Sir J. Arthur Thomson

Sir John Arthur Thomson

1861-1933. Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen from 1899 to 1930, Lecturer on Zoology and Biology in the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh. Wrote and lectured widely on science, edited "The Outline of Science" (1922), wrote "Riddles of Science" (1932), "What Is Man? (1923), "Science and Religion" (1925), translated August Weismann's "Evolution Theory." Knighted in 1930.

What Lies Behind Clairvoyance?

 - Sir J. Arthur Thomson -

          TELEPATHIC phenomena, or the apparent conveyance of information from a distance beyond known sensory range, must be given a rank higher than the more familiar clairvoyance, for the experimental evidence is more precise and critical. Yet many scientific investigators have admitted that there is a fair case for accepting clairvoyance; and it is certainly one of the scientific riddles. The pitch has been somewhat queered by clever exhibitors, from the drawing room to the stage, who use a code of communication so subtle that it escapes detection; but beyond that there is a big residuum to be explained.

The best experiments in clairvoyance are those in which the percipient declares the nature of some card, drawing, or object enclosed in a sealed envelope and unknown to anyone present until the envelope is opened. If someone else in the room is aware of what was put into the envelope, there is a possibility of literal telepathy, if that is a possibility, not to speak of collusion. A good form of the experiment is that in which the envelope to be "seen through" is fortuitously selected from a number of somewhat similar envelopes, containing, for instance, different cards from a pack, or different letters of the alphabet. When the clairvoyant is successful many times in naming the card or letter there is a remarkable phenomenon to be accounted for; and one of the clues is probably to be found in the observation of growing fatigue and increasing error on the clairvoyant's part. There is a distinct "fatigue curve"; the clairvoyant starts well, has a run of successes, and then begins to get tired or bored, and, as failures increase, in non-scientific circumstances, worried or confused. This fatigue is said to occur in faked clairvoyance, where the percipient becomes tired or confused in reading the code; but it has been observed in carefully conducted scientific experiments. The clue it affords is the suggestion that sensory powers are being exercised beyond their usual limit.

Before assuming, as some too readily assume, that the phenomena of clairvoyance are purely "psychical," whatever that may mean, it is necessary to do more toward exhausting the possibilities of abnormal sensitiveness or hyper-aesthesia; and it is also necessary to have more blindfolding experiments to show whether vision plays any part in the clairvoyant's discoveries. For scientific purposes it is essential to have numerous experiments, and a record of the percentage of successes and failures, and a note as to the blindfold or open-eyed state of the clairvoyant. What would an ordinary bird say to a dog tracking its master's footsteps by an olfactory sense, which is superlatively developed in dogs, but almost in abeyance in birds? Ants and bees utilize olfactory cues which mean nothing to ordinary men, though we have seen a hypersensitive student make straight for a particularly disagreeable fungus in the heart of a thick wood.

Many people have no difficulty in hearing the high-pitched voices of bats, to which most of us are deaf. A horse in a stable may recognize its master's footstep as he approaches over the cobble-stones, and a house-dog knows the car's individual noise from a distance. We were told by a physician that a patient seriously ill complained bitterly of the frequent bell-ringing between two and four in the afternoon, whereas, of course, there was no bell-ringing at all, not even next door. As the patient persisted, the physician had the disturbances counted for a troubled hour, and found, as he had suspected, that the number corresponded with that of the bell-ringings in a consultant's house several (we forget how many) doors away.

Also to be taken account of are phenomena of hyperaesthesia in hypnotized subjects, who sometimes show an extraordinary sensory acuteness, both visual and auditory; and one does not need to go beyond the range of normal field naturalists to find irrefutable evidence of an acuity of sight that seems to ordinary observers almost miraculous. Often have we seen a botanist in a slow-going pony-cart pick out with his keen eye an unusual flower amid a tangled bank of vegetation; and even more remarkable, perhaps, is the expertness of ornithologists and entomologists in identifying a passing bird or insect - a feat that often admits of subsequent verification. What we are driving at is the common-sense conclusion that the limits of sensitiveness vary greatly and are not to be dogmatically defined. The tactility of the blind will occur to all, and many people, before they rise in the morning, know in their bones that the wind is in the east - sometimes, it must be admitted, when it isn't.

In emphasizing hyper-aesthesia, we seek to indicate the intellectual danger of being too sure about the limits of our senses. But to extend the limits to include what is not experimentally guaranteed, or at any rate hinted at, is credulity for the time being. We are susceptible to ultraviolet rays, but there is no evidence that we can use them in our ordinary vision, as ants and bees do. Some people have extraordinary acuity of vision, but sceptically conducted clairvoyant experiments have not demonstrated that our eyes can tell us the nature of the trinket that lies within a thick-walled closed casket. That is much more incredible, on the hyper-aesthetic hypothesis, than telling the nature of a card held face downward or enclosed in an envelope. If scrutinized records of closed-casket experiments were forthcoming in numbers sufficient to eliminate chance successes, it would be necessary to abandon the hyper-aesthetic interpretation of clairvoyance. In our judgment it is too soon to do so.

To what has just been said as to the difficulty of seeing into a thick-walled box, it may he objected that radiography has enabled the surgeon to see where the bullet is deeply buried in the bone, and the physician to detect the tuberculosed patches in the lungs, and the merchant to tell whether there is any pearl in the unopened oyster. And is it not possible for people in America to see a cheque which is exposed to view in London? Is there not a physical contrivance so delicate that it registers the fact that someone opened the door of the dark room in which it stands, and held his hand outstretched for a minute?

But these devices do not help us much towards an understanding of clairvoyance. The rays used in radiography pass through the bone, but are interrupted by the bullet; hence a smudge on the plate. It is easy to get a view of the whole skeleton of an undissected frog; but there are no special rays going to or coming from the playing-card in the sealed envelope!

Most ants have very acute vision, and are able to see the ultra-violet rays to which we are blind. Some are supposed to have such fine sight that they are guided by a star, or at any rate by starlight, on their nocturnal rambles in very thick darkness! But some ants are blind, and one of these, called Anomma, which means "without eyes," is of peculiar interest. The Anommas are very aggressive ants, sometimes devouring chickens in the hen-house; they often march in broad daylight and behave as if they saw things; the blind troupe has been seen to react to a shadow of a cloud. It has been shown that they have very highly developed senses of smell and touch, and there is evidence of a "photo-dermatic sense" - that is to say, a sensitiveness to light and shade through nerve-endings in the chitinous covering of the body. Of this skin-sense there is ample proof in a number of lower animals, and its existence should give us pause in regard to the limits of our own susceptibilities.

In this connection some reference should be made to the strange conclusions (1920: trans. 1924) of Jules Romains, who found that some people, especially in a state of mild hypnosis, could see by means of their skin, utilizing minute integumentary structures which are sometimes called Ranvier's menisci. Not only could the blind or blindfolded subjects distinguish light and shade, but they could read a page of a book! Personally we fancy that there was some snag in the experiments, but some of the conclusions were vouched for by Anatole France and Romains's book excited some highly coloured controversy. It seems to us to prove too much that a blindfolded man could read a column of an ordinary newspaper by holding it to his bared bosom, yet what are we to make of the photo-dermatic sense of some insects with their apparently callous cuticle? The moral is, not to be too sure that we have reached the limit of what our senses can do for us; and this expresses our attitude to the phenomena of clairvoyance.

Professor Hans Driesch, well known as an abstruse philosopher, and in other circles as a highly skilled experimental embryologist, has avowed his thorough belief in clairvoyance. In his Crisis in Psychology (1925) he says: "By clairvoyance we understand the abnormal acquisition of knowledge about facts other than another subject's knowledge, i.e. about material states or conditions. Clairvoyance may relate to the past, to the present, and probably also to the future.'' Later on in the book he tells us that, after long hesitation, he has become convinced of the possibility of clairvoyant prophecy.

Prophecy is obviously a far cry from the innocent little powers that we have spoken of in this chapter, and this leads us to emphasize our method of treatment, as previously suggested in the case of telepathy. The procedure that seems to us most in the line of science and good sense is to begin with the simpler phenomena, making surer of them before even discussing such high flights as prophecy. Let us begin with reading through an envelope or a door; let us obtain data from open-eyed performances before blindfold ones; let us deal with wide-awake clairvoyants before utilizing those in a trance; let us enquire how far the phenomena can be linked to hyper-aesthesia in man and to extreme sensitiveness in some animals. There is much to be said for keeping clairvoyance in the strict sense entirely apart from so-called "second sight," crystal-gazing, divination, or seeing of visions - where we have in many cases to deal with the expressions of an exalted state of mind.

So far our suggestion has been that the facts of elementary clairvoyance may be brought into line with the facts of hyper-aesthesia. It is possible that the sure and certain elementary phenomena require no special hypotheses of unknown "rays" or mysterious "psychic" powers, meaning by "psychic" here something beyond the physiology of the senses.

But the clairvoyants claim to be able to do much more than can be interpreted by any hypothesis of hyper-aesthesia that we are at present justified in bringing forward; and the question is whether these higher feats of clairvoyance are sure and certain like those which we have called elementary. Let us illustrate.

An investigator in a house several doors away selects three English classics and opens them on the table at a well-known page, and no one but he knows either book or passage. Yet this is declared by the clairvoyant to his or her circle in the distant house, and the gist of the passage is given, even when the passage, as such, is unknown. Then the clairvoyance is verified. If telepathy is possible, this might be telepathy.

Another of the higher feats of clairvoyance, often exhibited in conditions where there is more credulity than criticism, is telling some story about an unfamiliar object which is put into the clairvoyant's hand. It is possible, however, that the clairvoyant's gift in, this case is nearer what is called divination, to which we shall refer later on in connection with crystal-gazing. All that we can say at present about these higher feats of clairvoyance is that if they are absolutely reliable they put the hyper-aesthesia theory out of court and remain an unsolved problem.

The power of discovering underground water without digging or boring was known in ancient days, and it is successful enough to-day to afford a means of livelihood for professional dowsers. Independent of common sense and of geological judgment, though sometimes doubtless with help from these, the dowsers find water; and it may be that the rod with which Moses struck the rock and liberated water was a "divining rod," such as dowsers often use. It is not essential, but the water-diviner often holds a forked stick in his hands, and its twisting movements indicate when there is water hidden in the ground underneath. These movements are due to muscular twitchings, and these are probably produced automatically in response to subconscious excitements, evoked by the presence of water, or by something, e.g. electrical stimulation, associated with the water. Some dowsers are quacks, but others seem to be hyper-aesthetes; and there is no warrant for invoking mysterious psychical powers until the phenomena of hyper-aesthesia have been more adequately explored. The unsolved problem is the nature and the location of the hyper-sensitiveness of the dowser - a hyper-sensitiveness which should be ranked, we think, along with clairvoyance, though sight is not specially concerned. It is not necessarily restricted to the detection of water, for a few people can find metals - though rarely gold.


The article above was taken from Sir J. Arthur Thomson's 1932 book "Riddles of Science" published by Liveright.


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