4 out of 5 stars
Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities
Dean Radin (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2013).

Supernormal by Dean RadinThis is far less dry and more readable than Radin’s previous books, but it hinges still upon his familiar approach: the use of statistical meta-analyses of formal parapsychological experiments to demonstrate a definitive effect in favour of the paranormal, or ‘psi’.

Radin uses Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a hook on which to hang his narrative, partly because a whole host of psi phenomena seem to be described in this ancient text, but also because it fits with the direction in which Radin’s research had led. In the early days of parapsychology, experimenters discovered small but discernible effects among their subjects. This effect was increased when subjects cultivated a meditative state. And then the effect was discovered to be even more substantial among people specifically trained in cultivating meditative states. Yoga, Radin suggests, whatever else it might be, is a means by which people can develop siddhis, the Sanskrit term for psi.

Yet therein lies my quibble with Radin’s line of reasoning. Patanjali’s assertion that meditation on changes and their consequences in the mind ‘develops the ability to observe the mind of others’ (3.19) might suggest one thing to a parapsychologist, but something subtly different to a meditator. For instance, Patanjali might have meant something along the lines of ‘knowing how one’s own mind works enables one to know how the minds of others work’, or perhaps ‘when meditating on the mind, this is like experiencing someone else’s mind’. Both of these describe unusual experiences and insights, but they do not necessarily require a paranormal explanation.

Personally, I have had what seemed to be psi experiences arising directly from meditation. Yet it seemed to me that every quotation from Patanjali in Radin’s book was amenable to other interpretations that matched my own experience but did not necessarily depend upon psi. In short: there is an argument to be had that what Radin calls a siddhi is not what Patanjali meant.

What I liked most about this book, however, is Radin’s suggestion that mainstream science has nothing to fear from psi. The parapsychological evidence suggests its effects are – relatively – tiny and rare. But Radin never tires of pointing out that they are real. If psi is there (and it is, says Radin) then it has been there all along, and science has got along just fine in spite of it. Medicine has progressed and astronauts have landed on the moon despite all the telepathy, precognition and psychokinesis that must have been fizzing along gently in the background.

The final chapters of the book turn somewhat vague with speculation, but I could help agreeing with Radin that what the actual evidence for psi suggests is that the world will not fall apart if it is taken seriously.