Telepathy: a Sympathy of Souls

What Can 21st Century Science Learn from the Pioneers of Psi Research?

While on a mission to meet with the French King Henry the Fourth, the cleric and poet John Donne (1572-1631) had a vision. He saw his wife carrying a dead child in her arms. At the time his wife was pregnant, and Donne was so tak­en by the incident that a messenger was dispatched to England to check on his wife. Unfortunately, it was learned, Donne’s wife had gone into labor and delivered a stillborn, and this occurred on the same day and, as far as could be determined, around the same hour that Donne saw the apparition.

Somewhat apologetically this story is related by Donne’s biographer Izaak Walton (1593-1683).

“This is a relation that will beget some wonder, and it well may; for most of our world are at present possessed with an opinion, that visions and miracles are ceased. And, though it is most certain, that two lutes being both strung and tuned to an equal pitch, and then one played upon, the other, that is not touched, being laid upon a table at a fit distance, will—like an echo to a trumpet—warble a faint audible harmony in answer to the same tune; yet many will not believe there is any such thing as a sympathy of souls; and I am well pleased, that every Reader do enjoy his own opinion.” (Izaak Walton, 1640)

Indeed, although such a story may to this day “beget some wonder,” similar incidents have been recorded over and over again. Such cases are encountered throughout the annals of history and are found among all cultures and societies, savage and civilized, oriental and occidental. But, do they have any significance and meaning? Are they sim­ply to be dismissed as chance coincidences or faulty reporting combined with perhaps overly vivid imaginations?

In order to address these types of questions systematically and scientifically, in London in the year 1882 was founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). One of the first tasks of the SPR was to collect cases similar to the one recorded for John Donne. But the SPR did not simply scour the literature for cases; it actively sought out then recent cases (primarily from the 1870s and 1880s) that could be well documented. They interviewed witnesses and checked and crosschecked facts and data to ensure, to the best of their ability, that they were not being duped by fab­ricated stories (whether purposefully or simply due to faulty memories). In 1886 the fruits of their labors up to that point were published as a massive two-volume work titled Phantasms of the Living (by E. Gurney, F. Myers, and F. Podmore).

The title of this work bears some explanation. The core of Phantasms is a collection of “crisis apparitions” or “cri­sis hallucinations” (sometimes referred to as cases of “crisis telepathy”) that occur to a “receiver” or “percipient” in conjunction with a crisis situation, often death, near death, or some other very traumatic incident such as the still­born child in John Donne’s case, on the part of the “agent” or “sender.” The authors of Phantasms interpreted such apparitions to be veridical (carrying true information) hallucinations formed in the mind of the percipient based on information telepathically communicated from the agent, often at the approximate moment of death (although the telepathic message might be received in the subconscious of the agent, and remain dormant or latent for a period of time, before being brought to the conscious realm). The word phantasm, etymologically related to phantom, refers to any such apparitions or hallucinations. As used in Phantasms, the term “hallucination” could refer to a visual hallu­cination, an auditory hallucination, an olfactory hallucination, a tactile hallucination (such as the feeling of being punched or brushed against), or even what might be called emotional or ideational hallucinations and impressions (suddenly feeling sad, or the idea enters one’s head that a friend or family member is in trouble or just died). The title of the work, Phantasms of the Living, stresses the notion that living persons transmitted the telepathic messages cat­alogued in the work.

Phantasms includes 702 cases plus analyses of the common characteristics and patterns found among them. Per­haps most importantly, Phantasms includes a statistical analysis that strongly supports the argument that all of these cases cannot be the result of “chance coincidence.” The primary author, Edmund Gurney, based on surveys of thou­sands of people, takes into account such factors as how often people simply “hallucinate” an apparition; how often a relative, friend, or acquaintance will die; what the chances are that the death and hallucination will coincide; and so forth. In the end, he develops a very powerful argument that the vast majority, if not all, of the cases meticulously re­corded in the two volumes must have meaningful significance.

To this day Phantasms sets a standard, and stands as a valuable collection of raw data, for the study of this aspect of the paranormal—apparent mind-to-mind communication between individuals; that is, telepathy. Subsequent studies have served to support and complement the findings published in Phantasms, including a “Census of Halluci­nations,” based on surveying 17,000 people, published by the SPR in 1894. It is important to note that arguably the data on crisis apparitions collected in the nineteenth century could never be duplicated today. Much of this data was compiled before the widespread use of means of quick communication, such as telephones and telegraphs. So when a soldier stationed in India hallucinated one night that his grandmother, who was in England, was standing at the foot of his bed, he had plenty of opportunity to mention this hallucination to friends (who could then independently verify his story) before receiving a letter, perhaps a week or two or a month later, announcing that his grandmother had died that night. In our day of virtually instantaneous communication, we immediately question anyone who claims to have had a hallucination prior to learning of her or his grandmother’s death. Even if such a story is given in good faith, it can easily be argued that the “percipient” is “confused” as to the timing of the hallucination and the time when the news of the death was received.

Crisis apparitions, as collected in Phantasms, are examples of a class of “spontaneous psi.” Psi is a general term that encompasses two aspects of the paranormal as typically studied by psychical researchers and parapsychologists (the two terms are somewhat interchangeable): 1) Mental phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precogni­tion; and 2) Physical phenomena, such as psychokinesis (the moving of objects without any physical connection, without any muscular or mechanical action or known intervening material or energy) and levitation. (Physical para­normal phenomena are discussed in my forthcoming book The Parapsychology Revolution, which I compiled with Logan Yonavjak).

The significance of crisis apparitions and similar cases of apparently spontaneous telepathy lies not just in statisti­cal arguments that, on the whole, they must be more than chance coincidence. In particular, two other lines of evi­dence are also extremely impressive as support for the reality of such spontaneous psi. The French astronomer and psychical researcher Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) and the parapsychologist Louisa Rhine (1891-1983) collected hundreds and thousands of cases of spontaneous psi along telepathic lines (indeed, the number of cases Louisa Rhine had on file numbered in the tens of thousands; admittedly, however, Flammarion and Rhine did not apply the same rigorous standards for determining authenticity as was used for Phantasms). Like the authors of Phantasms and the “Census of Hallucinations,” Flammarion and Rhine found that there are elements and patterns common to most of the cases (and, when viewed cross-culturally, such commonalities persist), and these do not fit the standard precon­ceived cultural notions of “ghost stories,” suggesting the veracity of most reported incidents.

Perhaps even more compelling is the work of various modern researchers that has demonstrated a weak but per­sistent correlation between low levels of geomagnetic activity on planet Earth and cases of apparent spontaneous tel­epathy (based on cases going back to the latter half of the nineteenth century). This, in my opinion, is a very strong argument supporting the contention that there is something genuine to the concept of “crisis apparitions.” It sug­gests that spontaneous telepathic psi is real and natural and, as might be expected of a natural phenomenon, its man­ifestation is influenced by other natural parameters. Alternatively, are we to hypothesize that hundreds of hoaxers over nearly a century and a half have conspired to fake crisis apparitions in identical correlation with geomagnetic ac­tivity? This latter hypothesis strikes me as rather far-fetched, if not downright ludicrous.

Note that a correlation between geomagnetic activity and spontaneous telepathy does not necessarily imply that the “telepathic signal” is magnetic or electrical in nature. The human brain is influenced by magnetic and electric fields, and whatever may be the carrier of the telepathic signal, the transmission, reception, and manifestation of the message by the brain could be hampered or enhanced by differences in the magnetic and electric fields that the brain is subjected to.

For many people a phenomenon is not “real” unless it can be duplicated in a laboratory setting under controlled conditions. Being a natural scientist and field geologist, I have never agreed with this contention. After all, can we create a genuine volcanic eruption in the laboratory or even on command in the field? Until about two centuries ago the scientific community routinely rejected the concept of rocks falling from the sky (meteorites). Still, attempting to induce, capture, observe, and experiment with apparent telepathy under controlled conditions is a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, however, to this day it is fraught with problems and, though numerous experiments have tested posi­tive for apparent telepathy, others have had negative results and replication is a persistent problem. The bottom line is that we really do not know exactly what parameters make for good telepathic transfer, much less how to control for them.

In the late nineteenth century, accompanying the work on spontaneous cases of telepathy, members of the SPR were undertaking experiments in “thought-transference.” Experiments included a percipient (receiver) guessing words or playing cards that an agent (sender) was concentrating on. Statistical analyses applied to such experiments clearly indicated that more information than would be expected by chance was being transferred between the individ­uals involved. However, in hindsight (as even admitted in some cases by the experimenters not many years after­wards), many of the experiments did not impose rigorous enough controls and it now appears clear that cheating and fraud were involved in at least some instances (indeed, some of the subjects subsequently admitted to cheating). Per­sonally, while I feel that many of the cases of spontaneous telepathy collected by the SPR stand up to careful scrutiny, to be on the “safe” side, I would not accept any of their early experiments as carrying evidential value for telepathy.

A new era in the application of experimental methods to the problem of telepathy opened in the early 1930s with the work of Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980; husband and scientific partner with Louisa Rhine mentioned above) at Duke University. Although he tried other methods first, the mainstay of Rhine’s early work was the use of specially designed cards that came in packs of 25, with five each bearing the following symbols: circle, square [or rectangle], plus sign, star, and wavy lines (often referred to as either ESP cards or Zener cards, after Rhine’s colleague Dr. K. E. Zener who designed them). In a typical experiment, an agent (hidden from the percipient) would focus on each card in turn drawn from the top of a randomly shuffled Zener deck. The percipient would guess the card. Working through a complete deck in this manner, it was expected that one would on average call on the order of five cards correctly by chance, and indeed this was the case for most subjects. But Rhine found some individuals who could consistently call six, seven, or more cards correctly in a deck. Rhine also ran experiments in which the percipient called the cards down through a deck, from top to bottom, without the deck being touched by anyone. Afterward the calls were checked against the deck, and in these cases, too, certain individuals could consistently rise above chance expectation.

In his card calling experiments, Rhine initially distinguished between telepathy (where apparently the percipient received the thoughts of the agent) and clairvoyance (where the percipient appeared to somehow be aware of the sym­bols on the cards directly). But it was quickly realized that in practice it was virtually impossible to distinguish be­tween telepathy and clairvoyance. In the so-called telepathic experiments, the percipient could be “reading” the cards directly. If we accept the concepts of precognition and receiving information telepathically from the future (and there is evidence for such, but that is beyond the scope of this article), then the percipient in a so-called clairvoyance exper­iment might actually be receiving information telepathically from the future when the cards are checked by a human mind. As a general term to encompass both telepathy and clairvoyance, Rhine popularized the term “extrasensory perception” (originally written as extra-sensory perception, and commonly abbreviated as ESP).

Over the years numerous researchers in different labs duplicated Rhine-type experiments, many getting statisti­cally positive results. Sets of Zener cards were also sold to the general public, and in the late 1930s and 1940s testing for ESP was a popular sport. Masses of data were collected, and it seems clear that at least in some cases information was “leaking through” by paranormal means (that is, outside of the known means of acquiring information by the recognized senses). Not only have Zener cards been used, but pictures, videos, images, and emotions have been sent “telepathically” with statistical significance to percipients while fully awake and aware, while in a relaxed state with mild sensory deprivation, or while asleep. However, decades of such experiments have done little more than establish that there is “something” there. How to consistently invoke and control mental psi phenomena remains elusive. Like­wise, though various theories to account for psi have been proposed, including theories based on quantum physics, none have generally been accepted even among parapsychologists (those who professionally study psi phenomena).

In my opinion it might be fruitful to focus more serious attention again on spontaneous cases of psi. Additionally, I believe it is important to explore further the physical parameters that may enhance or impede psi experiences. As al­ready mentioned above, spontaneous psi correlates with geomagnetic activity. It has also been found that incidents of psi correlate with Local Sidereal Time (which relates to the position of the horizon at any particular point on earth relative to the center of our galaxy).

In my studies of ancient temples, shrines, and other sacred sites, I have come to the conclusion that often they were purposefully designed and situated to enhance psi experiences. There is suggestive evidence that at many an­cient temples, such as the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, Egypt, among other practices, signs and messages (inter­preted as from the deity) would appear in dreams of sleeping supplicants, imparting veridical, but otherwise unknow­able, knowledge. That is, I believe in at least some cases psi experiences were being purposefully induced. Psi experiences, religious ecstasy, and mystical revelation appear to be intimately entangled (a topic for another essay). By studying the factors common to genuine time-honored sacred sites, I believe we may be able to more closely cir­cumscribe the principles involved in eliciting strong psi experiences. When it came to psi, I suspect that various an­cient and so-called primitive cultures had a much better grasp of the subject than society at large does today.

Robert M. Schoch, a full-time Boston University faculty member, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale. He is best known for redating of the Great Sphinx of Egypt. He takes a serious scientific interest in the para­normal. His forthcoming book is The Parapsychology Revolution (Tarcher/Penguin). Web site:


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