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The ability of one mind to impress or to be impressed by another mind otherwise than through the recognized channels

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Telepathy (t?le, far, and pathein, to experience), a term introduced by F. W. H. Myers in 1882 to denote “the ability of one mind to impress or to be impressed by another mind otherwise than through the recognized channels of sense” (Gurney, “Phantasms of the Living”, I, 6); or: “the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense” (Myers, “Human Personality“, I, xxi).

I. The term telepathy is sometimes used, in conformity with its derivation, to mean the direct communication between minds at a great distance. Such terms as thought-transference, mind-reading, or mental suggestion would then apply to the direct communication between minds in the same room or at a small distance. Generally, however, at least in English, telepathy connotes only the exclusion of the recognized channels of sensation, irrespective of the distance. It supposes that, in some cases, the usual signs by which ideas are manifested—speech, writing, gestures, muscular contraction, facial expression, etc.—may be dispensed with, and that minds are able to communicate, if not directly and immediately, at any rate through some medium which is distinct from the ordinary medium of sense-perception. Thus understood, telepathy includes two classes of facts.

A. The first class consists of intentional communications, when a person (the agent) by the concentration of his mind on some object makes an effort to transfer an idea to another person (the percipient) who may or may not be aware of the attempt, and who may or may not make an effort to receive the communication. The experiments, made sometimes on normal, more generally and more successfully on hypnotized subjects, include the transference of tastes, sounds, visual images, pain etc.; the guessing of numbers, cards, colors, diagrams etc., thought of by the agent; the execution or inhibition of movements in compliance with the agent’s will; the production or cessation of the hypnotic condition at a command mentally given; and other similar transferences of thought. In a few successful instances the agent has been able to produce apparitions of himself or even of a third person to the percipient in another room or house. In these experiments the main difficulty is to make sure that the percipient in no way uses his senses, which are in a state of hyperaesthesia or extraordinary acuteness, and that the correct guesses cannot be accounted for by similar habits, suggestions, and associations in both the agent and the percipient. Exhibitions of so-called mind-reading are generally explainable either by clever collusion, or by muscle-reading when there is contact between the agent and the percipient, or by the interpretation of sensory indications consciously or unconsciously given.

B. The other class of facts consists of spontaneous communications in which, as far as we can know, the agent has no intention of manifesting himself to the percipient. Herein are included especially the intimation of the danger, illness, distress, or death of some person, generally a friend or relative, and the apparition of the phantasm of such a person, especially at the time of his death. The degree of precision and exactness of these monitions varies indefinitely. Sometimes they consist in a merely physical occurrence coincident with the death, such as noise, the fall of some object, of a picture, etc. Sometimes ill-defined and inexplicable feelings of restlessness and uneasiness are experienced, or the sudden idea of what is happening flashes across the mind. Sometimes finally, either in the waking state or in dreams, apparitions are seen, and even entire scenes witnessed in all their details. The main difficulty in these cases is to determine whether they present mere coincidences due to subjective factors, such as habit, association, memory, expectation etc., or a real causality.

II. Two problems are to be solved regarding telepathy: A. Is the existence of telepathy as a fact demonstrated? B. If it is, what is its explanation?

A. Is the fact of telepathy established? In the past thirty or forty years, this subject has been studied critically. A large number of facts have been collected, especially by the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, and have been published in “Phantasms of the Living”, the “Proceedings” of the society, and many other works. In France, the “Annales des Sciences Psychiques” also record numerous cases. At present the literature on the subject is very extensive. After considering the cumulative evidence for the existence of telepathy, there cannot fail to remain in the mind at least a general impression that chance does not account for the number of coincidences, which is far greater than could be expected according to chance-probability. In the “Census of Hallucinations”, after due allowance for possible causes of error, whereas ordinary chance coincidence would give 1:19,000 as the proportion of the coincidences of apparitions with the fact of death, the actual proportion is 1:43, or 440 times greater than would be expected. In experiments, the proportion of successful attempts varies greatly, yet, in general, it is far above that which chance-coincidence would lead us to expect. Nevertheless, the fact of telepathy is not yet accepted universally as strictly demonstrated. There are so many difficulties to meet, so many causes of error to avoid, and so many obstacles to overcome, that results obtained so far are not looked upon by all as sufficient to give a scientific certitude of the fact.

B. Various theories have been proposed to account for the fact of telepathy. Some, appealing to a preternatural causality, have supposed the intervention of good or evil spirits. But the principle admitted by all scientists, philosophers, and theologians is that a fact must be looked upon as natural until the contrary is proved. The present impossibility of giving a scientific explanation is no proof that there is no scientific explanation. The unexplained is not to be identified with the unexplainable, and the strange and extraordinary nature of a fact is not a justification for attributing it to powers above nature. Another attempt, namely the spiritistic hypothesis, cannot be discussed here (see Spiritism). Attempts at a scientific explanation rest either on a psychological basis (Myers, Sir Oliver Lodge) or on a physical and physiological basis (Sir W. Crookes, Flournoy, Ochorowicz). Among psychological attempts is the supposition of the existence of a sub-conscious mind or subliminal self endowed with all the powers required to account for all the facts. While the considerable influence of the subconscious or the subliminal cannot be denied, the theory in its generality has the grave defect of being the fact itself expressed in other terms, and of having for its only proof the fact itself which it seeks to explain. Others simply appeal to supernormal faculties that are purely psychological. Among physiological and physical attempts are the suppositions of some neurotic fluid, brain vibrations, or a special form of energy transmitted from brain to brain through some unknown medium. All these attempts are unsatisfactory, and, according to all, the problem is still unsolved. Further experiments are needed, both to establish the fact itself beyond all doubt, and chiefly to determine its psychological and physical conditions. Until this is done, any theory is premature.


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