As a metaphysics enthusiast, I’m often asked (well, goaded really) to provide sCiEnTiFiC PrOoF that humans have dormant psionic abilities. Certainly, I’m told, if “this stuff” was real, capital-s Science would’ve proven it by now.
Though this seems like a reasonable request, it does grate on the nerves after a while. After all, the CIA has been declassifying documents about their psionics research for decades, and independent parapsychologists like Monad Mantis of ExoPsychic have delivered stunning results, despite a lack of funding or general support from the established scientific community.
Basically, to my once-skeptical eyes, evidence of the supernatural seems rather abundant and easy to find… which makes it mighty tempting to respond to my challengers with a passive-aggressive “Here, Let Me Google That For You!”
But, like the science establishment that I am just so fond of berating, the world of parapsychology is not without its shortcomings. And given the nature of the subject, researchers in this controversial field may feel doubly hesitant to admit to having doubts, setbacks, failures, or even just a change of interests in regards to the paranormal.
However, if parapsychology is going to have its day in the sun, it must first face its shadows. So I reached out to Sean Connelly to chat about his experiences running PsiPog.net back in the days of the early internet.
PsiPog, for the uninitiated, was a hub of essays, photos and videos contributed by self-proclaimed “psions,” or people who allegedly demonstrated telekinesis, telepathy, and other such psychic abilities. Users would even host live “PK (PsychoKinesis) Parties” and practice developing their powers together.
The site had something of a legendary status among psionics enthusiasts before Sean archived it in 2006. For 14 years, fans of the website have wondered what became of him.
Now, you get to find out…
Alicen Grey: So what inspired you to create PsiPog?
Sean Connelly: I created it for a couple of reasons. For one, I was just a bored teenager at the time and enjoyed making websites (I’m a professional web developer to this day!). I also had been hanging out on other paranormal websites and message boards, so I had friends in the community.
I wrote an article for a friend who was creating a website, and when he decided to abandon the project, I thought I would repurpose the article for my own website. I contacted friends and asked if they wanted to publish any articles on the site, and they contributed articles they had already written. Slowly, over time, it grew.
AG: What got you interested in the subject matter in the first place?
SC: That’s a hard question — I’m not sure I’m totally capable of the self-reflection required to fully answer it :-). Ultimately, I think I’m just a weird guy. My whole life I’ve been attracted to things just outside the norm. The paranormal was something that really grabbed my attention for a long time.
I loved believing in something that so many people thought was obviously wrong, and I could challenge their beliefs. It made me feel smart and special. When you study something that long, you hear all the normal arguments, over and over again… so once you’ve learned rebuttals, you can really make people think and question their reality. Some of my most memorable conversations were when people would tell me the things I experienced were impossible. That made me feel righteous and powerful.
I’m not sure if I was originally attracted to the paranormal for those reasons. I can remember printing out tutorials I found on the web and practicing in my bedroom at night. I would do things like try to bend keys with my mind, or move pendulums, or predict cards in a deck. Prior to becoming interested in the paranormal, I was interested in self-hypnosis and used to read books and practice that as well. And prior to that, I loved traditional magic, like card tricks and sleight-of-hand.
I can remember my parents saying I always wanted to learn the trick but was disappointed learning it because it meant the magic wasn’t real. So I guess some part of me wanted the magic to be real.
AG: So did the magic turn out to be real for you?
SC: In some ways, yes… in other ways, no.
I remember when I had my first Out of Body Experience (OBE). An OBE is exactly as it sounds — you perceive your consciousness outside of your body. It doesn’t feel like a dream, nor does it completely feel real, either. It’s unique. I was training every night, for months on end, with no results. Finally, I took one day off and had an OBE that morning where I perceived my hands going through my bed.
I spent years after that, practicing, getting better, and eventually trying to prove they were real by testing myself. For example, one test I performed was trying to stick my spirit-hand through a container, and feel what objects were inside it. I never succeeded in any of my tests.
So, are OBEs “real”? Well, they’re real in a sense that they exist, and people experience them. And anyone can learn to experience it themselves. But is our consciousness actually floating around outside your body? I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I’d say no.
OBEs are a good metaphor for how I view a lot of other psychic phenomena. Is the magic real? Well, excluding the liars and mentally ill (which unfortunately there are a lot of people in those categories [claiming to have supernatural powers]), I think we are experiencing something that feels real, but probably has an explanation too complex or out of reach to understand. Ultimately, I think there are natural explanations for the majority of what we experience.
That being said, I certainly don’t know everything, and I’ve had some experiences that I can’t explain with natural means. In those instances, at this point, I just let it go. I can’t solve everything, and I’ve given myself permission to leave some things unanswered.
AG: It sounds like your motives for starting PsiPog were kind of playful, perhaps even mischievous. Which I’m kind of surprised to hear because my memory of PsiPog is that you approached the topic of psionics and parapsychology in a methodical, scientific way (not without some humor, of course). Did you consider yourself a scientist or researcher?
SC: We attempted to be scientific. One defining characteristic of PsiPog was we didn’t allow religious explanations. That being said, I don’t think we succeeded at being scientific. We tried, but I don’t think we took it seriously enough to bridge that gap.
At the time, I remember debating with myself how scientific we should be. There is a trade-off between being too scientific and boring yourself, versus not being scientific enough and letting delusional beliefs slip through. In retrospect, I think we should have been more scientific, which is why I called that out specifically in my last post when publishing the archive.
We made a lot of claims that were not backed up by science. They were just beliefs, but we portrayed them as more legitimate by sounding scientific. We cut out the religion but replaced it with the same magical thinking.
For example, I wrote an article about psychic shields, and one example was a shield I used to supposedly prevent being struck by lightning, which I termed the Diffuse Shield. What was that idea based on? It wasn’t science. I felt scared a few times from strong storms and used those visualizations to help calm myself down. It was an idea that was simply consistent with my beliefs. I didn’t test it. I didn’t experiment with static charges. I could have built a Van der Graaf generator and tested if my Diffuse Shield made a real difference. But I didn’t.
I’m glad we tried. But I wasn’t strict enough. There were too many unverified ideas floating around. PsiPog probably wouldn’t have been as popular if I was more strict, but I should have been more strict anyway. I feel as though I wasted a lot of effort propagating ideas that weren’t correctly vetted. That effort could have instead been used to make real progress by performing falsifiable experiments.
AG: Speaking of falsifiable experiments: I recall that you looked into participating in the infamous James Randi Challenge. People often assume that because nobody has won the prize money from this so-called “scientific” challenge, psionics isn’t real. But in your experience, the challenge wasn’t exactly scientific. What happened to that?
SC: I was just thinking about my experiences with James Randi, since he recently died, and I saw a lot of people commenting about how great he was for exposing frauds. I still stand by the article I wrote years ago — they modified my emails before posting them publicly. I found the whole experience to be very dishonest and rude. I understand that they surely received thousands of delusional submissions, but they literally asked for it. Don’t wave a silly offer around if you’re not going to do the actual work behind it. It was obviously a PR stunt, and they had no intention of wading through the claims to find any with potential. Oh well.
AG: Fourteen years ago, in the statement that accompanied the archival of PsiPog.net, you wrote, “I now know that psionics is real, without any real doubt.” Now, it seems you’ve had a major mindset shift to a sort of psionic-agnosticism, if not real doubt. Obviously, a lot happens in 14 years. Can you explain why your perception of your personal experiences with psi phenomena has changed?
SC: Sure. After PsiPog, I went on to create and post on A Little Weird, which was my personal blog. I wrote about a lot of different topics but focused on winning the lottery and training myself to have OBEs.
So, two important things happened:
1. I failed at winning the lottery (2009), and
2. I failed at proving OBEs were real (2012)*
So ultimately what changed my mind was testing my beliefs against reality, and reality telling me I was wrong.
That doesn’t mean all psychic phenomena are fake, but it does mean that I personally had taken it as far as I could, and I couldn’t figure it out to my satisfaction. And judging from my own failures, I suspect many psychic phenomena would be proven to be illusionary if we were more scientific.
I wish I could leave it at that because it would greatly simplify my life, but I feel compelled to also say that I have experienced things that I cannot explain by natural means. While I would love to believe that all psychic phenomenon isn’t real, I’m just too honest with myself! 😛
So I will leave it at this: I think most of it isn’t real, but like most conspiratorial-type thinking, there are some nuggets of truth.
AG: Why did you end up archiving the site?
SC: I archived PsiPog for a lot of reasons. In my final post, I talk about proof and spirituality… which was how I framed it to myself at the time.
I also remember feeling frustrated that more people didn’t go out and buy Geiger counters. One of the most important posts I made was announcing that we measured something with a Geiger counter (2006/06)*. I still can’t explain those results, to this day. I never expressed it at the time, but it did bother me that no one else in the community bought a Geiger counter ($170), and try it themselves.
I felt alone. I also questioned what my function was within the community. I had hoped I was perceived as someone who encouraged people to question their beliefs and test them scientifically — but instead, I was worried that my popularity was due to confirming people’s already held irrational beliefs.
Looking back, I think I just took stuff too damn seriously! Which is funny to say, because I’ve also told you in this interview that I wasn’t serious enough! I guess that’s why I ultimately had to drop everything. It took over my life, and I wanted to move on, and be happy.
AG: Would you say you are happier now? What have you been up to, since PsiPog?
SC: Yes, I’m significantly happier now! It’s not fair to blame that all on psionics though — I’m a human, and have my own issues to deal with. One thing I love about what I work on now is that I don’t feel any shame or need to be secretive. My job is working in a startup to help teachers be more effective in their classrooms, and in my spare time, I’m working on creating video games. It’s a blast!
AG: It takes a lot of integrity to publicly admit the shortcomings of an endeavor like PsiPog, especially considering the sort of fandom that built up around it. But I think there’s also something to be said about funding. Established science seems to blatantly reject parapsychology as an arena worth exploring, writing it off as a pseudoscience. Parapsychologists describe this rejection as a “Catch 22”: not being able to prove anything without funding, but needing to prove something in order to get funding. Do you feel that, given the resources, there’s still potential to find extraordinary evidence of this extraordinary concept?
SC: I don’t think it’s a question of resources. I think the nature of the paranormal is that it’s hard to study. Now, maybe if someone had an idea that required expensive equipment, then I could see the need for money… but I think with a little bit of creativity and clever thinking, people could test their ideas on a small budget. It’s probably better that way. If I was the one investing, I would only want to spend money on something that looks promising. That’s life on the fringe, those are the breaks.
AG: You’ve expressed a number of ways you would’ve run the PsiPog project differently, knowing what you know now. But is there anything you think you got right?
SC: One thing I think we got right is that we encouraged people to try themselves. In that way, even if we were fooling ourselves, at least people could experience what we were struggling to explain. I might not know what an OBE really is, but I know how to have them, and I can teach you to have them too. Hopefully, someday someone will crack the code.
AG: You were something of a hero in the fringe scene of psionics enthusiasts. Though many understood and embraced your decision to archive the site, others were heartbroken and even offended. There’s been speculation about everything from your motives to your personality. What would you like people to understand about you and about the PsiPog legacy? What would you like to clarify and close the book on, if anything?
SC: Well, if someone really wants to know my motives, they should just ask (as you have). I’ve used the same email all these years, sean.m.connelly[at]gmail[dot]com, and I try my best to be responsive and honest.
I do regret that I didn’t talk about closing PsiPog to the team, and I think it was unfair of me to make such a drastic decision without at least having a conversation with people first. The end result would have been the same, but it still wasn’t right for me to do that.
Other than that, reality is the final judge we all have to come to terms with.
I wish everyone the best.
(featured photo courtesy of PsiPog author NotImportant, aka NI)