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I remember reading not too long ago about a study in which experimenters performed a number of standard psychological tests with a twist; it was something about they ran a number of tests from standard psychiatric batteries but they ran them backwards, and so were able to measure a small but positive 'esp' effect in which the participants were able to remember slightly better words from a larger group of words that they would be told only later.

I am not sure if the study was peer reviewed or published in a serious journal or what. My question is whether there is any serious scientific support at all for any kind of telepathy (or clairvoyance, cryptomnesia, etc)?

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I knew you would ask that question! :) –  user unknown Mar 5 '11 at 4:09
    
@user And I knew you would say that. ... Mostly because I programmed you, but oh well. –  muntoo Mar 7 '11 at 2:56
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BTW, it's actually called magic. –  muntoo Mar 7 '11 at 2:57
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Perhaps its worth mentioning Niven's fifth law in this context. Other effects (including some that were initially barely detectable) have been turning into technology. –  dmckee Mar 26 '11 at 3:11

5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

No, there is no serious scientific support for any of these. Some studies, even well designed, do sometimes see some sort of statistically significant effect, but the majority of studies do not (ref meta studies). And if these phenomena were real, you would expect some people to be better at it than others, and no such people have been found.

This all illustrates the scientific importance of results being reproducible and should teach journalists to stop basing scary claims about this and that on a single study.

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that's only because Runciter’s inertials were around. ;-) –  vartec Jul 18 '11 at 22:09
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@len I know this answer is very old, but can you consider fixing it? It's a broken window now... –  Sklivvz Jul 23 '11 at 10:10
    
I don't consider it broken. Neither does the voters. –  Lennart Regebro Jul 23 '11 at 11:38
    
Do you have a reference that conducts a review of the relevant literature and finds, as you claim, that the "vast majority of studies do not (see a statistically significant effect)."? –  Jase Nov 30 '12 at 10:19
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I agree with this; it should've occurred to me when I was writing the post. Apologies. –  Jase Nov 30 '12 at 11:10

The big problem with telepathy, and with parapsychology as a field in general, is that science is all of a piece. Thus, physics is consistent with chemistry, biology and so on. So the question is not "what knowledge can we derive on the assumption that we know nothing?" - but "what knowledge can we derive given what we know already?"

Basic physics - extremely well-understood and well-tested physics - leaves it not looking good for parapsychology as a field in any way. Sean M. Carroll points out ("Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory." Discover Blogs: Cosmic Variance 2008-02-18.) that both human brains and the spoons they try to bend are made, like all matter, of quarks and leptons; everything else they do is emergent properties of the behaviour of quarks and leptons. And the quarks and leptons interact through the four forces: strong, weak, electromagnetic and gravitational. Thus either it's one of the four known forces or it's a new force, and any new force with range over 1 millimetre must be at most a billionth the strength of gravity, or it will have been captured in experiments already done. (Sean M. Carroll. "Life and the forces of nature." Preposterous Universe, 2004-05-03.) So either it's electromagnetism, gravity or something weaker than gravity.

This leaves no force that could possibly account for telekinesis, for example. Telepathy would require a new force much weaker than gravity and a detector in the brain evolved to use it for signaling. Precognition, the receipt of information transmitted back in time, would violate quantum field theory.

What this means is that the ideas parapsychology purports to investigate have pretty much no chance of being right even before we test them directly.

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That depends on the assumption that we now understand everything, which is not the case. This reasoning also implies that we're very unlikely to be surprised by new developments in physics, which strikes me as unlikely. –  David Thornley Mar 6 '11 at 21:39
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@David That’s not true. Rather, it depends on the specific assumption that our current models, in particular the Dirac equation, capture reality accurately. And all experiments until now show that they do, with an extremely high degree of precision. Telekinesis necessarily postulates that Dirac’s equation is wrong. And not just a bit wrong but completely wrong. Essentially it’s missing a very important term that should have been noticeable in other experiments. It hasn’t, and this is very strong evidence that Dirac’s equation is an accurate model. –  Konrad Rudolph Jul 17 '11 at 10:24
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@Konrad: No, I'm not postulating a new weak force. I'm just refusing to say there's no such thing. It is reasonable to say that there is no scientific basis for telepathy, and that if there was one we'd very likely have some idea of it. I don't think it's as reasonable to claim that we know science well enough to completely rule things out on the basis that we have no idea why it could possibly work, given laws that appear fairly complete. –  David Thornley Jul 19 '11 at 1:45
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@David It’s not that those laws don’t require telepathy. It’s that they positively don’t allow for it to exist. Postulating that telepathy exists is therefore equivalent to postulating that these laws are wrong. This is of course still possible, but it makes the burden of proof much more evident. –  Konrad Rudolph Jul 19 '11 at 7:09
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@Konrad: Except that the currently accepted laws of physics are wrong, unless I've missed a reconciliation of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Starting with the observation that the laws are wrong, an attempt at a scientific explanation of telepathy would have to be more specific on how the laws were wrong (and ideally should pass the laugh test better than all other scientific "explanations" I've seen of occult ideas). –  David Thornley Jul 19 '11 at 15:50

The study you are thinking of was conducted by Cornell Professor Emeritus Daryl Bem, and concerns "erotic stimuli" and response. You can read his paper directly here. It was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is apparently a real peer-reviewed journal. In the study, over 100 sessions, students successfully identified that they would be shown a pornographic picture 53.1 percent of time, rather than the expected 50%.

According to the journal, the study was well designed and the paper was well reviewed. But it hasn't been reproduced.

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That study was about precognition. It has nothing to do with telepathy. –  Christian Mar 5 '11 at 19:04
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True. It still might be what the questioner was thinking of, since it was making the rounds in the news. –  mattdm Mar 5 '11 at 20:54
    
Just to clarify, attempts have been made to reproduce the results but so far they have all (some failed, and at least one successful). There's been some controversy recently about the journal not publishing these replication attempts: psychsciencenotes.blogspot.com/2011/05/… –  Wilka Jul 19 '11 at 10:14

There are dozens of studies in which the Ganzfeld protocol produced statistically significant results. The protocol got reproduced multiple times and the studies found that some groups like twins perform better.

There are however also studies that found no effects. That doesn't the protocol doesn't work. In university we collectively failed to replicate PCR without the postdoc who lead the process understanding the problem. PCR is a well understood process and it's still possible to mess it up. It's typical in science that people get protocols wrong. As possible principles of telepathy are unknown it's not that surprising that half of the studies don't produce results.

There's however a meta study that concluded that the findings aren't enough to justify a belief in telepathy. If you want to believe in telepathy than you can justify that belief with dozens of studies. If you don't want to believe in telepathy than you can go to the meta study with finds that the evidence isn't conclusive.

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Or maybe if you're doing the experiment often enough, you will sometimes get statistically significant results purely by chance? Especially if your experimental procedures are not perfect. –  Fabian Mar 6 '11 at 15:35
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Maybe people who drink a coffee before participating in the experiment can't develop telepathic communication. As a result half of the studies fail because the participants drunk coffee before the experiment. It's typical in science that stuff that you don't hold constant messes up your experiment. Issues whether the person drunk coffee before the experiment however shouldn't be able to make the experiment a success. As far as getting statistically significant results purely by chance, more than 1/20 of the studies show effects. –  Christian Mar 6 '11 at 16:09
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"Or maybe if you're doing the experiment often enough, you will sometimes get statistically significant results purely by chance?" - This is what Bem did. He ran the experiment year after year, and this was the year he got significance. –  David Gerard Mar 6 '11 at 20:31
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For all I know, it's really hard to get ESP to work in a skeptical environment or in a controlled experience. It's really, really hard to prove a negative. –  David Thornley Mar 6 '11 at 21:40
    
Where can the meta study be found? –  rjzii Jun 10 '13 at 12:36

Since this question is about telepathy, I'll focus on just that and also use the definition that it is,

... the transmission of information from one person to another without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interaction.

First, the major scientific criticisms generally boil down issues with the following points:

To address the first point, experimental design is a major concern when any tests for telepathy are examined since they must be controlled in such a way that the observer-expectancy effect is controlled for. Any tests also need to be conducted in such a way that subconscious cues to the subject are controlled for to prevent the "Clever Hans effect" or cold reading.

Lack of a model as to how telepathy would work is actually a major problem for any proper study for telepathy since it exposes the experimenter to criticism if you try to explain null results as being due to the subject being in the wrong state of mind or out growing their abilities (Horn, 2009). This exposes testing to major issues with reproducibility and lack of reproducibility previously positive results can easily be explained as problems with the experimenter or attempts to defraud the experiment as opposed a potential explanation for why telepathy might not present on a consistent basis in laboratory conditions.

Ultimately, Joseph Banks Rhine is likely one of the few scientists to have studied telepathy in controlled environments that might have presented some evidence of an effect (Rhine, 1964); however, even his work has been subject to major criticism and generally his work is dismissed by most skeptics. The extent of his research does raise an interesting point though that relates back to the lack of a working model: namely, is it even possible to dismiss unreproducible experiments on the basis of a single experiment or are multiples needed before results can safely be dismissed? This does raise the issue of publication basis though since a researcher can be accused to not publishing null results while someone that is seeking to reproduce the results could be accused of the same by not publishing positive results.

In conclusion the best we can really say is that there is weak evidence that there might be telepathy; however, there is a lack of explanation of how it could occur or that Littlewood's law1 isn't at play during experiments and lack of reproducibility ensures that the current scientific consensus is that telepathy likely does not exist. However, this is not to say that "synthetic telepathy" is not possible since brain-computer interfaces are in development that mimic what people generally think of when they define telepathy.

That said, one of the statistical meta studies linked in the accepted "No" answer had the following to say:

The recent focus on meta-studies in parapsychology has revealed that there are small but constantly non-zero effects around studies, experimenters and laboratories. The sizes of the effects in forced-choice studies appear to be comparable to those reported in some medical studies that had been herald as breakthroughs.

Which can be taken to imply many different things; however, their conclusion also serves as a good one for this answer as well,

If ESP does not exist, there is little to be lost by erring in the direction of further research, which may in fact uncover other anomalies. If ESP does exist, there is much to be lost by not doing process-oriented research and much to be gained by discovering how to enhance and apply these abilities to important world problems.


Horn, Stacy (2009). Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory. New York, NY: HaperCollins Publishers.

Rhine, J.B. (1964). Extra Sensory Perception. Boston, MA: Branden Publishing Company.

Rhine, J.B., Pratt, J.G., Stuart, C.E., Smith, B.M., Greenwood, J.A. (2011). Extra Sensory Perception After Sixty Years: A Critical Appraisal Of The Research In Extra Sensory Perception. New York, NY: Henry Holt.


  1. Littlewood's law, or adage, states that an individual can expect to experience "miracles" at the rate of about one per month.
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What's with the down vote? –  rjzii Jun 10 '13 at 22:23

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