Extrasensory Perception

Someone who receives or imparts information without using the five senses— taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell—is said to have extrasensory perception (ESP). Parapsychologists (people who study psychic phenomena, also known as psi) classify ESP into three main categories: telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. Telepathy is the ability to send thoughts and/or feelings to or receive them from the mind of another person. Clairvoyance is the ability to “see” events or objects not with the eyes but with the mind. Precognition is the ability to visualize an event before it occurs.

Some psychics appear to have only one of these skills, others may have more. For example, psychic Peter Hurkos learned personal details about people’s lives by perceiving their thoughts telepathically, made predictions about people’s future through precognition, and helped police solve crimes by visualizing murder scenes and missing persons through clairvoyance. Some psychical researchers consider psychokinesis (PK), which is the ability to manipulate objects by using one’s thoughts, to be a fourth type of ESP. Even researchers who do not classify PK as a type of ESP believe that the two are closely related to one another.

Both ESP and PK have been studied since the nineteenth century. But although parapsychologists have amassed a great deal of data on psychic phenomena, they have failed to convince many researchers in other branches of psychology that either PK or ESP is real. Skeptics question the validity of parapsychologists’ scientific methodology and suggest that most of the correct information received by psychics can be attributed to lucky guesses. Moreover, researchers who bring a skeptical attitude to studies have had trouble duplicating the results of studies conducted by ESP researchers who already believe in the phenomenon. Even when conditions under which tests are conducted are duplicated, it is rare for one researcher to achieve the same results as one in another lab. Why this is so is itself a source of controversy. Some blame discrepancies on faulty research methodology, others say that human beings who exhibit ESP are just not consistent in their skills.

Studying ESP

Research does, in fact, suggest that one’s state of mind can affect one’s ESP ability. The earliest studies related to attitude and ESP is also one of the few to yield consistent results when repeated. The experiment focused on a basic question: “Do I believe that ESP is a real phenomenon?” Among the first of these studies was one conducted by parapsychologist Gertrude R. Schmeidler in the 1950s. Before testing her subjects for ESP, Schmeidler divided them into two groups according to whether they believed that ESP was real. One group, designated the “sheep,” believed in ESP; the other group, designated the “goats,” did not believe in it. Overall, sheep performed better than chance would have predicted on Schmeidler’s tests, while goats performed far worse. This study has been duplicated many times by other researchers, providing the same results; consequently, it has been called the most successfully replicated study in the history of ESP research.

In discussing Schmeidler’s study, some parapsychologists have said that in order to do much worse than chance on the tests—that is, in order to choose the wrong answer so many more times than would be expected—the goats would actually have had to be using the very ESP they did not believe in. This view seems to be supported by a variation of the study that was done in the 1980s by parapsychologist B.E. Lovitts. Lovitts led the test subjects to believe that they were part of a study designed to prove that ESP did not exist. In this case, the goats scored far better than the sheep. Similarly, tests show that people who fear ESP—usually because they think their minds will be telepathically influenced without their consent—score even worse on ESP tests than goats. People who spend much of their time in a state of anxiety score poorly on ESP tests as well. In contrast, people who have outgoing personalities generally score well. A test subject’s mood at the time of testing also seems to affect results, with people in a good mood scoring better than those who are in a bad mood. In addition, people with higher-than-average intelligence and good long-term memory perform better on ESP tests, as do people who dream vividly and remember those dreams easily, and perhaps people with high creativity as well. External incentives, however, such as paying a test subject to give right answers or shocking a test subject with a jolt of electricity for giving a wrong answer do not result in a better performance.

Skeptics have interpreted the connection between intelligence, memory, creativity, and ESP to mean that people who seem to have ESP are merely very imaginative and have invented their ESP experiences, either consciously or subconsciously. To skeptics, laboratory results that seem to support the existence of ESP are due to luck; spontaneous instances in which ESP appears to have been at work, they say, are due to imagination, fantasy, and/or the desire to tell a good story.

A majority of the American public does not agree with the skeptics’ assessment of ESP. According to the National Science Foundation, 60 percent of Americans believe in the existence of ESP, and other studies put this number even higher. In addition, according to one study of more than fourteen hundred adults chosen at random, 67 percent believe that they themselves have some degree of ESP ability.



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