Thouless, Robert Henry (1894–1984)
Psychologist, parapsychologist, and president of the Society
for Psychical Research, London, from 1942–45. He was born
July 15, 1894, in Norwich, England. He studied at Cambridge
University, England (B.A. hons., 1914; M.A., 1919; Ph.D.,
1922). After serving in World War I, he was a lecturer of psychology
at Manchester University in 1921 and moved on to
Glasgow University in 1926, and the Department of Education,
Cambridge University in 1938.
His initial interest in parapsychology began about 1934 and
was stimulated by contact with the experimental work of J. B.
Rhine. After that, parapsychology became a prominent theme
for half a century of his life. He published nearly ninety articles
and book reviews in the Journal and Proceedings of the Society
for Psychical Research.
Through the years, Thouless conducted many experiments
in card-calling, psychokinesis, and other areas of parapsychology.
He created many of the current terms used in parapsychology
out of the realization that some of the original terms,
such as ‘‘extrasensory perception,’’ carried with them a suggestion
of their operation—in this case ‘‘perception.’’ He coined
the less-committal term ‘‘psi.’’ He and his colleague B. P.
Weiser also coined the terms ‘‘psi Gamma’’ and ‘‘psi Kappa’’ to
replace ESP and PK.
In distinction to parapsychologists who disparaged the
study of spontaneous phenomena, Thouless maintained that it
had value in structuring experimental methods
‘‘The special function of the study of spontaneous cases is to
serve as a guide to the problems to be investigated by experimental
methods. . . . [The] choice is not between statistics and
experiment on the one hand and observation of spontaneous
cases on the other. Let us have much more of both. . . . New
problems for experimental investigation may be suggested by
new observations of spontaneously occurring phenomena.’’
On the question of survival, he proposed a cautious optimism,
and about 1948 devised a cipher test of survival which
he believed was his most significant contribution to parapsychology.
The test used a standard method of encipherment
with a secret key passage. It consisted of two coded sequences
key to the first sequence was a passage of poetry or prose indicated
by reference to its title, and the key to the second sequence
consisted of two words. The key passage necessary to cipher
the test might have been transmitted posthumously as a
proof of survival of consciousness. This method obviated the
objection that a claimed posthumous communication might be
read by clairvoyance if left in a sealed envelope. The Thouless
test did not involve any sealed message and only the correct key
would solve the enciphered message. In the event of a claimed
posthumous message, percipients were asked to contact the Society
for Psychical Research so that it might be keyed into the
society’s computer program to see if it yielded a correct message.
Thouless was an active member of the Society for Psychical
Research and served on its council. He was elected president
in 1942. In the end he was willing to consider the religious implications
of psi and argued that parapsychology pointed to a
more interesting world in which God and what has been
termed the supernatural play their part. Thouless died at the
age of 90 on September 25, 1984.
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology.
New York Helix Press, 1964.
Thouless, Robert Henry. Authority and Freedom. London
Hodder and Stroughton, 1954.
———. Experimental Psychical Research. Baltimore, Md. Penguin,
———. From Anecdote to Experiment in Psychical Research. London
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
Thouless, Robert Henry Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
———. ‘‘The Present Position of Experimental Research
into Telepathy and Related Phenomena.’’ Proceedings of the Society
for Psychical Research 47 (1943).
———. ‘‘Problems of Design in Parapsychological Experiments.’’
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (1955).
———. ‘‘Psychical Research Past and Present.’’ [Myers Memorial
Lecture] Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
———. Straight and Crooked Thinking. N.p., 1930. Reprinted
as How to Think Straight. New York Simon and Schuster, 1939.