As usual when I bounce off on a commenter-inspired tangent, I find that one article isn’t nearly enough to cover the subject—in this case, horses and telepathy. Last time I focused mainly on personal and subjective experience, and a little worldbuilding-style speculation. But there’s a whole lot more to it, as I was gently but persuasively reminded.
So this week I went a-googling, and was fascinated to confirm my recollection that research into telepathy is not solely the province of the arcane and the pseudoscientific.
I had been aware that the University of Arizona has a parapsychology lab overseen by a neurologist, Dr. Gary Schwartz—as a fan of the television show Medium, I knew the real-life version of Patricia Arquette’s character had been studied extensively there. I also knew about the much older Rhine Research Center, and some of the studies at Harvard, having had a grandmother with the Sight (and other capabilities) who was studied there.
It turns out that Arizona isn’t the only American university with a parapsychology lab, and that the various studies and inquiries have been hinting at some interesting conclusions. Basically, there is some evidence that telepathy exists, though the evidence is controversial. How it works, researchers aren’t entirely sure, but they’re working on it.
Computers have introduced an entirely new angle, working toward direct brain-to-brain communication—and there’s your very porous distinction between telepathy as a biological function and telepathy as a technological achievement. Where cyberpunk meets psi-ence fantasy. From Yale (and Smithsonian), so just a little bit mainstream.
What this looks like to me is an attempt to mechanize mind-to-mind communication: to break it down to binary bits and computerize it, with the ultimate goal of making it possible for anyone with the appropriate training to basically log in and connect. And that is really cool. But what about all those millennia of people and animals just, you know, doing it?
That’s the tough side of it, because it’s not totally scientifically reproducible. It’s also where the parapsychology labs come into the mix. Dr. Rhine of Duke, who originally set out to debunk mediums and spiritualists, managed to collect masses of evidence, but it couldn’t be reliably reproduced. Even worse for believers in the paranormal, study after study has failed to find anything at all.
And yet. Anecdata is not scientific data. Yet… Yet.
As genre readers and writers, we are happily freed from the need to be strictly scientifically accurate, unless we’re deliberately setting out to write in that mode. We can speculate. We can allow anecdata. We can hypothesize without the need to provide incontrovertible proof.
So how does (or might) telepathy work between human and equine? Last time I mentioned studies that showed how humans and horses could synchronize their brain waves, especially in the sense of one calming the other down. If telepathy is a form of brain wave or energy emission that we don’t (yet) have the tools to detect, maybe that’s how it works: mind to mind in the manner of the computer study, but without the mechanical intermediary. And that in fact is what the researchers want to accomplish, eventually. After much further study and experimentation.
So why can’t it be reproduced in scientifically acceptable fashion? Is it all nonsense? Can it be reduced to extremely subtle physical cues with a healthy dose of speculation and extrapolation?
Maybe. But then please tell me how I felt the emotions of a horse fifty miles away, whom I had not seen in many months, with whose owner I was not in contact, but who was, at that moment, being put down for no damned good reason except the owner was too arrogant to ask for help from more experienced trainers and horse handlers.
I still feel the shock of that out-of-the-blue wave of anger, terror, and betrayal. Where did it come from? How did it reach me? Are there more things in heaven and earth, after all? And we just don’t have the tools to scientifically prove them?
Did Jung have a clue, with his theory of the collective unconscious? But that’s sorta-kinda about genetics and brain function as well as cultural constructs; it doesn’t allow for or explain how humans and nonhumans may connect mentally. Could we speculate that domesticated animals may have some kind of cultural or physical or pyschological link with humans? But then what about wild animals? Can humans connect with them, too? Is it all this vast and subtle physical or ecological interconnection, which we view as paranormal because our senses, and our machines, aren’t finely tuned enough to detect it?
Maybe that computer study will give us some answers, as it progresses and as researchers develop more sophisticated tools and techniques. Maybe that’s how we’ll find out how this thing works.
In the meantime, as writers and readers, we can play with the anecdata (and the personal experience). We can work with the lore and legend as well as what scientific evidence there is. We can say that, yes, it is possible for horses and humans to communicate in ways other than the obviously physical, for their minds to meet and share emotions and concepts.
Do they share words? Sometimes. Mostly, say animal communicators both official and practical, it’s emotions, impressions, visuals, sensations.
Animals do, to a remarkable degree, have the capacity to understand human language even if they lack the vocal apparatus to reproduce it. Just ask any animal trainer—verbal commands are very much a part of their process. So there might be a word in there.
But words can be a fairly blunt instrument, a reduction of subtle communications to a few very broad concepts. The raw, unfiltered version is much more nuanced and complex. When communicators do their thing, they’re acting as translators. A lot gets lost, and some things may get added which aren’t there in the original, but are influenced by the biases of the interpreter.
In our fantasy and science fiction worlds, we can play with this. Our space unicorns might have so little in common with human concepts and thought processes that even if direct mind-to-mind communication is possible, there’s no way it translates in any useful way. Or we might go in the other direction, which tends to be the path more frequently traveled, and let telepathy be the best way for diverse species to understand one another.
Even there however, as any horse trainer can tell you, the horse remains an alien species. She might convey her opinions in clear and unambiguous ways, or share information that allows some form of negotiation or accommodation, but her psychology and her priorities will not be identical to yours. She usually wants to work with you, as long as it’s a mutual process, but that doesn’t mean she’ll necessarily go along with what you want to do. You are not the boss of her—unless she allows you to be.
It can be humbling. We humans are so hung up on being the pinnacle of creation that it’s hard for many of us to accept that other species may not share our view of ourselves. We can learn to see the world their way, as far as our biases and our senses allow. And maybe some of those senses are not the usual set, and we’re picking up additional bandwidths.
Someday maybe we’ll know for sure.
Top image from The Horse Whisperer (1998)
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent short novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.