Three newly released CIA reports from 1963 and 1964 investigate the Soviet Union’s apparent use of extrasensory perception (ESP) and attempted development of “cybernetic telepathy.”
The documents detail conversations an agent had with Soviet scientists and a student about the USSR’s interest in developing ESP. Guided by these second hand accounts, it sounds like the Soviet Union’s plans of developing telepathy went as well as America’s well-documented efforts. “At the moment, he does not have a clear detailed language program for this,” one report said. “Rather, he has an overall goal for the future of finding out about ESP generally.”
The documents come courtesy of a Freedom of Information Act via the transparency site the Government Attic. They’re three reports to the CIA about conversations an agent had with a Soviet cybernetics researcher and a visiting foreign exchange student.
Today the word “cybernetics” is more closely associated with science fiction. In the early 1960s, it was a broad term that covered all scientific endeavors aimed at better understanding feedback loops in humans and machines. It was a field of study that, among other things, strove to develop a framework for all human and machine interaction. It was thought that if we could construct a mathematical framework for all biological interactions, we could easily transpose it on machines.
Some in the U.S. and Soviet Union believed it might be possible to cut out the middleware of a language entirely and set up direct communication between humans and machines via telepathy. According to the CIA agent’s conversations with the Soviets, it wasn’t working out well in the USSR.
D.A. Kerminov, the Soviet scientist, described one experiment where researchers in the USSR were able to “tape” the central nervous system signals of a man playing piano and then broadcast those messages back into the arms of another person who had never played piano before. “That person would then be enabled to play difficult music—but also would retain some of this skill as permanent learning,” Kerminov claimed. “When pressed for further detail, he could not provide it, or refer to publications.”
And, apparently, someone was working on telepathy. “Kerimov claimed that Vasilyev had been able to demonstrate very strong ESP (extra-sensory perception) with certain subjects, but only certain persons are capable of receiving the ‘waves,’” the Agent said in his report. “Some of the ESP, in which Kerminov admittedly believed, involved not merely guessing events, but the prediction of future random events.”
As the conversation wore on, the Agent began to tease the scientist about Soviet ideology. “I asked Kerminov how ESP could be reconciled with Marxist materialism and he said that this was the problem facing Vasilyev—to show what compromises these ‘thought waves’ or whatever they are,” he wrote. “It was interesting to me that although I teased Kerminov quite a bit about ESP and its relation to materialism, he remained unperturbed. He obviously harbors very little skepticism about it.”
The conversation with the student is similar, minus the discussions about materialism. According to the student, the Soviet ESP researcher was a fringe figure that was having trouble creating a basic scientific framework to measure what he was attempting to prove.
The U.S. military and the CIA both attempted to explore the outer reaches of human ability in their own ESP and telepathy programs. All the programs generated thousands of pages of documents and fascinating stories, but produced no psychic warriors or methods of direct communication between man and machine.
Cybernetics is still around, but more as the inspiration for a thousand varied and specific fields of study. It was a development that the Soviet scientist predicted without the benefit of mind-reading. “Kerminov expressed a certain amount of skepticism about the enthusiasts in cybernetics,” the report said. “He was quite aware of the ‘fad’ aspects of the development, and was not expecting miracles. Cybernetics, he said, is not a science.”