In the winter of 1878, Friedrich Nietzsche diagnosed himself with “Baselophobia.” After slipping on black ice, developing constant headaches and a finger infection, and suffering a nine-day stretch of persistent vomiting, he had become convinced the city of Basel was killing him. His sister, Elisabeth, blamed his illness instead on his attempt “to imitate Diogenes” by practicing dietary asceticism.
“No concrete test of what is really true has ever been agreed upon,” wrote William James in 1893. “When, indeed, one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.”
A CIA report declassified in 2000 revealed concerns about extrasensory perception during the space race in the 1960s: a Russian newspaper argued that cosmonauts “get together mentally with each other easier than with people on Earth,” while a Chicago Tribune columnist worried that the Soviets “may be the first to put a human thought in orbit or achieve mind-to-mind communication with men on the moon.”
Thomas Aquinas was so absorbed in solving a philosophical problem while dining with Louis IX around 1269 that he believed himself to be in his own office; when the solution came to him, he slapped the table and called to his secretary—who was not present—to get ready to write. The king, “amazed and edified that a man’s mind could be so enraptured by the spirit that none of the body’s senses could disturb it,” summoned a scribe to record the revelation.
The ancient physician Galen catalogued the anxious delusions of his melancholic patients, including those of a man who “believes he has been turned into a kind of snail” and “runs away from everyone he meets lest his shell get crushed,” and those of another who “is afraid that Atlas, who supports the world, will become tired and throw it away, and he and all of us will be crushed and pushed together.”
For the treatment of “delirium and mania combined with shameless behavior,” ninth-century Persian polymath al-Razi offered a remedy by medical theorist Simʿun: “Bathe the patient’s head with a decoction of elecampane and sheep’s trotters, pour milk over him, put dung upon him, make him snuff sweet violet oil and breast milk, and feed him anything that is cold, fatty, and fills and moistens the brain.”
At a hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1952, a Dr. Hatcher tried to convince a Dr. Cranford to watch him perform a transorbital lobotomy. “Nothing to it,” Hatcher said. “I take a sort of medical ice pick, hold it like this, bop it through the bones just above the eyeball, push it up into the brain, swiggle it around, cut the brain fibers like this, and that’s it.” Cranford responded, “I was going to breakfast, but I’ve changed my mind.” Hatcher laughed. “You can change your mind,” he said, “but not like I can change it.”
An ongoing international study of people who have survived severe cardiac arrest has led researchers to believe that the brain experiences a “hyper-alerted state” after clinical death. This means, they theorize, that consciousness could continue after the body stops showing signs of life; a person may be able to hear and perceive the pronouncement of their own death.
“Your minds are full of all kinds of treacherous plans,” wrote Indian activist Tarabai Shinde, addressing men in an 1882 pamphlet. One plan: “Let’s bluff this moneylender and pocket a thousand rupees from him.” Another: “That woman Y, what a coquette she really is! What airs she gives herself! Must corner her one of these days and see whether some affair with her can be managed.” Such “insidious perfidies,” she concluded, “never enter a woman’s mind.”
In 1903, Mark Twain comforted Helen Keller, who had been accused of plagiarizing her story “The Frost King,” telling her in a letter, “All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” He took a harder line on his own intellectual property, however, campaigning so vigorously for stringent copyright laws that the American Bar Association later recognized him for his efforts.
Having gained fame in England as a mind reader, Maud Lancaster came to New York City to perform in 1893. Nellie Bly, investigating for the New York World, quickly discovered that Lancaster’s telepathy act involved a confederate giving secret signals. Bly donned a blindfold, performed the signature trick herself, and published a front-page exposé about the events under a headline reading “Miss Lancaster, Who Astonished All London, Finds the World ’s Young Woman Too Much for Her.”
In 2016, after saxophonist Dan Fabbio was diagnosed with a brain tumor, neuroscientists in Rochester, New York, used functional MRI scans to create a brain map indicating areas crucial for music processing. Fabbio was awake during the surgery and, once the tumor was removed, played a Korean folk song to ensure his skill on saxophone remained; the song’s short notes allowed him to take shallow breaths so his brain would not protrude from his opened skull.
The Communist Party of China considered “revolution in mind” a prerequisite for political emancipation in the 1940s. Work reports tell of “speaking bitterness” sessions—in which peasants would share stories of their oppression—sometimes referred to as “turn-over-mind meetings.” The meetups later served as inspiration for feminist consciousness-raising groups in the United States during the 1970s.