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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Psychical Research

The earlier term for what is now generally called parapsychology. The term was used by the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 to identify their investigations into the phenomena of the Spiritualist Movement. The term implies that there is a psyche, a conscious principle, separate from but interacting with the physical body. Some authors prefer the term “psychic research” to avoid confusing “psychical” with “physical.” Frequently, the term “paranormal” is used, but that could cover a wider range of purported phenomena. Sometimes “supernormal” is used, but the term “supernatural” is decidedly rejected, since the investigation assumes, as does the Third Object of The Theosophical Society (TS), that all phenomena occur as a result of some laws of nature, at present unknown and unexplained.

Reports of paranormal psychic phenomena can be found in all cultures, in all ages, and in the scriptures of most of the world’s religions. Many people consider such phenomena to be miracles, i.e., departures from natural law caused by divine intervention. Psychical researchers, parapsychologists, and theosophists reject such an interpretation, because they deny the existence of miracles. In fact, the use of the word “miracle” in the King James version of the Bible, for example, is a mistranslation of the Greek word terata, which simply means “wonder” or “marvel” and implies no such interference in the laws of nature. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali list a wide variety of psychic abilities, termed in Sanskrit siddhis, which result from certain meditative practices. The Buddhist and Jain scriptures also mention many of these siddhis in connection with their saints or arhats (lit. “worthies” or “adepts”). Sūfī literature contains reference to many of those abilities as do stories of Christian saints. Psychic abilities are a central feature of all so-called primitive religions, whether among the tribes of Central Asia (which gave us the term “shaman,” the title of their spiritual leader) or of African tribal peoples, natives of North America, aboriginal South Americans, Australian aboriginals, natives of the South Pacific Islands, or native Hawaiians (i.e., the Kahunas). Early Chinese religion abounds in references to divination, paranormal healing, levitation, out-of-body travel, trance mediumship, exorcism, and other psychic abilities.

Pre-scientific peoples accepted and marveled at these things, but did not attempt to explain them in terms of laws of nature. Even the Greeks, for the most part, did not do so. There are some mentions in early Greek literature of experiments performed to establish the authenticity of psychics, but no experiments designed to uncover the laws of nature that would explain them. One of the most interesting of such experiments was performed by King Croesus of Lydia (ruled 560-546 BCE). According to Herodotus (in his History of the Persian Wars), the king tested the various oracles of his day by asking them to tell his messengers what the king was doing on a predetermined date. Only the oracle at Delphi correctly discerned that the king was boiling a lamb and tortoise in a copper cauldron with a copper lid. The purpose was actually to get advice from an authentic oracle about his going to war against the Persians. The Delphic oracle told his messenger, “If King Croesus crosses the River Halys [which separated his kingdom from the Persian Empire], he will destroy a great empire.” The king interpreted that to mean victory for himself whereas, in fact, the war resulted in the destruction of his own great empire! Apparently, equivocal advice was a stock-in-trade of ancient Greek oracles as it is of many modern western astrologers!

It was such equivocal claims that led Greek and Roman thinkers, such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Cicero (106-43 BCE), to speak strongly against oracles and divination. Aristotle, in fact, did not dismiss the possibility of foreknowledge, but rather attributed it to prediction based on subconscious reasoning (cf. his “On Prophesying by Dreams”). Of course, his purported explanation hardly explains the wide variety of phenomena, often reported by credible witnesses. St. Augustine (354-430) observed an “hysteric” who evidenced precognition. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) reported the apparition of a teacher, Romanus, then at the University of Paris. St. Theresa of Avila (1515-1582) was witnessed producing automatic writing during her ecstatic trances and was also purported to levitate at such times. But, probably the most dramatic — and best authenticated — phenomena during that time were the levitations of St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663), some of which were witnessed by Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) and the noted philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1617), among many others. St. Joseph was canonized in 1667 following procedures developed by Urban VIII. Later, the Catholic Church undertook an examination of such phenomena — probably the first extensive, formal psychic investigation on record — in order to formalize canonization legislation. The principal investigator was Prospero Lambertini (1675-1758), later Pope Benedict XIV. His treatise, De Canonizatione, reported many of the characteristics of psychic phenomena which contemporary parapsychologists have discovered: that paranormal perceptions are no indication of sanctity, for even “fools, idiots, melancholy persons and brute beasts” manifest such abilities; that apparitions of both the living and dead occur without relation to sanctity or demonic agency; that precognition most frequently comes in dreams, sometimes in symbolic form, and that prophets cannot always distinguish between their own thoughts and precognized information.

In England, Henry More (1614-1687), a Cambridge Platonist, reported a number of phenomena he felt were authentic in his Antidote Against Atheism. More’s disciple, Joseph Glanville (1636-1680), developed a questionnaire which he sent out to those reporting psychic phenomena to validate their reports, a technique later used by members of the Society for Psychical Research in their “Census of Hallucinations” (1888-1894). In Sweden, the remarkable visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) reported several well-authenticated psychic visions (in addition to his mystic visions which resulted in his unorthodox interpretation of Christianity). The best known of those occurred on Saturday evening, June 19, 1759, in Göteborg, 250 miles from his home in Stockholm. He described a great fire which had broken out in the Södermalm section of Stockholm, had spread rapidly, and had stopped just three doors from his home. The most interesting thing about Swedenborg was that he was a man of the world, a scientist and highly respected authority on metallurgy, a lecturer on economics, and an occasional lobbyist for political causes, so his psychic phenomena gained more credibility than they would for someone less reputable.

Another important investigation of psychic phenomena was undertaken in France in 1784 to determine whether the claims of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) had any substance. Mesmer, born in Weil, Austria (now in Germany), had studied theology and law before going to Vienna to study medicine. It was there that he formulated his theory of “animal magnetism,” receiving his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1766 with a thesis on the magnetic influence of the planets upon man. Mesmer seems to have derived his ideas not only from the known effect of the moon on tides, but also from occult and alchemical sources, especially those of Paracelsus (1493-1541), who had claimed that the magnet has an occult, curative power, a claim Helena P. Blavatsky traces back to the ancient Magi (cf. IU I:71-2, 128-30, 167-69). Mesmer treated his patients with both magnets and what were called “magnetic passes,” stroking motions of his hands above the patient’s skin. Mesmer believed that the curative power of this treatment was due to a universal “fluid” which regulates health. This sounds very much like the Hindu notion of prāna, which forms the basis of the modern practice of Therapeutic Touch, developed by theosophists Dora Kunz and Dr. Dolores Krieger. However, the two French Commissions which investigated Mesmer, after he moved to Paris in 1778, denied that his technique had any real curative power, what results he obtained being merely due to “suggestion.” Nevertheless, Mesmer continued a successful practice in Paris until the French Revolution disrupted it, whereupon he retired to spend the last years of his life near his birthplace.

Occasionally, Mesmer’s patients fell into a trance during his healings and manifested psychic abilities, which even the Commissioners admitted. This “magnetic sleep” has come down to us as “hypnosis” (from Gk. hupnos, “sleep”), the name given it by the English doctor James Braid (1795-1860) who dissociated it from the theories of Mesmer.

An important milestone in psychical research was the birth of the Spiritualist Movement. One of the earliest important figures in that movement was Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910). In 1843, while he was a teenager in Poughkeepsie, New York, he was put into a trance by a local tailor. In this trance, young Davis seemed to acquire clairvoyance and an astonishing knowledge of subjects with which he could have had no prior acquaintance, since up to that time he had had a total of about five months of schooling, at different times for periods of only a few weeks each. Davis thereafter became a trance lecturer and healer (eventually even getting a formal education and receiving an M.D.), attracting considerable attention. One of his major books, The Harmonial Philosophy (published posthumously ca. 1920), has a great deal of similarity to the basic ideas of theosophy.

Davis, unfortunately, is almost unknown nowadays, except in Spiritualist circles, his notoriety having been eclipsed by others. The year following the publication of his first book, The Principles of Nature (1847), the movement received its greatest impetus (some even think its beginning) from phenomena surrounding three young sisters — Leah, Margaretta, and Catherine Fox — whose family had just moved into a tiny, reputedly haunted, home in the village of Hydesville, New York. The family was disturbed by inexplicable knocks during the night coming from their common bedroom. The girls devised a code by which they received communications in knocks, as if from an intelligent source which claimed to be an itinerant salesman who had been murdered by a previous occupant of the house. Word of this communication, apparently from the dead, spread rapidly and launched the careers of the Fox sisters as mediums. In addition to raps, phenomena at their seances included table tilting, materialization of “spirit faces,” and paranormal playing of musical instruments — all stock-in-trade phenomena of later mediums. The Fox sisters attracted the attention of showman P. T. Barnum who induced them to give exhibitions at his hotel and museum in New York in 1850. Of course, they were debunked as charlatans and Margaretta even “confessed” that the raps were produced by snapping of toes and knocking of knees, a claim she later retracted. But this “confession” simply cannot account for the variety of their phenomena. And by this time the girls, now women, were penniless and alcoholics, so considerable doubt must be placed on Margaretta’s claim.

In any event, seance phenomena had spread widely throughout the United States and from there around the world. Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln even held some seances in the White House. In England they first attracted the attention of the educated class who soon were inviting their friends over for “tea and table tipping.” In France, the most noted medium was Hippolite L. D. Rivall (1804-1869), who took the pseudonym Allan Kardec. His books remain popular to this day, especially in Brazil where the influence of Spiritualism rivals that of the Catholic Church. People saw in the phenomena evidence for survival of the human personality after death, so they were very reassuring to the thousands who attended the seances. But such events also attracted frauds who saw an easy way to make money by faking the phenomena. Some skeptical investigators spent considerable time and ingenuity exposing those frauds, then making a sweeping generalization that all the phenomena were the result of trickery. In other words, there was as much vehement denunciation of Spiritualism as there was fervent belief in it.

It was at the height of the Spiritualist Movement in the U.S. that The Theosophical Society was born in 1875 and it was out of the same movement that the Society for Psychical Research was born in England in 1882. The former came as a result of Col. Henry S. Olcott’s meeting H. P. Blavatsky at a farm near Chittenden, Vermont, owned by the Eddy family where remarkable phenomena had been reported at seances being held there. Olcott went there as an investigative reporter for a now defunct New York newspaper, The Daily Graphic; Blavatsky went there under directions from her Master. Olcott’s reports of his investigation, with background information about the mediums, were later published in his People from the Other World (1875). It is still a very valuable record of the phenomena and an indication of his diligence and objectivity as a careful investigator. The latter fact is often overlooked by critics of the theosophical movement and of him personally. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded on February 20, 1882, by a group of remarkable and highly educated Englishmen. Foremost among them were the Cambridge University classical scholars Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), also a noted moral philosopher who became the organization’s first President, his wife Eleanor Sidgwick (1845-1936), F. W. H. Myers (1843-1901) and Edmund Gurney (1847-1888). Also associated with the early SPR were Eleanor Sidgwick’s brother Arthur Balfour (1848-1930) who later became Prime Minister of England, physicist John William Strutt (Lord) Rayleigh (1842-1919), Nobel Laureate for his co-discovery of argon, William Crookes (1832-1919) another physicist and discoverer of thallium, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) an early formulator with Darwin of the theory of evolution, physicist William Barrett (1845-1926), physicist and Nobel Laureate J. J. Thomson (1856-1940), poet Alfred (Lord) Tennyson (1809-1892), essayist and social reformer John Ruskin (1859-1941), and logician C. L. Dodgson (1832-1898), better known under his pen name “Lewis Carroll.” Soon after its founding, it attracted membership from the American philosopher and psychologist at Harvard, William James (1842-1910), who later helped found the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), the French astronomer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), the French physiologist and Nobel Laureate Charles Richet (1850-1935), the French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893), and the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Its membership, in other words, was practically a Who’s Who of late 19th century luminaries.

The members of what is usually referred to as “the Sidgwick group” were all deeply religious as well as intelligent people, but had had their faith challenged both by Darwin’s theory of evolution (which assumed a purely physical basis for the origin of man) and by “higher criticism” (which used methods of historical analysis to call current interpretations of the Bible into question). They considered that perhaps the phenomena of Spiritualism would furnish a scientific underpinning for their faith. As Alan Gauld puts it in The Founders of Psychical Research (1968, p. 107):

During the next quarter of a century the Sidgwick group investigated many physical mediums; and the same pattern of events was repeated a number of times. Myers would become enthusiastic about such-and-such a medium; the Sidgwicks would acquiesce far enough to support or participate in an investigation; and everyone would in the end be more or less disappointed. . . . Myers sat, often several times, with practically every famous medium, public or private, of that time; and the Sidgwicks sat with many of them.

The result was the exposure of numerous frauds, a familiarity with the many methods of deception they used, an acute awareness of the processes of human misperception and self-delusion, a general skepticism about most mediums, and a gradual awakening to alternate explanations, other than communication with discarnate agencies, for the genuine phenomena. In fact, some early, short-lived, experiments in telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition were performed by SPR members which offered support for their alternate hypotheses.

Members of the SPR made a useful distinction between what they called “physical mediums” and “mental mediums.” The seances of the former involved a variety of physical phenomena from raps to movement of objects, occasionally even claimed materializations. The latter involved direct communication with presumed discarnates, either by direct voice or by some motor automatism, such as movement of a planchette (across the so-called ouija board) or automatic writing. Despite the Sidgwick’s unwavering skepticism about the former phenomena, there are on record a number of well-authenticated observations — too many to be detailed in this article — of physical phenomena which cannot be explained away. One involved an Italian woman named Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) who held several sittings for Myers, Lodge, Richet, and a few others on an island owned by the latter. At one of these sittings in 1895, extrusions of some curious material, which Richet named “ectoplasm,” were observed emanating from Palladino’s body. Another important figure was Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886; pronounced as “Hume”), a Scottish psychic raised in America but investigated mainly when he returned to England. Among others, he was tested (prior to the formation of the SPR) for psychokinetic ability by William Crookes in an effort to expose Spiritualism as fraudulent. In fact, quite the reverse occurred. Crookes’ favorable report (1874) in the Quarterly Journal of Science raised such a storm of outrage that some of his colleagues tried to have him expelled from the Royal Society. Yet years later, he recalled:

During the whole of my knowledge of D. D. Home, extending over several years, I never once saw the slightest occurrence that would make me suspicious that he was attempting to play tricks.

And Gauld comments:

What is so astonishing . . . about D. D. Home is the sheer number of seemingly disinterested persons who were prepared to testify that he had in good or passable light produced startling phenomena before their very eyes.

Among his recorded phenomena were materializations and dematerializations, levitation, movement of furniture, and handling of live coals without being burned. The famous stage magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) branded him a fraud and hypocrite, although Houdini never met Home, since he was born two years after Home had retired from public life and was only 12 when Home died.

The founders of The Theosophical Society (TS) had several meetings with the Sidgwick group, although recently discovered correspondence indicates that the Sidgwicks were personally repelled by both HPB and HSO and predisposed to find HPB’s phenomena fraudulent. Myers, however, even joined the Society for a time and was the recipient of a lengthy letter from one of the MAHĀTMAS. When Olcott, at a meeting in 1884 with the Sidgwicks, happened to mention the Mahātmas, the SPR decided they had to investigate the claimed materialization of letters from them. The only member free from other responsibilities and able to do so was Richard Hodgson (1855-1905), an Australian whom Gauld states did not really fit into the genteel Cambridge scholarly society and who was, at the time, a confirmed skeptic. In fact, both he and other confirmed skeptics had learned the secrets of producing fraudulent phenomena so well that they could fool even seasoned observers. Hodgson arrived in India on December 18, 1884, during the time when the COULOMBS, who had been given various custodial duties at the Society’s headquarters in Adyar, had turned against Blavatsky and had devised various methods to discredit her. Hodgson quickly accepted their accusations as well as those of Christian missionaries in the area who had been offended by Blavatsky’s criticism of their activities. The fact that several well-meaning TS members also attempted to mislead Hodgson, which he immediately detected, did not help matters either. The result was the infamous Hodgson Report denouncing HPB as a fraud and Russian spy (a charge that had long before been refuted) and HSO as her well-meaning but rather naive dupe. The Report was issued in 1885 as a Proceedings of the SPR, and although it was never an official statement, its conclusions were accepted without question and poisoned the relations between psychical investigators and the TS for over 100 years. Even Gauld, in an otherwise balanced report of the early history of the SPR, accepted the Report without question despite having some very critical things to say about Hodgson (cf. loc. cit., p. 335). Only recently has the SPR reopened the Report and offered a partial retraction.

Hodgson, however, was subsequently sent to America to investigate a “mental medium,” Mrs. Leonora E. Piper (1859-1950), an event which ultimately caused him to make a complete reversal of his attitude. Mrs. Piper was a Boston housewife of average intelligence and great personal integrity whose trance communications had come to the attention of William James. He investigated her in 1885-86 as a leading member of the American Society for Psychical Research (formed in 1885) and published a brief account of his observations in its Proceedings. His academic duties, however, prevented further investigation, so the ASPR requested help from the SPR in England. The SPR sent Richard Hodgson, assuming that he would expose her as a fraud. He began his investigation as an anonymous sitter in 1887 at which time Mrs. Piper made strikingly accurate statements about him and his family which it would have been impossible for her to have gotten by normal means. Hodgson continued his investigations for the next 2½ years, even hiring a detective to follow her around. There was not the slightest indication that she was a fraud. She was then brought to England in 1898 for further investigation. Thereafter, Hodgson continued sittings until his death, whereupon others took up the investigation. Throughout the entire period she was studied (1886-1911, 1922-1927) she was never once found to have made any conscious attempt to cheat.

There are several interesting observations about her, however. Like many mediums, when she was in a trance she was taken over by a “control,” ostensibly to protect her from possession and to regulate which discarnate entities would be allowed to speak through her. But those controls — in her case primarily a purported French doctor named Phinuit — seem to be more fictional characters than actual discarnates. For example, Phinuit spoke in a gruff, masculine voice with a curious mixture of Yankee slang, Frenchisms, Negro patois, and vulgarity. His accounts of his earth-life were unconfirmed and often contradictory and he gave no evidence that he could speak French. He seemed, as analyses of other “controls” confirm, to be just a secondary personality of the medium. As Rosalind Heywood observes in her book Beyond the Reach of Sense (1961, p. 67), “The trance consciousness is a great myth maker and to sift fact from fantasy in its productions is a tough job. It seems indeed as if the medium were wandering in a dream world.” Interestingly, after Hodgson’s death, he manifested as her control!

In 1898, a medium comparable to Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Rosina Thompson (b. 1868), was found in England. Myers held upwards of 150 sittings with her and was greatly impressed. She also impressed Mrs. Margaret Verrall (1859-1916), whose husband, Arthur W. Verrall (1851-1912) was a classical scholar and friend of Myers. After Myers’ death, Mrs. Verrall developed automatic writing and began to get communications, written mostly in Latin and Greek, purportedly coming from Myers. A year later, allusions to subjects in the “Myers” scripts began to appear in America through Mrs. Piper. A year after that Margaret Verrall’s daughter, Miss Helen Verrall (1883-1959), later married to William Henry Salter (1880-1970), an active member of the SPR, developed automatic writing with similar results. Then, In India, Mrs. Alice Fleming, sister of Rudyard Kipling, developed automatic writing after reading Myers’ book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903) and began getting unusual scripts full of classical puns, anagrams, and literary allusions purporting to come from Myers. The scripts directed her to send them to Mrs. Verrall, whom she did not know, at the correct address. Instead, she sent them to the London office of the SPR under the pseudonym “Mrs. Holland” (because her husband and family strongly objected to her psychic activities). There they were filed along with other such scripts until 1905 when Miss Alice Johnson, the Secretary of the SPR, suddenly realized their relevance to the Verrall-Piper material. In 1908 a Mrs. Winifred Coombe-Tennant (1874-1956), using the pseudonym “Mrs. Willett,” produced further scripts which related to the others. Ultimately over a dozen automatic writers became involved in an elaborate series of scripts which had cross-references to each other. The entire series is known as “The Cross Correspondence Cases” and is discussed in Gardner Murphy’s Challenge of Psychical Research: a Primer of Parapsychology (1960). After Gurney and Henry Sidgwick died, they appeared as authors of some of the scripts, as did Arthur Verrall. Over a 30-year period there were more than 3,000 such scripts, only a small number of which have been analyzed and published. They offer some of the most fascinating evidence for survival from mediumistic sources.

It should be noted that a number of other psychical research groups were formed in other countries. One of the earliest was the Psychic Experimental Society of Reykjavik, established in Iceland in 1904 (later disbanded in 1912). There were also organizations in the other Scandinavian countries. In France, the Institut Métapsychique International was founded in 1918 and began publishing a journal Revue Métapsychique in 1920. In Germany, the Institut für Metapsychische Forshung was started in 1928; also a Greek SPR began that same year. About the same time, similar organizations were started in Austria, Holland, Hungary, and Poland. An Italian SPR was started in 1937. Most ceased to exist during WWII but many have reorganized since then, changing their names to “parapsychology.” In Germany, for example, the Institute für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene was started in 1954 and publishes the Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie und Grenzegebiete Psychologie.

Another interesting influence of the Spiritualist Movement was on the young Charles W. LEADBEATER who attempted some experiments in table-tipping after reading newspaper reports of a “seance” D. D. Home had with Napolean III (1808-1873), probably around the year 1870. The results, which were quite dramatic, are reported in his book Spiritualism and Theosophy (1928), although Leadbeater later attributed them to a “decidedly mischievous” entity rather than an intelligent discarnate human being. Even prior to those experiments, Leadbeater had personally investigated reputedly haunted houses and as a child had been taken to meet the famous occultist Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). Afterward, he investigated a number of mediums, often inviting them to his home where he could more easily control against fraud. He concluded:

I satisfied myself as to the phenomena eventually, though I had to attend more than a hundred séances to make quite sure. Some of these were actually fraudulent, many had no evidential value to my mind, but others absolutely did prove their case.

It was this background which eventually attracted him to The Theosophical Society, which he joined in 1883 (the same day as William Crookes and his wife). When he accompanied Madame Blavatsky to India in 1884, he undertook yogic training, probably between June and late August 1885, which resulted in his developing clairvoyance. He then began what he called “clairvoyant investigations” in 1893, resulting in the publication of a number of important books which reported the results of using his psychic abilities to explore non-physical and microscopic physical realms of reality. It is interesting that psychical research — and its modern offshoot, parapsychology — concentrates mainly on scientific investigations of psychic phenomena in an attempt to demonstrate their reality whereas Leadbeater and other theosophical clairvoyants used their psychic abilities, which they knew to be genuine, to explore non-sensory realms in a scientific manner. This is the fundamental difference between theosophical psychical research and such research by the SPR, ASPR, and other such organizations. Few scientists have been willing to admit that credible, objective observations can be made in such altered states of consciousness. Yet until they do, it is unlikely that much significant understanding of psychic abilities will come out of what is presently called “psychical research.”



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