A form of extrasensory perception (ESP), clairvoyance (which means “clear seeing”) is the receipt of visual images not through the sense of sight but through the mind. Sometimes the clairvoyant “sees” only a brief glimpse of a person or object, but other times he or she is able to “watch” a mental movie of an event. In either case, these images can come from the past, present, or future. When clairvoyants receive images of future events, they are said to be experiencing “second sight” or precognition.

Clairvoyance Versus Telepathy

Researchers who study clairvoyance are careful to distinguish this phenomenon from telepathy, which involves mind-to-mind communication; the images received by a clairvoyant seem to arise spontaneously; that is, without being transmitted from another human mind. For example, a man who finds a lost watch through clairvoyance does so by seeing a mental picture of exactly where it is, without receiving the image from someone else who is looking at the watch or knows where it is. The distinction between clairvoyance and telepathy, however, can be elusive, and even experienced researchers often have trouble determining whether telepathy or clairvoyance is at work during a particular incident.

Such difficulties occur not only in regard to laboratory tests but also in instances of spontaneous ESP taking place outside of a laboratory because it is not always clear whether a human sender was involved. For example, one day a pilot flying a single-engine plane suddenly decided to go 70 miles (113km) out of her way, where she spotted a crashed car beside the road below. She landed her plane and rescued the unconscious passenger, only to discover that it was her mother. Some experts would call this a case of telepathy, saying that the woman in trouble transmitted a call for help to her daughter. Others would call it a case of clairvoyance since the injured woman was unconscious and presumably unable to transmit a message. Moreover, the injured woman would not have known how to direct her daughter to the crash site.

Disagreements over whether clairvoyance or telepathy was involved in a particular ESP incident have long plagued researchers. In fact, when ESP was first studied by the Society for Psychical Research in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, researchers believed that only telepathy, not clairvoyance, existed. When someone in a laboratory test exhibited the ability to know what was on a playing card before pulling it from the deck, for example, researchers thought it was because the person conducting the test knew the order of the cards beforehand and was unintentionally transmitting this information to the test subject via telepathy.

The Rhines’ Tests

In the 1930s parapsychologists J.B. and Louisa E. Rhine, then at Duke University, set out to prove that clairvoyance existed. In their tests, they used special cards with symbols on them known as Zener cards. To eliminate the possibility of telepathic communication between testers and their subjects, the researchers made sure that testers did not know the order of cards not only before but also during tests. They also made sure that test subjects could not see or hear the person administering the test, so as to eliminate any possibility of a tester’s facial expression or tone of voice influencing the test subject’s answers. The Rhines’ experiments seemed to be well designed against fraud; nonetheless, when some of their results suggested that clairvoyance was a real phenomenon, skeptics accused the test subjects of cheating.

In fact, the more psychic a test subject seemed to be, the more that subject was attacked by skeptics. Consequently, when test subject Hubert Pearce, a Duke University student, showed an unusually high success rate in guessing the symbols on Zener cards, he was accused of fraud despite the many precautions the Rhines took to ensure that Pearce could not cheat during his tests. To this end, Pearce was placed in one room, while in another room, in a different building a hundred yards away, a researcher named J. Gaither Pratt turned over cards in a pack and recorded their order, without trying to transmit them telepathically to Pearce. Pearce got 558 out of 1,850 guesses right, when only 370 correct guesses would have been expected according to the laws of probability. Skeptics subsequently insisted that Pearce had to have seen the cards, perhaps by going to Pratt’s building and peeking in a window in the room’s door, even though Pratt repeatedly pointed out that the cards would not have been visible through this window.

Tests on Animals

In addition to Pearce, the Rhines found several other subjects whose guesses on similar tests were also much better than chance alone could explain. Other researchers believe that they have found gifted clairvoyants as well—not only among humans but among domestic animals as well. With animal tests, however, researchers must be very careful in establishing their procedures because animals have a much greater ability than humans to pick up on extremely subtle cues provided by testers. The effect of this ability on psychic testing is often called the Clever Hans phenomenon, named for a horse named Clever Hans who, in tapping out answers to questions, appeared to be psychic but in fact was responding to his owner’s body language.

Like Clever Hans, the animals most commonly called psychic are those that have been in close contact with humans for years and are used to interacting with them on a daily basis. Also like Clever Hans, before a supposedly psychic animal comes to the attention of researchers, its owner has usually been promoting it as a psychic, saying that the animal is displaying unusual behaviour that cannot be explained by anything but ESP. In most cases, the owner is eventually proven wrong. In other cases, test results seem to indicate that the animal does indeed have ESP. However, this ESP usually appears to be telepathy—that is, human-to-animal mental communication.

Some researchers say this is because it is extremely difficult to test for animal clairvoyance as opposed to telepathy. This is because in most tests, a human is involved in directing the animal on how to complete the steps of the test; therefore, the human’s mind could be influencing its results. One study, however, attemped to solve this problem, with apparently successful results. It occurred in the late 1950s, when parapsychologist Remi Cadoret of Duke University conducted a series of tests on a dog named Chris. Before coming to Cadoret’s attention, Chris had demonstrated the ability to tap his owner the correct number of times when told that number. At Cadoret’s behest, the dog was trained to paw the floor a certain number of times when shown a particular symbol on a Zener test card. Individual cards were then placed in black envelopes that were mixed up so that no one knew which Zener card was in which envelope. Upon being shown an envelope, Chris would be directed to paw out a number of his choosing. No one knew the order of the cards or envelopes, which eliminated the possibility that human facial expressions were influencing the dog’s choices or that human-to-dog telepathy was involved. Nonetheless, Chris guessed which card was concealed in the envelope most of the time. In fact, according to one series of tests, the odds of him giving the correct answers simply through “lucky guesses” was a billion to one.

Government Interest

Because of such results, not only in animals but in humans, the U.S. government became interested in the possibility that clairvoyants could be used to “see” distant military targets and spy on enemies. In the 1970s the Pentagon launched a project called Stargate, conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, that lasted until 1995. Much about this project remains secret, including its success rates, but some of its former participants claim the results were impressive. Although the government ended the project, research into remote viewing continues in private research institutions.

People involved in this research have discovered that remote viewers have great difficulty visualizing the location of lost objects and people. In contrast, a type of clairvoyant known as a psychic detective can receive images of missing persons spontaneously and/or with very little effort. They also “see” crimes in progress, whether in the past, present, or future, and some are able to use these received images to help police officers. However, in many cases the psychic’s visions do not offer enough details to allow the crime to be solved, and even when the visions are clear rather than vague, it can be difficult for the psychic detective to determine where or when the images originated. Indeed, this is true of all instances of clairvoyance, casting doubt on the phenomenon’s usefulness in law enforcement or military intelligence applications.


  • Mediumship
  • Psychic Detectives
  • Remote Viewing
  • Telepathy


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning