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Biology 103
2003 First Paper
On Serendip

ESP: An Effort to Quantify the Magical

Nomi Kaim

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 hadn't believed it" phenomenon. In this case, it's more "I don't believe it, so I can't see it." To a great extent, we see what we believe can logically be there and overlook, or justify away, the rest. So, many pragmatic modern thinkers either deny the reality of instances of ESP, or attribute them to chance alone. (2) But it's there, even if you're not looking, and repeated results that would happen by chance only one time in trillions must, rationally (if these thinkers are so rational!) be due to something else. And resisting the evidence for clairvoyance amounts to the same thing as ignoring the fossil evidence for evolution in blind favor of creationism: it stops science in its tracks, lodges society in traditional views that are swiftly losing their foundations. Clearly, in order to investigate the workings of something, we must first suspend our judgments and assume that the something exists!

As of yet, even the most radical scientific thinkers have been unable to "prove" (to the satisfaction of the public) the existence of ESP. (2), (7) We modern Westerners like to see hard-core data before we will believe something. We want a what, a how and a why that will hold together; a clear, sequential plan we can easily follow and conceptualize. Observing that something does, in fact, exist does not satisfy us if we cannot understand it; it has to make sense for us scientifically as well as socially. ESP isn't there yet. And the definitions for terms describing paranormal phenomena seem disconcertingly vague written in terms of what ESP is not (explainable using the normal senses) rather than what it is because our understanding of these phenomena remains imprecise.

The "why" of ESP seems simple enough. Evolutionarily speaking, people who could perceive or foresee bad events like predator attacks or earthquakes (and thus avoid them), or sense lucky breaks like clean food or water (and thus seek them out) would be more likely to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation than those who could not. Having access to information beyond the limits of the basic human senses must have been a real survival advantage.

The "what" and the "how" do not come so easily. Though we recognize (or ought to) the occurrence and recurrence of "uncanny coincidences," what is really going on in these cases? What do we know about the scientific mechanisms of ESP? Nothing is for certain, but we have some clues. Scientists have identified two previously unknown pits, called the vomeronasal organ (or VNO) after their location in the nose ("nasal"), behind the thin vomer bone which separates the nostrils ("vomero"). (7) The VNO appears to contain nerves that can detect pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals that trigger hormonal changes and instinctive (non-cognitive) behaviors and we humans used to associate them with non-human animals only. (7), (8), (9) Then, gradually, people began to find that pheromones played a role in biologically-engrained behaviors like sexual attraction and menstrual synchronization. (7), (8) Still, we do not know if, or to what extent, humans really use those pheromone-detecting nerves in their VNOs. The entire vomeronasal organ could be vestigial, like the appendix. It might or might not be implicated in accounts of ESP; even if it is, we do not know how. (7) Some scientists suggest that the VNO is wired to the brain's pineal gland, which lies in the amygdala, a very primitive part of the brain known for perpetuating biological instincts. (4),(9) If an organ is linked to the brain, it is more likely to be active, for the brain is active. It sounds good, but... Nevertheless, the research is still in its early stages, the data inconclusive. Can humans detect pheromones? Consciously, or only unconsciously? Through the VNO, or by means of some other pathway? Where, exactly, do we produce pheromones? Do they even play a role in extrasensory perception? What role, exactly, and how does it work? We have a lot to learn about the biology (within a person's body) as well as about the physics (between people's bodies) of ESP.

Most likely, ESP falls among the instinctual, nonscientific, not-quite-cognitive behaviors rooted in human beings' past. After all, ESP makes perfect survival sense in the long-ago reaches of our evolution, even if our modern world of paved cities, protective walls, super-human technologies and few predators has fewer needs for life-saving extrasensory perception. The alternative medical practices, such as shamanism, of indigenous healers tap into the paranormal more than do the pills and behavioral therapies of our modern world. (4) And the tribal people have been here longer. Another key to our evolutionary history, human fetal development, supports the theory of decreased dependence on ESP over time. In the early stages of its development, a fetus has a large, defined vomeronasal organ; the VNO, along with the gill slits and tail, shrinks with time but, unlike the gill slits and tail, does not disappear entirely. (7) This observation begs the question of whether or not we really use our VNOs in ESP. If the organ still exists, is it necessarily functional? Well, is the appendix functional?

In their search to qualify and quantify the elusive quality of extrasensory perception, scientists have tended to assume that ESP involved one sense, a sense separate from the original five and far more difficult to pin down. (If this is the case if ESP is just another sense then the term "extrasensory perception" is inaccurate. We might have to modify our vocabulary as our observations increase.) Yet I wonder if the "ESP sense" really exists separately from the other senses. We know full well that our senses help each other out. For instance, we rely on vision to hear better (reading lips and gestures) and even to feel things better (knowing what we are touching guides the sensations we use to describe it). We cannot taste well at all without our sense of smell. We can't separate these senses just because they appear to involve different body parts! Perhaps, then, the ESP sense is a combination of various other senses, or of other senses and an unidentified sixth sense (which may or may not involve the vomeronasal organ). It seems that the interconnectedness of senses is such that a blind or deaf person might not experience ESP in the same way, and a person deprived of her ESP sense might not see or hear in the same way. In effect, ESP might strengthen to compensate for another sense that is missing, in the way that blind people develop especially acute hearing. To this effect, I know of retarded children who, lacking in cognitive and linguistic skills, possess noticeably heightened emotional awareness and intuition. The body and mind will, I believe, try to compensate for its losses by making gains in other areas as it strives toward a unified, functional whole.

I have just one more question, but it is a looming one: what about precognition? Can some people can "see" or "feel" their way into the future, into events that have not yet happened? Countless happenings including the pre-September-11th-dreams suggest that they can. While some pop-cultural precognitions, like those of most fortune tellers or of Nostradamus, are vague and general enough to be read in any way and so should probably be discounted, some are inarguably accurate. A horrifying dream: a crashing airplane, a tall burning building, people screaming and falling. Just coincidence? No. There is something here that is real.

Perhaps precognition really involves "reading" the minds of people across space, "seeing into" the current thoughts or plans of an old friend in England or an evil ruler in Afghanistan, plans that are later manifested as actions. In this case, precognition would not involve seeing through time so much as seeing through space. But what about those episodes of ESP that occur between a human being and a non-living object? If a person predicts the falling of a meteor, can he be described as "reading" the "plans" of a non-planning, non-conscious object? If people really can see into the future, this uproots our typical linear conception of time; it suggests that what has not yet happened here is already happening somewhere, enabling the clairvoyant among us to "see" it from a distance. These are not only biological but also physical questions: how do our minds interact with other minds and objects across space and time? Science is only just beginning to address the inexplicable forces that religions have embraced and explained for centuries.


1) Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. Touchstone Books, 1998.

2) Think someone's staring at you? 'Sixth sense' may be biological, review of a recent book, Sixth Sense, by Rupert Sheldrake

3) What Lies Behind Clairvoyance?, in-depth investigation of clairvoyance across the ages, by an early-twentieth-century Natural History professor

4) Clairvoyance, a thorough and intriguing, if somewhat unsupported, description of paranormal phenomena, to be taken with a few grains of salt

5) Home Page for Uri Geller, Modern Psychic, a spirited introduction to the fantastic claims of a man famous for bending spoons with his mind

6) Students at UC-Berkeley Search for a 'Sixth Sense', highly readable, but not very in-depth, description of ESP experiments conducted by students

7) Scientists Find Evidence for a Sixth Sense in Humans, thoroughly describes recent scientific findings that support the theory of ESP

8) Sixth sense detects pheromones, U. of C. researchers show, discussion of the roles pheromones might play in human psychology

9) Jacobson's Organ and the Sixth Sense: Human Extrasensory Perception?, very useful tool describing human ESP in the context of other animals' senses, and including links to definitions and descriptions of ESP-related terms

Not Cited) Sixth Sense: the Vomeronasal Organ, web paper on the VNS by an alumnus of our very own Serendip web page

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