197. Dr. Diane Powell Uses Serious Science to Understand Psychic Phenomena

Interview with Dr. Diane Powell about her book, The ESP Enigma, and why research into extended human consciousness remains taboo. 

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with neuroscientist, psychiatrist and author Dr. Diane Powell about her book, The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena.  During the interview Powell discusses why psychic abilities are not accepted by mainstream science:

Alex Tsakiris: My opinion is that if you’re waiting for the paradigm shift, if you’re waiting for science to roll over and say, “Uncle. We admit it. This phenomenon is obvious; it’s self-evident,” it’s not going to happen.  What do you think?

Dr. Diane Powell:   I agree and I think that, as I said, it is counterproductive to think that way. I think that people close their minds to considering new possibilities. I mean, like I said, in the early 1900’s when people thought that all of the physics had been discovered there was this whole other world out there. I believe that’s true for consciousness. I think we’re just now starting to have more and more receptivity to studying that. But still, trying to understand—I think human consciousness is just too vast a topic and you’re not going to be able to understand it with conventional materialistic science. I mean, that’s only one tool in trying to obtain knowledge.

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Today we welcome Dr. Diane Powell to Skeptiko. Diane has an amazing background, stellar credentials, Johns Hopkins trained neuroscientist, MD in psychiatry from Johns Hopkins, as well. Faculty position at Harvard Medical School.  Salk Institute right here in my backyard in La Jolla. I mean, the credentials go on and on. She’s also written a book titled, The ESP Enigma. Dr. Powell, thank you so much for joining me and welcome to Skeptiko.

Dr. Diane Powell:   Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, I had a chance the other day to take a look at your excellent website at www.dianehennacypowell.com and I was really amazed. So many of the topics you cover are right up our alley here at Skeptiko, so I’m really looking forward to this dialogue. You teed up so many questions, more questions than I can possibly get to, so I hardly know where to begin.

Dr. Diane Powell:   I want to get people to think. That’s my mission.

Alex Tsakiris:   Great. You know, that I guess was one of my first questions because you do have such a stellar background. I had to wonder while I was reading this, gee, Diane, why can’t you just play nice with the other neuroscientists? Why do you have to go off and do this ESP thing and basically claim that the emperor has no clothes like you do? Hasn’t that been a rather difficult path for you to follow?

Dr. Diane Powell:   It has been a difficult path and unfortunately it’s not a path that’s embraced by academia. I’m somebody who grew up with academia in my blood. My father was a professor. He started out as a mathematician and geneticist. He ended up as a cardiovascular physiologist working as the head of the artificial heart program at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. So I grew up in a scientific family. One of my brothers is a theoretical physicist whose expertise is artificial intelligence.

Coming from this family, I’m used to talking about challenging questions and searching for the truth, like a detective. That’s how I grew up. When I started to see holes in the model that neuroscientists had, I started to think, ‘Okay, how can we explain those holes? How can we explain those mysteries?’ I found  that there so many things that were not explained and yet people were hanging onto that model and pouring lots of research dollars into continuing to find yet another neurotransmitter and another receptor for those neurotransmitters. I was thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t answering the questions that I’m interested in.’

Alex Tsakiris:   Let me interject here. Do you recall what were some of the first instances of that that you bumped into that you really thought, ‘Wow, this is interesting,’ and then you followed it up and found that there weren’t good answers coming back?

Dr. Diane Powell:   Yes. The first one happened when I was a teenager. A friend of mine  traveled in the circus during the summer and invited me over to his house because the magician that he traveled with was there. He had talked very highly about him. His name was Jay Michelle and he did Houdini-like tricks, but when I met him he wanted to show me some other things that he could do. He had me stand across the room from him, which was about maybe 15 feet away. There was a bookshelf behind me with around 1,000 books. He said, “Pick any book out. Open it up to any page and as you’re reading it I’ll read it to you.”

And he did just that…. for several books and several pages. It blew my mind. When I asked him about it he said, “Oh, that’s just a magic trick. It’s just magic.”

I said, “Okay, okay. I guess it’s just magic.”

I asked my father about it and he said, “Well, there is this controversial topic called telepathy and that’s what it sounds like to me.”

He didn’t poo-poo the whole possibility of it but he let me know that it was controversial.

I’d say it was probably another 15 years before I had my next experience. That was when I was on faculty at Harvard. I was asked to evaluate a woman who had been admitted to the emergency room because she had complaints that were consistent with a heart attack. Back then you had to wait at least 24 hours or so to get blood tests back to tell you if somebody had released the enzymes from their heart that are associated with a heart attack.

This woman wanted to leave right after she was admitted to the hospital from the emergency room.  I was asked to go see her because I was the director of the service that went to the medical wards to evaluate patients with psychiatric problems. Somebody can’t leave the hospital against medical advice if they are deemed to be insane and this woman was thought by the staff to be insane.  I went to evaluate her. After we talked for just a few minutes, she said, “I’m a psychic and I know the tests are going to come back normal so can I go home? This place is full of ghosts and it’s really not comfortable for me to stay here.”

Alex Tsakiris:   Those are some good signs to a psychiatrist, isn’t it?

Dr. Diane Powell:   Yeah, yes. I mean, most psychiatrists at that point would have made their decision and left. I was on salary and not paid by the hour. The hospital staff just wanted me to determine if she was sane or not. Most psychiatrists would have just walked out the door and signed the paperwork to force her to stay. But I like to talk to people and she intrigued me.  I sat down to talk with her a little more. After a minute she looked at me and said, “I’m getting a reading on you. Do you mind if I just tell you what I’m seeing?”

She started to tell me things about my current life and my past that were extremely precise. My husband was applying for a post-doctorate in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins and UCSD at the time . One of the first things she said to me was, “You’re married to someone who’s a chemist and he’s applying for a job in two different cities right now.” Now, that’s pretty specific. It caught my attention.

I said, “If that were true, which cities are we talking about?”

She said, “Well, in his heart-of-hearts he wants to go to one city but you’re going to end up going to the other city.”

I knew that in his heart-of-hearts he really wanted to go back to Johns Hopkins. That was where he was born; that was where his family lives. He had a lot of friends back there. And moving to California was like moving to the frontier to him, because he had never lived anywhere but the East Coast. I knew in his heart-of-hearts he really wanted to go back to Johns Hopkins. But she said we’d go to the other city. She  asked me to name some cities to choose from.” I named off several cities and she said, “San Diego. That’s where you’ll go.”

And guess what? That’s where we ended up.

Alex Tsakiris:   How do you process that? I mean, how do you process that being a professional, having this background? Where do you go with that kind of stuff?

Dr. Diane Powell:   Well, exactly. I was trained in in psychiatry that if someone claims to be able to read minds or have psychic abilities,  it’s a sign that they’re either a scam artist or they’re delusional, which means insane.

There wasn’t a framework in that model for what I experienced. That’s why I started to look to see if there was any well-conducted research on this topic. I thought, ‘If this is a real phenomenon, then let me see what the research looks like.’ I found that there are lots of studies that have been conducted meticulously and they suggest that this phenomenon is real.

Alex Tsakiris:   And that leads to your book, The ESP Enigma, which explores this topic that’s commonly referred to as ESP. But you go further and look at it really combining your neuroscience background as what might be some of the neurological markers for these abilities that people have, is that right? Tell us a little bit about the book.

Dr. Diane Powell:   Before I say anything about the book I just want to make a comment. The book  came out four years ago tomorrow. When I wrote the book my publisher  wanted me to use the word “ESP” in the title because she the public would know what that was. Looking back on it, I realized that some people don’t read my work because of the words “ESP” and “psychic.” The field would probably move forward more easily if we just called it “that which shall not be named.”

Alex Tsakiris:   What do you mean by that exactly? What name would we put on it because we have “psi,” we have “parapsychology,” we have “remote viewing.” We have all these terms floating around out there. One doesn’t seem to service any better than the rest in terms of penetrating the blockade that mainstream materialistic science has put up.

Dr. Diane Powell:   That’s right. People in the field have recognized that and so they have tried to come up with names that sound more scientific like “psi” and “remote viewing.” The problem in opening minds to it is sometimes blocked by labeling it. If you say, “This is an interesting phenomenon. What was that? Let’s do experiments on that,” I think some people might be more receptive to that. Does that make sense to you?

Alex Tsakiris:   Maybe. But one of the things I was hoping to explore today and we might just jump ahead and backfill anything we want to. I was really intrigued by this one question and answer that you provide on your website. The question you pose is, “Do you believe science will ever develop so that we can finally fully understand human consciousness?” I think this is related to the question of these extra human capabilities that are part of consciousness that pop up all the time. You can just search your own family history and find a dozen accounts of it.

Anyway, your response is, “No. I believe we will have a much fuller understanding but it would be unrealistic to ever think that that goal is attainable and counterproductive to believe that it has been achieved. We know this from history. Scientists believed that they had a full comprehension of physics before Einstein. “ Process that for a little bit. What I like is the first word. No. I feel like I’ve come to the same conclusion and often share that with folks on this show. If you’re waiting for the paradigm shift, if you’re waiting for science to roll over and say, “Uncle. We admit it. This phenomenon is obvious; it’s self-evident,” it’s not going to happen.

Dr. Diane Powell:   I agree. People often close their minds to considering new possibilities. When people thought that all of the physics had been discovered, there was a whole other world of physics out there that has changed our lives considerably. I believe that is similar for consciousness. We’re starting to see more  receptivity to studying it from other angles. But still,  human consciousness is a vast topic and you’re not going to be able to understand it completely by science’s analytical approach. That is only one tool in trying to obtain knowledge.

Alex Tsakiris:   Isn’t there also a problem, Diane, in that when we think of a post-materialistic science there really isn’t any science anymore? How do we measure anymore? My wife is a psychologist and I often have these discussions with her. She does forensic work down at the prison and in the court system and stuff like that.

It’s like once you introduce this X factor, which is what we’re talking about with these extended human capabilities of consciousness, don’t we have to re-question everything? Don’t we have to put an asterisk on every psychological exam? Don’t we have to go back through the records and the DSM-IV and everything else? Or the story that you told about the patient that you were admitting and doing an assessment of? Doesn’t everything change once we move past this idea that consciousness maybe fundamental to who we are?

Dr. Diane Powell:   Yes and no. Let’s continue to use physics as an example. We’re still taught Newtonian physics because it has its place. It is used to construct our houses and for other practical matters. Modern physics helps us to understand more about the essence of matter. For example, this table is actually not solid; but it appears that way to me. That’s not useful information in my interactions with the table, but physicists use information about the subatomic world to create things like our IPods.  We accept this knowledge as fact despite our senses.

So it’s one of those things where both types of physics are valid. I think that similarly, as we expand our understanding of consciousness, there’s still going to be a place for much of what what neurologists  and psychiatrists do. Some things would change and some things wouldn’t. The changes will be in the kinds of questions that people pose. What changes a lot is what people think is possible.  But people still have to interact with this material world—and our brains are wired for that. Does that answer your question?

Alex Tsakiris:   Well, maybe. I think I have to push you a little bit further by bringing you back to another question from your website. And that’s your understanding of what happens to consciousness after our physical death. What do you think that the best data suggests?

Dr. Diane Powell:   I’m really interested in near-death experience research and I think that it is very, very compelling.

Alex Tsakiris:   Right. None of those are simple explanations because as you said, they all kind of defy our current understanding of how that might work. But if we take the most straightforward one that near-death experiencers report is really happening, and that is that their consciousness does leave their body and goes to this other place, then aren’t we compelled to dig into the content of what they’re saying and actually tackle the near-death experience that comes back and starts looking very spiritual? I mean, how do we then incorporate that whole thing in and handle the spiritual aspect of this? The religious implications? The social implications of truly having a life that goes on beyond our death? Truly having other lives?

You know, of course, the work of Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia that has now been picked up by other folks like Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia strongly suggests that not only that consciousness survives death but that consciousness continues on in future lives. Don’t we have a lot to really swallow there when we accept this near-death experience science?

Dr. Diane Powell:   Oh, we sure do. And yeah, that’s the kind of thing that drew me like a magnet to want to study this field. To me it  is very compelling, all that research that you mentioned. And there’s other research that’s suggestive of a non-material view of the brain.

The pieces fit together like a puzzle the more I looked at the phenomena. That’s why I wrote the book that I wrote.  People within mainstream science usually don’t want to step back and look at that whole puzzle. They focus in in a more reductionist way.

Alex Tsakiris:   What do you think that puzzle is looking like? How is it emerging?

Dr. Diane Powell:    I had to study a lot of different fields in order to become a doctor.  I was also in neuroscience and biophysics. I think physics has much to offer our understanding of consciousness and firmly believe that there’s nothing woo-woo about these experiences  I’m talking about. They’re not defying natural laws. They’re just defying natural laws as science has so far defined them in their limited way. And so when we look at physics we see that there’s a lot of—and I’m sure you’re aware of all of the literature written by physicists showing the commonality between their way of looking at the subatomic world and the way that meditating monks describe the experiences that they have when they’re meditating. You know, the sense that everything is interconnected and the sense of timelessness.

The idea of time being an arrow is how our brain is  wired to perceive it, but in physics there’s an acceptance that time can be symmetrical. Time isn’t a dimension that only goes in one direction. All the other dimensions are symmetrical, so why not time?

Alex Tsakiris:   I guess I hear you on all that. What I always struggle with though–and just lately I’ve come back around to appreciating in a strange way the scientific materialism in that I don’t know what we can really do with that, you know? What can we really do with the idea that time may be symmetrical? That we’re all connected? Unless you want to jump into the God proposition?

Dr. Diane Powell:   I’m trying to approach these questions in a way that’s  different from other people. A lot of people seem to be going around in circles because of the very nature of what you just said. You know, these questions, they seem to be so large, so vast. I mean, how could we ever get to answering them?

I think strategically and ask, ‘Okay, where do we start? How can we lay down the first paver for this?’ Science has accepted the fact that autistic savants can do the things that they do. They don’t dispute that, but it is a mystery.

Alex Tsakiris:   Specifically what are some examples of that?

Dr. Diane Powell:   For example, there are people like Leslie Lemke who was able to sit down and play Mozart’s Concerto without ever having had a piano lesson, just having heard it and just sit down and play it. There are lots of musical savants like that. I can look at that and say, “Okay, that’s impressive, but maybe he just has an extraordinary ear for music and an extraordinary memory.” That doesn’t have the same wow factor but it still is pretty impressive.

The savants that really fascinate me are those who have knowledge that they have no way of knowing. They have not been exposed to it. For example, Darold Treffert examined an autistic savant  who hadn’t gone to school, because frequently they can’t function in school. Oftentimes they can’t even add, and yet they can do extraordinary things like provide mathematical answers faster than a calculator. Dr. Treffert just thought off the top of his head, ‘What can I ask this child to do that could show that he has access to information he hasn’t been exposed to?’

He asked him to draw the Periodic Table and he did. It was accurate. He even drew in the letters for the different elements, and the letters are abbreviations for the Latin words for the elements. He wrote down the atomic numbers and atomic weights. That’s a lot of information for a child to just produce.

Where does that come from? These children are not hanging a shingle saying that they’re psychic and they’re not interested in that sort of thing. This information just information comes to them. There isn’t the secondary gain that people oftentimes wonder about with professional psychics, where they might think, “Oh, it must be a parlor trick.” You know, those kinds of questions people raise. With the autistic savants there isn’t that.

Science has accepted autistic savants. Another example is Oliver Sacks’ twins who could toss back and forth prime numbers that were in six digits. And we don’t really even have an easy algorithm for prime numbers. A prime number is a number that can’t be divided by anything other than itself and one, so to be able to just come up with what would be the next prime number in sequence within seconds is extraordinary. And where is that coming from?

Alex Tsakiris:   Sure. That’s a fair question and it’s a fascinating experiment but does it penetrate? You mentioned Oliver Sacks and it’s interesting to me because his name just popped up recently—at least to me because I had done an interview with Dr. Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon from Harvard who published, which is right now as we speak the New York Times’ #1 bestseller, Proof of Heaven. He had this extraordinary near-death experience and then as a neurosurgeon and a neuroscientist was able to say there isn’t a good medical explanation for this.

Oliver Sacks was one of the many of the old guard neuroscience crowd who jumped up and said, “Wait, this guy should never have said this. This is impossible. We know categorically that all conscious experience is generated by the brain and this is therefore impossible.” So what will your work with savants—how will that really change this? It’s back to the question that I asked you early on. Is there going to be this paradigm shift? Is there going to be this awareness or this acknowledgement by science that the game is up for materialism? No, that’s not going to happen.

Dr. Diane Powell:   Well, let me walk you through the logic here. One of the problems you have with the near-death experiences is that a lot of neurologists view them as hallucinatory experiences. I just recently read in The New Yorker an article by  Oliver Sacks  in which talked about how much LSD he took during his neurology residency. He’s someone who has that view of them being hallucinations.

So how am I approaching the paradigm differently? You have this phenomenon of autistic savants who can do things like produce prime numbers sequentially.  I’m setting up experiments for autistic savants whose parents and therapists have reported that they have psychic abilities to see if they can access such information . If they can do this reliably, then I think that many people will look at the phenomena in a different light.

I asked someone, “What do you think would be a really good experiment to do?” He said, “Well, spy coding is oftentimes created by picking two large prime numbers and multiplying them against one another and then coming up with a number. And so you have this massive number and you have to know what the two primes were that were multiplied together to create that number.”

He said, “So if they could take that number and figure out what the two primes are that created it…” And we’re talking about a 12-digit number. He said he knows how much computer effort that takes to do that for espionage purposes. He said, “If they can do that, then we really need to think differently about the brain.”

So those are the kinds of experiments that I’m going to be doing, seeing if there is something that is going to cause people to go, “Wow.” And be reproducible. The major problem this kind of research has had so far is that people say it’s not reproducible. Psychics aren’t 100% accurate. Well, these savants are 100% accurate when you tap into the ability they have.

Alex Tsakiris:   What’s your hunch about the relationship that this suggests between the brain, the physical brain, and consciousness? You must have an idea that maybe you don’t always share but share it now to us. What do you think’s going on?

Dr. Diane Powell:   The best that I can come up with for now is based upon the idea that we live in a holographic universe. Embedded in a multi-dimensional universe are hidden dimensions.  I think non-locality is really just a product of  living in a multi-dimensional universe. In a holographic universe, every point in space/time can have a representation of all of space/time. So all information could be embedded in space/time itself. When people have psychic experiences, they could be tapping into this information because of how the universe is constructed. Our consciousness field is also holographically organized and people with these abilities can access information from it selectively.

Alex Tsakiris:   Okay, so we have a holographic universe, a holographic consciousness field. Is there an order? Is there a hierarchy to consciousness? Many of these experiencers of all different sorts, near-death experiencers, out-of-body experiencers, psychics, mediums, report that there is a hierarchy and that’s the politically correct way of talking about God. Because when we start talking about hierarchical order, we eventually have to reach the top of that pyramid and it comes down to something that in some way matches what people talk about as God. Is that suggested in the data?

Dr. Diane Powell:   I believe that there is a higher order. Chaos theory suggests that there is far more order to the universe than we ever anticipated. I think the problem with using the word “God” is that it has so many connotations attached to it..for example,  there’s this idea of the man in the sky with gray hair and a gray beard. Theologies  are different cultures’ best attempts to try to describe the ineffable. But religions are oftentimes corrupted by the people who are in charge.   Our brains seem to be wired to appreciate a sense of spirituality and order.

Alex Tsakiris:   Fantastic. You’re very, very brave to do it. There’s no two ways about it. There are so many folks that we’ve interviewed that are not willing to go there. They’re only willing to tiptoe around it. For you to jump right in and not be afraid to tackle any of these subjects, as well as bring that kind of interdisciplinary approach I think is really to be commended. Someone in the background is agreeing with me there.

Dr. Diane Powell:   My dogs are agreeing with you psychically, I think.

Alex Tsakiris:   Great. Well, Dr. Powell, it’s been a great pleasure getting to know you and talking with you. Tell us a little bit in the few minutes we have left about what’s going on with your research. You mentioned your work with savants. Are there new books coming out? Are you having any speaking engagements planned, anything like that?

Dr. Diane Powell:   I’m going to be leaving for India in a week and evaluating three autistic savant children over there who are supposedly psychics. They supposedly have precognitive abilities. I’m going to be testing that out and seeing if that’s the case.  I’ll be speaking about autism and the autistic savant syndrome and ESP while I’m there. That’s where I’m going to be in January. Then I’ll come back and announce on my website new radio interviews and other appearances.

Alex Tsakiris:   Great. Best of luck with all that work. We’ll sure follow everything that you’re doing and try and make other people aware of it because it’s really important work. We wish you the best of luck with it.

Dr. Diane Powell:   Well, thank you.