Saturday, June 10, 2006

History of Telepathy: Chronology to 1950

Although over the centuries various theories have been advanced to describe the functioning of telepathy, none seem to be adequate. Telepathy, like other psychic phenomena, transcends time and space.

2000 B.C.

In the oldest dream book extant, the Egyptian papyrus of Deral-Madineh dating back to 2000 B.C., there are examples of divine revelation. The Egyptians practiced dream incubation, i.e., sleeping in temples in a deliberate effort to induce divinely inspired dreams which would supply answers concerning the state of health and the future of the dreamer. Oracular dreams even affected affairs of state.

R.K. Woods (The World of Dreams, 1947) notes that the Egyptians tried to communicate with others through their dreams, believing that homeless spirits carried the message. This suggests that there was some familiarity with the idea of telepathic communication

One well-known dream, possibly suggestive of telepathic influence, is the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:1-35). The king awoke one morning and was unable to remember a dream he felt was oracular in nature. His dream interpreters were frustrated. When Daniel was consulted, he turned to God in prayer, and Nebuchadnezzar's dream was revealed to him in a night vision. He then related the dream to Nebuchadnezzar, who recognized it as his own.

1500 - 1000 B.C.

In ancient Vedic literature (1500-1000 B.C.) dreaming is seen as an intermediate state of the soul between this world and the other. In the sleeping state the soul leaves the body in "breath's protection" and roams in space, where it sees both this world and the other.

This belief, which seemingly gives credence to telepathy, was introduced in Greece as early as 500 B.C. and is well-known in European folklore. The Greeks, however, were more inclined to the tradition of the divine message dream, a tradition favored by their Eastern neighbors. They distinguished between oracular dreams without symbolism and symbolic ones whose divine message had to be unraveled by professional interpreters.


Dodds, F. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. London: Beacon Press, 1957.
Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture. London: John Murray, 1871
Van de Castle, R. The Psychology of Dreaming. Morristown, New Jersey: General Learn­ing Press. 1971)

460 - 370 B.C.

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus put forth the wave and corpuscle theories to explain telepathy. This began what may be called the naturalization of the supernatural dream.

Democritus (460-370 B.C.) is credited with the first physical theory of dream telepathy (Dodds, F. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. London: Beacon Press, 1957.)

His view of telepathy is derived from the thesis that everything, including the soul, is made up of innumerable, indivisible, minute particles called atoms. These atoms con­stantly emit images of themselves, which in turn are composed of still other atoms.

He postulated that the images projected by living beings, when emotionally charged, could be transmitted to a dreamer (percipient). When the images reached their destination, they were believed to enter the body through the pores. Images emitted by people in an excited state were especially vivid and likely to reach the dreamer in an intact and undistorted form because of the frequency of emission and the speed of transmission.

The importance he assigned to the emotional state of the agent or sender is certainly in keeping with both present-day anecdotal and experimental findings.

384 - 322 B.C.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) rejected the notion of a divine origin of dreams. In his essay "On Divination In Sleep" (Woods, 1947) he discussed veridical dreams and took issue with Democritus' atomist thesis.

The topic of his essay is pre­cognitive dreams, but his theory appears to be primarily applicable to instances of telepathy. He compared what happens in telepathic transmission with the ripple effect created by a stone thrown into water. Waves are propagated through the air of the night and "nothing hinders but a certain motion and sense may arrive to souls that dream ...." There are motions during the day­time as well, but the night is more tranquil so that the motions are not so easily dissolved. Besides, "those that are asleep have a greater perception of small inward motions than those that are awake."

Aristotle and Democritus thus made the paranormal dream an object of scientific inquiry and postulated a physical carrier for the information.


H.M. Weserman (1819) is credited with the first published report on experiments with telepathically induced dreams. Serving as agent himself, he attempted to project his "animal magnetism" into the dreams of friends who later reported their dreams to him. Weserman claimed to have been successful on five occasions.

His ideas did not arouse sufficient interest to spur further efforts by contemporary investigators.

Source: Weserman, H. M. Versuche willkürlicher Traumbildung. Archives f. d. Tierischen Magnetismus. 6: 135-142, 1819.

There are scattered references to paranormal dreams in many later sources, notably in the writings of the German physician C. G. Carus (Meier, 1972).


Alfred Russel Wallace was the autodidactic insect collector who spent eight years in the Malay Archipeligo in the 1850s collecting 125,660 species of insects. In 1858, while in Borneo, he sent a letter to Charles Darwin conjecturing about the origin of differences among related species of insects and generalizing these conjectures to other animals. ["Connections" by James Burke, Scientific American (January 1998):113.] Darwin immediately published his own theory as The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Alfred Russel Wallace was also a leading spiritualist who believed in contacting other souls through the spirit medium.

At the same time, Oliver Lodge, physics professor at Oxford was "particularly interested in thought transference." He was also responsible for creating a device that would permit the continuous transmission of electromagnetic waves (a small iron tube filled with iron filings).

This "paved the way" for Reginald Aubrey Fessenden who "succeeded in sending out continuous radio waves" (as opposed to the intermittent signals of Marconi's radio); these radio waves "were capable of carrying voice messages."


The eminent British chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes, thought telepathy rode on radio- like brain waves: "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."


Mark Twain experienced telepathic communication with a friend, William H. Wright.


"Telepathy" is derived from the Greek terms tele ("distant") and pathe ("occurrence" or "feeling"). The term was coined in 1882 by the French psychical researcher Fredric W. H. Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). It first appears in his article in the Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research I, 2:147. Myers thought his term described the phenomenon better than previously used terms such as the French "communication de pensees," "thought-transference," and "thought-reading."

Research interest in telepathy had its beginning in mesmerism. The magnetists discovered that telepathy was among the so-called "higher-phenomena" observed in magnetized subjects, who read the thoughts of the magnetists and carried out the unspoken instructions.Soon other psychologists and psychiatrists were observing the same phenomena in their patients.

Sigmund Freud noticed it so often that he soon had to address it. He termed it a regressive, primitive faculty that was lost in the course of evolution, but which still had the ability to manifest itself under certain conditions.

Psychiatrist Carl G. Jung thought it more important. He considered it a function of synchronicity (1). Psychologist and philosopher William James was very enthusiastic toward telepathy and encouraged more research be put into it.


When the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) was founded in 1885, after the SPR in 1884, telepathy became the first psychic phenomenon to be studied scientifically. The first testing was simple. A sender in one room would try to transmit a two-digit number, a taste, or a visual image to a receiver in another room.

The French physiologist Charles Richet introduced mathematical chance to the tests, and also discovered that telepathy occurred independent of hypnotism.

In August, 1885, Sigmund Freud began to study hypnotism under Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpetriere hospital in Paris.


The three of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, E. Gurney, F. W. H. Myers, and F. Podmore, published the apex of their early investigations in 1886 as the two-volume work Phantasms of the Living. It was with this work that the term "telepathy" was introduced, replacing the earlier term "thought transference".

Among the 1300 pages of case histories, the book contains 149 cases of dream telepathy. Myers defined the term telepathy as "the extrasensory communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another."

The founders of the SPR faced the formidable task of defining and classifying a wide range of unexplainable phenomena and setting standards for observation and reporting. Although much of the initial investigations consisted largely of gathering anecdotal accounts with follow-up investigations, they also conducted experiments with some of those who claimed telepathic abilities.

These men were astute investigators and were very exacting in their search for evidentiality. In the 1880s, however, less was known about the vicissitudes of memory and dream processes than today, so that not all the material they collected would meet modern evidential standards.


Henry Drummond in his book, The Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man (1894) wrote, "Telepathy is theoretically the next stage in the evolution of language."


G. B. Ermacora (1895), an Italian psychiatrist, attempted to induce telepathic dreams in a rather strange experimental arrangement. His star subject was a medium in Padua, Signorina Maria Manzini, who had a trance control called Elvira. When Signorina Manzini went into a trance, Dr. Ermacora would suggest to Elvira the specific topic of a dream she was to induce telepathically in Angelina, Maria's four-year-old cousin. The latter would then relate her dream in the morning to the medium, who, in turn, informed Dr. Ermacora. There were, indeed, striking correspondences, but judged by modern standards, the experiments were seriously lacking in precautions against sensory leakage. They remain only of historical interest.


In March 1908, Sigmund Freud described three cases that might seem to have indicated thought transference at a meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society, but he still excluded the possibility of telepathy. Then he met Jung, and was profoundly shaken by some apparently paranormal events, which Jung himself provoked.


Freud began to make some half-hearted inquiries about telepathy in the company of his friend, the occultist Sandor Ferenczi. They visited a Frau Seidler in Berlin, who claimed to be able to read letters blindfolded. She correctly guessed that a letter she was given came from Vienna; but Freud later realized the place of origin was written on the envelope.


Sigmund Freud joined the Society for Psychic Research, and five years later became a member of the American society.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave up writing the Sherlock Holmes series in 1914 in order to assume his duties as one of the leaders of the Society for Psychic Research, in which Wallace, Lodge, and Myers had so much influence.


Interest in telepathy increased following World War I as thousands of bereaved turned toward Spiritualism attempting to communicate with their dead loved ones. The telepathic parlor game called "willing" became popular. Mass telepathic experiments were undertaken in the United States and Britain.

In 1917, psychologist John E. Coover from Stanford University conducted a series of telepathy tests involving transmitting/guessing playing cards. His participants were able to guess the identity of cards with overall odds against chance of 160 to 1; however, Coover did not consider the results to be significant enough to report this as a positive result.


Wilhelm Stekel, a formal associate of Freud, published his book The Telepathic Dream. Stekel included discussion of the astral plane, Odic force, Yoga, and the Cabala. He became interested in telepathic dreams after he himself had undergone an hallucination. He had been lying in bed very ill when a voice suddenly spoke to him: "In two weeks you will die! Use the time well!" The prediction was not fulfilled, but the incident aroused Stekel’s interest in psychical research. It turned him from a position of pure materialism to a wholehearted acceptance of telepathy.

Source: Stekel, W. (1921). Der Telepatische Traum. Berlin: JohannesBaum Verlag.


In September 1921, Sigmund Freud delivered a paper on "Psycho-analysis and Telepathy" to a small circle of his closest associates in the Harz Mountains. He warned against occultism.


Freud argued that even if Stekel’s thesis had been adequately proved, it would not affect his theory that a dream was a wish fulfillment. Even supposedly telepathic dreams must be subject to analysis like any other. Freud denied belief in "telepathy in the occult sense" but he referred to "the incontestable fact that sleep creates favorable conditions for telepathy."
Source: Freud, S. Dreams and telepathy. Imago, 8: 1-22, 1922.


Freud, his daughter Anna Freud, and Sandor Ferenczi took part in apparently convincing experiments in thought transference. At the same time, Freud sent out a circular in which he declared how impressed he was with certain telepathic experiments published in the SPR Proceedings. On 15 March 1925, he wrote that "the matter is becoming urgent for us." In correspondence with Ernest Jones, Freud admitted his complete "conversion" but advised him to say that this matter was Freud’s own private affair.

Source: Freud. S. The occult significance of dreams. Imago, 9: 234-238, 1925.


Source: Deutsch, H. Occult processes occurring during psychoanalysis. Imago, 12; 418-433, 1926.


Perhaps the most well-known telepathy experiments were those of J. B. Rhine and his associates at Duke University, beginning in the 1927 using the distinctive ESP Cards of Karl Zener (see also Zener Cards). These involved more rigorous and systematic experimental protocols than those from the 19th century, used what were assumed to be 'average' participants rather than those who claimed exceptional ability, and used new developments in the field of statistics to evaluate results. Results of these and other experiments were published by Rhine in his popular book Extra Sensory Perception, which popularized the term "ESP".


Another influential book about telepathy in its day was Mental Radio, published in 1930 by the Pulitzer prize-winning author Upton Sinclair (with foreword by Albert Einstein). In it Sinclair describes the apparent ability of his wife at times to reproduce sketches made by himself and others, even when separated by several miles, in apparently informal experiments that are reminiscent of some of those to be used by remote viewing researchers in later times. They note in their book that the results could also be explained by more general clairvoyance, and they did some experiments whose results suggested that in fact no sender was necessary, and some drawings could be reproduced precognitively.

During his 1930 ESP experiments J. B. Rhine also made some discoveries concerning telepathy: It was often difficult to determine whether information was communicated through telepathy, clairvoyance, or precognitive clairvoyance. He concluded that telepathy and clairvoyance were the same psychic function manifested in different ways. Also, telepathy is not affected by distance or obstacles between the sender and receiver.


In an essay of 1933, Freud maintained a belief in telepathy, while qualifying some of his earlier statements; and he came to see psychoanalysis as paving the way for an explanation of the phenomenon on purely physical grounds. He thought that telepathy might be a vestigial remnant of an earlier method of communication which had been replaced by speech.


Freud, S. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1933.
Freud, S. Dreams and the occult. In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press, 1934.
Freud, "Dreams and Occultism," in the Standard Edition, vol. XXII (London, 1964), pp. 31 ff.


Schilder, P. Psychopathology of everyday telepathic phenomena. Imago, 20: 219-224, 1934.



Saut, L. Telepathic sensitiveness as a neurotic symptom. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 7: 329-335,1938­

Warcollier, R. (1938). Experiments in Telepathy. New York: Harper and Brothers.



Freud, S. Psychoanalysis and telepathy. Schriften Aus dem Nachlass, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 17. London: Imago Publishing Co., 1941, pp. 25-40­

Foster, A. A. ESP tests with American Indian children. Journal of Parapsychology, 7: 94­103, 1943.

Eisenbud, J. Telepathy and the problems of psychoanalysis. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 15: 32-87, 1946.

Eisenbud, J. The dreams of two patients in analysis interpreted as a telepathic rêvê à deux. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 16: 39-60, 1947.

Fodor, N. Telepathy in analysis. The Psychiatric Quarterly, 21: 171-189, 1947.

Pedersen-Krag, G. Telepathy and repression. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 16: 61-82, 1947.
Ehrenwald, J. Telepathy and Medical Psychology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1948.

Meerloo, J. A. M. Telepathy as a form of archaic communication. Psychiatric Quarterly, 23: 691-704, 1949.

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