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Matter Over Mind

03.27.2007 | CULTURE

Last month, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory closed its doors forever. Founded in 1979, P.E.A.R. was basically a lab for testing extrasensory perception and telekinesis. I know what you’re thinking. Why was a renowned institution of higher learning reallocating resources from fusion research and Middle East policy conferences to dabble in areas best left for the Sci-Fi Channel?

Before you send out any negative thought patterns to central New Jersey, you should know that twenty-eight years of having subjects stare at random number generators and think "seven" was not entirely in vain. P.E.A.R. appears to have proven that human telekinesis is, in fact, real. The measurable telekinetic effect was consistently in the range of two or three outcomes in ten thousand.

While the results are conclusive, they are just not consequential enough for profit-driven corporate America. Nor for criminal America, who are very busy people as well and still prefer picking locks and hacking into checking accounts. Two or three in ten thousand are not good enough odds for insurgents detonating roadside bombs, nor even for professional card counters and craps players looking for an edge.

But shutting down the lab sends the wrong message to a country that has largely given up mind over matter for matter over mind. Matter over mind favors plastic over earnings and plastic surgery over meditation. It prefers designer labels to warmth and square feet to square meals. It opts for test scores over comprehension. Matter over mind is sticking the Earth looking for oil and sending kids to die in Iraq. If the materialists have their way, the sixth sense will soon be dissed and dismissed like the ex-planet Pluto.

If we’re really looking for anomalies, why don’t we start with those scientists who find it painful to concede the human brain possesses at least one ten-thousandth the power of a cheap AM radio? No extrasensory perception? That is an insult to anyone who has ever heard Jack and Diane by John Cougar Mellencamp ringing in his head, gotten into the car, turned on the classic rock station, and promptly heard Jack and Diane by John Cougar Mellencamp. It is a slap in the face to those of us who knew Aunt Sadie’s distinct telephone ring decades before there was caller ID.

No mindreading? Tell that to the hookers in Tijuana. Mental telepathy is at the core of any real relationship, and any husband worth his weight in make-up flowers knows when he’s in trouble long before he gets home. And it’s not just a straight thing. Gaydar is real, too. Twenty million homosexuals can’t be wrong.

The history of telekinesis in sports is a long and proud one. Any Tuesday night bowler will tell you an extra twist of the butt while the ball rolls down the alley could well be the difference between a strike and a 7-10 split. Any player in a pickup basketball game at the Y will confirm an extra flick of the wrist has a discernable effect when a jump shot is in mid-arc.

Group phenomena in sports are not only real, they are legendary. Try telling any Red Sox fan Carlton Fisk’s body English during the flight of his Game Six, twelfth-inning homerun didn’t cause the ball to veer an inch or two to the right. Millions of Mets fans know for a fact they had a little something to do with the ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. The nation’s top sports network is called ESPN for a reason.

Not that matter over mind is all in the mind. Lots of it matters. The sixth sense is real, but it’s primarily the other five that can kill you, dismember you, and clean out your safe deposit box. While psychics diddle around with visions of the color magenta and the last two digits of a zip code, GPS can locate your fox terrier. Wishing ill is no match for anthrax.

Individuals with paranormal abilities impress some and are marginalized by others. Joseph of the Old Testament, Rasputin, and Edgar Cayce were all more or less legit but were not born at the right time to get their own cable shows. Uri Geller can bend a spoon with his brain, but my eight-year-old can do it with her hands. Criss Angel Mindfreak can light a cigarette with his vision, but there is this thing called a match.

In the end, even with Ivy League lab results available for peer review, most believers believe, while most non-believers do not. Those still sitting on the fence are fewer than independents waiting to see how the war turns out. Who are you? Are you one of the half-million kids at Woodstock who chanted "No rain!"? Or are you the parent who tells your kid to go to bed and stop praying for a snow day?

Ironically, the closing of the P.E.A.R. lab is especially personal to yours truly. During my years as a Princeton undergraduate from 1980 to 1984, I ran some telekinesis experiments of my own. Intense mental focusing and creative visualization had no apparent effect on my ability to hook up with a variety of attractive coeds. However, actually asking them out was even less effective.

I did my fair share of praying for exams to be cancelled, postponed, or easy, but ultimately I had to fall back on timeworn, conventional approaches such as doing the problem sets and pulling all-nighters. Most disheartening, my sorry brain waves failed to make even a dent in tuition. Which is not to say there was no extrasensory perception at Princeton. People played mind games all the time.

About the Author
Rich Herschlag is the author of a new book, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs (HCI, 2007). His other books include Lay Low and Don't Make the Big Mistake (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Women Are From Manhattan, Men Are From Brooklyn (Black Maverick, 2002).

Also an engineer, he runs a consulting business, Turnkey Structural, that specializes in the rehabilitation of residential and commercial buildings. Also a radio commentator, he can be visited at

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