Paranormal researchers pursue scientific answers but they, like their forebears, might wish to keep the mystery, Deborah Blum says
It has been more than a century - about 120 years, to be exact - since British psychical researchers announced that they had verified that humans could communicate telepathically. "Experiment proves that telepathy - the transference of thoughts and feelings from one mind to another - is a fact in Nature," wrote the Cambridge-trained scholar Frederic Myers, in the autumn of 1886.
Myers, a co-founder of the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR), was the inventor of the word "telepathy". He created it to replace the old term "thought-transference" with one more scientific and more inclusive of a variety of mental transmissions. He and his colleagues, for instance, proposed that many apparitions might be a product of telepathy. The proof was solid, Myers insisted: "I claim at least that any presumption which science had established against the possibility of spiritual communication is now rebutted."
From today's perspective, that claim seems laughable, evidence of no more than the rose-tinted hopes of a dreamer. Despite Myers's assertions, telepathy never gained acceptance in mainstream science, even in its Victorian heyday. Today, the subject hovers in the realm of pseudoscience.
When biologist-turned-paranormal-scholar Rupert Sheldrake presented a telephone telepathy study last autumn at the British Association Festival of Science in Norwich, outraged researchers complained that he was merely publicising a "charlatan's fantasy".
But to simply dismiss telepathy as a bad joke on a gullible audience is to miss the real lessons in its history. The rise and fall of telepathy as a persuasive case parallels the rise of modern science - especially as our dominant world-view - and the corresponding decline of competing belief systems.
Telepathy was always framed as something to be revealed by scientific understanding. It is hardly coincidental that as traditional science began to reveal the hidden potential of nature's powers - magnetic fields, radiation, radio waves, electrical currents - paranormal researchers began to suggest that human communication might operate in similar ways. Neither is it coincidental that the SPR's early members included physicists such as Sir William Barrett, Sir Oliver Lodge - a pioneer in radio communication - and John Strutt (Lord Rayleigh), who won the 1904 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work with atmospheric gases and who would eventually become an SPR president.
Both Barrett and Lodge were directly involved in designing and carrying out telepathy experiments of a kind still familiar today. Some involved asking one person to look at an image, another to draw what he or she then saw as a mental picture. They used playing cards, numbered cards, sent mental directions for picking up household objects. My personal favourites, though, were taste tests run by Myers and another colleague, Edmund Gurney.
In one such experiment, Gurney unexpectedly shovelled a spoonful of salt into one participant's mouth. The designated "receiver", shielded by a screen, immediately exclaimed: "What's this salt stuff?" The SPR gathered troves of such examples and ran statistical studies to show time and time again that the results ran far above chance.
Psychical researchers occasionally got their reports into reputable journals such as Nature . They presented at respectable science meetings, making regular telepathy presentations during the 1890s at the International Congress of Experimental Psychology. No wonder that Myers continued to ring with optimism; no wonder that Lodge declared in 1903 that "what we can challenge the judgment of the world on is telepathy".
So what went wrong? I believe they underestimated how fast science was changing - and the world with it. The Victorian psychical researchers produced a library of observational reports and anecdotal results that might have been satisfactory in an earlier time. But modern science required more - a testable theory of action, a mechanism for mind-to-mind transmission, an explanation that can be confirmed by others. In the 120 years since Myers first declared telepathy a proven fact, no one has been able to meet those requirements.
The response of psychical researchers - today usually called parapsychologists or paranormal researchers - has always been to complain about scientific stubbornness. "About the narrowest minded, most intolerant and least sympathetic minds at present are those whose eyes are forever glued to their own branch of science," Barrett wrote in 1896, and we hear the same complaint today. It is not entirely wrong-headed; the scientific establishment is often arrogant, and effecting a paradigm change in the research community is notoriously painful.
Still, the better question for supernatural supporters is whether they have considered the implications of a scientific solution. Let us posit that the mechanism for telepathy is someday discovered, that it operates through a yet undiscovered energy form. So there is nothing supernatural about it at all - the discovery merely extends our understanding of the natural world.
It definitely would open some fascinating lines of study, but it would also - as science has done throughout history - peel away another layer of magic from life.
I suspect that Myers, who hoped that evidence for telepathy would be evidence of an afterlife, had a far different conclusion in mind - as do many of his intellectual descendents today. We may wish for science to decipher all the mysteries of our universe, but as always - in matters of facts and faith - we may find enormous comfort in the fact that it has not done so.
Deborah Blum is professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin in the US. Her book, The Ghost Hunters , is published by Century, £17.99.