Science Questions

Is there any evidence for telepathy?

Tue, 17th May 2016

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Alan McNamara asked:

Hi, listening to your Valentine's Day podcast got me thinking about mental telepathy.

When my wife and I started going together in 1971, we seemed to sense when one of us would phone or have an idea e.g. what to eat, etc.


Now 45 years later and that still persists. I will be doing something and think "Pat hasn't phoned" then within a few minutes she will call. Is this telepathy at work?



Kate Storrs answered this question for us...

Kate - Well, the literal answer to: is there any evidence for telepathy? Is yes. There’s literature going back to late 1800s, some studies of which claim to have found some evidence for telepathy. Monkey brain activity tracingsThe massive caveat on that is that if you consider this huge body of work as a whole, it’s not compelling evidence for something as remarkable, as extraordinary, as telepathy.

Chris - What about the statistics of it that if you do enough studies then, just by chance, a few are going to throw up an apparent association and you're going to say, “ah look here’s the evidence” and, of course, there’s this bias in people publishing positive results? So they’re going to say, “ah look I’ve got evidence for telepathy,” they’ll publish that whereas, if they didn’t find anything they wouldn’t publish. So, therefore if you look in the literature you’re going to find more reports suggesting there’s an effect than not?

Kate - Exactly, this is the main problem. The threshold we use, at least in psychology for whether an effect was found or not, is whether if you assume that the effect is not there you would have got a result as extreme or more extreme than this, less than one in 20 times. Is my data so surprising that I would only have found them one in 20 times if the effect wasn’t there? But that means if there’s not telepathy, if you run 20 telepathy testing studies, one of them will find an effect and, if you keep running them for hundreds of years, you will amass a very large number of studies that find positive evidence for telepathy. Combined with the second factor, the file drawer problem, we call it in science. If you find a boring result, if you fail to find something interesting like telepathy you have a tendency, with the best will in the world, to stick it in your lower file drawer and not quite get around to writing it up, or the journal are not quite so interested in publishing it. So, you end up with a very bias representation.

Chris - So have you looked at this literature? Is there any reason why it might be plausible or is there any evidence, or a mechanism put forward by people for how two brains that are not connected might be able to exchange information?

Kate - There’s no mechanism within modern neuroscience that could account for it, no.

Chris - What about in physics, Gerry? Is there possibly a quantum entanglement possibility between two brains that could lead to a...?

Gerry - To be honest, this sounds a great deal more like astrology than physics.

Chris - So that’s a no from both of you!


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Isn't the absence of telepathy that which make possible multiple disconnected minds, multiple selves (or multiple individualities)?
flr, Wed, 2nd Mar 2016

Hi Alan

There is no consistent, reliable scientific evidence for telepathy. However, that's not to say that there cannot be some kind of connection between people in other ways. Specifically, bear in mind that we are all human. We all have brains that work in the same way and have the same structure. Broadly speaking, we all tend to have similar likes and dislikes, fears and joys. And if we choose to marry someone it's likely that we'll be selecting someone very compatible with our own way of thinking, who has similar preferences. And as we live with that person the behaviour of each person adjusts and adapts to fit better with the other. When viewed in this way it is hardly surprising that "birds of a feather flock together" and we find ourselves thinking along similar lines. But most importantly, it's crucial not to fall into the significance-by-coincide trap and attach importance to a random event. Always ask yourself how many times you were thinking about your wife and she didn't call before invoking telepathy to explain the one time she did... chris, Wed, 2nd Mar 2016

Of course it is all coincidence and parallel thought trains, but regardless of where I have been during the day or even a week, how long the job took, flight delays, weather conditions or traffic jams, The Boss always phones when I am 3 miles away to ask what time I'll be home. Why 3 miles? Because I can pick up fish'n'chips en route.

And why does the phone always ring when I have just got to the head of a queue? alancalverd, Wed, 2nd Mar 2016

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