Over recent years, parapsychology has gained a lot of respect, generally brought to people’s attention through TV and film or the occasional documentary. However, there is still a large contingent of sceptics who dismiss phenomena such as ESP as nothing more that New Age nonsense that’s not worthy of investigation. As much as we might want to believe in paranormal abilities, the sceptical branch argues that ESP is simply too extraordinary to believe, unless you have an equal amount of extraordinary evidence to back it up with.
What is ESP?
Extra Sensory Perception is generally perceived to be the acquisition of knowledge or information, without using the known senses. It is a blanket term used to cover a number of phenomena
: ● Telepathy: the transfer of information between two or more people, without the use of physical communication, such as speech or sign language. Telepathy is thought to be the communication between minds or psyches.
● Clairvoyance: the acquisition of knowledge about people, places or events without the use of any of the known senses.
● Precognition: the acquisition about future events that cannot be anticipated through any other information.
History is littered with stories of ESP; it is not a recent claim or discovery and it also seems to have consistently trod the line between belief and scepticism. According to the Ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus, King Croesus tested seven purported oracles to see if they could divine what he was doing at a particular time. Of the seven, only Pythia, a priestess, was able to correctly state that he was making a lamb and tortoise stew in a bronze kettle.
It’s generally accepted that contemporary research into the evidence of ESP began in 1927 under the eye of Joseph Rhine. He developed the use of Zener cards, producing apparently positive results. However the sceptic community and many eminent parapsychologists remained dissatisfied with Rhine’s research, arguing that repetitive choice research showed nothing but the potential for chance. It also failed to demonstrate the other perceived aspects of ESP. With over seven billion people on the planet, it is likely that at least two people will be sharing the same thoughts, somewhere and at the same time. Rhine’s research, although progressive, was to be seen as little more than an exercise in testing the Laws of Luck.
By the late 1960s further means of testing were being researched, giving rise to the Ganzfeld experiments. In these, a ‘receiver’ is placed in a soundproof booth, wearing headphones playing white noise, with translucent ping-pong ball halves taped to their eyes and a red floodlight shone directly at them. Meanwhile, the ‘sender’ is played a random piece of footage or presented with a picture and asked to transmit their feelings to the receiver.
After about 30 minutes, the receiver is presented with four stimuli, one of which is the item shown to the sender, and asked to say which one gives them the strongest ‘feelings.’ Interestingly, over three different sessions, the rate of success came in at about 35% for each group. While this might not seem significant, in scientific terms, it is indicative of something at work. The odds against getting a 35% hit rate through pure chance are more than a billion to one. As a result of these experiments, the idea that ESP might actually exist began to gain some credibility.
The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
There have been further developments in the 21st Century. In 2011, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a 45 year-old and well-respected publication, printed the results of a series of experiments conducted by Professor Darryl J Bem, who tested students over a period of 10 years for their abilities to sense random events. The experiments, which encompassed over 1,000 people, included tests such as asking students to predict whether a photograph would appear on the left or right-hand side of a computer screen.
In another, a software programme was used to post a photograph randomly on one of two screens, hidden behind curtains, but only after the students had made their predictions as to which one it would appear on. Chance dictates that there is a 50% probability of getting the right answer, but the students were right 53% of the time; a result that is significant in scientific terms.
However, in spite of Professor Bem’s results the majority of sceptics and academics refused to be swayed. If ESP is true, they argue, then why aren’t there more cases of people making a living from it, using their gifts to predict lottery results or the behaviour of the stock market? Yet, there are scientists who are prepared to move the goalposts in deference to Bem’s findings, employing something called Bayesian analysis.
This approach seeks to determine whether the outcome of an experiment changes the odds that the hypothesis is true. Dr Jeffrey N Rouder, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, argues that physics and biology overwhelmingly suggest that Professor Bem’s experiments have not changed those odds.
Fraudsters and Charlatans
Regardless of scientific research, there are those who believe in ESP, those who believe that they possess these powers and plenty of anecdotal evidence to support its existence. However, science is not happy unless a phenomenon has been observed and recorded by a number of different researchers. It is this that has led to the most serious criticism of all parapsychological experiments. They seem unable to be repeated to give similar results. In addition, there are far too many examples of proven fraud and the continual emergence of fraudulent techniques, such as cold reading, for sceptics to be swayed by the results of a number of unrepeatable experiments.
However, ESP is a phenomenon that is still widely reported, often by those who have no interest in making a living from it. Most of us have had the experience of knowing who is on the end of the phone before it rings or suddenly discovering that you are sharing the same thoughts as another person. Yet, until scientists, parapsychologists or psychics can come up with a way to definitively answer the question as to whether ESP exists, the debate will continue.