Charles McCreery

Charles McCreery

Graduate of the Oxford Honours Schools of Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology, and a Research Officer of the Institute of Psychophysical Research, Oxford. His books include "Science, Philosophy and ESP", "Psychical Phenomena and the Physical World" and "Apparitions" (with Celia Green).

The Psychology of ESP

 - Charles McCreery -

          PARAPSYCHOLOGY'S FAILURE to achieve a repeatable experiment might seem to imply that parapsychologists were being mocked by a Cartesian demon, who dispenses results in a purely arbitrary and capricious fashion for the specific purpose of leading experimenters up false lines of research.*

* Cf. William James: 'I confess that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature [i.e., parapsychological phenomena] to remain baffling.'[1]

[1] Murphy, G., and Ballou, R. O., Eds., William James on Psychical Research, Chatto and Windus, London, 1961, p. 310.

A more easily testable hypothesis, however, and one that subsumes all the facts with equal facility, is that ESP and PK only occur under certain psychological conditions. For instance, Palladino's phenomena at the Naples experiments showed every sign of varying with her psychological state, rather than with, say, the physical conditions of the experiment. Thus the Committee remark: 'We never found ... that the adequacy of the control [of her arms and legs, etc.] influenced unfavourably the production of the phenomena.' On the other hand Carrington, in his independent account of the Naples experiments, Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena, writes:

On several occasions the medium had had some domestic troubles before leaving home and arrived in a very irritable frame of mind. This seemed to offset the production of the phenomena far more than her physical health. [In contrast,] dinners, theater parties, carriage drives, etc., flattering Eusapia, and in general inducing in her a buoyant happy frame of mind will do more to ensure a good séance than any other method that has so far been devised.[2]

[2] Carrington, Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena, op. cit., p. 325.

The basic hypothesis underlying all that follows, then will be this: the crucial condition in any ESP experiment is the psychological state of the subject when he is attempting ESP.

A corollary hypothesis will be that external conditions - i.e. such factors as the physical layout of the experimental situation, the number of people present in it, or whether the target material is in Hindi or Telegu - are only relevant to the subject's performance to the extent that they affect the basic variable, his psychological state.

When Mrs. Leonard,* for instance,** says, 'I have sat with or for people whom normally I might dislike or distrust deeply - but if I think they have been brought to me for help that is an that masters,[3] this will be interpreted, on the present hypothesis, as indicating that what is of importance is not the 'relationship' of the sitter to the medium (an abstraction) but the psychological state brought about by the sitter's presence. Similarly, when Carrington says, 'When the force is strong, phenomena take place no matter what conditions are imposed to prevent themin fact the more stringent the conditions, the more safely Eusapia is held, the better are the results obtained,'[4] it will be taken that the crucial condition is not the fact that Palladino is being held in a certain way, but the effect this has on her psychology (e.g. the effect of making her indisposed to attempt fraud). Alternatively, the suggestion might be made that it is when Palladino is in the state most conducive to the production of phenomena that she feels most disposed to let the experimenters have complete control of her arms and legs.

* Mrs. Leonard is one of the two mediums who have been most intensively investigated by the Society for Psychical Research. Cf. Trance Mediumship: An Introductory Study of Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Leonard, by W. H. Salter (SPR Publications, 1950). Mr. Salter writes (p. 9): 'These two mediums are chosen for special treatment, not as being the only two mediums deserving study, but because between them their activity covers a period of over sixty years, during nearly the whole of which one or the other of them was under the observation of experienced investigators belonging to the Society, with whom they willingly collaborated in numerous experiments.'

** In what follows it should be understood that when some statement is quoted in connection with a particular hypothesis it is not intended as 'proof' of that hypothesis, nor even as supporting evidence; it is intended merely as an illustration of the meaning of that hypothesis.

On the other hand, when assessing the probability (on the evidence available to us) of a certain psychological hypothesis being correct, it should be borne in mind that there have not been many highly successful conscious ESP subjects. So even if, say, half a dozen of these subjects agree on a certain factor as being favourable to the production of ESP, this small number may nevertheless constitute a sizeable percentage.

[3] Green, C. E., Unpublished data on a number of subjects who experience apparent ESP with relative frequency. In the remainder of this book quotations from the verbal reports of ESP subjects will be from this source if not otherwise indicated.

[4] Carrington, op. cit., p. 323.

These are by no means two empty or informationally redundant assumptions that have been made so far. That is to say, when one decides to adopt them as working hypotheses one is making a choice between at least two alternatives: one is at any rate rejecting the perfectly conceivable hypothesis that ESP is dependent on purely environmental variables, such as the temperature or the barometric pressure of the room in which the subject makes his guesses.

Moreover, the basic hypothesis is only that the states of mind in which ESP occurs have certain characteristics in common, not that these states have any characteristic which distinguishes them in a clear-cut way from the states of mind in which ESP does not occur. It would be enough for the present purpose if, as a matter of fact, certain states of mind, among the many which occur normally, were associated with the occurrence of ESP. In other words, one is only supposing that certain conditions are necessary for the production of ESP, not that any one of them is sufficient.

We shall also proceed on the hypothesis that there is no qualitative difference between the state of mind in which ESP occurs and that in which PK occurs.

We shall now proceed to make some specific hypotheses concerning the nature of just a few of the conditions necessary for the occurrence of these phenomena.

Let us begin by making the hypothesis that a necessary condition for the production of ESP in a conscious state is unconflictedness. What does 'unconflictedness' mean here? A partial synonym would perhaps be 'relaxation'. Mrs. Leonard, for instance, says: 'ESP of a personal kind seems to come when I am relaxed - having a cup (or three!) of very weak china tea...' Similarly, Dr. J. B. Rhine says: 'Several [of the early outstanding subjects studied by the Duke University laboratory] have described their ESP experience as involving a state of "detachment", "abstraction", "relaxation" and the like.'[5]

[5] Rhine, J. B., Extra-Sensory Perception, Faber, London, 1935, p. 181. (Paperback Edition by Bruce Humphries, Boston, 1964, p. 177.)

However, the word 'relaxation' has certain connotations which, in the present context, are not intended. Thus 'relaxation' might seem to imply a lack of alertness, whereas what will be said below will be more in line with Rhine's dictum that 'alertness is favourable, and drowsiness is unfavourable...'.[6]

[6] Ibid., p. 176. (Humphries Edn., p. 172)

It will be better to define the concept of unconflictedness by negation: 'unconflictedness' will mean, simply, freedom from conflict. The concept of conflict we may now elucidate by means of ostensive definition: thus an example of a conflicted emotion is anxiety.

One finds that conscious ESP subjects are almost unanimous in their agreement that anxiety inhibits ESP. Dr. J. H. M. Whiteman, for example, a lecturer in mathematics at Cape Town University, says: 'Every kind of worry and anxiety (especially a sick conscience) obstructs [ESP-type experiences] completely until I can put it away.' Similarly, Gertrude Johnson, G. N. M. Tyrrell's outstanding subject, said: '... I do find that [ESP] can be overlaid by worry, anxiety, a feeling of insecurity and so on.'[7] Another observation that may be given as an illustration of the same point is one recorded by Dr. Schmeidler of City College, New York; in the course of an ESP experiment with students she noticed that 'the unfortunates with examinations scheduled for later in the day did not score many successes'.[8]

[7] Johnson G., Journal SPR, Vol. XXXIV, No. 644-5, March-April 1948, p. 205.

[8] Schmeidler, G., and McConnell, R. A., Extrasensory Perception and Personality Patterns, Yale University Press, 1958, p. 27.

It is not, of course, fear per se (nor, indeed, any other emotion) that is conflicted; thus in a situation such as that described by Mrs. Leonard (above) there might be conflict between feelings of hostility towards the sitter and a desire to suppress this hostility in the interests of politeness. One notices that when Rhine says, '[ESP] is inhibited ... by conflict', he goes on specifically to mention 'conflict of desires'.[9]

[9] Rhine, op. cit., p.194. (Humphries Edn., p. 190 f.)

Now if anxiety inhibits ESP, then one would expect that, in particular, the fear of failure in an ESP experiment would inhibit ESP. This expectation may again be illustrated by some of Professor Rhine's observations. He says: 'a confident attitude [towards one's own ESP capacity] may be helpful to success if handled rightly', but 'in some subjects it may actually do more harm than good, especially if there is any declaration of the subject's belief in his own abilities at the outset. Such a declaration gives him something to have to prove; it may make him feel that too much is at stake in the test ... [that] he has a reputation to defend'.[10]

[10] Rhine, J. B., ‘Conditions Favouring Success in Psi Tests’, Journal of Parapsychology, Vol. 12, No. 1, March 1948, p. 64.

It might be objected that Shackleton provides a counter-example to this generalization. 'I have come,' he said, 'not to be tested, but to demonstrate telepathy.' Surely there was everything at stake in the Soal-Goldney experiments after such a declaration?

But Shackleton was quite unlike most subjects in at least one respect; he was undeterred by apparent failure. It will be remembered that, according to Soal, 'Shackleton's failure to succeed in the "clairvoyance" tests was certainly not due to any lack of confidence'. Nor was this the only situation in which Shackleton's degree of confidence bore no relationship to his degree of apparent success. In the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research for 1938 may be found the following words by Dr. Soal:

I have had at least one subject (a well-known art photographer) who possessed unlimited confidence in his power to guess the symbols on cards. He came to No. 14d Roland Gardens, saying that he had not come to be tested, but to 'demonstrate' to us the reality of telepathy. He told us that he had often read a whole pack of cards through correctly from top to bottom. We tested him, using a screen, but to his own disappointment and amazement he failed completely. He then told us that he had usually done this kind of thing in the evening after having imbibed a certain quantity of alcohol. He invited me and a friend to his studio one evening, and after a suitable libation he tried the telepathic tests, but again failed absolutely to beat the laws of chance.[11]

[11] Soal, S. G., and Goldney, K. M., ‘Report on a Series of Experiments with Mrs. Eileen Garrett’, Proceedings SPR, Vol. XLV, Part 154, June 1938, p. 72.

What had happened was that Soal had (naturally enough) only been scoring Shackleton's guesses for hits on the card he was aiming at (the 'direct' position). But in November 1939 (i.e. after the publication of the paper from which the above quotation was taken, and nearly four years after Soal's first meeting with Shackleton), another psychical researcher, Whately Carington, 'suggested that [Soal] should compare each guess, not with the card for which it was originally intended, but with the immediately preceding card and the immediately following card...' (Carington had been conducting picture-guessing tests and had found that his subjects did not always get the impression of a picture on the night when it was intended as the target, but sometimes a correct sketch was made a night or two earlier or later in the week.) It was then that Soal first discovered 'the hidden significance which [had lain] beneath [Shackleton's] commonplace scoring'.[12]

[12] The quotations in this paragraph are from Soal and Baterman, Modern Experiments in Telepathy, op. cit.

Now it may seem that Soal's reference to Shackleton's 'disappointment' at the apparent failure of the initial test refutes our earlier assertion that Shackleton was undeterred by failure. But in Modern Experiments in Telepathy Soal writes: '... despite the lack of success [of the initial experiments], S.G.S. felt that Shackleton was no ordinary guesser. He seemed so confident, so certain of his powers, that one felt it was only a matter of time before he produced something surprising'.

Thus it seems that Shackleton did not regard the experiments as a test that could prove anything about himself or his powers ('I have not come to be tested' he said); in which case it would be only consistent to have less than the normal fear of failure.

Let us now proceed to make a second hypothesis concerning the conscious ESP state, namely, that a certain kind of attention is necessary for the production of ESP.

It may be objected: 'Attention is a unitary concept.' However, a distinction will shortly be made between two kinds of attention. For the present purpose let us say that the attention is of a kind that is correlated with 'blankness of mind'.

Again, this condition can best be characterized by negation. One of the subjects of two nineteenth-century experimenters, for instance, known as 'Mlle. Jane D.', said: '... Whenever I have taken part in the experiments as percipient, I have endeavoured to expel from my mind all thoughts and images, and have remained inactive, with my hands over my eyes waiting for the production of an impression.'[13]

[13] Schmoll, A., and Mabire, J. E., ‘Experiments in Thought Transference’, Proceedings SPR, Vol. V, Part 12, 1888-9, p. 206 f.

At the least, conscious ESP subjects usually try to eliminate purely discursive thinking, on the ground that it distracts them from the ESP impression. For example, a Mlle. Eugenie P., who acted as percipient for the same set of experimenters, said: '... When I take the part of percipient ... I do my best to banish any thought that might distract me, and I watch for the appearance' (of the ESP impression).[14]

[14] Schmoll and Mabire, op. cit., p. 206.

More recently a subject has described himself as inducing the state of mind he finds necessary for attempting ESP by 'concentrating my attention on a single point of nothingness. I think about nothing at all, just looking at a fixed point and emptying the mind entirely if this is possible'.

It may seem paradoxical to suggest that one can attend to nothing. But imagine the situation in which one wakes up in the middle of the night thinking one has heard a faint but unusual sound. One would surely describe the ensuing state as one of attentiveness, even if the original noise was so faint that one's attention was not directed in any way. For instance, one could be prepared to hear the sound again from any direction or, indeed, one could be prepared for any kind of sound. Thus, just because Mlle. Eugenie P. was not attending to anything, it surely need not follow that she was not attentive. She could have been attending to the task of keeping her mind a blank! (Indeed, without attending, she could scarcely have succeeded in keeping it so.)

One might compare the kind of attention required for ESP with that aimed at by the psycho-analyst in his interview, and which Freud attempted to formulate in the words 'Gleichschwebende Aufmerksainkeit'.* In the interview situation, the analyst is trying to maintain responsiveness even to unexpected indicia: i.e. he tries not to let his expectations or presuppositions about the case direct his attention so that he 'hears only what he wants to hear'.

* Professor Price suggests the translation 'evenly-poised attentiveness' for this phrase.

It might seem that the need for any kind of attention is in conflict with the earlier requirement of unconflictedness. Certainly, many of the introspective formulae of ESP subjects have at least a superficial air of paradox. Miss Geraldine Cummins, for instance, the writer and automatist,* refers to 'an effort of intense concentration on the listening attitude' which she finds a necessary condition of the successful ESP state (cf. the illustration just given of the person waking up in the middle of the night). She also describes her condition while attempting ESP as one of 'concentrated passivity'. Again, she talks of remaining 'passively alert' while waiting for the ESP impression.

* Miss Cummins asks it to be made clear that she is not a professional medium and does not give sittings to applicants.

A distinction made by William James in The Principles of Psychology may help to illustrate the solution of this apparent paradox. In the chapter on Attention, he distinguishes between two kinds of attention, one of which he calls 'Active' or 'Voluntary' and the other 'Passive' or 'Involuntary'[15]. As instances of involuntary attention he gives those cases in which 'the stimulus is a sense impression, either very intense, voluminous, or sudden' and those cases in which there is 'an instinctive stimulus, a perception which by reason of its nature rather than its mere force, appeals to some of our normal congenital impulses and has a directly exciting quality'. The case of a person attending to a sound heard in the middle of the night would clearly fall into the 'involuntary' category. The sound need not be 'intense, voluminous or sudden' to rouse one's attention; but it has what one might very well call 'a directly exciting quality'. (James in fact lists 'strange things' among those sorts of stimuli that he wishes to call 'instinctive'.)

[15] James, W., The Principles of Psychology, Dover Publications, New York, 1950, Vol. 1, pp. 402-58.

Alternatively, one might think of the attention required for ESP as like the attitude one would have to adopt to pick out a signal from a noisy information channel (such as a crackling radio) when one did not know in advance what the signal would sound like.*

* This illustration should not be taken as implying that ESP as a 'process' is (or will one day be) in any way describable in terms of 'Information Theory'.

By contrast, active or voluntary attention occurs, James says, when we 'make an effort to attend to an object ... for the sake of some remote interest which the effort will serve'. He gives as examples those situations in which 'we resist the attractions of more potent stimuli and keep our minds occupied with some object that is naturally un-impressive... All forms of attentive effort would be exercised at once,' suggests James, 'by one whom we might suppose at a dinner-party resolutely to listen to a neighbor giving him insipid and unwelcome advice in a low voice, whilst all around the guests were loudly laughing and talking about exciting and interesting things.'

Clearly we would expect this latter kind of attention to be inimical to ESP, if only on the criterion suggested earlier, that of the absence of conflictedness. In the case James gives there is a conflict between the desire or tendency to listen to the exciting talk of those around one and the desire to maintain an attitude of politeness towards the person to whom one is talking. James himself actually uses the word 'conflict' when discussing active attention. 'Effort [in attending] is felt', he says, 'only when there is a conflict of interests in the mind.' In contrast, the kind of attention here being postulated as a necessary condition of the production of ESP is an example of James's involuntary variety.


Charles McCreery's "Science, Philosophy and ESP" (1967, Faber & Faber Ltd).

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