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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