THE SECOND half of the nineteenth century was a period of intense intellectual ferment, as science-based naturalistic explanations increasingly challenged the old religious worldview. At the same time the new religion of Spiritualism led to an explosion of extravagant paranormal claims, throughout the Western world and in all strata of society. There were stories of apparitions, clairvoyant visions, precognitive dreams – the kind of miraculous events that have been reported since the earliest times – but also something new: influential mediums claiming contacts with the dead. These were all the subject of fierce debate. Could they be fully accounted for in naturalistic terms, or did they point to aspects of consciousness as yet unknown to science?
In January 1882, a conference was held in London to discuss the viability of setting up an organisation to carry out formal scientific research into these matters. The following month the SPR was founded, the first learned society of its kind, with the purpose of investigating mesmeric, psychical and ‘spiritualist’ phenomena in a purely scientific spirit. Its leaders quickly created a methodological and administrative framework, including a scholarly journal in which psychical research could be reported and debated worldwide.
The Society’s Early Years
The SPR’s first president was Henry Sidgwick, professor of moral philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, a man of great standing in intellectual circles. His chief associates in the early stages were Frederic Myers, a classical scholar with wide-ranging interests, and the brilliant Edmund Gurney, who was to develop a pioneering interest in hypnotism and psychological automatisms. Other prominent figures were the physicists William Barrett and Lord Rayleigh; Arthur Balfour, philosopher and Britain’s prime minister in the years 1902-1905; his brother Gerald Balfour, classical scholar and philosopher; and Eleanor Sidgwick, the Balfours’ sister (and wife of Henry Sidgwick), a mathematician and later principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.
These intellectuals and their associates were connected through family ties, education, friendship and interests. Inherited wealth gave many of them the time to pursue their studies, which they felt bound to use for the benefit of mankind. Like those great Victorians who applied themselves patiently, and for little reward, to cataloguing information about insects and other organisms from around the world, they sifted and corroborated reports of spontaneous paranormal experiences. Fired by scientific ideals, they were determined not to be misled by tricks, illusions and wishful thinking, and quickly learned to spot fake mediums, sitting through endless dull séances in the pursuit of scientific explanations.
At the centre of the Society’s activities was the collection and investigation of data. This work was distributed across a number of committees, which, among other things, investigated thought-reading (soon to be renamed telepathy by Myers), mesmerism (hypnotism) and clairvoyance, physical phenomena of the séance room, and apparitions and hauntings. The group charged with collecting historical and current evidence produced the first landmark in psychical research, a two-volume study of visions and apparitions titled Phantasms of the Living (1886). This substantial work, written mainly by Gurney, together with Myers and Frank Podmore, provided careful analyses of more than seven hundred personal experiences; many were dubbed ‘crisis apparitions’, those of people seen at a time when, as was later learned, they were in fact dying or in life-threatening situations in another location, a phenomenon viewed by Gurney as a telepathically-generated hallucination.
Phantasms was followed by another landmark project, the Census of Hallucinations, still the largest survey of its kind ever to have been attempted. The Census aimed to investigate the probability of crisis apparitions being a matter of chance coincidence, a likelihood that its rigorously calculated statistical findings effectively ruled out.
Much of the early work involved exposing fake phenomena. In a project overseen by Richard Hodgson, SJ Davey gave sittings under an assumed name, in which he duplicated the ‘slate-writing’ phenomena produced by the medium William Eglinton, afterwards showing the sitters how they’d been deceived. SPR researchers were for the most part suspicious of physical mediums (those producing effects in dark séance rooms): Hodgson confidently declared the claimed feats of Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, to be fake, and there was controversy with the Society over claims regarding the Italian séance medium Eusapia Palladino. But researchers also worked extensively over long periods with mental mediums they regarded as trustworthy, notably Leonora Piper in Boston, who was introduced to them by the Harvard psychologist William James, and Gladys Leonard and Winifred Coombe Tennant (‘Mrs Willett’) in London.
The early members of the SPR cooperated closely with scientists in other countries. In America, a similar society was formed under the leadership of William James, leading to close collaboration between psychical researchers on both sides of the Atlantic. Leading French psychotherapists were SPR members, and the Society had a particularly close relationship with Charles Richet, professor of physiology at the University of Paris and a 1913 Nobel Prize winner. Richet anticipated some of the methodology later used by JB Rhine in the US: he carried out experiments using sealed targets, explored the use of statistics in assessing experiments, and drew attention to the unpredictability of psi. Much experimental work was also done in Britain at this time, with the use of statistically assessable material or other targets for thought-transference, although the main development of such techniques came later.
In 1903, Frederic Myers’s Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death was published posthumously, a synthesis of his thinking and his theory of the ‘subliminal self’. In spite of gaps and ambiguities (it was compiled from his notes by colleagues) it remains a classic of psychical research literature.
Edmund Gurney died in 1888, Henry Sidgwick in 1900. Shortly after the death of Myers the following year there began a series of automatic writings, produced independently by mediums not in communication with each other, that contained apparently random and meaningless classical allusions. The references meant nothing to the mediums but would have been extremely familiar to the researchers, who were well versed in classical Greek and Latin literature. Apparently random and meaningless in isolation, the fragments were discovered to interlock meaningfully when the different scripts were collected and compared. The impression was of an organising intelligence, one that could not easily be attributed to the mediums themselves, and which the SPR researchers came to believe was of their deceased colleagues attempting to provide robust proof of their survival. The phenomenon is known as ‘cross-correspondences’, and the significance of the writings (which continued over a period of some thirty years) is still being debated.
The 1930s to the Present
The early SPR researchers established the main methodological principles and areas of research. The study of mediumship continued, providing much information on aspects of human personality and altered states of consciousness, and helping to perfect investigative techniques. Field investigations were carried out, and further collections, analyses and surveys of spontaneous phenomena were published.
Following the general trend – seen also in psychology – towards an experimental, more biological approach, experimental methods continued to undergo refinements. Pioneering work on free-response and quantitative experiments was carried out in the 1920s and 1930s by George Tyrrell, a British mathematician and physicist; he explored methods for inducing altered states of consciousness, designing techniques to differentiate between telepathy and clairvoyance and attempting to automate the randomisation of targets.
However, the centre of this activity shifted to America, with the establishment of JB Rhine’s Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in the 1930s. While SPR researchers continued to experiment, the organisation evolved during this period from an investigative to a mainly educational body. From its earliest days the Society began creating a specialist library and an archive of original documents, housed both at its offices in London and at Cambridge University Library. Its Journal and Proceedings, published since the 1880s, offer a wealth of material relating to investigations and experiments past and present, as well as theoretical studies and papers discussing the relationship between psychical research and fields such as psychology, philosophy, physics, medicine, evolutionary biology and social sciences.
Today, the SPR continues to promote and support the main areas of psychical research, carrying out field investigations, surveys and experimental work. It holds no corporate view about the true origin and meaning of psi – as telepathic and other psychical phenomena are now collectively termed - and debate among its members with regard to particular subjects is often vigorous. However, it’s fair to say that from the earliest times the consensus view of its members – and of the psi research community in general – has been that psi is real, and that while the phenomena should certainly be explained in scientific terms, such a science does not at present exist.
The Society’s work has inevitably brought it into conflict with sceptics who believe that purely naturalistic explanations of psi phenomena can and must be found, and who strive to re-interpret researchers’ findings in terms of fraud and misperception. In recent years, the field has faced a growing campaign by ideologically-motivated activists determined to discourage interest in these matters, in order to support scientific naturalism against a perceived threat of superstition. Their work is particularly in evidence in the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, where articles on psi topics are now uniformly ‘balanced’ with the negative opinions of sceptical authors and campaigners, to the point where they have become confusing and misleading.
The SPR continues to argue the value of objective research and dispassionate elucidation of facts, regardless of their metaphysical implications. It has an important educational role to play, disseminating accounts of its work, and of psi research generally, for the benefit of individuals and for writers, journalists and broadcasters whose work may at times touch on these subjects.
In the first instance, visitors can get an idea of what the Society has accomplished by skimming the Past Research Catalogue, which contains brief summaries of almost every item published in the Journals and Proceedings up until the year 2011. We also recommend a look at our new Psi Encyclopedia, which offers descriptive articles on a variety of topics. For those with time for deeper involvement we hold monthly lectures and twice-yearly study days in London (which will shortly be accessible on the Internet), also a three-day international conference at a university location in the UK; we also offer small grants towards original research. Please see here for details of the benefits of membership.
See also Experimental Parapsychology (from the Psi Encyclopedia, opens in a separate window).