5 Totally Documented, Totally Earnest Attempts to Prove Telepathy Is Real
I regret to inform you, telepathy is not real. Buddy, I wish it was. You think I’m not looking for more wonder in this cursed world? Sure, I’ll leave the tiniest crack in that door for the possible coming of the Prophesied One, but that’s more about believing in hope than believing in ESP. To be honest, it’s probably for the best. I think if someone was actually able to read the thoughts of the people around them, they would be the first recorded death due to sadness.
Nevertheless, it’s an interesting enough prospect that people at every level of academic rigor have given it a shot. At this point, you can’t even really honestly call it an “unexplored” realm of science or pseudo-science. They printed up the cards and did the tests (more on that later). All these years of civilization, and zero proof of a real-life Professor X. Keep testing, by all means, and I’ll still keep checking Wikipedia, but the odds don’t seem great.
Here are five earnest attempts to prove the existence of telepathy…
Apollo 14’s Secret ESP Tests
Part of an astronaut’s job while in space is to carry out all sorts of experiments, and relay that information back to world governments and grade-school classes. These experiments cover a huge span of possibilities and disciplines. In my head, most of them are just fucking around with seeds, but that’s why I’m not giving any TED Talks. One experiment that wasn’t part of NASA’s purview, but was conducted all the same, was a test into the existence of ESP carried out on Apollo 14.
Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell smuggled a pack of numbered cards up into the great beyond, and, once out of our atmosphere, went to work. He’d recruited four earthbound participants, three of which remain unidentified, with the fourth being a “psychic” named Olof Jonsson. The results were, as they almost always are, not much more than shrug-worthy. They were slightly above expected, but as Mitchell mentioned, given the area of investigation, decisive results are the only ones that would get a real reaction. Little variances are closer to proving the existence of luck than they are telepathy.
Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio
It’s generally not a good sign for an experiment when the first page of Google results include documentation on ghost tour websites. Luckily for him, Upton Sinclair has done enough hugely impactful reporting that a footnote isn’t enough to send him to Kook-town. The Jungle is an undeniably pivotal piece of journalism, and he had the wits and writerly skill to turn public opinion.
A Sinclair work you’re probably less likely to see cited with respect is Mental Radio, which he wrote after conducting experiments on telepathy with his wife, Craig. Sinclair would sit in a separate room and draw something, which Craig would then attempt to replicate. The results were above baseline, but the problem here was that a husband-and-wife team is pretty much the opposite of a scientific test group. The better-than-random results were attributed in part to their deep knowledge of each other and their preferences and thought processes.
Robert H. Gault’s Radio Experiment
In 1937, scientists took to the airwaves to attempt to detect the presence of much spookier transmissions. Robert Harvey Gault and Louis Deal Goodfellow, both psychologists at Northwestern University, were set to oversee an “experiment” done by Zenith Radio Corporation to test for extrasensory perception in listeners. It was, at the time, a regular Sunday night broadcast, an appointment for people who preferred thinking real hard to hearing about the Lone Ranger.
Now, was this actually intended to be a genuine scientific inquiry? The president of Zenith, Eugene McDonald, probably would have said, “Sure, why not?” The intent was definitely nudged by the idea of having a fascinating new broadcast that everyone would tune into just in case they were secretly the world’s newest psychic weapon. The results bore out nothing more than your standard noise, with slightly better-than-average accuracy, but only when patterns and symbols mentally beamed out lined up with natural mental preferences, the way mentalists use tricks to make you think of the word “carrot.”
Repeated experiments and evidence prove that telepathy is almost certainly a crock of horse-pucky. If, however, against all odds, ESP is real, you can bet your bottom dollar that the military sure would like to be the first to know. If a mind war pops off, nobody wants to be left scrambling to find their own brain warrior. So when rumors emerged of the Soviets working on using psychics as spies, the U.S. let out a hearty laugh that quickly turned nervous.
Did it work? No. But unlike the other attempts on this list, you can be sure that if the CIA was involved, they went to every length and then some to find any possible proof. The project ran from 1972 to 1995, when it was shut down and the records released. No promising results were found, but the experiment did manage to achieve one of the CIA’s favorite things: leaving a bunch of people in psychiatric hospitals.
For the last entry, let’s take a look not at a single experiment, but the baseline of maybe the most well-known ESP accessory: Zener cards. They got their name from their inventor, Karl Zener, a psychologist from Duke University. You may be familiar with them and their trademark shapes: a star, a hollow circle, a square, a cross and three vertical waves. He apparently came up with them to replace standard playing cards, which had pre-determined mental preferences that would interfere with interpretation. So he chose symbols that have no emotional baggage like… stars… and crosses?
This was one criticism, another being that the shapes were too easy to see through the back of the cards or in the reflections of glasses or eyes. The use of cards, which are basically the basis of half of the world’s tricks and scams, also raised eyebrows. Early tests using the cards showed promising results, but when, under pressure, the experiments were redesigned to eliminate the aforementioned weaknesses, well, everything went straight back to boring.
At least we can all still agree that the three-wave card looks cool as hell.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.