From Abracadabra to Zombies
In a nutshell: Psychic animals are animals that some scientists think have ESP. Most scientists think animals can do many great things, but ESP isn't one of them.
One of the more curious claims made by those who study ESP is that they've found animals they claim are psychic. Here we'll mention just four: a dog named Jaytee, a parrot named N'kisi, a cat named Oscar, and a horse named Lady Wonder.
If you've read the entry on the horse known as Clever Hans, then you know that some scientists have been tricked by animals and their trainers. (I didn't mention it in the article on Clever Hans, but some scientists thought the horse was psychic. They thought he was reading the mind of his trainer or of someone in the audience when he correctly answered questions by tapping his hoof or using his nose to touch something.) Some scientists thought Hans could understand German, read, and do math problems. Oskar Pfungst (1847-1933), a biologist and psychologist, found that Hans was watching his trainer. When his trainer bent forward slightly, that was a signal for Hans to stop tapping his hoof. Pfungst found that humans sometimes make movements they're not aware of and don't mean to make (unconscious and involuntary movements). He also found that we and other animals send messages to each other by bodily movements. All of us know what a frown or a smile means. But nobody until Pfungst knew that a very slight nod or facial movement would be understood by an animal or another person as meaning something like "stop tapping" or "you've got it." (Watching Oprah Winfrey on television one time I saw her move her eyebrows way up when a mentalist was trying to figure out what number she was thinking of. He was counting and when he got to her number, her eyebrows went up and the look on her face told him "you've got it.")
Thanks to the scientific work of Oskar Pfungst, we now know more about how we and other animals communicate with each other by "body language." This is an example of how science works. When scientists get something wrong, they or other scientists will eventually correct it. Unfortunately, not all scientists learn from their own mistakes or from the mistakes of others. But, while some scientists keep making mistakes, others study why they make those mistakes. We'll see examples of both kinds of scientists in the following stories.
the dog Jaytee
Belief in psychic dogs is rather common. Testing dogs for psychic ability is not so common. English biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake says he has tested and proved that a terrier named Jaytee is psychic. When Jaytee's owner, Pam Smart, is away shopping, he says, Jaytee can "see" when she decides to come home. (Either the dog is clairvoyant or precognitive.)
Jaytee has been on several television programs in Australia, the United States, and England. Pam and her parents were the first to see the dog's psychic abilities. They said that they saw that the dog would run to the window facing the street when Pam was deciding to come home from several miles away. (How the parents knew when Pam was deciding to come home is unclear.)
Dr. Sheldrake tested Jaytee. He said the dog is truly psychic. He even wrote a book about it.
Two other scientists, Dr. Richard Wiseman and Matthew Smith, also tested the dog. They made sure their watches were telling exactly the same time. They set video cameras on both the dog and its owner. After looking at the evidence from several experiments, they concluded that the dog wasn't going to the window only when Pam started for home. Jaytee did go to the window a lot, but only once did he do so near the exact time his owner was getting ready to come home. In that one case, the dog went to the window after hearing a car pull up outside his house.
Parrots can say words, but do they use language like we do? Most scientists agree that parrots are pretty smart, but they aren't having a conversation with anyone when they "speak." One scientist thinks at least one parrot is psychic. The scientist is Rupert Sheldrake and the parrot is an African Grey parrot named N'kisi.
Many animal owners think they are having conversations with their pets. Most scientists think that the owners are fooling themselves. The pets are responding to cues given by the owner. These cues might be sounds like spoken words or they might be slight involuntary bodily movements that the owners aren't aware they're making.
Some animal owners think their pets are psychic. One such person is Aimée Morgana, the owner of N'kisi. If Morgana is not present to tell us what the parrot's words and shrieks mean, however, it is hard to figure out what's going on. Morgana doesn't hear a shriek; she "hears" laughter. The parrot says "pretty smell medicine." Morgana has to tell us that this means N'kisi likes the smell of the oil Morgana uses for something or other.
Sheldrake did some tests of N'kisi and concluded that N'kisi reads Morgana's mind. The parrot, he said, has the power of telepathy. No other scientist has tested N'kisi, but there were a few problems with Sheldrake's testing. He did something a scientist should not do except for a very good reason. He didn't count much of the evidence that he collected. He didn't count 60 of the 147 tests he ran. Each of those 60 tests were tests where N'kisi failed to give any sign of being tested, much less of being psychic.
Oscar is a cat who lives on the third floor of a Rhode Island nursing home. A doctor who works there thinks Oscar can tell when a patient is about to die. When a patient is about to die, Oscar curls up next to the patient. He leaves after the patient dies. Dr. David Dosa has written a book about Oscar.
Nobody doubts that Oscar curls up on the beds of patients and leaves when they die. He also curls up on the beds of patients who don't die. He leaves those beds, too.
Dr. Dosa failed to do something all good scientists do. He failed to make careful observations and record them. He used only his memory and the memories of others to base his claims about predictions of death by a cat. Without knowing how many times a day the cat jumps up on a bed and leaves, we can't know whether the times the cat is on the bed when a patient dies is anything special. Dr. Dosa says that the cat sometimes curls up to a patient who doesn't die and leaves while the patient is still alive. What a scientist should do is keep track of the comings and goings of the cat if he suspects the cat is doing something special like predicting when people will die.
When patients die, there is usually some sort of activity around the patient's bed. Family members move in close, hold their loved one's hand, and cry. Nurses and doctors take out tubes, remove machines, arrange to have the body removed. Housekeepers come in to tidy up the room. It would not be surprising to find that Oscar gets out of their way and leaves when a patient dies.
One story I read about Oscar said that Oscar will scratch at doors and walls, trying to get into the room of a dying patient. Whether Oscar claws at closed doors of rooms where patients aren't dying isn't mentioned. So, we don't know if Oscar's scratching on some doors is special.
One of the first American scientists to study psychic powers at a major university was Dr. Joseph B. Rhine (1895-1980). He and his wife, Dr. Louisa Rhine, began studying what he would call “extra-sensory perception” (ESP) in 1925 at Harvard University. The Rhines were not medical doctors, but doctors who studied plants (botanists). In 1927, the Rhines went to Duke University to work with William McDougall. Their first study concluded that the horse Lady Wonder could read minds. They said that they could see no trickery and that the horse was genuinely telepathic. In a follow-up study two years later, the horse couldn't perform. The Rhines said that Lady Wonder had lost her psychic ability. Skeptical scientists think that the Rhines did a better job of testing the horse the second time around. Lady Wonder didn't lose her psychic ability. She never had it in the first place.
You might wonder why scientists would study animals for psychic ability. The Rhines knew that animals like horses shared some common ancestor with humans. Even though that was millions of years ago, evolution had given both species brains and other similarities. If humans have psychic abilities, it is certainly worth looking into the abilities of other animals to see if they have these abilities too.
Unlike Dr. Dosa, Rhine made careful observations and recorded what he observed. Unlike Dr. Sheldrake, Dr. Rhine counted all the evidence and didn't throw away whatever didn't support his beliefs.
Rhine was aware of the Clever Hans effect. He devised his tests so that Lady Wonder's owner couldn't signal her voluntarily or involuntarily. He also tried to avoid any movements himself that might cue the horse to the target. (The horse was to knock over blocks on a table to "say" what target was being thought of.) Targets were selected silently to prevent the horse from responding to sounds.
Why did Rhine find the horse telepathic in one test but not the other? I don't know, but it may be that he focused on making sure there was no cheating during the first test and wasn't quite as careful as he should have been about involuntary cues. It's also possible that the horse made more lucky guesses the first time she was tested. Anyway, Rhine went on to earn a good reputation as a pioneer in the science of parapsychology. Rhine taught at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, from 1928 to 1950. He directed its parapsychology laboratory from 1940 to 1965. His work continues at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, but it is no longer connected to Duke. Rhine thought he had proved ESP exists, but most scientists do not agree.
For more information on the study of psychic powers see A Short History of Psi Research by Robert T. Carroll (psi is what parapsychologists call perceiving or moving things with the mind only).