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Talking about Psychical Research: Thoughts on Life, Death and the Nature of Reality, by Mary Rose Barrington

Cover of Talking about Psychical Research
Publication Details: 
White Crow Books, ISBN: 9781786770653.
Publish date: 
March, 2019

Reviewed by Ted Dixon

This is Mary Rose Barrington’s third book, following on from last year’s JOTT and her 2005 book (with Ian Stevenson and Zofia Weaver) on the clairvoyance of Stefan Ossowiecki. Based on talks she has given and articles she has written for the SPR over many years, it reflects a lifetime’s knowledge of the history of psychical research and can be taken as summing up her thoughts about the value of it all and its implications. The book is organised in four parts, each with a short introduction followed by topic-based chapters.

Part 1: First Principles

In the first topic chapter, Barrington asks What is the Point of Psychical Research? Her answer is both historical and analytical: historical in looking at what in practice have been the various aims of psychical research, and analytical in questioning how realistic the more ambitious of these have been, particularly the search for provable explanatory theories, which have not been forthcoming. She endorses the more modest investigating and reporting aims of the founders of the SPR which have led to the ‘goldmines’ we now have locked up in the vast literature of reports — a ‘treasure of accumulated experience’ that provides us with ‘reliable material enabling us to speculate rationally ... based on hard evidence’.

In the second, headed Repeatable Psi Experiment — a Contradiction in Terms, Barrington develops her views on the self-explanatory title, comparing what can and can’t be learned from the experimental approach to understanding psi — comparing gifted psychics with the ungifted — and from anecdotal reports of spontaneous phenomena. Several of her favourite anecdotes are introduced here, including one from Louisa Rhine about her five-year old daughter Betty seeming to know telepathically of a thought that had flashed through Louisa’s mind and responding to it without knowing she had done so; and a couple from Ian Stevenson. Barrington’s key point here is that ‘all this drama took place below the threshold of consciousness’. About psi virtuosos (like the musically gifted but even more so), she doubts whether ‘the normal citizen’ can learn anything from them. Barrington sees the star psychic performers’ ‘factor X’ as an abnormality and suggests they (both psi-emitters and psi-receivers) seem to have ‘a porous membrane that permits a high degree of interchange between their conscious and unconscious’. Noting how widely disparate star psychics have been in terms of character, temperament, social position and education, she says that apart from this abnormal ‘factor X’, it is difficult see what unites them.

Part 2: Sundry Topic in Brief

Can Hatred throw Stones? is the first of three chapters suggesting ‘that people in general may have greater powers than they know they have (or can control) to bend the course of events in the direction that serves their purposes’; and that these influences may be manifest in the environment or influence the ideas in other people’s minds. It focuses on a south London poltergeist case that Barrington and other SPR members (including Maurice Grosse) investigated over several years from 1986. The phenomena themselves (though fascinating as they always are in their specifics) are not out of the ordinary for poltergeist cases but of particular note are the situations and relationships not just of the household members affected but the wider family, with sibling envy and malice seeming to play a part. Barrington says she doesn’t ‘see any conscious intention of any family member’s part to attempt some Hammer horror technique because it would never occur to them that it might work but I can imagine their subconscious getting up to all sorts of horrible things’.

In Making Things Happen, Barrington describes the statistically-evaluated approach to trying to get to grips with psychic phenomena as that of Roundheads, and the traditional psychical research approach as that of Cavaliers; and makes the point that, though Roundheads are more scientifically respectable and respected, they actually have a harder time.

If a strikingly paranormal, well-witnessed, fully documented and competently researched event of experimentally induced large-scale effect turns out to be uniquely grotesque, this is not a problem (at least, not a problem for other Cavaliers) ... And if Cavaliers have theories or speculations, they don’t actually have to prove themselves by working any more than the theories of Plato or Wittgenstein have to work: they just have to be self-consistent and compatible with well established phenomena and the measure of cogency is the degree of consistency and compatibility.

The remainder of the chapter consists of that sort of speculation.

The first suggestion is that there are some people who make things happen. She calls these people ‘originators’ and gives as her first example the engineer Dr. W. J. Crawford who sat with the Goligher Spiritualist circle in Belfast between 1915 and 1919. The main point, without going into the sort of detail that many of us can’t help finding repellent as well as ridiculous, is that it seems that Crawford was able to mould what happened into ’a physical phenomena group in which his theories were acted out’. However unlikely to be repeatable, Barrington says this ‘does not mean it did not happen for its confident originator’. She then distinguishes originators from ‘adopter’ researchers and, at the end of the line, ‘dutiful replicators’. Following another example of an originator seeming to guide the course of events, in this case in another stone-throwing poltergeist case, from Czechoslovakia, she then turns her attention to the decline over time of J. B. Rhine’s and his successors’ ESP card-based experiments, and to the more recent experiments of Daryl Bem and replicators suggesting the possibility of precognition (where she says it remains to be seen how enduring his procedure will prove to be). Leaving open the question of quite how far people can make things happen, she ends with the thought that:

As with other creative arts, short of a new angle or some form of personal input, replication does not fire the imagination and things fade unless they get a fresh coat of paint. It might be a good thing for psychical research if we were to declare robustly that observable paranormal events are not replicable any more than are the individuals who precipitate them.

The next chapter, Putting the Horse before the Cart looks at who is doing what in seemingly telepathic communications, particularly with reference to spontaneous cases, and her analysis leads to the conclusion that ‘the agent projects flagged material into a region of the agent’s subconscious from which it can be recovered by a sensitive telepath ... the agent is the main player and key figure’.

This is followed by Clairvoyance and Telepathy which Barrington says ‘tend to travel together within the embrace of ESP but ... are actually not at all alike in how they function’. This is explained with accounts of the clairvoyance of both the mid-20th century Ossowiecki (pronounced Oss-off-yet-ski the reader is helpfully told) and the less well known mid -19th Century Alexis Didier whom she says stands alongside Ossoweicki as ‘a psychic who demonstrated paranormal cognition repeatedly to all and sundry, including some very critical investigators and often under well-controlled conditions’. Ossowiecki’s feats and how it seems he achieved them — mainly through clairvoyance, or retrocognition or retrocognitive clairvoyance — are then compared with those of Alexis (as Didier was usually known). Barrington’s conclusion is that: 

... to a large extent the retrocognition demonstrated by Ossowiecki can be seen as also the principal target retrieval process used by Alexis but in his case ‘there are clearer demonstrations of telepathic reception’ as well, the most dramatic one being when Alexandre Dumas seemed to be able to hypnotise him telepathically. It seems that all these psychics’ experimental tasks were carried out volitionally, even laboriously, by clairvoyance over time, while telepathy operates spontaneously and instantaneously.

In Dishonest Belief — a Case history, Alexis Didier’s demonstrations of clairvoyance under test are looked at again but this time to show ‘the extraordinary lengths to which psi-deniers will go to discredit genuine demonstrations of paranormal cognition’. Barrington’s particular target here is one Michel Seldow, author of the 1971 Vie et Secrets de Robert Houdin. We learn that Houdin, the 19th Century magician, who at one time had declared that all somnambulists (meaning mesmerised clairvoyants) were frauds, changed his mind after working with Alexis, making it clear that he was left in no doubt as to his clairvoyance. How Houdin became so convinced, and the evidence that he did so, is explained in detail. Barrington concludes:

Now all this would presumably be well known to Michel Seldow and, armed with this knowledge, no reasonable person could postulate that Houdin’s testimonials were feigned; but once you are committed to a fundamentalist faith then reason melts away. And no faith seems to unseat reason more thoroughly than the wilder shores of psi-denial. We must not be too polite to denounce this sort of absurdity in the roundest terms. And the roundest term for this sort of argument is not scepticism (with or without a k) but dishonest rubbish.

As to current psi-deniers, especially those who have the ear of the media when purporting to debunk reports of well witnessed phenomenal or successful experiments ... They were at it 150 years ago and they are still at it.

Part 3: Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

In The Strongest Link Barrington looks at three cases strongly suggestive of survival. The first was told to her by Nigel Buckminster (thanks to whose legacy we now have the Psi Encyclopaedia and whose word she accepts absolutely). His story concerned his wife and a message she received at a Leslie Flint séance. The second case was also told to her by someone ‘who could be relied on absolutely to tell the truth as they believed it to be’ and concerned a materialisation at a Helen Duncan séance. The third was another ‘communication’ case reported by Nigel Buckminster (reported in the Journal of the SPR in 1986 but under a pseudonym). This is one of the longest chapters in the book and it is impossible to get a proper sense of how evidential these cases are and of the care with which Barrington considers all the reported facts and the interpretation issues involved without looking at her analysis of them in fine detail. I’ll therefore only point to her conclusion. It is that though ‘one has to prefer reasonable explanations in normal terms over paranormal explanations’ and ‘one must prefer reasonable explanations in terms of human faculties over survival explanations because we know that living people have paranormal faculties and we don’t know with equal certainty that anyone survives death’ these three cases ‘are difficult to explain without invoking some input from someone whose life is in the past, which is the way I tend to think of people who are dead. In each case it is the dead person who is the strongest link’.

In The Other side of the Channel, Barrington looks at psychical research on the continent, particularly in the inter-war period. The first thing she highlights is the differences in class backgrounds, beliefs, interests, aims and methods of the leading French and other continental researchers of the time, such as Eugène Osty, Gustave Geley and Charles Richet, compared with the founders and leading lights in the SPR and American SPR from a generation or two earlier. For example, among the leading continental researchers — all modern professional men — Geley was alone in not being deeply materialist, in contrast to the SPR’s typical ‘Church-respecting Victorians and Edwardians ... looking for intimations of immortality’. And while W. J. Crawford and his materialisations were taken very seriously by the French ... they were totally ignored by the SPR, the leading English members at the time being unsympathetic to physical phenomena and to whom Crawford would not have been considered ‘one of us’.

The work of the continental researchers, for example with Marthe Béraud/Eva C, is then described and analysed with further conclusions drawn, to add to those in the earlier chapter on Ossowiecki and Alexis Didier. One of Barrington’s general conclusions from her Anglo-French comparisons is that:

... not only do researchers determine the sort of effects that will show up in their experiments, but peoples and nations have a hand in it too. Wishful thinking is, I suggest, much more productive than it is generally believed to be. When people feel very confident about their goals and their means, and they feel confident about themselves and their societies, then they generate material that responds to their desires and expectations.

Part Four: Wider Angles at Greater Length

The first chapter here Proof — The Validation of singular Events builds very much on earlier chapters and begins by asking What is proof? And what is reality? The reason for asking is, of course, is that by normal standards paranormal phenomena are impossible. So how can we believe reports of these phenomena?

Barrington’s answer is by the methods ‘of the historian, the lawyer, the policeman and any other rational person who wants to know what has actually happened – not what can happen under certain circumstances, not what will happen on defined occasions, but what did happen’.

In assessing the reliability of witness reports, Barrington suggests (as she did in JOTT) that we should apply her ‘Siberia test’ ‘as a wonderful way of focusing the mind on how reasonable it is, and how likely to be right, for one to adopt a Humean scepticism in the assessment of evidence’. If giving the wrong answer to the question of whether what someone says happened is true or not meant exile to a labour camp, and we had to give an answer one way or the other, how would we answer?

Then looking in some detail at the nature of proof, she compares mathematical proof, proof through the demonstration of replicable and reliable effects, proof through the statistical validation of recurrence and predictability (as in the insurance industry) and proof through inquisition in the case of an occasional or singular event regardless of any causal context that may be attributed to it. Inquisition (about things which are said to have happened) is the historical mode of fact finding and includes personal observation, the testimony of observers, the testimony of remote informants and objective exhibits from which deductions can be made. ‘Unpalatable though it may be to the scientific spirit the status of all events not personally and efficiently observed relies ultimately on testimony’.

With singular events, Barrington argues that if we can be sure about reports of normal events that are improbable and prone to ‘falsehood, error, exaggeration, embellishment and other distortions, then it ought to be possible to arrive at the same certainty or satisfaction or conviction when it comes to paranormal events’.

She argues that this is possible via the inquisition method – applied to the feats of Ossowiecki and Franek Kluski and others. In doing so, she compares reports of these with those of the extraordinary drawing talents of Stephen Wiltshire. In the case of Wiltshire, she expects that most people who have seen the case described in books and television quite reasonably accept its authenticity.

But the published supporting evidence supporting the reality of Ossowiecki‘s clairvoyance is much more copious and robust in every way. Nevertheless, pundits who have never heard his name will not hesitate to proclaim that here is no such thing as paranormal cognition.

In JOTT — Minor Incidents, Major Implications, Barrington explains what JOTT are and summarises a selection of her cases. I won’t describe these cases (and their possible links with other paranormal phenomena) as Robert Charman has done so in his fairly recent online review of JOTT the book, but I will mention that one of my only two personal experiences I am convinced were paranormal was of a ‘comeback’ in the early 1990s — not because there was (as I now realise but didn’t at the time) anything special about it but because it allows me to vouch for Barrington’s thoroughness in questioning me and asking for more detail when I wrote to her about it before accepting it as a genuine jottle. Moreover, when I later on mentioned other family experiences that might have also qualified as JOTT, she discouraged the idea — if anything to my mind being overly sceptical! I have absolutely no doubt that when she says she is convinced about the essential truthfulness of the JOTT and other paranormal reports she mentions, she is being truthful herself about this, and also that she has very good reasons for this conviction.

This second part of the chapter is the beginning of Barrington’s attempt to answer the question: What does it all add up to? This is also as covered in the JOTT book and touched on in Charman’s review. But just to give a flavour here: she considers JOTT as ‘small stitches dropped from our vast causal fabric’ and that they

... point to an underlying reality entirely different from the one we find ourselves in ... nothing is as it seems to be and we go through life as if hypnotised into experiencing a solidly materialist world ... it is not as if, but we are, in fact, under a quasi-hypnotic command to imagine, construct and experience our environment in accordance with instructions emanating from the control centre of a comprehensive mind encompassing our universe.

Barrington proposal is not just that it is as if there is but that there actually is a universal mental control centre in charge of our reality. She is not saying that her proposal is correct, only that it is the one she is putting forward; and it is to her credit and to readers’ benefit that she does so.

In A Small Theory of Everything, Barrington provides yet more very fascinating case study material from the archives, from more recent experimental work and from her own experience and, section by section, sets outs thirteen conclusions that she draws from it and seem to me well justified. She then says: ‘We have arrived at the point when the assembled ingredients are stirred and brought rather rapidly to the boil’ in the speculative ‘small theory’ that she introduced in the chapter on JOTT. The starting point is the fairly mainstream (among believers in ESP) idea that telepathy ‘is a natural state of affairs; we are doing it all the time’ but when Barrington then goes on to talk about how (in her view) the ordering of the material world proceeds from the top downwards (from the control centre of our universe/environmental control) and that the normal world around us is ‘the grand hallucination in which we all participate under compulsive guidance, but here and there, as tiny pimples on its surface are the local hallucinations that come and go in defiance of the rule of law’ — well, I am intrigued and have tentative thoughts about this compared with other possible ways of making sense of JOTT and the rest of the paranormal, but these are not for now.

In the final chapter, Psychic Force (William Crookes’s term) Barrington continues with her ‘rather heady concoction of speculative ideas, which are not susceptible of proof, but which are compatible with the various types of physical phenomena that seem to be related to people’s wishes, spoken or unspoken, sometimes related to conscious willing, though seldom under conscious control’. She first makes the point that belief, in the sense of accepting testimony as true, is not the same as belief in dogma but unfortunately we are stuck with fact that believers in the first sense as acceptors of the evidence for psi are often regarded pejoratively as believers in the second sense. In the rest of the chapter, she develops her ideas on the nature of the psychic force and the way it works, with more fascinating analysis of very evidential cases, and concludes by leaving the reader with another statement of her ‘small theory’ to ponder on.

I completely agree with all that is said about the book in the blurbs by Barrington’s fellow SPR Council members. I would highly recommend it to all thoughtful people with an interest in psychical research and the conclusions we may be able to draw from it.

Ted Dixon can be reached at email: teddixon@blueyonder.co.uk