What Does Science Say about Psychics?

by Jackie Edwards

Extrasensory perception and haunted houses seem to be the stuff that horror stories or comedies are made of. Yet, a Gallup survey indicates that around three out of four Americans hold at least one paranormal belief. Around 32% of people believe that spirits of those who have passed away can return to certain places, and 31% believe in telepathy. Around 21%, meanwhile, believe that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died, which begs the question: has science ever established the existence of psychic powers?

An Academic Study on Psychic Phenomena

A study that is often cited when discussing what science has to say on psychic abilities is D Bem’s Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study involved nine experiments and over 1,000 participants.

In the experiments, aspects of stimuli were shown to correlate with participants’ responses which occurred before the stimuli were produced randomly by computer. For instance, participants were shown two curtains on a computer screen and were told to pick the one they thought had an image behind it. In fact, none of the screens had an image behind them. Rather, after the participants made their choices, the computer randomly chose which curtains would hide an image, and the researchers subsequently found that the participants had ‘predicted’ the positioning of the images at a higher rate than chance would indicate.

Doubt and Criticism

Bem’s study was panned by scientists and the media for various reasons, including a lack of theoretical explanation, the possibility of selective filtering of results, and the confusion of the explanandum (the thing that needs to be explained) and the explanans (the statements that do the actual explaining). One thing that studies probably won’t be able to explain is why the belief in the authentic talent of psychics continues to hold sway among so many people. That is, for many, psychics can be helpful, not necessarily because it enables them to communicate with the dead or to know the future. Many seek the help of psychics simply because they feel the latter are intuitive. In the new millennium, psychics are about clarifying your path more than about predicting the future.

The Brain as a Prism

In her book The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena, former Harvard professor Diane Hennacy Powell delves into the philosophy, physics and science of the supernatural. She notes that psychologist, William James, saw the brain as a prism; often, we focus on just one thing instead of the full spectrum of possibilities. Hennacy Powell speaks of famous ‘psychics’ such as Abraham Lincoln, who dreamed of his death 10 days before being assassinated.

Sometimes, she notes, it is hard to tell what is authentic psychic ability and what is just dreaming or imagination. Still, she feels that there are indications that this ability exists. Moreover, she says, it may have a genetic component, since it tends to run in families. People with autism, she told Time, also have a greater probability of psychic abilities. Even quantum physics relates to psychic ability, if we see time as Einstein did: as a space-time continuum.

Avoiding Psychic Scams

The papers are awash with stories of people who have lost money to psychic scams. If, despite having no ‘hard evidence’ regarding the validity of precognition, you wish to consult a psychic, what things should you watch out for? Logic would have it that a person with authentic talent or ability should be able to provide specific facts about your life or the spirit they are communicating with. Watch out for generalizations or statements that could apply to anybody. Also beware of those who tell you everything you want to hear; those who paint a picture so rosy it sounds ‘too good to be true’.

Establishing the existence of true psychic ability is arguably as difficult as establishing the existence of God. It is a question that may currently lie beyond the scope of the scientific method, but somehow, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe don’t seem to mind. In essence, a psychic reading can be an experience that gives them greater clarity, instills a sense of calm, or ensures them that someone they loved who is no longer alive, is watching out for them. For many, this is all the evidence they need.


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