Is mind-reading really possible?

Yes, says Flic Everett, who’s had some ‘compelling’ experiences with telepathy herself. She explains how it could take human communication to the next level.

Are you thinking of it?’ he asks. From 500 miles away I focus on the image of a playing card. Concentrating hard. There’s a long pause, and the line goes so quiet I have to check we’re still connected.

‘Four of hearts,’ he says, and I scream. Immediately, I send my partner Andy the picture of the playing card I’ve been thinking of. The four of hearts.

This happened seven years ago, soon after we met, and it wasn’t the first time I’d ‘done’ telepathy. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of reading minds ever since I was a child; compelled by the conviction that, with enough focus, I can transmit an image or idea without words. I’ve succeeded enough times to convince myself there’s more than coincidence at play, from calling someone as they were about to call me after weeks of no contact, to knowing that my son was in trouble at school when I was halfway down a ski slope. I’d never reached the bottom so fast.

mind-reading
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Once it happened when I was driving down a motorway with my ex-husband. I said: ‘I’ll think of an object and you guess.’ Initially he scoffed but we had a lot of miles ahead, and we had exhausted I Spy. I thought, randomly, of a clown doll I’d owned as a child; not something my ex had ever seen, or that we had even discussed. We drove along in silence for a while, as I focused as hard as I could on the image, trying to ‘send’ the picture to him.

‘OK,’ he said, ‘I’m getting the shape of a baby… No wait, it’s a doll. But colourful… a red nose… it’s a clown doll.’ I shrieked so loudly that we nearly drove on to the hard shoulder. We didn’t try it for a long time after that, because we were both so freaked out.

A sceptic (which, in many ways, I still am) would say it’s simply luck. A less critical explanation would be that I had inadvertently given my subjects some kind of clue as to what I was thinking. What, I wonder, would a scientist say?

‘The absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence,’ says cognitive neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw. She goes on to point out that we happily entertain other nonverbal forms of communication. ‘We already use empathy to understand one another without speaking. Similarly we can walk into a room and sense feelings of unrest or that something just doesn’t feel right.’

One of the most compelling scientific theories about how telepathy happens involves a specific type of nerve cell. ‘There is a theory that mirror neurons [which fire both when we execute an action and when we observe someone else executing it] are also activated when we empathise with another person,’ says Dr Shaw. It is a relatively small jump from there, she says, to theorising that these mirror neurons might actually respond to specific thoughts.

One study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine appears to support this idea. It found that changes in certain brain regions of the ‘receivers’ in the study when the ‘transmitters’ were sending their thoughts with focused intention. When they were told to stop, the receiver’s brain function altered too.

Following on from the idea of mirror neurons being at play in telepathy, Dr Shaw says that some studies have suggested certain mental states may be more ‘readable’ than others. ‘Gamma brain waves occur when we are at a high level of concentration, processing information. When this happens, communication in the brain is very efficient,’ she says. ‘This is what psychologists call a state of flow, and also tends to happen on long car journeys or in creative periods of thought.’

Dr Lynda Shaw
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw says that there are already compelling theories about how telepathy works. Image: Penny Withers

Another theory suggests that the brain is at its most receptive during sleep. In the 1970s, Dr Stanley Krippner, professor of psychology at Saybrook University in California, conducted experiments with sleeping subjects. The (conscious) sender was given a picture to focus on. The ‘receiver’ would be asleep, then woken and asked about their dream. One image used was School of Dance, a painting by Degas showing girls in a ballet class. Dr Krippner reported that on waking, the receiver immediately said, ‘I was in a class made up of maybe half a dozen people, it felt like a school… There was one little girl trying to dance with me.’

Indeed, telepathy has proved of such enduring interest to the scientific community that, in 2014, Barcelona-based research institute Starlab successfully transmitted the words ‘hola’ and ‘ciao’ in binary code from the brain of a person in India to the brains of three people in France. The communication involved the ‘sender’ wearing a cap of electrodes that recorded brain activity, which was then sent to the ‘receivers’ where it was seen as flashing lights. There is hope that this might one day open up pathways of communication for people who have either lost or never had the power of speech.

Aside from the potential medical benefits of engineered telepathy (and, of course, those that it might offer the military) there is the problem of the psychological impact of being able to read each other’s thoughts. As Dr Shaw points out, however, this depends on whether you believe that the ‘sender’s’ mind is an open book or whether they have control over what they are transmitting.

‘If we are able to read another person’s thoughts uncensored, then it could lead to all sorts of problems, from being hurt because we know what someone else really thinks of us, to knowing what their intentions are – good and bad,’ she agrees. ‘However, if we are talking about simply communicating a message outside the normal channels then this will be like any other medium – written or spoken.’

Natalie Reeves Billing, a children’s author and musician from Merseyside, subscribes to the idea of telepathy brought on by a ‘flow state’ after an experience that she cannot explain away. ‘For the past year, my writing partner Johnny and I have been working on tunes for children – the latest song was a sea shanty,’ she explains. ‘I was in the shower when the tune suddenly came to me. I had to record it quickly and send it to Johnny before I forgot it. As I was sending it, I saw a message from him pop into my inbox.’ They both listened to each other’s recordings at the same time and were stunned to find that they had written the same tune.

‘We couldn’t even get our words out! Everything about the song was the same. We joked that we may have secret cameras in each other’s houses, but honestly, I’ve never been so surprised. I think we became believers [in telepathy] right there and then. It would be one huge coincidence otherwise.’

Anna Craig*, a retail manager from North London, experienced telepathy with her best friend Sally*. For her it was a state of intense crisis rather than of flow which she believes prompted the telepathic connection.

‘About five years ago, Sally was with a really bad boyfriend,’ she says. ‘None of us trusted him; he had a temper, but she swore he was “lovely”. I hadn’t seen her for a few weeks and was getting ready for bed when I suddenly thought of Sally. It was as if she was speaking in my head, saying, “Call me”. I was so spooked, I phoned her immediately and heard her crying.’ Sally had had a massive row with her boyfriend, he had hit her and she’d fled the flat with no money.

‘She said, “I was desperate to call you, but I thought you’d be asleep,’’’ Anna recalls. ‘That was the end of their relationship – and Sally and I still talk about the weirdness of what happened that night.’

The problem with true telepathic communication (in other words, brain-to-brain communication without the use of electrodes or flashing lights) is that there is just not enough hard scientific data to prove it exists; there is data to show how it might exist, but nothing beyond that. Dr Shaw, however, is keeping an open mind.

‘Consciousness is the last frontier in human research,’ she says. ‘I have high hopes that we will learn more in the not-too-distant future. That said, to actually understand how a brain may transmit complex messages to another brain that it is then able to decipher them may be a long way off.’

In the meantime, I’ll keep practising. Go on, which card am I thinking of?

(It’s the eight of diamonds.)

Have you had any telepathic experiences? Tell us about them at you.features@mailonsunday.co.uk.

*Names have been changed