ESP Enigma book cover imageDiane Hennacy Powell, M.D. The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena. New York: Walker & Company. 2009. 230 pp. + notes and index.

Reviewed by Paul H. Smith, Ph.D.

What do you get when a former member of the Harvard Medical School faculty writes a book on ESP? In this case, certainly not what you might expect. You might anticipate some dry monologue full of multi-syllabic words and run-on sentences. But you would be wrong. Dr. Diane Powell’s book is certainly authoritative – there is no question that its author is a scientifically-literate person well-versed in the mind sciences. But The ESP Enigma is at the same time easily digested by any reasonably educated person.

Dr. Powell earned her medical doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, and went on for further training in neuroscience and psychiatry. She held positions both with Harvard and the Salk Institute, as well as in a number of varied psychiatric hospital settings. Her background in hard neuroscience, medicine, and psychiatry prepared her to write this book – a challenge to the orthodox view of mind as a function of brain. The ESP Enigma starts out with the basics – an exploration of the basics of consciousness and a focused examination of what we have learned about mind from early thinkers such as Descartes, William James, and Huxley. She contrasts these views with materialists such as Crick and Ryle, and considers what I have called the ‘physiological argument’ against dualism, the “Hard Problem” of consciousness (a term coined by David Chalmers), and the perils of radical reductionism when used to try to explain complex systems with a simplistic reductionist formula.

From this point Dr. Powell surveys the compelling evidence presented by the various kinds of parapsychological phenomena. Chapter 2, for instance, looks at the evidence for telepathy, while Chapter 3 details evidence for the “coupled consciousness” of identical twins. (Powell includes in this a satisfying criticism of the widely-discussed Minnesota Twins study, in which highly unlikely coincidences between the personal decisions and choices made independently by long-separated twins is waved away as being simply a matter of shared DNA.)

Fans of remote viewing will find her chapters on clairvoyance and precognition of the most interest. She includes her discussion of remote viewing in the clairvoyance chapter, and gives a passable history of the SRI consciousness studies program that yielded remote viewing as we know it today. (A few minor historical errors have been cleaned up for the just-published trade paperback edition of the book.) In her discussion of precognition, Dr. Powell captures many personalities and experiments which may be unfamiliar to more than a few readers in the broader consciousness-interested community. She not only mentions precognitive dreams (including Abraham Lincoln’s dream of his own impending assassination), but the eerie fulfillment of the plot of an earlier novel (about a ship named the Titan that runs afoul of an iceberg and sinks) by the very real later sinking of the Titanic. She includes the account of Peter Hurkos, and discussion of Krippner, Montague, and Ullman’s precognitive work at the Maimonides dream lab, as well the PEAR lab’s precognitive remote perception work and Dean Radin’s (and others’) presentiment experiments. There is even a section on precognition in animals. Chapters on psychokinesis and out-of-body experiments round out the discussion of hands-on parapsychological research.

Chapter 8 is an insightful discussion of a number of inter-linked ideas. Among them: how evolution and genetics might relate to psi; the role of the unconscious; and what synesthesia (a mental condition when sense experience seems to become “cross-wired”– tastes become colors, and smells become sounds, for example) might tell us about ESP and consciousness. Another section in the chapter of interest to remote viewing aficionados covers what we would term “mental noise” or “analytical overlay.”

Some of these same themes are expanded in the following chapter, which includes discussions of blindsight, right-vs.-left brain functioning, sensory processing, and brain functioning as it might relate to psi. Chapter 10 includes intriguing accounts of synchronicity, mystical experiences, and some speculative analysis of the roles multi-dimensionality and quantum phenomena might play in consciousness. This is followed by a consideration of time and its place in the consciousness debate.

The concluding chapter introduces her model, which she calls “Moebius Mind,” after the remarkable little two-dimensional geometrical figure which manages to have only one continuous side by looping around on itself through three dimensions. “Moebius Mind” defines her view of the relationship between the physical world (embodying a version of the quantum non-locality explanation) and consciousness.

She urges the understanding that “changing our thought patterns can rewire our brains, and neurosurgical research shows that changing our brains’ wiring will alter our thought patterns” (p.210). This illustrates not just how much our physical brains affect consciousness but, more importantly, the extent to which our consciousness can affect our physical brains. That thought is the core of her argument against the short-sighted beliefs of materialist science that brain imaging (fMRI, PET, etc.) somehow captures at least a hint of the processes of consciousness. Rather, she concludes with justifiable authority, all these imaging tools show is that the brain plays a role in processing of consciousness – not that it necessarily is the origin of consciousness.

The ESP Enigma is a must-read book for lay people who have a doubting friend or relative, or for those doubting friends or relatives themselves. But it is also a valuable resource for those (which means almost all of us) who need to enhance our understanding of the different aspects of psi phenomena and how they interrelate. Still more valuable are the insider insights on how mind cross-walks with brain in our developing conscious experience. Getting this from someone with such a strong background in the theories from the other side of the debate is rare, and not to be missed.

In a final insight, it is clear that Dr. Powell has come to the right conclusion in her long odyssey through the hallways of both medical and parapsychological science: “Psychic phenomena suggest that our consciousness field contains a far larger representation of the world than we ever imagined; they suggest that all of space and time is represented in our personal consciousness field, even though most of it is unconscious” (p.211). But then, if you have done any remote viewing at all, that should come as no surprise!


(A version of this review appeared in Aperture, Spring/Summer 2010 (Issue 17), pp. 13-14.)