At the end of the nineteenth century, an increasing number of investigators, including leading psychologists, physiologists, and philosophers, took up the study of psychical phenomena. Many were attempting to find something with which to refute materialism and provide a basis for religious belief, and so to enable a transformation of society. Thus the very definition of telepathy (previously termed ‘thought-transference’), in 1882, by the English psychical researcher Frederic Myers, as ‘the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense’ presents itself as part of a polemical argument, which has framed how the phenomena have subsequently been approached, or dismissed. The interest was not in the phenomena per se, but in whether their existence could give some evidence of a mechanism which would be able to render intelligible how the dead could communicate with the living, and hence establish the post mortem survival of the soul.
All sorts of invisible forces — either physical or purely psychical — were invoked to explain telepathy, and variations along these lines continue till this day. In 1896 the chemist William Crookes speculated that telepathy was like radiation. By contrast, Myers claimed that the telepathic impression was registered in subconscious or subliminal aspects of one's being. In so doing, telepathy played a crucial role in the creation of the unconscious as a non-material interiority in which past and future, self and other intermingled. Following this, Myers and the French philosopher and psychologist, Henri Bergson, speculated that, beneath the manifest occurrences of telepathy, such processes were taking place all the time. Telepathy thus became the hidden substrate of the social bond, its intimate communion. It was only the restriction characteristic of consciousness that hid this awareness.
Psychical researchers attempted to provide evidence for telepathy by the experimental pursuit of the ‘guessing game’, which was then a popular pastime, and through the collection of first-hand testimonials, presented in Phantasms of the Living (1886). Having convinced themselves of the reality of the phenomena, their subsequent investigations of mediums were dominated by the problem of how to establish that a telepathic message came from a defunct, rather than living source: that phantasms of the dead were not simply phantasms of the living.
It is important to note that concern with such phenomena lay at the forefront of the psychological agenda at the end of the nineteenth century. In commenting on the first congress of physiological psychology in Paris in 1889, William James noted that the most striking feature of the discussions was their ‘tendency to slope off to some one or other of those shady horizons with which the name of “psychic research” is now associated.’ Consequently, a vast census of hallucinations was set up, in which the question of the telepathy was paramount. For James, and for other subliminal psychologists such as Théodore Flournoy, the task confronting psychology was that of providing a differential account of all human phenomena — including supernormal phenomena — and studying their interrelation. It was through a process of limitation and exclusion that the agenda of mainstream psychology was established, and with this, its conceptions of the personality and of sensory perception.
By and large, psychical researchers failed to convince the majority of the scientific and academic worlds of the existence of telepathy. Subsequent investigators attempted to set right this situation; rather than locate themselves in private societies, they attempted to gain a foothold in the universities, usually through large endowments. Taking on the regnant experimental methodology in psychology, they attempted to show that the phenomena could be taken out of the seance and reproduced in laboratory settings. To mark these changes, the field was redubbed ‘parapsychology’, and ‘telepathy’ and ‘clairvoyance’ became ‘extrasensory perception’. It was J. B. Rhine at Duke University who was responsible for the latter term, and he gave such research its modern cast with his Extra-sensory perception (1934). No longer content to posit the existence of yet-unrecognized senses, Rhine reformulated Myers' definition to read: ‘perception in a mode that is just not sensory’. Rhine subjected individuals to rigorously controlled experiments. So-called Zener cards bearing a cross, circle, rectangle, star, or three parallel wavy lines were placed in sealed envelopes, and subjects had to guess their shapes in prolonged trials which were statistically analysed.
For Rhine, no less than his forebears, the prime interest in ESP was its use as an argument against physicalism. He claimed that the proof for the existence of ESP had repudiated the view that the mind was just a physical brain function, and had proved the existence of a ‘minimal concept of the soul’, which he dubbed the ‘psychological soul’. Salvation for religious belief had apparently been found in the shape of undergraduate card guessers in laboratories. Rhine was not markedly more successful in promoting belief in ESP than earlier investigators. As William James had noted, it seems as if there is sufficient evidence to persuade those who have the requisite ‘will to believe’, and insufficient to sway those who do not.
At the same time, theories of perception and extrasensory perception continue to be wedded. Conceptions of extrasensory perception presuppose conceptions of what constitutes perception itself. Perception has generally been linked to particular sense organs. An exception to this was the psychologist J. J. Gibson's ecological theory of perception. According to this, all perception could be said to be ‘extra-sensory’
Gurney, E.,, Myers, F. W. H.,, and and Podmore, F. (1886). Phantasms of the living, Vols 1 and 2 Trübner and Co., London.
Rhine, J. B. (1934). Extra-sensory perception. Boston Society for Psychical Research, Boston.
See also clairvoyance.
Extrasensory Perception (ESP)
Extrasensory Perception (ESP)
A term used in parapsychology to denote awareness apparently received through channels other than the usual senses. The term was launched by J. B. Rhine in his book Extrasensory Perception (1934), published by the Boston Society for Psychic Research. The book attracted the interest of the science editor of the New York Times, who wrote a favorable notice. After that, public interest was aroused and the term extrasensory perception, or ESP, was firmly established. Phenomena related to ESP include clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition. Prior to Rhine's popularization of the term, a German equivalent, außersinnliche Wahrnehmung, had been used by Gustav Pagenstecher and Rudolf Tishner in the 1920s.
ex·tra·sen·so·ry per·cep·tion / ˌekstrəˈsensərē/ (abbr.: ESP) • n. the faculty of perceiving things by means other than the known senses, e.g., by telepathy or clairvoyance.