In the year 2030, a man named Jack sits in front of a complex computer. His task involves making decisions affecting the safety of thousands of people. In this stressful situation, computers around him suddenly begin to fail left and right.
But Jack remains calm. Only his computer continues to hum along and process crucial information without mistakes.
If the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Laboratory (PEAR) in Princeton, N.J., is right, it is possible that Jack's deliberately calm thoughts intentionally prevented any malfunctioning of the sensitive computer.
Jack's futuristic encounter with a computer is theoretical, but PEAR has racked up 17 years of research to conclude that the human mind can intentionally influence the behavior of a variety of mechanical and electronic devices.
Thoughts altering machines? Is this pure bunkum? Can thoughts really nudge electrons?
Scientists interviewed for this article fell into two camps. Those with an apparent predilection for anomalies favored PEAR's research; those less tolerant ridiculed it. One scientist from a well-known university requested anonymity but said, "I haven't read their reports, but their assertions are ridiculous."
But while enthusiastic cyberage jockeys today tout a possible recombinant future where men and machines become interchangeable, PEAR suggests something far gentler: a future where man is not recast and reskinned for virtual reality, but rather where man would view consciousness as coexisting in "resonance" with a sensitive technological environment.
Over thousands of PEAR experiments, intentional "thought" influence on machines has been small but statistically significant, says Robert Jahn, a Princeton University aerospace physicist and founder of PEAR. At PEAR's small laboratory, no electrodes or wires link volunteers to machines. In one experiment, volunteers, or operators, sit before a random event generator (REG), an electronic box about the size of a huge dictionary. The carefully constructed REG registers large quantities of pulses occurring randomly above or below a fixed line.
Each volunteer attempts to influence the machine to generate pulses above the line, below the line, and in between. Without volunteers' efforts, chance would put the pulses 50 percent above the line and 50 percent below. In 5,500 of these experiments with 92 volunteers, 65 percent of the volunteers affected the REG in the intended direction. In fact, results from some operators became strong "signatures," their individual patterns easily recognized at a glance. Some operators talk to the machine; others make hand motions, meditate, or sit and think.
In its 17-year existence, PEAR has conducted more than 2 million experiments, far more than the number usually done in conventional science to verify results.
Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Amherst, N.Y., and professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says his organization has monitored PEAR's work. "We tend to be skeptical about their claims," he says. "They claim to have anomalies, but there could be any number of explanations for the anomalies. We want to see additional replications in other independent laboratories before suggesting this might be a breakthrough."
Other PEAR experiments confirm unintentional thought or emotional influences on machines. For instance, small REG machines have been placed at the backs of halls during theatrical performances and sports events. Audiences are unaware of the machines, yet together they affect the output of the machine. "There seems to be a spirit of unity and cooperation that somehow is affecting the output of the machine," says Brenda Dunne, a developmental psychologist and laboratory manager at PEAR.
These results, and results from other experiments, Mr. Jahn says, suggest nothing less than a "generously expanded model of reality" where consciousness is "proactive" in the physical world.
While many scientists dismiss PEAR's work as questionable psychic research, or "mind over matter," long a suspicious realm of research for establishment scientists, the department operates on an annual budget of $400,000 and is funded by various foundations and people including the Fetzer Institute, the McDonnell Foundation, the Ohrstrom Foundation, and Laurance Rockefeller.
Steven Weinberg, a 1979 Nobel laureate in physics, has been critical of PEAR's research. "Centuries of scientific work have given us a picture of nature," he said in a BBC program, "and we understand why things are the way they are. We understand them in a way that doesn't put human consciousness in any special position."
Ms. Dunne disagrees. "How one defines the word 'mind' is now open to question," she says. "We ... use the word 'consciousness' instead. Initially we thought this might be a cognitive thinking consciousness, but now it is starting to give way to a sense that this might be a more profound consciousness."
In a 1989 article in "Foundations of Physics," a respected international physics journal, some 800 relevant experiments related to "consciousness in physical systems" were evaluated from parapsychology journals. The conclusion was unequivocal: There is existence of some "form of consciousness-related anomaly in random systems."
Arthur Kroker, professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal, and co-author of "Data Trash: The Theory of The Virtual Class" (New World Perspectives, Montreal), says, "It's probably very true that mind can influence computers." But he contends that cyberspace and technology are turning man into an "electronic species," the virtual reverse of PEAR's assertion that man's consciousness can find reciprocal harmony with machines.
"Flesh is turning into data," says Mr. Kroker. He cites television as an example of this because "you don't watch it," he says. "It watches you being transformed." TV organizes people's time, feeds people information, and changes their attitudes, he concludes. "Cyberspace ... is reorganizing and restructuring culture on a global level."
When PEAR started, Jahn and his colleagues were concerned that increasing dependence on sophisticated technology could leave man vulnerable just as Kroker has concluded.
"We are not passive observers of the world," Dunne says. "We are active participants in it, and our choices affect our reality. Our hope is that the relevance of our [research] would be recognized and have some ... impact on the scientific paradigm and broaden the picture of ourselves."