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

Another of my articles was recently posted in the Psi Encyclopedia. Its title is Mediumship and Pathology. Here is the abstract:

“From its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, mediumship was considered by some scientists and medical professionals to be a pathological phenomenon, explicable in terms of nervous and psychological disturbance. Others viewed the paranormal elements of mediumship as genuine while holding an underlying pathology to be the cause. This article describes a range of such views held during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Most of these ideas are not widely supported today.

As seen in the abstract, I focused my discussion of two groups: those who saw mediumship as pathology, with no veridical manifestations, and those who conceptualizaed it as paranormal, but also pathological.

The first group included individuals such as Philibert Burlet, William Hammond, Frederic R. Marvin, Pierre Janet, and Joseph Lévy-Valensy.

American physician Frederic R. Marvin wrote about mediumship in his The Philosophy of Spiritualism and the Pathology and Treatment of Mediomania (1874).  In this short book Marvin wrote: “Like other disorders mediomania is a member of a family from which it is not easily alienated. Hysteria, chorea, utromania, and mediomania are all in one group, and though not always attended by the same causes they are very closely related.”

Image result for marvin the philosophy spiritualism

Reflecting 19th century ideas of uterine pathology, Marvin stated: “Tilt the organ a little forward — introvert it, and immediately the patient forsakes her home, embraces some strange and ultra ism — Mormonism, Mesmerism, Fourierism, Socialism, oftener Spiritualism. She becomes possessed by the idea that she has some startling mission in the world.”

I wrote about the French clinician Pierre Janet: “For Janet, most mediums were victims of a nervous crisis, ‘neuropaths, when they are not obvious hysterics’. He wrote: ‘The movement of tables begins only when women or children, that is to say, people prone to nervous accidents [symptoms] put their hands… around a table’. Mediumship was related to a pathological state that could eventually become hysterical, although Janet held mediumship to be a symptom rather than a cause.” Janet stated these ideas in his classic work L’Automatisme Psychologique (1889).

Pierre Janet 5

Pierre Janet

Janet L'Automatisme Psychologique 1889

Interestingly, there were also believers in mediumship, particularly physical mediumship, who believed that real phenomena and pathology coexisted, and were linked. Examples include Francis Gerry Fairfield, Cesare Lombroso, and Enrico Morselli.

I wrote about Fairfield: “Although he had no medical training, his observations of mediums led him to believe that psychic phenomena were related to nervous system lesions . . . and that these lesions developed ‘a peculiar sensory and motor aura’ (atmosphere), which, entering into ‘intimate molecular relations and contact with surrounding objects’ led to phenomena such as clairvoyance, table-tipping, rappings, and the like . . . Fairfield believed that this aura related to disorders of the nervous system.”

Fairfield Ten Years

“In his 1908 book Psicologia e ‘Spiritismo,’ Morselli . . . saw Palladino, and all mediums, as victims of disease, which he termed a metahysterical condition’ . . . Mediums, he believed, ‘if not seriously impaired in their physio-psychic constitution, are always, in some way, affected during the exercise of their faculty by a functional disorder of the nervous system.’ ”

Enrico Morselli 4

Enrico Morselli

Enrico Morselli Psicologia e Spiritismo

The latter group of theoreticians represent ideas that deserve more historical exploration. A case in point is the work of Lombroso.

In the article I mention some critiques of these ideas and point point that recent research has not supported those views. I also present a bibliography of historical studies, such as:

Alvarado, C.S., & Biondi, M. (2017). Classic Text No. 110: Cesare Lombroso on mediumship and pathology. History of Psychiatry, 28, 225–241; Alvarado, C.S., & Zingrone, N.L. (2012). Classic Text No. 90: ‘The Pathology and Treatment of Mediomania’, by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1874). History of Psychiatry, 23, 229–244; Brancaccio, M.T. (2014). Enrico Morselli’s Psychology and ‘Spiritism’: Psychiatry, psychology and psychical research in Italy in the decades around 1900. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 48, 75–84; Le Maléfan, P. (1999). Folie et Spiritisme: Histoire du discourse psychopathologique sur la pratique du Spiritisme, ses abords et aes avatars (18501950). Paris: L’Hartmattan; Moreira-Almeida A., Almeida, A. A. S., & Lotufo Neto, F. (2005). History of spiritist madness in Brazil. History of Psychiatry, 16, 5–25; and Owen, A. (1990). The darkened room: Women, power and Spiritualism in late Victorian England. Philadel­phia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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