Power in mass mindsets

Can random number generators detect global consciousness?

A s a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook Haiti last month, a desktop computer in a New Jersey basement rapidly collected data from a worldwide array of cigarette pack-sized devices, each designed to spit out one random number per second. Strangely, for several hours after the earthquake struck, the devices seemed to malfunction; the stream of usually unpredictable numbers became suddenly predictable.

This network of random event generators, or REGs, is part of a controversial experiment known as the Global Consciousness Project. The project was started in 1998 by Roger Nelson, then a professor of engineering at Princeton.

Nelson, who is now retired and runs the project from an office in his basement, claims that when major events occur in the world – the death of Princess Diana, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the inauguration of Barack Obama – his array of REGs suddenly starts spitting out numbers that he can show are mathematically non-random.

The statistical evidence is compelling. Averaged over the 321 events the project has looked at since it began, the odds against the array randomly producing the numbers it did are more than a million to one – like winning the lottery, being struck by lightning, or drowning in your bathtub.

The Global Consciousness Project grew from research performed by Nelson and other scientists in the 1980s at the now-closed Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Laboratory. The PEAR lab was particularly interested in determining if human consciousness could alter the behaviour of machines. In one experiment, subjects were shown random numbers on a display and asked to try – by thinking – to raise or lower the numbers they saw. Remarkably, the researchers claimed they found a small but statistically significant effect.

In the 1990s, Nelson trucked REGs to famous holy sites around the world and set them running; he even brought one inside the Great Pyramid of Giza. He then compared the results to data he collected at more mundane locations – business meetings and academic gatherings. To him, the findings seemed clear: an REG running inside the Great Pyramid, for whatever reason, produced numbers that were more non-random than one running in a boardroom.

Based on his earlier work in the PEAR lab, Nelson speculated that the effect might be related to coherent thoughts that create a sort of group consciousness powerful enough to throw the REGs off. Then, when Princess Diana died in a 1997 car crash and the world reacted with a huge outpouring of grief, Nelson decided to test his theory on a larger scale. He asked 14 of his friends and colleagues that happened to have REGs to collect data during the six-hour televised funeral. The result was small, but significant. The REGs spat out numbers that normally would only occur once in 100 tries – enough to convince Nelson to set up a permanent array of REGs around the world to record a history of the effect.

I spoke with Nelson over Skype at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. We’d planned to talk the night before but he postponed the conversation through a one-sided flurry of emails, reneged on the postponement, and then, 15 minutes later, re-postponed our interview. “Sorry about the seemingly random fluctuations,” he wrote rather fittingly after we’d finally settled on a time to chat.

Secured on the line, Nelson launched into a description of the random number generators he’s made a career studying, quickly pointing out that they are not based on computer algorithms as most people assume.

“We set up a circuit that pushes electrons against a barrier,” he said. “A few electrons do what is called quantum tunneling; they appear on the other side of the barrier in a fashion that is only explainable using quantum mechanics. It’s a completely unpredictable phenomenon.”

If some scientists consider the project controversial ­– and many do – it’s typically not because of Nelson’s math. All the data from the experiment is available to the public on a web site Nelson maintains, and his statistics have been independently analyzed. But he runs into trouble when he tries to explain how group consciousness, if there even is such a thing, might make the output from his array less random.

Before interviewing him, I had confidently surmised (largely based on a careful study of the final Luke-Vader battle scene in The Empire Strikes Back) that coherent thought might create a disruptive electromagnetic field, perturbing the REGs like a radio in a room full of microwaves.

“The devices are designed to be not susceptible to electromagnetic fields,” Nelson replied flatly, deflating my hypothesis. They are, he explained, incased in heavy shielding, and frequently tested to make sure that electrical devices can’t influence them.

But if the shielding solves one problem, it creates another that causes most of the controversy surrounding the project: if the REGs can’t be influenced at a distance by any known particle that exists within the laws of physics, then what causes the effect?
Last October, Nelson posted a note on his web site: the project’s Wikipedia entry, he wrote, had been highjacked, “becoming the focus of biased editors with an agenda.” In just over 2,000 words – twice the number of words in the Wikipedia entry – he carefully rebutted every altered piece of information in the article that he deemed false or misleading.

“They seem pretty sure that this is all hogwash, nonsense, and craziness,” Nelson said about the rogue Wikipedia editors. “What we do is a step beyond the ordinary psychology of experience; it touches areas that some people react to. But really good scientists tend to have quite a different response – they’re likely to be interested.”

As we wrapped up our interview, I asked him if the controversy ever caused him to doubt his own work. “I’m confident that the results are good solid science,” he replied, stopping to think for a second. “The interpretation of the results as some kind of an indicator that there is global consciousness – about that, I have plenty of doubts.”