1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Psychical Research

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

PSYCHICAL RESEARCH, a term which may be defined, partially, as an examination into the amount of truth contained in world-wide superstitious. Thus when Saul disguised himself before his séance with the witch of Endor, and when Croesus scientifically tested the oracles of Greece (finding clairvoyance or lucidité in the Delphic Pythoness), Saul and Croesus were psychical researchers. A more systematic student was the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry. In his letter to Anebo, answered in Περι μυστηρίων by Iamblichus (?) we find Porphyry concerned with the usual alleged phenomena—prophecy; the power of walking through fire unharmed; the movements of inanimate objects, untouched; the “levitation” of “mediums”; apparitions of spirits, their replies to questions, the falsehood of those replies; and so forth. Similar phenomena fill the lives of the saints and the records of witch trials. Apparitions, especially of the dying or the dead; the stereotyped disturbances in haunted houses; and the miraculous healing of diseases, are current in classical and medieval records. The exhibition of remote or even future events, to gazers in mirrors, crystals, vessels full of water, or drops of ink or blood, is equally notorious in classical, Oriental, medieval and modern literature; while the whole range of these phenomena is found in Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, ancient American, Red Indian and savage belief.

At various periods, and in proportion to the scientific methods of the ages, attempts have been made to examine these things scientincally. St Augustine wrote on the whole topic with remarkable acuteness and considerable scepticism; his treatment of miracles of healing is especially noteworthy. After Petrus Thyraeus (1546-1601), S. J. Wierus, Ludwig Lavater (1527-1586), and other authors of the 16th century, came the labours of Glanvill, Henry More, Richard Baxter, Boyle, Cotton Mather, and others in England and America, during and after the Restoration. Attempts were made to get first-hand evidences and Glanvill investigated the knocking drummer of Tedworth in situ (1663). The disturbances in the house of the Wesleys at Epworth (1716 and later) were famous, and have copious contemporary record. David Hume believed himself to have settled questions which, when revived by the case of Swedenborg and the experiments of Mesmer and his pupils, puzzled and interested Kant. The influence of Mesmer has never died out; the fact of “animal magnetism” (with such examples as the “divining rod,” and the phenomena in general) was accepted in his manner, and explained, by Hegel. The researches of Braid (c. 1840-1850) gave a new name, “hypnotism,” to what had been called “mesmerism” or “animal magnetism”; a name conveying no theory of “magnetic” or other “fluids.” “Mesmerism” implies a theory of “emanations” from the operator to the patient; “hypnotism” implies no such hypothesis. In the middle of the 19th century Dr Gregory and Dr Mayo published their entertaining but unsystematic works, Animal Magnetism and The Truths in Popular Superstitions respectively. Esdaile and Elliotson were practical pioneers in the medical use of induced sleep or somnambulism. For their ideas and experiments The Zoist may be consulted. The epidemic of “spiritualism” and of “turning tables” then invaded Europe from America, and was discussed by Dr Carpenter, Faraday, Gasparin, De Morgan and many others. The adventures of Daniel Dunglas Home excited all Europe, and his effects were studied by Sir William Crookes with especial attention. Home disappeared after a lawsuit; his successes remain an unsolved enigma. Believers explained them by the agency of the spirits of the dead, the old savage theory. He had many followers, most of whom, if not all, were detected in vulgar impostures. Of the books of this period those of Mr Richard Dale Owen (1810-1890) are the most curious, but exact method was still to seek.

In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research, under the presidency of Henry Sidgwick, professor of moral philosophy in the university of Cambridge, was founded expressly for the purpose of introducing scientific method into the study of the “debateable phenomena.” Other early members were Edmund Gurney, F. W. H. Myers, Andrew Lang, Professor Barrett, Mrs Sidgwick, F. Podmore, Lord Tennyson, Lord Rayleigh and Professor Adams; while among presidents were Professor Balfour Stewart, A. J. Balfour, Professor William James of Harvard and Sir William Crookes. The society has published many volumes of Proceedings. In France and in Germany and Italy many men of distinguished scientific position have examined the Italian “medium” Eusapia Palladino, and have contributed experiments, chiefly in the field of hypnotism and “telepathy.” Hypnotism has been introduced into official experimental psychology and medicine with some success.

It is plain that the range of psychical research is almost unlimited. It impinges on anthropology (with its study of the savage theory of spirits—animism—and of diabolical possession), and on the usual province of psychology, in the problems of the hallucinations both of morbid patients and of people in normal mental health. The whole topic of the unconscious or subconscious self is made matter not of mere metaphysical speculation (as by Kant and Hamilton), but of exact observation, and, by aid of hypnotism and automatism, of direct experiment. The six original committees of the society undertook the following themes:—

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.

2. The study of hypnotism and the forms of so-called mesmeric trance, clairvoyance and other allied phenomena.

3. A critical revision of Reichenbach's researches into certain organizations called “sensitive.”

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.

5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly called spiritualistic, with an attempt to discover their causes and general laws.

6. The collection and collation of existing materials bearing on the history of these subjects.

To these themes we might now add the study of “crystal-gazing,” and of the hallucinatory visions which a fair percentage of people observe when staring into any clear deep, usually a glass ball; but ink (with some experimenters) does as well, or a glass water-jug. Of these themes, the third has practically led to nothing. The experiments of Reichenbach on the perception of flames issuing from magnets have not been verified. The collection of historical examples, again (6), has not been much pursued by the society, except in Mr Gurney's studies of witchcraft in Phantasms of the Living, by himself, Mr Podmore and Mr Myers. On the other hand, a vast number of experiments were made in “thought transference.” (1) Diagrams drawn by A were reproduced by B; cards thought of, numbers and so forth were also reproduced in conditions that appeared to make the normal transference of the idea by sound, sight or touch impossible, and to put chance coincidence out of court. In one or two instances collusion was detected ingeniously. In others two explanatory theories have been broached. People may accidentally coincide in their choice of diagrams, or the “unconscious whispering” of a person fixing his mind hard on a number, card or what not may be heard or seen. But coincidence in diagrams does not apply when a ship, dumb-bells, a candlestick or a cat is drawn by both experimenters; nor can “unconscious whispering” be heard or seen when the experimenters are in different rooms. On the whole, the inquirers convinced themselves that one mind or brain may influence another mind or brain through no recognized channel of sense. This is, of course, an old idea (see Walton's Life of Donne, and his theory of the appearance of Mrs Donne, with a dead baby, to Dr Donne in Paris). The method of communication remains a problem. Are there “brain waves,” analogous to the X-rays, from brain to recipient brain, or does mind touch mind in some unheard-of way? The former appears to be the hypothesis preferred by Sir William Crookes and Professor Flournoy (Des Indes à la planète Mars, pp. 363-365). On this showing there is nothing “supranormal” in “telepathy,” as it is called. The latter theory of “a purely spiritual communication” is argued for by Mr Myers (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, xv. 407-410). If we accept telepathy as experimentally demonstrated, and regard it as a physical process, we reduce (4), “apparitions at the moment of death or otherwise,” to a normal though not very usual fact. Everyone would admit this in the case of mere empty hallucinations. A, in Paisley, sees P, in London, present in his room. P is neither dying nor in any other crisis, and A is, as both continue to be, in his normal health. Such experiences are by no means very uncommon, when there is nothing to suggest that P has exercised any telepathic influence on A. On the other hand, in Phantasms of the Living, and in the report on the Census of Hallucinations (Proceedings, vol. x.), the society has published large numbers of “coincidental” hallucinations, the appearance of P to A coinciding with the death or other crisis of the distant P. That such “wraiths” do occur is the popular and savage belief. But, it may be urged, many hallucinations occur and many deaths. People only remember the hallucinations which happened, or were made by erroneous reckoning to seem to happen, coincidentally with the decease of the person seen. This is not quite true, for a hallucination so vivid as to be taken for a real person and addressed as such is not easily forgotten by a sober citizen, even if “nothing happened” afterwards. None the less, the coincidental hallucinations have certainly a better chance of being remembered, while fancy is apt to exaggerate the closeness of the coincidence. Nothing can demonstrate that coincidences between death and hallucination occur more frequently than by the doctrine of chance they ought to do, except a census of the whole population. In the present indifference of government to psychical science no party is likely to institute such a census, and even if it were done, the frivolity of mankind would throw doubt on the statistics. It would be necessary to cross-examine each “percipient,” and to ask for documentary or other corroborative evidence in each case.

The Society for Psychical Research collected statistics in proportion to its resources. More than 17,000 answers were received to questions rather widely circulated. The affirmative respondents were examined closely, their mental and physical health and circumstances inquired into, and collectors of evidence were especially enjoined to avoid selecting persons known to be likely to return affirmative replies. There were 80 cases at first hand in which the death of the person seen coincided, within twelve hours, with the visual hallucination of his or her presence, out of 352 instances of such hallucinations. By way of arriving at the true proportions, the hallucinations which coincided with nothing were multiplied by four. In this way allowance was made for obliviousness of non-coincidental hallucinations. The verdict of the committee was that, on the evidence before them, hallucinations coincided with deaths in a ratio of 440 times more than was to be expected by the law of probabilities. The committee came to the conclusion that a relation of cause and effect does exist between the death of A and the vision of A beheld by P. The hallucination is apparently caused from without by some unexplained action of the mind or brain of A on the brain or mind of P. This effect is also traced, where death does not occur, for example, in the many instances of false “arrivals.” A is on his way to X, or is dreaming that he is on his way, and is seen at X by P, or by P, Q and R, as may happen. These cases are common, and were explained in Celtic philosophy by the theory of the “Co-Walker,” a kind of “astral body.” The facts are accounted for in the same way by Scandinavian popular philosophy. Possibly in many instances such hallucinations are the result of expectancy in the beholder. Yet if we go out to shoot or fish, excepting to encounter grouse or salmon, we do not usually see grouse or salmon if they are not there! Where the arrival is not expected, this explanation fails. In “second sight,” even among savages, these occurrences are not infrequent, and doubtless admit of an explanation by telepathy. In two instances, known at first hand to the present writer, persons dreamed, at a distance, that they entered their own homes. In one the person was seen, in the other distinctly heard, by the inmates of his or her house. In several of these examples knocks are heard, as in spiritualist séances. In fact, if we accept the evidence, living but remote persons may, unconsciously, produce effects of sounds and of phantasms exactly like those which popular belief ascribes to the spirits of the dead.

If we admit the evidence, of which a great body exists, and if we attribute the phenomena to telepathy, curious inferences may be drawn. Thus if the phenomena are such as only the spirits of the dead could be credited with producing—if the dead were frequently recognized by various good witnesses—it would follow (on the hypothesis of telepathy) that telepathy is not a physical process caused by material waves or rays from living brain to brain, the dead having no brains in working order. On the other hand, if living brains may thus affect each other, a subjective hallucination experienced by the living A may conceivably be “wired on” to the living P. Thus A, in a given house, may have a mere subjective hallucination of the presence of the dead B, and may, unconsciously, infect with that hallucination other persons who come to the house. Thus once admit that any living brain may infect any other, and it becomes practically impossible for a spirit of the dead to prove his identity. Any information which he may give in any way must either be known to living people, however remote, or unknown. If known to a living person, he may, unconsciously, “wire it on” to the seer. If wholly unknown to everybody, the veracity of the information cannot be demonstrated, except later, if it refers to the unknown future. Thus the theory of telepathy, with a little good will, puts the existence and activity of the souls of the dead beyond possibility of proof.

These remarks apply to the researches of the society into alleged isolated phantasms of the dead, and into “haunted houses.” As to the former cases, it is admitted on all hands that sane and sober people may have subjective hallucinations of the presence of living friends, not dying or in any other crisis. Obviously then, the appearance of a dead person may equally be an empty hallucination. Thus, a member of the House of Commons, standing at the entrance of a certain committee-room, saw another member, of peculiar aspect and gait, pass him and enter the room, his favourite haunt. Several hours passed before the percipient suddenly recollected that the other member had been dead for some months. Even superstition cannot argue that this appearance was a ghost. In the same way Hawthorne, the celebrated novelist, frequently, he has written, saw a dead club-man in his club. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that at intervals members of the house kept seeing such appearances of dead members of parliament, and suppose that they had never seen the prototypes in their lifetime, but yet correctly described them: then it might be said that their hallucinations had merely been “wired on” from the brain of some living member of parliament who knew the deceased.

Thus telepathy cuts two ways. It is, if accepted, a singular discovery, but it throws an enormous burden of proof on a “ghost” who wants to establish his identity. In the same way telepathy cuts at the root of “clairvoyance,” or lucid view of events remote in space or distant in time. The vision may have been “wired on” telepathically by a living person who knew the remote event. The “supranormal” can only be proved if the information conveyed by the hallucination is verified in the future, or is proved by the finding of documents not known to exist at the time of the hallucination, but afterwards discovered. A curious possible instance was the discovery in 1856 of a MS. inventory of the jewels of Mary Stuart (1566), verifying in some degree a clairvoyant vision about the jewels published some years earlier (see “Queen Mary's Jewels” in the writer's Book of Dreams and Ghosts). For the same reasons the information nominally given by “spirits” of the dead through the mouth or by the automatic writing of Mrs Piper (Boston, U.S.) and other mediums may be explained by telepathy from the living who know the facts. This theory was rejected, for example, in the case of Mrs Piper, by Myers and Dr Richard Hodgson, who devoted much time to the examination of the lady (see Proceedings, vols. vi., viii., xiii., xiv., with criticisms by Mrs Sidgwick and the present writer in vol. xv. pt. xxxvi). In the late Dr Hodgson's opinion, the dead do communicate through the automatic writing or speaking of Mrs Piper. The published evidence (much is unpublished) does not seem to justify the conclusion, which is not accepted by Mrs Piper herself! Dr J. H. Hyslop has published enormous and minute reports on Mrs Piper, convincing to himself but not to most readers.

This leads us to the chief field of research in “automatisms,” or actions of the subconscious or “subliminal” self. The prototype of such things is found in the performances of natural somnambulists, who in all ages have seemed to exhibit faculties beyond their power when in a normal condition. The experiments of Mesmer, and of those who followed in his track, down to the psychologists of to-day, proved (what had long been known to savages and conjurers) that a state of somnambulism could be induced from without. Moreover, it is proved that certain persons can, as it were, hypnotize themselves, even unwittingly, and pass into trance. In these secondary conditions of trance, such persons are not only amenable to “suggestion,” but occasionally evolve what are called secondary personalities: they speak in voices not their own, and exhibit traits of character not theirs, but in harmony with the impersonation. The popular, savage and ancient theory of these phenomena was that the people thus affected were inspired by a god or spirit, or “possessed ” by a demon or a dead man. Science now regards the gods or demons or spirits as mere exhibitions of the secondary personality, which wakens when the normal personality slumbers. The knowledge and faculties of the secondary personality, far exceeding those exhibited in the normal state, are explained to a great extent by the patient's command, when in the secondary state, of resources latent in the memory. The same explanation is offered for other phenomena, like those of automatic writing, knocking out answers by tilting tables, or discovering objects by aid of the “divining rod.” The muscular actions that tilt the table, or wag the rod, or direct the pencil or planchette, are unconsciously made, and reveal the latent stores of subconscious knowledge, so that a man writes or knocks out information which he possessed, but did not suspect himself of possessing. These processes were familiar to the Neoplatonists, and in one form or other are practised by Chinese, Tibetans, Negroes, Malayans and Melanesians. A similar kind of automatism is revealed in the inspirations of genius, which often astonish the author or artist himself. An interesting example has been studied by Myers in the feats of arithmetic recorded about “calculating boys,” who are usually unconscious of their methods. The whole of this vast field of the unconscious, or subconscious, or subliminal self has been especially examined by Myers, and by such psychologists as Ribot, Janet, Richet, Flournoy and many others.

The general result is a normal explanation, not yet complete, of the phenomena hitherto attributed to witchcraft, inspiration, possession, and so forth. Probably the devils, saints, angels and spirits who have communicated with witches, living saints, demoniac and visionaries are mere hallucinatory reflections from the subconscious self, endowed with its store of latent memories and strangely acute percipient faculties. Thus a curious chapter of human history is at last within possible reach of explanation. Men regard phenomena as “supranormal” or “supernatural,” or reject them altogether, till their modus is explained. But it would not be candid to say that the explanation is complete, or nearly complete. The nature of the hypnotic trance itself remains a matter of dispute. The knowledge automatically revealed can by no means always be accounted for, either by latent memory or by the sharpening of the normal faculties of perception, while the limits of telepathy (if it be accepted) are vaguely conjectured. Even the results of simple experiments in “crystal-gazing” are often very perplexing. Further experiment may reveal some normal explanation, while scepticism (which seldom takes the trouble to examine the alleged facts with any care) can always repose on a theory of malobservation and imposture. These, of course, are verae causae, while in this, as in all provinces of human evidence, bad memories and unconscious errors distort the testimony. Psychical research encourages, or ought to encourage, the cool impartiality in examining, collecting and recording facts, which is usually absent, in greater or less degree, from the work even of eminent historians. Men of equal honesty and acuteness may believe or disbelieve in the innocence of Mary Queen of Scots, or in the “spirits” which control Mrs Piper. As to alleged “physical phenomena” of unknown cause, one, the power of passing without lesion with naked feet over fire, has recently been attested by numerous competent observers and experimenters in the ritual of Fijians and other South Sea Islanders, Japanese, Bulgarians, natives of southern India and other races. (The evidence has been collected by the present writer in Proceedings S.P.R. vol. xv. pt. xxxvi. pp. 2-15. Compare a case examined and explained more or less by S. P. Langley, Nature, August 22, 1901.) The much more famous tales of movements of objects untouched have been carefully examined, and perhaps in no instance have professional performers proved innocent of fraud. Yet the best known living medium, Eusapia Palladino, though exposed at Cambridge, has been rehabilitated, after later experiments, in the opinion of many distinguished Continental observers, who entirely disbelieve in the old theory, the action of “spirits,” and venture no other hypothesis.

The results of psychical research, after several years of work, are not really less than could be expected from toil in a field so difficult. The theory of alternating, or secondary, personalities is the key, as we have said, to a strange chapter in “the history of human error.” The provisional hypothesis of telepathy puts a meaning into the innumerable tales of “wraiths” and of “second sight.” It is never waste of time to investigate the area of human faculty; and practical results, in the medical treatment of abnormal intellectual conditions, have already been obtained. The conduct of our witch-burning ancestors now becomes intelligible, a step on the way to being pardonable. With their methods and inherited prejudices they could scarcely have reasoned otherwise than they did in certain cases of hysteria and autohypnotization. Many “miracles” of healing and of “stigmatization” become credible when verified in modern experience and explained by “suggestion”; though to “explain the explanation” is a task for the future. Such as it is, the theory was accepted by St Francis de Sales in the case of St Theresa. Results of wider range and of more momentous interest may yet be obtained. The science of electrical phenomena was not developed in a quarter of a century, and it would be premature to ask more from psychical research than it has achieved in a short period. The subject is not readily capable of exact experiment, human faculty being, as it were, capricious, when compared with ordinary physical processes. Imposture, conscious or unconscious, is also an element of difficulty. But already phenomena which are copiously reported throughout the whole course of history have been proved to possess an actual basis in fact, have been classified, and to some extent have been explained. Even if no light is ever to be cast on spiritual

The literature of psychical research is already considerable, and a complete bibliography would occupy much space. Readers who care to pursue the study will find their best guide in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, which contains a catalogue of the society's collection, including the Gurney Library (hypnotism), with reviews of modern books in many languages—French, German, Italian, Russian—as they appear. Among modern English books may be recommended Phantasms of the Living, by Gurney, Podmore and Myers; Studies in Psychical Research, by Podmore, with his Apparitions and Thought-Transference; and Principles of Psychology, by Professor William James, of Harvard. The historical side of the subject, especially as regards the beliefs of savages and of classical antiquity, may be studied in E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (under “Animism”), in Myers's Classical Essays (under “Greek Oracles”), and A. Lang's Cock Lane and Common Sense, and Making of Religion. Myers's work, Human Personality, contains vast collections of facts, with a provisional theory. Myers's regretted death prevented him from finally revising his book, which contains certain inconsistencies. It is plain that he tended more and more to the belief in the “invasion” and “possession” of living human organisms by spirits of the dead. The same tendency marks an article on “Psychical Research,” by Sir Oliver Lodge, in Harper's Magazine (August 1908). Other students can find, in the evidence cited, no warrant for this return to the “palaeolithic psychology” of “invasion” and “possession.” Th. Flournoy's Des Indes à la planète Mars is a penetrating study of pseudo-spiritual “messages.” A criticism making against the notion of telepathy may be found in Herr Parish's Hallucinations and Illusions (Eng. trans.). Some errors and confusions in this work (due in part to the expansion of the original text) are noted in A. Lang's Making of Religion, appendix A. Such topics as Telepathy, Crystal-Gazing, Hypnotism, Second Sight, the Poltergeist, &c., are dealt with under separate articles in this work.  (A. L.)