Telepathy: a new way of seeing

Far from being a cranky relic of a pre-Enlightenment dark age, belief in telepathy would seem to be confirmed by contemporary science and might even help secure the planet’s survival.

An empty room. Nothing in it but two chairs, one behind the other, and a computer screen that has been positioned between them. A brown-haired woman enters, and sits down in the front chair to await the beginning of the trial. Seconds later, a man silently follows her in. He too sits down, in the chair placed a few feet behind the woman. Between them the computer screen flickers, lighting up the man’s face with a pale imitation of fire.

A command flashes silently on the computer screen, instructing the man whether or not to stare into the back of the woman’s head; all she has to do is state whether she believes he is or is not staring at her; the man inputs what happens into the computer. They repeat the trial 30 times, before getting up from the chairs and leaving the room. Two more subjects take their places.

This surreal ritual has been going on in a science museum in Amsterdam since 1985. By 2002, more than 18,700 couples had taken part. The results are staggering. It seems that people really can tell when they are being stared at, despite being unable to see whether they are or not. So often have people been right that the chances of it being simply a matter of chance are 1000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000000000  to 1.

That’s 10 to the power of 376. The Amsterdam tests are based on the work of a middle-aged English scientist – Rupert Sheldrake. The softly spoken Sheldrake has devoted much of the past 15 years of his life to studying the sort of phenomena that most supposedly serious scientists dismiss out of hand.

Have you ever been thinking about a friend, and received a telephone call from them moments later? Why are pet dogs so often waiting at the front door when their owners arrive home? Or why do they often seem to ‘know’ when you are going on holiday before you have even got the suitcases out? Why do mothers sometimes lactate when their babies are crying, even if they are not actually in earshot of the infant? Why, during World War II, would my parents’ cat always go down into the air-raid shelter before the siren had even sounded? Why, during the same conflict, were RAF pilots advised not to stare directly at their German counterparts in case the intensity of their gaze caused the enemy to turn and look at them?

Sheldrake believes such phenomena are examples of our much neglected (and even more denied) ‘seventh sense’. He uses the term ‘seventh sense’ because the more traditional ‘sixth sense’ is now more commonly used in the scientific community to refer to certain sensory activity found in the animal kingdom but not among humans, such as the vibrational sense spiders use to locate prey or the echo-location of whales and dolphins; all of these have been categorically proven to exist; the seventh sense, skeptics assert, has not.

Doing just that, however, is exactly what Sheldrake has spent the last 15 years trying to do. Ever since 1990 he has been testing phenomena like the ones mentioned above under laboratory conditions, to find out whether they are examples of coincidence or whether there is
something more profound at work. In a series of tests, for example, to see whether people could sense who was calling them before they picked up the telephone, Sheldrake arranged for each subject to chose four people – relatives or close friends – to whom they thought they might respond telepathically. Having then chosen a time at which they could be called, one of the four selected friends was then told to call at the allotted time, and the subject had to guess which one it was before answering the phone. If there choices were purely a matter of chance, statistically they would be right 25 per cent of the time. By September 2002 Sheldrake’s team had conducted 854 such tests with a success rate of 42 per cent. The odds on this happening are 10 to the power of 26 to one.

42 per cent is, of course, still getting it right less than half the time. ‘We would get far stronger results if we worked with people with really strong bonds,’ comments Sheldrake. ‘In our telephone telepathy tests people have to name four people to work with, but often they can’t think of four people to whom they are extremely closely bonded. So we are diluting the effect.’

One of the most impressive cases of telepathy on record, says Sheldrake, was researched by Sir Rudolph Peters, a Cambridge professor whom Sheldrake knew when he was a student. Peters and his colleagues tested a mother and her severely mentally retarded son whom she looked after and was very close to. The case had first come to light when the very poorly sighted boy had gone for an eye test and it was found that he was doing much better on the test than he ought to have done. When the ophthalmologist sent the boy’s mother out of the room his ability to read the letters collapsed. It turned out that somehow he was reading the letters through his mother. She wasn’t actually telling him the answers, but she was seeing the letters and he was picking them up telepathically from her.

Peters’ team then set up a test whereby the mother and son were in different laboratories about five miles apart. They showed the mother a series of numbers and letters, and the child guessed them at a success rate whose probability would be a billion to one against if it were a matter of pure chance. It would seem that this was due to the intensity of the bond between mother and child, a bond that had developed because it was necessary for the child’s survival.

Day-to-day survival is a far greater influence on the lives of many animals than it is on much of humanity; indeed, examples of such phenomena are plentiful in the animal kingdom. British horse trainer Henry Blake once tested his horses for telepathy by separating pairs of them (generally siblings) that were used to living together. In the 199 tests Blake did, he found that when one was exercised, fed or fussed over, despite being out of sight and hearing of the other, the other animal also reacted in 68 per cent of the trials. When he ran a controlled experiment with horses that were hostile to each other, the reaction rate was one out of 15. In another case, one investigated by Sheldrake, a Rhodesian ridgeback was shown to be waiting at the window for its owner only 1 per cent of the time if the owner was not on her way home from work. When she was on her way home, the dog was there 26 per cent
of the time.

And remarkable studies have been done on groups of animals such as birds or fish that travel in large groups to find out how it is they all seem to know when to turn at the same time, and where to go. When schools of fish are under attack, for example, one of their defensive
manoeuvres is what is known as flash expansion, whereby all the fish will speed away from the centre of a shoal at the same time. Somehow they manage to accelerate in a matter of milliseconds without colliding into one another. Yet they are moving too fast for their nerve impulses to travel from eye to brain to muscle.

There are numerous other phenomena that current science simply cannot explain. How, for example, do insects such as termites work together to build vast mounds up to 10 feet high and lined with galleries, chambers and even ventilation shafts? Why, as Sheldrake wrote in this magazine in March, did so few animals die in December’s tsunami disaster? Had they ‘sensed’ something that we, despite all our technological advances, were ‘deaf’ to?

Despite the evergrowing weight of Sheldrake’s research,
he is ignored by most of the scientific community. The roots of this antipathy can be traced right back to the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries: growing belief in science meant that all that could not be explained – telepathy, other people’s science, witchcraft – was rejected out of hand. Little has changed. Between 1890 and 1990 there were just four papers written about people’s ability to tell, without seeing, when they are being stared at.

Yet Sheldrake is no witch or red-eyed hippy theorist. He’s a former research fellow of the Royal Society, and was a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. He studied natural sciences at Cambridge, then went on to study philosophy at Harvard, where he became a Frank Knox Fellow before taking a PhD in biochemistry back at Cambridge. Hisbook, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Come Home was named the British Scientific and Medical Network Book of the Year in 1999.

Sheldrake believes that the phenomena he observes can be explained by fields. Think first of one of the fields many people take for granted, every single day. When someone calls you on your mobile phone, you are connected through the electromagnetic field. Wherever you are at any moment, someone else can call you and you can pick up their voice and share a conversation with them. The field carrying your conversation is everywhere, which means that your conversation is
everywhere. What this also means is that every other conversation being had on mobile phones is currently also in your room at this moment. Along with every radio channel and every TV picture. Somehow, there is a vast amount of information contained in the apparently empty air.

We accept unquestioningly that when we talk into a phone it is somehow broadcast through the air and picked up by the person at the other end. Our phone sends a signal that is intended for someone with a specific phone number, and they can instantly receive it, wherever they are. So what of the mother and her disabled child in Peters’ experiments? Is it possible that they were somehow connected through a ‘field’, that their closeness, their connection, meant that she was able to ‘broadcast’ to her son the answers to the eye test?

The inbuilt response is to instantly reject such talk as unscientific. In fact, it is anything but. In current scientific understanding, the only way that things can be linked at a distance is through fields. The earth is linked to the moon and the sun through the gravitational field. I am linked to my friend on the other end of the telephone through the
electromagnetic field. Iron filings arranged into patterns around a lump of iron are linked through the magnetic field.

So what of humans and other living beings? We are made of cells
and molecules, all of which involve oscillations. Quantum physics talks
of entanglement, whereby particles separated over a distance will still behave as if they were connected. Why then is it so hard for us to accept that, just possibly, we might be connected to each other in a
comparable fashion?

‘The existence of fields stretched out in space is testable,’ says Sheldrake, ‘because if you can separate parts of a system that are linked by what I call a “morphic field” then they should still be in communication, even if they are separate in the normal sense. When members of the group move apart, like wolves do when they go hunting and leave cubs in the den, the bonds between them are not broken; they are stretched, and this field connection between these separated parts of the group continues to link them. I think that’s the basis of telepathy.’

He continues: ‘If you can show that members of groups can continue to interact at a distance beyond the range of normal sense then clearly something is happening, and I would say that was evidence of the morphic field. Others might say, “well even if you prove the
existence of telepathy, it doesn’t prove it’s a morphic field”. I would say it’s going to be some kind of field, as fields are the only things that we can understand that link things together at a distance. I call it morphic, you can call it what you like, but it’s going to be some kind of field.’

Like gravitational, magnetic or electric fields, morphic fields, proposes Sheldrake, connect and influence everything we do. In an increasingly atomised world the implications of this are profound. In place of loneliness, disillusion and disempowerment, Sheldrake offers an
alternative vision, with our thoughts and actions influencing and linking us to everything around us, which in turn influences everything we do. It both demands of us more responsibility, and offers us greater rewards. ‘When we recognise that we are much more connected,’ Sheldrake concludes, ‘that our minds are actually extended all
around us, that our thoughts and our intentions can have influences at a distance, I think this is a much more ecological view – it shows that we are inter-related with a larger whole. If people feel more connected to the world around them they might be less likely to accept its destruction.’

  • If you are interested in taking part in any of Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments or if you have experiences that you consider telepathic, contact him through his website at
  • Here is one experiment being conducted at the time of publication:

Have you ever had the experience of knowing who’s calling you on the phone before you answer it? Or you think about someone – maybe for the first time in a while – and soon afterwards an email arrives? This is the procedure Rupert Sheldrake uses in an attempt to test whether such phenomena are just a matter of coincidence, or whether
telepathy is involved.

An individual has to guess which one of four others is sending them a message. By the laws of chance, they would be correct about 25 per cent of the time, but Sheldrake’s findings in similar experiments show that some people are correct much more often than that, which suggests that telepathy is involved. Could you be one of these people?
The individual tested is told they will get a message at a fixed time from one of the four. The sender is picked at random. Just before the message is due to be sent, the receiver will be asked to guess who it is going to be from. This happens 10 times. The whole
thing takes 15 to 20 minutes. If you would like to help Sheldrake with such an experiment, you need to:

  • Set up an experimental group. This will consist of yourself and two close friends or family members – your senders. You are more likely to be successful if you choose people you are close to emotionally, but physical distance is not a problem: the people you select can be anywhere in the world. The computer will generate two ‘virtual people’ to make the number up to four.
  • Choose a time (immediately or in the future) when everyone involved can be available at a computer for up to 20 minutes.
  • All log on at the agreed time, making sure that everyone’s sound system is activated. For each of the trials, the computer will pick one of the senders at random and will ask them to think about you and write you a message. You will be alerted when you are about to receive a message, and will have to indicate who you think is about to send it. You will either be right or wrong. (You will probably do better if you go with the first thought that comes to you.) After all 10 trials, you will be given your results.

Sheldrake is interested in contacting some people who show high potentially telepathic abilities. They will be offered the chance to do the same experiment under more rigorously controlled conditions (on video to make sure they are not being contacted by any other means). If you are interested, contact him via

Despite the resistance of orthodox science to his theories, Sheldrake is far from alone in his convictions; and numerous scientists and intellectuals have reported first hand experiences of the kind of phenomenon he describes.
Joy Adamson
In here book, Born Free, Joy Adamson describes leaving her reserve to travel to Nairobi. During her absence, the lioness Elsa would join Adamson’s husband for a walk each evening. But Adamson says that on the day she returned, Elsa ‘refused to accompany him and set herself down in the middle of the drive. Nothing would move her’. Later, when Elsa was returned to the wild the Adamsons would go to visit her every few weeks, and she would always appear within a few hours. Adamson was convinced that Elsa ‘sensed our arrival in some mysterious way’.

Mark Twain
In a letter of 1884, Twain wrote: ‘I have reaped an advantage from these years of constant observation… I have been saved the writing of many and many a letter by refusing to obey these strong impulses [to write to acquaintances]. I always knew the other fellow was sitting down to write when I got the impulse – so what could be the sense in both of us writing the same thing? People are always marvelling that their letters “cross” each other. If they would but squelch the impulse to write, there would not be any crossing because only the other fellow would write. I am politely making an exception in your case.’

Laurens Van der Post

In his book, The Lost World of the Kalahari, Van der Post describes being on a hunting excursion with the Bushmen. Returning after having killed an eland 50 miles away, Van der Post asked one of his fellow hunters how people back at camp would react when they heard of the successful trip. ‘They already know,’ came the reply. ‘They know by
wire. We Bushmen have a wire here’ – the hunter tapped his chest – ‘that brings us news.’ When they arrived back at camp, the people were singing the eland song and already involved in preparations for a great welcome.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2005

More from this author