TelepathyTelepathy is the mind-to-mind communication of thoughts, ideas, feelings, and mental images. In Psychical Research, Paranormal Investigation, and Mediumship, telepathy is considered as a potential medium for the transmission of data that appears to be paranormal in origin. Telepathy has been studied in parapsychology in controlled laboratory experiments and in Dream research. Telepathy can be both spontaneous and unconscious or deliberate through intention.

Historical Overview

Telepathy was known to ancient peoples and is described in writings and oral lore. It has been regarded as both a natural human ability shared by everyone and as a special ability possessed by the naturally gifted, the specially trained persons, or religious adepts.

The term “telepathy” comes from the Greek tele (“distant”) and pathe (“occurrence” or “feeling”). It was coined in 1882 by Frederic W.H. Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Myers thought “telepathy” expressed the nature of the phenomenon better than other terms used at the time, such as “communication de pensees,” “thought-transference,” and “thought-reading.” Myers said that telepathy involves more than thought, but also visual images, emotions, physical sensations such as pain, motor impulses which prompt recipients to action, and a host of other subtle impressions.

Psychical research interest in telepathy began in the late 18th century, when Franz Anton Mesmer popularized mesmerism, or animal magnetism. Magnetists discovered many magnetized, or hypnotized, subjects could read the thoughts of the magnetist and carry out mental instructions.

In the latter part of the 19th century, telepathy was observed regularly in the emerging field of psychotherapy and in phenomena related to Spiritualism. William James became interested in it and advocated Scientific study. When the SPR was founded in 1884, telepathy became the first psychic capability to be studied Scientifically, in an effort to find a bridge between the psychic and science. The study of telepathy was one of the three main objectives in the founding of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in 1885. James was among the first members who conducted experiments.

Early tests were simple, involving two people in separate rooms who acted as sender and receiver of words, numbers, and images. Charles Richet, French physiologist, introduced mathematical chance to tests and also discovered that telepathy occurred independently of hypnotism. With the introduction of chance, tests grew more sophisticated.

In 1930, J.B. Rhine began Extrasensory Perception (ESP) tests at Duke University in North Carolina, using playing cards and special decks with symbols, called first Zener cards and then ESP cards. Rhine discovered that it was often difficult to determine whether information was communicated through telepathy, Clairvoyance, or Precognition. He concluded that telepathy and clairvoyance are essentially the same psychic function manifested in different ways. Rhine also found that telepathy is not affected by distance or obstacles between sender and receiver. Rhine’s work inspired other tests, and, by 1940, little controversy remained in the Scientific community concerning the existence of extrasensory perception.

Explanations of Telepathy

Various theories have been advanced over the centuries to explain how telepathy works; none is adequate. As Rhine discovered, psychic phenomena bleed into each other, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate and quantify different elements of a psychic experience.

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus advanced wave and corpuscle theories. In the 19th century, William Crookes said telepathy rides on radiolike brain waves. Electromagnetic theories were posited in the 20th century. Carl G. Jung considered telepathy a function of the collective unconscious. More recently, telepathy has been seen as a function of nonlocal consciousness. It transcends both time and space.

Science still has little understanding of exactly how telepathy works. Certain characteristics have been observed, but they do not apply to all cases.

• It is closely tied to emotional states, both of the sender and receiver.
• Women are more likely to experience it than men.
• The telepathic faculty sometimes sharpens with age, perhaps because the physical senses become impaired as age advances.
• Telepathy can be induced in the dream state.
• Telepathy has biological connections: blood volume changes during telepathic sending and recipients’ brain waves change to match those of senders.
• It is adversely affected by dissociative drugs and positively affected by caffeine.
• It is more likely to occur during the full Moon, suggesting that gravitational or cosmic energy fields play a role in the process.

Telepathy in Mediumship

Psychical researchers and paranormal investigators have examined whether or not the effects of mediumship are products of telepathy. For example, a Medium might consciously or unconsciously send out mental expectations of results, which are in turn picked up by sitters. One product of this group mind might be spontaneous Psychokinesis (PK) effects. Another would be mental impressions of messages and Apparitions. (See Ideoplasty.)

Telepathy in Paranormal Investigation

Similarly, the thoughts and expectations of people involved in a paranormal investigation might unwittingly influence the results. For example, if one investigator has a strong mental impression of phenomena or witnesses phenomena, a telepathic impression may be transmitted immediately to others, who experience the same or similar phenomena. Places known to be haunted might acquire Thoughtform phenomena, the product of accumulated collective experiences impressed upon the minds of experiencers. The exact nature and role of telepathy in paranormal experience remains uncertain. Advances in science Demonstrate the interconnectivity of all things. Thus, the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of individuals are automatically part of the collective mix in paranormal experience. The experience of paranormal phenomena should not be seen as isolated, objective events, but as part of a holistic experience.


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  • Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.
  • Gurney, Edmund, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore. Phantasms of the Living. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1918.
  • Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death Vols. I & II. New ed. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954 (orig. published 1903).
  • Radin, Dean. The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.
  • Rhine, J. B. The Reach of the Mind. New York: William Sloane Assoc., 1947.
  • ———. New Frontiers of the Mind. New York: Farrar & Reinhart, 1937.
  • Schmeidler, Gertrude Raffel, and R. A. McConnell. ESP and Personality Patterns. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958.
  • Stevenson, Ian. Telepathic Impressions. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970.
  • Targ, Russell, and Harold Puthoff. Mind-Reach: Scientists Look at Psychic Ability. New York: Delacorte Press, 1977.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

Telepathy : also called mind reading, telepathy is said to occur when one person receives a thought or feeling from the mind of another person. For example, in 1955 a Wisconsin housewife named Joicey Hurth was washing dishes when suddenly she became certain that her daughter was about to be killed. She later learned that at the time she received the impression that her daughter was in danger, the girl had been hit by a car and seriously injured, though not killed. Hurth’s experience is an example of one of the most common incidents of telepathy, in that it occurred when the apparent sender of the telepathic message was in crisis. Moreover, according to one study by Ian Stevenson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, nearly 70 percent of telepathic incidents involve close family members, whereas approximately 28 percent of such incidents occur between friends or acquaintances and only 2 percent between strangers.

Spontaneous Versus Intentional Telepathy

In some cases like Hurth’s, in which a telepathic message was received spontaneously, there are witnesses present to corroborate an account of the event. For example, in one case a woman reported to several people that she had felt an intense but brief chest pain, and an hour later she and her witnesses learned that the woman’s chest pains coincided with her aunt suffering a massive heart attack. In studying this and other reports of spontaneous telepathy, Dr. Louisa E. Rhine, wife and research associate of parapsychologist J.B. Rhine, determined that in approximately 30 percent of such cases, the person receiving the telepathic message or impression was in a normal waking state; 10 percent were having a vision at the time, and 60 percent were dreaming. In many of these dreams, the dreamer “saw” a loved one die or suffer from an accident and shortly after waking discovered that his or her dream had come true.

Spontaneous telepathy often is experienced only once. After the crisis passes, the telepathic ability of the person receiving the message seems to become dormant. Some people, however, seem able to engage in intentional telepathy—that is, to purposefully transmit or receive a mental message—and to do so repeatedly. These apparently gifted psychics have been studied extensively in laboratory tests. Among the earliest such studies was conducted in England in the late nineteenth century on Professor Gilbert Murray, an Oxford scholar. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) tested Professor Murray by placing him in one room while someone in another room thought of something. Murray was then asked to describe this person’s thoughts. He was correct approximately 30 percent of the time, and even more often when the “sender” was his own daughter.

Careful Testing

The SPR concluded that Murray was indeed telepathic, but skeptics of the time offered an alternative explanation. They believed that Murray was eavesdropping on the comments of the testers in the other room. When this theory was disproved by having the testers remain silent, skeptics suggested that Murray and his daughter simply knew each other so well that they could anticipate what the other might be thinking, or that Murray and his daughter had planned their answers in advance. As a result of such criticisms—against these and similar test subjects—in 1915 an American SPR researcher and psychologist, John E. Coover, set out to conduct studies that were as careful and scientifically valid as possible. Using 97 “senders” and 105 “receivers,” he placed a receiver in one room and himself and a sender in another, then gave the sender a package of playing cards consisting of aces through tens of all four suits. The sender would then draw a card while Coover threw a die; depending on whether the resulting number was odd or even, the sender would either concentrate on the card, attempting to transmit its image mentally to the receiver, or set the card aside and draw another. Each sender/ receiver pair made approximately one hundred attempts.

Out of the roughly 10,000 attempts made during the entire study, the number of correct guesses, according to Coover, was 250. He concluded that these results could be attributed to chance or luck. However, subsequent researchers who studied his data argued that there were actually 294 correct guesses because sometimes the receiver would correctly guess a card that the sender had selected but had then set aside. Taking these guesses as correct too, Coover’s successes were greater than expected by chance. However, his study had a flaw: Receivers actually had two chances to get a correct answer, by guessing either the playing card’s number or its suit. To address this problem, during the 1930s psychologist Karl Zener designed a set of cards specifically for telepathy tests; called Zener cards, they depict simple black figures instead of the suits and numbers of regular playing cards.

Zener cards have now been used for decades to test for psychic ability, with varying results. In many cases, however, the results have been disappointing. For example, during the Apollo 14 moon mission of 1971, one of the astronauts concentrated on a randomly selected card at certain prearranged times, attempting to transmit images mentally to four people on Earth. His success rate was less than what the laws of probability would predict. Low success rates are also typical the longer a telepathy test continues. In other words, researchers have discovered that the most correct guesses occur at the very beginning of a test, and as the subject becomes fatigued, the number of correct guesses drops dramatically. Thus, there appears to be a connection between energy level and telepathic ability.

Altered Mental States

Other experiments have suggested that hypnosis heightens telepathic ability. For example, in one series of experiments, a person designated as the telepathic sender was left in a normal waking state while a person designated as the receiver was placed under hypnosis. The two people were in different rooms. The sender was then given a substance like salt or sugar to taste, and the receiver was asked to identify what the sender was tasting. Several of these tests yielded a number of correct answers greater than what chance alone would have predicted.

Similarly, some studies have attempted to determine whether someone in a dreaming state is more receptive to telepathic images. For example, in the 1970s researchers at the Maimonides Community Mental Health Center in Brooklyn, New York, had a sender attempt to transmit a specific image to a sleeper while they monitored the sleeper’s eyelids for rapid eye movements, which indicate when someone is dreaming. When awakened in the middle of a dream, people are far more likely to remember dream content, and the Maimonides test subjects were no exception. They were able to describe their dreams in detail, and these descriptions were then analyzed by a panel of judges who did not know which of several images had been used in each test. The judges matched dream descriptions to images, and for certain test subjects the success rate was high. In fact, one subject apparently dreamed of the transmitted image thirteen out of fifteen times.

Because of such results during dreaming and hypnotic states, parapsychologists hypothesize that the subconscious is more receptive to psychic connections than the conscious mind, which can be distracted by sensory input. To test this theory, researchers have developed another way to isolate the mind from the senses. Called ganzfeld tests (after the German word ganzfeld, which means “entire field” or “total environment”), these studies are conducted on test subjects whose senses have been deprived of stimulation. Specifically, the subject is placed in a soundproof room that is temperature and pressure controlled for maximum comfort. The subject also wears headphones that supply a crackling sound (known as white noise), which prevents the subject from hearing any one specific sound, and special eye covers and lightbulbs are used to allow the subject to see only a diffused light rather than a clear image. The person placed in this room is the receiver, and various tests are conducted with a sender trying to transmit thoughts, mental images, or feelings to that person. The average success rate in more than seven hundred such studies conducted at several different laboratories is 34 percent, whereas given the way the studies are structured, probability would predict 25 percent. Some extrasensory perception (ESP) researchers consider these results impressive, while others dismiss the difference as being insignificant.

Receivers Versus Senders

There has also been debate among researchers as to which partner in the telepathic exchange is more important. In most ESP tests, the abilities of the receiver are the focus of the experiment, with that person’s guesses determining whether the test is a success or a failure. But some researchers wonder if the success rates might depend just as much on the ability of the sender. In fact, some parapsychologists have suggested that some researchers who are themselves gifted psychics may be unintentionally skewing the results of their experiments. In other words, the researcher, rather than the designated sender, is actually the person sending correct answers to test subjects, which could explain why some researchers’ experiments yield higher success rates than others’ do.

Lucky Guesses

Skeptics agree that researchers can influence their test subjects—but not through psychic ability. Instead, skeptics say that testers get the results they want because they unintentionally influence the answers that their subjects give, through subtle body cues and hints. Accusations of such influence, whether unintentional or intentional, are common in the field of paranormal research, with skeptics typically attributing successful results to flawed methodology or outright fraud. Where such arguments are unconvincing, skeptics say that the successful results are simply flukes, even when it is difficult to argue that “lucky guesses” could be responsible for all of the correct answers in a particular test of telepathy. Still, even believers in telepathy admit that they cannot be sure that telepathy is responsible for all of these correct answers, or for instances where someone suddenly “knows” that a distant loved one is in danger. What these believers say is clear, however, is that more research into the possibility and nature of telepathy is needed.


  • Extrasensory Perception
  • Ganzfeld Studies
  • Zener Cards


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning