Psi Terms and Definitions

Several people have asked me for some kind of glossary for terms in Parapsychology, specifically the abilities and phenomena we study. Here’s a brief piece.


Loyd Auerbach, M.S.

Director, The Office of Paranormal Investigations


                Today, people studying psychic abilities (parapsychologists) use the Greek letter psi (pronounced “sigh”) to cover all the different forms of psychic phenomena.  Psi includes ESP, PsychoKinesis, and Survival of Bodily Death.

See other articles here on this website for more information on psychic abilities and Ghosts.


The first group of phenomena has been called receptive psi or informational psi — since you’re mainly receiving information, and is probably more familiar to you as ESP or extrasensory perception.  These experiences involve the transfer of information.  Today we define ESP as Extended Sensory Perception, since there’s nothing extra about it.

Another term describing the informational psi abilities is Anomalous Cognition.  This was recently introduced by researchers in Remote Viewing.

 ESP — the informational psi abilities — breaks down to more specific categories of “talents.”

To begin with, we have telepathy, which is an awareness of information or emotions that exist in the mind of another.  A simpler way of saying this is “mind-to-mind communication.”  Unlike what you often see on television, this is not as simple as reading someone’s mind, since the transfer of information often occurs spontaneously, or when you least expect it.

Next, we have clairvoyance, a French term meaning “clear seeing,” and referring to the receiving of information from objects or events at the present time without the use of the “normal” senses or logical inference (not piecing together things from clues you might have).  Literally the term refers to visual information, but parapsychologists might include under this heading information that comes in as sound (sometimes called “clairaudience”) or physical sensations (also called “clairsentience”), or even as a smell.

If you’ve been paying any attention to news stories about the paranormal, you may have seen or heard the term Remote Viewing.  Remote viewing is also called “remote perception”  and “anomalous cognition” (both are a mouthful, aren’t they), since psychically, one might receive information in the form of sounds, feelings, sensations, smells, or tastes. Remote viewing studies deal with information channeled in from other locations (or from the future, in the case of precognitive remote viewing), while clairvoyant studies generally involve smaller targets of a more local nature (pictures and objects in the lab).

According to the various researchers doing remote-viewing studies, anyone can pick up information from a distant location by simply being in a light, relaxed state and allowing the information from that target to flow in.  However, these studies have also uncovered a difficulty in this connection, namely that we all have a habit of fitting incomplete pieces of information to our expectations, and so a bit of psychic information that may be correct can be mixed up with our own judgment about what it relates to.

Remote viewing studies have been at the center of a lot of the discussion of government research on psi phenomena.  In 1995, it was revealed that a long term government program in remote viewing, Project Star Gate, was coming to an end.  The basic idea of the program was to consider that if we could pick up information on military targets without leaving our living rooms, we could save much money, manpower, and, one would hope, lives.  While Stargate is over, the research on anomalous cognition continues.  Of course, parapsychologists themselves are more interested in other applications of this technique such as using it in crime detection and archaeology.

Information coming through anomalous cognition, when visually oriented, puts the receiver in the position of “watching” the picture from a variety of angles and perspectives (above, same level, seeing everything as oversized or extremely small, etc.).

If you put together information reception with a feeling of “being there,” this bit of clairvoyant play can be considered like an out-of-the-body-experience (the feeling that you have actually left your body, also known as astral projection).  In this situation, one receives information and the mind gives the sense that to receive it, some part of you actually has to be there.  And so that is exactly what is felt: you bring the information into your mind, which quickly gives you the sense that some part of you had actually left the body to bring back the information, although this isn’t so.

Also under the heading of clairvoyance, one might want to list three other sub-“talents.”  The first is psychometry, or the ability to “read” the history of an object or location (or gain information about the people associated with it).  Some psychic practitioners talk about picking up information through the “vibrations” an object or location gives off.  One possibility is that all material objects actually can somehow record information, whether in the electromagnetic field that surrounds all matter or through some other means, and that some people are able to actually decode that reported information.  This is one possible explanation for a haunting, where a ghost is seen or heard or felt to perform the same acts over and over, like a replay of past events.  You may enter a so-called “haunted house,” pick up on the history of the location (using psychometry), and have your mind to give you a replay of some of the events from that place’s past.  Another term for hauntings is place memory.

Another possible explanation for psychometry is that the object merely acts as a focus for the psi abilities of the person doing the “reading,” enabling him or her to clairvoyantly locate information on the owner of the object.  This is why some psychics may request an item owned by a missing person before trying to locate that person.  Tarot cards, crystal balls, and other such occult items often serve as a focal point for a psychic to tune into something clairvoyantly.

Another reported skill which may or may not be psychic is dowsing A dowser may use a forked stick, or wire, or some other object to focus in on locating anything from water to oil to mineral deposits to explosives.  Dowsers reportedly were used by the First and Fifth Marine Core Divisions in the Vietnam War to locate mines, booby-traps, and tunnels.  Whether this ability is related to clairvoyance, to some kind of magnetic sensing, or to something else, has yet to be determined.

While clairvoyance deals with events were objects in the present, the third skill, precognition, is the ability to receive information about objects or events that exist in some future time.  Of all the psi abilities studied by parapsychologists, precognition has always held the most fascination for humanity.  People love predictions of the future, which is why so many mentalism effects are prediction effects.

We’re constantly hearing or reading about some psychic or other making a new prediction, and at the same time can’t help but wonder why those same psychics aren’t doing things like making money at the racetrack.  Of all the psi abilities, precognition has the most uncertainty associated with it, since we really don’t know (1) whether information can cross time, or (2) whether the future is set enough to actually read what has to happen.  Precognition may, in reality, deal with perceiving possibilities and probabilities of our future; a prediction of the most likely thing to happen, not something that definitely has to happen.


The second group of interactions has been collectively referred to as expressive psi — since your mind is expressing itself— or “mind over matter.”  The term parapsychologists have applied to the wide range of effects and abilities in this category is psychokinesis, or more simply, PK.  Here we are talking about true mind over matter, or the ability of the mind to influence material objects or processes without the use of known physical forces.  PK covers a wide range of effects, although the one you’re probably most familiar with is telekinesis, or the ability to move objects from a distance.  This can range from simple up-and-down levitation to floating across a room or even flying across the sky (although there have been no reports of anyone doing the latter under his own power lately).  Since psychokinetic effects include much more than just levitation — like bending spoons and keys — parapsychologists have given up the older term telekinesis for the broader one, PK.

Parapsychologists have been studying psychokinetic effects for a long time, and have divided their experiments into two subgroups of PK known as macro- and micro-PK effects.  Macro-PK effects are those that can actually be seen, such as levitation, metal-bending, or even dematerialization of objects.  Micro-PK effects are those that occurred on a microscopic were even subatomic level, requiring sophisticated equipment to keep track of them (more sophisticated than the naked eye, that it is).

Micro-PK studies have for the most part been conducted with a random-number or random-event generator hooked into some kind of device which offers feedback to the person trying to affect the system.  In other words, a computer or some other instrument to monitor the effect is hooked into a device which generates a random signal (something like the toss of a coin).  The experimental participant tries to affect the system to make the effect no longer random (so that there are more heads than tails for example).  In some experiments, the participant is given various kinds of feedback, from visual to auditory to combinations of the two.  Research projects of this kind investigate whether people can influence such small particles, and have been designed in the form of video games.

Micro-PK studies are popular among parapsychologists because the experimental conditions are simpler.  In comparison to something like metal-bending, trying to influence the output of a computer is easier to experimentally control, especially if the participant needs to touch the metal in order to bend it mentally (is its strength or is it PK?).  Macro-PK studies to go on, however, and are extremely interesting, since they are more like what happens outside the lab.

Besides telekinesis, other macro-PK effects include the materialization or dematerialization of objects (even teleportation, or what would appear to be the movement of an object from one location to another without its having traveled the distance between them, like the transporter on Star Trek).  We also have reports of psychic/mental impressions having been put onto film or video-tape, of film fogged mentally, of video tape erased with a mere thought.  Sounds have apparently been produced on audio tape as well.

Finally we come the poltergeist experience.  In German the word literally means “noisy ghost,” but parapsychologists link the experience to a living person or persons, and to a stress-related situation.  In a poltergeist case, objects are generally reported to move about under their own power, things break by themselves, sounds are heard, and perhaps some vague forms may even be seen lurking about.  Most of the events follow a pattern, (we call that central person the “agent”), although the timing of the happenings is generally spontaneous.  Because the events tend to recur, William G. Roll coined the phrase “Recurrent Spontaneous Psycho-Kinesis” (RSPK) to cover this kind of paranormal event.

 Survival of Bodily Death

                The final category of phenomena grouped under the heading of “psi phenomena” has to do with what psychical researchers in the 19th Century called Survival of Bodily Death :  the concept that some part (or all) of human consciousness  survives the death of the physical body and somehow retains its intelligence (and generally its personality.  The main concepts here relate to this Survival.

Beginning with the most obvious: apparitions, or what most people would call “ghosts.”  An apparition is what is seen, heard, felt, or smelled and is related to some part of the human personality/mind/soul that can somehow existin our physical universe after the death of its body.  The basic idea of an apparition is twofold: the consciousness must survive and it must be able to communicate with people.

When I say that the apparition is “seen” or “heard,” I don’t mean that this is happening through the eyes or ears.  First of all, remember that our actual perception of the world around us involves a process whereby data is received by the senses, then screened and enhanced by the brain and mind.  Perception resides not in the senses, but in the brain.  Hallucinations, for example, are essentially superimposed images, sounds, smells. etc. that are added to (or in other instances blocked or erased from) the information of our senses.

In the same way, the apparition somehow “adds” information to our sensory input that is then processed with our sensory data and integrated in what we perceive.  In other words, the mind of the ghost is providing our own minds with the extra information necessary to perceive him or her.

Apparitions are often confused with hauntings (see above).  The difference is that apparitions are “live” (intelligent consciousness) and hauntings are “recordings.”

Interestingly enough, many apparitions sighted are of living people.  Those people may be in some kind of crisis or distress, though often there can be a correlation to a time when they are dreaming (generally dreaming of visiting the place they’re seen) or even having an out-of-the-body-experience (OBE) The alternate model of OBEs is that some part of our consciousness splits off and is capable of both travel to other locations and perception of those other locations.  On some occasions, the OBE form is apparently perceived by people at those other locations, like an apparition.  This specific experience is sometimes called bilocation.

 Mediums are those people who can purportedly communicate with the deceased.  Some apparently just talk to spirits, others claim to allow the spirit to enter their bodies and allow the spirit to speak directly through them.  The latter form is sometimes referred to as channeling.  The difference between a person calling herself a channeler or medium is that the channeler allow all sorts of entities, mainly “higher beings,” aliens, very ancient spirits, other dimensional beings, and even animal spirits to speak through them, while mediums typically speak with the more recently dead. Both forms of spirit communication can be considered mental mediumship.

Physical mediums are those whose séances or contact sessions bring about not only verbal messages from the dead, but also, more commonly, physical disturbances.  It is with the physical medium that we have table tiltings (or risings), floating objects, apparitional sightings, table and wall rappings, objects appearing from nowhere (or disappearing there), floating lights, and of course, the ever‑popular ectoplasm (almost always of the non-slimy variety).  Physical mediums don’t seem to be around much anymore, outside of the spiritualist camps that exist in a few places around the country.

Possession, here defined as the temporary and often force­full taking over of a human being by a spirit or other entity, generally evil in nature, is for most of us an idea that is both revolting and fascinating.  Appearing in the belief systems of many cultures and even major religions, possession is probably the most feared phenomenon that parapsychologists study.  Linked to the Catholic rite of exorcism (to eject, forcibly, that same spirit or entity), the media and the general public have been fascinated with possession ever since Regan spun her head in The Exorcist.  Let’s face it, it’s scary and captivating.  Beyond the many films, it’s not a phenomena being studied by parapsychologists, given such cases generally turn out to be psychological disturbances and are rarely even presented to our researchers.

An experience that suggests survival of bodily death is the near-death experience (or NDE). In the near‑death experience, a person declared clinically dead for a time reports leaving his or her body, perhaps even observing the location and people around the now‑dead body, then rising up through a sort of tunnel towards a light of some kind.  Occasionally, a familiar figure (typically a deceased family member or friend, or a religious figure) is seen or heard at the end of the tunnel.  The person having the experience is either told it is not yet his or her time, or decides that it is not yet time to die.  In any event, the body is resuscitated, and the person finds himself or herself back in the body, with a recollection of that near‑death process.

Finally, we come to a slightly different sort of survival of bodily death, this being rebirth of the spirit, or reincarnation.  The ancient idea of the spirit or soul reborn in another body is accepted in some form or another by a number of the world’s many religions.

Parapsychologists are, for a variety of reasons, very careful when looking at supposed cases of reincarnation, and usually stay away from hypnotic regression as a means to produce information on past lives.  The main reason for this is that it has been seen that hypnotic regression often gives the subconscious mind free rein to make up a past life as it sees fit, either using historical facts that exist in its memory, or creating “facts” when none are available.

That’s why the cases most suggestive of reincarnation are those involving very young children.  Having developed neither a strong individual personality, nor a vast amount of memories (especially of past events), children who “remember” past lives spontaneously, without any prompting from a hypnotist, are intriguing case studies.  However, such children unfortunately don’t keep the “memories” of those past lives very long, as their own personality starts to exert itself and submerges this information.

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