Interview ith Dr. Diane Powell about research into telepathy in autistic savant children.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with neuroscientist, psychiatrist and author Dr. Diane Powell. During the interview Powell discusses her latest telepathy research working with mathematically gifted autistic savant children:
Alex Tsakiris: So you give this child a six-digit number, and a two-digit number and say, “Multiply those two together” [but that’s] just a distraction to keep her mind occupied [because what you’re finding is] she’s getting the answers telepathically…
Diane Powell: Right, and one of the reasons I know it’s [telepathic] is based on a couple of errors that the therapist made. The therapist isn’t someone who knows math. So the therapist, when she looked at the piece of paper that had the equation that was asking for the cube roots, and this happened on two of the occasions… she is mistook the cube root symbol for meaning divide by three. So she asks the girl, “What’s the first number?” then she gives this long number and then she says and what is it divided by, and the girl says three, and then she asks, “And what’s the answer?” and the girl gives the answer for the cube root, she doesn’t give the answer for dividing that number by three.
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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Dr. Diane Powell back to Skeptiko. When we last heard from Dr. Powell in episode 197 – I had to look that up. It was almost one year ago at the beginning of 2014. Well, this Johns Hopkins School of Medicine trained neuroscientist with post doctorate training and psychiatry and a faculty appointment at Harvard Medical School – yeah, folks. She is really, really smart in case you don’t remember that. Anyway, when we last talked to Diane she was just getting ready to head off to India to conduct this really fascinating research into telepathy. And she was quite excited when we talked to her because she thought she really had a chance of nailing this down experimentally and showing people that this really can be demonstrated in a controlled experiment.
So she is back to tell us what she found out. Dr. Powell, welcome to Skeptiko. Thanks again for joining me.
Diane Powell: Thank you for having me. It is wonderful to have this opportunity to talk about the research.
Alex Tsakiris: Well great. Then let’s jump right in to talking about the research. Someone passed along a link to me about your work and then you were nice enough to give me a peek at the paper that is about to come out. Go ahead, tell us what you did, why you did it, and then what you found out.
Diane Powell: Well, what I did was years ago was I took my background as a neuroscientist and as a psychiatrist who spends time with patients, observing them and exploring what their experience of the world is. And I took that experience and I thought about who would be the most likely candidate to prove telepathy, if telepathy is real. And I decided upon studying the population called autistic savants, and these are people with autism, but they are also people who have some special skill that is unexplainable. For example, a mathematical savant would be somebody who can do complex math but they never had any formal training in how to do simple math, like simple multiplication. And so I thought when I looked at some of these skills that were accepted by scientists as they are reliably reproduced and they are just as mysterious as some of them – some of them are just as mysterious as what we would label as psy. So, for example, although you have people like Daniel Tammet who can give you Pi to over 22,000 decimal points. He has a phenomenal memory and he also has phenomenal pattern recognition.
I thought I could explain the savant skills by that kind of a modeling but when I was looking more and more at some of these savant skills, the people who were able to express what their experience is, they said that they are not dividing in their head and the answer just pops into their consciousness. And they don’t know how they get it. And so I thought that just sounds so much like psy, maybe it is. And so I hypothesized that it is not necessarily that psy is a savant skill it is more that if someone had psy they might be labeled and autistic savant and actually what they are doing is deriving the information psychically.
So I thought I am going to look for someone who has been diagnosed as an autistic savant and then also for telepathy I thought the situation which would make it most likely for someone to exhibit that would be if they had a high motivation. So the highest motivation is to be trapped in a body in which you cannot verbally communicate and that is the case for a child with nonverbal autism. We really don’t have any reason to think that they don’t have intact language capacity. What we do know is they have an inability to control their ability to speak and their ability to move their body in a way that they can communicate in usual ways. So that is the population I targeted.
Alex Tsakiris: Wow – let me stop there and recap because that is great thinking on your part. So you started out by saying okay, here is a recognized anomaly, consciousness anomaly, if you will. They are underdeveloped in this one way but they are super developed in this other way and the key thing I heard you say is that this is accepted in science and medicine. So we have studied savants and autistic savants, and that is a known phenomenon, so that is out of the way. And then you further said, – I love this last part, where you said is this a population that we could expect to one, experience psy, and because they are self-reporting that they are experiencing it and it seems to line up with the way other folks experience psy. And then finally – I love this other angle you put on it and you said that you just had this hunch as a psychiatrist this group of people might be highly motivated to communicate. So those factors together is what led you in this direction and that’s really quite amazing.
Diane Powell: Yes, well thank you, thank you. And so what I have – and this is one of the reasons why I think I am in a position where I could actually prove telepathy, that I have a model. I am approaching this as someone who studied and I have been in five different neuroscience laboratories and a lot of people don’t realize that I spent two decades immersed in the very scientific model that we get dismissed by as parapsychologists. So I am really somebody who is bridging both worlds.
Alex Tsakiris: And you worked. Just reading your [inaudible – 00:05:58] it is really impressive. You work with some very heavy people academically in terms of your neuroscience training, is that right?
Diane Powell: Yes, yes, exactly. I have worked with people who have been Nobel laureates and Nobel candidates. And I have worked in the neuroscience laboratory of Joseph Quail and he – and then I worked with him again when I did my child psychiatry training and Johns Hopkins. So he knew me as both a neuroscientist and as a psychiatry resident. And he went on from Hopkins to be the head of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and McClaine, where he still is. So I have people in academia who respect me as a scientist and what I need to do is translate this into the type of scientific language that I know they would understand.
Alex Tsakiris: I am sorry Diane, I kind of shifted things a little bit. I am really curious about this, and you touched on it, and that is the model that you actually have. You have a theory and a model for how this might work.
Diane Powell: One of the things that I am doing is I have a testable model and I really want to not get into my model too much because it is not published, so I would rather just get into explaining what I have in the way of data and where I want to go a little bit and leave talking about the model until later if you don’t mind.
Alex Tsakiris: You bet. Go ahead.
Diane Powell: So what I have in the way of data is I received a letter, actually, from the father of a child who was 9 years old at the time and he had heard, because of me expressing my interest in this child, he had heard that I was interested and he had been referred to me by Daryl [Treffert 00:05:58], who is an expert on autistic savants. And they thought initially that this girl was a mathematical savant because she was giving the answers to these very complicated math questions – for example, multiplying 6 digits by 6 digits, finding cube roots of 6-digit numbers, that sort of that thing. And she couldn’t do simple math. She couldn’t do simple multiplication. And what happened was when this therapist that works in the home with the girl – she made a mistake and she found that the girl would copy her mistakes. One time she switched from using a calculator to generate the answer to this equation, because they were beyond her ability. The answer switched when she went from using a calculator to an iPad to a logarithmic expression. And the girl actually typed out the logarithmic answer – and that is what made the therapist go, ‘Whoa, what is happening here?’
So it was someone in the field who is spending intense time with the patient, and I am still a practicing psychiatrist, and spending time with people that you get to see that these things are real. But unfortunately there is this huge divide between the people who are in the fields, doing this work, and the people who are the neuroscientists who are in the position of creating basically a model for our understanding of the brain and consciousness. So there is often this big divide and it is one half that isn’t speaking to the other half.
Alex Tsakiris: So there is this therapist who is working with this child – and it is interesting, let me make sure I got this right. You said she switched over from a digital calculator that gave the readout as a number, dot, and then a decimal. And then she switched over the iPad and gave the answer logarithmically and then as soon as she changed that the answers coming back from the kid she was working with changed accordingly – did I get that right?
Diane Powell: Yes, exactly. So for example if the answer was what the number would be if you were using a different base – let’s say you were going to have the answer expressed in binary notation, just a series of ones and zeros, this girl would be able to express the answer in the ones and zeros to make them simple because that is a binary expression of the same number. So it is absolutely amazing. Then another, a second therapist, independently who worked with the girl because she has about four therapists who work with her – the second therapist independently had a similar experience where she made a mistake and the girl repeated her mistake. Then she saw this often enough that she said, ‘Hey, it’s like you’re reading my mind.’ Then she had the thought, ‘How do you say I love you in German?’ And the girl typed out the German for ‘I love you’ – ich liebe dich.
Alex Tsakiris: Oh my gosh.
Diane Powell: So this created the opportunity to go and test her with two independent therapists. And the results, if people go to my website and they want to read the abstract, you will see that the results are astounding. I mean, there is this one period where I have over four hours of experimental footage with her. And there was a period of about ten minutes of where she gave – out of 162 random numbers, and I was generating these with a random number generator, out of 162, she only made 7 errors. And each one of those she corrected on the second try.
Alex Tsakiris: Say that again, really slowly. So tell folks exactly the setup and then how you conducted the experiment and then what the results were.
Diane Powell: So the setup was that the girl had been sitting – and when I was first contacted by her family she would sit at the same table with the therapist and the girl was typing independently the answers to these questions into either a iPad or into a talker, which is a device that has a qwerty keyboard and it has all the numbers there right on the device itself. It is something that has been developed specifically for children with autism and special needs.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, because she is nonverbal and she can’t speak in a normal way?
Diane Powell: Right, so this is their communication device, correct. And so she would just type into that using one finger. And so I said to them that they needed to have a visual barrier between the two of them because of the protocol that parapsychologists have to follow and there has to be no evidence of any kind of potential for visual of physical cuing. So because the girl is autistic and children who are autistic will react frequently in a way that they have tantrums when you introduce something new to their environment – because of that, you can only modify the environment in increments of change that they can handle. You want to minimize the stress to the person who is doing this. And so we introduced this basically standing mirror that is over 5 feet tall and it is about 2 feet wide, and we put material over it so the mirror part wasn’t there and that part was facing the therapist. But it had cloth over it. So it was essentially a 2-foot barrier between the two of them so that the therapist was on one side and she would ask this girl, who goes by the name of Hailey, would ask Hailey, ‘What am I thinking? What am I reading?’
I had generated random numbers, I generated random sentences, I generated even fake words and I gave them to – I had total control over the experimental conditions and it was only the therapist and Hailey in the room on either side of this divider. And I was with my videographer in another room and 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 therapist would be given a stack of stimuli. For example, I think the most impressive time period was on the second day I was there and I was only there for three days. The second day that I was there, it was when I asked for her to give the numbers that are involved in mathematical questions and so I generated these numbers using a random number generator, created these large equations with them – for example, maybe multiplying a six-digit number by a two-digit number, that sort of thing. And then I used a calculator to calculate the answer. And the reason why I set up this part of the experiment this was that one of the things that I was told by the therapist – and this turned out to be true – is that she does better if she is fooled into thinking – she was getting bored with the constant telepathy experiments. They get bored, these are very bright children often times. So to make it more challenging for her and to make it feel like okay, we’re doing some homework here. I put it into this format of an equation.
I wrote them down on pieces of paper after generating them and then I put them in the stack, face down, and handed them to the therapist. And she picked them up one by one, and showed them to the camera on her side and says to Hailey, ‘What number am I thinking?’ And Hailey then would use her right hand to pick the number from a stencil – these are these plastic boards that are very thick that have cutout letters in them and numbers in them. And it is what she first learned language using. We ended up having to work with her with her pointing to the stencil first and then she would type the answer with her left finger into the talker. We had to do it that way because that was the way that the therapist had been doing it with her leading up to the time that I was able to go there and film it. So we couldn’t really change the protocol so we just filmed it as accurately as we could.
Alex Tsakiris: So you are giving her a six-digit number, a two-digit number and then you are saying, ‘What is the answer if you multiply those two together?’ just to keep her mind occupied that there really is some mathematical work to be involved and then she is getting the answers telepathically to each number, the two numbers you are multiplying together and the answer.
Diane Powell: Right, and one of the reasons why I know that it is not that she is doing this because she is a mathematical savant is based on a couple of errors that the therapist made. The therapist isn’t someone who knows math. So the therapist, when she looked at the piece of paper that had the equation that was asking for the cube roots, and this happened on two of the occasions and two of the ten equations were like this where she is looking at it and she is mistaking the cube root symbol for meaning divide by three. So she asks the girl to – what’s the first number, then she gives this long number and then she says and what is it divided by, and the girl says three, and then she says, ‘And what’s the answer?’ and the girl gives the answer for the cube root, she doesn’t give the answer for dividing that number by three.
Alex Tsakiris: Wow, that’s very interesting.
Diane Powell: Yes, and so the experiments – I am just describing a small set of the experiments but I missed it up. I had different ways in which I presented the different stimuli that I used. There are different ways in which I presented it. And so I have a lot of built-in controls in the data set itself. And this setup, no matter what people think is going on, this setup is a wonderful opportunity to explore whatever is going on here. Even if it were subtle cuing, which is really hard to imagine that it is because you don’t see anything that would indicate that.
Alex Tsakiris: Do we really have to go there? I mean, come on, this is such a simple experiment. You have five cameras and you have this divider. I mean, I know you have to go there but I almost think that is just like too goofy to even explore, subtle cuing. We don’t understand it, yeah, but I mean – recap for me again. I don’t want to – I know you have to go there and I know you will in your paper, but give us again the results. So now we understand that. You have got this six-digit number, a cube root. I mean I can’t do the cube root of 27. So a six-digit number cube root, I don’t even know. Then the results she gets – 100% of the numbers, like 30 or 40 times in a row.
Diane Powell: And she did that all in ten minutes. Each one of these equations only took her about a minute on average. And so for her to, in about ten minutes plus or minus some, she was able to give 162 numbers and only made seven errors. And corrected them on the second time. And what was interesting was when she made those errors they often times might have been errors that have to do with more of a motor control issue because having talked with people who have worked with these children they say that sometimes it’s harder for them to – that they will accidentally hit the wrong, like when we hit the wrong key. And there is no reverse there for her to go, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean that.’ So we had the remote feed and we could monitor the experiment from another room. And sometimes you could see that when she made the error that she was a little frustrated because there was no way for her to express to erase that. So next time I do experiments I am actually going to have built into whatever she is using as a communication device something where she can communicate that she wants to backspace and correct something.
Alex Tsakiris: So an unbelievably amazing result statistically. I don’t even want to get into statistics because it is just too outrageous, that kind of statistical significance that would be in that set of experiments there. I mean, 160 out of 170 or whatever it is, that’s just too amazing to even calculate. What does this mean? What does it mean Diane?
Diane Powell: Well I think that once telepathy is proven, and I really – one of the things I want to say is that because of the fact that there are these people who are such extreme skeptics out there, I am not done yet, I presented this data at the parapsychological association’s annual meeting in the Bay Area in August and people who saw the video, the called it jaw-dropping. It really is quite incredible footage.
The problem is that it is not blind the way the skeptics would like. The therapist who is there with her in the room is the one who knows the answer, ideally that wouldn’t be the case. But when I listen to the whole story, if you really look at this and you try to be parsimonious with your conclusion and you look at the fact that the father, the mother, two independent therapists, all of whom I interviewed independently for half an hour or an hour each about this child, they would all have to be lying to me because what they described to me is that she can do it without this particular setup. But there are skeptics who will say oh, there is an electronic device in the room. How do I know that it is not an electronic device? People are that skeptical.
So what I need to do is I want to put the best foot forward. I want to go back and film her. And I have at least two, if not three, other children who are like her to show that this isn’t just this child. And armed with being able to show that it is not just unique to this child and being able to go back and have the optimal setup, that is going to put me in a position where I can write this up and it will change everything. You know how much hostility there has been towards this area of research and when you actually come up with the first irrefutable data and you have people who are neuroscientists and I really believe that I have an opportunity to get neuroscientists to agree with this data. I have shown it already to some of my – I have shown my paper and I have also shown the experimental video to a psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins who looked at it and said it has to be telepathy.
So I really have something powerful here. I want to present it to the world with the best platform possible. I am looking to raise money for funding this next wing, to go back to India and a couple of other places in the world. There are also some children here in the US. And document their abilities, write it up, and change the paradigm.
Alex Tsakiris: Because you have been doing this and basically funding it out of your own pocket, more or less, up until now, right? This research generally costs a lot of money to conduct this on a full-scale basis. If you were being sponsored by a university this would be a million dollar plus kind of effort and I am sure you are just doing the best you can. But you have to fund this yourself, right?
Diane Powell: Yes, and that is what slows down the progress. That is why I haven’t written another book since the [inaudible – 00:26:11]. It is not because I haven’t advanced my model and my theory and thinking, and it is not that I don’t have a lot more to say, it is that I have an active, full-time psychiatrist practice that pays my bills for me to go to India and for me to go and do these kinds of experiments.
Alex Tsakiris: How much money do you need to raise, Diane? How can people hop on board? I am definitely on board with this, just give me the Kickstarter address and I am in. Just tell me how much we need to get how we are going to do it.
Diane Powell: What we are going to do is we are going to start a Kickstarter campaign on November 3rd and the reason why we chose that date is because I will be on Coast to Coast for November 3rd and there is a large audience then. And it will be – the Kickstarter campaign will be running through mid-December and I will be doing several radio appearances in the meantime. So I want people to spread the news about it. Tell all your friends. And in terms of how much money do I need, there are going to be different levels of funding. With Kickstarter campaigns there is an art to requesting funding. Ideally a million dollars would be phenomenal. That would enable me to devote myself to this work and get a book out there, get an article out there within this next year. If I got $100,000 that would enable me to go and my videographer could go and we could get additional footage that we could then use for a documentary and I could write up a paper. It wouldn’t be enough money to create the documentary. So what I am doing is I am going to set an initial level of $100,000 just for me to go and do the next phase of this research, which I am very optimistic will be all I will need to do. I am that close. But any money we raise beyond that will accelerate the pace at which this research gets out there.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, well we will certainly do our part here at Skeptiko and maybe a little bit before it hits on Coast to Coast and we will see if we can get a couple of folks over there to help get the ball rolling. It is important work. I just have serious doubts about whether or not this will lead to any big paradigm change. But I do think that you have some interesting angle in terms of I think you understand what it takes. Tell folks a little bit about why you think this can really change some minds. I mean, it’s not going to change everyone’s minds, but tell us why you think this has a chance of kind of permeating that stone wall against anything like this, any kind of psy or parapsychology, paranormal phenomenon.
Diane Powell: I think it is a combination of things. I think first of all it is the fact that I come from this neuroscience background and I am a neuropsychiatrist and I can write about this and discuss it in scientific terms. Secondly it is how compelling the data is. It is just strikingly compelling, particularly when you combine it with the stories of not only this child but the stories of other children who are highly telepathic. I have a model to explain it.
One of the things that I think is that I think this is really an innate ability. I don’t think it is supernatural, I think it is an innate ability but that autistic children are able to demonstrate it to the type of precision and reliability that is necessary for scientific proof and I don’t think it is a supernatural ability. I think it is something that is part of who we are as human beings and it is innate in all of us.
Alex Tsakiris: I think is looking through the wrong end of the telescope, but I will go with you for purposes of getting it through, sure yeah.
Diane Powell: Well you really I think that what we call supernatural – see one of the problems is that implies that it defies laws of nature. But if you think about the fact that we live in a world where Einstein radically changed our concept of time and space and matter, and that was a century ago.
Alex Tsakiris: But we don’t really live in that world. That is the issue. We don’t really live in that world, we just choose to say well, that all sounds good. Let me just go on with things the way they are. But I don’t know that we can live in that world. I don’t know if we are equipped to live in that world. And maybe what you are talking about – the last time you were on, I loved the phrase that you put down. You said, ‘I want to lay down a first paver for this.’ Like pave the highway, I want to just put the first layer on the road because we do have to start somewhere if we are going to try and turn the telescope around and say hey, let’s take a broader look at consciousness.
Diane Powell: Right, but all I am saying in terms of brining in the physics, because say that is just using the one weird phenomenon to describe another phenomenon, but what I am saying is that we actually do live in that world. It is not how we experience the world because our brain is what plays a role in how we perceive our world. But we do live in that world. We do live in a world in which matter is made up of – it is not what we think it is. We do live in that world.
Alex Tsakiris: And I wasn’t trying to be too obtuse, but in another way that we don’t totally understand we don’t live in that world because we construct a world that says time is linear. Yesterday was yesterday and tomorrow is tomorrow. We live in a world that we construct that says this is solid. Then we encounter other people who don’t live in that world. They say well no, that is not really the way that it is.
Diane Powell: Yeah, exactly. But I also believe that it is like – so for example, with telepathy I also believe that it is like the four-minute mile in the sense that people thought that you couldn’t run a mile in less than four minutes. And it was a psychological barrier. Once that psychological barrier was broken it was broken many more times and by at least 17 more seconds. And so I think that we have a very limited sense of what our potential is, and that is the point that I am getting at.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes.
Diane Powell: But in terms of being able to get scientists to look at this seriously I realized from what I know as a neuroscientist that there are all of these phenomena that are already unexplained phenomena and then when you lump them all together it really challenges the way that people think about our brain and its relationship to consciousness. It really does. But you don’t have to throw out neuroscience. There is a way of actually combining the best of both.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, there has to be because sometimes I get off on this thing about kind of knocking neuroscience and the kind of brain dead, materialist, reductionalist but it is super effective in a lot of areas and we can’t deny that. We have all this medical – all these medical miracles that prove that and all these drugs that prove that. So I think that is wonderful that you have this sense that they can be integrated. And I guess you are also saying, I am reading into what you are saying, that you feel like there is a certain groundswell of if not support maybe openness or willingness to kind of reconsider some of the ideas that you are talking about. Do you sense that?
Diane Powell: Oh, absolutely. I am seeing two things. One is that when I was at the parapsychological association meeting I saw that people were much more optimistic about parapsychology in our research and the increased interest in it. People are much more optimistic about that. This is one of those pendulums that swings back and forth. But more importantly there are more and more neuroscientists who are coming forward and saying, ‘Our model is broken. It doesn’t work.’ In fact, there are over 400 neuroscientists who are protesting this brain mapping initiative because they see it as a waste of time. It is not going to get us any closer to understanding it. So this is where I am a full member of both communities and I understand each of them and what they know. That is rare, most people aren’t in both communities and know what each other know. I know what the parapsychological community knows and there is a lot of really valid data out there that needs to be looked at. And I know what neuroscientists know and that has to be incorporated into the model. If it is not it will get rejected. And I am somebody who can do that.
Alex Tsakiris: That is very promising, and particularly the neuroscience that emerges out of the medical branch from these schools of medicine, these highly – some of the best schools of medicine in the world that you have been associated with – Johns Hopkins, Harvard, those kind of people. And the reason that I say that is what I am seeing in just observing this landscape is that the medical people, they are just more pragmatic. They are like hey, how do we get this done? How do we cure this illness? How do we make my patients better. They are kind of less inhibited by the philosophical implications of things. Do you find that to be true?
Diane Powell: Absolutely. That is one of the reasons why I want to present this to psychiatric communities, give it as a grand rounds talk about it in terms of we initially talked about it from the standpoint of look at what we’re seeing in this population of autistic children and get their interest because in psychiatry people with autism aren’t supposed to have a theory of mind. They are not supposed to realize that other people have ongoing thoughts. That is one of the kind of basic premises behind why it is named autism. Autism comes from autos, meaning self. And they think they are antisocial and really don’t have any concept of other beings as having consciousness. That is far from the truth.
So the fact that his girl can be asked by a therapist, ‘Read my mind,’ and she gets an accurate representation that is just – that alone breaks psychiatry’s conception of these children and it creates and opening to then say to look at this other thing as well. And yes, I do believe that clinicians, because those of us who actually work with these patients, we see that there is stuff that we don’t understand. Neuroscientists are in the laboratories and they are reading papers that confirm their theories and they are not really having them challenged the way a clinician does. And there is a pragmatism of it is not about me, it is about service. And what do I need to understand to serve you? I feel that way about individuals and I feel that way about society.
Alex Tsakiris: That is excellent. It is certainly an optimistic view of things and there is nothing wrong with a little optimism now and then. So let’s see if we can get everyone on board on this Kickstarter campaign. There aren’t many research projects out there that have this much potential to really turn the ocean liner a little bit, but you certainly made a great case for yours, Diane. So again, that kickstarter campaign, I will have that, folks, up in the show notes. I don’t have it right now because Diane hasn’t posted it but I will put it up in the show notes. Make sure you go over there and check it out and throw a few dollars that way. Let’s see if we can move this thing a little bit further along.
Diane, it has been great having you on. Is there anything else we need to mention before we go?
Diane Powell: Well, I was going to just put a little thing out there that was I smiled when I read who won the Nobel prize for medicine this year because it was work with rats and it is work that is on their internal GPS system. And they discovered these cells that are in the brain in the region of the brain that I am very interested in the limbic system that respond to and know where – it is like a map that the mouse has or a rat has which is a map of their environment. They trigger off certain cells specifically only when they are in that specific location within t heir environment. And that is what the Nobel prize was given to, proving that there is a sort of GPS in these brains.
Well, there is also research that is very interesting about large cats who have territories and they have a GPS in their brain and they have a sense of their territory and when there is another creature within their territory and not within sight or smell. They have similarly – they have a part of their brain that responds to that. Isn’t that interesting? Because that goes along with this idea that we have, within our brain, an ability to navigate space time around us. Do you see that?
Alex Tsakiris: Not exactly. The one thing that always is kind of hard for me is that when we start talking about neurocorrelates for consciousness, again I can’t feel that we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
Diane Powell: Okay, let me make sure that you understand this. This is a very important part because I am not really looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
Alex Tsakiris: I know you are not, and please explain it to me. I just worry that we have to put it in those terms in order for it to fit in with this accepted paradigm that we have, that the brain is kind of creating consciousness and that sort of thing. But please, go ahead.
Diane Powell: Actually, it isn’t about the brain creating consciousness. This is about the brain’s ability to navigate our world in ways in which it is not the census that we know about, that the information is coming from. So that goes against the model that neuroscience has. This cat that is not – the fact that a part of its brain lights up and is more active and gets more of an electrical signal when specifically something is happening within this internal map that is has of the world –
Alex Tsakiris: So there is an extra antenna in the rat’s brain that we don’t –
Diane Powell: Right, that is what I am saying. And so the neurons – if there is perception, so when somebody perceives a vision, and it could be that the vision actually is associated with something that is – just any experience that you have, Any human experience that you have, whether it is hallucination or actually seeing something that is really there, they each light up the visual cortex. That doesn’t explain anything, that is a correlation. The reason why the correlation is important is not as an explanatory thing. the correlation is important because anything that is really happening in conscious experience has a correlated neural activity but the neural activity doesn’t explain it. It just validates that this person is actually having an experience. So for example if you have two people in fMRIs that are in telepathic communication and you have one person who is thinking about something that activates one specific part of their brain and simultaneously the person in the other scanner has the same part of their brain activated and you see that, that is just something that shows you that there is something going on there, but it is not to be confused with mechanism.
Alex Tsakiris: I am with you, Diane, and I don’t want to get too far afield. But what pops into my mind is that I don’t even know that is valid. You obviously know the research a lot better than I do, but I just stumble across these things and I stumble across David Nutt’s work in the UK with psilocybin. There is an inverse correlation, right? We would expect these areas of the brain to be more stimulated, more excited, and they are not. They are less. Or the most dramatic cases, near-death experience and now we don’t have any neurocorrelates at all. And we still have a conscious experience, as near as we can tell, that somehow gets reported back and gets incorporated in and maybe even gets reincorporated back into that physical structure of the brain. So I love what you are saying.
Diane Powell: With the near-death experience, we do have neurocorrelates. Often times the neurocorrelate is a flatline EEG. So it is not the correlates that the current model would expect.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but I mean I think both – I am with you on this. I think both are true. First of all, let me step back and say that is fascinating new information for me, that the rat – we study it and it has another antenna here that isn’t one of our five sense, but there it is and it lights up like a GPS system when he walks into this familiar territory. That is really cool and the same thing happens in a cat. The cat has a GPS system and that starts explaining a lot of these strange phenomena. I am totally with you there and there are huge advances that need to be made there. I just think at the same time that we have this other stuff over here that will never fit into that because when we talk about the near-death experience and we don’t have any electrical activity and then we have this out of body – I mean, how could we even have senses that – that just really freaks people out. I don’t know how well those merge and I think what is really exiting about what you are saying, and I am totally with you on this is that you say we don’t have to worry about some of those questions right now, we just have to kind of keep pushing forward. And you are trying to push forward on this one front that is extremely promising and you are saying let’s lay down the path over here and come up over this next vista and see where that gets us. Then we can kind of tackle more and more of these questions.
Diane Powell: That’s right. So what I am saying, and I think this is really important, that this research is not one that one could say is really addressing the issue of materialism. I think that it doesn’t – this is addressing the conscious experience that people have when they experience something like telepathy or clairvoyance. This is not getting – there is still that question of how one thing as immaterial as consciousness arises from the brain. That is a whole other area of research that I am also engaged in but that is a different question, you are right. And I am not saying that this addresses that question. I am saying that just like with the area of the brain that if you stimulate the right temporal lobe people will have a spiritual experience. And scientists argue about does that mean that God exists and some people say yes – why would we have a place that gives us that experience if it didn’t exist? Then you have other people that say no, it is just an illusion. So you are still going to have that kind of an argument after this work. But there are still more years ahead to be continuing to do this research. I am just trying to address this and I am putting it in the second paper.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, great. And it sounds like a fantastic second paper. So we are going to try to get this out and see if our little audience can kick in. I rarely ask people to – I never ask people to donate any money to this show and I rarely ask them to support any causes but I think this is the perfect kind of cause for Skeptiko listeners to get behind because it is science, it is research. How can you object to this? And it is very, very difficult to get this work done if it is not privately funded because at this point there is nobody who is going to get behind this.
Now, I imagine if you got a little bit further you probably could get some institutions who could get behind it. But not at this stage, right?
Diane Powell: That’s correct. I am optimistic that in the future I will be able to get traditional funding sources but no, not at this time.
Alex Tsakiris: Well Diane, this is great work. Again, best of luck with it and please do keep us in touch in terms of how it is going.
Diane Powell: Okay, thank you very much. Take care.