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The term “telepathy” was coined by Frederic W.H. Myers (founding member of SPR) in 1882 in his article in the ‘Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research’ where he argued that telepathy was a more appropriate term for the phenomenon than the terms used until this point such as “thought-reading” and “thought-transference” and the French “communication de pensees.” Telepathy is frequently associated with spiritualism today, but telepathy actually began as a scientistic reproach to Spiritism, and was a prominent feature of SPR discussion in the late-nineteenth century. The SPR announced that “our own conception of telepathy involves, strictly speaking, no theory at all.” After 1884, due to the work of the SPR, telepathy became the first psychic phenomenon to be studied 'scientifically.' The initial investigations into telepathy began with a very mesmerist nature, as mesmerists believed telepathy was an aspect of the “higher-phenomena.” The first experiments involved a person in one room aiming to send a two-digit number to someone in another room, or predicting an object or image in another room. These experiments did not involve mediums or sensitives or enthusiasts, but were entirely “objective.”

The investigations were published by Gurney, Myers and Podmore in Phantasms of the Living in 1886, including various cases of telepathy, in particular 149 cases of dream telepathy. By this point, telepathy had been defined, by Myers, as “the extrasensory communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another.” Their aim was the define and classify these phenomena and perform further experiments. They represented ground-breaking (at the time) methods of investigation and innovation in the pursuit of concrete evidence.

Telepathic investigation increased in Europe as well. French physiologist Charles Richet incorporated mathematics into the investigations, using probabilistic reasoning in psychology. He conducted trials involving picking cards, and out of 2,927, 789 were correct, where 732 is the mathematically expected figure. This version of investigation was highly innovative for the SPR and the field in general. Gurney stated that it would be a “permanent landmark in the slowly widening field of psychical discovery.” Italian psychiatrist G.B. Ermacora attempted to induce telepathic dreams in the late-nineteenth century, through putting subjects into a trance and inserting a specific dream topic, by use of a medium.

Freud saw telepathy as a regressive, primitive faculty that was lost in the course of evolution, but that it was still able to manifest itself in some situations. His interest in telepathy increased and he ioined the SPR in 1911. In 1917 American psychologist John E. Coover conducted telepathic experiments involving the guessing of cards, where the participants managed to correctly guess with overall odds against chance of 160 to 1. However Coover did not see this as sufficient evidence.

The experiments have been criticised historically for a lack of proper control and repeatability, and perceived as pseudoscience. Further, Eric Dingwall criticized Myers and William Barrett (also an SPR founder) on the basis of them trying to “prove” telepathy rather than to objectively analyse whether or not it existed. Despite criticism, investigations continued into well into the twentieth-century, with the most infamous, by J.B. Rhine in 1927, who similarly used cards. However, investigations were becoming more systematic and used "normal" participants rather than those of particular talents.

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