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Distant Mental Influence

There is a very general impression that it is possible, at least under
certain circumstances, for one human mind to influence another at a
distance without any of the ordinary known means of communication.
Many people have had the experience of thinking about a friend whom
they have not seen for a long while, and shortly after meeting him.
Sometimes it is found that the friend was making up his mind to bring
about the meeting just about the time that the thought of him came.
Many have had the experience of writing a letter and having it cross
in the mails with another from their correspondent, evidently written
within a few hours, though there had perhaps been no communication for
weeks or months before. There are people who insist that they can, by
concentrating the mind and fixing their eyes on the head of a
person some distance in front of them in a theater, or a railway car,
cause the person to turn around. There are others who say that by
thinking strongly of some person in a distant part of a large room,
that person can be made to think of them. In general, there are many
persons who are quite sure that there is evidence enough to indicate
the possibility of distant mental influence, or, as it has come to be
called learnedly, telepathy.

Telepathy, from the two Greek words, tele, at a distance, and
pathos, feeling, has been much discussed in recent years. Many
people who use the word glibly are inclined to think they know much
about it. A long word, however, is not an explanation, and, just here,
George Eliot's expression "we map out our ignorance in long Greek
names" is worth recalling. There are a number of phenomena that seem
to require some such theory as that of telepathy, but the phenomena
are still under discussion and their significance is by no means
clear. As we understand it, telepathy may mean either thought
transference or mind reading, that is, either the active process by
which we communicate our thought to someone at a distance, or the
passive process by which we receive communications from others. These
thoughts include the idea of mental influence at a distance; that is,
we can by willing influence the wills, or at least the motives to
action, of people at a distance and they may, in turn, influence ours.
The further thought has come, that since the mind largely influences
the body in matters of health, so mental influence from a distance by
affecting mind, may either improve or injure health.

Some sensitive people are disturbed by the thought that they may be
influenced from a distance by others, or at least that suggestions
that come to them, may be due to telepathic influence. Investigation
would probably show that there are at least as many persons disturbed
by real or supposed telepathic influences as there are of those who
have hallucinations. Sometimes it is said that such persons are not
quite sane, but the more experience a physician has with them, the
more he dismisses the thought of insanity and proceeds to use contrary
suggestion and frank discussion, in order to counteract the mental
influences. Insane persons think they are being influenced from a
distance just as they hear voices and see visions, but such
hallucinations may occur to the sane, as apparent telepathic
experiences may also.

Witchcraft.--It used to be a common belief that people could be
influenced, even at a distance, by the mere evil wishes or intentions
of others. After all, the old beliefs in witchcraft that were so
common in Europe and in America until well into the eighteenth century
represent the conviction of mankind that at least certain people
might, from a distance, seriously influence them for evil. Always the
fear of malign influence was uppermost in people's minds and literally
hundreds of thousands of witches were prosecuted, and many thousands
of them put to death, because of this belief in the possibility of
their working evil to others at a distance, merely by willing it.
Occasionally some such material auxiliary to malign purpose as an
image in wax of the one to whom the evil was to be done was used. Into
this the ill wisher stuck pins according to the part that he or she
would want to be affected in the enemy, but as a rule the will, and
nothing more, was used.

Absent Treatment.--In our own time a system of healing, that has
attracted many followers, has taken up the idea of beneficent mental
influence at a distance. "Absent treatment" has now become a familiar
expression. That those who believe in such favorable influence
at a distance should also believe in unfavorable influence seems
inevitable. As a matter of fact, we know that the founder of this
special sect always insisted on the power for evil over herself and
her followers of those who want to exert the injurious influence of
animal magnetism--malicious animal magnetism as it is called. A very
definite attempt was made to bring a case of this kind before the
courts, the subject matter of which exactly resembled some of the old
witchcraft trials in New England! And in spite of the insistence and
emphatic assertion that no such thing is intended, from the principles
that are accepted the necessary logical conclusion is a return to the
belief in witchcraft.

Malignant Magnetism.--As a number of persons are likely to fear such
evil influence of others upon them, the question of the possibility of
it must come up for discussion in order that its status may be clear
in the physician's mind, for by just as much as he can make certain to
the patient that modern psychology refuses to accept distant
influence, will he be able to reassure his patient. Of course, the
patients who come with such complaints have usually some element of
mental trouble. The alienist sees any number of people who are sure
that enemies at a distance are working spells upon them, some by
electrical, some by magnetic means, and some by telepathic absent
treatment, or absent ill-wishing. Such notions are the delusions of
the disequilibrated and these persons often cannot be reasoned with.
Yet very often a distinct delusion may be reasoned out of even a
subrational person, if it is taken seriously, and some striking
expression of its irrationality and of its total disagreement with
scientific views can be shown to the patient.

Action Without a Medium.--The medieval scholastic philosophers quoted
as an absolutely accepted principle the Latin axiom, "actio in
distans repugnat." Literally translated this means action at a
distance is repugnant to reason. Expressed less technically, the
principle declares that any action of one body on another, where there
is no medium connecting them, no link that in some way places them in
contact with one another, is absurd. The expression in distans means
that the two bodies are separated from one another and stand in two
places having no connection of any kind. This principle would
ordinarily seem to preclude the possibility of one person acting on
another, unless there is some mode of communication.

Crookes' Theory.--Sir William Crookes, at a meeting of the British
Association for the Advancement of Science about ten years ago, in
discussing telepathy, directed attention to the fact that there exists
by scientific hypothesis, generally accepted, a definite medium of
communication by which minds at a distance might influence one
another. The medium is the ether which, according to physical
theories, besides carrying light, also carries heat and electrical
waves, and in recent years is recognized as transmitting the impulses
of wireless telegraphy. It is possible that when the cells of certain
human minds are stimulated to a particular phase of vibration, they
may, even at long distances, affect the cells of other individuals
that resemble them, or are attuned to them, that is, have the same
moment of vibration. This is the principle which underlies wireless
telegraphy. Whether the vibrations of living nerve cells can be made
thus to radiate out over the ether and arouse in any way other cells,
especially to the extent of communicating ideas, is a matter still
open for investigation. The possibility of this occurring cannot
be denied. We are, however, still in the presence of a condition and
not a theory. The question is whether minds are thus influenced at a
distance--whether we have data enough to establish the occurrence of
telepathy or mental communications of any kind at a distance.

No Practical Thought Transfer.--At the beginning, it is of the
greatest importance to recall that, while many people think there must
be something in telepathy and presume that the investigations of
recent years have shown not only the possibility of the communication
of ideas from mind to mind and of the mental influence of one person
over another, even at long distances, but also its actual occurrence,
yet all our ordinary life is founded on the absolute negation of any
such phenomenon. For instance, our courts of law are conducted in
direct contradiction of the possibility of anything like telepathy.
Juries are summoned of twelve good men and true who, as far as
possible, know nothing about the prisoner and as little as may be
about the case. They are supposed to get all their information in the
court room. We do not believe that any of them by any wonderful
process might be able to know what was going on in the prisoner's mind
in spite of his plea. Nor do we think for a moment that they can know
what is going on, apart from what he communicates in evidence, in the
mind of any witness. Neither is there the slightest presumption that
the judge or any of our lawyers can know anything about what is in the
minds of any of the persons present, except as they reveal it by
outward signs.

A lawyer who could employ telepathy with success would be simply
invaluable. Before a month had passed, he would have all the business
of the criminal courts in his hands.

Mental Retention.--In answer to this it may be said that these
represent conditions in which determined effort is made to keep all
possible information that may be in the minds of all concerned from
passing to others. Everyone concedes the power of such absolute self
retention of our thoughts, when we deliberately wish to keep them from
being known to others. When people wish to communicate their thoughts
to others, then it may be different. In that case the sending and
receiving minds are both active and the conditions for interaction, if
it were at all possible, would be favorable. Just this condition
obtains in the court room every day. An innocent prisoner wants with
all his heart and soul to communicate the idea of his innocence to the
judge and jury. Of course, he does not succeed by telepathic means in
transferring to them any inkling of the truth. On the contrary, his
very nervousness and anxiety to set himself right before them will
sometimes actually cause prejudice.

The rule that has thus been exemplified in our courts of law holds for
all business transactions. The ordinary customs of business presume
that the buyer does not know what the seller paid for the particular
article that is being exchanged, and it is on the strength of this
that profit becomes possible. A few telepathic merchants or customers
would work serious havoc in business life.

What thus holds for important affairs in life is just as strikingly
exemplified in the trivial round of social existence and in our
intercourse with friends. Suppose one woman knew what another woman
thought of her!

That charming, old-fashioned institution "courting" would go entirely
by the board, if there were any such thing as real telepathy. In
general, social life in all its features would become very, very
different to what it is.

How Much Slight External Expression Conveys.--Mrs. Coventry Patmore,
the English poet's wife, once told a little story of some people who
lived in a distant island where the inhabitants possessed tails. These
tails were, as they are on the animals, organs of expression, but of
involuntary and quite unconscious expression. It was utterly
impossible for the people there to say nice things to one another when
they had quite other things in mind, because if they did not like the
person their tails hung down behind; if they did like them they wagged
rather vigorously, no matter what their owner might be saying. This
simple revelation of feelings, so much less than even the slightest
degree of telepathy would occasion, was quite enough to work a
revolution in the social affairs of this romantic island. It made the
people truthful and candid in their relations with one another.

Negation of Telepathy.--There is, perhaps, some evidence of the
occurring of telepathy in special cases, but all of our present-day
life is organized on a firm basis of complete negation of the
existence or occurrence of telepathy to even the slightest degree.
Every-day experiences teach us that husbands and wives, even those who
have the greatest love and confidence toward each other, do not really
know their life partners, for it frequently happens that something
turns up which reveals an unsuspected side of character even after
many years of intimate union.

We human beings are "infinitely repellent particles," to use the
phrase, of Matthew Arnold. We never get close enough to one another to
have a real glimpse into the depths of other minds. The information
that is supposed to pass by telepathy from one person to another is so
often just the kind that we would most sedulously conceal. There is
extreme unlikelihood then that any such passage of information takes
place. The cases cited, as proof of this transference of thought, are
much more likely to be coincidences than any evidence of true

Supposed Examples of Telepathy.--In the first place, though there are
opportunities for the exhibition of the phenomena of telepathy every
day and every hour of existence, the cases in which it is supposed to
occur are extremely rare and are distant from one another, both in
time and place. Even the people who claim to have had the phenomena of
telepathy happen to them once or twice, do not pretend that it is at
all a common occurrence with them, and as for the supposed exhibitions
of telepathy upon the stage, these have been exposed over and over
again as the simplest fakes.

As to the cases of telepathy that have been reported, with careful
collection of evidence, to the psychic research societies, and which
are few in number, though some of them are very difficult to explain,
there is no reason why they should not be striking coincidences rather
than startling examples of telepathy. An example will illustrate what
I mean:

A few years ago what seemed to be a complete case of telepathy was
reported in connection with a railroad accident. A Western man about
to take an express train for the East was the object of a good deal of
solicitude. There had previously been a series of accidents to this
very fast train which he was to take. This fact had been discussed in
the family, and did not tend to allay the fears of those who remained
at home. During the night the train actually left the track, and
the car in which the subject of the story was asleep rolled down the

At the moment his train went down the bank the thought of his wife and
daughter came very vividly to his mind. For a moment the awful
position in which they would be placed if anything serious happened to
him occupied his mind to the exclusion of all other thoughts. As soon
as he could, he telegraphed home that he was unhurt, with the
understanding that the telegram should not be delivered before the
following morning.

During the night mother and daughter sleeping in adjoining rooms were
wakened at the same moment, and very seriously disturbed, by
something, they knew not quite what. They rose at once to go to each
other and met at the door. They felt vaguely that father was in some
way connected with their awakening and disturbance of mind. After they
received his telegram they were sure that what disturbed them during
the night was the telepathic communication of father's danger. Each
had, however, deliberately kept from speaking of her impression. When
they found that he had passed through the danger unhurt, they were
sure that it was a call from him that each had heard.

This bears most of the ear-marks of a genuine case of telepathy. Here
are minds whose cells by custom and inheritance are finely attuned to
those of a distant mind that is suddenly very much disturbed. If the
perturbations of that first mind were carried through the ether by a
sort of wireless telegraphy, it would apparently not be very
surprising. So carried, they woke the receptive cells of similar minds
at a long distance, and mother and daughter felt the thrill at the
same instant. Vague though it was, there was a telepathic message.

But there were other passengers in this train who had near and dear
relatives, yet none of them received communications. There have been
literally hundreds of thousands of other accidents in the past fifty
years of railroading in which passengers who have been put in very
serious danger, have thought intensely of their loved ones, and yet,
there has been at most only a dozen or so examples of vague telepathy
of this class. Similar cases to this are extremely rare, though
accidents in America are very frequent. At most, then, we are in the
presence of a very exceptional case. Such cases would mean nothing as
evidence for a scientific law, since they occur so rarely as to aptly
exemplify the old adage that the exception proves the rule. The rule
evidently is that there is no communication at a distance, hence the
surprise when there seems to be some reason for thinking that a
communication has actually taken place. Instead of proving that
telepathy occurs, such cases make it clear, to the limit of
demonstration, that telepathy does not occur unless some extremely
special conditions intervene to make it possible.

How much more easy it is to explain such a case on the score of
coincidence! Of course, mother and daughter, with father absent, and
absent in the midst of what they thought was danger, would go to bed
anxiously thinking of him. They would sleep lightly because of the
worry. Any slight unusual noise would wake them, and at once the
thought of father and his danger would occur to them. If the noise was
sudden, and not repeated, and therefore inexplicable to one awakened
out of sleep, they would probably be so disturbed that it is easy to
understand that they would arise at once and seek each other's
company. Their meeting, therefore, in the doorway between their rooms
would be readily explicable. Neither would say much about the
subject uppermost in her thoughts in order to shield the other. The
telegram in the morning would throw a glow of retrospective light on
the events and seem to give an entirely new significance to their
thoughts. The whole affair, though only a coincidence, would seem to
be a demonstration of telepathy.

Even more marvelous instances of coincidence, in which there was no
question of anything more than coincidence, have been related. The
English Psychical Research Society reported the case of a young man
sent to find some trace of his brother who had disappeared
mysteriously from a steamer sailing from Plymouth to Lisbon. On board
the steamer late at night he stood by the rail thinking of his lost
brother and wondering what could possibly have become of him. Suddenly
as he looked down into the ocean a body came bobbing up out of the
waves almost directly under his gaze. He reported it to the officers
of the vessel and it was grappled for and lifted aboard. It proved to
be the body of his brother. Is this an example of telepathy, that is,
of the mental influence of the perturbed spirit of the live brother
upon the dead brother's body floating below the surface? No one would
stretch supposed telepathy to that extent. The steamer disturbed the
body which had been floating below the surface, as bodies do,
gradually developing within themselves the gases of decomposition.
After a time any slight disturbance, as, for instance, the booming of
a cannon or the passage of even a small boat, will bring a body up. It
so happened that the brother was on the spot, and actually thinking of
the body, but that was the merest coincidence. There was no connection
of cause and effect.

Most of the cases of so-called telepathy can be explained in this way.
As we have said, no source of error is so copious as that of
concluding that because one thing happens after another therefore the
second is caused by the first. People who are so inclined will still
continue to accept such a notion of connection of cause and effect,
however, and we shall have many cases of supposed telepathy exploited
for us on no better grounds than this.

Twins and Telepathy.--There is a definite popular impression that
twins are gifted with the power of telepathic communication much more
than others. Accepting Sir Wm. Crookes' theory, the possibility of
mental reciprocal influence, even at a distance, is greater for them,
since their brain cells must be considered as having corresponding
moments of vibration. Twins of the same sex, especially those who
resemble one another closely, are usually born from a single ovum. The
intimate relations of two such beings to each other can be readily
understood, so that we have many stories of mental communication at
long distances and curious warnings, forebodings and communications of
danger, and especially of sickness and death.

Especially does one find stories of wraith-like appearances of one to
the other of such persons at the moment of death. A series of these
stories, apparently well authenticated, is published by the Psychic
Research Society. There are also a number of tales, seemingly well
attested, of cloud-like shapes of other persons at the moment of
death. As a consequence, there has been developed an idea that there
is some evidence of the distinct possibility of such appearances when
the soul leaves the body. It, however, seems very doubtful whether
these are anything more than a very striking coincidence. Twins are
likely to be almost constantly in one another's minds, so there is
abundant room for coincidences. But any number of twins have
died at a distance from each other without there being any such
warning. Occasionally such startling appearances occur in connection
with people who are so slightly related, or whose existence bears such
slight importance to each other, that it is hard to understand why the
appearance may have come. Whether they are anything more than the
figment of an excited imagination remains to be seen, for, while we
have a little positive evidence, this only emphasizes the possibility
of coincidental day-dreaming in nervous persons.

Negative Tests.--We hear much of the possibility of reading minds at a
distance, or of getting definite information from sealed documents and
the like, but it must not be forgotten that whenever definite
conditions have been set down, so that all the actions of the supposed
clairvoyant could be controlled, then telepathy has always failed to
be manifested. Sir James Simpson, for instance, publicly offered to
give a five-hundred-pound note, which he had placed in a safe deposit
vault, to anyone who could read its number which he had carefully
impressed on his own mind. Needless to say, no one got it. In the days
when Bishop, the exhibiting mind reader, was creating such a furore in
New York and London by supposedly reading people's minds, Labouchere,
the editor of London Truth, offered a similar opportunity to Bishop,
but advantage of it was not taken. Bishop's power was entirely due to
muscle reading. People make involuntary movements of muscles that are
very slight, but sufficient for a trained observer to notice,
especially if his hand is on the individual experiencing the emotions,
and the consequent muscle reflexes. [Footnote 19] About the middle of
the last century, the French Academy made a labored investigation of
telepathy and found that whatever there seemed to be in it, when
control was not properly kept, it at once was demonstrated to be
impossible when conditions were planned so as to prevent deception.

[Footnote 19: The story of Hans, the calculating horse, shows that
even animals usually thought rather dull-witted may catch muscle
movements so slight as to be scarcely visible to any but one looking
particularly for them.]

If patients are worried over disturbing influences from others or the
reading of their thoughts or telepathic suggestions, a calm review
with them of the practical side of this subject, as we have come to
know it in the modern time from actual investigation, will do more
than anything else to relieve their apprehensions. Most of these
patients are unfortunately insane, but the reasoning will help even
some of these. There are some quite rational believers in such
manifestations who will be greatly benefitted.

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