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.

Psychology of Trance Phenomena

 - Sir William Barrett FRS -

"We all walk in mysteries. We are surrounded by an atmosphere of which we do not know what is stirring in it, or how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain, that in particular cases we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits, and that a presentiment, nay, an actual insight into the immediate future, is accorded to it." 

Goethe "Conversations with Eckermann," Bohn's Library, P. 290

          MANY DIFFICULTIES and perplexing problems arise in reviewing the brief and imperfect outline of spiritualistic phenomena that I have attempted to give in the preceding pages. These it is desirable to consider in the present and the succeeding chapter.

Some of these difficulties may be removed when we obtain a fuller knowledge of the whole subject. Those of my readers who approach these problems for the first time will of course bear in mind that only a fragment of the already accessible evidence could be presented within the compass of a small volume. Moreover, I have been obliged to omit certain portions of the wide field of psychical research, which have received prolonged and critical investigation, and must be considered in any explanation of spiritualistic phenomena. One of these is telepathy, now largely accepted, and to which I will return in the last chapter; another is alleged clairvoyance. On this latter a few words must now be said.(1)

(1) In a letter published in the London "Times" so long ago as 1876, I said that before we could hope to arrive at any definite conclusions upon alleged spirit communications we must know whether clairvoyance and (what is now called) telepathy really exist.

The term clairvoyance unfortunately is used to denote two distinct aspects of supernormal faculty. In one sense it is employed to express the transcendental perception of distant scenes or of hidden material objects. That such a faculty exists I have not the least doubt; it may be evoked in the higher stages of hypnotic trance or it may occur in certain sensitives in their normal state. Mrs. H. Sidgwick has published a searching investigation of what has been called "travelling clairvoyance,"(1) and in my lengthy researches on the so-called Divining - or Dowsing - rod, I have shown that a good dowser unquestionably possesses a somewhat similar faculty, though one unrecognised by science.(2) The term tel-aesthesia has been suggested by Mr. F. W. H. Myers for this faculty; implying the perception of terrestrial objects or conditions independently of the recognised channels of sense, and also independently of any possible knowledge derived from telepathy.

(1) See Proceedings S.P.R., Vol. VII et seq.

(2) See Proceedings S.P.R., Vols. XIII and XV; also for a brief resume of the whole subject see Chap. XII of my book on Psychical Research in the "Home University Library."

The word clairvoyance has also been used to denote the transcendental vision of beings on another plane of existence. It is alleged that many mediums have this faculty in their normal state, or in their entranced condition, and also in their "waking stage" between the two. Here also the evidence on behalf of such a faculty appears to me indisputable; but, the difficulty of obtaining conclusive evidence on this point is great, owing to the possible intrusion of telepathy, - that convenient and hard worked hypothesis.

I have little doubt that clairvoyance in both its meanings, as well as telepathy, enter largely into, and afford some explanation of, the communications which purport to come from the spirit world. But we must assume telepathy from the dead as well as the living, and we need evidence that the medium actually possesses power as a percipient, or unconscious receiver, of a telepathic impress. It is quite time experimental psychologists and psychical researchers should admit that supernormal phenomena do occur, and test, as well as propose, various theories, now often advanced without proof.

Psychology of Trance Phenomena

Students of psychical research will find the most important and critical examination of the psychology of the trance phenomena of spiritualism in the monograph by Mrs. Henry Sidgwick, which fills the bulky volume of the "Proceedings of the S.P.R." for December, 1915. This laborious research deals with Mrs. Piper's trance phenomena - but applies more or less fully to other genuine mediums - when evidence is afforded of knowledge acquired otherwise than through the senses, whether from the living or from the dead. The object of the paper is to throw light on the question "Whether the intelligence that speaks or writes in the trance, and is sometimes in telepathic communication with other minds (whether of the living or of the dead) is other than a phase, or centre of consciousness, of Mrs. Piper herself."

Mrs. Sidgwick emphatically admits that Mrs. Piper has super-normal means of obtaining knowledge, but comes to the conclusion that Mrs. Piper's trance, and presumably that of other similar mediums "Is probably a state of self-induced hypnosis in which her hypnotic self personates different characters either consciously and deliberately, or unconsciously and believing herself to be the person she represents, and sometimes probably in a state of consciousness intermediate between the two. . . And further . . . she can obtain imperfectly, and for the most part fragmentarily, telepathic impressions. . . Such impressions are not only received by her as the result of her own telepathic activity or that of other spirits - spirits of the living or may be of the dead - but rise partially or completely into the consciousness operating in the trance communications, and so are recognized."(1)

(1) "Proceedings S.P.R.," Vol. XXVIII, P. 330.

Telepathy from the living, and also sometimes from the discarnate, combined with a real or imaginary dissociation of personality of the medium during the trance state, is therefore Mrs. Sidgwick's view of such phenomena. This was. in substance Dr. Hodgson's opinion in the earlier stage of his investigations. But, as Mrs. Sidgwick says, "he had apparently already abandoned this hypothesis when lie published his first report." As is well known, and was previously mentioned, p. 223, Dr. Hodgson and Mr. Myers, like many other critical students, eventually were driven to accept the spirit hypothesis as the most consistent and simplest solution.

Mrs. Sidgwick's conclusions are unquestionably entitled to careful consideration, and doubtless will commend themselves to many psychologists and conservative thinkers. To a large extent, if without presumption I may express an opinion, I believe they are justified, and explain many of the perplexing anomalies, false statements and personation of great names, in these trance communications.

Thus in a sitting with Mrs. Piper, in 1899, the Jewish lawgiver "Moses of old" purported to communicate, and prophesied that in the near future there would be great wars and bloodshed and then the approach of the millennium. But in this great war Russia and France would be on one side against England and America on the other, whilst Germany would not take any serious part in the war. After this "Moses" added a good deal of solemn twaddle.

Then another time Sir Walter Scott purports to communicate and tells Dr. Hodgson that if he wishes to know anything about the planet Mars he was to be sure to call up the novelist, as he had visited all the planets; asked if he had seen a planet further away than Saturn, the soi-disant Walter Scott answered "Mercury"! Julius Caesar also purports to control and Madame Guyon; but another and more frequent control was George Eliot (the novelist), who sometimes acts as the communicator, for she says, "We speak by thought unless we act upon some machine, so-called medium, when our thoughts are expressed to the controlling spirit who registers them for us."

This may be true enough; but the real George Eliot would never speak so ungrammatically as to say, "I hardly know as there is enough light to communicate," or again, "Do not know as I have ever seen a haunted house," words which are reported to be her own. Similar grammatical mistakes are made by other educated controls.

But some of the most conclusive evidence of personation is given by the control who purported to be the Rev. Stainton Moses. The names of three spirit friends (the "Imperator band"), whom the real Stainton Moses could never have forgotten, were given, and "not one of these names is true or has the least semblance of truth," Professor Newbold tells us. Again Dr. Stanley Hall in a sitting with Mrs. Piper, asked if a niece, Bessie Beals, could communicate? She professed to come and gave various messages at several sittings, but she had never existed, Dr. Hall having given a fictitious name and relationship!

Thus it will be seen that we cannot take these communications at their face value, as they are sometimes manifestly false, although presented to the sitter with a dramatic distinctness and corresponding character, which give them a life-like reality. They probably represent phases of the hypnotic self of Mrs. Piper, created by some verbal or telepathic suggestion from the mind of the sitter. In spite of this unquestionable personation of deceased personalities Mrs. Sidgwick admits that "Veridical communications are received, some of which, there is good reason to believe come from the dead, and therefore imply a genuine communicator in the background" (p. 204).

Here it is well to note the meaning attached to the words "control" and "communicator." By the former is meant the intelligence which is, or professes to be, in direct communication with the, sitter through the voice or writing of the medium. By "communicator" is meant the intelligence for which the control acts as amanuensis or interpreter, or whose remarks or telepathic impress the control repeats to the sitter through the medium. This definition, given by Mrs. Sidgwick, is generally accepted.

Difficulties of Communication

The difficulties of communicating are necessarily great, as we cannot suppose that a physical process or physical organs of speech and hearing are employed by the communicators. In fact they tell us, as Swedenborg told us long before telepathy was discovered, that spirits converse by thought. Visual perception is sometimes suggested. One unseen communicator says:

"If you could see me as I stand here, you would every see gesture I make, which is copied by Rector [the control]; he imitates me as I speak to you."

Mental pictures, as Dr. Hyslop has stated, float before the mind of the medium and the difficulty seems to be in selecting the appropriate one. Difficulties of hearing, or telepathic percipience, are also mentioned, especially the difficulty in getting a name. Then there is mind wandering and mental confusion, one communicator, speaking through Mrs. Piper, says:

"I am talking as it were through a thick fog and it often suffocates me," and again, "I can't get the right word, my mind is so confused the conditions are suffocating."

The sceptic of course will assert this is only the clever way the medium assumes to cloak her ignorance, but there is every reason to believe it represents a genuine difficulty in the transmission of ideas from the unseen to the seen. We know the uncertain conditions of telepathy here, and they may exist on the other side when the control is trying to impress ideas on the sub-conscious self of the medium.

Some light is thus thrown on the scrappy, disjointed, and confused nature of many veridical messages. The primary need of establishing their identity probably explains why the communications are so largely fragmentary reminiscences of the earth life of the deceased.

A Recent Classical Script

Whilst the bulk of the communications appear to exhibit a truncated, dream-like intelligence on the part of the deceased,- as if a dream zone intervened between the two worlds, - this is not always the case. Some recent scripts, as in Mr. Gerald Balfour's paper on the Ear of Dionysius, show not only the co-operation of two or more discarnate minds. but also, as stated on P. 220, give positive evidence of an ability and wide classical knowledge, quite beyond the power of the automatist. The cryptic allusions, it is true, need considerable ingenuity, learning and skill to make the evidence intelligible to ordinary minds. This recondite mode of communication may be adopted to prevent suspicion that the message is derived from terrene minds by telepathy or other sources of error. Those who have not the necessary time or knowledge to unravel these mosaics of classical scholarship, must rest content with the assurance that competent and unbiased investigators have been convinced that they afford convincing evidence of the identity of the deceased persons from whom they profess to come.

Other articles by William Barrett

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