Picture This: Thoughtography
There are more inexplicable phenomena and strange systems of belief out there -- occult, extra-terrestrial and otherwise -- than we'd care to name, but an especially fascinating one I just recently heard about is thoughtography. Now, if you're a Fortean Times subscriber or an X-Files geek (yep, there was an episode about this), you might give thoughtography a little more credence than most scientists; it's at best a controversial technique, at worst a total hoax. The basic concept is this: that the minds of some adept people are powerful enough to "burn" images onto surfaces -- usually photographic negative -- or even the minds of other people.
Our story begins and ends in Japan. The progenitor of the "art" of thoughtography was Tomokichi Fukurai, an assistant professor of psychology at Tokyo University, who first called it "nensha," or "spirit photography." He created an institute for paranormal studies and began working with a series of supposedly clairvoyant women who would meditate and go into trances to create thoughtographs of Japanese alphabet characters, simple shapes and, most (in)famously, the dark side of the moon. His efforts were mostly dismissed as fraudulent bunk, but if he had a success, it was that he had added something to the specious arsenal of psychics and mystics the world round; people would continue to claim they could make thoughtographs long after Fukurai's death in 1952.
The most fascinating of these claimants was a Chicago bellhop named Ted Serios, who claimed to be able to make thoughtographs on Polaroid film while holding a little rubber "gizmo" to his forehead. Dismissed by many as little more than a parlor trick, Serios' claims gained traction when psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud championed his abilities, even publishing a book on the subject in 1967: The World of Ted Serios: "Thoughtographic" Studies of An Extraordinary Mind. (Eisenbud also described Serios as a "psychopath and a sociopath" unable to exert self-control or "abide by the laws and customs of society," and admitted that Serios only made his thoughtographs while profoundly drunk.) Debunker James Randi made Serios a pet project, and concluded that "If Mr. Serios did not use a trick method, all the rules of physics, particularly of optics, everything developed by science over the past several centuries, must be rewritten to accommodate Eisenbud's opinion. No such revisions have been found necessary." X-Files fans should keep an eye out for a full-length film about Serios in the next few years; rumor has it that creator Chris Carter is interested. (Pictured above: Serios making a picture, with the results inset.)
Most recently, thoughtography has re-entered the popular imagination, though under a new name: "projected thermography." Horror fans will recognize this from the Ring movies: in the Japanese, Korean and American versions (the latter starring Naomi Watts), the Scary Little Girl antagonist is able to "project" or "burn" disturbing images onto photographic negative -- and also onto videotape, which proves deadly to those who watch it, some seven paranoid days later. In my humble opinion, the films are mostly notable for the cool and creepy series of images which the Little Girl in question thoughtographs, which naturally turn out to be clues (because supernatural thrillers are really just mystery stories with ghosts, clues are crucial).
So for our purposes, thoughtography begins with a turn-of-the-century Tokyo professor and ends with a turn-of-the-millennium Japanese novel (and attendant film adaptations, sequels and remakes). But ... you never know. We'll keep you posted.