Carlos S. Alvarado, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
Historically few topics have been so important for the study of psychic phenomena as mediumship (both mental and physical). Spiritualism was spread mainly through the performances of early mediums who fostered both belief and skepticism in such phenomena as spirit communications and materializations. In addition, the communications produced by mediums presented teachings about life after death and other topics that provided the philosophical background for the movement. An example of this is the importance of such teachings in French Spiritism.
Similarly, mediumship contributed to psychical research in various ways. The most obvious contribution is that the phenomenon provided a topic of study. Many of the efforts of early psychical researchers were focused on mental and physical mediums to the point that Charles Richet wrote, exaggerating the issue, “there is no metapsychics without a medium” (Traité de Métapsychique, Paris: Félix Alcan, 1922, p. 38).
More than any other phenomena the performances of mediums provided an opportunity to study a recurrent form of psychic phenomena that allowed for repeated observations and, consequently, the imposition of controls such as in the case of the investigations of medium D.D. Home by William Crookes. These, and many later research efforts—the work of members of the Society for Psychical with medium Leonora E. Piper being another example—contributed to the development of psychical research as an organized field.
Repeated studies with mediums allowed psychical researchers to develop a variety of methods. In addition to controls put in place to guard against such problems as fraud and sensory cues, mediumship provided the opportunity for the use of verbatim recording of mediumistic mentation, and for the development of statistical techniques to assess for chance, such as those used by H.F. Saltmarsh with Mrs. Warren Elliot (see “Report on the Investigation of Some Sittings with Mrs. Warren Elliott.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1929, 39, 47-184). In addition, investigations with physical mediums such as D.D. Home and Eusapia Palladino stimulated the development of instrumental studies in psychical research.
But mediumship was also important for the development of conceptual issues, among them the question of survival of bodily death, and of ideas about the subconscious mind and dissociation, as can be seen in Pierre Janet’s L’Automatisme Psychologique (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1889). He believed that mediumship was similar to hypnotic states and hysteria in that it illustrated the “disaggregation of personal perception and . . . the formation of several personalities that are both successive and simultaneously developed” (p. 413).
Like hysteria, hypnosis, and other phenomena influential in nineteenth-century psychology and psychiatry, mediumship was more than a mere curiosity. By focusing research and theoretical interests mediumship was instrumental in advancing psychical research—and to some extent dynamic psychology and psychiatry—both conceptually and methodologically.
For further reading and bibliography see my articles:
(2003). The concept of survival of bodily death and the development of parapsychology. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 67, 65-95.
(2013). Mediumship and psychical research. In C. Moreman (Ed.), The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World (Vol. 2, pp. 127-144). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
*This appeared before as: The importance of mediumship research. Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, 2(1), 22-23.