Charles Richet

Charles Richet

Distinguished physiologist. Won the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his discovery of anaphylaxis. Professor of Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris, member of the Academy of Science and Honorary president of the Paris-based Institut Métapsychique International in 1919. Founded the Annales des Sciences Psychiques in 1890, whose title subsequently changed to Revue Métapsychique in 1920.

Mediums and Metapsychics

 - Charles Richet -

           THIS TERM "medium," which signifies an intermediary between this world of the living and the world of the dead, is execrable, but too firmly fixed to be abandoned. In the course of this book many details will be found which have not found a place in this chapter which is necessarily abbreviated to avoid repetition elsewhere. The history of mediums covers nearly all metapsychics. There is a great difference between powerful mediums such as D. D. Home, Eusapia Palladino, Stainton Moses, and Florence Cook, who manifest surprising objective and energetic phenomena, and those who show only subjective phenomena. It is therefore necessary to place physical mediums who show telekinesis and materializations in a class by themselves.

Such mediums are very rare; even those who can give raps without contact are not common.

Their psycho-physiology does not tell us much; it is not possible to say whether they are more or less intelligent than average persons. Nothing distinguishes them from others, except their strange power of producing materializations (hands and shapes of persons), and movements of matter (noises, raps, voices, and scents) in spiritist séances.

The extreme rarity of telekinetic powers is not a matter for suspicion; we must perforce admit that all men are not alike. Some children show at a very early age astounding powers of memory and calculation. It is easy to admit that in the mass of humanity there must be exceptional individuals.

Cryptesthetic are much more common than the telekinetic faculties. Cryptesthesia of all degrees is so widespread, and telekinesis is so rare, that the persons showing the latter powers cannot be classed along with those showing the former.

We shall therefore class mediums in two distinct groups:

1. Mediums showing physical phenomena.
2. Mediums showing psychical phenomena.

Telekinesis is sharply defined; materialization still more so, but the elementary form of telekinesis, rapping, which is a sonorous vibration (without contact) in the wood of a table or, a chair, without the power of raising objects or producing materializations, is not infrequent; but even here it is difficult to draw a precise line dividing those mediums who can and those who cannot produce raps, for very slight noises are often heard when a medium is scarcely touching the table, noises so slight that one can hardly be sure of them.

It would be desirable here to touch on the biography of the great mediums noted for materializations and telekinesis, but we must defer this to the chapter on materializations.

To mention Home, Florence Cook, Stainton Moses, Eusapia Palladino, Mme. d'Espérance, William Eglinton, Linda Gazzera, Henry Slade, Marthe Béraud, Miss Goligher, and Stanislawa Tomczyk is to name nearly all; it is obvious that they are but few. The number of those who give raps is very much larger, but I have no statistics regarding them.

Unfortunately physical mediums often misuse their powers; they think to enrich themselves and give public séances for profit. The Fox sisters, the Davenport brothers, Eglinton, and Henry Slade all did this, and from thence to fraud is but a step that has often been taken, so that professional mediums of this class are always to be looked upon with suspicion and the most rigid precautions must always be taken against trickery. Indeed this is always necessary, even when there is no possible suspicion of conscious fraud.

There are, however, excellent reasons for not refusing to experiment with leading professional mediums.

1. At the outset of their careers the phenomena produced must certainly have been genuine. Leah, Margaret, and Kate Fox would not of set purpose have invented the Hydesville rappings had they not originally had genuine ones.

2. Mediums like Mme. d'Espérance, Florence Cook, Linda Gazzera, Eusapia Palladino, and Marthe Béraud had never had a lesson in legerdemain or illusionism. They experienced some strange phenomena and almost in spite of themselves followed the path opened before them. Only in order to discredit the facts has extraordinary skill been attributed to them, a skill greater than that of expert conjurers like Robert Houdin, Hamilton, and Maskelyne, sufficient to deceive the most alert men of science in a way that Houdin, Hamilton, or Maskelyne have not been able to imitate.

As to mediums producing psychical effects only, every shade between them and normal persons is observable. It would even seem that quite normal persons once in their lives may have some passing lucidity; but not to depart overmuch from usual language we will provisionally apply the term "medium" only to those persons who consider themselves to be in relations with extraneous personalities.

Conformably to this we have defined metapsychics as the science whose subject-matter is phenomena which seem to arise from an intelligence other than the human intelligence. Mediums are therefore those persons who, in partial or total unconsciousness, speak words, perform actions, and make gestures that seem not to be under control of their will and to be independent of their intelligence. Nevertheless these unconscious phenomena show intelligence and system, and are sometimes most aptly co-ordinated. Therefore the first thing to be discovered is whether they are due to a human or to a super-human intelligence.

To take a well-known and concrete example: Helen Smith writes automatically long messages that she attributes to Marie Antoinette. Is this done by Helen Smith's own intelligence, or by another? Is it Marie Antoinette or some other that governs Helen Smith's words, gestures, and writing?

We shall discuss these two hypotheses later on. For the present we shall show that there are gradual, almost indescribable gradations between these so-called mediums and normal persons. It is not only difficult, but impossible, to draw a line of demarcation; whereas between physical mediums and normal persons there is the chasm of an essential difference.

The grades of subjective mediumship may be classified as follows:

(A) The first departure from the normal consists in slight, almost imperceptible, muscular movements, sufficient, however, to enable an experienced person to recognize unconscious sensation and will in the subject under observation. There are certainly more than fifty percent of normal persons who reveal their thoughts by slight muscular tremors of which they are unconscious, as in the "willing game," which sometimes gives surprising results. These involuntary movements are so frequently and clearly observable that they belong to normal physiology and not to metapsychics.

(B) The second degree consists in the creation of a new personality by hypnotism. The normal personality reappears on awaking, but under hypnotism and hypnotic suggestion a new personality appears which is evidently factitious, since the magnetizer imposes it at will and can maintain it by verbal suggestion. This artificial and transitory personality also belongs to normal official psychology.

(C) The third degree is a mediumistic state, i.e., a new personality is created by auto-suggestion. Hypnotism acts through hetero-suggestion; mediumship by auto-suggestion. There is very little difference between the personality of Marie Antoinette as assumed by Helen Smith of her own accord, and the same personality as aroused by suggestion of a hypnotizer.

Automatic writings belong to this group and there is no ground for giving this important psychological manifestation a place in metapsychics, at least in regard to the mere fact of writing, for in most of these cases the need for the hypothesis of an extraneous non-human intelligence does not arise. Since I can suggest to Alice that she is Marie Antoinette and she enacts admirably the part of the unhappy queen, why should I suppose that the Queen of France is incarnate in Helen Smith when she assumes that character of her own motion and plays it equally well? The supposition is gratuitous and infantile.

(D) The fourth step is when the new personality shows cryptesthesia and really seems to know things unknown to the medium, and even things that the secondary personality alone could be aware of, as in the case of Mrs. Piper incarnating Phinuit or George Pelham.

The "guide" of the medium (i.e., the new personality that appears) then seems to be a genuinely extraneous intelligence. These phenomena can rightly be called metapsychic because, taking them all in all, the normal intelligence of the sensitive is quite insufficient to explain the strange and potent cryptesthesia. I need scarcely remark that the notion that an extraneous force is in play is only a hypothesis.

(E) Perhaps it would be as well to reserve the name "medium" for those who produce mechanical movement without contact and materializations. This is the fifth degree; in which levitations, telekinesis, hallucinations pertaining to the spiritist trance (akin to the hypnotic trance) and materializations appear side by side with cryptesthesia.

There is still nothing to prove that the secondary personalities may not be exclusively human and due to modalities of human intelligence; whereas the physical phenomena show something really new and metapsychic, transcending normal psychology, and by no means explicable without the intervention of unknown powers that appear to be intelligent.

As this book claims to be a working treatise, I shall, in order to give clear ideas, instance some examples of transition from the normal to the mediumistic state.

First degree. Antoinette is not hypnotizable; but if I take her hand and ask her to think of some object that she has hidden in a corner of the room, she is much astonished when I discover that object, guided by her unconscious movements.

Second degree. Alice is hypnotized. If I suggest that she is an old general, she caricatures an old general - coughs, spits, speaks roughly, swears, calls for a drink, etc. She will play this simple farce for an hour at a time.

Third degree. Helen Smith has become Marie Antoinette by auto-suggestion. She moves with dignity, speaks the language, and reproduces nearly the writing and spelling of the queen. In perfect good faith she plays this rôle for weeks or months.

Mme. Camus puts her hand on the table and feverishly writes long phrases automatically; she does not know what she writes and talks of other things while writing. A certain Vincent is supposed to be the spirit-guide of these commonplace philosophical and theosophical dissertations.

Fourth degree. Mrs. Piper gradually loses her normal consciousness; then Phinuit, or George Pelham, Frederic Myers, or Richard Hodgson speak through her. But these personalities, though probably imaginary and arising from auto-suggestion, have astonishing cryptesthetic powers. The words spoken by them through the voice of Mrs. Piper, show telepathy, monitions, premonitions, and all kinds of lucidity, so that rationalism (which is itself perhaps an error), finds the greatest difficulty not to ascribe the almost superhuman intelligence displayed to some extraneous source.

Mrs. Osborne-Leonard, Mme. Briffaut, C Stella, and the Seeress of Prevorst are all mediums of this kind.

Fifth degree. Eusapia falls into a trance without being hypnotized. Then by the agency of John King, as she says, she moves objects without touching them; she materializes the hands, and sometimes the head of John King. Other phantoms sometimes appear. Home, Mme. d'Espérance, Florence Cook, Stainton Moses, Stanislawa Tomczyk, Miss Kathleen Goligher, and Marthe Béraud are mediums of the same order. Frequently cryptesthesia of divers kinds appears side by side with the physical and mechanical results. The domination by an extraneous intelligence seems complete, alike by the cognition of things unknown to the medium herself and by the abnormal powers over matter.

Indeed true mediums (of the physical order) are often sensitives also; they have remarkable cryptesthetic faculties. Stainton Moses and Home showed this. Eusapia showed only mechanical and physical phenomena, Mrs. Piper only psychological.

Without drawing any inference, it must be admitted as a fact that powerful mediums attribute their powers to a "guide," whether those powers be mechanical, objective, or subjective; and in order to carry out successful experiments, it is necessary to act as though this guide were really existent and incarnated in the medium. This is a working hypothesis in the strictest sense, nearly always essential to the production of the phenomena.

Science, it has been said, is only accuracy of language. Therefore we ought not to use the same word to describe persons so different as Eusapia and Mrs. Piper. We might call those who give physical effects, mediums; those who show cryptesthetic effects which they attribute to extraneous forces, sensitives; and those who (without cryptesthesia), present, by automatic writing, secondary personalities that seem spontaneous, but are doubtless created by auto-suggestion, automatists.

This classification, like all others, is arbitrary. Sensitives are always automatists also, though the converse is not true. Hundreds of cases might be cited of automatic writing which are but moderately interesting examples of released subconsciousness, destitute of cryptesthesia and lucidity, and in no way noteworthy except for the extraordinary powers of the subconscious.

In spite of my strong desire to refer metapsychic phenomena as far as possible to the domain of normal psychology, I do not wish to curtail or misrepresent them on rationalist grounds. The dominance of a single idea and the state of automatism induced by trance, whether hypnotic or spiritist, creates such extraordinary aptitudes for cryptesthesia that one is really tempted to believe in an extraneous intelligence in such cases as those of Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Leonard, and Mrs. Verrall. This question will not be discussed here; later on I shall treat it fearlessly.

Neither sensitives, nor automatists, nor even mediums show any special signs; they are like other people. Age, sex, and nationality do not seem to influence the matter.

Hysteria has often been invoked; but unless we assign an unwarrantable extension to this morbid state, it does not seem favourable to the phenomena. Hysterics are often hypnotizable, but so are most people. Mediums are more or less neuropaths, liable to headaches, insomnia, or dyspepsia; but this signifies very little. I entirely refuse to consider them morbid persons as P. Janet is too disposed to do. Certainly they show some dissociations of consciousness; but such analogous dissociations with partial automatism are common enough among artists, men of science, and many ordinary individuals.

J. Maxwell has insisted on a certain mark in the iris of most mediums, and it might be worth while to make some statistical research on this; but there will always be the difficulty of knowing where to stop, for there is no line of demarcation possible between sensitives and automatists on the one hand and normal persons on the other. One automatist does nothing but trace circles; another writes incoherent words; a third will write connected sentences; a fourth composes short poems; while a fifth will write a book or a novel. There are all possible degrees in automatism. The talents of the unconscious show even more variety than those of consciousness.

Cryptesthesia also admits of many gradations. A person who has been perfectly normal during the whole of a long life may one day see a veridical apparition or hear a premonitory voice. He cannot be called "a sensitive," though he has been such for a few minutes or seconds. Persons apparently normal look into the crystal and after a short time perceive dramatic scenes in the little glass sphere. One cannot say that they are sensitives, or that they are not; but here also there is no need to invoke an external agency, even to explain the fact.

Even great sensitives like Mrs. Piper or Stainton Moses have no distinguishing physiological characteristics. These privileged persons who, according to spiritualist ideas, enter into communication with the dead, do not show any other physical or mental superiority. The facility with which their consciousness suffers dissociation indicates a certain mental instability, and their responsibility while in a state of trance is somewhat diminished; but these are only shades of character, and I infer that apart from their visions, trances, and other manifestations they are much as other people.

Their sensitiveness has usually been discovered by chance. It would be very interesting to work out the details of the origins of mediumship. Every prominent case would, no doubt, show very different points of departure, but never that they have become mediums of set purpose. The power develops spontaneously.

It is curious, and discouraging, to find that their powers do not increase. They arise spontaneously, no one knows how or why. If the fancy takes them, so to speak, they simply disappear; no effort can retain them. "Katie King" left Florence Cook and Sir William Crookes, merely stating that she must leave them. My regretted and learned friend, Dr. Ségard, told me that his young daughter of twelve showed remarkable telekinetic phenomena (levitation of a heavy table, raps, movements of objects without contact) for three days only, after which the whole power vanished. This was twenty-five years ago and the lady has never had any such later experiences. Training seems inoperative; I am even inclined to think that our efforts to regularize the phenomena bring more disadvantages than advantages. Hence in my own experiments I have entirely given up all attempts to indicate how the sensitive or the medium should act. A medium must be left to take his own way; our influence, if we have any, would probably be unsatisfactory. A powerful medium is a very delicate instrument of whose secret springs we know nothing, and clumsy handling may easily disorganize its working. It is best to allow the phenomena to develop in their own way without any attempts at guidance. It is probably a great mistake to try to educate mediumship.

Why is this? It does not seem to me that we can necessarily infer the intervention of an external intelligence. Even with normal children and youths the power of education is, perhaps fortunately, very limited.

Mediums have not hitherto been treated with justice; they have been slandered, ridiculed, and vilified. They have been treated as animæ viles for experiment. When their faculties faded away they have been left to die in obscurity and want; when rewarded it has been with a niggardly hand, giving them to understand that they are only instruments. It is time that this inhuman treatment should cease.

If by any chance a powerful physical medium or sensitive were discovered, instead of leaving such a one to the curiosity of the ignorant, to journalists, and to ladies who consult them on a lost dog or a faithless lover, they should be assured of liberal board and lodging, or perhaps more, in order to prevent their mediumship being degraded by base necessities. Mme. Bisson has done this for Marthe Béraud; Lord Dunraven did the same for Home, and E. Imoda for Linda. In short, mediums should be claimed for science - severe, just, and generous science - instead of allowing their wonderful faculties to be prostituted by childish credulity or damaging contempt.

At the same time there should be no relaxation of scientific strictness, without demanding astounding experiments, or excursions into the beyond. We must resign ourselves to earth-conditions. Metapsychic phenomena should be treated as problems of pure physiology. Let us experiment with these rare, privileged, and wonderful persons and remember that they deserve to be treated with all respect, but also that they must never be trusted.


The above article was taken from Charles Richet's "Thirty Years of Psychical Research" (London: W. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1923).


Other articles by Charles Richet

Various Reflections on the Sixth Sense
General Conclusions on the Sixth Sense

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