Psychical research in Italy between '800 and '900 - 3

 

 

An imperturbable experimenter

Another important investigation into Paladino's mediumship was conducted in 1907 by Filippo Bottazzi, who was at the time Professor of Physiology at Naples University. Born in Diso (Lecce) in 1867, after graduating in Medicine and Surgery in Rome in 1893, he specialized in Physiology at the Higher Studies Institute in Florence, obtaining the teaching qualification in this discipline in 1896. In 1902 he won the contest for Professor of Physiology at Genoa University and in 1904 at Naples University, of which he later became the Rector. Doctor honoris causa of the Catholic University in Milan and of Edinburgh University, he was a member of many Italian and foreign academies and scientific societies. In 1925 he founded the Italian Society for Experimental Biology, and in 1929 he was appointed president of the Biology Committee at the CNR, where he organized a study commission for food problems. He founded three magazines: Archivio di scienze biologiche (Biological Science Archive) in 1919, Bollettino della Società italiana di biologia sperimentale (Journal of the Italian Society for Experimental Biology) in 1926, Quaderni della nutrizione (Nutrition Notebooks) in 1934. He published over three hundred scientific texts, including Physiological Chemistry, dated 1899 (a unique work in Italy, which for about thirty-year was the basis of biochemical culture), Principles of Physiology, Physiology of Nutrition and Human Nutrition. He was also a lover of historical and philosophical studies, in particular about Leonardo, Spallanzani, Galvani, Matteucci. In 1940 he was selected among the candidates for the Medicine Nobel Prize, which however was not awarded due to the Second World War. He died in Diso in 1941.     

Bottazzi's scientific curriculum is therefore very respectable: after having engaged in the study of experimental biology and physiological chemistry, he carried out important studies and observations in various branches of physiology of man and higher animals. From his research came the concept of Bottazzi gliodes, the fundamental protoplasm common to all cells, representing a liquid and homogeneous phase of the system that constitutes the cytoplasm as a whole. To him we owe the elaboration of the theory on the tonic function of sarcoplasm, according to which while the fibrils would be deputies to the muscles' rapid contraction, the undifferentiated sarcoplasm would be responsible for the tonic, slow and support phase: from these researches then derived those on the myogenic or neurogenic origin of the automatism of the heart and the stimulation of smooth muscles. He performed studies on the osmotic pressure of cells and human and animal body fluids, which culminated in the concept of homoosmosis, expressing the constancy of molecular concentration in the fluids of animals, and the distinction of aquatic animals in homeosmotic and poichilosmotic, depending on the independence or less of the osmotic pressure of their internal liquids from the salt concentration and the osmotic pressure of the external medium. Still noteworthy are his studies on the properties of intestinal epithelium and on the metabolism of red blood cells, on adipose tissue and on its enzymes, on the colloidal properties of proteins and on their superficial tension.

In 1909 he published the book Fenomeni medianici osservati in una serie di sedute fatte con Eusapia Palladino (Mediumistic Phenomena Observed in a Series of Sessions with Eusapia Palladino), in which are reported the reports of eight séances held in Naples between April 17th and July 5th, 1907. The importance of this series of sessions is given from the fact that they were not held in an apartment, but in a laboratory properly organized by Bottazzi in the premises of the Faculty of Physiology. As he himself stated, his attitude regarding mediumistic phenomena was always marked by skepticism, or rather by complete indifference: he had declared that, for a scientist or a naturalist, attending mediumistic séances was like wasting one's own time. However, when he read on the Corriere della Sera the articles by Luigi Barzini and Enrico Morselli on the séances in Genoa, something clicked in his mind, causing him to go from indifference to doubt, so he decided he wanted to see more clearly in person. In the meantime, three articles by Dr. Carlo Foà (a friend of Bottazzi) had been published by another newspaper, La Stampa, about the phenomena observed in as many sittings held by Paladino in Turin, in which a colleague of the physiologist, Professor Amedeo Herlitzka, had participated. After consulting with his friend Gino Galeotti, Professor of Pathology at Naples University, also intrigued by the articles of Barzini and Foà, Bottazzi decided to start an experimental research, given that – even if he had no doubts about the reliability, the intellectual honesty and the investigative capacity of those who had witnessed the phenomena reported in the articles – those experiences were not supported by any laboratory data that could be objectively verifiable.   

Organization of the laboratory for the sittings

To convince Eusapia Paladino (notoriously unavailable to work in environments not congenial to her) to hold séances in his laboratory, Bottazzi asked Charles Richet to send him a letter of introduction to the medium. After receiving the letter, he went with his friend Galeotti to visit Eusapia at her home (whose address had been provided by lawyer Nicola Minutillo, who had already participated in some séances), and showed her the letter: although illiterate, the medium recognized a conventional mark that Richet had traced on one corner of the paper, and when Galeotti then told her that he knew Professor Lombroso very well, the cold courtesy with which Paladino had welcomed the two men turned into a lively sympathy. According to Bottazzi, Richet and Lombroso were the two personalities that Eusapia loved most in the world, and to whom she had a real veneration. It must be added that, unlike what Morselli had done, Bottazzi always treated the medium with much tact, kindness and respect, and that his wife – who participated in some of the sittings – proved so friendly to her, that Paladino always showed the desire to have her next to her.     

After having been persuaded to hold the séances in the laboratory set up by Bottazzi, the medium also left him free choice with regard to the experimenters, asking only that an acquaintance of hers, Tommaso De Amicis, professor of Dermatology and Syphilography at Naples University, could also participate. The other sitters were Oscar Scarpa, professor of Physics and Electrochemistry at Naples Polytechnic, engineer Luigi Lombardi, professor of Electrotechnics in the same Polytechnic, and Sergio Pansini, professor of medical Semeiotics. In some sittings Luigi Lombardi was replaced by engineer Emanuele Jona, director of Pirelli's electrical services and president of the Italian Electrotechnical Association. In addition to the occasional participation of Mrs. Bottazzi (Annunziata Fabbri), of Nicola Minutillo and other personalities, in three séances (4th, 5th and 6th) took part – at his request – Senator Antonio Cardarelli (1831-1927), an illustrious and praiseworthy clinician, by whose attention everyone – including Paladino – was flattered.      

Although at that time Paladino's mediumship was in decline, the usual phenomena (levitations, movements of objects, touchings by human limbs, luminous globes, etc.) were not long in showing up. But since Bottazzi wished to carry out experiments controllable by means of the prepared instrumentation, already after the first sitting he took care to secure the equipment and some objects to their supports (tables, stools or wooden shelves) using brackets and screws, so that the mediumistic movements produced by Eusapia were limited and not – as was usually the case – chaotic. In particular, Bottazzi tried to induce her to activate some instruments (such as a telegraph key, a metronome, a pressure gauge), of which the medium knew neither the exact position nor the operative mode. The physiologist had found that all the mediumistic activity of Paladino involved a continuous effort to control and direct the equivalent of a system of invisible limbs (a sort of virtual body), to whose movements – often uncertain and tiring in terms of energy expenditure – always corresponded minimal but well-synchronized movements of the real limbs of the medium. For example, while Eusapia drummed on the surface of the table with her hand's fingers (controlled by Bottazzi himself), producing a rhythmic noise barely perceptible, inside the cabinet or somewhere else in the room a tambourine (one of the objects predisposed for the sitting) was clearly heard playing strongly and in perfect synchrony the same beats. Thus Bottazzi made sure to lock the tambourine, connecting the membrane with a pressure instrument, so that with each beat a line was recorded on a sheet of black carbon paper wound on a cylindrical roller in slow clockwork movement (the paper's lampblack was removed by a metal tip connected to the membrane pressure gauge, allowing to obtain an objective registration of the strokes beaten over time).  

The medium's reactions and the hypothesis of virtual limbs

This kind of procedure encountered a certain resistance on the medium's part, as she could not manage these activities new to her with the same ease and effectiveness with which the usual movements typical of her mediumistic phenomenology were produced at random. Bottazzi – after having patiently and repeatedly explained to her the operation of each instrument, telling her where it was located and what she should have done to get a certain result (for example, press down a telegraph key) – noticed that initially the movements of the medium's (real) hands, however limited, were similar to those of a person who tries to find a certain object in the dark, with difficulty and gropingly. But once Paladino had managed to overcome the difficulties until the desired and required effect was achieved, she was then able to repeat it easily and at will. In short, everything seemed to demonstrate how these mediumistic virtual limbs (which Bottazzi compared to the pseudopods of a giant invisible amoeba) were subjected to a progressive learning process, which took place mainly while Eusapia was in a more or less deep trance state. The success or failure of each experiment depended on this: more than once the mediumistic action, failing to obtain the required result, produced a negative effect such as the overturning of objects or the damage of some instruments, but the persuasive action of Bottazzi, and the changes he made after each sitting to improve the conditions of the equipment's activation, had a positive outcome on the success of many experiences and on the acquisition of objective documentation, part of which was reported in his book.     

The hypothesis that the medium was endowed with invisible but efficient plastic appendices seemed also confirmed by the fact that the phenomena were all the more intense the more the actions to be performed or the objects to be moved were within a certain distance from Eusapia's body, while they diminished until they did not occur at all when this distance increased. Furthermore, on more than one occasion, a luminescent limb was seen emerging from the medium's back and extending towards the mediumistic cabinet. Bottazzi, however, observed that sometimes, despite the fact that Paladino did everything to obtain a certain effect, while all the sitters urged her to make the experiment successful, the required phenomenon did not occur (although in a previous sitting the same experiment had been successful), as if an alien will were at work, able to decide what could or could not be done. In some cases Bottazzi, even if he considered premature to accept the spiritualist hypothesis, recognized that he had the clear sensation of the presence of a real, albeit invisible, character: perhaps that John King considered by Paladino as her protector spirit, and whom the professor regarded as a product of the medium's subconscious. In any case, the scholar recognized in no uncertain terms the authenticity of a large number of the phenomena occurred, stating that if – despite this – someone had wanted to doubt them anyway, it would be like accusing himself of lying. He ruled out any hypothesis of fraud by the medium in relation to the experiments carried out and verified in his laboratory, stating that no magician – however skilled – could have obtained similar effects under the same conditions (and indeed some conjurers had already honestly recognized, previously, that they were not able to obtain the phenomena produced by Paladino under control).   

Bottazzi's reasonable conclusions 

As for the discordant results obtained by the different researchers who experimented with Eusapia Paladino, Bottazzi, after recalling that over the years the medium had produced in hundreds of sessions phenomena on whose authenticity there were no doubts, observed how Eusapia was not a machine, but a living organism. Therefore it was always possible – even in the physiological field – that a series of observations that usually led to a certain result, was followed by another that gave different results (and in some cases opposite): a researcher who had stuck with the results of that single observation would have resolutely denied the possibility of the results reported by other experimenters. As an example, Bottazzi cited the stimulation of the vagus nerve with an electric current: as a rule, it has as a result the arrest of the heartbeat, but in some cases – especially when the heartbeat is weak or irregular – the opposite effect can be obtained, that is, the activation of a regular heartbeat. Likewise, those who had witnessed only a few sittings with Paladino devoid of significant phenomena, would have been inclined to believe that all the sittings were poor in results, and that those who claimed to have witnessed incredible or unexplainable events must have been either hallucinated or deceived.      

As for the undeniable cases in which Paladino had been surprised to cheat, unconsciously but sometimes also consciously, Bottazzi, though not denying them, attributed them to the stress to which the medium was subjected in periods when many séances were required in circles where the sitters, often paying, felt entitled to demand striking results. Eusapia was not smart enough to understand the enormous damage that her tricks – more or less naive – produced on her reputation and on the reliability of her mediumistic skills, and with the weakening of her powers because of her age and ever more precarious health conditions, resorted occasionally to expedients developed over the course of years and years of mediumistic practice, moreover not very effective since there was always someone ready to expose her. However Bottazzi declared that during the sittings held in his laboratory none of the sitters had ever been able to find the medium in default, nor to discover on her body any instrument suitable for cheating. Eusapia herself warned the sitters when a movement of the table or  of the curtains was caused by her hands or body.             

A severe assessment on the intelligence of the skeptics to the bitter end

After having tested the medium firsthand, Bottazzi expressed a very severe judgment against those who, for bias, claimed that all the phenomena were due to fraud or tricks, without being able then to explain where the fraud was or what the trick consisted of. In most cases these statements were made by people who had never experienced on the field with truly gifted mediums (who, besides, have always been few), and according to him the arrogance of the skeptics to the bitter end was to consider as perfect imbeciles men of science whose intelligence and value had been proven in the most diverse fields, making human knowledge advance, whereas skeptics were almost always people lacking the spirit of research. But when Bottazzi concluded that the criticisms of the skeptics to the bitter end could have made sense twenty or thirty years before, when yet the most serious psychical researchers had not carried out their own investigations or published the results, that now no person with common sense could contest, proved to be very optimistic: the same criticisms and the same negative attitudes towards the eventuality that mediumistic phenomena may exist are still present in our day.      

Experiments and theories

Among the phenomena that most struck Bottazzi (which weighed almost 90 kilos) there was the displacement of more than half a meter of the chair he was sitting on, that the medium – whose hands were under control – could not in any way perform: when the day after the physiologist asked his laboratory assistant, a sturdy man, to move him with the whole chair he was sitting on, doing the necessary actions at his ease, the assistant hardly managed to move the chair about a dozen centimeters. Also the synchrony, almost always perfect and recorded by the instruments, between a telegraphic key located on the mediumistic table and manually activated by Paladino, and a second key located in the cabinet and activated by an unknown entity, was considered by Bottazzi and by the other sitters as an irrefutable proof of the genuineness of the phenomena produced by the medium.     

On concluding his book, Bottazzi – after recognizing that the attempts to explain mediumistic phenomena had been many, but, for one reason or another, they had proven to be unconvincing – claimed not to be able to formulate a valid explanatory theory of all the phenomena experienced, but to be able to advance a hypothesis of work and study to be used as a basis for further research. Although – unlike Morselli – it did not seem to him that the hypothesis of the intervention of alien intelligences with respect to the medium could be discarded or declared absurd for sure, he thought it better to continue studying the physiological and psychological dependence of the phenomena produced by the medium's organism, through a virtual representation of a second body of a psychic nature (or in any case connected with the psyche of the medium) capable of interacting with the environment and with the sitters. Although the scholar pointed out how this representation did not amount to an explanation, but should be considered only as a working hypothesis, nevertheless all the criticisms regarding the attempts at explanation already advanced by Morselli remain standing, especially when Bottazzi stated that the mediumistic limbs did not differ in any way, due to their sensitivity and ability to act, from the real ones. It should necessarily be concluded that some people – at least the mediums – are endowed with a second body, which, although different in nature from the physical body, is able to interact with the physical environment: from here to the admission of  the existence of an etheric body, or a perispirit, the step is short.     

Visani Scozzi studies on hypnotic and mediumistic states

The physician Paolo Visani Scozzi (1858-1918) published in 1901 a book, La medianità, which is still today one of the most valid texts for those who want to understand some of the most surprising aspects of the functioning of human brain and its psychic correlations. The central core of the book (its second part) consists of detailed and meticulous reports (each of which fills more than 50 pages) of four séances during which Visani Scozzi was able to experience in Naples the mediumship of Eusapia Paladino between April 8th and 12th, 1895. But also of a considerable interest is the book's first part, in which the author – who had actively engaged in the study of hypnotism – first elaborated a significant picture of the phenomena observed in the hypnotic states, and then highlighted both the correlations between the latter and the mediumistic trance states, and the substantial differences that do not allow to equalize the physical mediumistic phenomena (such as levitations, displacements of objects, contributions, materializations, direct writing, etc.) to those of hypnotism.   

Born in Palazzuolo, in the Tuscan Romagna, Visani Scozzi studied Medicine in Siena and Bologna. After his graduation he attended the courses at the Military Health School in Florence, and worked as a medical officer in Pesaro and Chieti. From 1885 to 1887 he practiced the medical profession in Cantiano and Marradi, in Florence province, where he met and married a wealthy widow, Ersilia Ravagli. Then he settled in Florence, acquiring reputation and esteem, and an elect clientele. Following his own anti-monarchical and humanitarian ideals, he regarded the medical profession as a mission which he fulfilled with fervor, healing and comforting people with a profound sentiment of human fraternity. He was also a true scholar: positivist by method, and initially materialist, he felt the need to investigate the great phenomenon of life and the principles that rule it. Having become a psychologist, he turned his attention to the phenomena of somnambulism and hypnotic suggestion, on which he investigated and wrote a lot. The study of hypnotic phenomena led him to be interested in mediumistic phenomena, of which he ascertained and recognized the reality, trying first to explain mediumship as a derivation or extension of hypnotic phenomenology, without resorting to any power external to the medium and the sitters. But later, especially after the four séances with Paladino in 1895, he recognized – albeit with regret – that to explain a good part of these phenomena it was necessary to admit the intervention of other intelligent entities.     

A new and uncertain research field

In the third chapter of his book, Visani Scozzi – after reviewing the distinguished researchers who in previous years had experimented with Paladino and attested, through publications or reports, the genuineness of the phenomena they had witnessed – enumerated the different hypotheses they had developed to explain the various aspects of mediumistic phenomenology: they were in any case provisional and inconsistent attempts, given that those same men of science who proposed them, honestly recognized that they were facing an entirely new and insecure field of research, which could really be defined as occult science, in the same sense in which the various practices adopted by the urge for human knowledge were occult before the scientific method was established. The author had no difficulty in identifying, as had already been done by Brofferio, the irreducible contradictions which every single attempt to explain some phenomena met when trying to use it to explain other phenomena, and in particular the physical ones. The psychological need to safeguard the intrinsic coherence of the scientific method required (and still requires) that every explanation of new phenomena were based primarily on the use of already known causes. For this reason, a scientist could not accept a theory based on the existence of other intelligences, external and alien with respect to the humans involved in the phenomena (that is, the medium and the sitters), since there was no way to scientifically study such intelligent entities, nor to check their existence.     

The limits of the faculties that can be attributed to human mind

If the investigations and studies on hypnotism had led to admit the possibility for a human mind to exercise its influence and control over another human mind, both in proximity and at a distance, and therefore could also offer an interpretative framework of telepathy or clairvoyance, these phenomena were still attributable to some faculties – however exceptional and uncommon – of the human mind. Anyway, it should be remembered that until now the technical and energy modalities by which remote communication and mental influence phenomena can occur have not been identified. But when it was necessary to explain the displacement of a piece of furniture or the levitation and transport of a heavy object, it was necessary to resort to the intervention of forces of an unknown nature, whose action and reaction effects in many cases could not be traced back to the medium's person, even if one wanted to hypothesize – without explaining how – that a psychic force such as the intentional thought can be transformed into a physical force such as that exercised by a limb endowed with a skeletal and muscular apparatus, as well as a nervous system.        

A variant of the spiritual hypothesis

In the third part of his book the author exposed his attempt to explain the mediumistic phenomena which he had witnessed, hypothesizing the existence of an intelligent extra-human agent (commonly referred to as an entity or spirit), under whose hypnotic subjection the medium, in a more or less accentuated trance state, was subject to falling. The prevailing will in the occurrence and success of the phenomena was however attributed by Visani Scozzi to this extra-human agent, while the mechanism of the production of the phenomena was due essentially to the externalization of the medium's faculties, with some contribution from the sitters. In principle, mediums proved to be easily hypnotizable subjects, but this did not mean that any hypnotic subject was a medium, thus our author had to acknowledge that he did not know by what the mediumistic powers were actually determined, nor on what bases of knowledge the occult agents were able to use these powers. In essence, Visani Scozzi endorsed one of the variants of the spirit hypothesis, without however being able to explain it more convincingly and exhaustively than other authors, such as Brofferio, had already done. In any case, the investigations carried out by him were reported in his book with scrupulous precision, and his observations – careful, loyal and pertinent – still today deserve a careful reading, given that they are very illuminating in relation to the problems posed both by hypnotic and mediumistic phenomena.     

The psychic studies of Giovanni Vailati

Finally, it deserves a mention the attention shown towards mediumship by a brilliant and eclectic mathematician and philosopher, Giovanni Vailati (1863-1909), born in Crema, whose death when only 46 years-old interrupted an intense activity of studies in the field of the history of science, the evolution of human thought, logic and psychology, as evidenced by his numerous writings. Vailati never experimented directly with any medium, but his interest in psychology led him to appreciate the informative approach of the Rivista di studi psichici – a monthly founded in 1895 by Giovan Battista Ermacora – to which he collaborated with some articles on telepathy, on the spiritual hypothesis, on the psychology of Willam James, and reviews of books on mediumship. But since 1890, as mentioned in an interesting article by Mauro De Zan (president of the Giovanni Vailati Study Center) entitled L'interesse di Giovanni Vailati per gli studi psichici (Giovanni Vailati's interest in psychic studies), he had an exchange of letters with Edward Bennett, then secretary of the SPR, which Vailati had joined in that year, then renewing his membership until 1901. Vailati's intent about psychical research was aimed both at operating «a rigorous separation between what is simple observation and description of the phenomena and what is instead correlated with their interpretation and explanation», so that the mystical, occultist and religious positions of spiritualism would not prevail, and at energetically challenging the prejudicial opposition towards this new field of study by many positivist scholars and psychologists. Vailati considered it scientifically correct to submit to a cognitive investigation also those areas of human experience that seemed antithetical to positivist thinking, and opposed the metaphysical closures and dogmatic observance of most of the men of science of his time.      

But, for consistency, Vailati also had to deal with the question of method, if it is true that, according to what Morselli claimed, «in science there is a unique and only criterion for a fact that is said to have been observed by someone... and it is the experimentality (let me use this word) of the same fact, that is, the possibility of reproducing it with an experiment». To Vailati, the impossibility of reproducing the phenomena of psychical research experimentally did not prevent anyone from studying them according to rigorous methodological criteria, such as those adopted by the members and committees of the SPR in carrying out their investigations. So he wrote in 1896, in a letter to psychiatrist Giulio Ferrari, a friend of his: «One of the main merits of this Society is, in my opinion, that of having understood the necessity and the usefulness of a cooperation and of an extended and organized collaboration for the collection and above all for the assessment of the facts in the study of which it is engaged. It attempts to promote by any means the unprejudiced and diligent investigation, the knowledge of the causes of error in the observations, and the precautions to be taken against the illusions of memory or the tendency of the language to always unconsciously put – in the facts' description – something more of what was actually observed. In this respect a great importance has been given to the creation of a precise technical terminology, in order to preclude any ambiguity and to help the natural classification of the observed facts».

We get the impression that Vailati's interest in psychic research was motivated by an almost pedagogical need to avoid that in this new field of research the errors that characterized the primitive development phases of other sciences were repeated. But perhaps Vailati did not realize that where the psychic factor becomes predominant, as in normal and pathological psychology, in the dynamics of the unconscious and in the phenomena of hypnotism and mediumship, the methods historically devised for the development of objective sciences are no longer effective. His efforts were not successful, and this was probably the reason why, after 1898, he did not publish any other articles on subjects such as telepathy or mediumship.    


 

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