a.k.a. The "Noisy Mind/Dirty Data" Issue


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 Nostrand's 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 signal wave.

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 with.)

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 band. 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 can't 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 everything.

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 critical importance.

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 biomind, 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 signal-to-noise ratio.

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 ratio.

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 notable exceptions.


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 SRI, 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? C'mon, 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 what's right about it and enhance that; and/or find out what's 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 don't really know how to enhance the signal --- so let's 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 parapsychology.


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 don't want to process certain kinds of information --- and some of whom belabor themselves with ensuring that other specimens don't process it either.

If we can accept that information equates to signal, then we are obliged to assume that mind processes signals under the rubric of processing information.


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 signal-to-noise ratio.

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 biomind thinking machine.

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.

MACHINE (definitions of): It is amusing to note that my trusty Webster's 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 definitions are: (1) an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion and energy one to another in a predetermined manner; (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 wouldn't be relevant, right? Instead we would be entirely composed only as stimulus-response bio-mechanisms (as some early psychologists theorized.)

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 biomind 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 variations.

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 I've already indicated, we don't 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 preferences.

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 basis.


In any event, it doesn't really matter how we think of ourselves or our species --- since in any which way we do or don't, 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 biomind.

Well, if the mental information processing grids of a given biomind specimen are noisy regarding its indwelling hard drive of superpower signals, then that specimen probably won't 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, it's quite probable you can't hear what the person next to you is saying.

I.e., if your mental information processing grids are very noisy regarding your natural superpower endowments, then you won't 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. (See my three essays on Intuition.)

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 perceived.

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 biomind 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 different thing.

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 noise-free.


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 consist of.

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 conclusions.


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. One's 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 don't 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 isn't 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 has occurred.


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. Puthoff's 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.