What Is Clairsentient?

Photo: Prettysleepy2 via Pixabay, CC0

Clairsentient refers to having a sixth-sense, having heightened empathy for the feelings of a person or having heightened intuition about the properties of an object. Much like any form of ESP (extrasensory perception), there’s little to no scientific evidence to support the existence of clairsentience as a real phenomenon.

What then could explain cases of claimed clairsentience? What does the research into the phenomena of clairsentience or clairvoyance say?

Defining Clairsentient

Getting a reliable definition of phenomena is important for the discipline of science because it’s hard to investigate the relationships between two things if you can’t even define your terms. How are you supposed to look for the effects of one variable on another if you aren’t even sure what effects you’re looking for? This is one of the first issues with clairsentience and why the study of it is often called a pseudoscience.

It’s difficult to come up with an exact definition of clairsentience, as much like the term clairvoyance it has been applied to a wide variety of phenomena. Some have claimed it gives them the ability to heal other of maladies, while others have claimed that it lets them feel the energy fields of another person, while yet others have claimed that they can feel the emotions of the deceased.

So while it’s difficult to get an exact definition of clairsentience, in general, it refers to the ability to sense the feelings of others or understand the properties of an object through ESP. If clairvoyance describes the ability to gain knowledge about a situation through ESP, clairsentience could describe the ability to gain “awareness” of feelings. This is sometimes referred to as being “empathic”, though not in the traditional sense. Empathic perception in the clairsentient sense means being able to sense feelings (emotional states) and energy. (This isn’t energy in the scientific sense, of being able to “do work”. It’s used here to mean a form of spirit or mystical vitality.)

Note that the term clairvoyance is often used as an umbrella term that encapsulates all varieties of extrasensory perception. The second definition of clairvoyance in Webster’s dictionary is the “ability to perceive matters beyond the range of ordinary perception”. This encompasses the act of sensing emotions of energy waves. As such, the term clairvoyance and clairsentience will be used interchangeably.

A Lack Of Empirical Support

Empirical studies on clairvoyance have been going on since at least the late 1800s. Around 1890, two scientists – E.C. Pickering and J.M. Peirce – conducted an experiment where they asked those who claimed clairvoyant abilities to identify cards put in an envelope. The two scientists tested over 35 subjects in over 23000 trials, yet their participants did no better than chance.

Around 1930 the psychologist JB Rhine coined the term Extrasensory Perception as a catchall term for abilities like telepathy, clairaudience, clairsentience, and clairvoyance. Rhine performed a number of tests with his subjects, challenging them to describe what symbols were on a number of cards, now known as ESP cards. Several of Rhine’s test subjects were able to perform much higher than chance, but in the intervening years, many other scientists have tried to replicate Rhine’s results and failed.

Photo: Mikhail Ryazanov via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0

Researchers at Princeton tried to rerun the study with 132 subjects over 25000 trials and weren’t able to find anyone who performed better than chance. This was also true of four other psychological departments who redid the experiment. Many years later it was revealed that Rhine’s experiments suffered from substantial methodological flaws that explained the discrepancy.

In the over 100 years since research into clairvoyance began, many studies that investigated other proposed manifestations of clairvoyance and ESP have been carried out. One of the most famous tests of ESP was done to determine if remote viewing (the ability to remotely sense impressions of distant unseen objects, places or people) had any validity.

From 1970 to the mid-1990s the Stanford Research Institute conducted research into remote viewing and found that a few of their subjects were able to pick up on details about the study’s target events. However, attempts to replicate the study were unsuccessful. Richard Kammann and David Marks redid the Stanford experiments and found over the course of 35 different experiments their subjects were unable to demonstrate any sufficient evidence of remote viewing. Kammann and Marks also discovered that the research done at the SRI labs had inadvertently given the participants clues which could be used to deduce details about the events they were being asked to describe. When these tests were re-run, and the inadvertent cues eliminated, the test results were negative.

In a 1988 review of the literature on ESP, the US National Research Council found that there was no “scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years, for the existence of parapsychological phenomena”. Research since then has found precious little evidence to support the existence of ESP or clairvoyance.

Possible Explanations for Clairsentient

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Possible explanations for clairsentience/clairvoyance:

  • Confirmation bias
  • Subjective validation
  • Sensory leakage/test subjects exposed to test material
  • Not taking the base rate of chance occurrences into account

There are many different possible explanations for clairvoyant/clairsentient phenomena. One explanation is the simple psychological biases we all have. Confirmation bias is the tendency to notice and remember only examples of phenomena that support one’s belief while forgetting/not noticing examples which contradict it. This is known as “counting the hits and forgetting the misses”. This is also easy to do when the phenomena in question is difficult to define. The inadvertent exposure of test subjects to clues or cues regarding elements of ESP tests is another explanation.

In the case of correctly guessing the emotions of other people, this might be explained by subjective validation. Subjective validation is yet another cognitive bias where people consider statements about events to be correct because they connect it with something that has personal relevance or meaning to them. This often leads to perceiving unrelated events as related. For instance, vague and general statements about one’s personality are often perceived as accurate because the target of the statement subjectively validates them.

A primary example of this is the Forer Effect, which gets its name from an instance where the exact same personality profile was given to almost 40 psychology students, the majority of whom believed the profile had been written for and about them.

The ability to understand the feelings of others, feeling what they feel, has naturalistic explanations quite apart from claims about clairsentience and psychic empathy. Research into the human brain has revealed the existence of mirror neurons, neurons which fire when witnessing another person engage in a specific action or convey a specific emotion. These mirror neurons and other brain structures allow us to pick up on subtle expressions and changes in body language, even if we aren’t aware that we are consciously doing it. These are all things the average person can do, and when combined with the cognitive biases we have, one may erroneously think they have a special ability to feel the emotions of others through ESP.

One of the primary ways that science advances is through falsification, the conducting of experiments that disprove or falsify a theory. Scientific theories are, at least in principle, falsifiable. The more attempts to discredit it a theory survives, the surer we can be it’s true. The fact that there are so many other possible, scientifically backed, explanations for ESP phenomena makes committing to the reality of ESP unwise.

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2 Comments

  • Even setting aside questions of bias, a survey of scientific research whose most recent reference is 30 years old is obviously inadequate.

    I’d also recommend anyone interested to seek better-informed views, for example, those of Professor Caroline Watt. She is generally seen as a moderate skeptic, but doesn’t adopt the dismissive attitude of the author of this article. On the contrary, she writes in a blog post explaining her interest in parapsychology:
    “Perhaps more surprisingly though, I think that psi research is generally well-conducted, positive results are not easily dismissed, and the challenge of conducting controlled tests of the psi hypothesis (i.e., parapsychology as it is narrowly defined) can drive advances that can benefit science more generally.”

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