Clairvoyance is a form of psychic ability. From the French for ‘clear-seeing,’ it refers to the faculty of supranormal sight, the ability to perceive objects or people that cannot be discerned through the normal senses. It overlaps with other psychic abilities such as clairaudience, clairsentience, telepathy, psychometry, metagnomy, precognition and remote viewing.
Clairvoyance normally requires some form of communication with the spirits or other nonphysical essences who give, or pretend to give, the desired knowledge. The ability has been acknowledged and used in all cultures throughout history – by prophets, fortune-tellers, shamans, wizards, witches and seers of all kinds. Western science began to investigate the phenomena in the 19th century, when subjects treated by mesmerism displayed clairvoyance and other psychic abilities. Since then a substantial body of evidence has been accumulated to support the existence of clairvoyance. As well as appearing to be a general ability among humans, it also appears to exist in animals.
There have been anecdotal reports of clairvoyance and claims of clairvoyant abilities on the part of some throughout history in most cultures. Often these have been associated with religious figures, offices, and practices. For example, ancient Hindu religious texts list clairvoyance as one of the siddhis, skills that can be acquired through appropriate meditation and personal discipline. The ancient Greeks believed that daimons, intermediate beings between human beings and the gods, whispered advice in the ears of men. The Bible contains many episodes where God sends messengers to prophets and kings. Throughout history certain famous men and women, Joan of Arc, for example, saw visions and heard voices of angels. But a large number of anecdotal accounts of clairvoyance are of the spontaneous variety among the general populace. For example, many people report instances of ‘knowing’ in one form or another when a loved one has died or was in danger before receiving notification through normal channels that such events have taken place. While anecdotal accounts do not provide scientific proof of clairvoyance, such common experiences continue to motivate research into such phenomena.
Clairvoyance was one of the phenomena reported to have been observed in the behavior of somnambulists, people who were mesmerized and in a trance state (nowadays equated with hypnosis by most people) in the time of Franz Anton Mesmer. The earliest recorded report of somnambulistic clairvoyance is credited to the Marquis de Puysegur, a follower of Mesmer, who in 1784 was treating a local dull-witted peasant named Victor Race. During treatment, Victor reportedly would go into trance and undergo a personality change, becoming fluent and articulate, and giving diagnosis and prescription for his own disease as well as those of other patients, and forgetting everything when he came out of the trance state. All this is in a manner reminiscent of the reported behaviors of the 20th century psychic Edgar Cayce. It is reported that although Puysegur used the term ‘clairvoyance’, he did not attribute any of this to the paranormal since he accepted mesmerism as one of the natural sciences.
Clairvoyance was in times following a reported ability of some mediums during the spiritualist period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was one of the aspects studied by members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Psychics of many descriptions have claimed clairvoyant ability up to the present day.
While experimental research into clairvoyance began with SPR researchers, experimental studies became more systematic with the efforts of J. B. Rhine and his associates at Duke University, and such research efforts continue to the present day. Perhaps the most well-known studies of clairvoyance in recent times was the US government funded remote viewing project at SRI/SAIC during the 1970’s through the mid-1990’s.
Results of some parapsychological studies, such as the remote viewing studies, suggest that clairvoyance does exist (though that interpretation is disputed strongly by critics), and that it does not in general require another person to send the information being received, i.e. it can to some extent be distinguished from telepathy. However there are as yet no satisfactory experiments designed that cleanly separate the various manifestations of ESP. Some parapsychologists have proposed that our different functional labels (clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition) all refer to one basic underlying mechanism, although there is not yet any satisfactory theory for what that mechanism would be.