Have you ever heard the phone ring, and somehow knew the identity of the caller before you answered? Many people have reported so-called ‘telephone telepathy’, but skeptics generally write if off as selective memory (you remember the few times you were correct, forget the many times you were wrong) or pattern-based intuition (certain people call at certain times, or for certain reasons, which you unconciously recognise). But could it be that these experiences really do offer an insight into some sort of anomalous mind-to-mind communication?
There has in fact been some scientific testing of this idea, most notably by British scientist Rupert Sheldrake. Five experiments from 2003 onwards have all shown positive results, with hit rates above what would be expected by chance (see the video above for a short video about an experiment by Sheldrake involving ‘The Nolan Sisters’ – text summary here).
And now, a new study led by Sheldrake, created to explore the new possibilities of ‘telephone telepathy’ testing afforded by advances in digital communication technology, has reinforced those results. Here’s the description of the experiment:
Participants registered online through Rupert Sheldrake’s (R.S.) web site, www.sheldrake.org. The subjects entered their first and second names, sex, age, mobile telephone number, and email address, and also entered the names of two or three contacts (first names only) together with their mobile telephone numbers. The subject was told, “During the test, when you receive a call you will be asked to guess whether it is from contact 1, 2, or 3 (or 1 and 2 in the case of the two-caller test) so you will need to remember the order of your contacts. It will help if you put them in alphabetical order.”
There was also a field on the registration form for a group name, so when participants were part of a specific group, they all entered the same group name when registering, enabling their data to be retrieved as a group. The subject then received a welcome SMS message saying, “Thank you for entering the Telepathy Test which will start shortly. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Good luck!” The personal identification number (PIN) was a four-digit number, specific to this test. The contacts also received an SMS message saying, “Your details have been submitted by [SubjectName] as part of the Telepathy Test and the test will start shortly. Your PIN will be [nnnn].” (The subject was also told that she could stop the test at any time by calling the (landline) telephone telepathy test number (which was given at the bottom of the registration form) and pressing the star key on the keypad.)
Thus all participants’ tests were pre-registered, and hence there were no data from this test in “file drawers.” The test proceeded as follows:
After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, the system selected one of the contacts at random and sent a message saying, “This is the Telepathy Test. Please call [landline number] to be transferred to [SubjectName]. Your PIN is [nnnn]. Do not attempt to contact [SubjectName] directly.”
The contact person then called the telephone telepathy test landline number and was asked to enter the PIN number, identifying which test the contact was part of. A voice message asked the caller, “Please stay on the line while we attempt to contact the subject.” While on hold, the subject heard music.
The computer then telephoned the subject, whose caller ID display said, “Telephone telepathy test.” When the subject answered the phone, a message said, “ One of your callers is on the line. Please guess who it is by pressing 1, 2 or 3 (or 1 or 2 in two callers tests).” As soon as the guess was made it was recorded automatically, and the line opened up so the caller could talk to the subject, thus receiving immediate feedback. After a minute, the call was terminated.
After a random time delay of between 1 and 10 min, this procedure was repeated, and then repeated again until the subject had completed six trials, at which stage the test was complete. The subject then received an SMS message saying “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. You scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.” The contacts also received SMS messages saying, “Thank you for taking part in the Telepathy test. Subject scored [CorrectAnswer] correct out of 6 trials.”
In tests with three callers, there were 2080 trials altogether, with a hit rate of 41.8%, well above the 33.3% hit rate expected by chance. In tests with two callers, there were 745 trials, with a hit rate of 55.2% – again, above the 50% chance hit rate. According to the researchers, the experiments “showed that it is possible to do tests for telephone telepathy using an automated system involving mobile telephones under real-life conditions”, and that the “overall hit rates were positive and significantly above chance, as in previous research on telephone telepathy using landlines.”
It’s worth noting though that the researchers involved make clear that these tests were not ‘air-tight’ experiments given the ability of participants to cheat. “We did not film or supervise the participants, and hence it was possible that some were cheating”, they note. “Therefore, we do not claim that positive results in these exploratory experiments are compelling evidence for telepathy”. Instead, the main aim of these tests was exploratory: to point at new ways of investigating telepathy experimentally, to note problems that needed to be overcome with future tests, and also to investigate if the sex and age of the subjects had any noticeable effects (no differences were discovered on this latter point).