Sir William Barrett

Sir William Barrett FRS

Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science for Dublin from 1873-1910 and one of the distinguished early psychical researchers. In fact, it was Barrett who first initiated the founding of both the American and British Society for Psychical Research.

Automatic Writing

The Evidence for Identity

 - William Barrett -

Is there an answering voice from the void,
Or vain and worthless my passionate prayer?
Are all my hopes for ever destroyed
In blackness of darkness, depth of despair?
- F. W. H. Myers

          LET US now enquire what further experimental evidence is afforded by psychical research for survival after death. No candid student of the evidence, so carefully sifted in recent years, can (in my opinion) resist the conclusion that there exists an unseen world of intelligent beings, some of whom, as the succeeding chapters will show, have striven to prove, with more or less success, that they once lived on earth. It would seem as if the mode in which the manifestation of these unseen intelligences takes place varies from time to time. At one period hauntings and poltergeists appear to be most frequent, at another apparitions, at another super-normal physical phenomena, such as were discussed in the earlier chapters; at the present time automatic writing appears to be the most common.

It is interesting to note that automatic writing is also one of the oldest recorded forms of super-normal communication. More than 2,000 years ago it was mentioned by a Hebrew seer as follows: "All this the Lord made me to understand in writing with His hand upon me."(1) Automatic messages may take place either by the automatist passively holding a pencil on a sheet of paper, or by the planchette, or by the "ouija board." In this last method an indicator, - which may be a small board shaped like a planchette, or any other contrivance, - is lightly touched by the automatist's fingers and after a time it moves more or less swiftly to the different letters of the alphabet which are printed on a board below or arranged on a table.

(1) I. Chronicles xxviii. 9.

All these modes of communication have the objection that the automatist, even when absolutely above suspicion, may unconsciously guide the pencil or indicator; hence the necessity for a critical examination of the evidence so obtained and of the contents of the messages themselves.(1) In the first place can the communications made through trustworthy automatists or mediums, be reasonably accounted for by thought-transference from those who are sitting with the medium, or telepathy from other living persons who may know some of the facts that are automatically written?

(1) The reader will bear in mind that the unseen intelligence may be, and probably is in some cases, only the subliminal of the medium.

This explanation has indeed been held by some investigators; but even assuming the fact of thought-transference, of which many automatic messages afford an interesting confirmation, that only helps us a little further; clairvoyance may occur, far-seeing as well as far-feeling. Then there is often a curious reflection of the prevailing sentiment of the community, "As if" (Professor James remarks), "the subconscious self was peculiarly susceptible to a certain stratum of the Zeit-Geist." "It is conceivable," as Mr. Myers remarks:

" that thought transference and clairvoyance may be pushed to the point of a sort of terrene omniscience; so that to a man's unconscious self some phantasmal picture should he open of all that men are doing or have done. All this might be, but before such a hypothesis as this could come within the range of discussion by men of science there must be a change of mental attitude so fundamental that no argument at present could tell for much in the scale."

But it may be urged that the revival of lapsed memories, and of some of the many unconscious impressions made on our personality, may afford an explanation more in harmony with our present state of knowledge and the scientific views of today. This uprush of past impressions would come as a revelation to the subject, unrecognisable as belonging to his own past experience, and therefore regarded as no part of his own personality, but looked at merely with the curiosity and fainter interest that attaches to the "not me." Moreover, the series of unfamiliar nervous discharges, accompanying the emergence of new sensations and ideas from previously dormant nerve centres, would appear as foreign to the automatist as the reproduction of one's voice in the phonograph, or the reflection of one's face in a mirror, if heard or seen for the first time. The sensation of "otherness" thus produced would give rise to the feeling of another Ego usurping the body, hence the "control"(1) would be designated by some familiar or chance name other than the subject's own, or by a name that appeared to fit the ideas expressed.

(1) See P. 242 for definition of this term.

But is this explanation sufficient? It may be a vera causa, but does it account for all the facts that are definitely known about double consciousness and about these automatic and trance communications? Regarding the latter, I know that it certainly does not. Whilst it disposes of, perhaps, the bulk of the messages usually attributed to disembodied spirits or Satanic agency, it does not cover all the ground. The late Hon. A. Aksakof - a distinguished Russian savant - whose opinion, formed after a painstaking and life-long study of the whole subject, is deserving of the highest respect of scientific men as well as of Spiritualists - points out, (and the evidence he adduces fully bears out his statement,) that the unconscious self of the medium cannot explain all the facts, but that an external and invisible agency is occasionally and unmistakably indicated. The opinion of the Russian savant is corroborated by the experience of other investigators; for instance, I will cite two distinguished and most competent authorities, who have made a careful study of this part of our subject.

In his textbook on "Psychology," the late Professor W. James, of Harvard, writes (p. 214):

"I am however, persuaded by abundant acquaintance with the trances of one medium that the "control" may be altogether different from any possible waking self of the person. In the case I have in mind it professes to be a certain departed French doctor, and is, I am convinced, acquainted with facts about the circumstances, and the living and dead relatives and acquaintances, of numberless sitters whom the medium never met before, and of whom she has never heard the names... I am persuaded that a serious study of these trance-phenomena is one of the greatest needs of psychology."

Professor W. James not only speaks with authority as an eminent psychologist, but he has had unusual opportunities for a careful investigation of the case of the well known medium Mrs. Piper, to whom he here refers, and he reiterates, - in a letter to Mr. Myers, published in the "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research," Vol. VI., p. 658, - that:

"I feel as absolutely certain as I am of any personal fact in the world that she knows things in her trances which she cannot possibly have heard in her waking state."

Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S., the other witness I will cite, has also made a prolonged study of Mrs. Piper, and he fully endorses Professor James' opinion; he says:

"Mrs. Piper's trance personality is undoubtedly (I use the word in the strongest sense) aware of much to which she has no kind of ordinarily recognised clue, and of which she, in her ordinary state, knows nothing. But how does she get this knowledge?"

That is the question we have to face, and for this purpose what we have to do is to collect truth-telling, veridical, messages, and critically examine whether their contents were known to the deceased person and not known to the medium, or automatist, nor to the sitters. This is now being done, and has for many years past been done, by careful and skilled investigators connected with the English and American Societies for Psychical Research. The result has confirmed the opinion I have long held, and expressed in my book A New World of Thought (published many years ago), in the following sentences, which remain unchanged:

There is in my opinion evidence of occasional communications from those who have once lived on earth - not as satisfactory as one would wish, and never a complete revelation of their personality, but in general affording the same trivial and fragmentary presentation that we have in our own dreams. But the messages are more than the incoherent mutterings of a man in his sleep. Behind them there is the same evidence of a combining and reasoning power as we have in our own normal self-consciousness; evidence of an unseen personality, with an intelligence and character of its own entirely distinct from that of the subject's normal self.(1) It has been held by some investigators that this person is only part of the personality of the medium, the transcendental Ego of the unconscious self; but, if so, it is, I am convinced, during trance in touch with those who have once lived on earth, evidence of some extra-terrene communicator certainly exists, unsatisfactory and dream-like though the communication often is. As Professor (now Sir Oliver) Lodge has pointed out concerning Mrs. Piper when her "control" is asked as to the source of its information:

(1) See the remarkable cases quoted by Mr. Myers in "Proceedings S.P.R.," Vol. VI, P. 341 et seq.

"She herself, when in the trance state, asserts that she," i.e., her "control," or that part of her which calls itself Dr. Phinuit, "gets it by conversing with the deceased friends and relatives of people present... but even when the voice changes and messages come apparently from these very people themselves, it does not follow that they themselves are necessarily aware of the fact, nor need their conscious mind (if they have any) have anything to do with the process."(1)

(1) "Proceedings S. P. R.," Vol. X, pp. 15 and 17.

This opinion Sir Oliver Lodge expressed in 1894, but the wider experience we have gained in more recent years, especially the evidence of "cross correspondence" (to which I will refer in a moment), has led all serious students of psychical research to the conviction that there is a conscious and designed effort on the part of the unseen communicators to convince us of their survival after death.

In fact the communications appear to fall into two groups, with an indefinite line of demarcation between them. In one group, the cause appears to be the operation of hidden powers that lie wrapped up in our present human personality, and which the peculiar organisation of the medium renders manifest; in the other group the cause appears to be the operation of the same powers, controlled by unseen personalities, who have once lived on earth, or claim to have done so.

That is to say, the unconscious mind of the medium is the instrument from which in the former case and through which in the latter the messages come. We must not, however, conclude that these latter are in every case extra-terrene in their origin, for a telepathic influence from living and distant persons may sometimes be their cause: as, for instance, in the well-known case of Rev. P. H. and Mrs. Newnham, where Mrs. Newnham's hand automatically wrote answers to questions previously written down by her husband, and of the purport of which her conscious self was wholly ignorant. This shows how necessary it is to submit all "spiritualistic" communications to the most rigorous scrutiny before deciding on their probable origin.

The Question of Identity

With full knowledge of all these points before they passed from earth, both Mr. Frederick Myers and Dr. Hodgson were convinced, from their own personal enquiry, that these automatic communications established the fact of survival after death. Since these pioneers in psychical research entered the unseen world, they themselves appear to have specially directed many of the communications, so as to avoid possible telepathy from those on earth, or the emergence of a sub-conscious memory on the part of the medium. This they have done by making evident the presence of a combining and reasoning intelligence, apart from and beyond that of the automatist. The significance of the more recent communications - through Mrs. Piper, the late Mrs. Verrall, and several other automatists - which contain what have been called "cross-correspondences" - is precisely this, that they seem inexplicable except on the recognition that some intelligence, which certainly is not the conscious intelligence of any incarnate mind, has planned, co-ordinated and directed them.

The intricacy and elaboration of these incidents makes them difficult to deal with in a work like this. But it is impossible to pass them by altogether, and an illustration will be given later on. They evince not only the presence of intelligent and selective direction, but also in some cases they contain fresh and impressive evidence indicative of the identity of the intelligence at work. In the last two chapters of my little book on "Psychical Research," in the Home University series, I have given several instances of these "cross-correspondences," and to these chapters the reader is referred. It is however very difficult to compress into a brief narrative the substance of this evidence, and its cogency can only be felt by a careful perusal of the lengthy papers by Miss Johnson and others published in the "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research."

The enormous difficulty of verifying the identity of the intelligence with that of the deceased person it professes to be, is vastly increased when the claimant is invisible, when "personation" seems to be a common practice, when telepathy is admitted, and when the evidence is of a fitful and fragmentary character. Even in the law-courts we have protracted trials, such as the Tichborne case, when the sole question at issue is the identity of a particular claimant. If the identity of the intelligence which communicates through the medium with a person who has once lived on earth can be established, even in a single instance, all other questions sink into comparative insignificance. Those, however, who will take the trouble critically to examine the ample records of the communications made through the mediumship of Mrs. Piper, which have been published, will find that it needs a great deal of ingenuity and a great many hypotheses to get rid of the inference that we are here, in several instances, actually in touch with the veritable persons who assert they have once lived on earth, and whom we know to have done so. This inference is, of course, a matter of individual judgment, in which no doubt each person's mental bias will come into play, be he as judicial as he will.

Here we find a striking illustration that our knowledge of each other is to a large extent incommunicable to other persons. Those who have had repeated sittings with Piper and other genuine mediums for automatic writing or speaking have been convinced of the survival of friends who have passed from earth. On the other hand, those who have not had such opportunities, but have laboriously read the evidence that has been published, may feel its weight and value, though they may not attain the confident conclusion reached by the investigators themselves. The reason is that we know one another not by any verbal testimony of our identity but by an instant recognition, either from appearance or familiar traits of speech or action. If a long absent friend, whom we may have thought dead, is at the other end of a telephone line, and through loss of voice unable to speak to us except through an intermediary, how difficult it would be for him to prove his identity. To do this he would not talk about current events, but cite trivial incidents in his past life which he hoped we might remember. This experiment with the telephone has actually been made, one person trying to identify himself to another at the other end of the line.

As Dr. Hodgson and others have pointed out, the best proof of identity is to be found in accurate references to incidents of a simple nature, which might be recalled by the sitter but are unknown to the medium or to the public generally. And so we notice that in the messages which purport to come from a deceased friend, trivial incidents are recalled, which are likely to have been unknown to any but the sitter. Such communications may seem silly and worthless to the general reader of the record, but they often carry conviction to the person receiving them. Illustrations of this will be given in the succeeding chapters.

Automatic Writing

We now come to another interesting point: if in automatic writing the hand of the automatist is controlled and guided by some discarnate spirit we should expect to find, and we do sometimes find, words written in a language unknown to the writer.(1) Still more striking would be the evidence of supernormal guidance if very young children, as yet unable to write in their normal state, could occasionally have intelligible automatic writing coming through them. This, of course, involves the possession of psychic power by such children, and therefore the instances are likely to be rare.

(1) My friend Mr. W. B. Yeats informs me that he has received, not through a professional medium, the most conclusive evidence of this. Words were given in various languages, e.g., Italian, Greek and Latin, known to the controls but utterly unknown to the medium. See also "Proceedings S.P.R.," Vols. XIII. P. 337; XX. P. 30.

There is however some trustworthy evidence of this kind. Mr. Myers in Human Personality (Vol. II., P. 484 et. seq.) gives a couple of cases which are well attested, wherein children, who had not been taught writing and could not write a word in their normal state, were found to write intelligible words automatically. One was a child nearly five years old who had not learned a single letter of her alphabet, the other a child just four years of age who had no knowledge whatever of writing. This latter case was investigated by Dr. Hodgson, who inspected the writings, which were made with a pencil held between the middle fingers of the child's left hand. Mr. Myers adds: "I have seen a tracing of the last written phrase 'Your Aunt Emma.' It is a free scrawl, resembling the planchette writing of an adult rather than the first effort of a child." The child had an Aunt Emma who had died some years before, and the child herself died soon after this unexpected message had come through her hand. The parents it may be added were not spiritualists, and the mother testifies that their child "had not been taught the alphabet, nor how to hold a pencil."

Further evidence of the super-normal source of these automatic messages will be given in the next chapter; it is obviously of paramount importance to establish the fact of this super-normal source before entering upon the discussion of the contents of the messages themselves.


The article above was taken from Barrett's "On the Threshold of the Unseen." Published by Kegan Paul in 1918.

Other articles by William Barrett

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