It's downright spooky: you're thinking about someone and then suddenly they call. Mere coincidence or something more? A British scientist claims to have proof of the latter, a phenomenon he calls ‘telephone telepathy.’

Recent research from Dr Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist and author of more than 75 scientific papers and six books, suggests experiences with telephone calls – and even emails – that hint at telepathy may in fact be real.

Speaking at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's (BA) annual festival of science, Dr Sheldrake said: "The commonest kind of telepathy in the modern world takes place in connection with telephone calls.

"Most people claim to have had experiences in which they think of someone for no apparent reason, then that person calls; or they know who is calling when the phone rings, before picking it up."

For the study, Sheldrake asked 63 volunteers to select four friends, one of whom would then be selected at random to phone them at a pre-arranged time. On picking up the phone, the subject would then say who he thought was calling.

By chance alone, people should ge this right about one in four times, but Sheldrake found that they actually did much better, with a success rate of 40 per cent in 571 trials. "The odds against this being a chance effect are 1,000 billion to one," he said.

Distance does not seem to affect the ability to know who was calling. Callers as far away as Australia and New Zealand experienced a similar success rate as local callers. "Emotional closeness, rather than physical proximity, seemed to be the most important variable," Sheldrake added.

In a follow-up trial, participants were videotaped to ensure they were not getting messages from their callers. The four subjects tested in this way did even better, picking the right caller 45 per cent of the time.

Dr Sheldrake claims the results suggest the existence of genuine telepathy, at least between some people who know each other well.

But critics said that the effect may have resulted from flaws in Dr Sheldrake's methods. In one set of studies, for example, the subjects lifted the received before making their choice, allowing possible clues to the caller's identity from the quality of the line.

The time of the call may have also provided clues. "If the subject knows four people well, they will know who tends to be on time, who tends to be late and who early," said Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. "If they call me at 11.02 not 11, I'd likely guess it was going to be my late friend."

Sheldrake, whose research is funded by Trinity College, Cambridge, said he has also conducted experiments that proved that a similar precognition existed even for e-mails. In a separate trial, he found the same result with people being asked to name one of four people sending them an e-mail before it had landed.

However, for both trials his sample size was small – with 63 people for the controlled telephone experiment and 50 for the e-mail – and only four subjects were actually filmed in the phone study and five in the e-mail.

Undeterred by any skepticism, Sheldrake said he plans to extend his study of the interconnectedness of minds within a social grouping. His next experiment? Testing for the existence of telepathy for mobile phone text messages.

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