Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/September 1882/A Note on Thought-Reading



AN article on this subject in the "Nineteenth Century" for June contains conclusions so inadequately supported by trustworthy facts that a few words of comment seem to be called for. The matter in question has attained a somewhat undue prominence of late; but if it is as simple and intelligible as it appears to be to most who have investigated it with care, and with minds free from mystical bias, any aid toward the extinction of what must then be regarded as an ignis fatuus of pseudo-science carries with it its own justification.

The position of the writers of the article seems to be that it is possible for one person to divine the thoughts of another in the absence of any known means of communication. This inference is based mainly on a series of statements of cases where several children of a certain family, as well as a servant-girl in the same family, were professedly able to tell words and objects thought of in their absence, without contact with or sign from those who knew what they were required to do.

It may be taken as proved that the explanation of muscular indication amply covers all cases where, as in the well-known drawing-room game of "Willing," there is actual contact between the person who guides and the person guided. It is difficult, indeed, for the guider, who is intent on the success of the experiment, to avoid giving hints by pressure, alteration of speed, and otherwise, to the guided one, who is, as a rule, only too ready to quickly interpret them. The same explanation would apply to cases where the person who is "willed" to find something hidden during his or her absence is in no contact with any of the "willing" party, but who often succeeds in discovering the desired object by studying the unconscious indications given by the faces of the expectant circle. All this is, in fact, nearly admitted by the writers we quote, though their denial of Mr. Stuart Cumberland's own explanation of his performances in this line is perhaps as unwarrantable as the "further inquiry" that they suggest.

The remarks in this paper will, therefore, be confined to the alleged results obtained where there was no actual contact. It will be at once admitted with the writers of the article that common sense demands that every known mode of explanation of facts should be exhausted before the possibility of an unknown mode is considered. This is an all-important admission, obvious as it seems to be. It is required by the method of common sense, which is no less the method of science; all true explanation consisting in a procedure from the known to the unknown.

In the next place, it is equally obvious that in all scientific inquiries the good faith of individuals concerned should form no part of the data on which the conclusion is to rest. A person merits credence in proportion as the facts he alleges can be demonstrated or reproduced, and to the jealous care he shows in avoiding fallacy. But we can never, as our authors say, call on Science to put deception out of court by a belief in any one's integrity. Half of the evidence which has propped up the spiritualistic craze is based on the results obtained through mediums of "unblemished character" in private families, whose virtuous reputation has been largely sustained by the fact that they did not take money for their trouble; no regard being paid to innumerable other motives and tendencies to deception.

This being admitted, the cases before us in the paper alluded to can be easily dealt with. They differ in no way from the ordinary platform performances of the little "clairvoyantes" who from time to time have amused us both in the name of Second-Sight and in that of the humbler and honester one of Conjuring. It is well known that a very simple code of signals will suffice to produce results much more startling than those we are discussing. The first word or letter, for 'instance, of the question asked of the "sensitive" medium may denote the category to which the object fixed upon belongs. The second and third, and so on, serve to specialize it further, and by a series of questions and remarks it is easy to understand that any amount of information may be conveyed. When the clairvoyante is not blindfolded, other means of communication, of course, are possible, and in any case auditory signs other than words could be agreed upon quite unsuspected by the audience to be amused or deceived.

We have, therefore, an intelligible and admitted explanation which fully serves to cover all the facts in question. Such things are constantly done by collusion—it is a vera causa. It would be illogical to substitute for this a perfectly gratuitous hypothesis and an unknown agency. This is especially true in the case of such a set of phenomena as we are now considering. The possibility of though treading, as alleged by the writers of the paper, is so far beyond, or rather contrary to, universal experience that some use might fairly be made of the a priori argument, although the case need in no way rest on such a method. It may be said in passing that there is an enormous prima facie objection to the truth of the proposition that such divination is possible: the assumption and conviction of the contrary, based on immemorial experience, being, as it were, one of the suppressed major premises of all social intercourse.

On this argument, however, we would not depend unduly. The case against the genuineness of the asserted phenomena seems strong enough without it.

The children in question were not blindfolded.

In most of the experiments there is no mention made of silence being preserved. On the contrary, we may infer that no such rule was made; as the children must have been corrected when their guesses were wrong, as they often were.

On the hypothesis of collusion, it must further be noted that, in order to minimize the difficulty of the code of signals, and simplify the performance as much as possible, the child was previously informed of the nature of the object selected—e. g., whether it was a card or a name. The first guess, then, would give an opportunity for the conveyance of perhaps even the final hint contained in the correction offered.

The mistake made by the servant in guessing the name "'Enry" for "Emily" is obviously significant, and an excellent example of an "undesigned coincidence." Surely it must lead almost every plain mind to the irresistible conclusion that a mistaken whisper or facial gesture played some part in the phenomenon. This remark applies as well to the errors made by the children in the case of words alike in sound.

The theory of collusion is, moreover, strongly countenanced by the fact of the mediums being children, who are always ready to join in any game of deception; and by the association with them of the servant-girl—a valuable fact, putting out of court the assumption of any inherited special quality peculiar to the family, as an explanation, possibly plausible to some minds, of the alleged marvels.

It will probably, however, be readily allowed, with the authors of the article, that the experiments made in the presence of the members of the family are scientifically untrustworthy. They may, therefore, be practically ignored. Yet we infer from the paper that most of the experiments were made under these conditions; and we read that the presence of the father "seemed decidedly to increase the percentage of successes."

The authors, indeed, say, "Though generally the object selected was shown to the members of the family present in the room, we were sometimes entirely alone." From the only rational point of view, that of scientific skepticism, and therefore with total disregard of the personal factor, this consideration seems in no way to invalidate the line of comment here taken. It is not clear to how many of the three observers the pronoun "we" in the above passage refers; but, at any rate, we miss entirely in the paper any specific quotation of results obtained in this latter set of circumstances.

But, even if this evidence had been forthcoming, no mere ipse dixit on such a matter could for one moment be admitted. Reason would require us to entertain the great probability of mental bias in some at least of the observers, or to discredit the accuracy of their memory, rather than to allow that anything has been adduced in this account of what, to say the least, must be called superficially conducted experiments, to warrant a recognition of any novelty, or, by consequence, to stand in need of explanation by a theory of "brain-waves."—Nineteenth Century.