A Matter of the Mind
Extra-Sensory: The Science and Pseudoscience of Telepathy and Other Powers of the Mind
(St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
What do we know? The oceans, the cosmos—our own minds—lie largely unknown. Such ignorance has long been a muse and a goad to scientific and philosophical inquiry, but it has also fostered a certain retrograde fondness for the uncanny and the unexplained. I nurtured a precocious fascination with ESP as a kid in elementary school. That it was unproven and anecdotal only enhanced its allure; science had not, could not, fully understand it, so strange and complex were our minds and their enigmas. But as the years passed, the idea that this phenomenon could be real faded—I’ve become the jaded skeptic I used to dismiss. It’s a huge triumph, then, that Brian Clegg’s Extra Sensory convinced me to reconsider the outsized powers of the mind, reminding me “Science must always be open-minded (in this case, quite-literally). To dismiss an observation without looking into it is totally unscientific.” The study of the mind’s magical abilities, he matter-of-factly argues, is simply a natural extension of science’s mission.
Also known as psi or the sixth sense, ESP (extra sensory perception) is the general notion that the mind is endowed with abilities beyond its ordinary range of senses—not just seeing what is in front of you but viewing a room miles away (clairvoyance or remote viewing); reading another's thoughts or broadcasting your own (telepathy); peering into the future (precognition); or moving matter with your mind (telekinesis). To these largely discounted abilities Clegg lavishes unusually serious, rigorous attention. “Such mental powers could work within the bounds of physics, which surely makes them worthy of examination,” Clegg declares, tantalizingly linking science to a field generally deemed not just non-science but nonsense.
Thankfully Clegg is suitably credentialed. The author of a slew of popular science books and a Cambridge University graduate with a focus in experimental physics, Clegg is a capable, knowledgeable guide. It’s obvious that he’s well versed in the material, particularly apparent as he shakes-down ESP studies and anecdotes. More often than not, he finds something to question. But he also generously considers the possibility that ESP could be real.
In these moments, Clegg’s lucid and accessible writing style, a virtue throughout the book, is particularly praiseworthy. Maneuvering through dozens of scientific studies and some knotty physics scholarship, Clegg could easily leave the reader confused. Yet he effortlessly explains these dizzying subjects, which could very well supply mechanisms to explain ESP. Clegg smartly addresses the fundamental questions underpinning each ESP ability. For instance, how could someone be able to read another’s thoughts? The results prove to be some of the most compelling sections, providing some scientific basis for belief. Telepathy, for example, may be explained (to varying degrees of confidence) by multiple dimensions, electromagnetic signals, a “floating mind” (as separate(d) from the body), or quantum observation and quantum entanglement, a phenomenon Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance”:
A number of scientists have suggested that there is a quantum process at [consciousness’s] heart, and this may involve significant quantum entanglement within each brain. If this is the case, it may then be possible in such circumstances for two brains to have some overlap of entanglement—in essence, the two individuals’ consciousnesses become temporarily linked.
By the end of the book, Clegg has covered a lot of ground and material. He’s careful to keep the book lucid, and Extra Sensory is a clean, brisk read. Yet, there’s a nagging feeling that the same qualities that allow it to be so readable—its narrowed focus, orderliness (many chapters begin and end in the same manner) and objectivity—can feel at odds with its fantastic and colorful subject. Belief and deception have come to define ESP. But Clegg is committed to reporting the facts and science, something that occasionally makes the book feel restrained, its straightforwardness a bargain made at the expense of human perspective and insight.
For whether or not it’s real, ESP says a great deal about people. As Clegg makes clear, there is little evidence to support a belief in ESP. And yet so many believe. A Gallup poll from 2005 reported that nearly three in four Americans “profess at least one paranormal belief,” the most common being ESP with 41 percent of those surveyed admitting their faith in it.
These preoccupations, though, are simply not part of Clegg’s project. This is not to say he is without perspective or vision. In his chapter on telepathy, he slyly shares his own brush with ESP—a childhood incident wherein he seemingly spoke to his friend, telling him to “stop” even though he was out of breath and the “stop” was spoken only in his head. He also relates a premonition he had in which an upcoming flight crashed. (The plane didn’t crash, though he did change his flight.) In these moments, Clegg gestures toward a larger, stranger element. But these confessions are infrequent; moreover, they’re employed to reveal how commonplace moments like these are. Instead of opening the focus up, he centers it, keeping it on a skeptical footing. He’s too reasonable a writer to risk dealing with the devil in ESP’s cultural details. The result is an easy read—no warts and few detours, which serves Clegg’s purpose. But for those wanting a bigger, more vital picture, Extra Sensory’s straight-on glimpse may inspire them to pick up another book and continue reading.
A son of the Chicago suburbs, JEREMY POLACEK has somehow lived in New York City even longer even than in that metropolis of the Midwest. Often found in the dim light of the theatre or library, he tweets at @JeremyPolacek.