My own experiences with such events have led me to investigate the literature of parapsychology: that branch of psychology that deals with the phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance, and the like, collectively referred to as psi (pronounced like “sigh”). Anyone familiar with this literature will know that, while there is a lot of experimental evidence that is strongly suggestive of the existence of psi phenomena, the effects are usually small under laboratory conditions—so small that it’s tempting for critics to dismiss them as artifacts of faulty experimental design. Even though I myself am quite open to the existence of telepathy and other varieties of extrasensory perception, I can sometimes find myself wondering just how much these experiments really prove. Maybe there’s something extrasensory going on deep in our minds, but even if there is, can it ever really have an effect that’s strong enough to get excited about?
And then along comes the work of neuroscientist and psychiatrist Diane Powell, which has the potential to change everything. Dr. Diane Powell has just completed her first study of telepathy in autistic savants, and the results are rather astounding.
Powell started out intrigued by the fact that the incredible abilities of autistic savants—abilities which are firmly accepted by mainstream scientists, mind you—nevertheless remain just as unexplained as psychic abilities. She thought she might have a chance of learning something about how telepathy works by studying savants. And in fact she discovered early on that mathematical savants, when asked about the process they go through to do complex calculations, say that they don’t go through a process. The answer just pops into their heads. To Powell, this sounded suspiciously like psi.
So she began to wonder if maybe some savant skills were actually the result of psychic abilities. When word got out of her interest in the connections between the two, she received information about a 9-year-old autistic savant whose therapists had already begun to wonder if she might be telepathic. This girl was labeled a mathematical savant and was able to produce correct answers when asked to multiply six-digit numbers by each other or to find cube roots of six-digit numbers. But one of her therapists noticed that, when the therapist made a mistake in stating the problem or in figuring it on the calculator or computer, the girl’s answer would mirror the mistake. Another therapist independently began to get the feeling that the girl was reading her mind. So she asked her, “How do you say ‘I love you’ in German?” even though the girl had never been exposed to that language. The girl typed out, “Ich liebe dich.” Powell decided the case merited investigation.
So Powell met the girl and set up an experimental protocol which made it very difficult (though not entirely impossible) for her to gain any visual information from the therapist interacting with her. A barrier was placed between them, and, as Powell explained in a recent interview with Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris, “We had cameras documenting the experimental space entirely. We had cameras in front of them, behind them, mounted on either side of the divider, so that we saw everything. It was capable of a frame-by-frame analysis and we had a total of five different camera views watching everything.” The room also contained three separate microphones. And while everything was being so carefully recorded, Powell fed the therapist papers with equations—equations containing large numbers produced by a random number generator. The therapist then asked the girl to tell them not only the “solution” side of the equation, but each number on the “problem” side as well. Powell explains, “There was a period of about ten minutes of where…out of 162 random numbers…she only made 7 errors. And each one of those she corrected on the second try.”
Of course, Powell’s work will have to be scrutinized and replicated by her peers. But her results already appear to stand head and shoulders above those obtained in any other controlled experimental context. Nothing close to this level of purported psi has ever been so thoroughly documented.
Powell’s work also captures some of the girl’s very telling “mistakes.” When the therapist mistook a cube root sign for division by three, the girl didn’t carry out the operation of division that was verbally indicated to her. Instead, she gave the cube root as it was correctly listed on the paper given to the therapist. All signs point to this girl’s gifts’ being in the area of telepathy, not mathematical genius. Which is not to say that there are not genuine mathematical savants. It’s simply to say that in at least this one case, there is intriguing evidence that we are dealing with something even more revolutionary.
Diane Powell’s publication of this research is due shortly. In the meantime, check out her interview with Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko. Powell has also published a very short video of some of her work with this autistic subject, available on the website where she is raising funding for a more rigorous series of experiments and a full-length documentary of her results. This short video alone doesn’t prove anything, but it is a way for people to get an idea of the experimental set-up she was working with in this first round of experiments. She plans to post further videos as soon as her videographer can obscure the faces of all the participants.
Update: There is now a longer (15-minute) video without voiceover published here. Some discussion of Powell’s methodology can be found under the “Updates” tab of her Indiegogo site.