A renewed interest in the study of mediumistic phenomena
Problems concerning psychical research
On the previous page (The end of an era?) we have highlighted the absence, in the cultural framework of our time, of high-level mediums capable of creating the necessary conditions so that the surprising phenomena of materialization that characterized the period from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century may occur. Phenomena that – as well documented in the section on psychical research – have been the subject of rigorous and in-depth investigations and studies by academics and cultural personalities of high intellectual value, despite the still widespread opinion (partly supported by a superficial and sometimes uninformed criticism) according to which all mediums were in any case fraudulent conjurers, and all participants in the séances naive people prone to believe everything. But also the unresolved conflict between the proponents of the survival hypothesis and the supporters of the super-ESP, which opened up within the SPR and other groups devoted to psychical research, has contributed to the decline of interest in the mediums, as well as – of course – the great epochal changes of the last half century. Furthermore, the need to have parapsychology accepted among the scientific disciplines (as it actually has happened since the 50s of the last century), led to fostering experiments and laboratory research, carried out according to rigorous statistical methods, instead of investigations on spontaneous phenomena, never completely verifiable and often not replicable under strict control conditions.
The inherently anomalous nature of psychic phenomena
And it is precisely from the academic field of parapsychology that some critical voices are beginning to rise towards the loss represented by the absence of mediums capable of producing study material of undeniable importance, however spontaneous. One of these voices is Emily Williams Kelly, of the University of Virginia, author of an article entitled Some Directions for Mediumship Research, published in 2010 on the Journal of Scientific Exploration (n. 2). After graduating in 1986 from University of Virginia, Kelly specialized in psychology at Edinburgh University (1993). She is currently an associate professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She collaborated with Ian Stevenson (1918-2007) in his well-known research on cases of reincarnation and on NDEs and is co-author of the book Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, published in 2006. In the mentioned article Emily Kelly starts from the usual issues still unresolved in the scientific field as well as in the psychical research – namely if the brain is to be considered the only and exclusive instrument through which consciousness can manifest and if human personality can survive death – to underline how it has been ascertained that the information communicated and the phenomena produced through mediums anyhow imply a super-normal process, apart from the fact that an agreement has not been reached on the nature and on the causes of this process.
Importance and probative value of the available documentation
Although mediumistic phenomena fall within the spontaneous ones, and mediumistic activities are not suitable to being studied in laboratory (also because of the importance of the psychic tunings of the sitters), however the investigations carried out on the great mediums of the past show as the mediums' personalities, as well as the phenomena they produced assiduously and continuously for long periods, can be studied in the field by developing non-inhibitory research methods. Moreover, all the material produced, both in the form of communications as well as physical phenomena, can be recorded, classified and stored, keeping a significant documental value for any future investigation or research. It is precisely the probative evidence of the collected and preserved written reports concerning the investigations on mediumistic phenomena carried out in the past that allows us even today to distinguish between the authentic mediums and the less gifted ones, while the cases of suspected fraud have been unmasked and revealed.
You may think you have to sift a lot of sand before you can find some golden straws, but since most of the preliminary work has already been done by good researchers, the material of interest to the scholar is abundant. And since, as Saltmarsh already declared in 1929, «the accumulation of evidence is, of course, a matter of great importance; it is impossible to have too much, but an understanding of the psychological conditions is an indispensable pre-requisite to the fruitful employment of that evidence», it is useful to have new study material available to be checked by investigation and verification. Moreover, there is no doubt that the reduced interest in mediumship has led to the fade of those environmental and cultural conditions that in the past allowed a medium to discover and develop the talent he/she was gifted with.
As Emily Kelly correctly points out, in the past there were three types of mediumistic events characterized by the production of documents of probative value that led to the exclusion of any possibility of fraud, attenuating or eliminating the hypothesis of normal subconscious or telepathic intervention by the medium or the sitters: the cross-correspondences, the drop-in communications (sudden interventions by entities, unknown to both the medium and the sitters, who communicate past or future events, subsequently verified), and the proxy sittings. Cross-correspondences or drop-in cases are important because the motivations of these interventions are reasonably attributable to the communicating entity rather than to the medium or one of the sitters: they are in any case spontaneous phenomena that can not be planned in advance. Different is the case of proxy sittings, for which – as we shall see shortly – researchers can plan in advance an implementation program and develop a method of study.
An example of cross-correspondence
Kelly then presents in short some examples of cross-correspondences and drop-in cases. The first cases of cross-correspondence occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century, after Myers' death, when the research on survival within the SPR was already stalled because of a problem in itself unsolvable: communications obtained through mediums can be used as a scientifically valid proof only if they are validated, but they can only be verified through the memory of a living person or through an existing document, so it is always possible to try to explain them by telepathy or clairvoyance, that is by particular mental super-normal powers, avoiding resorting to survival. Obviously, as a result of the cross-correspondences – which can not be explained by telepathy or clairvoyance – some new objections have then been raised, which led to the formulation of the super-ESP theory, always in order to continue to consider the survival hypothesis not proven.
As an example, is mentioned the case of communications by automatic writing reported in 1908 by Alice Johnson (member of the SPR), published in the Proceedings (n. 21). On March 7, 1906, Mrs. Margaret Verrall (1859-1916), in England, automatically wrote a poem that began with the verse «Tintagel and the sea that moaned in pain». This verse had no meaning for Verrall, who however gave it as usual to Alice Johnson, her friend and secretary of the SPR. On March 11, 1906, Alice Holland (pseudonym of Alice Kipling, sister of the well-known writer Rudyard) automatically wrote a message in which the late Henry Sidgwick (founder and first president of the SPR, died in 1900) suggested her to ask Arthur W. Verrall (professor at Cambridge and husband of Margaret Verrall) «what the date May 26th, 1894, meant to him – to me (meaning Sidgwick) – and to F. W. H. (meaning Myers)». The message went on: «I do not think they will find it hard to recall, but if so – let them ask Nora (meaning Sidgwick's wife)». On March 14, 1906, in Mrs. Holland’s automatic writing appeared the words: «Eighteen, fifteen, four, five, fourteen, fourteen, fifteen, five, twelve», and then the instruction to see the central eight words of Revelations 13:18. On March 28, 1906, Mrs. Holland wrote (among other things) the words: «Roden Noel», «Cornwall», «Patterson» and «Do you remember the velvet jacket?». Alice Johnson he observed that the eight central words of the quoted biblical verse were: «for it is the number of a man», and therefore the written numbers corresponded to the letters of the English alphabet which formed the name «Roden Noel».
Roden Noel, an English poet born in 1834, died on May 26, 1894: a close friend of Sidgwick, he had also met Myers and Verrall. The metric and the first lines of one of his poems, entitled Tintadgel, were very similar to the beginning of the composition written automatically by Margaret Verrall in March 1906. Several of Noel's poems referred to Cornwall, a region from which the poet had been particularly inspired. Finally, Patterson had been a mutual friend of both Noel and Sidgwick in Cambridge, and Noel often wore a velvet jacket. Although both Margaret Verrall and Alice Holland stated that they had never known, at least on a conscious level, Noel's poems, or the date of his death and his friendship with Sidgwick, Alice Johnson reported in detail all possible associations that could have caused the contents of the communications to emerge in their subconscious, although she considered unlikely that these associative forms could be produced automatically, without the intervention of external entities. The fact remains, as Emily Kelly observes, that apart from the scholarly and specialized nature of the material produced in cases of cross-correspondences, it is not possible to verify afterwards whether the mediums could previously access the sources of such material by ordinary means, in a conscious or subconscious way.
An example of drop-in
As an example of drop-in communications, the case is mentioned, published in 1975 by Haraldsson and Stevenson, of a séance held on January 25,1941 in Reykjavik, Iceland, with the medium Hafsteinn Bjørnsson. An entity who said his name was Gudni Magnusson told of being a truck driver who was driving on a mountain road when the vehicle had broken down. As he stooped under the truck to examine what might have broken, the truck driver felt a sharp pain, and although then managed to reach his home, had died as some friends carried him by boat along the fjord to reach the nearest hospital. He also said that his life and death were connected to two locations, Eskifjordur e Reydarfjordur, and that his parents were still living.
The medium's control, Finna, described Gudni as a young man with blond hair thinning at the top of his head. Neither the medium nor any of the sitters recognized the entity Gudni, but a few days later one of them talked about the séance to a friend, who told him that he had a cousin married to a doctor from Eskifjordur. So his wrote to this cousin, telling the case, and it turned out that almost all details given by the entity were true: a 24-year-old boy named Gudni Magnusson had died four months earlier in circumstances very similar to those described in the séance. An important aspect of this case is that a written report of the séance, with all the details of the drop-in communication, was made before the checking, and although a local newspaper had published an obituary about Gudni's death (possible subliminal source of information), the obituary did not contain the details given by the entity. However, the main problem of drop-in communications – if we want to consider them as proof of survival – consists in the fact that, since they are completely spontaneous events, the possibility that the medium has known the communicated material in a conscious or subconscious way can not be completely ruled out. Jan Stevenson himself and John Beloff had investigated and unmasked a medium lady that produced fraudulent drop-in communications. Another significant example of drop-in communication is that of the entity Giuseppe Riccardi in a séance with the medium Fontanelli, the details of which are reported in the final part of one of the pages dedicated to that medium.
Proxy sittings remain the most suitable method for carrying out experiments under control over mediumistic communications. They can be scheduled and planned in advance by researchers: the most important element is that the sitter asks the medium questions about events concerning a dead person that the sitter does not know very well or (better yet) is completely unknown to him/her. The sitter must not have any information on the correctness or not of the answers received, that must be transcribed or recorded and then delivered to the researchers for checking. The questions can be given to the sitter, in a sealed envelope, immediately before the séance, during which the envelope is opened and the questions are addressed to the communicating entities through the medium. This system allows to rule out any telepathic communication between medium and sitters, but obviously is not able to counter the theory of super-PSI, which was advanced precisely to deny the survival hypothesis even in cases of communications – obtained through proxy sittings – the correctness of which had been verified. For the super-PSI theory it is enough that the information is present somewhere (in the mind of some living person or in some document), to hypothesize the telepathic access to such information by the medium's mind, and since to validate a communication is always necessary to compare it with some available information, it is not possible to devise an experiment that could definitively undermine this hypothesis (which however has never been demonstrated or proven).
In any case, proxy sittings have the merit of eliminating any hypothesis of direct telepathic communication between medium and sitters, also with respect to the so-called cold reading, that is, the process by which the medium can perceive and interpret – consciously or subliminally – the mimic or bodily signals with which the sitter reacts unconsciously about the correctness or not of the statements made by entities: since the proxy sitter does not know the answers to the questions, his/her reactions are totally irrelevant or even misleading. In her article, Emily Kelly presents a brief summary of the historical development of the proxy sitting method, focusing in particular on the research and some significant results obtained by Harold F. Saltmarsh and Charles Dryton Thomas in some cycles of séances with mediums such as Mrs. Elliott and Mrs. Leonard in the late 1920s and early 30s. The relatively few experiments carried out under control conditions with some mediums since the 1950s have not given significant results, but in January 2011 another article was published on the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, signed by Emily Williams Kelly (in collaboration with Dianne Arcangel) entitled Investigation of Mediums Who Claim to Give Information About Deceased Persons, in which the authors give an account of some recent studies, and of a proxy sitting survey successfully conducted by themselves.
A documented investigation of proxy sittings
The survey object of the article involved 9 mediums and 40 interested subjects (people to whom a family member had died). The latter were asked to provide a neutral and anonymous photo of the deceased, in which nothing was perceived but his/her appearance. The photos, numbered on the back, were divided into four groups based on gender (male, female) and age (less than 30 years, more than 30 years): the age referred to the one the subjects showed in the photo, not to that of their death. The photos were then distributed by the researchers to the various mediums (six photos each to two mediums, four photos each to the other seven mediums), and a sitting was held for each of the people portrayed in the photos, to which only one of the two researchers was present as proxy sitter, so there were twenty sittings with Emily Kelly and other twenty with Dianne Arcangel. At each sitting, the medium chose one of the photos, among those that had been delivered to him/her and on which he/she had not yet operated, and gave some information about the deceased that were recorded by the proxy sitter and then transcribed.
The 40 people who had provided the photos, besides not taking part in the sittings, were not aware of either the medium's identity or the date on which the sitting concerning their relative would be held. Of the two researchers, only Kelly, who had numbered the photos, knew the identity of the people in the photos, while Arcangel was unaware of this datum. The reports of the sittings, identified by the researchers based on the number assigned to each photo (unknown to the person who had provided it), were then made completely anonymous, and to each of the 40 subjects were sent six reports: that of the sitting dedicated to their deceased relative and five others, randomly chosen among those belonging to the same group of sex and age. The subjects were then asked to carefully read all the six reports given to them, assigning each of them a score from 0 to 10 on the basis of the correctness of the data contained in each report, if referring to their relatives. They also had to write a comment each of the reports, and explain why they had chosen the one to which they had assigned the highest score.
The researchers received 38 answers out of 40. In 14 cases out of 38 the report to which the highest score was assigned corresponded to the deceased person connected to that subject. In 7 other cases the deceased corresponded to the report to which the second highest score had been given. But the most interesting datum was that one of the mediums scored six targets out of six, because all the information relating to the six deceased assigned to him were recognized significantly correct by their relatives: he was therefore a medium able to operate even under control conditions. As for the consistency of the indications provided by the mediums, some examples can be considered meaningful. In one case the medium declared: «there’s something funny about black licorice... Like there’s a big joke about it, like, ooh, you like that?». According to the subject, his deceased son and his wife had joked about licorice frequently. In another sitting the medium said: «I feel like the hair I see here(in the photo) is gone, so I have to go with cancer or something that would take the hair away». And later: «her hair – at some point she’s kind of teasingit, she tried many colors. I think she experimented with color a lot before her passing». The girl’s mother confirmed that she had died of cancer, had dyed her hair hot pink before her surgery, and had later shaved her head when her hair began falling out (her hair was normal-looking in the photo). In another example, among many other details the subject commented especially on the statement: «I don't know why they keep that clock if they are not going to make it work. What’s the point in having a clock that isn’t running?» And in fact the wife of the deceased did laugh (and cry) over this, because a grandfather clock that her husband had kept wound had not been wound since his death.
The researchers also correctly report those comments that do not support the quality of the information provided by mediums. Sometimes the subject who had to check them did not recognize any of the communications as significant («none were my son... I've never seen so much in error»), while in some cases they were recognized as relevant data referring to a different deceased («by the third paragraph, I knew this was the correct reading»). The researchers underline how it is always advisable to be very cautious in taking the information received through mediums as authentic communications from deceased relatives. The use of photos, in the opinion of the researchers, can be considered as a possible source of clues to the medium (to whom anyway some reference must be given about the person on whom to focus his/her attention and mediumistic powers), even if the results of the survey do not show any correlation between the successes or the failures and the features of the photos, such as the quality, the way in which the subject was portrayed, the clothing, the possible location, etc. Emily Kelly concludes her article highlighting the importance of this kind of research and hoping that further investigations can be carried out, above all with those mediums that show to obtain good results even under control conditions. Finally, the author invites interested scholars to make suggestions and proposals on how to carry out these experiments, in order to obtain reliable results also from a scientific point of view.