Telepathy and Psychoanalysis
The Journa of the American Society for Psychical Research 1958

The essential point in the psychoanalytic approach to the problem of telepathy, and to other parapsychological problems, is, in my opinion, a question of purpose and a question of meaning. If we succeed in our attempt to understand the purpose and the meaning of a mental process, we get nearer to its dynamics, and we can hope to learn something about the conditions which bring it into being.
This is exactly what Freud did, when, in his memorable article Dreams and Telepathy (1922), he admitted for the first time the possibility of telepathic phenomena. He also made a pioneer attempt to interpret their purpose and meaning, and he tried to evaluate them in terms of psychodynamics.
In this article Freud offers, on the basis of some episodes he had come across, an hypothesis regarding the unconscious mental processes in certain alleged “clairvoyant performances.” According to Freud, the “clairvoyants” might perceive, by thought-transference, conscious or unconscious fantasies of their clients, and express them in a distorted fashion. The distortion – such as displacing into the future something which has already happened, or attributing to a certain person an experience which may have occurred to someone else would have the purpose of hiding unpleasant aspects of the fantasies themselves.
The concept of distortion is one of the basic tenets of psychoanalytic psychology. It was first elucidated and expounded by Freud with reference to neurotic symptoms and the dream-structure. In his famous Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud was able to show that the essential psychological drives, which were trying to find some expression in a dream, were submitted intra-psychically to a process by which they reached consciousness in a distorted fashion. This was what Freud called the dream-work, whereby the latent ideas of the dream were converted in the dream’s manifest content. However, such distortion was not an exclusive feature of the dream process, or of symptom-formation: it was, Freud pointed out, a general characteristic of mental dynamics. Freud discovered first that human behavior, nay, that all conscious end-results of mental activity, are the ultimate products of typical “interventions” by mechanisms which have been called the “defense-mechanisms of the ego.” These can be detected and described most clearly in abnormal mental conditions, neurotic symptoms, etc., but they are not necessarily pathological, i.e., inadequate. In fact, they have to be considered as part and parcel of normal mental activity as well.
In spontaneous cases of telepathy – which, if not “normal,” are certainly not “pathological” occurrences – similar defensemechanisms, according to Freud, might operate with the subject of the experience. One of his correspondents had written him an interesting letter: he had dreamt that his second wife had given birth to twins, and during the same night his daughter (i.e., the daughter of his first wife) had indeed given birth to twins, about one month earlier than expected. Freud interpreted this case as follows: assuming that a telepathic communication had occurred, the telepathic stimulus might have aroused in the sleeper a forbidden fantasy to be the father, not the grandfather, of the expected offspring; and the defense-mechanisms in the dream (the dream’s “censor,” to use Freud’s terms) could have distorted such a fantasy. The dreamer would have thus visualized as his own the twins of a legitimate wife – not of a daughter – and escaped the condemnation of an incest wish.
Freud’s opinion was that, similarly, psychoanalysis might explain some presumptive telepathic occurrences which also could have undergone modifications and distortions. This process, as with dreams, would also render them unrecognizable as being telepathic unless they were properly interpreted.
With this memorable observation, which he made almost casually, Freud opened a new way to parapsychological investigations, clearly showing that if we are looking for possible paranormal events, we should not stick to the immediate aspects of a psychological phenomenon (such as the manifest content of a dream), but should look behind the screens and distortions which such occurrences might undergo according to the general laws of psychodynamics.
This preoccupation was typical of Freud’s contributions to the problem of telepathy and ESP in general. May I recall that in his essay on The Occult Significance of Dreams (1925), he briefly indicated the role that unconscious emotional factors were bound to play in telepathic communications. He also described “topographical changes,” from unconscious to preconscious levels, in the content of such communications. Finally, in the second chapter (lecture 30) of his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1932), Freud re-examined some of the episodes he had considered in previous writings, and reported a new example, which has become widely known as “the case of Dr. Forsyth.” In his analysis of the circumstances, Freud offers plenty of detail. He ends by showing that telepathy was a probable explanation of the fact that his patient P. had in some way “perceived” that Freud’s interest had shifted from him, and had been directed toward a new patient who had arrived from England.
Here, for the first time, Freud tried to face the problem of possible telepathic occurrences between analyst and patient, and to evaluate these occurrences within the coordinates of the analytic situation. In a recent essay, I ventured to re-examine “the case of Dr. Forsyth.” I think I was able to show that the situation à deux in this case, and Freud’s emotional attitude towards his patient, made excellent psychoanalytic sense in many subtle ways which Freud himself was not in a position to assess completely. This was made possible by the series of observations and theoretical contributions which many investigators have made in the last two decades, following Freud’s lead. May I simply refer to the two papers by István Hollós and myself written before the last war, where it was first pointed out that telepathic communications between analyst and patient could be related to preconscious or unconscious emotional problems which had become “mutual.” May I also make reference to some post-war writings, such as the many excellent articles by Jule Eisenbud, the books and papers by Jan Ehreriwald, several articles and reports by noted analysts such as Geraldine Pederson-Krag, George Devereux, Sydney Rubin, W. H. Gillespie (currently President of the International Psychoanalytical Association), Nandor Fodor, and others. As far as my personal contributions are concerned, I have reported more than one example of telepathic phenomena in the analytic setting, offering evidence of the “complementarity” of the psychological conditions to which they seem consistently related, and deepening our theoretical comprehension of such conditions. I believe that a short, very simple example will be in order to clarify what I mean, and to show how the “complementarity” in question seems to come about. It is a recent and hitherto unpublished case from my own practice.
A young married woman, a doctor, whom I will call Mrs. A., had been undergoing a personal analysis with me, with a view to receiving a regular analytic training if everything went well (I am a training-analyst of the Italian Psychoanalytic Society). The analysis had been going on for two and a half years, and was on the whole satisfactory, in spite of some strong character-difficulties of this lady, which I found at times quite disturbing, and at other times really unpleasant. The analytic hour of Mrs. A. was always at 8:00 P.M. One late afternoon (‘on a day when Mrs. A. was not scheduled to see me), I was consulted about another young woman, cultivated and with a university degree, who presented very clear-cut symptoms of agoraphobia (dread of open spaces). I was very much interested in the case, and it is quite likely that while I was trying to get a general idea of the underlying structure, I may have thought that a phobia, or another symptomatic neurosis, confronts a psychoanalyst with problems which are on the whole preferable to those of a character-neurosis. Anyway, I could not possibly take this girl for analysis because I was too busy, and I referred the case to a colleague. This interview lasted for about an hour, from 6:00 to 7:00 P.M.
The next day Mrs. A. came for her session as usual. The first thing she told me was this: “Yesterday I was about to leave a house and to go in the street after visiting a friend, when I felt a curious sense of giddiness. I stopped before crossing the main entrance on my way out, and said to myself: ‘Now, wouldn’t it be strange if after two and a half years of analysis, I should start developing symptoms of agoraphobia?’ Then I shrugged my shoulders, waited a few moments, felt well again, and proceeded into the street.”
“At what time did this happen?” I inquired.
“Oh, at about half past six in the evening,” she replied. “But why do you ask?”
Now of course I cannot prove that this was a case of telepathy, although I personally believe that it was one. I can simply say, first of all, that this lady, in almost three years of analysis, had never developed any phobic symptom of any kind (whereas she had complained more than once about troubles of an evident psychosomatic nature). The time-correspondence is also rather striking – not to speak of the particular symptom (agoraphobia) which Mrs. A. had so promptly produced while I was dealing with an agoraphobic consultant! All this is absolutely typical of the dynamics of such occurrences, as Hollós and I first described. It is as if Mrs. A. had wanted to say: “Why are you so interested in an agoraphobic case? If you really are, I could also have something similar, which might etually interest you! Besides, you should not think that you can get away with this ‘preference’ for another patient, and hide it from me, because in one way or another, I happen to know what is going on. Will you therefore pay more attention to me and to my problems?”
As it may be noticed, one typical feature of such occurrences is the involvement of analyst and patient in a pattern which comprises them both. The dovetailing of their preoccupations and interests seems to create a Gestalt in which both of them are merged.
This case is rather simple because there is little or no distortion. In dreams – as several analysts including myself have been able to show – distortions are often very elaborate, and it can very well happen therefore that many telepathic occurrences during analysis may escape attention just because of the deformation-mechanisms which make them hardly recognizable. However, the dynamics of such occurrences – whether dreams or other experiences – reveal what was defined by Hollós and myself as an unmasking by the patient of emotional psychic material pertaining to the analyst’s mind material which is thus thrown, as it were, in the analyst’s face. Considered from this angle, the occurrence is like a challenge to the analyst’s attempt to conceal, or to repress, something which might have appeared – or to a certain extent may have actually been unfriendly to the patient. This “dovetailing” of the analyst’s emotional patterns with those of the patient can be described as an unconscious dynamical configuration à deux, which, as I and other observers have remarked, seems to be a very strong precondition for the occurrence of telepathic phenomena.
I have tried, in recent years, to see if the conditions which seem to promote the occurrence of telepathic incidents in the analytic situation resemble, in a more general frame of inter-personal relations, those of non-analytic telepathic phenomena. Before venturing to give a reply to this question, I wish to quote such an extra-analytic case, which, however, I was fortunate enough to investigate with quasi analytical tools. The occurrence has remained unique so far in my own direct experience, and the case was first published in the Winter, 1956, issue of Tomorrow magazine. I will now report the case, summarizing it whenever possible.
During the night between the 23rd and 24th of April, 1955, a sixteen-year-old girl, whom I shall call Luisa, dreamed that the mother of her fiancé Guido had on her finger a strange silver ring. On the ring’s surface there were strange signs, resembling hieroglyphics. The ring itself could be opened, and could therefore, as she thought, contain a scent.
On awakening, Luisa related her dream to her mother. A few hours later, she phoned Guido, and began telling him of her dream. Guido, in great excitement, said that he had just come back from Milan, where he had bought for his mother a silver ring at the Somaliland pavilion of the International Fair. The ring, he added, had a surface that could be opened, and on which strange writings of unknown meaning were engraved. Hearing this, Luisa dropped the phone, and frantically called her mother to testify that all these details had also appeared in her dream.
Luisa and Guido are well known to me personally. All the circumstances were related to me immediately after the telephone call, and I at once took very accurate notes. I also asked Luisa and Guido to check these notes, which they found perfectly correct.
Let us now try to reflect on the psychological setting. As I have pointed out, Luisa and Guido were engaged to be married, and very much in love. Their engagement was still unofficial, but Luisa was very eager to become formally engaged to Guido, and looked forward to the day when he would present her with an engagement ring.
Luisa’s father had died when she was still an infant. She was brought up by her mother, and was also cared for by her mother’s three sisters. No male figure played any prominent role in her childhood. Her mother remarried in 1951, when Luisa was eleven years old.
In psychoanalytic terms, it is quite obvious that her Oedipus complex was very little elaborated. Luisa still had strong enthusiasms and passive-masochistic fantasies about outstanding men. She also showed ambivalent attitudes toward her own mother and other maternal figures. She was consciously jealous of Guido’s attachment to, and respect for, his mother.
The fact of Guido’s trip was known to Luisa. She also knew that he would visit the International Fair. Possibly she expected that Guido would bring her a present – which he actually did. However, the present he bought for Luisa was not a ring: it was a pair of earrings. Probably owing to some residual Oedipal attachment of his own, Guido actually selected a ring for his mother, but not for Luisa. One might say that, being emotionally attached to two women at the same time, Guido showed a meaningful preference for his mother, buying her a ring; whereas he selected for Luisa a nice, but much less significant ornament.
He probably had no intention of concealing from Luisa the fact that he had bought a ring for his mother. However, at this point we might say that the psychological situation of Luisa and Guido presented a very typical dovetailing, due to the interweaving of their own patterns of relation. The idea of the ring had become the focus of the relation itself, whereas distance, and psychological obstacles, prevented it from becoming the actual object of a conscious interpersonal communication.
Through telepathy, then, these obstacles were somehow overthrown.
Through telepathy, Luisa was able to establish a temporary syntony between herself and Guido, and to merge for a mothent into an unconscious, unitarian psychic world which comprised them both.
She was thus able to express in a dream her unsurmounted rivalry toward a motherly figure, and, possibly, a retrospective hostility related to the fact that her own mother, and not she, had been the subject of an experience involving engagement and marriage. She was also able to tell her mother, and then Guido, that ‘she was “informed” of what had been going on, of Guido’s “preference” for his mother, and of the “wrong” he had thus done to his sweetheart. In fact, Luisa did tell Guido of the occurrence before he could even mention it, as if she wanted to let him know that he could not evade the issue, even had he wanted to.
If we take this episode as a typical example of what might be going on in so-called “spontaneous” telepathy, we might say that its main features are ‘rather similar to those which have been observed and described in the analytic setting. Instead of using the technical term of “transference-countertransference relationship” in connection with these features, we ‘might very well use other terms. The main question is this: is the situation which we call “transference and countertransference,” as we know it in our analytical experience, limited to the analytic setting? In a paper which I presented at the International Psychoanalytical Congress in Geneva in 1955, I tried to point out that, as I see it, analytical transference-countertransference relations reveal conditions that are, to use Freud’s terms, “a universal phenomenon of the human mind,” a phenomenon which “in fact dominates the whole of each person’s relations to his human environment” and “is merely uncovered and isolated by analysis.” Since no human relation can be conceived of as being totally independent from emotional premises, and since, conversely, such emotional preconditions of communication, related to more primitive strivings towards contact and unity, are abnormally acute and discernible in the analytical situation, transference in a restricted sense has assumed a particular relevance in analysis, both as a phenomenon which offers itself to investigation, and as an instrument by which certain therapeutic goals can be reached.
The typical frustrations which the patient undergoes during an analysis are, in my opinion, simply a particular reinforcement of the usual difficulties which compel people to “transfer,” i.e., to strive emotionally and more primitively, within normal variables of irrationality, towards communication. It is well known, moreover, that acute transference phenomena in the neurotic sense are by no means limited to the analytical situation, but can occur in the most widely differing settings of everyday life.
Frustration, therefore, is the precondition of transference, which, in turn, is an attempt to overcome, through regressive means, the obstacles that prevent more satisfactory communication. From 1932, Freud contended that telepathy “may be the original archaic method by which individuals understand one another, and which has been pushed into the background in the course of phylogenetic development by the better method of communication by means of signs apprehended by the sense organs.” My own work of 25 years on the subject of telepathy, as well as the investigations of several co-workers in different countries, has given much support to Freud’s hypothesis. In my opinion, we find in the phylogenetic development of the human race the following parallel phenomena: (1) a progressive trend towards individuation (or, conversely, an increasing estrangement from an original ‘state of collective coalescence, as we can still discern in some primitive cultures and in lower animal species), (2) a continuous progress in communication through better and more adequate sign’s and means, (3) an increasingly better acknowledgment of time- and space-conditioning, and a fuller capacity for reality-testing, (4) an increasing “.pushing into the background” i.e., repression of non-mediate attempts to re-establish “primordial unity” and (5) an actual coexistence in present times in every human being, of a more or less well-developed awareness of its own “singleness,” together with a large unconscious mental world which ignores singleness, time, space, and reality, and which can at times regain the upper hand to very variable extents.
If transference in its ‘broadest sense is a primitive emotional mechanism intended to bridge “distances” (physical as well as mental) between people (because of obstacles and frustrations which are felt to be insuperable by more advanced mean’s), it is natural that it should be accompanied by attempts to express in images, signs, and symbols its particular sense or significance; i.e., that it should try to establish a transmission of thoughts (or anyway, of mental contents). In fact, verbalization of transference-drives through interpretation is what we constantly aim at in our analytical work. By doing this, we help our patients to establish better communication with us and with their environment. Nevertheless, we may very well imagine situations in which the individual feels utterly prevented from conveying the meaning of a transference aspect or reaction of his, unless he temporarily reverts to an immediate kind of communication, or, better still, to a “communion” of some sort, implying regressive non-singleness, and a sudden merging in a non-individualized unconscious Gestalt; that is, unless he can enact what is often also called “thought-transference.”
If this assumption is valid, a telepathic phenomenon should have several characteristics, namely: (1) it should be unconscious, (2) should occur under impelling transference conditions due to physical or emotional frustration, (3) it should be promoted by the feeling that these conditions must be overcome in order to establish communication, and by the impossibility to do so by less regressive means, and (4) it should convey an emotional message which is felt to be urgent and important.
And if we now consider the most reliable literature on telepathy, we cannot fail to see that the aforesaid characteristics are to be found in practically every case.
Starting from these premises, it appears that “transference-countertransference conditioning” of a telepathic experience should be particularly suitable to investigation in the analytic setting, where, as already pointed out, the “universal phenomenon” of transference and countertransference becomes particularly relevant, and where it can be closely studied in all its implications – which is seldom possible under usual extra-analytical conditions.
By these conclusions, which represent the point I have reached so far in my investigations on telepathy and psychoanalysis, I certainly do not presume to have “solved” any of the many riddles of telepathic occurrences. I think, however, that this approach – difficult and thorny as it certainly is – is bound to yield further results, and perhaps, in the end, to give us a fairly satisfactory picture of the role of the telepathic factor in our everyday mental life.

1)This paper was delivered by Dr. Servadio at a Meeting of the Society on April 22, 1958.

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