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In a nutshell: ESP stands for extrasensory perception. If you had ESP, you could see, feel, or hear things without using your eyes, hands, or ears. There are some scientists who say they have proof of ESP, but most scientists think the proof is weak and does not support a belief in ESP.

ESP stands for extrasensory perception.

Sensory perception is seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, or tasting. Extrasensory perception is when you see or hear something that can't be seen or heard with your eyes and ears. Such experiences happen outside the normal range of the senses and are said to be paranormalpronunciation or psychicpronunciation. Most scientists don't think paranormal events actually happen or that anyone is actually psychic.

If you had ESP, you could see, feel, or hear things without using your eyes, hands, or ears. Somehow your brain would get messages and images from distant places and distant times. If your brain confused you with perceptions from the past and from places far away while you were trying to get dressed, eat breakfast, get on the school bus, pay attention in class, or do your homework, you would have a very hard time making it through the day. As far as we know, this has never happened to anybody.

mind reading or telepathy

Mind reading is a type of ESP where a person "sees" what is in another person's mind. Mind reading is also called telepathypronunciation. The scientific study of telepathy began over one hundred twenty years ago when it was called psychicalpronunciation research. Today, scientists who study ESP are called parapsychologists and their science is called parapsychologypronunciation. (Psychical comes from the Greek word for spirit. Many parapsychologists say the mind is a spirit.)

The first scientific test of telepathy was done in England in 1882. Scientists at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) tested several young girls who said that they could tell what each other was thinking. The scientists put the girls in different rooms and asked those in one room about a card or name of a person that a girl in the other room was thinking of. Many tests were given over a period of six years. The scientists said there was no way the girls could have got as many right answers as they did just by guessing. The scientists also said they were sure the girls weren't cheating. The scientists agreed that the girls were reading each other's minds. The scientists were right about one thing. The girls couldn't have gotten as many right answers as they did just by guessing. But the scientists were wrong about the cheating. The girls—the Creery sisters and their servant Jane Dean—admitted they cheated by using secret signals. This wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last time, that children would fool scientists.

In 1848 two sisters, Kate Fox (age 12) and Margaretta Fox (15), Kate and Margaretta Foxsaid they heard strange rapping noises in their bedroom. They got people to believe that they were getting messages from spirits. Soon they went on tour with their big sister Leah who was in her mid-30s. They did séances, which became the rage in both the U.S. and Europe. In 1871, the Fox sisters fooled Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), an important scientist who attended a Fox-girls séance in London. Sir William said he tested the girls "in every way that I could devise" and was sure they were not producing the rapping noises "by trickery or mechanical means.” In 1888 the sisters confessed that they made the raps by cracking their toe-joints. They made bumping noises by fastening an apple to a string under their petticoats and bouncing it off the floor.

From 1979-1983, two teenagers tricked scientist Peter Phillips Steve Shaw and Mike Edwardsinto thinking they were able to move and bend objects by their thoughts, a power known as psychokinesispronunciation. (Psychokinesis comes from two Greek words meaning mind or spirit and movement. Psychokinesis, when it involves moving an object with mental power alone, is called telekinesispronunciation, literally distant-movement.) Steve Shaw (18) and Mike Edwards (17) fooled the scientist for four years through more than 160 hours of tests. One of their favorite tricks was to pretend to bend a spoon or fork with thoughts, a trick made popular by Uri Geller. Geller, however, claimed that he had psychokinetic powers. At one time, he claimed he got his powers from the planet "Hoova" in another star system and a UFO called “IS” or “Intelligence in the Sky.”

Skeptics don't think there is good evidence that anyone has moved even a pencil across a table using only the power of thought. Psychokinesis nearly always involves trickery, though we might occasionally think we caused something to happen when it happens right after we thought about it happening. If you point to the sky during a rain storm and say "let there be lightning" and then a lightning bolt shoots across the sky, you might think you caused it. You'd probably be wrong.


Clairvoyancepronunciation is seeing things at a distance using the mind alone. Skeptics doubt that it is possible to see places, persons, and actions that are not within the range of the senses and such things as telescopes or binoculars. Parapsychologists claim, however, that they have proof of clairvoyance. Skeptics don't think the proof is very good.

remote viewing

Remote viewingpronunciation is the name some people give to clairvoyancepronunciation or telepathypronunciation. Remote viewing is seeing things at a distance using the mind alone. A remote viewer either reads the mind of a person in a remote place (telepathy) or somehow directly sees the place where another person is located (clairvoyance). Skeptics don't think the proof for remote viewing is very good. (See the entry on remote viewing for an example of it in practice.)


Precognitionpronunciation is a type of ESP where a person knows something before it happens but does not use experience, knowledge, or logic to know it. Precognition is seeing into the future. Some parapsychologists think they have scientific evidence of precognition, but skeptics think they are fooling themselves.


Retrocognitionpronunciation or postcognitionpronunciation is a type of ESP where a person knows something that happened in the past, but they know it using psychic powers rather than the usual way people know about the past.

Many people who call themselves psychics claim to know many things about the past, present, and future of total strangers. They claim to know such things as where a missing person is, what that person did in the past, and what's going to happen to them in the future. Skeptics agree that a psychic uses a part of her mind that is special to "know" these things. It's called the imagination.

On the other hand, you might think you're psychic when your grandfather calls you on the phone while you're thinking of what you're going to do when you visit him next month. But it may be just a coincidence.

For more information on parapsychology and the study of ESP see A Short History of Psi Research by Robert T. Carroll (psipronunciation is what parapsychologists call ESP and psychokinesis).

Last updated 06-Jun-2013

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