Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Extra-sensory perception, or ESP, is the name given to any ability to acquire information by means other than the five canonical senses (taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing), or any other sense well known to science (balance, proprioception, etc).
Because the definition of sense is vague, the precise definition of extra-sensory is as well, but the term is generally used in reference to humans, to imply sources of information unknown to modern science.
Types of ESP
Specific types of extra-sensory perception include:
- Perception of events in other places (clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience) and in other times (precognition, retrocognition, second sight , lucid dreaming)
- Perception of aspects of others not perceivable by most people (aura reading)
- The ability to sense communications from, and communicate with, people far away (telepathy), beyond the grave (medium-hood and séancing, spirit walking ), or in other dimensions (astral projection)
There are many other names for such powers of perception, from different cultures and different eras.
ESP, is actually a combination of the senses, and their perception.
The study of these abilities is called parapsychology, which also addresses other abilities, similarly outside the explanation of current science and sometimes associated with ESP (e.g., psychometry and psychokinesis).
The word "psychic" is sometimes used as both a noun and adjective to denote a person capable of using ESP in any of its forms. Many who believe in ESP maintain that it is a power innate to only a relatively small percentage of the population; yet some believe that everyone is psychic, and that most people have just not learned to tap into their innate extrasensory potential.
History of ESP
The notion of extra-sensory perception is a very old one, and in many ancient cultures it was taken for granted that certain people had such powers of perception, be it second sight , or the power to communicate with deities, ancestors, or spirits. However, in recent centuries this idea has been widely classified as superstition and denounced as fictitious, or at best unprovable and unscientific.
Extra-sensory perception and hypnosis
When Franz Anton Mesmer and Grigori Rasputin were first popularizing hypnosis, the legend came about that a person who was hypnotized would be able to demonstrate ESP. Carl Sargent , a psychology major at the University of Cambridge, heard about the early claims of a hypnosis-ESP link, and designed an experiment to test whether they had merit. He recruited forty fellow college students, none of whom identified him- or herself as having ESP, and then divided them into a group that would be hypnotized before being tested with a pack of 25 Zener cards, and a control group that would be tested with the same Zener cards. The control subjects averaged a score of 5 out of 25 right, exactly what chance would indicate. The subjects who were hypnotized did more than twice as well, averaging a score of 11.9 out of 25 right. Sargent's own interpretation of the experiment is that ESP is associated with a relaxed state of mind and a freer, more atavistic level of consciousness.
Extra-sensory perception and technology
In the early days of radio and electronics, the technology seemed magical to most people, including the engineers working on it. It was suggested that it might be used to unleash previously impossible feats of mental ability. This included communication with dead people, who were considered to have moved on to another world or "plane". Alec Reeves, one of the pioneers of digital communications, considered ESP a perfectly reasonable proposition. He believed that many of his inventions were prompted by the dead pioneer Michael Faraday, and spent much of his earlier years trying to perfect spiritualist telecommunication devices. Some of his experiments are available as ActiveXpages on his website.
Ongoing debates about the existence of ESP
Proponents of the existence of ESP point to numerous scientific studies that offer evidence of the phenomenon's existence: the work of J. B. Rhine, a botanist at Duke University in the 1930s, and of Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff , physicists at SRI International in the 1970s, are often cited in arguments that ESP exists.
Those who believe ESP does not exist point to alleged methodological flaws in such studies, and point to numerous ESP studies which have failed to find any evidence of the phenomenon. Many modern scientists and skeptics consider the fictitious nature of ESP to be obvious, and are scornful of the idea of taking it seriously enough to study it.
Difficulties testing ESP
Among the difficulties associated with proving the existence or non-existence of extra-sensory perception are that, if ESP exists, it may have a subtle rather than an overt effect, and that the ability to perceive may be altered by the nature of the event being perceived. For example, some proponents of ESP put forward that predicting whether a loved one was just involved in a car crash might have a stronger effect than sensing which playing card was drawn from a deck, even though the latter is better suited for scientific studies.
There is some dispute over the interpretation of results obtained in scientific studies of ESP, as the most compelling and repeatable results are all small to moderate statistical results. Critics of ESP argue that the results are too small to be significant, while proponents of ESP argue that the results are consistent in numerous studies, and that the combined significance is large.
A few large prizes have been offered in the hopes of bringing people with strong ESP into formal laboratories for rigorous testing, most recently the Randi Prize and the International Zetetic Challenge.
The Randi Prize
James Randi made his name and fortune as a stage magician, and later became a skeptic devoted to debunking the claims of performers who pretended to offer more than a good show. In 1996, he set up the James Randi Educational Foundation to explore paranormal phenomena and educate the public about them. The foundation has famously made a standing offer of a $1 million prize to anyone who could demonstrate ESP or any psychic phenomenon.
The prerequisites for trying to claim the "Randi Prize" are non-trivial, however; as of 2005, no would-be claimants have passed Randi's preliminary test (which has a lower significance level than the formal test), and no offers to conduct a formal test have been extended by the Foundation.
The Zetetic Challenge
The zetetics laboratory at France's University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis conducts research into paranormal phenomena. From 1987 to 2002, they offered an International Zetetic Challenge in an attempt to prove or disprove the existence of, or demonstrate events related to, the paranormal. This was a €200,000 prize offered to "any person who could prove any paranormal phenomenon."
While there were a number of attempts at the prize, and a number of investigations were made, the prize went unclaimed.
Claims of extra-sensory perception have been subjected to repeated criticism by mainstream scientists. Most of the criticism hinges on two major contentions: first, that studies which have shown evidence of ESP are almost always either anecdotal or plagued with methodological flaws which allowed cheating, and second, that those few studies which do not appear flawed methodologically do not produce reproducible results.
An example of the first case is that of an allegedly psychic dog in England named Jaytee, who his owners claim has a supernatural ability to sense when one of them was leaving work to come home (which he allegedly displayed by running out to the porch at that time). Parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake proclaimed that his tests had shown that the dog had ESP ability. Two scientists from the University of Hertfordshire, Richard Wiseman and Matthew Smith, then tested the dog under scientifically controlled conditions, and found that the dog had no such ability -- after four experiments, the dog showed no evidence of ESP.
According to social psychologist David Myers, in his book Psychology, "a reproducible ESP phenomenon has never been discovered, nor has anyone produced any individual who can convincingly demonstrate psychic ability." The unclaimed prizes offered by Randi and the IZC are often pointed to as strong evidence against ESP.
Independent Research Organizations
- Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) was founded in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell to explore the frontiers of consciousness through rigorous scientific research.
- The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program was established at Princeton University in 1979 by Robert G. Jahn, then Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
- "Psychic dog phenomenon brought back down to earth". http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/155928.stm Accessed on December 9, 2004.
- Myers, David G. Psychology. http://www.davidmyers.org/esp/ Accessed on December 9, 2004.
- The information concerning the Randi Foundation tests appears in this book. 
- On-line Extrasensory Perception Test using Zener Cards
- Paranormal Forums
Paranormal Forums for discussion of all Paranormal related topics including ESP.
- The Best Case for ESP?
- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
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