ESP: An Effort to Quantify the Magical
A self-conscious girl has a feeling of being watched in class and spins in her chair; indeed, from the back of the room, a curious admirer is following her every move. A woman randomly contemplates an old friend with whom she long ago lost contact; that evening, the friend calls with important news. A man wakes up with a sinking feeling about his day and decides to skip work; later he hears of the disastrous crash of the train he rides each morning. A retarded boy who cannot count correctly states the number of cards dropped on a laboratory floor. (1) A handful of people, perhaps more (and I among them), dream of crashing airplanes and crumpling buildings in the days before the twin towers of Manhattan collapse. (2)
What is going on here?
Extrasensory perception. The term has acquired a reputation, among many Westerners, for deception, perhaps in part due to the hoards of pseudo-"psychics" and "fortune tellers" who claim to see into what they cannot. Even the term used is under debate: intuition, clairvoyance, telepathy, telekinesis, extrasensory perception (ESP), and the layman's "sixth sense" all describe uncanny, seemingly-coincidental human insights, happenings we cannot attribute to what we know of ordinary science and hence refer to as "paranormal" (next to normal). (3) Some would call such events supernormal, even occult. And is it any wonder?
The phenomenon of ESP transcends our knowledge of the human senses. In fact, its definition is, essentially, the ability to perceive accurately something the five senses cannot detect. (4) We do not, after all, have eyes in the backs of our heads. We cannot see through solid piled-up cards to count them (especially if we can't count). We do not see, or hear, others' thoughts. Our eyes cannot see events that happen across great distances. We cannot see, or hear, or touch the future.
Yet these things happen. Clinical tests show that certain people have the ability to describe figures on a card being held by a person in another room. Such tests repeatedly yield results whose probabilities of being "lucky guesses" are one against ten-to-the-umpteenth power (i.e.,1:1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). (5) Hardly attributable to chance! Indigenous peoples, particularly shamans (tribal healers), have claimed for years to know how to enter trance states in which they perceive animals or people who are far away –- or dead. (4) And, while clairvoyance generally involves interactions between two or more living entities, some have been known to use such "superpowers" to locate objects – such as water with a stick. (3) Though theories range from the scientific to the fantastical, we can say really very little to explain these curious phenomena. (6)
The investigation of the "paranormal" is plagued by an unfortunate, though inevitable, facet of scientific and human inquiry: the "I wouldn't have seen it if I...