by Ingo Swann
In June of 1972, Dr.
H. E. Puthoff invited me to make a short visit
to Stanford Research Institute (SRI) [later renamed SRI
International]. From this visit soon arose the important Psychoenergetics Research Project at SRI, largely funded by
you-know-who, and which creatively prospered until Dr. Puthoff
resigned from it in 1985.
The purpose of the first visit was not only to experimentally poke
around in the psi phenomena but to discuss basic issues regarding
them. We found it relatively easy between us to erect a roster of
issues we both suspected were critical to the phenomena but which
were seldom, if at all, considered elsewhere in the world.
On the roster appeared the Signal-To-Noise Problem. I had already
begun grappling with this problem during experiments at The American
Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) beginning in 1971. But as a
physicist, Puthoff was entirely familiar with it, since it is one of
the greater issues in the whole of science. And so, on this item, he
and I found we were of like mind.
The only initial confusion was that this topic appeared as about
eighth or ninth on the roster after a number of psychological
situations we thought might be more important. By about the end of
1974 though, the signal-to-noise issue topped the list, and was
finally and correctly identified as THE problem.
In other words, the REAL story of remote viewing, its beginning and
end and all that goes in between, first and foremost has to do with
the signal-to-noise ratio.
It is worth pointing up early here that the central interest of the
intelligence community in psi phenomena DID NOT focus on a bunch of
psychics strutting their stuff, or on a bunch of parapsychologists
seeking to theoretically explain psi theoretically. That interest,
and especially the interest of the sponsors, focused precisely on
the signal-to-noise ratio.
And so the real story of why the intelligence community became
interested in remote viewing is also the story of the
signal-to-noise ratio applied to it. You see, both Puthoff and I,
although somewhat inadvertently at first, presented the issue of
remote viewing as a signal-to-noise problem, and not as anything
else more familiar to average concepts of psi.
It now must clearly be stated that if the parameters of the
signal-to-noise issue, and its attendant problems, are not
thoroughly understood, then remote viewing cannot, and will not, be
understood in any real, functional clarity.
It does not matter what else you might think you (pro or con)
understand regarding remote viewing. This single issue is axiomatic
not only to remote viewing but to ALL of the other superpowers of
the human bio-mind.
For the definitions and descriptors of signal-to-noise I largely
depend on my copy of the fifth edition of Van Nostrandís Scientific
Encyclopedia (1968) because it (and possibly later editions) is
easily available in libraries and schools. The basic definitions of
the ratio will not have changed since 1968, and never will. If at
first the definitions seem difficult, just carry on for all will
become clear ahead.
SIGNAL: (1) An independent
variable; (2) A visual, audible, or other indication used to
convey information; (3) The intelligence, message, or effect to
be conveyed over (or through) a communication system; (4) A
NOISE: Any undesirable sound. By extension, noise is any
unwanted disturbance within a useful frequency band, such as
undesired electric waves in any transmission channel or device.
Such disturbances, when produced by other services (or systems
or sources) are called interference. Noise is also accidental or
random fluctuation in electric circuits due to motion of the
current carriers. From this concept of noise, the term is used
as an adjective to denote unwanted fluctuations in quantities
that are desired to remain constant (or clear and not interfered
We can now shorten these definitions.
"Signal" is the message or information. "Noise" is whatever
distorts, deforms, prevents, interferes with, disorganizes, changes
or aborts the signal down to the point where the signal might not be
locatable or received at all.
In a scientific sense, the signal-to-noise ratio is most familiar to
electrical engineers and anyone dealing with instruments (radio,
television, radar, sonar, etc.) Computer jocks would consider
garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) as noise.
Anyone with a radio would be familiar with noise, calling it static.
If the picture on your TV is not coming in crystal clear, then some
kind of noise is interfering with it. Messages or information which
are not clear and precise are noisy ones.
In terms of the electromagnetic universe in which we all live and
are vitally hooked into, we know that information can be transmitted
via precise EM waves and frequencies usually referred to as
Our visual receptors receive signals of a very small band of the EM
spectrum, which we call the light spectrum. Our sonic receptors (in
the ears) receive another band of the EM spectrum. And so on.
When our eye receptors or their system become damaged or eroded, we
say we canít see as well. But actually, the eye-sensors conveying
information are suffering an increase of noise.
The phrase "signal-to-noise ratio" thus refers to how much signal
and how much noise is present regarding just about anything and
The full meaning of the signal-to-noise ratio, then, is that we live
within a signal-to-noise universe, or a signal-to-noise world, where
the ratios between the signals and the noise are of crucial and
We can even extend this to include the distinctions between
noise-as-chaos and signals-as-order. And as well, can include real
truth as clear signals and untruths and the not-true as noise.
Finally, we can say that signals equate to accuracy, while noise
equates to inaccuracy.
With regard to remote viewing, then, or to any other of the
superpowers of the bio-mind, it is important to know that our
species does possess the basic faculties for them. But beyond that,
this importance is secondary if those faculties are submerged in
more noise than signal.
And, with some notable exceptions, this is the average case among
most specimens of our species -- more noise than signal.
At this point, then, the only thing that matters is the
For, you see, our species might possess extraordinary faculties for
a lot of things. But by inspection, it is also an extremely noisy
species in many more ways than one.
In any event, when in the very early 1970s, Puthoff and I, and soon
others, included the signal- to- noise problem in our research
agendas and proposals, the result was that we placed the issue of
psi perceptions in a context that was instantly recognized by
scientists and technicians worldwide.
As you will see in my essay entitled "Remote Viewing -
Misconceptions and Confusions," the intelligence community had begun
examining and tracking psi developments in the early 1930s. It had
generally been concluded, by the late 1950s, that the existence, or
not, of psi was not the issue.
Indeed, almost everyone accepts that psi faculties exist within our
species, and have done so from time immemorial.
But the crucial distinction has always been the critical
signal-to-noise ratio --- also expressed by the companion metaphor
as the ratio of accuracy to inaccuracy.
Now, it is interesting to note that parapsychologists, although
aware of the accuracy-to- inaccuracy ratio, had hardly ever
interpreted this as the signal-to-noise ratio.
With respect to the Psychoenergetics Project at SRI between
1973-1985, almost all of the principle funding and support was
acquired on behalf of identifying and researching the
signal-to-noise issues clearly present regarding psi performance.
Obviously, if these issues could be sorted out, it was theoretically
possible to decrease noise and enhance signal.
The first step that needed to be undertaken was to ascertain the
average ratio of signal/noise among naturally occurring psi
perceptions in both gifted and non-gifted persons. If this average
could be determined, then it would act as the baseline against which
increases and decreases in performances could be judged.
A large number of individuals volunteered or were recruited to take
part in experiments designed solely to observe the signal-to-noise
By the end of 1974, it began to look like that average ratio was 20%
signal to 80% noise. By the end of 1975, though, further experiments
showed that the average was about 15% signal to 85% noise, with some
Is it now completely necessary to point out that this statistical
baseline had been confirmed in 1973- 1975 by Dr. H. E. Puthoff and
his good offices.
Recent claims, portrayed via this or that media, that this baseline
was identified by others only between 1989-1993 are completely
without foundation. They are as well attempts to rewrite the history
of remote viewing, and without doubt mislead public perception of
that history. In fact, such claims or implications have been made by
individuals who know better, and whom should apologize to Puthoff.
Now, the ratio of low signal (low or infrequent accuracy) to high
noise (high and frequent inaccuracy) could not possibly be of any
service within the intelligence community respective of using psi
perceptions for espionage purposes. If decisions are to be taken
based on espionage inputs, one has to be relatively sure that the
inputs consist of "good" information and not "bad" information.
So, after the baseline had been determined, the next entirely
logical step was to figure out how to enhance the signal, right?
Well, this particular goal has never been invisible to anyone. Very
many methods have been evolved purporting to enhance psi signals
under the rubric of "developing your psychic potentials."
I was the first to point out, even before I heard of Puthoff or
that if any of these methods had worked, our world would already be
populated with a very large number of achieved superpsychics. Well,
would it not be? Címon, Netsurfers, think this through --- and there
are now more of You than there are superpsychics, and many of You
know the important difference between noise and signal.
Now there is a kind of "formula" which is frequently used just about
everywhere. In order to perfect something, one has two basic
options: find out whatís right about it and enhance that; and/or
find out whatís wrong and cure that.
The usual course decided upon consists of the former. Few think to
examine what is wrong, because doing so will have some kind of cause
or source no one wants to admit to.
But in electrical engineering or regarding instrumentation, no
signal can be enhanced or protected unless the noise sources that
erode it are identified.
In 1974, I suggested, well, we donít really know how to enhance the
signal --- so letís work to identify the noise sources. Believe it
or not, this is an accepted approach in science and among
technicians throughout the world. Believe it or not, nothing of the
kind had ever been thought of, much less attempted, in conventional
But the hypothesis here is a very simple one: subtract the noise ---
and what, then, are you left with?
The signal-to-noise ratio is universally accepted as entirely
meaningful in a large number of human endeavors.
But for reasons almost, but not entirely inexplicable, when it comes
to considering the human mind, the signal-to-noise factor has hardly
ever been applied.
On the other hand, most will accept that the human mind processes,
conveys and acts upon information. If you really want to experience
having your synapses rattled, seek out and talk with someone who
does not believe that the human mind processes information but is
just a stimulus/response organism.
You can also encounter certain specimens of our species who donít
want to process certain kinds of information --- and some of whom
belabor themselves with ensuring that other specimens donít process
If we can accept that information equates to signal, then we are
obliged to assume that mind processes signals under the rubric of
If one gets this far without having minor nervous breakdowns, then
we are forced to accept the axiom that the signal-to-noise ratio is
as relevant to information as it is relevant to anything else.
We then come to the concept that mental information processing grids
that become constructed in each specimen of our species are
susceptible to the signal-to-noise ratio.
If we take the very daring step of abandoning all other images
humans hold of our species and ourselves, and temporarily consider
each specimen of our species principally as A THINKING MACHINE OR
INSTRUMENT --- well, we now have a metaphor of ourselves that would
be entirely consistent with the situation regarding the
Gasping for breath here, we can now consider how each thinking
machine is mind-dynamically WIRED.
To carry on with this particular line of discussion we would have to
consider that each born specimen is also a born bio-mind thinking
But there is a larger, more encompassing situation. It is this.
It is widely assumed that each specimen of our species is born with
at least the rudiments of a mind. Each, therefore, is also born to
think, since we believe that is what the mind chiefly does.
Indeed, it is universally agreed that the powers of thinking are our
most pronounced and special attribute --- and that it is this single
attribute that has elevated our species to the top position of
masters of all things on Earth, excepting earthquakes, volcanoes and
the weather. The chief image we hold of our species, then, is that
of the Thinking Being --- as species Homo sapiens sapiens (Man who
knows that it knows.)
Mind and thinking, however, process information. It is therefore
implicit that any mind-processing of information requires systems to
do so. Systems which process anything are susceptible to the
signal-to-noise ratio and its attendant problems. Broadly speaking,
then, the human mind is susceptible to signal and noise, as are the
processes it uses to think with and through.
Yet the signal-to-noise situation is never applied to the human mind
either as a processor of information or as a thinking thing.
Additionally, anything which processes anything is, by definition, a
MACHINE (definitions of): It
is amusing to note that my trusty Websterís first gives an
"archaic" definition, to wit, a constructed thing whether
material or immaterial. "Archaic," of course, means that the
term was once used in those two contexts -- although today it is
somewhat of a challenge to imagine what a constructed immaterial
machine might consist of.
In any event, the major contemporary
(1) an assemblage of parts
that transmit forces, motion and energy one to another in a
(2) an instrument designed to
transmit or modify the application of power, force, or motion
(3) a living organism or one
of its functional systems [and which does (1) and/or (2) above]
Please note that definition (3) above IS
given in my dependable dictionary --- and is therefore not a figment
of my imagination, and is not archaic or obsolete.
Now emerges a signal situation or question. Clearly all of us at
base entirely believe that we are living organisms that possess
functional systems --- or which we believe to be functional. But
does anyone think of themselves as a machine, as a thinking machine
whose assemblages of thinking parts transmit or modify energy,
forces, power, or motions?
Well, the concept of ourselves as human beings arouses the idea of
ourselves as an entity of some kind. And against this entity concept
the issue of the signal-to-noise ratio hardly seems relevant.
And, indeed, if the entity did not think, or thought of Nothing,
then it wouldnít be relevant, right? Instead we would be entirely
composed only as stimulus-response bio-mechanisms (as some early
Human entities, however, are born to think --- and furthermore are
genetically pre-installed with the systemic equipment and
hard-wiring to do so. In other words, we are not just bio-born, but
are born bio-mind mechanisms (a.k.a. entities.)
Thereafter, information is absorbed or introduced into (i.e., input)
the entity-born-to-think. And it is this information it then uses to
think with through the systems pre-installed to process information.
Since all information is a matter well within the signal-to-noise
ratio and its attendant problems, and since all humans utilize
information to think-process with, all humans no matter what they
are called are susceptible to the signal-to-noise ratio and its
In any event, there is probably no such human critter which is
absolutely and completely information- less.
All humans, then, are walking, talking, eating, defecating
information processors --- to which the signal-to-noise ratio is not
only important but basic and fundamental.
As Iíve already indicated, we donít at all think of ourselves in any
way remotely resembling the above.
About as close as we come to the above is that occasionally someone
encounters or talks about "clear thinking."
Sometimes people wonder what others are using to think with.
Today, some of the computer literate have begun to wonder how and
why people are wired they way they are --- largely because they are
aware that if computers are not correctly "wired" then those
advanced machines produce information noise or noisy information.
Indeed, a "virus" introduced into a computer system is a source of
"noise" which proceeds to discombobulate all of the installed
computer programs and systemic functions designed to process and
produce unadulterated "signal."
Today, it is generally considered that computers are lesser (so far)
emulations of the human mind. Indeed, the WorldWide Web is, by some,
being considered emulative of the worldwide brain.
The signal-to-noise situation is vividly applied to computers, their
programs, their information inputs and outputs, and into all the
reaches of computerdom and Internetland. There is no
misunderstanding that computers, although emulative of the human
mind, are information machines. Machines which exactly match and
correspond to the first two definitions of "machine" given above.
I do consider all of the above as hypothetical, of course, and would
never dare to indicate that anyone is merely a walking, talking,
thinking machine with a number of appetites, fixations, and
But having brusquely advanced the hypothetical line-up just above, I
can now indicate that the closest conventional approximation to them
is that sometimes the idea of "clear thinking" is mentioned here and
there. Clear thinking, as, perhaps, opposed to noisy thinking.
Well, we can describe our species in many different ways. But Alas!
One way to describe ourselves is that, based on easily observable
evidence, we constitute a species that is fascinated and sometimes
completely preoccupied with turning fact (signal) into fiction, and
fiction (noise) into fact. We are so excellent in all this that we
can even turn truth into the not-true, and the not-true into truth.
Indeed, we are the only known species that does these rather
remarkable transfigurations on a rather continuing and redundant
In any event, it doesnít really matter how we think of ourselves or
our species --- since in any which way we do or donít, as individual
specimens are susceptible to the signal-to-noise ratio.
By now some of you chancing to read this essay might wonder what all
of it has to do with remote viewing (distant-seeing) and the other
superpowers of the human bio-mind.
Well, if the mental information processing grids of a given bio-mind
specimen are noisy regarding its indwelling hard drive of superpower
signals, then that specimen probably wonít very well be able either
to identify or process the relevant inputs of information.
In other words, the noise ratios internal to the grids have to be
reduced before the signals can become perceptible.
There is a very apt analogy here. If you are in a very noisy room,
itís quite probable you canít hear what the person next to you is
I.e., if your mental information processing grids are very noisy
regarding your natural superpower endowments, then you wonít hear
what they are saying. This is rational logic, is it not?
As the result of the above discussions, we can now talk of remote
viewing in the light of the signal-to-noise ratio.
It can be shown, with relative ease, that the signals associated not
only with the remote viewing processes, but with all the
superpowers, are quite subtle, and perhaps even fragile.
Although the concept of signal-to-noise was not used in pre-Modern
societies, the facts of the subtle nature of the signals were
generally understood quite well. Indeed, most pre-Modern societies
worked to set up noise-free environments within which it was
believed the subtle signals could better be detected, sensed or
Also set up parallel to noise-free environments was the concept of
the "quiet mind" --- i.e., the noise-free mind. Many methods were
advanced regarding how to achieve the noise-free mind --- or how to
delete the noise from the mind at least for the duration needed to
detect the subtle signals.
The ideas of the noise-free environment and the quite mind are, of
course, familiar to just about anyone with an interest in the
bio-mind faculties which detect subtle signals. These ideas have
been pursued during the modern period, sometimes quite broadly and
vigorously. And it is generally believed that if these two
noise-freeing factors can be established, then the outcome will be
the acquisition of enhanced superpower information.
In other words, a wholesale number of "superpsychics" would emerge,
the question regarding the existence of the superpowers would have
been settled once and for all, and the human world would be a
In spite of the expectations, not much of the kind has happened. The
incidence of high-stage superpowers remains quite low, while the
most convincing manifestations of them remain spontaneous and
frequently occur within circumstances that are decidedly not
There is only one most likely explanation for this "failure." It is
this. While we certainly can comprehend the relationship of signal
to noise, we also need to know more precisely what signals and noise
Even a quiet mind might not recognize signals unless its mental
information processing grids can identify them and their special
characteristics. And no one can delete noise unless it is recognized
for what it is.
As has been discussed above, it is probably more relevant to
identify noise and noise sources in order to delete them from mental
information processing grids. But herein exists a great difficulty.
Having spent some twenty years working along these lines, it is
clear that mental information processing grids possess noise factors
that ARE NOT RECOGNIZED AS SUCH.
For example, an incorrect concept that is thought to be correct will
not be identified as a noise source.
As a gross illustration here, some believe that ESP is the work of
the devil --- even though ESP is treated very positively in the
Bible although not under that term.
Such specimens therefore possess a mental information processing
grid that they believe holds correct data, but which none the less
is "dirty data" (noise.) They will obviously have problems with
their own ESP potentials.
Likewise, a science type who believes the idea correct that the
superpowers are impossible because they transcend time and space
will not be able to process evidential or correct information
regarding the functions of the superpowers. Or if they do try to
process such information, it will go through that particular
disbelief filter and come out in some fashion according to it. Anti-psi
skeptics, for example, cannot correctly process correct information
and data, and when they try the only result is dirty, noisy
It is quite broadly accepted that the minds of OTHERS can contain
incorrect hypotheses, convictions, ideas and concepts --- all of
which contribute to noise held in the mind. Oneís own mind, of
course, never suffers from the same condition.
The human mind, collective and individual, is probably the single
biggest source of NOISE on our planet, while the minds of various
specimens often produce some of the dirtiest data possible.
Even so, most specimens of our species believe that the ideas and
concepts they possess about things and phenomena are the correct
ones to have --- and, furthermore, the correct ones to perpetuate
and to make others share in.
Additionally, many specimens donít actually possess clear and
concise concepts and ideas they believe to be correct or incorrect.
They rather possess concepts and ideas that are vague, nebulous and
ambiguous without realizing as much. Obviously, nebulous concepts
tend toward being noisy ones. Many specimens possess no ideas and
concepts relevant to various kinds of information --- and so they
route that information through some other grid which has nothing to
do with anything.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, there is the copious evidence that
our species has the marvelous penchant of turning fact into fiction,
and fiction into fact.
If either or both of those reversals have been installed, in this
sense, then, the "quiet mind" probably isnít the same thing as a
noise-free one. Any mind can roam quite contentedly among its
self-held noise if the belief is held that the noise is not noise.
Alas! It is difficult to proceed with this line of discussion
because doing so can quickly degenerate into volcanic situations,
diatribes, polemics and worse. Hardly any specimen can bear the idea
that its mind and grids are occupied with so much as even one dirty
data point or noisy information package.
In any event, the signal-to-noise situation is entirely relevant to
all of the superpowers. Indeed, no one calls a superpower a
superpower if what issues forth from it is noise and dirty data.
Accuracy and clarity are the signal features of each and all of the
superpowers. And if such is not present by confirmatory feedback,
then something other than superpower functioning regarding signals
Near the beginning of this essay I discussed how the
naturally-occurring signal-to-noise ratio was discovered and
confirmed at SRI relevant to remote viewing. With certain notable
exceptions, that ratio was discovered on average to be about 15-20%
signal to about 80% noise.
This average ratio was clearly not suitable for remote-viewing
espionage purposes. Efforts were then undertaken to study not the
signal, but the noise and its sources in an effort to delete them
from the mind - dynamic processes involved - after which signal
could be identified and enhanced.
What then happened is the real story of remote viewing and also the
reason that the SRI project lasted for so long under Dr. Puthoffís
auspices. Had not decreases in noise and increases in signal been
demonstrated, then it is quite clear that the project would have
been abandoned after a year or so.
Fourteen years later the remote viewing effort began failing ---
largely because too many individuals who had become involved opted
to ignore noise sources. When, then, in 1989-91, a certain
individual again tested for remote viewing potentials, he
rediscovered the 15% to 18% signal to noise ratio. The whole of this
story will be told in
my forthcoming book which will be published
initially via the Internet.