Einstein and the Mentalists

Paul Halpern
8 min readAug 30, 2020

From eerie encounters with purported psychics to “spooky action at a distance.”

Elsa and Albert Einstein with purported psychic Gene Dennis

Of all the writings by Albert Einstein, one of the most surprising of his contributions was his preface to Upton Sinclair’s 1930 book on telepathy, Mental Radio. Sinclair, a well-known writer (The Jungle) and social activist, wrote that book in reaction to his feeling that his wife had uncanny powers, such as the ability to read his mind. If he lost his keys, she knew exactly where to find them. Some might argue that such “mind-reading” happens regularly for couples, who start to get to know each others’ habits, and pick up certain cues. But Sinclair was thoroughly convinced in the existence of a “sixth sense” (as such alleged phenomena would later be known). Mental Radio served as a call for more scientific research into such supposedly hidden communication channels, helping inspire researcher Joseph Banks (JB) Rhine to coin the term parapsychology and set up a center at Duke University to study that area.

Mental Radio, by Upton Sinclair, with a preface by Albert Einstein

Einstein’s preface for Mental Radio was largely supportive of Sinclair, albeit skeptical of his claims that telepathy was established. He suggested possible alternative explanations. As Einstein wrote:

The results of the telepathic experiments carefully and plainly set forth in this book stand surely far beyond those which a nature investigator holds to be thinkable. On the other hand, it is out of the question in the case of so conscientious an observer as Upton Sinclair that he is carrying on a conscious deception of the reader world; his good faith and dependability are not to be doubted. So if somehow the facts here set forth rest not upon telepathy, but upon some unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person, this also would be of high psychological interest.

Why would a serious scientist such as Einstein, demonstrably skeptical about the occult in many other writings, contribute such a preface? For political reasons, he had a strong admiration of Sinclair. Both were democratic socialists, supporting organizing workers for a greater voice. Therefore, the preface was clearly a favor. Nevertheless, that interplay between Einstein and parapsychology was not an isolated incident during that period. Rather, it was emblematic of a time in which other believers attempted to pin down Einstein’s position on paranormal phenomena. Thanks, in part, to J.W. Dunne’s widely selling “An Experiment With Time,” published in 1927, Einstein was often asked to address false claims of connections between relativity and precognition. Conceivably, such encounters would contribute to Einstein’s later rhetoric in supporting local realism versus quantum entanglement.

Scientific interest in interpreting alleged occult phenomena dates back much further. Johannes Kepler sold horoscopes. Isaac Newton famously had an interest in alchemy and biblical divination. More immediate to Einstein, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a minority of physicists argued that spiritism deserved serious scientific consideration.

Johann Zöllner

Famously, German astrophysicist Johann Zöllner argued in the 1870s and 1880s that, to perform his feats — including slate writing supposedly channeling the deceased, untying knots in which the ends of a rope were held firmly, and so forth — that American medium Henry Slade somehow had access to the fourth dimension. Slade was put on trial in London for fraud, embarrassing Zöllner and the supposed psychic’s other scientific supporters, who surprisingly still didn’t waver into their support.

The association with spiritism tainted discussion of the fourth dimension until it was ripe for physics. Even then, when the temporal fourth dimension became a key component of relativity, it invited fanciful otherworldly interpretations, such as Dunne’s An Experiment with Time, which envisioned dreams as a form of time travel.

The observer question in quantum mechanics drove some physicists, such as Wolfgang Pauli and Pascual Jordan, to become interested in parapsychology. Although Einstein and Pauli had many interests in common, Einstein was fundamentally uninterested in the occult, and generally saw such beliefs as unscientific.

German physicist Pascual Jordan, who was interested in parapsychology and the experiments of JB Rhine

Einstein often emphasized the distinction between his theories and the occult, such as this passage about the fourth dimension:

The non-mathematician is seized by a mysterious shuddering when he hears of “four-dimensional” things, by a feeling not unlike that awakened by thoughts of the occult. And yet there is no more commonplace statement than that the world in which we live is a four-dimensional spacetime continuum.

— Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1916)

Einstein was very sensitive in interviews when the topic of the fourth dimension came up, worried that the questions would be about the occult, for example, in this exchange from the 1920:

In 1931, during his first visit to southern California to perform research at Caltech, Einstein met many Hollywood types. Interest in the occult was abundant. For example, at a dinner with Charlie Chaplin, Dr. Cecil Reynolds, Chaplin’s personal physician, asked Einstein about JW Dunne and about ghosts. -Einstein replied that he had never read Dunne’s book, and would believe in ghosts only if at least a dozen credible witnesses were present .

During the same visits to California, Einstein got to know Sinclair much better, and became good friends with him. Sinclair took the liberty to introduce Einstein to members of the paranormal community. Einstein, perhaps to be agreeable and perhaps for fun, accepted some of Sinclair’s invitations to meet purported psychics.

Sinclair invited Einstein to a séance with spiritualist medium Count Roman Ostoja, who claimed to be a Polish aristocrat but was really from Cleveland. Einstein accepted, and invited Caltech physicist Richard Tolman along. It is unclear why such as serious scientist as Tolman was interested, but he certainly wanted to be respectful to Einstein, who was a guest at the same university.

Count Roman Ostoja

Einstein’s secretary Helen Dukas, who was also present at the séance, reported being frightened by its eerie atmosphere. After Ostoja collected questions from audience members, the table shook, but nothing else happed.
Reportedly Sinclair was embarrassed, and Ostoja blamed non-believers for the failed attempt.

Another purported psychic Sinclair introduced Einstein to was Gene Dennis. Dennis claimed to have clairvoyant powers, and the ability to answer questions, usually from other women about the future. Here is one of her ads:

Gene Dennis

According to New Republic, March 9, 1932, the following happened:

A young woman has been appearing at the Warner Brothers’ Theatre, in Hollywood, California, about whom there is an unusual fact. She is a professional prophet; her name is Gene Dennis; and the unusual fact referred to is that she appears before the Hollywoodenheads with the endorsement of Professor Albert Einstein.

According to Upton Sinclair, Professor Einstein has long been concerned with psychic matters and has done some investigation in the field. When, therefore, he encountered Miss Dennis while weekending at Palm Springs (a desert rest place patronized by tired Hollywood Intellects) he was furiously interested. Miss Dennis disclaims all connection with clairvoyance, fortune-telling, mind-reading and crystal-gazing. All she claims is an ability to foretell the future. She can tell you whether you are going to sell your property; whether you are going to make a success in your profession; or where your wife happens to be, if she has run away an assuming that you are interested. Theatre employees transmit your questions and all you have to do is stand up. Miss Dennis is not solemn. She has a sense of humor and uses it. But she believes in herself sufficiently to tell you what you want to know and to believe that she is telling the truth.

Gene Davis has faith in auras. She announced to the press: “Dr. Einstein is indeed the most remarkable personality I have ever contacted. [Sic.] And his aura is just sublime — pure blue electric sparks, instead of color. It was just like talking to God.” At the same time Dr. Einstein said: “She told me things no one possibly could know, things on which I have been working, and she demonstrated to me that she has a power to do things I cannot at this time explain. Now, I must tell some of my associates about this. It was miraculous indeed.”

However, despite the article, it is unlikely that Einstein endorsed Gene Dennis’s claims. Rather, he had a brief encounter with her, chatted for a while, and was simply being polite. Because of negative experiences from a visit to the United States in 1921, in which his criticism of Americans was widely reported, as well as his friendship with Sinclair, Einstein was likely refraining from saying anything negative. Nonetheless, Sinclair defended Einstein by attesting to his “interest in psychic powers.” Dennis began to use Einstein’s supposed endorsement in her advertising:

The Girl Who Amazed Einstein
Al Koran

Another purported mentalist, Al Koran, claimed to have fooled Einstein with a coin trick called “Jackpot Coins.” However, despite advertisements to that effect, there is no record of an encounter.

Conceivably, Einstein’s reactions to psychic claims steered his criticisms of quantum mechanics In late 1920s, criticism centered on violations of mechanistic determinism By mid-1930s, the time of the EPR paper, the critique shifted to non-locality of theories

Einstein’s letter to Max Born in 1947, coining the term “Spooky Action at a Distance,” seems to refer to the supernatural. Einstein was worried that quantum physics had “pseudoscientific” aspects, unbecoming of serious research, and more akin to the claims of spiritists.

In conclusion, as early as 1916, Einstein was publicly dubious of associating physical theories, such as relativity, with psychic effects. Through Sinclair and others, Einstein, though still skeptical became open to discussions about the paranormal. Those encounters were amplified by the media, and by the alleged mentalists themselves. Interestingly that period corresponded with a shift in the emphasis of his critique of quantum mechanics — taking him from doubting “dice-rolling” to criticizing non-local connections

Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of sixteen popular science books, including Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect.



Paul Halpern

Physicist and science writer. Author of Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect