The Mystery of Mark Twain’s “Mental Telegraphy”

Assistant Editor Dan Hoffman asks—Have you ever thought of someone right before they contacted you? 

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Posted in , Feb 22, 2016

Like Mark Twain said, are there special forces at work that help us communicate with others like mental telegraphy or telepathy?

Our technology keeps us in touch with one another—but does a more powerful force connect us?

I considered that question this past weekend. My friend Eloy from college was unexpectedly in town on a short vacation. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. We met for dinner, and our discussion quickly turned to our mutual friend, Tim. “I just got a call from Tim a couple of days ago,” Eloy said.

Tim, Eloy and I nearly always ate together at school, complaining about the institutional food or a boring presentation we’d been forced to sit through. Now we all live in different cities, and we only rarely keep in touch.

“Funny you should say that. I’m waiting for an email from Tim,” I said. At that very second, my phone buzzed. Like he’d somehow heard me, Tim’s email arrived right on cue.

We’ve all had moments like these, moments that great American author Mark Twain called “Mental Telegraphy” in his essay about the phenomenon. He revised his text four times, adding more personal examples for each re-edition.

He writes in the opening paragraph, “I once made a great discovery: the discovery that certain sorts of things which, from the beginning of the world, had always been regarded as merely ‘curious coincidence’–that is too say, accidents–were no more accidental than is the sending and receiving of a telegram an accident.”

Twain’s experiences were like mine, only far more impressive. For example, he experienced so many “letter crossings”–instances in which immediately after mailing a letter to someone, he received a letter from that same person–that he felt he could predict and control when he would hear from someone: “When I get tired of waiting upon a man whom I very much wish to hear from, I sit down and compel him to write, whether he wants to or not; that is to say, I sit down and write him, and then tear my letter up, satisfied that my act has forced him to write me at that same moment.”

In my conversation with Eloy, we talked about the unexpected affinities that happen over the years–friendships that surprise us and endure beyond our expectations. Maybe “mental telegraphy” has something to with that. Eloy, Tim and I don’t stay in touch very well, even though the bond between us is strong.

Maybe our connection is something that transcends the standard ways in which we keep in touch; it’s not the occasional phone call or emails that connects us, but some other indescribable thing that surfaces in these moments. I often bemoan losing touch with friends like Eloy and Tim because we live so far apart. But maybe we haven’t lost touch after all.

Have you ever had any notable instances of “mental telegraphy”? Share your stories with us.

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