Isaac Newton, mind-reading and the scholar-gypsy

In one of his notebooks entitled “Philosophical Questions”, the English scientist Isaac Newton(1642-1727) jotted down his musings into questions related to the mind-body problem.  He contemplated on the working of the mind, the seat of the soul (was it in the brain?), the nature of free will, the existence of a soul in animals and so on.  Amongst these jottings, we find a brief allusion to meditation and to the mind-reading skills of an Oxford scholar.

The relevant passage from “Philosophical Questions” is found in the section entitled  “Immagination.  & Phantasie & invention

We can fancie the thing wee see in a right posture with the heeles upward. Phantasie is helped by good aire fasting moderate wine.  but spoiled by  drunkenesse, Gluttony, too much study, (whence & from extreame passion cometh madnesse), dizzinesse commotions of the spirits…Meditation heates  the brain in some to distraction in others to an akeing & dizzinesse.  A man by heitning his fansie & immagination may bind anothers to thinke what hee thinks as in the story of the Oxford scollar in Glanvill Van of Dogmatizing[1].

The mind-reading incident that Newton alludes to (“immagination may bind anothers to thinke what hee thinks”) occurs in Joseph Glanvill’s book “Scepsis Scientifica; Or Vanity of Dogmatizing”.  Glanvill relates the story of an Oxford scholar who fell on hard times and ended up living amongst the vagabond gypsies.  When his former Oxford friends chanced upon him, the scholar told them the gypsies were not imposters as they were perceived to be but had traditional skills of their own.  He then gave his friends a demonstration of his newly-acquired mind-reading abilities by recounting a conversation that they had while he was seated in a different room away from them.

This is the excerpt from Glanvill’s book:

Chap XXIV : Three instances of reputed impossibilities, which likely are not so, as (1.) Of the power of imagination. (2.) Secret conveyance. (3.) Sympathetic cures.

Now to show how rashly we use to conclude things impossible; I’ll instance in some reputed impossibilities, which are only strange and difficult performances. And the instances are three: (1.) The power of one man’s imagination upon another’s. (2.) Momentous conveyance at almost any distance. (3.) Sympathetic cures.

(1) That the fancy of one man should bind the thoughts of another, and determine them to their particular objects, will be thought impossible: which yet, if we look deeply into the matter, wants not its probability. By the power of advanced imagination it may very probably be effected; and history abounds with instances. I’ll trouble the reader but with one; and the hands from which I had it, make me secure of the truth on’t. There was very lately a lad in the University of Oxford, who being of very pregnant and ready parts, and yet wanting the encouragement of preferment; was by his poverty forced to leave his studies there, and to cast himself upon the wide world for a livelihood. Now, his necessities growing daily on him, and wanting the help of friends to relieve him; he was at last forced to join himself to a company of vagabond Gypsies, whom occasionally he met with, and to follow their trade for a maintenance. Among these extravagant people, and by the insinuating subtlety of his carriage, he quickly got so much of their love, and esteem; as that they discovered to him their mystery: in the practice of which, by the pregnancy of his wit and parts he soon grew so good a proficient, as to be able to out-do his instructors.

After he had been a pretty while exercised in the trade; there chanced to ride by a couple of scholars who had formerly been of his acquaintance. The Scholars had quickly spied out their old friend, among the Gypsies; and their amazement to see him among such society, had well-nigh discovered him: but by a sign he prevented their owning him before that Crew: and taking one of them aside privately, desired him with his friend to go to an Inn, not far distant thence, promising there to come to them. They accordingly went thither, and he follows: after their first salutations, his friends enquire how he came to lead so odd a life as that was, and to join himself with such a cheating beggarly company. The Scholar-Gypsy having given them an account of the necessity, which drove him to that kind of life; told them, that the people he went with were not such impostors as they were taken for, but that they had a traditional kind of learning among them, and could do wonders by the power of imagination, and that himself had learnt much of their art, and improved in further than themselves could. And to evince the truth of what he told them, he said, he’d remove into another room, leaving them to discourse together; and upon his return tell them the sum of what they had talked of: which accordingly he performed, giving them a full acount of what had passed between them in his absence. The Scholars being amazed at so unexpected a discovery, ernestly desired him to unriddle the mystery. In which he gave them satisfaction, by telling them, that what he did was by the power of imagination, his fancy binding theirs; and that himself had dictated to them the discourse, they held together, while he was from them: That there were warrantable ways of heightening the imagination to that pitch, as to bind another’s; and that when he had compassed the whole secret, some parts of which he said he was yet ignorant of, he intended to give the world an account of what he had learned. The judicious naturalist my Lord Bacon, speaks not unfavourably of this way of secret influence: and that the spirit of one man hath sometimes a power over that of another, I think is well attested by experience. For some presences daunt and discourage us, when others raise us to a brisk assurance. And I believe there are few but find that some companies benumb and cramp them, so that in them they can neither speak nor do anything that is handsome: whereas among more congruous and suitable tempers they find themselves very lucky and fortunate both in speech and action. Which things seem to me pretty considerable evidence of immaterial intercourses between our spirits. And that this kind of secret influence may be advanced to so strange an operation in the imagination of one upon another, as to fix and determine it.

(Glanvill in the first sentence below – “wonderful signatures in the foetus” – is referring to the theory of maternal impressions – the ability of the mother’s mind to produce an impression on the child she is carrying)

Now that this strange power of the imagination is no impossibility; the wonderful signatures in the foetus caused by the imagination of the mother, is no contemptible item. The sympathies of laughing and gaping together, are resolved into this principle: and I see not why the fancy of one man may not determine the cogitation of another rightly qualified, as easily as his bodily motion. Nor doth this influence seem more unreasonable, than that of one string of a lute upon another, when a stroke on it causeth a proportionable motion in the sympathizing consort, which is distant from it and not sensibly touched. And if there be truth in this notion; ’twill yield us a good account how angels inject thoughts into our minds, and know our cogitations: and here we may see the source of some kinds of fascination.

(Glanvill now proposes an explanation of mind-reading based on the ability of thoughts to travel through the subtle ether medium that surrounds us)

Now, though in our inquiry after the reason of this operation, we can receive no assistance from the common philosophy; yet the Platonical hypothesis of a mundane soul will handsomely relieve us. Or if any would rather have a mechanical account; I think it may probably be made out some such way as follows. Imagination is inward sense; to sense is required a motion of certain filaments of the brain; and consequently in imagination there’s the like: they only differing in this, that the motion of the one proceeds immediately from external objects; but that of the other hath its immediate rise within ourselves. Now then, when any part of the brain is strongly agitated; that which is next and most capable to receive the motive impress, must in like manner be moved. And we cannot conceive anything more capable of motion, than the fluid matter, that’s interspersed among all bodies, and contiguous to them. So then, the agitated pars of the brain begetting a motion in the proxime Ether; it is propagated through the liquid medium; as we see the motion is which is caused by a stone thrown into the water. And when the thus moved matter meets with anything like that, from which it received its primary impress; it will in like manner move it; as it is in musical strings tuned unisonsAnd thus the motion being conveyed, from the brain of one man to the fancy of another; it is there received from the instrument of conveyance, the subtle matter; and the same kind of strings being moved, and much what after the same manner as in the first imaginant; the soul is awakened to the same apprehensions, as were they that caused them.  I pretend not to any exactness or infallibility in this account, foreseeing many scruples that must be removed to make it perfect: ‘tis only an hint of the possibility of mechanically solving the phenomenon; though very likely it may require many other circumstances completely to make it out. But ’tis not my business here to follow it: I leave it therefore to receive accomplishment from maturer inventions[2].

In 1929 Marjorie Hope Nicolson identified this Oxford scholar to be  the Flemish alchemist Francis Mercury van Helmont[3].

Inspired by this incident, the British poet Matthew Arnold wrote a poem “The scholar-gipsy (1853)”.  This is a brief excerpt from the poem:

And near me on the grass lies Glanvil’s book—    
  Come, let me read the oft-read tale again:    
    The story of that Oxford scholar poor,    
  Of pregnant parts and quick inventive brain,    
    Who, tired of knocking at Preferment’s door,    
      One summer morn forsook    
  His friends, and went to learn the Gipsy lore,    
    And roam’d the world with that wild brotherhood,    
    And came, as most men deem’d, to little good,    
  But came to Oxford and his friends no more.      
But once, years after, in the country lanes,    
  Two scholars, whom at college erst he knew,    
    Met him, and of his way of life inquired.    
  Whereat he answer’d that the Gipsy crew,    
    His mates, had arts to rule as they desired      
      The workings of men’s brains;    
  And they can bind them to what thoughts they will:    
    ‘And I,’ he said, ‘the secret of their art,    
    When fully learn’d, will to the world impart:    
  But it needs Heaven-sent moments for this skill!’

You can read the entire poem online.

On a related note, the origins of the Spanish Gypsies have been traced to the  deserts of the Thar in Rajasthan India.  The Flamenco folk dance of the Spanish gypsies is very similar to Rajasthani folk dance.  The following clip is from an Indian television news program.

Update 10 Dec, 2012: A new publication says : Europe’s Romani population originated 1500 years ago in India, according to a genetic study published in Current Biology “Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data”


  1. Isaac Newton. Quæstiones quædam Philosophiæ’ (‘Certain Philosophical Questions’).  MS Add. 3996, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, UK.
  2. Joseph Glanvill.  Scepsis Scientifica or the Vanity of Dogmatizing.
  3. Yale Review vol. 18 (1929) pp. 347-363.

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9 thoughts on “Isaac Newton, mind-reading and the scholar-gypsy

  1. nico

    the Seat of the Soul I mean,
    is not in the brain.
    The seat of the Soul is in the inner chamber of the heart.
    The seat of the Lord, instead is over brain/mind

  2. nico

    I´m not very talkative but
    today is my lunar birthday, so I´ll share with you the wishpers of my soul..
    there is a triple flame that burns
    in the silent chamber,
    yellow, blue, pink and sometimes it looks as oh.. it would fade away but do not, then
    the unsuspected night
    it gets in touch with the Fiery Skies
    of the Lord of the House above,
    it starts to wirl in a mother pearl flame, ascending as an aspiration

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Happy birthday !

      I don’t know if you are aware but the Mother used to say that the individual is more receptive on her birthday to psychic vibrations making it an opportune moment to make new progress each year.

      Question: What is the meaning of one’s birthday, apart from its commemorative character? How can one take advantage of this occasion?

      Mother: Because of the rhythm of the universal forces, a person is supposed to have a special receptivity on his birthday each year. He can therefore take advantage of this receptivity by making good resolutions and fresh progress on the path of his integral development (Collected Works, vol. 16, p 309)

      It is an occult phenomenon that occurs invariably, without our knowledge, on this particular day of the year. The soul leaves behind the body and journeys up and up till it merges into the Source in order to replenish itself and absorb from the Supreme its Power, Light and Ananda and comes down charged. for a whole year to pass. Then again and again… it continues like this year after year.” (Roshan Apurva, Aspiring Swan, p xi)

      I might post more on the subject of birthdays later.

  3. Pan Stav

    An exercise will be nice to have =]

    And it is rather obvious to anyone who has had any experience that led to ideas of collective un/consciousness – that mind-reading idea-implementing and other such techniques are possible.
    Personally I believe that it is a sea much more chaotic that we’d like to think, it’s a shiva-sea, everything is being created and destroyed simultaneously. I don’t think it is possible to connect, bind, or to do any other manipulation by pure will, just decision, but rather have it open for you to happen on its own.

  4. Sandeep Post author

    Pan: An exercise will be nice to have =]

    You mean an exercise to develop mind-reading? That is meditation. When the clutter within clears off, we naturally become open to the cosmic mind. See another article: All thoughts come from outside.

    The “collective un/consciousness” is a term that Carl Jung invented after studying Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and other scriptures of Hinduism.


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