Telepathy (from the Greek tele (distant) and patheia (feeling)) is a type of extra-sensory perception, defined in parapsychology as the paranormal acquisition of information concerning the thoughts, feelings, or activity of another person. The term was coined in 1882 by the classical scholar Fredric W. H. Myers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and superseded earlier expressions such as “thought-transference.” Telepathy is often associated with other paranormal phenomena, such as precognition, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis. As with these related phenomena, there is great controversy surrounding their existence and explanation. While many skeptics and disbelievers dismiss the “proofs” as fraud or explained by chance, others continue to report and study this phenomenon indicating a deep-seated desire in humankind that there exist more than can be experienced through our physical senses alone.
Types of telepathy
Latent Telepathy is telepathy in which a time lag is observed between the transmission and receipt of the telepathic communique. Precognitive Telepathy occurs when a telepath obtains paranormal knowledge about what the state of another person’s mind will be in the near or distant future.
History of Telepathy
Unlike paranormal abilities such as precognition, there are very few accounts of telepathy recorded by any ancient cultures. Primitive and ancient cultures often relate instances of prophecy and precognition, but there is little record of individuals sending and receiving messages from mind to mind. Where the idea of telepathy does appear, it is generally in the form of “dream telepathy,” where communication occurs while individuals are in a dream state. The Greek philosopher Democritus postulated the first physical theory of dream telepathy, which stated that emotionally charged images could be projected by living beings, and transmitted to a dreamer through the dreamer’s pores.
Research interest in telepathy had its beginning in mesmerism, where subjects would display telepathic abilities, carrying out unspoken instructions. Psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both observed telepathic phenomena, and the psychologist/philosopher William James encouraged more research be done on the subject.
Western scientific investigation of telepathy is generally recognized as having begun with the early research of the Society for Psychical Research. In 1886, the Society published their findings in a two-volume work entitled Phantasms of the Living, which included findings on telepathy. Most of the evidence gathered consisted of anecdotes and follow-up investigations, with some experiments on alleged telepaths. Experimental protocols, however, were not strict by current scientific standards.
The best-known early experiments in telepathy were those of J. B. Rhine and his associates at Duke University, beginning in 1927. Rhine used distinctive cards designed by his colleague Karl Zener. These experiments in “parapsychology” involved more rigorous and systematic experimental protocols than those from the nineteenth century, used what were assumed to be “average” participants rather than those who claimed exceptional ability, and took advantage of new developments in the field of statistics to evaluate results. Results of these and other experiments were published by Rhine in his popular book Extra-Sensory Perception. Rhine determined that it was often difficult to determine if information was communicated through telepathy, clairvoyance, or precognition, and concluded that all are the same psychic function, albeit manifested differently.
One of the most popular early books about telepathy was Mental Radio, written by the Pulitzer prize-winning author Upton Sinclair and his wife (with foreword by Albert Einstein). Sinclair included his findings from reading hundreds of volumes on psychic research, as well as three years of hands-on investigation, and described the apparent ability of his wife at times to reproduce sketches made by himself and others, even when separated by several miles.
One of the most popular types of experiments to test for telepathy has been ganzfeld experimentation. Beginning in 1974 with the work of Charles Honorton, ganzfeld (meaning “whole field”) experiments have been widely used by parapsychological researchers. In ganzfeld tests, there is a receiver, who attempts to receive the telepathic message, and a sender who attempts to send the message. The receiver is placed in a soundproof room and sits reclining in a comfortable chair. He or she wears headphones which play continuous white noise or pink noise. Halves of ping pong balls are placed over the receiver’s eyes, and a red light is shone onto their face. These conditions are designed to cause the receiver to enter a state called the “ganzfeld state,” similar to being in a sensory deprivation chamber. The sender, also isolated, is shown a video or still image, and asked to attempt to mentally send that image to the receiver for anywhere from twenty to forty minutes. Afterwards, the receiver is asked to pick which of four images was the “sent” image. After collecting the results of approximately 700 individual sessions conducted by about two dozen investigators, parapsychologists claimed that the correct image is selected 34 percent of the time, significantly higher than the 25 percent that would be expected by chance alone.
Testing and Controversy
Parapsychologists have conducted numerous scientific experiments seeking evidence of telepathy, and claim that many have yielded significant results supporting the existence of telepathy, particularly the ganzfeld experiments. However, a technique which always shows statistically significant evidence of telepathy with 100 percent reliability has yet to be discovered.
In the area of telepathy research, ganzfeld experiments, being the most prominent means of testing for telepathy, are often the most criticized. Charles Honorton was the first to perform such experiments for telepathy, and took great care in creating an experimental protocol that would not be subject to criticism. Even so, critics have pointed out flaws that may have influenced Honorton’s positive results: it may have been possible for the researchers scoring the experiments to have peeked at the film clips that were being shown, thereby subconsciously leading the receivers during scoring. Some critics conclude that Honorton’s experiments provide the best evidence yet, but that telepathy still remains unproven.
Other ganzfeld experiments were also critiqued for having potential design flaws. Some studies did not use truly soundproof rooms, and videos may have been heard by the experimenters, whose discussions may have then been overheard by the receiver. When presenting the group of the target image and three decoys, the target image may have subtle “handling cues” that gave it away, such as smudges, creases, or other marks that were made by the sender while attempting to send the image. A lack of randomization of the images may have also constituted a problem. Many of these issues were later addressed with “autoganzfeld” experiments, where images were chosen and displayed by computer. The autoganzfeld experiments were considered to be significantly more reliable, even when examined by mentalists Ford Kross and Daryl Bem, who agreed that the automated system provided “excellent security against deception.” However, problems were still pointed out: with the automated video images, the target may have been played repeatedly during the sending session, thereby creating a slight decay in image quality that would be detectable by the receiver. On the whole, reported rates of success among all ganzfeld experiments have been remarkably consistent. There have been numerous meta-analyses done, combining groups of experiments that provide evidence for telepathy. Critics argue that some of these meta-analyses are too accepting of studies as “reputable.”
Another argument against the so-called “successes” of telepathic experiments is that it is not necessarily accurate to assume that any statistical deviation from chance is evidence for telepathy. While a moderate deviation from chance may be evidence of psi phenomena, it could also simply be evidence of a rare, statistically unlikely occurrence, and therefore not a significant indicator of telepathy.
Tests have also been done for telepathy using EEG and fMRI equipment. Tests done by researchers at Bastyr University in Seattle and the University of Washington focused on identifying similar brain patterns. They produced similar results to tests done at other laboratories: correlated EEG and fMRI signals occurred in 15 to 30 percent of the participating pairs of subjects.
Telepathy and Quantum Theory
In seeking a theory to explain telepathy, some parapsychologists have looked to aspects of quantum theory. Apparent parallels with telepathy exist in the quantum world; two quantum particles that bump into one another become “entangled,” and afterwards retain a connection despite being a great distance apart. A change in one half of the entangled pair instantaneously effects a change in the other half. This quality, known as “non-locality,” was dubbed “spooky action at a distance” by Albert Einstein, who had difficulty accepting such a concept. If quantum particles can seemingly communicate to each other instantaneously, the question is raised, “why can’t humans also do so?”
Some physicists have pondered whether quantum mechanical effects would permit forms of communication, perhaps including telepathy. However, they expressed the view that, according to quantum theory, it may be possible to share raw awareness or emotion, but not to transfer data.