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March 2010

The Twin Thing

Thanks to author and paranormal researcher Guy Lyon Playfair for this article on twin telepathy. Guy's excellent book Twin Telepathy: The Psychic Connection has recently been revised and enlarged.


by Guy Lyon Playfair       

Twins made the headlines, as they so often do, when Lancashire teenager Gemma Houghton reportedly saved her sister's life by what sounded suspiciously like telepathy. She had been listening to music while her twin Leanne was upstairs having a bath when 'I got this sudden feeling to check on her. It was like a voice telling me "your sister needs you". It was clearly telling me I needed to go upstairs.' This she did, finding Leanne in the process of drowning after suffering an epileptic seizure. According to the paramedic who arrived at the scene just in time: 'If Gemma hadn't been there, Leanne would have died.'

'It's not the first time stuff like this has happened,' Leanne said, recalling how Gemma had once phoned to warn her of an impending attack, which indeed occurred later the same day. 'She's my early warning system', she added. (The Sun, 24 March 2009).

Nor is this the first time that telepathy may have saved a life. I know of at least three other examples, one of which I investigated at first-hand. This would suggest that the scientific community should take rather more interest in it than it yet has.

As The Times (25 March) put it: 'Something about the "telepathic" bond between twins seems to transcend even scientific reason', (note the inverted commas guarding the taboo T-word), yet the usual reaction of scientists to reports of incidents such as the one mentioned above is to mutter about 'thought concordance', 'genetic underpinning' or that old favourite, 'coincidence' and change the subject as soon as possible.

The twin bond also seems to transcend scientific curiosity. It must be one of the most under-researched areas in all of science. Even parapsychologists have a dismal record  - it doesn't take long to read everything they have written about it in the specialist journals. They have generally preferred tedious laboratory card-guessing experiments, at which twins tend to be no better than anybody else, to venturing into the field and identifying the conditions under which telepathy occurs spontaneously.

What they would find there is that telepathy tends to work best when it is needed, and when sender and receiver are strongly bonded, as with mothers and babies, dogs and their owners, and those with the strongest bond of all - twins. Twin telepathy is an example of what Margaret Mead called a 'recurrent irregularity', and if the same irregularity recurs often enough it becomes increasingly probable that it is a genuine phenomenon.

Twin telepathy has been recurring regularly at least since 1844, when Alexandre Dumas made it a prominent feature of his novel The Corsican Brothers. This is generally thought to have been based on a real-life pair, since he describes so accurately the kinds of experience that twins pick up from each other - almost invariably some kind of bad news such as pain, sickness, or death as in the case of his two Corsicans, one of whom falls off his horse, under the impression that he has been shot, at the moment his brother is shot dead in a duel hundreds of miles away. I have been given an eye-witness account of the equally dramatic reaction of a twin whose brother was murdered.

Yet for all its recurrence, the inexplicability of telepathy has led science to avoid it like some mediaeval plague - or even to insist that it doesn't exist because it can't.

Dr Nancy Segal, a former co-director of the massive twin research programme at the University of Minnesota has decreed that 'the bottom line is that I feel there's no evidence for ESP in twins'. She devotes just ten lines of her 432-page book Entwined Lives to the subject of extrasensory perception (a term no longer used by most psi researchers), stating that 'I do not question the occurrence of twins' "ESP-like" behaviour. I do wonder why some people endorse ESP in the face of more compelling data from twin studies.' (Such as?). Could it not be that an experience that is ESP-like might actually be what it looks like?

When confronted with some very compelling data recorded on a polygraph in the 2004  Discovery channel programme  Miracle Hunters, Dr Segal commented, looking rather uncomfortable, 'Well, I think there's something there. I just don't think it's telepathy.' Another clip of polygrapher Jeremy Barrett's chart pen jumping all over the place while the twin in another room was given mild shocks made her look even more uneasy. 'I think it's a kind of intriguing finding', she admitted. 'Am I going to call it telepathy? I think at this point I'm not.'

Jeremy Barrett is going to call it just that. After doing tests with nine sets of twins (four of them shown on television) he told Fortean Times (June 2003): 'What we have done with the polygraph instrument is measure things happening which should not be happening. There is absolutely no doubt at all in my mind that there is a communication taking place between these pairs of people which is beyond any explanation other than telepathy.'

These were not scientifically controlled experiments, I should add, but should be seen as informal pilot tests that gave highly suggestive results that call for replication under tighter conditions.

Scientists who find something intriguing usually examine it further, and it is good to be able to report at long last something of a potential breakthrough in twin telepathy research. In 2004 the Department of Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology at King's College London sent a questionnaire to the 10,000 twins on its books that included a question never asked before, to my knowledge, by a scientific body: 'Do you have the ability to know what is happening to your co-twin when you are not there?'. More than half (54%) said yes or maybe, only 46% said no. What was particularly intriguing about these results, apart from the fact that there are some 5,000 twins out there who think they have or might have experienced telepathy, was the fact that nearly twice as many identical as fraternal (non-identical) ones said yes.

This only became widely known when it was mentioned in the Times article cited above, and I am glad to be able to report that the King's group is considering a proposal for a telepathy research programme headed by one of our leading psi researchers. Let us hope that science will one day confirm what many twins already know, as concisely summed up by Californian supermodel Barbi sisters (Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 9 June, 2002):

Sia Barbi: 'We have that twin thing going on. Wherever we are in the world, we kind of know what the other one's doing.'

Shane Barbi: 'That's right. It's instinctive. It's a twin thing.'


What can you say about infinity? Not much, to judge by the hour-long Horizon programme on Wednesday, which was padded out with clips of flocks of birds and an unbearably pretentious act-or talking to the camera. The talking heads were baffled, didn't like thinking about it. They preferred a finite universe, it was the only thing that made intuitive sense. They looked confused and embarrassed. It wasn't a rational concept. Wasn't there something else they could talk about?

I was surprised to learn that the way that many of them first discovered infinity through numbers, realising that they could go on counting for ever and ever. (Cue clips of talking heads self-consciously counting large numbers.)  Or else they came up with images to illustrate the problem, like a hotel in which there are always enough rooms to accommodate an extra person (bearded maths geezer walking down corridors looking puzzled.)

To me this seemed an oddly clunky way to think about infinity. My experience was quite different: as a small child looking up at the sky out of my bedroom window after dark and realising that space could have no end, and then hiding under the bed covers until I had managed to expel the thought. Surely numbers are just stepping stones through time and space. Why plod towards infinity one step at a time one when you can fly there at the speed of thought?

People clearly think about these sorts of things in different ways. Apparently for scientists and mathematicians, infinity is an embarrassment. A German professor's solution was simply to abolish it. Infinity, he decided, voss merely a "fiction of the human mind". (Does that remind of anything?) His solution: go on counting until you get to the biggest number - truly massive, he conceded - and then go back to zero!  Ridiculous? Ja, but less ridiculous than the alternative, surely.

OK, so really there is no such thing as infinity. All That Is is round. When you get to the end you arrive back at the beginning. Does this work? I suspect all it does is remove the problem a bit further away, so that it's less obvious, and so less discomfiting. Sceptics do that all the time to deal with the challenges posed by paranormal experience, coming up with pseudo-solutions which can't meaningfully be applied in practice, but hell, who cares, as long as it makes them feel better.

In science, mystery is the enemy. It has to be vanquished, not allowed to fester unmolested.  To argue that there are some things that are beyond us to understand is to invite the pejorative term "mysterian". I understand why scientists and mathematicians think like this, but it's philosophically indefensible.

We can amuse ourselves with ludicrous paradoxes - like the insistence that in an infinite universe a monkey must eventually be able to type the complete works of Shakespeare, another source of imagery for struggling programme makers. We can say, if we like, that the first humanoids did not need to understand infinity in order to hunt and eat their dinner, and that's why our brains can't comprehend it. But the paradox is pointless, and the scientific gloss is misleading, if it implies that had our evolutionary track been a bit different the concept would now be quite intelligible to us.

I'd argue a little humility is in order here. What infinity tells us is that our ability to reason has limits. Some things will always be beyond our ability to grasp. Let's just accept it.