Theodore Besterman

Born in 1904, Lecturer in the University of London School of Librarianship, Librarian, Editor and Investigation Officer of the SPR, author of Bibliography of Annie Besant, 1924; Crystal Gazing, 1924; In the Way of Heaven (Anthology), 1926; The Divining Rod: an experimental and psychological investigation (with Sir William Barrett), 1926; Library Catalogue of the SPR, 1927; Supplements, 1928, 1929 and 1931; trans. Mind and Body: a criticism of psycho-physical parallelism by Prof. Hans Driesch, 1927; The Mind of Annie Besant, 1928; Some Modern Mediums, 1930; ed. Transactions of the Fourth International Congress for Psychical Research, Athens, 1930.

How Psychical Research is Done

- Theodore Besterman -

          MY FRIEND Mr. Heard was very right when he told you, in the first of these talks*, that psychical research is a scandalous subject. For it is surely scandalous that things should be alleged to occur outside the known laws of nature? It is more scandalous that it should still not be absolutely certain that these things do actually occur. And it is most scandalous of all that orthodox science should refuse to investigate the alleged facts and almost to give them so much as a hearing. Yet this attitude is not unnatural. Science has its hands full; indeed, it can hardly cope with the ever-increasing volume of discovery in safe and familiar fields of work.

* This article was part of a series of ten talks on BBC Radio in 1934 on psychical research. See also Gerald Heard's Science and Psychical Research.

Why, then, should the hard-pressed man of science bother his head with phenomena which, if they should be established, would in an instant transform many a supposedly cast-iron theory into a tumbling house of cards? The question contains its own answer. It is just because of their momentous implications that these strange happenings should be investigated. For if they are genuine they represent so many vital factors not taken into account in the structure of science as a whole. Who knows how many a missing link in biology, physiology, physics, may not be found through psychical research? I say nothing of psychology, to which psychical research has already made important contributions. In any case, it is not for the man of science to pick and choose.

Here you have a whole series of odd facts which have been believed not only in the past, not only in all parts of the world, not only by savages and neurotics, but here and now. These facts are vouched for by many sensible and competent people, and are supported by good evidence. In the words of old Burton, who wrote them over three hundred years ago, these things, 'which howsoever in some mens too severe censures, they may be helde absurde and ridiculous, I am the bolder to insert, as not borrowed from circumforanean roagues and Gipsies, but out of the writings of worthy philosophers and Phisitians, yet living some of them, and Re[li]gious Professors in famous Universities, who are able to patronize that which they have said, and vindicate themselves from all cavillers and ignorant persons.' Of course I only complain that orthodox science ignores psychical research, not at all that it sometimes criticizes us a little unreasonably. Every criticism is a stimulus when you are working seriously and honestly, and every loophole pointed out is a loophole stopped. Every new fact before it can be accepted must go through a baptism of fire, and, illogical though it may be, the stranger the fact the fiercer the fire. I claim without hesitation that the Society for Psychical Research has as good a record of self-criticism as any other scientific society in any field.

We may agree, then, that these mysterious happenings should be investigated. Very well. But how? The answer to this question is so difficult and so complex that it has frightened away many a would-be inquirer. And this is why. When you look at the subject-matter of psychical research you realize at once that its various phenomena have only a slight connexion with each other, apart from the feature common to them all that they are connected with human beings, and that they are not accepted by orthodox science. The passing of a thought from the mind of one person direct to that of another; noises of unknown origin in a house; the reading of the contents of a scaled envelope the movement of an object without touching it the seeing of things happening at a distance; the sudden appearance of partial or whole phantoms; the foretelling of the future; the reception of messages from the spirits of dead people; all these, with many others, are studied by psychical research. Please do not think for a moment that I ask you to believe in all these things, or that I myself believe more than a fraction of them. All I say is that these things are alleged to happen, and are alleged on evidence which is good enough to be entitled to a fair hearing.

It is therefore obvious that anybody who sets out to investigate these phenomena needs wide knowledge, infinite patience, and, by no means least, a sense of humour. All sorts of methods are needed to cope with so large a variety of happenings. Take clairvoyance. A man comes to the Society for Psychical Research and claims to be able to read the contents of a sealed envelope. Well, you may say, that is an easy thing to test. All you have to do is to write something on a piece of paper, put it into an envelope, hand it to him, and tell him to go ahead. Supposing now that he correctly tells me what I wrote, do you suppose that his clairvoyance would be established? Not at all. The medium may have followed my hand as I wrote, he may have seen the marks on the next sheet of the pad if I am a heavy writer, there may have been a mirror behind me as I wrote. And I will add another possibility of this type, not because it is likely to happen at all often, but simply to give you an idea of the sort of thing one is up against. As you know, when you look at any object that object is reflected, on a much reduced scale, in the pupils of your eyes. Well, it has been experimentally established that some people can read the reflection of any writing in the eyes of the person who is looking at that writing. So I must not allow the clairvoyant to see my eyes while I am writing my test message!

So far I have mentioned only my end of the experiment. But I have also to bear in mind the possibility that my visitor may be a fraud, a sad possibility, but a very real one which is only too often realized. He may be able to open and reclose the envelope without my noticing what he is doing; this sounds unlikely. But I assure you that it is perfectly possible and that it is in fact done. My clairvoyant may even be able to read the contents of the envelope normally without so much as opening it. There are certain substances which make paper temporarily transparent and have the convenient property of drying very quickly and leaving no trace. AI these things have to be guarded against. And I should like to make it clear that they can be guarded against. Quite recently, for instance, the Polish amateur medium Ossowiecki succeeded in reading words and a drawing written on a piece of paper which was twice folded and then enclosed in a black envelope, which was in turn, enclosed in a red envelope, which was finally enclosed in a stout doubled manilla envelope, each envelope bearing private and invisible marks to detect any sort of fraud.

But even then we are still unable to assume the presence of clairvoyance, for how do we know that the medium did not get the information direct out of my mind and not at all from the envelope? If he did it would, of course, be a case of telepathy and not of clairvoyance, for telepathy consists of the transmission of thoughts direct from one mind to another. You wake up, for instance, with the vivid memory of a dream in which you saw your brother in India lying in bed with a bandage round his left arm and his right shoulder. If in due course you hear that this was in fact his situation at about the time of your dream, then we suppose, if chance coincidence can be excluded, that you had received a telepathic impression from your brother. There are hundreds of authentic cases of this kind on record; they form easily the most firmly established phenomena in psychical research, as you will hear from Mrs. Salter. When a case of this sort is reported to us, we adopt the ordinary methods of a legal or historical inquiry. Did you make a note of your dream at the time or immediately after? Did you note the date and time? Did you tell anybody of the dream before it came true? Have you got the letter from your brother announcing his accident? Could we obtain independent evidence of it? These are the sorts of questions you would be asked if you came to us with similar experiences, as I hope many of you will; and unless they can be satisfactorily answered we should not regard them as up to the Society for Psychical Research standard of evidence.

Happenings of this kind are rather vaguely called the mental phenomena of psychical research, and, generally speaking, they can be investigated only in the sort of way I have described. Of course there are exceptions, as when we make gramophone records of alleged spirit voices for leisured study and analysis. In a similar way Gerald Heard and I investigated the voices heard in the trance of our leading mental medium Mrs. Osborne Leonard, one of those rare mediums above all suspicion of fraud and willing to undergo every test. We used for this purpose two pairs of sensitive microphones, rather like the one I am now speaking into, to fix the exact point from which the voices were coming. Again, valuable results are expected from the measurement of the electrical resistance of the medium's skin in trance. But as a rule only, indirect investigation is possible. Some people hold this up as a reproach against the subject; but in this they are mistaken. The whole of history, the whole of law, much of astronomy, and parts of other sciences, are based on exactly the same sort of procedure. Yet nobody will claim that history, law and astronomy are therefore unworthy of serious attention. Still it is true that most confidence is inspired by phenomena which are capable of being observed and measured by instruments and of being repeated at will. Are there any phenomena of psychical research in this happy state? The answer is yes and no, an answer in the best traditions of modern physics. Yes, because most of the so-called physical phenomena are certainly capable of being controlled by instruments; no, because it is not yet certain that they have in fact been controlled. Quite a number of years ago an eminent man of science, a President of the Royal Society, Sir William Crookes, used apparatus to investigate the medium D. D. Home. He arranged, for instance, a lever which could be depressed only if pressure were applied at a certain point. Sir William reported that Home had succeeded in depressing the lever although it had been made impossible for him to touch it. Nor was Crookes by any means the first to do work of this kind.

Since then investigations on similar lines have been multiplied, though only in the face of great difficulties. The individuals, the so-called mediums, who are alleged to be able to produce these phenomena seem to be very rare; and those who are known are exceedingly difficult to get hold of. The reasons for this difficulty, though highly exasperating to us, are natural. There are many people who are interested in this subject in a non-scientific manner; some go in for it for the sake of the excitement they succeed in finding in it; others for the sake of consolation, believing that the effects are due to the spirits of the dead; yet others, including a few who pretend to be serious investigators, for the sake of the passing notoriety and the publicity they can get out of it. These people represent a considerable demand for mediums, and as the supply is limited, the result can be imagined. But it is not always the man with the longest purse who wins. If a medium has to choose between Mr. A, who is well known as a fervent and facile believer, and Mr. B, who is equally well known as a severely critical investigator, who will accept nothing if it is at all doubtful, and who will submit the medium to every necessary test and control, is it not natural that the medium should choose to go to Mr. A? In fact, in recent years few mediums for physical phenomena have been willing to allow themselves to be investigated by the Society for Psychical Research. If you conclude from this that many of them were perhaps nervous as to the discoveries that might be made, in plain language that they were fakes, I will not venture to contradict you. Still, a few mediums of even this kind have been investigated, chief amongst them Rudi Schneider, of whom Lord Charles Hope will tell you more in the next talk. A fairly comprehensive technique of investigation has been worked out. The greatest achievement is undoubtedly one reached within the last few months in the séance-room of the Society for Psychical Research. I refer to the successful attempt to take moving pictures at full speed in a feeble red light. I confidently anticipate that we shall shortly be able to take films in complete darkness; and then the day of the fake medium will be over.

Another discovery, though not one which is yet established, is that made by Dr. Osty, of Paris, who found by chance that in the presence of Rudi Schneider there occurred interruptions of an exceedingly odd kind in a beam of invisible infra-red light. The medium was so placed that he was unable to interfere with the invisible ray, and yet it was found on the apparatus which measured this ray that something had over and over again gone into it and come out again. Photographs were taken at the moment when the ray was interfered with, but nothing abnormal could be seen on the plates when they were developed. These effects appear since then to have been verified in London, and active work is now proceeding on the investigation of this odd phenomenon.

It may seem surprising to you that we have not achieved more, and more definite, results, although the experimental technique has been taken so far as this. This fact is due to various causes, but chief of them, I think, is our lack of a working hypothesis, of a theory to guide us in our work. Take, for instance, dowsing, or water-divining. Here you have a phenomenon which appears to be established beyond doubt. Major Pogson, at one time the official water-diviner of the Government of Bombay, over and over again succeeded in finding water in practical quantities after expert geologists and water engineers had failed. And this, please remember, in the arid waterless plains of India. Similar acts are recorded from all over the world, including England, where there have been and still are dowsers who will undertake to find water for you on 'no water, no pay' terms. The reality of the phenomenon has been acknowledged even in the august columns of Nature, justly regarded as the leading scientific paper in the world. Yet it is impossible to arouse serious scientific interest in the subject and impossible to obtain funds for its urgently needed further investigation. Why is this? It is, I think, because the phenomenon is so much outside the bounds of our scientific experience, that we cannot frame an adequate working theory for it. One investigator holds that this curious ability to find underground water is due to electricity; how, he cares not. Another refers it to some unspecified form of radiation. A third maintains that it is somehow connected with terrestrial magnetism; somehow, yes, but how? A fourth says it is clairvoyance; very likely, but what is clairvoyance? And so on.

The position of water-divining is typical of the whole of psychical research. Intensive investigation is necessary to produce the crucial details, but we cannot get the means to do the work until these details are produced. This vicious circle must be broken; we are doing our best to break it with the very limited means at our disposal; but there is no subject which so urgently needs help. In the early days of the Society for Psychical Research, Professor Henry Sidgwick, its first President and its greatest friend, one of the finest characters of his generation, wrote in his private journal: 'No one is saying ... "Psychical Research is the most important thing in the world; my life's success and failure shall be bound up with it." Yet I am convinced that only in this temper shall we achieve what we ought to achieve.' Well, a few of us are saying this now; but, once more, we need help, help in work, and help in money.


The above article was taken from Theodore Besterman's (ed.) "Inquiry into the Unknown. A BBC Symposium" (London: Methuen & Co., 1934).

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Science and Psychical Research by Gerald Heard

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