Testing Children for Paranormal Abilities

By Athena A. Drewes, PsyD

Originally published in “Advances in Parapsychological Research. 8” 1997. McFarland & Co. (pp. 211-220)


Louisa Rhine (1968) wrote in Hidden Channels of the Mind that “the interesting general fact that emerges from studying children is that their experiences, though simpler, still are similar both in form and type to those of adults. It seems that ESP may be ‘there’ even in children” (p.150).

In general, researchers in parapsychology overlook children as a viable subject pool for their experiments. One can only speculate the reasons as to why so little research is conducted with children as compared to the volumes of work with college students and adults. In part, there may be reluctance by researchers to work with children because they may assume a child’s intellectual ability, attention span, and willingness is not compatible with their research design. Some researchers may have difficulty changing their adult expectations and manner of interacting when working with children. Others may not have a grasp of the various developmental levels and needs of children in order to design their research adequately enough to use children as subjects.

Finally, limited accessibility to children and legal issues may further complicate research design. Some researchers may not have access to classes of school-children or large groups of children needed for research. Further, in this day of legal and ethical issues around research and testing, researchers need to have consent forms so that parents are fully informed about the nature of the research. Legal restrictions by parents, review boards and attorneys further complicate working with children.

Parapsychological research with children can be challenging, yet enjoyable and productive, if approached with some basic understanding of children and their needs. Children often make excellent subjects. They have not yet accepted their cultural concepts of what is possible or impossible. They are not negatively conditioned about psychic phenomena, and especially when younger, have a less structured and limited concept of time, space, and force. While many researchers may be reluctant to work with children as subjects, a review of the literature shows that research can be conducted successfully if special test requirements are met. In fact, children are sometimes easier to work with as subjects in experiments that are adults (Bottrill, 1969).

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Establishing Rapport

Establishing rapport, making the tasks playful, interesting, and “colorful” and gearing the test to the child’s cognitive level are essential components for testing children. Maintaining rapport with a child subject is important. Some people find they are very comfortable with children, in talking with them or conducting research, which may come from their own experiences or a general interest in children. Other researchers may not feel so comfortable. They need to learn, or perhaps relearn, how best to relate to children.

Children who are cooperative or obedient will present few problems. The researcher needs to explain what is to be done and these children will readily agree to try whatever the experimenter requires of them. It will take more effort to engage the child who may be shy or has limited verbal abilities.

Both shy and outgoing children may enter new situations with caution and wariness. The experimenter must be attuned to their feelings and needs as individuals. The experimenter should try to put the child at ease. Casual conversation about favorite TV shows, pets, hobbies, or activities can help ease into a testing situation. Using some readily accessible toys like cars and blocks, or having the child draw pictures of favorite animals or scenes, can help ease discomfort. This technique can also maximize performance by allowing the child some initial control over the situation. Some children may find the testing stressful, regardless of your attempts. With these children, it is best to acknowledge their discomfort verbally and to terminate the testing session. Sometimes, this is enough for the child to want to resume the activity or have the motivation to try. However, there may be times when the child will accept your offer to stop. In this case, an opportunity to try again at a later date could be offered.

Sometimes planning two shorter testing sessions may be more productive than one longer one. But this may not always be possible, given traveling distances and scheduling problems. In this case, it would be helpful to plan a short break in the experimental design, taking into consideration the child’s age, attention span, and need for contact with the person who brought (if they are not already in the testing session with you). In facilitating and maintaining overall rapport, it is always necessary to keep a watchful eye on your subject for fatigue, boredom, distractions and discomfort (perhaps a bathroom break is needed). This attention to the child’s comfort level, in knowing when to take a short pause or to offer reassurance of their performance, goes a long way in building rapport.

It is important to be honest and direct when trying to elicit a child’s cooperation. Children are very perceptive and can readily pick up your uncomfortableness and hesitancy when not being truthful. Children come to the research situation with varying degrees of preparation. The experimenter should not assume that the child will experience exactly what the parent initially described to the child. A brief, accurate description of why you and the child are working together is important. The extent of the explanation will depend upon the child’s cognitive level of understanding. Consequently, for younger children you may not only need a brief explanation but also a demonstration of what you will be expecting.

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The Testing Environment

Children of all ages, even preschoolers, are likely to be aware of testing and adult expectations, regardless of how the experimenter describes the experiment. They are aware of their misses and failures, as well as any subtle cues from the experimenter. It is best to inform them honestly that they will not be able to succeed on every item, as no child is expected to nor will be able to get each one. The goal for the child is to see how well she or he is able to do for a given task.

Constant encouragement and praise while the child performs the experiment can alleviate anxiety about not doing well and helps to maintain his or her interest. Actively engaging the child in the experiment through tangible or edible rewards for correct guesses, or by including the child in a simple task such as helping the experimenter turn pages, increases the child’s motivation and lessens his or her “test” anxiety.

Instructions should be clear and specific to the immediate task. Some children will say they understand, when in fact, they may be embarrassed to indicate otherwise. The experimenter should be sensitive to any uneasiness a child may show and explore it to deal with any misunderstandings or needs (such as a trip to the bathroom). Setting the emotional tone of the experimental situation is very important; it should be comfortable and not distracting. Enlisting parental cooperation and enthusiasm, figuring out what to do with siblings if the experiment is done in the home, and making sure the environment is peaceful and relaxed in every way, are all advised. Because very young children have short attention spans, the length of the trial or session needs to be considered. Several short trials can be better than one long one.

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Guarding Against Fraud

While children may in many ways be ideal subjects, a note of caution is necessary. As with any subject pool, young people will sometimes engage in fraudulent test behavior. As far back as 184, during the Spiritualism era, the Fox children’s skills as psychic mediums came under question. The Fox daughter, Margaret, 12, and Kate, 9, summoned their parents night after night upon claiming to hear rapping and banging noises that prevented their sleeping. One time when their father, John Fox, shook the window sashes, there was suddenly the same pounding in another part of the room, as though in reply. One by one, the family members would ask questions (e.g. “How old is Kate?”) and there would be raps in reply, giving the correct numbers. After a short while, the sisters created an alphabet code that supposedly made them able to obtain detailed answers to their and others’ questions. The family was of the belief that the raps came from the spirit of Charles Rosna, who had been murdered in their house many years before.

News of the rapping in Hydesville (near Rochester, New York) took the town and nation by storm. The Fox sisters became famous, and soon many others who allegedly could communicate with spirits through rappings, spirit-guided writing, and mediumship appeared. Seances became popular and many were held. “Trance speakers” gave public lectures while supposedly communicating with spirits. The Spiritualism movement was born and significantly impacted the culture of America. However, the Spiritualist movement declined as quickly as it began, as fraudulent mediums were exposed. Forty years after the Fox sisters helped to start a cultural phenomenon, in 1888, Kate and Margaret Fox confessed that they were actually frauds and that they had produced the raps by cracking their toes. Margaret retracted her confession the next year, but Kate died an alcoholic in 1892 (Burrill, 1994).

Since that time, there have been numerous cases of children committing fraud in the field of psychic research (B. Nicol, 1960; F. Nicol, 1979). In more recent years, there has been skepticism about the abilities of “mini-Gellers”, children who supposedly manifest abilities to bend metal objects in imitation of Uri Geller, an Israeli performer alleged to possess psychokinetic abilities. Delanoy (1987) has reported on a fraudulent case of PK metal-bending with a 17-year-old “mini-Geller” in Britain.

The difficulties of designing, setting up, and maintaining adequate controls during experiments, especially those experiments dealing with PK, contribute to the possibilities of both intentional and unintentional deception. Added pressure to succeed can occur because children seek adult approval and may enjoy the attention they receive for their performance. What might have originated as an authentic psychic phenomena may become forced and fraudulent with repeated, on-demand performances. Since psychic abilities often vary, depending upon who the experimenter is, as well as the mood, physical state, and motivation of the subject, it seems very likely that some children subjects may try to enhance their scores artificially, so as not to disappoint others or lose the attention they have begun to enjoy. Therefore, researchers should consider the possibility of fraud when designing studies with children, so that adequate controls and safeguards are imposed (Krippner, 1990).

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Cognitive and Developmental Considerations

The child’s level of cognitive thinking, as well as his or her developmental stage, needs to be considered when devising ESP experiments. Piaget proposed that there are four stages of cognitive development: 1) the sensorimotor stage, birth to 2 years of age; 2) the pre-operational stage, 2 to 6 years of age; 3) the stage of concrete operations, 6 to 12 years of age; and 4) the stage of formal operations, which continues from adolescence into adulthood (Phillips, 1969).

In the sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years) language and symbolic function are absent. The child progresses in a logical order from reflexes through habits, into imitation, and then being able to wait before immediately imitating another’s actions. They are attracted more readily by movements than stationary objects. During this stage, the child forms object permanence and object constancy. That is, they are able to hold mental representations of people, themselves and others – a kind of memory system, going from “out of sight, out of mind” – to seeking out the missing item.

Some writers believe that the symbiotic mother-child relationship is of critical importance (e.g., Ehrenwald, 1971). Children are particularly responsive to the unconscious feelings of others (especially their mother’s). Tauber and Green (1959) raised the question of whether the use of prelogical faculties for ESP is a regression to an infantile state. Ehrenwald (1971) theorized that “telepathy is the embryological matrix of communication which is later destined to be suppressed by speech. It may be a vitally important means of communication serving the integration and smooth functioning of the mother-child unit and thereby its very survival as a viable entity” (p. 462).

Because of the natural dependency stage of the child, a symbiotic relationship from before birth through 2 years of age supposedly develops between child and mother (Fraiberg, 1959). This intense closeness sets the stage for the occurrence of psychic phenomena between child and parent. Some mothers report that, around this age, telepathic events occur in relation to their saving their child from some disaster or event that is about to happen (Ehrenwald, 1971; Schwarz, 1961).

Ehrenwald (1972) further postulated that psi phenomena become repressed as children become older and are substituted by “normal” perceptual and motoric processes. Telepathy and clairvoyance would be extensions of normal perceptual processes; precognition would be the reverse of retrospective memory, and PK would be an extension of motoric abilities. These psi phenomena show characteristics of Freud’s so called primary process functioning, of symbolic representation, of prelogic (Brill, 1938), or of Piaget’s pre-operational thinking. Spinelli (1987), in his provocative research with children, suggested that those who are in the early stages of conscious self-development will manifest greater telepathy and clairvoyance. Once a stable, conscious self-identity has been formed, telepathy and clairvoyance will be greatly reduced.

Several ESP studies have taken into consideration the early mother-child relationship and infants’ reactions to faces (particularly the mother’s). Fisk (1951-1952) obtained significant clairvoyant results with a 14-month old girl, and Bierman (1985) worked with 10-month-old infants using computer-generated video displays of a laughing face display and melody when they obtained a PK hit. Braud (1981) tested infants (aged 6 weeks to 12 months) for time-displaced PK, using the playback of their mothers’ voice as feedback. Results of these tests were varied and inconclusive.

During Piaget’s second, pre-operational stage (2-6 years), the child deals with the world in a more realistic way. Curiosity and excitement are dominant at these ages. Although vocabulary development is rapidly growing, during this stage, a child still has limited verbal skills. Thinking will tend to be accessible more through non-verbal than verbal means. Thinking will be intuitive, imaginative, determined by “magical thinking”, and unrestrained by adult logical rules. They begin to have symbolic representation and engage in fantasy activities. For children this age, the world is an alluring place to explore. They want to touch, smell, hear, test things out, and learn best through action. They may prefer not to sit, and will tend to be noisy, having a great deal to say. Their point of reference will be very personal and egocentric, as they want to initiate actions by themselves. Frustration can build, necessitating extra time, patience, and praise from the researcher.

Stevenson (1983) found Indian children who began speaking about past life memories at 38 months, had those memories fading around 79 months. Children’s near-death experiences are report as similar both in content and sequence to those of adults (Bush, 1983). In research with preschool and school aged children (ages 4 to 7 years), Drucker, Drewes, and Rubin (1977) found using colorful M&M candies as targets a useful technique for this age group.

Children in the third, concrete operational stage (6 to 12) think more concretely and less intuitively than during the previous stage. They become more rational and more concerned with categories of objects. They are still tied to the “here and now”, unable to transcend the concrete and consider different possibilities. Although they can begin to plan ahead, often they will quickly tackle a problem; their approach will be practical, based on empirical evidence. School-age children have been tested extensively by Anderson (1960), Anderson and White (1956, 1957, 1958), Freeman (1963, 1970), and Van Busschbach (1955, 2956, 1959), among others. They have statistically significant psi scores across all ages and types of tests. Shargal (1987) found that first graders scored better than 4th grade children on clairvoyance tasks. Winkelman (1981) tested Mexican children (ages 8 to 14) on clairvoyance, PK, and precognitive tasks. He found clairvoyance and precognition scores correlated negatively with math ability, years of schooling, and age. PK scores correlated positively with age. However, Giesler (1985) failed to replicate this study using children in Brazil.

The type of target useful and appropriate to this age group can help motivate children to the ESP task. Kanthamani, Khilji, and Perlstrom (1986) used specifically designed target decks with cartoon characters. Rewards of stickers aided in their motivational experiment with children ages 5 to 10. Krippner (1965) used sets of cards with five photographs each of dogs, cats, fish, and ships as clairvoyance test targets, along with another set of the words “dogs,” “cats,” “fish,” and “ships”. Winkelman (1981) used small monetary awards and candy incentives in psi tests with 8 to 14-year-olds. Targets for use in clairvoyance, PK and precognition tests were red, green, and yellow candies, as well as colored marbles. Anderson (1960) had 8-to-12-year-olds launch a mythical missile. Tornatore (1984) utilized a fantasy scenario using E.T. the extraterrestrial from the popular movie, to aid in attempted telepathic communication among second graders.

The fourth stage, formal operations, begins in early puberty (around 12 years) and continues into adulthood. Piaget reports that the adolescent’s thinking makes a significant shift form a concrete to an abstract level. “Here and now” concerns give way to a speculative stance, examining the whole situation and considering what the possibilities, connections, and alternatives are. Adolescents are capable of problem solving through a deduction, and can correctly attribute causation. There is genuine cooperation and a fascination with rules. There is an intricate interplay of memory, imagination, processing information, drawing inferences, and flexibly making choices. Consequently, the types of ESP testing for this stage become more elaborate. Studies become more involved, with attempts to correlate ESP and personality variables, attitudes, and/or beliefs (Blackmore & Troscianko; 1985; Haight, 1979; Krishna & Rao, 1981). With this age group, researchers have examined conditions of competition and cooperation, with same- and opposite-sex pairs (Rao & Kanthamani, 1981), as well as attempts to use psychokinetic abilities on fluids and metals (Egely, 1986; Hasted, 1977).

Novomysky (1984) reviewed a series of color telepathy experiments in the former Soviet Union. The studies indicated that adolescents (ages 14-15) have a better capacity for demo-optic perception than adults and that this ability decreases with age. Roll (1972, 1978) has reported extensively on Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) occurring predominantly with adolescents. He believes that repressed or unconscious hostilities are often directed outward through RSPK events.

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Personality Factors

Although in Western culture purported ESP phenomena appear to diminish greatly at the age that children enter school, the classroom ESP studies show that various factors (such as time of the school year, gender of the teacher and student, rapport between teacher and student, age of the student in relation to type of test) can heighten the response (e.g. statistically significant results in telepathy, precognition, and clairvoyance tests) (Drewes & Drucker, 1991). However, in all test situations with children, as with those involving adults, personality differences between children affect scoring. “Believers” in ESP score higher than “nonbelievers” (Musso, 1965) and withdrawn children score lower than non-withdrawn children (Shields, 1962; Shields & Mulders, 1975).

Poltergeist phenomena allegedly seems to center around a child at puberty or adolescence, or a young adult with adolescent conflicts (Roll, 1972, 1978). The presence of the phenomena often indicates major problems within the individual or within a dysfunctional family situation (Roll, 1978). In addition, Kanthamani and Rao (1972) found that high schoolers who were assertive, extroverted, expansive, and low on neuroticism scored significantly higher on ESP tasks than those high schoolers scoring at the other end of the spectrum on the above factors.

The experience of tension and anxiety can lower ESP scores for children, as well as adults. Children of school age have already become “test conscious” and often regard the ESP task as a test in which their performance may be judged. Intelligence level has been show to have varying results in relation to ESP. Shields (1976) tests for clairvoyance and telepathy using severely mentally retarded children. Results were significant for telepathy, with neither telepathy nor clairvoyance scores correlating with age or IQ.

However, Drucker & Drewes and Rubin (1977) found children with a higher score on a verbal measure of intelligence seemed to accomplish learning better with immediate feedback during an ESP task than those children with lower IQ scores. Even children’s belief in ESP (Munson, 1981) and their relationship with agents or experimenters can significantly impact children’s ESP scores, as it does for adults (Anderson & White, 1956, 1957; Deguisne, 1959; Rhine, 1948).

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Future Research

Research conducted so far with children has sought to explore whether ESP and PK have a developmental component, the types of psi phenomena that may be unique to children, whether psi phenomena diminishes with age, the relationship between psi and IQ, and also the earliest age that psi can be tested and demonstrated.

The research with children certainly seems to confirm Louisa Rhine’s (1968) statement regarding a continuum of psi phenomena from childhood to adulthood. Children’s ESP experiences are similar in type and form to those of adults if one considers developmental factors. But unlike adult studies, children have been under-utilized as subjects with the exception of studies of past life memories and RSPK phenomena. However, research with children has been unsystematic in exploring and replicating studies dealing with the issue of development. It has lack longitudinal studies and cluster studies, such as are conducted with adult Ganzfeld and remote viewing experiments, to help investigate the issue of development and psi. Meta-analyses of the school-age studies is another area where further work could be done.

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Parents often would like to know how to react to a child’s reports of presumptive psi. The most positive thing that a parent can do is to give relaxed encouragement, treating the child as neither a freak nor a super-psychic (Jones, 1989). Keeping a journal of spontaneous psi phenomena may reveal trends (Schwarz, 1971, 1972). Proponents of psi would encourage the child to talk about his or her dreams, play ESP guessing games now and then, and would give older children books about parapsychology.

Parent who are skeptical about psi would listen patiently to children’s reports of their experiences, and would offer explanations within the boundaries of the dominant Western paradigm. They, too, might keep journals so that, at a later date, they could point out to children the number of dreams that did not come true, and the role that chance and coincidence can play in formulating belief systems. Both types of parents – advocates and skeptics – would do well to encourage children to discuss their unusual experiences, to listen patiently, and rather than dismissively retorting “That was only a dream,” present an explanation, or perhaps alternate explanations that would satisfy the child’s curiosity and facilitate his or her critical thinking capacities and cognitive development.

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Anderson, M.L. & White R.A. (1958). A survey of work on ESP and teacher-pupil attitudes. Journal of Parapsychology, 22, 246-268.

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