Once upon a time, there was a big important American General who was utterly convinced there was a way to walk through walls.
The only trouble was: he wasn’t very good at it.
Conversely, he was Chief of US intelligence.
According to the Daily Mail, people in his office at Arlington, Virginia, were not unaccustomed to watching their leader aim feistily at a wall, only to walk away with a bruised nose.
He was called Major General Albert Stubblebine III, and he was convinced that the next big thing in military warfare was the power of the mind.
“I still think it’s a great idea,”said General Stubblebine. “I simply kept bumping my nose. It’s a disappointment – just like levitation.”
The power of the mind can do much: some even claim it can move things about a bit.
Psychokinesis is the concept that objects can be moved or changed – simply by concentrating mentally on them.
It is there at the outer reaches of the respectable world of psychology: the 2009 Oxford Dictionary of Psychology chooses to include it, along with its little sister telekinesis; and yet the majority of studies which have ever been carried out, a meta-study in 2006* found, only show a very tiny effect. And this, the authors of the study say, could be due to researchers talking up the positives because they knew their results would be published.
Remember that. A very, very tiny effect.
Time to whisk you away to my forest, somewhere on the outskirts of Windsor, where not one, but two dogs are taking their twice-daily constitutional at the moment.
Alongside Biohazard Bill, aka our resident family mutt Macaulay, we have the sleek speed machine that is my sister’s dog. Her name, for those uninitiated, is Clover.
And Clover is a bit strange.
She’s not so much one brick short of a load. That’s Macaulay’s job. Clover is more a one-brick-too-many kinda gal. She’s utterly, irrevocably driven.
Her life exists to fetch sticks. It’s not so much a pastime as a career. She approaches it like the chair of a city board, with attack, with rather too much eye contact, with plenty of liaison with whoever is holding the stick.
While other dogs her size and shape gambol, carefree, about the olfactorily pleasing forest floor; while they chase squirrels and deer and runners; why, Clover is a few feet ahead of the most powerful human, staring fixedly at them and intermittently placing a stick on their feet for reference and attention worthy of a Chief Executive’s inbox.
So there we were, trundling through the forest, and we arrived at the pond.
My husband loves to throw things into water. It’s elemental with him. And our dog doesn’t chase sticks, so Phil has never been able to throw a stick into a pond and get it back again. The dog just looks at him vacantly, and sits down to wait for the next family life event.
Maybe, thought Phil, Clover will chase her stick right to the centre of the pond. Possibly – probably, even – she will bring it back to me.
And so he swung the stick up and down and lobbed it right into that excalibur region of the lake. You know: the deep mysterious bit in the middle.
There was one important aspect of this career-dog’s preferences we didn’t even know: she hates swimming and appears to fear deep water.
But she is driven.
Oh, the anguish: the deep bereft focus of this sleek sheepdog as she stood in the shallows crying! It was as if there was an invisible string between her heart and the stick which floated, so inaccessible, so remote, out there over the depths.
The water snails were unsympathetic, mainly because Macaulay was having a stab at trying to catch and eat them. The wind was almost non-existent. And Clover stood in the shallows, yearning with all her heart and soul.
The kids dashed round to the other side of the lake. Maybe, they reasoned, they could make little waves and create momentum which would push the stick back towards the jaws which longed for it so.
It was a valiant effort but it did nothing to bring the stick closer.
But somehow – how, none of us could quite explain – the stick was moving towards her.
You couldn’t actually see it moving, you understand. You’d just watch and note, every so often, that the gap between the stick and the dog’s relentless stare had closed, imperceptibly.
And still the dog stared, and cried, and yearned, and the kids used sticks to paddle, and Phil commentated, and I heaped recriminations on Phil.
Finally, after about ten minutes, there were only two feet between the dog and the stick. Her eyes bored into it. She whimpered and tried to get closer, and got caught in mudbanks, but her eyes never wavered.
And then the gap was one foot, and half a foot and finally, she opened her jaws to claim the prize. She was overjoyed, and the dissonance of the last 15 minutes melted away in doggie jubilance.
Let’s think back to that meta-study of 2006. The power of the mind could only be said to have a very tiny effect, it said, if any at all.
So: was this a very tiny effect?
Or none at all?
*Bösch, Holger; Fiona Steinkamp, Emil Boller (July 2006). “Examining psychokinesis: The interaction of human intention with random number generators–A meta-analysis”. Psychological Bulletin 132 (4): 497–523.