Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
In a recent article Chris Roe stated: “A powerful means of imposing scientific dogma is through textbooks, which do not passively and transparently describe a discipline, but instead actively circumscribe it. By the presence or absence of topics and by the way they are represented, the authors determine for the reader the boundaries of legitimate concern and appropriate practice. In this way the boundaries are policed and transmitted from generation to generation” (What are psychology students told about the current state of parapsychology? Mindfield, 2016, 7(3), 86-91, p. 86). I believe this has affected negatively views of the historical role of parapsychology in relation to psychology and psychiatry, as seen in the traditional historiography of these fields. In the rest of these comments I will discuss this issue, focusing, to a great extent, on some of the articles I have published during the last 15 years or so.
Unfortunately many historians have contributed to perpetuate the view that psychical research was not important to psychology or to psychiatry. An early example was Edwin G. Boring’s (1886-1968) highly influential A History of Experimental Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950), a book that influenced most of our older teachers of psychology and that was a standard textbook for many years. In this book psychical research was considered to be at the periphery of psychology, and it was only mentioned in the book in notes at the end of a chapter (p. 502). The lack of importance of psychical research is also assumed by many other writers who do not even mention the field in their writings, among them Daniel Robinson in An Intellectual History of Psychology (3rd ed., Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).
Fortunately there are indications in the last decades that the situation is changing. Perhaps this is related to the attention historians of science and medicine have payed to “marginal” disciplines and movements, some of whom argued that these movements, and the ideas that came from them, contributed to science and to culture at large. Although not all historians agree, many oppose the view that occult and mystical views were a factor that always hindered the development of science. In fact, the opposite has been argued, considering such topics as contributing factors to the development of science (see the overview of W. Applebaum, (2005). The Scientific Revolution and the Foundations of Modern Science. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press).
An important early work bringing such a perspective to psychic phenomena was Henri F. Ellenberger’s (1905-1993) The Discovery of the Unconscious (New York: Basic Books, 1970). Although the emphasis of the book was on the more conventional work of individuals such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Pierre Janet (1859-1947), and Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), which led to the development of ideas about the unconscious mind and psychotherapy, Ellenberger gave a place to ideas coming from mesmerism, psychical research, and Spiritism affecting the study of the mind. Not only did he acknowledged the work of Frederic W.H. Myers (1843-1901), but he wrote: “Automatic writing, . . . was taken over by scientists as a method of exploring the unconscious . . . . A new subject, the medium, became available for experimental psychological investigations, out of which evolved a new model of the human mind’ (p. 85).
Later writers have argued for the importance of the study of psychic phenomena for the development of ideas about non-conscious activities of the mind, thus placing psychical research as a positive influence, not as a mere obstacle in the development of psychology as a science, or as an absurd field. Examples include Adam Crabtree’s From Mesmer to Freud (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), Régine Plas’ Naissance d’une Science Humaine (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2000), and Eugene Taylor’s William James on Consciousness Beyond the Margin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), among others.
In her book Plas (2000) resists the image of psychic studies as an “infantile malady” or as an “amusing bizarreness” of some psychologists (p. 13). Interest in the “marvelous” (including psychic phenomena) shown by psychologists is presented by Plas as an influential force in French psychological studies, particularly in terms of the development of ideas about the unconscious mind.
Of course we have to acknowledge that not everyone accepts this view. But it is encouraging to see the above mentioned publications, and the fact that some mainstream historians argue that it would be a mistake to exclude psychic phenomena and other “marginal” topics from the canon, and that they “contributed mightily to the constitution of modern psychological medicine” (M.S. Micale, The modernist mind: A map. In M.S. Micale (Ed.), The Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology, and the Cultural Arts in Europe and America, 1880–1940 (pp. 1-19), Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 11).
In my own work, consisting of various articles, I have tried to provide information about some of these issues, hoping to influence psychologists and psychiatrists. I do not write to defend the existence of psychic phenomena, nor the validity of their research findings, my intention is rather to present psychical research as an agent of influence, of change, just as so many have written about the role of fields such as neurology or concepts such as materialism, on ideas about the mind. The way I see it the more that the practitioners and researchers in psychology and psychiatry see papers about psychical research in their journals about issues of historical relevance, the more they will get used to the “new” way of seeing these topics as part of the histories of psychology and psychiatry. In any case, at least they will be exposed to the topic, and to arguments defending the idea that psychical research is not an example of a peripheral or a useless pseudo-science.
With this purpose in mind in recent years I have published several papers in the Sage journal History of Psychiatry. These are contributions to a section of the journal called “Classic Text” devoted to presenting excerpts or whole articles or chapters relevant, in a broad way, to the history of psychiatry:
Alvarado, C.S. (2010). Classic text No. 84: ‘Divisions of personality and spiritism’ by Alfred Binet (1896). History of Psychiatry, 21, 487-500.
Alvarado, C.S. (2014a). Classic Text No. 98: ‘Visions of the Dying,’ by James H. Hyslop (1907). History of Psychiatry, 25, 237-252.
Alvarado, C.S. (2016). Classic Text No. 105: William James’ “Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena.” History of Psychiatry, 27, 85-100.
Alvarado, C.S. (2016). Classic Text No. 107: Joseph Maxwell on mediumistic personifications. History of Psychiatry, 27, 350-366.
Alvarado, C.S., & Zingrone, N.L. (2012). Classic Text No. 90: ‘The Pathology and Treatment of Mediomania’, by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1874). History of Psychiatry, 23, 229–244.
In the “Classic Text” section of the journal the reprinted text is presented with an introduction that provides contextual, biographical and other information that justifies the inclusion of such material in the journal. This is not limited to mental illness, but includes much more, such as general psychological topics, and topics of general cultural and social concern believed to be relevant to the study of the mind and behavior. The journal, edited by historian of psychiatry German Berrios, is also open to psychic phenomena. I have never noticed any prejudice against the topic, as judged by my submissions, which to this day have all been accepted. I have presented much information about psychical research in these contributions.
The point of some of my papers, including those published in other journals, has been to identify the psychical research writings of well-known psychologists (e.g., Alvarado, C.S. (2009). Ambroise August Liébeault and psychic phenomena. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 2009, 52, 111-121). In one of the articles I discussed, with three colleagues, the work of Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920), which included his study of medium Hélène Smith, as reported in his famous book Des Indes à la Planète Mars (translated as From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1900; Alvarado, C.S., Maraldi, E. de O., Machado, F.R., & Zangari, W. (2014). Théodore Flournoy’s contributions to psychical research. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2014, 78, 149-168). My colleagues and I wrote in this paper:
“His main contribution, both to psychology and to psychical research, was conceptual, and referred to the development of the concept of the capabilities of the unseen mind. This he did mainly through his study of Smith’s mediumship . . . , but also with a few other case studies . . . His contribution of the construction of this idea, while purely psychological, was developed and nurtured in the context of psychic investigations, as were the psychological ideas of Myers, and to some extent, those of others such as Janet and Richet . . . From the early days after the publication of Des Indes to more recent developments, Flournoy’s investigation of the Smith case has been cited by many to illustrate the capabilities of the subconscious mind for producing fictitious manifestations. It is an example of the vast influence that exemplary cases can have on the development of ideas and research, as seen both in psychology and in psychical research” (pp. 162-163).
Another example is William James (1842-1910), who of course has been widely discussed by others. A colleague and I discussed William James as another example of how psychical research contributed to the study of dissociation (Alvarado, C.S., & Krippner, S. (2010). Nineteenth century pioneers in the study of dissociation: William James and psychical research. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2010, 17, 19-43., but in some studies accepting the existence of the supernormal. “Unlike Janet and others, James did not use dissociation to explain mediumship and other phenomena in the sense of reducing everything to suggestion and the workings of a secondary consciousness. Instead he adapted ideas, such as Myers’, that assumed the existence of a secondary consciousness and that were not only relevant to pathology, but to the supernormal and the transcendental. James’ acceptance of the supernormal in the case of Mrs. Piper represents a break with Janet and other conventional explorers of dissociation. It was in fact a plea to study and accept the possibility that dissociation and consciousness in general could transcend bodily limitations . . .” (p. 37 ).
More recently I reprinted most of James’ initial study of medium Leonora E. Piper: Classic Text No. 107: ‘Report of the Committee on Mediumistic Phenomena,’ by William James (1886)” (History of Psychiatry, 2016, 27, 85-100. As stated in the abstract:
“The purpose of this Classic Text is to present an excerpt of an article about the topic that William James . . . published in 1886 in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research about American medium Leonora E. Piper (1857–1950). The article, an indication of late nineteenth-century interactions between dissociation studies and psychical research, was the first report of research with Mrs Piper, a widely investigated medium of great importance for the development of mediumship studies. In addition to studying the case as a dissociative experience, James explored the possibility that Piper’s mentation contained verifiable information suggestive of ‘supernormal’ knowledge. Consequently, James provides an example of a topic neglected in historical studies, the ideas of those who combined conventional dissociation studies with psychical research.”
In my first paper exploring the contributions of psychical research to psychology I focused on the work early members of the Society for Psychical Research conducted regarding dissociation. Because I wanted to inform contemporary dissociation researchers, I sent the paper to dissociation journal (Dissociation in Britain during the late nineteenth century: The Society for Psychical Research, 1882-1900. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 3, 9-33). In the paper I focused on work about mediumship and hypnosis, and summarized aspects of Myers’ contributions. I concluded that “it is far too simplistic in historical terms to dismiss psychical research as pseudoscientific or as an example of irrational or plainly wrong ideas that have been superseded as psychiatry and psychology have advanced and have become more scientific. Apart from the fact that psychical research deserves serious consideration, we need to realize that in the context of nineteenth-century developments this field made important contributions to the study of dissociation and to the development of the idea of a secondary self . . . Such considerations remind us that much of our current understanding of the history of dissociation has been itself ‘dissociated’ in the sense of becoming separated from aspects of its origins” (p. 28).
I continued to explore dissociation in other articles. In one I focused on French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) and his discussion of mediumship to illustrate that, similarly to hypnosis and various cases apparently showing the existence of a secondary consciousness, this phenomenon was used in the psychological discourse of the nineteenth-century to argue for the existence of dissociation as a psychological process (Alvarado, C.S. (2010). Classic text No. 84: ‘Divisions of personality and spiritism’ by Alfred Binet (1896). History of Psychiatry, 2010, 21, 487-500).
Mediumship, I wrote in an essay published in the Brazilian psychiatry journal Revista de Psiquiatria Clínica with other colleagues, provided the context for the development of various ideas about the subconscious mind (Alvarado, C.S., Machado, F.R., Zangari, W, & Zingrone, N.L. (2007). Perspectivas históricas da influência da mediunidade na construção de idéias psicológicas e psiquiátricas [Historical perspectives of the influence of mediumship on the construction of psychological and psychiatric ideas]. Revista de Psiquiatria Clínica, 2007, 34 (supp.1), 42-53). Mediums, and others such as the hypnotized, “became part of a small group of special individuals who led students of the mind to see invisible regions of the psyche. This . . . had implications for dissociation and for diagnostic matters” (p. 50). An example was the work of Pierre Janet, who did not accept the parapsychological aspects of mediumship, but used the phenomena (and the writings of Myers) to support the concept of dissociation and secondary personalities.
In some papers published in History of Psychiatry, I, and other colleagues, discussed pathological diagnoses informed by mediumship (Alvarado, C.S., & Zingrone, N.L. (2012). Classic Text No. 90: ‘The Pathology and Treatment of Mediomania’, by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1874). History of Psychiatry, 23, 229–244; Le Maléfan, P. Evrard, R., & Alvarado, C.S. Spiritist delusions and spiritism in the nosography of French psychiatry (1850-1950). History of Psychiatry, 2013, 24, 477-491).
Interestingly, and complicating the issue, there were also several formulations of the relationship between dissociation, the subconscious mind and mediumship, as discussed in another of my papers: Alvarado, C.S. Mediumship, psychical research, dissociation, and the powers of the subconscious mind. Journal of Parapsychology, 2014, 78, 98–114. I wrote in the conclusion of this paper:
“Although most medical men held a closed model of the mind (and of dissociation) in which the phenomena were explained mostly by internal resources and a few external influences such as suggestion, few accepted a more open model of mind, such as the one some psychical researchers upheld based on powers that extend sensory and motor capacities beyond the confines of the body. Nonetheless, and as seen in the writings of some such as James . . . . , these psychic or supernormal concepts were part of the same general interest in understanding the mind and its myriad of layers as the more accepted ideas of individuals such as Janet . . . Interestingly, these ideas about the powers or capabilities of the subconscious mind were also connected in some cases to pathology. This was not only the case with those, like Janet . . . reduced everything to intrapsychic concepts, but also with those like Lombroso . . . and Morselli . . . who admitted the existence of the supernormal as a process related to pathologies such as hysteria. But most of the persons discussed here did not write about pathology” (p. 108).
Together with other authors mentioned above, I have been arguing for a more complete history of psychology and psychiatry. That is, one which represents better the past by recovering from the historical record research and ideas that have been neglected by many representatives of the traditional historiography of these fields. This includes other phenomena and issues not emphasized here, such as the study of hallucinations, hypnosis, eyewitness testimony, institutional developments, and other things. While we should not forget that the past of these disciplines was influenced by multiple aspects, and not only by psychical research, interest in the psychic or supernormal was a factor affecting positively some past inquiries about the mind.
*This is a slightly changed version of an article first published in Mindfield, the newsletter of the Parapsychological Association. It has been reprinted here with permission of its editor.