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What is Telepathy

Updated on February 25, 2011

Telepathy the, is direct communication from mind to mind by some means other than the usual senses. Telepathy is considered one of the subclasses of extrasensory perception (ESP). Psychologists carry out research on telepathy by analyzing reports of spontaneous cases and by experimenting under laboratory conditions.

Reports of Spontaneous Cases

Records of what seem to be instances of telepathy vary strikingly. Telepathic impressions may be vague or clear, simple or detailed. They may be over in a flash or last for minutes. Sometimes the experience comes as a visual image and sometimes as a sound, perhaps of a voice. Sometimes the report is of knowledge without sensory imagery—for example, one says, "When the telephone rang I knew it was John, though I hadn't heard from him in months." Such experiences resemble hallucinations or delusions, and the mentally ill often mistakenly think their hallucinations are telepathic.

Investigators of such reports try to find if the experience was described before there was other information about the event, and also if the event took place as reported. Many accounts have been authenticated, some of important or crisis situations. Other cases involve trivial matters, as when a woman in Scotland believed she saw a friend wearing a purple dress. She was astonished because she thought the friend was in England and she believed the friend never wore purple. Later the woman learned that her friend had indeed been in London at that time and had been trying on a new purple dress, the first she had ever bought.

After authenticated cases are collected, two critical questions must be raised about them. Could the experience be explained by normal associations of ideas? For example, might the woman in Scotland have suspected her friend was ready to buy something daringly different? Might the apparent telepathy be only coincidence? If, for example, a mother "hears" her son calling her when he is in a distant accident, consider how often she and other mothers have had a similar experience when nothing was wrong.

Laboratory Experiments

Laboratory investigations seem to confirm that telepathy can occur. They also show that it is a weak ability in most people, and that it is hard or perhaps impossible for a person to be sure that a particular impression is telepathic. Experiments are conducted under tightly controlled conditions, in which the telepathic "messages" follow a random order, the sender and receiver are separated so that there can be no sensory cues, and there is independent recording of what is sent and what is received. Results indicate that telepathy is more likely to be successful between two people who know and trust each other than between strangers, between two who have a good deal in common than two whose attitudes are dissimilar, and between warm, outgoing people than between hostile or reserved ones. It is also more likely to be successful with vivid, emotionally toned stimuli than neutral ones.

In most cases of what is called telepathy, the person may be responding to some object or event rather than to anyone's thoughts about it, as in the case of a father away from home who had a sudden vivid image of his young son falling out of bed. He wrote his wife and learned the child had fallen out of bed at just about the time of his image. If this is more than coincidence, it might represent a response to the event (clairvoyance) instead of to his wife's or child's thoughts (telepathy). Experiments have therefore been conducted in which there was no objective record of the message. The sender translated the digits of a random number table into a private code, never written or spoken, and then "sent" the message in code. These experiments have given results that cannot be explained by chance, thus indicating the existence of "pure telepathy."


There is no good theory of how telepathy occurs. It is sometimes suggested that brain waves from one person or animal may be picked up by another. This seems unlikely for several reasons. Brain waves of sufficient energy to give detailed information over long distances are not found by even the most sensitive instruments. Changes in distance have little effect upon telepathic accuracy. And such brain waves do not account for other forms of ESP that closely resemble telepathy. All types of ESP seem to function intermittently, are difficult to control or identify, show systematic, predictable errors, and have more success with warmth, cooperative interest, and good rapport than with a mood of negativism, hostility, or apathy.


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