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The ABCs of ESP

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Those who believe in paranormal phenomena often believe that everyone is born with psychic abilities, but that only a select few people have minds and spirits open enough to accept them. The world of the paranormal has its own vocabulary, but many people toss around the term ESP—or extra-sensory perception—to describe just about any kind of psychic phenomenon. ESP is an extremely broad term, referring to a whole host of different and distinct abilities, and people can have one, two, or all of them at the same time. Any ability where people gain information through means other than the five senses can be considered a form of ESP, from the person who foretells the future to the person who claims to communicate with the dead, but they’re actually unique and distinctive abilities. 


Clairvoyance
Meaning “clear vision,” clairvoyance is comprised of the most commonly recognized psychic abilities. Some clairvoyants can see into the past (postcognition) or the future (precognition) to see events that have already happened or will happen. Some profess to see events that are happening at the present time in another location, an ability called remote viewing. Telepathy, the ability to read another person’s mind, is considered another form of clairvoyance. 


Clairvoyance can manifest itself in two different ways. People with positive clairvoyance have control over their visions, and they can turn them on and off at will and decide for themselves what they see. Negative clairvoyance is involuntary; visions happen suddenly and the clairvoyant can’t choose when and where she experiences the visions or what she sees. Most professional psychics, like those who work with police departments, are clairvoyants, as is the trashy tabloids’ favorite oracle, Nostradamus.    


Psychokinesis
From the spoon-bending child in The Matrix to Matilda Wormwood using her mind to manipulate chalk on a blackboard, psychokinesis is the supposed ability to manipulate physical objects using only one’s mind. Like clairvoyance, it can occur deliberately or involuntarily. It’s a well-known cultural theme, making mystical appearances all over literature and entertainment. It even appears in the Bible, as when Moses parts the Red Sea, or Jesus heals the sick or turns water into wine. The secular explanation for those miracles would be psychokinesis. It’s also used to explain levitation as well as mystics who walk on hot coals or injure their bodies without pain. Imitating psychokinesis is the basis of most of today’s magicians and illusionists. 


Many people believe that pyrokinesis, or the supposed ability to start fires with the mind, is a form of psychokinesis, but actually, paranormal psychologists don’t recognize pyrokinesis as being legitimate. The term itself was coined by Stephen King for his book Firestarter, and even though it’s very common in pop culture, it’s not accepted as a psychic phenomenon. 


Astral Projection
Astral projection is a more spiritual version of the standard out-of-body experience. Many people report sensations of leaving their bodies and hovering or flying, especially involuntary experiences that happen in near-death situations. The big assumption regarding astral projection is that inside every person is a spiritual double that can travel in the non-physical world, or astral plane, which consists of the space above the earth containing the planetary bodies. Especially popular in the 1960s and 1970s, people have claimed to intentionally astral project, saying that with practice, they could leave their earth-bound bodies and travel among the heavens, like on the television show Charmed, where Prue Halliwell could purposefully make her astral self leave her body. We do know that humans are capable of controlling their dreams, although there is little evidence to support the notion of astral projection. 


Mediums
A medium is a person who claims to be able to communicate with the dead. Often called a spirit guide, they act as an intermediary, receiving messages for the living from the deceased. Mediums are a traditional part of the lore of many tribal and folk religions, including Voodoo, Candomblè, and Shambala. Mediums are important to paranormal phenomena as well, since the existence of spirits and ghosts is central to many peoples’ beliefs about the supernatural. In a séance, a medium attempts to channel the spirit of a loved one, in order to relay messages back to the world of the living. Crossing Over’s John Edwards is the most famous example of a medium today, but even kids try out their skills at being a medium when they play slumber party games like the Ouija board.   


Token-Object Reading
Formerly called psychometry, token-object readers can interpret the history of an object—and its owner—just by touching it. Like the main character on Chuck, they can see the past, present, or future of an object just by holding it or pressing it against their forehead. Token-object reading is based on a 19th century theory that everything that exists has a life force that can be read and interpreted. Demonstrations of token-object reading often occur during séances, when a medium uses an object that belonged to a dead person to foster the connection between themselves and the spirit world. The strongest sensations held in the object are said to be the emotions the owner experienced. By handling a woman’s comb or glove, a psychic could understand her mood, her personality, and even know how she died. Token-object readers often feature prominently into pop culture versions of psychics, often helping police solve crimes. 


These abilities don’t always occur individually. Plenty of people—from spoon-bending mind reader Uri Geller to psychic medium Sylvia Browne—claim to possess more than one of them at a time. However, since psychic abilities can’t be quantified or measured, whether you believe them at all is, of course, entirely up to you.

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