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Is Extrasensory Perception Real or All in the Mind?

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The author is interested in researching paranormal and extrasensory topics and enjoys sharing questions in this sphere with their readers.

Read on to learn about extrasensory perception and some intriguing attempts to study it and prove its existence.

Read on to learn about extrasensory perception and some intriguing attempts to study it and prove its existence.

Who Believes in ESP?

A surprising number of people believe in some form of extrasensory perception—déjà vu, a dream that comes true or even being called by a friend as you pick up the phone to call them can sometimes be perceived as evidence of a supernatural sixth sense.

A 2005 Gallup poll found that over 40% of Americans believe in some form of extrasensory perception (ESP), or the ability to move beyond one's senses to view at a distance, into the future, or even into another's mind.

Common "powers" claimed by believers include:

  • Clairvoyance: The ability to perceive at a distance (i.e., with a crystal ball).
  • Precognition: The ability to see things before they happen—some people also claim the ability to see far into the distant past, called retrocognition.
  • Psychometry: The ability to "sense" the history or condition of an object or person.
  • Telepathy: The ability to communicate directly with (or read) another mind, without speech.
  • Psychokinesis: The ability to manipulate objects with the mind alone.

Furthermore, research by Marija Branković and her colleagues found that a willingness to rely on intuition is the most significant predictor of belief in ESP, while a fear of death also seems linked.

A number of pro-ESP researchers have claimed to demonstrate it in experiments, but these have fallen apart under independent scrutiny. In fact, no one was ever able to win the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge put forward by James Randi—and all that it required was for you to demonstrate your paranormal ability in front of scientists.

In the remainder of the article, we'll take a look at the following very interesting attempts to study and prove ESP phenomena:

  1. The Men Who Stare at Goats
  2. The Ganzfeld Experiment
  3. The Curious Case of Deryl Bem
  4. Coincidence and Memory (and Robertson's Futility)

1. The Men Who Stare at Goats

This non-fiction work by Jon Ronson details how high-ranking officials in the US military were looking for an edge over the Soviet Union during the cold war. Clearly, conventional espionage tactics weren't going to cut it, so these lateral-thinkers went about recruiting "psychics" with the intent that they use their "powers" to gather information about soviet forces.

They even looked at the potential of psychic assassination, which they tested on some extremely confused goats. One individual called Guy Savelli actually claimed to have "downed" a goat with the power of his mind, though the fact the US still employs snipers runs counter to his claims.

The American government actually tested psychic assassination techniques on goats.

The American government actually tested psychic assassination techniques on goats.

Uri Geller (a self-purported psychic) also claims to have been involved in the program. Famous for his spoon-bending tricks on TV, Gellar claimed that he had refused to kill a pig (he objected to psychic assassination on moral grounds) and worried that the program would escalate to human targets if successful. It should be noted that many scientists and stage magicians are sceptical of Geller's purported paranormal abilities.

In 1973, Geller was a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (an amateur magician himself) when stage magician James Randi ambushed him. Randi had "kindly" brought along a bag of store-bought cutlery for Geller to demonstrate his powers on, rather than the usual pre-prepared spoons. Caught on camera, Geller tried and failed to perform any of his usual tricks while Carson and Randi looked on with a mixture of contempt and glee.

Uri Geller on Johnny Carson

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2. The Ganzfeld Experiment

Like some kind of low-budget sci-fi, the Ganzfeld Experiment attempted to show that images could be communicated between two individuals (the receiver and the sender) in separate rooms with the power of the mind.

The "receiver" is placed in an impromptu sensory deprivation chamber, with half-ping-pong balls taped over their eyes as they sit in an acoustically sealed room with warm red lighting and white-noise playing in the background. This is supposed to induce the dreamy state many people who claim to have experienced ESP describe. During this, the receiver gives a running commentary about what is going through their mind.

The "sender" is situated in another room and presented with a randomly selected image or video and tries to "mentally broadcast" what they see to the receiver. At the end of the experiment, the receiver is shown four images and asked to pick the one that the sender was viewing.

The experiment (and a number of repetitions) found a small tendency towards receivers guessing the correct image (in one instance 35% rather than the 25% accuracy you'd expect from a random guess.) However, psychologists raised doubts about the Ganzfeld study, noting issues around the effectiveness of the isolation and poor randomisation of images. There's also the issue that researchers could be (consciously or unconsciously) giving clues to the receiver when they pick the image at the end. Humans are very good at reading body language, after all.

Many variations of the Ganzfeld experiment have been designed since, including one that removed the "sender" entirely and relied upon a computer to do the "broadcast." The results have been inconsistent, to say the least, with some studies finding a strong effect and others finding nothing at all.

If I was something of a cynic, I would point out that only attempts by pro-ESP researchers show "greater accuracy than chance" results, while sceptical researchers find "no different than chance" instead.

3. The Curious Case of Daryl Bem

In 2011, social psychologist and ESP advocate Daryl Bem published the results of a study he had been conducting privately at Cornell University.

Bem's experiment presented participants with two sets of curtains on a computer monitor, behind one of which was an erotic image. The participants (all of whom were undergraduate students) had to guess which set of curtains concealed the image, with the idea that precognitive ability would be demonstrated if participants picked the correct set of curtains more often than not. (On a side note, Bem used erotic images based on the idea that precognitive ability would be an evolutionary adaptation and thus good at finding erotic imagery associated with mating.)

When Bem analysed his results, he found a small but significant effect—the students had guessed the correct set of curtains 53% of the time rather than the 50% that you'd expect from a random guess. Music starts, balloons fall, ESP is real, right? Well, not quite. The problem with presenting results to a large group of scientists is that they will examine them closely, find any flaws in your experimental method or statistical analysis and demand that other people be able to replicate your results.

When other more sceptical researchers attempted to duplicate Bem's experiment, no significant effect was found. Some researchers questioned how carefully the experiment had been performed, while others noted that statistical analysis of the results provided by Bem indicated "missing" chunks of data, implying that he had failed to report data that didn't fit his pet theory.

Furthermore, a repeat of the study sent to the British Journal of Psychology that contradicted Bem's results didn't get past "peer review," leading to its rejection—the twist, of course, being that the "peer" who rejected it was Bem himself. Oops!

Psychologist E. Loftus found that our memories of a car crash were malleable.

Psychologist E. Loftus found that our memories of a car crash were malleable.

4. Coincidence and Memory (and Robertson's Futility)

Human memory is a funny thing that's deeply unreliable and vulnerable to corruption with each retelling. Experiments by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus have shown that the memory of the damage caused by a car crash can be altered with a single leading question.

It's quite possible that a half-remembered dream could be misremembered as a perfect copy of what happened later that day—for example, a vague dream of being hurt playing sports (not exactly an uncommon scenario) becomes "precognitive" when you take a fall and break your arm.

Original cover for the first edition of Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898).

Original cover for the first edition of Futility by Morgan Robertson (1898).

To take another example, in the novella "Futility" by Morgan Robertson, a large ocean vessel named "Titan" slams into an iceberg, sinking and leading to massive loss of life due to insufficient lifeboats. Fourteen years later, the Titanic slammed into an iceberg, sinking and leading to massive loss of life due to insufficient lifeboats—sound familiar?

Proponents of ESP were quick to point out the uncanny similarities between the events, but in reality, Robertson was an experienced mariner and would have been well aware of the danger an iceberg could pose while also being able to envisage a hubristic cost-cutting measure that would result in insufficient lifeboats.

We also tend to forget about all the dreams and feelings we've had that didn't come true. Someone dreaming about winning a competition and then doing so might seem like a premonition, but how many times did that person dream of winning and then lose?

Could ESP Work?

There is a lot we don't know about the brain. It's incredibly complex and fragile, with colossal risks to the personality of anyone volunteering for experimental, exploratory surgery. In pure speculative theory, there might be some kind of organ that allows for extrasensory perception—but we have found no evidence for it so far.

More within the realm of possibility is that people with a knack for reading the behaviour of others are being perceived as psychic or otherwise special. This could range from the magician cold-reading an audience and feeding their own answers back to them to "Clever Hans the counting horse" that could read the behaviour of his audience, using it to tell him when he had tapped his hoof enough to "solve" a maths problem.

Finally, some individuals can see slightly further into the electromagnetic spectrum than usual. Perhaps these individuals are getting a little more information than normal when observing a person, allowing them to make slightly more accurate guesses about their emotional state or health.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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