This is a difficult question to answer because it fails to account for people who genuinely believe they possess psychic powers. A fine illustration of this is Derek Ogilvie, who believes he can telepathically communicate with young infants. In the 2007 Channel 5 TV documentary ‘Extraordinary People: The Million Dollar Mind Reader’, Ogilvie failed to prove that he was actually able to read babies' minds. Thus, many proclaimed psychics sincerely believe they own powers, but are unable to demonstrate their alleged abilities to the satisfaction of scientific experts.
On occasion scientists will endorse psychic claims, such as Targ and Puthoff’s validation of Uri Geller. In a 1974 Nature article, ‘information transmission under conditions of sensory shielding’, Targ and Puthoff’s commented that Geller (during his time at the Stanford Research Institute, SRI) ‘demonstrated his paranormal perceptual ability in a convincing and unambiguous manner’. Other paranormal researchers (particularly, James Randi and Ray Hyman) refuted their claims and documented methodological weaknesses and problems. Specifically, Randi referred to the testing environment as ‘a chaotic atmosphere conducive to cheating’. Correspondingly, Marks and Kammann in their 1980 book, ‘The Psychology of the Psychic’, reported that while at SRI, Geller was able to peek at drawings he was asked to psychically reproduce through a hole in the laboratory wall.
It is difficult to assess psychics because the term refers to a range of professed parapsychological abilities. In the paranormal sense, psychics are individuals who claim to have the ability to use extrasensory perception (ESP) to obtain information. That is acquire information mentally, without the use of normal senses. An example of this is remote viewing, the alleged capability to seek impressions of distant and unseen targets via the mind. Relatedly, precognition involves obtaining direct knowledge or perception of the future (e.g., Chris Robinson, Dream Detective). Collectively, these powers represent clairvoyance, the alleged ability to gain information through extrasensory perception.
Clairvoyance, more controversially still, refers also to the ability to communication with spirits of the dead and living human beings. Whilst the scientific community generally dismiss psychic powers there is widespread general belief in telepathy and ESP. In addition, a significant proportion of the population believe in the powers of mediums and spiritualists. Furthermore, a large percentage of people actually report experiences. In a UK survey of 1215 respondents, Dagnall and Drinkwater (2016) reported that 23% claimed to have ESP- related experiences and 13% had communications with the deceased.
Notable examples of fakes and frauds further discredit the history of spiritualism (e.g., Mina Crandon and Lajos Pap). Similarly, psychical research on ESP includes high profile cases of fakery. For example, James Hydrick. James Randi, famous scientific skeptic and debunker, first exposed Hydrick as a trickster on an American television programme, ‘That's My Line’. Later Hydrick confessed to journalist and professional magician Dan Korem that his demonstrations of psychic page turning and pencil movement were tricks learned in prison.
Another notable example is James Randi and Steve Shaw (aka the illusionist Banachek) 1986 exposé of televangelist Peter Popoff. His wife, Elizabeth, was using a wireless radio transmitter to broadcast information about sermon attendees to Popoff, who was listening via an earpiece. This case was a cynical and cruel fraud, which exploited the vulnerability of sick and frail individuals.
These examples are clear examples of psychic frauds. Interestingly, fake or genuine, no one was able to best the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). This was a prize of one million U.S. dollars to anyone, who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under predetermined scientific testing criteria. The challenge ran between 1964 and 2015.
Interestingly, fake or genuine, no one was able to best the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). This was a prize of one million U.S. dollars to anyone, who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under predetermined scientific testing criteria. The challenge ran between 1964 and 2015.
Accordingly, many of the apocryphal tales about psychic accuracy draw upon anecdotal evidence and subjective interpretation. The veracity of these accounts is difficult to assess because of poor/absent documentation and memory changes associated with the passage of time. Perceptual factor make this process more difficult still. Richard Wiseman in his 1995 article (‘Recalling pseudo‐psychic demonstrations’) with Robert Morris reported that paranormal believers (sheep) recall different aspects of pseudo- psychic demonstrations to disbelievers (goats). Accordingly, believers had a tendency to rate demonstrations as more paranormal and misinterpret conjuring tricks as genuine psychic phenomena.
Whilst believers in psychics remain convinced that they possess authentic abilities, skeptics argue robustly that psychics are fakes or misguided. Some parapsychologists and physicists provide evidence for the existence of psychic ability. Particularly, Daryl Bem has continued to produce high quality research supporting the existence of psychic phenomena. Overall, experiments indicate a small significant effect is evident across studies. The small number of supportive papers in quality journals has failed to change general opinion that psychic powers do not genuinely exist. Consequently, within society, explanations that are more mundane prevail and predominate.
Co-authored with Neil Dagnall, Manchester Metropolitan University
Are there any true psychics? Yes. There is scientific evidence. That’s what compelled me to write my book the ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena. I’m not talking about people with crystal balls at the end of a pier – I’m talking about children with severe non-verbal autism who show signs of being telepathic. Psychics are more likely to be genuine if they are not charging you for it.
Throughout the ages, people with high credentials have been convinced that clairvoyance, telepathy and precognition are real phenomena. But they were discouraged from talking about it publicly because it’s one of those taboos. Sigmund Freud almost went public with his belief in telepathy, but was discouraged by his biographer.
Our old model of the brain is one which says telepathy is absolutely impossible. But if you dig deeply into neuroscience and see where it’s gone in the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion of information and knowledge. When you look closely at what science is telling us about how the brain operates, it actually predicts that some psychic abilities could exist. We have a model now in physics that enables all kinds of experiences in this post-Einstein, Niels Bohr world with quantum physics and the theory of relativity. It tells us there’s so much more to reality than we can see with our own eyes.
When you look closely at what science is telling us about how the brain operates, it actually predicts that some psychic abilities could exist.
I’ve experienced it with patients whom I’d never met before who could read my mind, telling me what I was thinking, and what was going on in my life. I thought, “Wow, I have to investigate this”. I’ve met autistic children who have remarkable savant skills, such as being able to do advanced mathematics at age five. Many reportedly have telepathic abilities so phenomenal people can’t believe it without witnessing it. It’s difficult to test this to a scientific standard, because of the ideal experimental conditions required. Ideally, the mother and child would be in totally different rooms, but that isn’t easy when you’re dealing with autistic children.
In order to address this, I’m upgrading my ability to assess these children with brain mapping technology using qEEG (Quantitative Electroencephalography). It is a non-invasive way of getting a comprehensive perspective of what’s going on in their brains. It should distinguish between cueing versus a telepathic communication, because those would involve different brain areas. I have witnessed what would definitely meet the criteria for telepathy.
The first child I evaluated was Hayley – that’s not her real name as we need to protect her privacy. She was discovered by a therapist who was coming into her home to help with her school work. The therapist at first thought Hayley was a mathematical savant. Even though she couldn’t do basic mathematics, if given a more difficult problem, she would answer correctly. One day the therapist’s calculator died on her. When she switched to a new calculator, it gave answers in logarithmic notation, which looks very different from numbers. Hayley typed her answer in the exact format on the calculator, which she had no visual access to. Similarly, if her therapist made a mistake, Hayley would answer with the same mistake. The therapist was blown away, and eventually told Hayley’s parents. They invited select people to come over who thought in a foreign language. Hayley correctly typed their thoughts in that language. They then contacted Dr Darold Treffert, who verified her abilities and referred the family to me.
One of the most profound moments in my controlled experiments with Hayley lasted 10 minutes. She had almost 100% accuracy for that time, and it was astounding. Out of 163 random digits, she only made seven errors, and corrected each on a second try, all within 10 minutes.
To understand telepathy, one must think about what it’s like for infants picking up language. Before modern times, we didn’t have picture books and flash cards. Children just hung out with people and picked up their language. I think frequent sessions of jointly focused attention on the same thing, between two bonded humans with a desire to communicate, leads to language acquisition. When you have a barrier to communication, such as being intelligent while having problems with language expression, this would be a perfect set up for telepathy to develop.
You hear a lot about dopamine and serotonin, but neurons are not just there to deliver neurotransmitters – that’s only part of their function. Our brain is an electromagnetic organ, and changes in its electromagnetic activity correlate with differences in state of consciousness. Meditating monks, who have practiced for 40 years, show brain wave activity with very high voltage, high frequency, and cohesive gamma wave activity. If you were to look at their brains structurally, you probably wouldn’t notice much difference from another healthy brain. But we know the state of consciousness they describe is very different.
That is where the EEG becomes a valuable tool. Telepathy may be a vestige of a past form of communication usurped by language. If spoken language became a short circuit, it doesn’t mean that the older, deeper ways of communicating aren’t still there. Since I reported Hayley’s case, I’ve had more than 100 parents say to me, “you are absolutely right, our kids can do this sort of thing”. They aren’t willing to go public about it. They don’t want their kids to be labeled as freaks.
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of studies over the years that have shown a statistically significant effect in favour of telepathy. This is far more evidence than a pharmaceutical company needs to get approval for a new drug. Since “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, the standard of proof has been set very high.
With mediums, I have met some who were certified as highly accurate by academic research. Some things they say are so specific you have to wonder, how and where do they get this information. Are they just telepathically picking things up? That’s the million dollar question - Is this telepathy? Do our spirits continue to exist after our bodies stop? Some autistic children claim they see ‘ghosts’ and I find that fascinating.
It comes down to neuroscience. I believe with the savant skills – when they can play music they’ve never been trained to play after hearing it just once, or a kid who by the age of two years old could read eight different languages, languages with entirely different alphabets like Hebrew, Japanese, Spanish and Hindi, all of this incredible talent – they’re somehow tapping into information in a different way than we do. Just as the cloud in computing stores massive amounts of data, humans appear to have a cloud of information that autistic savants are able to navigate in a way we can’t.
I believe neurons are just part of the picture. I am working on a model in which our brains operate like quantum supercomputers - able to analyse all possibilities at once and collapse them down into one answer. These autistic children are not focusing on what most of us are focusing on – they have become navigators of this holographic cloud of information. Most people wouldn’t classify savant skills as psychic. But it’s a scientific concept very close to it.
How did the brain work before language and the written word? We were far more bilateral in our brain function back then than today. We’ve become a species that relies on left hemisphere skills – the skills that are analytical and solution-oriented. Right hemisphere skills analyse our situation in a more intuitive way – a more unconscious way. I think telepathy falls into that category – in the unconscious process. You get the information, it just bubbles up and appears immediately in your awareness. When psychics say that the information just “comes to them”, this is a valid way to describe it.
Unless you’ve witnessed it, or experienced it yourself, belief in telepathy requires an act of faith. People are worried about making a leap of faith because they don’t know where it’s going to lead, and where they will land. They’re worried it’s a slippery slope – that it’s a “gateway drug” that’s going to lead to belief in all kinds of “woo-woo” things.
But the military are currently working on telepathy helmets. We can obtain the specific map of a person’s brain waves when thinking certain thoughts. A helmet can therefore “read the brainwaves” of the soldier wearing it, match these with patterns associated with the thoughts, and then transmit them through Bluetooth to another soldier’s helmet. With training they can learn to interpret those signals in real time, just as well as we can hear spoken language. That’s science.