Another good article by Brian about ESP and psychic research.
Do Some Psychics “Read the Eyes?”
A popular misconception about ESP that has existed from time immemorial is that it involves some form of “mind reading.” Telepathy has been popularly conceived as two people “reading each other’s minds,” and when a person appears to perform a feat of clairvoyance in correctly guessing something about another person’s life, that other person often exclaims, “Wow! Are you reading my thoughts?” An examination of subjective reports from spontaneous cases as well as from the lab (Rhine, 1967) suggests that the experience of ESP can often be much more complex than this, but the mind reading concept still holds even today in the minds of some people, including some mainstream scientists and skeptics who are not familiar with parapsychological research.
It is likely that a great many instances of apparent ESP that look like “mind reading” can be chalked up to sensory cues that we often give off, whether we are aware of it or not. It is often claimed by skeptics that, rather being highly adept in ESP, many mental mediums and commercial psychics who give readings are more skilled in picking up on these cues in the expressions of the people consulting them, and use this in tandem with cold reading and other mentalist tricks to produce false psychic information. One such sensory cue that these mediums and psychics may pick up on is the movement and the appearance given off by our eyes, which can sometimes be used to infer our current mood. Other people who may be skilled in this may include psychotherapy professionals, salespeople, police officers involved in lie detection, and skilled poker players trying to “read” others at the table on a good hand or a bluff.
Recently, a group of researchers from the New York University School of Medicine and two German universities conducted a study that looked a bit closer at “eye reading” to see if psychic readers are particularly more advanced than most people in applying “theory of mind” and empathy in their practice (Dziobek et al., 2005). Theory of mind is actually a concept from social psychology that describes the ability for a person to infer other people’s mood, thoughts, desires, and/or intentions; it can be seen as a kind of mental plan we develop for knowing how the minds of others feel and work. Most inferences that we make (both consciously and unconsciously) to build a theory of mind come through social interactions, and can be expressed through the “intuitions” we have about people (e.g., when we hear someone say, “I have a feeling about her,” or “There’s something about him that rubs me the wrong way”). More complex applications by skilled people can even include anticipating what a person is going to say or do next based on their body cues. Similarly, in empathy a person is able to project their own mind into that of another such that they are able to realize and share the feelings, needs, and thoughts of that other person. In other words, we are able to “look at the world through another person’s shoes,” so to speak.
To see if commercial psychics were particularly adept in using these abilities as a way to score false psychic hits, Dziobeck et al. recruited storefront psychic readers from around New York and had them go through the “Reading the Mind of the Eyes” test, a way to measure theory of mind application. In this test, a psychic is shown a photograph of the area around a person’s eyes and asked to infer that person’s current mood based on it by choosing one of four possible descriptors (e.g., interested, fearful, hostile, pleased), as well as tell whether or not the person is male or female. Afterwards, the psychics were given a few psychological questionnaires that are designed to measure for certain forms of empathy. The performance of the psychics on both the test and the questionnaires was compared to a control group of ordinary people of matching age, gender, education level, and number.
The results indicated that, in general, the psychics were not able to infer the mood of a person by looking at their eyes any better than the controls were, although they did show a significantly higher level of a certain form of empathy than the controls. This form was a kind of fantasy empathy, where people are able to imagine themselves in the situation of fictional characters in books, movies, and plays, and be able to relate themselves to those characters (e.g., one of the statements on the questionnaires was, “I really get involved with the feelings of the characters in a novel”). The researchers argued that this apparently higher ability for psychics to put themselves into “fictional” or “imaginary” situations rather than real ones is consistent with psychics being able to work in a realm made up of abstract mental images, in the same way that remote viewing subjects often describe shapes and dimensions of a target object, rather fleshing out its exact analytical features (Targ & Katra, 1998). While the latter may be true, I myself remain a little cautious about generalizing this to include storefront psychic readers because their methods of operating may be quite different from those used by a skilled remote viewer.
There have been some attempts to understand ESP in terms of more familiar and ordinary social psychological concepts. For example, James Donovan (1997, 1998) of Tulane University has proposed that telepathy may be seen as more complex forms of charisma (wherein emotions are projected out to others) and empathy that are combined to give the appearance of mental transfer and reception, respectively. His tests of this have produced only slight evidence in support of that idea (although it does not seem to adequately account for the content of what is transferred and received), and the study by Dziobek et al. (2005) might be seen as adding only slight, indirect evidence for the empathy aspect of the idea. The variation that comes with human behavior makes it difficult to narrow all ESP experiences down to such simple concepts, but we may perhaps find that, in some instances, examining these concepts in relation to ESP may point towards possible characteristics that supplement ESP abilities and may perhaps contribute in better predicting them. The way is not too clear for now, but progress may be in the works.
Rhine, L. E. (1967). ESP in Life and Lab: Tracing Hidden Channels. New York: Collier Books.
Dziobek, I., Rogers, K., Fleck, S., Hassenstab, J., Gold, S., Wolf, O. T., & Convit, A. (2005). In search of “master mindreaders”: Are psychics superior in reading the language of the eyes? Brain and Cognition 58(2), July. pp. 240 – 244.
Targ, R., & Katra, J. (1998). Miracles of Mind: Exploring Nonlocal Consciousness and Spiritual Healing. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Donovan, J. M. (1997). A model relating empathy, charisma, and telepathy. Journal of Scientific Exploration 11(4), Winter. pp. 455 – 471.
Donovan, J. M. (1998). Reinterpreting telepathy as unusual experiences of empathy and charisma. Perceptual and Motor Skills 87(1), August. pp. 131 – 146.