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What is ESP?
Have you ever ‘known’ that a friend is going to telephone you, or had a dream, which later comes true? If you have, you may have experienced ESP, or extrasensory perception. “Extra” is another way of saying outside or beyond, so ESP means experiences we couldn’t have had via our normal senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). Most scientists believe that we learn all we know through our senses. However, if ESP exists, it’s possible that we learn thing in other more mysterious ways.
There are specific names for different kinds of ESP.
Telepathy – means communication between minds, a simple example is knowing that a friend is thinking of telephoning you.
Clairvoyance – is when someone ‘sees’ information about an object or event, without receiving it from another mind. An example might be visualising where to find a lost bunch of keys.
Premonition – this is a warning that something (usually bad) is going to happen in the future, for example a dream that a plane or car is going to crash.
People who experience ESP on a regular basis are often described as psychic.
Most people claim to experience ESP unexpectedly, in situations, which are impossible to repeat. These experiences often seem to be triggered by dramatic or traumatic events. This may be because our powers of ESP only work when we really need them, or at times of extreme emotion.
If so laboratory tests may never be able to provide the right conditions for ESP demonstration. While scientists can’t recreate real life trauma, they have done a lot of research on other factors that may influence people’s performance in ESP tests. Factors such as how they feel, or what they believe. You may think that testing is pointless if scientists can’t create exactly the right conditions however it’s still not clear what these conditions may be. Until we know, testing is the only way to rule out other explanations for what people think is ESP.
In 1934 a scientist called Dr Joseph Rhine gave a new name to phenomena such as clairvoyance and telepathy –extrasensory perception, or ESP. He also developed new ways of testing for them. He realised that ESP could only be proven to exist in strictly monitored experiments. Cheating should be completely ruled out, and the results should be clearly analysed. Dr Rhine often used a pack of cards called Zener cards.
Each pack is made up of five different cards as seen above, and there are five of each design in the pack making twenty five cards in all. In one experiment he would choose cards at random and ask the ‘subject’ (the person being tested for ESP) to guess which he had chosen. For the experiment to work, he had to show that the subjects guessed the correct cards (known as the ‘targets’) more often than chance could account for. These experiments seemed to succeed in demonstrating ESP, and they attracted a lot of attention, However when other scientists tried they didn’t get the results, many began to question whether Dr Rhine had monitored the experiments strictly enough.
Some scientists are still using the techniques developed b y Dr Rhine, but they have refined them to make them more accurate. This sort of testing is called ‘restricted response’ testing, because the subjects are tested on specific targets such as Zener cards.
Other scientists use ‘free response’ tests, this involves letting the mind run free and allowing images to form. The target in these experiments is something more complex than a simple shape, such as a scene or a short video clip. In free response testing, it is thought that people perform their best if their minds are free of distractions. A popular way of achieving this is using the ganzfeld technique. The subject lies down comfortably under a red light. White noise (a gentle “ssshh” sound) is played through headphones to cut out noises. Half table tennis balls are placed over the subject’s eyes to create a soft pinky-
The overall average for test results is just above what might be expected by chance. Therefore, many experimenters think that ESP may exist, but it is very weak and unreliable.
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