Book: "The Survival of Man"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- Section Four -

Automatism and Lucidity

Chapter 11

Automatic Writing and Trance Speech


          WE now enter upon the more detailed consideration of a group of facts, in which of late years the Society has been remarkably prolific - and the general truth of which is accepted without hesitation by all the prominent members; who, though they differ in their interpretation, yet receive the evidence with practical unanimity as to its interest and importance - receive it, that is to say, with all the unanimity that we desire or expect.

The facts have led some observers to the rather vague and ill-defined hypothesis that vistas of unlimited information lie open to people in a clairvoyant state; as if during unconsciousness a psychical region were entered wherein the ordinary barriers between soul and soul, or mind and mind, are broken down. Even this surmise must not be rejected without examination, if we are driven to it, but it is not a known vera causa.

Naturally it is only when all normal means of obtaining information have been scrupulously avoided that any problem arises; but it is generally agreed that the first hypothesis that must be made, whenever normal explanations thoroughly break down, is that telepathy of some kind is occurring from some living person and is influencing the sensitive mind or brain of the unconcious or partially unconscious operator, after the fashion of an objectified and sympathetic dream.

This hypothesis is extremely elastic, and can be stretched to cover an immense area; indeed, to get beyond it, and definitely find a region which it will not cover, is exceedingly difficult. For twenty years at least members of the society have been intimately acquainted with excellent and astonishing examples of trance speaking and automatic writing, and yet they have hesitated to make full use of all this material, and have refrained from proceeding in the direction towards which it undoubtedly points, so long as there was a chance - even a remote chance - that an established variety of telepathy or some extension of it might constitute a sufficient explanation. Some seem able to hold that telepathy from living people is still sufficient - or at least as sufficient as it has ever been and that no further step beyond it need be taken. Others are impressed with the idea-not without qualms and surviving hesitation - that the time has come when it may be legitimate and necessary to take a further step, and to admit, as a working theory, the view which undoubtedly the phenomena themselves suggest - the view they have all the time been, as it were, forcing upon us; namely, that there can be actual telepathic or telergic influence from some outside intelligence the surviving intelligence, apparently, of some of those who have recently lived on this planet. These are represented as occasionally, under great difficulties and discouragements, endeavouring to make known the fact that they can communicate with us, by aid of such intervening mechanism as is placed at their disposal such as the brain nerve and muscle of an automatist or medium. The assertion made is that, during the temporary suspension of the normal control, discarnate intelligences can with difficulty make use of these organs for the purpose of translating their own thought into mechanical movement, and so producing some kind of speech or writing in the physical world. Such utilisation of physiological apparatus, by an intelligence to which it does not normally belong, is what is called motor automatism or "telergy," or popularly - when of an extreme kind - "possesion."

It does not by any means follow that the agent or intelligence, active in this unusual experience, is necessarily that of a departed person, but that is undoubtedly the form which the phenomenon often takes; so if we resign ourselves to be guided by facts at all, we may as well try how far the claim openly and persistently made will carry us, before definitely discarding it. And if we are going to try it at all, I urge that we had better try it frankly and thoroughly: it had better be accepted provisionally as a working hypothesis and pressed as far as it will go. That is the way to test any provisional hypothesis. Hesitate as long as you like before giving a theory even provisional and tentative acceptance; but once having determined on testing a key or theoretical solution, then utilise it to the utmost. Try it in all the locks; and if it continually fails to open them, reject it; but do not hesitate each time over the insertion of the key. Hesitate before accepting a working hypothesis, not after. If false, its falseness will become apparent by its failure and inability to fit the facts.

Mr. Myers himself pointed out in Human Personality, vol. i. p. 250, that if we allow ourselves to contemplate such a hypothesis it will at least fit in with many other facts; the innovation that we are called upon to make is to suppose that segments of the personality can operate in apparent separation from the organism. 'Such a supposition, of course, could not have been started without proof of telepathy, and could with difficulty be sustained without proof of survival of death. But, given telepathy, we, have some psychical agency, connected with man, operating apart from his organism. Given survival, we have an element of his personality - to say the least of it - operating when his organism is destroyed. There is therefore no very great additional burden in supposing that an element of his personality may operate apart from his organism, while that organism still exists.

"Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coute. If we have once got a man's thought operating apart from his body - if my fixation of attention on, say, the two of diamonds does somehow so modify another man's brain a few yards off that he seems to see the two of diamonds floating before him - there is no obvious halting place on his side till we come to 'possession' by a departed spirit, and there is no obvious halting place on my side till we come to 'travelling clairvoyance,' with a corresponding visibility of my own phantasm to other persons in the scenes which I spiritually visit."

Mind and Body

So let us consider in the first place what occurs during the ordinary process of speaking or writing - speaking or writing of the most normal or commonplace kind. An idea is conceived in the mind, but in order to achieve some effect in the material world it must move matter. The movement or rearrangement of matter is all that we ourselves are able to accomplish in the physical universe: the whole of our direct terrestrial activities resolve themselves into this, the production of changes of motion and arrangement.

But a thought belongs to a different order of existence; whatever it is, it is not material; it is neither matter nor force; it has no direct power over matter. Directly and unaided it can move nothing. How then can it get itself translated in terms of motion? How can it, from the psychical category, produce a physical effect?

Physiology informs us, not indeed of the whole manner of the achievement, but of part at least of the method.

The thing that can move matter is called muscle. In muscle is located the necessary energy, which only requires to be stimulated into activity in order to be transformed into visible motion and transferred in any required direction.

In a living body, means are provided for stimulating its muscles, in the shape of an intricate arrangement of nerve fibres, which, when themselves excited in one of many ways, can cause the muscle to contract. This part of the process is not indeed fully understood, but it is familiarly known. The excitation of the nerves may be a mere random tweaking, or irritation, by a mechanical or electric goad; but in a living organism it can also be produced in a more meaningful and economical fashion, by the discharge of energy from a central cell, such as exists in the cortex or grey matter of the brain. This process may also be considered as comparatively though not completely understood; the central ganglion is clearly the direct means of getting the nerve excited, the muscle contracted, and the direct motion produced. But what is it that stimulates the brain? What is it that desires the particular motion and liberates energy from the appropriate brain cell? In some cases it is mere reflex action: it is some stimulus which has arrived from the peripheral nerve-endings, so as to evoke response in a central ganglion - say, in the spine or the cerebellum-whence the stimulus has proceeded to a neighbouring cell and so to the efferent nerve fibres. In that case no consciousness is involved; the psychical element is absent; there is no intelligence or will in the process, nor any necessary sensation. The wriggling of a worm, and many contortions of the lower animals, may be - shall we say, may be hoped to be? - of this order.

But I am not taking the case of reflex and unconscious action; I am definitely postulating a thought or idea conceived in the mind - operating, so to speak, on the will - and determining that there shall be a response in the material world. By what means the stimulus gets out of the psychical region into the physical, and liberates energy from the brain centre, I have not the remotest idea; nor, I venture to say, has any one.

The operation is at present mysterious. But conspicuously it occurs; it is evidently a rational and I should say an ultimately intelligible process, - a process, that is to say, on which discovery is possible, though at present there has been no discovery concerning it.

Somehow or other the connexion is established; and by long habit it seems to be established in normal cases without difficulty - nay, rather with singular case, as when a pianist executes in miraculous fashion a complicated sonata.

Things may go wrong, energy may be liberated in the wrong direction, the wrong muscles may be stimulated, so that stammering and contortions result. Or the mental connexion may be in a state of suspense, the mind may be unable to get at the right centre, so to speak, and may refrain from acting on any for a time; in which case we have hesitation, aphasia, feebleness of many kinds, up to paralysis. Or these effects may be due to faults and dislocation in the physiological mechanism, - faults which can perhaps be discovered and set right. If the brain centres are fatigued, also, the response is weak and uncertain. But when everything physiological is in good health, and when the conscious self is in good condition, with a definite thought that it wants to convey, then it appears to be able to play upon the brain, as a musician plays upon a keyboard, and to get its psychical content translated into terms of mechanical motion; so that other intelligences, sufficiently sympathetic and suitably provided with receptive mechanism, can be made more or less aware of the idea intended to be conveyed. Which means that, by aid of their nerve fibres and brain centres, mechanical movements can be translated back into thought once more.

That is the usual process, from mind to mind through physiological apparatus and physical mechanism. The physical mechanism is a neutral intermediary of nonliving matter, belonging to nobody; or rather belonging equally to everybody. We can all throw the air into vibration; and at some public meetings everybody does so, at one and the same time, with some resulting confusion. We can all write with ink; and if need be we can dip our pens into our neighbours' inkstand and use his desk, though with some loss of convenience; we find it difficult to lay our hands upon his notepaper, and it is not efficacious if, on finding his cheque-book, we proceed to fill up and sign his cheques. The identity of the scribe then becomes an important consideration. Pretended identity in such cases may perturb the social conscience, and be stigmatised not merely as unrecognised and wrongful possession, but as fraud.

Thus of all existing forms of matter there are certainly some which can be used intelligently though temporarily by people to whom they do not belong. But whatever may be the undiscriminating communism of the main part of the physical universe, the physiological part is undoubtedly appropriated by individuals; body No. 1 belongs definitely to operator No. 1, and body No. 2 to operator No. 2. And the common idea - I might say the common-sense idea - is that operator No. 1 is entirely limited to control over his own physiological apparatus, and has no direct means of getting at the apparatus of another person otherwise than through neutral physical means. That is the natural prima facie notion, based upon ordinary experience; but it need not be exactly true or complete, - facts may turn up which suggest something different or supplementary.

As a matter of fact, telepathy has suggested - without any necessary reference to the physiological part of the business - that mind can act directly on mind, and can thereby indirectly operate on the physical world through the organism of another person. But cases also occur where the mind of the second person appears to be left out of the process altogether; he may be thinking his own thoughts or doing nothing particular, - in a state of unconsciousness perhaps, or at any rate of inattention, - and yet his physiological mechanism may be set in action, and his physical neighbourhood affected in such a way as to suggest a stimulus proceeding not from himself at all, but from the mind of another person; who in this case must be conceived as operating not upon the second mind, but directly upon its brain. Or if not upon the brain, then perhaps upon some other portion of the nervous system, - say, upon spinal or other ganglia not essentially or necessarily associated with consciousness, and not arousing any consciousness, but stimulating the parts usually controlled by the subconsciousness, - the parts which regulate the beating of the heart, the respiration of the lungs, the digestion or secretions of the body.

Assuming that such a thing is possible, - assuming that a mind can operate, not only as usual on its own body, not only telepathically as supposed on another mind, but directly and telergically upon another body, then that is exactly what is meant by a case of incipient or partial possession.

So far, it may be said, we have no a priori reason to doubt its occurrence, and no a priori reason to expect it. We know nothing about the connexion between mind and body, except that the brain is the specially appropriate organ or instrument for the purpose; and accordingly we are not entitled to any a priori views. We know that each organism is usually appropriated by, and belongs to, the special psychical character or unit which commonly employs it; just as a violin belongs to a special operator, who might resent any other person, especially a novice, attempting to play upon it. The desk of an author is his private property, from which a certain class of literature usually emanates; and he might not like to see it used for works of fiction, or scandalous gossip, or the advocacy of vaccination, or vegetarianism, or Christian Science, or tariff reform. But that proves nothing as to the impossibility of so utilising it. The power may exist, but may be in abeyance, or be recognised as inappropriate and inconvenient, or even as dangerous and illegal.

But if the power exist, it is a fact worth knowing. If it is possible for the normal operator to go out for a walk and leave his writing mechanism open to the casual tramp or the enterprising visitor, it is a definite fact that we may as well know.

Now as to the power of dislocation or suspension of the usual connection between mind and body, it is supposed more or less to occur during sleep; it is certainly supposed to occur during trance; and, in case of what is called travelling clairvoyance, it would appear to be in some sort a demonstrable fact.

Anyhow, it is orthodox - not scientifically orthodox but religiously orthodox - to maintain that the connexion between ourselves and our organism is only temporary, and that at what we call "death" we shall give up this material mode of manifestation for ever: so that the body resolves itself into its original elements. And it is usually supposed that, after having lost control of our appropriate and normally possessed bodily organs, even though we still persist as psychical entities, we have in our new state no means of operating upon the physical world. No more can we move pieces of matter; no more can we stimulate ideas in the minds of our friends when we are "dead." No, not unless one of three things happens.

First, the telepathic power may continue; and we may operate directly on conscious or unconscious minds of living persons in such a way as to cause them to produce some physical effect or record, by normal means, through their own accustomed mechanism.

Second, a materialising power may continue, analogous to that which enabled us, when here on the planet, to assimilate all sorts of material, to digest it and arrange it into the organism that served us as a body. It is extraordinarily difficult to conceive of such a power, and impossible to suppose that it can be a direct power of a psychical agency unaided by the reproductive activity of any other unit already incarnate; because such a power would imply a control of mind over matter which by hypothesis we conceive does not in fact exist, save through the mechanism of a brain. Such action we might well consider to be miracle.

Still something of the kind has been asserted to occur; though always, I believe, in the presence of some peculiarly disposed organism or medium.

Thirdly, a telergic power, analogous to that which we have already supposed occasionally active, may exist; enabling the psychical unit to detect and make use of some fully developed physiological mechanism, not belonging to it, - a fully developed brain, shall we say, with nerves and muscles complete;- so that, during temporary vacation by the usual possessor, these may be utilised for a time, and may achieve, in an unpractised and more or less blundering fashion, some desired influence upon the physical world. In such a case the operator may be understood as contriving to utter, in speech or writing, something like the message which he intends to convey to his otherwise occupied and inaccessible but still beloved friends.

Affection need not be the only motive, however, which causes a given operator to take all the trouble, and go through the process of using other people's writing materials, - at the risk of rousing superstition and fright or being ejected by medical treatment. Occasionally it may be a scientific interest surviving from the time in this life when he was a keen and active member of the S.P.R.; so that he desires above all things to convey to his friends, engaged on the same quest, some assurance, not only of his continued individual existence, - in which, on religious grounds, they may imagine that they already believe, - but of his retention of a power to communicate indirectly and occasionally with them, and to produce movements even in the material world, - by kind permission of an organism, or part of an organism, the temporary use or possession of which has been allowed him for that purpose.


The question of identity is of course a fundamental one. The control must prove his identity mainly by reproducing facts which belong to his memory and not to that of the automatist. And notice that proof of identity will usually depend on the memory of trifles. The objection frequently raised that communications too often relate to trivial subjects, a lack of intelligence, or at least of due thought, on the part of the critic. The object is to get, not something dignified, but something evidential: and what evidence of persistent memory can be better than the recollection of trifling incidents which for some personal reason happen to have made a permanent impression? Do we not ourselves remember domestic trifles more vividly than things which to the outside world seem important? Wars and coronations are affairs read of in newspapers - they are usually far too public to be of use as evidence of persistent identity; but a broken toy, or a family joke, or a schoolboy adventure, has a more personal flavour, and is of a kind more likely to be remembered in old age, or after a rending shock.

In fiction this is illustrated continually. Take the case of identification of the dumb and broken savage, apparently an Afghan prowler, in The Man Who Was. What was it that opened the eyes of the regiment, to which he had crawled back from Siberia, to the fact that twenty years ago he was one of themselves? Knowledge of a trick-catch in a regimental flower-vase, the former position of a trophy on the wall, and the smashing of a wineglass after a loyal toast. That is true to life: it is probably true to death also.

That is the kind of evidence which we ought to expect, and that is the kind of evidence which not infrequently we get. We have not been able to hold it sufficient, however. The regiment in Kipling's tale never thought of unconscious telepathy from themselves, as spoiling the testimony to be drawn from the uncouth savage's apparent reminiscence: such an explanation would have been rightly felt to have been too forced and improbable, and exaggeratedly sceptical. But when it comes to proof of surviving existence and of memory beyond the tomb, we are bound to proceed even to this length, and to discount the witness of anything that is in our own minds; or, as some think, in the mind of any living person.

Thus is the difficulty of incontrovertible proof of identity enormously increased. Even when the evidence enables a hidden thing to be discovered of which no one living possessed the secret - as in Swedenborg's discovery of the dead burgomaster's private papers above quoted, p. 96 - deferred telepathy is sometimes adduced as preferable to what must then seem to most, as it did to Swedenborg, if not to Kant, the only rational explanation.



Contents / Preface / 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 / Chapter 1 7 / Chapter 18 / Chapter 19 / Chapter 20 / Chapter 21 / Chapter 22 / Chapter 23 / Chapter 24 / Chapter 25

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