ESP (psionics)

J.B. Rhime, a parapsychologist at Duke, popularized ESP in his 1935 book Extra-Sensory Perception. But does that mean people with psionic powers or extra sensory perception really exist? Many people think so -- and not just the lunatic fringe: a growing number of reputable scientists are taking the possibility of mind powers seriously.

Psionics ("psi" for short) refers to a whole range of mind powers including: telepathy, the ability to read another person's thoughts; precognition, the ability to see into the future; telekinesis, the ability to move or manipulate matter with thought; teleportation, the ability to instantaneously move matter from one location to another; and pyrolisis, psychic fire-starting. ESP, short for extra-sensory perception, is a term used to describe a set of psi powers including clairvoyance, mind-reading, and precognition.

Early stories dealing with ESP include Henrietta Standard's "John Strange Winnard" (1894), Louis Tracy's Kark Grier: The Strange Story of a Man With a Sixth Sense (1906), H.D. Beresford's The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), Stephen McKenna's The Sixth Sense (1915), Muriel Jaeger's The Man With Six Senses (1927), and Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Saw the Future" (1930).

The first science fiction writer to use the term "psionic" was probably Murray Leinster, in his 1955 story "The Psionic Mousetrap." Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (1953) deals with trying to get away with murder in a telepathic society. In Roger Zelazny's The Dream Master (1966), a psychotherapist uses machine-enhanced psi powers to treat patients by manipulating their dreams during therapy sessions.

In his short story "Deeper than the Darkness," Harlan Ellison envisions a society where psionic powers are not rare, and people with them are grouped into categories. The "Mallaports" can manipulate matter - specifically, human flesh -- at a local level, realigning the atoms in a material to change its composition or structure.

The "Drivers" have the ability to send themselves and everything around them into "inverspace" and are used to jump or "translate" starships through inverspace during interstellar voyages. "Blasters" can emit an energy field or beam with incredible destructive power. The main character of the story is an oddball - a "Pyrotic" who can start fires with his mind. The "Mindees" are telepaths.

Psi is an immensely popular topic with science fiction writers. Some notable examples include Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), Henry Kuttner's Mutant (1953), Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human (1953), James Blish's Jack of Eagles (1952), Wilson Tucker's Wild Talent (1954), Frank M. Robinson's The Power (1956), Lloyd Biggle, Jr.'s The Angry Esper (1961), and John Brunner's The Whole Man (1964).

In Robert Silverberg's "Now + a Now - n" (1972), a stock trader gets rich from knowing which stocks will go up the next day by reading the mind of his future self. James Gunn's "The Reluctant Witch" (1953), Arthur Sellings's Telepath (1962), Lester del Rey's Pstalemate (1971), and Jack Dann's The Man Who Melted (1984) all deal with psi talents.

The most famous psi story may be A.E. Van Vogt's Slan (1940), in which a new breed of humans with telepathic powers faces prejudice and discrimination from ordinary humans, a theme currently being explored in the X-Men series of movies. In Robert Silverberg's novel Dying Inside (1972), a telepath loses his sense of identity as his telepathic powers slowly begin to lessen until he becomes an ordinary mortal.

Do ESP, telepathy, and other psi powers have any basis in scientific fact? The Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Sir John Eccles has suggested that a particle, which he calls a "psychon," carries thoughts.

The brain stores thoughts as synaptic connections in the dendrites - the portion of the neuron that receives input. According to Eccles, when you think, these synaptic connections produce a psychon. If psychons could be transported or exchanged between individuals, telepathy, or mind-reading, would occur.