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

My last paper just came out: “Mediumship, Psychical Research, Dissociation, and the Powers of the Subconscious Mind” (Journal of Parapsychology, 2014, 78, 98–114). It is an overview of ideas about the aforementioned topics from the old days of psychical research. Here is the abstract:

“Since the 19th century many psychiatrists and psychologists have considered mediumship to be related to the subconscious mind and to dissociative processes produced mainly by internal conventional processes of the medium’s mind. However, some psychologists and psychical researchers active between the last decades of the 19th century and the 1920s expressed a different view. Individuals such as Théodore Flournoy, Cesare Lombroso, Enrico Morselli, Frederic W. H. Myers, Julian Ochorowicz, Charles Richet, Eleanor Sidgwick, and Eduard von Hartmann, argued that some mediums combined dissociation with supernormal phenomena such as knowledge acquired without the use of the senses, and the production of physical effects seemingly beyond the normal bodily capabilities. Depending on the theorist, other issues such as pathology and discarnate agency were also part of the discussions. The supernormal was never accepted by science at large and today is rarely mentioned in the dissociation literature. But ideas related to the supernormal were part of this literature. A complete history of dissociation, and of the subconscious mind, should include consideration of this body of work.”

William Mackenzie

William Mackenzie

The article  has sections entitled: Mediumship in Context: Spiritualism, Psychical Research, and Psychiatry; The Influential Writings of Frederic W. H. Myers and Eduard Von Hartmann; Speculations on the Mediumship of Leonora E. Piper; Speculations on the Mediumship of Eusapia Palladino; and Further Speculations on Mediumship. I discuss in the article several theoreticians generally neglected in the English-language literature of mediumship such as Joseph Maxwell, Enrico Morselli, William Mackenzie, Julian Ochorowicz, René Sudre, and Eduard von Hartmann.

Julian Ochorowicz

Julian Ochorowicz

René Sudre

René Sudre

Leonora Piper

Leonora Piper

Many discussions centered on medium Leonora E. Piper. While some were survival-oriented, others were not. These included the speculations of English classical scholar and banker Walter Leaf, English educator Eleanor Sidgwick, and German philosopher Traugott Konstantin Oesterreich.

Leaf “argued that in the medium’s ‘abnormal state there is a quite exceptional power of reading the contents of the minds of sitters; but that this power is far from complete’ . . . The thought transference process suggested by Leaf was one related to sitters’ subconscious minds, that is, content not consciously recollected at the time of the séance.This gave the impression that a spirit was communicating. Sidgwick argued that telepathy could provide the ‘material necessary to successful personation’ . . . This assumed that a dissociative process (the trance and the personation accompanying it) could incorporate telepathic information.” “Oesterreich suggested that Mrs. Piper’s veridical communications involved ‘an elaboration by the creative imagination of Mrs. Piper’s telepathically-acquired knowledge and by her telepathic faculty working in conjunction with the minds of others’ . . . ”

Eleanor Sidgwick

Eleanor Sidgwick

Traugott Konstantin Oesterreich

Traugott Konstantin Oesterreich

Eusapia Palladino

Eusapia Palladino

Regarding Palladino I summarized the ideas of Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli, presented in his 1908 book Psicologia e “Spiritismo”: “According to Morselli . . . the low intellectual content of these effects [physical phenomena] was indicative of psychological disaggregation (or separation of mental processes) because the medium’s ‘inferior personality’ . . . manifested at a low intellectual level.” Morselli believed “that she could project a biopsychic force from her body, a force that could join with other forces coming from the other persons in the mediumistic circle . . . This force could be imprinted with the ‘oniric or subconscious thought of the medium’ . . . , which constituted the principle guiding telekinesis and shaping materializations. Morselli . . . believed that the subconscious thought and will of the medium directed the phenomena . . . However, their uniformity and repetitive nature suggested to him that Palladino had ‘fixed ideas,’ or delusional dominant ideas affecting both actions and thought. These ideas probably helped the production of the phenomena by her subconscious mind and also suggested hysteria . . .”

Morselli Psicologia

In conclusion, I wrote that “ideas of the supernormal as regards dissociation and the subconscious were not integrated into the psychology and psychiatry of the times discussed in this paper. Although most medical men held a closed model of the mind (and of dissociation) in which the phenomena were explained mostly by internal resources and a few external influences such as suggestion, few accepted a more open model of mind, such as the one some psychical researchers upheld based on powers that extend sensory and motor capacities beyond the confines of the body . . .” Furthermore, I argued that discussions of the functions of the subconscious mind “are incomplete without consideration of the psychical research perspective.”

“In the period discussed here, psychical researchers considered that the functions of the subconscious went beyond memory, pathology, creativity, and imagination. In the case of mediumship, psychical researchers extended current ideas about dissociation (in this case trance and personation) by adding the supernormal to the equation.”

“It is my hope that the material discussed in this paper will remind current students of mediumship of aspects of a past forgotten by many. Furthermore, I hope that my writings and those of others will influence the general historiography of psychiatry and psychology . . . Currently most of this work refers to the ‘closed’ model of the mind and of dissociation . . . But to limit historical analysis in this way produces an incomplete picture of the past, the details of which are ignored or dismissed by many historians as well as by psychiatrists and psychologists.”