When the infamous fictional character, Carrie White, left her high school prom hall ablaze, and brought terror upon her town, she relied on her powers of telekinesis, the ability to manipulate physical objects using the power of the mind alone. But while Carrie is just a fictional film based upon a fictional book, belief in telekinesis isn’t fictional at all. For centuries, humans have claimed they really do have the power to control the motion of objects using only their minds. Levitation, opening doors at will and spoon bending are all intriguing examples.
It happens in the Matrix when Neo freezes bullets midair, and it’s a skill that Yoda has honed to a T. But is telekinesis real, or just as fictional as Carrie, Yoda and Neo combined? To investigate, we need to evaluate telekinetic claims through a scientific lens using the scientific method. Telekinesis is part of the discipline called parapsychology, in which researchers study psychic phenomena.
Parapsychologists regard what they do as a science, but other scientists disagree. Let’s start with a few basic observations. Observation #1: While there are loads of anecdotes out there about telekinesis, there’s no scientific proof that it exists; no studies conducted according to the scientific method and repeated under lab conditions can show that its real. In the 1930s, the so-called father of parapsychology, Joseph Banks Rhine, tested in the lab whether people could use telekinesis to make a dice roll the way they wanted it to.
But afterwards, scientists couldn’t replicate his results, and since replication is key to proving an idea, that was a problem. Aside from scientists, there are also countless self-proclaimed telekinetics, but all have been exposed as tricksters, or can’t perform under conditions where they’re not totally in control, suggesting that they manipulate the situation to get the results they want.
Today, there’s even a huge stash of prize money available from lots of organizations for anyone who can prove that psychic abilities, like telekinesis, are real. But these riches remain unclaimed. Observation #2: When we investigate telekinesis, there’s no consensus about what exactly is being measured. Are powerful, Yoda-like brainwaves at work perhaps? Since nobody agrees, it’s difficult to apply a research standard, something required in all other types of science to test the validity of ideas.
Observation #3: The point of science is to discover the unknown, and in the history of scientific investigation, it’s definitely happened that new discoveries have gone against established science, and even overturned whole branches of science. Such discoveries must be proven extra carefully to withstand skepticism. In the case of telekinesis, the idea goes against established science, but lacks the powerful evidence in favor of it. Our universe is controlled and explained by the laws of physics, and one of these laws tells us that brain waves can’t control objects because they’re neither strong nor far-reaching enough to influence anything outside of our skulls.
Physics also tells us that the only forces that can influence objects from afar are magnetic and gravitational. Probably the closest thing to telekinesis that science can explain is the use of thoughts to control a robotic arm. In the brains of stroke patients who can’t move, researchers can implant tiny wires into the region that controls movement, and then train the patient to concentrate on moving a robotic arm, which acts like an extension of their minds, and it works. It’s amazing, but it isn’t telekinesis.
The patients thoughts aren’t just vague, undetectable things. They’re measurable brain signals, translated through wires into a robot. Science can measure, test and explain the motion, and that’s how we’ve shown that this kind of mind control is real. Science is a slow process of accumulating the evidence that either stands for or against an idea. When we stack up evidence, we can see which tower grows tallest, and in the case of telekinesis, it’s not the tower showing that it exists. Some say this mystical phenomenon can’t fit within the confines of science, and that’s okay.
But then telekinesis becomes purely a matter of personal conviction. If something can’t be assessed scientifically, then it can’t be described as scientific either. So the results of our investigation reveal that however much we may want to believe that the force really is within us, the case for telekinesis remains weak. Sorry Neo, Carrie and Yoda. Your skills are mind-blowing, but for now, they belong in the movies.