William James: “Telepathy” in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia (1899)

WJThough William James is now mostly remembered as a philosopher, he was one of two ‘founding fathers’ of modern professionalized psychology. While his German counterpart, Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, dismissed empirical approaches to reported psychic phenomena and spiritualism, James on the contrary sought to make the study of unorthodox phenomena a legitimate part of nascent modern psychology. The following article is an entry on ‘Telepathy’ written by James for vol. 8 of Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia (ed. C. K. Adams), pp. 45-47, New York, D. Appleton & Company, 1899, which is here reproduced with accompanying figures. Nicely documenting James’ stance on psychical research, it provides a concise overview of experimental work done on telepathy by some of James’ colleagues in England, France and Germany between about 1880 and1899 and includes a short reference to his sittings with the Boston trance medium, Leonora Piper.

Teleathy [from Gr. τήλε, far + παθος, feeling]: thought-transference, or the phenomenon of the reception by the mind of an impression not traceable to any of the ordinarily recognized channels of sense, and assumed to be due to an influence from the mind of another person, near or remote. Thus the sphere of telepathy is not the same as that of clairvoyance, in which it is assumed that the mind of the subject may receive an impression of impersonal facts, or things at a distance. The subject who receives the impression is called the percipient, the one from whom the influence emanates is usually called the agent, in accounts of experiments on this phenomenon.

In the earlier works on animal magnetism there are many reports concerning subjects who are said to have developed the faculty of obeying the unspoken will of their magnetizer, going to sleep and waking, moving, acting, and speaking in accordance with his silent commands. More recently there have been public exhibitors of “mind-reading,” and their performances have been imitated in private circles by the so-called willing-game. In most of these feats the agent is required to think intently of some act while he lays his hands on some part of the so-called mind-reader’s person. The mind-reader, either promptly or hesitatingly, will then usually perform the act. It is safe to assume that wherever such personal contact between the pair is allowed, the percipient is guided by the encouragment or checking which the agent’s hands more or less unconsciously exert upon his at first tentative movements; so that muscle-reading, and not mind-reading, is the proper name for this phenomenon. There are, it is true, reports of success in the willing-game where no contact was allowed; but in the absence of authentic details, they can not be taken as evidence that telepathy exists. For the same reason the earlier mesmeric reports have doubtful evidential value. The operators took too few precautions against “suggesting” to the subjects by other channels than speech what their will might be. It is only within recent years that we have learned to measure the acuteness with which an entranced person with his mind concentrated upon his hypnotizer will divine the intentions of the latter by indications which he gives quite unconsciously by voice or movement, or even by the mere order of sequence of what he does. On these accounts, evidence in the strict sense for telepathy must be sought in a small number of experiments conducted by a few more careful observers since about 1880. These experiments, taken in the aggregate, appear to make it unreasonable to doubt any longer the fact that occasionally a telepathic relation between one mind and another may exist.

James_telepathy_fig_1In a faultless experiment on thought-transference certain precautions must be observed. To avoid previous collusion between agent and percipient the agent should receive from a third party the idea to be transferred; and the latter should, when possible, select it by drawing lots or by some other appeal to chance. This is to exclude the possibility of himself and the percipient being led by number-habits, diagram-habits, or other parallel paths of inner association to a common result. The percipient should not be in the room when the idea is determined on; and when possible it should be chosen in silence, written down, and shown, if it need be shown beforehand, in written form. The percipient should, if possible, do his guessing in another room. In any case he should be blindfolded, and there should be no conversation with him during the performance, the signal that he must attend to his inner impressions being given by bell or other sound. Physical contact between agent and percipient must not occur, and if the percipient writes or draws his result the agent should not look on, since an unconscious commentary by changes in breathing, etc., might reveal to the percipient whether he was going right or wrong.

The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research contain some records of experiments made under approximately faultless conditions. In certain cases the ideas to be transferred were diagrams or drawings. A couple of example will show the success reached when at its best. Fig. 1 is from a series with Mr. Blackburn, agent, G. A. Smith, percipient, in which out of thirty-three trials without contact, though with percipient and agent in one room, there were twenty-five reproductions as good as those here given of a figure prepared and kept outside of the room. Fig. 2 gives the first six trials of a series reported by Malcolm Guthrie, of Liverpool, he being agent and a Miss E. percipient. The conditions seem almost faultless, if the account is accurate, though the figures are simpler than in the former series. In all, with various agents, Miss E. made 150 trials, the majority of which were successful entirely or in part. Sixteen specimens are printed in the report, all about as good as those in Fig. 2.

James_telepathy_fig_2The same Miss E. and a Miss R. were subjected at Liverpool in 1883 to a series of experiments in transferring ideas and sensations of every order, the agents being Mr. Guthrie and others. Out of 713 trials there were but 252 cases in which the percipient either got no impression or described the object wrongly. In the remaining 461 cases the success was either complete or partial.

Miss X.” has published (Proceedings of Society for Psychical Research, vol. vi.) a long series of telepathic interchange of experiences over a long distance with “Miss D.,” corroborated by independent entries in their respective diaries. Of 20 such entries 14 refer to a consciousness on the part of Miss D. that Miss X. was at that hour (the hours are quite irregular) playing a certain definite piece of music.

Miss Wingfield was the subject of a series of number-guessings, where out of 2,624 trials there were 275 successes instead of 29, which was the figure probable on the assumption of “chance.” The numbers thought of were the 90 two-digital ones, from 10 to 99. They were drawn at random from a bowl and thought of by the percipient’s sister. In a later series of 400 trials with this percipient the completely right guesses were 27 instead of the chance number 4; there were moreover, 21 guesses with the digits reversed, and 162 with a single digit in its right place.

Similar, though less extended and perhaps less conclusive, series of experiments at guessing ideas have been reported in the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings by various experimenters—Dessoir, Schmall [sic; typo for Schmoll] and Mabire, W. J. Smith, von Schrenk-Notzing, and Barrett and Gurney. The observations last referred to were those first published. The subjects were two girls who, four years later when experiments were resumed, were found, when tested in each other’s presence, to be cheating by a code of signals. Much has been made of the breakdown of this case. But very many of the earlier successes recorded of these children occurred when they were singly present, and often when only one experimenter knew the thing to be guessed. Collusion under such circumstances can not well be charged, although willingness to cheat rightly casts vague suspicion on all trials done with the percipient concerned, and shows the importance of making all tests under the conditions described as “faultless” a few lines back. Mr. Rawson finally, in vol. xi. of the Proceedings, gives a striking series of correct card and diagram guesses.

On telepathy in the hypnotic state there are recorded in the Proceedings experiments by Dr. B. Thaw and Prof, and Mrs. H. Sidgwick. The conditions in the latter set seem to have been, on the whole, very careful, though not quite faultless in the technical sense. The agent was the hypnotizer, G. A. Smith. The things to be impressed were usually the numbers (of two digits) on eighty-one lotto-counters, drawn by Prof. Sidgwick from a bag and handed to Mr. Smith to gaze at, while the hypnotized percipient awaited the impression. There were four percipients, with 644 trials made with agent and percipient in the same rooms, and 218 made with them in different rooms. In the former set 131 trials were successful, though the digits were named in reverse order in 14 of these 131 cases. In the latter set there were only 9 successes. The “probable” number of successes by chance would have been in the former set 8, in the latter at most 3. Later, with three of the same percipients and three new ones, Mr. Smith still being agent, Mrs. Sidgwick and Miss Johnson report 252 trials and 27 successes (chance number = 4), with agent and percipient in different rooms. Mr. Smith transferred “mental pictures” to five subjects, successfully in 31 out of 71 trials in one room, in 2 out of 55 in different rooms. The subjects of the mental pictures were such things as “a boy skating,” “a baby in a perambulator with nurse,” “a mouse in a trap,” etc.

Prof. Richet has described (Proceedings of Society for Psychical Research, vol. v.) a series of successes in guessing drawings in the hypnotic state; but as he found that the same subjects succeeded 30 times out of 180 trials in guessing the drawing when it was inclosed in an envelope and unknown to any one present, it is doubtful whether telepathy or clairvoyance be the cause of the success. Control experiments showed that “chance” could give as many as 35 per cent. of good successes at matching pictures made arbitrarily by different persons with others taken at random from a large collection previously prepared. Richet’s hypnotic subjects gave, however, 10 per cent. of good successes in 200 trials, and he concludes the existence of an unknown power.

Thus, to count only systematically pursued experiments, some of which are not mentioned here, there are accounts from more than a dozen competent observers concerning about a score of subjects, all seeming to show a degree of success in guessing very much greater than that which chance would give. Different readers, however, will weigh the evidence differently, according to their prepossessions. Much of it is fragmentary, and in much one or other condition of “faultlessness” in experimenting is violated. The mass, however, is decidedly imposing; and if more and more of this solitary kind of evidence should accumulate, it would probably end by convincing the world.

Meanwhile there are other kinds of telepathy which, illogically perhaps, impress the believing imagination more than high percentages of success in guessing numbers can. Such are cases of the induction of sleep in hypnotic subjects by mental commands given at a distance. Pierre Janet, Richet, Gibert, Ochorowicz, Héricourt, Dufay, Daniex, Tolosa, Latour, and others are the relaters of these observations, of which the most important evidentially are those made on the celebrated somnambulic subject, Madame B., or “Leonie.” Out of one series of 25 trials with this woman, there were 18 complete and 4 partial successes. Mr. Ochorowicz vouches for some of these, and gives also a long series in which silent commands were acted out by another hypnotic subject of his own, both he and she being, however, in the same room. The most convincing sort of evidence for thought-transference is given by the sittings of certain “test-mediums,” of which the best worked-out case is that of Mrs. Piper, published in the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings for 1890-92-95). This lady shows a profuse intimacy, not so much with the actual passing thoughts of her sitters as with the whole reservoir of their memory or potential thinking; and as the larger covers the less, so the present writer, being as convinced of the reality of the phenomenon in her as he can be convinced of anything in the world, probably makes less exacting demands than he otherwise would on the sort of evidence given for minor grades of the power.

The authors of the word telepathy have used it as a theory whereby to explain “veridical hallucinations” such as would be the apparition of a person at a distance at the time of his death. The theory is that one who is dying or passing through some crisis is for some unknown reason peculiarly able to serve as “agent” and project an impression, and that the telepathic “impact” in such a case produces hallucination. Stated thus boldly the theory sounds most fanciful, but it rests on certain actual analogies. Thus a suggestion made to a suitable subject in the hypnotic trance that at a certain appointed time after his awakening he shall see the operator or other designated person enter the room, will post-hypnotically take effect and be followed at the appointed time by an exteriorized apparition of the person named. Moreover, strange as the fact may appear, there seems evidence, small in amount but good in quality, that one may, by exerting one’s will to that effect, cause one’s self to appear present to a person at a distance. As many as eight persons worthy of confidence have recently reported successes in this sort of experiment. The writer knows a ninth case, impossible to publish, but where the evidence (as far as taken) is good. Now the committee on the census of hallucinations of the Society for Psychical Research find that the “veridical” ones among them—those, namely, in which the apparition coincides with the death of the person which appears—are 440 times more numerous than they ought to be if they were the result of mere chance. For the particular data and logic by which this figure is obtained, see the report in vol. x. of the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings. Of course, if such a conclusion ever be accepted, and if the telepathic theory of such apparitions be credible, the probability that telepathy is the cause of success in the smaller number-guessing cases would be greatly re-enforced. The whole subject, so far as definite observation goes, is still in its earliest infancy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.—J. Ochorowicz, De la Suggestion mentale (Paris, 1887); Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, passim; F. Podmore, Apparitions and Thought-transference (1894).


The Case of Glossolalia. Lecture by Vincent Barras

UCL/British Psychological Society History of the Psychological Disciplines Seminar Series

Monday 28th July

Professor Vincent Barras (University of Lausanne)

Plays between Reason, Language and Gods: The Case of Glossolalia 19-20th Centuries

BarrasGlossolalia, or speaking in tongues, plays a surprisingly important role in discussions between theologians, psychologists, and psychiatrists at the turn of the 20th century on the relationships between religious psychology, mental automatisms, subliminal processes and inner language and in the formation of modern psychology itself. Its role in the formation of modern psychology will be reconstructed, with particular emphasis on the debates around the Swiss theologian Emile Lombard’s masterpiece of 1910, “Concerning glossolalia in the early Christians and similar phenomena.”

Time: 6pm to 7.30 pm.

Location: Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place, University College London.

Amateurs, Empiricism, and the Tedium of Psychical Research. Guest Post by Alicia Puglionesi

bio_alicia-puglionesiAlicia Puglionesi is completing her doctoral dissertation in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at Johns Hopkins University. Her project, ‘The Astonishment of Experience: Americans and Psychical Research, 1885-1935,’ deals with the emerging boundaries between professionals and amateurs engaged in the study of the mind around the turn of the twentieth century. Email: apuglio1@jhmi.edu

“The phenomena [of psychical research] are as massive and wide-spread as is anything in Nature, and the study of them is as tedious, repellent and undignified. To reject it for its unromantic character is like rejecting bacteriology because penicillium glaucum grows on horse-dung…”
William James, “The Confidences of a Psychical Researcher,” The American Magazine (1909): 585.

As a compliment to Benjamin T. Mitchell’s post about William Thomas Stead and the popularization of occult studies in Britain, I want to offer a perspective on the American scene in the same period. Although American scientists shared the concerns of the SPR’s “Brahmins” about the unreliability and suggestibility of a fad-following public, they also hoped to build upon successful models of amateur data-gathering deployed in American meteorology, astronomy, and natural history. They attempted to discipline the enthusiasm and curiosity of amateurs, distributing standardized experimental protocols and forms. Despite a vocal consensus among both amateurs and experts that the accumulation of such empirical data was the best way forward for a truly scientific psychical research, few satisfying conclusions were derived from such data in the 1880s and 90s. Instead, amateur participation appears, in the archive, as excessive and unruly, overflowing the forms designed to contain it and producing an “inchoate accumulation” rather than a system of scientific facts.

American psychical research tried to demarcate itself as a scientific discipline in the 1880s, with advocates calling for the production of large quantities of data for statistical analysis. They suggested playing cards, numbers, colors, and dice as targets for the “percipients” of telepathic communications. In a typical experiment, an agent would draw a playing card or roll the dice and concentrate on the result, while the percipient attempted to receive this message from the agent without any communication through the “known avenues of sense.”

Figure 1: a schematic depiction of a thought-transference experiment from the 'Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research,' with the agent looking at a figure hidden from the percipient, and the percipient attempting to reproduce it.

Figure 1: a schematic depiction of a thought-transference experiment from the ‘Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research,’ with the agent looking at a figure hidden from the percipient, and the percipient attempting to reproduce it.

These experiments were, by most accounts, repetitive and dull – even William James, an outspoken advocate for psychical research, found them “repellent and undignified.” The discourse around mundanity in psychical research matters in relation to the rise of data-driven “normal science,” since this paradigm as a privileged form of scientific knowledge-making dates to the mid-nineteenth century, with astronomy, psychophysics, and meteorology exemplifying the epistemic value of diligently recording many, many observations.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, a journalist and popular novelist, rhapsodized on the heroism of scientific drudgery in an 1885 article for the North American Review about the formation of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR):

“Here we have to deal with an inchoate accumulation of mind-facts or soul-facts…land-slides of material…Did it seem a dubious experiment to flood the English-reading world with little circulars asking for authentic cases of mind-reading? These men know what they are about, and why they are about it…[they] must condescend – to the infinite drudgery of discovery.”


Figure 2: Form for recording weather observations distributed by the joint meteorology committee of the Franklin Institute and the American Philosophical Society in 1834.

The late nineteenth century saw a diverse array of characters cast in the role of producers of scientific data (although the supreme drudgery of collation was left to those with some expertise). Farmers in rural Michigan, high school teachers, homeopathic doctors, and railroad engineers contributed to the networked, amateur research enterprises that proliferated in the United States before 1900. Like William James, amateur psychical researchers were motivated by a metaphysical concern with the “continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir.”


Figure 3: an automatic die-thrower and tally-keeper, by which “the labor of keeping a correct record may be much lessened,” is recommended in the ASPR’s Circular No. 4, “Directions for Making Experiments.” Optimistically, the instrument depicted seems to have reached 875 rolls of the dice.

As in most scientific undertakings, in psychical research the “tedious and repellent” was held in tension with the longing for a unified vision of mind and cosmos. Publicly, James trumpeted the nobility of “patient study,” but in his private correspondences he admitted a personal incapacity for such work – he found it “almost intolerable.” Not surprisingly, many of the amateur investigators to whom the American Society for Psychical Research addressed its requests for data felt very much the same way.

Dismissive depictions of the amateur psychical researcher as an enthusiast seeking consolation following the loss of a loved one had a repellent quality for many university-trained psychologists, like Joseph Jastrow and G. Stanley Hall, working to establish their discipline within the academic sciences. Jastrow caricatured the psychical researcher as“a mere dilettante, an amateur collector of curious specimens.” Other leaders in American psychology, namely William James, believed that psychical research was at the center of their project and could be carried out scientifically.

Figure 4: Form for recording a card-guessing experiment. Blank A, Circular 4, Proceedings of the ASPR 1, p.14

Figure 4: Form for recording a card-guessing experiment. Blank A, Circular 4, Proceedings of the ASPR 1, p. 14

Given that they expected telepathy to be “spontaneously-occurring” – distributed across the population with certain sensitives being more receptive than ordinary people – psychical researchers coming from the academy would need to reckon with the perception and reality of the amateur psychical researcher in order to collect the very data that they needed to argue for this pursuit as a science. Thus, they needed to enlist a wide swath of the American public in the mundane task of generating (mostly negative) results. Towards this end, the ASPR developed standardized forms for experiments and disseminated protocols for conducting telepathy studies.

These forms circulated in the society’s proceedings and in popular publications ranging from The St. Louis Republic to the New York Magazine of Mysteries; psychology professors at schools including Dartmouth, Harvard, and the University of Minnesota passed them out to students. Their design and means of distribution were very much modeled on the information-gathering methods of meteorologists and astronomers. The methodological guidelines, the grid with space for hundreds of identical trials, were designed to impose scientific discipline on rampant popular interest in psychical phenomena.


Figure 5: Form for recording a number-guessing experiment, Blank B, Circular 4, Proceedings of the ASPR 1, p. 16.

Within established disciplines, configurations of power, expertise, and authority determine the contributions of researchers who occupy different roles. Amateur psychical researchers had few reasons to limit themselves to the role that the ASPR envisioned for them. Although they valued the quantitative paradigm that called for the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of card-guessing experiments, they, like Melville’s Bartleby, often preferred not to. A correspondence between the ASPR and a potential contributor of experimental data could quickly veer into the topics of wireless telegraphy, demonic possession, or the role of atmospheric pressure in human behavior, with the promised experiments diminishing in interest until forgotten.

Amateurs’ engagement, or lack of engagement, with the requested experimental procedures of organized psychical research suggests their unwillingness to accept a particular definition of the shared object of investigation. Although, rhetorically, they embraced the secular study of the mind through systematic “collecting, collating, and colligating,” they were inexorably drawn to speculate on meaning, narrative, and experience.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, attempting to rouse psychical researchers to Darwin’s “superhuman patience of observation and recording,” posed the question, “Why, then, should not a man keep tally of the relative number of times that a blindfold subject will select the right card from a pack?” Certainly, this practice promised to answer the questions of psychical research in the heroic-mundane idiom of normal science. However, many amateurs answered that a man should not keep such a tally because it was dull work. The kind of reward they expected from their research differed in kind from Darwin’s “masterpiece of…relentless logic.”

© Alicia Puglionesi

William James on Exceptional Mental States

Eugene Taylor in 2009 (photograph by Andreas Sommer)

Eugene Taylor in 2009 (photograph by Andreas Sommer)

Eugene Taylor, whose death in January 2013 was a heavy blow to history of psychology and William James scholarship, was one of the few modern historians to fully acknowledge and try to make sense of James’s by no means casual occupation with spiritualism, telepathy and other unorthodox areas of inquiry. The main fruits of Taylor’s attempts to repair major historiographical shortcomings in James scholarship were two books. The first, William James on Exceptional Mental States, is a reconstruction of a lecture series held by James in 1896, years after the ‘father’ of the modern psychological profession in America had announced his official departure from psychology. In his second book, William James: On Consciousness Beyond the Margin , Taylor picked up the thread and provided a more general study of the centrality of the unorthodox and exceptional in the formation of James’s psychological and philosophical ideas.

As a somewhat belated nod of gratitude to Eugene, who cheerfully guided my work in the James papers at Harvard in 2009 and 2012, I’m posting a previously unpublished review of the Lowell Lectures, which I wrote about a year before I first met him.

William James on Exceptional Mental States. The 1896 Lowell Lectures, reconstructed by Eugene Taylor. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983, ISBN 0-684-17938-5, xviii + 222 pp.

WJ_EMS_coverWilliam James (1842-1910) was undoubtedly one of the most versatile and independent thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Far less known than his ‘classical’ writings, such as The Principles of Psychology, Pragmatism and The Varieties of Religious Experience, are James’s works in psychopathology and psychical research. In fact, James scholars have typically failed to assess the impact of these more exotic but interconnected interests on the formation of his main works in psychology and philosophy, which remain topical up to the present day.

James’s open-minded but critical engagement with the ‘occult’ was never tacit. He published extensively on psychical research, called himself “one of her foster-fathers”(James, 1896, p. 649), and tirelessly advocated its relevance for nascent scientific psychology in many of his writings and in letters (see, for example, see Murphy & Ballou,1961, and James, 1986). Yet, James’s long-standing interest in the problems of mental healing, telepathy and trance mediumship has been passed over by most of his biographers in seemingly embarrassed silence (see, for instance, the assessment by Ford, 1998).

That this curious neglect translates almost directly to a lack of historical interest in James as a psychopathologist is one of the implicit lessons of the present volume. It documents the significance of James’s involvement with the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR, whose President James became in 1894) for his ideas from about 1883, most notably studies in automatisms, hypnotism and subliminal cognition as pioneered by James’s British friends Edmund Gurney and Frederic W. H. Myers. Taylor traces how studies of trance mediumship, hypnotism, hallucinations in the sane and James’s resulting belief in the reality of telepathy decisively informed his views on mental phenomena commonly labelled ‘unconscious’ (James preferred ‘extra-marginal’, or Myers’s term, ‘subliminal’), and how they differed from other, now popular ideas (particularly those of Sigmund Freud), which were just beginning to form.

The core themes underlying and connecting each of the eight lectures on topics as seemingly disparate as ‘Dreams’, ‘Witchcraft’, and ‘Genius’ lie in James’s appeal to the relativity of the morbid, and a concession to the prevalence of psychopathological nuclei in all of us. For James, “health is basically an affair of balance”, and he captures his philosophy of psychiatry thus:

“Hypnotism equals sleep. Hysteria with all its symptoms equals hypnotism. Double personality simply concerns the buried idea that collects experiences until it assumes an apparently independent form. Demon possession equals an optimistic mediumship. Witchcraft is explained simply as mass hysteria over neurotic symptoms. And finally, we know that insane genius, while perhaps more romantic, now flattens out” (p. 163).

The book has only minor flaws, mostly spelling errors (particularly of foreign book titles). These aside, Taylor’s reconstruction of James’s Lowell Lectures is a major contribution to the history and historiography of psychopathology and the ‘occult’. Moreover, it should be compulsory reading for clinicians, who typically demonstrate next to no familiarity with the history of the contested question of the relationship between mental health and exceptional experiences.


Ford, M. (1998). William James’s psychical research and its philosophical implications. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 34, 605-626.

James, W. (1896). Psychical research. Psychological Review, 3, 649-652.

James, W. (1986). Essays in Psychical Research (Burkhardt, F. H., & Bowers, F., eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murphy, G., & Ballou, R. O. (Eds.). (1961). William James on Psychical Research. London: Chatto and Windus.

© Andreas Sommer

Psychedelics and Psychotherapy: A Historical Workshop

A half-day workshop with presentations from the members of the UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines on the interaction between psychedelics and psychotherapy

UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines
Saturday, 26 July 2014, 14:30 to 21:30
Arts and Humanities Common Room (G24), Foster Court, Malet Place
University College London


2:30 pm- 2:45 Registration

2:45- 3:00 Introduction

3:00- 3:45 Matei Iagher “LSD Psychotherapy in Britain: Ronald Sandison’s case.”

3:45- 4:30 Sarah Marks “Psychedelic Psychiatry under Communism: The Prague LSD Psychotherapy Projects.”

4:30- 4:45 Tea & Coffee

4:45- 5:30 Jelena Martinović “Bootstrappers seeking to understand creativity:

Psychotherapy and experimental science in the 1960-80s.”

5:30- 6:30 Roundtable with Prof. Sonu Shamdasani

6:30- Wine

Cost: £25

Registered students (bring proof of ID): £15

UCL staff/students: free

To register, click here.

For further details, contact: Matei Iagher, matei.iagher.10@ucl.ac.uk

Deathbed Visions in the Journal ‘History of Psychiatry’


On a recent article published in History of Psychiatry by historian of psychical research Carlos Alvarado.

For the original article, see http://hpy.sagepub.com/content/25/2/237.abstract.

Originally posted on Parapsychology:

Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Rhine Research Center

History of Psychiatry December 2013My last published paper just appeared in History of Psychiatry, a journal published by Sage: “Classic Text No. 98 ‘Visions of the Dying’, by James H Hyslop (1907)” (History of Psychiatry, 2014, 25, 237–252; for a PDF reprint write to me at: carlos@theazire.org). It is a reprint of a 1907 paper  written by American philosopher and psychical researcher James H. Hyslop  (1854-1920) about deathbed visions. The paper appeared in a section of the journal devoted to texts from the past.

James H. Hyslop

James H. Hyslop


Deathbed visions have been of interest to psychical researchers and others since the nineteenth century. This Classic Text presents a reprint of an article on ‘Visions of the Dying’ published in 1907 in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research by philosopher and psychical researcher James H. Hyslop (1854–1920)…

View original 403 more words

Mesmerising Sounds: The Role of Music in Animal Magnetism

JamesKJames Kennaway, PhD, is a Historian of Medicine at Newcastle University. His book Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease is a study of the notion that music can cause illness, from eighteenth-century fears of over-stimulated nerves to the Nazi concept of ‘degenerate music’, concluding with a discussion of the use of music in the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and acoustic weapons of the ‘War on Terror’, as well as the current debate on music and the brain. He has published widely on music and medicine and related topics. Before starting at Newcastle, he held positions at Oxford, Stanford, Vienna and Durham. Email: jgkennaway@yahoo.com. Follow James on Twitter.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), the ‘discoverer’ of Animal Magnetism, pioneer of what would later be called hypnotism and occult charlatan, has long been acknowledged as a fascinatingly ambiguous figure, someone who is hard to fit into histories of respectable scientific progress. The keen interest in the medical powers that he and his followers showed in music reflects his ambiguous status. The view of music that Mesmerists put forward varied a great deal, but in general they mixed up mystical correspondences and the ancient tradition of the Harmony of the Spheres with strikingly up-to-date analogies with electricity. Mesmer himself regarded both animal magnetism and music as matters of ‘sympathetic vibration’, and as his 1779 Mémoire sur la découverte du magnétisme animal argued, animal magnetism could be communicated, propagated, and reinforced by sounds. He explicitly stated that music could improve health in the context of mesmeric treatment, and also that musicians who were gifted with strong magnetic powers could over-stimulate the nervous systems of listeners and cause illness.

Music also clearly played a remarkable role in the practice of Animal Magnetism.It is well documented that pianos, violins and harps, and especially the glass harmonica featured prominently in Mesmer’s treatments and those of his followers. Several contemporary commentators such as Augustin Durand in his 1819 Dissertation sur l’Influence que peut exercer sur l’homme la Musique consideree dans ses rapports avec la Medicine and Johann Peter Schneider in his Medizinischer Gebrauch der Musik of 1835 suspected that what looked like miraculous cures caused by Mesmerism were in fact due to the power of music.The image below depicts a typical Parisian scene, with Mesmerised patients singing and playing the harpsichord. This fashion for musical Mesmerism continued for decades. For instance, years later Franz Schubert seems to have played some of his piano music to aid mesmeric treatment in Vienna.

Franz Anton Mesmer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Franz Anton Mesmer. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mesmer is perhaps best known to music history because of his friendship with the Mozart family in the late 1760s. Indeed, some sources claim that Wolfgang Mozart’s first opera Bastien und Bastienne was performed in Mesmer’s own garden in the Landstrasse district of Vienna. Later, Cosi fan tutte, the 1790 opera that Mozart wrote based on a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, would contain an elaborate satire on Animal Magnetism. In the final scene of Act One, the servant Despina, disguised as a quack doctor claiming to be able to produce a miracle cure for love-sickness using a magnet. Mesmer’s links to the Viennese music world went back to his treatment of the 18-year-old Maria Theresa Paradis, a musician talented enough to be patronised by Maria Theresa who had been blind since the age of three. He seems to have caused some improvement to her sight, but at the cost of her nerves and her piano techniques.

Much of the interest of Mesmerists in music related to the glass harmonica (or armonica). This instrument, which works on the same principle as wine glasses rubbed with a wet finger, was developed by Benjamin Franklin in the 1761, and remained in vogue until the early nineteenth century. An account of Mesmer’s own skills on the instrument comes to us for no less a source than a letter from Leopold Mozart to his son Wolfgang from 1773.

‘Herr von Mesmer, at whose house we lunched on Monday, played to us on Miss Davies’s harmonica or glass instrument and played very well. It cost him 50 ducats and it is very beautifully made… Wolfgang too has played upon it. How I should like to have one’.

Looking back many years later, the poet, physician and Mesmerist Justinus Kerner’s memoirs of Mesmer recounted hearing the ‘music of the spheres’ when Mesmer improvised on the instrument. In fact, the association of the instrument with Mesmerism was one reason why it quickly went out of fashion. Another was that it was widely believed to be seriously dangerous. The Miss Davies referred to in the letter is one of the two Welsh sisters who became famous for playing the instrument in the 1770s, whose retirement was blamed on the nervous strain of the music. When the famous Austrian harmonica player Marianne Kirchgessner, for whom Wolfgang Mozart wrote two pieces (K. 617), died in 1808, her death was laid at the door of instrument’s power.

The fears of music in the context of the glass harmonica and Mesmerism often had a clear sexual subtext. The Swiss Mesmerists Jacob Christoph Scherb and Johann H. Rahn’s published correspondence of 1787 on the topic of Animal Magnetism implicitly compares it to both sex and music. ‘Especially remarkable are the examples of music and love. Here one sees how instruments can set the nerves, the soul and the passions in motion: this is particularly true of the glass harmonica’. Already in 1784 the French Royal Commission implicitly compared mesmeric crisis to orgasm, noting that, ‘Women are always magnetized by men…the last stage, which terminates the sweetest emotions, is often a convulsion’. Decades of warnings and satires followed. The Scottish society physician James Makittrick Adair made a handwritten note in his copy of his own Essay on a Non-Descript, or Newly Invented Disease; Its Nature, Causes, and Means of Relief, with Some very Important Observations on the Powerful and most Surprizing Effects of Animal Magnetism that read, ‘Not many months ago a certain Baronet detected his Lady’s magnetizing Doctor in the act of administering to her Ladyship in a mode not strictly professional’. The magnetiseur ‘made his escape from the house, followed by the enraged Baronet, whom he outstripped in the race and left the cuckold to have recourse to legal vengeance’.

Mesmeric therapy. A group of mesmerised French patients Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mesmeric therapy. A group of mesmerised French patients
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Music continued to have an important role in the more self-consciously occult Mesmerism. This was in a sense a continuation of a long-standing Humanist debate about why the remarkable powers ascribed to music in Antiquity had apparently disappeared from the modern world. The solution to the mystery was, they argued, that miraculous effects could be found, if you looked hard enough and employed mesmeric powers. The Mesmerist journals and pamphlets of the early nineteenth century offer countless examples of musical hallucinations experienced by mesmerized patients, mesmeric cures achieved with the aid of music and tales of tone-deaf patients developing miraculous musical talents while in a magnetic sleep. For example, the Copenhagen Mesmerist Joachim Dietrich Brandis, Über psychische Heilmittel und Magnetismus from 1818 reported a case of a nun having fits when she heard music. In 1841 Friedrich Wieeck recorded strange mesmeric events in which an imaginative young girl simply called Wilhelmine Auguste K. suddenly became musically talented and able to play back melodies she had heard and harmonise when in a mesmeric trance. Similarly, George Baldwin, British Consul-general in Egypt, gave an account of a kitchen boy who improvised an Italian poem when magnetised by the sound of a harp.

Mesmeric therapy.Anton Mesmer holding a wand. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Mesmeric therapy.Anton Mesmer holding a wand. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Further examples include Johann Ulrich Wirth’s 1836 Theorie des Somnabulismus oder des thierischen Magnetismus, which provides just one of many instances of magnetized people having musical hallucinations. The German Mesmerist journal Archiv für den thierischen Magnetismus published many accounts of bizarre interactions of music and mesmeric trances. In 1817 Dr Nick gave an account of hymns sung when a magnetic trance. The following year the Dutchman G.G. van Ghert described how music caused spasms in a Mesmerised clairvoyant boy. Dr Spiritus of Solingen described a mesmerised woman was miraculously able to play to the piano despite having no ear when awake. Dr Kretschmar mentioned a beneficial spasmodic sweating cure effected by piano and guitar. And Georg Kieser in his 1822 System des Tellurismus oder thierischen Magnetismus. Ein Handbuch fuer Naturforscher und Aerzte argued that minor chords, along with moonlight, garlic, incense and mirrors, were good for increasing the power of Animal Magnetism.

The idea of music as a mesmeric force proved highly influential well beyond Mesmerist circles. The historian Alison Winter has pointed to the profound similarities between depictions of the new star conductors of the nineteenth century and Mesmerists. The French composer and critic Hector Berlioz was very fond of metaphors relating to Animal Magnetism, and wrote appreciatively about its positive effects on his own health. A later cartoon went as far as to portray a mesmeric struggle between Berlioz and Richard Wagner. Animal Magnetism was also a common theme in the music criticism of the German poet Heinrich Heine. For instance, he described the music of Franz Liszt as a matter of ‘magnetism’ to be explained by ‘pathology’.

7760.dd.4 (3), Pl.XX

It is striking that music became much less significant part of discussions of trance states after people like James Braid attempted to create a modern science of hypnosis by ditching much of the perceived occult aspects in the 1840s. In this striving for scientific and social respectability, the use of music was too associated with the harmony of the spheres and Naturphilosophie metaphors about unseen harmonic fluids. Nevertheless, fears that music had powers to cause pathological trance states and hypnotise listeners continued to be a recurring theme in discussions on the topic. For example, in the experiments conducted at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s, Jean-Martin Charcot and his colleagues banged gongs and sang lullabies in the belief that music could trigger catatonic states among their female hysterical patients. In the Cold War century, the idea that music could ‘brainwash’ listeners became widespread. Likewise, during the 1980s’ ‘Satanic Panic’ the theory was common that backward message hidden in Heavy Metal songs could hypnotise fans and lead to murder or suicide. Contemporary media reports, like those relating to so-called i-dosing, continue to raise such fears. It seems in fact that our own day, more than the era of Mesmer, is the Golden Age of mesmeric music.

© James Kennaway


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