For 26 years, strange conversations have been taking place in a basement lab at Princeton University.

No one can hear them, but they can see their apparent effect: balls that go in certain directions on command, water fountains that seem to rise higher with a wish and drums that quicken their beat.

Yet no one hears the conversations because they occur between the minds of experimenters and the machines they will to action.

Researchers at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program, or Pear, have been attempting to measure the effect of human consciousness on machines since 1979.

Using random event generators — computers that spew random output — they have participants focus their intent on controlling the machines’ output. Out of several million trials, they’ve detected small but “statistically significant” signs that minds may be able to interact with machines. However, researchers are careful not to claim that minds cause an effect or that they know the nature of the communication.

The lab is led by Princeton professor emeritus Robert Jahn, a physicist and former dean of the university’s engineering school. Jahn became interested in the mind-machine connection in 1977 when an undergraduate student proposed designing a random event generator, or REG, for her thesis. Jahn was intrigued by the idea of using the device to measure the effect of minds on machines, so in 1979 he launched the lab.

Although the lab is housed at Princeton, the university doesn’t support it financially. Instead, the lab has relied on private donors like James S. McDonnell, founder of McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas and now part of Boeing), Laurance Rockefeller and John Fetzer, former owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team and CEO of Fetzer broadcasting.

Jahn said McDonnell was concerned with how critical electronic systems could be vulnerable to the mindset of human operators under stress.

“McDonnell said he couldn’t in good conscience put a young man in the cockpit of an F-18 and assume that all of the highly sophisticated equipment was totally invulnerable to the stress that the pilot would be under in combat or other emergencies,” Jahn recalled. “He wanted some research to judge how much he needed to harden that equipment to make it invulnerable to that influence.”

Government intelligence, defense and space agencies also have shown interest in the lab’s research, which Jahn said he has freely shared.

The first REG that researchers used produced high-frequency random noise. Researchers attached circuitry to the device to translate the noise into ones and zeroes. Each participant, following a prerecorded protocol, developed an intention in her or his mind to have the generator alternately spew out more ones, then more zeroes, and then do nothing at all.

The effects were small, but measurable. Since then, the same results have occurred with other experiments, such as one involving a pendulum connected to a computer-controlled mechanism. When the machine releases the pendulum to swing from a set position, participants focus on changing the rate at which the pendulum slows to a stop.

By Kim Zetter

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