National Geographic Daily News
A photo of Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine.

Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine conducted experiments at Duke University and the Institute of Parapsychology that convinced millions of people that ESP existed.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB JORDAN, AP

Susan Brink

for National Geographic

Published January 21, 2014

The phone rings; you see the caller ID, pick it up and say, "Wow! I was just heading to the phone to call you." Or ... you close your eyes and wish as hard as you can as the batter swings, and then he hits it out of the park. Or ... you have an uneasy feeling all day about your son; he comes home with a broken thumb, and you say, "Thank goodness. I thought you were going to break your arm."

Did you telepathically signal your friend to call? Did your thoughts generate a home run? Did you get a glimpse of your son's future pain? Do you have extrasensory perception? Does anyone?

Not that anyone who believes in ESP will believe it, but a study published January 13 in PLOS ONE, an online peer-reviewed journal, came up with an answer—a resounding "No."

Piers Howe and Margaret Webb, both of the University of Melbourne in Australia, showed 48 volunteers pairs of photographs of people, a split second apart, some of which had minor changes (e.g., a haircut, the addition of red lipstick) and some of which were identical. The volunteers consistently detected that there was a change but could not say what the change was.

"From their perspective, they were able to sense changes they could not see. We had induced the impression of a sixth sense," says Howe. But the sixth sense doesn't exist: It's simply a matter of detecting a change we are unable to verbalize.

For decades, others have attempted to examine ESP—a term that embraces phenomena from telepathy to clairvoyance. Here are two such experiments, one of the earliest and one of the most recent:

The Study: Can people use ESP to figure out what's on the face of a card? Probably the earliest attempt to prove the existence of a sixth sense was undertaken by Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University and published by the Boston Society for Psychic Research in 1934.

Methodology: Research subjects were presented with shuffled decks of cards; each card pictured one of five symbols: a cross, a circle, a wavy line, a square, or a star. Each deck had 25 cards, and chance alone would predict five correct answers. In one experiment, 2,400 guesses were made, 489 of which were correct—more than twice as many as would be correct by mere chance.

What Skeptics Think: Some claimed cheating by subjects and sloppiness by researchers.

What ESP Believers Think: The statistical probability of this result is roughly a million to one, so something unknown is going on.

The Study: Does precognition exist? Can we "feel" the future? A report by Daryl Bem of Cornell University published in 2011 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology triggered outrage in the psychological community.

Methodology: Bem conducted nine experiments involving 1,000 subjects. In some, subjects were shown two computer images of curtains and told that behind one of the curtains was an image, behind the other, a blank screen. They were to click on the curtain that they believed covered the image. In some tests, the images were soft-core pornography. (Volunteers were warned ahead of time that if they objected to such images, they should not participate in the study.) In other tests, the images were non-erotic. For each click, they had a 50-50 chance of being correct. When the images were non-erotic, the results were close to chance: 49.8 percent. But the subjects correctly located the pornographic images 53.1 percent of the time. Other tests checked the volunteers' memories of lists of words, showing that they could anticipate which words they'd be asked to recall. Overall, although the effect was small, it was statistically significant.

What Skeptics Think: So far, other researchers have been unable to reproduce Bem's results.

What ESP Believers Think: Some people will agree with Bem's statement at the conclusion of his paper, where he said wished that psychologists would be more open to considering "impossible things."

Researchers will continue to attempt to use scientific methods to prove or disprove reincarnation, crop circles, or whether anyone can predict the future. A 2005 Gallup poll found that about three out of four Americans subscribe to at least one paranormal belief, such as ESP, haunted houses, or telepathy.

It seems that when it comes to a sixth sense, what we know for sure is that people will believe exactly what they want to believe.

40 comments
Benoit La Fontaine
Benoit La Fontaine

This study is artificial and meaningless. As a scientist, I do not believe easiley, but there are facts I can't explain. You can't provoke ESP in a person; it has to come naturally «out of the blue». Very, very few persons are endowed with ESP or precognition. Jeane Dixon was one: she predicted 10 months in advance what happened to Kennedy in Dallas. My mother had the gift of precognition and over the years she became somewhat afraid of this ability. I am aware  of the accuracy of her prédictions in several instances.


Here is one. My mother had a maid whose sister lived with her husband in a small village.

The guy didn't keep a steady job; he preferred hunting. One day after lunch the maid presented her empty teacup to my mother, asking her to read the remaining tea  leaves.

After a while my mother could not refrain a start; she said I see nothing. The maid insisted. OK, just for fun, and don't listen to it!  I see, said my mother, a woman and a man getting out of a car at dusk in front of a house. They enter, they put the lights on and the man prepares to leave. Then the woman is seen clearly through the lighted window. Outside there is a man hiding behind a bush, with a long rifle. He aims at the figure in the window. The woman is hit in the face.


My mother could not believe what she saw. She said to the maid not to believe what she had said: that was just imagination!  However several weeks later, the drama occurred exactly as my mother had seen. The woman was the maid' sister who had asked her neighbor to drive her to a store. After that my mother refused to look at tea leaves.


I have no explanation. I think such phenomena cannot be proved or disproved by made up studies in universities.


Benoit La Fontaine

Kyle Hineman
Kyle Hineman

I don't think those tests had anything to do with testing ESP. Cards,photos and computers images have nothing to do with a "sixth sense" The "researchers" were testing nothing more than good guesses.

S K
S K

Yes, I agree with others in the blog.  NATGEO should be ashamed allow such dribble...


Steven. 

S K
S K

I think the very obvious slant in this PLOS pyschic article is similar in some regards to the grievous 'studies' done in the medical/psyche arena.  It's hilarious to read that a 

certain psyche test for depression...created and utilized by Eli Lily,

produced results that showed...no matter who took the test...each

and every time (100 percent) the test produced a need...for the impending

patient to go onto Eli Lily's Meds.  See Mercola for article.   What I am suggesting is

that a very serious intellectual-emotive flaw exists in the scientific community.

One might sum this notion up with Mark Twain, that old Guffaw:

"If You tell me where a man gets his cornpone, I'll tell you...what his opinions are"

Boohoo's eat cornpone too.  Perhaps they should go Organic...lol...

S K
S K

I think People should listen to Dean Radin.  It's Not Woo.


Even if the BOOHOO's say so.  They are simply pedantic.


Same as It Ever Was...


Steven

George Williams
George Williams

Just chiming in like many others:  the first article was not a test of ESP, and had nothing to do with ESP whatsoever.


Very sloppy work, Susan Brink.

Frank Matera
Frank Matera

Very poorly researched article and the last line says it all. 

"It seems that when it comes to a sixth sense, what we know for sure is that people will believe exactly what they want to believe"

All of the cards laid out on the table right there.   This is an article where the Author already had set in stone their own pre-conceived beliefs in regards to PSI.  

Unfortunately the way it was written and researched is almost par for the course when it comes to some of those within the "science" community that are uneducated on the subject.

Jacob P.
Jacob P.

As many have already said, the first cited experiment really has nothing to do with ESP. My experience is that thoughts and ideas are rarely simple to articulate, but the inability to do so doesn't make them special. It just means they're either very complicated or -- in this experiment -- poorly established.

The most shocking and yet depressingly believable fact in this article is that 75% of Americans think that ESP exists. It's probably the same 75% who believe humans lived alongside dinosaurs and that evolution and the big bang are just "theories."

Tim Robinson
Tim Robinson

James Huse, I am interested in what you have to say and would like to learn more.


Thank You.

James Huse
James Huse

One can know the future by being able to read the nature of a person or thing, I do this all the time ,it is learned,I can have almost 100% accuracy, don,t believe it, I will teach you how to do it, I guarantee you will not be disappointed, it is not always a good thing since others can not see, I am left to fix things myself when I see trouble on the horizon, it can be very stresfull. You may remember me you did a report in your mag. about me once before, but you did not ask me about this. I turned out to be right before.


mike williams
mike williams

First you design an experiment that had nothing to do with the "sixth sense".

Then, you prove your non experiment didnt have anything to do with the sixth sense.

And brilliantly jump to the conclusion that the sixth sense tests and results in  all real experiments before this non experiment are wrong.

Nothing like modesty is there.?

Then you try and get the non study of the non test published in a normal journal.

This fails.. and you have to resort to a journal where by chance one of the psychologists from the "study" is on the publishing board.

Then, to attract attention the university PR department starts the ball rolling with this non science piece of junk.

Then, to keep the ball rolling, you choose an online non science/keep consensus protected web site where the journalists are themselves incapable of actually understanding the non test..and rush to publish.

George Orwell would be proud of this rolling debacle...

And the moral of this train wreck is..Never let psychologists near any form of science/testing or statistics..


 

 

Mark Turner
Mark Turner

Have you ever had the strange intuition that you were about to read a poorly-researched article that draws wild conclusions unsupported by its sources?

I know. Weird, huh?

Mark Turner
Mark Turner

Have you ever had the strange intuition that you were about to read a sloppily-written-and-researched article?

I know. Weird, huh?

john roberts
john roberts

This experiment says nothing about whether ESP exists, only that people can be mistaken easily. Most good experiments would control for these factors. big questions does ESP exist, I am open minded, but one of the myths often banded about is that there is no evidence. This clearly untrue, look at the years of research at Stanford University, Edingborough University, Lund University and the list goes on. the evidence may be mixed but is probably as strong as for many other scientific theories?

Yazir Paredes
Yazir Paredes

Wait a second. 489 correct guesses out of 2400 in the 1934 experiment amounts to 20.37%. That´s about the same as 1 in 5 guesses.  The article states "Each deck had 25 cards, and chance alone would predict five correct answers." which means 20%. I don't believe the experiment as stated on the article showed nothing more than chance.

Herminio Laurina
Herminio Laurina

ESP is real, Christ has it, Joseph, one of the 12 patriarch has done it and other biblical prophets had shown it, but then it is only possible through the power from GOD. Man alone could not dot it.

jess lucas
jess lucas

what's with this effort to have people doubt their intuition?????  Who cares what you believe, or what you have tried to prove??  I want the "big picture,"  behind this, the second article making an effort to disprove ESP.  When in the grand scheme of things we have so much more important issues at hand.  So come on guys study something that is worth your IQ's!

Graham Nicholls
Graham Nicholls

As Dean Radin, a leading expert in ESP or more correctly 'Psi' research, states below this study has nothing to do with psi abilities. This article article is simply inaccurate and tabloid in tone. For example this article states "So far, other researchers have been unable to reproduce Bem's results." This is simply untrue, see this article for more information and a list of positive replications: http://www.dailygrail.com/Mind-Mysteries/2014/1/Is-Precognition-Real-Positive-Replications-Daryl-Bems-Controversial-Findings


This article exemplifies why many scientists in this field are calling for a fair representation of the data and better standards of reporting, see this open letter on the subject signed by a host of experts: http://www.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00017/full

Mike Vacchiano
Mike Vacchiano

Intuition is in the heart.

Rhine and Bem are playing head games.


Roy Stemman
Roy Stemman

Howe and Webb's research has nothing to do with ESP. Check out their paper and you will see that nowhere do they mention extrasensory perception, ESP or psychic abilities and that is because what they were actually studying was subliminal recognition of changes on images shown fleetingly to their subjects. 


ESP researchers such as Rhine and Bem require their subjects to sense hidden targets, such as a symbol on a card that is face down or concealed in an envelope or generated by a computer. These experiments are designed to prevent subjects from seeing the targets, subliminally or any other way.


Why has Howe and Webb's research been dressed up as proof that ESP does not exist in the world's media? Whoever was responsible for this gross misrepresentation should be fired, along with all the journalists and editors who have regurgitated the claim without checking the facts first.

Kate Dwyer
Kate Dwyer

ESP does it exist, but of course it does!!! 

Betsy van der Merwe
Betsy van der Merwe

The study methods do sound a little detached as I also belive that ESP is a personal experience. My logic says we sense the energy as we are also energy. What I still wonder about is why we only experience ESP situations so little.....maybe because we are so physically and not spiritually inclined most of the time (and live such busy lives).

Charlene Jiang
Charlene Jiang

This study had nothing to do with ESP. This was measuring visual perception in relation to memory. I see no connection to extra sensory perception. The whole idea of ESP is that it uses a sense which is beyond the "ordinary" and this study obviously, blatantly measured visual perception. Uh. What.


Just because it was a scientific experiment, does not mean it is gospel and hard truth. This article was a farce and a shameful throw back to the days when people only accepted church teachings and opposed new theories.


That said, I don't think there is sufficient evidence to prove beyond a doubt that ESP exists, but this article by no means debunks anythings.


However, judging by the unpredictable nature of most ESP events, ecology style experimentation where experiments are not dependent upon replication in controlled laboratories may be a better course of action. 

Lorna Hughes
Lorna Hughes

Years ago, I woke up feeling very uneasy. I felt terrified to get in a car with absolutely no reason for it. The feeling stayed with me all day. Later that day, I was in a very serious accident (caused by no fault of my own. I was stationary and hit by an out of control vehicle.)
More recently, I was sitting at my brother's house babysitting, and all of a sudden thought of my cat and was overcome with a strange panic. Again, the feeling stayed with me. As soon as I was able to leave, I rushed home to find my cat being violently attacked inside my own home by another cat, that had somehow pushed a window in to get there. If I had been any later they both may have been seriously injured.
I can almost always tell when I'm going to be "picked" from an audience unwillingly, to answer a question or for some sort of participation that I do not volunteer for. I get the same very uneasy feeling moments before it's announced that someone needs to be picked.
As a child, I knew the days my grandparents had passed away before anyone in my family told me. I just waited to be told on both occasions, and soon enough, got the news.
Is ESP real? I don't know. What I do know, though, is that - as pointed out by others - I don't have a connection to pieces of card that have no effect on my life. When I get feelings it is always connected to events, real emotions, etc. This study sounds like a gigantic waste of time. How can you gauge something when the people involved have no connection to the subject, and are probably skeptics as it is?

Finally, as pointed out in the book "Return to Life" by Jim B. Tucker (I use this example as I have just read it) - in prior studies on the subject, people who don't believe in ESP are far less likely to succeed in ESP tests than those who do believe in it. It has to involve emotional connections, of that I'm sure.

Mammy Karma
Mammy Karma

tmi  u have to have it  we probably all have it but the world is kind of insane and we seem to push it away for some reason .. who knows Margo

John Wignell
John Wignell

I predict that grand central station  in New York . something big will happen. I don't know why I wrote this.

L P
L P

sounds like much to do about nothing

jessie ash
jessie ash

How much money was waisted on this survey to prove that you can subconsciously see a differance. How does this apply to the parent that k ows somthing is wrong with their child how can you see a differance then? You just know something is wrong so then a sixth sense does exist. Give me the money and I'll prove it does exist, see I knew you would say no

Robyn Ruckman
Robyn Ruckman

this article was a waste of time. there is no connection to a card. like in ghostbusters. but there is a connection to people. to the real. energies that attract and bond and stay connected no matter the time or distance apart. THAT is where you will see the strongest examples that validate the connection of visions and "gut feelings". intuition. not in a parlor trick. we are spiritual beings having a human experience. believe Darwin and you are just another animal. believe you were created for your soul to experience tangible reality, and you can have many "supernatural" experiences. 

Larry Hawley
Larry Hawley

Not sure if i totally believe in ESP but many years ago while in the USAF i was working on a aircraft beneath a bomb dispenser ,my good friend with me, my other friend and crew chief in the cockpit, been there several minutes laying beneath the aircraft when i got an bad feeling, something gave me a warning, I rolled out from under and before I could get to my feet the dispenser fell and killed my friend, I too would have died, ESP, Guardian Angel, or Dumb Luck, Call it what you want, I was warned somehow.

Stuart M.
Stuart M.

Thank you for this article. If some purveyor of woo makes a wild claim, it gets all over the media. Studies proving the non-existence of woo don't get any publicity. There's apparently money to be made in woo.

Dean Radin
Dean Radin

Susan, the article cited in PLOS ONE has nothing to do with ESP.  It wasn't designed to be a test of ESP, the paper doesn't cite any relevant literature, and the issue of ESP wasn't even tangentially discussed.  What were you thinking?

Jan Macháč
Jan Macháč

@Lorna Hughes Have you ever had a feeling that something good is going to happen to you or any particular being and were right about it?

Lisa L.
Lisa L.

@Robyn Ruckman I believe in Darwin and have experienced unease only later to find out something dreadful had happened.

Chris Lee
Chris Lee

You believe the universe changes to match your beliefs? Sounds delusional. The clue is in the name "extra sensory", if we had a real ability to sense as you say we do, you would be able to call it sensory, and prove it exists, same goes for "super natural".

Scott Ostrowski
Scott Ostrowski

@Larry Hawley : that is kind of what the experiment says you noticed something with your senses but cant explain it. You probably saw a technological/structural fault and you just didnt know how to explain it.

Michel Baecke
Michel Baecke

@Larry HawleyWhat you experienced can never be replicated with any form of test. I have had a similar experience 40 years ago, fortunately nobody got killed, but I did avoid a disaster towards myself. I've learned one thing from this: "Listen to your gut feeling, regardless how odd it is". Michel

Jason S.
Jason S.

@Stuart M. As well there appears to be money made by taking studies out of context and writing sloppy, biased articles. The study did not mention and was not testing claims of ESP.

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

  • Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    After achieving nuclear fusion at age 14, Taylor, now 19, is working with subatomic particles for solutions to nuclear terrorism and cancer.

See more innovators »

Phenomena

See more posts »

Latest News Video

  • How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    The nation's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is taking a 2,000-mile road trip from Montana to its new home in Washington, D.C.

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »