The Nature of Psi: The First Sight Model and Theory of Psi

A number of readers have asked how psi or ESP works. Some people have asked whether there is a working model or theory of psi that is used in experimental testing. This article is the first of a series of articles discussing a few of the different theories of psi that are currently being discussed by scientists.

The Nature of Psi

One of the great benefits of being associated with the Rhine Research Center is that I have had the opportunity to spend the last few years visiting with and speaking to Dr. Sally Rhine Feather, the daughter of J.B. and Louisa Rhine. Sally grew up with parapsychology, and for the occasion of her 85th birthday, her experiences were recently recorded in the short film, Muggins: The Memoirs of Sally Rhine Feather. Sally has a wonderful sense of humor and a unique storytelling ability, and her insider perspective on the beginning of the science of parapsychology includes tales of meeting celebrities, discussing theories with scientists, and even stories about playing ESP games at her birthday parties when she was a child. Sally is a wonderful conversationalist, and her charm consists of equal amounts of compassion, hospitality, intelligence, and a lifetime of experience representing her beliefs in the face of tremendous opposition.

In one of the research team meetings at the Rhine where we were discussing the testing of a specific psi phenomenon, Sally related a conversation that she had with her father where J.B. Rhine told her, “First you have to catch the rabbit.” With this statement, J.B. Rhine was representing the opinions of many parapsychologists at the time who saw psi as an elusive and rare phenomenon that must be captured before it can be studied. One of the goals of parapsychology is to understand the meaning and mechanisms behind psi, but before the mechanisms can be studied, psi must be captured as a repeatable event in the laboratory where it can be studied in a controlled situation and repeatedly probed to better understand the mechanisms.

For decades psi was considered rare and elusive, and observing psi was similar to capturing lightning in a bottle. There was no complete explanation for the elusive nature of psi or the rarity of ESP, and the lack of an explanation or theory of psi has often been a criticism of parapsychology.

A Theoretic Model

First Sight BookIn 2004, Dr. Jim Carpenter (2004, 2008, 2009, 2012) changed the historical approach to psi and parapsychology research when he presented the First Sight Model and Theory of Psi. Dr. Carpenter is a both a clinical psychologist and a research parapsychologist. He is a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, he served two terms on the board of directors of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology, and he is the current president of the Parapsychological Association. Dr. Carpenter’s First Sight Model is a complete and comprehensive psychological model that includes the experimental evidence that has been gathered related to psi phenomena and the experiences of individuals who express psi.

From Dr. Carpenter’s website (

First Sight departs in several important ways from the assumptions about psi that have been implicitly dominant in our understanding for a long time. Some of the changed assumptions include:
• Psi is not unusual or non-normal; it is a characteristic of all living organisms.
• Psi is not rare; it is continuously ongoing for each organism.
• Psi is not capricious or non-replicable; it is lawful in its functioning and quite accessible to our efforts to understand it better given appropriate methods.
• Psi is not an ability; it is a perpetually active aspect of our engagement with reality.

In very simple terms, the essence of the First Sight model is that everyone uses psi all of the time. Just as every person perceives much more of the world than is consciously processed and recognized, the First Sight Model proposes that information is also received unconsciously via psi, and this psi information is integrated into the cognitive process which guides our thoughts and our actions. This model examines the evolutionary benefits of psi even if it is an unconscious process. If unconscious psi provided a momentary indication of a coming danger (like an animal about to pounce in the forest), a person who responds to a psi message would likely respond more quickly and have an advantage that would increase the chances of survival and hence provide for natural selection of psi perceptions.

The First Sight Model provides more than just a theoretical background for psi.  A large component of the theory is an exploration into the ways that psi may be expressed. Dr. Carpenter predicts when psi is likely to surface to consciousness and situations that may suppress the conscious recognition of psi stimuli.  Like many psychological models, the theory is a foundation based on experimental results, and First Sight presents an explanation for human behavior which helps researchers to understand why psi appears to be rare and elusive when it is truly a part of our every thought.


The implications of the First Sight Model are significant in our understanding of psi and in our approach to the experimental methods used to examine psi events. If psi is present in everyone, it is not necessary to examine only exceptional individuals or to “capture lightning in a bottle”. According to this model, the approach to experimental parapsychology involves finding the correct factors to elicit psi from research participants. What environmental factors are necessary to demonstrate psi? What psychological characteristics are present in those who recognize psi and express it in laboratory studies? How do we measure the unconscious effects of psi as we measure other unconscious psychological effects?

Researchers such as Daryl Bem (2011), Dick Bierman (1997, 2002), and Dean Radin (1997, 2004) have each done research on presentiment which is a phenomenon similar to precognition, but presentiment involves physiological responses that may not register consciously. For example, do brain waves change in response to future events or will your pupil respond to a bright light before the light has been flashed? These researchers and others (for example, Mossbridge, Tressoldi, & Utts, 2012; Spottiswoode & May, 2003) have demonstrated the unconscious nature of psi by examining the physiological reactions in study participants.

This is just one approach to studying the hypotheses that arise from the First Sight Model. Other approaches include studies that examine specific psychological concepts such as sublimation, aversion, and priming in order to determine if these subconscious processes are affected by psi.

Previous research done in parapsychology supports the First Sight Model of Psi, and there are no studies that obviously present evidence that invalidates this psychological model. There are many opportunities to test this model, and as further studies are completed, it will be possible to better evaluate the value and validity of the First Sight Model of Psi.

This is just a brief summary and overview of the First Sight Model of Psi. More information about the model can be found at Dr. Carpenter’s website ( and the website for the book First Sight Model and Theory of Psi (  You can also purchase a copy of the book online or at your favorite retailer.

Next week we will examine a different theory about the nature of psi.

UPDATE: This article was updated on May 7, 2015 in order to better reflect the predictive aspect of the First Sight theory and to provide a link to an online bookseller.


Bem, D. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Retrieved from URL:

Bierman, D. J., & Radin, D. I. (1997). Anomalous anticipatory response on randomized future conditions. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84, 689-690.

Bierman D & Scholte H. (2002). A fMRI Brain Imaging study of presentiment. Journal of ISLIS,
20, 380-389.

Carpenter, J.C. (2004). First Sight: Part one, A model of psi and the mind. Journal of Parapsychology, 68, 217-254.

Carpenter, J.C. (2005). First Sight: Part two, Elaborations of a model of psi and the mind. Journal of Parapsychology, 69, 63-112.

Carpenter, J.C. (2008). Relations between ESP and memory in terms of the First Sight model of psi. Journal of Parapsychology, 72, 47-76.

Carpenter, J.C. (2012). First sight: ESP and parapsychology in everyday life. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Mossbridge, J.A., Tressoldi, P., and Utts, J. (2012). Predictive anticipatory activity preceding
seemingly unpredictable stimuli: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 390.

Radin, D. (2004). Electrodermal presentiments of future emotions. Journal of Scientific
Exploration, 18, 253-273.

Spottiswoode, S. & May, E. (2003). Skin conductance prestimulus response: Analyses, artifacts
and a pilot study. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 17, 617-641.


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