Despite beliefs to the contrary, there has been no scientific evidence for extrasensory perception (ESP). In other words, humans can’t actually read others’ minds, send messages across time and space (without using communication technology), nor predict the future. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have amazing capacity to subtly communicate with one another via nonverbal cues.

In fact, it is the ability to read subtle cues of body language in others that is used by con artists (and Las Vegas performers) to make people think that they have extrasensory powers. A great example is what is called “cold reading.” In cold reading, the fake psychic carefully reads nonverbal cues available in age, appearance, clothing, hairstyle, etc., to get some indication of the person’s background. A series of general statements or questions are then made (“I see someone who is experiencing a great deal of pain because of a sick family member” “Is there a person named John who has just made a major life transition?”) and the cold reader looks for subtle nonverbal reactions. By drilling down with additional questions and reading the body language reactions, the fake psychic can unearth a great deal of information that supposedly only the target person would know. Once you’ve seen one of these cold readers in action, you will recognize the pattern of statements and questions and requests for confirmation of information.

What these supposed psychics have is something that you and I also have and that is skill in decoding, or ‘reading,’ nonverbal cues. They have simply spent a lot of time improving their decoding skills.

Another phenomenon that seems unexplainable is what is known as “intuition.” This is the sense that one “knows” that something will happen, or that the individual can know another’s feelings without being told. We most commonly hear about “women’s intuition,” and there is a reason for that. Research shows that women, as compared to men, are better at decoding nonverbal cues of emotion—particularly subtle facial expressions of emotion.

Research has shown that people can improve their nonverbal decoding skills, but it is not easy to do and takes quite a bit of practice. So, the next time you see a psychic, mentalist, or fortune teller, realize that they have some extraordinary powers—but they are certainly not special, nor extrasensory. They simply have finally honed and tuned their nonverbal decoding skills.

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