Also in this week's column:
If whales can communicate by telepathy, why can't humans?
Asked by Amy Iverson of Terrey Hills, NSW, Australia
Whales possess a form of communication that allows them to signal other whales hundreds of miles away. Some experts say it is indeed a form of telepathy. Does human telepathy exist? Is there scientific evidence for this particular form of extra-sensory perception (ESP)?
Certainly if human telepathy existed we could explain many weird human experiences. Telepathy would account for, according to a recent newspaper account, a mother "saw" her daughter miles away roll her car over in a traffic accident and "saw" her daughter injured and trapped within the wreckage. It would explain the Australian woman who "felt" her mother die suddenly at the precise moment she passed away half way around the world in London. Telepathy would explain many strange little happenings such as these, or even something that is very common: we hear the telephone ring and we know who's ringing before we pick up the phone.
The fact remains that there is no scientific proof that human telepathy exists.
Telepathy means direct communication from one mind to another. It refers to the supposed ability to perceive the thoughts of others without the use of recognised senses. The term was first used in 1882 by psychologist, F W Myers.
If telepathy existed, it would dramatically violate several established laws of physics. For instance, with telepathy, it doesn't seem to matter how far apart two people are or how many other people there are in between them when the "communication" takes place. The messages seem to be able to span great distances, slide around corners, penetrate walls, and travel under water. The process does not seem to be strictly bound by time either.
Those who have attempted to account for so-called telepathic experiences usually cite one of two explanations.
The first is the Radio Wave Theory. According to this idea, telepathy works like radio waves. People often speak of "vibes" as though there were telepathic "brain-waves" going from one person to another. The problem with this theory is that if there were some kind of wave, we ought to be able to detect it coming from people's brains. But we cannot. The brain's electrical activity can be detected at best only a few centimeters away from the skull. There would also need to be a "vibes" transmitter in one brain and a "vibes" receiver in the other brain. No sign of either has ever been detected in any human brain. Also, the strength of the "signal" ought to decay with distance. But it seems it does not.
The second is the Timeless/Spaceless Psychic Field theory. According to this idea, there is some unknown "psychic field" in which the impressions of every thought are stored for all time. Telepathy involves somehow picking-up these vibes from this psychic field.
However, no evidence for any such psychic field has ever been discovered. Furthermore, if it did, we would be inundated with the trillions of thoughts left behind by every human who ever existed - everyone from Alexander the Great to Hitler's tailor.
It is inconceivable to imagine how one brain could pick up only those messages it needed and ignore all the rest. And if it could select which messages to read, what would be the basis for the selection? What brain mechanism would be employed for this, etc.?
Scientists have attempted to obtain evidence for telepathy. A pioneer in this effort was Joseph Banks Rhine of Duke University. In 1927, Rhine began conducting what are still considered the most famous experiments in this area. Rhine tested hundreds of people using cards specially designed by his colleague, Karl Zener. These so-called ESP cards consisted of a deck of 25, five each with one of five figures on its face (a star, a cross, a square, a circle, or three wavy lines). After the cards were shuffled, subjects attempted to correctly guess the figure on the card after the figure was mentally "sent" to them by a person looking at it. The number of correct responses was then compared to chance. Through years of experiments, neither "senders" nor "receivers" of telepathic messages were ever discovered to be performing beyond chance. Hence the verdict: Telepathy doesn't exist.
Today, the effort continues to prove telepathy's existence. Dr Mario Varvoglis of the Institut Metapsychique International in Paris has since the late 1970s used the Galvanic Skin Response Detector (a machine that detects physiological changes) in experiments similar to Rhine's.
Varvoglis claims that during "sending periods" (when an attempt is being made to mentally send a message), the GSR levels are higher in the receiver than during "relax periods" (when no attempt is being made).
Varvoglis maintains that this indicates that the body may be receiving a message, but the brain is unable to pick it up unless the psychological conditions are perfect. Furthermore, Varvoglis argues that when a dream-like state is induced in a receiver (in what is called the Gansfeld state), a statistically significant better performance in the card guessing task results from most subjects - beyond chance.
Science cannot completely rule out such unusual forms of human communication. As we learn more about the brain, perhaps we will one day uncover the full extent of our brain's communicative ability. Perhaps we do have some ability of which we are now totally unaware. Perhaps we are now incapable of utilising this ability, but if the precise conditions emerge, the ability will emerge.
For example, we might indeed "see" our child in danger if such factors as emotion are necessary to come into play making such unusual communication possible. Perhaps this ability shows itself fleetingly, only to hide again in our bodies and brains because conditions are not precise enough to allow a re-appearance.
While science says no to human telepathy now, perhaps there is much more to learn. Perhaps the whales may "communicate" a new truth someday.
Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to firstname.lastname@example.org