Mrs W. H. Salter

Formerly Helen Verrall, Mrs. W. H. Salter was a leading critic and historian of psychical research. She was former Research Officer, Editor, Vice-President, and Council member of the Society for Psychical Research. She investigated Mrs Osborne-Leonard and said: "I think there is a general agreement among those who have sat repeatedly with Mrs. Leonard - among whom I may include myself - that good evidence of surviving personality is sometimes obtained".


 - Mrs W. H. Salter -

         THE WORD telepathy was coined about fifty years ago, when people first began to make a scientific study of psychical phenomena, to describe communications of any kind from one mind to another independently of our ordinary senses. I will begin by giving a very simple example of what was probably a case of telepathy, the kind of thing a good many people have met with in their own experience: an American lady, Mrs. D., was talking to a friend of hers who had spent the winter on a lonely ranch, and she asked her whether she had had any startling experiences. 'Yes,' said her friend, 'I killed a big rattle-snake, and you'll never guess what I did it with.' 'A flat-iron,' was the immediate answer, and it was right.

Here is another example of a rather different type: on a certain Sunday evening a man found himself persistently haunted by the thought of two friends, Mr. and Mrs. G, in whose house he had lived for a twelve-month forty-four years before. He had not seen these former friends for twenty-eight years, nor had he had any correspondence with them. A few days later he read in the paper that on that very Sunday morning Mrs. C. had been burnt to death by her nightdress catching fire.

Here is yet another case, in which the telepathic impression took the form of a dream: during the night between January 22nd and January 23rd, 1904, Mrs. Mann, of Cambridge, had a vivid dream that her old friend Dr. X, whom she had not seen for ten years, was sitting beside her, asking why she had not been to see him. She was so much impressed by the vividness of the dream that she told it to her husband at breakfast. She had no reason to be thinking of Dr. X at the time, but she heard a few days later that he had died early in the morning of January 23rd.

Most people would agree that these cases are beyond what we might easily expect to happen just by chance, but are they so far beyond as to put chance entirely out of court? Perhaps we shall not all agree as to that, which brings us up at once against one of the great difficulties we find in the investigation of telepathy: it is impossible to determine just how likely it is that two people should happen, either by chance or habit, to have the same thought at the same time, or that one person should think of another at the time of some important event in that other person's life. Obviously we must make a large allowance for habit in the case of people who are very familiar with each other's thoughts. We have all had the experience of some one beginning to talk about a subject that we were thinking of, just as if the other person had known what was in our mind. This may be telepathy, but it may not. We may have been talking about the matter before and therefore our minds may have been working along the same line. Moreover, in some cases, as Mr. Besterman has mentioned, we have to reckon with hyperaesthesia, when people have been found to hear or see much better than is generally thought possible, so that their eyes or ears may quite unconsciously have given them the information.

If we want to come to a right solution of these problems, we must gather together as many examples as we can find of experiences which look as if they might be telepathy; we must compare them and classify them, and consider what other explanation of them there might possibly be. This has been done for many years by people who make a special study of psychical phenomena, and the results are set out in the forty-one volumes of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and many other books. The general conclusion seems to be that telepathy almost certainly happens, but we have much to learn still as to how and why.

The cases I have quoted so far are quite good examples of their kind, but if we had nothing else to reckon with, some of us might still wonder whether it was not all a matter of chance. I will quote another example now of a much more impressive kind of experience, which has given us some of the best evidence of telepathy there is; it belongs to the class called 'apparitions at the time of death.' On April 4th, 1913, an English lady, Miss Mary Paterson, of Knutsford, was walking home one evening after dark, when she suddenly saw against the night sky a vision (like a picture thrown on the screen, she said it was) of her brother in Australia, who seemed to her to be dying. She had no reason to be anxious about him at the time, but a few days later she heard he had died suddenly from a stroke.

He was lying unconscious at the time of her vision.[1]

[1] Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, xxxiii, 243.

Chance is not a likely explanation of such a case as that, and I want to emphasize one peculiarity about it: the experience was unusual not only because it coincided with something that was actually happening at the time a long way off, but also in itself. Ordinary people in good health do not often see visions, but in many of the best cases of telepathy we find these hallucinations, as they are called; the person receiving the impression (the percipient) sees his distant friend to all appearance standing before him, or he hears his friend's voice. What seems to happen is that the telepathic impression strikes first upon the percipient's subconscious mind and makes a disturbance there, which causes the hallucination and so forces the impression upon his conscious attention. These telepathic hallucinations afford an interesting analogy with hypnotic hallucinations. If a good hypnotic subject is told in trance that when he wakes he will see, let us say, a large black dog lying before the fire, his subconscious trance-mind, acting upon this suggestion, will build up an hallucination of a black dog, which he will actually see with his normal conscious mind when the trance is over. This power of the subconscious mind to fashion its thoughts into a semblance of things seen or heard is perfectly well established, and the fact that hallucinations are a frequent accompaniment of telepathic impressions is one of the reasons we have for believing that these impressions are received in the first instance by the subconscious mind.

The examples of telepathy I have given so far have all been spontaneous cases; they just happened of themselves 'out of the blue,' and a great deal of the most striking evidence for telepathy is of this spontaneous kind. But scientific men are apt to look coldly upon spontaneous phenomena, because these cannot be foreseen and controlled. The scientific man says: 'Let us experiment; let us produce these phenomena to order and under laboratory conditions, and then we shall know all about them.' There is a great deal to be said for this point of view, but the subconscious mind is a shy, rather perverse creature, which does not concern itself much with the scientific point of view. I do not want to suggest that experiment is impossible - a great deal of interesting work has been done in this field - but experience shows that we are not likely to get good results unless we are experimenting with a percipient who has unusual telepathic powers. A few years ago a large-scale experiment in telepathy was carried out in co-operation between the BBC and the Society for Psychical Research. Over 24,000 people took part in this experiment, and it was quite worth doing, because it gave us some interesting hints as to certain odd ways in which people's minds work. But the telepathic results were nil, and much the same may be said of a more recent experiment carried out by Mr. S. G. Soal, in which about 700 People took part. The conclusion to be drawn from such results is not that there is no such thing as telepathy, but that in the great majority of people it does not work in any way we can observe experimentally.

Why some people should be better at telepathy than others is a thing we do not altogether understand at present; it has probably something to do with the way their minds are put together, they are rather inclined to leak at the seams, so to speak, which makes it easier for subconscious ideas to become conscious. It is a mistake to suppose that telepathy necessarily indicates any special bond of sympathy between the people concerned; it may occur between people who are barely acquainted with each other, or even between total strangers.

Although it is difficult to obtain evidence of telepathy under test conditions in the laboratory, it is not true to say this has never been done. For instance, a dozen years ago two distinguished Dutch psychologists carried out a striking experiment in the Psychological Laboratory of the University of Groningen. They had a subject who was supposed to be able to get ideas out of the minds of others. Accordingly this man was placed in a sort of box in one room, while the investigators went into a room above and looked down on him through a glass window in the floor. This was done to make it quite impossible to see or hear anything of what was going on upstairs. In these conditions the investigators thought of various letters and figures, and the man downstairs had to say what they had thought of. Although a great number of experiments were made, the letters and figures used were limited to forty-eight, so that by chance alone, the telepathist would have been right once in every forty-eight guesses. Actually he was right about fifteen times more often than that, which seems to put the whole thing beyond the region of mere guess-work.

There are also in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research several reports of experiments carried out under conditions less rigorous than in these Dutch experiments, but strict enough to make any other explanation than telepathy very improbable. It is important to observe that in all telepathic experiments the agent and percipient should be in different rooms, at least, if not more widely separated, so as to preclude the possibility of hyperaesthesia, to which I have already referred.

There is one thing which comes out clearly in all reports of experiments carried out under good conditions: even with the best percipients the telepathic power is very uncertain, and not much can be done in the way of training percipients in the present state of our knowledge as to the conditions governing telepathic phenomena. People can, to some extent, train themselves to get into the state of mind which gives them the best chance of catching the right impression, and similarly agents can to some extent train themselves in the art of transmission; but for all that can be done on either side, failure is likely to occur pretty frequently; it is therefore probable that public performers, who get a hundred per cent success, or thereabouts, are using something in the way of a code to help them out.

It must be admitted that the difficulty of obtaining telepathic results under good experimental conditions is a serious drawback to the study of this phenomenon. Nevertheless much may be done by careful experimenting with good percipients. Even in the case of spontaneous phenomena some of the most serious objections to this type of evidence may be avoided by keeping careful records; it is especially important that any person receiving what they believe to be a telepathic impression, should record it immediately, and have their record witnessed, before any verification reaches them.

It should be clearly understood that although it is convenient to divide telepathy into spontaneous and experimental cases, there is no hard and fast line between the two classes, because some cases are experimental on one side, but not on the other. Here, for example, is a case which was experimental on the agent's side only: a certain Mr. Kirk had been doing some experiments in telepathy with a lady of his acquaintance, and one afternoon, when there was no question of any experiment between them, he had a sudden fancy to see if he could make himself appear to her in her own home, which was some distance away. It happened that the lady was feeling rather tired that afternoon, and sitting in an arm-chair, she fell asleep. After a little while she woke, and saw the figure of her friend, Mr. Kirk, standing near her; he seemed to walk towards the door, and then suddenly vanished. Here we have another instance of a telepathic impression producing an hallucination, as in the case of Miss Paterson, who saw a vision of her brother in Australia.

I selected this Australian case out of many others of the same kind for a special reason: it shows us that distance between agent and percipient is no, bar to telepathy, which is one argument amongst others suggesting an interesting and important conclusion. Telepathy is not, so far as we can tell, a physical process at all; it does not follow any known physical laws, nor does it seem to be a function of any part of our body. Some people talk vaguely about rays, and they compare telepathy with radio, but those who have studied the evidence most thoroughly are agreed that such comparisons do not help us at all. How, for example, can we explain by such means that a person in Australia should be able to send a message to a particular individual in England, so that at once the receiver sees the whole scene which the transmitter wants to put over? Where is the apparatus in the body? Where is the energy in the dying man? For many of these telepathic cases are appearances of the dying. Let us think of the mechanical plant needed to send and receive television, how the image has to be turned into electric impulses, and these impulses again turned back into light waves, and we shall realize the immense difficulties in the way of such an explanation.

Telepathy does seem to be what I called it at the beginning of this article, a communication from one mind to another mind, and for this reason it may throw some light upon the problem of whether communication with the dead is possible. I am not going to discuss that problem here, I only want to suggest that if the dead are able to communicate with us, as they purport to do in sittings with trance-mediums, like Mrs. Osborne Leonard, the method of communication is probably telepathic, that is, direct from one mind to another mind, because we know that our bodily organs do not survive death.

I have referred to the fact that telepathic impressions are usually, if not always, of subconscious origin. One of the ways in which we can dredge up ideas from our subconscious mind is by various kinds of automatism, automatic writing and drawing, for instance. We say that a person writes automatically if he has no clear, conscious idea of what he is writing; his state of mind at the time may vary from something which is almost normal to complete unconsciousness.

It is only in rare instances that automatic writings or drawings attain to any high degree of artistic merit; one of the few great artists amongst automatists was William Blake. Many of Blake's pictures were by his own statement based upon hallucinatory visions; to what extent the actual drawing was automatic it is hard to say - perhaps Blake himself would have found it hard to tell us. That he sometimes wrote automatically is certain, for he describes in a letter to a friend how a certain poem was dictated to him (by a spirit, as he believed) 'without premeditation and even against my will.' With Blake's experience we may compare that of Coleridge, who composed his famous poem Kubla Khan in a dream and transcribed it from memory when he woke.

But in the great majority of cases the interest of what is produced automatically is psychological rather than artistic. The results, for example, attained in automatic drawing and painting are apt to be rather monotonous and limited, certain elaborate patterns and colour-effects (some of them obviously symbolic) recurring again and again. The technical skill shown both in drawing and writing may, however, be considerably beyond anything the automatist normally possesses. For a good example of automatic writing which is interesting from that point of view I may mention 'The Case of Patience Worth,' described by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, the automatist being an American woman of little education.

Of more special interest from a psychical stand-point are cases of automatic writing which show acquaintance with facts outside the writer's normal knowledge. Here is an instance of what was probably a telepathic impression emerging in automatic writing; it occurred in a long series of telepathic experiments carried out between the Rev. P. H. Newnham and his wife. Mr. Newnham, sitting in one room, wrote down the question: 'What is the Christian name of Mr. S.'s sister?', the answer being unknown to him but known to Mr. S. who was in the room at the time. Mrs. Newnham, sitting in another room, and not even knowing what question had been asked, wrote automatically the name ' Mina,' which was the correct answer.

This is a simple case which can be told in a few words; some of the most interesting cases of automatic writing are much too long and complicated to be described in the space at my disposal. It is impossible, for example, to discuss here the elaborate connexions between the writings of several automatists to which the name 'cross-correspondences' has been given. Those who wish to study this question should read the records published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.

In conclusion, it may interest my readers to learn something of what automatic writing feels like from one automatist's point of view. I happen myself to be one of the people I referred to as having minds which are rather inclined to leak at the seams, and I have for many years practised automatic writing for experimental purposes. I never pass into the state of complete unconsciousness which is characteristic of deep trance - if I did, I should have nothing to tell, for I should remember nothing - but I lapse into a state in which I am barely conscious of my surroundings and have little recollection afterwards of what I have written. In that state I am inwardly aware of a great number of drifting thoughts, some of which have a mental quality which tells me they come from deep down in my mind, and those are the thoughts I try to catch. I do not always find it easy to catch the right thoughts; I feel rather as one might feel in a dream of driving an innumerable herd of pigs, of which one knew that only a few were worth penning. I have at the same time to perform a sort of mental balancing feat: if I fall over too far on one side, towards unconsciousness, I get into a comatose state in which I am incapable of making my hand write; and if I fall back upon the other side I find I have forgotten what I wanted to set down. Experience of this kind helps one to realize the difficulties which are probably inevitable in all kinds of psychical inquiries, owing to the borderline state of consciousness in which they are so frequently produced.


"Inquiry into the Unknown" edited by Theodore Besterman (London: Methuen & Co., 1934).

Related articles

Normal Cognition, Clairvoyance and Telepathy: C. D. Broad
Telepathy and Clairvoyance: Raynor Johnson
Is Telepathy a Fact? J. Arthur Thompson

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