Demystifying ESP

Previously posted on Annotate
April 2006

I’m about to say something that will no doubt make me very unpopular with mainstream scientists. I believe in ESP. Hang on a second before you delete this blog from your RSS feed. Let’s just look at the component parts of that acronym. When people hear ESP, they immediately think of supernatural phenomena. In fact, there is nothing inherently mystical about the term ESP. It simply means ‘extra-sensory perception.’

When I say I believe in ESP, what I mean is that I’m convinced that some people have heightened powers of perception. These people have such sensitive antennae that they’re able to pick up on environmental cues that you and I miss. And their gift is often mislabeled as telepathy.

I am not the only person who harbors this suspicion. In fact, there’s entire academic discipline devoted to discovering the biological underpinnings of ESP. It’s called neurotheology. In recent years, neurotheologists have conducted several studies that lend credence to the theory of “super-sensers.”

One particularly interesting study was conducted in 2002 by researchers at Goldsmiths College in London. They recruited a group of people to take an ESP test. The subjects ranged from “normals” to people who claimed to be clairvoyant.

Each participant was seated in front of computer monitor that cycled through cards with five symbols on them: a cross, a star, a square, a circle, and three wavy lines. The test subject was asked to predict the symbol on a given card from looking at the back. Predictably, normal people did not perform well. But many of the so-called clairvoyants did.

Here’s why: it wasn’t actually an ESP test. The researchers had rigged the program so that the face of the each card flashed across the screen for 14.3 milliseconds before the subjects were asked to guess. “Normals” missed this environmental cue entirely. But many of the people who claimed to have ESP picked up on it and were able to accurately “predict” the symbols.


Neurotheologist Michael Thalbourne of University of Adelaide in Australia has a theory about why some people are super-sensers. He believes that their enhanced powers of perception are the result of information bubbling up from the adaptive unconscious.


In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell offers a good working definition of the adaptive unconscious. He quotes psychologist Timothy Wilson, who says:

The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, or ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated, efficient manner.
Imagine that you’re crossing a busy thoroughfare when you notice a semi speeding towards you. You don’t stand in the path of the truck consciously assembling all the information you have about automobiles and collisions and then decide you’re in danger. You run. You run because your adaptive unconscious has processed all of the environmental data in milliseconds and triggered your internal alarm.

So, what would happen if the boundary between your conscious mind and your adaptive unconscious was particularly permeable? You would have conscious access to external cues that most of us aren’t aware of. And you would have insight into the adaptive unconscious’ decision-making process--insight that could easily masquerade as clairvoyance.

Say, for instance, you have a friend who has a knack for guessing who’s on the other end of the phone before picking up the receiver. Chances are this friend is a super-senser with enhanced access to her adaptive unconscious. She may pick up on cues that are lost on you and make prognostications based on a surfeit of unconscious information.

Let’s say, for example, that the phone rings at 3:00pm on a Sunday afternoon and your friend is convinced her grandmother’s on the other end. If her guess proves correct, you might chalk this up to telepathy. But the explanation is probably far less mysterious.

She may be making a prediction based on information stored in the adaptive unconscious. She may remember that her grandmother always calls on Sundays at about noon. But she may also take into account the fact that her grandmother recently got back from a trip to California. When she doesn’t receive a call at noon, she may factor in her grandmother’s jet lag and accurately predict that she’s running three hours behind. Your friend wouldn't have access to the entire decision-making process occuring in her adaptive unconscious; she’d only privy to its conclusion. Consequently, this prediction would seem as uncanny to her as it does to you.

This explanation of clairvoyance is not unlike Gladwell’s theory of thin slicing. In Blink, Gladwell posits that the adaptive unconscious allows us to efficiently sort through a storehouse of subconscious data, compare it to what we’re seeing, and make informed decisions in the space of seconds. What I’m proposing is that “telepaths” do more than make decisions based on this information, they make predictions. And because these predictions are based on verifiable external cues most of us miss, and informed by past experiences stored in the adaptive unconscious, they’re often spot on.


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