Notes toward a
General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena

by John Walker

Some sceptics dismiss evidence for paranormal phenomena (telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, etc.) without serious examination on the grounds that the phenomena it purports to demonstrate violate fundamental principles of science and hence the evidence must be flawed or fabricated. This is not an unreasonable position to adopt in considering scientific evidence. While it's important to have an open mind, one also must take care that one's brain doesn't fall out. The world abounds in bogus, flaky, and misinterpreted data, and filtering by the plausibility of the phenomena suggested is a useful way to discard time-wasting distractions. It's like the venture capital aphorism, “Never invest in something that violates a conservation law.” If somebody claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine, nobody is likely to pay attention to the evidence until they explain why it is exempt from conservation of energy and the second law of thermodynamics.

It is in that spirit that this document presents a theory of how most forms of paranormal phenomena which have been the subject of laboratory research might work. The theory is largely consistent with a mainstream view of modern physics (the multiple worlds or multiple histories interpretation of quantum mechanics), and requires only a single assumption which goes beyond orthodox physics. The idea can be stated succinctly as follows.

The Idea in a Nutshell

Conscious observers, who perceive only a single history through the branching parallel universes which split with every quantum event, have a very small and unreliable ability to influence (select) which historical thread they follow from the present to the future.


In the multiverse, the paranormal is perfectly normal.

Parable: Psychokinesis at the Pop Machine

When you get to a fork in the road, take it.

—Yogi Berra

To see how this works, let's consider something most people wouldn't consider paranormal at all—buying a canned beverage from a vending machine. It's been a tough day at The Company, and as the afternoon drags along Bugbert decides he needs a pick-me-up and moseys from his cubicle to the vending machine in the hall. Now he's faced with a dilemma. If he chooses Diet Toxic Sludge, he'll get a shot of caffeine and no calories to jog off after work, but the Apple Juice will make him feel better about what he's pouring into his innards and deliver a nice sugar hit as well. Diet Sludge or Apple Juice? Apple Juice or Diet Sludge?

After pondering this for a while, something happens, and Bugbert's finger moves to the button, mashes it down, the chosen can ker-chunks into the slot, and a few seconds later he pops the top and slugs down a refreshing gulp of the restorative fluid, congratulating himself for having chosen wisely.

Now what has just happened here? Well, what we've observed amounts to psychokinesis, albeit of the non-paranormal variety. A process of thought in Bugbert's brain caused physical motion to occur: that of his finger to the button, which made an irreversible choice in the real world, between one beverage and another. Although this may seem prosaic and easily explained (after all, Bugbert's brain is connected to the muscles of his arm and hand by neural fibres whose operation is well understood), the mental act of making the selection which set the causal chain into motion was an act of free will, a topic philosophers have debated for millennia without, being philosophers, shedding much light on the matter.

Now let us look at this event not from Bugbert's perspective as a conscious being experiencing a single trajectory through the multiverse, but from a Godlike perspective which observes all the parallel universes of the multiverse simultaneously. This super-being, Godbert, say, sees Bugbert standing in front of the pop machine trying to make up his mind. A multitude of quantum events occur within Bugbert's brain and his surroundings, and with every one the universe splits into threads which fly off in different directions, each containing Bugbert and a vending machine, but slightly different in the details. Godbert stays focused on one of these threads and waits until the event which causes the neuron to fire in Bugbert's brain and trigger the cascade of making the choice. At that moment, two threads diverge. One of them leads, a few seconds later, to Bugbert with a can of Diet Sludge in his hand; the other, with a can of Apple Juice. In both of these parallel universes, Bugbert is happy with the choice he just made. And in both of these parallel universes he has the illusion that his free will has caused the choice he made to become reality.

In fact, Bugbert has, like every other quantum mechanical system, made every possible choice simultaneously, and there exists an infinitude of parallel copies of him living with the consequences of those choices. The mystery is not that all of these parallel realities exist; it is why we only experience one of them. Consider consciousness as a “multiverse browser”: it allows you to experience a single trajectory through the possible futures beginning at the moment of now without being aware that other equally conscious instances of you in parallel paths are experiencing them just as vividly.

Now let us suppose that there is a property of consciousness which allows a conscious being to exert a very tiny and unreliable influence on its perceived path through the multiverse. This would in all likelihood be a quantum effect and, like other quantum effects, would be statistical in nature and negligibly small in most everyday circumstances. As a result, the phenomenon (which we might call “multiverse navigation”) would be rare, difficult to demonstrate in the laboratory, and known mostly from anecdotal evidence. But when this phenomenon did manifest itself, it would be, in every sense, a case in which “wishing makes it so.” But is that so absurd? Consider Bugbert at the vending machine: did he not “wish” for a specific beverage, and did that mental act not cause it to be physically realised (in all possible ways in parallel universes, in each of which he observed a chain of causality from his wish to the physical consequences)?

Now consider a subject, Psibert, in a parapsychology lab, attempting to influence the output of a hardware random number generator. Let us say that the goal of the experiment is to create an excess of one bits in the output of the generator, which usually emits one and zero bits with equal probability. Suppose Psibert wishes as hard as he can for one bits and succeeds: there is a small, but statistically significant, excess of one bits in the output from the generator during the time Psibert was “wishing at it” (whatever that means). Further, Psibert is able to repeat this performance on several occasions, although his “talent” (whatever it may be) seems to decline over time, that being the norm in most such experiments.

What could possibly be going on? Consider the following explanation. Psibert desired a successful result with all his heart and soul, and he applied his “will” (whatever that is, if it even exists) to that end. Now, with every quantum event which led to the random number generator emitting a one or zero, the universe split into two: one in which the bit was zero, the other in which it was one, with copies of Psibert, brow furrowed and willing away, in both parallel threads. But our hypothesis of multiverse navigation says that Psibert can exert a very small influence on which of these paths his perception of a single universe will follow. Well, since he wants to succeed, his will is to follow threads into futures in which the random number generator emitted one bits as opposed to zero bits. And since multiverse navigation is a weak, unreliable process, most of the times Psibert's will won't have any effect on his trajectory into the future, but occasionally it will, with the result that after the experiment ends and the score is totted up, there will be a slight excess in the number of one bits in the output from the generator. Simultaneously, in parallel universes where Psibert was striving for zero bits, experimenters will be celebrating his success in achieving that goal, while in a multitude of other universes where Psibert opted to say “whatever” and forgo attempts to impose his will, a null result will be observed. Note that it doesn't matter if the data which Psibert is trying to influence were recorded earlier or even if they were pseudorandomly generated; that only changes the time and location at which the universe split occurred (for the pseudorandom case, when the seed was chosen): the process by which Psibert navigates himself into the universe containing the desired result is identical.

Light Cones and Life Cones

To describe this concept in more details, we'll first describe the mainstream physics concept of a “light cone”, grounded in the spacetime picture of special relativity, then extend the picture to describe the evolution of events in parallel universes as an observer moves into the future (“life cones”).

Light Cones

Light cone: 2+1 dimensional representation The picture at the right illustrates the notion of a light cone. In this diagram, two spatial dimensions are represented in the oblique “hypersurface of the present” and the time dimension is up and down on the page. Real spacetime is, of course, four dimensional (three spatial dimensions and one of time), but it's difficult to draw that in a diagram and your brain might turn inside-out if you looked at it, so here we simplify to two spatial dimensions. The observer is located at the vertex where the two cones meet, at the origin of the two space axes. To simplify the diagram, we adopt units where the speed of light, c, is 1, so lines which intersect the present at an angle of 45° represent light rays travelling at the speed of light. The future light cone traces the paths of light rays emitted in every possible direction from the observer at the origin, and the past light cone indicates the paths of light rays arriving at the observer's location at the present moment.

Since all material objects travel at less than the speed of light, the trajectories of objects arriving at the observer's location at the present (water balloons, mosquitoes, etc.) all fall within the past light cone. Objects launched from the observer's location (rubber bands, bullets, pies, etc.) all travel on trajectories bounded by the future light cone. Light beams emitted from that location (for example, from a flashlight in the observer's hand) travel along the future light cone. No two observers have the same same light cone. Since two observers can't be in the same place at the same time, the past and future light cones of other observers at different spatial locations will have light cones which are offset from those of the observer we have arbitrarily designated as being at the origin. Areas where the past and future light cones of two observers overlap are in their common past and future respectively, but each observer will have regions of spacetime from which they can receive and send information that are not shared with the others. The fact that the speed of light is so great allows us to ignore this fact in most everyday situations, but, for example, you can communicate something more quickly to somebody in the same room than a person you're talking to on a telephone connection transmitted through a geosynchronous satellite.

This diagram presents a Newtonian model of spacetime. For simplicity, we have ignored the effects of special and general relativity, which are irrelevant to the model presented in this document. Special relativity simply causes the hypersurface of the present for different observers to be tilted with respect to one another depending upon their relative motion. General relativity warps the hypersurface of the present from a plane into a bumpy surface due to the presence of mass and energy. Because the speed of light is so great and gravity so weak, both effects may be safely neglected when discussing phenomena on the human scale.

Light cone: 1+1 dimensional representation Since ignoring one of the three spatial dimensions in the diagram above posed no problem, let's further simplify things by dropping another spatial dimension. Think of the diagram at the left as a slice through the first diagram by a plane containing one of the spatial axes and the time axis. The light cones become two lines in the plane diverging at angles of 45° to the vertical, with the point of their intersection representing the observer's location in time and space. The past is coloured yellow, the future blue, and the light cone (now two lines), divides spacetime into four distinct regions with different causal relationships to the observer at the present. (The “left” and ”right” portions outside the light cone are actually connected; they appear separated only because we've suppressed the second dimension in which they are connected.)

Light cone: 1+1 D with events Now let's add some events to this spacetime to illustrate the different causal regions. (These events are not even remotely to scale—the speed of light is so great there's no hope of plotting them in anything like their actual position in spacetime.) We start by noting the position of the observer at the present. Within the past light cone, denoted by the blue star, is the first landing on the Moon in 1969. The fact that this is within the light cone indicates that some time has passed since the radio message from the Eagle lunar module announced the landing (at that instant, the event would have just intersected the past light cone).

Within the future light cone, indicated by the green star, is the flyby of the planet Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft in July of 2015. (If you're reading this document after that has already happened, sorry. I'm writing these words in 2006.) Since this event occurs within the future light cone, the observer at the present can potentially influence this event, for example, by sending commands to the spacecraft to alter the closeness of its approach to Pluto. Now, of course, you or I may not be able to actually alter the spacecraft's trajectory, but if we were in the appropriate position of responsibility and authorised to do so, the laws of physics and the structure of spacetime would permit it.

Now consider an event in the future which an observer at the present can't influence. The yellow star marks an event, say a roving vehicle on Mars which is heading right for the edge of a crater into which it will catastrophically tumble five minutes from now as measured by a clock on board the rover. Further assume that you're the person who sent the commands to the rover which set it off in that direction, and you've only now realised that disaster is imminent, having noticed you accidentally told it to go north instead of south, and you discover your error only five minutes before the imminent disaster on Mars. If, for example, the light travel time between Earth and Mars at the current positions in their orbits is 15 minutes, then there's nothing you can do to avert the disaster. Even if you send a “Halt!” command to the rover at the moment you discover the error, it cannot travel faster than the speed of light (along the line representing the light cone), and by the time it arrives at Mars, 15 minutes later, the rover will have already been sitting up-ended, spinning its wheels in the thin air at the bottom of the crater, for ten minutes. There are, then, events in your future over which you can exert no influence because you cannot send a message from where you are to where they will occur any faster than the speed of light.

Finally, consider the red star, which represents a massive star in the M31 galaxy in Andromeda exploding as a supernova. Since M31 is about two million light years from the solar system, in a sense this happened in the distant past. But because it is outside the past light cone, the photons from the explosion have not had sufficient time to arrive at the observer's location. So this is an event in the observer's past which can exert no influence upon the observer at the present. But this won't be the case forever.

Light cone: 1+1 D, later Now let's wait a while and see what happens. The line of the present inexorably advances with the passage of time, dragging the past and future light cones with it. Here, I've marked the later time with the “Later” arrow, and kept the previous present moment for reference, showing the light cones at that time as grey lines. To an observer at the “Later” moment, the Mars rover's tumbling into the crater is now in the past light cone. The sad news has arrived from Mars with the loss of the telemetry signal from the rover. Further, if the observer steps outside and looks in the direction of M31, the supernova that everybody's been talking about is easily visible with binoculars. It too has moved into the observer's past light cone. It is still at the same place in spacetime, but the advance of time has moved the observer's light cones up into the future, placing the supernova within the past light cone. At this moment, the Pluto flyby is still within the observer's future light cone; signals can be sent which will affect it. But as the moment of the flyby approaches, it will pass outside the future light cone (when the light travel time from Earth to the probe exceeds the time measured on-board until the encounter), and then will remain beyond influence or knowledge until it enters the past light cone.

Life Cones

The spacetime light cone picture, while a fixture of physics for more than a century, doesn't fit well with our intuitive understanding of the past and future. The light cone spacetime is entirely deterministic: there's no difference between the past and the future. Given complete knowledge of the present, we can calculate events as far back into the past as we wish, or as far into the future. But, of course, the real world doesn't work that way.

The development of quantum mechanics moved this perception from a matter of intuition to physics of the most rigorous sort. We cannot know the future with perfect certainty because it is impossible, even in principle, to know the present precisely. There is an inherent uncertainty in nature which limits our ability to know everything we would need to predict the arbitrarily distant future. While this uncertainty is negligible for experiments involving macroscopic objects such as ball bearings and billiard balls, in the physics of atoms and subatomic particles it is the dominant effect.

Everything so far, since “Light Cones and Life Cones” has been 100% orthodox physics. Now we depart into the realm of speculation and arm-waving. Please make sure your crackpot detector is activated!

Life cone: present Let us now return to the story of Psibert in the parapsychology laboratory, “willing” the random number generator to produce an excess of one bits. We shall represent this with a diagram which resembles the spacetime diagrams above, but with one profound change. The horizontal axis, instead of representing one of the axes in space, instead denotes different parallel universes which, together, contain all the possible results of quantum events in the present. Psibert, in the lab, is at the boundary of past and future. The past represents events already recorded by the random number generator, it is fixed. It is classical! Quantum mechanics doesn't apply to the past, only the future: the past is “crystalline”: forever fixed and unalterable, and there is no uncertainty in extrapolating the present back to its causes in the past. In the past, we show the sequence of bits emitted by the random number generator so far. These are completely fixed; there's nothing anybody in the present can do to change them. The future, however, is another thing entirely. There is an equal probability that the next bit will be a one or a zero, and equal probability for each bit after that. The future, then, is a messy, fuzzy domain where every possibility is manifest, and the further out you go, the less is known about its evolution. The numbers and lines in the the future show the successive possibilities, equally balanced in this case. Of course, in many cases there's no need that the probabilities be equal, but in the case of a random bit generator, we're free to make that simplifying assumption.

Life cone: future Now, we've waited a while, and allowed the present to move inexorably into the future. The open-ended possibilities—every possible sequence of bits—have been “squeezed out” by passing through the present, leaving only the actual bits observed by Psibert in his crystalline past. There's no way to show in this diagram that at each fork in the road, in fact, the universe split and there is an equally valid chart showing that result. You can think of the single chart showing the past and present splitting into a stack of two charts with every event: one showing zero as the result and the other showing one. What matters is that this is the one that Psibert perceives. In the future, we continue to have all possibilities available, but in this particular present, there is a unique, unambiguously determined past. There is, of course, a copy of Psibert in every one of this multitude of stacked universes, each with a different past, all with the same uncertain future.

As long as the choice of the path into the future at each branching is completely random and beyond the conscious control of Psibert, this remains completely orthodox physics. Where the speculative hypothesis proposed here (“multiverse navigation”) comes into play is suggesting that Psibert's “will” for a given result creates a small bias toward his finding himself in futures in which that outcome obtains. The influence that Psibert has upon even equally probable random outcomes is small. Consequently, the probability of his influencing a sequence of events which cause him to be on the planet Venus is vanishingly small—the same as one can calculate for quantum mechanical tunnelling of every atom in his body simultaneously and perfectly coherently to that planet.

Still, a small bias in equally probable outcomes is something which might manifest itself in a large ensemble of experiments. The deviation observed in such experiments should, if consistent, permit estimating the extent of the supposed effect.


This process (which I call “multiverse navigation”, although a classier name is sorely needed) can explain all kinds of things. Although I don't have the time to beat each one to death here—you can probably work it out yourself.

More Technical Discussion

This is really ragged. It's still pretty much an E-mail pasted in here. But there are some details and links which aren't mentioned elsewhere, so I'll leave it in for now.

The general idea is based on the quantum multiverse notion, which is now 100% mainstream physics, in particular the view presented in the book The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch (one of the pioneers of quantum computing). The instantaneous value of the quantum state of the universe can be thought of as a “snapshot” representing all potentially knowable information within it. (The definition of “instantaneous” is messy in the presence of general relativity, but if you exclude pathological cases, which seem to be hidden behind event horizons anyway, you can define a moment in time as a spacelike foliation of spacetime by Cauchy surfaces containing all null geodesics passing through a reference point. You can use the cosmic background radiation mean temperature as a global time co-ordinate; general covariance means you can choose any time co-ordinate you like as long as it is monotonic.)

In the multiverse, the world line of a particle passes through the ensemble of all possible parallel universe snapshots representing the outcomes of each quantum measurement event. When you perform a measurement and find the particle in a specific state, you localise yourself in the snapshot which has the particle in that state and identify your historical world-line as passing through snapshots which define a consistent history of its getting there. The big intellectual gulp in Deutsch's outlook is that everything is perfectly time symmetrical—there are multiple pasts, multiple presents, and multiple futures. The only difference is that (as Freeman Dyson observed in chapter 4 of Science and Ultimate Reality), the fact that you observe a given present fixes the past classically—the uncertainty principle doesn't apply to your past light cone. (My visualisation is that the certainty of the present spreads out into fuzzy wiggly lines as the future light cone. As the present advances, it squeezes out these lines at the vertex of the light cone and fixes them as classical histories in the past light cone. Or, more precisely, as the edge of the past light cone touches locations in space, it selects a unique history from the multiverse and cements it into your classical past.)

Everything so far is conventional physics. Some physicists disagree about interpretations of quantum mechanics, but I don't know of any who could consider the above a crackpot view, and among the string theorists (who are the majority these days), this is the consensus view.

OK, now for the woo-woo stuff. There are a variety of reasons to believe there may be some connection between consciousness and quantum mechanics. Although a great deal of nonsense has been written on the subject, physicists as respectable as John A. Wheeler and Eugene Wigner, among others, have taken this idea seriously, so it's not X-Files material. Now let's suppose that whatever it is that consciousness has to do with the process of quantum measurement, there is a very small effect, probably with Planck's constant in the equation somewhere, which permits a conscious observer to exert a very tiny bias, usually swamped in random noise, on which snapshot its perceived world line follows from the present moment in the light cone to the immediate future. An extremely simple realisation of this would be an experiment in which an operator attempted to influence which path a single photon took through a beam-splitter apparatus.

We call people who are good at this “lucky”.

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by John Walker
May, 2006
Revised December, 2007

This document is in the public domain.