• MA Senft

ESP: Science-fiction or Science truth?

Updated: Aug 9

Throughout the science-fiction novel, Shadows of December, characters Mott and Jay experience moments of sensation that they find hard to explain. Often referred to as a “sixth sense” or extra sensory perception (ESP), the characters feel the presence of an angelic/spiritual presence. Is there any factual evidence behind ESP? Is there any science to back up claims of perception things that are not present to the 5 senses? Let’s delve a little deeper and see…


What is ESP?

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Extrasensory perception (ESP) is “a perception that occurs independently of the known sensory processes. Usually included in this category of phenomena are telepathy, or thought transference between persons; clairvoyance, or supernormal awareness of objects or events not necessarily known to others; and precognition, or knowledge of the future.”


The term ESP was first coined by the psychologist, Dr. Rhine of Duke University. He was among the first to try and develop scientific experiments to investigate psychic abilities.



The Law of Probability vs. ESP


We have all experienced moments that seem unaccountable by any regular sense: perhaps it was déjà vu, or a dream that seems to foretell the future, possibly the touch of a loved one who has passed on. Are these moments ESP or coincidences?


Those opposed to the hypothesis of ESP state the law of probability as evidence against the idea. The law of probability uses math and large numbers to determine the probability of any certain outcome or event. Often, these ideas can appear very much like ESP. As an example, at the turn of the 20th century, author Morgan Robertson wrote a book about the sinking of a fictional ship called the Titan, which sank in the North Atlantic without enough lifeboats for all the passengers, resulting in a great loss of life. In the book, the ship hits an iceberg due to foggy conditions. Approximately a decade later, the Titanic set sail to a fate eerily similar to that of the Titan. At first glance, these two occurrences seem very much like a case for ESP intuition, however, upon further review, we learn that Robertson was a former seaman who fished in the Atlantic and knew the dangers of the ocean quite well with an extensive knowledge of boat construction and ability. Was it ESP or a random set events due to the law of probability?


However, before you start to think that all claims of ESP must be random occurrences, know that many great minds believed in the possibility of ESP including the father of American psychology, William James and the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung.


Is there scientific proof of ESP?

Science has been trying to prove or disprove ESP since the beginning of the 19th century. While there seems to be plenty of anecdotal evidence of ESP, finding scientific experiments to back it up can be a bit sparse. Early on, Dr. Rhine asked subjects to guess which card contained a specific shape out of a grouping of cards. One could expect that just from random guessing to get an over-all success rate of about 25%. Initially, test rates were significantly higher. Further research indicated that the scientists may have unintentionally influenced the subjects with their body language, unwittingly making eye contact with the subjects when they held the correct card, unconsciously leading the subjects to pick correctly through body language.


The hardest part of most ESP testing is that the research generally contains a very small number of subjects, thus not providing a wide enough breadth of mathematical data to support the ESP claims.


It is also difficult to reproduce the research for ESP: replication of experiments with a variety of different subjects or through other scientists often yields varied results, making it difficult to quantify the outcomes.


The most common experiment performed to examine ESP possibilities is something called the ganzfeld experiment with 2 participants. 1 of the participants, the ‘receiver’ is placed in an isolated room while the other, the ‘sender’, is located in another room watching pictures or video on a screen. The sender concentrates on the image while the receiver chats continuously about any imagery they may see or thoughts they are experiencing. After the session, the receiver is shown four different images and selects the one they think is most similar to the images they perceived.


An analysis of 40 different ganfeld experiment studies in 2001 found an average successful match rate of 30.1%. The expected rate was 25%, lending weight behind the hypothesis for ESP related events.


There are moments within the studies that do seem to strongly support the ability of some to have extra sensory abilities: moments where the receiver’s statements are intensely similar to that of the sender’s experience. It is definitely surprising and thought-provoking! (More details regarding the experiments can be found through the link at the bottom of the post)

What is next for ESP research?

Difficult to say. Eric Robinson, of the British Psychologist Society states, “Science is primarily based on observation followed by explanation through theory. Some parapsychologists suggest the size of the field may explain why a substantial ‘breakthrough’ has yet to be made…It is of importance to remember that our thoughts on physics, biology and psychology have been way off the mark before and continue to evolve.”


The field continues to advance and search for better ways to scientifically experiment with the concept of extra sensory perception. Who knows where the future will lead…I have always liked the idea of forces beyond our understanding and control reaching out to us beyond the veil, guiding us, protecting us, showing us the way home.


As Plato said, “Science is nothing but perception.” Why shouldn’t that perception be connected to our sixth sense?




References: want to learn more about ESP?


https://www.britannica.com/topic/extrasensory-perception

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extrasensory_perception

https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/extrasensory-perceptions/esp.htm


Details about the Ganzfeld Experiments, Eric Robinson

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-22/edition-7/extra-sensory-perception-controversial-debate


Dr. Rhine’s conducted trials

https://www.nature.com/articles/134308a0

The Law of Probability explained

https://magoosh.com/statistics/what-is-the-law-of-probability/

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M.A. Senft 

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