In 1882, a distinguished group of Cambridge scholars founded the British Society for Psychical Research (BSPR) for the purpose of examining allegedly paranormal phenomena in a scientific and unbiased manner. The first president of the society was Professor Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), and the council numbered among its members Edmund Gurney (1847–1888), Frank Podmore (1856–1910), Fredric W. H. Myers (1843–1901), and Professor William Barrett (1844–1925). The initial major undertaking of the newly formed society, the first of its kind in the world, was to conduct a census of hallucinations by means
of a circulated questionnaire that asked its respondents:
Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause?
The SPR received answers from 17,000 people, 1,684 of whom answered "yes." From this, the committee which was conducting the census estimated that nearly 10 percent of the population had experienced some kind of visual or auditory "hallucination." Those people who indicated that they had experienced some paranormal appearance or manifestation were sent forms requesting details.
The census of hallucinations enabled the researchers to arrive at a number of basic premises concerning ghosts and apparitions, which were strengthened by subsequent research. The committee was able to conclude, for example, that although apparitions are associated with other events besides death, they are more likely to be linked with death than anything else. Visual hallucinations were found to be the most common (1,087). This seemed especially important to note because psychologists have found that auditory experiences are most common among the mentally ill. Of the visual cases reported, 283 had been shared by more than one witness. This was also noted to be of great importance because critics of psychic phenomena have always argued that the appearance of a "ghost" is an entirely subjective experience. Those who answered the committee's follow-up form indicated that they had not been ill when they had witnessed the phenomena they reported, and they insisted that the "hallucinations" were quite unlike the bizarre, nightmarish creatures which might appear during high fevers or high alcoholic consumption. Of the 493 reported auditory hallucinations, 94 had occurred when another person had been present. Therefore, about one-third of the cases were collective—that is, experienced by more than one witness at the same time.
After the findings of the census of hallucinations were made public, the SPR began to be flooded by personal accounts of spontaneous cases of ghosts and apparitions. In order to aid an appointed committee in the handling of such an influx of material, the SPR worked out a series of questions that could be applied to each case that came into their offices:
Later, committee member J. Fraser Nichol established three points of critique that could be used by the investigator of spontaneous phenomena:
The American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), first organized in 1885 with astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835–1909) as president, later became a branch of the British Society of Psychical Research (BSPR) and functioned in Boston under the guidance of Richard Hodgson (1855–1905), formerly of Cambridge University, until his death in 1905. The ASPR became independent of the BSPR and relocated to New York City in 1906 with James Hervey Hyslop (1854–1920), Professor of Logic and Ethics at Columbia University, as its secretary and treasurer. For the next 14 years, until his death in 1920, Hyslop expanded the scope of the society's work.
At the ASPR all-day ESP forum held on November 20, 1965, in New York City, Dr. Gardner Murphy (1895–1979), president of the ASPR, told assembled parapsychologists and representatives from other scientific disciplines that "…Progress in parapsychology in the direction of science calls for major, sustained effort…devoted to the building of theories and systematic models. The primary need is not for lots and lots of further little experiments, but for bold and sound model building."
Murphy concluded his address, "Advancement of Parapsychology as a Science," by stating that the future of parapsychology as a science is going to depend on multidisciplinary cooperation between the psychical researcher and "…the medical man, the anthropologist, the sociologist, the physicist, the biologist, the psychologist, and a great many other kinds of people working together within a broad perspective and giving each other mutual support."