As we travel through life we are all seekers after something larger than ourselves, a truth known to seers, healers and book publishers through the ages. For Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, a prominent clinical psychologist at Berkeley, her quest began in 1991 with the theft of a rare and valuable harp belonging to her daughter. On the advice of a friend, she sought help from a professional psychic named Harold McCoy, who, with only a street map and a photograph of the harp—he never left his home in Arkansas—told her exactly the address in Oakland where it could be found. For the rest of her life Mayer was obsessed with this feat, as who wouldn't be? So last month, 15 years after the harp was returned, I sent McCoy a picture of a lock—a cast-iron padlock my grandfather had used to lock up his pushcart at night—and a set of New York City street maps. Find the lock, I told him.
Mayer's quest took her into a world where the ordinary rules of time and space don't apply—of dowsers like McCoy, who ordinarily searches for water underground but asserts he can find almost anything by tuning in to the "vibrations" that pervade the universe; of clairvoyants who claim to read minds over the telephone or to be able to see what someone else is looking at, hundreds of miles away; of laboratories where people stare at a pendulum, trying to slow it down with their minds. She compiled her research into a just-published book, "Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind," that she finished just before her death in 2005, at the age of 57.
Her work took her to Princeton, where for more than 25 years engineering professor Robert G. Jahn has been testing the ability of people to influence physical objects by their thoughts. (His lab closed last month.) In thousands of experiments, he has found that they can, but only by tiny amounts—a few hundredths of a percent, a level that achieves statistical significance only because of the very large number of trials involved. Mostly he used electronic devices, such as random-number generators, but he also used a machine of the sort you see in science museums, in which balls tumble down an array of pegs and pile up in slots at the bottom, illustrating how random processes create a bell-shaped distribution. Volunteers, staring at the display, would try to nudge the falling balls to favor the left or the right side—and it worked! In fact, it worked if the volunteer was in another room, or even in Australia. Another machine, a small robot programmed to travel in a random zigzag pattern, appeared to move in response to the mental activity of a flock of chickens. These facts will either strike you as even more amazing, or else prompt you to call the whole business into question. Even assuming there is a force, unknown to science, that emanates from the brain and can affect a falling Ping-Pong ball, what directs it to a precise location on the other side of the globe? How does the volunteer avoid screwing up a science fair down the street instead?
Mayer consulted with psychics, one of whom, a woman named Ellen Tadd, gave her some startling psychological insights about her own daughter, and later about five strangers she was interviewing for a job. I called Tadd myself, and in the course of a 20-minute phone call she gave me a quick psychic reading of my personality. The crux of it was this:
I leave it to those who know me better to judge the accuracy of that assessment, but it struck me as a fairly generic description of a journalist, or a human being.
It seemed to me, reading Mayer's obviously sincere and earnest account of her investigations, that the distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson, who has long harbored an interest in the paranormal, had it exactly right in his foreword to her book: "As a scientist, I don't believe the story," he wrote about McCoy's dowsing for the harp, "but as a human being I want to believe it." It is part of the human condition to seek wonder in the world, to seek communion with a higher power that links us all together with our machines and our chickens. If there is anything stronger than belief itself, it is the desire to believe.
As for McCoy, after several hours of poring over the street maps I gave him, he called to say that the lock was in the Bronx.
It was in Queens.