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By Mike Mowbray

‘Extra-sensory perception’ (ESP) makes its first printed appearance in the work of J.B. Rhine; Rhine’s 1934 book of just that title furnishes the OED with its initial example (expanded here to its original form, which appears following an enumeration and rejection of then-existing alternative terminology): “Let us merely say, if we wish to be noncommittal, as is safest, of course: ‘perceptions by means that are outside of the recognized senses’, and indicate this meaning by ‘Extra-Sensory Perception’ or E.S.P.” (Rhine 1934/1966: xxx). Thus, as the OED indicates, ESP refers to perception “by other means than those of the known sense-organs.”1 Though the term, from it inception (and as remains current in both popular and parapsychological usage), becomes a kind of umbrella term for diverse phenomena with rich cultural histories to which it is somewhat of an anachronism, the present discussion brackets those constituent histories to focus on ‘ESP’ so-named. In contemporary parapsychological usage, much as it did for Rhine, ESP serves as a collective classification for a variety of extraordinary abilities by which individuals are ostensibly capable of perception that transcends apparent barriers to access between subjects and objects obscured or at a distance (clairvoyance),2 other minds (telepathy),3 and/or past or future temporal states (retro- or precognition) (Shepard 1984: 444; Krippner and Friedman 2010: 163).

Perhaps seeking to counter skeptics and evade implication with the still-prominent vestiges of 19th century spiritualism (those trappings – and occult tappings – associated with popular mediums claiming access to channels of spiritual communication with other planes of existence, including the realm of the dead), Rhine adopted the term ‘Extra-sensory Perception,’ to denote a range of phenomena previously labeled ‘clairvoyance,’ ‘telepathy,’ etc., and substituted the moniker ‘parapsychology’ (originally coined in 1889 by Max Dessoir) for the longstanding (pseudo-) disciplinary title ‘psychical research.’4 This discursive move towards a renewed and revamped scientization of phenomena and field was accompanied, at least in Rhine’s own case, by a tendency to emphasize the need for careful progress via scientific experiment and to maintain a relatively agnostic position on causal or mechanical matters that elsewhere prompted considerable speculation. Rather than wax philosophical (save for a few ‘hypotheses’), Rhine turned his attention to methodological concerns and concrete cases, to the generation and public presentation of ‘scientific’ data affirming the existence of ‘extrasensory’ abilities inexplicable under conventional models yet seemingly invulnerable to attribution beyond the pale to chance, bias or error. Establishing the incontrovertible reality of such phenomena would force the attention of a proper share of scientific minds to more intractable questions about their precise nature.

Rhine’s initial book appears to have had a salutary effect in advancing such ends, at least in some circles. A New York Times review (by a sympathetic figure admitting to his own “limited experiments with telepathic vision at Cambridge,” the Times science editor and later chair of Psychology at Hunter College 1952-1968) lauds Duke University, Rhine’s institutional host and benefactor, for having “come boldly forward” and backed him “in conducting the most important research of the century in his subject” (Welch 1935). The language of scientific authority resonates in the endorsement:

With the scientific care and precaution of a Pavlov he has made over 100,000 tests checked by competent assistants and recorded in the form of case reports, part of which are compressed into illuminating mathematical tables and charts. Moreover, his integrity has been esteemed and his conclusions accepted by such authorities as Professor William McDougall and Dr. Walter F. Prince.

45 years later, the Times obituary credited Rhine not only with first putting the term to print, but with having “made ‘ESP’ a household term” (“J.B. Rhine, 84, Researcher in ESP” 1981). He was also credited with having “helped open up a whole new field of parapsychological research” (ibid). Given that the tradition of ‘psychical research’ into the varied phenomena Rhine sought to investigate (often by recognized scientists) harks back well into the 19th century, it appears that Rhine’s efforts towards a renewed and revamped scientization did gain some impressive traction.5 Such efforts involved not just discursive moves and popular books, but also institution-building efforts such as the establishment of a sub-departmental unit at Duke (1935) and initiation of both the Journal for Parapsychology (1937) and the Parapsychological Association (1957), launched alongside the book Parapsychology, Frontier Science of the Mind (1957) which was intended as a proper textbook for university-level students of the subject.

Rhine’s actual experiments, the results of which drove an initial venture into public consciousness under the ‘ESP’ moniker in the 1930s (the 1937 follow-up, New Frontiers of the Mind, was best-seller and Book-of-the-Month-Club selection), primarily involved procedures organized around card-guessing. Ordinary playing cards or Zener cards (alternately bearing a circle, square, wavy lines, a cross and star multiplied to make a deck of 25, and later called simply ‘ESP cards’) were turned up – either one-at-a-time or in sequence – and the empirical results tallied against a subject’s guesses registered prior to the event. Measured against calculated chance expectation, the statistical results of these experimental trials (often thousands with a single subject) yielded highly significant extrachance results. Rhine adduced these as solid evidence for the existence of some form of ESP, and sought to test the effects of variable configurations of the relationship between tester and subject (e.g. introducing physical distances of as much as 250 miles), of the subject’s imbibing caffeine or sodium amytal, etc.

Of the eight primary subjects whose results are described in the initial book, A.J. Linzmayer presents a most striking case. Though Rhine notes (1934/1966: 79) that Linzmayer’s mother “has had monitional experiences which made her aware in some extra-sensory manner of the death or other troubles of relatives and friends, in several instances,” Linzmayer himself is described as having “had no unusual parapsychological experience, except that he plays cards with marked success, and has many good ‘hunches.’” Having scored highly in a group test for clairvoyance (“perception of an objective fact or relation without the aid of known sensory processes,” in Rhine’s parlance), Linzmayer was recruited for extensive experimental trials with detailed provisions made against the possibility of deception. Attempting both a “no-touch” or “pure clairvoyance” technique and one in which the experimenter viewed the card in question (ostensibly adding a potential ‘telepathic’ condition, which in no way impacted Linzmayer’s scores). In one of the first series of trials, he correctly guessed 68 of 145 Zener cards (11.3 ‘hits’ per 25), a rate which, by Rhine’s reckoning, “excludes the ‘mere chance’ hypothesis by odds of safely over a trillion to one” (ibid: 81). As the ‘father of modern parapsychology’ went on, “Such a value is, in any field of science, taken for a practical certainty. In fact, we never require such high odds for acceptable significance in the general sciences” (ibid: 81-82). On one occasion, outside the laboratory setting (in Rhine’s car, with the engine running), Linzmayer made 15 consecutive correct guesses, and 21 of the 25-card deck:

He was leaning back over the seat so that his eyes saw only the roof of the car – no mirrors, no shiny surfaces in line or at the necessary angle for him to see. I held the pack out of sight face down, shuffled it several times as we ran the series  and drew the cards with my right hand over the pack, keeping the drawn card concealed as I leaned forward, titlted it a little, glanced at it and laid it on a large record book which lay across Linzmayer’s knees. Linzmayer called the card about 2 seconds after I laid it down, and I said ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’, and laid it on the appropriate pile. We counted  and recorded at the end of the 15 calls, and then at the end of the 5 calls after. Ordinarily we recorded each call when made but on this occasion we continued through the first 15 in order to avoid a break in the unusual scoring; and after the break there was a drop. The easy informality of the situation may have made the brilliant run of 15 unbroken hits possible. But there was no lack of caution, nevertheless. The probability of getting 15 straight successes on these cards if (1/5)15 which is over 30 billion. And 21 in 25 is, of course, still less probable (Rhine 1934/1966: 82-83).

Linzmayer’s total scores, as for each of the seven others whose results were initially presented (the results of almost 100,000 trials), cumulatively appeared to surpass chance expectations by a significant margin. Linzmayer, like some other prominent subjects, appeared to lose his facility for guessing cards over time – finishing with an average of 6.0 hits per 25 trials (5.0 being the expected chance average), others ringing in at 5.8, 6.1, 8.0 and a collective score of 8.4 for five other major subjects.

As previously stated, a key task for the serious modern parapsychologist was to simply establish the existence of ESP-type phenomena that were inexplicable in terms of recourse to the received science of the day. At the same time, the endgame was always to discern a larger problem, that of the relationship between various ESP phenomena and larger questions of mind, biology and physics (see, for example, Rhine 1934/1966: 12-13). In summarizing the ‘Major Conclusions’ of the first ESP book, Rhine (ibid: 218) clearly indicates his belief that the former condition is established – “It is independently established on the basis of this work alone that Extra-sensory Perception is an actual and demonstrable occurrence.” He similarly reinforces his own use of the ‘extra-sensory’ terminological characterization by asserting that these same results demonstrate “that E.S.P. is not a sensory phenomenon. The absence of any need of orientation, of any sensory localization, of any recognized stimulating energy such as the senses receive and of any awareness of reception all lead to the rejection of the sixth-sense hypothesis as well” (ibid: 219).6 Furthermore, he rejects “the hypothesis that the percipient is a mere passive receptor of an incorporeal agent’s intruding action,” concluding rather that ESP is “a part of the natural organization of the species.”

From there, as well as establishing the apparent effects of the various permutations of the experimental procedure, Rhine (ibid: 221-223) also ventures a handful of rather open-ended hypotheses:

1.     The general impression is given by the life histories of these major subjects that there may be a general connection between E.S.P. and many other parapsychological phenomena. This may at least be offered as a working hypothesis.

2.     The distance data, along with the general facts, suggest the freedom of the mind in E.S.P. from the common material relations of extension or distance. It would argue for the nonphysical nature of the mind if it can operate under these conditions. This is psychologically important, as bearing upon the question of the body-mind relation, upon personality-survival and some other questions in the natural philosophy of mind.


4.     E.S.P. influences other processes that direct over behaviour and hence it affects, however indirectly, the recognized doing of work. This is itself doing work, however little it may be. It is thus inescapably ‘energetic’ (even as the physicist means the word – ‘capable of doing work’). We have, then, for physical science, a challenging need for the discovery of the energy mode involved. Some type of energy is inferable and none is known to be acceptable, since wave mechanics are inappropriate in this case.

5.    Likewise, the challenge may be given to physiology that a new mode of energy reception is required – reception of an unknown energy from an unknown mode of reception. It involves the nervous system quite as much does any other cognitive process, as judged by drug effects and other physiological evidence.

6.    In psychology, E.S.P. is a possible uncontrolled factor in the experimental laboratory, a possible helpful one in hypnosis and in therapy, a challenge to the adequacy of our concepts of the place of the mind in nature and a lead to understanding the energetic principles of general mental life. It may, too, be an innate ability, since certainly there is no evidence of it being acquired; i.e. no evidence of real development.

7.     There seems to be in this work thus far a ‘species level’ of E.S.P. ability reached by most subjects and not much exceeded, on the average, over large numbers of trials. The evolutionary origin and the biological survival value of E.S.P. are problems at which we have only hinted possible answes.

8.     One is tempted to point, as a final suggestion, to the analogies of E.S.P. found in religions and mystic lore, and to refer to the apparent applicability of the principles of E.S.P. subjects in the medicine-man, the mystic and the prophet?

Taken together, Rhine’s early hypotheses offer some indication of the expansive scope of concerns raised under the aegis of ESP research and ‘modern’ parapsychology. They also intimate the potentially destabilizing implications of such potentialities for received science.

Regardless of popular reception, skeptics were overwhelmingly numerous in the scientific community. Rhine’s procedures were widely criticized, with emphasis on scoring and recording errors and allegedly improper assessment of the statistical significance of results obtained. It was also initially charged that heavy printing on Zener cards – and this was the case for an early commercially available run, though not for those actually used in Rhine’s trials – made it possible to discern the outlines of the symbols visually from the reverse side. As for the former charges, it was indeed determined that scoring errors occurred – but these were, to some extent, countervailing, and failed to account for the extrachance scores. The statistical question proved more intractable, though the methods employed were essentially standard scientific procedure for the age and dutifully subject to peer review (Mackenzie 1981: 650-651). Skeptics such as P.W. Bridgman, a physicist, went so far as to argue that there must be something wrong with our understanding of probability theory if it could be used to support conclusions such as Rhine’s. (ibid: 651).

Some three decades later, card-guessing experiments were still a flagship demonstration for parapsychological researchers at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM), established by Rhine in the years immediately prior to his retirement from Duke in 1962.7 A 1973 article in Nature (Wade 1973: 138) describes one such example, conducted with Yale law school dropout Bill Delman:

An assistant holds up playing cards enclosed in black envelopes, while Delmore guesses at them, sometimes one by one, sometimes for several cards in advance. With certain guesses he is particularly confident of being correct, and says so before he card is taken from its envelope. In an experiment recently reported by [researcher Ed] Kelly to the Harvard psychology faculty, Delmore made 20 such “confidence calls,” 14 of which were correct. Asked how he makes the guesses, Delmore says by luck. How does one make a lucky guess? “By forming a visual image and then rationalizing it. Like having an image of seeing a butterfly, and then seeing the butterfly.”

The article’s author further notes (ibid: 139) that such experiments had proved the “dominant trend in psychical research” from Rhine’s heyday in the 1930s and 40s “until the last few years.” While there were, of course, still no shortage of scientific skeptics, the late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a kind of “minirenaissance” (Wade 1973: 138; see also Pinch and Collins 1984: 524), a general upsurge in parapsychological and paranormal research. As Wade reports (ibid: 139), “the values of the counterculture have rendered outright hostility to parapsychology less fashionable.” Indeed, grants from the US National Institute of Mental Health (not to mention US state intelligence) were then being released for parapsychological research, and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science had just extended (in 1969) affiliate status to the Parapsychological Association. Additionally,

 Some 75 educational institutions throughout the country offer courses on parapsychology, many of which are for credit. And a larger public became aware of the scientific pursuit of ESP when lunar module pilot Captain Edgar D. Mitchell performed a card-guessing experiment during the voyage of Apollo 14 (ibid).

Perhaps most prominently at this time, the methodological concerns and struggles for scientific respectability characteristic of ESP research under Rhine manifested famously under yet another regime of new terminology, in the ‘remote viewing’ experiments pioneered by Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ (see ‘Remote Viewing’ in the ABCDERIUM). Rhine’s contention (1934/1966: 222) that his results present “for physical science a challenging need for the discovery of the energy mode involved” echoes many later parapsychologists’ (including Puthoff and Targ’s) contention that the apparently ‘extraordinary’ or anomalous results of ESP research “will eventually merge with present-day physics” (Stieger and Stieger 2003: 157).

Any such coalescence of received science and the work of parapsychologists (and unorthodox physicists like Puthoff and Targ, though the distance there is perhaps lesser), however, as the scope of Rhine’s 1934 ‘hypotheses’ suggests, would require some considerable reevaluations. According to prominent parapsychologist Robert A. McConnell (in his 2000 book, Joyride to Infinity, cited in Stieger and Stieger 2003: 161), the general acceptance of ESP-like phenomena would prompt a situation in which “all general textbooks of psychology and physics would have to be rewritten”; for a cognitivist psychological orthodoxy, in particular, “the fallout from a universal recognition of the reality of [ESP] would be catastrophic.”

J.B. Rhine and subsequent parapsychological researchers intent on establishing and explaining the existence of ESP-type phenomena through the mobilization of scientific procedures and discourses have sought to negotiate a tension between two poles of resistance. On the one side, for Rhine, were those who “felt that the ineffable but essential characteristics of psychic phenomena were being lost in the behavioristic confines of Rhine’s laboratory” (Mackenzie 1981: 652) On the other, those who persistently leveled “charges of bias, occultism, and outright fakery” (ibid). As Rhine himself declared in a 1965 speech,


Among the scientific professions of the Western world there has grown up a conviction that the universe is physical, and that any-thing that does not fit the physical picture is unreal and should be ignored if it cannot be disproved . . . The natural result is a silent boycott of any unassimilable claim that arises, and this is the real opposition parapsychology has now to encounter. (cited in Wade 1973: 143)


Indeed, the position of concepts such as ‘Extra-sensory Perception’ among the mainstream scientific community is little changed in the early 21st century, despite the work of Rhine and many others (work that continues to this day). To cite just one example – avoiding the quagmire of technical details at play in myriad critiques and counter-critiques of 90 years of experiments much like Rhine’s – one typically ‘skeptical’ recent encyclopedia entry written by a psychologist gauges the direction of future research as best directed towards investigating the proposition that “belief in ESP despite the lack of evidence could be due to flawed processing of information and a hunger for wonderment” (Hui 2009: 312-313). Still, others are not so sure…



1. Or, in an alternative (and implicitly skeptical) formulation, “via channels other than the sensory system that biologists and psychologists have been researching with scientific means” (Hui 2009: 312).

 2. See ‘Clairvoyance’ in the ACDERIUM.

 3. See ‘Telepathy’ in the ABCDERIUM.

4. Notwithstanding this apparent tendency in much of Rhine’s work, the interest of Rhine and his wife Louisa was clearly spurred by engagement with previous psychical researchers, with a talk by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sometimes attributed the role of kicking things off for the pair (Hansel 1980: 85; Mackenzie 1981: 649; Stieger and Stieger 2003: 163). As Mackenzie states “the Rhines’ scientific training and interests coincided with their shared religious and metaphysical doubts about the nature of man, the implications of reductionist biology, and the existence of the soul” (ibid).

 5. According to his obituary in the American Journal of Psychology, Rhine’s death in 1980 “marks he end of an era in which his field, parapsychology, had its first successes in its attempts to gain scientific and academic recognition. During Rhine’s 54-year career in the field, and largely as a result of his efforts, parapsychology advanced from the disrepute of an amateur-calling with links to the séance room, to at least provisional recognition in some universities and scientific societies as an experimental, laboratory-based science. Such recognition remains partial and at best tentative. But that it has occurred at all is a tribute to Rhine’s energy, skill, and single-minded determination to make parapsychology into a viable scientific specialty.” (Mackenzie 1981: 649).

6. Notwithstanding Rhine’s insistence that “E.S.P. is not a sensory phenomenon,” his “rejection of the sixth-sense hypothesis” (1935: 219), many contemporary accounts prefer to animate their discussion with the ‘sixth sense’ language that Rhine chose to set aside. Pearson (2003), for example, is typical a broad swathe of others in confounding the notions of “extrasensory phenomena” with a “sixth sense” that in turn doubles back on the phenomena subsumed under the ESP umbrella to encompass not only these but also a range of other “supernatural” abilities (telepathy, predictive abilities, levitation, psychokinesis, etc., etc.). Pearson (2003: 9) holds that “every one of us has a certain degree of extrasensory abilities, just as we are all able to use, to a greater or lesser extent, our five physical senses.” Like many New Age-inspired writers with a self-help bent to their treatises on the paranormal, occult, spiritual or otherwise extra-ordinary realm, his book All About the Sixth Sense – which frequently employs the term ‘extra-sensory’ to describe abilities allegedly deploying the ‘sixth sense’ – claims to “explain how everyone can become better aware of their sixth sense and develop it.”

7. As of 1973, while a smattering of new foundations and institutes devoted to parapsychological question had recently come onto the scene (and the Parapsychological Association successfully gained election as an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969) “the best known [of the foundations], to which the Post Office delivers mail addressed “ESP, USA,” is the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM)” (Wade 1973: 139).

Works cited

Hansel, C.E.M. 1980. ESP and Parapsychology: a critical re-evaluation. Buffalo, NY:  Prometheus.

Hui, C. Harry. 2009. “Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP).” In The Encyclopedia of  Psychology and Religion, edited by David Adams Leeming, Kathryn Wood Madden and Stanton Marlan. New York: Springer.

Mackenzie, Brian. 1981. “Joseph Banks Rhine: 1895-1980.” American Journal of Psychology 94(4): 649-653.

Pinch, T.J, and H.M. Collins. 1984. “Private Science and Public Knowledge: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal and Its Use of the Literature.” Social Studies of Science 14(4): 521-546.

Puthoff, Harold and Russel Targ. 1974. “Information transmission under conditions of sensory shielding.” Nature 251: 602-607.

Rhine, J.B. 1934/1966. Extra-sensory Perception. Boston: Bruce Humphries.

Rhine, J.B. and J.G. Pratt 1957. Parapsychology, Frontier Science of the Mind. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Shepard, L. 1984. Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, 2nd ed. Detroit:Gale.

Stieger, Brad and Sherry Hansen Steiger. 2003. The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. Detroit: Gale.

Wade, Nicholas. 1973. “Psychical Research: The Incredible in Search of Credibility.” Science 181(4095): 138-143.

Welch, Livingston. 1935. “Some Research in Telepathy.” New York Times, 15/12/1935: BR27.


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