The Sensorites

We can read the misery in her mind

It’s all about death. Most things are, when you get down to it.

It’s also something of a historical accident.

The nineteenth century spiritualism craze hit Britain just when science was reshaping itself. Some of this reshaping was institutional. Professional scientific institutions were being established, that would transform scientific research from a hobby for learned gentlemen into a career for smart professionals. And some of it was conceptual. The strange phenomena of electricity and magnetism were being systematically investigated and codified, the inner workings of the nervous system were beginning to be exposed, and the full spectrum of light from radio waves to X-rays was opening up.

This created an intellectual environment of strange new forces acting between disconnected bodies as if by magic, of mysterious transmissions through unexplained media, of thoughts and feelings carried by electrical forces. The apparent world became a small circle of light in a darkened vastness, into which the lanterns of science were only beginning to penetrate. Just as geology and evolution opened up great vistas of unknown time, so did physics, chemistry and anatomy reveal that the apparent world is but a small sliver of the full breadth and depth of nature.

So when mediums showed up claiming to be able to speak to the dead, or when thoughts seemed to pass from one mind to another without conscious communication, the intellectual world was primed to conceptualise these phenomena in a new way: not as the work of gods or devils, but as the results of the same unknown forces that enabled electric currents to pass between disconnected wires, radio waves to travel great distances, nerve impulses to cross the synaptic gap.

The pioneering chemist William Crookes was the first to attempt scientific measurements of spiritualist phenomena. When the medium Daniel Dunglas Home appeared to be able to levitate, Crookes carefully measured the force per square inch with a pressure gauge, proving to his own satisfaction at least that there was such a thing as psychic force. The physicist William Barrett conducted experiments on thought transference, and along with scientific colleagues investigated the mind-reading abilities of the five children in the Creery family.

These scientists developed the idea that there was some new force, hitherto unknown to science, that mediated the mental and spiritual realm. This force allowed communication between living minds and between the living and the dead, and could move objects in the physical world. This idea became institutionalised: alongside such respectable establishments as the Royal Society, the Institute of Chemistry and the Society of Telegraph Engineers there was established the Society for Psychical Research.

Make no mistake, these researchers were a minority, The bulk of the scientific establishment dismissed spiritualism as the work of charlatans and mountebanks, and the psychic force as a product of self-delusion and sloppiness. In this, they were entirely right. The fashionable mediums of the day were unmasked or confessed to fraud, Daniel Dunglas Home’s conjuring tricks were exposed, while the Creery children eventually revealed the code-systems they used to communicate.

However, something was lost when these psychic investigations were discredited. To get an idea of what that was, we can look to more recent times, and what was possibly the greatest act of telepathy in human history.

When Queen were on stage at the Live Aid concert in 1985, there was an idea within the mind of Freddie Mercury. That idea was “Freddie Mercury is awesome”. Mercury managed to transmit that idea into the minds of the tens of thousands of people in the audience at Wembley Stadium. That is in itself an impressive feat of telepathy. But thanks to the global satellite broadcast of the event, Mercury was able to transfer this mental construct from his own mind directly into the minds of an estimated one and a half billion people worldwide. And thanks to the video recording being readily available on the internet, Freddie Mercury’s ghost can continue to implant this idea into the minds of millions, long after his death.

The fact that this telepathic influence can be mediated by video recordings tells us something very significant. Whatever it is, it can be encoded in audiovisual data. In other words, it requires no novel or mysterious physical medium, just sound waves and photons. Telepathy, whatever it is, is explicable without any new laws of physics.

Now you may be objecting at this point, saying “That’s not telepathy. That’s just charisma”. Well, yes, it is charisma, and Freddie Mercury was undoubtedly one of the most charismatic men who ever lived. But charisma is just a label for a kind of mental influence that is not at all well understood. We could just as well call it telepathy.

But of course telepathy requires a receiver as well as a transmitter. That’s where the other half of the telepathic equation comes in – empathy. Whether it’s being able to share in another person’s emotions, sense the interpersonal atmosphere in a room, or guess at hidden concerns, empathy involves reaching out to other people and absorbing some part of their thoughts and emotions.

The linking of minds that is at the heart of telepathy happens, in this view, when charisma and empathy both reach out and connect with on another. The more powerful one of these is, the less powerful the other needs to be. The preternatural charisma of Freddie Mercury can reach a vast audience with no particular talent for empathy, while a natural empath can gauge the feelings of people of indifferent charisma.

And it’s empathy and charisma that are the vital components of apparently supernatural cases of mental contact. The stage illusionist Derren Brown repeatedly cites charisma as a vital characteristic for anyone trying to simulate Victorian-style mediumship and spiritualism, whether for entertaining conjuring shows like his own performances or for cruelly fleecing bereaved people out of money by purporting to actually speak to their dead loved ones. Meanwhile the well-meaning souls who attend psychic training schools are effectively given courses in developing their empathic abilities: close listening and sensitivity.

So when we strip away the charlatanry and self-delusion, the phenomena that were investigated by psychical researchers make sense as a combination of charisma and empathy. It is unfortunate that, as official science became established and demarcated, these phenomena ended up in the institutions of psychical research rather than psychology.

The investigation of these phenomena is still geared towards finding some extra force in nature, just as it was back in the nineteenth century. The only difference is that, following trends in physics, the purported mechanisms invoke quantum mechanics rather than electromagnetism – and lest you think that is any more plausible, take a look at the entry for The Keys of Marinus to see how subtle the actual physical processes of quantum action at a distance really are. Meanwhile, rigorous study of thought transference as a mundane psychological phenomenon seems mainly to be done by stage illusionists, who for understandable reasons tend not to write up their investigations in peer-reviewed journals.

We’ve seen how thought transference – telepathy – became separated from mainstream science, but why does that separation exist to this day? What is the resistance to bringing it back into the fold as a mundane, if sometimes baffling, psychological phenomenon? Well, the general air of disreputability that has always hung around this field would explain why the scientific establishment would resist, but there’s a deeper reason. The established psychical investigators are determined to find proof of something beyond normal psychology in these processes, and have been ever since the birth of psychical research, for a profound and powerful reason.

They want to find proof of life after death.

If the human mind can exist in some medium unknown to mainstream science, if it can communicate in some way unbounded by any physiological basis, then there would be some hope that the mind could continue to exist, to experience, to communicate after the physical destruction of the body.

This is why the original psychical investigators got so interested in spiritualism in the first place. It’s what continued to motivate them even as they sought to put some respectable distance between their researches and the charlatanry of mediumship. And it’s why established psychical research still draws in some brilliant and respected scientists at the ends of their careers, as they face the cruel inexorability of old age. The study of telepathy might provide psychologists with new insight into how charisma and empathy work, but they will do nothing to banish the fear of death, or to bring back lost loved ones. And as long as there is some activity with the trappings of science that promises to do just that, there will always be enthusiasts who refuse to let go of the possibility that their experiments might just open the path to a world beyond the grave.

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