Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

One of the oldest theoretical ideas to account for ESP is that of cerebral radiations, or physical emanations coming from the brain of a person or other sources carrying information. This is what many have speculated throughout the history of psychical research, emphasizing the existence of different emanations, radiations, waves, and various particles. Ideas of this sort have been postulated by William Crookes, Ferdinando Cazzamalli, Upton Sinclair, and René Warcollier, among many others. I discuss some nineteenth-century forgotten ideas of this sort in a paper entitled: “Telepathic Emissions: Edwin J. Houston on ‘Cerebral Radiation.’ ” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2015, 29, 467-490). Here is the abstract:

“Interest in telepathy during the Nineteenth Century developed in the context of ideas of magnetic, nervous, and psychic forces said to project from the physical body to cause various phenomena, as seen in the literatures of mesmerism, Spiritualism, and psychical research. An article about cerebral radiations authored by American electrical engineer Edwin J. Houston in 1892 is reprinted here and commented upon. Houston speculated that cerebral waves were projected to other brains via the ether, a process involving resonance with a similarly disposed brain. These ideas were affected by concepts from physics dealing with such forces as magnetism and constructs like the ether. In fact, the phenomena of thought-transference stimulated many speculations involving ideas of brain waves and radiations that were part of a tendency to reduce unexplained phenomena to physical and physiological principles, or in this case biophysical ones. Houston’s paper is one of the most detailed presentation of ideas of this sort published in the Nineteenth Century. Nonetheless, Houston showed no familiarity with the literature of his time about telepathy. While his article did not originate ideas of this sort, it is representative of speculations of the period about what today we refer to as physical transmission models of ESP.”

Edwin J. Houston 2

Edwin J. Houston

The reprint of Houston’s article, which was published in various journals, was preceded by an introduction about ideas of animal magnetism and thought-transference in the nineteenth-century assuming physical principles. As Mark Twain wrote in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “Doubtless the something which conveys our thoughts through the air from brain to brain is a finer and subtler form of electricity . . .” (Mental telegraphy: A manuscript with a history. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1891, 84, 95–104, p. 101).

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

The paper was published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute and in other places. Houston believed that: “Postulating the existence of the universal or luminiferous ether . . . , and bearing in mind the fact that this ether passes through even the densest matter . . . , it follows that the brain atoms or molecules that are here assumed as the cause of cerebration, are completely surrounded by the ether . . . Now, since the ether is a highly elastic, easily movable medium, it would follow that thought or cerebration, if attended by vibrations, must necessarily develop in the ether wave-motions, which have the brain atoms or molecules for their centres . . . Cerebral energy . . . is dissipated by imparting wave motions to the surrounding ether, and such waves are sent out in all directions from the brain, possibly in greater amount, or of greater amplitude from some of the brain openings, as, for example, those of the eyes.”

Houston Cerebral Rediations Journal Franklin Institute 1892

First page of Houston’s article, Journal of the Franklin Institute

As I concluded:

“Simple transmission models based on radiations and waves such as Houston’s have been criticized in the past as failing to explain the evidence for ESP . . . Nonetheless, historically it is important to pay attention to ideas such as Houston’s because the study of past developments in parapsychology, and of any other scientific field, should not be limited to what is believed today to be correct . . .”

“While I do not claim that Houston’s article had an important impact on the study of ESP (the reverse seems to be the case), a discussion of its content contributes to our understanding of the assumptions surrounding past ideas on the subject. In this case it is clear that Houston was influenced by the then current concepts of physics (or by extensions of these concepts), which included constructs such as brain-generated radiations and the ether. The influence of physics on parapsychology, it is interesting to see, continues to recent times . . .”

“To conclude, Houston’s article allows us to see in detail a type of theory that has been prevalent throughout the history of interest in telepathy. In fact his paper is probably the most detailed discussion of the topic in the later Nineteenth Century. Houston’s ideas were part of a long conceptual tradition that has been influential both in parapsychological concepts, as well as in popular conceptions of telepathy.”