Friday, August 29, 2014

How Telepathy Works (Or Doesn’t)

I see a picture of two men. One has a beard.
On August 29, 1903, the Deseret Evening News ran a somewhat long piece on (then) current studies on telepathy, viewing it as a controversy between Garret P. Serviss (not a professor, but a journalist, no matter what the Evening News said[1]) and William T. Stead (journalist, publisher, and Esperantist). Mr. Stead announced that there had been a transmission of messages by telepathy from Nottingham to London. Mr. Serviss was skeptical.

The article itself was written by H. Addington Bruce, yet another journalist. Judging from his list of publications, Mr. Bruce did not share Mr. Serviss’s skepticism (or at least saw that books on the subject would sell). For that matter, the article itself seems to assume it most likely that thoughts can be transferred by telepathy. At the time, there was the new experience of “the Marconi system of wireless telegraphy,“ if you could send those messages across the air without wires, why not thought itself?

The paper noted that the Nottingham to London transference was unusual as it was over such a long range.
As a rule the effort to transfer thought from one mind to another are made over a short distance, those engaged being careful to avoid the physical contact that might expose them to the old charge that success has been due to “muscle reading.” One of the most interesting of minor telepathic experiments is that in which one person is able to draw pictures from mental images formed in the ind of another. The annals of the Psychical society contain hundred of copies of telepathic pictures such as those reproduced in the illustration.
The Psychical society was the “Society For Psychical Research,” which, the article notes, “had the satisfaction of adding to the ranks such men as Sir William Crookes,[2] Dr. Oliver Lodge, [3] W. T. Stead, and Balfour Stewart[4] in England.“ Mr. Bruce saw a problem with skepticism, such as that offered by Mr. Serviss:
It must be said that if the majority of scientists do not openly scout the possibility of interchanging ideas through space by mere exercise of will, they aver that telepathy, if it exist, can never become a recognized factor in human life and progress, owing to the variability of the conditions under which it must manifest itself and to the fact that the stress of latter day life is such that the mind is seldom found in the state of receptivity and passiveness requisite for the successful transmission of a message from the mind of another.
If it doesn’t work, you blame the conditions of the experiment. How can this poor man engage in telepathy with all those skeptics staring at him! There were those who attempted to find a scientific explanation for it.
An explanation in high favor with telepathists today is that offered by Sir William Crookes on the hypothesis that thought is carried from mind to mind by ether waves of even smaller amplitude and greater frequency than those that carry the X rays.
Or, maybe not. Sir William should have kept to his chemical research. In the end, Mr. Bruce states that “the great problem, however, is not how telepathy operates, but whether this is such a thing as telepathy and, if there is, whether it can be put to practical purposes.” He then goes on to suggest that news of an uprising in India spread so quickly among that native population that it sounded “suspiciously like telepathy.”
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  1. Given the large number of people erroneously tilted “professor” in these posts, I need to focus a post on someone who was a tenured scholar at a university.  ↩
  2. A chemist.  ↩
  3. A physicist.  ↩
  4. A physicist.  ↩

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