Of the various branches of psychic phenomena there is none which engages more serious attention at the present day than telepathy or thought transference. The idea of inter-communication between brain and brain, by other means than that of the ordinary sense-channels, is a theory deserving of the most careful consideration, not only in its simple aspect as a claimant for recognition as an important scientific fact, but also because there is practically no department of psychic phenomena on which it has not some bearing. To take one instance—a few decades ago the so-called " rationalist" view of ghosts was simply that supernatural phenomena did not exist, but now a telepathic explanation is offered, more or less tentatively, by an ever-increasing body of intelligent opinion. There are those who, while admitting the genuineness of psychic phenomena are yet satisfied that pure psychology provides a field sufficiently wide for their researches, and who are loath to extend its boundaries to include an unknown spirit-world where research becomes a hundred-fold more difficult. To such students the theory of telepathy affords an obvious way of escape from that element of the supernatural to which they are opposed, since it is generally agreed that in seeking an explanation of thought transference it is a physical process which must be looked for. In the words of Sir William Crookes : "It is known that the action of thought is accompanied by certain molecular movements in the brain, and here we have physical vibrations capable from their extreme minuteness of acting direct on individual molecules, while their rapidity approaches that of the internal and external movements of the atoms themselves."
There is therefore nothing to render the theory of thought-vibrations impossible, or even improbable, though the difficulty of proving it has yet to be overcome. We have, however, to contend with the fact that in many cases on record the most vivid impressions have been transmitted from a distance, thus showing that the distinctness of the impression does not necessarily decrease in proportion as the distance becomes greater. In this case we must either conclude that there are other factors to be taken into account, such as the varying intensity of the impression, and the varying degrees of sensitiveness in the percipient, or we must conclude, as some authorities have done, that telepathic communication goes direct from one mind to another, irrespective of distance, just as thought can travel to the opposite side of the globe with as much ease as it can pass to the next room. Other authorities claim that the transmission of thought is on a different plane from any physical process, though, as the action of thought itself has a physical basis, it is difficult to understand why a supernatural explanation should be thought necessary in the case of telepathy. In the former connection it may be remarked that trivial circumstances can be transmitted to a percipient near at hand, while as a rule only the more intense and violent impressions are received from a distance. The question whether the telepathic principle is diffusive, and spreads equally in all directions, or whether it can be projected directly toward one individual, is still a vexed one.
If it be in the form of ethereal vibrations, it would certainly seem easier to regard it as diffusive. On the other hand, practical experience has shown that in many instances, even when acting from a distance, it affects only one or two individuals. However, this might be explained naturally enough by the assumption that each transmitter requires a special receiver—i.e., a mind in sympathy with itself. But as yet no explanation is forthcoming, and the most that can be done is to suspend judgment for the present, knowing that only the possibility, or, at most, the likelihood, of such a mode of communication has been proved, and that of its machinery nothing can be said beyond the vaguest surmise.
The theory of thought transference is no new one. Like gravitation, it is a daughter of the hoary science of astrology, but while gravitation is a full-grown fact, universally accepted of science, telepathy, in its scientific aspect, is as yet an infant, and a weakling at that. However, it is not difficult to understand how both should spring from astrology, nor to trace the connection between them. The wise men of ancient days supposed the stars to radiate an invisible influence which held them together in their course, and which affected men and events on our planet, receiving in their turns some subtle emanation from the earth and its inhabitants. From this idea it was but a step to assume that a radiant influence, whether magnetic or otherwise, passed from one human being to another. The doctrine of astral influence was shared by Paracelsus and his alchemistic successors until the epoch of Sir Isaac Newton, whose discovery of the law of gravitation brought the age of astrology to a close. To the conception of magnetic influence color was lent by the practices of Mesmer, and his followers, who ascribed to the " magnetic fluid " the phenomena of hypnosis. The analogy between the mysterious and inexplicable force binding worlds together and the subtle influence joining mind with mind is sufficiently obvious, but the difficulty is that while gravitation may be readily demonstrated, and never fails to give certain definite results, experiments in telepathy reveal the phenomena only in the most spasmodic fashion and cannot be depended upon to succeed even under the most favorable conditions. Nevertheless such systematized experiments as have been conducted from time to time have more than justified the interest which has been displayed in telepathy. Science, which had so long held herself aloof from hypnosis, was not desirous of repeating her error in a new connection. In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research came into being, numbering among its members some of the most distinguished men in the country. It had for its object the elucidation of the so-called " supernatural " phenomena which were exciting so much popular interest and curiosity; and foremost among these was the phenomenon of thought transference, or, as it has since been christened, telepathy. Viewing their subject in a purely scientific light, trained in the handling of evidence, and resolved to pursue truth with open and unbiased minds, they did much to bring the study of psychic phenomena into a purer and more dignified atmosphere.
They recognized the untrustworthiness of human nature in general, and the prevalence of fraud even where no object was to be gained but the gratification of a perverted vanity, and their experiments were conducted under the most rigid conditions, with every precaution taken against conscious or unconscious deception. Among the most valuable evidence obtained from experimental thought transference was that gleaned by Professor and Mrs. Sidgwick (q.v.) from their experiments at Brighton in 1889-91. In this series the percipients—clerks and shop assistants—were hypnotized. Sometimes they were asked to visualize, on a blank card, an image or picture chosen by the agent. At other times the agent would choose one of a bundle of cards numbered from 10 to 90, and the percipient was required to state the number on the picked card, which was done correctly in a surprising number of cases. We find, curiously enough, that the results varied in proportion as the agent and percipient were near or far apart, and were materially affected by the intervention of a door, or even a curtain, between the two, but this was ascribed to a lack of confidence on the part of the percipient, or to such physical causes as fatigue or ennui, rather than to the limited scope of the telepathic principle. On the whole we are justified in thinking that chance alone would not account for the number of correct replies given by the hypnotized subject.
Towards the end of the century a criticism was leveled at these experiments by Messrs. Hansen and Lehmann, of Copenhagen, whose belief it was that the phenomenon known as " subconscious whispering," together with hyperesthesia on the part of the percipient, would suffice to produce the results obtained by the Sidgwicks. This suggested explanation, while it does not cover the entire ground has some right to our consideration. If hypnotism reveals so marvelous a refinement of the perceptions, may not some elements of hyperesthesia linger in the sub-consciousness of the normal individual ? If dreams contain in the experience of almost everyone, such curious examples of deduction, may not the mental under-current follow in waking moments a process of reasoning of which the higher consciousness knows nothing? It may, and it does.
That "other self," which is never quite so much in the background as we imagine, sees and hears a thousand things of which we are unconscious, and which come to the surface in dreams, it may be long afterwards ; and there is no reason to suppose that it might not see and hear indications too slight to be perceived in a grosser sphere of consciousness, and thus account for some cases of "thought transference." On the other hand, we have evidences of telepathy acting at a distance where sub-conscious whispering and hyperesthesia are obviously out of the question. Though hyperesthesia may be advanced as a plausible explanation in some—or, indeed, in many—instances of telepathy, it cannot be accepted as a complete explanation unless it covers all cases, and that it certainly does not. So we must look elsewhere for the explanation, though it is not without reluctance that we quit a theory so admirably adapted to known conditions that it scarcely requires a stretching of established physiological laws to make telepathy fit as naturally as wireless telegraphy into the scheme of things.
As has been earlier mentioned, practically every branch of psychic phenomena would be vitally affected by the scientific proof of telepathy. Coincident dreams might, in the majority of cases, be easily explained away. The-visions of the crystal-gazer, the trance-utterances of the medium, could be accounted for in the same manner, together with the occasional apparitions visiting the normal individual. Apparitions of the dead, however, do not so readily submit themselves to a telepathic explanation. If they are genuine apparitions, and not meaningless hallucinations, we must either admit that the impulse directing the impression comes from the surviving spirit of the deceased agent, or that it was transmitted while he was yet alive.
In the latter case we are confronted with a difficulty—how to account for the time which may elapse between the death of the agent and the appearance of the vision. To bridge the gap thus formed Mr. Podmore, in his work on Telepathic Hallucinations, has produced his theory of latent impressions, which successfully overcomes the difficulty. According to Mr. Podmore, impressions transmitted from one mind to another may remain latent for a considerable time awaiting a favorable opportunity for development. Thus the apparition of one who been dead for some time may result from an impression transmitted during his lifetime, which the percipient has retained, until a chance combination of ideas brings it into the upper stratum of consciousness in the form of a hallucination. Obviously the theory of latent impressions may bear on other phenomena than that of apparitions, and serve to fill in gaps which might otherwise remain blank.
It is interesting to compare the tone of criticisms pronounced on telepathy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century with that which characterizes later utterances on the subject. Science is no longer ashamed to pursue her researches in psychic phenomena; thought transference no longer appears to intellectual people as a doubtful by-path of psychology, and the change argues that at least a fair attempt will be made to reach the truth of the matter.
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