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.

Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

         AUTONOMOUS TRANCE - At the beginning of Chapter XII, we pointed out that trance-communications were obtained under three different conditions: (1) Through the habitual Control, which the majority of mediums possess. This we called ‘control trance.' (2) From a Communicator, who has temporarily assumed the position of the habitual control. This we called 'directly controlled trance.' (3) Through a type of trance in which there are no controls, but in which the sensitive herself remains always in control of her own organism. This we called 'autonomous trance.' The bulk of the directly assessable evidence for the instrumentality of discarnate minds comes through the first two types; but the third type contains much important indirect evidence, and is also full of interest from the point of view of the modus operandi. It is here exemplified by the case of Mrs. Willett, and we will now consider a report on her case published by Lord Balfour(1).

(1) 'A Study of the Psychological Aspects of Mrs. Willett's Mediumship, and of the Statements of the Communicators concerning Process,' by Gerald William, Earl of Balfour, P.C., LL.D. (Proc. S.P.R., vol. xliii. p. 41).

Mrs. Willett has been mentioned in the last chapter as one of the' S.P.R. group 'of cross-correspondence automatists. It seems scarcely necessary to speak of the bona fides of any member of this group, but it may be worth while to quote the following paragraph in which Sir Oliver Lodge speaks of Mrs. Willett.

'For my own part,' he says, 'I am assured not only of Mrs. Willett's good faith, and complete absence of anything that can be called even elementary classical knowledge, but also of the scrupulous care and fidelity with which she records her impressions, and reports every trace of normal knowledge which seems to her to have any possible bearing on the script. We are able, in fact, to regard her as a colleague in the research, in the same sort of way that we are able to regard Mrs. Holland'(2).

(2) Proc. S.P.R., vol. xxv. p. 115

This was written in 1911, soon after Mrs. Willett had joined the investigators. After this, she worked for years in close collaboration with Lord Balfour and other members of the group.

It is often said that automatic writing is done in the normal state of consciousness, and it is true that automatists are, as a rule, aware of their surroundings, and even of the words as they come, but I do not think that it is true to say that the state in which automatism occurs is quite normal. There is a certain degree of mental dissociation or departure from conscious attention which enables that portion of the mind which initiates the script to obtain control of the motor mechanisms of the body, and so to effect the externalization of the message. This slight degree of dissociation may increase, and, if it does so with the ordinary type of trance medium, the normal consciousness disappears and the control takes its place. But with a rarer type of sensitive, the normal consciousness still retains control of the body, as in automatic writing, although it has receded in some sense more into the background and there begins to undergo experiences of a non-physical kind. In Mrs. Willett's case, the communicators who appeared in her automatic script deliberately fostered this kind of trance, being very insistent that it should not be allowed to lapse into the control-trance variety. Put into crude words, they aimed at drawing the real Mrs. Willett just so far out of her normal position that they could hold intercourse with her and give her messages, yet not so far that she would be incapable of passing these messages on to the experimenters through her own processes of speech and writing. They seem to have considered that this type of trance would have advantages over the control kind, and, to judge from results, they were entirely justified.

To read the record of the communications which came through Mrs. Willett is to enter at once into a different atmosphere. The communicators are strong, intelligent, natural, and give one the impression of being human beings engaged in a difficult task, hampered by certain natural impediments, and explaining their difficulties and what they are doing as they go along. Listen to Myers W explaining the difference between the Piper and the Willett trance:

Script of April 16, 1911

Myers Let me again emphasize the difference that exists between Piper and Willett phenomena the former is possession the complete all but complete withdrawal of the spirit the other is the blending of incarnate and excarnate spirits there is nothing telergic it is a form of telepathy the point we have to study is to find the line where the incarnate spirit is sufficiently over the border to be in a state to receive and yet sufficiently controlling by its own power its own supraliminal and therefore able to transmit...'

In his book, Human Personality, Myers had used the word 'telergy' to mean the direct operation of the motor centres of the brain by a mind other than the one habitually controlling them. Myers W is using the word in the same sense here. In the control type of trance, he means, the control telergically operates the medium's brain. In the autonomous trance, the sensitive receives her messages from the communicators telepathically and herself transmits them by operating her own bodily motor-mechanisms in the ordinary way. The process may actually be much more complicated than that, but this embodies the main idea.

Mrs. Willett remarks on the process as seen from her end in a little aside passage in the Ear of Dionysius. In the script of March 2, 194, she says: 'Do you know, it's an odd thing, I can see Edmund as if he were working something; and the thing he is working is me. It isn't really me, you know; it's only a sort of asleep me that I can look at.' By 'Edmund' is meant Gurney W.

Mrs. Willett's automatic trance-work extended approximately over the period from 1909 to 1928. She began in girl hood to discover that she possessed the power of automatic writing, but only took it up seriously when in contact with Mrs. Verrall in 1908; so that she, in common with the other members of this group of automatists, developed her faculty within the ideological framework of the Society for Psychical Research. There is importance in this fact, because it means that the underlying assumptions of Spiritualism, which are early rooted in the subconscious of many trance-mediums, were here absent. The atmosphere was one of balance and criticism.

The Myers and Gurney communicators early took her in hand. Apart from her automatic writing, she began to feel them. In January 1909, for example, she says: 'I was at dinner, when I felt a strong impression of F. W. H. M. [Myers-w] scolding me... I had the impression that he was conveying to me that if I doubted the impression I was receiving I was to try for script after dinner. I was quite normal.

Soon after Gurney W said through the script try and set down thoughts can't you hear me speak it saves trouble I want to say something Gurney yes'; and Mrs. Willett notes, 'Here I left off writing and held a sort of imaginary conversation with E. G.... I was perfectly normal.'

A fortnight later, Myers W writes through the script:

' ... I am trying experiments with you to make you hear without writing therefore it is I Myers who do this deliberately do not fear or wince when words enter your consciousness or subsequently when such words are in the script ... do not analyse whence these impressions which I shall in future refer to as Daylight Impressions-come from, they are parts of a psychic education framed by me for you...'

After this, the Daylight Impressions became habitual. Lord Balfour abbreviates them to 'D. I.s' for convenience, and divides them into Silent D. I.s (those which were written down after being mentally received) and Spoken D. I.s (those which were spoken in the presence of the sitter after being mentally received).

The attempts of the communicator to establish direct mental communication with Mrs. Willett were evidently successful, for in a letter describing her experiences, she said:

'Last night ... I was sitting idly wondering at it all ... when I became aware so suddenly and strangely of F. W. H. M.'s presence that I said "Oh!" as if I had run into some one unexpectedly: During what followed I was absolutely normal. I heard nothing with my ears, but the words came from outside into my mind as they do when one is reading a book to oneself. I do not remember the exact words, but the first sentence was, Can you hear what I am saying?" - I replied in my mind, "Yes."'

One may compare with this Mrs. Willett's introduction to S. H. Butcher-w, one of the collaborators referred to in the Ear of Dionysius, which took place in January 1911.

'Last night after I had blown out my candle and was just going to sleep I became aware of the presence of a man, a stranger, and almost at the same moment-knew it was Henry Butcher. I felt his personality, very living, clear, strong, sweetness and strength combined. A piercing glance. He made no introduction but said nothing. So I said to him, "Are you Henry Butcher?" He said, "No, I am Henry Butcher's ghost." I was rather shocked at his saying this, and said, "Oh, very well, I am not at all afraid of ghosts or of the dead." He said, "Ask Verrall ... if he remembers our last conversation (or meeting) and say the word to him - Ek e tie." He said it several times. I said "Very well." He seemed only to want to give that message and then he went in a hurry...'

Here, again, there is something very natural and sane about the 'ghostly' visitor, and his humorous way of introducing himself. Mrs. Willett had no notion what Ek e tie meant. It was 'Hecate,' and Lord Balfour believes it referred to a paper by Dr. Verrall in the Classical Review, which Dr. Butcher had almost certainly read.

Direct Evidence through Mrs. Willett's Trance. - The reader will probably wonder why, since the communications through the Willett trance are of such a clear and coherent kind, no evidence is quoted from it which tends, as in the Leonard trance, to prove directly the identity of the communicators. The answer is that such evidence exists but cannot be divulged. Lord Balfour says in this report, 'It would be impossible to do justice to the argument in favour of spirit communication on the basis of the Willett phenomena without violating confidences which I am bound to respect'(3). Again, on the first page of the report we read, 'The bulk of Mrs. Willett's automatic output is too private for publication.' That the material withheld from publication is of a very strong and convincing kind is apparent from the following declaration of opinion, which Lord Balfour makes on a later page of his report:

(3) Proc. S.P.R., vol. xxv. p. 45.

'If I had before me only those Willett scripts to which I have been referring, I frankly admit that I should have been at a loss whether to attribute them to subliminal activity or to a source entirely outside the personality of the medium. Probably, like Dr. Walter Prince, I should be content to suspend judgement. But having before me the whole of the Willett scripts, and being in a position to compare them with the scripts of other automatists of our group and with facts known to me, but not known to Mrs. Willett herself, I am personally of opinion that they contain evidence of supernormally acquired knowledge which no mere subliminal mentation will suffice to account for. My readers are not in this position, and for reasons stated in the introduction to this paper I cannot put them in possession of the considerations that have chiefly weighed with me'(4).

(4) Ibid. pp. 155-6.

It is indeed very greatly to be deplored that such supremely important evidence must be withheld from publication in the interests of privacy.

Owing to the exigencies of space, it will only be possible to touch on a few points of the Willett trance, taken from the many with which this report deals - a report which is second to none in importance for the student of psychical phenomena.

Mode of Emergence of Trance and Automatic Material: Difficulty in Transmitting Names - The circumlocutory methods of the control type of trance are well known. The control will often occupy a whole page in describing something rather than give its name, and the critic who is unused to these phenomena is at once sceptical. 'That cannot be so-and-so communicating,' he says. 'Why, he has forgotten his wife's name,' or whatever it may be. Even in the trance of the best mediums it is evidently a matter of the greatest difficulty to get a specific name through, or to answer a point-blank question. There seems to be a kind of law of deflected effort, which is reminiscent of the mechanical law of the revolution of spins. The thing directly aimed at is the thing which eludes you. Something similar occurs in ordinary memory. The most familiar names may be forgotten for a moment, and when they are, direct efforts to revive them are useless. We have to describe the thing or person we mean.

In the A. V. B. sittings dealt with in Chapter XIII, Feda described a guitar, imitated its notes, showed how it was tuned, but could not say its name. On another occasion it takes her more than a page of description to arrive at the word 'Sporkish.' She begins by hissing; goes on to 'Spor'; says a 'long letter comes next - a long letter' above the line'; tentatively tries 'Sporti' and 'Sporbi'; then tries drawing the letters on Lady Troubridge's hand, and arrives at H as the final letter of the word. Then, just as she is apparently about to give it up, she ejaculates very loudly the right word, 'Sporkish.'

In the Willett scripts, although we do not get the same round-about descriptions, the same difficulty in the transmission of words occurs. In a script of August 25, 1912, the name Deucalion emerges in this way:

'Now another thought - Doocalon
No no try again - Dewacorn

(this word ended in a scribble)
- Dewacorn
the sound is DEW
- K
- LION not Lion

Write it slowly
- Deucalion

I want that said It has a meaning
The stones of the earth shall praise thee
that is what I want said it is I who say it and the word is
- Deucalion

that was well caught Good Child

That sort of thing makes one feel out of breath doesn't it on both sides-'

Lord Balfour adds in a note that Mrs. Willett is hardly ever able to reproduce Greek or Latin words correctly. The way in which she tends to get off the rails and slip away from the communicators' intention is, indeed, very obvious. In a D. I. of October 8, 1911, the following occurs:

'Oh he says, back of that again lies something I dimly reach after and you would call, he says, the Absolom - not Absalom - I'll spell it to you he says: A B S 0 L and then he says o m and rubs o m out and puts instead U T E. Oh he says - Edmund, when you laugh I can't help laughing too - and he says the ascending scale bound by gold chains round the feet of God.'

The interjection, 'Edmund, when you laugh, etc.,' is of course addressed by Mrs. Willett to the communicator.

Many instances could be quoted showing the difficulties which trance-material evidently encounters in its emergence. They teach us to be careful in making judgements about what 'ought' to happen. Mr. Kenneth Richmond, in the course of his valuable notes on the study of the Leonard material(5), says:

(5) 'Preliminary Studies of the Recorded Leonard Material,' Proc. S.P.R., vol. xliv. p. 25.

'When the psychic phenomenon to be tested is reduced to the simplest type ... the organization involved is found to be none too simple or easy to understand; when we come to the very complicated structure of the Leonard organizations it is most difficult to experiment with any knowledge of what we are about. What is useless is to form judgements of this type: "If he (a given communicator) can do this, he should be able to do that." He" is likely to involve an assumption that the communicator "is" the deceased person, not a complex representation; and "should" assumes that we know how the representation can and cannot operate, when in fact we know very little about it.'

This means that, if we are to approach the problems of the trance in a fruitful and scientific spirit, we must not assume that there are only two alternatives, either (i) that a communicator, substantially the same as the deceased person in question was when alive, is standing at the other end of a psychic telephone, or (ii) that some hypnotic stratum in the medium is playing a part, eked out by telepathy from the living. It is pretty clear that both these theories are too crude and too simple. We must patiently try to form new ideas about the depths of human selfhood, by studying the phenomena intelligently and as far as possible without prejudice, in a fruitful and scientific spirit.

Telaesthesia. - It will be remembered that in Chapter I, telaesthesia was defined as a kind of telepathic perception of the contents of one mind by another, in distinction to telepathy, which was thought of as the definite transmission of the thought of one mind to another. Myers, in his book, Human Personality, did not use the word 'telaesthesia' in this sense. He made it the equivalent of what we have here called Clairvoyance. But Gurney-w uses the word 'telaesthesia' in practically the same sense in the Willett scripts as that which we have here adopted. It is important to know for our explanation of trance-phenomena, whether telaesthesia exists or not.

The positive evidence for telaesthesia, as distinct from telepathy, resides in those cases of trance-communications in which knowledge is shown of things or events which are unknown to the sitters-such cases as The Dog Billy, Burnham, and Daisy's Second Father, mentioned in Chapter XIII; and also those proxy sittings in which the information given was unknown to the sitter, and must have come from distant minds, of which, as has been said, there are many examples. If the information is not derived from the mind of the discarnate communicator in these cases, it must be obtained from whatever mind happens to contain it. And that would seem to entail telaesthesia, or the reaching out by the trance-personality to gather the fact it needs from wherever the knowledge of it is to be obtained.

The faculty of telaesthesia, if it exists in this unrestricted form, would seem to represent a range of extra-sensory power of quite extraordinary universality and extent, and evidently if mediums possess it, the theory that communications are due to telaesthesia among the living rather than telepathy from the dead would be greatly strengthened. It is interesting, therefore, to notice that Gurney-w enthusiastically endorses it. In a long D. I. on October 8, 1911, the following occurs:

'He says, I want to suggest something which, while not contradicting your question, will open another window. Oh if I could only not drop like that. Oh hold me tight. And he says, she can select -he says a word to me - telaesthesia - oh he says, you none of you make enough allowance for what that implies, and the results of that can be shepherded and guided up to the threshold of normal consciousness.

'Oh he says, telaesthesia is a bed-rock truth, a power of acquiring knowledge direct without the intervention of the discarnate mind.

'Oh he says, telepathy's one thing-that's thought communication; telaesthesia is knowledge, not thought, acquired by the subliminal when operating normally in the metetherial'(6).

(6) Willett Report, p. 293.

'Oh he says, Here comes in our work again. Oh he says, What I'm saying may be used to cut at the spiritualistic hypothesis, but it doesn't. Again, who selects what of the total telaesthetically acquired knowledge shall externalize itself - shall blend itself with those elements received by direct telepathic impact? Oh he says, Supposing I take her into a room, and I screen off any action of my own mind on hers: her subliminal with its useful copious pinch of Eve's curiosity takes stock of the contents of the room. Normal consciousness is later regained, and lying in the subliminal is knowledge of certain objects perceived, not as a result of the action of my mind, but as the result of telaesthetic faculty. Oh he says, Here come I on script intent. Here be arrows for my quiver. Who selected which of the- Have patience with me, oh, Edmund, I am trying, oh, I'm such a great way away. Oh, Edmund, - Oh he says, Who applies the stimulus under which certain ideas - use that word, not what I wanted - emerge, blended, which upon study will be found to be relevant to the total aim of that particular piece of automatism? Oh he says, of all the contents of that mythical room say she carries back a rough and partial knowledge - ... in the process of externalization, there is where the loss occurs. Oh he says, of those ten say two emerge-to me how interesting. I see the work of my hand, the double process.

'Say I wrote of horses. I get telepathically the idea of sound, clatter of the horses' gallop. I get the idea in a Verrall channel, for instance, of Pegasus; I get the idea perhaps of chariot races - equus, or something like that, he says - and I select and push up into its place where it will be grasped and externalized two trump cards telaesthetically acquired - call it horseshoe, or, he says, the steeds of Dawn. The point is, I didn't place them there; I found and selected them; and the eight other elements - or objects - seen in the room remain dormant and never externalize themselves perhaps. The spiritistic agency decides what element appropriate to its own activity shall emerge alongside and intertwined with matter placed in position by direct telepathic impact.'

There is much food for thought in this interesting script. It is part of a description given by Gurney-w of the process involved in getting cross-correspondences through, as he is describing it from his end. Another script, too long to quote here, describes the process of externalizing selected topics through different levels of the automatist's self. Telaesthesia takes place in a deep stratum of the automatist's mind and in that of the communicator's, where some kind of mutual agreement takes place as to what is to be selected. It seems that Gurney-w is referring, in this telaesthesia, to a faculty of cognition, natural to a very deep level of the self, which Gurney-w calls the 'H-self,' but far removed from anything of which, in our supraliminal state of consciousness, we have experience. This telaesthetically acquired material is put into the 'uprushable' self, 'just the grade below the uprushable.' 'But in putting it into the uprushable focus, as it were, it will know that a sort of crystallization, often through symbolism, must be arrived at: and we will imagine, if you like, that that having been foreseen both by me and the H-self, we determined upon what sort of crystals to aim at, so that the uprushable self has, as it were, presented to it what I called a "room," the knowledge which the H-self is informing to the point where it becomes uprushable.' After that, Gurney explains, there comes a moment of 'binding' and finally the material emerges as written or spoken word or dream or precognition, etc.

According to this, as I read it, the emergence of so-called 'automatic' material is a very complex process, the ideas rising, under guidance, through level above level of the self and finally crystallizing into the clear-cut and discrete ideas with which we do our normal thinking, and in which form alone they can attain verbal expression. But they originate as thought of some more universal and less atomic character in the depths of the personality. Telaesthesia may be called a deep-level faculty of cognition, and the question which of course arises is: If this faculty can work between the sensitive and the communicator, why not between the sensitive and a living person? Gurney-w evidently realizes that the argument can be used to tell against the spiritualistic theory, for he points out that the telaesthetic faculty does not explain the communicator away, since the communicator is needed to select and to control, guide and shepherd the material into the right channels for externalization.

There are many points of the greatest interest which are dealt with in this report of Lord Balfour's on Mrs. Willett, which cannot possibly be condensed into an outline summary. and it is hoped that readers of the present volume will turn to the report and study it for themselves. The question of the nature of the Subliminal Self and its relation to the Supraliminal occupies much question and answer between Lord Balfour and Gurney-w; and the latter gives his description of the nature of the persistible self, saying that it consists to a large extent of the. subliminal element together with 'an admixture - and a very vital admixture - of the supraliminal.'

We will now consider, in connexion with the Willett material, a subject we have touched on more than once before, namely, the subject of sense-imagery.

Source: "Science and Psychical Phenomena" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (New York: University Books, 1961).


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 Psychical Research?
• 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
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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