Telepathy (from the Ancient Greek τῆλε, tele meaning “distant” and πάθος, pathos or -patheia meaning “feeling, perception, passion, affliction, experience”) is the transmission of information from one person to another without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interaction. The term was coined in 1882 by the classical scholar Frederic W. H. Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and has remained more popular than the earlier expression thought-transference.
Scientific consensus does not view telepathy as a real phenomenon. Many studies seeking to detect, understand, and utilize telepathy have been done, but according to the prevailing view among scientists, telepathy lacks replicable results from well-controlled experiments.
Origins of the concept
According to Roger Luckhurst, the origin of the concept of telepathy (not telepathy itself) in the Western civilization can be tracked to the late 19th century. As the physical sciences made significant advances, scientific concepts were applied to mental phenomena (e.g., animal magnetism), with the hope that this would help understand paranormal phenomena. The modern concept of telepathy emerged in this context.
The notion of telepathy is not dissimilar to two psychological concepts: delusions of thought insertion/removal and psychological symbiosis. Thought insertion/removal is a symptom of psychosis, and schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder. Psychiatric patients who experience this symptom falsely believe that some of their thoughts are not their own and that others (e.g., other people, aliens, demons or fallen angels, or conspiring intelligence agencies) are putting thoughts into their minds (thought insertion). Some patients feel as if thoughts are being taken out of their minds or deleted (thought removal). Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists believe and empirical findings support the idea that people with schizotypal personality disorder are particularly likely to believe in telepathy.
Psychological symbiosis is an idea found in the writings of early psychoanalysts, such as Melanie Klein. It entails the belief that in the early psychological experience of the child (during earliest infancy), the child is unable to tell the difference between his or her own mind, on one hand, and his or her experience of the mother/parent, on the other hand. With development, it ends, but, purportedly, aspects of it can still be detected in the psychological functioning of the adult.
A famous experiment in telepathy was recorded by the American author Upton Sinclair in his book Mental Radio which documents Sinclair’s test of psychic abilities of Mary Craig Kimbrough, his second wife. She attempted to duplicate 290 pictures which were drawn by her husband. Sinclair claimed Mary successfully duplicated 65 of them, with 155 “partial successes” and 70 failures. However, these experiments were not conducted in a controlled scientific laboratory environment.
Another example is the experiments carried out by the author Harold Sherman with the explorer Hubert Wilkins who carried out their own experiments in telepathy for five and a half months starting in October 1937. This took place when Sherman was in New York and Wilkins was in the Arctic. A typical example was on 21 February 1938. On that day, both Sherman and Wilkins had recorded that cold weather had delayed their jobs, they both had witnessed that someone’s skin had peeled off their finger, they both recorded that they had drunk alcohol with friends and witnessed boxes of cigars being brought and both recorded that they had experienced a toothache.
To rule out any kind of fraud, each night Sherman had sent his impressions to Gardner Murphy, a psychologist at Columbia University. Murphy had studied the Wilkins-Sherman results and claimed that some could be explained by coincidence but that some exceptions were unexplainable.
The full results of the experiments were published in 1942 in a book by Sherman and Wilkins titled Thoughts Through Space. In the book both Sherman and Wilkins had written that they believed they had demonstrated that it was possible to send and receive thought impressions from the mind of one person to another.
Within the field of parapsychology, telepathy is considered to be a form of extra-sensory perception (ESP) or anomalous cognition in which information is transferred through Psi. It is often categorized similarly to precognition and clairvoyance. Experiments have been used to test for telepathic abilities. Among the most well known are the use of Zener cards and the Ganzfeld experiment.
Zener cards are marked with five distinctive symbols. When using them, one individual is designated the “sender” and another the “receiver”. The sender selects a random card and visualize the symbol on it, while the receiver attempts to determine that symbol using Psi. Statistically, the receiver has a 20% chance of randomly guessing the correct symbol, so to demonstrate telepathy, they must repeatedly score a success rate that is significantly higher than 20%. If not conducted properly, this method can be vulnerable to sensory leakage and card counting.
When using the Ganzfeld experiment to test for telepathy, one individual is designated the receiver and is placed inside a controlled environment where they are deprived of sensory input, and another is designated the sender and is placed in a separate location. The receiver is then required to receive information from the sender. The nature of the information may vary between experiments.
A physical model of telepathy, whether described as radiational or in other terms, assumes that transference is effected by means of a vibratory current linking one brain to another. William Crookes proposed a “brain wave” theory in which he claimed telepathy might occur due to high frequency vibrations of the ether. Crookes had stated that there may be parts of the human brain that may be capable of sending and receiving electrical rays of wavelengths. William Fletcher Barrett and Frederic William Henry Myers, however, pointed out problems in a physical theory for telepathy and instead advocated psychical theories.
In the early 20th century, there were two other prominent concepts of telepathy: the spiritualist position which claimed telepathy was the result of external spirits and a view claiming interactions between two or more subconscious minds. The subconscious mind view was advocated by psychical researcher Thomson Jay Hudson who wrote that the mind is a duality that consists of two minds: the objective (conscious) and the subjective (subconscious).
The psychical researcher John Arthur Hill wrote regarding telepathy “No physical theory of telepathy has been worked out — there are no ‘brain-waves’ known, and no receiving stations yet discovered inside our skulls.” George N. M. Tyrrell also claimed that a physical basis for telepathy was untenable as ideas can not be transmitted from one mind to another by any physical means without being first translated into a code.
Some parapsychologists proposed that telepathy may have a physical explanation. The Italian neurologist Ferdinando Cazzamali in the 1920s had claimed that telepathic communication occurred due to a type of electromagnetic radiation. However, the neurophysiologist William Grey Walter in his book The Living Brain (1953) wrote that electrical ‘brain-waves’ are too weak to explain telepathy. Hans Berger also held this view but extended the theory by proposing that telepathy occurs when “electrical energy in the agent’s brain is transformed into ‘psychic energy‘ which can be diffused to any distance, passing through obstacles without attenuation”.
In 1974 Michael Persinger proposed that extremely low-frequency (ELF) electromagnetic waves may be able to carry telepathic and clairvoyant information. However, Johnjoe McFadden has written “the em field outside the head is far too weak and it is highly unlikely that any other brain could detect it, and still more unlikely that the other brain could decode the em field information that was encoded by your brain”.
Parapsychology describes several forms of telepathy:
- Latent telepathy, formerly known as “deferred telepathy”, is described as the transfer of information, through Psi, with an observable time-lag between transmission and reception.
- Retrocognitive, precognitive, and intuitive telepathy is described as being the transfer of information, through Psi, about the past, future or present state of an individual’s mind to another individual.
- Emotive telepathy, also known as remote influence or emotional transfer, is the process of transferring kinesthetic sensations through altered states.
- Superconscious telepathy involves tapping into the superconsciousto access the collective wisdom of the human species for knowledge.
Testing and controversy
In 1979 the physicists John Taylor and Eduardo Balanovski wrote that the only scientifically feasible explanation for telepathy could be electromagnetism (EM) involving EM fields. In a series of experiments the EM levels were many orders of magnitude lower than calculated and no paranormal effects were observed. Both Taylor and Balanovski wrote their results were a strong argument against the validity of the paranormal.
Although not a recognized scientific discipline, people who study certain types of paranormal phenomena such as telepathy refer to the field as parapsychology. Parapsychologists claim that some instances of telepathy are real.
Outside of parapsychology, telepathy is generally explained as the result of fraud, self-delusion and/or self-deception and not as a paranormal power.Virtually all of the instances of more popular psychic phenomena, such as mediumship, can be attributed to non-paranormal techniques such as cold reading.Magicians such as Ian Rowland and Derren Brown have demonstrated techniques and results similar to those of popular psychics, without paranormal means. They have identified, described, and developed psychological techniques of cold reading and hot reading.
A variety of tests have been performed to demonstrate telepathy, but there exists no scientific evidence that the power exists.The scientific community considers parapsychology a pseudoscience.
In popular culture
Telepathy is commonly used in fiction, with a number of superheroes and supervillains, as well as figures in many science fiction novels, etc., use telepathy. The mechanics of telepathy in fiction vary widely. Some fictional telepaths are limited to receiving only thoughts that are deliberately sent by other telepaths, or even to receiving thoughts from a specific other person.
Some telepaths can read the thoughts only of those they touch, such as Vulcans in the Star Trek media franchise. Star Trek science consultant and writer André Bormanis has revealed that telepathy within the Star Trek universe works via the “psionic field”. According to Bormanis, a psionic field is the “medium” through which unspoken thoughts and feelings are communicated through space.Some humanoids can tap into this field through a kind of sense organ located in the brain; in the same manner that human eyes can sense portions of the electromagnetic field, telepaths can sense portions of the psionic field.
In the book Eragon, Eragon can communicate mentally with his dragon Saphira, and it is possible to block people from one’s mind with a barrier. In the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, telepathy is a magical skill known as Legilimency. In the John Wyndham novel The Chrysalids, the main character and narrator David Strorm is one of a group of nine telepaths. In Anthony Horowitz’s Power of Five series twins Jamie and Scott Tyler were born with telepathic powers that enable them to read people’s minds and, ultimately, control them.
Some fictional telepaths possess mind control abilities, which can include “pushing” thoughts, feelings, or hallucinatory visions into the mind of another person, causing pain, paralysis, or unconsciousness, altering or erasing memories, or completely taking over another person’s mind and body (similar to spiritual possession). Examples of this type of telepath include Professor Xavier, Psylocke, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, and numerous other characters in the Marvel Universe, along with Matt Parkman from the television series Heroes.