Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/The Interpretations of Automatism

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THROUGHOUT this series of papers I have confined myself closely to one theory of interpretation, and I have done so because the theory which I adopted stands nearest to those of current science. To leave the subject in this shape, however, would be an injustice both to my readers and myself. The phenomena the reality of which I have acknowledged constitute but a part of those which are regarded by competent observers as actually entering into the question; and the solution which I have proposed is not only with difficulty capable of reconciliation with these other phenomena, but is itself based upon a metaphysical theory which is far from demonstration. It seems, therefore, no more than fair that I should, before concluding my series, give my readers a somewhat broader outlook upon the various aspects of the problem than I have yet done. A complete survey of all theories that have been proposed to account for the whole or a part of the facts can not, of course, be given in a magazine article, even if I were competent to the task, which I do not profess to be. But some account of the manner in which the phenomena of suggestibility and automatism are related to the broader field of the supernormal, and of the possible points of view from which the whole field may be surveyed, seems to me essential.

There is no need of my again recounting the salient features of suggestibility, automatism, and secondary states. Let me turn at once to the material which I have hitherto excluded—the realm of the supernormal.

It is with some hesitation that I have resolved to introduce any discussion of these topics in the pages of the Popular Science Monthly. The inquiry into the supernormal is as yet in its infancy: its methods are still crude, and its results are under discussion. None of these results have as yet won the right to a place among the scientific truths which may be regarded as known. They are still the personal opinions of a small group of students, and although I account myself one of the group, I do not make the mistake of identifying my personal opinions with ascertained fact. Still, the relation between these phenomena and those of automatism in particular is so close that no student of the one group can ignore the other.

Alleged supernormal phenomena may be regarded as belonging to two classes—psychical and physical. The latter class embraces all alleged interferences with the known laws of the physical world. They may be dismissed from consideration here, not merely because they are not relevant, but because nearly every case so far reported has dissolved into fraud or malobservation upon closer examination, and the few which remain intact can not, in consequence, be regarded as proving anything.

By psychical phenomena I mean mental occurrences which either give true indications of events unknown to the percipient, or seem in some way to coincide with and suggest such events, or, in the case of impulses, seem to betray a knowledge of fact which was not possessed by the subject of the experience. These, again, may be subdivided into several groups. In the telepathic group the circumstances are such as to suggest a species of mental induction, one mind reflecting the thoughts of another. Thus a friend of mine was walking down a country road near Germantown, Pa., on a hot summer's day. Suddenly he found himself thinking, "Where can I find a doctor, where can I find a doctor?" He laughed at the absurdity—as if he wanted one—but, to be sure, if he did, where could one be found? Dr. Y——was dead, and the only other he knew of was Dr. Z——, at Jenkintown. A few moments later he reached a crossroad, along which a man and boy were driving rapidly. As they met my friend, the man reined in the horse, leaned out, and said, "Can you tell me, sir, where I can find the nearest doctor?"

Nine times in the course of my own life I have had what is called a "presentiment." Eight times I wrote it down at once before learning whether it was true or false, and the ninth time I spoke of it. Three of these were false, one was partly true and partly false, one was not verified, but probably false. All these related to subjects much in my thoughts, and were probably suggested by circumstances. Four were true, of which one might have been suggested by circumstances. The other three were not only true and not apparently suggested by circumstances, but were among the most agitating experiences of my life. One drove me, in spite of the resistance of my reason, to take a journey which seemed the act of a lunatic, and proved the wisest thing I could do. Another impelled me to write a letter to a person three hundred and fifty miles away, to whom I had written a few hours before, but who happened to be in great trouble at the moment I felt the impulse. The third gave me absolute assurance that the very thing was about to happen which I believed to be of all things most impossible. I do not, of course, quote these few experiences as proving the existence of telepathy, but merely as illustrating what I mean by "apparently telepathic phenomena."

The vast majority of apparently supernormal phenomena are susceptible of a telepathic explanation, but in a few cases one is driven to other conceptions. Sometimes knowledge is shown of events not known to any one, and at other times a percipient will seem to "see" things at a distance, or to become aware of events remote in time.

These phenomena are ascribed to "clairvoyance," "precognition," and "retrocognition." They are much less common than those of the telepathic type, and the evidence for them is by no means as good.

Occasionally the information thus got professes to come from the spirit of some person deceased, and sometimes the claim seems plausible. Thus I once got from an automatic writer in Boston what purported to be messages from several of my deceased relatives, one of them being an aunt who died in my childhood, twenty-one years ago. Among the messages was an allusion to "Carson the Dr." This meant nothing to me at the time, but upon making inquiries I learned that an old doctor named Corson had attended my aunt during her last illness for about two weeks while she was at our house, although he was not her regular physician. She was afterward removed to a hospital in New York, and died there. The doctor has long been dead. I do not quote this to prove that the spirit of my aunt was really there, which I think very questionable, but to show how plausible these automatic utterances sometimes are. Probably my parents were the only persons living who knew that Dr. Corson attended my aunt for two weeks in 1875, and they have never seen the automatist.

Now, psychic phenomena nearly always occur in automatic form. Ungrounded emotions, inner or outer voices, apparitions, automatic writing and speech, irrational impulses—all these provide the garb for the appearance of knowledge for which we cannot account. Hence it is impossible to study automatism without taking these alleged phenomena into consideration at some stage of the inquiry, even if they are considered only to be rejected.

There are three practicable methods of viewing the facts of suggestibility, automatism, and secondary states. In the first place, we may adopt the conception which underlies most of our modern thought, and regard mind as essentially a function of matter—that is, of the brain. We will then naturally look to physiology only for our explanation of these facts. Or we may hold to the purely psychological point of view, and endeavor to explain the phenomena by reference to psychological principles only. Or, finally, we may adopt the time-honored doctrine which regards mind and brain as two distinct entities, between which constant interaction is going on. We may then invoke both principles in our theories.

The first of these doctrines is commonly known as materialism, but as that word has been so much abused I shall use the phrase "theory of dependence." It has its root in the obvious fact that sensations and emotions are caused by physical and physiological processes. Recent physiological research has tended to establish this doctrine more firmly, to extend its scope and to determine the character of the relation. There is much evidence to show that thought, reason, and will are also dependent upon the brain for their very existence; that all mental states are especially connected with the cortex of the brain; that even some very complicated movements, to the performance of which we usually suppose consciousness to be essential, can be performed by lower, presumably unconscious, centers. All this tends to exalt our idea of the brain's capacities and to diminish the importance ascribed to mind. Moreover, careful psychological work has shown that many of what are termed mental laws are most easily explained as representing physical processes, and the sharp antithesis which we draw between the laws of mind and those of matter is in part at least illusory. The law of association is believed to be capable of interpretation in terms of the transmission of nervous impulses through the cortex, the laws of volition in their simpler forms point to a direct discharge of energy developed in connection with some substantive mental state into the subcortical mechanism and thence to the muscles, the law of attention suggests some species of coalescence of all the activities going on at one time in the cortex into a definite system. Even telepathy, which is regarded with so much suspicion by orthodox psychologists, is parallel to the phenomena of induction.

The more special lines of work, therefore, both in physiology and psychology, tend to converge upon the same conclusion to which we are already predisposed by the general drift of the intellectual movement initiated by Gassendi, Hobbes, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton—that it is to matter we must look for our knowledge of Nature, that material processes are independent and self-sufficient, that mind is merely a brain product, which waxes and wanes with the flow and ebb of physical activities within the cortex.

The attempts that have been made to explain some or all of the phenomena of suggestibility and automatism by reference to physical changes are almost innumerable, and scarcely any conceivable attribute of the brain or its functions has not been seized upon by somebody. One refers hypnotic states to excessive blood supply, another to diminished blood supply, another to accumulation of waste products in the blood, another to inhibition of the association paths, another to inhibition of the frontal region, another to inhibition of one hemisphere, another to inhibition of the entire cortex, and so on. There may be an element of truth in some of these theories, but it is certain that no one is sufficient to account for all the facts, even if the alleged super-normal facts be excluded as non-proved.

In fact, we know very little indeed about the brain processes which are immediately related to consciousness, and consequently many psychologists are reluctant to resort to them for explanations of what goes on in consciousness. They prefer to limit the inquiry to the facts and laws of mind and to formulate the phenomena of suggestibility and automatism in mental terms alone. It is not possible for me to analyze these theories here, as each presupposes a knowledge of the particular psychological point of view from which it is conceived. The ideas of inhibition of attention, interference with association, inhibition of will, influence of imagination and expectation, figure largely in all these theories. That which I have been developing in these pages belongs to this type, but is distinguished by its free use of conceptions derived from the theory of dependence. Assuming that consciousness depends upon and indicates the existence of physical processes, that these physical processes have the attributes of other physical forces, that they in some way coalesce and interact in the brain cortex, I borrowed these physical conceptions and applied them directly to those mental phenomena which we regard as dependent upon the physical. Thus, if the simultaneous grasping of several mental facts indicates a coalescence of their physical bases, and vice versa, then inability to become conscious of any mental fact the physical basis of which we have reason to believe exists would indicate that its physical basis had failed to coalesce with the others. In such cases I described the mental fact as itself "cut off from" or "dissociated from" the other mental states, although, manifestly, mental states, which do not themselves occupy space, can not be spatially cut off from or separated from anything whatever. The phenomena of suggestibility I ascribed to the removal through this dissociation of the checks and counterchecks exerted by mental states upon one another, thus allowing suggested sensations and ideas to work out their results more freely than usual.

Analogous conceptions have been worked out by other writers without explicit reference to the physical basis of consciousness. Thus, Dr. Hans Schmidkunz, in a bulky and learned but badly written book (Psychologie der Suggestion, Munich, 1892), makes free use of the conception of consciousness as a co-ordination of forces capable of occasional disruption, although he seems to have been led to that notion by the Herbartian psychology. Professors Janet and Binet also teach analogous doctrines without reference to the brain processes, and Prof. William James seems at times to hold a similar position.

In sharp antithesis to the theory of dependence stands the theory of independence. According to this doctrine, mind and matter are essentially distinct in nature, and are capable of independent existence, although in fact sometimes closely related. Many mental states, as sensations, are caused by physical processes, and, vice versa, many physical processes, as some bodily movements, are caused by mental states; but this relation of action and interaction is purely accidental, and can be dissolved without the destruction of either mind or matter. This theory has been stated in many forms, and is involved more or less implicitly in many philosophies. In one form or another it has been the dominant theory in every epoch of human thought, it lies at the foundation of most religions, and is to-day accepted by the mass of men; yet in the scientific world it has fallen into such disfavor that in many circles it is almost as disgraceful to avow belief in it as in witchcraft or ghosts.

The chief argument usually alleged in justification of this attitude is that the theory of independence violates the law of conservation of energy, which is justly regarded as one of the greatest scientific generalizations of this century. That law requires that in all the manifold flux of physical phenomena certain definite and quantitative relations should exist between the amount of work done and the amount of energy expended, thus binding all physical processes into a closed series. To admit mental phenomena into that series as a mode into which physical energy might be transformed would, it is claimed, break the law—first, because the new elements are non-physical, and it is inconceivable that the non-physical should affect the physical; and, second, because mental states can not be measured, and therefore can not constitute an equivalent of anything.

This a priori objection does not seem to me to possess much force. The argument from inconceivability has been urged against every new conception introduced into science; it was never more weighty then when hurled against the bold speculators who claimed that the earth was round and that the antipodes nevertheless did not fall off. That a thought should cause the disintegration of a molecule is intrinsically neither more nor less inconceivable than that a disturbance in an imponderable entity like ether should shatter an oak tree. What is inconceivable to one generation becomes the commonplace of the next. What the objectors really mean is that such a relation is incomprehensible, which it certainly is, but so also are all natural phenomena when reduced to their lowest terms.

The argument from equivalence is of greater weight, but is not conclusive. Mental states, it is true, have never yet been measured, nor are they likely to be; but we have no right to assume that quantitative relations are the only relations of which the law of conservation of energy can take cognizance. As quantity is an essential attribute of matter, so is quality an essential attribute of mind, and we may discover that, mutatis mutandis, the law of equivalence holds—that every given quantity and kind of energy expended in the cortex has its fixed equivalent in a given quality of consciousness, that is, in some definite kind of sensation, thought, or emotion, and vice versa.

It should be observed that the argument from the law of conservation of energy overthrows both the theory of independence and that of dependence, and we are reduced to the contemplation of the relation of mind and matter as an inscrutable mystery—a mystery which some philosophers try thinly to veil, by invoking the good offices of a third unknown substance of which both matter and mind are supposed to be attributes. This is the so-called doctrine of monism.

I have thought it necessary to go into this argument to some degree because without some such explanation my readers may wonder why I regard the theory of independence as entitled to any hearing whatever. Yet I think that the disrepute into which it has fallen is not due to any imaginary conflict with the law of conservation of energy. It is in part due to the general drift of our age, which for nearly four hundred years has set away from the supranaturalistic conceptions of the middle ages toward naturalism, and has consequently left the doctrine of independence, which was universal throughout the middle ages, high and dry on the sands. It is for the most part, however, due to the direct evidence, of which I have above spoken, for the dependence of mind upon the body.

It is not my purpose to attempt to prove or to disprove either of these theories, but before proceeding to interpretations of automatism which may be based upon the latter, I may point out that the evidence is not so wholly one-sided as is commonly supposed. The clinical facts by no means warrant the assumption that mental degeneration necessarily keeps pace with brain destruction. Cases are frequently reported in which patients survive severe and permanent injuries to the brain with relatively slight mental impairment. Some of the phenomena of normal psychology, as the consciousness of self, attention, and will, are as easily interpreted from the one as from the other point of view; and in the supernormal field the facts already reported, should they be substantiated by further inquiry, would go far toward showing that consciousness is an entity governed by laws and possessed of powers incapable of expression in material conceptions.

I do not myself regard the theory of independence as proved, but I think we have enough evidence for it to destroy in any candid mind that considers it that absolute incredulity as to its possibility which at present characterizes the average man of science.

Now, if it were proved true, what explanations can it provide for the phenomena of suggestibility and automatism?

The simplest way of looking at the facts is to ascribe them to a partial separation of mind and body. This notion is based upon the fact that the memory of the secondary state is so often lost. The mind may be supposed to be asleep while another person plays upon the sensitive machine which it has just been using. When memory is retained, we may suppose that consciousness, upon being reunited to its body, reads off, as it were, the traces left in the brain by what was going on in its absence. This is the notion which the very word automatism connotes, and it has been held more or less clearly by many writers. It accounts very well for most of the facts of hypnotic states, for the simpler forms of post-hypnotic suggestion, and is especially suggested by hysterical losses of sensation and movement, and by successive personalities. The same fundamental conception may be interpreted in accordance with the theory of dependence by ascribing all these phenomena to brain processes of too low a degree of intensity to awaken consciousness.

But this notion breaks down when applied to the more advanced stages of motor automatism, as fully developed automatic writing, to simultaneous personalities, to the more advanced forms of post-hypnotic suggestion, to trance and ecstasy. In all these cases we have as good evidence for the existence of consciousness as we ever have, save that the consciousness which we infer does not become a part of some recognized person's memories. Consequently we must admit either that organized matter, or some tertium quid which is neither mind nor matter, is capable of producing the effects which we ascribe to consciousness, or else that there sometimes exists in connection with a given body a consciousness distinct from that known to us.

The first of these alternatives would practically bring us back to the theory of dependence. The second, the doctrine of a tertium quid, is found in many writers, although there is no agreement as to the characteristics of the third entity. This notion is indeed descended from the ancient distinction between body, soul, and spirit. The tertium quid is usually conceived as a semimaterial entity, akin in its nature to the physical substratum of light and electricity. The doctrine of the "astral body" belongs to this type. Or, the third entity may be conceived as akin to consciousness in its essential nature, although capable of separation from it. It may, for example, be identified with the life of sensation and sensuous desires which common sense discriminates from the "more spiritual" elements of thought, reason, and will.

If the third alternative be adopted, we must regard the principle which lies at the foundation of such phenomena as purely mental. The oldest form of this theory is the doctrine of possession, which ascribes all automatism to the agency of some adventitious mind, as that of a demon or spirit, entering into the body of the patient and assuming control, to the total or partial exclusion of its rightful owner.

In modern times the doctrine has assumed the form of "duplex personality." This theory maintains that in every man there are two minds, one known to us and one usually unknown.[1] To the latter are ascribed all the phenomena of suggestibility and automatism, sometimes also telepathy, clairvoyance, and the like, and even the power of moving furniture, of objectifying and "materializing" its ideas, and of performing the other tricks which "mediums" ascribe to spirits.

A similar theory has been developed by Mr. F. W. H. Myers in a series of papers in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Mr. Myers avoids the words soul, spirit, and the like in stating his theory, on account of their crude associations, but I shall in this popular sketch make use of these familiar words, even at the risk of misrepresenting him a little.

Mr. Myers agrees with the other representatives of the soul theory in acknowledging the existence of a spiritual entity of some sort, although he does not define it or attempt to fix its relation to matter. Its essence is consciousness; but—and this is the point characteristic of the theory—the consciousness of which my soul consists is not identical with what I call my consciousness. Every soul is the basis or ground of existence of many wholly distinct consciousnesses of which the consciousness I call mine is but one. It is not even the most important of them, although it also is not the least important. It has been evolved by a process of selection out of an infinity of possible elements solely on the ground of utility. Its function is the preservation of the body; those mental elements which were found most directly to subserve that end have been discriminated from the others under the stress of natural selection and organized into a conscious system. The others have either been forced out, as their places were needed by more important elements, or have never got in, because they could not compete with the others in point of utility.

Among those which have been forced out, their functions being relegated to the nervous mechanism, are the powers of voluntarily controlling the involuntary muscles, the processes of secretion, absorption, assimilation, excretion. In many persons all vivid imagery has in like manner been lost. Among those which have never been received into the normal consciousness are those which we vaguely term genius, and also telepathy, clairvoyance, and probably an infinity of other modes of cognizing reality.

For all this infinite wealth of thought and experience which Mr. Myers believes to exist outside the narrow bounds of the upper consciousness he proposes the term "subliminal states." They embrace every type of consciousness known to us, from the most filmy and incoherent of dreams to the most sublime flights of genius, and many more of which we have never framed a conception. Sometimes they flow along in distinct streams, each with its own memory and desires; at others they blend into more complex wholes.

In the curious phenomena which I have been studying, and in many more which I have not taken into consideration, Mr. Myers believes we have manifestations of one or more of these hidden streams. In all forms of automatism the subliminal material is forced into the upper consciousness much as a stream of lava is forced through the earth's crust. The material itself may be nonsense or a revelation, but the mechanism is in all cases the same. In sleep, dream, hypnosis, trance, and ecstasy we see a temporary subsidence of the upper consciousness and the upheaval of a subliminal stratum.

We need not suppose that our selves are always to consist of this conglomerate of disorganized material. We may believe that in some future life harmony will succeed discord; all the scattered portions of our psychical selves will be reunited into a new and higher synthesis—a self more rich in memories, more alive to its environment, more strong in action than any we can now imagine.

Of all the theories developed from the point of view of the doctrine of independence, Mr. Myers's is the most comprehensive in its scope, is kept in most constant touch with what the author regards as the facts, and displays the greatest philosophic insight; but its very comprehensiveness may well make us hesitate. We must make theories—they are the very eyes of the student—but we must be slow in adopting them. The inquiry into the supernormal has but just begun, the support of the great body of scholars has not by any means been won, and the fundamental facts are still in question. The first need is more observation and more experiment. The theories framed by Mr. Myers and others will serve as guides in the inquiry, and in future, as facts accumulate, what there is in them of value will become manifest.

  1. Some writers who hold to the doctrine of dependence have embraced a similar view, and regard the two minds as produced by the right and the left hemispheres of the brain respectively, and other duplex theories have been stated from the purely psychological point of view.