The Role of Intuition (ESP?) in Psychotherapy


While working on an article about virtual psychotherapy for The Atlantic, I began to think about the role of intuition in the work we therapists do: how it functions and what enables us to understand the way a client is feeling without being told. In part, we’re responding to visual cues. Even when clients are silent, we may “pick up” on their feeling states by reading their facial expressions and body language, often without knowing that we’re doing it. When I first began working by Skype, I was relieved to find that my intuition continued to function via video camera and screen.

Another word for intuition in this case would be empathy. When I work by Skype, I’m able to empathize with clients who may be thousands of miles away, thanks to a high definition picture that allows me to absorb the non-verbal cues contained in their posture and facial expressions. But might there something else involved? Is it possible – bear with me! – that a kind of extra-sensory perception is at work?

Back in Los Angeles when I used to practice in person, many of my clients would lie down on the couch for their sessions. From time to time, I would have intuitive experiences I couldn’t explain, at least not in any rigorous scientific way. More than once, a client came into my office, settled onto the couch, and fell silent; within seconds, a feeling of profound sadness began to come over me. When I asked my client what he or she was feeling, the answer was “Really sad” or “Like crying.” With other silent clients, I sometimes felt anxious or numb, even angry. More often than not, when I checked in with my client, I’d find that we were feeling the same way.

Given that I had no facial expressions to interpret, how did I pick up on these emotions? At the risk of sounding a little woo-woo, I’ve long accepted that some kind of ESP was at work, that humans possess a capacity (call it a sixth sense) to read thoughts and feelings in other people without relying solely on our ears or eyes. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder if this sixth sense might even function across long distances – say, with a client who lives in a different country.

Within the last few weeks, I’ve heard myself more than once talking about a feeling state that, on the surface, had nothing to do with what my client had been saying immediately beforehand. Though surprised, my clients felt understood by my comments and validated them. Was I “resonating” with subtle, unconscious aspects of my client’s communication? Probably … but how did that occur? I can’t explain it. I’m certain that most good therapists who enjoy their work have similar experiences. We just don’t talk about them because we might sound, well, unprofessional.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to most accounts of supernatural phenomena, but I’ve had too many of these ESP experiences to doubt their reality. I’ve heard convincing tales from other people, as well. My good friend Michael, a horse trainer whose truthfulness I do not doubt, tells two stories about his experience with an “animal psychic” he never actually met. Another trainer gave Michael a phone number to call when he couldn’t resolve a physical problem with one of his horses. In desperation, when Michael finally overcame his skepticism and called, the psychic explained in testy detail how he was to be paid – by cash sent via snail mail – and then proceeded to tell my friend what to do … without asking for any information, not even the type of animal in question.

“You have a horse,” the psychic said, “and the problem is in his feed.”

It turns out that the barn where Michael boarded his horse had recently changed feed and the horse was allergic to something in the hay. After he switched feeds, the problem disappeared. How did the psychic know that the problem was food-related?

Another story involved a horse that could jump the moon in training but always failed miserably in the show ring. Michael again called the same psychic, explained nothing about the problem, and was told that the horse didn’t like his name! The owner’s son, a fan of The Simpsons, had chosen “Cowabunga,” and of course this name was piped over the loudspeakers whenever the horse entered the ring. They changed the horse’s name and he began winning.

I’m sure there are readers out there rolling their eyes with skepticism, and I don’t blame you. These are second-hand accounts and there is no way to prove or disprove them. But you hang around long enough on this planet and you can’t help believing that some of them must be true.

I have nothing profound to add here. I can’t explain how and why such ESP functions, but there have been many scientific mysteries throughout history that were finally explained once technology took another leap forward. We have no way to measure telepathy or “thought transmission,” but I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be able to do so.

Feel free to share your own accounts of inexplicable communications!

Sunsprite Update:

I completed my week’s trial with the Sunsprite and was dismayed to find out how hard it is to get enough sunlight every day. Weekends posed no problem because I was often out of doors, despite the cold weather, but I only reached my quota twice during the work week. I think I may have to spring for one of those light-boxes.

As for the Sunsprite itself, it’s a fun little gadget but I’m not sure it’s worth $99 to find out whether you’re getting enough sunlight. After a week, I had a pretty clear idea how much time I needed to spend out-of-doors, so why continue using it? I think that the half-an-hour rule of thumb pretty much covers it and doesn’t cost a dime.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. There are many unexplainable and unanswerable things that happen in the temporal existence, with supernatural origins. One cannot ignore the evidential realities of same.

    The important thing in your case is that the client is benefitted and as you know, empathy is a very desirable reality when dealing with anyone inside and out of therapy.

    I cannot say that I or many others could empathize/understand criminals who rob, rape, murder or traffic in humans but I would say that one emotion is the quintessential element of being successful as a therapist, friend, husband, wife, and in many other applications in life.

  2. This may be a silly question – I am a novice, but how do transference and counter transference fit in to this kind of experience – if they do?

    1. I think this kind of attunement is an aspect of counter-transference, at least as we use it in the broad sense of the word. In Freudian terms, counter-transference means treating your therapist as if he or she were a significant person from your life, but modern usage of the terms means that everything a therapist feels during session is potentially useful information about the client.

  3. Absolutely no reason to doubt that ESP funcions, be it next door or on the other side of the world. Louisa E. Rhine wrote that people may doubt the reality of ESP, but we who have experienced it, “we know”.

    You keep surprising me positively, Burgo!

  4. This article is very timely for me. My therapist is moving to the east coast next week and we are discussing whether to continue our therapy by Vsee. I worry most about whether she would be as attuned to me as she seems in our face to face. Am I going to lose an integral and important part of our connection which allows me to open up to her in ways I cannot yet do with my support system. She is not sure distance therapy is best for me and after initially indicating that we would need to wrap up our therapy relationship, she is now at least listening to my requests that we continue our therapy together even if just by Skype/Vsee. Its more complicated than that but not relevant to my comment. Perhaps my concern over losing our connection because she isn’t in the same room with me is more about my insecure attachment than a real concern since you seem to be able to experience that unspoken attunement even via cyberspace. Thanks for the perspective. When does your article regarding virtual psychotherapy come out?

    1. I bet that once you spend a few sessions via Skype, you and your therapist will feel nearly as attuned as before. My article for The Atlantic should come out late this week or early next week.

  5. I read about chemo signals a few years ago and how the body secretes a different odor for different emotions. Who knew? As for the ESP thing, I had a dream that my mother died one night and 4 hours later at about 7:30 in the morning she suffered a massive stroke. Kind of creepy!

    1. I have heard many stories like yours, about intuiting someone’s death hours before receiving the news. And that’s fascinating about the chemo signals — maybe that’s what I pick up on with my silent clients.

  6. I’m guessing that your intuition is good because you are tuned in to your own emotions and you have probably learned to trust your instincts over the years – what I mean is that intuition is probably a skill that you learnt as much as something innate. Do you think? In my own case as I began to tune into myself and how I was really feeling and became aware of what my body was telling me I became better at trusting my intuition.

    I have followed my intuition at times not understanding why but have later understood – like I went through a period where I drew lots of images of spiders. (I’m not particularly afraid of spiders or interested in them in a conscious way). Anyway years after this when I had lost interest in drawing spiders I read that spiders represent the mother – then I understood my need, I was obsessed with Joseph Conrad’s book ‘Heart of Darkness’ – I think I was trying to understand my own ‘darkness’. There have been many other instances where I had an instinct to go somewhere, read something or do something and usually there is a reason although sometimes I can’t see the reason at the time – guess it’s the unconscious at work.

    1. I do think you can hone this skill over time as you come to trust your intuition but I also think some people are just more empathically attuned than others. The best part of growing as a therapist, especially when you get past the anxiety of being a beginner, is coming to trust yourself.

  7. I experience this a great deal during sessions with my therapist (I would say every time I meet with him he does this but some sessions are more ‘in-tune’ than others). He is incredibly empathic and I can see now (after nearly two years of weekly sessions) that there have been many occasions where he has had to bite his tongue and let me develop my own understanding of how I feel before he says that he feels the same (because I had learned to shut myself off from my emotions and therefore one of the things I have worked on in therapy is finding and naming my feelings).

    There have been so many times when he has explained how he feels and it has helped me realise that it’s how I feel. e.g. I told him of a time when I was sexually assaulted as a young teenager (I had never told anyone before and it was really very difficult to talk about it – took almost the full hour to get it out) and through the narrative he said he felt angry with my mum for not being there for me when she was technically in the same building and had put me in the situation. I hadn’t ‘found’ my anger for my mum at that point but he was so right – I was so unbearably angry with her that all I could do was hate myself. He also said he felt alone (again, I hadn’t realised this was one of my issues – being frightened when I feel alone). At the end of telling him the whole story he said, ‘wow – I feel so liberated… feels good to get that out doesn’t it!’ and it did! I could have cried and laughed all at once – what a relief to finally get the story out after nearly 20 years of holding it in.

    Often I will feel okay or fine or not have any real problems I want to discuss prior to a session then I set foot in his room and BANG the feelings and emotions hit me and I get overwhelmed inside. I don’t really show my emotions externally (learned to protect myself by not giving much away) but he will say something like, ‘feeling a bit low today?’ and I’ll think, ‘well, yeah I do now..!?’ and we will explore that together. I think the intuition can work both ways within a strong therapeutic relationship. I can feel his empathy even when he says nothing. I feel held and loved and accepted in his presence. Sometimes the energy of the room is light or humorous when we are having a laugh about something but when I need to feel understood and looked after that is how he makes me feel – often without saying a word.

    I don’t know how you guys do it but I don’t think it can be learned – it is an innate skill or gift or whatever you want to call it. It is wonderful to be in his presence because of this but I can imagine it must be exhausting to constantly feel how other people are feeling… I wonder – can you ‘switch it off’? Have you been like that your whole life?

    I really enjoy the posts you make from the perspective of a therapist – what you experience in the therapeutic relationship and inside the four walls of the session room. It’s stuff I’d love to ask my therapist but don;t have the time or guts to ask!

    Thank you for a very interesting post!

    1. I think I have always been this way and I attribute it to growing up with a narcissistic mother: I had to be on the look-out for mood changes and be attuned to her emotional needs. And no, I cannot shut it off. It’s the way I am in the world, though I don’t make interpretations to my friends!

  8. Another example that I wish I had added…

    A few months into our sessions together I said that I wished I could cry, I wished I could express my pain and get the feelings out. He said, ‘you don’t have to cry for me to know you’re sad, you don’t have to cry for me to feel your pain. I know this is very hard for you and I feel it here (put his hand on his stomach) and here (put his hand on his chest).’ – I was just blown away and so moved… that was where I felt the discomfort. I felt so much like he was present and aware of my suffering. It was the first time I thought, ‘I can really trust this guy. He knows me!’

    Such valuable stuff this empathy!

  9. Joe, even though you’ve probably thought of this, could it be subtle things like how fast a person sits on the couch, where they place their arms, where they look, how high they look, how they put their feet up, how centered they are on the couch, etc. that are telling you whether a person is angry, sad, etc? I suspect that after years of practice you’ve linked the initial way of sitting to how the session immediately after revealed the patient to be feeling. In other words, it could be conditioning.
    A few years ago I was taking photos of an electric storm and jokingly I pointed my finger to command a bold of lightning to come down in the direction I was taking my long exposure and to my amusement it happened! Doesn’t make me Zeus (I know because I kept trying to command the clouds to no avail).
    In the example you gave, the only rational response to the question of how did the psychic knew is: I don’t know. Maybe they are informed about the introduction of new animal feeds, when competitions happen, etc. and make educated guesses. They might get it right 10% of the time. Also, the horse might have been constipated when he had his original name and OK once the name was changed. There could of been many other factors. Same old correlation does not imply causation.

    Spirituality and religion are very seductive ideas, specially the older one gets. Please don’t fall into that trap, I think it ruins people.

    1. I remain a skeptic about most things, so don’t worry. Believing that ESP likely exists doesn’t really change anything as far as I’m concerned. And I think you may be right about the subtle things I might detect at the beginning of a session.

      As for the horse, the animal psychic didn’t know the type of animal or the problem. He pulled that out of the hat … if one is to believe this story.

  10. Hmm, I get what you are saying,it is mysterious, but lets not jump to conclusions here, it could be any other reason besides ESP. For those clients who face away from you, maybe it is the way in which they breath that you empathize with.

  11. I think that a lot of this intuitive/transpersonal/spiritual sides of reality are quite real and are things that we repress just like anything else.

  12. You are correct about ESP. I am very sensitive and was picking things up from my own therapist while I was in therapy. I would pick up all the energies from other people that were attached to her, and I even began having flashbacks of past lives with her (and other things.) Eventually I had to just quit because it was too overwhelming for me. Everything that I have intuitited has been confirmed as true, not only by her but by other people. So it’s not just BS. If you have this sensitivity, it’s good that you are in a profession where you can use it to help people.

  13. I have to agree with you. As a therapist, my intuition is the best tool I have. I have often had images or a “sixth sense” so to speak of what has happened to a patient in the past to only find out that it was accurate. I have always picked up information about people, even those I haven’t known. I find I am at my best when I can really relax and sit with a patient and listen without interruption. It is not unlike a form of meditation. When I am in this state, my mind slows down and I sense what isn’t heard. Also, in this state, I feel I can truly empathize with the patient. It is an interesting topic, one which I believe should have more discussion.

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