Mario Varvoglis and the Future of Parapsychology (or Psychophysics)
Unlike most futurists, I not only focus on technology, singularity, IT and economy. I also focus on what could bring a Consciousness Singularity.Today I would like to share something a bit different—something that has been laughed at, derided, hastily lumped together with the numerous kooks who associated with it, but that has also been a constant matter of interest for the upper reaches of power.
If you met with Mario Varvoglis at his Institute, you might be tempted to say he is into paranormal or parapsychology. These are words he flatly rejects. “Parapsychology is a poor term. It should have been called psychophysics. What we are studying is the crossing of mental and physical variables…” Precognition, mind-to-mind communication, telepathy: such are the subjects of Varvoglis’, and numerous others’, research. Not only were these phenomena already noticed and investigated on in the past, but they are also the focus of a renewed interest.
If we are to be open-minded, as I think anyone caring about the future should be, this is an area that deserves at least a little attention.
Watch the Interview
A Word on Mario
Mario Varvoglis started by dutifully studying psychology, with a focus on lab experimentation and out-of-the-norm experiences, until he completed a Ph.D. He worked at the Maimonides Hospital Dream Laboratory (New York), then at Princeton, during the 70s and 80s. Already as a student, he had a knack for phenomena like telepathy—transmission of thought from one individual to another—and precognition—the feeling that a particular event will happen in the near future. These phenomena “seem to occur quite often in people’s lives” according to the surveys. Of course, part of the declared phenomena may come from coincidences, yet all of it would be too much of a recursive pattern to come from sheer randomness.
“Can we investigate [these phenomena] in a controlled scientific way,” inside a lab, with a proper experience protocol? “This was my first passion, my first training, and [the beginning of] my career.”
As soon as the 70s, Varvoglis says, a lot of research was going on on the United States. “Two big laboratories in Princeton”, one of them affiliated to the engineering department, worked on these barely evocated but not unusual phenomena. “Then there were other [labs] in Texas, in California, and in the north… now the [most] important laboratory is in California.” It goes by the name of Noetic Institute and was founded by Edgar Mitchell, a former astronaut
Europe, on the other hand, lagged a bit. “A little bit [of research] was going on in Holland, in Germany.” And in France? “Certainly not. When I came to France… there was absolutely no room for even discussing these kinds of phenomena seriously. For a while, I stopped with these and reoriented my career” towards investigating creativity. “More and more, I started doing things for interventions within organizations. I animated workshops on specific issues one can explore using a creative process… Now I am doing consulting and coaching, to forward companies’ innovation potential.”
Thus Varvoglis managed to kickstart an innovative corporate career he still pursues today. However, as the saying goes, you do not escape your destiny, and even less your passion.
As time went by, European countries would set their foot in the door:
“There’s quite a big research in Great Britain, inside universities. Several of them have been doing parapsychology research for a couple decades now. In Germany… and Italy, parapsychology is reemerging. In France, there is the Institut Métapsychique International (IMI), which has been a long-standing institute of research here.”
In 1997, as a known authority on what he calls psychophysics, Varvoglis was asked to take the lead of the IMI. He accepted the offer. “And here I am, 20 years later,” still heading the Institute.
The IMI: “focused, not on beliefs, but facts”
In contrast with many current European labs, the IMI is almost a century old. It started with “a number of scholars and scientists… [who] were interested in the phenomena being reported at the time. Very strange things happened there. And everybody knew at least some of these things were fraudulent or erroneous, but some, too, were real issues and could not be dismissed so easily.”
Psychical research attracted many distinguished scientists, including some of the great pioneers of modern psychology: William James, Théodore Flournoy, William McDougall, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung; physicists like… Oliver Lodge (who invented a working radio before Marconi); astronomer Camille Flammarion; Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Charles Richet; and Alfred Russell Wallace, coinventor with Charles Darwin of the theory of natural selection. (Source)
At the time, Allan Kardec’s spiritism was deemed fashionable, and whirling tables-sessions were attended by high society. Scientists who founded the IMI knew most, if not all of this, was bogus and heavily biased. They still felt the knack that something was escaping the usual naturalist, reductionist science. Thus, they pledged “to take a serious hard look at these phenomena… without the spiritualist association.” The IMI would be experimental in method and fact-based in nature.
“The institute had a number of very good researchers, presidents, and directors who got to study the phenomena with what we call special subjects. People that seemed to be quite, first of all, quite capable of producing phenomena like telepathy…” They did have several close definitions of telepathy rather than one: each of these helped them study “the phenomena associated with [the word] telepathy.”
Eventually the IMI would be awarded with the status of a public-interest organization. Unfortunately, the second world war made all finances vanish, and the Institute “was kind of barely surviving for decades.” Now it is benefiting from the renewed impetus in parapsychology. Entrusted with leading the institution, Varvoglis is attempting “to reestablish the original, experimental orientation of the institute… a few research projects are going on” into the lab.
Research on Precognition
Mario Varvoglis’ main focus is precognition. How does he go beyond people’s feelings of “this is going to happen”, which may be due to a number of “normal” factors?
Two approaches can be taken. The first one consists in finding individuals who already exhibit a kind of psychic power, who noticed by themselves or have been noticed for experiencing valid precognition several times, and whose power seem especially strong. The problem with this approach lies in the rarity of such individuals. They exist, Varvoglis says, but “there are certainly a couple of dozens” out there—a very rare breed lost among kooks and quacks. Once you know one or several of them, “you have to dedicate your research to them.”
The other approach is much broader. That one is about wider and more regular samples. A typical experiment would imply “50, 80, or even a hundred individuals.” It aims at finding, in a general population, “a very modest but [distinguishable] level of precognition going on unconsciously. It’s like what we call intuition, gut feeling, all that. Maybe a gut feeling is a real feeling of a future event, sometimes, not always, but maybe some of those gut feelings are pointing to precognition.”
On February 22, 2017, the IMI concluded an experiment involving 80 individuals. Combining immersive VR technology with audio and visual stimuli, it starts by putting people into a relaxed, open state, before testing them with an extra sensorial perception (ESP) trial.
“Can you anticipate a random event more often than you could expect by chance? Can that be sustained? Can it be amplified? Are there certain personalities or mental states that are more conducive to this occurring than other ones?” In the long run, Varvoglis aims at understanding “the dynamics of the phenomenon. What enhances it? What suppresses it?”
Participants are subjected to physiological measures. For example, their skin conductivity, a measure of sweat and humidity correlated to stress, is monitored all the time. Changes in skin conductivity that come before the exposition to a relevant stimuli are noticed and patterned on. “Subjects face a monitor, a computer screen. The computer has two kinds of pictures… either very normal and calm, say nice landscapes or laughing children, or very violent, aggressive images.” A new picture appears every few seconds at random. Then, a peak of stress correlated with the appearance of a breathtakingly aggressive picture is absolutely normal—yet it also happens that subjects start stressing before a violent picture appears and not before a calm one appears. In other words, some subjects seem to experiment an unconscious precognition of an event to come, and pre-react accordingly, whereas the event itself is random and unpredictable.
Aside from noticeably gifted subjects, this kind of study looks at several subjects—part of the wider sample—at the same time. “It is a statistical approach… what we call the statistical power is not enough to [be seen] with just one participant. It could look big and be nothing more than a statistical variation.” Instead, the phenomena is considered from the perspective of an analogy with known signals:
It is like a very weak signal in radio technology, whatever, that we try to amplify by repetition. It’s as if we have this extremely weak precognition signal that somehow is in there, but in order to find it, we have to do again and again and again the experiment, and then we start seeing that, indeed, there’s something happening before the target, which is analogous to what’s happening afterwards. This is averaged over many people. Now, some subject populations seem to do better than others. For example meditators seem to generally do better on these tests.
(More detailed numbers and technical explanations on this approach can be found in the interview up above, between 23:33 and 24:33.)
Children Remembering Past Lives
It has often been thought that hard science made mortalism mandatory. If we believe in science, we should not believe in a “ghost in the machine”, as philosopher Gilbert Ryle had put it. Does not science preclude the vapid notion of an immaterial spirit or soul? Well, not necessarily. Many scientists, from the mathematician Maupertuis to Albert Einstein, were believers. And it could be argued that brain activity is simply correlated with mental or psychological activity, without having to reduce the second to the merely physical workings of the brain. There is still room for philosophical and spiritual questioning. Thus, the timeless question of what happens after death remains.
Here Varvoglis draws on the—rather impressive—work of American psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who over 40 years investigated no less than 3.000 cases of children who allegedly remembered their past lives. These children had “unusual abilities, illnesses, phobias and philias which could not be explained by the environment or heredity.” Even more impressive, many of these children have precise memories of their purported past life, to the point of recognizing what they believe was their family before they entered into this life.
The pattern is detailed—for example, most of these purported memories arise between four and seven years old, to eventually vanish—and cross-cultural. Stevenson met more cases in Asia and North Africa than in the West, but this may be due to Western secularism rather than the other way around. A cautious academic, he tabulated many details in each case he selected, to the point where the phenomena becomes hard to deny. He also wrote about cases that happened in the Western world.
Another phenomena of interest is remote vision, i.e. the ability to see at distance something you couldn’t see with your eyes. Here Varvoglis mentions a famous “psychic”, Joseph McMoneagle, who was considered gifted enough to be picked up and trained by CIA.
According to McMoneagle, remote viewing is possible and accurate outside the boundaries of time. He believes he has remote-viewed into the past, present, and future and has predicted future events. Among the subjects he claims to have remote-viewed are a Chinese nuclear facility, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Red Brigades, and Muammar Qadhafi. He writes that he predicted the location and existence of the Soviet “Typhoon”-class submarine in 1979, and that in mid-January 1980, satellite photos confirmed those predictions. McMoneagle says the military remote viewing program was ended partly due to stigma: “Everybody wanted to use it, but nobody wanted to be caught dead standing next to it. There’s an automatic ridicule factor. ‘Oh, yeah, psychics.’ Anybody associated with it could kiss their career goodbye.” (Wikipedia)
McMoneagle is still alive and well. “I know him”, Varvoglis hints. “We did a little experiment together between France and the US. He is definitely somebody I would immediately acknowledge as an exceptional subject… [In his case] there is no need for statistics. It is enough to study what he had done.”
Healthy and Unhealthy Skepticism
All this may arouse skepticism. After all, there has always been a fringe interest towards paranormal. The IMI is old. Mesmerism is older yet. And the seeming absence of results for such a long time should preclude us from taking for granted the very existence of the parapsychology and paranormal field. Or is it?
The first time I met with Mario Varvoglis was at the Club of Budapest 10 or 15 years ago. I was, at the same time, attracted and skeptical. On the one hand, this field is definitely riddled with con men and quacks. On the other these do not compel to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As an engineer by training I know well how much matter matters and I don’t feel compelled to believe it is the whole of the universe.
Varvoglis believes the reality of parapsychological phenomena has been established, beyond make-believe and sheer randomness. He is also keenly aware of the resistance so many of us still have when faced with the “paranormal.” It is about “whether [established] fields, scientists, accept the reality… there has been a kind of battle for decades, because these phenomena are disturbing to our models, our paradigms of what is real and what is subjective… There’s going to be a lot of resistance to that.”
Did we err by being too strict on defining what is real? Do we need a wider definition that would prove able to integrate psychic phenomena which go beyond make-believe, up to effects we would call paranormal?
As Oliver Lodge said, ‘We are just going to keep bombarding them with data, with science, until the only resort they have after they have tried to find all the holes becomes ‘You’re lying!’.’ When we get to the point where the only resort they have to keep denying is shrieking you’re lying, you’re fraudulent, and this and that, then morally we have won…
The unhealthy skepticism is one that says first, ‘No, it’s impossible,’ and then tries to find reasons it’s impossible. Actually, we’re all skeptics. We’re skeptical about each other. It’s the kind of skepticism that you have in healthy science.
Three Recommendations for the Future
Even without any precognition, Varvoglis could have perfectly predicted the end of our meeting: I ask him whether he has any recommendation to do to anyone who wishes to be ready for whatever the future holds. The rich, convoluted past of parapsychology or psychophysics is attractive, but not mesmerizing to the point to make me forget I am looking for the future first.
He answers with no less than three recommendations—at least one of them similar to what other interviewees advised as well:
- “Read the literature. Do not form your opinion on the basis of the general media and official world” alone. “Inform yourself. Do your homework.” Whatever the subject matter, there is enough information out there to dip into.
- Be open-minded. “Part of what I do as a [corporate] consultant, as a trainer, is to emphasize the importance of one’s mindset over one’s tools. A key aspect of mindset is openness…” In both corporate or entrepreneurial creativity and psychophysics, “we clearly see that a person who is truly interested rather than rigid over certain things is more intuitive” and enjoys a wider creativity.
- Exploration, “trying things out, and in particular with altered states of consciousness like dream or hypnagogia… Most of these states can be reached through meditation. If you want to go further on a personal level, with all these issues, and I am including creativity in this, meditation is really a royal path.”