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Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities Paperback – July 16, 2013
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From Publishers Weekly
Does being a skilled yogi give one superpowers—and if so, how can we prove it? In this latest, Radin (The Conscious Universe) holds the ancient practices and theories of yoga up to the discerning lens of modern science. He maps yoga's migration from East to West, its evolution from past to present, and he examines the practice's ur-text: a 2,000-year-old manuscript known as the Yoga Sutras. Where, then, does science fit in? While Radin, a senior scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, is frequently critical of the discipline, he nevertheless argues that an array of tests may be able to lend credence to siddhis (psychic phenomena like telepathy and precognition) and some of yoga's other more mysterious claims. But this is not a read for the unread: Radin's discussion assumes a considerable knowledge base, and it's unclear whom he's writing for: devout yogis or skeptical scientists? Or both? (Radin's goal may be to collapse these distinctions: in his conclusion, he argues for a worldview that melds the ancient with the modern, the scientific with the yogic.) Though unfocused and opaque at times, this is nevertheless an admirable attempt to bridge the gap between the scientific and the spiritual realm by focusing on a common desire for self- and societal improvement. Illus. (July)
“In Supernormal, consciousness researcher Dr. Dean Radin shows compellingly that specific ancient claims about extraordinary psychic abilities are real, and how they have been confirmed by an outpouring of ingenious experiments whose statistical power is simply galactic. Supernormal is the crown jewel in Dr. Radin’s landmark trilogy, which also includes The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds. Supernormal is a reader’s delight. Beautifully written, it is spiced with that rarest ingredient in science writing: humor. If this book does not take your breath away, it should, because it reveals how we can awaken to innate human potentials that are glorious, on which our future may depend. Thank you, Dr. Radin, for showing the way.” -- Larry Dossey, MD, author of One Mind
"In the last 50 years, major discoveries in modern science increasingly support the wisdom and vision of the ancient philosophers and sages. Dean Radin’s work is a major step in the same context, showing us how the statements made by the ancient sages like Patanjali are supported by the current research conducted with strictest scientific protocols. Radin’s work seems to bear even greater promise of what is yet to come." --Swami Veda Bharati, D. Lit.
“Great advances in science are made by following the evidence, wherever it may lead. Adhering to this principle, internationally-known researcher and author Dean Radin convincingly demonstrates that psi phenomena invalidate the assumptions associated with the obsolete materialist worldview. Recognizing the fundamental aspect of mind and consciousness, Dr. Radin also explains why it is now time to significantly revise and expand our concepts about who we are and the ultimate nature of reality.” --Mario Beauregard, author of The Spiritual Brain and Brain Wars
"As with Dr. Radin’s previous work, this book is thoroughly researched, clearly written, and immensely engaging. Once again he has pushed the boundaries of religion, science, psychology, and philosophy. Invaluable reading!" --Michael Bloch, University of San Francisco
"Dean Radin is a modern-day Galileo of psychical research. He is an impeccable scholar and premier experimental scientist, and this is a terrific book. Come, look through his telescope; with great clarity, he goes right to the core of the most profound issues in the contemporary science of mind. By including a detailed review of a variety of experimental findings, this book presents in one easily accessible place a wealth of information, creating a valuable reference and teaching/learning resource for students and scholars alike. And by connecting all this with contemplative investigations of the nature of mind carried out over the course of millennia, this book makes an invaluable contribution to expanding the modern dialogue between science and the contemplative traditions." --David E. Presti, University of California, Berkeley
“In Supernormal, Dean Radin skillfully weaves threads of Eastern praxis (yoga) and the results of Western psi experiments into a seamless and fascinating tapestry, one that portrays not merely who we are but what we might aspire to become.” --Daniel Sheehan
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The yogic emphasis doesn’t change the book much from the pop psych literature review of parapsychology studies it would otherwise be, except to necessitate background information on yoga and siddhis. However, this emphasis may or may not have opened up a huge additional readership. Outside of a fringe, siddhis aren’t much in vogue among yoga practitioners these days. Among modern day yogis and yoginis, there are some who believe in them and some who think they’re throwbacks to an era of superstition, malnutrition, and wishful thinking. However, even among the former, siddhis are generally considered a distraction. The advice of most of the great yogis has been to not get lost in the pursuit of such powers because chasing siddhis can derail one from one’s ultimate objective (e.g. liberation.) Still, if even a small fraction of yoga practitioners take an interest, that’s a fairly large readership.
So what exactly is the controversy? Obviously, there are many divergent demographics with differing views on the topic. For hardcore skeptics, parapsychology is right up there with alien abduction, bigfoot /yeti sightings, and the anatomy of the Loch Ness monster with respect to being a legitimate topic for scientific study. On the other hand, there are believers who are offended by the mere notion of studying such phenomena with science, and who say such investigations are an assault on their beliefs.
But that’s not a very interesting controversy—i.e. there are some people who won’t believe in such abilities no matter what the evidence, and others who will believe in them no matter what science has to say. So let’s chop off the hardcore skeptics and hardcore believers and ask what the controversy is as it pertains to those of us who consider evidence when drawing conclusions.
The root of the controversy can be stated rather quickly and clearly. Here it is: the effect size is small but statistically significant. What does that mean? Say this study asks a subject to determine which of five randomly selected shapes has been chosen using nothing but his / her mind. Using pure guessing, one would expect to be right 20% (i.e. 1/5th) of the time. If a person happened to get 32% right in a given trial, that means nothing because small samples don’t give one a convergence towards a mean value. (i.e. Intuitively, you know that if you flip a coin 10 times and get 7 heads, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. If you repeat that 10-flip set 10,000 times, and still get 70% heads, then you probably have a trick coin or something else odd is going on.) So the issue is that even when experimenters repeat the experiment over and over again such that the average value should converge on 20%, it doesn’t. It stays at, say, 30% (exact effects vary but it’s on this order.)
At this point the reader might be thinking of all the factors that could result in this effect (i.e. cheating [insider or outsider], subconscious observation of facial expressions, random selection that is biased, etc.) Well, so have the scientists. In any study, one wants to account for alternative explanations to the utmost. Over the years, researchers like Radin have put all manner of protections in place from quantum random number generators to booths with extreme sound-proofing and Faraday cages (prevents radio signals from transiting.) Still they get this small positive effect that can’t be explained by alternative explanations.
There is also the issue of the filing drawer problem, which Radin devotes considerable space to discussing. It’s the idea that when drawing conclusions from many similar studies, one must accept that there may be many unpublished studies that sit in file drawers because they didn’t produced negative results. These filed / unpublished studies could negate the outcome of the body of studies of that nature. While this remains an open criticism, there is mathematics for determining how many negative studies would have to be turned up to make the results insignificant. Radin argues that the numbers calculated strain credulity.
So this “small but statistically significant effect” is generally agreed upon by all, excepting conspiracy theorists. Now we get to the controversy, which is how to explain this effect. Skeptics run the gamut from hot-blooded haters who claim that it’s all just a scam perpetrated by hoaxers with tenure, to more diplomatic challengers who provide thoughtful, plausible, and non-nefarious explanations for what they believe are false results. Said objections include file drawer problems, statistical “crud factor” (an observed effect in which large sample size studies can show a significant correlations between any two random variables—i.e. everything is correlated with everything else to some degree), and outlier effects.
The latter is a particularly revealing controversy. Say your study results in this 30% instead of 20% effect, and there’s one subject in the study who (over many trials) got the shape right 80% of the time. If you’re a skeptic, you call that an outlier and you want to cut it out of the study because it may be causing part, most, or all of the effect you see. Your assumption is that that this outlier could be anything from a data entry error to an outright cheater, but it’s obviously not a gifted psychic. If you’re a believer, not only do you want to keep that result, you want to find that person and study them to find out if the result was a one-time fluke, or if you have some rare, gifted person.
The book is arranged into three parts. The first part offers background on yoga and siddhis. The second part is the heart of the book and it presents an overview of results from studies of precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis (both of animate and inanimate objects), clairvoyance, and the effect of meditation on these abilities (which also shows a small positive effect, i.e. the general population outdoes probability by a little bit and experienced meditators outperform the general population by a little bit.) The last section is just a couple chapters about the future of parapsychology.
I found this book to be interesting and thought-provoking. Radin comes across as a reasonable investigator who is willing to accept that there is a lot of duplicity going on out in the world, but yet when one uses the methods of science one obtains results that would be generally accepted as successful across the social sciences. At times he does go on anti-skeptic rants. On the other hand, one can imagine his frustration in dealing with individuals unwilling to pin down how much higher the bar must be for parapsychology results over results in more mainstream topics. I think Radin’s greatest mistake was in discussing levitation. Besides at a quantum level, the effects of gravity are well-understood and non-negotiable. While our lack of understanding of consciousness leaves wiggle room to at least consider some unusual happenings, levitation seems a non-starter. Fortunately, as it hasn’t been studied, Radin just presents a couple historical anecdotes and moves on (while—to be fair--acknowledging the fundamental risk in relying on anecdotes.)
I’d recommend this book. I can’t say it swayed my belief on the topic, which tends skeptical, but it did inform my confusion. (It should be pointed out that not all these abilities are equally reviled by science. Precognition is the most fundamentally opposed because it seems to violate the fundamental cause and effect nature of the universe at our scale and larger [as opposed to the quantum level were all sorts of weird happenings transpire.]) I do agree with Radin that there shouldn’t be taboos in science in which scientists are afraid to study a subject of interest because the prevailing notion is that it probably doesn’t have merit. If there weren’t scientists with the cojones to study “crazy stuff” we’d no doubt be far behind our current understanding of the world.
Radin then gives us a tour de force survey of Patanjali's views on yoga and the manner in which contemplative practices have been known for several millennia to produce psi abilities in those who are disciplined enough to undergo them. I found this to be one of the most interesting aspects of the book - a top notch scientist actually bridging the realms of spiritual and scientific endeavor into a single whole. This competent bridging of science and spirituality is something I've been waiting all my life to see and my feeling while reading was one of hope: that this book might be among the first of an emerging new genre.
As the book progresses, we get to hear about Radin's newer psi experiments and the very exciting findings he has been getting in the last several years. There is much to digest here in regard to what these findings mean about being human and about our potential to develop and understand ourselves in exciting and meaningful new ways. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in non-dogmatic spirituality. Anyone who appreciates both the method of science and the aim of religion stands to gain a great deal from Radin's "Supernormal."