Mental Vibrations

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 3, 1910

 The New Thought, that fantastic magic, goes marching on. Two weeks ago, though unknown to the public, it played a part in the great contest at football between the seminarians of Harvard University and the young scholars of Yale. Before that contest, if the experts are to be believed, the odds in favor of Harvard stood at 3 or 4 to 1. The Harvard team had been winning more games than its Yale rival, its men were in better condition, it had been running in better luck. And yet the most it could do was to effect an inconclusive and irritating draw.

“Vibrations” Of Victory

A sad day for the rah-rah boys of Harvard! But a sadder day for Mr. Haughton, the Harvard head coach, since Mr. Haughton, if we are to believe the veracious Boston Evening Transcript, is a devotee of the New Thought and had made a deliberate attempt to turn its horsepower to the advantage of his charges. A few days before the game, haranguing the student body at a Harvard union mass meeting, he besought every loyal Harvard man to think intently and incessantly of victory and of victory only. “Let your minds so concentrate on this idea,” he said, “that the Harvard players on the field will actually feel the vibrations of your thoughts. This may be bordering on psychology or metaphysics, but whatever you may call it there is truth in what I say. In 1908 at New Haven I myself felt the vibrations of the true Harvard spirit. In 1909 I as distinctly felt the vibrations of Harvard pessimism.”

Evidently Mr. Haughton is a man abnormally sensitive to such vibrations. The members of the Harvard eleven, alas and alack! were fellows of blunter nerves, and so the optimistic pulsations which emanated from the crania of the boys in the bleachers failed to penetrate to their lungs, cartilages and shinbones and they could manage nothing better than a draw. The whole affair, in truth, was rather embarrassing to the disciples of the New Thought, and it will strain them to explain it. Here was an opportunity to demonstrate the practical potency of their magic upon an enormous scale and in the presence of a vast multitude—and the result was ludicrous failure. The work of the Harvard players, if anything, was less vigorous and effective than it had promised to be before the vibrations began to bombard them. The scoffing thought bobs up, and refuses to be put down, that they might have done just as well, and perhaps a great deal better, if that awful metaphysical hose had not been played upon them.

 A Fact Or A Fiction!

“Whatever you may call it,” said Mr. Haughton, “there is truth in what I say.” This is the favorite refuge of all who preach the New Thought jehad. Even when convincing proofs are offered that there is nothing but nonsense in their solemn talk of mental vibrations, thought transference and other such imaginary things they trot out the “well-known fact” that all of us are influenced by “mental atmospheres.” It must be plain to everyone, they argue, that a football player, for example, can do more glorious work in the presence of a friendly crowd than in the presence of a hostile crowd. The same thing is true, they say, in baseball, political spellbinding, grand opera, aeronautics, violoncello playing, billiards, bowling, steeple climbing and homiletics. In proof whereof they appeal to the common experience of mankind.

No doubt most persons, at first thought, are disposed to agree with them, and so the seeds of their further and sillier doctrines fall upon fertile soil. But is there really much more than a trace of truth, at bottom, on this popular notion that sympathy has an objective reality, that the best work of the world is done only in the presence of a friendly crowd, that the good-will of the spectator is as necessary to the performer as his own skill? I am inclined to think not. As a matter of fact, the very best efforts of many men, perhaps of the majority of those men whose efforts are worth anything at all, are inspired by opposition as much as by huzzahs. The cell, as Haeckel is so fond of saying, does not act; it re-acts. Opposition is stimulation. Vinegar etches better than molasses. A vigorous prod is worth a dozen slaps upon the back. It is in the face of difficulties and hostility that real efficiency often reveals itself.

This is true, not only in the lofty domain of the dialectic, but also in the lowly domain of purely physical effort. The most remarkable baseball pitching that I have ever seen was done in the presence of a crowd which writhed in rage every time another man was struck out. The home team, despite the loyal clapper-clawing of the bleachers, enjoys but a slight advantage over the visiting team, and most of this advantage, no doubt, is due to its superior knowledge of the grounds. In the prize ring, the same thing is constantly noted. The opposition of the crowd, far from working against a fighter, sometimes inspires him to extraordinary efforts. Exact figures, of course, are not available, but I think it might be demonstrated that, in all cases where the crowd’s hostility to a given fighter is a real hostility, and not a mere echo of the betting odds—that in all such cases, or at least in most of them, the work of that fighter increases in effectiveness and his chances of victory with it.

There is, in brief, little if any truth in the belief that good wishes may be transformed into objective phenomena, that mind influences matter—and little, even, in the belief that mind influences mind. Actors and opera singers often do their worst work in the presence of absurdly friendly crowds, and their best in the presence of crowds which sit silent and unmoved.

Beer Bottles Vs. Vibrations

But isn’t it true that baseball pitchers, harassed by the bleachers, sometimes grow rattled—that political spellbinders, heckled by humorists, take to the woods? Of course it is. But the opposition which here does the work is not an opposition of hostile “vibrations,” of mere thought, but one of beer bottles, ear-splitting howls and disconcerting interruptions. In other words, it is chiefly physical. A man cannot pitch curves and dodge beer bottles at the same time without sacrificing one act, in some measure, to the other. Even unusually violent attacks upon the ears tend to fill the head with echoes which make thought impossible. But beer bottles and blood-curdling shrieks, it must be maintained firmly, are plainly not “vibrations,” at least in the sense given to that abused word by the toreadors of the New Thought. These fantastic persons are constantly talking not of physical causes, but of metaphysical causes, and the longer one studies their arguments and proofs the more one is convinced that such causes play no part in baseball, nor even in violoncello-playing and steeple-climbing.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection) 

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.