Hornell Hart

Hornell Hart

(1888-1967) Received his Ph.D. degree from the State University of Iowa in 1921, and for nineteen years he was Professor of Sociology at Duke University, North Carolina. During this period he also served on the Advisory Board of The Journal of Parapsychology, and in this capacity worked in close association with Dr. J. B. Rhine. Held a number of other important university posts, and wrote several major books on social and psychological problems. Coined the term "super-ESP" in 1959. Also coined the term "ESP projection" and contributed articles for several leading parapsychological journals.

Survival Versus Super-psi

- Hornell Hart -

The Debate Comes to a Climax

          THAT AT least a few unquestionably honest mediums have transmitted life-like and highly evidential communications which claim and seem to have come from personalities who have survived bodily death has been shown in Chapters 5, 6 and 7. But Chapter 8 has brought forth a seemingly cataclysmic rejoinder: mediums have also transmitted life-like and highly evidential communications from alleged surviving spirits, some of whom, on investigation, have been shown to be imaginary, others to be still physically embodied, and still others mere secondary personalities of the medium.

Where does the evidential material come from, if not from surviving spirits? Some of the facts communicated had been known to no living person before the medium transmitted them. Can the anti-survivalists offer any explanation which will account for both the plausible messages and those from the pseudo-spirits?

A two-pronged answer has been provided by the sceptics: they claim that both kinds of communications might be accounted for by super-ESP and by unconscious dramatization. Let us examine more closely this two-pronged explanation.

Can 'Super-psi' Explain Away all 'Spirit Messages'?

The hypothesis stated
Professor E. R. Dodds, Gardner Murphy, and other scientifically minded doubters of survival, have developed the theory that the dramatizing powers of the unconscious, making use of a comprehensive form of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and retrocognition (which I shall call super-ESP), may create pseudo spirit personalities, which convince wishful believers, but which give no genuine evidence of survival beyond bodily death. Dr. Murphy, Dr. Louisa Rhine, and others have argued that a similar process creates (or might create) apparitions of the dead which (if this theory were pushed to its limit) would provide no evidence for survival. In recent decades they have come to believe that telepathy, clairvoyance, retrocognition and even precognition operate in ways which can gather pertinent information from anywhere in the world. And they have come to believe that the information thus comprehensively gathered is organized into plausible pseudo-communicator form by the dramatizing capacity of the medium's (and perhaps the sitter's) unconscious mind. Let us review the highlights of the discussion through which these ideas have become prominent.

Richet formulated super-ESP ponderously
As early as 1923 Charles Richet asserted that, rather than accept survival,

'I should prefer to suppose an extreme perfection of transcendental cognitions giving a multiplicity of notions grouping themselves round the imaginary centre of a fictitious personality...'

The above, somewhat ponderous, phraseology may be taken as an early definition of super-ESP.

Saltmarsh objected
This conception of a kind of omniscient telepathy seemed incredible to many psychical researchers. For example, Saltmarsh, in 1931, after having referred to telepathy from the sitter, continued:

'Where the knowledge necessary for verification is not in the possession of the sitter but is acquired subsequently from other sources, the evidence for survival may be considerably stronger. It turns on the question of the probability of the necessary connecting links between the medium and the possessor of the knowledge...

Now unless we are prepared to credit the medium, the sitter, or the stranger or some person en route between them, with what amounts to potential omniscience, we have to postulate a very complex and unlikely series of links to account for the phenomenon.

If we hold that the mind of the medium goes out, as it were, in search of information, and invades the memories of living persons, we still have to explain the fact that he discovered this hidden source. He had the whole world in which to search and nothing to guide him, or at least, that is how it appears to us with our very limited, almost non-existent knowledge of the conditions.'

Dodds's 'guesses' about super-ESP
In his explanation of 'Why I Do Not Believe in Survival', Professor Dodds (though confessing his lack of adequate supporting data) formulated the super-ESP idea more fully, yet more simply, than Richet had done:

'A further objection to the telepathic hypothesis is that it appears to involve an otherwise unexampled selective action of the medium's mind, in supernormally deriving from other human minds precisely those remembered facts which are required for the building up of a particular trance personality. This was the spearhead of Hyslop's argument for the Piper phenomena, and has often been urged since.

But I do not think that the available evidence in the least requires me to picture the subconscious mind of the medium hunting through the subconscious mind of the assumed agent, as through a lumber room, until it finds precisely the bit of information which it needs in order to give verisimilitude to the impersonation of some deceased friend of the agent. I am equally free to imagine that when rapport is established between the medium's subconscious mind and that of the assumed agent, the nature of the material transmitted is determined by the relative emotive force of the agent's various complexes, or by the fact that the material belonged to an associative complex, some elements of which are already in the medium's mind, or by any other cause that you like to suggest. Selection does undoubtedly operate at some stage before the material is presented in trance; but I see nothing to prevent its operating after the material has become part of the furniture of the medium's subconscious mind. I am free to imagine, in the first place, that the particular complex of feelings and images which underlies a particular trance personality attracts to itself only such elements of the newly acquired material as have some associative relevance to its existing content; and secondly, that the "control" who sits in the gateway of trance - Feda or Topsy, Phinuit or Rector - operates on occasion, like the Freudian "censor", to prevent the emergence of irrelevant or disturbing matter which might interrupt the illusion and break the continuity of the medium's dream.

These are no more than guesses, although they derive a certain amount of support from the known mechanism of the normal dream. I claim no more for them than that they cover the observed facts as well as any other hypothesis, and better in one important respect than the hypothesis of possession. The degree of relevance and continuity to be observed in most trance communications is, to say the least, extremely limited. In Mr. Saltmarsh's words, "One of the most striking features of communications received through trance mediums is their disjointedness." This is what I should expect from the sort of psychological machinery I have suggested; it is not what I should expect if the communicators are what they say they are.'

Gardner Murphy's inductions about super-ESP
By 1945, in his 'Difficulties Confronting the Survival Hypothesis', Dr. Murphy formulated the super-ESP hypothesis in terms of a generalization emerging from case evidence:

'We should not be misled by our tendency to form an image of physical space in which the poor sensitive wanders, like Diogenes with his lantern, trying to find - among two billion human beings - a mind possessing the necessary information. Rather, it appears that space is utterly irrelevant to the issue; the mind makes contact with that which is relevant to its purpose. If a cluster of ideas relevant to a given central theme exists, it appears reasonable to believe (in line with Carington's [1944] conception, for example) that ideas which are related tend to function as a unit.

It must again be stressed, lest the point be regarded as sheerly hypothetical, that we have direct evidence that this process of filching and sifting among the minds of the living does actually occur.'

Murphy then cited certain cases from which he argued the principle of super-ESP might be a legitimate deduction. He said:

'We have already seen that the capacity to pick up needed material is highly developed in good sensitives; in fact, we cited evidence that such appropriate material can be "filched" from the minds of both present and distant living people... Whatever difficulties we may have with such an interpretation, the power is clearly there. The same sort of ability to go out and get specific needed material is witnessed in good psychometric ["object-reading"] studies; for example, in those reported by Pagenstecher and Walter Franklin Prince, and those more recently given us by Hettinger in England.'

Super-ESP as a 'searchlight' capacity
In his 1957 paper on mediumship, Murphy made use of a new term to refer to super-ESP:

'Information about either the deceased or the living can be obtained by a sort of searchlight process... We are not manufacturing this searchlight out of wishful thinking; the character Phinuit to whom I earlier referred, who appears never to have existed, gave, through the Piper trance, a good many of these rather striking searchlight effects, and the Blanche Cooper of the Gordon Davis case and the Mrs. Halsey of the Réallier case were apparently operating exactly in the manner of searchlights for the sweeping in of paranormal information. It seems to me that we have to know considerably more about the operation of these searchlights before we can say that mediumistic phenomena are in themselves cogent evidence of survival and communication.'

J. B. Rhine on super-ESP
Dr. J. B. Rhine himself, in 1949, summed up this argument as follows:

'There is nothing as yet on record from the studies of mediumship that cannot be explained by the sort of "omnibus hypothesis" into which we have expanded the old counter-hypothesis of telepathy.'

That the views which Dr. Rhine expressed in 1949 had not changed fundamentally during the next eight years is indicated by an Associated Press dispatch from Boston, dated 13 October, 1957. That dispatch quoted him as having said that he and his scientist wife had worked on the survival problem for thirty-five years without reaching a scientific solution. The dispatch continued:

'"It is quite plain," Prof. Rhine said, "that any theory of survival today would appear to have a fantastically greater set of odds against it than it had a hundred years ago".'

Details Provided by Super-ESP are Dramatized

In the present chapter we are concerned with understanding as clearly as we may the position of the disbelievers. Thus far, in summarizing their points, we have been focusing attention on the evidence which they have put forth in support of their belief in super-ESP. But they not merely present evidence of the reality of mediumistic power to assemble extra-sensory data; they also stress the fact that these data are organized into dramatic form.

Unconscious dramatizing power is obvious in dreams
Commenting on this issue, Professor H. H. Price wrote, in 1958:

'On this interpretation, mediumistic phenomena are very closely analogous to dreams. The medium is, as it were, dreaming aloud. Ordinary dreaming is the most obvious illustration of the dramatizing power of the human mind, and the most cogent evidence we have for the existence of such a power. If dreams were not such familiar phenomena, it would be quite incredible that even the most commonplace human mind has that astonishing dramatizing capacity. We know that telepathically-received material is often worked into the dream-drama (sometimes it gets distorted in the process).'

Dr. van Eeden believed that he had evidence of this
In 1901 Dr. F. van Eeden reported the results of sittings which he had had with Mrs. Thompson. Van Eeden had brought from Holland a necktie which had been worn by a friend of his who had committed suicide. Reporting on these sittings, he said:

'During the first period of experiments, in November and December, 1899, I felt a very strong conviction that the person whose relics I had brought with me and who had died 15 years ago,' was living as a spirit and was in communication with me through Mrs. Thompson... But when I came home, I found on further inquiry inexplicable faults and failures. If I had really spoken to the dead man he would never have made these mistakes... I came to the conclusion that I had dealt only with Mrs. Thompson, who, possessing an unconscious power of information quite beyond our understanding, had acted the ghost, though in perfect good faith...

Up to the sitting of June 7th all the information came through Nellie, Mrs. Thompson's so-called spirit control. But on that date the deceased tried, as he had promised, to take control himself, as the technical term goes. The evidence then became very striking. During a few minutes - though a few minutes only - I felt absolutely as if I were speaking to my friend myself. I spoke Dutch and got immediate and correct answers. The expression of satisfaction and gratification in face and gestures when we seemed to understand each other was too true and vivid to be acted. Quite unexpected Dutch words were pronounced. Details were given which were far from my mind, some of which, as that about my friend's uncle in a former sitting, I had never known, and found to be true only on inquiry afterwards.

But being now well on my guard, I could, exactly at this most interesting few minutes, detect, as it were, where the failures crept in. I could follow the process and perceive where the genuine phenomena stopped and the unconscious play-acting began. In hardly perceptible gradations the medium takes upon herself the role of the spirit, completes the information, gives the required finish, and fills in the gaps by emendation and arrangement...

At the present moment it is about eight months since I had my last sitting with Mrs. Thompson in Paris, and yet, when I read the notes again it is impossible for me to abstain from the conviction that I have really been a witness, were it only for a few minutes, of the voluntary manifestation of a deceased person.

At the same time, I feel sure that genuine direct information is far rarer and scarcer than the medium believes, and in good faith would have us believe. I held that a certain amount of unconscious play-acting is nearly always going on at every sitting of every medium, and that even our most scrupulous and careful observers, such as Myers and Hodgson, have been misled by it. I doubt not only the veracity but the actual existence of the so-called control spirit. To me it seems not improbable that they are artificial creations of the medium's mind.'

Dr. van Eeden thus (as he himself noted) wavered between belief and disbelief in the existence of genuine communication with departed spirits.

Podmore had no such doubts
In 1911 Frank Podmore, having cited van Eeden's experiences and other evidence, wrote:

'The investigators themselves now recognize that the primitive theory of possession, the theory advocated in a modified form by Dr. Hodgson and still held by most spiritualists can no longer be defended. They have substituted for it a theory of telepathic interaction between the mind of the automatist and other minds, of the living or of the dead. The result is a compound, in which the different elements can only be separated by patient analysis...

But the propounders of this theory do not seem to realize the full implications of their admission. We cannot simply drop the theory of possession as if the facts on which it was originally based had never existed, and then proceed to balance the successes against the failures, as in a telepathic experiment. If these impersonations, as is now admitted, are not what they pretend to be, they are shams, and we are faced with a gigantic system of make-believe... I see no proof in these reports that there is any adequate recognition ... of the extreme improbability involved in the assumption that one out of 10,000 lay figures, in outward appearance indistinguishable from all the other lay figures, should for a passing moment be endowed, with life, and should then again sink back amongst the crowd of lifeless mockeries; for that, and nothing less, seems to be the implication in some of the arguments put forward.'

Lady Trowbridge raised doubts about Drayton Thomas's realistic theory
While Drayton Thomas spent more years in studying Mrs. Leonard's mediumship, and published more articles about it, than any other psychical researcher did, some highly important studies of the Leonard mediumship were made by Lady Una Trowbridge and by Mrs. W. H. Salter. These researchers were fully sympathetic with Mrs. Leonard and with Drayton Thomas's painstaking studies of her trance utterances; but they were less inclined to accept literally what Feda said about the ways in which she secured the unquestionably supernormal information which appeared so abundantly in the Leonard records. In an outstandingly important study which Lady Trowbridge published in 1922, two highly significant points stand out..

1. Though Feda talked as though she saw and heard the spirits who were giving her communications, Lady Trowbridge cited a number of incidents which made her doubtful as to whether these simple sensory terms conveyed any accurate analogy of the process really involved. She concluded that it was much more likely that Feda received a series of impressions telepathically, one at a time, and that she then put these impressions together into the form of visible and audible objects and people.

2. Absurd, irrelevant, and erroneous elements, which frequently cropped up in the communications, appeared to Lady Trowbridge to be due to Feda's picking up some wandering thought in the mind of the communicator. Lady Trowbridge wrote:

'I confess that I find it easier, at any rate in the case of the lengthy and detailed descriptions pertaining to one topic, to conceive of them as emanating intentionally and consciously from some agent having the power to choose what impressions shall or shall not reach Feda.

Upon this hypothesis it would appear that, so long as the communicator can keep some given portion of his mind exclusively upon the one fact or event which he desires to give or to describe as evidence, Feda's descriptions will be relatively clear and accurate. Should, however, the communicator's mind wander ever so little, his irrelevant thought would be as likely to reach Feda as any thought relative to the subject in hand, and when it does so will appear in some form in her narrative.'

Lady Trowbridge then cites evidence that when these errors due to mind-wandering appear in the script, the communicator gives evidence of being excited and frustrated. Apparently this emotional disturbance makes it still more difficult to correct the erroneous communications.

Gardner Murphy has stressed dramatized want-fulfilment
In the above account of Lady Trowbridge's findings, it will be noted that, while she finds reasons to doubt Drayton Thomas's realistic interpretation of Feda's statements, she does accept the hypothesis that real communicators are involved. She thus is a believer in Survival.

Doubters of survival, however, have increasingly held the opinion that the dramatic organization of super-ESP information need not indicate the presence or the purposive activity of surviving spirits. Gardner Murphy, in 1945, summarized this position as follows:

'The deep-level wants of the sensitive [i.e., the medium], induced in response to the deep-level wants of the sitter, reach out into relevant psychological material, bringing it together in organized form, and presenting it in the form of a purporting communicator... The medium is completely devoted to the purpose in hand (for normal personal consciousness is gone); the trance personalities probably believe themselves at the time to be the entities desired, and respond with energy to the demand to make themselves known.'

In support of the above thesis, Murphy and other doubters of survival, cite the evidence summarized in Chapter 8, relating to pseudo-personalities communicating through mediums. But they offer also a further development of this argument:

The whole spiritistic conception has been dismissed as a cultural artefact
The fact that non-spiritualistic forms of mediumship have flourished at various times and places has been stressed by Dodds, in 1934, and by Flew, in 1953 (borrowing freely from Dodds). But the best statement of the point which I have found was made by Murphy in 1945:

'Paranormal phenomena have been reported for some thousands of years; people asleep or in trance, or under the influence of drugs or fumes, together with a smaller number of people in a state of apparently normal consciousness, have appeared to be invaded by intelligences which desire to communicate. The kinds of intelligence which appear to communicate seem to depend largely upon the expectations of the social group. Often the purporting communicators through special sensitives have been nature spirits, demons, devils, angels, gods, and goddesses. The vast array of psychical phenomena - telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psycho-kinesis, etc. - has been manifest through recorded history as an aspect of special mental conditions, which suggests to observers that forces beyond the individual are at work, but often with no thought of marshalling, evidence for survival. Under the special cultural - especially the scientific - conditions of the last century, as expressed by the work of societies for psychical research, mediums have been constrained to use the paranormal gift primarily for securing messages from deceased human beings; their task is to give survival evidence...

Self-induced states of passivity, in which automatic writing speaking, and posturing occur are more or less alike everywhere. One gives oneself the suggestion, throughout the training period, that one will serve as mediator for a given divinity or demon; and with few exceptions the primitive or the advanced practitioner receives in some measure the sort of unseen power upon which he awaits. The manifestations carry to onlookers the sense of verisimilitude; one recognizes the characteristic earmarks of the divinity or demon, exactly as the sitter in a spiritualistic circle recognizes those earmarks which make a convincing demonstration of personal continuity.'

The Survivalists Responded to the Super-ESP Challenge

Drayton Thomas offered counter-evidence
Faced with accumulating evidence and arguments as to the existence of super-ESP, researchers who believed in survival still protested that no such process could explain away the best communications received through the best mediums. In 1947, Drayton Thomas published this:

'Study of [previous publications about the mediumship of Mrs. Osborne Leonard] shows that telepathy from sitters can no longer be held to explain the results obtained.

Other suggestions have been put forward in the endeavour to provide an alternative to the idea that purported communicators are actually present at the sittings and giving the information which comes from the medium's lips. These suggestions include telepathic action of an almost unlimited character, whereby the information is supposed to be derived from any person, however unknown and distant, who might at any time have possessed the information; while other suggestions go to the extreme of positing universal consciousness, or unlimited community of mind, or a pooled memory of the human race from which the medium selects appropriate items!

The hypothesis we now put forward, together with an outline of the facts on which it is based, substitutes for these vague suggestions a claim for the accuracy of that which had been consistently stated by the Communicators; namely, that the messages are given by discarnate persons who come to the sitting for this purpose. It also supports the assertion of Communicators that they still have bodies - bodies of substance - although not formed of earthly matter.'

Mr. Thomas then proceeded to offer the direct-voice evidence from Mrs. Leonard's sittings, which has been summarized in Chapter 6.

Through Mrs. Willett the purported spirits themselves admitted the existence of super-ESP
Bark in 1938 Tyrrell was using the term 'telaesthesia' to refer to what might have been called 'super-ESP.' He cited three cases from the A.V.B. sittings with Mrs. Leonard, and then he commented:

'These three last cases show that the theory that the information given by trance-personalities is necessarily obtained telepathically from the subconscious minds of the sitters, needs at least considerable expansion; for items of information appeared in these cases which were only known to complete strangers. This necessitates a much wider field of telepathic operation - a field not limited by the interest and affection of the supposed agents. In fact, one can scarcely suppose that the unconscious stranger from whom this wider information comes is playing the part of an active agent in the affair. It looks as if the telepathic theory would have to be augmented by what ... we have defined as "Telaesthesia" - that is to say, by a reaching out on the part of the trance-personality to prehend the information it needs in whatever mind happens to contain it...

The faculty of telaesthesia, if it exists in this unrestricted form would seem to represent a range of extra-sensory power of quite extraordinary universality and extent, and evidently if mediums possess it, the theory that communications are due to telaesthesia among the living would be greatly strengthened. It is interesting therefore, to notice that Gurney-w, [Gurney, purportedly communicating through Mrs. Willett] enthusiastically endorses it. In a long Daylight Impression on 8 October, 1911, the following occurs:

"Oh he says, telaesthesia is a bed-rock truth, a power of acquiring knowledge direct without the intervention of the discarnate mind.

Oh he says, telepathy's one thing - that's thought communication; telaesthesia is knowledge, not thought, acquired by the subliminal when operating normally in the metethereal...

Oh he says, you none of you make enough allowance for what [telaesthesia] implies, and the results of that can be shepherded and guided up to the threshold of normal consciousness...

What I'm saying may be used to cut at the spiritualistic hypothesis, but it doesn't. Again, who selects what of the total telaesthetically acquired knowledge shall externalize itself - shall blend itself with those elements received by direct telepathic impact!"'

From the above quotation it seems evident that Tyrrell had borrowed the term telaesthesia from the Willett communicators themselves - or, more probably, both he and they had taken over (with modifications) the term coined by F. W. H. Myers in 1903.

Here, Then, is the Crux of the Anti-Survivalist Argument

As far as genuine mediumistic evidence is concerned, the position of the anti-survivalists stands out in the opinions cited in this chapter. The trance state, and the other forms of mental dissociation characteristic of mediumship, set free the dramatizing tendency of the unconscious mind. This tendency (according to the anti-survivalists) responds to the suggestions provided by the cultural setting in which the medium works and by the conscious and unconscious desires of the sitter. The fact that spiritualism and the earlier stages of psychical research were concerned with survival of personality beyond bodily death has provided the suggestions needed to bring about the dramatization of pseudo spirit communicators.

The evidential material embodied in mediumistic communications does not come from surviving spirits (according to the anti-survivalists). Rather, it is provided by super-ESP - a faculty which assembles the information and the personality patterns required for the production of both the demonstrably fictitious 'communicators,' and also of the ostensibly spirit personalities which have convinced Drayton Thomas and other researchers of the reality of survival.

A constructive rejoinder will come later
When the seemingly powerful mediumistic case in favour of survival was being presented, the reader was advised to suspend judgment until the counter arguments had been examined. Now that the seemingly powerful case against survival has been presented, the reader is still advised to suspend judgment until later chapters have been examined. In particular, the evidence from apparitions (as presented in Chapters 10 to 12) must be taken into account. And the Persona Theory of Chapter 13 may be found to provide a key to constructive reconciliation of the arguments both for and against survival.


The above article was taken from Hornell Hart's "The Enigma of Survival. The Case For and Against an After Life" (London: Rider & Co., 1959).

More articles by Hornell Hart

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