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DVD: Something Unknown is Doing We Don’t Know What

From the Publisher's website: A quirky feature documentary on the science behind psychic phenomena by Dutch filmmaker Renée Scheltema. She was inspired to explore the realms of psychic phenomena after a series of mysterious events happened around her all in a short period of time...Watch top scientists explain the inexplicable...

Click title to see SPR review by Tom Ruffles as well as the trailer for the DVD.

First Author: 
Renée Scheltema (Director)
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

Renée Scheltema, an experienced Cape Town-based filmmaker, was stimulated to begin a personal quest by three separate events occurring in quick succession. Her daughter experienced a dream which appeared to be precognitive; she felt compelled to phone her father, and discovered that he had had a serious accident; and she witnessed a demonstration of spoon bending which intrigued her, even though she concluded that it probably involved sleight of hand. She thought about these incidents, trying to make sense of them, and wondered how she might distinguish between tricks and truth, what is psychic and what is fraudulent, and how strong the evidence for paranormal claims might be. Those musings resulted in this film, nine years in the making and edited from over 100 hours of footage.

She had studied at University of California, Davis, so Charles Tart, Professor Emeritus there and now at The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, was a natural starting point. He stresses the necessity to look for the scientific basis of the transpersonal, and provides a structure for the film. He argues that “there are hundreds of experiments demonstrating the reality of psychic experiences. The ones that are acknowledged by any reasonable criteria of science I call ‘The Big Five’.” The five are: telepathy, clairvoyance or remote viewing, precognition, psychokinesis (PK), and psychic healing.

Scheltema goes through the Big Five, talking to people and gathering evidence both experimental and anecdotal. Her examples are well-chosen, if selective, and all of her interviewees perform well on camera, though the parapsychologists have to simplify to make their work understandable to a lay audience. Covering such a broad area in 105 minutes inevitably entails a broad brush and a fair turn of speed, and this is a film which repays a second viewing to pick up details lost through information overload the first time.
Tart pops up throughout the film, as do some of her other interviewees. Contributors who are well known in the parapsychology field include Hal Puthoff, Gary Schwartz, Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake (interviewed in a side trip to London), Stephan Schwartz, Roger Nelson and Larry Dossey. Scheltema also collects anecdotes from individuals such as astronaut Edgar Mitchell, psychic detective Nancy Myer, and healers Erik Pearl and Catherine Yunt. She shows footage of John of God in Brazil, demonstrating his eye-watering technique which involves pushing forceps a very long way up his patient’s nose.
Scheltema often uses her twisted spoon as a conversation opener to see what her interviewees say. Most express interest, but caution, not surprising given metal bending’s chequered history, and a surprising amount of the film is devoted to the topic. A bullish Gary Schwartz says that many people do it “as a trick, but let’s eliminate the tricksters.” How precisely do you do that though? The spoon bender who intrigued – but did not entirely convince – Scheltema gave her a demonstration in her kitchen, which she filmed, but she does not comment on the fact that before he bends the spoon he reaches into the left pocket of his jacket while standing at an angle with that side obscured, palms something which is in his hand while manipulating the spoon, and drops it back into his jacket pocket at the end. Schwartz talked about “communing with the atoms” to make the metal bend using only mental influence, but mechanical assistance seems a more reliable method.
On the other hand, while footage of one of Jack Houck’s spoon bending parties does not seem to show anything in particular except the application of brute force, Radin recounts a story in which he was sitting opposite someone attempting to bend a spoon, gently stroking one himself at the same time, and without realising it his spoon bent. We are shown the evidence pinned to his wall, yet he is sceptical about such large-scale effects and points out the problem of carrying out such tests under strictly controlled conditions. Houck on the other hand thinks that spoon bending is about 90% PK, with no explanation how he arrived at this figure.
A major pleasure of the film is seeing parapsychologists at close quarters. Radin shows his presentiment research in which people react to the emotional content of an image…before it is presented, and also his remote staring set-up. An fMRI experiment examining brain functions of receivers during telepathy tests, in which flashing lights are shown to senders, finds correlations with particular areas of the visual cortex which become active. A telephone experiment Sheldrake did with the Nolan Sisters (uncredited) is shown, with one waiting for a call and saying which sibling is ringing her before answering. (Sheldrake is still doing this work, supported by the Perrott-Warrick fund, and at the time of writing is seeking ten helpers to assist, to be paid £100 each on completion of the tests.) Puthoff describes remote viewing and discusses work done with Ingo Swann and Pat Price.  
Apart from spoons, PK research uses electronic RNGs in which the task is to shift their output from a random state to something less so. Roger Nelson discusses the Global Consciousness Project, funded through the Institue of Noetic Sciences. This employs a network of Random Event Generators around the world, and results seem to indicate that human consciousness interacts with them to reduce the variability of their output. An important event, such as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, or 9/11, a big religious festival or a natural catastrophe, anything which causes huge numbers of people to attend to it, correlates with changes in the REG data. Even more intriguingly, the effect on 9/11 began about 4-5 hours before the aeroplanes struck, linking to Radin’s work on presentiment. Nelson concludes that we are all connected to each other and with the environment in a network of non-local information. He also speaks movingly about the impact of 9/11 on Princeton University.
The interconnectedness is not just between humans but also between humans and animals. We hear about Sheldrake’s work with Pam Smart’s photogenic dog Jaytee (again uncredited), split-screen time-coded footage showing the dog heading for the door to wait for her at the moment she thinks about returning home. At a hospice we see Oscar the cat who can intuit when terminally ill dementia patients are close to death, and will curl up with them a few hours beforehand until the end. Turning to healing, Dossey discusses the power of prayer, adding that music and mental imagery have been found equally effective, all in randomised, double-blind, controlled experiments. It is acknowledged that with humans, the placebo effect is a problem in assessing healing, but in experiments with non-human organisms belief is not an issue, and in such studies, positive results are still obtained. The survival rate for cut leaves is remarkable when given healing, compared to control leaves, and it would seem that Reiki works on stressed rats.
Psychic detective Nancy Myer is less convincing. She supplies an anecdote about finding a child but there is no corroboration of this from the police. Asked if she could say where Osama Bin Laden is, she refuses on the grounds that answering that question on tape could get her killed. Stephan Schwartz, who recounts a remarkable story of how psychic archaeology was used to locate the foundations of a building in a huge expanse of desert in Egypt, also organised a group of remote viewers who accurately identified the place where Saddam Hussein would be found in hiding and how he would look when captured. Yet, again, when asked if his stars could find Bin Laden, Schwartz does not jump up and say “yeah, let’s do it!” but seems fairly cool towards the suggestion, merely saying that it would be a good idea “if the CIA were soliciting input.” What seems to be an easy way to demonstrate the reality of remote viewing – and the CIA would surely be grateful for accurate information given their lack of success to date – is not taken up for some unspecified reason.
Despite a positive attitude by the participants towards their objects of study, there are contradictions which Scheltema doesn’t attempt to tease out. Gary Schwartz talks in terms of the body as an antenna for electromagnetic signals: “energy becomes plausible when you think of the human body in terms of electronics and electromagnetic fields.” He is talking at that point about healing, and this mechanism might be plausible where healer and patient are in close proximity. Yet he also refers to distant healing working in the same way, which seems unlikely; we had been told by Puthoff that remote viewing is not affected by distance, and Radin’s remote staring work uses a shielded room, which suggests that whatever the eventual explanation for the phenomena, it will surely not be in terms of conventional electronics. Radin notes that the effects obtained in laboratory experiments are weaker than those that appear to occur outside it, which raises the question why, and what it says about the more dramatic anecdotes we are given.
There is much talk from a number of the participants about quantum connection, non-locality and entanglement as a possible explanatory mechanism for psi. References to quantum fluctuations and energy pervading space are frequent, and there is a confused moment in which Scheltema’s voice-over talks about eating photons, accompanied by shots of a canteen. Puthoff describes remote viewing in terms of vacuum, or zero point energy, that might connect everything. A general view seems to be that consciousness is interconnected through quantum non-locality. However, Tart sounds a warning that it is too easy to use quantum theory as an explanatory catch-all. It is often invoked in a way that is more poetic than substantive, he indicates, but it is not poetry.
In general though, while there may be disagreements about how effects occur, there is more consensus about their reality. The film’s title is taken from a 1927 quote by English physicist Sir Arthur Eddington, born the year the SPR was founded, commenting on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Dossey has it stencilled on the underside of the staircase in his splendid house. The allusion is a curious one because interviewees exhibit a general lack of uncertainty about the phenomena they study.
A criticism of the film is that only proponents are interviewed, with no sceptical voices putting forward contrary views, and no time given to debating the experiments shown. A good example is the footage of John of God. A general practitioner who had witnessed his unorthodox techniques at first hand announces herself baffled by his methods, but Joe Nickell, who has investigated JoG in more depth, would have been able to supply a different view. Sheldrakes’s work with Jaytee was subjected to fierce criticism, and though Sheldrake fended this off, there is no sense in the film that the work with “animals who know when their owners are coming home” has been controversial. The speed at which the film moves rushes the viewer along, but one comes away wishing to hear a more rounded debate.
Something Unknown is a fascinating introduction to the work of parapsychologists, and those parts in which the metaphysical speculation is underpinned by empirical research, are the most persuasive. Interviews with non-scientists are less so, especially as the film has a New Age wash (the film was commissioned by Babeth M VanLoo and the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation in the Netherlands; VanLoo is the BBF’s Programming Director); an unsubstantiated anecdote by Arielle Ford, Deepak Chopra’s sometime publicist does not feel out of place. The film is billed in its trailer as “a spiritual journey into the science behind psychic phenomena” - that aspect might be received less sympathetically by those who would be prepared to consider only work done on sound scientific principles.
The thrust of the film is that psychic abilities are real, are a mix of energy and information, consciousness can transcend the limitations of space/time, and everything is interconnected. Scheltema’s conclusions at the end of her journey are that “the paranormal actually seems normal” and that the findings of parapsychologists are challenging reductionist materialism. One certainly wonders where coincidence ends and interconectedness begins when one day Puthoff can tell Scheltema about an aeroplane that crashed in Zaire when Jimmy Carter was president, and was located by remote viewers, and Jimmy Carter boards Scheltema’s aeroplane the following day (with video footage of Carter glad-handing fellow passengers to prove it). The further conclusion, that science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, despite Tart’s claim that research is building bridges between the two, is one that some viewers may not feel is warranted from the evidence shown.
One wants to agree with Nelson when he says that whatever one’s attitude to the evidence, “intentions matter. What we want actually makes the world a little different.” One might add though, “just as long as the intentions are good, Roger.”
Something Unknown has already garnered a great deal of critical praise: it won a Jury Award at the Arizona Film Festival and has been an official selection at the Berlin Documentary Festival, the Los Angeles Feel Good Film Festival, the Spirit Quest Film Festival in Pennsylvania, and the Santa Fe Film Festival. Paul Verhoeven lent his name and appears as associate producer which should help to get it exposure. It is a useful primer for people who don’t have much familiarity with the topics though Scheltema covers a huge amount of ground, and such a person will come away with only a sketchy idea of the experimental results that underpin the claims made. Hopefully they will be motivated to take a deeper look at the evidence for themselves.

Information about the film is available on its website,

Reference Information: 
Documentary directed by Renée Scheltema, 2009