Eric Dingwall

Graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Director of Physical Phenomena of the American Society for Psychical Research. Author of many articles and of such books as How to Go to a Medium, and Ghosts and Spirits in the Ancient World.

John Langdon-Davies

Graduate of St. John's College, Oxford, author of The Age of Faith, and Seeds of Life. Was considered one of the greatest and learned science writers of his time.

Your Own "Supernatural" Experiences

 - Eric Dingwall and John Langdon-Davies -

          ONE REASON why we believe in the reality of certain things, such as life after death, hunches, prophecies, fortune-telling, is that we want to believe in them; but it is not the only reason. There can be very few people who have not had some kind of "odd" experience. To anyone who has studied parapsychology the description of most of these oddities is, quite frankly, as boring as the usual account of somebody's last night's dream. One sympathizes with the celebrated reply of Archbishop Temple to the curate. "My aunt," said the curate, "was going to travel on that train which had the accident with every passenger killed, but she changed her mind at the last moment and put off her journey. Don't you think, Your Grace, that that was an example of the working of a beneficent Providence?" "Don't know," replied the Archbishop. "Never knew your aunt."

Anyone who wants to find out the truth about psychical phenomena must begin by seeing why the usual stories are almost always worthless. Let us look at a few of them.

When the wife says to her husband, "Why, dear, I was just going to say the same thing!" are we at once to suppose that we have found a case of thought transference?

No. Husbands and wives who have lived together for some years have a large common fund of experience, of feelings, of interests. Something in the environment produces the same reaction in both, and one speaks first. That explanation is the simplest and will cover almost all cases; and it is often a pleasant and even profitable experiment for both husband and wife to examine the chain of unspoken thoughts which finally led to the spoken one. Often the chains begin far apart until at last a common link of past experience brings them together.

On the other hand, we must not make the mistake of insisting that the simple explanation must always be sufficient. There may be the thousandth or the millionth occasion when a more complicated explanation is needed. There may be one day a flash of telepathy between husband and wife, and we must be careful not to miss it, just as we must be careful not to drag in telepathy where there is no need for it.

The ardent lover sits down and writes to his girl: "Darling I dreamed of you only last night and here this morning is a letter from you!" Telepathy? Perhaps; perhaps not. How often does he dream of her without a letter coming? How often does she write without his dreaming? If she writes every other day and he dreams once a week, there is not the slightest reason for any less simple explanation than coincidence. In fact, there is no reason, even if he dreams once a year and she writes once a year, though perhaps the coincidence might be considered more "remarkable."

But if the man dreams that he has a letter in which the girl tells him some specific thing which he actually finds in her letter next morning, then it may be something less simple than coincidence. Even then it depends on the rarity, the unlikelihood of the message, whether telepathy should be suggested. If the words he dreams and later reads are "I love you" or "I wish you were here with me," the evidence for telepathy would be negligible, for again a simpler explanation would suffice. If the words are "I have bought a green hat and a green handbag" and if this appeared in the dream and in the letter, then we must be a little more careful. We must still refuse to believe in a telepathic communication unless we have taken certain precautions, and it is because almost nobody ever takes these precautions that there is so little unimpeachable evidence of psi phenomena.

A man may well believe he dreamed what he later read in the letter, but did he in fact dream it? Time and again it can be shown that memory is unreliable, that it fills in details, adds the frills which we would like to be true. It may be that in the dream the girl had bought a hat, not a very uncommon thing for girls to do, and it was only after he had the letter that his memory suggested to him that he had dreamed it was a green hat and that a handbag was bought as well.

Now if, on waking in the morning, the man had written down his dream, sealed up the account in an envelope, and posted it to his bank or his lawyer before the letter came; and if it was afterward opened by the lawyer or bank manager and compared with the letter; and if the words were found to have been identical in both - then and only then would a real case for telepathy have been made out. Even then the only thing actually proved would have been a correspondence between a dream and a letter, and it would depend on the nature of the correspondence whether telepathy should be invoked as an explanation. If all the lawyer found in common between the two were the sentence, "I wish you were here," there would still be no reason to drag in telepathy, since the simpler explanation of chance coincidence would suffice.

However, we must never close our minds to the possibility that a dream may be truly telepathic. A famous example known to all students of psychical research is the dream of a Mrs. B, who had a favorite servant named Annie. She dreamed one night that Annie said to her: "I have something on my mind that I must tell you. I have a three-year-old boy named Bertie." She told her husband of the dream and later that day told Annie. Annie turned pale and soon after was found crying in the kitchen. She had indeed got a child named Bertie, three years old, and she had been trying to make up her mind for some weeks to confess.

A year later Mrs. B had another dream while away from home in London. This time the dream was of Annie in very great trouble, and it repeated itself all night. She was so depressed that she decided to break off her visit and go home. There she was greeted by a grief-stricken Annie. "Oh, madam," she sobbed. "Mother tells me Bertie is dying. I was crying and praying all last night for you to come back: I want to go to him!"

If the account as we have given it on the authority of reliable witnesses is accurate, no simple explanation leaving out telepathy can account for all the facts. There is always a chance of such an experience coming to anyone, and part of the object of this book is to show how the value of such an experience may be preserved by appropriate action.

Sometimes people are struck by having dreamed of an event which they then read about in the next day's paper. "I dreamed of a big fire and in the morning paper I saw that a warehouse was burned down in the night." If that is all, the explanation may be exceedingly simple. On a large number of days in the week there are fires reported in the newspapers, and on this particular morning the person happened to be reminded of the dream by reading the newspaper account. How often something happens and we say: "That reminds me. I dreamed about that last night." We forget our dreams so easily that we rarely remember any of them unless something happens to remind us. Unfortunately, we are often "reminded" in this way of dreams which we have never dreamed at all! Or our unreliable memories graft on the real dream details which makes it seem to refer to the subsequent event.

The fact is that it is so hard to avoid these possibilities of self-deception that no account of a dream will have much value as evidence of paranormal phenomena unless it is so vivid that the dreamer writes it down immediately on waking. Dreams of which one is only reminded by reading a paper or by conversation at the breakfast table very seldom deserve general credence, however significant they may seem to the dreamer. The perfect telepathic dream is the one which, written down on waking, is later found to contain such detailed truth about something unknown to the dreamer that coincidence is ruled out.

There is an experience which almost everybody has had and been puzzled by. It is called in psychological circles déjà vu - "I have been here before," or "this has happened to me before." Sometimes there is a feeling that the person knows what is going to happen next.

There are dozens of explanations of this. Some people, with very doubtful anatomical backing, say that one half of the brain gets out of step with the other and produces the same sort of effect as one sometimes hears with a faulty phonograph needle. Others say that the explanation is purely psychological; for example, you are walking along a road, and without knowing it you observe one detail which is exactly like something you saw on a previous occasion - let us say, a tree trunk. It is perfectly true that you have been past the tree trunk before, but the feeling of recognition, by the time it becomes part of your conscious picture of what is happening, has spread all over the picture, so that instead of recognizing correctly a tree seen before, you think you recognize a whole situation which is entirely new to you.

For us it does not matter very much what the explanation is, and none of those which have been suggested seems to us likely. It is, however, important to realize that sometimes, but no doubt very rarely, there is in a déjà vu experience something of interest to students of the Unknown. Here is an example.

Some years ago a lady was going over a house in a remote part of the country with a view to renting it. With her was her husband, a distinguished scientist. As they walked into one room, she said: "Jack, I've been here before, I'm sure of it." She then described the details of other rooms which they had not yet visited. When they went into these rooms the descriptions were found to be correct. Here the feeling of déjà vu was combined with a foreknowledge of experiences which had not yet taken place.

There are a good many such examples, many of them based on reliable evidence, and anyone who experiences a vivid sense of déjà vu should see if he can foretell what is going to happen next, or be seen next, and describe it as clearly as possible to someone with him. It is not impossible that déjà vu is sometimes due to a paranormal faculty, and every effort should therefore be made to preserve any value it may have as evidence.

Another very common experience, especially with highly strung or worried people, is that of feeling "out-of-the-body." People describe how they have felt themselves hovering in the air and looking down on their bodies lying in bed. The experience seems to be rather like a common sort of dream, except that it takes place while the person is awake. This is an example of something which by itself is quite useless as evidence for the paranormal.

What is evidence? It is that which will convince fair-minded people that a certain event really happened. There is no doubt at all that some people do have out-of-the-body experiences, but how can they possibly find evidence which can convince anyone else that what they experienced was not an illusion or a delusion or a dream or indeed a thumping lie?

Of course if, while out-of-the-body, they appeared to someone else miles away from their body, and if the other person saw them, then, provided both people wrote down their account of what happened immediately afterward, there is certainly a case to go before a jury. The jury will have to be convinced that A felt himself leave his body and go to see B, and that B received the visit consciously while definitely awake. If both A and B have written down their experiences and given their accounts to third parties, long before there can be any question of their exchanging messages, then indeed we would have a most interesting case. But, unfortunately, although we have many accounts of such apparitions, there are fewer cases approaching the evidential standard which is required.

Then why do so many people believe in out-of-the-body experiences? Because ever since mankind began to think, such a power has seemed the obvious explanation of dreams. We do seem to visit people in our dreams and to leave our bodies behind in bed; to the primitive mind it seems obvious that what happens in dreams does really happen. Besides, we have no evidence that out-of-the-body experiences do not happen, and this is an important point.

There are things which we can prove cannot possibly happen, and there are other things which we cannot possibly prove do not happen, though we cannot prove that they do, and both sorts of things are equally useless as evidence of paranormal phenomena. That is an elementary point which is forgotten again and again by people recounting their private experiences. "What is the good of your saying I did not leave my body, when I tell you that I did?" is a perfectly sound reproof. There is no good whatever in denying this, for there is no evidence that it did not happen; but, equally, there is no point in bringing it forward as evidence, for there is no proof possible that it did happen.

And what about the night you saw a ghost? It is quite rare to find anyone who has not seen a ghost, or heard of one who has, and yet the number of cases of proved apparitions could probably be counted on your fingers and toes. There is almost completely convincing evidence for the reality of apparitions, but this certainly rests not on the millions of ghosts reported by people since the beginning of history, but on the few which were carefully investigated by reliable people, who were able to rule out every other possibility except that the apparition was an apparition.

If we leave out obviously made-up ghost stories and retain only those which are serious contributions to our understanding of ghosts, we find that quite a number of people have had some kind of dealing with some kind of apparition. At least that was true in England sixty years ago when a Census of Hallucinations was carried out by the (British) Society for Psychical Research. The sample of population questioned numbered 17,000 and of these 1,684 - that is, one in ten - had seen a ghost.

Of course the people asked were by no means a true sample of the general population, and there is no way of knowing whether the percentage would have been higher or lower if everybody in Britain had been asked. It seems, however, that far fewer than 5 million Britons have had such an experience!

There is some evidence that ghosts are dying out. "Naturally," says the unbeliever. "With the coming of education people are a bit more sensible and don't imagine rubbish so often as they used to." That may be true; but we must carefully underline the word may. It is possible that education, and civilization generally, reduces the number of paranormal experiences, but that does not necessarily mean we are giving up false beliefs; it may possibly mean that we are losing the faculty for experiencing certain kinds of true things. It may be our fault rather than our progress. The ghosts may be there, but we do not see them because, just as some people are color-blind, we have become ghost-blind.

But to return to your own ghosts. Few people have less than ten friends, so there is a probability that there is a ghost in your circle of acquaintances. What can you do about him? In succeeding chapters we shall discuss in more detail how the reader's paranormal experiences can be made useful, but some general rules will be given here, since they are the sort of thing that should be remembered throughout this book.

1. If you hear a ghost story, said to be true, ask first of all: Who saw the ghost? Was it the man telling the story? Or is it of the type, to alter slightly a once popular song, of "I danced with a man, who has danced with a girl, who has danced with the ghost of Rudolph Valentino"? What we want is firsthand accounts.

2. Given that it is a firsthand account, what sort of person tells the story? It may help you to know that very few people see a ghost more than once in their lives. Beware of the person who is always adding another "ghost" to his bag.

3. Did anyone else see the ghost, or was anyone else present when the ghost was seen, although he did not see it himself? All evidence needs corroboration.

4. What is the manner of the person telling the ghost story? Does he tell it often, and is it to get the limelight for himself? Most people who have really seen an apparition feel rather serious about it and are reluctant to discuss the matter, at least with strangers.

5. Most ghosts are seen in connection with some serious event, such as a death, a great danger, an accident. If the person who saw the ghost connects it with any such event, did he write down his experience or tell somebody before he could have heard of the event?

6. Was there anything about the man's mental state which might have predisposed him to see the ghost, i.e., great anxiety, loneliness, or expectation of seeing the person whose ghost he has seen?

7. Did he recognize the ghost, or was it just a figure or shape seen vaguely and taken to be someone?

A great deal can be learned from the answers to these questions, and the value of the ghost story as evidence of the Unknown will largely depend on them. The sort of story which is of no use whatever would be this: "I was walking along in the twilight when I suddenly saw on the road in front of me a white figure which seemed to be waving its arms at me. I could not see its face, but I thought it was a man, and then I felt sure it was X. Just as I got up to it, it disappeared. A week later I had a letter from a friend who told me that X had died. I don't know when he died, but it must have been just about when I saw him."

Such a story would not be worth while investigating, although, of course, that is not the same as saying that such a story would certainly be untrue. It is not enough that a thing is true; we want to be able to prove that it is true. Here, for example, is a story included in the Census of Hallucinations which sounds like half the ghost stories we are told from childhood up. It would be no better than those we meet in everyday life and would not be worth quoting, but for one fact. Professor Henry Sidgwick, one of the most reliable of the early parapsychology investigators, interviewed the married sister and was impressed by her corroboration of the details. This raises the story to the rank of "probable" but cannot of course turn it into a certainty.

"A young couple were engaged. Her father withdrew his consent; the mother on her deathbed made its renewal her last request. The father, instead of getting over his sorrow, seemed more and more bowed down with an ever-increasing sense of 'horror.' One day he told his married daughter and her husband that his wife haunted him every morning at four, the hour when she died, always talking of the young couple. They asked him what clothes the apparition wore, and he said, 'The last dress I gave her, and a cap of your making.' On the way home the married daughter told her husband that it was when in that dress and cap that her mother had said to her, 'If I die before your father renews his consent, I shall haunt him till he does.' She was then in perfect health. This was never told to the father, but he was urged to renew his consent. For some months he could only escape the visitations by having someone awake with him in the room. From the day he consented again to the marriage his wife's visits ceased."

This certainly sounds rather like the traditional ghost story; but, as we have said, Professor Sidgwick personally interviewed the narrator, the other married daughter, and considered that there was no fraud, conscious or unconscious, and that there was third-party corroboration.

In this case the whole value of the story depends on one point: was the father ever told of his wife's threat to haunt him? According to the evidence of the married sister who tells the story, the father was never told. Had it been otherwise, the simpler explanation of suggestion would have sufficed and would have had to be accepted. If the father knew that his wife proposed to haunt him, and especially if he had a guilty conscience, that might well have been sufficient to wake him up at 4 a.m. It would seem that he did not enjoy these visits of his departed wife, so that the relations between them may have been strained. (This does not, of course, follow, since, however dear they may be, most people prefer their loved ones to stay put. The origin of the flat gravestone as well as innumerable primitive burial rituals is to prevent the return of the dear departed.)

The case would have been immeasurably strengthened if only the married daughter had at the time of her conversation with her mother written down: "Mama told me today [giving date] that she would haunt Papa after her death if he didn't give consent. She was dressed in [description]. I told my husband this at once and have written it down in his presence. Signed     " But this is exactly what so few people ever dream of doing. It is what you yourself should do if ever you have the luck to see a ghost, or, as here, are told by an elderly person of their intention to become a ghost after death.

There is one more point that should be emphasized: there is no evidence whatever that true apparitions are seen only, or even chiefly, by people in a bad state of mental or physical health. Nervous strain may predispose a person, but not nervous illness. It is not very common for a true apparition to cause fright. The frightening ghosts are usually of the hollowed-out turnip with candle and bed sheet type. Honest ghosts, like Hamlet's father's ghost, usually want to give information or seem, to those who see them, to want to get something done and not to scare the life out of you.

We shall say nothing here of one other "supernatural" experience, since it must occupy our attention in the next chapter. People very often claim to have been cured of a disease by supernatural means. Leaving out cures associated with religions, such as those at Lourdes, there is abundant evidence that people can be cured by means which no doctor could duplicate or explain. The doctor would put all these down to such things as fraud or faulty diagnosis, whereby a person is cured of some disease he never had, or, more respectably, to "suggestion." Again it is not so simple as this. There are cases which not even that useful but vague thing, "suggestion," can explain.


The article above was taken from "The Unknown - Is is Nearer?" (New York: Signet Key Book, 1956) by Eric. J. Dingwall and John Langdon-Davies.


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