ESP – Yes Or No?

Posted by: michael  :  Category: Uncategorized

Defining Extra-Sensory Perception 
In talking about Extra-Sensory Perception, it is helpful to begin with some definitions.  The term Extra-Sensory Perception is a broad term used to describe the ability of some individuals to perceive things that would normally be thought to be imperceptible to the five senses.  Those describing this phenomenon generally divide this broader category into three more specific categories.  There is telepathy that involves knowing someone else’s thoughts or feelings—mind reading, if you will.  This is contrasted with clairvoyance, which knowing information about a physical object without subjecting it to the five senses.  Most often, this takes the form of someone being able to describe the contents of a sealed container without having seen them being deposited.  The best picture for this is probably superman’s x-ray vision.  Then there is precognition, which relates to knowledge about the future—the realm of fortunetellers and prophets.  These powers of mental perception are distinguished from other mental powers like telekinesis, which refers to the ability to manipulate objects with one’s mind, like bending spoons.  In 2002, the National Science Foundation reported that 60% of adult Americans believe that “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.”

            This distinction between ESP and other powers of the mind is actually quite important.  In cases of the latter, there have been no scientifically controlled studies that would lend credence to the existence of such abilities.  This is not to say that researchers have not tried.  As recently as the 1980’s a researcher at the University of Edinburgh was studying a psychic named Tim who seemed to have extraordinary abilities.  This 17-year-old claimed that he had possessed the ability to bend metal with his mind since the age of 4.  The researcher described him as cooperative and willing to submit to any controls that she might suggest and even suggested further controls of his own.  After multiple experiments, the researcher finally decided to install a hidden camera during a session.  It was this instrument that Tim was not made aware of, that revealed his blatant manipulation of the test.  When confronted with the video evidence, Tim finally confessed that he had been engaged in this type of deception for years and had recently moved on to parapsychologists to test his wits, so to speak. 

Early Studies of Telepathy
But the situation with ESP is quite different.  In the 1930’s, when Australia was in the throws of the Great Depression, popular attention turned to the work of a researcher at Duke University named Joseph B. Rhine, who published a book entitled Extra-Sensory Perception.  Until this point, while people were familiar with psychics and mindreading from their own experiences at carnivals and the like, no reputable university had discussed the phenomenon as anything other than a hoax.  Rhine made a splash in the popular press because here was a professor from a well-known and respected university claiming that ESP is “an actual and demonstrable occurrence.”  One English professor at Columbia compared Rhine to Copernicus and another reviewer compared him to Darwin.  The New York Times ran articles by Kaempffert that could not praise Rhine enough.

            As we will see, there was something to Rhine’s experiments and his work, but he received very mixed reviews from his contemporaries.  Researchers at Columbia and a handful of other universities published studies confirming Rhine’s results.  On the other hand, researchers at Princeton, the University of Minnesota and Brown published studies contradicting Rhine’s results. 

            When Dr. Rhine was talking about ESP, he was not talking about the type of mindreading that you might see a magician perform on stage or the kind described in science fiction novels and movies.  For Rhine, ESP was demonstrated in the statistics.  He invented a group of ESP cards that he later marketed and sold for mass consumption.  These decks contained a stack of 25 cards with 5 different shapes represented: a circle, a cross, wavy lines, a square, and a star.  He would shuffle the deck and then hold up one card at a time with its back to the subject.  The subject would then call out the answer and Rhine would right the call and the actual card next to it.  He would proceed through the deck in this way.  Statistically subjects should get an average of 5 right calls per deck.  Rhine’s best subjects had 10-15 correct calls per deck.  When Rhine found a promising test subject, who scored particularly high, he would repeat the test over and over again with the same subject and often would get higher results in later tests.

            There were certain elements of the test that Rhine insisted on.  He first insisted on this set of symbols as opposed to numbers or other random sequences.  He also insisted on scoring the test in front of the subject.  It is also important to note that Rhine was not studying individuals who claimed special abilities.  He was studying normal people to determine if they possessed special abilities.  No matter how much credence one affords to Rhine’s work, it is important to acknowledge that his data cannot be explained by probability and chance.  Rhine did indeed find something in his studies that warrants further elaboration. 

 Explaining Telepathy through Microexpressions 
 The question remains as to what it was that Professor Rhine was measuring and finding in his lab at Duke University.  To understand this, reference to the television show “Lie to me” is in order.  In this television drama, Tim Roth plays Dr. Cal Lightman, an expert in human body language, where he spends a great deal of time explaining to his colleagues, his clients and random strangers he meets about microexpressions.  As Dr. Lightman explains, microexpressions are involuntary twitches or expressions that express emotion.  These microexpressions are not tied to thought, but tied to emotions.  Many of the episodes in this show dealt with identifying emotions that contradicted what an individual was saying as a means of lie detection.  It would seem that the best explanation of what Dr. Rhine identified was this ability that some individuals possess to identify and read such microexpressions.  Dr. Rhine himself was entirely unaware of these microexpressions that would not be identified by the scientific community until the 1960’s.  Such an explanation fits with all of the parameters Professor Rhine set for his test and why his results were both validated and invalidated by others. 

            First, consider the choice of symbols, rather than numbers or some other arbitrary item.  For many individuals the symbols of a star, a cross or wavy lines evoke connections with broader realities that have an emotional impact on the individual.  The deck of ESP cards that Rhine sold included instructions for the person conducting the experiment to look at the card and think about it deeply while the subject tried to guess the shape.  One researcher might start thinking star and then remember the stargazing he used to engage in with his father as a child.  Another researcher looking at the same image might and remember a bad experience with an astrologer a few years prior.  A series of numbers 1-5 would have worked statistically just as well, but the researchers administering the test would not be as prone to have any emotional connections to these numbers.  The lack of any emotional connection would prevent the appearance of any microexpression from the researcher that the subject could note and then identify with the object. 

            Another element was the scoring method.  Later researchers critiqued Rhine for his scoring system that was so subject to error.  His critics suggested that the most neutral way to do the scoring would be for the subject to record his own calls, while the researcher recorded the cards without sharing them with the subject.  But in this case, a researcher’s emotional connection with these symbols is completely arbitrary.  The subjects must be able to make a connection between the microexpression and the card that evokes it.  More controlled scoring methods would not allow subjects to make such a connection.  This point goes along with the proximity of the subject to the researcher.  Rhine argued that ESP grew proportionally stronger as the distance between researcher and subject decreased.  This is why the radio version of Rhine’s test conducted by researchers from the University of Washington failed to validate Rhine’s conclusions.  Subjects that could not see the researcher could not see the involuntary microexpressions that researcher might be making. 

            A third element to factor into the equation is the repetition of the experiment.  One of the rules that stage magicians follow is “never repeat an illusion.”  The same rule might be important for psychologists.  In one 25-card deck, a subject must see the same microexpression repeated for the same card image in order to make the connection between the microexpression and the image.  Moreover, each researcher may only have one or two cards in the deck that produce a microexpression from them.  It is unlikely that other researchers engaged in Rhine’s habit of repeating his experiment with his most promising subjects.  This is why even those universities that confirmed Rhine’s results only averaged 7-8 correct calls out of 24 for the best subjects, compared with the 10-15 correct calls that Rhine’s best subjects averaged. 

            This suggestion is also corroborated by the Wizard’s project that Dr. Paul Eckman conducted with Maureen O’Sullivan.  After studying 20,000 people for their ability to detect liars, they identified 50 individuals, whom they named “truth wizards.”  These truth wizards are those individuals who have learned to identify microexpressions.  Such numbers would correspond to the numbers of gifted individuals Rhine found.     

 More Modern Experiments Studying Telepathy 
Another set of experiments that do not have this same problem is called the ganzfeld telepathy experiment.  From 1974 to 2008 close to 5,000 such experiments were conducted.  One subject, the receiver, sits in a comfortable recliner with red filtered light on his eyes and white noise filling his ears.  He then speaks into a microphone whatever images and hallucinations pop into head.  The sender is in a separate room with a video image playing repeatedly at set intervals.  The researcher instructs her to concentrate on this image and send it to the receiver.  At the conclusion of the session, the researcher, without knowledge of which clip the sender viewed, enters the receiver’s room and shows him four different film clips.  After they review his auditory recording of his images together, he is to choose the clip he believes most closely reflects what he described. 

             The expected rate is 1 in 4 or 25%.  The aggregate statistics show a 31.8% rate, which is statistically significant.  One glaring absence in these studies and in Rhine’s older studies is the presence of any control group.  In most laboratory research studies, the comparison is not between a test group and expected averages, but rather, a test group and a control group subjected to the same environmental and psychological factors as the test group.  It would be very easy to conceive of what such a control group would like.  In the case of the experiments by Rhine, the researcher could explain the 5 shapes and then use a blank deck for conducting the experiment.  In the case of the ganzfeld telepathy experiments, the researcher could have no sender in the room next door, or have the sender engage in some completely unrelated task like filling out a survey or the like.  Such control groups could serve to bring to light some unforeseen placebo effects involved in these studies. 

 Explaining Telepathy with Quantum Mechanics
Researchers immersed in this field appeal to quantum mechanics and more recently, string theory, in an effort to explain extrasensory perception.  Quantum mechanics is in essence the study of subatomic particles.  The importance of quantum mechanics for extrasensory perception appears in wave-particle duality and the associated Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  According to the wave-particle duality, a researcher can either view light as a particle or as a wave, but not as both.  This is made particularly clear with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  According to this principle, if a researcher measures the position of a particle closely, the momentum or wavelength of that particle will elude any attempts at precise measurement.  In the same way, if a researcher measures precisely the momentum of a particle and its wavelength, there is then no way to measure and identify its position. 

            The question that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle begs is what process is taking place in this dichotomy.  One of the several possible answers has been that measurement is a mental process, which has a direct effect on matter.  In the case of telepathy specifically, quantum mechanics has a concept called “entanglement” which Einstein referred to as the “spooky action at a distance” that takes place after two particles interact where they continue to behave as a system regardless of how far apart they travel.  This nonlocal effect takes place in macroscopic living systems just as much as it does at the microscopic level.  According to proponents of this theory, extrasensory perception may be one manifestation of such a nonlocal connection between individuals. 

Alternative Explanations 
 Two neuroscientists in India have been studying a chemical released into the brain by the hypothalamus called digoxin.  This chemical regulates the transmission of neurons in the brain.  What these neuroscientists discovered in a study they published in 2003 was that creative, right-brained individuals had much higher levels of this chemical in their brain.  They hypothesize that it is this chemical that allows for extra-sensory perception and present a very complicated description of the process whereby this chemical functions on a quantum mechanical level to enable extrasensory perception.  But a warning is in order here since they also make connections between this chemical and spirituality, addictive behavior, Alzheimer’s disease, and speech and language dysfunction.  For these two neuroscientists it would seem that their studies of this chemical now explain any phenomenon that we have yet to fully understand.   

            While a connection between right-brain hemisphere dominance and ESP has not necessarily been demonstrated, there is certainly a correlation between right-brain hemisphere dominance and the belief in ESP.  The right brain is not the seat of skeptical and critical thinking, so this correlation should not come as a surprise.  

Extrasensory Perception continues to fascinate individuals within and without the scientific community.  In thinking about the phenomenon it is interesting to reflect on your own hemisphere dominance and thinking style and how that impacts your own perception of ESP.  It certainly can neither be dismissed easily with a wave of the hand, nor accepted uncritically as having been proven beyond reasonable doubt. 

My thanks to Brad for a great job in undertaking the background research.

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