Paranormal Science

Is ESP real?
Answered by Jennifer Horton and HowStuffWorks
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  • HowStuffWorks

    HowStuffWorks

  1. ESP, or extrasensory perception, is often referred to as the "sixth sense" because it occurs independently of sight, hearing and the other established senses. People with supposed extrasensory abilities may seem to exhibit the ability to predict events before they happen or read peoples' minds. The CIA and the U.S. military have both conducted extensive research on psychics, and law enforcement agencies have even hired them to help solve crimes.

    But is ESP real? Let's answer this with a little experiment: I'm going to reach through time and space and attempt to predict what you're thinking. Hold on, I'm concentrating. Okay, got it: You're wondering if ESP is real. Not bad, right? If that doesn't settle your doubts, I don't know what will. Still not convinced? You're not alone: not many people in the scientific community are either.

    For one thing, while a number of studies claim to provide proof of the existence of paranormal abilities, none of the results have been able to be replicated. One group claiming to have found evidence of psychic abilities, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research group, shut down in 2007 without ever scientifically proving their claims. In March, 2011, the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" published a paper featuring experiments performed by Daryl J. Bem, a Cornell professor who claims his results provide strong evidence for the existence of ESP. The experiments, performed on more than 1,000 college students over a period of eight years, tested students' abilities to accurately sense random events, such as whether a computer would flash an image on the right side of the screen or the left. In one of these experiments, students chose accurately at a rate higher than would be statistically probable, which some, like Bem, took to mean ESP exists.

    Others in the scientific community criticized Bem's methodology and called his research flawed. For example, during one experiment, Bem unexpectedly switched his procedure halfway through, performing the testing process differently on the second batch of students. Methodology aside, testing for ESP is a bit iffy. Given that ESP essentially deals with intangibles and the unexplained, is it really something that can be tested? Who's to say whether a prediction that comes true isn't coincidence or the result of keen powers of deduction? Can we really know whether something is mere chance, luck, astute perception or something else entirely? Science deals with things that can be measured. Until someone comes up with an ESP-meter, the answer to whether ESP is real or not will depend in large part on whom you ask.


    Man with ESP test card on his forehead
    ESP is thought to be a special sense beyond the physical world. So if this man has ESP, he should be able to tell what the pattern is on that ESP test card (Zener card) on his forehead. (PM Images/Getty Images)

     

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  2. Extrasensory perception, or ESP, falls outside the realm of physical laws, which makes measuring and studying it difficult. Nevertheless, many of us have experienced or know someone who has experienced an ESP event. There are also numerous documented cases of ESP. One famous example includes the 1898 book called "Futility" by Morgan Robertson. The story, which Robertson claims came to him during a trance, is about a huge luxury liner called the Titan, which crashes into an iceberg and sinks, killing hundreds of people because of too few lifeboats. The Titanic did exactly that 14 years later. However, to be considered "real," ESP needs to be scientifically proven through laboratory-controlled experiments. Parapsychologists such as J.B. Rhine used Zener cards to prove claims of ESP. The Ganzfeld experiment yielded results proving that some people experience ESP.

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