Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Biology of Telepathy

Is brain-to-brain communication possible? Here's what research finds.

Source: mik38/iStockphoto

Extrasensory perception (ESP) refers to information that is perceived outside of the five senses. This includes phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and knowledge of future events.

Since these phenomena cannot be overtly seen or measured, they often regarded as unbelievable. However, recent research explores the possible biological mechanisms behind such phenomena.

Mirror Neurons: Telepathy refers to communication outside of the known senses. Many studies have demonstrated that we can “read” other people’s minds because we have neurons that act as automatic mirrors. In fact, we can grasp the intentions and emotions of others automatically. In 2007, psychology professor Gregor Domes and his colleagues found evidence that the ability to interpret subtle social cues can be enhanced by oxytocin, a hormone that increases trust and social approach behavior. It is not such a stretch to imagine that we can pick up the emotions and intentions of others around us, but can this be done when long distances separate people?

Long-distance communication: Another 2014 study conducted by psychiatrist Carles Grau and his colleagues found that brain-to-brain communication via the Internet is possible. In my book, “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind” I describe an experiment in which they proved that a person thinking of the words "hola" or "ciao" in India could communicate this to people in Spain without saying it out loud, being seen, or typing it. Information can, in fact, be transmitted across large distances when the Internet is the highway that connects the two people.

Invisible communication: In 2005, biologist Rupert Sheldrake and his research associate Pam Smart recruited 50 experimental participants through an employment website. They also included four potential emailers and one minute before a prearranged time, the participants had to guess who would send it. Of 552 trials, 43 percent of the guesses were correct. This was much higher than the 25 percent one would have expected if this finding were just due to chance.

In 2008, psychiatrist Ganesan Venkatasubramanian and his colleagues conducted a brain-imaging study in which they prepared images for a mentalist (someone who is purportedly telepathic) and a control subject. The mentalist was able to produce an image very similar to the one prepared for him, whereas the control subject was not. These investigators have demonstrated that when the mentalist was successful, the right parahippocampal gyrus (PHG) was activated, whereas it was not activated in the other person. Instead, the left inferior frontal gyrus was activated. This finding was similar to a prior study too.

Animal "telepathy": The biologic predisposition to the transfer of thoughts is not thought to be limited to humans. When flocks of birds turn seemingly automatically or wheel together, this quick inference from all birds at the same time is thought to be similar to telepathy. In 2017, experimental physicist Jure Demsar and computer scientist Iztok Lebar Bajek demonstrated that such group behavior may, in part, be explained by language related fuzzy rule-based computational systems. This suggests that there may be a built-in logic behind group behavior. They do not necessarily transcend the laws of nature.

Caution in interpretation

The sample sizes in these studies are very small, and the findings have not been well-replicated. The ability to duplicate findings is a far more complex issue than we can deal with in this blog, but suffice it to say that many scientists do not believe that replication of any such finding is statistically feasible.

If these findings are indeed unfounded, one group of researchers has demonstrated that people who have such beliefs differ from those who don’t due to genetic differences in dopamine transmission. Greater dopamine availability was found in those people who had a greater propensity for “unfounded” beliefs. This suggests that different chemistry may underlie different belief systems, but it does not necessarily imply pathology.

Hypotheses: Based on this preliminary research, the following hypotheses would be fair: (1) Our brains are wired to pick up subtle social cues; (2) Our brains are wired to automatically reflect intentions and emotions in the presence of others; (3) For our brains to connect across large distances, we have to be dialed in to a frequency similar to whatever an Internet connection allows; (4) If people have the capacity for telepathy, some people may be more capable than others, and (5) The hippocampal and parahippocampal brain regions may be involved in telepathic communication since they are involved in integrating memories and subtle aspects of language communication (e.g. sarcasm.); (6) ESP could depend on fast inference, which requires more openness to another, as implied by the oxytocin study.

While these hypotheses remain unproven, there is certainly sufficient evidence to pursue them with interest to see if they hold up to the scientific method. In the meanwhile, what can you do?

Actions: 1. Test out with your close friends if what you sense they are feeling is what they are actually feeling. Ask them if they are feeling what you sense. 2. To improve on what you are sensing, do things that may increase your oxytocin. For example, hugging them may increase their oxytocin, and being hugged may increase yours. 3. Play the e-mail game. Every four hours, guess who might be sending you an email. Jot this down to see how often you are correct. 4. Since more dopamine activity is associated with more unfounded beliefs, try the prior experiments after a rewarding activity that would increase dopamine. For example, after working out, see if your prediction abilities are better. 5. Try out long-distance experiments, and check in with others to see if you can feel what they are feeling.

You will not be able to generalize the truth through these experiments, but you will likely enjoy the results of your curiosity. Besides, some research has indicated that being curious may be associated with a longer life!