Prof. W. F. Barrett on The Psychical Research Society

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

This article is a report of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society published in The Norwood News on 7 january 1893.

Report of a lecture about The Psychical Research Society, by Prof. W. F. Barrett, held on 4 january 1893 presided by Arthur Conan Doyle where he spoke as well.


The Norwood News (7 january 1893, p. 5)

On Wednesday evening the members of the Upper Norwood Literary Society assembled to hear Professor W. F. Barrett lecture on the above subject. After a brief introduction from the president (Dr. Conan Doyle), the lecturer commenced with the story of the genesis of the society. He and a few friends felt it to be a reproach to science that the enquiry into alleged psychical phenomena should be left to the ignorant and the charlatan. Some of the phenomena certainly seemed trivial and puerile, but not more so than many which exercised the minds of the early Fellows of the Royal Society. Such phenomena had never before been examined by any scientific society, and the lecturer and a friend in January, 1882, convened a conference, out of which arose the Psychical Research Society. The society has had the good fortune to obtain for its president the eminent Professor Sedgwick, who had held that office from its foundation, except for a short interval. Among the vice-presidents are the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour and Lord Rayleigh; the council includes Professor Adams Professor Ramsay, and other eminent men; while the corresponding members include many distinguished scientists both at home and abroad. The society numbers at present about 700 members. Of those who had rendered signal service in the past must be specially noted the late Mr. Edmund Gurney and Mr. F. W. H. Myers. The courage displayed by the members in facing ridicule and misrepresentation probably exceeds that required in making dangerous experiments.

It is the business of science to destroy error as well as discover new truth. Soon after the foundation of the society, Mr. Sinnett's "Occult World" was published, which introduced us to the high priestess of modern Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky. A committee of enquiry was appointed by the society to collect and sift what evidence was attainable respecting this mystic cult. An able and fearless investigator, Mr. Hodgson, was despatched to India. Interviews were held with Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott, and others. Professor Barrett was not favourably impressed with Madame Blavatsky. He saw in her an able and learned, but coarse and unprincipled adventuress, though he was not then quite prepared to admit she could be the utterly unscrupulous impostor Mr. Hodgson afterwards proved her to be. Madame Coulomb's revelations came in very timely (a portion of their correspondence was read by the lecturer), and Mr. Hodgson showed that the pretended Mahatma letters were all in Madame Blavatsky's handwriting. There is much that is beautiful in Theosophy, and the lecturer paid a warm tribute to the devotion of Mrs. Besant; but stripped of its thaumaturgy, it is but a bastard Christianity. What is true in it is not new, what is new is not true.

The first problem the society had to encounter was whether there exists trustworthy evidence of "thought-reading." All our knowledge is supposed to reach us through our five (or, connecting the sense of warmth which is really distinct, six) senses. The antecedent improbability of there being another unrecognised avenue of the mind is so great that a demand for strict investigation is but reasonable. If the fact is proved, it is of the utmost importance, not merely from a scientific standpoint, but as opening up unimagined possibilities to our race.

We have to consider (1) experiments on the hypnotic state, (2) experiments on the normal state, (3) observations on sporadic phenomena, which cannot be made the subject of experiment. The lecturer described how Mesmer discovered the method of throwing his patients into a trance, and how he was deprived of his practice, and forced to fly for his pains, and how in the medical journals of forty years ago mesmerism was denounced as a grotesque fraud, while now there is overwhelming testimony from medical men of the highest repute (many instances were quoted) of the value of the method of suggestion to patients in a hypnotic (which is only another name for mesmeric) state. Professor Barrett had himself approached the enquiry in a very sceptical attitude. The "thought-reading" exhibitions of Mr. Stuart Cumberland and Mr. Irving Bishop must not be mistaken for real thought-transference; they are really only the reading of unconscious muscular action. The experiment fails if the willer instead of the subject be blinded. Table-turning, the planchette, &c., are equally explained by the action of the muscles unconsciously following the thoughts. The evidence of thought-transference in the normal state was then discussed, the lecturer carefully distinguishing between what contradicts actual knowledge and what merely transcends our ignorance. Belief, he reminded us, is a state of mind, not an act. The lecturer then exhibited a series of copies which had been made in one room from drawings made in another room. The difference in detail, particularly in the invention of figures, was remarkable; but the copy was in some cases exact, and in all the identity of the idea was clear. Dr. Lodge had obtained a copy compounded of two figures drawn on opposite sides of a single card. Cases of transference of pain and of flavours were adduced. He would suggest the latter to the Socialist, as a ready way of affording luxurious meals to the community. Successes in rightly naming invisible objects were so numerous that the improbability of their being the result of chance had been mathematically proved to have been many millions to one. And may we not suppose that the response the devout of all times have found to their holy aspirations and supplications, is really the influence of the Divine mind acting on the human, through the same channel by which one human mind acts on another? "To some were given the inner ear and the inspired utterance, but to all of us may come the still small voice, the faint echo within us, of the ineffable music of the Divine word, which is slowly expressing itself in humanity as the ages gradually unfold."

The phenomena of telepathy, whereby the vision of absent friends has been communicated, were then touched on. Instances of such apparitions are well authenticated. We find in cases of thought-transference that an answer bas been given in writing by a person who was wholly ignorant alike of question and answer. Remarkable instances of this were found in the experiments of the Rev. Mr. Newnham. In these we see the basis of the hallucinations that sometimes occur at the moment of death. Many of these are simply telepathic impressions. As our mind receives impressions on the brain through the nerves, so, if the impression can be made directly on the brain-cell, that brain-cell will in like manner seem to recognise an object outside itself. Thus, a man often imagines himself to feel in a limb that he has lost. By means of the crystal we may often recall things we had completely forgotten.

The question may be asked, Have we here any evidence of the survival of the soul after death? The evidence in this department is more fragmentary and less conclusive; but it is sufficient to render such survival extremely probable. On the subject of spiritualism the society is not at present committed to any opinion. That mind can actually act on matter there is convincing evidence. The moral dangers of the examination of spiritual phenomena must be taken into account. We may place our minds under the direct influence of very undesirably familiar spirits. The Biblical warnings against such were well advised. The aversion with which the whole subject is popularly regarded has the professor's fullest sympathy. In conclusion, he regretted having to pass over many important phrases of the subject. If he had aroused the interest of any to investigate these phenomena, he could assure them they were engaging in no light or trivial undertaking. The notice of the attacks made on them were a testimony to the value of their work. He did not dispute the ability of his opponents; he only felt that they had not the evidence before them as the Psychical Research Society had.

"Still we hope
That in a world of larger scope,
What here is faithfully begun
Will be completed, not undone."

In moving a cordial vote of thanks to the lecturer, the chairman mentioned how he had once belonged to a society who made similar investigations on a smaller scale, and related, amid much laughter, how they had once mesmerised a lady, and then found themselves unable to bring her back. The motion was seconded by Dr. Pullen, and carried with enthusiasm.