After decades of psychic research, Dr. Marilyn Schlitz shares take-away lessons

Proving psychic phenomena exist is not the only purpose of parapsychology, says long-time researcher Dr. Marilyn Schlitz
October 31, 2017 4:49 pm, Last Updated: November 1, 2017 1:44 pm
By Tara MacIsaac, Epoch Times

Dr. Marilyn Schlitz has conducted some of the most prominent parapsychology experiments in history. In the lab, she has explored psi phenomena like the ability of a person’s thoughts to physically affect another person’s body.

She has taught at Trinity University, Stanford University, Harvard Medical Centers, and currently at Silicon Valley’s Sofia University. She has lectured at institutions including the United Nations and the Smithsonian Institution.

Schlitz has been instrumental in making inroads for parapsychology into mainstream science—in starting to bridge the gap between believers and skeptics. But even if skeptics continue to deny the existence of psi phenomena, Schlitz said, parapsychology studies can still teach much about humankind in general. Those lessons are beyond belief in, or denial of, psi.

Psi research can teach us about the philosophy of science and how people’s worldviews influence their behaviors.


“My experience in this domain of anomalous science or science outside of the mainstream is that there’s huge amounts to learn about many things. Whether you find a psi effect or not, you can learn so much about the sociology of science, the philosophy of science, [and the] methodology,” she said.

“You can learn a lot about how people’s worldviews influence their behaviors and their willingness to try things, or their adamant denial of certain things.”

Teaming up with a prominent skeptic, Schlitz studied the infamous ‘experimenter effect.’

As a social anthropologist, Schlitz is particularly suited to studying the sociology of science as displayed in psi experiments. The beliefs of both the test subjects and the scientists conducting the experiments may impact the results. And the two are related: Disbelief on the part of the scientist can inspire a similar attitude in the subject.

This is called the “experimenter effect,” and its impact on psi studies may be great.

Replication is important to science. If study results are correct, other scientists should be able to reproduce them. However, when studying the physical impacts of thoughts in psi experiments, the intentions of the scientist may play a key role. This is because, if thoughts can indeed have a physical impact, the thoughts of the scientist could literally change the outcome.

The experimenter effect may also manifest through body language or tone of voice. In these ways, the experimenter may influence how the test subjects think about the tasks they are asked to perform and thus how they perform them.

The inability of some scientists to replicate positive psi studies may be a result of the negative intentions those scientists have.

In other words, the inability of some scientists to replicate positive psi studies may be a result of the negative intentions those scientists have. The “experimenter effect” could make consistent replication impossible.

Schlitz teamed up with prominent skeptic Dr. Richard Weissman. They studied the purported psi phenomenon of being able to sense when someone is staring at you.

The two agreed on the protocols, setting up the experiment so that the key difference would be the influence of either Schlitz’s positive expectations or Weissman’s negative expectations for the results.

Dr. Marilyn Schlitz (Courtesy of Dr. Marilyn Schlitz)
Dr. Marilyn Schlitz (Courtesy of Dr. Marilyn Schlitz)

Previous to this collaboration, each had studied this phenomenon separately. Schlitz had obtained positive results, suggesting people have the ability to sense another person’s gaze using extrasensory perception. Weissman had obtained negative results, with test subjects unable to detect an unseen gaze.

In their combined experiment, they measured physiological responses in the skin (such as changes to sweat glands) that can occur when someone is aware of being watched. They found that the skin of Weissman’s test subjects did not register significant changes in “stare” versus “non-stare” trials. Conversely, Schlitz’s test subjects showed a significant change.

This provides some support for the existence of the experimenter effect.

Although Schlitz said she had fun working with Weissman, and they were lauded for their collaboration—since skeptics and parapsychologists often have a more antagonistic relationship—the results did not completely convince Weissman.

“I think he felt it was ambiguous, it wasn’t definitive enough for him to rock his worldview.”

Schlitz is working to replicate a study that—as far as some scientists are concerned—calls into question the methodology used by all experimental psychologists.

Many scientists believe the aphorism popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

When psi researchers follow methodologies common in science, it is sometimes considered by skeptics to be insufficient. Skeptics demand of psi researchers that their methodology be even more impeccable.

In 2011, Dr. Daryl Bem published a study called “Feeling the Future” in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It was a 10-year study showing positive psi effects. The peer review process for this prestigious, mainstream journal found that his methodology met the standards set for all articles it publishes.

But the reaction of some scientists, such as psychologist Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, was to say that the methodology of all psychology studies must be flawed if those methodologies could produce these “impossible” results.

Parapsychologists must develop methodology that is extraordinarily strong, something that can benefit all of science.

In short, normal standards for methodology are questioned through parapsychology. The design of parapsychology experiments necessitates a more careful consideration of methodology—something from which all of science can benefit.

Schlitz has been working with Bem to replicate his results. They have found that, depending on how the data is analyzed, either a negative or positive effect can be found.

Their findings again call into question the methodologies used by either skeptics or believers, and thus the objective nature of science. They are continuing to collect data to better understand the role of the experimenter, Schlitz said.

Working on parapsychology studies for decades, Schlitz said she has become more skeptical about the ability of science to definitively prove psi. “I’ve seen some of the challenges of the work and I think that working in a laboratory … isn’t as robust as real life,” she said.

There are all sorts of emotional and other circumstances in real-life situations, she said, that can impact psi effects. These cannot easily be reproduced in a lab.

She has turned her attention in recent years to developing psychological approaches that can help terminally ill people and the medical staff who treat them.

Schlitz helps medical staff approach death with an open mind.

For example, she has drawn on her anthropology background to help medical staff consider different epistemologies around death.

“If you’re in a hospital and you have a particular worldview, and your healthcare professional has a different view from yours, it may be very hard to communicate,” she said. “My goal in that work is to make the death experience less fearful so people are able to talk about it before the final moment, make plans so that it’s not just a crisis at the end.”

She said it’s important for health professionals to acknowledge and respect alternative perspectives even if they don’t believe them, because “that could be the most important thing that happens in a person’s life, that they can have a good death that conforms with what their own beliefs are.”

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