T. W. Mitchell

     Dr Mitchell was the first practising physician to be elected President of the Society for Psychical Research. His lively Presidential Address in 1922 traced the historical connection between medicine and parapsychology from the shaman of primitive societies to the priest/doctor of ancient Egypt and Greece; and went on to the ideas of Paracelsus and Mesmer. He made three particularly useful points; first, that it was continually necessary to return from neat theories to untidy facts; second, that a phenomenon could be real and objective no matter how idiotic the hypothesis put forward to explain it; third, that he believed many doctors and psychologists were unwilling to take part in psychical research because they feared their careers would be ruined if it were known.

Dr Mitchell served as Hon Secretary of the Medical Section of the SPR set up in 1911; this arranged for a special medical issue of Proceedings in 1912, and for a special medical supplement to the Proceedings published in July 1914. At the end of World War I the Medical Section was discontinued, as the British Psychological Society had formed one of its own, and it seemed unnecessary to have two; a pity, from the psychical research point of view. Mitchell noted, incidentally, that Britain's ability to deal with war neuroses owed much to the pioneer work of men such as Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers; and also how useful medical psychology could be in the study of 'mediumistic trances', deep hypnosis, and multiple personality. He published in 1922 a book on Medical Psychology and Psychical Research and his Myers Memorial Lecture entitled 'Beneath the Threshold' (1931) suggested that the gap was narrowing between the concepts of Myers and of Freud, of whom he was an eclectic and undogmatic follower. He edited for many years the British Journal of Medical Psychology. Among his most interesting papers in the SPR's Proceedings was a study of 'The Appreciation of Time among Somnambules' (Proceedings, XXI, 1908-9). Somnambules were hypnotised subjects who had no conscious memory of what had been said during the trance state; and yet punctually carried out post hypnotic suggestions to perform some task at a given future date or even hour.

The distinction between 'physical' and 'mental' was more sharply drawn then than now but though he inclined to the idea that their ability was not 'merely physiological' he linked it with Myers' concept of subliminal consciousness, with Gurney's suggestion that this function could count days, with his own observation that some subjects could carry out mathematical reasoning during their trances, and with the possibility that all this might be connected with the feats of 'calculating prodigies' (and, one might now add, with those of certain autistic children). It remains for some enterprising modern investigator to link the matter with the working of 'biological clocks'. William James' adjuration, 'connect, connect, only connect' is still vital.

Source (with minor modifications): The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1982: A History by Renée Haynes (1982, Macdonald & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London).



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