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.

How Explain Crystal-Gazing?

 - Sir J. Arthur Thomson -

          IT IS natural to think that there must be something in practice so venerable as crystal-gazing or "scrying." Could it have lasted so long if the gazers or descriers had not been rewarded? In the crystal, the mirror, the precious stone, or the pool of water, the scrutinizer became aware of images and occurrences, which he held to be disclosures of the otherwise unknown - in past, present, or future. That the professional gazer often saw nothing, often invented what he said he saw, and often invested his disclosure with a mystery, in which he did not in the least believe, are familiar and doubtless justified reproaches. But they do not affect the certainty that several scientific investigators and hundreds of simple-minded enquirers have seen visions, or have had the hallucination of seeing visions, by gazing into crystals or the like. The problem is to explain the phenomena.

Scrying seems to have been practised all over the world, but by many other methods besides gazing into crystals. The diversity shows that the visualizing condition may be induced in the observer by staring into many different kinds, of things, but the rarity of some methods, such as gazing at the glistening liver of a disemboweled animal, and the obsolescence of others, such as poring over the viscera, may, serve to show that some objects, like crystals and precious stones, proved not only more convenient, but much more effective than others. Among the well-known objects used in scrying, we may mention, besides crystals, a mirror, a sphere of glass or natural crystal, a disc of polished metal, a black stone, a ring, a bowl of water, a pot of ink, a cup of wine, a spring. The less familiar include a sword-blade, a polished finger-nail, a silver lamp, the lock of a door, a golden ball. Evidently almost anything will serve that has a reflecting surface; the sine qua non is staring. We have sometimes wondered whether the knowing way in which our host holds up and gazes at his glass of sherry is not in part an unconscious survival of scrying.

Andrew Lang defined the faculty of scrying as that of "seeing faces, places, persons in motion, sometimes recognizable, in a glass ball, or in water, ink, or any clear deep." The crystal-gazer seems to see pictures, and if he is a good seer he sees them not in his "mind's eye" but as it were objectively in the depths of the crystal or bowl of water, or, so to speak, on the other side of the looking-glass. The only really puzzling part of the phenomenon is the apparent objectivity and the way in which one event often follows another, as in a dream. But let us ask the crystal-gazers what happens to them.

Trustworthy and reasonable students of scrying, such as Theodere Besterman, whose Crystal-Gazing (Rider, 1924) can be strongly recommended, are agreed that the conditions of success vary greatly with the individual. Some people see nothing anywhere; others can see "heaven in the palm of the hand," Blake's well-known expression probably referring in a poetic glancing way to the use of a handful of water as a medium in divination.

It seems that the clearest visions are seen when the light in the room is not brilliant, and when there is not much reflection from the crystal itself. Quietness is an aid to vision, and Andrew Lang's experience was that it is best to be alone. The gazer should be in good form, and willing to gaze patiently, but without any strain, for five or ten minutes. The mental attitude should be like that of a microscopist looking through his lenses at a sample of water from pond or pool, waiting to see what will become active or enter the field of vision. He waits and sees, that is all; and so, we believe, it is with the scryer. Andrew Lang scouted the idea of there being anything abnormal: "One has a notion that the born scryer is a pallid anaemic girl, with large, mysterious eyes, hollow cheeks, untidy hair, and a strong aversion to exercise in the open. But the scryers whom I know are healthy, jolly people ... often vigorous athletes, sportsmen and sportswomen, golfers, tennis players, bicyclists, and salmon-fishers." There is no doubt that he took a robust view of crystal-gazing!

Some people are so unaccustomed to concentration of any kind that they become rapidly fatigued when it is required of them; and crystal-gazing is not for inattentive minds of this type. But, as contrasted with hypnotic experiments, there is nothing fatiguing or dangerous in crystal-gazing, though, perhaps, on the other hand, there is nothing particularly bracing or beneficial. Probably the best scientific experiments are those of Miss Goodrich-Freer, who writes: "I wish to say, as emphatically as possible, that in my own case these experiments are neither the cause nor the effect of any morbid condition ... The four years during which I have carried on experiments in crystal-gazing have been among the healthiest of my life."

Most of the successful crystal-gazers record a preliminary experience before they begin to descry shapes and faces. There is a clouding or befogging within the crystal or the fluid, probably corresponding to some physiological optical change; and from amidst the clouds or mist there emerge pictures. In some cases, however, there is a preliminary lighting up of the interior of the medium used. What is seen may be a single image of a person or a scene, but in the finer experiences there is a succession of pictures either continuously, as on a film, or in a more staccato fashion, as in a magic-lantern show. There may be a natural sequence or apparent disconnectedness.

(1) Our first proposition is that only certain people are divine. One recalls Joseph's remark to his distraught brothers when the silver cup had been found in Benjamin's sack: "Did you not know that a man like me would be sure to use divination?" And previously his house-steward had said to the brothers: "Is not this the cup from which my lord drinks, which in fact he uses for divination?" Even in those days it was recognized that it is not given to everyone to be a scryer!

(2) Our second proposition, to which many will demur, is that crystal-gazing is not intrinsically hypnotic. Some people pass rapidly into the hypnotic state when they stare at some bright object, and crystal-gazing may induce hypnosis. But this is, in our judgment, almost incidental. The records suggest that the clearest visions are seen by gazers who are absorbed, but certainly not hypnotized in the ordinary sense of the term. No hard and fast lines can be drawn, especially when use is made of such cautious phrases as "incipient self-hypnosis"; but there is no doubt that the crystal-gazer may remain as normal as a preoccupied microscopist.

Morton Prince, a shrewd psychologist, said that the gazer appeared to him "like one who, at the theatre, was completely absorbed by the play, and in that sense was unconscious of the surroundings, but not at all in a trance state." Mr. Besterman, who writes very judicially, says: "I have myself never observed, in watching a scryer during his visions, anything more than the ordinary abstractedness of a person watching something with care so as not to overlook any detail." Thus, while the recorded data convince us that the gazing may induce a hypnotic state, and that visions may be seen in that state, there are more abundant and equally convincing data which show that crystal-gazing may succeed with those who are not in any definable sense hypnotized, or even known to be hypnotizable. That they become absorbed, dreamy, preoccupied, must be admitted, but we doubt if anything is gained by calling this "hypnoid." Many people enjoying a fine view are equally deserving of the adjective.

(3) No one doubts the power of suggestion over the senses, especially of good-natured non-sceptical people. If the suggestion is emphatic enough and is conveyed by some impressive personality, the plastic mind sees what it is told to see. A continental zoologist, whom we knew well, used to tell his junior students individually to look at some distinctive specimen under the microscope, and get them to observe it when it was not there - the subsequent disclosure of the cruel deception being intended as a lesson in scientific scepticism. We doubt very much the psycho logical soundness of the trick, and the complaisantly obliging student's discomfiture remains painfully in our memory after forty years; but it illustrates what is undoubtedly a factor in many of the cruder forms of crystal-gazing. "Look into the crystal and you will see a dog," and of course you do. "Look into the bowl of ink and you will see the thief who stole your watch"; and if you are so disposed you may see a fugitive face.

So in our youth did the servant-girls at Hallow-e'en glimpse their future husband looking over their shoulder as they gazed, with due precautions, into the mirror. But there are many scryers who see pictures apart from any suggestions, unless one supposes that these are always floating about like microbes in the air. Many believe that the picture which the gazer descries is the outcome of definite telepathically conveyed information, but there is more than one large hypothesis in this theory, and it is too like explaining obscurum per obscurius. In pursuance of our method, we rule out suggestion, whether direct or telepathic; and we rule it out not in any dogmatic fashion (see previous chapters), but because there are hundreds of instances of successful scrying to which the theory of suggestion cannot possibly be applied. We grant that suggestion is sometimes a factor, but it cannot be regarded as in any way indispensable.

(4) As organisms we are very unequally endowed; thus some are born with very acute vision, and others with very sensitive hearing. Young people in particular are often able to make almost photographically precise pictures of what they see, especially when it strikes the chord of interest. The capacity may be allowed to atrophy for lack of exercise, but it can be developed into a talent. Much can be gained by discipline in visualizing-staring at a scene, closing the eyes and seeing with the eyes shut, opening them and staring again - it is good fun in early years - that is the way to fill the picture gallery of the mind. All eye-minded people have something of the gift, but some have it extraordinarily, and have cultivated it still more.

Such are the successful scryers, and not even a crystal is needed. Just as Wordsworth saw the dancing daffodils whenever he pleased, so the visualizers have only to close their eyes to see visions. Sometimes these are old friends, pictures that we often look at; sometimes, however, they are strangers, and these are emergences from our sub-conscious, photographs we took without knowing, because we had formed the habit which Davies calls "standing and staring." Wordsworth said that he revived the picture of the daffodils when he was in "vacant or in pensive mood"; and what the crystal or other medium does is to produce a state of restfulness and receptivity, when the stage is clear and our previous mental pictures have a chance to assert themselves. We do not will to scry; we let the mind show off its treasures. In many ways the revived pictures are like those seen in sleep, but, so far as we know, there is nothing of the bizarre phantasmagoria that is characteristic of many dream-pageants.

In old days it was regarded as important to get an innocent boy or girl to look into the crystal or the beryl stone; and while the successful results might mean. that the young are more susceptible to suggestion, seeing what they are told to see, or that they let themselves go more readily and describe more sincerely what they observe in the medium, the success might be due to the fact that the harvest of the eye is richer in early years.

The word "hallucination" is often used by psychologists in reference to the pictures seen in crystal-gazing, but it does not seem to us to be very happy. The only "hallucination" is in the apparent objectivity of the pictures, which seems to many scryers to lie in the recesses of the medium used. But this is an optical illusion, and its incidental nature seems to us to be indicated by the fact that many people can see the same kind of picture by simply closing their eyes in appropriate surroundings. Myers estimates the percentage of successful crystal-gazers at about one in twenty, but that is probably far too generous. As Ruskin frankly told his generation, the number of people who can really and truly see is lamentably small.

There are some old records of crystal-gazing - with good names to them, too - that we cannot in the least explain in scientific terms, but we know how difficult it is to get accurate records of what happened no farther back than yesterday! For the great majority of cases we think our theory holds, that crystal-gazers are people with very keen visualizing power, and that the pictures they see are revivals of previous experiences, sometimes kept in mind, sometimes surging up from the subconscious. That there can be divination of the past or the future by any form of scrying we do not for a moment believe.


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


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