Intention Experiments - Background Story

Somewhere in the late 1970’s, an undergraduate student at Princeton University approached the then dean of engineering, Dr. Robert Jahn, and complained that not a single member of the engineering faculty was willing to supervise her senior project. “That’s impossible” thought Jahn, until she went on explain what her project was about. “I want to replicate experiments which show that the mind can influence physical matter!” announced the student. When he heard this, Dean Jahn knew exactly what the problem was; even he wouldn’t want to advise a project that was based on such non-sense!

Rather than dismissing her project off the bat, Jahn remembered his earlier promise that students at Princeton could pursue projects in any legitimate topic that interested them. For the sake of promoting free intellectual inquiry he told the student that he would supervise the work himself if she could demonstrate the serious nature of the project.

In the months that followed, Professor Jahn was persuaded that the subject at least warranted some kind of precursory inquiry. Experiments run by a man named Helmut Schmidt at Boeing labs claimed to show a correlation between the output of a device known as a random event generator and the intention of human participants. After talking with Schmidt and contemplating the engineering implications of the data, Jahn agreed to supervise a replication of Schmidt's experiment.

In this experiment, a device called a random event generator would be used much like an electronic coin flipper. The device produces outcomes that can have one of two states, which are analogous to the heads and tails of a coin toss, each with exactly a 50% probability of occurring. Unlike an electronic coin flipper, the REG takes advantage of the fundamental properties of quantum mechanics to generate its random outputs. Unlike most other objects that we encounter, even with information about every element of the system, modern physical theory states that it is impossible to predict the next output from one of these devices.

In the experiment that was being attempted, operators would attempt to distort the 50/50 balance of the device using nothing more than their intention. Operators would literally sit in front of the random event generator and “will” that one outcome be produced more often than another. Over the course of many outcomes, a statistical profile could be built up that would allow the experimenters to contrast the device's output when a person was not attempting to influence it.

Judging by the nature of this page, you should not be surprised to learn that Jahn found himself confronted with some strange and perplexing evidence. The student's study had revealed that the effect of intention might indeed be real, but she moved on to other work. Perplexed by the results but very aware of their implications, Jahn discussed the findings with his friend, James S. McDonnell, who thought that the findings warranted further study and was willing to provide financial support. Armed with this and other funding, Jahn founded a lab that would devote itself to the continued study of mind-machine interaction.

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