The ESP Teaching Machine

9th May 2023. Reading Time: 6 minutes General, Paranormal Theories, Famous Paranormal Cases. 1097 page views. 0 comments.

In the early 1970s, Russell Targ and David Hurt built an ESP Teaching Machine aimed to assist with ESP learning. It highlighted that feedback can be beneficial to developing a person's ability to use ESP.

ESP stands for Extra Sensory Perception.  It is what many refer to as 'the sixth sense'.  It is used to essentially explain any sort of psychic ability. From a person seemingly receiving messages from the other side by using things like telepathy and clairvoyance.  While other terms such as 'supersensuous perception and extra sensory cognition' were used to describe this phenomenon, it was Joseph Banks Rhine who didn't feel these terms were specific enough and went on to make the term Extra Sensory Perception what it is today.  

"this mode of perception is above and outside the sensory sphere, and is likely to be more of a total response, un-differentiable and un-analyzable-a reception on the complex level of knowing.  Hence I call it 'Extra-Sensory Perception'."

E.S.P Extra Sensory Perception by Joseph Banks Rhine (1934)

I was reading Our psychic potentials by D Scott Rogo (1984) which had a chapter outlining the role of feedback when it comes to psychic development.  It has long been thought by people that we all have the potential to tap into psychic abilities.  Some just seem to be a lot better than it others and while some achieve this quite naturally, others go through what we call psychic development where they train themselves to work on these abilities.  There is no shortage for example of books and online courses out there now which have tips and techniques to help people with their psychic development.  Rogo likens these to a type of recipe book indicating that the same recipe doesn't necessarily work for each and every person, no matter how strictly they follow the 'ingredients'.  He states that there can be no true learning without practice and this is where the concept of ESP testing comes into discussion.  He goes on to talk about J.B. Rhine and some of the testing he has done as an example.  You can check out my articles Experiments in Telepathy for more info on that.

While it went on to talk about some of the exciting findings that indicate ESP could have been present during testing, it also addressed the elephant in the room.  While Rhine himself was thrilled with some of his results, he was frustrated with how even his best test subjects gradually lost all of their abilities after weeks and months of testing.  I remember reading similar results 

The so-called "decline effect" has been one of parapsychology's most consistent and embarrassing findings.  It also indicated that ESP is not a skill that is learning or enhanced merely through repetition.  By now - for the first time in short history of the field - a few parapsychologists are uncovering techniques that may not only prevent subjects from losing their ESP powers, but may actually help them to enhance them.  The strategy seems to be a ridiculously obvious and simple one.  The key seems to be feedback, a basic element of any learning procedure, but one rarely used in parapsychology.

Our psychic potentials by D Scott Rogo (1984)

I guess what he is really saying is that practice makes perfect!  So what is a way that researchers could work with ESP testing and give feedback to their subjects without leading them or influencing the results?  It came in the form of an ESP Teaching Machine.  Invented by Russell Targ and his colleague David Hurt.  In the early 1970s built this ESP teaching machine and presented the results of these experiments at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers's (IEEE) International Symposium on Information Theory in 1972.

The ESP Teaching Machine

The device itself is quite simple: a box with 4 buttons.  Each of the buttons is connected to a light and the machine randomly chooses which of the lights will be the target for the trial.  If the subject presses the correct target button, it will light up to indicate they have selected correctly.  Of course, there is a 1 out of 4 chance (25%) that they could guess the correct button.  There is also a pass button option so that if the subject does not feel they are getting a psychic impression, they can pass on this round.  It means they are never forced to make a decision meaning that the results a subject gets are based on what they feel they are receiving as a psychic impression rather than a lucky guess because they were running out of time.  The scores are all automatically recorded with the results punched out at the end of the experiment.  In what is also described as an 'ego-boosting light' if the percentages the subject hits are above 25% (considered to be the benchmark for chance guesses), the lights will start to flash indicating that there is possibly ESP ability present.  It is this kind of feedback that was felt to be the essence of the experiment.

Because the user obtains immediate information feedback as to the correct answer, he is able to recognise his mental state at those times when he has made a correct response.  If the information feedback to the user were not immediate, we believe no mind learning would take place and less or no enhancement would be achieved.

Targ and Hart International Symposium on Information Theory (1972)

Image Source: We are the mutants

In the course of this work we have encountered three general classes of subjects. The majority of subjects working with the machine did not show any significant improvement in their ESP ability. One third of the subjects gave evidence for increased ESP by guessing at targets in a manner to cause their scores to become bi-modal. Whereas chance scores should give a skewed binominal distribution, with the probability of a "hit" at each trial equal to 1/4, we observe that several subjects show  an increasing deviation from this distribution. That is, they generate a disproportionate number of high and low scores. This phenomena is well known in ESP literature and is known as "psi missing. 11. It is common for a high scoring subject to follow a particularly high score such as 12 out of 24, with a particularly low score such as 2 out of 24. We take this increase in bi-modal performance as an indication of ESP although it is not an effect which we set out to cultivate. In the group showing improvement, one subject has shown an exceptional increase in ESP scores through more than 1600 trials. This subject has learned to clairvoyantly perceive the state of the machine to an extent providing a significant deviation from chance expectation. 

Learning clairvoyance and precognition with an extra sensory perception teaching machine by Russell Targ and David B Hurt (1971)

The overall question after the experiment, however, was why is it that only selected subjects learn to use their ESP while others didn't.  I suppose it remains one of those open questions.  Why is it some can access their psychical abilities yet others cannot?  Why do some people see ghosts and others don't? 

The overall conclusion from Targ and Hurt was:

We conclude from this work that it is possible to teach and enhance ESP phenomena through techniques of feedback and reward in much the same way as visceral and glandular functions are brought under volitional control.  Additional experiments will shortly be undertaken to find the relationship between accuracy of precognition and the temporal distance from the event,  Our overall goal is to achieve an understanding of the functional relationship of ESP to the various physical and psychological variables which control it.

Learning clairvoyance and precognition with an extra sensory perception teaching machine by Russell Targ and David B Hurt (1971)

In 1972, Targ along with Harold E Puthoff, would go on to found the Stanford Research Centre where they worked on the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency’s Stargate Project focused on remote viewing.  


Our psychic potentials by D Scott Rogo (1984)

E.S.P Extra Sensory Perception by Joseph Banks Rhine (1934)

Targ and Hart International Symposium on Information Theory (1972)

Learning clairvoyance and precognition with an extra sensory perception teaching machine by Russell Targ and David B Hurt (1971)

Cover Photo by cottonbro studio:

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