W. H. Salter

William Henry Salter

1880-1969. Went to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Classical Scholarship in 1899, took a first class degree in 1901, turned to read Law, and was called to the Barin 1905. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1916, to become a member of its Council three years later. From 1920 to 1931, a very difficult financial period, he served as Honorary Treasurer; and from 1924 to 1948 he was Honorary Secretary. He was President from 1947 to 1948. He made many contributions to the SPR Journal and Proceedings, and published two admirable books, Ghosts and Apparitions (1938) and Zoar (1961).

From Zoar, or The Evidence for Psychical Research Concerning Survival
(1961, Sidgwick and Jackson, London).

Chapter 10: Communications Through Mediums
I: As affected Through Normal Means

- W. H. Salter -

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          THE USE of the cumbrous double word "Control-Communicator" in the last chapter illustrates the difficulty of defining precisely what is meant by a "communication". Messages of comfort and exhortation may be closely combined in mediumistic utterance with other messages which, if taken at their face value, suggest the survival and identity of some specific person. The remainder of this book will be devoted to a consideration of how far this latter type of material can be reasonably attributed to normal causes, as discussed in this chapter, or, failing that, to the operation of the paranormal faculties of living persons. If neither of these causes fully accounts for the evidence, it would follow that unless some transcendental factor unverifiable by ordinary enquiry has intervened, the apparent indications of survival are not wholly illusory but point to some underlying reality. If so, can the nature of this reality be ascertained?

To illustrate the argument I shall draw on my own experience, and still more on that of my wife and her family. While the communications I have myself received are of no exceptional importance, and are cited here simply because they have in my mind become attached to various points that will need discussion, no survey of this problem would approach completeness that failed to give prominence to the parts played in it by A. W. Verrall, classical scholar and Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, his wife, and their daughter, Helen, whom I married. That this is not a private fad of my own can be shown by the very numerous papers in SPR Proceedings from Vol. XX (1906) on, in which one or other of them figures as experimenter, automatist, Communicator or sitter. Verrall died in 1912; Mrs. Verrall in 1916; my wife (whom for brevity I will call H.V.) ceased to be active as an automatist or sitter about twenty-five years ago. This lapse of time justifies me, I think, in claiming freedom from such personal bias, if any, as I ever had in estimating the value of their contribution towards the solution of this problem. How each of them comes into the story will appear as this discussion proceeds.

Automatists are not essentially a different type of person from mediums. It is however convenient to give them a different name. By mediums are generally meant persons who make a regular practice of employing their psychic powers, whether pro. fessionally or not. The automatist, on the other hand, is one who makes use of these powers occasionally, and very often spontaneously. Automatists also in general go into a lighter state of dissociation than regular mediums. In fact much automatic speech and writing is of the "inspirational" type and produced in a state very slightly removed from normal consciousness. The use of devices such as planchette or ouija-board is more frequent with automatists than with regular mediums, and the emergence of well-developed Controls rarer. The distinction however between the two is not clear cut, nor is it fundamental. G. W. Balfour, when analysing the psychology of Mrs. Willett, a famous member of "the SPR group of automatists", speaks of her "mediumship": (SPR Proc. XLIII).

To return from this parenthesis to mediumistic communications and their bearing on the question of survival, I will first consider messages purporting to convey information that was within the knowledge of the Communicator when alive, but lies outside the conscious knowledge of the medium. The first question here is whether it is knowledge of verifiable facts. Messages for example often describe the conditions in which the Communicator finds himself after bodily death. If any test of their truth is to be applied, it must be a transcendental one lying outside the province of psychical research. So far as more ordinary standards of judgment are applicable, allowance must he made for conventional ideas of a future life derived from the complex interaction of out-of-the-body experiences, literary tradition as exemplified in the Frogs, the Sixth Aeneid and the Divina Commedia, and the systematic teaching of religious bodies. Where the descriptions come through a professional medium, account must also be taken of the extent to which spiritualism, long established as a regular cult pursued with great ardour, has both adopted and modified these conventional ideas. If evidence of survival is to be sought from verifiable statements of fact, it must be sought elsewhere.

And of course verifiable statements abound in mediumistic utterances. But of those that are true how many are lucky shots? How many can be assigned to the medium's normally acquired knowledge? Mediums are members of an honourable profession, but they work under conditions that axe a temptation to devious practices. They have to give sittings, at pre-arranged dates which, when they fall due, may not find them in a mood that promises success. The sitter may be by nature uncongenial, or himself in a difficult mood. No member of a profession likes to fall down on the job, and the subconscious, active during trance, has a particular dislike of acknowledging defeat. It looks for an easy way out and finds there is a choice of several. The course which puts the least strain on it is to describe the other world, the nature of the "astral" or "etheric" body, and the mechanism of communication by whatever formula is at the time prevalent in the spiritualist movement. The medium may, and very likely will, sincerely believe these descriptions.

A sitter who does not care to waste his time or his guineas in listening to a medium say what he can, if he so wishes, read for himself any day in the spiritualist press in the comfort of his home and at the cost of a few pence, will politely but firmly direct the communications into other channels. But much may be learnt from a medium who can describe the process of communication as he feels it, without recourse to stock phrases; much also from the use in one meaning of words the usual and established meaning of which is different. G. W. Balfour in his important study of Mrs. Willett's psychology, points out that, though she was familiar with Myers's writings on the "subliminal", and uses his language to describe her sensations, she gives an account of the relations between "subliminal" and "supraliminal" (approximately equivalent to subconscious and conscious as I use those words) that differs widely from his, thereby throwing light on her own psychic processes.

The sitter who is dissatisfied with vague talk and wishes for verifiable facts may receive strings of common Christian names, thrown out tentatively. If he shows interest in any of them, such remarks as these may be added: "There has been a birthday in the family lately." (The sitter, we will suppose, does not respond.) "Or perhaps he" (i.e. the Communicator) "means it is coming soon." Given a wide meaning to each of the words "family", "lately", and "soon", these sentences would at any time fit a large part of the population. If the sitter rises to any item, it may be used as bait for more extensive "fishing".

A large number of random shots will almost certainly produce some hits, and if any of these happen to light on a spot where the sitter is emotionally sensitive, he may be deeply impressed. In that case he would do well to ask a few of his friends to look through the records, and to tell him how far the communications fit their own circumstances. This will give him a rough and ready guide as to the extent to which the successes may be assigned to chance. If he wants a more precise assessment, he can apply one of the various formulae that have been worked out for the statistical evaluation of sittings. I have yet however to meet any experienced sitter who has found this technique satisfactory in practice, except as a means of showing up the poverty of sittings that any emotionally unbiased person of intelligence would at the first glance recognise as poor.

It is a frequent criticism of qualitative material in psychical research, whether spontaneous in origin such as apparitions, experimental as where the targets are "free", or mediumistic, that there is no certainty as to the extent to which chance has affected the results. This is a fair criticism of a great deal of the material reported to the SPR, and of some of the material published by it. It is a waste of time attempting to decide how much of this equivocal material falls on one side of the dividing line between chance and non-chance, and how much on the other, since there is on record a larger mass than the most diligent student could master of qualitative material, spontaneous, experimental and mediumistic, that could only be assigned to chance by a ludicrous straining of probability. All the rest can simply be disregarded. And of course material that successfully passes the test of chance, has still other tests to meet before it can be accepted as paranormal. A too free response to "fishing" is not the only way in which a sitter may convey to a medium information which may later reappear in a communication to himself or to some other sitter. It is fit and proper that a sitter should wish to be on informal, friendly terms with the medium, but this desire may lead to gossipy chatting before or after the sitting, while the medium is in a fully conscious state. Good mediums intensely dislike having unsought confidences thrust upon them when in a state of ordinary consciousness. If any of the information so imparted comes out later in a trance communication, doubts may be thrown on the genuineness of the trance. On the other hand anticipation of such a possible consequence may inhibit the flow of communication. In either event the medium has been put in an unfair position.

There are moreover other ways, besides incautious chatter, of conveying useful information. Some years ago a sitting was booked with a well-known medium for an anonymous sitter. To the medium's great annoyance the sitter arrived in deep widow's weeds, wearing a brooch with a coronet and the initials of a man of title whose sudden death had not long before received great newspaper publicity. This reduced the anonymity to a farce. But the anonymous sitter cannot always help revealing his identity. Thus when Walter Prince, who has already been mentioned, paid a short visit to England which was announced in the psychic press, he booked an anonymous sitting with Mrs. Leonard. With typical candour she said to him, "I think you are Dr. Prince." "My! How did you guess that?" "I knew you were in England and thought you would probably ask for a sitting with me. I knew about how old you are and your voice told me you were from the States." Prince had an accent of the pungency of which he was quite unaware.

A sitter's age may by itself mislead a fishing medium. I was well past middle age before either of my parents died. For some years before that a few mediums judged me to be a man likely to have a father and/or mother in the spirit world and gave me messages of comfort appropriate to my supposed state of bereavement.

"Good sitters make good mediums." That puts a good point too bluntly, for no amount of skill or patience or tact on the sitter's part will make up for the absence or weakness of a medium's paranormal powers. But it is the fact that no small share of the credit for the long and successful careers as mediums of Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Leonard is due to the SPR investigators who from the early days of their mediumship combined personal friendliness with a sharp eye for evidence. In return both of thee mediums eagerly collaborated with the SPR in planning and conducting experiments designed to extend knowledge of psychic processes. Bad sitters on the other hand must take a large share of the blame for the less satisfactory features of mediumship. Much as he disliked "Mr. Sludge" (i.e. D. D. Home), Browning evidently agreed that Sludge's complaint on this score was well founded.

Instances have already been given of the too informative sitter. But undue reticence may be equally detrimental. A sitter who maintains a frigid silence throughout the sitting is likely to come away with little to show for it. For success he must acquire the art, which comes easily with practice, of encouraging the medium at appropriate moments without giving away facts. The main difficulty is in extemporising sufficiently neutral responses to remarks by the Control or Communicator which come near to being questions and would in an ordinary talk between friends meet with frank replies.

Few persons interested in the survival question are likely to have a sufficient number of sittings with trance mediums of high quality to provide out of their own experience material on which to form a judgment. This has always been true and never more than at the present time. A few years ago, when Mrs. Leonard had restricted her activity as a medium, an exhaustive search was made in Great Britain for other trance mediums worth intensive study, with disappointing results. Reports from America indicate that things are no better there. Fortunately there is in the Proceedings of the SPR an almost embarrassing wealth of material, on which the student can rely. Most of it was collected before tape-recording of sittings was introduced, and therefore fails to give complete information as to whether the medium attempted to "fish", and if so to what extent and with what success, or as to whether the sitter was too expansive, or not expansive enough. It may however be taken for granted that the sitters were in the main friendly but discreet, casual lapses being candidly noted; that the note-takers, whether themselves sitters or not, made a fair record of what passed between medium and sitter; and that the annotations, showing the degree of success or failure at each point of the sitting, were the result of careful enquiry. It adds to the value of the reports that their authors were far from unanimous in their views of trance-mediumship.

"Fishing" and "fluking" are practices to be regretted because they waste the time (and money) of the sitter, may discourage a sitter from further enquiry, and provide a facile pretext for the depreciation of mediumship and of psychical research. Before however anyone passes a too censorious judgment on the medium, let him examine his own subconscious in the light of his everyday experience. He wants perhaps to remember some name which has completely escaped his conscious memory. His subconscious rummages around, and offers his conscious mind one name after another, all wrong and some of them fantastic, before finally, if his luck is in, fetching up a name which the conscious mind will accept as that really needed.

Much the same thing happens to experimenters with the planchette or ouija-board, when they get through these devices incorrect, it may be absurdly incorrect, answers to their questions. In the conditions in which such experiments are usually conducted, there is obviously no deliberate intention to deceive. In full trance the subconscious enjoys greater liberty and is even less willing to admit defeat. It is no slur on the integrity of a trance-medium if, having nothing paranormal in stock, he hands out to an expectant sitter anything lying ready in his subconscious. "Fishing" is a further step, a small step, in the wrong direction.

All this may properly be described as "trance-deception" and not as conscious fraud. But the milder phrase is sometimes used to cover actions that are thoroughly fraudulent, such as the ferreting out of information about a sitter, his family circle and interests in order to provide material which could be worked up into "communications". Sitters who have established friendly relations with trance-mediums are from time to time told by them that they have been present when other mediums have pooled information about sitters. They report remarks such as this: "Mrs. Jones who sat with you last week has booked a sitting with me for next week. What sort of communication does she want? Is it her husband or her son she wants messages from?" And so on. Not long ago I happened to mention to a trance-medium that an old case seemed to me to show internal evidence of collusion between two other mediums. "Quite right", she said, "one of them asked me to join in." It is also possible that mediums may "mug up" from biographies and books of reference facts as to a sitter or his friends that may come in useful later.

How far the rot extends it would be impossible to say. A few black sheep do not discredit a whole profession. The trance. mediums who have been most intensively studied by the SPR are Mrs. Piper and Mrs. Leonard, and it is on records of sittings with them that I shall mainly draw. There never was any ground for suspecting the good faith of either, but by way of superlative caution each was at an early stage of her career subjected to private enquiry, from which each of them emerged with flying colours. I should not however wish it to be supposed that, because these are the mediums most frequently quoted by me, there are not other mediums of equal integrity. It has been necessary more than once in the fore-going pages to discuss the fraudulent simulation of psychic phenomena. We here leave behind us that unsavoury topic, "escaped the Stygian Pool though long detained". In none of the material I shall from now quote do I believe fraud to have played a part, and I shall not waste time discussing it as a serious hypothesis.

Richard Hodgson, who had for many years supervised the American sittings given by Mrs. Piper, died in 1905. He was a bachelor and was generally believed by his intimate friends never to have contemplated marriage while living in America. But at sittings with Mrs. Piper in the spring of 1906(1) the Hodgson-Control stated that he had met a lady in Chicago to whom he had proposed marriage, but that she had refused him. Her maiden name ("Miss Densmore" in the report) was given together with her two Christian names. These enabled William James, notwithstanding a mistake in the middle name, to identify her as an old acquaintance of his. He did not know that she and. Hodgson had even known each other, but she confirmed to him the statement as to Hodgson's proposal. He made enquiries among other intimate friends of Hodgson as to the names of women to whom they thought he might have proposed, and none of them suggested Miss Densmore. She seemed not to have spoken of the proposal to anyone but her sister. The incident, therefore, as James said in his report on the Hodgson-Control (SPR Proc. XXIII 20-25), was

"an excellent one to count in favour of spirit return, unless indeed it should turn out that while it was happening, he (Hodgson) had been led to consult the Piper-Controls about it himself."

(1) Owing to misprints, the date of these sittings is given in the SPR report, Proc. XXIII, as 1905.

In June 1906 another old friend of Hodgsn, Professor W. R. Newbold, had a sitting with Mrs. Piper at which the Hodgson-Control asked him whether he remembered "Miss Densmore". Newbold replied that he began to remember: was it about eight or nine years ago? To this the Control assented. On looking up his correspondence with Hodgson, Newbold found that in 1895 the Piper-Controls had prophesied that both he and Hodgson would soon be happily married: Newbold was; Hodgson was rejected. Newbold, who seems to have been Hodgson's only confidant, adds that Miss Densmore was frequently mentioned in the sittings of 1895.

This incident (known as the "Huldah" case from the second name wrongly assigned to Miss Densmore) shows the importance of preserving complete records. It also shows the tenacity of the subconscious memory. Mrs. Piper in trance remembered what had passed in trance between her and the living Hodgson eleven years earlier (Newbold's "eight or nine years" was an understatement) and also remembered that Newbold was the one sitter who could have been expected to remember it. To none of the other sitters to whom the Control spoke of the affair was any suggestion made that they remembered it. Newbold in a state of ordinary consciousness remembered what he had been told, also in a conscious state, eleven years before. In each case the memory seems to have been latent in the subconscious for many years; in Newbold's probably for less than eleven, as for some time after 1895 he would almost certainly have retained a conscious memory of it. In each case the memory is revived by an appropriate stimulus; in her case by Hodgson's death and the presence of his friends at her sittings; in his by her trance reference to the incident at his sitting. For her, the whole process, or sequence of processes, (1) acquisition of knowledge, (2) retention, (3) revival, was subconscious. For Newbold only stage (2) was subconscious, both the acquisition of the knowledge and the revival of the memory being conscious processes.

Latent memory (or "cryptomnesia") is a particularly baffling problem, and its possible occurrence in a communication through a medium or through automatic writing is hard to assess owing to individual differences between one person and another, to the varying states of mind in which the initial (1) and final (3) stages may take place, and to the fact that when the knowledge is acquired in a conscious state, the second process must be subdivided into (2a) relegation to the subconscious, as Newbold relegated his knowledge of Hodgson's proposal, and (2b) retention of what has been so relegated.

To latent memory I am inclined to assign the rather numerous correct statements I recently received from a non-professional medium about my ancestors and one of my living relatives. Almost everything said during the trance about my ancestors was correct. It could be verified from works of reference, a careful reading of which would however also show that a few mistakes were made. About my living relative much was said that was true and could be verified from books of reference that were sufficiently up-to-date. But the true statements about him were mixed with several that were fictitious; e.g., accounts of conversations that never took Place with dead persons in whom the medium was interested. Moreover the background of the communications was altogether unreal, both as regards the character and opinions of the persons named, and the significance of some of the facts stated correctly. It is no good cross-examining Controls as to their statements and I refrained from attempting to do this, but I deliberately gave the Control several openings to expand by talking of matters connected with the persons named which were known to me but could not be found in books of reference. The Control never followed up my lead.

It was obvious that the medium's subconscious had erected a structure of imaginative fiction on a basis of fact. For imaginative fiction or dramatisation the subconscious, as was shown in previous chapters, has a marked propensity. But how in this instance did the basis of fact get there? The correct statements were too numerous and too far removed from the common-place to be attributable to chance, even when liberal allowance was made for the mistakes. All the facts had, I think, at some time been within my conscious knowledge, though I had to verify some of them from printed sources. If however the communications were a telepathic reflection of my conscious and /or subconscious mind, why this curious distinction between largely correct fact, and wholly incorrect background? If, again, it was a real communication from the other world, why this inability to make correct statements as to matters not to be found in the reference books?

The most probable explanation seems to me to be that the medium, for purposes quite unconnected with these sittings, had occasion to look up passages in books of reference, and that glancing through the pages casually she had come on references to my relatives, living and dead. She may never have consciously digested what she thus came across, but having what is called a "fly-paper mind", passed it on undigested to her subconscious memory, which assimilated it with other matter acquired in the same way. This explanation has already been suggested in connection with the case of Abraham Florentine in the records of Stainton Moses: see Chapter IX. It may also explain the Margaret Veley scripts of Dr. Soal: see SPR Proc. XXXVIII 281374.

Margaret Veley (1843-1887) was a novelist and poet of some note during her life. When in 1927 and 1928 Dr. Soal and a friend produced a number of scripts purporting to be communications from her, and asked me to look into them, I had never heard of her, but on looking her up in the Dictionary of National Biography while the scripts were in progress I was astonished to find that almost everything said in them about her life and writings was correct. Other statements volunteered by the Communicator could also be verified as correct from the preface to one of her novels and from local directories of the district, Braintree, Essex, where her family lived. Mainly, however, through friends and relations of Margaret Veley, I got to know facts about her and her family which were not to be found in any of these books. Questions on these matters, some of which were of deep interest to Margaret Veley when alive, met with practically no response. (After rereading my report recently I must admit that some of the questions savoured of cross-examination, and dealt with matters that should have been introduced more delicately.)

In my report (Proc. XXXVIII, 322-323) I summed up my analysis of the veridical element in the communications as follows:

"It will, I think, be generally agreed that the proportion of success to failure, as regards matters outside the admitted normal knowledge of the automatists, is unusually high in these scripts, if they are compared with most ostensibly spiritistic communications. The verifiable statements (and the unverifiable residuum is very small) may be classified under four heads, as follows:

"(A) Statements, whether volunteered by M.V. or made in reply to questions, which can be verified from the D.N.B. and the MS [i.e., the novel already mentioned].

"(B) Statements, whether volunteered or in reply to questions, which can be verified from matter scattered up and down a considerable number of other books, e.g. volumes of the County Directory.

"(C) Statements volunteered as to matters which cannot be verified from any printed source which I1 have been able to trace" [the sources consulted by me were listed in a footnote occupying half a page of small print].

"(D) Statements in reply to questions regarding matters which cannot be verified from any such source.

"The success is almost perfect under head (A) and the failure almost complete under head (D). Under both heads (B) and (C) there is a mixture of success and failure, with the successes largely preponderating."

My report was shown in proof to two of Margaret Veley's relatives with a request that they should say whether in their opinion the scripts were characteristic of her outlook on life and habits of thought. One of them thought that the earlier part of the scripts fell in with her recollections, but the later parts did not; the other (a niece) that there was nothing that recalled her aunt in any way, it being all most unlike her in what was said and the way of saying it.

The scripts included several verses ostensibly dictated by Margaret Veley. The second part of the SPR report, entitled "The Literary Style of the Scripts" was contributed by Dr. Soal, who preferred at the time to he known as "Mr. W'. He did not regard cryptomnesia as a major explanation of the Margaret Veley scripts, differing as to this from the view I have expressed.

It is not surprising that in many cases different views as to the possible operation of latent memory are expressed, since so many uncertain factors are likely to be involved. In the Abraham Florentine case it was possible to paint with fair certainty to a particular printed document as the source from which the communication had been derived, owing to the presence in it of an unusual form of words and of a mistake, both of which were repeated in the communication. This source was an Obituary Notice in an American newspaper, and if the paper in question had first appeared after the communication had been made, the case might possibly be considered as precognitive. Again, if the Obituary, though appearing before the communication, could not possibly have been seen by Stainton Moses, it might perhaps be regarded as an instance, an exceptionally good instance, of clairvoyance. But as he could have seen it, though there is no direct evidence that he did, it is safer to invoke a normal factor such as latent memory rather than a paranormal one, such as precognition or clairvoyance.

A definite source can seldom be indicated with as much certainty as in that case. The number of items of information which most people acquire by reading books, newspapers, and business documents and by conversation is incalculable. It is sometimes said that the subconscious, like the traditional elephant, never forgets. How clever, or how lucky, man has been to construct consciousness as a shelter under which he can conduct his ordinary affairs unembarrassed by unwanted memories of all the trivialities thrust on his attention hour by hour, day by day, by newspapers, conversation with fellow-commuters and all the apparatus of civilised life!

That however is not the stuff of which communications are made, not at any rate such communications as anyone need bother about. The interest centres on correct statements of facts less accessible to the general public, which may therefore be considered as probably unknown to the medium, unless there are grounds for supposing that in this context his normal knowledge exceeds the average. It is therefore most desirable to ascertain as definitely as practicable in what book or other document the statements may be found, or to whom the relevant facts were known. By this means one can form a fair assessment of the probability of a medium acquiring the necessary knowledge in his ordinary reading or conversation. As stated above, we are not considering possible fraudulent acquisition of knowledge. One can also infer how long before the communication was made the knowledge was first acquired, or was confirmed on some later occasion. This is a matter of importance in judging the probability of information once acquired being forgotten by the conscious mind.

In the Huldah case Newbold, when prompted by the Hodgson-Control, said he "began" to remember the Chicago lady, which seems to suggest that he still retained a conscious memory of the affair, but a very dim and vague one. The incident was then eleven years old, and, had it concerned a matter of indifference to Newbold, might well have slipped his conscious memory altogether. The surprising thing is that he should not have retained even after that lapse of time a clearer memory of an affair that, owing to his friendship with Hodgson and his own engagement, must when it was happening have aroused his keen interest. In the Veley case all the documents mentioned as possible sources of information had been in existence for many years. Dr. Soal seems to have had no personal interest in the Veleys, and if it was in fact a case of cryptomnesia, his normal acquisition of the knowledge about them shown in the scripts might date back long enough to account for it having completely faded from his conscious mind. As regards the communications made about my relatives, I cannot suppose that their affairs were in themselves of any interest to the medium, so that they could well, so to speak, have gone in at one car of her conscious mind and out at the other, though some of the facts, if learnt from written sources, could only have been learnt within a few months before the sitting.

Consider the case of a medium who in a dissociated state makes correct statements of fact which are shown to him when he returns to ordinary consciousness. He may recognise them as facts previously known to his conscious mind, but forgotten by it: he may further be able to recollect how and when he came to know them. Suppose however that (a) a possible source of information can be shown, but (b) he fails to recognise the facts as previously known to him, or to recognise the possible source when pointed out to him, is that an indication that he never knew them normally? That, latent memory bring excluded, he has acquired the information in some other, paranormal way?

This can only be answered by asking several further questions. How accessible to the medium were the supposed sources of information? How complex is the knowledge shown? Is it such as could he acquired by anyone running his eye over a page, or by reading a few pages once without special attention: or must a close and careful study be supposed? How long an interval of time was there between the supposed date of acquisition and the communication? Most important of all, how keen an interest in the relevant facts can be assumed an the medium's part at the date when, if ever, he may have acquired knowledge of them?

Certain answers to these questions may often he unattainable. But by combining what seem to be the most likely answers to each, one can form a fairly good assessment of the respective degrees of probability to be assigned to the hypotheses of paranormal activity and of latent memory.

It is a very common experience, if one glances rapidly at, say, the column of deaths recorded in a newspaper, to receive the impression that somewhere in the smaller type giving details of where the persons named had lived or the place of their death is the name of a particular street or village with which one has some sort of association. One cannot say just where in the column it occurs, but a careful reading will show that the impression was correct. The name has registered but not with the definition that attaches to things perceived in full awareness.

Psychologists in their experiments have gone a stage further. It has been shown that sensory stimuli too faint to be consciously perceived may none the less have registered in the subconscious, by a process called "subception". For instance, a roll of cinema film is cut, and a single exposure from a quite different film is inserted. The roll with the insertion is then flashed on the screen at the usual rate, so rapidly, that is, that the spectator cannot consciously see what the insertion is, or even that there has been any interruption of the sequence. But subconsciously he may not only have noted the interruption but have observed the nature of the insertion.

Use, as is generally known, has been made of this by advertisers, and references to it have been made in the Press under the description of "subliminal" or "split-second" advertising. In view of the possible ethical and political consequences the professional associations, of advertisers in the United Kingdom and the United States have pronounced against its commercial use.

It would however seem at present that there is a considerable difference between experimental subception, or the marginal perception which we frequently observe as following casual glances at a newspaper, and the faculty which would account for even so simple a case as that of Abraham Florentine. Where the amount of verifiable detail in a communication is even greater than was transmitted in that case the plausibility of subception as an explanation is very small.

Doubtful questions of chance-coincidence and lapsed memory are not of course peculiar to psychical research, and it is sometimes helpful to consider them in an unrelated context. A libel action was not very long ago decided in the Courts, the plaintiff being an actress who complained that her name had been attached to a very obnoxious character in a novel. There were several other particulars applicable to herself which also appeared as connected with this character in the book. The Christian name of both real and fictional persons was the same: so was the surname, an unusual one. Both had red or reddish hair. Both were actresses connected with a theatre in the same provincial town. The principal actor in the novel had a name closely resembling that of the principal actor in the plaintiff's company. Both the plaintiff and her fictional counterpart were of the same religious persuasion. The real and fictional actor were also of the same religion as each other, but a different one from that of the plaintiff. There were thus seven points of close resemblance between fact and fiction. The author of the novel said she had never heard of the plaintiff, that the resemblances were accidental, and that in one important particular there was a marked divergence, the action of the novel being dated about a generation before the plaintiff's professional engagement at the town mentioned.

The plaintiff won her case, thereby vindicating her character, but the scale of damages awarded her showed that the Court accepted the author's statement that she intended no reference to the plaintiff and had indeed never heard of her. The author could of course only speak as to her conscious knowledge and memory. Latent memory (cryptomnesia) is therefore left as an alternative explanation to sheer chance-coincidence.

Many communications quoted as evidence for survival show a much less remarkable constellation of correspondences than is to be found in this action.

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Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16

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Some parts of this page The International Survivalist Society 2004