Robert Thouless

Dr. Robert H. Thouless

Educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he was awarded his PhD in 1922. He then went on to become a Lecturer in Psychology at Manchester, in Glasgow, and again in Cambridge. Here he became the Reader in Educational Psychology. He was President of the British Association's Psychology Section in 1937, and published a number of books connected with this subject. President of the SPR from 1942 till 1944.

The Beginnings of Psychical Research

 - Robert H. Thouless -

          'PSYCHICAL RESEARCH' was the name at first given to the attempt to make a scientific study of certain odd events of a kind not easy to explain since currently accepted scientific principles of explanation would lead one to expect that such events would not occur. An example is the claim made by some people that they know what is in someone else's mind although there has been no communication between the two persons by the ordinary sensory channels of hearing or sight.

The term 'psychical research' to cover the study of such events has often been replaced by other terms. The most widely used of these is 'parapsychology'. Although this has sometimes been used in a more limited sense to cover the experimental approach to the phenomena studied in psychical research, it is now very commonly used to stand for the whole field of what was once called 'psychical research'. Either term may be used: 'parapsychology' is more generally used in the United States but 'psychical research' remains the more generally understood term in Great Britain.

The apparent fact of communication between one mind and another without use of the ordinary sensory channels was at one time called 'thought-transference' and later came to be known as 'telepathy'. Even more oddly, knowledge may be reported of some outside event which is not known to anyone else, such as the presence of a letter in a concealed drawer, or a fire in an empty house. This has been called 'clairvoyance'. The more general term 'extra-sensory perception' (generally shortened to ESP) is now very generally adopted to cover both telepathy and clairvoyance. Some people also claim to be able to foretell the future: this alleged power may be called 'precognition'. There are also reported cases of people being able to cause movements or to affect the direction of movements of material objects without contact with them. This used to be called 'telekinesis' (distant-movement), perhaps a better name than the more generally used modem name 'psycho-kinesis' (mind-movement), which is commonly shortened to PK.

Another term that will sometimes be met with is one originally suggested by Dr Wiesner and myself. We were inclined to think that there might be no real difference between what were called telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition, that they might be the same capacity working under different circumstances. We suggested that this capacity might be indicated by the Greek letter (psi) which would also have the advantage over such terms as ESP that it implied no theory about the psychological nature of the process but could be used merely as a label. This suggestion has been widely taken up and the term 'psi-phenomena' is as well understood (at least in the United States) as the term 'paranormal phenomena'. We also suggested that this Greek symbolism might be extended to cover the difference between ESP and PK, the former being called (psi-gamma) and the latter (psi-kappa). This suggestion has not, however, been generally accepted.

Other events of an odd and unexpected kind which may be regarded as belonging to the field studied by psychical research are the alleged seeing of ghosts or of apparitions of people not physically there who may be living or dead, the alleged appearance on unexposed photographic film of representations of people or of distant scenes (an alleged occurrence now often called 'thoughtography'), the healing of illness or bodily injury without the use of normal medical means, the receiving of messages by automatic writing or other means which purport to come from the spirits of dead persons, and so on. It is difficult to find any common feature of all these events except that they are the sort of thing one would not expect to happen. Their occurrence would seem to contradict the expectations based on our common-sense thinking and on our knowledge of science. A useful adjective that has been coined for this class of unexpected events is 'paranormal'. Giving them a name does not, of course, imply that such events exist; we need a name either to affirm them or to deny them. The word 'paranormal' should not be equated either with 'supernatural' or 'magical'; both of these words imply something about the origin of such events. 'Paranormal' implies no theory about the events except that we should not expect them to happen.

The natural thing to do with stories of alleged paranormal phenomena is to pass them by with the assurance that they can't be true because they conflict with 'common sense'. It is not surprising that many people do reject the paranormal on this ground and that they are inclined to regard a research interest in it as somewhat eccentric. Yet there is at least strong enough evidence for some of the alleged paranormal phenomena to create a case for further enquiry, and there are good grounds for distrusting common sense as a guide to what is possible and what is not possible. 'Common sense' may be the name we give to nothing more authoritative than the thought habits that we happen to have derived from our ordinary experience. These thought habits certainly do not lead us to expect that our actions can be influenced by the thought of another person unless he expresses his thought in speech or in some other way. Nor do our thought habits lead us to expect that light will bend round corners. Our common sense proves to be an unreliable guide to what we have not experienced, whether this is the diffraction of light or the properties of sub-atomic particles; it cannot be allowed to have a decisive voice in determining our attitude towards the paranormal.

Accepting stories of the paranormal as a reasonable research interest does not, of course, imply that the psychical researcher accepts them all as true. Many are mistaken records of natural events; some are lies told with the intention to deceive. One of his first tasks is to make as good a discrimination as he can between the true and the false. Very often stories of the paranormal must be judged doubtful; they can still be used as guides to further investigation, preferably by the method of experiment; no great harm is done if the psychical researcher allows a false lead to guide him to experiments that do not come off. His system of enquiry is a self-correcting one; such experiments will lead to no results, but that is a situation that every research worker must get used to.

It is not that the psychical researcher believes everything he hears about the paranormal, but that he is willing to consider as possibilities many things that the man guided by common sense would unhesitatingly reject. To be a psychical researcher, or to have an even intelligent interest in psychical research, requires a certain open-mindedness as to the boundaries of the possible that comes hard to the man of common sense.

The truth is that the field of the paranormal is one in which people are inclined to have too high a conviction of certainty one way or the other. One still finds, even at the present day, a situation commented on by Sir William Crookes in 1874 of a too easy credulity on the part of some people and an equally irrational incredulity on the part of others. The quality of mind required of a psychical researcher is not an inclination to believe in stories of the marvellous or an inclination to reject them, but a willingness to allow the degree of his belief or unbelief to be determined by the evidence and not by his prejudices or by his wishes, or by current fashions of thought.

In order to be able to free ourselves from the tendency to be too certain one way or the other on the complex and difficult problems raised by a study of the paranormal, it is necessary to accustom ourselves to a language using references to many degrees of certainty and doubtfulness as well as the simple division into the categories of 'true' and 'false'. We must be prepared to make such judgments on statements about the paranormal as, for example: 'I am not certain about this matter, but what I know makes me strongly inclined to think so-and-so', or 'On the whole, I am inclined to believe that ...', or 'I know so little about this that I do not feel justified in holding an opinion, one way or the other'. These are ways of using language employed in everyday life to indicate different degrees of doubt or conviction which may result from different amounts of information or from different judgments of the reliability of the information available. We shall need these and many more ways of indicating degrees of conviction if we are to talk adequately about what we can believe in the region of the paranormal.

There is a natural tendency of our minds to prefer to be certain one way or the other rather than to accept the relatively uncomfortable mental attitude of uncertainty or suspension of belief. If willingness to suspend belief is a necessary attribute of the psychical researcher, he should not go to the opposite extreme of always suspending belief indefinitely, however strong may be the evidence. The point of adopting an attitude of uncertainty is that one may then adopt means of enquiry that will reduce that uncertainty by increasing the amount or the reliability of the evidence. There have been psychical researchers who have taken a pride in refusing to have a definite opinion on any subject connected with the paranormal. They seem to have avoided the rash certainties of the simple man who uses only the categories of 'true' and 'false' and to have adopted a more sophisticated way of avoiding the making of judgments by employing only the single category of 'doubtful'. They may describe themselves by the contradictory title of 'convinced sceptic' and claim that their attitude is peculiarly 'scientific'.

This, however, is to misunderstand the nature of scientific enquiry. It is characteristic of scientific investigation that it may begin with a readiness to treat as doubtful many things that the man in the street regards as certain. Its aim, however, is to devise means to remove more and more of this uncertainty. The situation is not different in the scientific investigation of the paranormal. It is ninety years since the Society for Psychical Research was founded for the purpose of making such a study. If now we could make no more definite statements about what is true or false in the field of the paranormal than could our grandfathers (or great-grandfathers) when the investigation started, we could properly condemn the whole enquiry as a great waste of time. No doubt the answers to various problems in this field have not become as clear as the founders of the Society might have hoped; the enquiry has proved much more difficult than it appeared at first sight. But it remains true that knowledge has advanced and much of the field can be seen more clearly now than it could ninety years ago.

The first recognition in modern times of the fact that paranormal events might be of sufficient interest to deserve scientific study was during the last half of the nineteenth century when a number of individuals interested founded in London the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. The first president of the new society was Henry Sidgwick, a former Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who became Professor of Moral Philosophy. Other founder members were: F. W. H. Myers, an inspector of schools who was also a Fellow of Trinity, William Crookes the famous chemist, and Edmund Gurney, a man of many parts who became the Society's secretary. The story of the early days of this intellectual adventure has been well told by Dr A. Gauld in a recent book (Gauld, 1968). The founders of the Society knew that they were venturing into a field where passions are strong and they expected criticism and misrepresentation. This expectation was fulfilled. Even now it is sometimes imagined that they were credulous people easily taken in by fraudulent marvels. A study of the early records should dispel this idea. Certainly they made their mistakes, sometimes in the direction of too ready belief, sometimes in the direction of over-stiff rejection of evidence. On the whole, however, it would seem that the marvellous was as unacceptable to Sidgwick, Myers, Crookes, and Gurney as it would be to any other men of their education and intelligence. They differed from other men, not in expecting the marvellous, but in being unusually ready to discard their common-sense expectations if these were contradicted by experience.

The example set by the English Society for Psychical Research was quickly followed in other countries. A few years later, an American Society for Psychical Research was founded. Similar societies have also now been started in many other countries. The universities were more slow to accept Psychical Research as an appropriate subject for study. In 1927, however, William McDougall, Professor of Psychology at Duke University in North Carolina, started a laboratory for the study of paranormal phenomena under J. B. Rhine. This has now been detached from the university as the Foundation for Research into the Nature of Man. Other universities have accepted such studies as an academic research activity; Utrecht and Freiburg have departments for the study of the paranormal headed by professors, so also has the University of Virginia. No doubt the number will increase; at the moment there is some shortage of trained investigators in the subject who could fill university posts, but this shortage would be overcome if there were sufficient demand.

Although the modern investigation of the paranormal by scientific methods may be considered to have started with the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, or perhaps in the work of Crookes shortly before that date, it has been pointed out that the idea was put forward two and a half centuries earlier by Francis Bacon (Bell, 1956). His ideas on the subject are to be found in a little-known book Sylva Sylvarum (a collection of collections) published in 1627, the year after his death. The last part of this book is concerned with experiments on the paranormal, or, in the author's own words: 'Experiments in consort, monitory, touching transmission of spirits and forces of imagination'. His suggestion was that from much that was commonly regarded as superstitious and magical one might be able to separate out something that is 'clean and pure natural'.

The somewhat obscure reference to the field of the paranormal quoted above becomes more clear when Bacon begins to describe the particular things he wants to see investigated. These include telepathic dreams and the cure of warts by means of charms; both of these had been experienced by himself. He also wanted to have experimental investigation into healing 'by the force of the imagination', the problem that is now called that of 'paranormal healing' which includes miraculous cures and the activities of psychic healers. He also considered as proper subjects for investigation how the force of imagination might affect the behaviour of birds and the growth of plants. The first of these has not, in fact been investigated by modem parapsychologists but the influence of human thought on protozoa has been investigated experimentally by Richmond (1952), and there have also been experimental studies of the influence of human thought on the growth of plants. Bacon suggested the experimental rule that imagination 'bath most force upon things that have the lightest and easiest motions'. He illustrates the meaning of 'light motions' by reference to 'casting of dice'. This was, of course, the method actually used in Rhine's Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University for the study of PK; apparently Bacon did not carry out any experiments with dice because he thought it unlikely that imagination would have any effect on dead matter.

Bacon also discussed what we should now call experiments in ESP under the name 'binding of thoughts'. He said: 'The experiment of binding of thoughts should be diversified and tried to the full; and you are to note whether it hit for the most part though not alway.' 'For the most part though not alway' is, of course, a good anticipation of what has been found in ESP experimentation. Bacon also made the ingenious experimental suggestion that an experiment of 'binding of thoughts' would be more likely to succeed 'if you tell one that such an one shall name one of twenty men, than if it were one of twenty cards'. That one might get better success in ESP experiments by using targets of human interest instead of cards is a suggestion that has often been made in more recent times. In fact, experimenters still mostly use cards because the arithmetical treatment of their results is simple, but the use of other kinds of target may prove to be more fruitful for some percipients.

This is the sort of practical suggestion that might be made by someone who has done something but not very much in the way of experimenting on such matters himself. Perhaps Bacon had tried some experiments on ESP. If this is the case it makes more startling the fact that it was more than two centuries before such experiments were tried again. Why, after so long a pause, was there a revival of interest in the scientific study of the paranormal about the end of the last century? There are really two questions to be asked on this matter: Why not earlier? and Why then?

Why not earlier? Probably because in Bacon's day and for a century afterwards witchcraft was a legal offence punishable by death, and the practices of witchcraft were often the kind of thing that is studied in psychical research, for example, foretelling the future, influencing other people's actions by mental means, and influencing physical events (such as wind or rain) by mental means. The experiments in Rhine's laboratory on the influencing of falls of dice by mental means or on the precognition of the future order of a pack of cards might have led to the experimenter being burned at the stake if they had been carried out some two hundred years earlier.

The situation in Great Britain was changed in 1735 by the passing of the Witchcraft Act. The laws against witchcraft were repealed and the offence that remained was not the practice of witchcraft (which was regarded as a mere superstition) but the claim to exercise magical art which was punishable as fraud. This may not have created an atmosphere more favourable to psychical research. It is true that there would probably have been little risk that an experimenter who claimed to have obtained successful results in a PK or a precognitive experiment would have been imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act. But such experimentation would have been more heavily discouraged by the condemnation of public opinion, which would have regarded beliefs in the influence of mind on material objects and in the power of foretelling the future as mere superstitions which could not reasonably be made the subjects of a serious enquiry. In the years after 1735 the belief in witchcraft was too recent for any impartial enquiry into matters that would be popularly regarded as connected with it. A longer time had to elapse before a President of the Society for Psychical Research could say: 'It is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these [paranormal] phenomena should still be going on ... that the educated, as a body, should still be simply in the attitude of incredulity' (H. Sidgwick). Earlier, no doubt, the attitude as to these phenomena would not have been one of doubt but of positive rejection as superstitious nonsense belonging to the days of witchcraft. This attitude of rejection had not, of course, disappeared at the time of the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research; it had however sufficiently weakened for it to be possible to propose the paranormal as a possible subject for scientific study.

These considerations suggest that part of the answer to the question of why psychical research started in the last half of the nineteenth century was that witchcraft as a social force was sufficiently far behind to be no longer a decisive factor in determining what questions would be considered suitable for enquiry. There were, however other factors which made this a likely subject of interest at that time. One factor that must be considered is the rise of spiritualism in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was rather more than thirty years before the founding of the S.P.R., in the year 1848, that a farmer of the name of Fox was living in a small village called Hydesville in New York State with his wife and two daughters at home. The daughters were Margaret (14) and Kate (11). Noises of raps were reported in the house and it was said that the children were too frightened to sleep. Then on 31 March of that year, Kate was supposed to have established contact with the source of raps. Saying 'Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do', she clapped her hands several times and the same number of raps followed.

Her parents then took part, using a code for communication (two raps for 'Yes'), and started asking questions. It appeared that the ostensible communicator claimed to be the spirit of a pedlar who had been murdered in that house and whose body had been buried in the cellar.

This could obviously be a fabrication (probably subconscious) created by the members of the Fox family but there was some confirmation for the story. The cellar was examined in the following summer and some traces of human remains were found but no body. Not until fifty-six years later (in 1904) was a body discovered under the house.

Whether this was a genuine outbreak of occult forces in Hydesville or (as Podmore believed) a case of a naughty little girl deceiving her parents by cracking her joints and pretending that the noises came from outside her (Podmore, 1902), these events had far-reaching consequences. The practice of communicating with spirits by means of raps became widespread. A number of people, including the two Fox sisters, became professional mediums. Other methods of communicating were developed, such as speaking in trance and automatic writing. Amateurs also used the movements of tables round which they sat with their fingers resting on its surface while the table spelled out messages by its movements. This 'table-turning' as a popular amusement reached its climax about 1853. A more serious development from these ostensible communications with spirits was the growth of Spiritualism as a new religion.

There were reports of stranger things than communication with spirits by raps or automatic writing to arouse the interest of the curious in the new phenomena of spiritualism. There were also accounts of 'physical phenomena', movements of objects without contact and the appearance of physical forms, even of complete human bodies. These took place generally in restricted light or in darkness and they had already attracted the attention of William Crookes some years before the Society was founded (Crookes, 1874).

There were thus a number of questions raised by the spiritualist phenomena which invited dispassionate and impartial enquiry, particularly since they were subjects of impassioned controversy both by their convinced upholders and also by their equally convinced critics. There were a number of questions to be answered, as to which, if any, of the reported phenomena were genuine, and, if any of them proved to be genuine, as to what was their explanation. It was perhaps hoped that the methods of scientific enquiry adopted by the Society would enable them to answer these questions within a short time. If so this hope was disappointed. There is still controversy as to which phenomena are genuine, and we are still far from completely understanding their explanation.

Although the emergence of the problems of spiritualism during the last half of the nineteenth century may have been an important factor in causing the foundation of the S.P.R., the problem of spiritualism was one only of several subjects of investigation that it undertook. It was also concerned with thought-transference, mesmerism, and certain apparently paranormal phenomena that had been reported by the chemist Reichenbach. But the impartial study of the phenomena of spiritualism was part of its aim, and the original intention was that the study would be carried out by the combined efforts of convinced spiritualists and of others not committed to the spiritualist view. A few years after the foundation of the Society, however, there was dissension between the spiritualists and the non-spiritualists, the former finding the attitude of the Society too sceptical. Many spiritualists then resigned from the Society. This source of tension still exists although many prominent spiritualists (as Sir Oliver Lodge) have remained active members of the Society. The Society has been accused of being over-credulous and of being over-sceptical. It has, in reality, adopted no official attitude on the questions it investigates. Some of its members are ready to believe in the marvellous, others are very unwilling to believe. Both attitudes are consistent with a devotion to enquiry into the paranormal.


BELL, MAY (1956), 'A Pioneer in Parapsychology', Journal of Parapsychology, xx, 257-62.

CROOKES, W. (1874), "Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism", London (reissued 1953).

GAULD, A. (1968), "The Founders of Psychical Research", London.

PODMORE, F. (1902), "Modern Spiritualism", London. (Reissued as Mediums of the 19th Century, New York, 1963)

RICHMOND, N. (1952), 'Two Series of PK Tests on Paramecia', Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, xxxvi, 577-88.

THOULESS, R. H. (1942), 'The Present Position of Experimental Research into Telepathy and Related Phenomena', Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, xlvii, 1-19.


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