Extrasensory perception (ESP) is an unproven paranormal phenomenon in which people allegedly receive information about, or exert control over, their environment in ways that don’t use the five senses. Also known as “the sixth sense” or “psi,” ESP refers to a wide range of purported abilities, including telepathy (mind reading), psychokinesis (moving objects without physical contact) and precognition (predicting the future).
ESP violates our understanding of basic scientific principles. Still, estimates suggest that around two-thirds of people in the United States believe in its existence, according to a 2019 study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology. Even in academia, ESP has inspired serious scientific debate. While some psychologists argue that the subject deserves consideration, skeptics point out that the evidence is weak at best, and fraudulent at worst.
Fascination with ESP is rooted in the spiritualist movement of 19th-century Britain and the United States, according to the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Members of the fashionable elite would hold séances, in which mediums would attempt to communicate with spirits. By the end of the 19th century, scientists and other thinkers were joining research societies devoted to studying not only communication with spirits, but a whole host of so-called “psychic” phenomena, including telepathy and hypnosis (which, unlike telepathy and séances, is now backed by science). In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research emerged in London, and in 1885, people founded a corresponding society in the United States. (Both still exist today.)