The Physics of ESP

October 1998
by Robert Novella

Of all ostensible paranormal phenomenon, extra sensory perception (e.s.p.) is probably one of the most well known and widely believed. Many people who generally have a skeptical attitude towards metaphysics still hold out hope that e.s.p. is a real phenomenon and that someday it will be conclusively demonstrated. In any skeptical treatment of a phenomenon experimental evidence is of paramount importance. In this regard e.s.p. has not produced widely accepted and reproducible results after nearly one hundred years of trying. Another important consideration, however, is a possible mechanism for the phenomenon in question. If no plausible mechanism can be found then this fact must raise the level of skepticism towards the existence of that phenomenon. Countless experiments have been carried out probing the existence and reported capabilities of e.s.p. but few inquiries have been made into the requirements necessary for it to work. What does science say about the feasibility of such a phenomenon?

Extra sensory perception is perception that occurs beyond the conventional senses of sight, hearing, small, taste, and touch. The primary manifestations of this phenomenon are said to be telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance. Respectively these are; awareness of another’s thoughts, knowledge of future events and information about a remote object or area. Other terms synonymous with e.s.p. are anomalous cognition, second sight and remote viewing. All of this information gathering is apparently not acquired through conventional means but through an unknown sense that picks up signals from either another brain or an object or from the future itself.

Duke University researcher Joseph Banks Rhine coined the term e.s.p. in 1934 in his popular book “Extra Sensory Perception.” He purported that his experiments unequivocally proved that e.s.p. is a viable, demonstrable phenomenon. Not surprisingly, when more controls were added to his experiments the evidence diminished and eventually vanished, but he attributed this to what he called “the decline effect.”  If skeptics were present and no effect appeared he invoked “the observer effect.” In fact he had a special explanation for all of e.s.p.’s experimental failures.

What, however, might an alleged e.s.p. signal be? Perhaps a known force could account for it or maybe a force that has not been experimentally verified but theoretically might behave as e.s.p. requires. If not these, then maybe there is another force about which scientists have not an inkling. Further, any hypothesized signal would need a receiving mechanism. If a force does not implicate itself then at least we should be able to identify a part of the human body that evolved to interpret the force that carries e.s.p. information.

Centuries of experiments, theorizing, and observation have revealed four fundamental forces in nature that can accurately account for all interactions of matter. These forces are the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity. (actually there are now three fundamental forces since electromagnetism and the weak force have been shown to be different manifestations of the same electro-weak force). If one of these forces has the qualities required for e.s.p. to exist then, at the very least, the feasibility of e.s.p. would have to be entertained.

Before discussing these forces in detail a quick overview of the basic structure of the atom might come in handy. The concept of an atom is not new, in fact it is 2400 years old. In 400 BC the Greek philosopher Democritus believed that matter could not be forever subdivided, that at some point an indivisible object should be encountered. He used the word “atomos”, which means indivisible, to describe this fundamental and irreducible piece of matter. We have learned much in the intervening millennia. Briefly, the center or nucleus of an atom consists of a neutral (no electric charge) neutron and a positive proton. This nucleus is surrounded by a cloud of negative electrons that are attracted to the protons, canceling their charge and making the atom, as a whole, electrically neutral. Neutrons and protons themselves are each composed of triplets of bizarre objects called quarks. It is these quarks (and electrons) that are the most fundamental constituents of matter that we know and therefore compose everything.

Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) discovered the weak force (manifested as radioactivity, the spontaneous emission of particles by atomic nuclei) in 1896. There are different types of radioactivity, the weak force is responsible for a process called beta decay in which certain unstable atoms change a neutron into a proton and eject bits of themselves like electrons and anti-neutrinos. Different chemical elements are produced by beta decay; I’m sure that alchemists would have loved this process. Without this force stars would not shine and the molten interior of the earth would have cooled millions of years ago.

The strong force was discovered in 1921 by E.S. Bieler and James Chadwick. It is the force that binds quarks together forming the atomic nucleons: neutrons and protons. A residual of this force glues the protons and neutrons together overcoming the mutual repulsion of the positively charged protons. Consequently only a hundred or so stable atomic configurations (elements) have been identified that can balance electric repulsion between protons and the strong attraction. The strong force is by far the strongest found in nature as evidenced by the power of a nuclear bomb which explosively releases the bound energy of the strong force. By comparison, dynamite is one million times weaker because it is governed by a much weaker force, electromagnetism (discussed later).

As exotic and indispensable as the strong and weak forces are they cannot be directly responsible for e.s.p., primarily because they act over such a short range. The range of these forces has been determined to be approximately one or two femto meters, which is approximately one ten-millionth the width of a human hair. One reason for such a limited area of effect is an exponential drop off in intensity as the distance increases between two particles. Within their domain these forces accomplish amazing feats without which life and our universe would not exist, but a little more than an atomic diameter away they are powerless and thus cannot be directly responsible for extra sensory perception.

The nuclear forces described above might seem somewhat removed from direct personal experience, so what about a force that we can relate to? Gravity is just such a force. Everyday of our lives we feel and fight the force of gravity. It keeps objects on the ground, determines the shape of the earth, keeps planets in their orbits, and shapes the large scale structure of the universe. Such an apparently powerful and pervasive force surely might be able to account for e.s.p..

What does science tell us about gravity? It is an attractive force that affects all matter and energy in the universe. Nothing with mass is immune to the effects of gravity. Surprisingly, it also happens to be the weakest force of the four, so weak, in fact, that equations dealing with subatomic particles routinely disregard gravitation because its effects are negligible at an atomic scale. How, then, can such a weak force be so dominant and evident in our lives while much stronger ones like the strong force are virtually unnoticeable? This is due to two special properties of gravity: it is long range and always attractive. A force becomes manifest when particles exchange what are called virtual particles. It’s like two people on skates throwing a medicine ball back and forth and recoiling when the ball is thrown or caught. If you could not see the ball it would appear as if an invisible force was at work on the skaters. Now imagine that the ball weighed very little. The skaters could stand very far apart and still be effected by it. This is analogous to gravity’s virtual particle the graviton, which is massless and therefore can affect particles very far away. (This, of course, is just one of the ways to look at gravity, Einstein’s general relativity treats it as the curving of space-time.) The second special property of gravity, and absolutely crucial to its strength, is its unique ability to always be attractive. Gravity does not have opposite charges like the negative and positive electrical charges. This explains how huge objects like the earth can be electrically neutral. No matter how strong a charge is, if there are roughly equal amounts of positive and negative electric charge, no force will be noticed. This is how gravitation can be so weak yet still add up to a considerable force that can move clusters of galaxies.

Even with these special abilities it is the extraordinary weakness of gravity that prevents it from carrying e.s.p. signals. The force gravity exerts between two brains is just too feeble to have any of the effects that e.s.p. believers purport. Only on astronomical scales does its significance amount to anything.  Additionally, there is nothing unique about the gravitational field of the human brain, gravity really only cares about mass. No special configuration or complexity of matter could modulate a gravitational signal because all that matters is the size of an object and amount of stuff it is made from. Replace any object’s atoms with an equivalent mass and distribution of any other type of atom and gravity will be essentially the same. Therefore, a human brain and a lump of coal both with the same mass and density will have identical gravitational fields.

Of the fundamental forces of nature only electromagnetism (EM) now remains to be considered. On the surface it seems promising. Unlike gravity, weakness is not a problem for EM since it is far more powerful, approximately 1040 times stronger. What else has science determined about this force? Primarily it keeps atoms together by insuring that the negative electrons orbit the positive nucleus. Consequently all the laws of chemistry can be attributed to this force. Additionally, whenever you touch anything it is the electromagnetic force that prevents your hand from simply moving through it. The negative electrons of your hand are repelling the like charges in a doorknob, for example.

A pure manifestation of the electromagnetic force that we are all familiar with is electromagnetism. As its name implies it is an alternating wave of electricity and magnetism moving through space. Since a moving electric charge produces a magnetic field and a changing magnetic field produces an electric field, it is self-propagating and goes on its merry way regardless of what happens to the source that created it. Many of the stars we see at night have long been dead but its light has no knowledge of this.  We know this radiation as light but the visible light we see is only a small slice of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, which ranges from long wavelength, low energy radio waves, to short wavelength, high energy gamma waves. Electrons produce photons of light whenever they move from an outer orbit around the nucleus to an inner orbit, thus shedding excess energy. Since the virtual particle associated with EM, the photon, is massless, it has an unlimited range like gravity and will not stop until it is absorbed by another atom that exists, for example, in the earth’s atmosphere or an astronomer’s eye.

Finally we have a force that is long range and strong enough to move useful information from one place to another. Additionally, the human brain itself seems amenable to this radiation since thought itself consists of moving electric current, which is precisely what creates electromagnetic radiation. Unfortunately (you knew this was coming) electromagnetism does not fit the bill as a carrier of e.s.p. information either. Most claims for e.s.p. require distance effects that do not fit with the inverse square law of radiation that light always obeys. This law states that if the distance between two objects double, then the energy being received is only 1/4 its initial intensity; multiply distance by 3, then you have to divide energy by 3 squared, or 9. This has special significance for the weak fields (brain waves) that are produced by the brain, and therefore for e.s.p.. For a field to affect the brain, enough energy must be transported and it must interact strongly enough so that the signal can be received. Eventually (and over a relatively short distance) the electromagnetic energy produced by the brain would be so attenuated that it would take hours to transmit a single thought.  This does not even address all the interference caused by the ubiquitous electrical devices in our lives. Our skulls also filter out most of the electromagnetic fields produced by our brains (as would the skulls of any potential receivers of an EM signal).

The primary drawback, however, to the hypothesis of electromagnetic radiation as the carrier of e.s.p. signals is that such signals would be easily detected by modern instrumentation. We have been virtual masters of electromagnetism for decades now, routinely receiving radio waves on our radios, creating x-rays for medical diagnosis, and interpreting every slice of the EM spectrum coming from space that our atmosphere does not filter out. Our knowledge of the different manifestations of light and how they are produced has ballooned along with our understanding of astronomy, physics, optics and a host of other sciences. The concomitant increase in sophistication and precision of the tools we use has given us an unprecedented ability to detect and study these ephemeral waves. Whether people could produce or detect electromagnetic e.s.p. waves is actually beside the point since our ability to precisely detect and examine them would be in the hands of these very sensitive instruments. It is not unreasonable to assume that any force that could create a chemical or electrical reaction in our neurons would be detectable – in fact it is a virtual certainty. The fact that electromagnetic radiation associated with e.s.p. has not been detected strongly points toward the conclusion that it does not exist.

It is true that our brains do generate an electrical field which can be detected. This technique is called electroencephalography (EEG), and is used as a diagnostic tool. The electrical field produced by our brains is very weak, however, and only the largest fields make it through our skulls and can be detected by electrodes placed on the scalp surface, where the field is measured in microvolts, millionths of volts.

For these electrical fields to then cross even a few feet of space, then penetrate a potential receiver’s skull, they would be attenuated further by many orders of magnitude. The electrical field produced by our brain, therefore, is insignificant in strength at a potential receiver’s brain, and is therefore too weak to produce any electrical effect that could manifest as e.s.p.. This tiny electrical field is also overwhelmed by the copious other electrical fields produced by our muscle activity, our heart, and other natural sources, not to mention the now ubiquitous electronic equipment that fill our living space.

Our brains also produce a measurable magnetic field, measured by a technique known as magnetoencephalography (MEG). This magnetic field, however, is many times weaker than the electrical field, and is therefore even less capable of producing an effect in another’s brain. What our brains do not produce, however, is electromagnetic radiation, such as radio waves. As mentioned, any sufficiently strong signal would have easily been detected by now.

Many people blithely dismiss the discussion above stating that it does not matter, that there is probably another force we don’t know about that can account for e.s.p.. Assuming there is a force in nature that we know nothing about, we can still make some intelligent assessments about characteristics it should have, given what we know about forces in general and the anecdotal accounts concerning e.s.p.. As stated in the previous paragraph, it is fair to assume that e.s.p. would induce some neuro-chemical change in the human brain for us to notice it. This requires energy, energy that would be detectable even by instruments your great-grandfather had available to him.

It appears that the fundamental forces of nature can offer us no solace in our desire to believe in extra sensory perception. Either the force is too short-ranged, too small, or too weak. Any force that does have the strength and range to carry a signal from one brain to another would be easy to detect with instruments that should respond to the same forces as our brain cells. This fact, coupled with the undeniable inability to produce an e.s.p. experiment that is reproducible and widely accepted, even after a century of trying, should put to rest any debate about this phenomenon. Unfortunately, I would be utterly amazed if it did.

Part II

In part one of this article I discussed the fundamental forces of nature and examined whether they can account for the claims made for extrasensory perception. It turned out that none could account for it, not gravity, not electromagnetism, nor any of the nuclear forces. Either they are too weak or too short ranged to be considered as viable explanations.

If the fundamental forces of nature cannot provide a mechanism for e.s.p., perhaps one of the more bizarre aspects of quantum theory can offer some hope. In part two of this article we will see that certain quantum phenomena seem amenable to e.s.p., but this is true only until the details of these phenomena are examined. Also, regardless of how e.s.p. signals might be produced, it is not unreasonable to assume that the body would have mechanisms in place to interpret these signals. A lack of any such structures would be a significant problem for the feasibility of e.s.p.

Earlier this century Albert Einstein said that he had an open mind about e.s.p. but he would be skeptical until it was shown that e.s.p. “energy” dropped off in intensity like all the forces in nature. He also expressed dissatisfaction with what was to become one of the most significant theories of the century, a theory to which he made important contributions – Quantum Mechanics. Many people, anxious for scientific justification for their paranormal beliefs, use Quantum Mechanics (QM) to justify their beliefs in the paranormal. QM lends itself to this type of abuse because QM offers a view of reality that is completely counterintuitive to our everyday experiences. What is this theory all about?

Quantum Mechanics Primer

Essentially, Quantum Mechanics describes the behavior and interactions of matter and energy at its most fundamental level. It reveals that the world at the atomic scale is completely unlike the macroscopic world of everyday life. We have learned that energy is not continuously variable, like the volume control on your t.v., but is discrete like the channel selector. This means that energy does not exist in a perfectly, infinitely smooth progression from low energy to high but in discontinuous jumps from one level to the next. Additionally, matter and energy are both wave-like and particle-like with only one aspect becoming manifest at any one time, depending on which aspect one is attempting to observe. Also, there is an intrinsic limit on how much can be simultaneously known about nature that can never be surpassed. The classical examples are position and momentum. The more precisely we know one variable, the less precisely we can know the other. Finally, an unmeasured quantum system (atoms, photons of light, etc.) does not exist in one of its possible states but all of them at the same time. This simultaneous aggregation of states is called a superposition and is one of the most bizarre realities revealed by QM. A mathematical tool known as a wavefunction describes this superposition, assigning probabilities to the existence of all the states. When the system is measured the wavefunction is said to “collapse” causing one of the possible states to become reality.  It should be noted that wavefunction collapse and superposition, although widely believed, is more of an interpretation of QM (the Copenhagen Interpretation)  than the direct results of theory and experimentation. So, QM has introduced such bizarre and counterintuitive concepts as the discreteness of energy, the wave-particle duality of matter and energy, and the ultimate probabilistic nature of all reality. This ‘Readers Digest’ version of Quantum Mechanics is about as simplified as it gets (for a fuller treatment see The CT Skeptic vol 2 issue 3 ) but hopefully it is enough for the discussion of QM and e.s.p. that follows.

The quantum weirdness discussed above has been used to justify a host of paranormal phenomena where no real justification exists. Specifically, one of the connections between QM and e.s.p. involves the assertion that QM supports the instantaneous transfer of information over arbitrarily long distances.  If this assertion were true, it would offer a viable mechanism for e.s.p., but the speciousness of the claim reveals itself upon closer examination.

QM has demonstrated that if two particles share a common origin, they become “entangled” in such a way that although they may be separated by light years, they still behave as one system with certain effects on one having an instantaneous effect on the other. This is not mere speculation. Actual experiments have been performed demonstrating his phenomenon. (Browne, 1997)  For example, if two particles are created from a single quantum system that has no spin, then in order for total spin to remain zero, the net spin of the two particles must also be zero. (Spin in quantum mechanics is not quite like a spinning top. For the purposes of this discussion, however, think of  “spin up” and “spin down” as different directions of normal everyday spin.) The fact that total spin must be the same is the result of a conservation law, which I will not go into here. Since spin cannot be created from nothing, if one particle is measured to be spin up along any axis (such as the x-axis) then the other particle must be the opposite spin on the same axis. Now remember, the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM tells us that until the particles are measured, they both exist in a superposed state in which all the infinite number of possible spin states exist at the same time along every possible axis. If an x-axis measurement is taken of one particle to determine its spin, then its wavefunction is said to collapse into either spin up or down. No matter in which axis of spin a measurement is taken, the particle will spin in that direction or its opposite. This is taken to mean that the act of measurement forces the particle to choose that direction in which to spin. Theory and experiment also show us, however, that if the twin particle is similarly measured, it will spin in the opposite direction of its partner. How did it know which spin direction the first particle was measured in so that it could “choose” the opposite?  Did it somehow communicate this information instantly, apparently disregarding the speed limit of light?  It is this apparent instantaneous transfer of information that many proponents of e.s.p. have latched onto as the mechanism for e.s.p. If science has shown that nature can communicate information instantly with no real energy being transferred, why can’t people do the same thing?

People can not do the same thing for two reasons. First of all, these experiments show that there are certain correlations between particles that are entangled. Postulating that a signal  was exchanged at superluminal (faster than light) speeds, however, is one interpretation, but it is an interpretation that has a lot going against it, such as Einstein’s Relativity. A better interpretation would consider that quantum phenomena are ill suited for description by human language, which evolved in a classical (Newtonian) environment. Even if signals were sent, it is not possible to exploit this process to send information, e.s.p. or otherwise. At its heart Quantum Mechanics is a statistical science. The behavior of a quantum system can never be predicted precisely. All that is possible are statements of probability. For example; scientists cannot tell you when an atom will decay, only that a certain percentage of like atoms will decay over a certain amount of time. Therefore, it is impossible to know beforehand which spin a particle will have before it is measured (unless, of course, you measured its entangled partner first). If you can not know what it will be, then it is impossible to encode a message you want to send instantly. Regardless of the mechanism, be it a computer or a brain, the only thing that can be sent are random bits of data with nothing for anyone to interpret.

If this isn’t enough there is another good reason why entanglement can not explain e.s.p.; a phenomenon called quantum decoherence. This principle is a description of what happens to quantum systems when many of them interact. Any of the inevitable interactions with other particles destroy any special connection between entangled particles, creating new entangled particles which then interact with other particles, and so on. The result is no special relationship between the original entangled particles and no possible message for an e.s.p. signal. Related to this is the fact that the human brain itself is not a quantum system (although it is made up of many of them) Any entangled particles produced by the brain would quickly decohere preventing any e.s.p. message from being sent.

Physiological Perspective

Many people will unfortunately disregard modern science’s view of the feasibility of e.s.p. Let us take another approach, therefore, and examine the sensory mechanisms that humans have evolved. If an e.s.p. sense exists then there must be structures designed to intercept and interpret this information.

There are many structures in the human body that feed the brain information about the world both outside the body and within. Specialized cells, called receptors, change the energy they receive into nerve impulses that are sent to the cerebral cortex of the brain, which interprets the information, telling us if it is the beat of a drum, a scratch on our skin or a sunset. Without such structures the brain would be completely insensate, unaware of anything going on around it. Sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing are the canonical examples of the human senses but scientists have identified receptors for no less than nine senses including ones informing us about the internal state of the body. One example is proprioception, which tells us the orientations of our limbs and where we are in space.

The one hundred and fifty million rod and cone receptor cells in our retina transform the energy of light into electrical signals for our brain’s visual cortex to interpret. The twenty five thousand hair-like receptors in the inner ear’s cochlea change the mechanical energy of sound waves into signals the auditory nerve can send to the brain. Our touch receptors are divided into four different types which are dispersed with varying distributions throughout our skin. Other receptors provide us with information such as heat, cold, and pain.

As sophisticated and marvelous as our senses are, other animals put us to shame with the subtlety and precision of their sense organs.  Buzzards can see small rodents from three miles away. Moths can hear frequencies twelve times higher than we can and cockroaches can detect movement as small as two thousand times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Some animals do not simply have keener versions of our own senses. Some have receptors that provide information unlike anything we can sense. The shark, for example, has electro-receptors that allows them to perceive the weak electric fields emitted by the muscles of their prey.

All of the receptors responsible for such capabilities have been extensively studied. There are no mysterious receptors with unknown functions, receptors that might respond to unknown and elusive energies and thereby account for e.s.p.  Such candidate receptors for e.s.p. are conspicuous by their absence. This lack of receptors is not definitive proof against the feasibility of e.s.p., but is yet another mark against it.   Some e.s.p. proponents contend that the human brain itself is the receptor of e.s.p. signals. Doesn’t the average human use only 10% of his brain? Couldn’t the rest be devoted to extra-sensory perception? Contrary to this popular and pervasive myth, healthy humans use all of their brains. (See Don’t You Believe It in this issue for a more thorough discussion of this topic.) Although there is much we still do not know about the human brain, there are no vast areas with unknown capabilities.  If this were true we would be able to remove eighty to ninety percent of our brains with no loss of ordinary function. Further, from an evolutionary perspective, this myth is preposterous. Our brain weighs only four percent of our body weight but consumes close to twenty percent of its resources 2. Evolutionary pressures could not select for an organ that consumes so many resources and is devoted to a function that only apparently benefits a few of us.


In part one we saw that nature does not provide for any known force which can account for e.s.p. Now we see that the weirdness of Quantum Mechanics provides no refuge for those seeking scientific plausibility for this failed theory. Just because a theory like Quantum Mechanics seems bizarre, it does not necessarily mean that it can be used to justify bizarre claims. On the surface, certain quantum phenomena may seem to support e.s.p. but this support vanishes upon closer examination. Additionally, if e.s.p. exists there should be receptors in the body evolved to send and receive these signals. None have ever been found.   Modern science, therefore, offers no plausible mechanism, and no direct evidence for e.s.p., which should increase skepticism to very high levels. Lack of a possible mechanism for a phenomenon is not enough to conclude that such a phenomenon does not exist, or is impossible. It does mean, however, that before the existence of the phenomenon is accepted as true, reproducible and compelling evidence should exist, which is lacking for e.s.p.. Unfortunately, interest in e.s.p. is far more widespread than the scientific literacy which is necessary to judge the feasibility of such paranormal phenomena.

In part three of this article I will discuss the feasibility of other types of e.s.p. such as telekinesis and precognition.


In part one of this article I discussed the fundamental forces of nature and examined whether they can account for the claims made for extrasensory perception (e.s.p.). It turned out that none could account for it, not gravity, not electromagnetism, nor any of the nuclear forces. Either they are too weak or too short ranged to be considered as viable explanations. In part two of this article I discussed ostensible support for e.s.p. by Quantum Mechanics (QM) and human physiology. As weird and counterintuitive as QM is, it cannot be used to justify the claims made by proponents of e.s.p.. Human physiology also fails to produce the elaborate and specialized organs that we would expect to exist if e.s.p existed.

Throughout this article I have implicitly used the term e.s.p. for communication from one mind to another outside of the normal sensory channels. This definition, often called telepathy, is what is most commonly assumed when the term e.s.p. is used, but there are other words that fall under the rubric of e.s.p., each with meanings different from telepathy. The most common are clairvoyance, precognition, and telekinesis.  Each of these will be discussed in turn and shown to be as bereft of scientific feasibility as telepathy.

Clairvoyance involves acquiring knowledge about an object or event without the use of our normal modes of perception. This is very similar to telepathy which involves mind-to-mind transfer instead of object-to-mind. Please read parts one and two of this article for an in depth discussion of this type of phenomena. I will make one point about clairvoyance, however. At least with the idea of telepathy one mind creates the information signal and another picks it up. I’m even more skeptical about clairvoyance because the information is improbably sent by innocuous objects like a watch or piece of clothing.

Telekinesis, or psychokinesis, is the ability to move or influence an object using only the power of the mind. Purists do not consider telekinesis to be part of e.s.p. because it does not involve any form of supernatural perception. They consider it part of “psi” which is a more general term for paranormal abilities involving the mind. However, most people consider telekinesis to be a form of e.s.p., perhaps because it represents influence at a distance. Regardless of the semantics, telekinesis is a widely believed “power” of the mind and I believe it fits in well with my discussion.

It is very compelling to think that with a mere thought we could move an object. Some argue that the brain can accomplish many amazing feats, and there remains a great deal to be discovered about it, so is it too much to ask for the brain to move an object by itself? It might seem trivial in terms of energy for the brain to move a small object but you might be surprised just how much energy is required. The average brain consumes about 25 watts1 or 6 calories per second (this assumes a 2400 kilo-calorie diet). Let’s see what amount of energy would be needed for a simple act of telekinesis in which a pen is moved by the power of the mind. Assuming the pen weighs four ounces, what would be required by the brain to move such an object a few feet into the air in about a second? A spherical field produced by the brain would need a 100 kilowatts of power in order to move a pen that is a few feet away2. This is similar to a modest radio station. If the power could be focused into a laser-like beam with modest dispersion then the power requirement could be reduced to 100 watts which is equivalent to the power output of the entire human body. Therefore, the simple act of moving a pen using telekinesis would require, at least, the entire energy output of the human body for a brief period of time.

The brain normally consumes about 20% of the body’s energy production. In order for the brain to increase it’s power output to 100 watts, blood flow to the brain would have to increase by a factor of 4, and the body would have to increase its total energy production by 60%. This is equivalent to a moderately vigorous exercise. This is all assuming that the brain is capable of producing and focusing a coherent beam of energy with a high degree of efficiency (a completely separate and non-trivial problem). Therefore, a telekinetic engaged in the activity of moving even an object as small as a pen should experience an increased heart rate and breathing as if they were engaged in moderate exercise. Lifting two pens would require athletic conditioning, and anything heavier than that would be beyond the means of normal human physiology.

Perhaps we can tap into an external source of energy thereby removing any of the seemingly insurmountable problems associated with using biochemical energy. One such possibility is a form of energy called Zero Point Energy that exists everywhere, even in that paragon of nothingness, a vacuum. Quantum mechanics has conclusively shown us that a vacuum cannot be pure nothingness, it is suffused with unseen energy that constantly surrounds us.  This stems from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which states that there is a fundamental and irremovable level of uncertainty encountered when measuring systems on the atomic level. Variables like position and momentum cannot both be precisely known with arbitrary accuracy. The more accurately we know one the less we can know the other. If one is known with absolute precision then we can know nothing about the other. This not only applies to position and momentum but more generally to energy and time. Thus the value of the fields that pervade space like the electromagnetic or gravitational fields and their rate of change over time also cannot both be precisely determined. Therefore the value of such a field cannot be zero because then its rate of change would also have to be zero, and this is not possible. Consequently, at time intervals close to zero, energy can approach infinity. This leads us to the inescapable conclusion that space is seething with so called virtual particles that appear from nothing, survive for the briefest moments (about 10-23 seconds3), then disappear into the nothingness from which they appeared. This energy, also called vacuum energy, is not merely the idle speculation of an obscure principle of physics. The Uncertainty Principle has remained unassailable and bullet proof throughout the seven decades of its existence. Its predictions about Zero Point Energy are evident in the unavoidable noise encountered in electronic circuits. Even fluorescent lighting could not exist were it not for the random fluctuations of energy of the vacuum state.

Could this ubiquitous Zero Point Energy be the power source behind an apparent telekinetic effect? Unfortunately this option suffers the same problem that plagues biochemical energy, namely lack of sufficient energy.  Even if we could somehow tap into this energy (another big problem) there does not seem to be enough to make it practical. Some scientists believe that if this energy could be harnessed it would end all our energy problems once and for all. Although estimating how much of this energy might exist is problematic, evidence is lacking to support this contention. Nobel prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, estimates that within a volume the size of the earth there is an amount of zero point energy equivalent to only a gallon of gasoline. To lift a pen would require utilizing the amount of Zero Point Energy found in ten billion cubic meters of space, roughly a cube three kilometers on a side3.

Precognition is very different from telekinesis but it is similar to telepathy in that information would have to travel through space in order to be perceived by the brain. But, because precognition involves the perception of future events, this information would have to travel through time as well. We shall see that this introduces a host of new problems that are peculiar to this form of e.s.p..

The concept of time travel (to the future) received firm scientific backing with the development of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity in the early part of this century. This amazingly successful theory predicted that time was not an absolute as Newton believed. Rather its passage can be dramatically different for two objects moving at high speeds relative to each other. It has been conclusively demonstrated, for example, that subatomic particles accelerated to appreciable fractions of the speed of light survive far longer than they otherwise would have. This “time dilation” effect essentially slows time for speedy travelers compared to their partners back home. They therefore move into the future at a pace quicker, from their point of view, than the usual one second per second. Because of the mountains of evidence supporting this phenomenon there is not one reputable physicist alive today that doubts that space travelers on a high speed journey would return to earth younger than their former contemporaries.

If traveling into the future is possible then perhaps information can somehow be retrieved from the future and be perceived by the human mind. A problem arises with this scenario, however, due to the fact that once this information is attained it would then have to travel back in time so that we can perceive it. Physicists agree that travelling back in time is not possible under ordinary circumstances. There has been some speculation that black holes and worm holes might offer a method for traveling into the past, but they represent extreme conditions which cannot exist on Earth. Black holes are the infinitely compressed remnants of super giant stars, where gravity is so intense that even light can’t escape. The problem with black holes is traveling to one and hoping you’re not turned into spaghetti by the tidal forces. Worm holes are hypothetical tunnels through highly curved space that might connect distant regions of the universe. Some scientists believe that if one end of a wormhole is accelerated to a high velocity compared to the other end then traveling through it might offer access to the past. As you can imagine, even if this were true, the engineering problems would be formidable. In addition, the tunnel’s existence would be so fleeting that it would collapse on you while you were traversing it. Some propose that the mouth of the wormhole could be propped open with matter that has enormous negative pressure. Finding this so-called “exotic” matter might be an insurmountable problem, however, since no evidence or theory suggests that it might exist.

If this doesn’t make time travel into the past difficult enough, consider the paradoxes that can be produced. The canonical example is called the grandfather paradox. If I travel to the past and inadvertently kill my grandfather before my mother was born then I would never be born. (yes, I know, tenses are difficult when discussing time travel) But if I’m never born then I can’t travel to the past to kill my grandfather? If grandpa doesn’t die, then I will be born and I will kill him. Therefore if he survives he also dies. The only way to resolve this is to invoke alternate and coexisting realities or timelines. If this is the case then this isn’t really time travel, is it.

Perhaps ephemeral information doesn’t suffer the constraints that seem to prevent macroscopic objects from traveling back in time. People with precognition simply acquire information from the future, obviating the need for people to do the traveling. Might not this prevent all these problems? Unfortunately, changing the past is the same as sensing the future and altering the present. Consider, I have a vision of a future calamity. Using my precognitive information I prevent this calamity. How then can information travel to the past about an event that never happened? If I am not warned then I can’t prevent the calamity and it occurs. We’re back to the grandfather’s paradox. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, has my favorite, if unique, objection to time travel. He contends that if it were possible we would be inundated by hordes of tourists from the future.

What this all boils down to is the violation of one of the foundations of all modern science, cause and effect. All of physics is based on cause and effect and the existence of precognition would require the modification of many of its principles. Physicist Lawrence Krauss said it best, “That’s a lot to ask for a little precognition.2

After examining the different forms of extra sensory perception and many well established, widely accepted principles of science, it is obvious that both are incompatible. Either the reported claims of e.s.p. are somehow in error or much of science is.  In this regard, e.s.p. is similar to many other paranormal phenomena and psuedosciences. When one looks for a physical process or mechanism, none are found that are consistent with our understanding of nature. Our minds, however, are powerful. Powerful enough to reveal many of the true wonders of the universe. E.S.P. is just not one of them.


Part II

1) “Signal Travels Farther and Faster Than Light,” M.W. Browne; New York Times, July 22, 1997: Science Times section
2) Principles of Neural Science, 3rd Edition, by Kandel, Schwartz and Jessell, 1991, New York, Elsevier.

Part III

1) Principles of Neural Science, by Eric R. Kandel and James H. Schwartz, 2nd edition, Elsevier, 1985.
2) Beyond Star Trek, Physics from Alien Invasions to the End of time. Lawrence M. Krauss, 1997
3) Robert Matthews, Science Correspondent, the London Sunday Telegraph   From New Scientist, 25 February 1995, Vol.145, No.1966, pp. 30-33.

Comments and Author’s Response

Dear Editor,

I enjoyed Mr. Novella’s article on telekinesis in The New England Journal of Skepticism, Spring, 1999.  However, the article’s illustration of lifting a pencil at a distance of a few feet is fraught with large quantitative errors.  In the first place, I weighed a new wooden pencil and found the weight to be about 4.5 grams–rather less than 4 oz.  So let us consider a fishing sinker weighing, for convenience, a bit less than 4 oz., to be exact, 102 grams or 1 Newton. To lift that slightly-less-than 4 oz. sinker by 1 meter requires 1 Newton-meter or 1 Joule of work.  Now a Joule is a watt-second of work, so to lift the sinker 1 meter in 1 second requires a power of 1 Watt–far less than the figure of 100 W cited in the article..  (When the article says, “If the power could be focussed like a laser beam…”, I assume that the computation in the article assumes that nearly all the power emitted by the brain in order to raise the pencil goes, in fact, to raising the pencil.

If my assumption is correct, however, the article is neglecting inefficiencies in the performance of mechanical work which consume over 75% of the metabolic energy expended–but that neglect would be an error on the side of caution.  Anyway, lifting a pencil–or even a 102-gram sinker 1 meter with a beam of energy focussed like a laser should be no less efficient than lifting it by hand, unless the computation embodies some unstated assumption that I can scarcely imagine.  And we all know that such a task does not produce noticeable tachypnea or tachycardia.  (In fact, a sudden pulse of work that expended 100 W for 1 second would not produce noticeable tachypnea or tachycardia either, since the energy would be supplied anaerobically and perhaps also using oxygen bound to myoglobin; and the debt would be repaid relatively slowly.  Consider a 71.4-kg man who rises from a seated position and raises his center of mass 1/3 meter.  His weight is 700 Newtons, so he does 700/3 or 233 Joules of work; and achieves a mean power output of 233 W if he does it in 1 second.)

Please understand that I am not defending  telekinesis: I don’t believe it either, and I am not at all pleased at the prospect of my children being taught by teachers who have been indoctrinated in post-modern thought (an oxymoron).  In fact, most post-modernists may not have time for the white western male rational obfuscation contained in the previous paragraph.  However, people who throw stones should make sure that they are not living in glass houses.

Bruce Wenger

Author’s Response

Thank you for your careful analysis of my article. The word “pencil” in the article should be “pen,” hence the weight discrepancy. (This has been corrected for the online article above)

Mr. Wenger’s assumption that “nearly all the power emitted by the brain in order to raise the pencil goes, in fact, to raising the pencil” is not correct. In the article I stated that the laser-like energy beam had a “modest dispersion.” I did not specify this in my article (which perhaps I should have) but my research indicated that the geometry of the human head precludes a tightly focused beam. Therefore, a 100 Watt beam would be needed to apply the 1 Watt of power required to lift the pen. This calculation was provided for me by physicist, Lawrence Krauss.

Regarding the issue of tachycardia and tachypnea, my article compared the energy output (100 Watts) to moderate exercise. Obviously, one second of exercise is not enough to raise the heart rate or cause shortness of breath. A sustained telekinetic effort, however, should have the same results as moderate exercise.

Robert Novella