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Synaesthesia and ESP

The current issue of The Skeptic has an article on synaesthesia by Marc Tibber, a postdoc research fellow in the field of human perception. As he explains, synaesthesia has always been experienced by a few exceptional people but scientists' attitudes to it have varied widely. There was interest in it at the end of the nineteenth century but for much of the twentieth century it was largely ignored. Today it is once more attracting attention from neurologists.

Tibber finds that there is an analogy here with ESP. Like synaesthesia, ESP has always been accepted as real by many non-scientists but to study it scientifically is barely respectable. But if ESP were shown conclusively to exist its importance would be immense.

There are obvious differences in plausibility between ESP and synaesthesia. In essence, to explain synaesthesia all we need to postulate is the existence of unusual connections within the brain. There is no easy way to explain how transmission of mental phenomena could occur outside the normal sensory pathways. So the difficulty of accepting ESP as real is greater than that of accepting synaesthesia by at least an order of magnitude.

But I agree with Tibber when he says: "Healthy scepticism merely questions that which cannot be demonstrated within the context of existing knowledge." However, the key word is "questions", as opposed to "denies" or "rejects."


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