Consider the story of Adam Linzmayer. In the spring of 1931, Linzmayer, an undergraduate at Duke University, began participating in an experimental test of extra-sensory perception, or ESP. The study was led by the psychologist Joseph Banks Rhine and revolved around the Zener deck, a special set of cards featuring five different symbols. The test itself is straightforward: A card is drawn from the deck and the subjecte= is asked to guess the symbol. While most of Rhine’s subjects performed in the neighborhood of random chance – they guessed about 20 percent of the cards correctly – Linzmayer averaged nearly fifty percent during his initial sessions. Furthermore, these “guesses” led to several uncanny streaks, such as when he correctly guessed nine cards in a row. The odds of this happening by chance are about one in two million.
Linzmayer did it three times.
Although Rhine was studying ESP, he thought of himself as a skeptical scientist, eager to test the strange claims of psychics and magicians. At first, Rhine simply assumed that Linzmayer was cheating, and that he’d had found some way to peek at the cards. This hunch was quickly disproven, however, as Linzmayer’s guesses far exceeded random chance even when facing away from the deck. And so, over the next few weeks, the scientist continued testing the student, repeating the same tedious task under slightly different conditions. (During a three-day binge before finals, Linzmayer guessed more than 15,000 cards, with a 40 percent accuracy rate.) According to Rhine, the most astonishing demonstration of Linzmayer’s talent occurred in his car, after he’d taken the student for a relaxing drive. It was here, in this setting of “easy informality” – the idling engine had a soothing effect – that Linzmayer correctly guessed fifteen cards in a row. (The probability of such a run occurring by accident is approximately one in 30 billion.) After this session, Rhine was finally convinced that Linzmayer was capable of clairvoyance. “No conceivable deviation from probability, no ‘streak of luck’ which either of us had ever heard could parallel such a sequence of unbroken hits,” Rhine later wrote. “We both knew that the thing Linzmayer had just done was virtually impossible by all the rules in the book…But he had done it.” (For a more detailed description of these experiments, see Rhine’s New Frontiers of the Mind.)
Rhine documented this landmark event in his notebook, and prepared several papers for publication. But then, just as the scientist began to grow confident in the existence of ESP, the clairvoyance disappeared. Linzmayer lost his spooky talent. Between 1931 and 1933, the student guessed the identity of another 50,000 cards, except his success rate was now a meager 22.4 percent, or barely above average. Rhine was forced to conclude that the student’s “extra-sensory perception ability has gone through a marked decline.”
A similar trend occurred with other Rhine subjects, and with nearly every other confirmed demonstration of psi. As a result, the phenomenon was never taken seriously, despite the fact that it had been repeatedly demonstrated in the lab.