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.

The Society for Psychical Research - Human Personality

 - William Barrett -

          THERE CAN be little doubt that the widespread and intelligent interest which in recent years has been taken in psychical research is due to the work of the Society founded for its investigation and to the scholarly presentation of that work in the two volumes on Human Personality which we owe to the brilliant genius and indefatigable labour of the late Frederic W. H. Myers. It is, moreover, a noteworthy fact that the essential portion, the first four lengthy chapters, of Mr. Myers' magnum opus is now included in the examination for the Fellowship in Mental and Moral Philosophy in Trinity College, Dublin, the highest prize in that famous University.

The whirligig of time has indeed brought its revenges more quickly than usual, when we find that a subject which was scorned and ridiculed by the learned world, when the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882, has now become an integral part of advanced psychological study in at least one great University.

The success which the Society has achieved is in no small measure due to the wise counsel and constant supervision of the late Professor Henry Sidgwick. It was singularly fortunate that from the outset and for several succeeding years, one so learned, cautious and critical as Professor Sidgwick was President of the Society; a position also held by Mrs. Eleanor Sidgwick, who has given, and, as Hon. Secretary in recent years, continues to give, the benefit of her wide knowledge and unremitting care to all the details of its work. To these names must be added those of the late Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers - for many years Hon. Secretaries of the Society - whose indefatigable labours and brilliant genius were devoted to laying the foundations of the Society, upon which the latter, ere his sudden death, had begun to build, and we may fain hope is still aiding to build, an enduring edifice.

Those of us who took part in the foundation of the Society were convinced that amidst much illusion and deception there exists an important body of facts, hitherto unrecognized by science, which, if incontestably established, would be of supreme importance and interest. By applying scientific methods to their investigation these obscure phenomena are being gradually rescued from the disorderly mystery of ignorance: but this is a work not of one, but of many generations. For this reason, it was necessary to form a society, the aim of which should be to bring to bear on these obscure questions the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems once no less obscure nor less hotly debated.

The aversion which so many scientific men have felt for psychical research arises, perhaps, from a disregard of the essential difference between physical and psychical science. The only gateways of knowledge according to the former are the familiar organs of sense, whereas the latter indicates that these gateways can be occasionally transcended. The main object of physical science is to measure and forecast, and from its phenomena life and free-will must be eliminated. Psychical phenomena can neither be measured nor forecast, as in their case the influence of life and volition can neither be eliminated nor foreseen.

In fact, the study of human personality and the extent of human faculty form the main objects of psychical research. Its investigations have already thrown much light on these profound problems. Our Ego is not the simple thing "admitting of no degrees" and manifest only in our normal consciousness, which the older psychologists taught. On the contrary, the results of psychical research have led many to accept the view, so ably advocated by Mr. Myers, that the conscious self, with which we are familiar in our waking life, is but a portion of a "more comprehensive consciousness, a profounder faculty, which for the most part remains potential, so far as regards the life on earth," but which may be liberated in full activity by the change we call death.

Others, like Mr. Gerald Balfour, in his Presidential Address to the SPR, suggest a more complex view of human personality. To the solution of this profound problem we are still groping our way, and for the present all theories must be regarded as merely provisional. As a convenient working hypothesis I have adopted Mr. Myers' view, but the reader will please understand that, even in the absence of qualifying words, this view is adopted provisionally and not dogmatically. All, however, will admit the existence of a subconscious life in addition to the primary consciousness with which we are familiar.

Just as experimental physics has shown that each sunbeam embraces a potent invisible radiation, as well as the visible radiation we perceive, so experimental psychology affords evidence that each human personality embraces a potent hidden faculty or self, as well as the familiar conscious self. Mr. Myers, using the psychological conception of a threshold, or limen, has termed the former the subliminal self. This expresses all the mental activities, thoughts, feelings, etc, which lie beneath the threshold of consciousness. This threshold must be regarded not so much as the entrance to a chamber but rather as the normal margin of the sea in the boundless ocean of life. Above this margin or ocean level rise the separate islands of conscious life, but these visible portions rest on an invisible and larger submerged part. Again, far beneath the ocean surface all the separate islands unite in the vast submerged ocean bed. In like manner, human personality rears its separate peaks in our waking conscious life, but its foundations rest on the hidden subliminal life and submerged deeper still lies the Universal ocean bed, uniting all life with the Fount of life. Sleep and waking are the tides of life, which periodically cover and expose the island peaks of consciousness. Death may be regarded as a subsidence of the island below the ocean level; the withdrawal of human life, from our present superficial view, which sees but a fragment of the whole sum of human personality.

Now the subliminal self not only contains the record of unheeded past impressions, a latent memory, but also has activities and faculties far transcending the range of our conscious self. In this it resembles the invisible radiation of the sun, which is the main source of all physical and vital energy in this world. Evidence of these higher subliminal faculties is not wanting; we see them sometimes emerging in hypnotic trance, in works of genius and inspiration and in the arithmetical and musical performances of infant prodigies.

As an illustration of subliminal activity, the following case shows the almost incredible swiftness and ease with which "calculating boys" can work out long arithmetical problems in their head, in far less time than expert adults require, even using pencil and paper. Mr. E. Blyth of Edinburgh (Proc SPR, vol. viii., p. 852) relates this incident of his brother Benjamin:

"When almost six years of age, Ben was walking with his father before breakfast, when he said - 'Papa, at what hour was I born?' He was told 4 a.m., and he then asked, 'What o'clock is it at present?' He was told 7.50 a.m. The child walked on a few hundred yards, then turned to his father and stated the number of seconds he had lived. My father noted down the figures, made the calculation when he got home, and told Ben he was 172,800 seconds wrong, to which he got a ready reply: 'Oh, papa, you have left out two days for the leap years - 1820 and 1824,' which was the case. This latter fact of the extra day in leap year is not known to many children of six, and if any one will try to teach an ordinary child of those years the multiplication table up to 12 x 12 he will be better able to realize how extraordinary was this calculation for such an infant."

In fact, this arithmetical power was not the result of the child's education but rather an innate faculty, or, as Mr. Myers expresses it, a "subliminal uprush." In such cases, the possessor of the gift cannot explain how he attained it, and usually it disappears after childhood. Thus Professor Safford, when a child of ten, could correctly work in his head in one minute a multiplication sum whose answer consisted of thirty-six figures, but lost this faculty as he grew up, though in adult life he needed it most.

The conception of a subliminal self originated with one of the most eminent scientific men of the last generation, Sir John Herschel, who tells us he was led to believe, from a curious experience of his own, that "there was evidence of a thought, an intelligence, working within our own organization, distinct from that of our own [conscious] personality." Certainly the everyday processes of the development, nutrition and repair of our body and brain, which go on automatically and unconsciously within us, are far beyond the powers of our conscious personality. All life shares with us this miraculous automatism: no chemist, with all his appliances, can turn bread-stuff into brain-stuff, or hay into milk.

It must be borne in mind that the term subliminal, as used by Mr. Myers, and now generally adopted, has a very wide scope. It includes well recognized vital and mental phenomena such as: (1) Those sense impressions which were either unheeded, or too weak to arouse conscious perception of them when they occurred, but which float into consciousness during stillness, sleep or hypnotic trance, when the stronger sense impressions are removed. In like manner, the faint light of the stars emerges, with the fading of the stronger light of day. (2) The living but unconscious power that controls the physiological and recuperative processes of our own body and which are profoundly affected by "suggestion." (3) The higher mental faculties which emerge in genius, infant prodigies, hypnotic trance, etc. (4) The disintegration of personality which is seen in dual consciousness, secondary and even multiplex-selves displacing the normal self. All these lie within the scope of orthodox psychology. The term subliminal is also used to denote (5) those submerged and higher faculties of percipience, such as "seeing without eyes," which are alleged to exist in some persons, and also (6) those phenomena which claim an origin outside the mind of the percipient; which origin may be sought (a) in the minds, of other living men, as in telepathy, or (b) in - as some believe - disembodied minds, discarnate intelligences, whether human or otherwise. These latter phenomena (b), if established, I should prefer to call supraliminal, "above the threshold" - but this term Mr. Myers has restricted to, and it is now used to denote, all that relates to our ordinary waking consciousness; this might have been perhaps more appropriately called cisliminal - "within the threshold" of consciousness.

Here and there we find certain individuals, through whom the subliminal self, as regards (5) and (6), manifests itself more freely than through others; these have been termed "mediums," a word, it is true, that suggests Browning's Sludge. But, just as scientific investigation has shown that mesmerists and dowsers are not all charlatans, so it has shown that even paid mediums are not always rogues, though the term "psychic" or "automatist" would certainly be preferable. The scepticism which ridicules the necessity of a "medium" is forgetful of the fact that all physical phenomena which cannot be directly perceived by our senses require the intervention of a physical medium to make them perceptible.

Thus the invisible radiation of the sun can only be investigated through some medium such as a photographic plate, or a delicate thermoscope, both of which render those invisible rays perceptible to our vision. In like manner the subliminal self, as mentioned in the preceding chapter, requires some agency, mechanical or sensory - some autoscope - to render its operation sensible. There is therefore nothing incomprehensible or unscientific in the necessity for an automatist or medium in those phenomena which transcend our conscious apprehension.

This extension of human faculty, revealing, as it does, more profoundly the mysterious depths of our being, enables us to explain many phenomena that have been attributed to discarnate human beings. Does it explain all the phenomena included in the domain of psychical research? I venture to think it does not, but at present we have to grope our way and clear the ground for the future explorer of these unknown regions.

Here let us pause in order to note that among the many eminent men who have, given their adhesion to the Society for Psychical Research, we find a former Prime Minister, the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour, was President of the Psychical Research Society in 1893, and a Vice-President from the outset, while another Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone, was a member of the Society and deeply interested in its work. Nor have the foremost representatives of British, Continental and American Science, held aloof. That eminent savant, Sir William Crookes, O.M., now Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society of London, has been President of the SPR - as we shall call it for brevity - and the President of the Royal Society itself is, as was his predecessor, a member of the SPR, together with, such illustrious scientific men as Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, O.M., Sir J. J. Thomson, Lord Rayleigh, O.M., Sir Oliver Lodge, and many others. We may name among other distinguished Continental adherents of the SPR its former President, Professor Charles Richet, the distinguished physiologist; Mme. Curie, the discoverer of radium; Professors, Bergson, Bernheim, Janet, Ribot and the late Professor Hertz; and in America the late Professor William James, also a former President of the SPR, with Professors E. Pickering and Bowditch. Among great names in English literature and art, who were honorary members of the Society, are to be found Lord Tennyson, Mr. Ruskin and Mr. G. F. Watts. The numerical growth and active work of the SPR is no less remarkable; it now numbers upwards of 1,200 members and associates, and had at various times considerable sums paced at its, disposal, towards an endowment for research work.

Certainly the first decade of the twentieth century will form a memorable epoch in the history of Psychical Research, were it for no other reason than that it has seen the removal of the most eminent investigators of psychical phenomena. Edmund Gurney had gone before, and now Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Richard Hodgson, William James, and Frank Podmore - though his outlook was narrower - have successively passed away, leaving empty places that can scarcely be filled and impoverishing us by the withdrawal of so much wisdom, knowledge and zeal, though happily bequeathing to us their fruit in accomplished work of the utmost value.

But it is not by losses only, or even we may trust chiefly, that these years will be commemorated. They have marked a period of exceptionally rapid progress along the lines laid down for the study of the various subjects comprehended under the term of Psychical Research; more especially in one of its main problems. Evidence bearing on the question of the existence of unseen intelligences, apparently in some cases directing the hand in automatic writing, has accumulated with unusual abundance; its increase in quantity being, moreover, accompanied by an improvement in quality, which is a very notable feature. Now, as on any hypothesis of survival, such a result is just what we might expect to follow the passing into another life of persons deeply interested as well as widely experienced in the difficult problems that confront us, the fact that the result has followed seems in some degree to strengthen the hypothesis of their continued activity and co-operation.

The consideration of this evidence must be postponed to the sequel; the extent of human faculty, seen in other phenomena of psychical research, must first engage our attention; to this we must now turn.

NOTE (by William Barrett): It is desirable to mention that the Society for Psychical Research (referred to as the SPR in the foregoing pages) has no collective opinion for or against the existence of the supernormal phenomena discussed in this little book. In fact the Council of that Society welcomes the severest instructive criticism of the evidence adduced in any of its publications. As Mr. Andrew Lang pointed out in his Presidential address: "The Society, as such, has no views, no beliefs, no hypotheses, except, perhaps, the opinion that there is an open field of inquiry; that not all the faculties and potentialities of man have been studied and explained up to date, in terms of nerve and brain."

The Presidents of the Society have been as follows: Professor Henry Sidgwick, Litt.D., D.C.L.; Professor Balfour Stewart, LL.D., F.R.S.; Right Hon. A. J. Balfour, M.P., D.C.L., F.R.S.; Professor W. James, of Harvard, U.S.A.; Sir W. Crookes, O.M., D.Sc., F.R.S.; Mr. F. W. H. Myers, late Fellow Trin. Coll., Camb.; Sir Oliver Lodge, D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S.; Sir W. F. Barrett, F.R.S.; Professor C. Richet, M.D. (of Paris); Right Hon. Gerald W. Balfour, late Fellow Trin. Coll., Camb.; Mrs. H. Sidgwick, Litt.D., LL.D.; Mr H. A. Smith, M.A.; Hon. Treasurer SPR, Mr. Andrew Lang, M.A., LL.D.; Bishop Boyd Carpenter, D.D.; Professor Henri Bergson, Membre de I'Institut, Paris.


The article above was taken from William Barrett's "Psychical Research" (London: Williams & Norgate, 1911).

Other articles by William Barrett

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