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global consciousness

Global consciousness (sometimes called “field consciousness”) is the notion that when groups of people focus their minds on the same thing, they influence “the world at large” (Radin 1997: ch. 10). According to Dean Radin, there may be something like a “global mind” that is spawned by the interconnections of many individual minds. What evidence is there for such a claim? The evidence is statistical and involves comparing chance expectation of random event generators (also called random number generators or RNGs) with actual measurements. A truly random generation of events would have no pattern. The evidence for global consciousness is found by matching patterns in the output of RNGs with events that are thought to have generated the attention and focus of millions of minds on planet Earth.

Roger Nelson, a colleague of Robert Jahn in the PEAR experiments, introduced the notion of “field consciousness.” Nelson heads the Global Consciousness Project, an offshoot of PEAR that collects data from RNGs around the world in its effort to prove that global consciousness is real. One of Nelson’s studies, “Wishing for Good Weather,” appeared in The Journal for Scientific Exploration (1997, Vol. 11, No. 1). Here's an excerpt from the abstract:

Reunion and commencement activities at Princeton University, involving thousands of alumni, graduates, family and others, are held outdoors, and it is often remarked that they are almost always blessed with good weather. A comparison of the recorded rainfall in Princeton vs. nearby communities shows that there is significantly less rain, less often, in Princeton on those days with major outdoor activities.

Nelson suggests that the mental intention of the folks at Princeton keeps the rain away. Why their intentions would prevail when so many other equally deserving communities who wish for the same thing (or for the opposite) are denied their desire is a mystery for future parapsychologists to discover.

According to Radin: “In the basic field-consciousness experiment, we measure fluctuations in a group’s attention while simultaneously measuring fluctuations in the behavior of one or more physical systems” (Radin 1997: 161). For example, data from RNGs are collected for the time just before, during, and after a “global event”—like watching the televised funeral of Princess Diana. The researchers then look for fluctuations of the order of the RNG outputs. Chance fluctuations of order are then measured against any fluctuations of order during these and other events where large numbers of people might be focusing on the same thing. Then, cumulative odds against chance for the random data collected before, during, and after the global events are calculated. According to Nelson, for Princess Diana’s televised funeral:

....results compounded across twelve independent recordings at various locations in Europe and the United States showed an anomalous effect that would occur by chance only about once in 100 repetitions of this experiment (p = 0.013), as displayed in a graph of the deviation accumulated across all the datasets.

But for Mother Teresa’s televised funeral:

Eleven datasets for Mother Teresa’s funeral show little indication of an anomalous effect, with a composite outcome indistinguishable from chance (p = 0.654), as displayed in a similar graph. We speculate that the difference derives from the nature of the global attention, which was very different in the two cases. The significant result for Diana's funeral confirmed our prediction based on the obvious potential of this tragic and unexpected occasion to produce emotional engagement and resonance. The outcome is consonant with results obtained in previous Field REG studies and supports tentative interpretations suggesting that groups of people, especially when they are attuned and engaged by a common theme, may produce something like a "consciousness field" that can induce a small but statistically identifiable bias in a nominally random sequence.

Nelson's explanation of the difference in machine outputs for the two funerals is pulled out of thin air and is clearly untestable, but it is consistent with his hypothesis:

The shock and dismay over Diana's death galvanized an overwhelming reaction that was the preeminent media topic for several days. The funeral ceremonies occupied virtually all the major television channels and hence the attentions of an unprecedented number of people. This focus, and the entrainment of ideas and emotions it entailed, might be expected to produce a widespread resonance of affect. In contrast, Mother Teresa's death was expected, and she had lived a full and exemplary life, allowing her memory to be honored without the profound grief and dismay that was engendered by Princess Diana's death. These important differences in the two situations may explain the significantly different experimental results, and also link them with findings in psychological and sociological studies of personal loss.



















On the other hand, perhaps these difference in results indicate that the fluctuation in machine output has nothing to do with people watching television.

Several other experiments have been done that have resulted in similar data and graphs, according to Radin (1997: 161-162). He claims that finding such "anomalies" provides support for “ideas about deep interconnectedness espoused by physicists, theologians, and mystics” (p. 172). These researchers have found statistical differences, which they call anomalies. But do these "anomalies" support a belief in psi or global consciousness? To assume they do is to assume that information is being transferred from minds to machines, but that is the very issue that is being investigated by these researchers. It is true that they predicted certain outcomes would occur if their hypothesis were correct. It is true that the outcomes they predicted did occur. However, it is not clear that these successful experiments support their hypothesis because we have no way of knowing that their prediction must truly follow from their hypothesis. (See entry on the psi assumption.) How can we be sure that if there is a field consciousness, the thoughts of many people will affect random event generators in some cases but not in others? If the thoughts of many people could have some sort of unified effect on RNGs, how can we know a priori that the effect would be to cause more order? For all we know, if there is a causal relationship between thoughts and RNGs, it could be to produce more disorder (and how would you measure that if randomness is the base?), or more order sometimes and less order at other times.

Another problem is that, according to Nelson and Radin sometimes the order occurs before the alleged global consciousness gets revved up. For example, they claim that there have been major deviations in RNG output prior to major events like 9/11 or the massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed several hundred thousand people in 2004. This implies that global consciousness may be precognitive.  If a pattern showed up after a major disaster, I suppose that would be taken as evidence of retrocognition. That doesn't leave much room for falsifiability.

All we know from these experiments is that the data are considered anomalous by people like Nelson and Radin. This may or may not prove to be of scientific interest. No, I think we can safely say that this will not prove to  be of any interest to most scientists. It is a leap of faith to assume that every seemingly strange statistic uncovered is proof of psi or some other mysterious entity like global consciousness. Weird statistics are seductive, but they prove nothing. In any case, these statistics don't seem nearly as weird as those who collect them.

Physicist Bob Park has suggested that a sure-fire test for global consciousness would be to use a microbalance and have groups of people try to move it with their thoughts (Park 2008, 138-139). A microbalance can make precise measurements on the order of a millionth of a gram. Maybe if enough people scrunch up their faces and concentrate real hard at sending this suggestion to Radin and Nelson, they will be driven to do the experiment.

Don't hold your breath.

See also confirmation bias, experimenter effect, and psychokinesis.

further reading

Park, Robert L. (2008). Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. Princeton University Press.

Radin, Dean (1997). The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins. My review of this book.

Stenger, Victor J. "Quantum Quackery," Skeptical Inquirer. January/February 1997.

Last updated 27-Oct-2015

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