Feed on

by Mike Mowbray

Clairvoyance, according to parapsychological researchers, may be generally defined as the “extrasensory awareness of objective events” (Krippner and Friedman 2010: 47).1 For some, phenomena such as clairvoyance, telepathy and precognition may be collectively classified as ‘extrasensory perception’ or ESP (ibid: 163). What is distinctive about clairvoyance for parapsychologists is that, in contrast to precognition, clairvoyance refers to object and events in the present rather than predicting those in the future, and in contrast to telepathy, “there is no sender in clairvoyance” (ibid: 2). Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Phenomena (Guiley 1991: 111) defines ‘clairvoyance’ as “perception of current objects, events, or people that may not be discerned through the normal senses.” By Guiley’s account, clairvoyance “appears to be a general ability among humans,” and has been “acknowledged, used and cultivated since ancient times,” by “[p]rophets, fortune-tellers, shamans, wizards, witches, cunning men and women and seers of all kinds” (ibid).2

The term ‘clairvoyance’ itself derives from the French, literally translated as “clear seeing.” The OED definition presents two senses, noting that the first is that which originally entered English usage in the mid-19th century:

  1. A supposed faculty attributed to certain persons, or to persons under certain mesmeric3 conditions, consisting in the mental perception of objects at a distance or concealed from sight.
  2. Keenness of mental perception, clearness of insight; insight into things beyond the range of ordinary perception.

The second OED sense, however, is the older of the two, current in French from the 16th century (ca. 1580), in part migrating into English usage by the latter half of the 19th. In either case, the idea of seeing – or, more broadly, perceiving – at a distance is key; even in the second OED definition, which appears less dissonant with many people’s common-sense worldview,4 notions of “insight” somehow ‘”beyond the range of ordinary perception” clearly evoke an ability to sense something beyond what is immediately apprehended through the recognized channels of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch.

The early deployment of ‘clairvoyance’ as a term in English was largely associated with popular (and elite) interest in the claims of modern spiritualism (associated with psychic and physical mediums) which crystallized in the mid-19th century. When psychic mediums “claim to ‘see’ the spirits in their minds, and to sense or feel them,” the phenomenon is often referred to as clairvoyance, though the term, according to English scholar Katie Wales, is “now more often used to refer to fortune-telling” (Wales 2009: 348). Such differences in usage, while in flagrant disregard of the parapsychologists’ (subsequent) distinction between clairvoyance and precognition, indicate a fluid construction of the concept in the popular imagination, corresponding to a range of presumed configurations of the sensorium and relations between the world and the senses. The contemporary popular usage pointed to by Wales (referring to fortune-telling, which typically entails predictive elements) recalls a common fascination noted by the chemist William Gregory (1851: 134) already in the mid-19th century. This sense, he writes:

[i]n some minds, swallows up all the rest, so that when Mesmerism, but especially Clairvoyance, is spoken of, this phenomenon, namely Clairvoyant Prevision, or the power of predicting future events, is alone understood.

Unwilling to explicitly confirm powers of ‘Clairvoyant Prevision,’ Gregory nonetheless held that the ability to see contemporary or past events through either ‘direct’ clairvoyance, which furnished – by whatever unexplained mechanism – visions unmediated by other minds, or ‘sympathetic’ clairvoyance, akin to what was later described as telepathy,5 which operated via access to distant others’ consciousness or impressions, was a matter of established fact. Examples furnished by sleepwalkers who appeared to be able to describe objects present despite closed eyes and unresponsive pupils, or of persons in what was referred to as a state of “magnetic sleep” (a kind of hypnotic state), who described – sight unseen – objects and persons in the next room, details of Gregory’s own house (how many steps at the door, the layout of rooms and furnishings, etc.), or much more distant locales (for example, the architectural features of a building in Cologne’s central plaza, and the various fashions of moustache and beard worn by passers-by), convinced him amply of a human capacity for “the direct or immediate perception, without the use of the eyes, of absent or distant objects” (Gregory 1851: 116).

Most fruitful in terms of the search for causal mechanisms, Gregory posited, were then-current speculations (particularly associated with Mesmerism) on the existence of “an emanation of some kind, whether it be called a force, a motion among the particles of the air, or of a supposed ether, or a fluid, as we speak, vaguely, of the electric or magnetic fluids.” (ibid: 119).

Similarly, the Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater (1899: 3) suggested that humanity is “surrounded by a vast sea of mingled air and ether, the latter interpenetrating the former, as it does all physical matter; and it is chiefly by means of vibrations in that vast sea of matter that impressions reach us from the outside.” The typically cited senses (sight or hearing, for example), of course, respond only to an exceedingly restricted range of stimuli (e.g. of light or pitch) relative to that which is available to more sensitive instruments, as scientists were by then increasingly aware; on the one hand, Leadbeater (like other Theosophists) simply posited that a cacophony of etheric vibrations remained to be appreciated, while on the other, they held also that the ‘physical body’ was complemented by an ‘astral’ one. This ‘astral body’ opened up to possibilities of ‘astral sight’ or ‘astral hearing,’ which, while distinct in their operations from the physical senses, allowed the apprehension of information which could be understood in relation to them (that is, the mechanism was not what was understood as ‘vision’ or ‘hearing’ by science, but the form of information rendered made these appropriate metaphors), furnishing the basis for clairvoyant abilities. Still others, such as Sinel (who found no end of examples in nature, from fly-catching plants to the occelli and fenestrae of insects or the ‘sense of direction’ apparent in birds and other migrating species, for his contention that the physical senses might extend beyond the five-fold convention in humans) sought to establish a purely bio-physical basis for an extended range of sense-ability which would account for clairvoyance (Sinel 1929).

In any case, the contention that humans possess an ability to ‘see’ (or otherwise sense) at a distance – whether in space or in time – finds resonance both historically and cross-culturally. The 16th century Swiss physician and thinker Paracelsus, for example, suggested that man “possesses a power by which he may see his friends and the circumstances by which they are surrounded, although such persons may be a thousand miles away from him at that time” (cited in Radin 1997: 91); definitions of clairvoyance also parallel the notion of ‘second sight’ attributed to some Scottish Highlanders (Coates 1909; Lang 1911).6 St Columba, a 6th century figure considered the Apostle of the Picts, is claimed to have performed miracles “by the gift of God […] foretelling the future…and making known to those present what was happening in other places, for though absent in body he was present in spirit, and would look on things widely apart.” Thus, “by some divine intuition, and through a wonderful expansion of his inner soul, he beheld the whole universe drawn together and laid open to his sight as in one ray of the sun” (Adamnan, cited in Coates 1909: 230, italics in original).

Shorn somewhat of such religious connotations, Coates suggests that ‘second-sight’ (combining clairvoyance and premonition) falls under the umbrella of a more general Psychic Faculty which “is more common than supposed, and is characteristic of all warm-hearted, emotional, and intelligent people the world over.” Yet, a sense of loss or alienation from such potentialities accompanies his assertion. “It has to be confessed […] that the hustle and bustle of modern life, and city life especially, is opposed to the exercise of the Psychic Faculty” (Coates 1909: 231). Like Coates, contemporary New Age thinkers (e.g. Williams 2003) often suggest that clairvoyance derives from a latent potentiality in all humans, a spiritual intuition through which the individual can connect with others, with non-human beings (animals), and with elements of the natural world in ways which enrich the human experience, but from which we may typically be estranged in the modern age. Whether biological-physical-scientific, spiritual-mystical-religious, or an admixture of both, an ideological allegiance to some notion of universal interconnection seems to underlie a range of explanations forwarded for claimed clairvoyant abilities.

Cross-culturally, clairvoyant abilities may be located – as Guiley (1991) suggests – in practices of shamanism (as well as blurring into what might often be considered as ‘prophesy’ in all sorts of religious circles). Indigenous shamans in Alaska and Siberia, for example, may include clairvoyant experience as part of their repertoire of abilities; differences in the claimed modes of observing at a distance indicate a variety of configurations in which such an ability or experience may be imagined. As described by Vitebsky (2001: 105), three shamans in the same Alaskan village may claim three seemingly distinct modes of access to information about a remote location: one sending a blue bead, animated as the shaman’s messenger, to report back on the conditions at a distant Siberian island, another inducing a vision of the location from where he sits (what Gregory would have recognized as ‘direct’ or ‘immediate’ clairvoyance), and a third traveling bodily through the air to observe the location himself.

Among the Anishinabe peoples of the Eastern Woodlands of North America, a ritual referred to as “the shaking tent” was employed to “gain information about people who were not present; find the causes and cures for diseases of those present; obtain knowledge of enemy movements during a war; foretell events; locate game for hunters; find and return lost objects, and protect the community against imminent wendigos,” or malevolent spirits (Vecsey 1983: 104). The physical paraphernalia of the ritual (which took place in a tent formed of posts marking out a circle of about four feet in diameter with an open top, where ceremonial rattles were attached to the ends of the posts), and the collective nature of the endeavor (for which the community gathered about the tent and participated in questioning the spirits and contributing offerings of tobacco) stand in contrast to the more individual and cerebral notions of clairvoyance as a kind of mental/spiritual projection or heightened receptivity, described above.

In the shaking tent ceremony, the djekassid or shaman called the manitos (spirits) into the tent as he himself entered, at which point the tent would shake dramatically with the arrival of the Turtle, the Four Winds and other important manitos through the hole in the top. The manitos responded (in their own distinct voices, the Turtle’s voice described in one account as “something like Donald Duck’s” (ibid: 105)) to questioning, and kept up an often humorous, witty or racy banter with their interlocutors. Where information was required from distant locations or other spirits (e.g. those of dead community members or witches), the manitos would travel to acquire it for the community as the djekassid continued to sing (Vecsey 1983, see esp. pp. 103-106). ‘Seeing at a distance’ was accomplished in direct communication with these spiritual others. In other traditions it is the shaman him- or herself who travels.

A far cry from the Anishinabe, picking up on earlier efforts to submit phenomena such as clairvoyance and telepathy to scientific testing (for example, in the work of J. B. Rhine, who coined the term ‘Extra-sensory Perception” in 1934, inflecting the notion with a more scientific tone) and responding in part to Cold War-era intrigue with the possibility of harnessing psychic powers to gain an edge in military intelligence, research into ‘remote viewing’7 from the 1970s onwards sought to strip away any ‘interference’ to reveal insights into the ‘channels’ by which those with apparent clairvoyant abilities received their information. Far from the noisy and collective endeavors of the Anishinabe, with their special paraphernalia, humour and ecstatic elements, these efforts focused on the design of controlled experiments to test both the incidence and mode of functioning of alleged clairvoyant abilities in subjects of interest. Seeking to undermine what Rhine had in 1965 referred to as a “silent boycott” (cited in Wade 1973: 143) of any claims that could not be referred to the reigning scientific paradigms, Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff at the Stanford Research Institute began their research into ‘remote viewing’ in the early 1970s. ‘Remote viewing’ experiments involved the testing of a pre-selected ‘percipient’s ability to describe salient features of the geographical surrounds of an ‘agent’ dispatched to a location undisclosed to the percipient and “inaccessible […] by any known sensory means” (Dunne and Jahn 2002: 2). While such experimental protocols raise the question of whether the claimed ability is really a manifestation of ‘sympathetic’ clairvoyance (essentially telepathic in that the sight of the ‘agent’ is the source of information) or ‘direct’ clairvoyance (reliant only on some unexplained mode of access to the target location or object), some experiments did away with the presence of an ‘agent,’ and figures such as Targ (2004) have since become convinced that the kind of transfer implied by the former fails to explain the body of accumulated results.

According to an account by two engineers at the Princeton Engineering Research Anomalies (PEAR) laboratory, where a significant database of remote viewing research was compiled in experiments from 1976-1999, Puthoff and Targ’s initial trials “included many perceptions that were virtually photographic in their accuracy, and produced a statistical yield well beyond chance expectations” (ibid), and later attempts at replication frequently yielded similarly exceptional results – typically presenting a mixture of failures and (partial, but sometimes astonishing) successes. Given that percipients described the experience of remote locations beyond simple visual terms, ‘remote perception’ was adopted as preferred terminology at PEAR (Dunne and Jahn 2002: 2-3).

Interestingly, Dunne and Jahn’s review of 25 years of ‘remote perception’ research concluded that efforts to isolate the ‘anomalous channel of communication’ implicated in remote perception tended to negatively impact the strength of results, implying that a certain level of “noise” is in fact integral to the process by which some individuals appear to manifest ‘clairvoyant’ abilities. Attempts to “clarify” the characteristics of the channel or remove possible sources of bias by implementing progressive layers of experimental controls reduced the apparent “signal” to the point at which the researchers lost most of their purchase on the phenomena they had set out to study (ibid: 39-40). As well as noting the potential relevance of recently-developed engineering concepts such as that of “stochastic noise,” by which “an increase in the overall level of noise in certain kinds of lasers or sensitive electronic circuits can actually enhance the detection of weak, fluctuating signals” (ibid: 40), the authors reference both historical practices of divination such as the I Ching and the thought of the psychiatrist Carl Jung in outlining their own view, one which:

speaks of the emergence of both cognitive experience and physical events from a common underlying substrate associated with the domains of the unconscious mind and the undifferentiated world of physical potentiality,

wherein the distinction between mind and matter blurs into uncertainty. Given their common origin, we note that it should thus not be surprising to observe correlations between their manifested expressions in the worlds of mental and physical “reality” (Dunne and Jahn 2002: 42). 

The possibility – and the avowed reality in many cultures and historical moments – of clairvoyance and/or remote viewing, could be seen as raising questions concerning the definition and limits of sensation or perception. French philosopher Henri Bergson’s view of the brain “as a filter of memory and sensory experience, acting to reduce the wealth of information available to awareness lest people become overwhelmed by a mass of largely useless and irrelevant data not needed for the survival of the organism” led him to the view that “if these filters were bypassed, humans would be capable of remembering everything that had ever been experienced and perceiving everything that has happened anywhere in the universe (e.g., as in clairvoyance)” (Krippner and Friedman 2010 : 167). Thus, for Bergson, our own brains, our own modes of perception, are (perhaps necessarily, and quite practically) limiting the distances – both spatial and temporal – over which our experience of perception, the lived play of the senses, may reach. Considering the range of configurations and the mode and degree of reach across time and space posited by the various instantiations of an ostensive faculty of clairvoyance, the implications of Bergson’s view appear to remain unsettled; clairvoyance, however defined and experienced or practiced, takes its place in the roster of candidates for the ‘Sixth Sense,’ perhaps bridging some of the distance between our taken-for-granted assumptions about the reach of our sensory abilities and a more global vision offered by their cultural histories. 


1    For some, such ‘awareness’ is terminologically subdivided roughly according to the typical five-fold sensorium; clairaliance (smell), clairaudience (hearing), clairgustance or clairhambiance (taste), round out the list, whereas clairsentience is perhaps less-defined by the typical divisions in that it can be said to apply in the case of physical impressions associated with touch (e.g. physical pain) or with emotions. See ‘Clairaudience’ and ‘Claire-’ in the ABCDERIUM

2    By way of example, she notes that the Pythic oracle at Delphi induced clairvoyant experience (visions), that Shamans in various cultures have sought to induce such experiences “through ecstatic dancing, chanting, and drumming, and sometimes with the help of hallucinogens” (Guiley 1991: 111), and that “[i]n yoga, clairvoyance results from the opening of the sixth chakra, located between the brows, which is called the ‘third eye.’ ” (ibid)

3      ‘Mesmeric conditions,’ after Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), refer to a state akin to what would now be referred to as hypnosis; Mesmer induced trance-states in patients as part of his approach to treating various ailments. See the entry on Mesmer in the ABCDERIUM

4      Who, after all, would question that some people, at times and in certain respects, seem to possess a particular “keenness of mental perception,” or appear at times to display “insight into things beyond the range of ordinary perception”?

5    A term coined in 1882 by G.W.H. Myers. See ‘Telepathy’ in the ABCDERIUM

6    See ‘Second-sight” in the ABCDERIUM, forthcoming

7    See ‘Remote Viewing’ in the ABCDERIUM


Coates, James. 1909. Seeing the Invisible: Practical studies in psychometry, thought-

transference, telepathy, and allied phenomena. London: L. N. Fowler.

Dunne, Brenda J. and Robert G. Jahn. 2002. “Information and Uncertainty: 25 years

of Remote Perception Research.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton Engineering  Anomalies Research, Princeton School of Engineering.

Gregory, William. 1851. Letters to a Candid Inquirer on Animal Magnetism.

Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1991. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal

Experience. San Francisco: Harper.

Krippner, Stanley and Harris L. Friedman. 2010. Mysterious Minds: The Neurobiology

    of Psychics, Mediums, and Other Extraordinary People. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Lang, Andrew. 1911. “Second-Sight” Encyclopedia Britannica. Available online at:

Leadbeater, Charles Webster. 1899. Clairvoyance. Adyar, India: Theosophical

Publishing House.

Lytton, Edward Bulwer. 1862. A Strange Story. Boston: Gardner A. Fuller.

Radin, Dean. 1997. The Conscious Universe: the scientific truth of psychic

phenomena. New York: HarperOne.

Sinel, Joseph. 1929. The Sixth Sense: A physical explanation of clairvoyance, telepathy,

hypnotism, dreams, and other phenomena usually considered occult. London:  T. Werner Laurie Limited.

Vecsey, Christopher. 1983. Traditional Ojibwa Religion and its historical changes.

Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society.

Vitebsky, Piers. 2001. Shamanism. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wales, Katie. 2009. “Unnatural conversations in unnatural conversations: speech

    reporting in the discourse of spiritual mediumship.” Language and Literature 18(4): 347-356.

Williams, Marta. 2003. Learning Their Language: Intuitive Communication with

Animals and Nature. Novato, CA: New World Library.