IT WAS 9:00 P.M., April 22, 1886. The four researchers Ochorowicz, Marillier, Janet, and A. T. Myers crept quietly through the deserted streets of Le Havre and took up their stations outside the cottage of Madame B. They waited expectantly. Then it happened. "At 9:25," Ochorowicz later wrote, "I saw a shadow appearing at the garden gate: it was she. I hid behind the corner in order to be able to hear without being seen." (1)
At first the woman paused at the gate and went back into the garden. Then at 9:30 she hurried out into the street and began to make her way unsteadily toward the house of Dr. Gibert. The four researchers followed as unobtrusively as possible. They could see she was obviously in a somnambulistic state. Finally she reached Gibert's house, entered, and hurried from room to room until she found him.
This was an experiment in long-distance hypnotic influence. Madame B., a person easily hypnotized, was the subject of many experiments arranged by Professor Pierre Janet and Dr. Gibert, a prominent physician of Le Havre. In these probes they were joined by F. W. H. Myers of the Society for Psychical Research, the physician A. T. Myers, Professor Ochorowicz of the University of Lvov, and M. Marillier of the French Psychological Society.
On this occasion the plan was that Dr. Gibert remain in his study and try to mentally summon Madame B. to leave her cottage and come see him. The cottage was about a kilometer from his house, and neither Madame B. nor any of the people living with her had been told that the experiment would take place. Gibert began issuing his mental commands at 8:55 p.m., and within half an hour she began her journey to his house. F. W. H. Myers wrote that out of twenty-five similar tests, nineteen were equally successful. (2)
This strange story tells of a kind of venture that meets with disapproval both from modern science and from the Vedic literature. The reasons tell us something interesting about both.
Let me begin by discussing how Dr. Gibert's experiment is seen by scientists.
We rarely hear much about people being able to influence others at a distance by mental commands. But many similar experiments have been performed. Here is another example from the late nineteenth century.
One Dr. Dufay was using hypnosis to treat Madame C. for periodic headaches and sickness that the usual medical treatments had failed to relieve. He found he was able to put her to sleep and awaken her by mental commands, sometimes at a distance.
On one occasion when called out of town, he arranged that Madame C.'s husband telegraph him when one of her headaches began and then report any later developments by a second telegram.
One morning at ten o'clock he received a telegram announcing that a headache had begun. So he mentally ordered the woman to sleep, and at four o'clock he ordered her to awaken. The husband telegraphed that she had gone to sleep at ten a.m. and awakened at four. The distance between Dr. Dufay and Madame C. was about 112 kilometers. (3)
Experiments of this kind fall within a field of study that early in this century was called psychical research and today is more often called parapsychology. This field deals with apparent powers of the human mind that are "paranormal," or hard to explain using accepted physical theories. Distant mental influence is a classic example of such a power.
How most scientists view parapsychology was recently summed up by Dr. James Alcock of Toronto's York University in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. He wrote: "Although there has been over a century of formal empirical inquiry, parapsychologists have clearly failed to produce a single reliable demonstration of 'paranormal,' or 'psi,' phenomena…. Indeed, parapsychologists have not even succeeded in developing a reasonable definition of paranormal phenomena that does not involve, or imply, some aspect of mind-body dualism." (4)
Here Alcock brings up two important points. The first is that paranormal phenomena have not been reliably demonstrated. The experiments of Dr. Gibert and Dr. Dusart may indeed seem unreliable. They were rather loosely organized and didn't use the strict laboratory protocols we expect in scientific work. But many carefully planned tests of distant influence have been performed in laboratory settings.
For example, take the work done in the 1920's by Professor Leonid Vasiliev of the University of Leningrad. In one series of tests a subject named Fedorova would arrive at Vasiliev's laboratory at about 8 p.m. After about twenty minutes of rest and conversation, she would lie on a bed in a darkened chamber. She was told to keep squeezing a rubber balloon attached to an air tube as long as she was awake, and to stop squeezing it when she began to fall asleep. The air tube was hooked up to an apparatus in the next room that recorded when she would fall asleep and wake up. While in the darkened room, she had no further contact with the experimenters.
When Fedorova entered the room, the experimenter who had been talking with her would signal a colleague, called the sender, who was waiting two rooms away. The sender would then climb into a special lead-lined chamber and open a letter prepared in advance and not yet read by the subject, by the sender, or by the other experimenter. This letter would instruct the sender to do one of three things: (1) stay within the lead-lined chamber and mentally order the subject to go to sleep, (2) stand with his head outside the chamber and issue the same mental commands, or (3) stand with his head outside the chamber and make no commands.
To show the kind of results Vasiliev obtained, here is a list of how long it took the subject to go to sleep in twenty-nine runs of this test. (5) The times are in minutes and seconds.
TIME TO GO TO SLEEP
|Without mental suggestion||With mental suggestion from inside chamber||With mental suggestion from outside chamber|
It seems the subject was falling asleep faster when a person two rooms away was mentally ordering her to do so.
Vasiliev ran many other carefully organized experiments of this kind, and he reported similar results. In one successful test, mental commands for sleeping and waking were even sent from Sebastopol to Leningrad, a distance of 1,700 kilometers.
Such research, of course, is rejected by scientists like Alcock. The methodology, they will argue, is flawed. In Vasiliev's experiment, neither the subject nor the persons talking with her should know whether a command to sleep will be given. But how do we know that this condition was met? The experimenter talking with the subject might have learned what was in the envelope and cued the subject, either deliberately or inadvertently. This might have influenced how fast the subject fell asleep. Or the subject might have cheated by pretending to doze off faster when the command to sleep was given.
Many scientists will insist that results such as those of Vasiliev must be tossed aside unless the work is iron-clad against fraud. Yet many scientific experiments less cautious of fraud are accepted. Why the stricter standard for parapsychology?
Here we come to Alcock's second point that paranormal phenomena imply some kind of mind-body dualism.
When Vasiliev started his experiments, he argued that distant transmission of influences from one person to another must work through electro-magnetic waves. It must be a kind of radio, in which one brain sends signals to another.
As long as Vasiliev was able to argue this, his research was accepted and funded in the Soviet Union. But his experimental findings soon ruled out the radio hypothesis. For example, with the subject Fedorova the average time before sleep was the same whether the mental commands were sent within the lead-lined chamber or outside it. The chamber was designed to block radio waves, but it seemed to do nothing to halt mental signals.
These and other findings convinced Vasiliev that known forms of radiant energy were not involved in transmitting mental commands. But as soon as this became known, the support for Vasiliev's work was cut off, and remote mental influence was officially condemned in the Soviet Union as "an antisocial idealist fiction about man's supernatural power to perceive phenomena which, considering the time and place, cannot be perceived." (6)
Here too in the West, scientists reject the idea that the mind can do things that violate the known laws of physics. To them, such phenomena must be miracles, and they follow the philosopher David Hume in saying, "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavors to establish." (7) Since there is nothing miraculous about fraud, scientists still prefer it as the proper answer for anomalous parapsychological data.
Now, turning from modern science to the Vedic literature, we find a different outlook on the oddities we've been discussing.
According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, there are eight primary siddhis, or mystic powers. These ultimately come from the potency of Krsna, and since all living beings are Krsna's parts and parcels, living beings are potentially able to manifest these powers to a minute degree. From the Vedic point of view, this is completely natural and not at all miraculous.
One of the eight siddhis, called vasita, is described by Srila Prabhupada as follows:
"By this perfection one can bring anyone under his control. This is a kind of hypnotism which is almost irresistible. Sometimes it is found that a yogi who may have attained a little perfection in this vasita mystic power comes out among the people and speaks all sorts of nonsense, controls their minds, exploits them, takes their money, and then goes away." (8)
This power is similar to the power of distant mental influence studied by Vasiliev and others. But here we find that the natural hypnotic power they studied can, it seems, be made stronger by appropriate techniques of yoga.
The point that yogis who acquire the vasita siddhi often use it to cheat people fits well with at least one idea of modern science. Scientists tend to think that people claiming this power are mostly cheaters, and the Vedic view agrees. Many psychics use their abilities, alleged or real, to separate foolish people from their money, and this gives a bad name both to psychics and to paranormal phenomena in general.
This brings us to an important Vedic point about the mystic siddhis. In the Uddhava-gita section of Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.15.33), Krsna says, "Learned experts in devotional service state that the mystic perfections of yoga I have mentioned are impediments and a waste of time for one practicing the supreme yoga, by which one achieves all perfection in life directly from Me."
Thus scientists and great devotees both regard mystic siddhis as undesirable. For scientists they distract people from "scientific truth," and for devotees they distract one from the path of service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
1. Vasiliev, L.L., Experiments in Distant Influence (London: Wildwood House, 1963) p. 211.
2. Vasiliev, Ibid., p. 213.
3. Myers, F. W. H., Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (New York: University Books, Inc., 1961) p. 145.
4. Alcock, James E., 1987, "Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or search for the soul?" Behavioral and Brain Science, p. 553.
5. Vasiliev, Ibid., p. 144.
6. Vasiliev, Ibid., pp. xviii, xxiii.
7. Hume, David, 1966, 2nd edition, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 115-116.
8. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, The Nectar of Devotion, (Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1982) p. 12.
Sadaputa Dasa (Richard L. Thompson) earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell University. He is the author of several books, of which the most recent is Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy.