I can’t remember ever doubting telepathy. This would be an unremarkable statement in many non-Western cultures, but in the wrong company might prove risky here, mainly because modernist psychiatry has linked experiences of telepathy, and other supposedly paranormal phenomena, with ‘mental illness’.*
An internet trawl quickly netted an account written by someone who had been labelled paranoid schizophrenic by a psychiatrist because of his telepathic experiences. The author, an unorthodox psychotherapist, goes on to describe an occasion when he was overcome by an inexplicable feeling of profound depression involving suicidal thoughts. After several hours it occured to him that the depression might not be his. Despite the intensity of the experience, it felt alien to him. At this point a female client’s name occured to him.
Overcoming some initial scepticism he decided to reassure her telepathically by saying, in his head, the kinds of things he would have said to her face to face. “You can get through this without killing yourself; I value you; no matter how bad things seem at the moment, its worth going on; you can solve your problems”. At first the depression deepened, but he redoubled his efforts. Then, over the next couple of hours, the mood gradually lifted. It emerged that the woman had parked her car on a railway line and had been sitting there, waiting for a train, but had then, quite unexpectedly, begun to feel hopeful, and had driven away.(1)
The terms telepathy (from the Greek, tele distant, and patheia feeling, suffering, or being touched), and telesthesia (distant ideas), were coined in 1882 by Frederick W. H. Myers, founder of the society for psychical research, who said “we venture to introduce the words telesthesia and telepathy to cover all cases of impression received at a distance without the normal operation of the recognised sense organs”. Freud defined telepathy as the transfer of ideas, emotional states, and conative impulses […] through empty space without employing familiar methods of communication, and argued that it was effectively the same as thought transference.
You don’t have to be Jaques Derrida to spot the importance of notions of normality and familiarity in these formulations.(2) The suggestion of abnormality opened the way for a plethora of psychodyamic explanations that reduced telepathy to ‘defective reality testing’, introjection of others’ thoughts and projection of one’s own, and ‘regression to infantile developmental stages’ associated either with feelings of omnipotence, or symbiotic fusion between the self and external objects.(3)
Since the term ‘telepathy’ was minted in the same era as ‘animism’ I was not surprised to find the following in the literature review section of a 1977 psychiatric journal article: “The incomplete psychological development of primitive culture, often characterised by belief in paranormal processes, has suggested that societies which accept telepathic claims may suffer from regression to primitive states”. Thought insertion, thought broadcasting, and ‘auditory hallucination’ (a.k.a. ‘hearing voices’) are still regarded as first rank symptoms of ‘schizophrenia’ of course, and much has been written about the racist assumptions underpinning the global application of that widely contested diagnostic category. Greyson’s 1977 experiment with psychiatric inpatients (using randomly chosen images sent by people who had no emotional connection with the subjects) unsurprisingly linked ‘telepathic claims’ with schizophrenia, and found women and younger men to be more susceptible to telepathy, linking this to a tendency for men to react against ‘intrusions’.
“3D Slicer” from Kubicki M, et al, Review of Diffusion tensor Imaging Studies in Schizophrenia, J Psych Res, 2007, 41.
The recent redefinition of animism in terms of relationship (as a relational ontology and epistemology) offers a fruitful way of reframing questions about telepathy in such a way that quality of relationship appears more significant than causal mechanisms, whilst telepathic experience puts in question assumptions about selfhood, subjectivity, relationship, and the nature and origin of feelings and thoughts.
Derrida argued that telepathy ‘hyperbolised an extreme limit of sympathy’ whilst at the same time ‘breaching the discreteness and unity of the subject, as well as the systems of thought derived from it’. (quoted in Royle, 1995). I take this to refer to a sense, that I recognise, and that the therapist’s testimony above epitomises, that telepathy -I would add sometimes– appears to combine complete empathy and communion -“I feel what you feel”- with complete alterity -“this feeling, this thought, is (nonetheless) not mine”.
It should come as no surprise that the argument about pathologising telepathy is far from resolved in the 21st century. Mark Beddow from the U.K. Hearing Voices movement writes: “I wonder why the science of psychiatry is not being more powerfully challenged by the science of parapsychology? If telepathy has been proven to exist, how can another science be allowed to continue to ignore the evidence? The cost to the individual due to such ignorance is vast. Suicide, stigma, discrimination, loss of family, friends and lovers, career and social death are real outcomes for those that are labelled with a psychiatric diagnosis. Faculties engaged in the study of parapsychology would glean immense insights by conducting field-based research programmes that included the so-called psychotic.”(4)
Given the hostile response from self-appointed guardians of (orthodox) science to Rupert Sheldrake’s work on telepathy, I hope Mark is not holding his breath. In a book on quantum biology, for example, Jim Alkhalili and Johnjoe McFadden refer to Sheldrake as a parapsychologist (he’s actually a Cambridge biologist) and mention ‘bogus claims of telepathy’ without feeling any need to cite evidence, whilst Richard Dawkins refused to look at Sheldrake’s evidence for telepathy when filming one of his debunking documentaries. For these people telepathy is a pseudoscientific subject that must not be studied.
Which is pity, since Sheldrake has amassed a considerable body of careful experimental evidence for phenomena such as the feeling of being looked at from behind, and knowing who is about to phone or e-mail. Others have even demonstrated changes in skin conductance (a measure of emotional arousal) when a subject is being watched on CCTV cameras. Sheldrake understands these experiences in terms of a theory of the mind as a field that extends in every act of attention and perception to ‘touch’ things in the world. He draws analogies with the fields that that exist within, extend around, and organise the ‘material systems’ of, magnets, mobile phones, or the earth, and with quantum entanglement.
Some of his most striking results have been with other species that live with humans. Thus many dogs, but also cats (to a lesser extent), horses, guinea pigs, parrots, geese, and chickens, know when their human is about to return home. In the case of dogs, he was able to show (by filming them) that some will start waiting by a window from the moment when their human decides to come home, before they get into a car or taxi. Sheldrake suggests that this ability may have evolved in the context of predator-prey relations, and regards it as normal and natural, though from the perspective of the dominant theory of mind (as a phenomenon enclosed within the brain) it can seem paranormal or supernatural.(5) One of the most remarkable records of telepathic healing I’ve come across is a short video showing animal communicator Anna Breytenbach working with a rescued black leopard who had been abused and was therefore extremely aggressive towards humans, initially.
I chose the photo of a dewpond in Derbyshire because, apart from seeming to symbolise a relationship between separateness and connection, it was taken on my first holiday with the woman who was to become my ‘other half’, some thirty five years ago. In the early stages of our relationship telepathic communication happened frequently, helped no doubt by the fact that my nearest phone was in a call box ten minutes walk away (there were no mobile phones or personal computers then, of course). We lived some thirty miles, and three long bus journeys, apart, yet often seemed to meet en route without prior arrangement. Having noticed this phenomenon, we decided to experiment with it. So I’d like to close with the following happy, though admittedly minor, domestic occurence, as an example of the joyful ordinariness of telepathy.
On the 31st January 1981 I arrived, unannounced, at X’s flat in Honley, only to find that the lock had been changed. I tried phoning her work and got no reply, but was told that someone was in, so went back to the flat. This time her friend let me in. After making myself comfortable I ‘beamed’ a message to my partner, who might have been out for the evening, and noticed that it was about six o’clock. A few minutes later I received a message that she would be back at eight. I saw a visual figure eight. Feeling confident about this, I started to make food for both of us. At about twenty past seven a key went into the lock. A suprised and pleased X said immediately “you’ve been signalling, haven’t you? I got a message about six o’clock”. She’d been working that day instead of on the Wednesday, and had signalled back that she couldn’t get back “till late”. A glass half empty interpretation might complain that I failed to pick up her message accurately. A glass half full interpretation would point out that my rhyming slip-up meant that our meal was well timed.
18/2/15 (with a few minor edits 21/2/15).
Note*: The psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements have developed an informed critique of the medicalisation of distress and madness. This generally takes the form of a diagnosis of ‘mental illness’ and often distracts from the crucial importance of practical, financial, social, emotional, spiritual, and other forms of support.
(1)Ken Mellor, Problems with Telepathic Sensitivity, Awakening Network.
(2) Nicholas Royle, After Derrida, Manchester University Press, 1995.
(3) Bruce Greyson, Telepathy and Mental Illness; Deluge or Delusion? Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1977.
(4) Mark Beddow, Telepathy, Parapsychology, and Psychiatry, 2004. Hopefully any further research with ‘so called psychotic’ people would be survivor-led, and based upon the principles of co-operative enquiry. Just listening to and valuing such people’s experiences might be sufficient!
(5) Rupert Sheldrake has some lectures on telepathy online, e.g. here which also has details of his books.