To the uninformed layperson, psychical researchers who investigate individuals who claim to be able to make contact with the spirits of the departed are sometimes thought of as gullible men or women who go to seances in order to converse with the ghost of their late Uncle Henry. To be certain, mediums and their paranormal abilities are studied and tested, but not in an attitude of open acceptance. Such investigations are conducted in all earnestness and seriousness and under the strictest laboratory conditions possible. And rather than being gullible, the researchers are more likely to be skeptical and cautious observers, ever on the watch for trickery and evidence of charlatanism.

Many of those who research spirit contact believe that the difference between the genuine medium or channel and the great majority of humankind lies in the fact that the medium's threshold of consciousness may be set lower than that of others. In other words, the medium has access to levels of awareness that lie beyond the normal "reach" of the subconscious. The spirit medium usually works in trance, and while in this state of consciousness, he or she claims to be under the direction of a spirit guide or spirit control. Spiritualists believe in the reality of the guide as a spiritual entity apart from the medium. Psychical researchers theorize that the control personality is but a secondary personality of the medium that is able to dip into the psychic abilities residing in the subconscious.

The physical phenomena of mediumship are among the strangest and most dramatic of all occurrences studied by psychical researchers. Under laboratory conditions, serious reports have been made of the materialization of human heads, hands, and even complete bodies from a cloudy substance, known as ectoplasm, which somehow appears to issue from the medium's physical body. Mediums have been seen to levitate into the air, manifest stigmata on their bodies, and cause mysterious apports (arrivals) of flowers, medallions, and items of jewelry.

Some of the world's best minds have been vitally concerned with the mystery of survival, life after death, and whether or not it is possible to speak with the dead. The British statesman William E. Gladstone (1809–1898), who most of his life was an avowed skeptic of spirit contact and all paranormal occurrences, finally concluded that psychical research "is the most important work in the world today—by far the most important."

The famous statesman was not alone in his declaration of the importance of psychical research. Pierre Curie (1859–1906), who with his wife, Marie, discovered radium, stated shortly before his death that in his opinion psychical research had more importance for humankind than any other. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), generally accepted as the "father of psychoanalysis," belonged to both the British and the American Societies for Psychical Research and once commented that he wished he had devoted more time to such study when he was younger. His colleague and sometimes rival, Carl G. Jung (1875–1961), remained actively interested in psychical experiments until his death.

Sir William Crookes (1832–1919), a British physicist, conducted many exhaustive studies of spirit contact and mediums. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) insisted that psychical research explored the most important aspects of human experience and that it was the obligation of every scientist to learn more about them. Julian Huxley (1887–1975), the biologist; Sir James Jeans (1877–1946), the astronomer; Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975), the historian; Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), the philosopher—all of these great thinkers urged that their fellow scientists seriously approach psychical research.

In spite of the attention of such commanding intellects and the painstaking research of such individuals as Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge (1851–1940), Dr. Gardner Murphy (1895–1979), Hereward Carrington (1880–1958). J. B. Rhine (1895–1980), G. N. M. Tyrell (1879–1973), Dr. Karlis Osis (1917–1997), Dr. Stanley Krippner (1932– ), and Dr. Harold Puthoff (1930– ), psychical researchers are still regarded by a large section of the scientific community as being "spook chasers" and as outright rebels and heretics to the bodies of established knowledge. The basic reason for such disdain on the part of orthodox scientists is the understandable reluctance of the scientific establishment to grant a hearing to a body of knowledge that might very well reshape or revise many of the premises on which its entire structure is based.

Arthur Koestler (1905–1983), noted novelist and journalist, told of his visit with a leading mathematical logician and philosopher. Koestler expressed his interest in recent statistical work in psychical research. The logician loudly scoffed at such studies until Koestler, irritated by the man's closed mind, provided him with the name of the world-famous statistician who had checked the statistics. Upon hearing the statistician's name, the logician seemed completely nonplussed. After a few moments he said, "If that is true, it is terrible, terrible. It would mean that I would have to scrap everything and start from the beginning."

Orthodox scientists in the more conventional disciplines are not about to "scrap everything," and many of them feel that the best method of avoiding the research statistics compiled by psychical researchers is to insist upon the requirements demanded of all conventional sciences: (1) that they produce controlled and repeatable experiments; (2) that they develop a hypothesis comprehensive enough to include all psychic phenomena— from telepathy to poltergeists, from water dowsing to spirit contact.

The difficulties in fulfilling these requirements can be immediately grasped when one considers how impossible it would be to repeat, for example, the apparition of a man's father as it appeared to him at the moment of his father's death. This sort of crisis apparition occurs only at death, and the man's father is going to die only once. The great majority of psychic phenomena are almost completely spontaneous in nature, and ungovernable elements of mood and emotion obviously play enormously important roles in any type of paranormal experience. As G. N. M. Tyrell pointed out, people are never aware of a telepathic, clairvoyant, or precognitive process at work within them. They are only aware of the product of that process. In fact, it seems apparent from laboratory work that conscious effort at determining any psychic process at work within oneself will either completely destroy it or greatly diminish its effectiveness.

Those men and women who devote themselves to researching the possibility of life beyond death and spirit contact insist that science must not continue to ignore that which is not directly perceivable. By the same token, it falls upon the psychical researchers to exercise the greatest caution and the strictest controls when conducting tests with those who claim to be able to contact the dead.

In his Psychic Science and Survival (1947) Hereward Carrington, who devoted a lifetime to psychical research, listed the following requirements of an ideal researcher:

  1. a thorough knowledge of the literature of the subject;
  2. a good grounding in normal and abnormal psychology, in physics, chemistry, biology, and photography;
  3. keen powers of observation and an ability to judge human nature and its motives;
  4. training in magic and sleight of hand;
  5. shrewdness, quickness of thought and action, patience, resourcefulness, sympathy, and a sense of humor;
  6. freedom from superstition;
  7. the strength to stand out against bigotry, scientific as well as theological.


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Rhine, Louisa E. Hidden Channels of the Mind. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1960.

Steinour, Harold. Exploring the Unseen World. New York: Citadel Press, 1959.

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Carrington, Hereward. The Case for Psychic Survival. New York: Citadel Press, 1957.

——. Essays in the Occult: Experiences Out of a Lifetime of Psychical Research. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958.

Tabori, Paul. Pioneers of the Unseen. New York: Taplinger, 1973.


Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

Hall, Trevor. The Spiritualists. London: Duckworth, 1962.

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Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Mysteries of the Unknown: Spirit Summonings. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1989.


Burkhardt, Frederic, and Fredson Bowers, eds. The Works of William James: Essays in Psychical Research. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Myers, Gerald E. William James: His Life and Thought. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.


Jolly, W. P. Sir Oliver Lodge. London: Constable, 1974.

Tabori, Paul. Pioneers of the Unseen. New York: Taplinger, 1973.


Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968.

Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Spence, Lewis. An Encyclopedia of Occultism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

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