Though William James is now mostly remembered as a philosopher, he was one of two ‘founding fathers’ of modern professionalized psychology. While his German counterpart, Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, dismissed empirical approaches to reported psychic phenomena and spiritualism, James on the contrary sought to make the study of unorthodox phenomena a legitimate part of nascent modern psychology. The following article is an entry on ‘Telepathy’ written by James for vol. 8 of Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia (ed. C. K. Adams), pp. 45-47, New York, D. Appleton & Company, 1899, which is here reproduced with accompanying figures. Nicely documenting James’ stance on psychical research, it provides a concise overview of experimental work done on telepathy by some of James’ colleagues in England, France and Germany between about 1880 and1899 and includes a short reference to his sittings with the Boston trance medium, Leonora Piper.
Telep´athy [from Gr. τήλε, far + παθος, feeling]: thought-transference, or the phenomenon of the reception by the mind of an impression not traceable to any of the ordinarily recognized channels of sense, and assumed to be due to an influence from the mind of another person, near or remote. Thus the sphere of telepathy is not the same as that of clairvoyance, in which it is assumed that the mind of the subject may receive an impression of impersonal facts, or things at a distance. The subject who receives the impression is called the percipient, the one from whom the influence emanates is usually called the agent, in accounts of experiments on this phenomenon.
In the earlier works on animal magnetism there are many reports concerning subjects who are said to have developed the faculty of obeying the unspoken will of their magnetizer, going to sleep and waking, moving, acting, and speaking in accordance with his silent commands. More recently there have been public exhibitors of “mind-reading,” and their performances have been imitated in private circles by the so-called willing-game. In most of these feats the agent is required to think intently of some act while he lays his hands on some part of the so-called mind-reader’s person. The mind-reader, either promptly or hesitatingly, will then usually perform the act. It is safe to assume that wherever such personal contact between the pair is allowed, the percipient is guided by the encouragment or checking which the agent’s hands more or less unconsciously exert upon his at first tentative movements; so that muscle-reading, and not mind-reading, is the proper name for this phenomenon. There are, it is true, reports of success in the willing-game where no contact was allowed; but in the absence of authentic details, they can not be taken as evidence that telepathy exists. For the same reason the earlier mesmeric reports have doubtful evidential value. The operators took too few precautions against “suggesting” to the subjects by other channels than speech what their will might be. It is only within recent years that we have learned to measure the acuteness with which an entranced person with his mind concentrated upon his hypnotizer will divine the intentions of the latter by indications which he gives quite unconsciously by voice or movement, or even by the mere order of sequence of what he does. On these accounts, evidence in the strict sense for telepathy must be sought in a small number of experiments conducted by a few more careful observers since about 1880. These experiments, taken in the aggregate, appear to make it unreasonable to doubt any longer the fact that occasionally a telepathic relation between one mind and another may exist.
In a faultless experiment on thought-transference certain precautions must be observed. To avoid previous collusion between agent and percipient the agent should receive from a third party the idea to be transferred; and the latter should, when possible, select it by drawing lots or by some other appeal to chance. This is to exclude the possibility of himself and the percipient being led by number-habits, diagram-habits, or other parallel paths of inner association to a common result. The percipient should not be in the room when the idea is determined on; and when possible it should be chosen in silence, written down, and shown, if it need be shown beforehand, in written form. The percipient should, if possible, do his guessing in another room. In any case he should be blindfolded, and there should be no conversation with him during the performance, the signal that he must attend to his inner impressions being given by bell or other sound. Physical contact between agent and percipient must not occur, and if the percipient writes or draws his result the agent should not look on, since an unconscious commentary by changes in breathing, etc., might reveal to the percipient whether he was going right or wrong.
The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research contain some records of experiments made under approximately faultless conditions. In certain cases the ideas to be transferred were diagrams or drawings. A couple of example will show the success reached when at its best. Fig. 1 is from a series with Mr. Blackburn, agent, G. A. Smith, percipient, in which out of thirty-three trials without contact, though with percipient and agent in one room, there were twenty-five reproductions as good as those here given of a figure prepared and kept outside of the room. Fig. 2 gives the first six trials of a series reported by Malcolm Guthrie, of Liverpool, he being agent and a Miss E. percipient. The conditions seem almost faultless, if the account is accurate, though the figures are simpler than in the former series. In all, with various agents, Miss E. made 150 trials, the majority of which were successful entirely or in part. Sixteen specimens are printed in the report, all about as good as those in Fig. 2.
The same Miss E. and a Miss R. were subjected at Liverpool in 1883 to a series of experiments in transferring ideas and sensations of every order, the agents being Mr. Guthrie and others. Out of 713 trials there were but 252 cases in which the percipient either got no impression or described the object wrongly. In the remaining 461 cases the success was either complete or partial.
“Miss X.” has published (Proceedings of Society for Psychical Research, vol. vi.) a long series of telepathic interchange of experiences over a long distance with “Miss D.,” corroborated by independent entries in their respective diaries. Of 20 such entries 14 refer to a consciousness on the part of Miss D. that Miss X. was at that hour (the hours are quite irregular) playing a certain definite piece of music.
Miss Wingfield was the subject of a series of number-guessings, where out of 2,624 trials there were 275 successes instead of 29, which was the figure probable on the assumption of “chance.” The numbers thought of were the 90 two-digital ones, from 10 to 99. They were drawn at random from a bowl and thought of by the percipient’s sister. In a later series of 400 trials with this percipient the completely right guesses were 27 instead of the chance number 4; there were moreover, 21 guesses with the digits reversed, and 162 with a single digit in its right place.
Similar, though less extended and perhaps less conclusive, series of experiments at guessing ideas have been reported in the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings by various experimenters—Dessoir, Schmall [sic; typo for Schmoll] and Mabire, W. J. Smith, von Schrenk-Notzing, and Barrett and Gurney. The observations last referred to were those first published. The subjects were two girls who, four years later when experiments were resumed, were found, when tested in each other’s presence, to be cheating by a code of signals. Much has been made of the breakdown of this case. But very many of the earlier successes recorded of these children occurred when they were singly present, and often when only one experimenter knew the thing to be guessed. Collusion under such circumstances can not well be charged, although willingness to cheat rightly casts vague suspicion on all trials done with the percipient concerned, and shows the importance of making all tests under the conditions described as “faultless” a few lines back. Mr. Rawson finally, in vol. xi. of the Proceedings, gives a striking series of correct card and diagram guesses.
On telepathy in the hypnotic state there are recorded in the Proceedings experiments by Dr. B. Thaw and Prof, and Mrs. H. Sidgwick. The conditions in the latter set seem to have been, on the whole, very careful, though not quite faultless in the technical sense. The agent was the hypnotizer, G. A. Smith. The things to be impressed were usually the numbers (of two digits) on eighty-one lotto-counters, drawn by Prof. Sidgwick from a bag and handed to Mr. Smith to gaze at, while the hypnotized percipient awaited the impression. There were four percipients, with 644 trials made with agent and percipient in the same rooms, and 218 made with them in different rooms. In the former set 131 trials were successful, though the digits were named in reverse order in 14 of these 131 cases. In the latter set there were only 9 successes. The “probable” number of successes by chance would have been in the former set 8, in the latter at most 3. Later, with three of the same percipients and three new ones, Mr. Smith still being agent, Mrs. Sidgwick and Miss Johnson report 252 trials and 27 successes (chance number = 4), with agent and percipient in different rooms. Mr. Smith transferred “mental pictures” to five subjects, successfully in 31 out of 71 trials in one room, in 2 out of 55 in different rooms. The subjects of the mental pictures were such things as “a boy skating,” “a baby in a perambulator with nurse,” “a mouse in a trap,” etc.
Prof. Richet has described (Proceedings of Society for Psychical Research, vol. v.) a series of successes in guessing drawings in the hypnotic state; but as he found that the same subjects succeeded 30 times out of 180 trials in guessing the drawing when it was inclosed in an envelope and unknown to any one present, it is doubtful whether telepathy or clairvoyance be the cause of the success. Control experiments showed that “chance” could give as many as 35 per cent. of good successes at matching pictures made arbitrarily by different persons with others taken at random from a large collection previously prepared. Richet’s hypnotic subjects gave, however, 10 per cent. of good successes in 200 trials, and he concludes the existence of an unknown power.
Thus, to count only systematically pursued experiments, some of which are not mentioned here, there are accounts from more than a dozen competent observers concerning about a score of subjects, all seeming to show a degree of success in guessing very much greater than that which chance would give. Different readers, however, will weigh the evidence differently, according to their prepossessions. Much of it is fragmentary, and in much one or other condition of “faultlessness” in experimenting is violated. The mass, however, is decidedly imposing; and if more and more of this solitary kind of evidence should accumulate, it would probably end by convincing the world.
Meanwhile there are other kinds of telepathy which, illogically perhaps, impress the believing imagination more than high percentages of success in guessing numbers can. Such are cases of the induction of sleep in hypnotic subjects by mental commands given at a distance. Pierre Janet, Richet, Gibert, Ochorowicz, Héricourt, Dufay, Daniex, Tolosa, Latour, and others are the relaters of these observations, of which the most important evidentially are those made on the celebrated somnambulic subject, Madame B., or “Leonie.” Out of one series of 25 trials with this woman, there were 18 complete and 4 partial successes. Mr. Ochorowicz vouches for some of these, and gives also a long series in which silent commands were acted out by another hypnotic subject of his own, both he and she being, however, in the same room. The most convincing sort of evidence for thought-transference is given by the sittings of certain “test-mediums,” of which the best worked-out case is that of Mrs. Piper, published in the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings for 1890-92-95). This lady shows a profuse intimacy, not so much with the actual passing thoughts of her sitters as with the whole reservoir of their memory or potential thinking; and as the larger covers the less, so the present writer, being as convinced of the reality of the phenomenon in her as he can be convinced of anything in the world, probably makes less exacting demands than he otherwise would on the sort of evidence given for minor grades of the power.
The authors of the word telepathy have used it as a theory whereby to explain “veridical hallucinations” such as would be the apparition of a person at a distance at the time of his death. The theory is that one who is dying or passing through some crisis is for some unknown reason peculiarly able to serve as “agent” and project an impression, and that the telepathic “impact” in such a case produces hallucination. Stated thus boldly the theory sounds most fanciful, but it rests on certain actual analogies. Thus a suggestion made to a suitable subject in the hypnotic trance that at a certain appointed time after his awakening he shall see the operator or other designated person enter the room, will post-hypnotically take effect and be followed at the appointed time by an exteriorized apparition of the person named. Moreover, strange as the fact may appear, there seems evidence, small in amount but good in quality, that one may, by exerting one’s will to that effect, cause one’s self to appear present to a person at a distance. As many as eight persons worthy of confidence have recently reported successes in this sort of experiment. The writer knows a ninth case, impossible to publish, but where the evidence (as far as taken) is good. Now the committee on the census of hallucinations of the Society for Psychical Research find that the “veridical” ones among them—those, namely, in which the apparition coincides with the death of the person which appears—are 440 times more numerous than they ought to be if they were the result of mere chance. For the particular data and logic by which this figure is obtained, see the report in vol. x. of the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings. Of course, if such a conclusion ever be accepted, and if the telepathic theory of such apparitions be credible, the probability that telepathy is the cause of success in the smaller number-guessing cases would be greatly re-enforced. The whole subject, so far as definite observation goes, is still in its earliest infancy.
BIBLIOGRAPHY.—J. Ochorowicz, De la Suggestion mentale (Paris, 1887); Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, passim; F. Podmore, Apparitions and Thought-transference (1894).