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Random Dictionary of the Damned
Telepathy on Trial

The search for evidence of ESP

Telepathy on Trial

A Ganzfeld experiment. The participant is attempting to receive images sent from another person's mind.
Photo by Lee Pullen / www.leepullen.co.uk


There are two truths universally acknowledged about extra-sensory perception (ESP). The first is that the anecdotal evidence is often fun and fascinating to read, whereas to peruse the experimental evidence is as boring as batshit, as our antipodean cousins say, and the investigative methods generally employed would for most of us banish insomnia for all time. We can’t avoid discussing these methods and their results in these entries, but we do promise to be brief and to strive personfully not to ruin your reading experience.

The other truth, which psychical researchers do not deny, is that the term ‘extra-sensory perception’ covers a multitude of apparently paranormal manifestations that are nearly impossible to disentangle. The basic labels are telepathy (literally ‘feeling at a distance’, usually translated as ‘thought transference’); clairvoyance (sometimes called ‘remote viewing’), or psychically seeing things occurring at a distance; precognition, gaining knowledge of something that will happen in the future; and retrocognit­ion, psychically perceiving events in the past, usually revealing details otherwise known to only one or two witnesses. Or to none that are living. Psychically discerning the fate and present whereabouts (if any) of the Ark of the Covenant would count as retrocognition.

However – as we say so often in this Dictionary – because no one has come up with a convincing theory to explain the mechanics of ESP, it is sometimes impossible to apply these concepts to parti­cular experiences and say for certain which of them is at work. Robert Todd Carroll, author of the Skeptics’ Dictionary, remarks with wry weariness:

Since there is no way to distinguish direct communication with another mind from communication with a present or past perception by that or some other mind, there is no way to distinguish clairvoyance from telepathy or retrocognition. Since there is no way to distinguish direct communicat­ion with another mind from communication with a future percept­ion by that mind, there is no way to distinguish telepathy or clairvoyance from precognition. There is no way to distinguish telepathy, clairvoyance, retrocognition, or precognition from a mind perceiving directly the akashic record. There is no way to distinguish telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, or perceiving the akashic record from perceiving what is directly placed in the mind by God (occasionalism). There is no way to distinguish telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, retrocognition, perceiving the akashic record, or having perceptions directly implanted in our minds by God from perceiving the hidden record of all perceptions in the eleventh dimension that is vibrating in the intersection between the tenth and twelfth dimensions. I could go on, but it would be too annoying.

Even so, the terms are not completely useless. Suppose for some reason you should be silently pondering how odd it would be to see a goldfish in a pond riding a bicycle and smoking a cheroot. Suppose furthermore that you have contemplated none of these objects recently, individually or together, and are unfam­iliar with the work of René Magritte. And you say, “Uncle, you would not guess what I am thinking,” and then your uncle, a dour Calvinist engineer not usually given to whimsy, who is waiting in the oppos­ite armchair until it is time to catch the next train to Inverness, responds with some vehemence: “The arguments against predest­ination make as much sense as a goldfish in a pond riding a bicycle and smoking a cheroot.”

This would surely be a surprise, since the combination of elements is hardly everyday, and Uncle is famous for thinking in the clichés of his religious persuasion. So one would, albeit loosely in light of the above caveats, be justified in proposing that tele­pathy had occurred: your thought had somehow transferred itself to his mind.

Or would one be justified in assuming this? As he spoke, your uncle may have reached psychically, retrocognitively, into the past, and ‘seen’ (or heard) your thought as it formed in your mind. Then again, he may have reached into the future to see himself uttering these words, without reference to your cogitat­ions, and been suitably astonished. If you really want to lay on psi concepts with a trowel, consider this: the thought may first have formed unconsciously in his mind, which then performed a spot of equally unconscious psychokinesis to bring the image into your mind… and at your prompt all your uncle’s mind has to do is decant his idea from the unconscious into his consciousness. If this seems a bit of a stretch, it’s no more elaborate than some ideas that parapsychologists have produced over the years in attempts to explain how ESP works.

One of the more exotic of such ideas was touched on by Dr Rupert Sheldrake in his 1981 book A New Science of Life (see FT37:4–21). There he proposed that morphogenetic (shape-creating) fields, vibrating with ‘morphic reson­ance’, are built up over time by living things and even by events, creating a kind of habit in the fabric of reality that causes rabbits to look like rabbits, worms like worms, and so on; or as he put it later in The Presence of the Past (1988), “Things are as they are because they were as they were.” The human brain was not so much a container or recorder of memories as a device for tuning-in to the appropriate morphic resonance where events had affected or created a morpho­genetic field. Telepathy could thus be explained as a kind of retrocognition, a tuning-in by one person to a morpho­genetic field created by another – by means of a thought, an action, or indeed a memory. Sheldrake asserted: “Morphic reson­ance is non-energetic, and morpho­genetic fields themselves are neither a type of mass nor energy.” That, of course, made them unamenable to detection or monitoring by the devices habitually employed by scientists, which has been something of a stumbling-block for the general acceptance of Dr Sheldrake’s idea.

Despite the theoretical difficulties, the anecdotal evidence sugg­ests that some kind of mind-to-mind communication does indeed occur. We had better admit that we ourselves don’t include among this evidence stories along the lines of “Oh, I was thinking of my sister Aggie who I haven’t seen for ages, and the phone rang, and lawks if it wasn’t her on the line from Invercargill” or “My friend George, I was just thinking of him, and there he was plain as day walking towards me down St Martin’s Lane”. The reason for rejecting this level of ESP (and what kind of ESP would it be anyway?) is that the story omits the number of times – which naturally have gone unremarked – that one has thought of George or Aggie and precisely nothing has happ­ened; or the number of times one’s been thinking of the disappointing results of the day’s races and nothing else at all and lo! there heaves into sight some long-lost comrade from one’s time in the slums of Rio.

In the nature of things, coincidences of the George-and-Aggie kind are statistically inevitable.

Less obviously desiccated are stories like these:

• Ernst Cassirer, who died in 1945 at the age of 70, was one of the 20th century’s most distinguished neo-Kantian philosophers. He was also selectively psychic, in that he always seemed to know intuitively when his daughter Anna was ill, no matter where she was. Anna told psychical researcher Lawrence LeShan that three or four times while she was at boarding school, Cassirer woke up in the middle of the night and phoned her school. Each time, he was told that Anna was ill in the school sanatorium. He never, she said, called in this way when she was well – as she mostly was.

In due course, Anna left home to study in Berlin. Once, Cass­irer paid her a visit, and next day caught a train back to Hamburg. As it pulled in to its one stop at Wittenberg, Cassirer leaped from the train and phoned his daughter’s digs in Berlin.

“What’s the matter with Anna?” he wanted to know.

She had been taken to hospital. Phoning there, Cassirer was told that only an hour after he had caught his train home, she had begun to hæmorrhage. She was now in emergency surgery.

• In his memoir Africa Drums, published in the 1930s, Richard St Barbe Baker recalled various instances of Kenyan tribesmen receiving telepathic communications. In one instance, Baker was on a field trip near Mt Kenya and pitched camp one day around noon. He wrote:

Lunch was served by a boy, who observed that Bwana Katchiku had died, this man being a well-respected farmer who lived some two hundred and fifty miles from the camp. When asked how he knew, the boy replied that N’degwa, one of the elders of the tribe about 60 years old, had ‘seen’ it. He sent for the older man…

“What is this? [Baker asked the elder when he arrived] Bwana Katchiku dead, you say? How did you learn of this?”

“N’iona, I see it,” was his astonishing reply.

“When?” I demanded.

“Now,” he said. Somehow I knew he was speaking the truth, nor was there any reason for him to do otherwise.

“I am sorry,” I told him. “It is too bad…”

“Yes, that is so,” agreed N’degwa. “It is a bad business.”

N’degwa retired, but I made a mental note of the time and place. I pondered on the word N’iona – I see – which could not possibly be confounded with S’kia – I hear.

Seven days later a runner arrived at my camp with the news that Bwana Katchiku had died, at a distance of two hundred and fifty miles from camp.

• Early one morning in 1980, 81-year-old Isabella Casas told Barcelona police that she had just had a dream in which she had seen the face of her neighbour, Rafael Perez, twisted in terror, as he spoke, saying: “They are going to kill us.” Sra Casas added that Perez, a 56-year-old chef, would visit her every day, but she had not seen him for over a week. She had had a note from him three days after she had last seen him, which said he would be away for several weeks. But why had he not called to tell her in person? The police decided to start a search for Perez.

They found him tied up in a utility room on the roof of his and Sra Casas’s apartment house. He had been hidden there by two men who had broken into his flat, forced him to sign 28 bank cheques so that they could withdraw his 30,000 dollars-worth of savings without being noticed, and made him write the note to Sra Casas to allay her suspicions before tying him up. When they had all the money, they said, they would return and kill him and the old lady. The police simply waited for the two criminals to return, trapped them and arrested them.

Of course, it ought to go without saying that these tales, and many another like them, are difficult to verify, and how they come to be told in the way they are can be influenced by anything from a belief that ‘tribespeople’ are ‘more in touch with nature’ than deracinated Westerners, to unconscious honing by percipients, to the need for a journalist to tell a good tale. Hence, the gruelling experiments set up by parapsychologists in the hope of proving that telepathy is as much a fact of life as Lady Gaga or American Idol, repellent as all three may be to persons of culture, taste, and scientific education.

We won’t tire you with the ins and outs of the 100,000-plus experiments with Zener cards conducted in the 1940s and ’50s by Dr JB Rhine at Duke University in Carolina. Rhine thought he had proved the existence of telepathy, but his results have been severely questioned by sceptics on both statistical grounds and because the protocols took insufficient precautions to prevent ‘readers’ from cheating or reading the faces (picking up ‘tells’, in poker jargon) of ‘senders’, and so on. And a few researchers, notable among them the previously respected Dr SG Soal, it eventually emerged, had thoroughly falsified their findings, to everyone’s embarrassment.

In the 1970s and ’80s, in an attempt at least to approximate the conditions of spontaneous psi events, researchers developed the Ganzfeld technique. Receivers wore headphones emitting white sound, wore split ping-pong balls over their eyes and were bathed in red light. Thus sensorily deprived, it was hoped there would be little to interfere with the image being transmitted to them by a ‘sender’ in a separate, soundproof or distant room. Images were taken from randomly chosen, sealed sets of four disparate pictures, of which one was in turn randomly chosen for sending. Its nature was hidden from the experimenter. After the session, the receiver saw all four potential target pictures and chose which most nearly matched his or her impressions. Results were also judged by an independent panel.

Opinions are mixed as to the success of these tests. Some results were undoubtedly spot-on: a well-publicised example is the receiver who precisely identified William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days” as the target picture. Cynics may wonder if this was the only such instance of an exact hit, although meta-analyses of the Ganzfeld data have shown hit rates of some 38 per cent (chance alone would give a 25 per cent rate). Yet we count ourselves among the doubters, if not the cynics, having ourselves witnessed some of these experiments. The slightest verbal connect­ion – almost to the extent of a Freudian word-association test – would be taken as significant. So a picture of a windmill might be reckoned ‘seen’ and the response a ‘hit’ if the words ‘bread’ and ‘sails’ were among the responses, although the word ‘windmill’ might be entirely absent. At this level of precision, those familiar with Chaucer might have counted the word ‘beard’ as a hit. The lab in question provided nearly a third of the data used in the meta-analyses, and after the methods of its leading researcher were severely put in question, he left the field. The situation is, to say the least, unsatisfactory.

Perhaps those sympathetic to telepathy have a point when they say that testing for it in a laboratory is asking for the impossible, and revert to the anecdotal evidence. From which it seems something seems to be going on – but what? As good forteans, we can but shrug, and go: “Hmm…”


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