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The word psychic (pronounced /ˈsaɪkɨk/; from the Greek psychikos—”of the soul, mental”) refers to the presumed ability to perceive things hidden from the senses through means of extra-sensory perception. It is also used to refer to theatrical performers who use techniques such as prestidigitation and cold reading to produce the appearance of such abilities.

The scientific community outside the small field of parapsychology has not accepted what that field considers evidence of the existence of psychic abilities,[1][2][3][4] and in 1988 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences gave a report on the subject that concluded there is “no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.”[5]

Belief in psychic phenomena is widespread in the United States, where a 2005 Gallup poll revealed that 41 percent of Americans believe in extra-sensory perception.[6] Psychics appear regularly in fiction and science fiction, such as the The Dead Zone by Stephen King and Jean Grey from the Marvel comic book universe.



The word psychic is derived from the Greek word psychikos (of the soul/mental) and refers in part to the human mind or psyche (ex. “psychic turmoil”). French astronomer and spiritualist Camille Flammarion is credited as having first used the word psychic, while it was later introduced to the English language by Edward William Cox in the 1870s.[7]

Early Seers and Prophets

Elaborate systems of divination and fortune-telling date back to ancient times. Perhaps the most widely-known system of early civilization fortune-telling was astrology, where practitioners believed the relative positions of celestial bodies could lend insight into people’s lives and even predict their future circumstances. Some fortune-tellers were said to be able to make predictions without the use of these elaborate systems (or in conjunction with them), through some sort of direct apprehension or vision of the future. These people were known as seers or prophets, and in later times as clairvoyants and psychics.

Seers formed a functionary role in early civilization, often serving as advisors, priests, and judges.[8] A number of examples are included in biblical accounts. The book of 1 Samuel (Chapter 9) illustrates one such functionary task when Samuel is asked to locate the donkeys of the future king Saul.[9] The role of prophet appeared perennially in ancient cultures. In Egypt, the priests of Ra at Memphis acted as seers. In ancient Assyria seers were referred to as nabu, meaning “to call” or “announce”.[8]

The Delphic Oracle is one of the earliest stories in classical antiquity of prophetic abilities. The Pythia, the priestess presiding over the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, was believed to be able to deliver prophecies inspired by Apollo during rituals beginning in the 8th century BC.[10] It is often said that the Pythia delivered oracles in a frenzied state induced by vapors rising from the ground, and that she spoke gibberish, believed to be the voice of Apollo, which priests reshaped into the enigmatic prophecies preserved in Greek literature.[citation needed] Other scholars believe records from the time indicate that the Pythia spoke intelligibly, and gave prophecies in her own voice.[11] The Pythia was a position served by a succession of women probably selected from amongst a guild of priestesses of the temple. The last recorded response was given in 393 AD, when the emperor Theodosius I ordered pagan temples to cease operation. Recent geological investigations raise the possibility that ethylene gas caused the Pythia’s state of inspiration.[12][13]

One of the most enduring historical references to what some consider to be psychic ability is the prophecies of Michel de Nostredame (1503 – 1566), often Latinized to Nostradamus, published during the French Renaissance period. Nostradamus, was a French apothecary and seer who wrote collections of prophecies that have since become famous world-wide and have rarely been out of print since his death. He is best known for his book Les Propheties, the first edition of which appeared in 1555. Taken together, his written works are known to have contained at least 6,338 quatrains or prophecies,[14] as well as at least eleven annual calendars. Most of the quatrains deal with disasters, such as plagues, earthquakes, wars, floods, invasions, murders, droughts, and battles — all undated.

Nostradamus is a controversial figure. His many enthusiasts, as well as the popular press, credit him with predicting numerous major world events. Interest in his work is still considerable, especially in the media and in popular culture. By contrast, most academic scholars maintain that the associations made between world events and Nostradamus’ quatrains are largely the result of misinterpretations or mistranslations (sometimes deliberate) or else are so tenuous as to render them useless as evidence of any genuine predictive power.[15]

In addition to the belief that some historical figures were endowed with a predisposition to psychic experiences, some psychic abilities were thought to be available to everyone on occasion. For example, the belief in prophetic dreams was common and persistent in many ancient cultures.[16]

Modern Psychics

In the mid-nineteenth century, Modern Spiritualism became prominent in the United States and the United Kingdom. The movement’s distinguishing feature was the belief that the spirits of the dead could be contacted by mediums to lend insight to the living.[17][page # needed] The movement was fueled in part by anecdotes of psychic powers. One such person believed to have extraordinary abilities was Daniel Dunglas Home, who gained notoriety during the Victorian period for his reported ability to levitate to a variety of heights and speak to the dead.[18]

As the Spiritualist movement grew other comparable groups arose, including the Theosophical Society, which was co-founded in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891). Theosophy coupled spiritualist elements with Eastern mysticism and was influential in the early 20th century, later influencing the New Age movement during the 1970s. Blavatsky herself claimed numerous psychic powers.[19]

Popular Culture

Belief in Psychic Abilities

A survey of the beliefs of the general United States population regarding paranormal topics was conducted by the Gallup Organization in 2005.[6] The survey found that 41 percent of those polled believed in extrasensory perception and 26 percent believed in clairvoyance. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed indicated that they believe in telepathy or psychic communication.

A poll of 439 college students conducted in 2006 by researchers Bryan Farha of Oklahoma City University and Gary Steward of University of Central Oklahoma, suggested that college seniors and graduate students were more likely to believe in psychic phenomena than college freshmen. Twenty-three percent of college freshmen expressed a belief in paranormal ideas. The percentage was greater among college seniors (31%) and graduate students (34%).[20]

Some people also believe that psychic abilities can be activated or enhanced through the study and practice of various disciplines and techniques such as meditation, with a number of books and websites being dedicated to instruction in these methods. Another popular belief is that psychic ability is hereditary, with a psychic parent passing their abilities on to their children.[21]

Psychic Advice Industry

Many people proclaim to have psychic abilities and some make a living as professional psychics or earn celebrity hosting their own TV programs. Individuals such as John Edward and Sylvia Browne either have their own television shows or are frequently featured on talk shows. (see Paranormal television).

Some psychics are first known by the public as celebrities. Rock singer and actress Danielle Egnew, whose psychic work with law enforcement and claim to many predictions such as the 2001 New York 9/11 Twin Towers disaster and the Iraq War, have resulted in her frequent radio and television appearances as a psychic, rather than a singer.

Other celebrity psychics, like Tana Hoy, attempt to help people identify and fine tune their psychic abilities. They teach classes and liken the instruction to coaching a fine art like singing, painting or writing.

Research and Criticism

Parapsychological research has attempted to use random number generators to test for psychokinesis, mild sensory deprivation in the Ganzfeld experiment to test for extra-sensory perception, and research trials conducted under contract by the U.S. government to investigate remote viewing. Some of these tests such as the Ganzfeld have been put forward as good evidence of psychic ability.[who?][citation needed] Critics such as Ed J. Gracely say that this evidence is not sufficient for acceptance, partly because the intrinsic probability of psychic phenomena is very small.[22][23]

Parapsychology involves research that does not fit within standard theoretical models.[citation needed] Methodological flaws in parapsychology have been invoked by critics such as Ray Hyman to explain apparently successful experimental results, as opposed to the paranormal explanations offered by many parapsychologists, and the field has been classed as pseudoscience by many.[24][25][26][27]

The evidence presented for psychic phenomena is not sufficiently verified for scientific acceptance, and there exist many non-paranormal alternative explanations for claimed instances of psychic events.[citation needed] Even parapsychologists have agreed that many if not most of the instances of more popular psychic phenomena such as mediumism and other psychic feats, can be attributed to non-paranormal techniques such as cold reading and hot reading, or even self-delusion.[28][29] Magicians such as James Randi, Ian Rowland and Derren Brown have demonstrated techniques and results similar to those of popular psychics, but they present psychological explanations as opposed to paranormal ones.[30]


  1. (1990) Science Framework for California Public Schools. California State Board of Education.
  2. *Wheeler, J. A. (1979). “Point of View: Drive the Pseudos Out…”. Skeptical Inquirer 3: 12–13.
  3. Kurtz, P. (1978). “Is Parapsychology a Science?”. Skeptical Inquirer 3: 14–32.
  4. Druckman, D. and Swets, J. A. eds. (1988). Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories and Techniques. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 22. ISBN 0-309-07465-7.
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  9. Morgan 1990, p. 148.
  • Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy, The Delphic Oracle: Its Responses and Operations, 1978. pp. 196-227
  • Maurizio, Lisa, The Voice at the Centre of the World: The Pythia’s Ambiguity and Authority pp. 46-50 in Andre Lardinois and Laura McClure, eds., Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society, (Princeton University Press 2001). pp. 38-54.
  • Spiller, Henry A., John R. Hale, and Jelle Z. de Boer. “The Delphic Oracle: A Multidisciplinary Defense of the Gaseous Vent Theory.” Clinical Toxicology 40.2 (2000) 189-196.
  • de Boer, J.Z., J.R. Hale, and J. Chanton, “New Evidence for the Geological Origins of the Ancient Delphic Oracle,” Geology 29.8 (2001) 707-711.
  • Hale, John R., Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, Jeffrey P. Chandon and Henry A. Spiller, Questioning the Delphic Oracle, Scientific American August 2003.
  1. Mason, Betsy. The Prophet of Gases in ScienceNow Daily News 2 October 2006. Retrieved 11 October 2006.
  2. Chevignard, Bernard, Présages de Nostradamus 1999
  3. Lemesurier, Peter, The Unknown Nostradamus, 2003
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  5. Carroll, Bret E. (1997). Spiritualism in Antebellum America. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33315-6.
  6. Podmore, Frank (1997). Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. University Books. ISBN 0-253-33315-6.
  7. Melton, J. G. (1996). Theosophical Society. In Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology. Thomson Gale. ISBN 978-0810394872.
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  10. Gracely, Ph.D., Ed J. (1998). “Why Extraordinary Claims Demand Extraordinary Proof”. PhACT. Retrieved on 2007-07-31.
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  15. Wiseman, Richard; Smith, Matthew, et al. (1996). “Exploring possible sender-to-experimenter acoustic leakage in the PRL autoganzfeld experiments – Psychophysical Research Laboratories”. The Journal of Parapsychology. Retrieved on 2007-07-30.
  16. EBauer, berhard (1984) “Criticism and Controversy in Parapsychology – An Overview”, Department of Psychology, University of Freiburg, European Journal of Parapsychology, 5, 141-166 (2007-02-09)
  17. O’,Keeffe, Ciarán and Wiseman Richard (2005) “Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results”, British Journal of Psychology, 96, 165–17
  18. Rowland, Ian (2002) “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading”, Self-Published, ASIN B000NDYWDA

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