Psychical Research
Scientific inquiry into the facts surrounding and causes underlying
reports of paranormal and mediumistic phenomena.
Psychical research’s first concern has been to establish the occurrence
of the claimed events. If such events are not due to obvious
mundane causes, including fraud, observational error, or
the laws of chance, the next stage of the inquiry is to establish
a reason for their occurrence—whether known natural laws are
sufficient to explain them or whether there is reason to assume
action by an unknown force.
Determining the nature of such an unknown force and the
mode of its manifestation forms a third level of investigation.
If it is not a blind force but operated by intelligence, it must be
determined whether this intelligence is earthly. Not until every
other explanation and test fails can the claim of a paranormal
source be accepted.
The Historical Background
The term psychical research covers all scientific investigation
into the obscure phenomena traditionally connected with the
so-called supernatural, undertaken with a view to their elucidation.
Certain of these phenomena are known all over the world
and have remained practically unaltered almost since prehistoric
times. Such are the phenomena of levitation, fire ordeal,
crystal gazing, thought reading, and apparitions. Even
though the formal discipline of psychical research rests on the
scientific method of the nineteenth century, these phenomena
have been investigated throughout the ages.
John Gaule, in his Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches
and Witchcraft (1646), observes
‘‘But the more prodigious or stupendous [of the feats mentioned
in the witches’ confessions] are effected meerly by the
devil; the witch all the while either in a rapt ecstasie, a charmed
sleepe, or a melancholy dreame; and the witches’ imagination,
phantasie, common sense, only deluded with what is now done,
or pretended.’’
A few other writers of the same period arrived at similar conclusions.
The result of many of these medieval records was to
confirm the genuineness of some of the phenomena witnessed,
but here and there, even in those days, there were skeptics who
refused to give them any supernatural significance.
Poltergeist disturbances received a large share of attention
and investigation. The case of the Drummer of Tedworth was
examined by Joseph Glanvill and the results set forth in his
Saducisimus Triumphatus, published in 1668. The Epworth phenomena,
which occurred in the house of John Wesley’s father,
elicited many comments, as did the Cock Lane ghost, the
Stockwell poltergeist, and many others.
Those who investigated animal magnetism and mesmerism
may be considered psychical researchers, since these forerunners
of hypnotism were the fruits of prolonged investigation
into the phenomena connected with the trance state.
The writings of Paracelsus and Franz A. Mesmer show that
they had glimpses of perspectives that were ahead of their time,
foreshadowing the work of psychical researchers. Paracelsus,
for example, stated in his writings,
‘‘By the magic power of the will, a person on this side of the
ocean may make a person on the other side hear what is said
on this side. . . . The ethereal body of a man may know what
another man thinks at a distance of 100 miles and more.’’
This reads like an anticipation of telepathy, which has since
attained remarkable prominence, although it is by no means attributed
to ‘‘the ethereal body of a man.’’ Such writings would
seem to entitle many of the mesmerists and the older mystics
to the designation of protopsychical researchers. As knowledge
increased and systematized methods came into use, such inquiries
became more focused and fruitful.
The introduction of modern Spiritualism in 1848 undoubtedly
set the stage for psychical research. The movement was so
widespread and the reports of its effects so numerous and impressive
that it was inevitable that scientists (especially those
facing the spiritual questions to which the movement spoke)
would be attracted to the movement and then drawn into an examination
of the alleged phenomena.
Thus we find engaged in the investigation of Spiritualism
such individuals as William Carpenter, Michael Faraday and
Augustus De Morgan, and on the Continent, Count de Gasparin,
Marc Thury and Johann C. F. Zöllner. One of the most
important investigators was undoubtedly Sir William Crookes,
who worked independently for some time before the founding
of the Society for Psychical Research.
However, although much good work was done by independent
students of psychic science, as it came to be called, more
systematic investigation was inevitable. The London Dialectical
Society was established in 1867, and a resolution was carried
out two years later to ‘‘investigate the phenomena alleged
to be Spiritual Manifestations, and to report thereon.’’ The
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committee included many distinguished individuals. An initial
report was published in 1871.
In 1875 Edward William Cox, also connected with the London
Dialectical Society, founded the Psychological Society of
Great Britain for similar investigation. Cox included C. C. Massey,
Walter H. Coffin, and Spiritualist medium W. Stainton
Moses among the members. A single volume of Proceedings of
the society’s work was published in 1878. The society came to
an end the next year, following Cox’s death.
From 1878 on, the British National Association of Spiritualists,
London (founded in 1873), appointed a research council
that carried on significant research work with well-known mediums
of the day under test conditions. Their work bore fruit
early in 1882 when William F. Barrett presided over several
conferences held by the association that resulted in the formation
of the Society for Psychical Research.
The Establishment of Psychical Research
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded largely
by a group of scientists and philosophers connected with
Trinity College, Cambridge. The society was formed to ‘‘examine
without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit
those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable
in terms of any generally recognized hypothesis.’’
The society’s prospectus indicates its proposed aim and
methods
‘‘It has been widely felt that the present is an opportune
time for making an organised and systematic attempt to investigate
that large group of debatable phenomena designated by
such terms as mesmeric, psychical, and spiritualistic.
‘‘From the recorded testimony of many competent witnesses,
past and present, including observations recently made by
scientific men of eminence in various countries, there appears
to be, amid much delusion and deception, an important body
of remarkable phenomena, which are prima facie inexplicable
on any generally recognised hypothesis, and which, if incontestably
established, would be of the highest possible value.
‘‘The task of examining such residual phenomena has often
been undertaken by individual effort, but never hitherto by a
scientific society organised on a sufficiently broad basis.’’
The first president of the society was Henry Sidgwick, and
among later presidents were Balfour Stewart, Sir William
Crookes, Arthur James Balfour, and Sir Oliver Lodge. William
James and Charles Richet were the first American and
French researchers to serve as presidents, respectively. Prominent
among the original members were Frank Podmore, F. W.
H. Myers, Edmund Gurney, William F. Barrett, W. Stainton
Moses, and Eleanor Sidgwick (later the first female to become
president), Lord Rayleigh, and Andrew Lang. Many of these
would eventually be honored with a term in the president’s
chair.
James initiated work in America that was later carried on by
Richard Hodgson and James H. Hyslop.
On the Continent the Italian Cesare Lombroso, and French
researchers Joseph Maxwell, Camille Flammarion, and Richet—all
men of the highest standing in their respective
branches of science—conducted exhaustive research into the
phenomena of mediumship, chiefly with the Italian medium
Eusapia Palladino as a subject.
At first the members of the Society for Psychical Research
found it convenient to work in concert, but as they became
more conversant with the broad outlines of the subject, it was
necessary to specialize in various branches. The original plan,
roughly sketched in 1882, grouped the phenomena to be researched
under five different heads, each of which was placed
under the direction of a separate committee. The five goals and
their committee chairs were as follows
‘‘1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence
which may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart
from any generally recognized mode of perception. (Hon. Secretary
of Committee, Professor W. F. Barrett.)
‘‘2. The study of hypnotism, and the forms of so-called mesmeric
trance, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance,
and other allied phenomena. (Hon. Secretary of Committee,
Dr. G. Wyld.)
‘‘3. A critical revision of Reichenbach’s researches with certain
organisations called ‘sensitive,’ and an inquiry whether
such organisations possess any power of perception beyond a
highly-exalted sensibility of the recognised sensory organs.
(Hon. Secretary of Committee, Walter H. Coffin.)
‘‘4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong
testimony, regarding apparitions at the moment of death, or
otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be
haunted. (Hon. Secretary of Committee, Hensleigh Wedgwood.)
‘‘5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly
called Spiritualistic; with an attempt to discover their
causes and general laws. (Hon. Secretary, Dr. C. Lockhart Robertson.)’’
A committee was also appointed to consider the literature
of the subject; honorary secretaries were Edmund Gurney and
Frederic W. H. Myers, who, with Frank Podmore, collected a
number of historic examples.
Of the various goals of the SPR, however, the first is now
generally considered the most important, and is certainly the
one that has yielded the best results to investigators. In the case
of hypnotism, the work of psychical researchers contributed to
its admission to the sphere of legitimate physiology. It was formerly
classed among doubtful phenomena, even at the time
the society was founded.
The examination of Baron von Reichenbach’s claims of having
discovered a new psychic fluid or force, the ‘‘od’’ (or odyle),
which issued like flame from the points of a magnet or the
human fingertips, was at length abandoned since nothing was
found to verify his conclusions.
The investigations in connection with apparitions, haunted
houses, and Spiritualist phenomena continued for many years,
although on the whole no definite conclusions were arrived at.
The members of the society attempted to carry out their investigations
in an entirely unbiased spirit. Some members who
had joined the society originally as avowed Spiritualists soon
dropped out. After prolonged and exhaustive research the
opinions of the various investigators often changed. Far from
being pledged to accept the spirit hypothesis—or any other
specific hypothesis—the SPR expressly stated that ‘‘membership
of this Society does not imply the acceptance of any particular
explanation of the phenomena investigated, nor any belief
as to the operation, in the physical world, of forces other than
those recognised by Physical Science.’’
Nevertheless, two prominent researchers, F. W. H. Myers
and Sir Oliver Lodge, found evidence sufficient to convince
them of the operation in the physical world of disembodied intelligences
who manifest themselves through the organisms of
special people generally referred to as mediums or sensitives.
Frank Podmore, on the other hand, was the exponent of a
telepathic theory. Any phase of the manifestations that could
not be explained by means of such known physiological facts
as suggestion and hyperesthesia (the so-called subconscious
whispering), exaltation of memory and automatism, or the unfamiliar
but presumably natural telepathy, according to him,
fell under the grave suspicion of fraud. His theory of poltergeists,
for example, which he regarded as the work of naughty
children, did not admit the intervention of a mischievous disembodied
spirit. He considered telepathy a suitable explanation
for ‘‘coincident hallucination’’ (hallucinatory apparitions
that coincide with the death of the person represented or with
some other crisis in that person’s life), as well as for all cases of
‘‘personation’’ by the medium. His view—one shared by Andrew
Lang, several of his contemporaries, and many presentday
parapsychologists—was that if telepathy were established
the spirit hypothesis would not only be unnecessary, but impossible
to prove.
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The most important of telepathic experiments were those
conducted by Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick (1889–91). The percipients
were hypnotized by G. A. Smith, who also acted as
agent, and the matter to be transmitted consisted at first of
numbers and later of mental pictures. The agent and percipient
were generally separated by a screen, or were sometimes in
different rooms, although the results in the latter case were
perceptibly less satisfactory. On the whole, however, the percentage
of correct guesses was far above what could be attributed
to chance, and the experiments did much to encourage a belief
that some hitherto unknown mode of communication
existed.
At a later date, the trance communication of Leonora Piper
seemed to point to some such theory, although Myers, Hodgson,
and Hyslop, who conducted a thorough investigation into
those communications, were inclined to believe that the spirits
of the dead were the agencies in this case.
Telepathy was never established in the early experiments of
psychical research, yet something similar to telepathy (various
names have been suggested) must be working to explain the results
attained by the ESP experiments carried out over the last
half century by parapsychologists. During the first generations
of psychical research, many worked with the idea that the machinery
of telepathy existed in the form of ethereal vibrations,
or brain waves, acting in accordance with natural laws (although
Gerald Balfour and others argued that the action did
not conform to the law of inverse squares). The remnants of
such material notions of telepathy were quickly disposed of by
parapsychology.
The subject of hallucinations has also been investigated
over the years, and has been found to be closely connected with
the question of telepathy. Apparitions were in former times regarded
as the double or ethereal body of the persons they represented,
but they are now mainly considered to be subjective
phenomena.
Nevertheless, the study of coincidental hallucinations, now
termed near-death experiences, raises the question as to
whether the agent can produce such a hallucination in the
mind of the percipient by the exercise of telepathic influence,
which may be judged to be more powerful during an emotional
crisis.
Hallucinations have been shown to be fairly common among
otherwise sane and normal people, about one person in ten
having experienced one or more, but the odds that a hallucination
will coincide with the death of the person it represents are
about one in 19,000.
The SPR undertook a Census of Hallucinations in 1889.
Henry Sidgwick and a committee of members of the society
conducted the investigations, with Eleanor Sidgwick collating
the results and writing the final report. Printed forms were distributed
among 410 accredited agents of the society, including
many medical men and others belonging to the professional
classes, all of whom gave their services without fees in the interest
of science.
In all, some 17,000 persons were questioned, and negative
as well as affirmative answers were sent in just as they were received,
the agents being instructed to make no discrimination
between the various replies. Out of 8,372 men, 655 claimed to
have had a hallucination, as did 1,029 out of 8,628 women—9.9
percent of the total. When ample allowance had been made for
defects of memory with regard to early hallucinations by multiplying
the 322 recognized and definite cases by 4, it was found
that 62 coincided with a death; again making allowances, this
number was reduced to 30.
Thus the survey results showed one coincidental hallucination
in 43 instead of the expected one in 19,000. Clearly, then,
if these figures are accepted, there must be some causal connection
between the death and the apparition, whether it be a Spiritualist,
telepathic, or other cause.
Apart from telepathy, perhaps the most interesting field of
psychical research is automatism. Trance writings and utterances
have been known since the earliest times, when they were
attributed to demonic possession, or, sometimes, to angelic
possession. By means of the planchette, the Ouija board, and
other contrivances people were able to write automatically and
divulge information they were unaware of possessing.
The phenomena are purely subjective, however, and are the
result of cerebral dissociation such as may be induced in hypnosis.
In this state, exaltation of the memory may occur, accounting
for such phenomena as xenoglossis (speaking in foreign
tongues with which the medium is not acquainted). Cerebral
dissociation may also produce a sensitiveness to telepathic influences,
as would seem apparent in the case of the medium
Leonora Piper, whose automatic productions in writing and
speaking supplied investigators with plentiful material and did
more in the early twentieth century, perhaps, than anything
else to stimulate an interest in so-called Spiritualist phenomena.
In connection with the ‘‘physical’’ phenomema—probably
no less the result of automatism than the ‘‘subjective’’—the Italian
medium Eusapia Palladino was carefully studied by many
eminent investigators, both in Great Britain and on the Continent.
Camille Flammarion, Charles Richet, and Sir Oliver
Lodge (to mention only a few) satisfied themselves with regard
to the genuineness of some of her phenomena (although other
equally eminent researchers dissented).
On the whole, even if psychical research has not succeeded
in scientifically validating such matters as survival of death or
the possibility of communication between the living and the
dead, it can be credited with having widened the field of psychology
and therapeutics and gaining support from the medical
profession for the concept of suggestion.
In the United States, the American Society for Psychical
Research, founded in 1885, and the Boston Society for Psychic
Research, founded in 1925, were similar to the SPR of
London. The American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR)
was founded on the initial suggestion of William F. Barrett with
the active cooperation of Richard Hodgson. A number of distinguished
scientists were involved, many at the request of William
James, and the general attitude was at first somewhat
skeptical toward psychical phenomena.
The first period of the old ASPR lasted for four years
(1885–89), after which it was absorbed by the Society for Psychical
Research, London. It was briefly dissolved following Hodgson’s
death in 1905, but was reconstituted in 1906 as Section
B of the American Institute for Scientific Research, an organization
that James H. Hyslop founded at Columbia University,
where he taught. Section A was devoted to abnormal psychology.
The name American Society for Psychical Research was not
readopted until 1922.
After Hyslop’s death in 1920, the work of the society was carried
on by his assistant Walter Franklin Prince, who became
director of research and edited the society’s publications. In
1921 William McDougall, a noted psychologist, became president.
He was succeeded the following year by Frederick Edwards,
a clergyman.
During the 1920s there were strong policy dissensions within
the society, sparked by the American tour of Spiritualist Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle but substantively related to the controversial
investigations of the mediumship of Mina S. Crandon,
popularly known as ‘‘Margery.’’ In 1925, complaining of shoddy
work and a lack of professionalism, Prince, McDougall, Elwood
Worcester, and Gardner Murphy led a group that split
off from the ASPR and formed the Boston Society for Psychical
Research, which existed through the 1930s. During this period
the most substantive psychical research was carried on by the
Boston Society; the ASPR continued to be preoccupied with the
problem of the ‘‘Margery’’ mediumship.
From Psychical Research to Parapsychology
Meanwhile, beginning in the 1930s, a new phase in American
psychical research was beginning, spearheaded by J. B.
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Rhine, whose experimental work at Duke University was encouraged
by McDougall. This work involved using college students
as subjects instead of mediums, with emphasis on statistical
and scientific methods in evaluating experiments. Rhine’s
initial report, Extra-sensory Perception, published by the Boston
Society in 1934, described 85,724 card-guessing trials. Rhine’s
work aroused a storm of controversy, and was attacked from
every angle, most severely on methodological grounds. The
sting of the controversy was removed in 1938 when the American
Psychological Association (APA) upheld Rhine’s testing
procedures and his statistical method (if not his results). The
APA report was confirmed by the American Institute of Mathematical
Statistics, which issued this statement ‘‘If the Rhine investigation
is to be fairly attacked, it must be on other than
mathematical grounds.’’
It was through the work of Rhine that the terms parapsychology,
extrasensory perception, and psychokinesis became
widespread. The Journal of Parapsychology was first published in
1937, and the Parapsychological Association was founded in
1957.
The work of Rhine and his associates established parapsychology—laboratory-based
research on the paranormal—as a
reputable field for scientific study. As another generation of researchers
appeared, the boundary between parapsychology
and the older concerns of psychical research became blurred.
In the decades since World War II a new movement, in addition
to the purely statistical studies, has embraced all the phenomena
formerly associated with Spiritualist mediums, and the
spontaneous phenomena of poltergeists and out-of-the-body
travel has been reconsidered. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new
wave of interest in psychokinesis was stimulated by widely heralded
claims of psychic Uri Geller.
(Note Developments in psychical research and parapsychology
and their precursors in Continental Europe are dealt
with under the headings of the various countries—France,
Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.)
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