So far from the scientific study of man being a region whose boundaries are pretty well mapped out, and which only requires to be filled in with further detail by physiologists and psychologists, we should then perceive that we are standing only on the threshold of a vast terra incognita, which must be humbly explored before we can even guess at its true extent, or appreciate its relation to the more familiar realms of knowledge.[1]

 

In the late nineteenth century, public life abounded with accounts of phenomena that seemed to defy all scientific explanation. How could two people, far apart, share the same thoughts without having communicated? How could a young girl, blindfolded in a distant room, guess—far more successfully than mere chance would dictate—the numbers, words, and cards being viewed by someone else? How could one person visualize a diagram only to watch another reproduce it independently on paper? Intrigued by strange occurrences like these, a collection of British intellectuals proposed that a force long suspected to operate in the natural world, but never proven to exist, was at work. In 1882, the British poet and psychologist F. W. H. Myers coined the term telepathy to describe the communication of thoughts by means other than the recognized senses.

The creation of this neologism was emblematic of a grand-scale attempt to situate these extraordinary experiences within normal language—and within “normal” science—thus freeing those who wished to understand these phenomena from reliance on language reserved for the superstitious and miraculous. The concept of “telepathy” quickly became entangled in Victorian debates about stage illusionists, sensitive children, professional physiologists, and a host of other characters dispersed across Western Europe and America.

 

Their aim was simple: to expand the narrow scope of scientific naturalism, to make space for the investigation of apparently supernatural phenomena.

 

The newly formed Society for Psychical Research was responsible for the development and propagation of research surrounding telepathy and similar marvels.[2] The Society, founded in London in 1882, sought to investigate the strange and extraordinary phenomena that had already captured the popular imagination of late-Victorian Britain. Its establishment marked the beginning of a new field of study called psychical research, which sought to systematically explore subjects neglected by the scientific community.[3] This new field of study required a new type of investigator as well: the psychical researcher, whose expeditions into the terra incognita of the human mind traversed the boundaries of physical and psychological phenomena and drew on a variety of interpretive resources. But the potential of psychical research lay not in a special claim to novel scientific methods; rather, it grew from the conviction that patient, disciplined accumulation of evidence would yield valuable results in a domain that established science had long ignored.

The temptation to conjecture was understandably strong when navigating these uncharted regions of science. Yet one should not assume that psychical researchers were intent on startling or mystifying humanity with evidence of telepathy. Instead, they preferred to be seen “as hewers of wood and drawers of water in a territory which inductive science has yet to clear for her own.”[4] Their aim was simple: to expand the narrow scope of scientific naturalism, to make space for the investigation of apparently supernatural phenomena.

Nevertheless, their research was met by radically divergent reactions. Most scientific professionals attempted to situate telepathy firmly in the realm of pseudoscience and the fantastical, and the most generous saw telepathy as a rather dubious amusement.[5] The less forgiving regarded it as a moral threat to social progress—as something that revivified superstition in an age increasingly demystified by the tools of science.

It’s a commonplace that fear thrives on the unknown. By drawing attention to realms of unfamiliar experience, telepathy and psychical research inevitably attracted controversy and accusations of nefarious activity. As historian Pamela Thurschwell writes, “For psychical researchers, as for other commentators at the time, telepathy both promised and threatened that the mind was not necessarily a sealed and protected space.”[6] The theorization of telepathy—perhaps unwittingly—summoned the specter of unseen manipulation. To some, experiments in telepathy were about more than just reading the thoughts of others—they were about controlling them, too. Anxieties surrounding endemic panic, psychogenic disease, and psychic epidemics recur frequently in the literature on telepathy. Psychical research, by its very existence, revealed that human consciousness was far more fragile and misunderstood than many preferred to believe.

 

By declaring themselves the investigators of occult and marginalized phenomena, psychical researchers engaged in an act of self-marginalization, ensuring the historical continuity of the boundaries they sought to demolish.

 

Many of the mysteries brought forth by the psychical researchers remain unsolved to this day. The relation of mind to body, or in what sense the will is free, are questions that enraptured psychical researchers in the nineteenth century and yet still escape scientific consensus.

In many ways, this absence of consensus is a necessary condition for the existence of psychical research and the theory of telepathy. As soon as consensus materializes, the need for psychical research evaporates. Likewise, as soon as telepathic effects are described by scientifically recognized causes, they no longer belong to the domain of telepathy. They become instead just another part of our established scientific knowledge of the natural world.

By studying how people have attempted to broaden their sense of the naturally possible, we illuminate where the boundaries of knowledge were drawn in the first place. What a historical analysis of psychical research reveals is that the scientific “fringe” and “center” mean nothing independently. In other words, there cannot be “scientifically established” knowledge without the rejection of other theories of nature. By declaring themselves the investigators of occult and marginalized phenomena, psychical researchers engaged in an act of self-marginalization, ensuring the historical continuity of the boundaries they sought to demolish. It was not funding or clout that psychical researchers lacked, but the wherewithal to resist the social construction of boundaries between themselves and official science.

These boundaries are, clearly, still in place. The contemporary perception of paranormal research as a marginalized science ensures that theories like telepathy remain outside the realm of widespread adherence. Yet polls such as one conducted by Gallup in 2005, which found that 31 percent of Americans believe in “telepathy/communication between minds without using traditional senses,” give us pause.[7]

So in some respects, the jury still seems to be out on whether the originators of telepathy were visionaries or quacks, whether genuine evidence for telepathy has ever been found or the psychical researchers were merely deceived. Much like the original subjects of psychical research, the would-be consensus on the study of telepathy remains obscure, debated, and hopelessly divided. Telepathy continues to persist in strange and numerous ways, but as a contested topic perpetually vulnerable to modern skepticism.

Indeed, there is a certain seductive appeal to using history to pinpoint moments where humanity has been shockingly misguided. We may feel better knowing that preposterous ideas would not be tenable in the enlightened age in which we live. But by simply pointing out that we currently have more accurate knowledge of the natural world, we learn nothing about why a belief was held in the first place, why individuals defended it so vehemently, and why today there is no controversy on the matter.

As one prominent psychical researcher wrote in 1884, “Neither in the advanced and seemingly impregnable positions of modern science, nor in the wide diffusion of a common education, do we find any sufficient ground for supposing that new or unusual facts will cease to appear and gradually make good their position in the natural scheme.”[8] While progressive narratives of science tempt us to believe that we now possess greater wisdom of the world than past generations, the remarkable persistence of telepathy as a continuing subject of debate indicates that the story is more complicated. By elucidating the forces that conditioned, and continue to condition, beliefs regarding telepathy, we see how forces subtler and more powerful than sensory experience of nature shape our understanding of the world.


Alex Stein is a graduate of Harvard College.

 

[1] “Third Report of the Literary Committee: A Theory of Apparitions – Part I,” 119-20.

[2] The Society for Psychical research will hereafter be referred to by the condensed title preferred by historical contemporaries, “the Society.”

[3] Psychical researchers used the term psychical to embrace a diverse collection of subjects that lay outside the boundaries of recognized science and were inexplicable by recognized physiological laws. See Deborah C. Coon, “Testing the Limits of Sense and Science,” American Psychologist 47 (1992): 143-151, for a discussion of the terminological confusion among psychologists and psychical researchers during this period. As Coon notes, the term psychical was often used interchangeably with the term psychological, but began to acquire specific associations with the Society after 1882.

[4] “Fourth Report of the Literary Committee: A Theory of Apparitions – Part II,” 185.

[5] Among the many insults that contemporaries threw at the theory of telepathy were “serio-comic,” “ridiculous,” “nonsense,” “absurd,” “marvelous,” “pseudo-scientific,” and “impossible.”

[6] Thurschwell, “The Society for Psychical Research’s Experiments in Intimacy,” 36.

[7] “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal,” Gallup, http://www.gallup.com/poll/16915/three-four-americans-believe-paranormal.aspx.

[8] Gurney, “The Nature of Evidence in Matters Extraordinary,” 485.

Image of a wintery London from Flickr via Edmund Gall

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  1. Adam Kelley

    Hello I am Adam Kelley and I have been experiencing telepathic communication for 3 Years. I was hoping to discuss it with you.

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