Rosalind Heywood

Member of Council, Society for Psychical Research. Was interested in documenting different attitudes towards ESP research. Koestler dedicated his book "The Roots of Coincidence" to Heywood, 'catalyst-in-chief'. Her books included "ESP: A Personal Memoir", "The Sixth Sense" (London, 1959), "Beyond the Reach of Sense" (E. P. Dutton, 1974) and "The Infinite Hive" (Pan, 1966). In the latter book she documented her own psychic experiences.

Background to Psychical Research

 - Rosalind Heywood -

         THE QUESTION OF apparitions, said Dr Johnson, is one of the most important, whether in theology or philosophy, that could come before the human understanding. So too thought the group of young Cambridge intellectuals to whom it had occurred that psi might be a genuine natural phenomenon, and they set about taking practical steps to find an answer to it. The first was to found a University Society which, braving ridicule, they called the Ghost Society. One of its founding members was Edward White Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who, according to his son, A. C. Benson, was always more interested in psychic phenomena than he cared to admit; and it was joined a few years later by his younger cousin, Henry Sidgwick. Now and again a rare personality will colour his whole environment, and to his contemporaries it will seem as absurd to question his integrity and intellectual honesty as to question that night follows day. Sidgwick grew to be such a man, and it was his wise guidance which set the pattern and standards for psychical research in later years. He was the son of a clergyman and went to school at Rugby, where he was both happy and successful. In 1855 he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read classics and mathematics. His academic career was a string of triumphs. In 1857 he won a Craven Scholarship, in 1858 he shared the Browne Prize for, Greek and Latin epigrams with G. O. Trevelyan. In 1859 he was the first in the classical tripos and thirty-third wrangler in the mathematical tripos. In the same year he won the First Chancellor's Medal and was elected a Fellow of Trinity.

So far all was sunshine. But in the sixties Sidgwick's honesty drove him into the clouds. Fellows of Trinity had to declare themselves 'bona fide members of the Church of England', which entailed signature of the Thirty-Nine Articles. But recent discoveries had made it hard to accept these as demanded by a Church which still believed that in 4004 BC the world was created in a week. Sidgwick did his best. With desperate earnestness he studied Hebrew and Arabic, theology and philosophy. But the Christianity of the day and the new scientific knowledge were like oil and water. They would not mix. So he resigned his Fellowship and Assistant Tutorship, although his less fiercely upright colleagues thought such drastic behaviour more than unnecessary and it also cost him severe material loss. But his standards were absolute. 'I happen to care little', he wrote to a friend, 'what men in general think of me individually; but I care very much what they think of human nature. I dread doing anything to support the plausible suspicion that men in general, even those who profess lofty aspirations, are secretly swayed by material interests.'

Trinity did not at all wish to lose a man who so uncompromisingly displayed such Christian virtues, so they created a lectureship in Moral Science, without theological conditions, and appointed him to it. This gave him some income, which enabled him to live until 1875, when the College appointed him Praelector in Moral and Political Philosophy. He later became Knightsbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy, a post he held until he died.

From the time Sidgwick joined the Ghost Society, so we learn from his letters, he collected records of apparent spontaneous psi, and these, together with every other type of psi phenomenon, he assessed with most careful dispassion. No judge could have endeavoured more scrupulously to give its just weight to every particle of evidence, either for or against. Quite early on he studied the automatic writings of a friend, Mr Cowell, but they both came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the scripts beyond the contents of his own mind. The experience, however, gave Sidgwick a first glimpse of the astuteness of the human subconscious, for he and Cowell put various tests to the purported author of the scripts, and the blarney by which he tried to account for his failure to pass them was of great ingenuity.

In the sixties Sidgwick began to inquire into the newly fashionable spiritualism, but the first professional medium he went to was a depressing augury for the future. She was, he said, a complete humbug. And all he obtained from the many mediums he investigated during the next twenty years was a little circumstantial evidence, none of it quite watertight, and a lot of obvious fraud. He called it a very dreary and disappointing chapter in his life. But still he never quite lost his belief that there was something behind mediumship. 'I don't know what,' he commented in a letter. 'Have tried hard to discover, and find that I always paralyse the phenomena. My taste is strongly affected by the obvious humbug mixed with it, which at the same time my reason does not over-estimate.'

To Sidgwick it was a great puzzle that he never witnessed successful physical mediumship, in watertight conditions when a number of intelligent persons assured him that they had done so. He felt he might have found a clue to the answer in a curious story told him at a dinner party by the great Italian, Mazzini. Mazzini had once seen a group of people gazing into the sky, and, seeing nothing himself, he asked one of them what they were looking at. 'The cross - don't you see it?' replied the man. Mazzini could see no cross, though all the others assured him they could do so. But one man appeared more intelligent than the rest and he looked puzzled. Mazzini asked him what he saw. 'The cross,' he answered, 'there!' Mazzini shook his arm and said, 'But there is no cross.' The man's face cleared, as if he were awaking from a dream. 'No,' he said, as you say, there is no cross at all.' And they walked away together, leaving the others to watch the - at least physically - illusory cross. Could this sort of collective hallucination, Sidgwick wondered, throw light on reports of other physical psi phenomena?

In these preliminary canters before the serious hunt for psi, Sidgwick soon found a congenial companion. In 1860 a young man, Frederic Myers, went up to Trinity to read classics, and Sidgwick happened to become his tutor. Myers was a brilliant scholar and a poet of some distinction, and he seemed set for a successful literary career. But, like Sidgwick, he was more than a scholar, for he also persistently asked basic questions and would not be content with answers which did not account for all the facts. The two were marked out to be friends. They were living, we must remember, at a tense moment, at a watershed of history when the traditional view of man's nature as composed of body, soul and spirit was being challenged as never before by Darwinian theory and other discoveries of science. To both, the question of all questions was the same: What is Man? What is his destiny? Neither could accept the traditional answers, but neither felt that the whole picture was covered by the new answers of science. Nevertheless the poet in Myers delighted in the ordered beauty of scientific method. An interrogation of nature, he called it, entirely dispassionate, patient, systematic, which can often elicit from her slightest indications her deepest truths. 'This method,' he said with a flash of insight, 'has never yet been applied to the all-important problem of the existence, the power, the destiny of the human soul.'

Sidgwick and Myers met again in 1869, when Myers went back to Cambridge to examine for the Moral Science Tripos. He had been wondering with increasing earnestness whether psi phenomena could provide any clues to the great question, and he wrote years later of that meeting: 'I felt drawn in my perplexities to Henry Sidgwick as somehow my only hope. In a starlight walk which I shall not forget, I asked him, almost with trembling, whether he thought that when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysics had failed to solve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be - some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen. Already, it seemed, he had thought that this was possible; steadily, though in no sanguine fashion, he indicated some last grounds of hope: and from that night onwards I resolved to pursue this quest, if it might be, at his side.'

These phrases are of a particular time and setting and may draw a smile in the twentieth century, but the passionate determination that prompted them will be valued in any age. Myers had his wish. He did investigate whatever there might be with tireless enthusiasm until he died. But first he equipped himself for the task by the study of biology and psychology and in every other way possible within the mental framework of the time.

Sidgwick's determination was no less. 'I sometimes feel,' he wrote to Myers in 1872, 'with somewhat of a profound hope and enthusiasm that the function of the English mind, with its uncompromising matter-of-factness, will be to put the final question to the Universe with a solid passionate determination to be answered which must come to something.'

The enthusiasm of Sidgwick and Myers drew in another Cambridge man, Edmund Gurney. He too was a distinguished classical scholar, and he soon became a great asset to them, for he had more leisure than the others and he was also found to have a natural gift for psychological experiment, especially in hypnosis. Being of a meticulously thorough temperament, he came to the conclusion, on discovering this, that he could not do his best work without professional knowledge. So he trained as a doctor, studying both in London and at Cambridge, and then, like Myers, he gave the rest of his life to the search for psi. These three, Sidgwick, Myers and Gurney, formed a nucleus, and more than a nucleus. They were also a magnet. The great physicist, Lord Rayleigh, was drawn in, and so were Arthur Balfour, later to be Prime Minister, and his brother Gerald, who in later years was also in the Cabinet. Their sister, Eleanor Balfour, was working at research under Lord Rayleigh at the Cavendish Laboratory, and she too came in with her romance, for in this way she met Sidgwick. They were kindred spirits, both being profoundly concerned with the same two vital yet unpopular subjects, psychical research and the higher education of women. In 1876 they were married and worked at their enthusiasms together until Sidgwick died in 1900. Afterwards Eleanor continued to play a major part in psychical research until her own death many years later in 1930.

To go back to the seventies. Here were some of the best brains in Cambridge peeping at psi round the door. The same thing was happening at Oxford where the Phantasmological Society was formed. In the seventies, too, William Barrett, Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, was forcing his scientific colleagues to take a reluctant glance at hypnotism. He submitted a paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science on experiments in hypnosis which he had been conducting for thirteen years and in which the hypnotized subject had shown signs of psi. The Biology Section of the Association was thoroughly shocked at such heresy would have nothing to do with the paper, but Alfred Russel Wallace, the biologist, who, independently of Darwin, had propounded the theory of evolution, protested with vigour against attempts to exclude from investigation occurrences reported by intelligent and disinterested observers, merely because they did not fit in with current knowledge. Eventually, by Wallace's casting vote, Barrett was allowed to read his paper to the anthropological subsection, and when he had finished he appealed to the British Association to form a committee of investigation. But this was too much. They would not do it. They would not even publish the paper. Nevertheless, although unpublished, it caused a lot of talk.

In 1871 interest was aroused by a statement in the Quarterly Journal of Science by the pioneer physicist, Sir William Crookes, that he had been investigating spiritualistic phenomena. In London a group called the London Dialectical Society was formed with the object of giving a hearing to 'subjects which are ostracized elsewhere especially those of a metaphysical, religious, social or political character'. Its members invited Thomas Huxley to join them in an investigation of spiritualistic phenomena, but he put them firmly in their place. He was no more interested in their offer, he said, than he would be to listen in to the chatter of old women and curates in a distant cathedral town. Here once again emotional fear of psi seems to have driven dispassion out of the window, for it was Thomas Huxley who wrote in a letter to Charles Kingsley: 'Sit down before fact like a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly to wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads or you shall learn nothing.'

The Dialectical Society did not achieve any outstanding work, but its members originated an idea which was the embryo of some productive experiments later on. They sought to 'educe' supernormal faculties among themselves; that is, it occurred to them that without having recourse to professional spiritualist mediums, it might be possible to study psi by experimental 'thought transference', automatic writing and so on, among or people.

Meanwhile Myers, Lord Rayleigh and A. J. Balfour had joined Sidgwick in the study of spiritualism at first hand, and they experimented in their own homes with a number of mediums. It was not a happy experience, for apart from the sordid and deliberate fraud which they often struck, it must have felt like leaving the green lawns of the Backs for to pass from the rarefied air of Cambridge semi-hysterical emotionalism of the average sťance. We get a glimpse of the effort it entailed from a comment by William James, that Myers' passion for truth was strong enough 'to carry him into regions where either intellectual or social squeamishness would have been fatal. So he "mortified" his amour propre, unclubbed himself completely and became a model of patience, tact and humility wherever investigation required it.' He was largely rewarded, for not only did he collect valuable information about psi, he also became a pioneer psychologist. In the days when Freud was working as a youthful student in a physiological laboratory in Vienna, Myers was making a prolonged study of hitherto unrelated phenomena: genius with its sudden 'out of the blue' flashes of creative thought; sleep with its occasional telepathic and precognitive dreams; hypnotic trance; and automatisms and mediumship. These, he said, were not after all unrelated, but were all indications of a larger self, of which man's conscious self was but a fraction, no more indeed than the visible part of an iceberg. He coined a name, the subliminal (sub - beneath, limen - the threshold), for the submerged area of human personality, which Freud made famous as the unconscious. But Myers' view of it differed from Freud's. He called it 'a gold mine as well as a rubbish heap'. This submerged self, he thought, could only manifest itself through the conscious surface self to a very limited degree. Yet the threshold between the two was a movable one. There might be upheavals and alterations of personality of many kinds, so that what was once below the surface could for a time or permanently rise above it. In days when psychology was in its infancy, such views showed outstanding insight, particularly in a man whose training had been in the very different discipline of classical scholarship. They were put forward by Myers in a remarkable book Human Personality, which contains an account of his life work in search of psi and which would have attained far greater fame than it has, had it been written on a less unpopular subject.

But in the seventies such theorizing was far ahead; they were still days of tentative and often discouraging groping. In 1874, however, Myers had an encouraging tonic. He met Stainton Moses, an Oxford graduate and a clergyman, who, on being introduced to spiritualism by friends, had found that he could himself produce apparent psi phenomena, including automatic writing, Here, for Myers, was the medium of his dreams, a man not out for financial gain and of obvious integrity in ordinary life, a man who resembled himself in standards and in outlook. Stainton Moses is typical of the psychic whose work it is hard to assess eighty years later with the personal factor lacking. For one thing much of his script referred to ostensible experiences in an environment not perceptible via the senses, so there was no means by which other people could check its objectivity. The script may all be subconscious fabrication - or it may not. For another, we cannot in theory be sure that the information he gave about 'this world' had not been obtained by normal means, whether conscious or subconscious, for the safeguards against this were not, by present-day standards, watertight, and the standards of honesty of his Controls were at times elastic, though their professed morals were of the highest. But, there seems no doubt that the conscious Stainton Moses was an upright man, and Myers' acquaintance with him was of real value in confirming that the actual phenomena of mediumship could be produced by persons of intelligence and integrity. It encouraged him to go on.

Here then was interest in psi as a subject for scientific study springing up independently in different places. Common sense made it obvious that the inquirers would do well to get together and pool their resources for further research. To this end Sir William Barrett convened a conference in January 1882. At last psi, the elusive, the uncanny, the supernatural, the officially non-existent, was about to have turned on it the searchlight of co-ordinated, cold-blooded scientific research.


"The Sixth Sense" by Rosalind Heywood (1959, Chatto and Windus Ltd).


More articles by Rosalind Heywood

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