The interpretative dualism of mediumistic phenomena



Charles Richet's point of view

In 1923 Charles Richet, considering the difficulties met by the hypothesis of survival from a scientific point of view, wrote: «As far as I am concerned, even without being able to give an incontrovertible proof of it, I can not believe that memory can exist without the brain's anatomical and physiological integrity. When there is no more oxygen, when the temperature is too high or too low, when some drops of atropine or morphine or chloroform are introduced into the blood, or when the blood flow that feeds the brain is interrupted, the memory is altered and fades away. Spiritists can not deny these facts». If this opinion had been expressed by a skeptical scientist about the existence of paranormal phenomena, there would be nothing strange. But Richet (1850-1935) was not only a physiologist of international fame awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his discovery of anaphylaxis: he was also the honorary president of the Institut Métapsychique International in Paris, and had investigated with passionate interest a wide range of paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, hypnosis, psychokinesis and ectoplasm (a term he himself had coined). In 1922 he published the results of his studies in a wide-ranging volume, Traité de Métapsychique (Thirty Years of Psychical Research), in which he openly stated that he believed in the reality of the phenomena investigated, but could not accept them as proof of the existence of the spirit and its survival to death.   

Richet tackled the facts of what he called metapsychic with the scientist's critical attitude. To quote his words: «The facts of metapsychics are neither more nor less mysterious than the phenomena of electricity, reproduction, or heat. They are not as frequent, and here lies the difference: but it is absurd to refuse to study them only because they are unusual. These unusual phenomena are real, and demonstrate: 1) that there is a cognitive faculty distinct from our ordinary faculties; 2) that movements of objects other than those which we are accustomed to are possible. And it is irrational to refuse to study these unusual phenomena with observation and experimental methods that have proved so valid in all other sciences». These statements by Richet are illuminating about the state of mind and the enthusiasm that inspired many scientists trained in the nineteenth-century cultural sphere. That century was indeed an extraordinary period, during which scientific research had truly revolutionized all the vision of the world, compared to previous eras. In addition to the discoveries that laid the foundations for all technological and industrial developments, in the fields of physics, chemistry, transport and communications, research on biology and observations on plants and animals had been the premises for that revolutionary concept of nature and the human being represented by Darwin and Wallace evolutionary theories.

However, scientific investigation had just begun to scratch the complexity of the forces, energies and laws that regulate the physical world. Just the lack of in-depth knowledge on the states of energy and matter, which today allow us to better understand the difficulty of investigating phenomena such as gravity, atomic cohesion or information (not to mention organic life), left the field open to hopes for integration and understanding that we may consider rather naive or otherwise premature. This was then the position of Richet, who believed that paranormal phenomena, like the phenomena of electricity, would be explained in the light of natural laws. However, he himself should have some doubts about it, since after first defining metapsychic as: «the science that deals with phenomena that appear to come from an intelligence distinct from the human» then he observed that: «one is really led to believe in the action of alien intelligences in the case of (mediums such as) Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Leonard and Mrs. Verall». About Leonora Piper of Boston, Richet admitted that: «Mrs. Piper, studied with extraordinary patience by William James, and later by Richard Hodgson, and also – with equal perseverance – by Hyslop, Frederic Myers, Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir William Barrett, has powers of clairvoyance and cryptesthesia probably superior to any other (medium) observed before: she tells those who visit her – at once and almost without uncertainty – the names of their relatives, and episodes of the latters' lives unknown to visitors, which are then verified only after long and tiring investigations». Also in relation to the physical phenomena produced by mediums, among which Richet included mechanical movements without contact and materializations, the scientist stated that they: «show something really new and metapsychic, which transcends normal psychology, and which can not be explained without the intervention of unknown powers that seem to have their own intelligence».    

The cultural perspective of our time

What is the situation in our days, about a century after the publication of Richet's volume? We can say that we are in an even more difficult and complex condition, because on the one hand all scientific discoveries made in these years have not yet identified the existence of energy fields able to explain in a satisfactory way the paranormal phenomena, and on the other hand, psychical research has ended up marking time, in the sense that little has been added to the complex of phenomena already well known and investigated in the first half of the twentieth century. Therefore, even on this side it is not possible to reach a satisfactory theoretical framework, and it becomes more difficult for us to share Richet's faith in the short-term discovery of some new energetic component in the physical world that could explain the facts. This is also the reason why the gap between scientific and psychical research has in some respects expanded, and the a priori removal of the existence of paranormal phenomena without an adequate study of the vast literature that concerns and validates them has prevailed in a part of our culture. However, one of the advantages we have today compared to a century ago is the ease of documenting many paranormal phenomena using recording devices that can attest to their physical objectivity.  

It may therefore be important to offer a concise, but as precise as possible, scheme of well-documented paranormal phenomena which were object of psychical research, to verify the reasons for a longstanding interpretive dualism. These phenomena can be classified into the following categories:

  • Communications strongly supporting the hypothesis of survival of an individual form of consciousness to the death of the physical body (spirit).
  • Physical phenomena (apports, levitations, movements, apparitions, sounds, etc.) not necessarily indicative of the survival of the spirit, but not otherwise explainable if not resorting to the intervention of intelligent alien entities, or powers of the human mind (in particular the medium's one) allowing access to cognitive dimensions and energy fields whose nature remains unknown (super-PSI hypothesis).
  • Psychic phenomena related to living people (telepathy, clairvoyance, etc.), also indicative of mind's powers whose dynamics remain unknown, but which could be explained if an interconnected energy field of psychic contents could be discovered, to which the medium's mind, in certain particular conditions, would be able to connect.
  • Psychic phenomena related to living people (hypnotic state, dual personality, hallucinations, OBEs, lucid dreams, channeling, trance, etc.), already widely studied within psychical research, and for which a satisfactory scientific explanation could be obtained through a deeper knowledge of the brain's functioning.
  • NDEs, for which a satisfactory explanation on the basis of current knowledge on the brain's functioning remains questionable.
  • Communications by mediumistic entities of all kinds that give vague, false or contradictory information, which in any case are to detriment of the spiritist survival hypothesis.

The two parties in the field

As we have repeatedly noticed, apart for an initial period of great enthusiasm for spiritism – limited to the first decades of the second half of the nineteenth century (Kardec's era) – due to the belief that mediumistic phenomena constituted an irrefutable proof of the spirit's survival of death, we can see that since the beginning of the most serious psychical research (which can be traced back to 1882, the year the SPR was founded), two orientations have more or less constantly faced off: one inclining to to support the hypothesis of the survival of individual consciousness (spirit) as the only possible explanation of the results acquired by the researchers, the other convinced of the fact that none of the acquired results was sufficient to prove survival in an irrefutable way. Within this second party there is a range of positions, from those who exclude a priori all possibility of survival of consciousness to bodily death (on the basis of the axiom no brain, no consciousness), to those who believe that survival has not been proved, but can not even be excluded.    

Richet's statement, placed at the beginning of this page, well clarifies the psychic orientation of those who can not accept the hypothesis of survival. Richet claimed to believe that memory can not exist without the anatomical and physiological integrity of the brain, without being able to give an incontrovertible proof. In fact, his statement is valid in the physical dimension in which we live this life, but how can we know for sure whether it is still valid or not in another dimension? The weak point of the position of those who tend to exclude any hypothesis of survival, as will be better seen in the over the life section, consists in believing that consciousness is a product of the brain's activity, and therefore is created by the brain only. For this reason any form of conscious existence could exist only in this physical dimension, and only on the condition that there is a brain. As we can see, this position excludes a priori the hypothesis that the brain is a tuner of consciousness in this dimension, but no supporter of the survival hypothesis (and – if I'm not mistaken – no communicating entity) has ever declared that consciousness, after death, can continue to exist in this physical dimension. Therefore, if the survival of consciousness can not be demonstrated in an irrefutable way, it can not even be ruled out for sure, because what is valid in this dimension could not be valid in a different dimension.       

Influence of cultural predominant psychic tunings

With these premises, all the alternative hypotheses advanced by the researchers to explain certain paranormal phenomena are more or less complex psychic constructions that, of necessity, end up attributing to some people's brains extraordinary pseudo-magical powers, without presenting any experimental element to support for the ways in which these powers can be used. In this position we can notice the presence of a dominant psychic tuning, endowed with a strong persuasion power, aimed at presenting human life in the physical dimension as the only possibility of conscious existence: since consciousness exists in the course of our life as a faculty connected to brain's functioning, no other dimension can exist which our conscious Ego can experience without a body and a brain. This seems to be the peremptory affirmation of a psychic tuning that excludes any possibility of survival of the bodily death.  

The enigma of individual existence

It is trivially obvious that discussion and confrontation remain open precisely because we, during our lives, do not know with absolute certainty what will be of our consciousness after death. At the same time, phenomena such as mediumistic communications or NDEs induce our intelligence to reflect on the possibility that the light of consciousness, now linked to our body's individual life, will not definitively fade away with death, but can continue to exist in another dimension, bringing with it – at least at an early stage – the memories and experiences of what our conscious Ego lived in this earthly adventure. Even if we do not have any comprehensive and convincing information on the way in which the transit from the consciousness linked to the brain to the one freed from that instrument (possibly connected to a new instrument able to tune to new dimensions) could occur, the fact in itself would be neither more surprising nor more complex than having come to life in this world. In fact, our conscious existence, even if linked to our body, remains an enigma for each of us: why me? why this body? why just this personal story? why this particular set of random circumstances that constitutes my individual destiny?  

Once again, the problem is represented by the limits of the psychic tunings we can normally access during human life: only very few people are able to tune to the most advanced aspects of the psyche, which may perhaps also offer the key to unraveling the enigma of passage to other dimensions. For most people the range of accessible psychic tunings is rather limited, though wide enough to hold all positive and negative experiences that human life entails. Even scientists, whose psychic experience is illuminated by intelligence and reason, are forced to think and act indirectly and inductively – almost like blind people forced to rebuild groping the map of an unknown site – since they do not have the enlightening wisdom given by a direct, self-evident and convincing knowledge.     


Kant & Swedenborg
Hypnotism & psyche
Hypnosis research
Research hypotheses
Myers' research
Frederik van Eeden
Dualism of theories
Research in Italy: 1
Research in Italy: 2
Research in Italy: 3
Ernesto Bozzano
Theories about spirit
Joseph B. Rhine
G. A. Rol's faculties
Ugo Dèttore
Limits of paranormal
Psyche, reality & will