I think I have ESP

Dear Alice,

Sometimes at night I'll have a dream, and then it'll happen! There's no knowing if or when it will happen, but if I have a realistic dream one night, it's bound to come true at one point or another. For example, in first grade, I dreamed that I was in a place I had never seen or been in my life. I didn't even know it existed. Then, in third grade, I walked into the room that I dreamed about in first grade. It was the computer lab of my new school. Or I could be walking down the street and meet someone I have only met in a dream, in the exact same scene as the dream. It is all very confusing, and I think it may be either some sort of precognition or a mental disorder. Could you please tell me why this happens?

True Visionary

Dear True Visionary,

You may have envisioned this response before it was published! What you’re experiencing is commonly known as the sixth sense, or extrasensory perception (ESP). It is a phenomenon that involves perception of information independent of the known senses. More specifically, ESP refers to the processes of precognition, telepathy, and clairvoyance—through channels other than your regular sensory system (more on this later!). The experience you are describing has a long-recorded history; in fact, somewhere between 25 and 45 percent of the Western world report experiencing some form of this phenomenon. However, there is little scientific evidence to explain why people experience ESP. While it's difficult to explain exactly how or why you may be able to envision places and circumstances before you experience them, the cognitive processes involved in ESP are not unusual.

Human sensory neurons and pathways are usually associated with systems like taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch. These forms of perception help individuals process details about the world. ESP also provides people with this information but includes some other senses that haven’t been formally researched. The three main examples are:

  • Precognition: the ability to know events before they happen. For example, someone who experiences precognition may sense that they are going to meet a particular type of person without any prior knowledge or plans about a meeting.
  • Telepathy: the ability to communicate with someone using only the mind. Someone who experiences telepathy may be able to share their thoughts with others without using any of the known senses.
  • Clairvoyance: the ability to perceive remote events. For example, someone who experiences clairvoyance might know that a building is burning even if they are not in the same location.

While many people claim to have some degree of ESP, there’s a lack of data that proves the existence of precognition, telepathy, and clairvoyance. Specifically, no one has been able to demonstrate and reproduce an example of ESP. There have, however, been scientific attempts to prove that it exists. In an experiment run by psychologist Daryl Bem, participants were asked to predict which erotic position (out of two possible options) would appear in a film. These participants were able to correctly guess the position 53.1 percent of the time. That being said, Bem’s experiment has been subjected to heavy criticism from other scientists who pointed out potential bias, design flaws, and a possibility of pure coincidence.

You may also be familiar with a phenomenon called “deja vu” which stems from Eastern religious beliefs surrounding reincarnation. Named after the French term for something that has “already been seen,” this experience refers to the strange sense of familiarity that you may feel towards a person or an event, much like what you mentioned about dreaming about your computer lab before ever having stepped foot in it. As supernatural as it may feel, several theories have been suggested that give a less paranormal explanation to deja vu. People who travel often, watch a lot of movies, or have frequent dreams are more likely to experience deja vu as they have witnessed more scenarios—be they real or fictitious. Those who have moments of deja vu may also be matching elements of a current experience with details from a previous one that they can no longer remember. Even though these events are separate, it’s common to confuse them if there are some similarities such as location or the people involved.

Some spiritual disciplines explain your dreams and experiences in a different way. Human perception of the world consists of information experienced through the five senses, emotion, and intellect. However, the "subtle world" that can’t be experienced in this way may be accessed through honing spiritual senses. Some believe spiritual practice allows people to tap into other senses—such as those associated with ESP—and that this ability may also be passed from one life to the next. Within this belief system, your experiences may be explained by the fact that in a past life you were able to develop this skill through spiritual practice. Although there is no scientific evidence to support this explanation, religious and spiritual sects around the world support it.

Regardless of the explanation (or lack thereof) for the precognitions you're experiencing, many communities have embraced the phenomenon of ESP. Hypotheses ranging from the fields of physics to parapsychology continue to propose explanations, yet none have been proven. However, if you're able to foresee the future, embrace that unique ability!

Sweet dreams,

Last updated Mar 17, 2023
Originally published Nov 12, 2010

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