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Perception without Awareness

Many ESP-like experiences could be due to perception without awareness. Perception without awareness occurs under the following conditions:

A stimulus is present in the environ­ment, strong enough that a person could perceive it if attention was drawn to it.

The person does not pay attention to the stimulus and does not remember it later. However, the stimulus affects the person's behavior or thought process.

What is perception without awareness?

Suppose you are singing a popular song. You go out of the room for a minute, and then you come back in and start singing it again.

Your friend says, "Hey, I was just thinking of that song!" No doubt your friend heard you singing it a few moments earlier.

But your friend might not remember this. It seems like an amazing coincidence or ESP: "We were both thinking of the same song."

Unlike subliminal perception (discussed next) perception without awareness involves a stimulus that is possible to perceive. Perhaps the perception takes place outside of attention, so it remains unnoticed. Such unnoticed stimuli can affect behavior.

What is the difference between subliminal perception and perception without awareness?

A student reported an experience that was probably caused by perception without awareness:

One rainy cold day I was speeding along the interstate on my way to Dublin, Georgia. I wasn't thinking of anything in particular. I was just listening to the radio.

All of a sudden I started thinking, "Isn't it funny how I've never been stopped by the state patrol." Most of my friends have been stopped at least once or twice.

Then I could have bit my tongue off because who pulled out right behind me but the State Patrol. Of course, they turned on the lights and siren later because it took me a few minutes to realize what had happened. When I did, I couldn't believe it, because I was just thinking about how I had never been stopped before.

I finally pulled over and the patrolman was really nice. He gave me a warning ticket and said to "watch out." I'm not sure if this is ESP or what but I hope it doesn't happen again because I might not be so lucky. [Author's files]

How might a student's intuition about a police car be explained?

The student may have seen the police car in her rear-view mirror but did not realize she saw it. Or perhaps she noticed a change in the behavior of other drivers. Everybody slows down when the police are around.

The student may have noticed the other cars slowing down, and that led her to think about the police, right before they stopped her. To her, the coincidence seemed uncanny, like ESP, because she had no memory of noticing such a cue.

Anniversary Phenomena

An anniversary phenomenon is a form of perception without aware­ness. In this case, time of year is an unconsciously perceived cue.

Therapy clients sometimes get de­pressed about the same time every year, perhaps because of a connection between the date and some traumatic event. Conse­quently, therapists may experience ESP-like anniversary phenomena.

What is an anniversary phenomenon? Why did Seitz start to wonder if he had ESP? What was the explanation he discovered?

Psychoanalyst Philip Seitz thought he might possess extrasensory perception. Every few months he'd feel a sudden peculiar concern for one of his ex-patients. Within a day or so he'd almost always get a call from them, asking for help...

He recorded 47 ESP-like premon­itions over a 16-year period, involv­ing 21 different patients. Two-thirds proved justified–a rate clearly greater than chance. (Gregg, 1976)

When Seitz analyzed his notes, he found that the patients usually got depressed around the same time of the year. For example, one patient "had been regularly depressed each Labor Day." Another always called for help on December 26th.

Before noticing these patterns in his appointment books, the ESP explanation seemed likely. After seeing the patterns, Seitz realized his premonitions were based on correlations between time of year and contacts with particular clients.

This sort of phenomenon might also account for another commonly reported type of coincidence. A person thinks of a friend, then (shortly afterward) hears from that friend. This could be based on the time of year that two friends previously made contact.


Gregg, G. (1976, October). Familiarity breeds cognition, not precognition. Psychology Today, p.43

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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