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Lecture VIII: The Importance of Psychical Research

In my previous course of lectures I devoted one of them to discussing the possible biological implications of telepathy and other kinds of extra-sensory perception if they should be proved to be a reality. I now want to go further and refer to the whole range of phenomena which are studied under the heading of psychical research and to say why I consider them to be so significant for our religious outlook; I believe they are even more important here than in the realm of biology.

If it could be proved beyond doubt that any one of the alleged kinds of extra-sensory perception were a reality, then it would be a serious challenge to the present-day scientific monism. It is, of course, still possible that these means of cognition might be brought within the monist system by some physical mode of transmission, but there are reasons, I believe, as I shall presently explain, why this seems to be unlikely1. This is what makes these researches, to my mind, the most important of any that man has yet undertaken. It is true that the exploration of outer space which is now beginning is far more exciting, and even calls for greater courage, than the conquest of the poles or of Mount Everest, yet it only promises to give us more knowledge of the physical cosmos, valuable as that will be. Psychical research appears to be offering us something of quite a different order—so different indeed that most of our contemporaries refuse to take it seriously.

In my earlier lecture on the subject I discussed four main reasons for this indifference, or in some cases hostility. They are (1) that experiments in psychical research cannot yet give strictly repeatable results; (2) the detection of fraud in many so-called demonstrations of psychic phenomena; (3) that investigators may be emotionally eager to get positive results, on either philosophical or religious grounds, so that they are likely to be unconsciously biased in the interpretation of their results; and (4) the belief that the results claimed are clearly impossible and so not worthy of the time spent in their study. I admit the force of the first three of these arguments, but I will not again go over the arguments that I have previously2 used in dealing with them. They undoubtedly make the investigations more difficult than any in ordinary scientific research; they are, however, obstacles to be overcome, challenges to be met, and not reasons for retreat. We shall only advance if we recognize them as we try to explore this almost forbidden land—forbidden only, I believe, by prejudice. Particularly dangerous is the third difficulty I have mentioned. My very pleading for the importance of this subject makes me suspect, for I am likely to be biased; we must not be blind to these issues, but seek to meet them.

If psi-phenomena, as they are now often called, do not fit into the material-physical system then they must have a profound meaning for both religion and philosophy; they would not only throw light, either directly or indirectly, upon the vexed question of the mind-body relationship, but would break once and for all the supposed scientific grounds for the materialism which now grips the world. Their existence would establish that there is a dualism of material and mental elements. This would alter the whole intellectual atmosphere and again admit the reality of a non-material, spiritual if you like, part of the universe in which the religious yearnings of man could find a place; it would be like supplying air to a fire which is now only dimly flickering for lack of it. The divine flame would burn again with a new light.

So intrenched in its materialism is this age of today that very few of its scientific exponents will take note of the psi-phenomena at all, or, if they do, they ignore them because they imagine that their more orthodox lines of investigation are more interesting and important. It is some of the philosophers, as I said in my previous lecture, who have taken the trouble to look into the evidence, and there I quoted from the writings of Professor H. H. Price, formerly Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, and of Professor C. D. Broad who until recentl was Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge. They have both expressed their conviction of the reality of the phenomena and of their great importance. Professor Price says:

Telepathy is something which ought not to happen at all if the Materialistic theory were true. But it does happen. So there must be something seriously wrong with the Materialistic theory however numerous and imposing the normal facts which support it may be.3

And Professor Broad:

… There can be no doubt that the events described happened and were correctly reported; that the odds against chance-coincidence piled up to billions to one; and that the nature of the events, which involved both telepathy and precognition, conflicts with one or more of the basic limiting principles…

It seems to me fairly plain that the establishment of paranormal precognition requires a radical change in our conception of time, and probably a correlated change in our conception of causation.4

I shall not attempt to deal with the evidence for these phenomena in any systematic way, that would be impossible in an hour. Whilst I shall refer to some examples and give the references to where the full evidence is to be found, it is more my intention to emphasize the present extraordinary relationship of the intellectual world to these investigations, one which I believe is of no little significance. Our western civilization has today as fixed a “frame of mind”, if one can so speak of it, as had the mediaeval world, but in a different direction. Professor Henry Sidgwick, another eminent Cambridge philosopher, who was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research said in its first Presidential Address in 1882:

… it is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet that the educated world, as a body, should still be simply in the attitude of incredulity.

Since that date this pioneer Society under a long line of distinguished Presidents, has, through its members, carried out investigations with the highest standards of scholarship in this difficult field, and published close on a hundred volumes of research.5 Now, eighty-four years after Henry Sidgwick’s address, the scepticism or indifference of the intellectual world is practically unchanged, except for one class of phenomena, which I shall mention in a moment; I think it is true to say, taking into account the expansion of the universities, that the proportion of qualified scholars taking an active interest in this research is no higher today than it was then. I hope there are none who still imagine, as some have done in the past, that psychical research is simply a synonym for spiritualism; some of the Society’s members rightly undertake to investigate the claims of mediums who believe they receive messages from the dead—for the problem of a possible survival of personality (however remote that possibility may seem to be) must not be ignored—but that is only a fraction of its field of work.

I would like to make better known the objects of the Society for Psychical Research, or S.P.R. as I shall refer to it, which have been unchanged since they were laid down in the opening Proceedings of 1882. The following are the first words of this first volume:

It has been widely felt that the present is an opportune time for making an organised 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, amidst much illusion and deception, an important body of remarkable phenomena, which are prima facie inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis, and which, if incon-testably established, would be of the highest possible value.

Then after some details of the Society’s organization, it gives the following subjects that have been entrusted to special committees for investigation:

  1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart, from any generally recognised 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 organisations called “sensitive”, and an inquiry whether such organisations possess any power of perception beyond a highly exalted sensibility of the recognised sensory organs.
  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.

It is seen that hypnotism, then usually known as mesmerism, was second on their list of subjects for study6. This is so far the one and only kind of such phenomena which has yet received general scientific acceptance; and this because it was realized that it had important medical and psychological implications. I was interested to learn recently that it has now come to light that Freud was so impressed with the evidence of the Gilbert Murray telepathy experiments (which I referred to in my lecture in the previous series) that he was prepared to give greater importance to the subject in his scheme of psychology if he had not met with such strong opposition from some of his colleagues7. It would seem as if some of the phenomena of hypnotism are related to those met with in other fields of psychical research; most of these hypnosis effects appear to be as little understood as are the latter phenomena and are likely, when better known, to give much help in the problem of the mind-body relationship. Under hypnosis a subject can be made to see an hallucination which appears to be as solid as a normal visual perception. He may be told, for example, according to the accounts in the literature8, that on waking up he will find—say—a kitten sitting on the arm of his chair and that he will fondle and pet it; sure enough on coming out of induced trance he behaves as if he is stroking such an invisible “creature” and will describe its appearance as if real. Full hallucinations of persons known to the subject may similarly be made to appear in the case of particularly good subjects. The whole visual field appears to be reconstituted in detail just as in the imagined field of a vivid dream. Even more disturbing is this: a subject will be told under hypnosis that on waking up he will not see Mr. X; now when Mr. X does come into the room the subject is said, by this suggestion, either to reconstruct the whole background of the scene so that Mr. X appears invisible or that in the place where Mr. X stands or moves there is a blank white silhouette with no features on it. This means, of course, that the figure must be perfectly well seen by the eyes and visual mechanism but then censored somewhere in the mind. These phenomena appear to be well attested in the appropriate medical journals but I do not believe they are properly understood and they are only very rarely discussed in biological or general scientific circles. Is this, I wonder, because strong subconscious resistance to their philosophical implications?

These hypnotic hallucinations, as far as one can tell from the literature, appear to be of the same kind as those which are said to be seen by some people either in a moment of shock or, it is suggested, by some form of telepathy, at the same time as someone very dear to them has suffered an accident, or some sudden crisis or death. There are a large number of apparently very well attested records of such cases9, but they are mostly anecdotal and none I think could be regarded as coming up to the standard of absolute proof of a telepathic connection. There are a few cases reported where A has made an experiment to make himself appear to B at some distance away and when B, without knowing of the intended experiment, has described the appearance of an apparition of A in his room at exactly the appropriate time. While apparitions seem to be phenomena similar to hypnotically produced hallucinations, occasionally, according to some well authenticated records, they appear to have been seen by more than one person at the same time. Now whilst the many records of apparitions being seen in relation to the death or accident of some distant person, may not provide absolute proof of such a telepathic-like relationship, the character of much of the evidence is such that these cases deserve far more consideration than they generally receive.

It is of interest to note that there are examples reported where a reflection of an apparition has been seen in a mirror in exactly the same way as I believe has been claimed in the case of some hypnotically produced hallucinations10. Perhaps the best study of these phenomena in general is G. N. W. Tyrrell’s Apparitions. I quote from a preface to the revised edition of this book (1953) written by Professor H. H. Price:

The tea-party question, “Do you believe in ghosts?” is one of the most ambiguous which can be asked. But if we take it to mean, “Do you believe that people sometimes experience apparitions?” the answer is that they certainly do. No one who examines the evidence can come to any other conclusion. Instead of disputing the facts, we must try to explain them. But whatever explanation we offer, we soon find ourselves in very deep waters indeed.

I cannot attempt to lead you into this deep water here and I should be useless as a guide, but you should study the evidence of those who have penetrated a little way into this remarkable mental field. A field, let me say again, no less strange or worthy of exploration than that of outer space.

Before leaving the subject of apparitions, however, I will mention one matter of some interest. In the early days of psychical research Sir William Barrett called attention to the records of people dying who see visions of dead relatives just before death11. Recently Dr. Karlis Osis in America has obtained much more evidence for this by means of a questionnaire sent to a large number of doctors and nurses. He found that12 “substantial numbers of the dying, while still in a state of clear consciousness, experienced hallucinations consisting for the most part of visions of their already deceased relatives. Apparitions perceived as having come to take the patient away were specially prominent among those occurring immediately before the end. These experiences seemed to take place largely independently of the patient’s educational background, religious beliefs, or type of illness” (a summary quoted from D. J. West’s Psychical Research Today, p. 53, 1962). There can be no doubt that they actually occur; my own doctor gave our family evidence of an aunt’s vision of her late husband on the day she died. They will, of course, be thought most likely to be hallucinations conjured up by the hopeful expectations of those dying who believe in an after life. (There are a few cases, however, which might appear to tell against this hypothesis as when the dying person sees a vision of someone whom he or she thinks to be still alive but who has in fact already died.)

But I have strayed too far from the well attested cases of psychiatric, hypnotic hallucinations I was speaking of. I want now to mention certain other hypnotic occurrences which possibly link with psychical research and certainly are important in regard to the mind-body relationship. It is well to look at these phenomena, which are accepted as realities by the medical profession although their underlying mechanism is still quite unknown. I quote the following brief account from Dr. D. J. West’s Psychical Research Today:

There is … evidence of skin reactions caused by mental influences, for instance, the induction of blisters by hypnotic suggestion. This is a very rare phenomenon, but Dr. J. A. Hadfield, a London psychiatrist, reported a case that he observed personally under hospital conditions13. The subject was a seaman who was suffering from combat hysteria. Under hypnosis, Dr. Hadfield touched his arm lightly with a finger, telling him at the same time that he was being touched with a red-hot iron, which would cause a blister. The man winced violently, and slowly a blister formed, under which there accumulated a large quantity of fluid, giving the exact appearance of a blister by heat. Dr. Hadfield also tried the opposite experiment, touching the arm with a hot steel rod, at the same time telling the man he would feel no pain. The heat was sufficient to raise small blisters, but they were painless, they healed abnormally rapidly, and there was no surrounding area of redness such as ordinarily appears around a painful heat blister. More recently, another London psychiatrist, Dr. R. L. Moody, reported the case of a female analytic patient who, in the course of her treatment, relived in her imagination incidents in early life when she had been cruelly beaten. While this was happening, weals appeared14 spontaneously on her body, corresponding to the places where once she had been hit.

The fact that the mind and emotions can influence what are generally thought to be physical events, albeit parts of the body associated with the mind, is surely of special interest in relation to the mind-body problem. It certainly surprises me that my biological colleagues do not take more notice of these curious occurrences.

From time to time in history there has been recorded the religious phenomenon of the so-called stigmatization when skin haemorrhages are said to occur on the hands and feet of certain devout persons in imitation of the wounds of the crucifixion. Many such cases are probably faked to give an impression of sanctity, but one, that of Louise Lateau, was investigated by the Belgian Academy of Medicine which issued a report confirming the reality of the bleeding15; her arm was sealed up in a glass cylinder and kept under observation when blood was seen spontaneously to ooze through the skin of the hand.

I must now turn to telepathy, the transmission of ideas from one mind to another by other means than the use of the ordinary physical senses. I will only deal with it very briefly because I treated it more fully in one of the lectures of my first series. There I expressed the view that it was unlikely that such a remarkable capacity should be present in only a few individuals of just one species of animal; it seemed to me more likely that it would be widespread, if unconscious, in the animal kingdom and so of considerable biological significance. I described some of the evidence for the telepathic transmission of designs in the drawing experiments of Birchall and Guthrie at Liverpool and the elaborate thought patterns received by Gilbert Murray in his experiments at Oxford. I expressed more interest in such communication rather than the experimental card guessing which has bulked so large in more recent work, but I don’t wish to underrate the value of the latter. Long before the use of Zener cards by the Rhine school some very striking successes were scored in similar experiments made by Sir William Barrett using ordinary playing cards as described in the first volume of the S.P.R. Proceedings (1882).

To give some further examples in the telepathic transmission of drawings I should mention those reported by the novelist Upton Sinclair in his book Mental Radio (1930); with striking success his wife was able to reproduce drawings similar to those made by her brother-in-law some thirty miles distant. The resemblances were far too good to be due to chance coincidence, but Dr. W. F. Prince, who was the Research Officer of the Boston S.P.R. made control tests with batches of drawings made by other people to show that chance could not normally produce comparable results. Another remarkable series of drawing experiments was made by the late Mr. Whateley Garington and described in his book Telepathy. On ten successive nights at 7 p.m. he exposed a drawing in his study, a different one each night, now perhaps a ship, then perhaps a gun and so on, each one remaining in the room which was kept locked until 9.30 next morning; and each night he had a group of collaborators all living at a distance, 251 of them, who undertook to draw what they thought was the subject of the design displayed. Ten such tests made one experiment, and then after a gap another set of ten tests would be made as experiment 2 and so on. He did eleven such experiments involving over 2,000 drawings. The drawings were all dated and then all those from any one experiment were shuffled and sent to an outside referee for matching with the shuffled originals. It was then found that if, say, a ship had been a target drawing in one experiment there were significantly more ships in the batch of drawings obtained in that experiment than in any other; but what was very unexpected was that whilst more ships were drawn on the night the ship design was displayed there were also many ships drawn both before and after the night in question.

Similarly with other designs—guns, flags, etc. The results appeared to show precognitive as well as retrocognitive telepathy: the successes were scattered to right and left of the target in time, increasing as the target hour approached and falling off again. What does this mean? If true—and there appear to be too many examples now to doubt it—is it not more remarkable, I will say again, than any physical discovery on the surface of the moon.

Of the spontaneous cases of telepathy there are an enormous number of well attested examples in the publications of the S.P.R. but it is always difficult to assess them, for one cannot apply statistical tests. Some of the most remarkable are instances of shared dreams where two, or in one case three, persons had exactly the same dream on the same night16.

The success of telepathy experiments over considerable distances does not lend support to the supposition that they might be mediated by some electro-magnetic physical wave system at present unknown, for there appears to be no falling off in the scoring between short and long distant card guessing trials as one might expect from the “square of the distance” law which applies to such physical forms of radiation. The known electrical charges in the nervous system are also far too weak to provide the energy for such a system. Furthermore the elaborate thoughts and detailed designs transmitted as in the Gilbert Murray or the drawings experiments would have to be sent by some code system and we know of no organ in the brain which seems a likely seat for such coding or decoding as would be necessary. In a series of Russian experiments recently described by Professor L. L. Vasiliev17, Professor of Physiology at Leningrad, it is claimed that hypnotised subjects were sent to sleep and awakened by telepathic means when both agent and subject were enclosed in metal cages designed to prevent the passage of electro-magnetic waves18.

I have already just touched on precognition in mentioning the results of Whately Carington’s telepathy experiments. It was these results of his that led to a very striking discovery. For many years Dr. S. G. Soal had been carrying out telepathy card tests with several subjects on the same lines as those of Rhine but without any positive result. Carington told Soal of his time displacement results and urged him to re-examine all his data to see if any such effect could be observed. Very reluctantly, for it meant an immense amount of work, he agreed and discovered that, by far beyond chance results, two subjects, Mr. Basil Shackleton and Mrs. Gloria Stuart, were scoring successes not on the actual card aimed at but on the one behind it or the one before it; when he came to retest them in a new series of experiments Mrs. Stuart had given up her displacement and now got high scores on the contemporary target, whereas Mr. Shackleton now only scored significantly on the card ahead. Many variations were made in the Shackleton experiments, in one experiment the speed of calling was accelerated to twice the normal speed and in this case he now scored highly not on one card ahead but on two cards ahead; it appears that his phase of precognition was just about 2 seconds ahead of our normal time sequence19.

So far I have emphasized that we should examine and weigh the evidence for extra-sensory perception because it suggests the existence of a non-physical part of the world which may provide a location for man’s mental and spiritual experiences. I would go further and suggest we should do something more. However impossible the case should appear at first sight, I believe we should also examine the evidence for the alleged survival of human “personality” after death. Could a reasoning mind, using the symbols of linguistic thought, function apart from the association centres of the brain? On the face of it it would indeed seem impossible—particularly in the light of our knowledge of the cerebral cortex and the effect of surgical removal of large parts of it upon the personality of the patient for whom such a drastic “operation” has been necessary. The survival of personality, is, of course, an intrinsic doctrine of orthodox Christian theology; a natural theology, however, cannot accept such doctrines without a closer examination.

Few dare to mention it, for fear of being branded spiritualists, but there is, in the publications and files of the Society for Psychical Research some very remarkable evidence (I am referring to the best of the cross-correspondence cases) which, I believe, if examined in a court of law, would be held to demonstrate one or other of two things: either the survival of some part of a personality, or a degree of telepathy with living agents which is quite beyond anything yet demonstrated by the experimental method and, indeed, of quite a different kind. Such a finding by a court would not, of course, be proof acceptable by science of the reality of either, but it would point to something worthy of further research. Natural theologians must have the courage of those philosophers and scientists who, ignoring the possible ridicule and contempt of their colleagues, have risked their reputation to look at these phenomena.

Linguistic thought was developed to enable man to deal with the material world; but it would appear that such verbal expression does not usually take a part in dream structure. Need we assume, however, that if survival occurs at all it must necessarily be of a verbally reasoning kind? It would be fantastic, but perhaps just possible, I suppose, to conceive, if the evidence for survival should be overwhelming, that some such non-linguistic dream-like personality might be able to manifest itself to us verbally, with difficulty, in some extrasensory fashion through the speech centres of a medium, or those controlling writing. It is well to recall that the mystics can rarely express the rapture of their experience in linguistic terms and artists find it easier to depict their joy in colour, shape or sound than describe it in words. Creative writing, I believe, is much harder work than painting; an author is using his cortex to express and reason out what he feels on another level. Perhaps Shakespeare was right and, in our fundamental nature, we really are “such things as dreams are made of.” Perhaps in depth we do belong to a world of Polanyi’s “tacit” knowledge20 and feeling to which the reasoning mind by itself is almost blind; a world which little children find it easier to imagine and to enter than do their verbally encrusted and over-pedantic elders. Such an apparently absurd idea is almost certainly far from the truth, but to have some imaginative picture in mind, however wrong, helps to combat the perhaps too pessimistic concept of sheer impossibility which would prejudice our judgement from the start. We must have an open mind.

It is well, perhaps, before going any further to remind ourselves that there is so much that is yet a puzzle, scientifically a puzzle, in regard to the human mind that we should not have preconceived ideas. To do this let me quote a brief passage from Aldous Huxley’s Heaven and Hell.

How and why does hypnosis produce its observed effects? We do not know. For our present purposes, however, we do not have to know. All that is necessary, in this context, is to record the fact that some hypnotic subjects are transported, in the trance state, to a region in the mind’s antipodes, where they find the equivalent of marsupials—strange psychological creatures leading an autonomous existence according to the law of their own being.

About the physiological effects of mescalin we know a little. Probably (for we are not yet certain) it interferes with the enzyme system that regulates cerebral functioning…

Similar intrusions of biologically useless, but aesthetically and sometimes spiritually valuable material may occur as the result of illness or fatigue; …

From the point of view of an inhabitant of the Old World, marsupials are exceedingly odd. But oddity is not the same as randomness. Kangaroos and wallabies may lack verisimilitude; but their improbability repeats itself and obeys recognizable laws. The same is true of the psychological creatures inhabiting the remoter regions of our minds. The experiences encountered under the influence of mescalin or deep hypnosis are certainly strange; but they are strange with a certain regularity, strange according to a pattern.

I have said that we must examine the evidence for survival, and not just that of past alleged communications, but new evidence which we should seek. Nothing could be more difficult; it is a field strewn with hazards in which we must walk with the greatest caution, feeling our way forward step by step. Let me say at once that I am not here concerned at all with the alleged so-called physical phenomena of spiritualism, where some mediums claim to produce ghostly figures in the dark, move objects, beat tambourines or drop flowers into the laps of those attending such séances. The great majority of such mediums who have been examined critically have been detected in fraud; and since the introduction of the infra-red camera which can take pictures in the dark not one has accepted an invitation to be so examined21. I am here dealing with something quite different from the supposed happenings of the dark séance room. I am concerned with those who, in broad daylight, in trance, apparently unconsciously, produce either verbally or by automatic writing—and often among a lot of seemingly subconscious ramblings—some very remarkable statements which cannot just be brushed aside as irrelevant; they give information which could not, apparently according to most careful investigation, have been known to the medium by normal channels and which concern a person now dead. If the information is obtained unconsciously from the mind of some living persons it points, as I have already said, to a degree of telepathy quite unknown in other fields of such research; it would be quite exceptional because it would mean that the information must be collected from more than one other mind and pieced together into a coherent pattern apparently by the subconscious mind of the medium. The difficulties are formidable whichever view we take; the establishment of either, or the discovery of yet another unforeseen explanation must add greatly to our knowledge of the nature of mind and personality.

I will only very briefly indicate the nature of the evidence from the cases of the so-called cross-correspondences which I regard as so important; to make any assessment of their value they must be studied in detail preferably in the Proceedings of the S.P.R.22 itself, or if time cannot be afforded for this, then in the excellent concise account by Mr. Saltmarsh23. Frederick W. H. Myers, the poet and classical scholar, and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who was one of the founders of the S.P.R. and author of the book Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, died on January 17th, 1901. Two other close friends and fellow co-founders of the S.P.R. had already died before him: Edmund Gurney in June 1888 and Professor Henry Sidgwick in August 1900. It was this group, and one or two others who were said to have joined them, who were claiming to communicate and to try and establish the fact of survival by giving, through a number of different people using automatic writing24, various cryptic allusions which when fitted together would solve a literary or classical puzzle.

The term automatist may conveniently be used to distinguish this type of mediumship, if mediumship it be, from other kinds. Some automatists go into a drowsy state suggesting a semi-trance, others like Mrs. Piper would go into complete trance letting her head lie over on a cushion whilst her hand wrote on a table; some, however, appear to retain full consciousness and can read a book whilst the hand writes, and yet others write as if taking down dictation—the words and sentences, they say, seem to come into the mind from outside.

One of the automatists taking part was Mrs. Verrall, a lecturer in classics at Newnham and wife of Dr. A. W. Verrall, a well-known Cambridge classical scholar. She was a member of the Council of the S.P.R. and had taken up automatic writing for some time. Another was a Mrs. Holland who had begun automatic writing when in India but who returned to England in 1904 when she met Mrs. Verrall. A third was a “Mrs. Willett”,25 a friend of Lord Balfour who himself was keenly interested in the tests; her automatic writing was in a script quite different from that of her ordinary hand. There were several others, including Mrs. Verrall’s daughter, who made up a group of interested amateurs, but to them must be added Mrs. Piper of Boston, U.S.A., perhaps the most famous trance medium yet investigated. Mrs. Piper had been working for several years for members of both the S.P.R. and its American equivalent and she came to England from November 1906 to June 1907 specially to give sittings related to the scripts which were being obtained by this amateur group.

Let me sketch the type of puzzle said to be set. The writings of automatist A would contain certain cryptic passages suggesting, say, some classical allusion which was quite meaningless to the writer; then a little later another apparently meaningless passage would appear in the script of writer B; and eventually, after going through the voluminous scripts of the different writers, it would only later be found that C had produced some other curious phrases which could now be seen to link together the sentences produced by A and B to give a sensible, if sometimes subtle, solution to the puzzle. It was often of a kind which might well be propounded by a classical don, but quite lost on the automatists except Mrs. Verrall. There are not just one or two of these cross-correspondences but dozens of them, some relatively simple, others very complex; the scripts in which they occur occupy hundreds of pages in the Proceedings of the S.P.R. and there is still much material yet to be published. It would be impossible here to give sufficient of the evidence to enable you to have a fair view of it; I merely wish in the time available in the one lecture I can devote to psychical research to point to the nature of this problem which faces us. For those who have not taken a look at the literature I would recommend as an introduction, in addition to Mr. Saltmarsh’s book that I have already mentioned, the detailed report on the so-called case of The Ear of Dionysius by the Right Hon. G. W. Balfour26.

Here certainly is a mystery. It is not as if all these people were deceiving themselves in their interpretation of the scripts obtained; all the evidence of the scripts is there for us to judge. We cannot believe that the whole thing is a gigantic hoax—the Piltdown skull and other impostures have been produced by one or two people; but here, if all the scripts are faked, it involves a large number of people, not only the script writers but people like the Hon. Gerald Balfour, Sir Oliver Lodge, Mrs. Sidgwick, Mrs. Salter and many more. If we rule out fraud it would seem that it can only be one or other of the two solutions already mentioned. Either it is what it is claimed to be in the scripts themselves, communications from persons who are now dead, which to some may seem impossible on rational grounds; or it must be a complex system of telepathic communication between the subconscious minds of different people so that it results in a coherent scheme which must presumably have been hatched in the subconscious mind of one of them.27 I am not prepared, without more evidence, to say which I think is likely to be the right answer; I can, however, observe that if we decide that the second solution seems the more likely then I think we must agree that it opens up such an entirely new concept of the human mind and its interrelationship with other minds that perhaps we no longer have quite the same rational grounds as we had for rejecting the other alternative! This is why I call it a great mystery and why I believe that psychical research, when it has gone much further, will have a profound contribution to make to man’s view of the place of his mind in the universe.

There are other striking examples, apart from the cross-correspondence cases, which by strong evidence seem to suggest survival such as the Vandy case28 or that of Mrs. Talbot29. There are others, however, which tell against it, such as the supposed messages purporting to come from entirely fictitious characters which had been invented by the investigators for the purpose of testing the mediums in question30. Then there is the remarkable account of the “spirit” of Gordon Davis which would appear to have been obtained by telepathy from the mind of the investigator; it was remarkable for two reasons, firstly because G. D. was later found to be still alive and secondly some most curious evidence of precognition was involved in it31. These and a host of other problems, which we cannot here discuss, only emphasize the difficulties of this field of investigation.

Let me briefly recall one or two other arguments for and against the idea of survival. Modern psychologists are showing to what a great extent our behaviour is influenced by our unconscious emotional needs; some would say that most, if not all, psychic phenomena are produced by the unconscious of the percipient in response to hidden desires such as “craving for comfort in bereavement, for having marvellous experiences, for attracting attention by telling astonishing stories, for rationalizations of religious beliefs, to show superiority by deceiving other persons … or the like32.” These must certainly be taken into account.

Perhaps one of the greatest of our rational difficulties is that of imagining another world in which a surviving personality could exist in any reasonable way. This, of course, is obvious but I sometimes wonder if some people who talk about a spirit world have stopped to consider just how difficult such a conception is. It is well brought out in Dr. L. P. Jacks’s Presidential Address to the S.P.R. in 191733. He is speaking of the impossibility of imagining natural objects in the next world:

Let me illustrate my meaning by one of those far-fetched suppositions which, just because they are far-fetched, are the less likely to encounter our prejudice. Suppose we were credibly informed by any means you choose to imagine, that a rose, a single flower fully formed, had been discovered on the planet Mars. How Science would leap to her feet on receiving the information! … A planet which can produce a rose must be able to produce ten thousand other things from the same conditions, and science could tell us in general what they are… But now suppose that just as this reconstruction was about to begin we were suddenly confronted with a new and unexpected piece of information. “This rose of Mars,” we will imagine our informant to say, “is not what is commonly meant by the word. It is a mystic rose …”

… A rose which survives in another world without a tree, without air, and without sun, is not a rose at all, but something else called by the same name; still less can it be the identical rose that grew in my garden yesterday.

If you remind me that the rose of the next world once had the soil, the air, and the light of this, and that, having had them once while it was on this earth, that suffices to maintain it as a rose in its new sphere of being, so that it can now get on without them—if you tell me this, I must say with all respect that though you have made a delightful fairy tale, to science it is nothing but nonsense…

The question of the possibility of the survival of human personality after death is partly empirical and partly philosophical, says Professor C. D. Broad in an essay published as an epilogue to his Perrott Lectures on Psychical Research delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1959 and 196034. It is empirical, he says, in that it can only be answered by making the right kind of investigation, like the question: “Does a bit of copper survive being dissolved in nitric acid?” This is what the psychical researchers are trying to do. It is philosophical, he says, in the sense that the phrase “survival of bodily death by a human person” is by no means clear and unambiguous; the purpose of his essay is to clear up this point. I can only attempt the merest sketch of part of his argument. To understand what is involved in the survival of a human personality we must first be clear what we mean by a human person. He is a psycho-physical unit having intimately interrelated bodily and mental aspects; he is at once a physical object having material properties and a psychical subject having experiences, being in fact aware of himself doing this or that. We speak of him having a body which he calls my body, and a mind he calls my mind. We speak of Mr. Jones’s body and Mr. Jones’s mind, but we must remember this is a unique use of the possessive case and not on a par with Mr. Jones’s hat or even Mr. Jones’s nose; if we thought them the same we might imagine Mr. Jones losing his body, his mind or both, as he might lose his hat or nose, and still exist.

Whilst physical and psychical identity generally go together, it is conceivable that physical identity might be accompanied by psychical diversity and vice versa. Whilst uncommon, there are cases known where one body is associated with two or more personalities in turn. And millions of people in the East accept the doctrine of reincarnation: of one personality being associated with different bodies in a time sequence. With some mediums who go into trance we may find one or more personalities associated with his or her body “who claim” to be identical with those who once occupied different bodies of their own.

The psychic aspect of a normal person combines in a most intimate way three main features:

  1. A stream of experience, including rememberings, but with numerous gaps of sleep.
  2. All his dispositions: his desires, emotions, schemes, ideals etc. and
  3. the feeling of his body, influencing it and being influenced by it, and in having what we may call a perceptual central point.

Before considering possible survival after death we should consider occasional breaches in continuity during life. Dreamless sleep is such a gap. But dream experiences are very important. They show that the human being has within him the means of producing an extremely elaborate, coherent and sustained sequence of hallucinatory quasi-perceptions as of an environment of things and persons in which he is living, acting and suffering, although at the time he is not having the externally initiated sensations, which are the basis of normal working perception. This, says Broad, is relevant to the question of the possibility of survival—man might carry this mental mechanism with him, and so continue in a kind of dream world. We should note that dreams, unlike waking visual imaginings, are often as vivid as scenes in real life.

I should mention here two kinds of phenomena which are related to dreams and which are fully discussed by Professor Broad in his earlier lectures in the same book: the so-called lucid dreams and out-of-the body experiences. The former may briefly be described in Broad’s own words:

In a lucid dream, the dreamer is at the same time perfectly well aware that his physical body is asleep and quiescent, and quite differently located and oriented from the body which he is ostensibly animating in his dream. On awaking he remembers with equal distinctness both the actions of his dream-body and the simultaneous quiescence and passivity of his physical body.

Such a dream seems to be halfway between an ordinary dream and the extraordinary out-of-the-body experiences in which a person appears, as if in full consciousness, to leave his body and then return to it. There are now many detailed accounts of this condition; I will again quote Broad’s description:

The essential feature of these experiences is this. The experient has what appear to him at the time to be ordinary sense-perceptions of actual things and persons (including very often his own physical body), from a point of view located in the ordinary space of nature outside the position occupied by his physical body at the time. Generally he appears to himself to be provided with a kind of secondary body, resembling his physical body more or less closely in shape, size, and outward appearance, but much more plastic and less ponderable. This is believed by some of the experients to be normally located within (or, perhaps more properly, to be infused throughout) the physical body; but to be capable on occasion of issuing from the latter, of reorienting itself, and of travelling to considerable distances whilst retaining some kind of extended quasi-material link with the physical body. On such occasions the main consciousness of the individual in question is often (but not always) felt by him to be “centred in” this secondary body, in the sense in which it is felt to be “centred in” one’s ordinary physical body in one’s normal waking life.35

To return to Broad’s epilogue essay, he stresses how difficult it is to conceive of a personality surviving in an entirely disembodied state. “Speaking for myself” he says “I find it more and more difficult, the more I go into concrete detail, to conceive of a person so unlike the only ones I know anything about, and from whom my whole notion of personality is necessarily derived, as an unembodied person would inevitably be.”

If survival be conceivable [he says], then I cannot but think that the least implausible form of the hypothesis would be that, at any rate immediately after death and for some indefinite period later, the surviving personality is embodied in some kind of non-physical body, which was during life associated in some intimate way with the physical body. If so, I should think it quite likely that many surviving personalities would—as Swedenborg alleges that they do—at first, and for some considerable time afterwards, confuse this non-physical body with their former physical one, and fail to realize that they have died.

If we are to postulate a “ghost in the machine”, and it seems to Broad to be the sine qua non for the barest possibility of the survival of personality, then we must ascribe to it some of the quasi-physical properties of the traditional ghost.

He later makes (on p. 416) a striking analogy:

Nowadays we have plenty of experience concerning physical existents which are extended and in a sense localized, which have persistent structure and are the seat of rhythmic modulations, which are not in any sense ordinary bodies, but which are closely associated with a body of a certain kind in a certain state. One example would be the electromagnetic field associated with a conductor carrying an electric current. Or consider, as another example, the sense in which the performance of an orchestral piece, which has been broadcast from a wireless station, exists in the form of modulations in the transmitting beam, in places where, and at times when, there is no suitably tuned receiver to pick it up and transform it into a pattern of sounds…

Any analogy to what, if it be a fact, must be unique, is bound to be imperfect, and to disclose its defects if developed in detail. But I think that the analogies which I have indicated suffice for the following purpose. They show that we can conceive a form of dualism, not inconsistent with the known facts of physics, physiology, and psychology, which would make it not impossible for the dispositional basis of a human personality to persist after the death of the human being who had possessed that personality…

And this is his final paragraph:

To conclude, the position as I see it is this. In the known relevant normal and abnormal facts there is nothing to suggest, and much to counter-suggest, the possibility of any kind of persistence of the psychical aspect of a human being after the death of his body. On the other hand, there are many quite well attested paranormal phenomena which strongly suggest such persistence, and a few which strongly suggest the full-blown survival of a human personality. Most people manage to turn a blind eye to one or the other of these two relevant sets of data, but it is part of the business of a professional philosopher to try and envisage steadily both of them together. The result is naturally a state of hesitation and scepticism (in the correct, as opposed to the popular, sense of that word). I think I may say that for my part I should be slightly more annoyed than surprised if I should find myself in some sense persisting immediately after the death of my present body. One can only wait and see, or alternately (which is no less likely) wait and not see.

That also is my position, except that I should certainly not be annoyed to find myself surviving. We must know much more about the psychology of mediumship before we can come to any decision about this difficult problem. I am convinced, however, with Professors Broad, Price, Sidgwick and many others who have examined the evidence that the phenomena of extra-sensory perception are sufficiently well attested to show that the present widely held materialistic-monistic conception of the universe must be false.

  • 1.

    I should, however, draw attention to two most interesting and original papers relating to this problem which have appeared since this lecture was given. One is on “Time and Extrasensory Perception” in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 54, pp. 249–361 (1965) by H. A. C. Dobbs who develops the hypothesis of a two-dimensional time and of the existence of “psitrons”; the other, on “Some Recent Theories of Mind” in Biology and Personality, edited by Professor I. T. Ramsey (Blackwell, 1965), is by J. R. Smythies who suggests a duality (or plurality) of spaces.

  • 2.

    The Living Stream, pp. 236–9.

  • 3.

    The Hibbert Journal, vol. 47. pp. 105–13, 1949.

  • 4.

    Philosophy, vol. 24, pp. 291–309, 1949.

  • 5.

    Fifty-four volumes of the Proceedings and forty-three of the Journal, with various occasional monographs.

  • 6.

    Much of the pioneer work was done by members of the S.P.R.: cf. the Reports of the Committee on Mesmerism in the Proceedings of the S.P.R. vols, I and II (1882-4) and several papers by Edmund Gurney in the first five volumes.

  • 7.

    Ernest Jones: The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Vol. III, p. 409, 1957.

  • 8.

    The examples given here are from Hypnosis, Fact and Fiction by F. L. Marcuse, Professor of Psychology in Washington State University. But for many research papers see The British Journal of Medical Hypnotism, and especially Vol. 10 pp 35–42, and Vol. II, pp 41–47, (10th 1959).

  • 9.

    Phantasms of the Living, by E. Gurney, F. W. H. Myers and F. Podmore, 1886. See also the Report on the Census of Hallucinations by Professor Sidgwick’s Committee: Proceedings of the S.P.R., vol. x, pp. 25–422, 1894; and Mrs. Sidgwick’s “Phantasms of the Living”: ibid, vol. XXXIII, pp. 23–429, 1922.

  • 10.

    Professor Hornell Hart, The Enigma of Survival, 1959, p. 179.

  • 11.

    Examples, with further references, are given in his book On the Threshold of the Unseen, 1917, pp. 158–60.

  • 12.

    Deathbed Observations, Parapsychology Foundation, New York, 1961.

  • 13.

    The Lancet, 1917, II, p. 678.

  • 14.

    ibid, 1948, I, p. 964.

  • 15.

    Thurston, H., Proceedings S.P.R., vol. 32, 1922, pp. 185–7.

  • 16.

    Hornell Hart: The Enigma of Survival, pp. 236–8.

  • 17.

    English translation: Experiments in Mental Suggestion, 1963.

  • 18.

    In relation to this paragraph I should call attention to the footnote on p. 176.

  • 19.

    A full account of the experiments will be found in Modern Experiments in Telepathy, by Soal and Bateman, 1954.

  • 20.

    Discussed on p. 39f.

  • 21.

    I will not deny that there have been mediums who, according to strong evidence, have produced what have appeared to be levitations of an object or person in a well lighted room; but this may be due to hypnotic hallucination.

  • 22.

    Volumes XX–XXXVI.

  • 23.

    Evidence of Personal Survival from Cross-Correspondences London, 1938.

  • 24.

    Now for those who are not familiar with automatic writing I should give an explanation. It was originally done with a little instrument called a planchette which is an egg-shaped board with a downwardly pointing pencil at its narrower end and two little wheels at its wider end; this will glide over a sheet of paper tracing a line with the minimum of effort when the fingers are lightly placed upon it. The operator should not direct its movement consciously; after it has made a lot of scribbling doodles it may, if practice is given to it, begin to write words which at first appear to be nonsense but then, with more persistence, may form coherent sentences. It was then found that a planchette was not necessary and that such automatic writing could be done by simply holding a pencil in the limp hand and allowing it to doodle “as it wishes” without any attempt to control it. Now these written sentences are in themselves no evidence of any spirit control. A great many people can do automatic writing with a little practice; it is known to be a means of getting the subconscious mind to express itself and is in fact extensively used in some psychological laboratories. The messages which purport to come from deceased personalities are interjected amongst such writings.

  • 25.

    “Mrs. Willett” was a pseudonym adopted by Mrs. Combe Tennant who was related by marriage to Myers.

  • 26.

    Proceedings of the S.P.R., vol. xxix, 1918, pp. 197–286.

  • 27.

    It has been suggested that it might have been the subconscious mind of Mrs. Verrall who alone had the classical knowledge necessary; she, however, died in 1916 whereas the automatic writing of the other automatists continued with very little difference in the character of the scripts (see p. 134).

  • 28.

    S.P.R. Journal, vol. xxxix, 1957.

  • 29.

    Proceedings of S.P.R., vol. xxxi, p. 253.

  • 30.

    Cf. the Bessie Beales case: Proceedings S.P.R., vol. xxviii, pp. 177–8, 1915.

  • 31.

    Proceedings S.P.R., vol. xxxv, pp. 471–594, 1926.

  • 32.

    Professor Hornell Hart, The Enigma of Surviwal, p. 249.

  • 33.

    Proceedings S.P.R., vol. xxix, 1918, pp. 287–305.

  • 34.

    Lectures on Psychical Research, 1962.

  • 35.

    Lectures on Psychical Research, p. 167

From the book: