Wednesday Investigation 14: The Global Consciousness Project

This week I learned that there are 70 devices, distributed around the world, called “the Princeton Eggs.”

These at first sound, at least to my ear, like an assortment of MacGuffins: an Ivy-League version of the Infinity Gems or the Chaos Emeralds. The good narratologists at TV Tropes refer to the multi-MacGuffin narrative device as “Gotta Catch Em All,” and, yeah, it’s not hard to imagine this being an investigation of a ragtag band of heroes, racing to collect all 70 Eggs before they fall into the hands of diabolical villainy…

Well, no. That’s not quite what I have for you this week, sadly, though the story does contain a renegade astronaut, global terrorism, and a mysterious institute in the California hills that once attracted the attention of conspiracy aficionado/bestselling novelist Dan Brown…

But first, Princeton. The story begins at something called the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab, or PEAR, founded in 1979 for the study of parapsychology.

I wanted to add a phrase there, something like “which was the style at the time.” I’ve always thought of the 1970s—the era of my early childhood—as a high-water mark for academic (and mainstream?) interest in the paranormal. (I’d have argued that it might have been extended fallout from cultural tastemakers embracing and popularizing LSD a decade earlier, a process memorably documented in Michael Pollan’s recent How to Change Your Mind.) But researching this newsletter disabused me of this notion: I learned that Duke University was studying ESP, using the famous Zener cards, as long ago as the 1930s, and Princeton got into the game as early as 1936, attempting (and failing) to replicate Duke’s results, so perhaps it’s better to think of PEAR as part of a longer trend of weird pockets of paranormal study in academia.

Regardless. Starting in 1979, PEAR investigators (most notably aerospace engineer Robert G. Jahn and developmental psychologist Brenda Dunne) did a variety of experiments with Random Event Generators—or REGs—essentially attempting to see whether test subjects could influence the results of what was basically an electronic coin-flipping device, using the power of their mind. (The REGs were electronic devices, although the New York Times informs us that PEAR also utilized, in similar experiments, “a giant, wall-mounted pachinko-like machine with a cascade of bouncing balls,” which I hope finds a place in the movie they one day make about all this.)

By the late 1990s, PEAR had grown interested in whether psychic power could be exerted at a massive, global level, so they stationed 12 REGs in the US and Wales, and attempted, in 1997, to influence the random coin-flips with a worldwide “Gaiamind Meditation” (drawing here on James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which posits that the earth can be best understood as a single homeostatic system, and/or living organism). It appears to be around this time that they began to refer to the REGs as Electrogaiagrams, or EGGs for short.

I haven’t been able to find a compelling summary of the results yet, but the REGs—now EGGs—apparently continued to run throughout 1997, producing random data, which PEAR continued to collect and compile. So they were running on August 31, 1997, when Diana, Princess of Wales—one of the most beloved figures in the world at that time—died from injuries sustained in a car crash.

You don’t need to believe in the paranormal to that the death of Princess Diana was a profound psychological event, an outpouring of sorrow experienced at a massive level of global simultaneity. (To underscore the point with a bit of personal synchronicity, the date holds special meaning for this newsletter as well: I bought my first pack of cards for my note index the day Diana died, and my oldest notes are about the media coverage of her death.) But the PEAR analysts were in a unique position: after all, they had an extant network designed to function as a receptor for global psychic activity; they were collecting data—and the data was getting interesting. Statistical deviations from normal patterns seemed to emerge. Put more simply, EGG coin-flips occurring on the dates following Diana’s death were measurably less random.

This suggested a major new avenue for PEAR research. The global mourners hadn’t been seeking to directly manipulate the EGGs, in the way the Gaiamind meditators may have been attempting. But if the anomaly could be proven to be a byproduct of the global psychological shock—it would serve as evidence that human consciousness could interact directly with elements of the physical world at a distance. This would change everything—if it could be proven. But any statistics student can tell you that correlation is not causation; that the burden of proof for a claim that “thing X caused thing Y to happen” (as opposed to just “thing X and thing Y happened at the same time”) is much greater.

So the project expanded, from twelve “Princeton eggs” to forty (and later to seventy), and the mission was re-tuned. In order to even begin to make the case for causation PEAR would need to demonstrate that these statistical anomalies—the episodes of non-randomness—were reliably and repeatedly correlating with major world events.

So what might be “an obvious test case?” “[A] global event that should, according to the general hypothesis, affect the EGG network?” Something else, a few years later, that would also trigger profound waves of psychic outpouring? If the thing that came to mind was the 9/11 attacks, well, here’s the paper, Roger Nelson’s “Coherent Consciousness and Reduced Randomness: Correlations on September 11, 2001.”

The data is… actually kind of compelling? Here’s the “deviation of variance across eggs” on September 11th compared to a “pseudo-data” control group:

That’s pretty interesting, although if you look closely you’ll note the somewhat vexing detail that “[t]he major trends began to appear on the order of two to four hours prior to the first crash.” The paper notes that this occurrence is “particularly thought-provoking,” and, indeed, if you let your mind run with it, you can get to some wild places. Could this data be evidence of “a premonitory cognition or feeling at an unconscious level?” Does this data suggest that the psychic shockwave from 9/11 was powerful enough to surge backwards in time, impacting our consciousness, which in turn rippled out and tripped the mechanisms within the Princeton eggs?

Well, I’m a fantasy writer, and I’m currently writing a book where the plot hinges on time going a bit funny, so personally I love the idea. And the whole thing was provocative enough to win the Global Consciousness Project some attention (I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it, but I can tell you that I added it to my notecard index and tagged it for investigation in 2005). At the same time, you could be forgiven for feeling that this might be beginning to look like another testament to the power of the human mind to see patterns in noise (the technical term for this is apophenia). It’s hard to shake the feeling that PEAR might be “moving the goalposts” once again, this time adding a “precognitive” element to their hypothesis to better align with the data. And it doesn’t appear that Princeton itself was all that impressed: Wikipedia notes that the program’s relationship with its parent institution was “strained,” and PEAR was shuttered in 2007. (Some of its people carry on some of its work under the aegis of a new organization, the International Consciousness Research Laboratories, although others moved on to shilling REGs in the form of chintzy-looking LED keychains, promising that they could be used “to conduct simple intention experiments anywhere, with minimal setup time.” Which is true, I guess, but only if you’re willing to sit somewhere, on your own, clicking a button on your keychain repeatedly.)

The Global Consciousness Project itself also still runs, and, rather amazingly, it still maintains space at a (forgotten?) corner of, specifically (“noosphere” being a nod toward the fascinating philosopher-priest Teilhard de Chardin, who proposed a global blanket of consciousness way back in 1922). The guy who maintains, Roger Nelson—author of the 9/11 paper—notes that he runs the GCP “from his home office in Princeton,” and aside from the domain space it doesn’t seem to have formal support from the university any longer. Formal support now comes from the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which is worth a mention here.

The Institute was founded by Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon (he was the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 14). On his way back to earth, he famously had a religious experience, developing, in his own words, an “instant global consciousness.”

I’m using “religious experience” here in the sense of how William James defines it in Varieties of Religious Experience. One of James’ four hallmarks of the mystic experience is that it be “noetic”—an experience where one attains “insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.” (Mitchell has described it as being akin to the revelations that emerge from a savikalpa samādhi experience.) It definitely changed Mitchell’s life dramatically: he went to the moon in 1971, quit NASA in 1972, and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 1973.

The Institute is the organization that attracted Dan Brown’s attention—it features prominently in his 2009 novel The Lost Symbol. And the Institute still runs, although Edgar Mitchell died in 2016. (They just put out a video on “Noetic Approaches to Racial Justice.”)

I poked around at their website for a little bit, and I have to say, a lot of what they put out is a little “woo” for my tastes—and I say this as someone who spent all day investigating the Global Consciousness Project. They’re the kind of organization, for instance, that wants to figure out if there’s a genetic marker for psychic powers (they’re asking folks to “fill out a survey about their psychic experiences and then upload genetic data that they have already received from consumer direct services”). I got all prepared to start yelling “pseudoscience,” but then I clicked around some more and found that they also produce what look like pretty levelheaded scientific articles and place them successfully in peer-reviewed publications.

In a way, I think this uneasy balance befits Mitchell’s vision, which was to place “science and religion […] into the same understanding,” to take domains of knowledge that “have lived on opposite sides of the street now for hundreds of years” and establish that, in fact, they “belong to the same side.”

Their success in this realm, such as it is, may provide something of a happy ending for the Global Consciousness Project, a happy ending that PEAR never quite attained. In a New York Times article about the closing of the PEAR Lab, Barbara Dunne remarks, with a touch of weariness, “We submitted our data for review to very good journals, […] but no one would review it. We have been very open with our data. But how do you get peer review when you don’t have peers?”

From that article, here’s a photo of the ragtag band: Barbara Dunne, Robert Jahn, Jahn’s black lab Percy, and a giant wall-mounted pachinko-like device full of metal balls that you can maybe move with your mind.

-JPB, writing somewhere between Western MA and East New York // Tuesday, August 4 (revised Wednesday, August 5)

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