Robert Jahn, who died at the age of 87 on Nov. 15, spent his life reuniting the head and the heart in modern science. Like some of the brightest minds of Western science, such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Max Planck, he felt that spirituality and science should be like two sides of the same coin.
Jahn was the dean of engineering at Princeton University for 15 years and an influential space propulsion scientist. A lot of scientists thought it impossible to develop an electrical propulsion system, one that could move a rocket without fuel. But Jahn did it, and the system he developed will probably take people to Mars.
But even as his career reached such great heights, his heart told him to look beyond the boundaries circumscribed by material science as we know it.
In 1979, he founded the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab to study consciousness. PEAR, which closed in 2007, has provided perhaps the most solid evidence that the materialist paradigm is too limited and that consciousness is not reducible to the brain.
Jahn endured much adversity amid his more conventionally minded colleagues at Princeton, but he persisted through nearly 30 years of PEAR research.
A typical PEAR experiment would have people try to use their minds to influence random processes of an electronic device. This is like concentrating on tails while flipping a coin, to see if tails really does show up more often when you focus on it.
He found a statistically significant effect, suggesting that the human mind is generally able to change two or three out of every 10,000 processes, or “flips.” It seemed that people who shared an emotional bond were especially able to induce anomalies.
In other words, Jahn provided some evidence that the mind does have powers not yet accepted by mainstream science.
Brenda Dunne, who was not only Jahn’s partner in running PEAR but also one of his best friends, took us through the life and work of this pioneering scientist.
“He had an office that used to throw people off, because it was full of stuffed animals and toys,” Dunne said. “He always got a kick out of people’s reactions when they walked into the dean’s office and it was not the sterile, formal environment that they had been expecting.”
This lightheartedness characterized much of Jahn and Dunne’s work. They broke down what Dunne called the “me scientist, you subject” divide, by treating study “subjects” as participants or co-investigators.
Their PEAR lab resembled a family rec room, with comfy couches, wood-paneled walls, and knickknacks all over. Testing the power of the mind is best done with minds that are relaxed and enthusiastic, Dunne said.
She gave the example of a scientist who came to PEAR asking them to repeat an experiment he had done. He had given his subjects the task of influencing photons with their minds, and he got negative results.
PEAR got positive results; the only difference between his experiment and PEAR’s was in how they approached the study participants.
He had given them boring, technical information about optics and dismissively said, “Some people think you can influence this with your mind.” At PEAR, they made the task more fun and simple, basically just telling participants, “What you want to do is make the line go up or down.”
The Resonance of Minds
The PEAR team found that interpersonal dynamics play a much larger role in seemingly objective experiments than most scientists realize.
Anecdotally, Dunne said, they found that when the PEAR team was working well together, their experiments got more positive results. It was as though dissonance among the scientists could interrupt the resonance of the mind’s physical force.
The harmony between Dunne and Jahn was important. Her background was in psychology, his in engineering. He took care of the study protocols, she took care of the people. She was the wave and he was the particle, according to a quantum physics analogy they liked to use to describe their relationship.
In the quantum physics perspective, matter exists as both waves and particles simultaneously. A wave collapses into a particle form when it is observed. Jahn was the practical one. He liked to get to the point.
She summed up their complementary relationship: “Although a lot of people thought I was the mystic and he was the scientist, … I was a mystical scientist and he was a scientific mystic.”
Dunne further described the wave-particle paradox and how it relates to perspectives within science. “When you set up your experiment, if you’re looking for a wave, you find a wave. If you’re looking for a particle, you find a particle. They are not different, they are just complementary aspects of the same thing.”
“The subjective and the objective dimensions of experience also are just two perspectives on the same thing,” she said. “How we choose to look at an event determines what we see.”
When scientists looked at PEAR, some of them openly admitted it scared them. Allowing the subjective into the lab on equal footing with the objective seems to turn science on its head.
Heretics in Princeton’s Basement
When it seemed to others they were just studying the “paranormal,” that seemed kind of quirky (Jahn and Dunne have made it clear, by the way, that the anomalies they studied are not “paranormal,” but rather normal in that they are natural and commonly found in all of us).
But when the implications of their research sank in, many couldn’t handle it. One scientist said to Dunne, “If what you’re doing is right, then everything I’ve done is wrong.”
She replied, “It’s not wrong, it’s just not complete.” He got upset and said, “No, you don’t understand. I’d be wrong.”
The subconscious association with PEAR’s work and a sort of scientific heresy was perhaps illustrated in the misunderstanding of a sign posted on the PEAR lab door.
When they first opened the lab, in some unused storage space in Princeton’s basement, they put the Greek letter psi on the door. This triple-pronged symbol often appears in physics equations, and the word “psi” is often used to refer to extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and the like.
“I had two or three people come by and ask why we had a devil’s pitchfork on our door,” Dunne said.
A PEAR in the Age of Apples
PEAR had an ambivalent relationship with Princeton. In all fairness, the lab wasn’t stuck in the basement out of neglect, but because Jahn wanted a quiet space for his experiments.
The university found no flaws in the lab’s protocols, but nonetheless, Jahn was occasionally in the hot seat. His research was controversial, and some felt it was an embarrassment to the university. During one such moment of tension, a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) representative stepped in and encouraged the university to continue its support of Jahn’s work.
Jahn and Dunne have given talks at NASA, the National Security Agency, and other government agencies. The DoD consulted with them on the possibility of detecting missiles by using remote viewing.
Dunne said of Jahn, “He was unflappable.”
“He was courageous. He did not back down from something he believed in. He fought for what he regarded as the right to ask the questions—the freedom of inquiry that academics talk about all the time, but don’t necessarily follow,” she said.
To keep its program running under the auspices of the university, PEAR had to meet some conditions. It had to be independently funded, and it couldn’t involve students. It received this instruction: “It’s important you make sure that your subjects don’t suffer from delusions of metaphysical capabilities as a result of doing these experiments.”
PEAR followed those instructions, Dunne said. “When people came in to do the experiments, I would tell them, ‘I am required to inform you that no matter what happens as a result of these experiments, we don’t want you leaving here thinking you’re God—unless, of course, you thought you were God when you arrived.’”
Keeping their little slice of Princeton’s campus was a challenge, and so was getting their work published in mainstream science journals. Many rejections gave reasons such as ‘‘inappropriate topic for this society.” One editor told them, “When you are able to transmit this text to us telepathically, we shall consider it seriously.’’
There were, however, exceptions. For example, the journal Proceedings of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers published Jahn’s article “The Persistent Paradox of Psychic Phenomena: An Engineering Perspective” in 1982. The journal Foundations of Physics published Jahn and Dunne’s paper “On the Quantum Mechanics of Consciousness, With Application to Anomalous Phenomena” in 1987, after more than 15 separate peer reviews.
Jahn’s Legacy and the End of ‘One Mortal Span’
Jahn helped found the Society for Scientific Exploration to provide a peer-reviewed platform for the many scientists working on unconventional topics. He and Dunne founded the International Consciousness Research Laboratories (ICRL) after they decided to wrap up their work at PEAR in 2007.
ICRL is made up of a network of scientists Dunne referred to as the “PEAR-tree,” a natural growth out of the PEAR studies. Jahn and Dunne decided to act as mentors and help a new generation of scientists start new PEAR-like studies. Their ICRL press also publishes what Dunne hopes will be the textbooks of the future, including a new book by Jahn and Dunne titled “Being & Biology: Is Consciousness the Life Force?,” released this month.
At the close of Jahn’s life, Dunne said, he knew his work had had an important impact even if its full appreciation may have to wait for a future academia that embraces rather than shuns research on anomalies.
Their work especially helped people who were looking to bridge the scientific and the spiritual, Dunne said, recalling the words of one such individual: “I’m tired of having to choose between my head and my heart. I have both.”
Jahn’s studies also helped reinforce an understanding of consciousness that helped him face death, after a protracted illness, without fear, Dunne said. “Each of us has a characteristic wave function, metaphorically speaking, that takes up residence in some physical environment for—as Bob put it—’one mortal span.’ And then it returns to the source from whence it came.
“He was quite comfortable with it,” she said. “The beautiful part about it is, I feel that on that level we are still very much in contact with each other. We were a molecule. The whole was bigger than the sum of its parts.”