Personality and Psychical Research (Part I)
- William Brown-
Note: This article appears in William Brown's book "Science and Personality" (1929, Oxford University Press: Humphrey Milford). Readers may be interested to know that Sir Oliver Lodge wrote the Foreword, which is included below Brown's article.
IT WOULD not be easy in a few words to define the scope of Psychical Research, but we may perhaps state as its most characteristic problems: first, the problem of the extent to which one embodied mind can act upon another embodied mind otherwise than through the senses, either in the way of communication of thought or in other ways (telepathy); second, of the extent to which the embodied mind can foretell the future, can experience forebodings or premonitions, which eventually come true; and third, of how far the embodied mind can get into communication with disembodied minds, the minds of those who have already died, the minds that are to be presumed, either on the authority of religion or on the basis of fact, to be still existing elsewhere than in visible human form on this planet.
Many of the results obtained by investigators in Psychical Research have been obtained through the aid of what are called mediums, i.e. of people who appear to have and who may really have, a special power of receiving, recording, and communicating messages from others. These mediums are sometimes called clairvoyants, because the most characteristic power that they appear to possess is that of being able to see clearly, or fairly clearly, where for others there is no vision. They are responsive to influences that not only do not affect others appreciably, but of which others remain entirely ignorant.
One scientific question that arises here is as to how far the evidence gained through mediums is vitiated, if vitiated at all, by the mental state of these mediums; i.e. (1) whether mediums, some or all, are to be regarded as perfectly normal people, in perfectly normal mental and physical health; (2) whether, if some or all are abnormal, if they do suffer from some degree of mental abnormality of a kind which would be regarded by a mental specialist as being similar to mental disease (such as hysteria) that he can observe in others less gifted, the messages that they purport to receive and communicate are thereby rendered more doubtful.
My war experiences in France with shell-shocked patients have bearing upon this question. While working as neurologist to the Fourth Army on the Somme I noticed that the strain of exposure to shell-fire produced apparently mediumistic or clairvoyant powers in a large number of soldiers; indeed, quite 15 per cent of soldiers suffering from shell-shock were found, immediately after the shock, to be easily hypnotizable, and, in a large proportion of these cases, they were found to exhibit powers - characteristics - extremely similar to, if not identical with, the characteristics that one reads about and hears of as belonging to mediums; that is to say, not only could they be easily put to sleep, put into a second mental state which appeared to be quite different from their normal waking state, but, when they were in this state, they appeared to have telepathic powers, they appeared to have clairvoyant powers.
Let me take the powers of clairvoyance first. One found, when one hypnotized a patient who had perhaps left the field of battle within the previous day or two, that if one suggested to him that he would be able to see what was going on somewhere else, say in France or in England, and if one gave him a definite signal, told him, say, that one was going to put one's hand on his forehead and that then he would actually see what his father and mother were doing at home, one often got definite, positive results. That is to say, he would straightway appear to see something. He would feel that he was in England. In one case my patient felt that he was back in Liverpool, and found his mother and father in the evening at half-past six walking along one of the main streets of Liverpool towards the cinema. He was able to follow, and seemed to follow them at the normal rate, i.e., the rate at which a person would walk. I had to wait for him to come up to them, and then until they reached the cinema house. He stood in the queue while they got their tickets, and followed them into the auditorium. Then the lights were turned down, the title of the play was flashed on the screen - he read the title and told me what it was and he then proceeded to see the picture unrolled. Later on he took a look round and saw what other people were there, recognized friends of his in the audience and told me their names. I asked him to try and draw his mother's attention to his presence. He did so, and showed signs of great disturbance, but said no, she did not take any notice - she could not see him.
In another case, my most complete case, I obtained the following results, which are specially worth recording because I was able to get independent evidence concerning them, first by having a letter written by the patient to his relatives, saying that he had dreamt about them and would like to know what they were actually doing at that time, and then by getting him to write a second letter, stating more explicitly what he had thought they were doing, and asking for a more definite reply. The result was as follows. (I have tried to separate the incidents, so that we can put one against the other, successes and failures, although it is very difficult to arrange a unit of coincidence or of correspondence.)
It is only in that way that one can test the objective validity of clairvoyance of this kind. I quote this case in detail not so much because it shows a good many coincidences, although I admit that it shows more than some other cases, but because I was able to get so full a record from the patient's friends. If we reckon up the coincidences in this case, we find that there is about 50 percent correspondence. What might one expect as a chance coincidence? It is difficult to say, because a number of these correspondences are what the patient might have expected - what his sub-consciousness might have expected - to find. One sends the patient to sleep and suggests to him that he will see certain things, and naturally his mind becomes active and forms images of what he may possibly see. That is the tendency in anyone. Ask anyone to make his mind a blank, and then suggest to him that he will see what may be happening in another place, and an image of what he thinks is likely to be going on there will probably come up before his mind. These patients had previous knowledge of the people they had left behind them, and so it was possible that their expectations might find themselves realized. As regards the gate and the general state of the garden in the case I have quoted, I have no doubt that my patient did expect to find something of that sort. Although he had the greatest confidence in his wife in other matters, he had not much confidence in her powers of keeping the home fires burning satisfactorily. He was prepared for trouble and got it, but whether the troubles he saw were merely the products of his own imagination which chanced to coincide with reality, or whether they resulted from a power that he possessed in the hypnotic state of transcending space and visiting other places in thought, is difficult to say.
What I am most anxious not to do is to give you the impression that I am quoting these cases against Psychical Research. I am not necessarily quoting them for Psychical Research; I am only quoting them as cases of patients who were certainly pathological. The patients came to me because they were pathological, and the ease with which they could be hypnotized corresponded to the degree to which they were ill, the degree to which they had become dissociated. But if you say that because of this the results obtained are certain to be mere figments, you will be going farther than I am able to go. These results can only be judged on their merits.
Apart from these apparent coincidences or correspondences I do know that, again and again, when my patients were hypnotized they showed distinct powers of telepathy more pronounced than one usually finds in normal waking life. Here again I made no regular experiments because we were working at very high pressure.
The wards were always full of shell-shock cases, for, if there was no big push going on, we kept the patients longer in the hospital in order to be sure that they were completely cured.
One was therefore not able to carry out experiments except incidentally, but I did from time to time test my patients' powers of telepathy, and on occasions I got remarkable results, which seemed to be absolutely inexplicable by chance.
On one occasion, with one of my hypnotic patients, I remember suddenly taking a book out of my pocket. The man's eyes were closed, and I was some way away from him, so that he could not possibly see what I was doing. I took out a book which happened to be an army book. I said to him before doing so: 'I want you to tell me what is in my mind. You will see certain letters and figures, and I want you to tell me what they are.'
I took the book out, not knowing what I myself was going to see. Almost at once he said: 'A.B. 207' - an army book of a certain number. He gave me the whole thing absolutely accurately. In criticism of that you might say: 'This patient had probably seen such army books before. He was sensitive of hearing, and this sensitiveness was increased in the hypnotic state, and, hearing the rustle of the bringing of the book out of your pocket, he rapidly put two and two together and guessed the number, deceiving himself without knowing it - his sub-consciousness had got it by deduction.' As against that I would say that this army book was an army book that was used in the hospital, one that I kept on my desk in my office and also carried about in my pocket, but one that I do not think I had ever had occasion to show in the ward. The man had been treated by me two or three times, but I do not think that he had had any previous opportunity of seeing the book. I admit that there is a possibility that he had - I cannot rule that out. Assuming that he had not seen the book before, and that he had not subconsciously deduced what he should see, the chances against that picture coming to his mind by coincidence are of course enormous.
I turn now to experiments with numbers. (No very satisfactory experiments have been attempted in thought transference with numbers, because these have so little meaning, and carry no emotion with them.) Here one did notice correspondence, but it was of a curious kind. As I was thinking the various numbers of the series - I used to have them written on different slips of paper and look at one after another - the patient would be saying what came to his mind each time, and I noticed that there was a much closer correspondence between his guesses and the number preceding the number I was actually thinking of, than between his guesses and the number I was thinking at the moment. If the actual numbers were 2, 7, 3, 9, 8, 4, (I did not look at these all together - they were on separate slips of paper), I would look at the number 2, and he would guess, say, the number 0. I look at the number 7, he may give the reply 2. I look at the number 9, he guesses the number 3. I look at the number 8, he may give the number 9. I look at the number 4, he may give the number 8. If you take into account delayed effect, if you regard it as a reasonable scientific hypothesis that numbers in the subconscious can be more readily experienced in another person's sub-consciousness or in the hypnotic state than numbers that are actually in consciousness, this 2, say, that I have just experienced and that is now at the periphery of my field of attention on its way to sub-consciousness may be the number that presents itself to my patient's sub-consciousness. It acts upon the patient's consciousness later. You would thus be able to work out a correspondence which, if borne out in a large number of experiments, would outweigh chance. As I said before, I did not work steadily through a series of experiments, so that I can only give impressionist views about this, but, as regards figures, one did get results of this nature, and the hypothesis I have outlined may possibly explain them in terms of telepathy.
The curious thing about experiments in telepathy is that one so frequently gets bald patches, where nothing seems to happen. Then, at another time, one seems to get a lot of correspondence. The statistician would say that this could be explained by mere chance. If you took a sufficient number of series the law of chance would work in this way, and I am willing to admit that, if I had taken a large enough number of cases, this might have been so. But in telepathy correspondence is often much more significant than want of correspondence, because it is often accompanied by a curious subjective feeling on the part of the percipient. One noticed that here. Where the patient was right he was much more certain than in other cases. A recent work on telepathy, in which emotional factors are taken more into consideration, is regarded by the Society for Psychical Research as giving evidence of closer correspondence than earlier work based on more neutral material. Feeling-tone seems to be very important in these cases. Even in connexion with these figures it should be remembered that the patients came to me in a highly emotional state. They were worked up. They had already been cured of their disabilities by hypnotism, and everything that went on had significance for them. They were extremely grateful for what had been done for them, and were delightful people to work with, and this mood suffused everything that happened, and might also explain the high degree of correspondence that one observed in these cases.
If we turn to the alternative theory, which explains these phenomena in terms of pathological psychology, if we turn, for instance, to the possible explanation of clairvoyance along these lines, we should have to say that the patient was in a very suggestible condition, that he dreamt to order (i.e., at the order of the operator), and dreamt at a definite rate, at a normal rate, instead of at the rate of ordinary dreams, because it had been suggested to him that he would do so. It had been suggested to him, either implicitly or explicitly, that he would see his people at home, that he would see what they were doing, and he would expect this to be going on at the ordinary rate, and so would see all that he saw at the ordinary rate. In many cases I feel that that explanation was sufficient.
Even in the case of the patient whose results I have reported in detail, on another occasion a result was obtained which did not in the least correspond with the facts.
I think one can exclude fraud in these cases. These patients had no motive whatever for deceiving me. I was very strict as regards malingering, and it was quite easy to be sure about the genuineness of hypnotic cases because patients who pretend to be hypnotized are easily recognized. In these cases no fraud would have been intentional. The deception would have been self-deception as well as deception of me. But even though one finds a good deal that is mere coincidence, a good deal, too, that can be explained in terms of pathological psychology, I think that, if one keeps an open mind on the subject, one should be ready to put other correspondences down, and to accept them as possible evidence. No one can expect here to get evidence all on the side of Spiritism. The mind at work is an embodied mind, and its own memories are likely to interfere with and modify the results. The fears, anxieties, and wishes of the medium are likely to be a disturbing factor. The question is whether, after allowing for all this, there is a residuum that needs a further hypothesis. If one takes individual cases one may feel inclined to dismiss the residuum as mere coincidence. Again, if one takes a large number of cases in the bulk one may be inclined to say: it is all coincidence. But if one considers each case on its merits, and finds again and again correspondence, say, in the matter of possible telepathy, and verifiable results in the matter of alleged spirit messages, all accompanied by strong emotional feeling, that, it seems to me, is evidence in favour of the spiritist hypothesis.
I would quote here a case that I can guarantee in all its details, a case which any one who did not know it inwardly might be tempted to dismiss as mere coincidence, but which to the person who experienced it seemed to be more. The little son aged two and a quarter years, of a scientist lay dying of a serious illness. He was in a nursing home, in order that he might have the best of care, and his parents had been spending all their time with him, sitting up at night by his bedside. At last he reached a stage where he seemed a little better, and it was necessary for them to get rest, as the nurse felt that the child could be safely left to her. Early the next morning, as the father happened to be looking in the direction of the clock on the mantelpiece in a house some distance away, he heard a loud noise behind him, a sudden bang, and the thought dashed through his mind: 'That is my little boy's photograph which has shot off the edge of the piano.' He noticed the time - it was twenty to eight - turned round, and saw that it was the photograph which had fallen. Shortly afterwards the telephone-bell rang, and the message came through that the little boy had died. The parents hurried round to the nursing home, and, as they entered the door, the father saw the nurse coming down the stairs. The first question he asked was: 'When did he die?' and before she had said anything he knew that she would say, 'At twenty to eight'. He had already communicated the fact to his wife, and she too knew that that was the time. The incident carried with it a strong emotional feeling - curiously enough a feeling of intense relief and peace. The whole incident might, of course, be explained as a coincidence. One might say that it was certainly a coincidence that the two clocks should have recorded exactly the same time. As against that one has to consider the father's inward feeling of certainty, and the curious circumstances of the case: firstly, the fact that the photograph did shoot right off the piano, and there was no reason why it should do so. If it had slid off in the ordinary way it would not have shot right across the room as it did. Secondly, the thought came at once into the father's mind as to what had happened. There were other things on the piano. The person to whom the incident happened, although he was a scientist, ready to allow for other possibilities, was fully convinced by it, and certainly at that time he did not actually believe in survival. He naturally hoped that his own child would survive, but he hoped more that it would continue to live. That was the thought which was uppermost in his mind, not the other. If you consider the whole situation, that again, I think, is a kind of correspondence which is most difficult to fit in with any of the ordinary facts of life. It is peculiar. I can answer for this incident entirely, but instances of a similar kind seem to be occasionally happening, and people find them very difficult to explain. Apparent telepathy and kindred phenomena are sometimes explicable in terms of expectancy, but manifestations of this kind seem to be outside the range of ordinary explanation.
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity;
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.
Foreword to Science and Personality
by Oliver Lodge
THIS STRIKES me as an extraordinarily well-informed book. Seldom do we find a writer apparently almost equally at home in psychology, mathematical physics, and psychical research. That the author is a medical psychologist goes without saying, for that is his profession, and he has recognized qualifications in the pathological branch of the subject. That he has studied mathematics is not so well known, but any one with adequate knowledge who reads the early chapters on relativity and the quantum will realize that even in those subjects he is an unusually competent amateur. As for the unorthodox subject of psychical research, the author's critical and candid mind, combined with extensive pathological experience, is of high value, and he is on the Council of the SPR.
His actual experience of our phenomena may not be of long standing, but he appears to have possessed some trace of psychic power himself, and his qualifications as an investigator are undeniable, so his contributions near the end of the present volume will be read with interest. Of the middle part of the book, when the author is on his own subject, I do not presume to speak. I have not even read this portion yet, but am entitled to say that his chapter on physics is an admirable summary of the present day position; and any one can see that his treatment of specifically psychic or mediumistic faculties is characterized by carefulness and common sense.
As a Reader in Mental Philosophy in the University of Oxford, a practising psychotherapist in Harley Street, a mathematical physicist in embryo, and an open-minded investigator of subjects at present looked down upon by the majority of the scientific world, the author occupies a unique position; and, judging by the parts that I have read and my personal knowledge of the writer, I feel sure that this book, even more than his previous one, Mind and Personality, will be recognized as one of real value.
20th February 1929
Note: The above article appeared in "Mind and Personality" by William Brown (1926, University of London Press, London).
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