How a Former Columbia Professor Fell Deep Into ‘Psychic’ Pseudoscience

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Spiro Pantazatos doesn’t seem to mind that his research interests lie off the beaten path.

“I’ve always been fascinated by research topics that don’t tend to get a lot of attention or funding for whatever reason—if they’re considered taboo, for instance,” the clinical neurobiology researcher told The Daily Beast.

For the most part, his citations would be considered par for the course for any scientist who studies the brain. His work includes a bevy of papers showing the brain’s role in everything from depression to obesity. There’s nothing peculiar about these avenues of research—it’s well-established that such links exist, even if the specifics are still being pieced together.

But there are a few clues into Pantazatos’ penchant for the unconventional.

Take his 2014 paper published in the journal NeuroImage: Looking at birthdates and brain scans, Pantazatos related a person’s birth season to specific differences in their brain’s structure and function, when separated by sex. At the time, Wired called the results “intriguing.”

The project sparked a more ambitious idea to validate these trends more thoroughly. Datasets of American patients do not contain birthdates, since they’re considered a form of protected health information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But perhaps, Pantazatos thought, he could source brain scans and personal information directly from volunteers—“cut out the middleman,” he said.

By 2021, Pantazatos, then a faculty member at Columbia University, had set up the project with $10,000 in funding from NYC Media Lab, an accelerator for early-stage media and technology startups. A new organization called IONS, based in Novato, California, had joined the research, helping recruit participants and guiding its direction. Called My Brain and Me, the project asked a range of survey questions from people who submitted their brain scans, including a specific set designed in collaboration with IONS.

In a post titled, “Columbia University to Study the Neuroanatomy of Psychic Abilities,” IONS described the newest goal of the project. “There is an ever-growing body of evidence that psychic abilities like telepathy, psychokinesis, astral projection, and channeling are not only real—they’re quite common,” the post read. My Brain and Me would help answer the question of whether psychic experiences could be mapped to certain regions of the brain.

But there’s a massive problem with this premise, Yale School of Medicine neurology researcher Steven Novella told The Daily Beast: “It is completely not true.”

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