Recently, I got word of the passing of Brenda Dunne on June 16. She transitioned peacefully after a short illness and, in the words of her son, Jeff, had decided that it was time to move onto her ‘next great adventure.’
To explain that Brenda was the co-founder of Princeton’s PEAR research project and the President of the International Consciousness Research Laboratory is hardly to do justice to the breadth of this woman’s contribution to the understanding of consciousness and the extent of our latent human capacity.
In the 1970s, Brenda established a fruitful, decades-long partnership with Dr. Robert Jahn, then dean of engineering at Princeton, an applied physicist whose work in advanced space propulsion systems and high temperature plasma dynamics had won him his distinguished position.
Jahn’s curiosity into consciousness research, piqued after a postgraduate student of his got interested in exploring whether mind was able to influence machines, led him to set up a highly sophisticated research program, grounded in traditional science and backed by a prestigious university, so that the entire topic might be aired in a more scholarly way.
He’d given his project a neutral name – the Princeton Engineering Anomaly Research (thereafter always known as PEAR) – and to get the program off the ground Jahn recruited Brenda, then a developmental psychologist at Mundelein University in Chicago, who’d conducted and validated a number of experiments in clairvoyance.
Over 25 years, Jahn and Dunne embarked upon what became a massive international effort to quantify what is referred to as ‘micro-psychokinesis,’ the effect of mind on random-event generators (REGs), which perform the electronic, twenty-first century equivalent of a toss of a coin.
The output of these machines (the computerized equivalent of heads or tails) was controlled by a randomly alternating frequency of positive and negative pulses. Because their activity was utterly random, they produced ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ each roughly 50 per cent of the time, according to the laws of probability.
The most common configuration of the REG experiments was a computer screen randomly alternating two attractive images – say, of apples and pears. Participants in the studies would be placed in front of the computers and asked to try to influence the machine to produce more of one image – more apples, say – then to focus on producing more images of pears, and then to try not to influence the machine in either direction.
Theirs was a brilliant collaboration of opposites.
Jahn was spare and gaunt, impatient, sometimes irascible, often neatly turned out in a checked shirt and chinos, the informal uniform of conservative academia, and in both his manner and his erudite speech gave off a sense of containment – never a superfluous word or unnecessary gesture.
Dunne had the more effusive personal style. She was often draped in flowing clothes, her immense mane of salt-and-pepper hair hung loose or pony-tailed like a Native American. Although also a seasoned scientist, Dunne liked to say that she led from the instinctive.
Her job was to provide the more metaphysical and subjective understanding of the material to bolster Jahn’s largely analytical approach.
He would design the machines; she would design the look and feel of the experiments. He would represent PEAR’s face to the world; she would represent a welcoming face to its participants.
Year in and year out, Jahn and Dunne carried on the tedious process of collecting a mountain of data – which would eventually turn into the largest database ever assembled of studies into remote intention.
Over the course of more than two and a half million trials Jahn and Dunne decisively demonstrated that human intention can influence these electronic devices in the specified direction, and their results were replicated independently by 68 investigators.
Jahn and Dunne also continuously tweaked their experiments, examining whether there were any differences between the sexes (there were – men had a more directed effect on the machines, women a more profound one) and also whether it was more important to appeal to the unconscious, rather than the conscious mind (it was).
It was Brenda who urged Jahn to make the machines more engaging (she put toy frogs on some of the REGs) and the environment more cozy, with sofas and teddy bears, in order to encourage the resonance which appeared to be occurring between participants and their machines.
While a student at the University of Mundelein before her move to Princeton, Dunne had successfully replicated the original Stanford Research Institute Studies on remote viewing, demonstrating that ordinary people (and not simply the gifted) could see beyond their senses successfully.
Jahn and Dunne decided to create another painstaking batch of studies of remote viewing, where the remote viewer would be stationed at the PEAR lab and his traveling partner be asked to select an envelope containing a destination between five and 6000 miles away.
Without disclosing his destination to his partner, the traveler would have to go to the site, while the remote viewer would be asked to draw and describe where his partner was.
Of the 336 formal trials of remote viewing involving 48 recipients they carried out, nearly two-thirds were more accurate than could be accounted for by chance.
Even more astonishing, Dunne and Jahn had designed most of their remote viewing studies as ‘precognitive remote perception,’ or PRP. The remote viewers remaining behind in the PEAR lab would be asked to name their traveling partner’s destinations not only before they actually got there, but also many hours or days before they had been given the envelope and even knew where they were going.
Of PEAR’s formal trials involving remote viewing, the majority were set up as PRP and were just as successful as the ordinary variety.
My favorite anecdote about this marriage of opposites occurred after the first 5000 random event generator studies, when Jahn and Dunne decided to pull off the data and compute what was happening thus far.
It was a Sunday evening, and they were at Brenda Dunne’s house. They took their average results for each operator and began plotting them on a graph. If there had been no deviation from chance, the two bell curves would be sitting right on top of the bell curve of chance, with 100 as the mean.
Their results were nothing like that.
The two types of intention had each gone in a different direction. The red bell curve, representing the ‘HI’ intentions, had shifted to the left of the chance average, and the green bell curve had shifted to the right.
This was as rigorous a scientific study as they come, and yet somehow their participants – all ordinary people, no psychic superstars among them – had been able to affect the random movement of machines simply by an act of will.
Jahn looked up from the data, sat back in his chair and met Brenda’s eye. ‘That’s very nice,’ he said.
Dunne stared at him in disbelief. With scientific rigor and technological precision they had just generated proof of ideas that were formerly the province of mystical experience or the most outlandish science fiction.
There were simply no words in their current scientific vocabulary to explain what had just happened.
‘What do you mean, “that’s very nice”?’ she replied. ‘This is absolutely f___ing incredible!’
Dunne was instrumental in creating ICRL, to join consciousness researchers into one fruitful body, and she had a special interest in what she’d dubbed ‘PEARTree,’ in encouraging young scientists to pursue consciousness research.
She and Jahn collaborated on numerous large books, notably Margins of Reality, chewing over the implications of their findings.
And despite the rejection of the establishment, they carried on with the stubborn, blinkered conviction of the true explorer, amassing more evidence, convinced they were witnessing a new science in the making.
I met with Brenda and Bob Jahn many times at Princeton, once even in Amsterdam, to interview them, ask advice about the Intention Experiments (both were instrumental in encouraging me to run them), and sometimes just to check in with what they were doing.
They met Bryan and our daughters, and watched them grow up over the years.
Last November, Brenda had one last great earthbound adventure with her beloved son, Jeff, who has carried on her work as board chairman of ICRL, when the PEAR equipment got rehoused into a permanent residence at Broughton Hall in Yorkshire.
They traveled there to launch it, and I was lucky enough to spend two special days with her, not realizing it would be the last time we would ever meet in human form.
But I also had the distinct sense that with the creation of the new permanent interactive museum of her’s and Bob’s life work (The Wyrd Experience: https://wyrdexperience.org/index.html) she’d felt a sense of earthly completion and also a strong feeling in her gut – that source of so much of her wisdom – that it was time to move on.
Princeton initially fought her appointment. They felt that she wasn’t credentialed because she didn’t have a PhD.
To the contrary, she and Bob Jahn were among the purest scientists I have ever known, unafraid to question the orthodoxy or follow a path even if it led them into dangerous territory.
They’d proved something revolutionary about human consciousness. Maybe one day this work would herald a refinement of quantum physics. Indeed, what they had in their hands was beyond current science –the beginnings of a new science.
They knew full well that their work might change the world forever.
May the brilliant instincts of this modern heroine always light our way.
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