BRITISH scientists say there is convincing evidence that a significant proportion of the population possess psychic powers.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science was told an increasing number of experiments support the theory of a human "sixth sense" - an ability which may have its roots in our past, when the ability to sense the presence of a predator was a matter of life or death.
The view that people are capable of paranormal feats, such as premonitions, telepathy, and out-of-body experiences, is supported by new research by the Institute of Psychiatry, which suggests the human mind may exist outside the body like an invisible magnetic field.
The research is being led by Dr Peter Fenwick, a neuro-psychiatrist at London University, who has just completed a survey of heart patients claiming to have had "near-death experiences" after their hearts had stopped beating.
"There is now convincing evidence to challenge the current theory that consciousness can only exist inside the brain - and if you can have consciousness without associated brain function, that is enormously important for our understanding of the mind," he said.
For his latest research, 60 patients at Southampton General Hospital’s coronary care unit were interviewed after heart attacks had left them temporarily brain-dead. Seven reported near-death experiences - defined by characteristic features such as a feeling of leaving your body, going through a tunnel and entering an area of "love, bliss and consciousness".
"The significance of this is that after a cardiac arrest you lose consciousness within eight seconds; within 11 seconds the brain’s rhythms become flat, and within 18 seconds there is no possibility of the brain creating a model of the world - so the brain is down," said Dr Fenwick.
"Yet whenever we asked people when their near-death experiences occurred, they said it was during unconsciousness. If that’s true, their experience was occurring when there was no blood flowing through the brain - and consciousness would appear to exist outside the brain."
It could be argued that their experiences occurred in the few seconds between brain functions being restored and the return of consciousness. But recent research on a patient in the United States, where traces of electrical activity in the brain were closely monitored, suggested this was not the case.
"That study and other evidence points to the mind and brain not being identical, and it seems that the mind may operate in part outside the brain as a sort of field which works in the same way as a TV receiver receives programmes through the airwaves," said Dr Fenwick.
"The main question we are trying to answer is does the brain-identity theory really hold - and the next step is to find more people who experience leaving their bodies and put symbols on the ceiling or walls of the ward to see if they are able to detect them."
Dr Fenwick said the idea of the mind existing outside the body helped to explain the growing weight of scientific evidence pointing to genuine psychic powers.
For example, US trials showed women trying to become pregnant by in-vitro fertilisation were twice as likely to conceive if they were "prayed for" by a group of people hundreds of miles away who had never met them.