Spirit mediums believe that while they are in an entranced state of consciousness, they fall under the control of a particular spirit that has become their special guide and who speaks through them and works all manner of mysterious phenomena on their behalf. Although this spirit was once a living person, it has, since its time in the spirit world, become greatly elevated in spiritual awareness.
The concept of a spirit guide goes back to antiquity. The philosopher Socrates (c. 470 B.C.E.–399 B.C.E.) furnishes the most notable example in ancient times of an individual whose subjective mind was able to communicate with his objective mind by direct speech stimulus. Socrates referred to this voice as his daemon (not to be confused with "demon," a fallen angel or a negative, possessing entity). Daemon is better translated as guardian angel or muse, and the philosopher believed that his guardian spirit kept vigil and warned him of approaching danger.
Parapsychologists have suggested that the spirit guide may be another little-known power of the mind which enables the medium's subjective level of consciousness to dramatize another personality, complete with a full range of personal characteristics and its very own voice. The subjective mind of the medium may clairaudiently contact its own objective level, as in the instances of those people, such as Socrates, who claim to hear the voice of a personal guide.
Mediums perceive the spirit guide in a very different manner. While they may admit that the action of the subjective mind is not entirely eliminated during trance and the arrival of the guide, they will insist that their subconscious mind is taken over and controlled by a spirit entity of great compassion and wisdom.
Psychical researchers will counter such a claim of communication with a spirit by stating that the intelligence exhibited by the spirit control appears to be always on a level with that of the medium through whom it manifests itself. Some investigators of mediumistic phenomena will admit that the information relayed during a seance often rises above the medium's known objective intelligence, but they are quick to point out that the limits of the human subjective mind are not yet known.
Critics of spiritualistic phenomena also point out that the "spirits" can often be controlled by the power of suggestion and can be made to respond to questions which have no basis in reality. Many investigators have discovered that one can as readily establish communication with an imaginary person as with a real one. Careless or mediocre mediums have found themselves the object of ridicule when they have relayed a message from a living person or even from a sitter who has given the medium a fictitious name.
The experienced and knowledgeable psychical researcher Hereward Carrington (1880–1958) devoted an entire book, The Case for Psychic Survival (1957), to his examination of Eileen Garrett (1892–1970), an English medium who is generally regarded as one of the greatest of the twentieth century, and her spirit control, Uvani. Carrington administered an extensive battery of personality tests to both Uvani and Garrett so that researchers might compare the two sets of responses. The spirit guide and the medium sat through sessions of the Bernreuter Personality Inventory, the Thurstone Attitude Scale, the Woodworth Neurotic Inventory, the Rorschach Test, and a seemingly endless number of word association tests. Carrington concluded that even though there existed only slight evidence for the genuinely supernatural character of spirit guides, "…they nevertheless succeed in bringing through a vast mass of supernormal information which could not be obtained in their absence." Spirit guides, he theorized, seem to act as some sort of psychic catalyst.
Carrington speculated that the function of a medium's spirit guide appears to be that of an intermediary—and whether the entity is truly a spirit or a personification of the medium's subconscious, it is only through the cooperation of the guide that authentic, verifiable messages are obtained.
The psychical researcher stressed in his report that an essential and significant difference between the secondary personality in pathological cases—such as multiple personality and schizophrenia—and the personality of the spirit guide in mediumship lay in the fact that in the pathological cases, the secondary personalities do not acquire supernormal information, while in mediumship, the guide does: "In the pathological cases, we seem to have a mere splitting of the mind, while in the mediumship cases we have to deal with a (perhaps fictitious) personality which is nevertheless in touch or contact, in some mysterious
In an interesting appendix to Carrington's book, he records a conversation with the spirit guide Uvani in which he questions him concerning the mechanics involved in the controlling of Eileen Garrett's "underconsciousness," his term for the unconscious. Uvani emphasizes that although he controls the medium's "underconsciousness," he has absolutely no control over her conscious mind—nor would he ever consider such control to be ethical or right. In answer to a direct question of whether or not he had any knowledge of the medium's thoughts, Uvani stressed that he had no interest in her thinking processes or in the activity of her conscious mind. It was that time when she was in the trance state that he could make the medium's unconscious become a means of expression not only for his ideas but for the concepts and thoughts of many other entities. Garrett's "underconsciousness" became an instrument that he could work "like notes on a piano."
Carrington touches on two questions that skeptics and believers alike have asked of many mediums and their alleged guides:
To the first question, Uvani responded that he received a "telegraphed impression" when the mediumistic instrument was ready. Then the medium's conscious mind becomes very low in energy, but her "soulbody" becomes more vibrant before he assumes command.
As to the question of speaking perfect English through their medium's mouths, Uvani answered bluntly that he does not speak English: "It is my Instrument who speaks. I impress my thought upon her, on that 'figment' which I must work up, but no word of mine actually comes to you. The Instrument is impressed by my personal contact."
Chicago psychic-sensitive Irene F. Hughes explained how she can tell when her spirit guide wishes to bring forth an impression or message from a discarnate entity on the other side. "I am quiet, completely relaxed, deep in meditation," she explained. "I may be alone at home or among friends in a prayer circle. A tingling sensation, similar to a chill, begins on my right ankle, then on my left. Slowly the tingling spreads to cover my entire body. It is as though a soft silken skin has been pulled over me, glove-tight—even over my face, changing its features—yet comfortable and protective. At this point I am on the way to that golden flow of consciousness that we earthlings term the Spirit Plane. I am in semitrance. Were I in full trance, I could not recall a single detail."
As her involvement with the spirit plane progresses, Hughes says that her body becomes as "icy cold as death itself," yet a delightful warmth engulfs her inner self. Soon, Kaygee, her spirit teacher, appears, smiles, bows to her as a trusted friend, indicating approval of her incursion into the spirit world. By a slight waving of his hand, he ushers in those of the spirit plane who wish to speak through her. "I am bound to my spirit teacher by ties that are ethereal, yet mighty as a coaxial cable," she said. "Every thought that flashes through his consciousness becomes crystal clear also in my consciousness."
Critics of the spiritistic hypothesis remain unimpressed by the agile mental phenomena of the spirit guide and the medium's attempts to explain the levels of his or her interaction with this mysterious personality. Many parapsychologists agree that mediums may arrive at certain information through paranormal means, but they maintain that the knowledge was gained through extrasensory abilities rather than through the cooperation of spirits. And in those cases when the alleged spirit guide displays a prima donna's temperament at being questioned for further proof of identity, it would seem that all-too-human behavior finds its seat in the unconscious of the medium.