Photo by Robert Burroughs
Cleve Backster had just watered the office dracaena when he suddenly wondered if he could use part of his polygraph equipment to measure the rate at which the water rose from the root into the leaf.
Cleve Backster’s lab associate had already taken some living cells from inside my mouth and put them in a tiny glass test tube. Into the tube, he had placed silver wire electrodes connected to a functioning polygraph instrument. Backster knew what would happen next.
Baxter works in a suite of rooms on the fifth floor of the San Diego Daily Transcript Building downtown.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
I was skeptical, but Backster didn't have any doubts. He knew that the stuff from my mouth, contrary to popular scientific belief, wasn’t insensate but instead was very much aware of the events going on in the room around it and was furthermore reacting to those events. So Backster and I were sitting and chatting, waiting to witness some of those reactions, when — RRR-RRRRUNNNNGGGGG!!! - a telephone located in an adjoining room intruded on our conversation.
Stephen White recalled an interesting interview he had read in Playboy magazine with William Shockley.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Backster ignored it for a few moments, waiting for his lab associate to answer. But his associate was busy,and Backster’s eyes gleefully turned to the polygraph chart — which had suddenly gone crazy.
White turns a page and comes upon a nude photo of Bo Derek. The polygraph pen suddenly tears across the chart.
“See, this is conflict. Who's going to answer it?” he said, clucking with satisfaction as we watched the polygraph pen slam frantically across the chart paper. “The damn cells are reaching right into our minds!” I was impressed. So was Backster, which is remarkable considering that he’s been observing mysterious and provocative phenomena like this for almost seventeen years.
It was seventeen years ago that Backster first hooked up a house plant in a New York City laboratory to a polygraph and saw things that made him suspect that the plant was reading his mind. Even if Backster’s name never quite became a household word, the ramifications of his informal experiment soon became a household truism. Remember back to the late Sixties and early Seventies, when people began to talk about plants having feelings? When it suddenly became fashionable to speak to your Boston fern? Backster started it all.
Even though the talk-to-your-plants fad has now faded, Backster remains unshaken. He has moved from New York to San Diego, and these days he connects his polygraphs not just to plants but to a wide range of biological specimens. Not only is he still awed by what he sees when he does so but, in fact, he’s convinced that his observations will lead to sweeping revolutions in modern science. He almost can’t believe that, at best, his work is ignored; at worst it’s ridiculed. If he started it all, today Cleve Backster is a man who won’t — can’t — let it end.
That’s not to suggest he’s a publicity seeker. When I heard about his work (from a local polygraph expert) and asked permission to write about it. Backster hesitated. A decade ago he granted dozens of interviews to such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Harper's. But then he stopped talking to the press; the interviews robbed him of research time, and besides, he really didn't have new findings to report, he said at the time. He finally only agreed to talk to me because he said he was on the verge of a breakthrough.
He does all his current work in a suite of rooms on the fifth floor of the San Diego Daily Transcript Building downtown. His laboratory is located in two aging, fluorescent-lit rooms which once belonged to the Drug Enforcement Agency. Only rooms this large could avoid looking overrun by all of Backster’s polygraphs and aquariums and microscopes and videotape cameras and recorders. The Backster School of Lie Detection is just down the hall. Backster practically lives in this same building (which fills the southeast corner of Sixth and E streets) in a small penthouse apartment, a special arrangement the landlords grant because Backster uses some of his video equipment to provide the building with security services. But if he sometimes sleeps in the penthouse, the lab engages the majority of his waking hours. And the majority of Backster's waking hours, by the way, are nocturnal. Typically, he rises late in the morning and buckles down to serious research by late afternoon, working until at least 3:30 a.m.
Only the clocks give a clue to whether it's night or day in these shuttered quarters. Five large dracaena plants scattered about on work tables provide the only touch of greenery. All five were cut from the Dracaena massangeana which was Backster’s first leafy polygraphic subject. That original plant itself occupies an adjoining office. At the age of almost eighteen, it looks more like a tree than a house plant, and it shares its offsprings’ evident health.
Backster was neither a plant lover nor a botanist on that fateful night back in 1966. As an inquisitive youth growing up in New Jersey, he had early demonstrated a taste for the outre. (At seventeen, for example, he conquered a fear of high dives by climbing to the top of a ten-meter diving tower, dousing his sweat pants with gasoline, and having someone put a match to them, whereupon his only option for extinguishing the flames was to swan dive into the pool below. This feat Backster later repeated for two years from a still higher tower in a New York City “aquacade” show.) His unconventionality seems to have presaged his later disdain for the tedious road that must be followed to acquire scientific credentials. When he enrolled in the University of Texas, he first majored in engineering, then switched to agriculture at Texas A&M, and had switched again to psychology when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Ablaze this time with patriotism, Backster dropped out of college and joined the Navy; he never completed his academic work for a bachelor’s degree.
By then he had already become fascinated with hypnosis, and he wanted to enter Navy Intelligence and study the danger hypnosis posed as a brainwashing technique. “But I was too young for anyone to listen to,” he recalls. He met with greater acceptance in the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, which he joined as a master sergeant once his Navy hitch was up. In the Army, Backster began teaching American military and government personnel both how to use hypnosis as an interrogation technique and how to guard against being an unwitting hypnosis subject. When the Central Intelligence Agency heard about Backster’s work, the agency was sufficiently intrigued to terminate Backster’s Army enlistment and hire him as a civilian. Once with the CIA, Backster’s attention turned to drug-assisted interrogation techniques, and then to polygraphs “as an afterthought.’’
But his interest in this fledgling method of lie detection didn’t remain an afterthought for long. By 1951, in fact, he had left the CIA and founded his own polygraph business, through which he acted as a private consultant to most every government agency using the polygraph. In 1959 he started the lie detection school. His first love, however, was research, it quickly became clear. Throughout the Fifties, Backster devoted all his spare time to improving the accuracy of existing polygraphic techniques and by the early Sixties he was widely recognized to be one of the most distinguished experts in the field. He established a separate research foundation in 1965, with which his plan was to concentrate exclusively on further refining lie-detection instruments and procedures. The plan went awry in the wee hours of February 2, 1966.
On that wintry night, Backster had just watered the office dracaena when he suddenly wondered if he could use part of his polygraph equipment to measure the rate at which the water rose from the root into the leaf. In humans, one of the things polygraph examinations measure is the apparent change in electrical resistance between two different locations on the skin (one respected theory being that people tend to sweat when they lie, and sweat decreases electrical resistance). So Backster attached an electrode to each side of one of the dracaena’s leaves. He expected to see the ink tracing on the polygraph’s recording chart trend upward as the leaf s moisture content increased.
Instead the tracing gradually trended downward. That was puzzling. Then, about one minute into the tracing, the chart pen outlined a little mountain shape. More puzzling still. Backster’s curiosity quickened. The peak closely resembled the tracings generated by humans experiencing a brief emotional stimulation. He pondered how he could threaten the plant to test whether it was really reacting to some outside stimulus. Dipping another of its leaves into a cup of warm coffee brought no response. Then Backster flashed upon the idea of burning the plant. He didn’t actually do it; he just thought about doing it. The chart pen smashed upward, quivering violently.
This was the most important, most dramatic instant in Cleve Backster’s life. Today when he looks back upon it, he acknowledges that he reacted to that sudden turmoil on the chart in a way different from the manner in which most orthodox scientists would have reacted. Backster says that most of them would have rejected a priori the obvious possibility that the plant was somehow sensing his malevolent intentions. They would have automatically assumed some other explanation. But Backster says the first possibility was simply too obvious to be ignored. “Here it was in the middle of the night, toward morning. The building was empty. I wasn’t touching the polygraph equipment at all. I was about ten feet from the plant. And the only new thing that happened was my thought, ‘I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna burn that leaf.’ The moment that image came to mind, the pen just went zoom. ... It was very, very meaningful to me.”
That night Backster tested the plant until he ran out of chart paper. “I just let the thing run. . . . And I was already trying different things, like shutting the lights off and leaving the plant in the dark. And instead of quieting down as I would expect it to, it just went crazy. I saw all kinds of things that just reinforced the things I saw initially. At the end of that session, it was getting time for people to come in to work, and 1 had tacked this original chart up along a long hallway. When Bob Henson, my partner, came in, he looked at it and said, ‘Who ya testing that you would have a chart that long?’ And I said, ‘Reach out and you got it.’ And here was this plant.”
For all his initial excitement, Backster nonetheless refrained from immediately trumpeting his “discovery.” It came at a time when Backster was crusading against incompetency in the polygraph field, and he wanted to avoid providing his professional opponents with ammunition to use against him. So for months he hooked up various plants to the polygraph and just let the instrument run for hours — noting the “reactions” reflected on the chart, and as often as not seeing connections between them and the events in the plants’ environment. He had his partner provoke reactions (“just to make sure there wasn’t something super-weird about me, that I was the only one able to do this”), and he attached polygraphs to plants in different parts of the country (“because we know there is something weird about Times Square”).
As he proceeded he began to notice certain patterns. He found, for example, that the plants seemed to react most often to spontaneous events. “Once you get your mind involved in trying to make demands, you’re really interfering with what can happen,” he says. He found that the plants seemed to be able to distinguish between real and feigned threats. They also seemed to demonstrate a rapport with their individual human attendants, and that rapport, seemed eerily independent of space and time. For example, when Backster connected electrodes to each of two plants he was tending for a friend who was traveling across the country, the polygraph recorded dramatic reactions from both plants at the precise moment the friend's plane was landing at each of three separate airports.
As heady as these indications were, it didn’t take long for Backster to learn that they were not apparently limited to whole plants. He got comparable reactions when he connected a polygraph to a detached leaf, and he also got them from fragments of plant tissue. Finally, when he began seeing indications of awareness in such varied life forms as chicken eggs, yogurt, and human sperm, Backster began articulating a hypothesis.
He proposed that all living tissue possesses the ability to sense events and emotions around it. The ability can’t be termed “extrasensory perception” because plants and other primitive animal life forms don’t have the usual five senses in the First place. Instead, Backster termed this faculty “primary perception” and posited that it exists right down on the level of individual cells.
To test the hypothesis in a controlled experiment, Backster decided to see if plants would be able to perceive the nearby death of other living things — in this case, brine shrimp. As soon as he began to plan the details of the experiment, however, he ran into problems. For example, if plants can “read” human minds and if a human experimenter did the killing, then the plants might tune into the human participant’s thoughts and ignore the shrimp mortality. To avoid this potential confusion, Backster painstakingly devised an automated system for randomly dumping live brine shrimp into boiling water, a destination sure to prove fatal. Furthermore, he Figured he couldn't use plants that had become accustomed to his presence, or else the plants might continue to “track” him even if he left the laboratory. So he arranged for a third party to run down to a local dime store, buy philodendron plants, and then place them in a neutral “holding area” near Backster’s lab. Backster then would only move the philodendron (chosen for its thick, tough leaves) to the laboratory immediately prior to connecting the plants to the polygraph. Furthermore, once the plants were connected and the shrimp dumps were about to begin, Backster and his partner would leave the building and walk to a late-night restaurant several blocks away.
To minimize the chances of the plants sensing other neighboring events, Backster did all the experiments late at night, usually after midnight. To insure that the plants would not become too familiar with the shrimp deaths to react to them, Backster used no plant for more than three of his seven experimental runs. To check for fluctuations in electrical power (an alternative explanation for the “spikes” on the recording charts), he connected one polygraph to a Fixed-value resistor instead of a plant. Furthermore, he claims that he consulted a number of New York area scientists — physicists, biologists, even psychologists — and had them all evaluate his methodology “until I had just the most super-controlled experiment that couldn’t be picked apart.”
In the winter of 1968, Backster published the startling results of that experiment. Shrimp dumps had occurred within thirteen separate blocks of time, and the plants had demonstrated a reaction in eleven of those thirteen blocks. In contrast, they reacted in only eight of the sixty-five blocks of time in which no shrimp dump occurred. Pure chance would have dictated fifty-five false reactions to each eleven true ones. Since his experiment instead showed only eight false to eleven true reactions, Backster concluded that the evidence supported his theory of primary perception.
When Science magazine and a number of other respected journals declined to publish the results of Backster’s experiment, the rejection might have forewarned the polygraph expert of what lay ahead. However, he soon found a publisher in the International Journal of Parapsychology. News of Backster’s article came to the attention of the popular press almost immediately, and the reportorial orgy that followed would have distracted anyone from ominous premonitions.
Something about this notion of sentient vegetation tickled precisely the right spot on the American public’s fancy. McCall’s asked its readers, “Do You Chat With Your Plants?” and Reader's Digest wondered, “Do Plants Have Feelings, Too?” By 1973 Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, two writers who had described Backster’s work for Harper’s magazine, came out with a book called The Secret Life of Plants, which began with a sketch of Backster’s nocturnal discovery and which quickly climbed up national bestseller lists. If this fusillade of public interest demanded endless hours of Backster’s time, though, he says today, “I was willing to handle that.” He saw the publicity as furthering his chief goal. “Unlike a lot of people who worry about their material being stolen. I was hoping that someone else would take it,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll turn it over to the people that are specialists and let them handle it. . . .’I didn’t really think that it was going to be necessary for me to keep pushing it.”
If you look at the photographs of Backster that accompanied all those articles in the early Seventies, and then look at Backster today, only his hairstyle seems to have changed. Back then he wore a severely short-bristled crewcut which accentuated his broad, high forehead. Today his hair is grayer and looser, allowing his deep-set eyes and large ears to compete with the forehead for attention. In repose, the sharp geometry of Backster’s face makes him look somber. But it’s a face almost never in repose. Rarely do more than a few sentences go by without Backster cracking some joke. He possesses that rare ability to laugh heartily and unself-consciously at his own words, even at times when no one else is laughing.
Ten years ago he had cause to do a lot of chuckling. For a while it looked as if his work had captured not only the public’s imagination but also that of the scientific community. More than 5000 engineers and scientists asked for additional information when an article about Backster’s findings appeared in Electro-Technology journal in April of 1969. A number of prestigious scientific groups asked him to speak before them. “You can’t say there wasn’t some kind of curiosity about it,” Backster says today. However, he gradually began to perceive that sitting back and being curious about his work was one thing, but that undertaking serious research was quite another. “That’s where you incur the wrath. That’s where they’ve [the scientific community] been dragging their feet.” Some researchers did attempt to replicate (and thus confirm) Backster’s brine shrimp experiment; he says as many as twenty-five probably undertook some sort of investigation. “But when I saw what they did. . .” his voice trails off dismally. “Like, I would get letters saying they hadn’t, had much of a budget, so they had had to cut out all the automation.” Even given that handicap, Backster asserts, “Many of them didn't complain. They saw lots of interesting things. But they couldn’t package it together to make a big strong impression.”
Ultimately, only two researchers ever made serious attempts to duplicate Backster’s shrimp-drop experiment. Both those attempts were reported at perhaps the most prestigious assembly Backster has yet addressed, a special symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting held in January of 1975. The organizer of the symposium was Arthur W. Galston, a Yale University professor of botany and a scientiFic heavyweight who has evolved over the years into Backster’s intellectual nemesis, the Moriarty to Backster’s Holmes (or vice versa, depending upon one's perspective). The title of the symposium was “Electrical Responses of Plants to External Stimuli,” and those two attempts at replications did make a strong impression — a negative one.
One of the attempts was done by a Cornell professor and two undergraduates who stated that “we matched, and in several instances improved on, Backster’s experimental techniques” — only to find no correlation between the shrimp killings and the chart spikes. In the second attempt, a Texas researcher named J. M. Kmetz also found no significant correlation. Kmetz furthermore hypothesized that the “reactions” Backster recorded were nothing more than the adaption of the electrodes to being placed in service.
As perhaps could have been predicted, Backster had plenty to say in response. It still rankles him that the symposium allowed him only twenty minutes in which to present his body of work and also rebut the two replication attempts. But his response to both was the same: neither really duplicated his experimental conditions, Backster claimed. He pointed out that the Cornell researchers used a recording instrument different from the one he had employed; they used possibly unhealthy brine shrimp; they did three shrimp drops per run instead of Backster’s one (thus risking habituation of the plants to the experiment); and they used a different kind of control drop. Backster complained that the plants weren’t isolated from the brine shrimp, nor were they isolated from the experimenters either prior to or during the shrimp drops. “Any one or a number of these things could have sabotaged the thing,” he fumed. He also charged Kmetz with similar errors and a careless disregard for meticulous attention to detail. “But these people just shrug it off. They say they’re making improvements, but how do they really know they’re improvements? You cannot say that you have failed to repeat an experiment until you have precisely attempted it,” he concluded.
“There certainly were an abundance of points where I held my own at the AAAS meeting,” Backster says today. Yet the entire tone of the meeting bothered him, he admits. Five months before that symposium took place, Backster and his partner had become apprehensive about the crime and deterioration of New York, and had moved to San Diego, where the partner had relatives and Backster had pleasant memories of attending Navy’s antisubmarine warfare school. When Backster returned here after the scientific bloodletting at the AAAS meeting, he faced a serious strategic question: what next?
That was almost eight years ago; several things have bogged him down as he has worked out an answer. First, Backster points out that he still has obligations to his business and polygraph school. Consulting work calls him away several times a year, and whenever one of the school’s seven-week lie-detection courses is in progress, Backster teaches, usually three afternoons a week. The proceeds from this work support all Backster’s research.
In fact, his financial independence has been another obstacle; he only has been able to proceed as fast as he could spare the extra cash. “In all the time I’ve been researching this. I’ve never asked anyone for a cent. I’d have people ask me to ask them. But those have been for relatively small grants. A larger one was a $10,000 grant a number of years ago from the Babcock Foundation, but the others have all been for $1000 or $2000.” He has not asked for government money because “you’ve got people like Senator Proxmire running around with the ‘Golden Fleece’ awards. Can’t you see the fun he would have if federal grant money was put out to see if plants talk to humans!’’ Backster bursts out laughing, then adds, “Also, I’ve been very sensitive about someone looking at me and saying, ‘Well, what’s his gimmick to make money?’ They’ve never been able to Find any gimmick. Because there isn’t one.”
The restraints on his budget and time merely slowed Backster, however, as he mulled over the meaning of the AAAS meeting. Perhaps the most important decision he reached, eventually, was that he would not repeat his shrimp-drop experiment, though he’s confident he could repeat it. “If 1 do so,” he explained, “I’ve re-excited interest from people who aren’t going to follow instructions because they don't see the need to do so. And all they’re gonna do is produce negative data which they turn around and use against you.’’ Besides, Backster believes that if he did repeat his own experiment, no one would give the repetition much weight.
He decided that he’ll never publish the results of any future experiment until he first has had independent researchers, such as graduate students at local universities, replicate it. But Backster has reluctantly concluded that even such replication probably won't suffice to win respectability for his theory of primary perception. That theory is so earthshaking that his critics won’t be satisfied until experiments yielding evidence for it have been duplicated by established scientists at major universities. So Backster’s strategy has shifted in the direction of tantalizing such people — and at the same time enlightening them about all the new variables that will have to be controlled.
He may not look to them for grant money or tenure, he may secretly curse them, but today Cleve Backster is a man sorely dependent on the good will of established scientists. Although Backster talks about “making it respectable” to research primary perception, he really can’t do it alone. He needs help, and his need shows. During the weeks I interviewed him, Backster cautioned me at least six times that he really didn’t want to “badmouth science.’’ Periodically he would let off steam about how the scientific establishment has become politicized or close-minded or snobbish or unimaginative — and every time he’d pull himself back and a look of calm and tolerance would settle over his features. And he’d stress that he did understand the scientists’ concerns, and he’d reiterate his confidence that when they see what he’s seen, most of them will understand what he’s trying to do, and why.
Backster thinks of people like Charles Brandt, a photobiologist at San Diego State University. Backster met Brandt during the taping of The Green Machine, a 1978 program about plants for the highly acclaimed Nova television series. Backster’s findings were to be featured, but the producer also sought some “respectable’’ scientific commentary, and Brandt agreed to help provide it. As soon as they met, Backster sensed in Brandt tolerance and genuine interest. Backster was furthermore delighted when his instruments revealed strong “reactions” two times in a row when Brandt — on camera — added nutrient to some yogurt that was placed several feet away from another sample of yogurt that had been wired to a polygraph instrument. That footage, dramatic though it was, never made it into the final documentary. (“Because,” Backster speculates, “it got the ‘scientist’ mixed up with the ‘kook.’ Here was a professor doing what they’re supposed to be against.’’) Although the section of the show featuring Brandt was cut, the contact with the SDSU professor led Backster to consider Brandt one of his secret supporters. Backster also expressed to me the hope that some day Brandt might devote more time to examining the poly-graphic puzzles.
When I checked with Brandt, however, I heard a slightly different recollection of the taping. Brandt did praise Backster’s status as a polygraph expert and Brandt added that he personally had always been open to the possible existence of “supernatural’ ’ phenomena. But the SDSU professor snickered when he described the yogurt feedings. “We tried this, just for fun, and it turns out that if you add a nutrient every now and then, the thing responds. But the problem is interpretation. Is it a random event or isn’t it?” Brandt said he suggested one way of checking this: kill the yogurt microorganisms by heating them up in Backster’s autoclave. If the polygraph still showed reactions (to the feedings) even after the yogurt was dead, then that seemingly would disprove the yogurt as a source of those reactions. But Backster strongly resisted, arguing against the traditional distinction between “dead” and “living” material. Backster suggested that even a salt molecule might be “alive” by some definitions. Brandt told me that at that point, he mentally threw up his hands. “Backster’s a nice guy and I was sympathetic to what he's trying to do,’’ Brandt said, “but when I ran into that definition problem, I thought, well, hell, I don’t have the time for this.’’ When I told Backster about Brandt’s comment, the polygraph expert momentarily slumped with disappointment. Then he exclaimed, “You know why I didn’t want to do it (heat the yogurt]? Because I had tried it. And whatever the by-products are after you autoclave it, there’s something that isn’t destroyed. Because you can get mammoth signals. ... I felt it was really unsafe (to try the little experiment on camera].” Instead, under the pressure of the filming, Backster had dug in his heels and hastily rejected the “living” and “dead” distinctions.
Hearing of how that rejection alienated Brandt, Backster voiced confidence that he could clarify his position and quell the biologist’s misgivings.
I'm not so sure that he can, for Brandt said he didn’t think Backster had eliminated all the other explanations for the erratic electrical fluctuations, such as a chemical reaction between the electrodes and the substance with which they’re in contact. Brandt said, “I feel it’s his (Backster’s] obligation to do these experiments first, before he calls on others.”
That opinion is a mild echo of the sentiments felt by Arthur Galston at Yale. “He [Backster] is asking scientists to take their time and money and futures and run the risk of wasting their time, ruining their careers, and opening themselves up to a lot of ridicule.
It’s almost like someone somewhere claiming they’ve found a new element that weighs less than nothing and has the property of levity rather than gravity! The burden of proof is on Cleve Backster,” Galston snaps. “But evidence against him means nothing to him. . . . Whether he’s just a shrewd operator or self-delusional, I can’t tell you.” The botanist declares that Back-ster’s task is clear: to perform repeat-able experiments. “The rule of science says that no person should be believed when he makes an allegation until what he alleges can be repeated by reputable scientists elsewhere. Cleve Backster fails that simple test. . . . He is not in the realm of science.”
Faced with such attacks by Galston, Backster’s eyes mirror hurt but his face remains impassive. He says he doesn’t have the make-up to “get into these urinating contests” which do nothing but “tear down your consciousness.” This question of just what constitutes good science, however, is one which nearly obsesses Backster. For the thousandth time, he points out that he never has claimed to have scientifically proved anything. “I’ve simply said, ‘Hey, isn’t this interesting, and shouldn’t you be looking at it?’ And you bet they should be looking,” he asserts. Backster simply disagrees with Galston’s contention that the scienlists can’t be expected to interrupt their work on other projects to spend time on far-fetched (and experimentally unproven) possibilities. The possibilities suggested by his hypothesis are cataclysmic. If individual cells possess some sort of consciousness, a consciousness that can perceive and react to its environment, then all biological research must be reconsidered, at least: If that consciousness can communicate across physical barriers, so the principles of physics must be re-evaluated. Although he doesn’t claim to have proved these things to be true, Backster believes they are — on the weight of all his years of observation. And now he believes that any true scientist whom he can expose to some of those same observations simply will not be able to sleep at night until he explores these phenomena further.
That's why all Backster’s current efforts are directed at producing a portfolio of “high-quality observations.” He thinks there’s a difference between reading that cells from someone’s mouth might be “reacting” to the distant jangle of a telephone bell, and actually witnessing on a video screen the instantaneous swing of the polygraph pen as the bell sounds. Backster believes that scientists will have to see for themselves these repeated “coincidences” of stimulus and response. He thinks only such firsthand exposure will allow scientists to entertain the possibility that some sort of consciousness might fit into the explanation. If one's thoughts can affect the outcome of experiments, then “we're in another ballgame,” Backster insists. “It isn't like mixing chemical A to B and getting C, and getting it every time you mix the same quantities. . . . I’m saying, ‘Hey, you must observe this enough to respect the need for automation.”
I can testify to the impact of some of Backster’s videotapes. The most dramatic one I saw was recorded one night in June of 1980 and had as its subject Backster’s laboratory associate, Stephen White, a graduate student at San Diego State. (Backster thinks that if he hires local grad students, not only will he eventually win points through interaction with the San Diego academia but he may help direct some young hearts and minds toward meaningful, respected research of primary perception.) This particular night, Backster had suggested that White collect some cells from his own mouth and then connect them to the polygraph. (These cells, commonly known as “white” cells, are migratory cells that enter the mouth through the gums and, in Backster’s words, perform a type of oral housekeeping.) Backster had aimed one video camera at the polygraph, and another one at White, and the two video images were playing simultaneously on one screen. Backster and White were trying to ignore the cameras and allow for events to be as “spontaneous” as possible. The two men sat several feet from the sample of cells that had been hooked up to the polygraph. They were discussing this and that when White recalled an interesting interview he had read in Playboy magazine with William Shockley, the physicist who holds racially controversial views on genetics. That issue of the magazine happened to be in the laboratory, and White began paging through it, looking for the Shockley interview.
In the tape, you can see him quickly flipping the pages, and you can see the line of the polygraph recording, which is serrated with little zigs and zags, but is essentially flat. Then White turns a page and comes upon a nude photo of nubile Bo Derek. White doesn’t say a word, but the polygraph pen suddenly tears across the chart, swinging wildly. Noticing the reaction, Backster ribs White but encourages him to continue studying the racy photographs.
And the polygraph continues to act as if possessed. That’s the eeriest thing about this tape — the strength and duration of the reaction. The mild-mannered graduate student chokes out embarrassed protests, but the seconds slip by and the chart pen simply refuses to settle down. Only when White physically closes the magazine and pushes
it away does the chart return to its undisturbed state. And then when White makes a move to reclaim the Playboy, the pen again explodes into movement. It’s like a cartoon of a machine reading a man’s thoughts about a girlie magazine.
Today White says, “People can look at the tapes and say, ‘Oh you’re just saying you were thinking this or that. But with that tape, I know what was going through my mind!’’ He admits that his overall attitude toward Backster’s work changed profoundly the night of the Playboy tape. Before that, he was intensely skeptical; now, however, he’s convinced there is something to the reactions that Backster’s polygraphs reveal, even if White still has many questions about the precise nature of those reactions.
This Playboy tape is what Backster calls a “high-quality observation.’’ The only problem is that the tape has a certain rough, amateurish quality, and Backster has hopes of distributing to skeptical scientists much slicker, tonier portfolios of videotaped “observations.” Thus for the last few years he has directed most of his energies toward sprucing up his production facilities. He has acquired color videotape recorders. Now he can display four separate video images simultaneously on one screen. He got a “date-time generator” so all his current tapes have the year, month, day, hour, minute, and second superimposed upon the screen. He has obtained special TV microscopy equipment so that he can videotape microbe action through one of his laboratory microscopes.
All this has taken time, Backster points out, particularly on his skimpy budget. He spent a little less than $3000 assembling his video “mixer,” for example, instead of the $30,000 or so which it would have cost to purchase conventional studio equipment — but Backster paid the additional price in time, as nine months elapsed before he obtained compatible video components. In the same way, back in October Backster was sure that by the beginning of this month he would be finished assembling all his recording instruments and would be in the midst of taping observational “runs.” But a balky device for storing on videotape and then later regenerating the polygraphic signals obstinately refused to function.
Nonetheless Backster agreed to set up one preliminary run to give me an idea of the potpourri of activities he will be undertaking, probably within the next few weeks. He says some nights he and White will attach the polygraph to some biological substance, turn on the cameras, and then simply tinker with different tasks in the lab, trying to keep their minds free of expectations and open to spontaneous occurrences. Backster thinks some of those unplanned activities will trigger clear-cut polygraphic reactions. He says on other nights he'll activate his microscope-mounted cameras. For instance, he wants to connect the polygraph to a type of protozoa to see if the instrument will record a reaction during reproductive activity. Finally, because the tape of White reading Playboy was so sensational, Backster wants to try something similar with other human subjects. He gave me a preview of that last experiment.
On the night of the preview, Backster paid one of the janitors of the Daily Transcript Building five dollars to step into the lab for a few moments and act as a guinea pig. First White helped with the collection of white cells from the janitor’s mouth (a simple process in which the subject swishes saline solution around his mouth and then spits it out into beakers). White centrifuged the cells, then connected them to the polygraph. Then the janitor, an amiable young black man named Joe, sat down ten or fifteen feet away in a special little booth containing both a large timer and a closed book of pictures from magazines. Backster instructed Joe that when the test started, he should turn a page of the book every thirty seconds. “Try to really groove on ’em. Try to ignore the surroundings,” the polygraph expert recommended.
Expectantly, Backster. White, and I grouped around the polygraph as the test began. As the janitor stared at a photograph of an outdoor floral display, the pen meandered around the center of the chart paper. But when he turned the page and focused on a picture of the Marlboro cowboy, the polygraph pen peaked almost instantaneously. Backster grinned and whispered, “He smokes Marlboros.”
His grin faded as the chart pen settled back to the center of the paper while the janitor viewed pictures of a well-furnished living room, a giant dollar sign, Stevie Wonder (“I don’t think it’s the kind of music he likes,’’ Backster muttered), and a giant portable radio. The pen climbed a bit as the janitor turned to a picture of ice cream sundaes, but only about fifteen seconds later did it zoom up in a sharp reaction to the ice cream. The final image drew the same curiously mixed response: as the janitor peered at a photograph of a bare-breasted black woman, the pen did nothing for a few seconds, then whipped across the page to hit the top of the chart.*
What did it all mean? Backster wasn’t willing to draw any grand conclusions. This was merely a preliminary test of new equipment and procedures, he stated, although he thought a few of the janitor’s reactions were interesting. Actually the most interesting ones came after Backster bade the young man to leave the test booth. Conversationally, Backster demonstrated how the white cells had been connected to the polygraph, and as we stood together in front of that instalment, Backster concluded, straight-faced, “So this lets us see what you're thinking.’’ No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the pen sprang into action. “Does that mean you've got a dirty mind?’’ White asked. We all laughed at the janitor’s good-natured discomfort. It took a moment for the pen to return to normal, and the janitor was just about to depart when Backster piped up, “Now, without saying anything, Joe, think back to what we were talking about back in the elevator coming up here.” The very words seemed to galvanize the pen into action again. Backster snickered wickedly (and later confided that the elevator conversation had related to a pretty young woman).
Clearly, Backster wasn’t disturbed by the times when the pen revealed a “reaction” for which no cause was apparent. He says he rarely sees such unexplained “reactions” in the hours after midnight — when almost no one else is in the building. He adds that maybe an alternative explanation exists for some of the reactions. That's okay. Let the Establishment’s scientists come in and look for them. Let them prove him wrong — just don't let them act as if neither Backster nor his polygraphic mysteries inhabited the same planet.
And can he conceive of anyone actually disproving his hypothesis? I put that question to Backster one night. He had been telling me that even if no one has yet proved the existence of primary perception, all these years of observation have personally affected him. They’ve changed his views of human life, of the role of spirit in the world, of the connections between all living creatures on the planet. If anyone could disprove primary perception, then Backster's whole metaphysic would totter — but Backster doesn't seem worried. He's given it some thought and he can't imagine what could erase the sixteen years of careful, trained observation. He says that’s what it would take to show him that he’s wrong.
The polygraph chart below was recorded June 30, 1980. A videotape of the session was recorded simultaneously. The subject, Stephen White, was seated about ten feet from the polygraph instrument, which was connected to a sampling of living cells taken from his mouth. White was paging through an issue of Playboy magazine in search of an interview with scientist William Shockley. The chart records the reaction of White's isolated cells at the moment he turned to and viewed a pictorial review of actress Bo Derek. Elapsed time: approximately four minutes. (Chart not to scale.)
Subject turns to pages 112—113, Bo Derek, pictorial review
Magazine is closed
Subject reaches for closed magazine
_ Subject's hand touches magazine