Open Book

Blinded by Science

Are There Ways of Knowing That We Refuse to Acknowledge?

Richard Handler
Magazine Issue
January/February 2008
Blinded by Science

Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind
Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer
Bantam Books. 302 pp. ISBN:0-553-80335-2

This book begins with a story about an experience that changed the author’s life. After a Christmas concert in Oakland, in December 1991, a thief stole a rare and valuable hand-carved harp owned by Meg Mayer, Elizabeth Mayer’s 14-year-old daughter. Meg was inconsolable: she couldn’t play on any of the ordinary harps rented to replace it. Her mother, a professor at University of California at Berkeley and a psychoanalyst and respected researcher, tried every possible channel to get it back: the police, instrument dealers, sob stories on the news. Nothing worked. Finally, after two months, a friend suggested that Lisby (that’s what her friends called her) try a dowser.

All that Lisby Mayer knew about dowsers was that they used forked sticks to locate underground water. But she was told that really good dowsers can locate lost objects. So she parked her skepticism and called up Harold McCoy, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, president of the American Society of Dowsers.

Lisby liked the way he sounded and after he reassured her that the harp was still in Oakland, she sent him a street map of the area. A couple of days later, he called back with the exact coordinates of its location. First she tried calling the police, but they couldn’t be bothered. So she posted flyers within a two-block radius, offering a reward, no questions asked.

A few weeks later, she got a call from someone who said he knew where the harp was. Shortly thereafter, she rendezvoused with a teenage go-between in the parking lot of an all-night Safeway. Minutes later, she sped away in her station wagon with the harp safely inside the vehicle. “As I turned into my driveway, I had the thought, ‘This changes everything,’ “she writes.

I take time to tell this story because it’s at the core of this book: the unexpected knock of “anomalous” (unusual or abnormal) experience. It altered the way a psychologist who knew her way around scientific protocols viewed the world.

Forewords by eminent figures like psychologist Carol Gilligan and physicist Freeman Dyson alert the reader that Mayer isn’t just an ordinary person taken in by paranormal phenomenon. She investigates the world of “extraordinary knowing,” fully aware (as is Dyson) that she’s exploring a subject that inspires much fraud and many outrageous claims.

Soon after Mayer regained the harp, she began to ask questions of respected scientists, doctors, and academics: “Tell me, have you ever had experiences like mine?” And a surprising number confessed that they had. But they’d learned to remain quiet about these peculiar events—they didn’t want to be taken as kooks. At the same time, nobody Mayer spoke with had an adequate theory to explain them.

For instance, Mayer met Patrick Casement, a distinguished British psychoanalyst, who told her of a story about an experience back in the early 1950s, when he was a teenager and was staying with his father’s mother for the Easter holidays. She told him she had “only real regret in her life”: during the war, when people moved constantly, she’d lost touch with her dearest friend, and, since then, had been unable to track her down.

That week, Casement was walking the four miles from his grandmother’s house to church for Easter services. Twenty minutes into the walk, he discovered his right arm had thumbed down a passing car, as if by reflex, even though he’d had no intention of hitchhiking. When the car stopped, he felt he had to accept the lift.

Inside the car, through a series of questions, he discovered that one of the passengers was his grandmother’s long-lost friend, who’d also been trying to trace his grandmother. Soon, the two women, who hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, were reunited and spent the day together. Casement’s grandmother died shortly afterward.

An odd and coincidental story, you say. Not for Casement, a psychoanalyst with a keenly sensitive clinical sense, who said he had no conscious intention of flagging down the car—his hand just shot out. In trying to understand what happened, Mayer uses the term “attunement,” a pathway of communication well studied by researchers interested in the earliest mother-infant bond. Throughout the book, we read many stories connecting this kind of attunement with anomalous experience.

“We suffer from an underlying cultural disinclination for publicly acknowledging certain highly subjective, highly personal experiences,” writes Mayer. Science doesn’t like the subjective—it can’t be quantified–until recently, it’s been downgraded by cognitive psychologists, who argue that emotions are merely produced by thoughts just under the surface of awareness. But during the years she was working on this book, Mayer began to employ her psychoanalytic training to posit (with Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne) something called “coincidence theory.” She suggested that the unconscious was the portal to a field of experience that science was ignoring, an area filled with “associational unconscious networks.” Bits of information percolating through the unconscious might even alter the physical world when it emerged into consciousness.

Anomalous experience, says Mayer, is like an island of knowing in a sea of unknowing or denial. Sigmund Freud was both fascinated and spooked by these experiences, especially telepathy. But wary of this kind of “thought transference” and not wanting his own psychoanalytic movement to suffer, he tried to dissuade other analysts from working in the area. Still, at the end of his life, as Mayer reminds us in a story often told, he made this extraordinary statement: if he had to do it over again, he might have devoted his life to the study of thought transference. Perhaps that was just Freud’s being wistful, but it certainly suggests a sense of unfinished business.

With this book, Mayer wants to “radically connect” psychoanalysis to the strange phenomenon of anomalous experience. A measure of her success in this area is that The New York Times listed “coincidence theory” as one the best new ideas in science in 2003.

How many people reading this haven’t had strange, inexplicable experiences? Here’s another Mayer story: Once, her 17-year-old sister, who was staying with her, had temporarily misplaced a valuable watch. She was known for her carelessness, but, in fact, Mayer’s husband had taken the watch for safe keeping, without telling anyone, to teach his young sister-in-law a lesson. Trying to help her sister find the watch by retracing her steps, Mayer walked into a closet in a far corner of the room, one she’d only entered twice in the course of her marriage. Behind a row of shoes, her hand “went directly to a small leather case in the very back corner.” Inside the case was the watch. As she told a friend later, it was as if she were “being walked” to the closet.

It’s natural to be skeptical about this type of experience. Could Mayer have seen her husband putting it there, out of the corner of her eye, and forgotten about it? But even if something is going on underneath the surface of awareness, that in itself is illuminating because it enlarges our understanding of the powers of the mind. Just look at the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book that explores how seriously scientists have begun to take subconscious neural processing. However, Mayer goes beyond Gladwell—many of the experiences she recounts seem like they’re truly more anomalous than subconscious snapshots and deft first impressions. The dowser’s ability to find the harp half a continent away isn’t just blink! Something else is going on there; something unexplained by current theories of brain function.

Mayer knows she needs the help of science. But she also knows, from interviews with intuitives, that duplicating their psychic feats can be difficult. The iron rule in science is replication. Instead, what Mayer finds out is that the gifts of sensitive people can fail them: they aren’t performing seals. They need the right atmosphere, the right intention, the right emotional bonding. Ah, subjectivism again! That makes scientific investigation hard–but not impossible.

She begins to study the strange history of Extrasensory Perception, including the work of Joseph Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s, who gave us the term ESP. She also recounts the “remote viewing experiments” conducted by the CIA, in which “sensitives” in quarantined rooms mapped Soviet military sites in Siberia—remotely viewing these bases from the deepest corners of their minds. Overseen by many competent researchers, the work, argues Mayer, was solid. Only later, did scientists and administrators turn their backs on these experiments because they were embarrassments. In the history of ESP research, she says, this would happen many times.

Still, intriguing work continues to be done, in spite of the bias against working in this field. Mayer points to Garrett Yount, a molecular neurobiologist studying the effects of Chinese qigong masters who try to influence the growth of cancer cells living in petri dishes. He’s had some remarkable results; again, not every time, though: the problems in getting the atmosphere right for qigong practitioners means scientific replication still can be a problem. But Yount is a patient, scrupulous, and exacting researcher, and a number of study results show that something quite exciting may be going on.

Mayers repeats an old saying that ESP researchers like to use about the slow progress of science: At first, nobody believes you. Then they think it’s possible. When the evidence is finally accepted, scientists say they always knew it was true. Could we be only in the early stages of this process with anomalous experiences?

Finally, you might ask, what does this all mean for working therapists?

People in therapy can be ripe for anomalous experiences, in and outside the office. Psychic experience seems to thrive in the presence of intense emotion, dramatic states of feeling, even crisis. And in the therapy encounter, amid the heightened interaction, all sorts of feeling, strange or otherwise, leaches out.

But even more important, beyond the razzle-dazzle of telepathy and clairvoyance, Mayer is suggesting that “extraordinary knowing” is on a continuum with more common traits of intuition and empathy. Haven’t we discovered that no matter what therapy a person practices, the therapeutic relationship is the key to a successful outcome? And if it’s true that anomalous experience is a form of “radical connectedness,” a psychic muscle that reaches beyond our present capacities to connect, what a wonderful clinical tool it could make. And if these skills or gifts are on a continuum, can they be enhanced or taught? Can people be taught to access anomalous experience? If not, if it induced even a little more empathy, it would help the therapeutic encounter.

It’s sad to learn that Lisby Mayer died in January 2005, at the age of 57, at her parents’ house. The cause of death was intestinal scleroderma, a rare disease she’d had for more than 15 years. Perhaps she got to employ some forms of radical connectedness in the context of her own failing health, but if she did, she doesn’t say a word about it. Though just from reading her book and experiencing the intellectual vitality that springs from its pages, her passing seems like a great loss.