Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

What is Psychical Research?

What Psychical Research Is and what it is Not

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          WHAT IS psychical research? Generations of popular exponents of science have inoculated the public mind with two ideas on this subject: 1) that "psychical research" is merely an up-to-date name for "Spiritualism," and 2) that science has shown the alleged phenomena of psychical research to be merely relics of superstition. The idea has sunk in that it is proper to smile when psychical research is mentioned: editors score out the words at sight.

But what are the facts? In the first place psychical research is not spiritualism and it is not superstition. It is the scientific study of human personality beyond the threshold of consciousness.

Have not the psycho-analysts dealt with this? They have dealt with part of it; but there is a great deal more which they have not. But is it worthwhile to go into all this stuff about cheating mediums, quackery and fraud? Can we take it seriously? If it is serious, would not psychoanalysts or psychologists have discovered the truth about it? And, if psychical research differs from spiritualism, in what way does it differ?

Let us take the last point first. It differs from spiritualism in much the same way that chemistry differs from alchemy or astronomy from astrology. No one now confuses a chemist with an alchemist or accuses him of being a superstitious person who is trying to transmute base metals into gold. But people still refer to investigators in psychical research as superstitious people who "believe" this or that or are "trying to prove" something or other. The difficulty of distinguishing psychical research from several things which it is not is increased by the fact that the term is often applied to work which treats the subject in a loose and irresponsible manner. Many books, classed under the heading of "psychical research," quote stories without giving exact details: the statements of primary witnesses are not quoted verbatim, nor are corroborative statements given. Dates, times and other details, indicating that a thorough examination has been made, are omitted; nor are references given to sources where these things can be found. Such books often adopt the style of a running story and not of a serious statement. All this is not psychical research: but the public unfortunately has acquired the idea that it is, and thinks of the subject as a vague borderland to the marvellous; not as a branch of science.

On account of the number of misleading publications of this kind, of the prevalence of spiritualistic literature, of misleading statements published in the press and broadcast on the wireless, it is worth while repeating, even ad nauseam, that psychical research, properly so-called, is none of these things, but is an important investigation of certain human faculties and characteristics, carried out seriously by serious people.

The subject matter which psychical research has to investigate possesses a long history, going back to primitive man. Magic, witchcraft, sorcery, soothsaying, etc., are immemorial. This kind of thing appears behind the ancient religions: it was old in the days of the Pharaohs. It appears again in the oracular religion of Greece. It is found among all primitive and uneducated peoples. People have reacted towards it with a combination of distrust, revulsion, contempt tinged with fear and an undercurrent of half-fascinated wonder. Education has tended to dismiss all such phenomena as the products of superstition.

Spiritualism, as a cult, is about a century old. It is only in one sense to be regarded as a modern movement. More properly it is the modern dress of ancient occultism. The main object of spiritualists is to enter into communication with the dead through the agency of mediums. The object of psychical research is quite different. It is to investigate scientifically the ancient phenomena called "occult," because it recognises that through them may be studied the workings of those levels of the human personality which lie beneath the threshold of consciousness. By investigating these phenomena we have a chance of discovering regions of fact which we shall never reach by exploring the external world, however ingeniously we apply to it the methods of orthodox science.

Psychical research is entirely modern. It originated with the foundation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. Previously to this, there had existed a "Ghost Society" at Cambridge and a "Phasmatological Society" at Oxford; and the trail had been blazed by such pioneers as Professor de Morgan, Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, and Sir William Crookes. But no organised group had, up to that date, pledged itself to carry out an impersonal study of the facts. Its object was to, collect facts by employing the strictest standards of evidence and not to hold any collective opinion about them. This did not, of course, debar its workers from forming working hypotheses, which are essential for the progress of research. Without them, facts become "a mob and not an army." It cannot be repeated too often that psychical research is a branch of science which progresses by means of accurate observation and experiment, and is not, as its critics often say, an attempt to "prove something." Spiritualism is quite different, for it is a cult and to some extent a religion.

It is necessary to ask who founded the Society for Psychical Research, and what it has accomplished since its inception in 1882. One of its principal founders was F. W. H. Myers, author of a classical book entitled Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, first published in 1903. When at Trinity College, Cambridge, Myers read classics with Henry Sidgwick (afterwards Knightbridge Processor of Moral Philosophy in the University), and both pupil and tutor were intensely interested in all that related to the personality of man and his future destiny. Both were also dissatisfied with the guidance given on these matters by established religion. Discussions between Myers and his friend and tutor at last resulted in a decision to subject to rigorous test the claims put forward by spiritualists. Myers was a scholar of high attainments and a brilliant man of letters; but he sacrificed a large part of his literary career in order to advance the knowledge of human personality. He became a psychologist first; but was prepared to follow every relevant fact wherever it might lead him. "His keenness for truth," wrote William James, "carried him into regions where either intellectual or social squeamish-ness would have been fatal. So he 'mortified' his amour propre, unclubbed himself completely, and became a model of patience, tact and humility wherever investigation required it." Myers, as a psychologist, anticipated to a considerable degree the subsequent discoveries of the psycho-analysts.

Henry Sidgwick had an equally passionate yearning for truth. He, too, with a profoundly religious temperament, was dissatisfied with the solutions offered by religion. He threw himself whole-heartedly into the investigation of spiritualism. Though disgusted by the discovery of much sordidness and fraud, he persevered and interested his wife, Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, an extraordinarily gifted member of a highly gifted family, whose work at Newnham for the higher education of women has for long been widely known. She, together with her two brothers, Arthur and Gerald Balfour, and her brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh, formed, with Myers and Sidgwick, the nucleus of the Investigating group.

In 1882 this small group, with the addition of the physicist, William Barrett (afterwards Sir William Barrett, F.R.S.), formed the early Society. Edmund Gurney, a member of a well-known Quaker family, afterwards joined them and became one of their most enthusiastic workers. Before his early death in 1888, he had carried out some of the best of the early pioneer work in hypnotism.

The newly-formed society held its first meeting on the 17th July, 1882, under the presidency of Henry Sidgwick "Whose reputation for sanity, truthfulness and fairness," says Professor C. D. Broad in a memoir of him, "was well known to everyone who mattered in England. It was hardly possible to maintain, without writing oneself down as an ass, that a society over which Sidgwick presided and in whose work he was actively interested, consists of knaves and fools concealing superstition under the cloak of scientific verbiage."(1) The aims of the society were carefully drawn up, and were summarised in the first presidential address. The president said that it was quite impossible to exaggerate the scientific importance of what had been alleged by generally credible witnesses, if only a tenth part of it were true. "I say it is a scandal," he continued, "that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, that so many others should be profoundly interested in having the question determined, and yet that the educated world as a body should still be in an attitude of incredulity. Now the primary aim of our society, the thing which we all unite to promote, whether as believers or non-believers, is to make a sustained and systematic attempt to remove this scandal in one way or another. Some of those whom I address feel, no doubt, that this attempt can only lead to the proof of most of the alleged phenomena; some, again, think it probable that most, if not all, will be disproved; but regarded as a society we are quite unpledged, and as individuals we are all agreed that any particular investigation that we may make should be carried on with a single-minded desire to ascertain the facts and without any foregone conclusion as to their nature."(2) That has been the policy of this society ever since. Its standard of evidence has never been allowed to flag. Nor has any competent person who has examined its records in detail been able to discover any serious flaw in them.

(1) Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. xlv, p. 139.

(2) Ibid., Vol. i, p. 8.

In this way started an inquiry which has continued for sixty-two years, amassing by careful and critical research evidence which has profoundly impressed those students who have examined it dispassionately. Opposition to the inquiry was, in early days, bitter, for it was widely held that to examine the evidence at all was a sign of lunacy. But even then there existed a minority of sane and balanced minds who saw the importance of the investigation.

As early as 1888 the evidence for telepathy had accumulated to such a point that Henry Sidgwick expressed a hope that the growing evidence would so affect the younger and more open-minded portion of the scientific world that there would be a rush of ardent investigators into the field. Alas! the bulk of the scientific world did not want to investigate the facts but only to ignore them or explain them away.

The Society, however, never lacked intellectual support. Among its presidents and past presidents occur the names of the Right Hon. Arthur James, first Earl of Balfour; the second Earl of Balfour; Professor Henri Bergson; Professor C. D. Broad; Bishop Boyd Carpenter; Sir William Crookes; Professor Hans Driesch; Camille Flammarion; Dr. L. P. Jacks; Professor H. H. Price; Lord Rayleigh; Professor Charles Richet; Professor F. C. S. Schiller; Sir Joseph J. Thomson; Dr. R. H. Thouless, etc.

A few societies or working groups with similar scientific aims have come into existence in other countries. Prominent among these are the American Society for Psychical Research, founded as a daughter society of the British one in 1884; the Boston Society for Psychic Research; the Institut Metapsychique International in Paris, which came under the able management of Dr. Eugene Osty. During the twentieth century small societies for psychical research have been formed in Holland, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Greece and elsewhere; while there and there the psychological staffs of universities have carried out experimental work. This is notably the case at Duke University in North Carolina; also at the University of Groningen, in Holland. At Harvard University, a Hodgson Fellowship in Psychical Research was established. In 1940 the Perrott Studentship for the study of psychical research was established as a memorial to F. W. H. Myers at Trinity College, Cambridge; and in the same year the Blenner-hassett Trust, established by Mrs. Sylvia Blenner-hassett, daughter of F. W. H. Myers, was instituted for a similar purpose, the funds to be under the control of, the Society for Psychical Research and, under certain specified circumstances, to be transferable to New College, Oxford.

Certain new bodies, professing more or less the scientific ideal, have also come into existence. One notable investigator, Mr. Harry Price, has carried out many investigations, mainly with mediums purporting to produce physical phenomena, in his private laboratory, which, in 1925, he named the "National Laboratory for Psychical Research." He is an amateur conjurer, and was at one time Honorary Vice-President of the Magicians' Club, and is a well-qualified investigator of physical mediumship.

An International Congress of Psychical Research exists and meets periodically in different parts of the world.

By far the greatest amount of reliable evidence in psychical research is to be found in the forty-one volumes of the Proceedings and the thirty-one volumes of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, although, under the indefatigable management of Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, the Boston society also amassed much valuable information. The work of the Institut Metapsychique carried on by Osty, de Vesmes, Warcollier and others has also been of great value.

Before the war, some attention was being paid to psychical research in Germany by the department of psychology at the university of Bonn.

It may appear strange that, although the Society for Psychical Research appears to be widely known by name, few people seem to have any idea of what it is or what it has done. This is because it has never sought advertisement. Being a scientific society, it has been content to accumulate facts and to record them in its Proceedings and Journal, the former of which is obtainable at certain libraries, while the latter circulates only among its own members. There is much in these publications to interest students but little to gratify the seeker after sensation. The public, therefore, reads the material disseminated by spiritualist groups but does not read the records of the Society for Psychical Research with its mass of carefully recorded cases, investigations and experimental work. Public opinion thus fails to discriminate between the two and identifies psychical research with spiritualism.

This ignorance and failure to discriminate is not confined to the general public. Men of science, and even psychologists and philosophers, who should be directly interested, do not appear to realise that these Proceedings embody important material for the research student.

It may be true that some of the phenomena of psychical research appear at first sight trivial; some may even wear a foolish air: but if we are on the look-out for anything which may indicate what is happening under the surface of consciousness, we cannot afford to ignore them. The attitude of being too proud to learn from the apparently trivial is not a wise one. Let us see what light the achievements of genuine psychical research can shed on the nature of the human being.

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

• Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
• What is Science?
• The Significance of the Whole
• The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious
• Psychical Research and Religion
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Sιance Room?
• The Case of Patience Worth: An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing
• Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
• What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
• Discarnate Agency: More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem
• Trance Personalities
• Sense-Imagery
• Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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