Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

Another one of my articles was just published. This one is about nineteenth century ideas of mediumship, the unconscious mind, and dissociation. Here is the title and abstract:

Dissociation and the Unconscious Mind: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on Mediumship.

Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 537–596, 2020.


“There is a long history of discussions of mediumship as related to dissociation and the unconscious mind during the nineteenth century. After an overview of relevant ideas and observations from the mesmeric, hypnosis, and spiritualistic literatures, I focus on the writings of Jules Baillarger, Alfred Binet, Paul Blocq, Théodore Flournoy, Jules Héricourt, William James, Pierre Janet, Ambroise August Liébeault, Frederic W. H. Myers, Julian Ochorowicz, Charles Richet, Hippolyte Taine, Paul Tascher, and Edouard von Hartmann. While some of their ideas reduced mediumship solely to intra-psychic processes, others considered as well veridical phenomena. The speculations of these individuals, involving personation, and different memory states, were part of a general interest in the unconscious mind, and in automatisms, hysteria, and hypnosis during the period in question. Similar ideas continued into the twentieth century.”

I wrote in the introduction that much of what I discuss is not cited by current students of dissociation and mediumship. Consequently, I hope to make this material “more available, and to provide some historical context to current ideas on the subject with additional references . . . Readers should be aware that most of the discussions about the topic during the nineteenth century were attempts to reduce mediumship to psychological, physiological, and medical ideas. In addition, much of what I discuss as examples of dissociation was not seen as such by believers in the spiritual interpretation of mediumship.”

Before I summarize the ideas of the individuals mentioned in the abstract I present a general introduction  to nineteenth century observations of dissociation. This has sections about trances and secondary personalities, and about mediumship.

Mediumship Morgan

One of the individuals discussed, French historian and critic Hippolyte Taine, wrote that “spiritist manifestations themselves put us on the path of discovery, showing us the coexistence at the same time, in the same individual, of two thoughts, two wills, two different actions, one of which is conscious, the other of which he is unaware of and which he attributes to invisible beings. The human brain is then a theatre in which different plays are performed at the same time . . . [There is a] a doubling of the self, the simultaneous presence of two series of parallel and independent ideas, two centers of action . . . juxtaposed in the same brain, each with its own work and each with different work, one on stage and the other behind the scenes, the second as complete as the first, since, alone and out of sight of each other, they build ideas followed and linked with phrases and related sentences which the other has no part of.” (H. Taine, (1878). De l’intelligence [About intelligence] (Vol. 1, 3rd rev. ed.). Hachette, pp. 16-17).

Hippolyte Taine - Wikipedia
Hippolyte Taine

While some, such as Jules Baillarger, Alfred Binet, and Pierre Janet, did not discuss veridical aspects of mediumship, others did. The latter included Théodore Flournoy, William James, and Frederic W. H. Myers.

Alfred Binet | Biography & Contributions | Britannica
Alfred Binet
File:Pierre Janet Marie Felix.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Pierre Janet
William James | Life, Works, Influence, & Facts | Britannica
William James

I stated in the conclusion: “To a great extent discussions of nineteenth century mediumship in terms of dissociation, and the unconscious regions of the mind, were part of a common trend to reduce unusual phenomena to known concepts of medicine and psychology . . .” But there were different degrees of reductionism. Some, more consistent with the scientific establishment, only included dissociation (with manifestations such as changes of personality and state-specific memory), while others combined both dissociation and the supernormal.”

“Myers was an example of a student of mediumship who not only discussed dissociative aspects of mediums’ performances, but also believed there was evidence to accept that mediums produced veridical phenomena, such as information about sitters that could not be accounted for by conventional mechanisms. But he went beyond this. In his view the subliminal self-manifesting via dissociative means and other ways was the real self, and one that was not material, so it was the part that would survive bodily death . . . His ideas were controversial, not only for their emphasis on veridical cases, but because at the time many speculations about the unconscious emphasized pathological processes.”

Frederic William Henry Myers by William Clarke Wontner.jpg
Frederic W.H. Myers

Myers, however, was not typical, since most students of dissociation ignored the supernormal. “In fact this prejudice, a problem with which psychical researchers still have to contend with today, led to the rejection of work that had the potential of enlarging conceptions of dissociation.”

Although I emphasize the nineteenth century in the paper, in the conclusion I briefly present some example of twentieth century speculations. Among those interested in veridical mediumship I mention the writings of Théodore Flournoy, Traugott Konstantin Oesterreich, and Eleanor Sidgwick.

Traugott Konstantin Oesterreich
Tom Ruffles: Alice Johnson, Eric Dingwall, and their copy of Tertium Quid
Eleanor M. Sidgwick

I concluded: “We need to keep in mind that, in addition to dissociation, and the general workings of the unconscious mind, there are probably several other factors influencing mediumship . . . In the meantime, we would do well to remember that the ideas presented in this article belong to the various attempts—be they from psychical research, psychiatry, psychology, or Spiritualism—to explore the human mind empirically. For psychological science, ideas about mediumship were one more strand supporting the development of concepts about secondary mental states, what William James . . . referred to as the ‘hidden self.’ ”