Jose Silva was born in Laredo, Texas. He and his older sister and younger brother were raised by their grandmother. Silva supported the family from the age of 6 by selling newspapers, shining shoes, and doing odd jobs. He never attended school as a student, but learned to read and write by watching his sister and brother do their homework. Silva was able to study a correspondence course on radio repair through an agreement with the town barber, under which the barber rented the lessons to Silva, and Silva earned the diploma in the barber's name. At the age of fifteen, Silva began to repair radios and built a successful business which he maintained for the next 40 years, interrupted only by military service.
During World War II, Silva joined the Signal Corps. At his induction, he was examined by an Army psychiatrist. Intrigued by the psychiatrist's odd questions, Silva inquired about a book on hypnosis that was sitting on the psychiatrist's bookshelf. As a result, Silva began to study psychology and, in particular, the nature of hypnotic suggestion and perception in altered states. While in the Signal Corps, Silva studied advanced electronics and became an instructor. When Silva was discharged, he resumed his radio repair business. The newly established Laredo Junior College asked him to create an electronics training program for the school. Five years later, with the spread of television, his repair business began to flourish and Silva ended his teaching career.
During the 1940s, Silva developed a set of techniques with which he aimed to be able to alter his children's IQs and develop their psychic abilities (e.g. clairvoyance). His 'mind experiments' were based on his background in electronics and reading of psychology. He had read about alpha waves and the electrical activity in the human brain and bought an electroencephalograph (EEG). He found that one area of the brain, the part that produces alpha brain wave activity, was stronger than the others. This indicated to him that the electrical impedance of this area of the brain was lower, and therefore would function more efficiently. Since this part of the brain operated more efficiently, Silva believed that it could receive and store more information. The crucial problem for Silva was to keep the mind alert at these frequencies, which are associated more with daydreaming and sleep than with practical activity. Silva experimented with hypnosis, but while hypnosis made the mind more receptive, he felt that more individual control was necessary for improving brain function. He experimented next with mental training exercises to quiet the brain yet keep it more independently alert than in hypnosis. This, he reasoned, would lead to improved memory combined with understanding and hence to higher I.Q. scores.