THERE ARE a number of topics in parapsychology which remain in the observational
stage because no one has so far been able to devise experimental methods for
their study. In others the evidence is mainly observational although attempts
have been made to submit it to experimental control. Amongst the latter is one
problem that has, from the beginnings of psychical research, been regarded as
one of its key problems, that of the possibility of obtaining evidence as to
whether human beings survive, in any sense, the death of their bodies. That
there is survival in some sense is taught by all the religions; it is also
supported by a good deal of observational evidence. Yet to many it has seemed so
certain that human consciousness is a function of an intact nervous system that
they have ruled out as impossible the idea that any consciousness could survive
the death and corruption of the nervous system.
This is not a situation to be resolved by argumentation even on a philosophical
level. Philosophical arguments for or against survival turn on the implications
of language. It is not in this way that questions of fact can be settled. We
cannot decide what is the case by considerations drawn from the socialised
habits of thought which underlie the implications of our language; rather we must
be prepared to modify our habits of thought and our customary ways of using
language in order to make them conform to whatever facts we may discover.
It is obvious that there is one kind of empirical evidence that could provide
incontrovertible evidence of survival; this is the actual experience of our
consciousness going on after our own bodily death. But we must wait for our
death before we can know whether we have that experience; we cannot have it in
Some people do, however, claim to have in this life an experience somewhat
related to the post-mortem experience of continued conscious existence. This is
what is called the 'out-of-the-body' experience (Green, 1968). This experience
may occur while the subject appears to be asleep or unconscious but it may also
occur in the waking state. Its distinguishing feature is the fact that the
subject appears to be elsewhere than in his body, and the body itself may be
seen as an object within his field of vision. Such experiences may seem to one
having them, not direct evidence of the survival of death, but convincing
evidence that he is of such a nature that survival is not an unreasonable
expectation. They are not convincing as evidence of anything to other people
than those experiencing them, since they rarely give verifiable information that
would indicate that they were not merely hallucinatory. To give generally
acceptable evidence of survivability it would be necessary that such experiences
should be brought under experimental control. Such control has not yet been
The observational evidence for survival derived from the appearance of ghosts
and other apparitions has not much force as evidence that people do survive
their bodily deaths. There is much evidence that seeing a ghost is a genuine but
rare experience, but little ground for supposing that a ghost is the surviving
element of some deceased person. Even when what is seen is the apparition of
some relative or friend who has recently died, there are strong arguments
against the view that the spirit of the dead person is there as a visual object.
 Tyrrell, G. N. M. Apparitions (London,
More cogent evidence comes from communications ostensibly from the departed that
are received through mediums. The medium is a woman or man who is considered to
act as intermediary between a living human sitter and a once living
communicator. The contact between the medium and communicator may appear to be
direct as when the medium speaks by direct voice, that is, apparently with the
voice of the communicator. More commonly there is another intermediary,
ostensibly in the spirit world, called the control. There is some experimental
evidence, obtained by Whately Carington, that the controls are
secondary personalities of the medium, although they may claim to be Red
Indians, Greeks, Persians, and so forth. The control usually reports the
presence of deceased relatives and friends of the sitters, gives messages from
them to the sitters, and reports their answers to questions put by sitters. The
medium may be in trance or semi-trance and may communicate what is said by the
control either by word of mouth or by automatic writing or by some such method
as spelling out by pointing successively to different letters of the alphabet.
 The Quantitative Study of Trance Personalities,
I, II and Ill, Proc SPR, xlii, 173-240, xliii, 319-61, and xliv 189-222,
1935, 1936 1937.
There is no doubt that statements and answers to questions purporting to come
from the departed are given in mediumistic séances and no reason for supposing
(except in rare and purely fraudulent cases) that they are conscious
fabrications by the medium. It has indeed been abundantly shown (in the case of
Mrs Piper and other good mediums) that the information supplied about relatives
of sitters unknown to the medium has gone far beyond the medium's normal
knowledge. If their source was not the ostensible communicators, it would have
to be attributed to the extrasensory capacities of the medium. Without a
suitably designed experiment, it is difficult to see how a rational choice
between these two alternatives can be made.
To suppose that the choice is simply between extra-terrestrial communicators and
the medium's psi-capacities is to make the alternative too absolute. It is
possible that both factors might enter into mediumistic communications as well
as such other factors as the medium's own habits of thought and also the habits
of thought and extra-sensory capacities of the sitters. If there is any factor
of communication from the communicators, this may be diluted to any extent by
such other factors, normal and paranormal. An answer to the key question of
whether there is any evidence for communications from the departed in
mediumistic material depends on the investigator's ability to filter out such an
element from all such possible irrelevancies. If the question as to the reality
of this element is answered affirmatively, there remains the further
quantitative question of how large it is in comparison with other factors. A
satisfactory answer to these questions demands more refined techniques of
enquiry than mere attendance at mediumistic séances.
There may be real communication from the departed which is very imperfect as a
result of dilution from such sources as the thought habits of the medium, the
expectations of the sitters, and so on. The situation from the point of view of
the communicator may well be as described by (ostensibly)
F. W. H. Myers
communicating by automatic writing through
Mrs Holland: 'I appear to be standing
behind a sheet of frosted glass - which blurs sight and deadens sounds - dictating
feebly - to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary'.
 Johnson, Alice. On the Automatic Writing
of Mrs. Holland, Proc SPR, xxi, 166-91, 1909.
In the same way, when
Mrs Willett was the ostensible communicator through
Geraldine Cummins, she referred to the communications as a 'mixed grill'
composed of memories of the medium and the communicator, and spoke of herself as
being in a sense compelled to select from the memories of the automatist
(Cummins and Toksvig, 1965). If this was communicated by Mrs Willett, it is of
special interest since her own experience in this life as a medium might have
been a help to her in understanding the problems and difficulties of
The evidence from communications received through mediums has appeared
convincing to many people. Two lines of evidence may be distinguished: evidence
by recognition and evidence by information.
The characteristic of evidence by recognition is that the sitter is convinced of
the reality of the communicator by recognition of such personal characteristics
as ways of speaking and even (in direct voice communication) of characteristic
intonations. The feeling is that of being in direct contact with the deceased
personality. Such experience of recognition seems understandably convincing to
the sitter experiencing it. It can carry no conviction to anyone else,
particularly when they remember how illusory experiences of recognition can be
even in everyday life.
More commonly the evidence that convinces sitters of the reality of their
communicators is their ability to give some identifying information. If someone
were telephoning to us and we were uncertain whether he was the person he
claimed to be, he might assure us as to his identity by producing such an
identifying bit of information: 'I'm John Smith, you know, who used to ride a
piebald pony called Peg.' If we are in doubt as to the identity of ostensible
communicators, they may attempt to satisfy our doubts in the same way.
Not all information given in a séance is useful for identification; that part
which can be used as evidence of identification is of very uneven value for that
purpose. The informational content of a séance can be classified as follows:
1. Information that has no value as evidence because it is on matters that could
be within the normal knowledge of the medium.
2. Information that is of little evidential value because, although true of the
communicator, it is true also of many other people. Such information, for
example, as 'Your grandfather died as an old man after a long illness' can be
shown to be acceptable to a large proportion of sitters. On credulous sitters,
it may have an effect disproportionate to its real value as evidence.
3. Information as to some particular fact known to the ostensible communicator
which can be confirmed by one of the sitters or by some other person. This is
the kind of information that obviously points strongly to the ostensible
communicator being the person he claims to be. The evidence is not, however,
coercive if we admit the possibility that the medium can get such information
from the minds of the sitters by ESP. Information of this type is, of course,
evidence of some kind of paranormal acquisition of knowledge, but not
necessarily from other-world sources.
4. Information as to some fact (subsequently confirmed) which is known to the
ostensible communicator but to no other person. This most striking kind of
evidence does not often occur spontaneously although there have been cases. It
is more easily arranged experimentally, as when a communicator tries to reveal
the contents of a package he sealed before his death. In the early days of
psychical researches such information was regarded as of very high evidential
value since the early psychical researchers were inclined to regard telepathy as
the only form of ESP to be considered. Since, however, we now know that
psi-knowledge of an external fact is no more beyond the power of a gifted
percipient than is psi-knowledge of another person's thought, this evidence is
of no more force than is that of the third kind unless the possibility of the
medium having acquired the crucial information by ESP has been in some manner
excluded. This exclusion of the possibility of ESP can never be complete in a
spontaneous mediumistic communication; it will be later considered how it can be
achieved in an experimental situation.
Although it is, in principle, possible for authentic information of the third
and fourth kinds to be explained by the sceptic as due to the medium's own
extra-sensory powers, this explanation may appear, in the most striking cases, a
highly improbable one since it assumes an ESP capacity in the medium greater
than there is any other evidence for. The least that can be said for good
spontaneous mediumistic evidence of survival is that it creates a strong prima
facie case for some part of the communication coming from the ostensible
communicator. Of recent cases which contribute strongly to this evidence, I
should be inclined to pick out the 'Palm Sunday' case and the
communications received by Geraldine Cummins ostensibly from Mrs Willett.
 Balfour, Jean, The 'Palm Sunday' case: new light
on an old love story, Proc SPR, Iii, 79-267, 1960.
 Cummins, Geraldine, and Toksvig, Jean. Swan on a Black Sea, London,
If the most striking mediumistic utterances do seem to show evidence that they
may come in part from an other-world communicator, it remains true that they
seem to be diluted to an unknown extent by the psychological this-world factors
already mentioned. In the less striking cases these factors may predominate to
such an extent that one can feel no conviction that anything is coming through
from the ostensible communicator. In all cases, correct information, from
whatever source, is mixed with much misinformation, and evidence by recognition
is confused by an admixture of uncharacteristic responses. While such
misinformation complicates the problem of evaluating mediumistic evidence, it is
not inconsistent with real activity of a communicator if it is considered that
the communication is, at best, a composite product in which such factors as the
thought processes of the medium may play a part. It must also not be forgotten
that the communicator himself may suffer from defects of memory and some changes
of personality after his bodily death.
It is clear that there are enough uncertainties in spontaneous mediumistic
material to suggest the desirability of an experimental attack on the problem of
survival. Either evidence by recognition or evidence from information may be
made the basis for experiment. The first of such experimental enquiries to be
considered here is the attempt of Whately Carington to reduce to experimental
terms the problem of identification of communicators by recognition. The essence of his method was to use the responses of
communicators to psychological tests as a means of identifying them instead of
relying on the subjective impression of recognition by the sitter. The intention
was to discover whether what was ostensibly a single communicator would give,
through different mediums, responses which were more similar to each other than
were the responses of ostensibly different communicators. If it were found to be
so, this would give reason for supposing that a communicator x coming through
one medium was the same individual as communicator x coming through another
medium. It would not, of course, prove that he was the individual he claimed to
be, but Whately Carington had also the idea of a more extended experiment which
would provide evidence also on this question. He had a plan of doing
psychological tests on living individuals, and after their death to see whether,
as communicators, their responses to the same tests showed a significant
resemblance to their responses during their life. This experiment was, however,
never carried out.
 Whately Carington, W. The Quantitative Study of
Trance Personalities, I, II and Ill, Proc SPR, xlii, 173-240, xliii,
319-61, and xliv 189-222, 1935, 1936 1937.
 Whately Carington, W. Survival of death, Chambers's Encyclopedia,
xiii, London. 1950.
In the more limited experiment on the resemblance of communicators coming
through different mediums, Whately Carington thought that his case was proved.
Further study of his numerical results showed, however, that this was
over-optimistic; his positive results turned out to be the result of serious
errors in Whately Carington's use of statistical methods (Thouless, 1937). When
correctly evaluated, his results showed no more tendency for communicators to
resemble themselves than to resemble other communicators. They provided no
evidence that the different communicators were distinct personalities.
 Thouless, R. H. Review of Mr. Whately
Carington's Work on Trance Personalities, Proc SPR, xliv, 223-75, 1937.
Whately Carington's experiment was a courageous and praiseworthy attempt to
solve a difficult problem. There is no reason for taking its negative result as
final. Other workers may repeat Carington's laborious plan of research by more
fruitful methods and they may get more satisfactory results. No one seems as yet
to have tried to follow the path laid down by Whately Carington; there seems
here to be a field open for experimental research but it is not an easy one.
More commonly, parapsychologists have preferred to do experiments on
identification of communicators by information. These have involved choosing the
item of identifying information, generally by the use of a package containing
information and sealed in the communicator's lifetime. Before discussing these
'sealed package' experiments, however, something should be said of another
attack on the problem of survival which is, at least, semi-experimental. This is
the system of 'cross-correspondences' which was reported in the Proceedings of
the Society for Psychical Research from 1906 onwards.
If this was an experiment, it would appear to be one that was arranged from the
other side of the grave. The general idea was that separate items of information
were given through different mediums, items which were without significance when
considered separately but fitted into a coherent whole when taken together. This
feat was taken to be beyond the telepathic powers of the mediums concerned, and
therefore to be evidence of a single mind acting on all the mediums, which mind
had the necessary knowledge to arrange the connection between the items. The
principal identifying characteristic of the items supplied was the amount of
classical knowledge that was required for fitting them together; this knowledge
was certainly possessed by the ostensible communicators: Verrall, Butcher, and
Myers. I have not myself sufficient classical knowledge to judge the value of
the evidence from the cross-correspondences, but some competent judges consider
that they do demonstrate the unifying activity of the surviving mind of a
If this was an experiment devised by these scholars on the other side of the
grave, I think it must be judged to be a badly designed experiment. It has
provided a mass of material of which it is very difficult to judge the
evidential value, and about which there are varying opinions. It reproduces, in
fact, the defects of spontaneously gathered mediumistic material in a somewhat
intensified form. A successful experiment should give a more clear and
unambiguous answer to the question it is designed to answer than does
spontaneous material; otherwise the experiment is not worth while. When judged
by this criterion the cross-correspondences would seem to fail as an experiment.
The sealed-package experiments were attempts to make experimental the problem of
identification by information. If the deceased person has put something into a
package whose contents are known to no one else, then we have a specified bit of
information which we may hope to recover from him through a medium after his
death. A message was so sealed by F. W. H. Myers before his death, but the
nature of the message was not afterwards discovered through a medium but only by
opening the package. Sir
Oliver Lodge left behind him a similar package but
although there were many subsequent séances in which Lodge ostensibly
communicated (in some of which I was the sitter) it proved impossible to get a
plain statement from him as to what was in his envelope. When this was finally
opened it proved to contain an account of a finger habit acquired from the
five-finger exercises of his childhood which remained with him all his life and
was, he said, known to nobody else.
It is not, perhaps, surprising that the communicator may find it difficult to
remember the particular bit of information that he put into his sealed package.
In this life, we use our material brains for the purpose of remembering. If
there is a disembodied communicator, he has lost this material brain which he
left behind in his grave. He no longer possesses this convenient mechanism for
the storage of information; the brain may not be essential for remembering and
yet the loss of it may interfere with effective remembering. Some of us are in
the habit of remembering appointments by writing them down in a pocket diary; we
could, no doubt, have remembered them without the diary, but, since we have
formed the habit of relying on it, we shall find it difficult to remember our
engagements if the diary is lost. It may be so also when we lose our material
brains at death. The task of remembering a specific memory may be a difficult
one; if anything of the sealed-package type is to be attempted, it is important
that the experimental material should be simple, striking, and easy to remember.
It is odd too that, in the experiments of Myers and Lodge, better success was
not obtained by the clairvoyant powers of the medium. Too much weight should not
be attached to this failure, but, so far as it goes, it suggests that the
psi-capacities of mediums may be less formidable than they are commonly assumed
It is true that certain writers have claimed that neither the Myers package test
nor that of Lodge were as complete failures as they were supposed to be, since
the message delivered through the medium, although not identical with that
enclosed in the package, had some relation to it. In the Myers
package, for example, both the sealed message and the séance reproduction of it
had something to do with love but one was concerned with the house where lived
the lady whom Myers loved, and the other was concerned with Plato's Symposium.
The resemblance is somewhat remote and one cannot say with confidence that it is
 Salter, W. H. F. W. H. Myer's Posthumous
Message, Proc SPR, Iii, 1-32, 1958.
The mere fact that there can be such discussion means that the experiments have
failed in their main object, for the evidence they have produced has the same
sort of uncertainty as that produced in ordinary non-experimental sittings with
mediums. The point of doing an experiment is to do something better than this;
it should produce evidence which approaches the ideal of an unambiguous proof
that communication was received that could only be accounted for on the
hypothesis of a disembodied communicator.
The failure of the Myers and Lodge sealed-package experiments should be
considered as a challenge to the psychical researcher to design something
There are a number of defects in these two sealed-package experiments. First,
there is the fact that, if they had been successful, there would have been no
way of ensuring that this success was due to communication of information from
another world and not to the extra-sensory capacities of the medium. Arguments
could, no doubt, be put forward on both sides, but there is no experimental
discrimination between the two possibilities. Secondly, the experiment is not
repeatable; once the package is opened, the experiment is over. Those in charge
of the experiment may be doubtful when to open the package. If it is opened too
early, the experiment may fail although the communicator could have got through
the correct message in a later sitting. If the package has been opened and
examined there can be no later sitting. What one needs is to devise a task for
which there can be an indefinitely large number of verifications without
spoiling the experiment.
It was in an attempt to remedy these defects that I devised what I have called
the cipher test. This was intended to fulfil the following
 Thouless, R. H. A Test of Survival; Additional
Note on a Test of Survival, Proc SPR, xlviii, 253-63 and 342-3. 1948.
1. That the information to be communicated should be simple and easy to
2. That it should be of a hit-or-miss type; the answer should be either clearly
right or clearly wrong.
3. The likelihood of hitting on the right answer by accident should be
4. It should be possible to try out any number of wrong answers without spoiling
the experiment as it is spoiled by the premature opening of a sealed package.
5. The design should be such that a discrimination can be made between success
through the medium's ESP and that which must be attributed to communication from
For the purpose of this test, I have prepared in cipher two passages in the
Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. The passages are: INXPH
CJKGM JIRPR FBCVY WYWES NOECN SCVHE GYRJQ TEBJM TGXAT TWPNH CNYBC FNXPF LFXRV QWQL
and BTYRR OOFLH KCDXK FWPCZ KTADR GFHKA HTYXO ALZUP PYPVF AYMMF SDLR UVUB. The
methods used for encipherment are described in the articles already referred to.
The object of the test is to see whether, after my bodily death, I can
communicate the keys by which the passages can be deciphered. It will not be my
intention to communicate the content of the enciphered passages; that I have
already forgotten. What is to be communicated is the keys required for
decipherment: a passage from literature in the first case, and a pair of words
in the second. The methods of encipherment are such that these keys cannot be
discovered by any rational process.
 Vol. xlviii, pp. 258 and 342. There is also an earlier passage on p. 253 which
is now withdrawn from the test because its method of encipherment proved not to
be unbreakable by rational methods.
This test seems to fulfil the first four of the required conditions mentioned
above. It does not matter how many wrong keys are tried out; the passage will
not be read by means of them and the subsequent reading of it by the right key
is not prevented by these failures. The test may not indeed entirely get over
the difficulty that imperfections of post-mortem memory may make it difficult
for my disembodied spirit to produce the required keys. But this difficulty is
made as small as possible by the simplicity of what has to be remembered and by
the fact that any number of attempts to remember can be tested.
The design of this experiment also makes it possible to fulfil the fifth
requirement, that of discriminating between explanation by the medium's ESP
powers and by a surviving communicator. This possibility arises from the fact
that any number of erroneous attempts at the key can be made without spoiling
the test. Attempts can, therefore, be made to get the keys through mediums while
I am still alive. Several such attempts have been made and all have been
unsuccessful. If, therefore, the keys are correctly given by a communicator
purporting to be me after my bodily death, the fact that they are so obtained
and could not be obtained during my lifetime, will be a strong (though obviously
not conclusive) ground for supposing that that communicator is indeed myself.
In order to carry much weight, this experiment should be carried out by a number
of persons. There are difficulties in the preparation of enciphered material
and, so far as I know, only one other person has made a similar test. It is
satisfactory that Dr lan Stevenson has devised a test on similar lines involving
simpler material. What is deposited in Stevenson's test is a
combination lock, on which the combination has been changed by the person
intending to communicate to a number known only to himself. The matter to be
communicated is the number to which the lock must be set before it can be
opened. This form of test has the advantage that the material is easily
available and requires less labour in preparation than does a cipher. Already a
number of individuals have contributed locks for this experiment.
 Stevenson, I. The Combination Lock Test for
Survival, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Ixii,
All such experiments, derived from the original sealed-package tests, can go no
further than establishing experimentally the fact of survival. The further
problem as to the nature of what survives will be the next experimental problem
in this field when the fact of survival is demonstrated.
Obviously the experimental study of survival has still a long way to go.
There are promising leads as to possible directions of experiment. The path
opened by Whately Carington, for example, still awaits further exploration. It
would be a big breakthrough if anyone could devise methods of communication that
did not involve a human medium, but there is no hint yet of how such a
development could take place.
"From Anecedotoe to Experiment in Psychical
Research" by Robert
Thouless (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972).