“It is doubtless a peculiar psychical state that confers mediumistic power, but we know nothing of its nature, and we often ruin our experiments and lose our results by our ignorance. Certainly it is very probable that the psychical state of those present at a seance will be found to re-act on the medium. We should get no results if our photographic plates were exposed to the light of the room simultaneously with the luminous image formed by the lens. In every physical process we have to guard against disturbing causes.
If, for example, the late Prof. S.P. Langley, of Washington, in the delicate experiments he conducted for so many years – exploring the ultra red raditation of the sun – had allowed the thermal radiation of himself or his assistants to fall on his sensitive thermoscope, his results would have been confused and unintelligible. We know that similar confused results are obtained in psychical research, especially by those who fancy the sole function of a scientific investigator is to play the part of an amateur detective; and accordingly what they detect is merely their own incompetency to deal with problems the very elements of which they do not understand and seem incapable of learning. Investigators who, taking an exalted view of their own sagacity, enter upon this inquiry with their minds made up as to the possible or impossible, are sure to fail. Such people showuld be shunned, as their habit of thought and mode of action are inappropriate, and therefore essentially vulgar, for the essence of vulgarity is inappropriateness.
Inasmuch as we know nothing of the peculiar psychical state that constitutes mediummship, we ought to collect and record all conditions which attend a scucessful seance. Mediumship seems in some points analogous to ‘rapport’ in mesmeric trance, and it would be interesting to know whether a mesmeric sensitive is more open to mediumship than the rest of mankind. Again, are those who are good percipients in telepathic experiments also percipients in spontaneous telepathy, such as apparitions at the moment of death, and are these again hypnotic sensitives? Similar questions also arise as to somnambulists; in a word, is there anything in common between the obscure psychical states of these different classes of sensitives? Very probably there is, for all psychical phenomena, as we shall see directly, involve to a greater or less extent the operation of an unconscious part of our personality, a hidden self which in a medium emerges from its obscurity, as the normal consciousness and self-control subsides. This fact does, indeed, afford some clue to the peculiar psychological condition of mediumship.”
- from p. 120-122 of On the Threshold of the Unseen, by Sir William Barrett, F.R.S. (1917)
In researching parapsychology it has been fascinating to see how these studies have developed over 130 years of scientific scrutiny since the official founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. Existing in a liminal realm of inquiry which penetrates both the center and the periphery of human experience, studying the history of investigation into exceptional human experiences provides a very potent ground for understanding the intellectual development of the past century.
The preceeding excerpt is taken from the 1917 edition of On the Threshold of the Unseen, by Sir William F. Barrett, F.R.S. At the time of writing the aetheric theory, which posits an unseen ground of material existence, was in vogue. Now we have non-local fields and dark matter which serve the same function, and in some ways are merely a renaming of similar ‘antiquated’ theories in light of more socially acceptable terms.
Similarly we find the “amateur detective” style of research, typified in the contemporary sense by debunking excercises such as the recent “Psychic Challenge” issued by Chris C. French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, London, Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, and science writer Simon Singh, was an issue that came up early in the research history. Reading Barrett’s comments on this practice provides one of the clearest critiques of careless debunking, not only is it inappropriate to the phenomena, and to scientific inquiry in general, as he puts it, it is quite simply “vulgar.”
In a more positive light, we can see how inferences that he, and the other scientists investigating this area, made at the beginning of the 20th century have been further confirmed through contemporary research. The idea, propogated by F.W.H. Myers and in this excerpt by Barrett himself, that psychic phenomena represent the interaction of some kind of subliminal, or pre-subconscious, functioning of the mind, has been further investigated by researchers like Dr. Jim Carpenter. Carpenter’s recent book First Sight: ESP & Parapsychology in Everyday Life, codifies the results of his long term study in this area, and provides experimental evidence to support this hypothesis.
As he explains in an article on Huffington Post:
“”Research has told us that brain events stand behind every thought we think and lead to them. And we have learned that many implicit psychological processes precede our experiences too, processes like subliminal sensations, stored memories and long-term values. These things aren’t conscious in themselves, but the unconscious mind uses them to help lead to whatever we do become conscious of.
A difference about this theory, called “First Sight,” is that it assumes that a much bigger domain of unconscious information stands behind experience. This includes things that are beyond the reach of our senses — it includes the extrasensory. And it assumes that this reference to extrasensory information is not rare, but that it is continual.
First Sight brings in what is popularly called the “paranormal.” It is different from previous ways of thinking about the paranormal in that it shows that our use of extrasensory information is actually normal and helpful, although unconscious. No “para” is needed anymore. This theory leads us to an expanded idea of our normal psychology.”
While researchers continue to make advances in our understanding of these areas of human experience, reading Barrett it becomes obvious that the dialogue has been stunted, and in some ways remains stuck in, the same issues that were being outlined in 1917. As I mentioned in an article for The Teeming Brain, it is very disappointing to see how static things have remained due to clearly defined biases on all sides of the investigation into human potential.
Beyond a sense of stasis, reading historical material, has shown me how the assumptions, and in some sense dualistic thinking, that have arisen in the public debate don’t do justice to the depth of possibility that these phenomena hint at. Barrett’s citing of aetheric theory shows just how radically our use of words can alter our understanding of the same underlying situation. It also shows that the cultural framework of discussion is as important for deciding a theory’s reception as any factual basis that might be inferred from the data that supports it. Scientists can live with non-local fields, at least in theory, but the idea of aether draws them to reading material that strikes a cord of mysticism, which they reject outright.
Much of the material from the 19th century and early 20th century remains a vital resource, as fads and fashion in the scientific milieu have never allowed for a proper investigation into many of the theories that were put forth by the pioneers of psychical research. One can look to Jeffrey Kripal’s examination of F.W.H. Myers theories in his recent book Authors of the Impossible, to see just how relevant this historical investigations really are.
Hopefully with the increased communication, and cross disciplinary approaches, that are fostered with today’s digital technology, we can begin to reignite the same honest curiosity and scientific exploration of these areas that we find presented in examples such as the excerpt from Barrett’s work. The issues raised in examining the history of parapsychology are no less evident in other areas of scholarship and scientific engagement, and it seems that now, with digital technology, it is possible through the necessity of cross-disciplinary approaches, to begin to rebuild the framework for holistic approaches that will, in the end, benefit our collective efforts to explore the depth of our existence, and the potential that lies within us for a greater vision of life.