Book: "Psychical Research and Survival"

Author: Prof. James Hyslop

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- Chapter Seven -

Methods and Difficulties of Communication


          THE METHOD of communication by the dead with the living gives no superficial evidence of what it is or of the way it is done. All that we observe is a living human being, either in a normal condition talking or writing, or in a trance talking or writing, and it is the contents of what is written or said that determine whether we have evidence of supernormal information that, when it is of a certain character, is explainable by the action of spirits. But what the process is by which they communicate or produce the effects which we observe we do not know directly. We have to infer it from various facts observed in connection with the phenomena and the statements made by the alleged communicators. The latter we have to verify by the comparison of the facts and of statements made through various sources which are not in collusion with each other and have no common beliefs which might make the agreement in ideas natural.

The most prevalent phenomena in this connection are those in which psychics describe what they apparently see or hear. If they describe what they see, we call them clairvoyants. If they describe what they hear, we call them clairaudients. In one we have real or apparent visions, in the other real or apparent voices. They are probably not 'real' in any sense but the mental or subjective one, and are exposed to the suspicion that they are hallucinations of some kind. The time was when the sceptic referred to these apparent visions as evidence of fraud, merely simulating the perception of things. But later and thorough investigation, especially of apparitions and telepathic phantasms, gives reason to believe that clairvoyant visions, however we explain them, are not what the sceptic supposed; and indeed we may come to look at their occurrence as more or less evidence of some sort of genuineness, even though we do not resort to the supernormal to find an explanation. There have been too many private cases reporting such experiences, and too many test incidents with psychics of all kinds, any longer to question the veridical nature of such phenomena. By I veridical nature' I mean that the visions or voices, if such they may be called, convey information that is not normal, and that the phenomena themselves have all the superficial characteristics of reality to the sense in which they appear to occur. They are not the ordinary subjective hallucinations, which would mean simply that some abnormal conditions exist in the body of the subject having them, and that they do not point to an external reality or supernormal source to explain them. It is otherwise with these clairvoyant and clairaudient phenomena. They point to an external stimulus and to one that implies supernormal information. They take the form of apparent reality, usually of the dead, or suggest this source very clearly. We may call them hallucinations, as they probably are, but to qualify them as veridical is to indicate that they do not have the same kind of explanation as subjective hallucinations. What we know of telepathic hallucinations, whatever explanation we give of them, suggests that we might call these phenomena telepathic phantasms or hallucinations induced in the living by the dead, when they illustrate the personal identity of the dead, and by the living if we have no reason to suppose the agency of the dead in incidents that are not evidential of their intervention. But in spiritistic experiments with psychics the phenomena superficially, in general at least, represent the dead in some way, and we may imagine that their thoughts in some way induce veridical hallucinations in the living. The telepathic hypothesis cannot dispute the possibility of this, because it has to assume this induction in its own theory; and if it has no ability to select facts from the living to impersonate the dead, we are justified in using its process to make clairvoyant and clairaudient phenomena intelligible in terms of spiritistic agencies. These pictures and voices, when they are evidence of supernormal information and illustrative of the personal identity of the deceased, may thus well be regarded as phantasms, but with a spiritistic cause, even though we do not yet know the process by which they are produced.

In many of my experiments I find that this process has been a prevalent one. The psychic or the so-called 'control' seems to be a spectator of apparent realities and describes what he or she sees or hears. The communications do not seem to be direct transmission on the part of the person whose identify is concerned. The psychic or control seems to be looking at a real world of some kind, quite simulative of the material world we know in sense perception. We should not suspect that it is purely mental. It has the appearance of just what we find with living beings, and it is precisely that feature of the facts which excites distrust. That a spiritual world should be exactly like the material one is directly against many of the philosophic and other presuppositions which we have assumed for many centuries. But nevertheless phenomena which are undoubtedly supernormal reflect these characteristics. They represent pictures which duplicate, at least superficially, the real world and present all the perplexities which such a representation implies.

Now it happened that I got a clue to its meaning in the following facts, which were connected with the second method of communicating. This other method was what may be called the direct method as distinct from that of mental pictures or phantasms. In automatic writing where the communicator does his own work, there is little or no apparent evidence of mental pictures. Things are not described from the point of view of a spectator. They are told in the first person. The communicator seems to write out his own thoughts and memories. We seem to be dealing with the body of a living person and the mind of a deceased one. This method we call that of 'possession,' whatever that means. This seems to be the usual method in automatic writing, and always so where the communicator does not send his messages through an intermediary called the 'control.'

Now it was in connection with the breakdown of this direct method in the case of a certain celebrated person who had recently passed away, that I discovered the nature of the indirect method, which is that of mental pictures. This communicator had more or less failed to come up to expectations, and, as he and I, during his life, had talked over the hypothesis by which Dr. Hodgson and myself, when the latter was living, had attempted to explain the confusion of the messages, this more recent communicator referred to it and indicated rather clearly that it did not apply to his condition in the work he was doing. In the course of the communication he explained very obscurely that 'fugitive phantasms' were a factor in the process. I did not understand what this meant. Dr. Hodgson took it up later and tried to make things clearer, but I did not catch his meaning in anything, except in one sentence, until another person made the matter clear, and this last person was the one who had suggested the theory of Dr. Hodgson and myself through another psychic. The main point of this was that the thoughts of the communicator became visible or audible to the control, and this, taken in connection with the statement of Dr. Hodgson that they could not inhibit or prevent the transmission of their thoughts to us, threw a flood of light upon the whole problem. But it did so in connection with the abandonment of the direct method of communicating for the indirect method. Finding that the communicator could not get his evidence clear himself when trying to transmit it directly, the controls adopted the policy of trying a double intermediary in which one of them received the thoughts of the communicator and transferred them to the other control, who described them as scenes before his vision, or words now and then that came to the car, so to speak. The communicator simply thought, and his thoughts were transmitted in pictures to the controls, and then described as realities.

Now, as the communicator could not inhibit the transmission of his thoughts the whole panorama of them passed to the control, central and marginal thoughts alike, the main thoughts he intended and the associated thoughts, the 'fugitive phantasms,' as they had been called, and the control had to select discriminatingly what he or she thought were intended to prove identity. But the main point of this is the fact that the messages appeared to both controls in the form of pictures, phantasms, hallucinations, visions, or voices. The description of them was that of a reality of which the control was a spectator. The real world was a world of thought, but it was apparently a material one as superficially represented in the communications. It was the memories of the dead precipitated as apparitions, so to speak, and not the reality seen or heard as it appeared to be.

The difficulties of communicating by either of these methods, the direct or indirect, will more or less suggest themselves. Take the indirect method first. The communicator may be perfectly clear in his thoughts and memories, but if the whole mass of his mental states is transmitted to the control or to the psychic, the selection of the right incidents will depend on the judgment and intelligence, or the abilities of the control, or the subconsciousness of the psychic's mind. Suppose that the communicator wants to mention a visit to the Falls of Minnehaha as a good incident to identify himself to a certain person. He thinks of the name and the falls. But names are hard to get through, and the psychic or control gets only a visual picture of a waterfall; this might wholly fail to effect the object of the communicator. The picture of a mere waterfall would mean nothing. Suppose, however, that with this picture of the waterfall comes the element in it of a peculiarly crooked tree hanging over the cliff, and it attracts the attention of the psychic's subconsciousness, and she dwells on this feature of the picture, and says nothing about the fall. The living person for whom the incident is intended, may never have known anything about this peculiar crooked tree, though it is an excellent feature for identifying the fall. The whole incident falls to the ground because the psychic does not get the name or because the general picture of a fall does not identify those of Minnehaha. Suppose, further, that association calls up an event closely connected in the mind of the communicator with the visit to Minnehaha, but not known to the living person, and not verifiable by him; again the result is a failure though the fact may be true but not provable. The falls are barely noticed as a passing phantasm, while the other incidents, not recognizable, are described minutely and in detail as having struck the attention of the control or the subconscious of the psychic. In this way mistakes and confusion may arise. There is no limit to the distortions in such a process of the messages transmitted. Every fact has to run the gauntlet of more, or less uncontrolled association on the part of the communicator, the capricious emphasis which his own mind may put on some incidents and the marginal associates in the panorama of his mind, the judgment of the control in the selection of the part of the panorama which he or she chooses as the intended message, and the similar process which may go on in the subconscious of the psychic after all the other distortions have done their work. Small wonder that mistake and confusion occur. In this process messages will inevitably become fragmentary. Confusion cannot be avoided. The rapid movement of ideas in the mind of the communicator will bring pictures to the mind of the control, or of the psychic, often out of relation to the person in the mind of control or psychic; and hence, while incidents may be true, as experiences of the communicator, they may be wrongly related and pass for error. Then, if another communicator be present, and an interest be aroused in his mind sufficient to produce an intense image or thought, this may get through in the personality of the regular communicator, and be pronounced as false simply because the sitter does not know how the mistake occurred, or that the message came from another than the alleged person. In this melee of rapidly passing thoughts, with central and marginal ideas occupying various degrees of interest for the control or psychic which they may not have for the communicator, there is sure to be confusion and error. The fact, too, that the control or psychic cannot hold in mind the whole panorama long enough to tell all its details, but must abbreviate the whole, as we should the contents of a lecture to which we have listened, shows very clearly the source of fragmentary messages and the association of incidents which seem to us wholly disconnected, but which would be clear did we receive the whole story.

The direct method of communication is accompanied with other kinds of difficulties. This method has the appearance of being like our own control of our muscular system. We suppose that the spirit tries to work with the muscular mechanism of the psychic, precisely in the same way that he had acted on his own organism when living. Now we know that a person exceedingly ill or injured by an accident may lose more or less of the control of his muscles temporarily, so that he has to recover normal conditions in order to have normal and easy control of the muscular action. Indeed, this control is only gradually attained by the infant. At first its movements are spasmodic and unregulated. It cannot direct its movements to any specific end, but simply throws about hands and feet in impulsive and irrational ways. But gradually it acquires power of will over the muscles until they respond systematically to desire, and even become automatic, so that the will can go on with other duties. But death separates soul and body, and a discarnate soul has to learn all over again to control a living organism. The difficulty, no doubt, is greater from the fact that it is not his own organism, and also the fact that the soul of its possessor is not eliminated. With the presence of this living soul and organic habits wholly different from that of the discarnate spirit, there will be obstacles to communication which ought to seem quite natural to anyone who reflects. The attainment of control will have to be a matter of development, and in the meantime many a message which has passed through the mind of the communicator does not get expression. The communicator may even not know that it has not got through. He may think that the message has got through when it has not done so. Words and fragments may get through, but not enough to make the incidents either evidential or intelligible. The confusion and error here are due, not so much to perplexities of the control or psychic, as to the obstacles in the organism of the psychic which prevent even clear thoughts in the communicator from obtaining expression. There may also be disturbance in the mind of the communicator, and this will only increase the confusion made sure by inadaptation to the physical organism with which the spirit has to work.

One of the most important difficulties in connection with this method of communicating is what I have called the 'associates of constrained attention'. The discarnate spirit has to concentrate his attention on control of the machinery of communication. He has to learn control of it just as a child has to learn to write or speak. The intense occupation of the mind on this work will use the energy for the purely mechanical part of the communication, and leave little for the mind to do in recalling specific facts. The attention has to be relaxed from the act of control in order to recall incidents, and that relaxation stops the sending of messages, while the attention on the act of control may prevent messages from being controlled. The communicator seems to be between the devil and the deep sea. When recalling incidents he cannot control, and when controlling he cannot recall. The constrained attention in the struggle to control the motor system prevents giving attention to special incidents or voluntary recall, while the diversion of attention to this act relaxes control of the muscles. Hence the only hope of easy and successful communication by this method would be sufficient practice to make control automatic instead of voluntary, so that the mind could give its voluntary attention to the incidents to be purposely communicated. The same thing would take place with the living if they had no automatic control of the organism. In conversation, we constantly inhibit or prevent expression of certain things that are in our mind, but this is because we can let the automatic mechanism do its own work, while we use the will to select what shall be automatically expressed and exclude what we do not wish to say. If we had to concentrate attention on the act of speaking or writing, we should probably find that we could recall little to talk or write about, or could express only the most general things that came automatically and without effort. This is the situation with a discarnate spirit. The constrained attention affects the associations, and the relaxation of it prevents the associations or recalled incidents from getting through. There is no remedy for this except the one in actual life, namely, practice and the acquisition of the same kind of automatic control that we have when living.

Dr. Hodgson held the theory that communicators, while communicating, were in something like a trance or dream state, and in this way he explained the confusion of the messages, their fragmentary nature, and perhaps their disjointed connections. I defended this view of the phenomena for some years; but the mental picture method of communicating, with the obstacles to selection from the panorama of thoughts transmitted to the control or psychic, modified the evidence for this supposed dream state, and it had either to be abandoned or modified in such a way as to lose much of its probability and force. It is clear to me now that 'trance or dream state' does not properly describe it, but I still think there are difficulties in the communicator that have not yet been made perfectly clear. The 'associates of constrained attention' will simulate a trance or dream state more or less in their effects, and to that extent render Dr. Hodgson's and my older view less necessary. But there is still something to be accounted for that resembles some abnormal mental conditions of the communicator in certain emergencies. They may be due to the effect of contact with a physical organism which is not normal to the spirit, and they may be influenced also by the necessity of inhibiting the subconscious states of the psychic and the mental states of the sitter, so that wandering thoughts may come now and then in the struggle to control. But this is no place to go into that problem. I can only mention it as indicating that all the perplexities of the subject at this point have not been' resolved.

The difficulties with proper names are a most interesting subject, but we cannot undertake to explain them. Suffice it to say that they seem partly phonetic, and find their analogy in similar difficulties with the telephone. But there is more than phonetic analogy in this problem, and we cannot take it up in this limited space.

The important point is to see that the very nature of the process of communicating, both the direct and the indirect method, that of control and that of mental pictures, explains many perplexities, and we may leave the solution of other difficulties to more detailed works on the subject. It suffices here to make a step toward resolving some of them, and these the main difficulties.



Notes / Preface / Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Bibliography

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