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ESP (extrasensory perception)

ESP or extrasensory perception is perception occurring independently of sight, hearing, or other sensory processes.

People who have extrasensory perception are said to be psychic. Some think that everyone has ESP; others think it is a talent that only special folks have. Some think that animals (see below) or plants have ESP.

The term ESP was popularized by J. B. Rhine, who began investigating paranormal phenomena at Duke University in 1927.

ESP refers to telepathy, clairvoyance (remote viewing), precognition, and, in recent years, clairaudience.

The existence of ESP and other paranormal powers such as psychokinesis (PK), are disputed, though systematic experimental research on these subjects, known collectively as psi,  has been ongoing for over a century in a field known as parapsychology.

Most of the evidence for ESP, however, is anecdotal. The anecdotes consist of two parts: the experience itself and the interpretation of it. A story may be true, but the attempt to make sense or give psychic meaning to the story often seems to the skeptic to exceed the bounds of reasonableness. The following example is a classic.

Tart's coffee-making coup d'état

Charles Tart was making coffee when he started saying coup d'état aloud to himself. He tells us that it is rare for him to say a word aloud or over and over. He says he had no idea why he was doing this: he doesn't follow international news and he "could think of nothing in my immediate past that had anything to do with coups d'état (2009: p. 77; first published in "A Case of Predictive Psi, with Comments on Analytical, Associative and Theoretical Overlay"). He's also a trained psychologist and knows that all of us engage in irrational behavior from time to time, and have no idea why we feel the way we do about certain things because we've forgotten the experience that makes certain words resonate with us. I know a couple who get sexually energized every time they pass a road sign that reads "Green Valley Road." They had no idea why this happens until they revisited a place they hadn't been to for over thirty years and found they were on Green Valley Road, which led to the campground where they'd had had their first sexual adventure together many years earlier. (I wondered myself why I described to two people Tart's explanation of his experience as involving "overlays," since I rarely use that word to describe anything. It became clear to me that I used that particular word because Tart uses it in section heads ["analytical and associative overlay" and "theoretical overlay"] and it's in the title of the paper Tart wrote, mentioned in a footnote in his book The End of Materialism, the inspiration for these few paragraphs on wild and crazy interpretations of the mundane.)

I certainly have no idea why the expression coup d'état popped into Tart's head while he was making coffee that day, but I could come up with dozens of possibilities. None of them, however, could come close to the imaginative adventure Tart went on in his attempt to make sense out it. (Maybe he unconsciously overheard the expression on a radio news report while driving in his car. Maybe he heard a pigeon coo and it reminded his subconscious of the word he heard on the radio or in the conversation of a passerby. Maybe he inadvertently saw the name on the envelope before the expression popped into his head. Maybe he was subconsciously expressing a wish to overthrow the dean of his college. Maybe.)

The day after his coup d'état experience Tart found a letter in his office mailbox from a Mrs. Coudetat. Uncanny? Tart thinks so. He calls it "a clear example of what we might call predictive psi phenomena." What follows is an excursion of the imagination that took me back to my college days when I first read the exotic interpretations of dreams and experiences by psychoanalysts. Two things stand out about those interpretations: they were extremely farfetched and fanciful, and they were unfalsifiable. I'm not going to try to prove Tart's interpretation is wrong because that would be impossible. I'll present his interpretation. The reader can judge how plausible it is.

Tart gave immediate significance to the proximity of his coup d'état experience and the name of his correspondent, who is the mother of one of Tart's former students. Jung might have seen the events as an example of synchronicity. We rule out coincidence the moment we invest an experience with deep meaning and significance. Why some of us find an experience trivial or mundane, while others find the same kind of experience deeply meaningful and significant, is something that I'll leave to others to try to explain.

Tart says he is "sure" that Mrs. Coudetat was thinking of him and her letter to him "at the time the phrase 'coup d'état' popped into my mind." He says that "it was a kind of coup d'état on her part to seize control like that from the usual processes governing my mind" (2009: p. 89). He also writes: "I might also speculate that my psychic perception of the imminent and somewhat critical letter from Mrs. Coudetat constituted my own psychological coup d'état in defending myself against possible guilt." In her letter, Mrs. C implies that Tart's class on altered states of consciousness had something to do with triggering anxiety attacks in her son and that Tart should make sure that troubled students know how to get help.

Tart speculates that Mrs. C's need to communicate with him provided the power or force that "resulted in my unusual behavior." He also says: "This line of reasoning seems adequate on a common sense psychological level, and is probably mostly true." This view seems to imply that every actual attempt to communicate in ordinary ways (by letter, speech, etc.) is accompanied by psychic vibrations sent out with the same purpose.

Tart writes: "I believe the associations of military dictatorships, cheering crowds, and thoughts about efficient and disciplined organizations taking over when government fails represent analytical and associative overlay following my initial psi impression of the word 'coup d'etat'." Tart brings in the concept of overlays to explain why the initial associations he made (and most people might make) with the idea of a coup d'etat occur along with the telepathic impressions.

Tart must have known he was going down an interpretation lane traveled mostly by parapsychologists and psychoanalysts because he gave an account of his overlays and impressions to Jules Eisenbud. Eisenbud is the psychoanalyst and parapsychologist who wrote a book about a Chicago bellhop named Ted Serios, who claimed he could make images appear on Polaroid film just by thinking of an image. Eisenbud encouraged Tart to consider another kind of overlay, theoretical overlay. This leads Tart to consider the possibility that maybe he had some unresolved anger and guilt feelings about the student with anxiety problems. This 'lingering unconscious residue" of anger and guilt "might have sensitized me to psychically perceiving information...." Maybe, thinks Tart, he was putting a positive bias on his interpretation of the experience by "manifesting an altruistic theoretical overlay in analyzing the case."

Finally, Tart relates his coup d'etat experience to his attempt to do some psychic healing, "using shamanistic methods," on a friend who was about to have surgery. "I wonder if some part of me might have helped cause the coup d'etat incident so that my own faith in psychic abilities might be strengthened, and thus retrospectively potentiate my attempts at healing my friend and strengthening his faith." Sure, it's all possible, and it can't be falsified, but how plausible is this account? Tart wards off criticism of such anecdotes by skeptics by claiming that we consider them to be just stories, probably inaccurate and incomplete, or lies. But it's not the stories that are the problem here: it's the fanciful, unfalsifiable interpretive overlays that need to be called into question. Such interpretations as this one by Tart seem indistinguishable from cases of apophenia.

(Actually, there is one more thing. If Tart is truly as open-minded as he seems, he should admit that it is possible that his experience was not telepathic, but that Jaweh, Thor, or Zeus directly implanted the expression coup d'état in his brain. Maybe the gods knew what was in his mailbox and how he'd likely react if they got him repeating an apparently meaningless expression. Maybe he experienced a divine spark, intended to ignite a blaze in his brain that would lead to a volcanic stream of consciousness that would leave the gods howling. You can't prove that the gods aren't tricksters and enjoy pulling one over on a parapsychologist just for fun. This explanation seems just as plausible as that Mrs. C was trying to pull a coup on Tart or that he was trying to pull a coup on himself. In fact, Tart brings up this possibility himself in his chapter on psychokinesis in The End of Materialism. "Suppose," he writes, "there is, as we consider in this book, a spiritual reality, perhaps with spiritual beings of some sort existing in it? [sic] Are the desires and qualities of these spiritual beings part of our experiments also? Is the idea of being 'teased' with inconsistent but unignorable psi results more than just a metaphor?")

dismissal by skeptics

Both the anecdotal and laboratory evidence for ESP are usually dismissed by skeptics for one or more of the following: 

mistaking ordinary perception for psychic ability;

not giving alternative hypotheses a chance (i.e., not looking for or seriously considering physical causes for apparent psi events; sleep paralysis);

lack of understanding of probability and wishful thinking leading to farfetched interpretation of personal experience of coincidental events (apophenia);

dubious methods such as optional starting and stopping and shotgunning;

sensory leakage;

experimenter effect;

not giving the null hypothesis a chance (assuming that if x happens it is evidence of psi and then when x happens claiming that they now have evidence of psi: the psi assumption);

dubious concepts that smack of special pleading, e.g., displacement, analytical and associative overlay, psi-conducive state, psi-missing, psi-focus assumption, and psychic drift;

pathological science;

trickery by children or mentalists;

cold reading and subjective validation;

selective thinking and confirmation bias;

shoehorning, retrospective clairvoyance, and retrospective falsification;

gullibility and self-deception;

fraud by researchers and cheating by subjects being tested for psychic ability.

ESP in dogs

The belief in psychic dogs seems to be popular among true believers in the paranormal. The following case is typical of those cited as proof of ESP involving dogs. The dog in question is a terrier who has achieved fame as having ESP as exhibited by his ability to know when his owner, Pam Smart, is deciding to come home when she is away shopping or on some other business. The dog's name is Jaytee. He has been featured on several television programs in Australia, the United States, and England, where he resides with Pam and her parents, who were the first to perceive the dog's psychic abilities. They observed that the dog would run to the window facing the street at precisely the moment Pam was deciding to come home from several miles away. (How the parents knew the precise moment Pam was deciding to come home is unclear.) Parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake—who has validated a telepathic parrot in a scientific experiment—investigated and declared the dog is truly psychic. Two scientists, Dr Richard Wiseman and Matthew Smith of the University of Hertfordshire, tested the dog under controlled conditions. The scientists synchronized their watches and set video cameras on both the dog and its owner. Alas, several experimental tries later, they had to conclude that the dog wasn't doing what had been alleged. He went to the window and did so quite frequently, but only once did he do so near the exact time his master was preparing to come home and that case was dismissed because the dog was clearly going to the window after hearing a car pull up outside his domicile. Four experiments were conducted and the results were published in the British Journal of Psychology (89:453, 1998).

Much of the belief in ESP is based upon apparently unusual events that seem inexplicable.  However, we should not assume that every event in the universe can be explained. Nor should we assume that what is inexplicable requires a paranormal (or supernatural) explanation. Maybe an event can't be explained because there is nothing to explain. 

Most ESP claims do not get tested, but parapsychologists have attempted to verify the existence of ESP under controlled conditions. Some, like Charles Tart, Dean Radin, Gary Schwartz, and Raymond Moody, claim success; others, such as Susan J. Blackmore, Richard Wiseman, and Chris French claim that years of trying to find experimental proof of ESP have failed to turn up any proof of indisputable, repeatable psychic powers.

Defenders of psi claim that the ganzfeld experiments, the CIA's remote viewing experiments, and attempts to influence randomizers at Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research have produced evidence of ESP. (Please follow the links for more details and criticisms of those experiments.) Psychologists who have thoroughly investigated parapsychological studies, like  Jim Alcock (1990, 2003), Ray Hyman (1989), David Marks (2000), and Susan Blackmore (1980, 1995), have concluded that where positive results have been found, the work was fraught with questionable assumptions, lack of randomization, serious problems with controls (no use of control groups or controls of any kind, irrelevant controls), statistical legerdemain, lack of replication, or fraud.

My opinion of the scientific evidence for psi is given in my "Short History of Psi Research" and my reviews of Dean Radin's Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, and Gary Schwartz's Afterlife Experiments. I have no reason to think that fraud is more likely in psi research than in any other scientific field. Cheating is a human problem, not a unique psi-researcher problem. Cheats have been exposed in all the sciences and social sciences. The problem is not unique to parapsychology. There are many problems with psi research, but researcher fraud is not a particularly important one. Most of the significant cheating in parapsychology research has been done by those being tested. For more details, I refer the reader to the material mentioned at the start of this paragraph.

See also dermo-optical perception, dream, extraordinary human function, medium, mentalistpsychic surgery, retrocognition, retrospective falsification, sixth sense, séance, the Soal-Goldney experiment, Zener cards, and "What If Dean Radin is Right?" by Robert T. Carroll

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further reading

reader comments (psi)

books and articles

Alcock, James E. (1981). Parapsychology: Science or Magic? Pergamon Press.

Alcock, James E. Science and Supernature: a Critical Appraisal of Parapsychology (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Alcock, James E. (1995) "The Belief Engine," Skeptical Inquirer. 19(3): 255-263.

Alcock, James. 2003. "Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance," in Psi Wars - Getting To Grips With the Paranormal. ed. James Alcock, Jean Burns and Anthony Freeman. Imprint Academic, pp. 29-50. Available online here.

Bem, Daryl J. and Charles Honorton (1994). "Does Psi Exist?" Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 115, No. 1, 4-18.

Blackmore, S. J. (1980). "The extent of selective reporting of ESP ganzfeld studies," European Journal of Parapsychology 3:3 , 213–220.

Blackmore, Susan. 1987. A Report of a Visit to Carl Sargent's Laboratory. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. 54 186-198.

Blackmore, Susan. (2001.) "What Can the Paranormal Teach Us About Consciousness?" Skeptical Inquirer, March/April.

Blackmore, Susan (2003). Consciousness: An Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Christopher, Milbourne. (1975). Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Cole, Richard. "U.S. didn't foresee faults in psychic spies program," Associated Press, Sacramento Bee, Nov. 29, 1995, A2.

Frazier, Kendrick. editor, Science Confronts the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

Frazier, Kendrick. editor. The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal, (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957).

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1981).

Gardner, Martin. How Not To Test a Psychic: Ten Years of Remarkable Experiments With Renowned Clairvoyant Pavel Stepanek (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Gardner, Martin. On the Wild Side (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992).

Gordon, Henry. Extrasensory Deception: ESP, Psychics, Shirley MacLaine, Ghosts, Ufos  (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987).

Hansel, C. E. M. The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Hansen, George P. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris Corporation.

Hines, Terence. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).

Hyman, Ray. The Elusive Quarry : a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Hyman, Ray. (1995). "Evaluation of Program on Anomalous Mental Phenomena," Journal of Scientific Exploration, Volume 10 Number 1.

Keene, M. Lamar. The Psychic Mafia (Prometheus, 1997).

Luckhurst, Roger. 2002. The Invention of Telepathy: 1870-1901. Oxford University Press.

Marks, David. The Psychology of the Psychic (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000).

Milton, Julie and Richard Wiseman. (1997). Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research. University of Hertfordshire Press.

Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.

Radin, Dean (1997). The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. HarperCollins.

Radin, Dean. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. Paraview Pocket Books.

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), especially chapter 13, "Put Up or Shut Up," where he gives accounts of tests done on several psychics who have tried to collect the $10,000 Randi used to offer to anyone who can demonstrate any psychic power. So far, no one has collected, even though the offer is now $1,000,000!

Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995).

Scott, Christopher. (1988). Remote viewing. Experientia, 44, 322–326.

Steiner, Robert A. (1989). Don't Get Taken! - Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself  Wide-Awake Books.

Steiner, Robert A. "Fortunetelling," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996) pp. 281-290.

Stein, Gordon. editor, The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Stenger, Victor J. (2002). "Meta-Analysis and the File-Drawer Effect." Skeptical Briefs.

Vistica, Gregory. "Psychics and Spooks, How spoon-benders fought the cold war," Newsweek, Dec. 11, 1995, p. 50.

Vyse, Stuart A. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition (Oxford University Press 2000).

Wiseman, Richard and Matthew Smith, "Can Animals Detect When Their Owners Are Returning Home?" British Journal of Psychology, 89:453, 1998.

Wiseman, Richard  and Ciarán O’Keeffe. 2004. "Testing Alleged Mediumship: Methods and Results," by  (paper presented to the Parapsychological Convention).

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd edition. (Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. 1989).


New Analyses Raise Doubts About Replicability of ESP Findings by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec 1999

The Telepathic Terrier

news stories

Neuroimaging Fails To Demonstrate ESP Is Real

According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 41% of Americans believe in ESP. This is a decline from surveys done during the last decade of the 20th century that found belief in ESP steady at  50%.

Last updated 06-Jan-2014

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