Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/March 1879/Experiments with Living Human Beings I

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MR. JOHN STUART MILL, in the preface to his work on "Logic and the Principles of Evidence," observes that while in the search for truth we may be able, in some cases, to avoid errors instinctively and successfully, although unable to formulate the method by which we do so, yet it is an advantage not to be dispensed with to have a rational understanding of the philosophy of reasoning, so that we shall not be forced to depend alone on blind and irregular instinct.

In experimenting with living human beings there are six sources of errors which instinctively physiologists and physicians sometimes guard against and allow for, but which ought to be and can be, as I contend, and shall here aim to prove, reduced to a positive science. As these elements of error come in the main from the nervous system, their study belongs preeminently to neurology, or the study of the nervous system in health and disease; and it is because of the backwardness of this specialty that the subject has been thus far passed by.

The deficiencies of our knowledge of this subject were forced on my attention several years ago, when I was engaged in the study of the physiology of mind-reading, and making experiments in mental therapeutics; and in essays published on those topics I briefly noted these errors, which I was obliged to study out, and without any theoretical guide or precedent. I found that the whole matter—the importance and interest of which were of the very highest, practically as well as scientifically—was as unexplored as central Africa, and that it was necessary to hew one's way clear of infinite obstructions at every step.

From the elevation of this subject to a positive science these two practical benefits must flow:

1. The world will be spared the reports of such experiments as those of the physician who examined into the condition of the hysterical girls that were the cause of the Salem witchcraft epidemic, and of the committees of the French Academy, of Gregory and of Elliotson and others, with clairvoyance and mesmeric trance; of Crookes with Home, of Wallace and Zöllner with Slade, and, latest of all, of Parkhurst and others with Mollie Fancher; of Charcot, Westphal, and their coadjutors with metalloscopy and metal-therapeutics; and will at the same time be able to reach the solid truth that lies behind all such accredited phenomena. These experiments and these reports are often made by strong and earnest men; indeed, the abler the experimenter in the present state of the subject, the worse his experiments and his reports of these experiments: instead of arriving at the truth of many questions of physiology, we get farther and farther from it the more we study them.

2. There will be more precision to all our investigations in regard to the action of remedies, and especially of new remedies. At the present time we know not whether to believe or reject any report of the virtues of any new medicine or mode of treatment, however high the authority for the reports, for we feel instinctively the elements of error which those who introduce new remedies and modes of treatment ought to know, and in time will know and rationally provide for.

3. Men of narrow or but limited ability will be able to attain accurate results in experimenting with living human beings where now the strongest scientific geniuses of the world are every day failing abjectly and humiliatingly. Sir William Hamilton, in his work on "Logic," remarks most truly that the proud boast of Bacon that, by the system of inductive philosophy, it would be possible for ordinary men to make discoveries in science, has been strictly fulfilled: every day under the light of the inductive method very commonplace minds are finding new and important facts that go to swell the current of science. Genius of the first order is rare, and in every field of knowledge the details of cultivation must be worked out by the average man; the bulk of the work is done, always has been done, and probably always will be done by talent rather than by genius. The elements of error in experimenting with inanimate objects were indicated, in a general way, by Bacon, under the strange headings "Idols of the Tribe," "Of the Den," "Of the Forum," "Of the Theatre"; and later writers on evidence and the principles of science have repeated or assumed the Baconian formulas; but the special elements of error in experimenting with living human beings have escaped conscious and exhaustive analysis. To have formulated these elements of error much sooner than the present time would have been quite impossible, for our knowledge of the involuntary life—one of the most important factors—was far too limited.

The science and art of experimenting with living human beings is indeed now in precisely the same state as the general philosophy of induction prior to the time of Bacon. Before the era of the Baconian philosophy, indeed in all eras, men had instinctively employed the inductive method, but the principles of that method had never been formulated; consequently, when philosophers reasoned or attempted to reason on the subject, they almost always went wrong. The philosophy of Bacon applies only to inanimate nature; of the art of seeking truth through experiments on living human beings—of the six sources of error in all such experiments and the means of guarding against them—he knew nothing, and evidently suspected nothing; and that branch of philosophy—of such vast import in biological investigations—has remained to this day unstudied and almost unthought of; hence, although some experimenters are saved through their instincts, others—and those the very ablest scientific geniuses of the age—never attempt to reason on the subject without falling into serious error.

In experimenting with living human beings there are, as above stated, just six sources of error, all of which are to be recognized and systematically and, if possible, also simultaneously guarded against if our results are to command the confidence and homage of science. To be guilty of overlooking, in any research, even one of these six possibilities of error, is to be guilty of overlooking all, and practically to vitiate all the results of our labors.

These six sources of error are as follows:

First Source of Error: The phenomena of the involuntary life in both the experimenter and the subject experimented on.—Under this head are embraced trance, with all its manifold symptoms, and all the interactions of mind and body that are below the plane of volition or of consciousness or of both. Without a knowledge of this side of physiology, scientific experimenting with living human beings is impossible. It is a want of this knowledge that makes most of the experiments of scientific men in this department during the past century so unsatisfactory and so ludicrous.

Second Source of Error: Unconscious deception on the part of the subject experimented on.—This unconscious deception comes through the involuntary life—the mind of the subject acting on the body—and producing results which, it is to be noted, are as decided, as uniform, and as permanent as when produced by powerful objective influences. This element of error slips into all the ordinary experiments with new remedies and supposed new forces in the animal body, thus corrupting science at its very sources. The neglect of this element of error would of itself, even though all the other errors were guarded against, destroy entirely the scientific value of all such experiments, for example, as those of the committees of the French Academy with clairvoyants and mesmerism; it is because physicians of experience instinctively feel this element of error, that reports of cases wrought by novel and strange and especially by imposing methods of treatment are so frequently discredited. Under this head come also all the so-styled miracles of healing, whatever may be the paraphernalia through which they are accomplished.

I know not where can be found a better single illustration of the effect of this element of error, alone of itself, in scientific research, when all the other elements of error seem to be provided for, than in the experiments on animal magnetism of the late Dr. J. K. Mitchell, as recorded in the volume of his miscellaneous writings. Dr. Mitchell was an original thinker, an observer of patience and care, and a clear and logical writer, who suggested more than he told, and his chapter on animal magnetism was incomparably the best essay ever written on that subject down to the date of its publication. This paper—which consisted of a record of independent, careful, and many times repeated experiments on living human beings, with remarks thereon—shows that the author not only had the courage and the power to do his own thinking and experimenting, but that he recognized some of the chances of error in experiments of this kind, and fortified himself against them; while of the errors that enter through the doors of the involuntary life—the unconscious deception of the subject experimented on—he knew, and apparently suspected, little. His essay is therefore at once a model and a warning: a model for thoroughness and precision up to a certain point, or within a limited area; a warning as demonstrating the worthlessness of all experiments with human beings when any one or two of the six sources of mistake are overlooked. So accurate and scientific were these experiments, in certain directions, that they have furnished an important contribution to our knowledge of some of the symptoms of mesmerism, in spite of the fact that the author failed, like hundreds of able men in science before him, to solve the problem of the nature of trance. By not understanding and taking into account the phenomena of the involuntary life, of which in his day very little was known, and of trance, of which nothing was known, this acute and philosophic observer allowed the subjects on whom he operated to constantly deceive themselves and deceive him, and to drive him to the logical but absolutely false conclusion that the mesmeric trance was an objective state induced by a supposed fluid, or force, or influence, then and now known as animal magnetism.

In order to be able always to guard effectively and absolutely against these two sources of error that I have thus far specified, just two things are necessary for the experimenter:

1. A general knowledge of the phenomena of the involuntary life, including both the action of mind on body and of body on mind, in health and in disease, and especially of the real nature and philosophy of trance, the state in which the involuntary life culminates.

2. The subject experimented on must always be deceived in the experiments in such a way that this involuntary action of his mind or body can not come in and destroy the experiment. The subject may be successfully deceived in three different ways, which I shall presently specify.

Burq, Charcot, Westphal, and their coadjutors in the now well-known metalloscopy experiments, failed on both of these points. Many of the critics of those experiments, as Althaus, Reynolds, and other physicians in England, also failed to comprehend these points, hence the inconsistency and unsatisfactoriness of the discussions to which these experiments gave rise. The claim of Burq and Charcot and Westphal in regard to the temporary relief of hysterical and sometimes of organic anaesthesia by the local application of metals might be entirely true, but thus far they have failed, in a scientific sense, to prove it to be true. I do not deny their results—indeed, there is a possibility that some of them may be genuine—although in my own experience with the same method I fail to confirm their claims; it is in the manner in which the experiments were conducted, without regard to the results, that the non-expertness of these experimenters appeared. The criticism I have to make on Charcot is that, in his elaborate lectures on this subject, he nowhere gives evidence of a full appreciation of the power of the involuntary life, particularly in hysterical conditions, or of the true and only method of systematically and successfully guarding against it. The experiments now going on under the same superintendence in the hospital of Salpêtrière with mesmeric trance, and with the effects of magnets and lights on catalepsy and kindred conditions, are all open to the same criticism.

If some savage fresh from the jungles were put on board of an engine, and told how to open the valves, he might very naturally infer that his own feeble strength caused the train to move; in like manner, scientific experimenters with living human beings attribute the phenomena that follow the application of metals and magnets and passes and flummeries solely to the objective influence of these appliances, whereas in truth these and similar performances but serve to let on the potent forces of the subject's own mind. The mistake of these philosophers is indeed quite analogous to that of the little boy who, when placed on the front seat of the carriage, pleases himself with the fancy that he is guiding the horse, when all the time his strong father behind him is quietly holding and pulling the reins. In all experiments with living human beings, as in the special branch that we call therapeutics, it is oftentimes not what we do, but how we do it, that determines the results.

As regards this first point—the action of mind on body—I may say that, by a series of experiments not yet published, but a brief abstract of which has been twice presented to this Association, it has been proved that, by properly turning the mind of the patient on his body, through excitations of the emotions of wonder and special expectation, it is possible not only to relieve for the time various functional diseases, but in many instances to perfectly and permanently cure them; and it was also shown that organic or structural diseases may be relieved in the same way, in some cases, more satisfactorily than by any objective medical treatment whatever. The method by which the emotions are to be acted upon for the purposes of mental therapeutics are now so far organized into a science that any one who will make himself practically familiar with the subject can obtain the same results. The first mistake of Charcot and his coadjutors in France, and his followers in England and in Germany, was in assuming that such effects as the orderly, uniform reappearance of the sense of the different colors in hysterical women, and the symmetrical transference of sensory phenomena from one side of the body to the other, under the local application of metallic disks in hemianæsthesia, could not be produced subjectively by the mind of the patient. Such an assumption would never have been made by any one who had performed or witnessed the experiments in mental therapeutics of which I have spoken; for, again and again, not only in hysteria, but in other forms of disease, and in conditions not distinctively nervous, I have obtained results which, in definiteness, in quantity, and in permanence, are far more imposing, proving beyond question that, when all the sources of error were considered and provided for, the results were entirely independent of any objective power in the means employed—were, in short, subjective purely; applications of metals, or wood, or paper, or no applications at all, provided the subject expected them, being equally effective.

Science is not a matter of opinion; its very essence is demonstration; and the question whether, in any given experiments, the results are subjective or objective, can be brought entirely out of all discussion and all opinion, provided the elements of error are understood and avoided. Indeed, all discussion in scientific matters must be, in logical strictness, unscientific: if we know anything, there may be need for statement, of explanation, of illustration, but none for discussion; if we do not know, the course of wisdom is to keep silence until we do. With the formulated six sources of error before them, and the methods of protecting themselves against them, the experiments of Charcot would never have been discussed, even for a moment, in any scientific body.

The three methods of deceiving the subject by which alone the element of error from mind acting on body can be eliminated, and the results of experiments with living human beings transferred from the realm of opinion to science or positive knowledge, are these:

1. By doing something when the subject experimented on believes that we are doing nothing.

2. By doing nothing when the subject believes that we are doing something.

3. By doing something different from what the subject believes is being done.

In experiments of importance, as where radical and overwhelming discoveries in science are claimed to be made, all of these methods of deceiving should be used; and it is because they are not used in the experiments of scientific men that we are constantly compelled to face and listen to the claims of "animal magnetism," of "odic force" of "spiritism," of "cundurango," of "blue glass," and, during the past year, of "Mollie Fancher," of "metalloscopy," and "metal-therapeutics."

A classical example of one method of deception in experiments of this character was afforded by the exposé of the performances of mesmerized or professedly mesmerized girls by Mr. Wakley, of the London "Lancet." A good example of neglect of this deception, as well as of ignorance of the relation of mind to body, is found in the experiments of Dr. Vansant with magnets, as published by him a few years ago. This writer gives an immense number of differential symptoms that, as he claims, are produced by the north and south poles of the magnet; his experiments were in the same line with the famous Perkins tractors, though apparently more scientific; the same criticism applies to the researches that are now being made in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where, according to the testimony of experts who have witnessed them, and the statements of the experimenters themselves, no systematic deception is employed or even suggested.

That even the strongest leaders in physiology are not fully armed against the errors that beset experimental research, when living human beings are the subjects, is shown in the not long ago published Lowell Lectures of Professor Brown-Séquard, wherein that master in experimental study through the processes of vivisection declares that the claims of telling of time through the back of the head are authentic. Deductive reasoning for ever disproves this claim, which any inductive research, properly conducted, must always confirm; but any test to be of value must, at every step, shut out absolutely all the six avenues of error; and the report of any test, in order to be worth reading, must clearly state and show that all such errors were so excluded.

Experiments in physics are likewise, in some instances, complicated with experiments with living human beings. Thus in the "Keely motor" and "Winter motor" claims, and in other like devices for the overthrow of the law of the conservation of energy, the apparatus for generating power was in the hands of interested non-experts, who might be capable of either willful or self-deception—for the purposes of science it matters not which—and no satisfactory experiment could be made unless these possibilities of error could be eliminated.

The temporary success of cundurango was almost entirely the result of self-deception of those who, under the mingled emotions of hope, despair, and expectation, availed themselves of it. It is impossible to introduce any drug or system of treatment for cancer, or any other grave disorder, amid great pomp and noise, and under the patronage of honored names, without at least relieving, for the time, a certain proportion of cases; and practically it is of little import what the drug or remedy may be, if only the confidence of the sufferers is assured.

Men not only of general but of special experimental ability are constantly going far out of the way in scientific research through want of simple knowledge of the laws and phenomena of the involuntary life—a branch of physiology which, though of extreme interest and overflowing in suggestion, is so young and recent in its development that it is not yet taught in colleges or schools. The published monographs of the late Mr. Braid, of Manchester, show indisputably that their author was not without a certain genius for scientific research; but in all his philosophizing on the effects of fixed attention and straining of the eyes in the production of what has been known as hypnotism he missed utterly the discovery, or even the suspicion, of the great fact that trance, of which hypnotism is but one of numberless phases, was a subjective not an objective condition—existing in the subject's own brain—and that the manoeuvrings by which he was wont to excite it were but one of infinite devices for acting upon the mind; thus Mr. Braid failed to solve the problem of trance. Similarly Professor Czermak—one of the inventors of the laryngoscope—though he made many experiments in the production of hypnotism in animals, likewise confounded the subjective with the objective, and did not arrive at the true explanation of his own experiments. Indeed, from the time of Mesmer down, all or nearly all the scientific studies and attempted scientific studies of trance, in any of its multiform phases, have been made valueless by this same non-recognition of the involuntary life, of which trance is the extreme expression. Confounding the subjective with the objective vitiates nearly all human philosophy.

Similarly Mr. Edison, in his experiments with those highly interesting phenomena that he supposes to indicate a new force, was so far misled by the muscular contractions of the tongue when applied to a block of iron, through which the suspected force was passing, as to conclude that an objective influence was acting, whereas, after the element of error from the expectation of the experimenter was eliminated, it was quickly shown that the contractions were entirely subjective. Mr. Edison, I may say, is not only an inventor of phenomenal genius, but likewise a skilled and practiced experimentalist, and, as I found when making these and similar investigations with him, extraordinarily fertile in resources of method and device for wresting the secrets from nature, and usually alert against subtile sources of error; but, when drawn into the province of the involuntary life, he found himself, like men of science in general, insufficiently equipped with knowledge to even surmise, not to say provide for, the errors that may arise from the unconscious or involuntary action of mind on body.

In some instances the reverse mistake is made, and phenomena of the involuntary life are supposed to be volitional. In the case of the "Maine jumpers" or so-called "jumping Frenchmen" of Canada and the Maine woods—the incredible performances of which I have elsewhere described—it had for years been assumed, both by men of science and by the laity, that the movements were intentional, and within control. This conclusion, though most erroneous, was quite a natural one for those who have no knowledge of the relation of mind to its physical substratum.

An illustration of the second method of deception—doing nothing when the subject supposes we are doing something—is professing to apply electricity, putting the electrodes in position, and going through the motions, when no current is running, or when the connection is broken; in this way I have several times proved that patients were mistaken in inferring that electrical applications injured them; and, conversely, I have been able in one striking case to prove that the patient was right, and that a certain symptom was temporarily aggravated by the application.

Third Source of Error: Intentional deception on the part of the, subject.—This element of error is so obvious that it would seem to be quite needless to refer to it; and yet it is constantly overlooked even in researches conducted by physiologists. To assume, as is often or usually done, that the subject on whom the experiment is made is honest in his relation to that experiment, because he has a general character for honesty, is always unscientific; and all experiments where such assumption is made must be ruled out of science.

Intentional as well as unintentional deception on the part of the subject can only be scientifically met by deception on the part of the experimenter. The methods of deceiving already described suffice to guard against all deception on the part of the subject, whether intentional or unintentional.

It is clear proof of the non-expertness of Zöllner, Wallace, Charcot, and Westphal, that in their published accounts of experiments with living human beings they assumed that, if the subjects were honest, the results of the experiments must be accepted by science. Scientifically it makes no difference whether the subject on whom any such experiment is performed is honest or dishonest; the experiments are to be made without any reference to the moral character of the subject.

Fourth Source of Error: Unintentional collusion of third parties.—By third parties are meant audiences, witnesses, bystanders, or assistants seen or unseen.

The best illustration of error from this source is the aid which audiences in the mind-reading experiments give to the performer by their silence, when he wanders away from the object looked for, and by their murmurs and applause when he approaches or reaches it. This is quite analogous to the cry of "hot" or "cold" in the game of "blind-man’s buff." So natural is it for errors from this cause to enter these investigations that I found it necessary, in all my researches in that department, to send all witnesses from the room, or to insist on then: being absolutely silent, and even motionless, at every stage of the experiments.

Fifth Source of Error: Intentional collusion of third parties.—Under this head comes the aid which assistants, known or unknown, designedly give to the subject experimented on. This, in the abstract, is one of the more readily suspected of all the six sources of error, but in the concrete very difficult to guard against, or even to detect, as is so brilliantly illustrated in the conjuring tricks of Houdin and Heller, and it may be added also, in the operations of so-called "confidence-men."

The best and most mystifying tricks of illusionists, and sleight-of hand performers of all kinds, are almost always done through some form of collusion, the time and method of which are so artfully arranged that only those of unusual acuteness or expert skill can at once detect them. The astounding success of clairvoyants and mediums in telling people what they already know, but which they suppose can not be known to the witch they are consulting, is oftentimes explained by this fifth source of error.

Intentional, deliberate deception, where no money is to be gained by deception, is much more common among the better classes than those who have not specially studied this subject would be willing to believe: it is an instructive fact in the psychology of lying, that some persons—usually, though not always, women—whose general character is of the highest, are in some special direction absolutely systematically untruthful all their lives long. An old merchant of New York once told me that a clerk in his employ, trustworthy in all business affairs, exact, scrupulous, just, had a habit of telling large stories in regard to what he had seen and done so firmly fixed that it was organically impossible for him to restrict himself to the facts, and that his statements in regard to matters outside of business were worthy of absolutely no credence.

I was once requested by a valued medical friend to aid him in some experiments with a case of alleged sixth sense, or the asserted power of reading without the use of the eyes. The subject who made the claim was a lady of education, culture, and social position, universally and justly respected. In answer to the request, I stated that by deductive reasoning it was established as firmly as the Copernican theory, or the law of the persistence of force, that no human creature could have any such power, and that therefore it would be unscientific to investigate any such claim; but as an amusement, and for the sake of determining whether the deception was intentional or unintentional, I would suggest and prepare some tests in which all the six sources of error would be excluded. This was done. The tests were of course not taken, but the result of the investigation was to demonstrate the interesting psychological fact that for years a graceful and agreeable lady had been deceiving not only strangers and friends, but even her own husband, by means of the very old and familiar "ballot-trick," and a not especially adroit method of performing it. The puzzling cases of starving girls, of invalid clairvoyants, of mediumship, that are constantly infesting and astonishing civilized society, are in many instances to be similarly explained. The "mind-readers" were originally self-deceived, since the physiological interpretation of that phenomenon is too complex and profound to be suggested, not to say comprehended, by the mass of those who are accustomed to practice that art. But at the present time the public performers probably understand, in a general way, the philosophy of their success, at least enough to know that their claims of a sixth sense are baseless.

Lying, like stealing, may become a passion, and, in like manner also, may concentrate all its force in some one direction, for folly as well as wisdom has its specialties and hobbies: there is a monomania for deceiving, where naught is gained save its own gratification; one who is in all other directions honorable and just may become an inebriate of falsifying, and be half his days intoxicated thereby.

  1. An abstract of a portion of this paper was read before the American Neurological Association at New York, June, 1878. This essay relates to questions suggested in my series of papers on "The Scientific Study of Human Testimony," published in the May, June, and July (1878) numbers of the "Monthly," and may be of service to those who are interested in that subject. This department of science is of especial interest at the present time, when the experiments of Charcot and the criticisms upon them are exciting so much attention.