Telepathy: Communication Through Extrasensory Means

Telepathy is a term that was coined in 1882 by Frederic W. H. Myers, an early psychologist, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and a good friend of William James. Most people view telepathy as a strange, mystical power with no basis in reality. However, ever since the creation of the Society for Psychical Research, telepathy has been looked at by certain academics and researchers who were not always on the margins of scientific society as they are today. So what is telepathy? How is telepathic ability tested and what kinds of theories are there that try to explain it?

Telepathy is most simply described as communication between minds, wherein one mind picks up information from another. This is often thought of as between two human minds and involving thoughts, feelings, and images. However, the almost universal human practice of prayer can also be thought of as an attempt at telepathy. During prayer people try to communicate with a certain being, be it God, an angel, a saint, or many other types of spirits. These are being who are almost always thought of as being non-physical, or at least not within the immediate vicinity of the person who is praying.

Experimental tests of telepathic ability have been done in the field of parapsychology for several decades, if not for over a century. These experiments commonly involve the use of cards, though many other types of experimental designs have been done as well. In the card experiment, one participant acts as a “sender” and another participant as a “receiver.” The sender is shown a card, either from a regular deck of cards or from a special set of 5 cards known as “zener cards,” and attempts to send a mental image of that card to the receiver.

Many parapsychologists and researchers working in the field have published findings showing statistically significant results from these sorts of experiments. Though these findings are always being challenged by skeptics, they have continued to pile on as experimental designs have become tighter and more stringent.

There are two competing theories as to how telepathy works. The first, which has been around since the term was first introduced, is the idea that telepathy is in fact a material process which can be explained by physical laws. Though telepathy may be “extrasensory,” meaning that it functions outside of the usual five senses, some people have long argued that it nevertheless may be the result of electrical signals travelling from one brain to another.

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There is another position on telepathy, one championed most visibly by psychologist Charles Tart. Tart, who has written several books and published hundreds of articles in the field of parapsychology, argues that telepathy should be seen as a non-physical process. He gives several reasons for this, chief among them the idea that if telepathy was the result of travelling electrical signals then, like any traveling signal, its strength should decrease with distance. He believes that studies have shown this not to be the case. He also argues that properly shielded rooms should be able to block telepathic signals. But once again, in newer studies which do in fact use shielded rooms this hasn’t stopped significant results.

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