Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/August 1886/The Progress of Psychical Research

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968347Popular Science Monthly Volume 29 August 1886 — The Progress of Psychical Research1886Nicholas Murray Butler




THERE was a time when philosophy might have been defined as the science of human activity, so all-comprehensive was it. The ambitious Greek who would attach his name to a philosophical system must include in his scheme all that could be known, done, and speculated about God, the world, and man. In the course of time and the specialization of the sciences this view of philosophy fell away, and was replaced by the more exact and narrower conception of modern times.

But it is a question whether science, particularistic in its early history, is not aiming to reach the position which philosophy has retired from. If we take science to mean classified knowledge, then this increase of its field is but natural, and marks the progress of man's domination over the external world.

The last bit of territory which science has invaded, and which, in time, it hopes to claim for its own, is an especially interesting one; and, in response to the many inquiries, credulous and skeptical, which are raised, both in public and in private, we wish to give a brief sketch of the progress which science has thus far made in its new field. As far back as our records reach—perhaps, as Mr. Spencer thinks, from the childhood of our race—a belief in the existence of invisible and, on physical grounds, unexplainable beings and modes of action has existed in human society. Sometimes this belief has dominated a larger, sometimes a smaller portion of mankind, and the attitude of the intelligent classes toward it has correspondingly varied. In our own day this belief not only exists, but it influences a far greater number of persons than the chance observer supposes.

Of late years the effects of this belief in supersensible beings and influences have shown themselves in many ways and places, particularly in Great Britain and America. We have heard of numberless clairvoyants, spiritualists, mesmerizers, and mind-readers. The nineteenth-century scientist has hitherto found no leisure to investigate the many remarkable occurrences that, from time to time, have been spoken and written of; or, if he has had the leisure, he has spurned the reports of these occurrences as beneath his notice as an educated and well-balanced man. Nevertheless, the fact that such occurrences as we refer to, numerous instances of which are familiar to every one, have been allowed to pass uninvestigated, has been a standing reproach to true science. Science prides itself on dealing with phenomena of any kind whatsoever, without fear or favor. And these occurrences, and the belief which many intelligent men and women hold in reference to them, are certainly phenomena. Grant, for the sake of argument, that the occurrences are fictitious and fraudulent, the belief in them remains as a phenomenon in human nature. Instances of this form part of our experience quite as truly, if not so frequently, as the sensations of heat and light do. If they are false, let us know the fact on demonstrable grounds; if true, let us know how and why. At all events, we must have scientific knowledge concerning them.

If this investigation is to be scientific, it must be undertaken in a thoroughly impartial spirit. We must lay aside our preconceived notions, and examine the facts as we find them. We want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

About four years ago certain gentlemen in England, all of them well known in their respective callings, found that they held substantially the opinions which we have just outlined, and the result was the formation of a Society for Psychical Research. It is to the work of this society that we desire to call attention.

The personnel of the society is remarkable, and of a character to command the greatest respect and confidence. The first president was Henry Sidgwick, the distinguished Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge, and on the list of the earliest officers and council we find such names as those of Professor Balfour Stewart, Professor Barrett, of Dublin, Richard H. Hutton, Edmund Gurney, and F. W. H. Myers. That the principle and work of the society continue to inspire confidence may be inferred from the fact that, since its organization in 1882, the society's membership has increased to almost one thousand, and on its roll we find the honorable names of Gladstone, Ruskin, Tennyson, Earl Russell, Lord Rayleigh, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Bishop of Ripon, John Addington Symonds, Canon MacColl, and scores of others distinguished in politics, literature, and science.

That a thoroughly scientific spirit is actuating the society's work will be seen by an extract from its official publications. At the time of organization we read: "It has been widely felt that the present is an opportune time for making an organized 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 illusion and deception, an important body of remarkable phenomena, which are, prima facie, inexplicable on any generally recognized 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 organized on a sufficiently broad basis."

The field for operation was so extensive that there was naturally some difficulty in determining the point of beginning work. But, after due consideration, the following programme was drawn up, and a special committee was intrusted with each of the six subdivisions of the society's work:

"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, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance, and other allied phenomena.

"3. A critical revision of Reichenbach's researches with certain organizations called 'sensitive,' and an inquiry whether such organizations possess any power of perception beyond a highly exalted sensibility of the recognized sensory organs.[1]

"4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony, regarding appearances 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.

"The aim of the society will be to approach these various problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems once not less obscure nor less hotly debated. The founders of this society fully recognize the exceptional difficulties which surround this branch of research, but they, nevertheless, hope that, by patient and systematic effort, some results of permanent value may be obtained."

In accordance with this programme, the society went to work. Generous donations of money were received, and there were numerous accessions to the membership. It is a mistake to suppose that membership in the society implies anything more than a genuine scientific interest in the investigations. The constitution of the S. P. R., as it is popularly known in England, expressly states that membership in the 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 recognized by physical science."

Notwithstanding all these precautions, it was asserted in many quarters that the society had in view a particular explanation of the phenomena it was investigating. Professor Sidgwick, in his first presidential address, commented upon the criticisms passed upon the foundation of any such society, and succinctly explained and defended its course of action. In this address, Professor Sidgwick had occasion to define what the society meant by "sufficient evidence" for the phenomena with which it proposed to deal, and he declared that "sufficient evidence is evidence that will convince the scientific world, and for that we obviously require a good deal more than we have so far obtained." In the face of this, it is plain that Professor Ray Lankester's comment, "puerile hypothesis," would have been more in the nature of a scientific judgment had it been delivered after a review of the testimony, and not before.

From the date of organization until the present time the council and committees of the society have labored assiduously. Facts were the great desideratum, and they have been looked for in every conceivable place. Records of experiences were invited from any and every quarter, and many thousands have been received. It is characteristic of the society's method that no story has been accepted as genuine on newspaper testimony, or on second-hand evidence of any kind. In each case places and dates were verified, and the persons directly concerned sought out. As might be supposed, a very large proportion of the stories received were either wholly or partly fictitious, or else grossly exaggerated. The writer's experience in collecting evidence in the United States for the society has been that from eighty-five to ninety per cent of all the stories received were not in accordance with fact. Some appear to be absolute inventions, but the vast majority arc made up of a halo thrown by vivid or excited imaginations around some very commonplace occurrence. In one case, General O. O. Howard was given as authority for a very remarkable case of apparition at the moment of death. Names and dates were given with great exactness, and the story was followed up with interest. The result proved that neither General O. O. Howard, nor any one of several others of the same name, who were applied to under the supposition that the initials were wrongly given, knew anything about the alleged occurrence.

This sifting process is in itself valuable, for it places in the realm of fiction much of the current spiritualistic literature, and the attention of the society is concentrated on the residual and duly substantiated phenomena. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that science demands an answer to its questions, and has no regard for the character of the answer. So an answer "No" to a scientific query is of quite as much scientific value as an answer "Yes" though it may fall far below the latter in interest. A fact gained counts one, no matter whether it is positive or negative.

The second method pursued in these investigations has yielded more exact and interesting conclusions than the one just mentioned. The society has directly experimented with persons supposed to possess the power of thought-reading, mesmerizing, and hypnotizing, and as a result has accumulated a great mass of very valuable information.

The committee charged with the investigation of thought-reading, or thought-transference, as the society prefers to call it, has undoubtedly made the most progress up to this time. Phenomena falling under this head were divided into four classes: (a) where some action is performed, the hands of the operator being in gentle contact with the subject of the experiment; (b) where a similar result is obtained with the hands not in contact; (c) where a number, name, word, or card has been guessed and expressed in speech or writing, without contact, and apparently without the possibility of the transmission of the idea by the ordinary channels of sensation; (d) when similar thoughts have simultaneously occurred, or impressions been made, in minds far apart. Of these classes, (a) and (b) are set aside entirely, for, as has been shown by Dr. Carpenter and others, unconscious muscular actions and unconscious and almost imperceptible indications of various kinds account for any results obtained in these ways. With (c) it is very different. Here, to be sure, collusion and risk of error are very difficult to guard against, and in a general company would almost certainly be present. But it is otherwise if repeated experiments be made by a limited number of scientific men well known to each other. It was in this way that the society's experiments were conducted.

The most satisfactory results were obtained from the family of a Mr. Creery, a clergyman in Derbyshire, four of whose children—girls whose ages ranged from ten to seventeen, thoroughly healthy, and as free as possible from morbid or hysterical symptoms—were reputed to possess the power of being able to designate correctly, without contact or sign, a card or other object fixed upon in the child's absence. To this family the committee made several visits of several days' duration, and the record of their numerous experiments appears to be absolutely unexceptionable and conclusive, as far as it goes. The active members of this committee were Professor Barrett and Messrs. Gurney and Myers.

Sometimes the inquiry took place at Mr. Creery's house, sometimes at the lodgings of the committee. Their plan was to select at random one child, who was then asked to leave the room and wait at a distance, while they chose a card from a pack, or wrote on paper some number or name which occurred to them at the moment. Sometimes, though not invariably, this was shown to the members of the family present in the room; but no one member was always present, and on many occasions the members of the committee were entirely alone. The child was recalled, it having been made certain that she was at some distance when the number or card was selected. This, too, was an unnecessary precaution, as the habit was to avoid any utterance of the chosen card or name. The child was simply told before leaving the room, "This will be a card," or "This will be a name," as the case might be. On re-entering, she stood in any position she chose, though sometimes, at the committee's direction, with her face to the wall. She was silent for a period ranging from a few seconds to a minute, and then called out some name or number, or whatever the subject chosen was to be. If her answer was correct, the committee said "Right," if not, "No," and a second and sometimes a third trial was allowed.

In the case of a card, the chances are fifty-one to one against the successful guessing of any particular card, assuming that there is no such thing as thought-reading, and that errors of experiment are avoided. Yet, in one case of fourteen trials, nine were guessed rightly the first time, and only three trials can be described as complete failures. Some of the trials that resulted in what may be called partial successes are extremely interesting, and we give a short selection from the committee's record. The card selected is given in italics, the guesses in Roman type, and the only remarks made (those of the committee) in parentheses:

Five of clubs. King of hearts (No). Five of clubs (Right).
Two of spades. Two of spades (Right).
Three of spades. Three of hearts (No). Ace of spades (No).
Eight of spades. Eight of clubs (No). Eight of spades (Right).

Knave of hearts. Knave of hearts (Right).
Two of clubs. Two of clubs (Right).
King of spades. King of clubs (No). Knave of clubs (No). King of diamonds (No).
Knave of diamonds. King of diamonds (No). Knave of diamonds (Right).

It will be noticed that often the number of the card is guessed rightly, but not so the suit, and vice versa; and these partial successes are perhaps destined to be as important in drawing conclusions from the phenomena as those in which the guess was completely successful. In the above cases, the partial successes would seem to suggest a mental eye, so to speak, whose vision was in these cases obscured and inaccurate. Other cases, when the objects chosen were names, such as the guessing of Jobson for Johnson, would in a similar way suggest a mental ear.

As the result of six days' investigation with this family, 382 trials were made. In the cases of letters of the alphabet, of cards, and of numbers of two figures, the chances against success in a first trial were, of course, 25 to 1, 51 to 1, and 89 to 1 respectively; in the case of surnames they would be indefinitely greater. Cards were most frequently employed, and the odds in their case may be taken as a fair example. If this be done, then, in 382 trials, 71/2 would be about the average number of successes on a first trial by an ordinary guesser. In these tests of the committee, 127 trials were successful on a first attempt, 56 on a second, and 19 on a third—202 in all.

The most striking success was when five cards in succession were named correctly on a first trial. The chances against this were considerably over one million to one. By way of precaution, the committee says in its report: "The phenomena here described are so unlike any which have been brought within the sphere of recognized science as to subject the mind to two opposite dangers. The hypotheses as to how they happen are confronted with equally wild assertions that they can not happen at all. Of the two, perhaps the assumption of an a priori impossibility is, in the present state of our knowledge of nature, the most to be deprecated, though it can not be considered in any way surprising."

"We have given the data of this Creery case at some length, because it illustrates so admirably the methods of the society and the phenomena which it is investigating. In this and similar investigations, the question which the committee had before it was this: Is there, or is there not, any existing or attainable evidence, that can stand fair physiological criticism, to support a belief that a vivid impression or a distant idea in one mind can be communicated to another mind without the intervening help of the recognized means of sensation? And, if such evidence be found, is the impression derived from a rare or partially developed and hitherto unrecognized sensory organ, or has the mental percept been evoked directly without any antecedent sense-percept?

Space will not permit me to more than mention the nature of the evidence which the society has collected for the purpose of answering these questions. Experiments have been made, and repeated again and again in order to reduce to a minimum all chances of collusion and error. Sometimes contact between the agent and the percipient has been permitted, and sometimes not.[2] Much of the evidence is very remarkable, but must be read in its entirety to have its full effect, and we refer any inquiring reader to the full reports of the various committees as published in the proceedings of the society.

As a scientific result, the committee felt justified in drawing up the following: 1. That much of what is popularly known as "though-treading" is, in reality, due to the interpretation by the so-called "reader" of signs, consciously or unconsciously imparted by the touches, looks, or gestures of those present; and that this is to be taken as the prima facie explanation whenever the thing thought of is not some visible or audible object, but some action or movement to be performed. 2. That there does exist a group of phenomena to which the word "thought-reading," or, as the committee prefers to call it, thought-transference, may be fairly applied; and which consists in the mental perception, by certain individuals at certain times, of a word or other object kept vividly before the mind of another person or persons, without any transmission of impressions through the recognized channels of sense.

Concerning these phenomena, Mr. Myers writes: "We have got, as we hold, a definite fact to start from—a fact of immense and unknown significance. If, as we believe, we can truly say 'mind acts on mind otherwise than by the recognized organs of sense,' this is probably a statement far more pregnant with consequences than the statements, 'rubbed amber attracts straw,' or 'the loadstone attracts iron.' And it must be our business to turn our new fact over in every direction, to speculate upon it in every way, or, rather, in every way which can possibly suggest a new form of experiment. We must remember that the experimental cases which we have already collected are probably only what Bacon calls 'ostensive instances'; 'instances,' as he expresses it, 'which show the nature under investigation naked, in an exalted condition, or in the highest degree of power; and which are, so to speak, mere emergent summits from a great ocean, which lies beyond our present reach of observation, and, perhaps, even beneath the level of our consciousness.'"

As might have been supposed, most progress has been made in this field of thought-transference, for its phenomena are the simplest, and most readily admit of verification or disproof. Still, something has been accomplished in each of the six departments of investigation. The committee having in charge the Reichenbach experiments felt justified in making a report about three years ago, of which the following is the tenor: 1. That three observers separately, on distinct occasions, were in some way immediately aware when an electro-magnet was secretly "made" and "unmade," under such precautions as were devised, to prevent ordinary means of knowing, and to exclude chance and deception; and the observers identified such magnetization, with luminous appearances, which, as described, agreed generally with the evidence recorded by Reichenbach. 2. That there were, though less decisively, indications of other sensory effects of magnetism. In view of these apparent confirmations of previous testimony, the committee inclined to the opinion that, among other unknown phenomena associated with magnetism there is a prima facie case for the existence, under conditions not yet determined, of a peculiar and unexplained luminosity resembling phosphorescence, in the region immediately around the magnetic poles, and visible only to certain individuals.

The committee on haunted houses has carried on widely extended investigations, despite the fun which the public prints have poked at its "ghost directory," but as yet has not made sufficient advance to warrant a report. It will strengthen our confidence in this committee's work if we recollect that it holds that the unsupported evidence of a single witness does not constitute sufficient ground for accepting an apparition as having a prima facie claim to objective reality. Under the operation of this rule, ninety-five of every hundred ghost-stories must fall to the ground.

The investigators of mesmerism are undoubtedly working in a field which has been by no means neglected in the past. They, therefore, have more definite lines of guidance than most of their colleagues. We find that they divide the main phenomena connected with the mesmeric state into three classes: (1) the dominance of a suggested idea; (2) transference of sensations, without suggestion, from operator to patient; (3) induction of general or local anæsthesia. Of these classes the committee pronounces that the first is on the high-road to universal acceptance; that the second is rarely contested, but the committee has added something to the facts already recorded in its favor, and has hope of adding more; that the third class—the production of anæsthesia—has already been established by overwhelming evidence, and is to a certain extent admitted by modern physiologists. But it remains undecided whether this anæsthesia is produced by mere expectant attention, exercised in a particular state of the nervous system, and is thus the culminating example of the dominance of a suggested idea; or, whether it is the result of the inhibition of certain sensory centers in consequence of prolonged stimulation of the peripheral extermities of the nerves; or, whether it is the result of some specific effluence from the operator, which may act without actual contact, independently of the subject's knowledge or expectation. On the whole, the committee's evidence leans toward the last and antecedently the least probable explanation. But as yet no definite answer is possible on this point.

The literary committee has done very important work, for, in addition to the collection of a considerable library of books on psychical subjects, it has more than one hundred cases, with the evidence taken at first hand, of apparitions closely coinciding with the time of the death of the person seen; and it is only in a small minority of such cases that informants, according to their own account, have had any other hallucination than the apparition in question. While no deduction from this evidence is yet justifiable, yet we may safely agree with Professor Balfour Stewart when he says that "the great importance of this statement will be manifest to all."

There the work stands at present. We have given a brief outline of the objects and method of the society, and have endeavored to make clear just how far its work has progressed. The society is actively at work, the literature of the subject is increasing, and at no distant period more definite conclusions may be laid before the scientific world, and the supporting evidence given at length. That the interest in this work is general is proved by the formation of societies for psychical research in Boston and Chicago, and the character of their officers and conductors is, as is the case in the parent society in England, surety for the careful and scientific prosecution of their investigations. In France too, the psychologists are turning their attention to these phenomena, and men like Janet, Ribot, and Charcot are at the head of a society similar to those we have mentioned.

So far the results are certainly indefinite, but they are interesting and suggestive. The time may soon come when we shall either be able to speak definitely and accurately about these abnormal phenomena, or else to say on demonstrable grounds that their causes and laws lie beyond the limits of human knowledge. Whatever we know will be incorporated in the vast body of scientific truth, and the raison d'être of a small army of frauds and impostors, as well as of innumerable superstitions, will have been swept away.

  1. The phenomena described by Baron Karl von Reichenbach (born 1788) were these: Certain persons declared to him that ordinary magnets, crystals, the human body, and some other substances were to them self-luminous, presenting singular appearances in the dark, and otherwise distinguishable by producing a variety of peculiar sensory impressions—such as anomalous sensations of temperature, bodily pain or pleasure, unusual nervous symptoms, and involuntary muscular action. These are generally (but Reichenbach believed not necessarily) accompanied by abnormal physiological and mental states.
  2. The agent is the technical name for the person who concentrates his thoughts upon the chosen object, and the subject or percipient is the person who "reads" the thought, and tells what the object thought of is.