions. The only difference from other unconsciously expressive behaviors is that it occurs outside of the physical boundaries of the organism. Instead of an odd act of clumsiness resulting in an accident and expressing an unconscious sense (perhaps) of guilt, a meaningful picture falls from the wall, expressing the same inner condition. Instead of gripping something extra forcefully to express an unconscious sense of pleasure in effort, a string of propitious random numbers spins out of an experimenter’s random event generator, speaking for the same inner state. Is this a sensible way to think of the odd events (experimental and spontaneous) that we take to indicate psychokinesis? I believe that it is, and I will try to argue the case in more detail in chapter 7.
NOTE 1. Packard, 2007.