Have Researchers Debunked Idea of “Sixth Sense” ?

Posted January 15th, 2014 at 9:12 pm (UTC-4)

Zener cards used in the early twentieth century for experimental research into ESP. (Wikimedia Commons)

Zener cards like those shown here were used in the early twentieth century for experimental research into ESP. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are people who claim to have a sixth sense or extrasensory perception (ESP), the ability to acquire or “see” information about the future through means other than normal human senses.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne have looked into the matter and say their findings help debunk the belief that a sixth sense actually exists.

The Aussie researchers outlined their research and findings in a study published recently in  PLOS ONE. Their findings show that while people could sense when a change took place, without the benefit of the other senses, they could not specifically identify that change.

They found that a person might be able to pick up a change in a person’s appearance, but not, for example, be able to precisely pinpoint that the exact change in appearance was something such as getting a new hairstyle or wearing jewelry.

“There is a common belief that observers can experience changes directly with their mind, without needing to rely on the traditional physical senses such as vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch to identify it,” said Piers Howe from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences.

This demonstrates how the researchers tested their volunteer observers (Piers D.L.Howe/Margaret E. Webb/PLOS ONE)

This demonstrates how the researchers tested their volunteer observers (Piers D.L.Howe/Margaret E. Webb/PLOS ONE)

Howe said the research conducted by his team showed that while people could consistently sense changes that they could not see, their ability to do so had nothing to do with a sixth sense or extrasensory perception.”

To reach their findings, the researchers gathered volunteer observers who were shown pairs of color photos of the same female. In some of the photos, the woman’s appearance could be different, such as a new hairstyle, from the other in the pair.

Each of the photos was shown to the observer for about 1.5 seconds and then a 1 second pause before showing the next photo. After looking at the second photo, the researchers asked the observer whether or not a change had taken place between the first and second picture. Then they were asked to specifically identify that change in appearance from a list of nine different changes.

The researchers found that their volunteer observers were able to pick-up on a change in appearance even when they couldn’t pinpoint what that specific change was.

While they might notice one of the two photos had more of one color than the other, they weren’t able to translate that information into specifics such as the change in color was due to the woman wearing different clothing.

This resulted in the observer “feeling” or “sensing” that a change had occurred without being able to visually identify the change. Thus, the result that observers can reliably feel or sense when a change has occurred without being able to visually identify the change could be explained without invoking an extrasensory mechanism.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the researchers that a “sixth sense” does not actually exist? Or do you think ESP is a legitimate phenomenon?

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

8 responses to “Have Researchers Debunked Idea of “Sixth Sense” ?”

  1. tao says:

    trying to prove-disprove such subtle perceptions by tests done on average consumers is like trying to prove that musical genious doesn’t exist by showing that average people cannot write Mozarts early symphonies.
    I noticed that certain types of my dreams, the very clear and detailed ones, sometimes came true right on the next day, not only vaguely but up to the most incredible detail. Assuming that it was some kind of “after the fact projection” (i.e. deja vu effect), which created the illusion in my mind that made me believe that I had seen those events in a dream before the real life event happened I started to occasionally write down on paper those dreams of that particularly clear kind (after waking up). To my surprise I could see that every time the description on the paper fitted and contained all the essential details – up to the most amazing and unforeseeable details – and this in the correct sequence, like a short video sequence.
    I have no ambition nor motivation to anonimously make any untrue statements and more or less secretely know till the end of my life that this is true.
    What disturbs me concerning this matter is that it proves that our whole concept of time and reality is relative or false, because it intervenes with causality.

  2. […] what change had occurred can be explained without an extra sense begin needed, explains the Voice of America blog. The scientists explain that this finding definitively debunks the idea that a supposed sixth […]

  3. andatlast says:

    this is your study to prove whether esp exists!! LMAO!!! seriously….this proves nothing but that your scientists don’t understand what esp is….wow!

  4. Christian says:

    This is like trying to prove / disprove God’s existence in lab tests.

  5. Dickie says:

    Uh…there are WAY more than five senses…balance, temperature, time…Until we drop the false notion that their are only five sensory inputs that we respond to, we won’t be able to investigate the dozens of other sensory systems we naturally have, let alone answer the question of whether Psi is a real phenomena.

    • Apno says:

      Hurray! Thanks for saying that. I hate the term “sixth sense”. We have more than 5 normal sense, for sure. I think of the sense of balance as the sixth sense, then the others beyond that.

      That said, I really don’t understand this study. Subject could detect a change, but not identify it? What does that have to do with ESP?

  6. Dolphe says:

    Only proves that it takes time to study/identify differences at detail level, (ie.shape, additions,color,etc.), but the eye/visual cortex can determine differencews at thE level of the whole quickly IE 1.5 seconds.

    Design a study whereby people stare at the back of other peoples head and see if the stared at person can tell.

  7. Joe says:

    I don’t think this study was meant to say anything about esp…this is just an interpretation by the journalist. The study is looking at change blindness and all the researchers said about esp is that these findings can be explained by the traditional senses rather than by esp.