An interesting book by Hornell Hart




Hart's synthesis

In 1959 Hornell Hart (1888-1967) published The Enigma of Survival, a text in which he examined the evidence for and against the survival hypothesis. After graduating at Iowa University in 1921, Hart was professor of sociology at Duke University (North Carolina) for twenty years. During this time he collaborated with Joseph B. Rhine, whose activity in the field of psychical research was carried out at the same University, and actively participated in the board of directors of the Journal of Parapsychology. He wrote some books and many articles on important topics about sociology, psychology and parapsychology. He coined the term super-ESP (or super-psi) to indicate a set of extraordinary faculties attributed to human mind in order to explain paranormal phenomena, so to avoid to have to resort to the hypothesis of spirit survival.  

In the first part of his book, examining the extensive documentation on mediumistic séances of previous decades, Hart focuses in particular on the research carried out for over 30 years by Charles Drayton Thomas with the famous English medium Gladys Osborne Leonard (1882-1968). Drayton Thomas (1868-1953), a minister of the English Methodist Church, devoted most of his life to systematic studies and rigorously conducted surveys on survival. On February 3rd, 1917 he anonymously had his first sitting with the medium Osborne Leonard, through which Sir Oliver Lodge believed to have received irrefutable evidence of the identity of his son Raymond who died in the war, as reported in his book Raymond or Life and Death. Charles Drayton Thomas's father died in 1903, and his sister Etta – who had shared Charles' interest in psychical research – died in 1920 at the age of 46. In 1922 Drayton Thomas began to publish a series of articles and some books in which he presented the many probative evidence relating to the identity of the spirits of his father, his sister and some of his deceased friends, who manifested themselves during the sittings with Leonard. He kept detailed and accurate written records of these sittings, which he then made available to interested researchers, and also managed to record on a gramophone some communications – coming from his father's entity – that he made then heard to a committee of SPR members. The medium's controls themselves conceived and proposed a series of experiments and tests to verify whether the information received actually came from disembodied entities or could be attributed to telepathy between the medium and the sitters. For the scientific merit of his research, Drayton Thomas was elected a member of the SPR Council, of which he was a member for 19 years.   

Drayton Thomas's investigation on survival

Drayton Thomas was convinced that human personality survives the death of the body, and believed that he had found enough evidence to justify his opinion. By survival he meant a continuity of memory, character and fundamental interests of the human personality of the deceased, and believed that their personality retained vivid and detailed memories of their earthly life. Through the most gifted mediums, these entities could converse and collaborate with living people, while remaining in a separate dimension from the earthly one. According to Drayton Thomas, during the séances there was a clear perception of the presence of the etheric body of the entities in a well defined physical space, not far from the medium, while Feda, Leonard's control spirit, spoke and reported their thoughts, telepathically communicating with the spirits. From time to time, however, the entities spoke directly, in a whisper or aloud, and then their words or phrases could be heard distinctly as coming from where they were. Dryton Thomas carefully investigated the phenomenon of «direct voice», and reported that the tone of the voice and the expressive modalities of the communicating entities corresponded to those they had in life, whether they manifested themselves directly or spoke through the medium's body. Some of the messages of the most important entities, including Thomas's father and sister, consisted of predictions relating to future events of which neither the medium nor any of the sitters could have any certainty, but not even a vague idea, at the moment when the prediction was revealed, as a confirmation of the fact that the entities had much more advanced information and knowledge than those accessible with our normal human resources. In addition, Dryton Thomas carried out a great deal of verbal association experiments, citations of books and articles, and proxy sittings (sessions during which the questions and requests presented to the entities by one of the sitters were written by a third absent person, often unknown to the sitter himself, and the answers obtained were then sent to this third person for verification), in order to confirm without any doubt the identity of the entities and to exclude any form of telepathy between sitters and medium.   

The limits of the super-ESP theory

In the face of these important evidence obtained by Dryton Thomas, Hart points out the presence – among the communicating entities – of fictitious characters, often in the role of control spirits, such as Feda for the medium Osborne Leonard or Phinuit in the case of Leonora Piper, or of characters partly created by the sitters, like that John Ferguson we have referred to in the experiments conducted by Samuel G. Soal. The author of the book then proceeds to an assessment of the super-ESP theory, considered plausible (among others) by Professor Dodds (1893-1979) and Gardner Murphy (1895-1979), according to which the dramatizing power of unconscious faculties of the human mind is able, under certain circumstances, to make use of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and retrocognition in a practically unlimited manner, overcoming any form of control. As early as 1923 Charles Richet had stated that, rather than accepting survival, he preferred to hypothesize an extreme perfection of transcendental cognitions, grouped around imaginary centers represented by fictitious characters of communicating entities. However, this conception, inspired by a sort of omniscient telepathy, seemed unsustainable to many researchers: for example, Saltmarsh, in 1931, wondered with what instruments the medium's mind could connect with the hidden, or unknown, source of information, if this information was not attributable to any identifiable person: it was like looking for the classic needle in the haystack!    

Professor Dodds and the power of telepathy

Eric Robertson Dodds was born in Banbridge, Down County, from teacher parents: at the age of 10 he moved with his mother to Dublin (his father had died three years earlier) and received his education at St. Andrew's College and Campbell College in Belfast. He was subsequently expelled from the institute because of his «vulgar, affected and persistent insolence». In 1912 he won a scholarship at Oxford University College, where he studied Literae Humaniores and was able to establish relationship with Aldous Huxley and T. S. Eliot. After graduating, in 1919 he was appointed professor in charge at Reading University, where he met and married A. E. Powell, a professor of English. From 1924 to 1936 he taught Greek at Birmingham University. During this period he edited several important translations and was able to devote himself also to his own poetic production. In 1936, by direct choice of the English Crown, he was appointed Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University. His lack of service in the First World War, his manifest nearness to the independence positions of the Irish Republic and to socialism, as well as his unusual field of research, did not initially make him welcome to his fellows. Throughout his life he cultivated interests in mysticism, metapsychics, and paranormal phenomena, eventually becoming president of the SPR in 1961. As he states in his biography Missing Persons (1977), from an early age he became passionate about «the wide range of phenomena that occupy the disputed territories between science and superstition». In the experimental field, he succeeded in obtaining significant telepathic responses from hypnotized subjects and carried out some mediumistic experiments with the Schneider brothers and Gladys Osborne Leonard.     

Dodds considered telepathy as a proven fact, but he did not believe in survival. He claimed that he did not deem necessary the hypothesis that the subconscious mind of the medium were to look for the subconscious mind of a subject in possession of the information, so to find the appropriate information to create the personification of an entity related to some of the sitters. Dodds' position can be considered acceptable only if referred to those cases in which the medium can draw on unconscious or removed material (read or heard): expanding the range of available information by including conscious or unconscious memories of the sitters, telepathically transferred to the medium's mind, telepathy alone could be sufficient to explain the personality of the communicating entities and the correctness of the information provided by the madium. But is it legitimate to extend the range from which information is taken to all the living minds, wherever they are, and even to the minds of deceased people? And how could we obtain information regarding future events that have yet to occur?  

Gardner Murphy's research

Gardner Murphy claimed not to consider as necessary the hypothesis of the psychic's mind wandering among billions of minds, in search of the one in possession of the required information, because in telepathy it is not the space that is relevant, but the topic of the requested information. With an actual analogy we could say that telepathy would behave like a search engine on the Internet: among the billions of available sites, each one having several pages with a vast amount of information, the search engine quickly finds those containing the wanted information. This information, however, must already be present, on one site or another.     

After taking his degree at Yale in 1916, Gardner Murphy specialized in psychology at Harvard and Columbia University. He was president of both the ASPR (1944) and the SPR (1949). He studied the American medium Leonora Piper, with whom he carried out long distance telepathy experiments. In 1925 he committed, along with Harvard psychologist William McDougall, to obtain that parapsychology would be recognized as a scientific discipline, while admitting the difficulties of performing experiments that were acceptable according to the scientific method. He taught psychology at Columbia University, Harvard and New York City College. He wrote several texts on personality psychology and on the potentials of human mind. In 1961 he published Challenge of Psychical  Research, which shows the results of his investigations on clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy and psychokinesis. To Murphy, the faculty to select the material relevant to the required information is well developed in high-level mediums. As a roof of this, he also mentions the ability of psychometric sensitives to get information related to the history of a given object (object reading).

Already in 1945 Murphy noted how paranormal phenomenology has been part of human experience for thousands of years, in the most diverse cultures, and that various forms of communicating entities manifested themselves both to people in a state of trance and to people under the influence of psychoactive substances. Often it was the cultural expectation of the sensitive subject or other people to determine the identification of a communicating entity. Thus phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition or psychokinesis could be ascribed to the action of forces operating beyond the consciousness and will of human beings involved in the process, but not for this reason they can be considered as proofs of survival. In fact, it was above all the culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that asked the mediums for messages coming from the dead: the socially recognized task of the medium was to provide the proof of survival. In short, the antispiritualist hypothesis (thus contrary to survival) attributes the communications received to the dramatizing tendency of an unconscious mind (in particular the medium's dissociated mind), which responds to suggestions coming from the sociocultural milieu in which the medium operates and from conscious or unconscious expectations of the sitters.       

Joseph B. Rhine too (1895-1980), in 1949 and in 1957 supported the super-psi hypothesis: his wife Louisa (1891-1983) had worked for 35 years on the issue of survival, without being able to reach a definitive solution that could be considered scientifically valid. It seems obvious to me that all the hypotheses based on super-psi are influenced by a psychic tuning that imposes a priori the exclusion of the possibility of the existence of spirits: they in fact force beyond any reasonable limits the medium's telepathic capacities, without offering any plausible explanation on the origin of the faculties through which the medium's unconscious mind could become aware of events not yet occurred

Other positions examined by Hart

Hart continues his examination of the critical positions on whether the communicating entities are actually the spirits of the dead, reporting the opinions of Henry H. Price (1899-1984, not to be confused with the better known Harry Price) and Frederik van Eeden about the unconscious dramatization made by mediums on the information telepathically received. But, as we have seen, the scholars convinced of survival – or at least of the existence of spirits as autonomous intelligences – have always pointed out how telepathy between medium and sitters is not sufficient to explain the most convincing communications obtained: and indeed super-psi goes well beyond ordinary telepathy, and yet fails to explain through which means the process of acquiring information occurs. In 1947 Drayton Thomas objected that, wanting to support the super-psi theory, one should postulate a sort of universal recording, an accumulated memory of mankind within which the medium's mind would be able to search and find the wanted information. According to him these hypotheses are so little evident and so little verifiable that it is more reasonable to accept what has been repeatedly stated by the entities themselves, that is: the messages are transmitted by disembodied entities that participate in the séance for this purpose.   


In 1938 the English mathematician and physicist George N. Tyrrell (1879-1952) coined the term telesthesia to indicate what today is called super-psi: «The faculty of telesthesia... seems to consist of a wide range of extrasensory powers of extraordinary universality and extent, which the medium evidently has». Te term telesthesia had been already used in 1911 by a communicating entity (through the medium Mrs. Willett) which identified itself as Gurney: «Oh – the entity said – telesthesia is an indisputable truth: it is the power to acquire knowledge directly, without the intervention of disincarnate minds». It is interesting to note how Tyrrell attributes to two different orientations of the mind, and therefore to two distinct psychic tunings, the statistical study and the qualitative investigation of paranormal phenomena. We could extend this mental dichotomy also to the supporters of survival and their opponents: none of the two sides can present irrefutable evidence of what they affirm.    

Apparitions and visions at death time

In Hart's book mant cases of apparitions reported in the literature are also mentioned: apparitions of the dead, of the dying, but also of the living. The well-known cases are highlighted of those who, on the verge of death, recognize – among the entities they can see – those whose death was not known to them, although in any case were actually dead. Many of these cases seem, at first glance, an evident proof of survival. However, even in this case some scholars questioned the probative value of the apparitions: among them Donald West, a British criminologist born in 1924, active researcher and critic investigator of paranormal phenomena, president of the SPR from 1963 to 1965 and author of Psychical Research Today, published in 1954. West, whose research work was always aimed at verifying and not uncritically accepting, as far as possible, the phenomena reported as paranormal, argued that the cases considered most probative were also the most remote and less verifiable, while the most recent and verifiable almost always appeared increasingly weak as for their probative value. However, even West admitted the existence of non-ordinary psychic faculties, operating at an unconscious level.     

Saltmarsh, in his 1931 article entitled «Is Proof of Survival Possible?» stated that death visions do not always refer to entities of deceased people, but sometimes living people are also perceived. Edmund Gurney, in his fundamental Phantasms of the Living (published in 1886 and written in collaboration with Myers and Podmore), proposed the theory that apparitions were nothing but hallucinations created by the subconscious mind of the person who sees them, on the basis of a suggestion – similar to those received by hypnotized subjects – transmitted telepathically by the visualized entity. Louisa Rhine, however, maintained that the hypothesis that the apparitions were due to a telepathic process induced by the dead on the living was not convincing, on the basis of the fact that in the case of visual or auditory hallucinations concerning a living person (agent), the latter in several cases had no conscious intention to appear. So, according to her, it is the percipient's intent to prevail, not  the agent's will.      

Among the reasons why Gardner Murphy too did not believe that apparitions could be considered as evidence of survival, are both the visions of our own double (a duplicate of the percipient's body) and those cocerning animals: in the latter case, even in the case of dead animals, the reasons are lacking that attribute survival only to human organisms, endowed with intelligence and moral, cognitive and relationship faculties superior to those of animals. In this respect, Murphy observed that, if telepathy was hypothesized, in those cases where dogs would communicate the event of their own death, telepathic powers should have been extended to them as well. It should also be noted that apparitions are almost always suitably dressed, often carrying objects (bags, walking sticks, etc.), or they are on horseback, in a carriage, in a car, and sometimes they are accompanied by animals. If those perceived are indeed the etheric bodies of deceased, do etheric bodies of clothes or objects exist as well? A plausible hypothesis is that apparitions are a kind of hologram, created through certain (unknown) psychic resources that escape the Ego's control and consciousness. Only a few of these apparitions (about one in four) succeed in speaking.    

the final scheme and Hart's conclusion

Hart then takes into account the counter-arguments and the evidence in favor of the survival hypothesis, citing inter alia a 1941 article by Bernard Abdy Collins (1880-1951), in which some of the objections advanced by Saltmarsh are discussed and countered. Reference is made, for instance, to cases of identical calligraphy (certified by experts) of the writings produced by the medium with the writings of the communicating entity when he/she was alive, or to the timbre and diction of direct voices, perfectly recognized by the sitters as those that the communicating entity had in life. Finally, in chapter 17, Hart summarizes and lists the considerations and evidence presented by the supporters of the super-psi theory, adversaries of survival, and the supporters of the latter. Hereafter is a summary of the pros and cons.    

Proofs of survival provided by mediumistic communications:

  • Information on future events of which no living person could be aware when they were communicated.
  • Cross correspondences, through which the meaning of communications, obtained through different mediums (very distant and not in contact with each other), could be obtained only when all messages were transmitted to another recipient, indicated by the entities but unknown to the mediums.

Proofs obtained through apparitions:

  • Characteristics of the entities' features, clothing, behavior, voice timbre and manner of expression substantially identical to those that the dead person had in a certain period of his/her life.
  • Affective and sentimental attachment shown by the entities towards persons they had loved in life.

Refusal of survival due to the following elements found in mediumistic communications:

  • Inaccurate, contradictory, inconclusive or false claims by the entities.
  • Creation of fictitious personalities, not attributable to any person actually lived, whose character is influenced by the psyche of the medium or some sitter.
  • Some communicating entities correspond to people who are still alive, but believed to be dead by some of the sitters.

Refusal of survival in relation to apparitions:

  • Apparitions can correspond to dead people but also to people who are still living.
  • Almost all apparitions are spontaneous events that can not be adequately studied and evaluated.
  • Many apparitions can be attributed to forms of hallucination. Those perceived by a plurality of subjects could be attributed to forms of collective hallucination (some apparitions, however, have also been photographed, therefore can not be considered as hallucinatory).

As for evidence of other kinds, such as NDEs, we have already seen how the supporters of survival find it plausible to hypothesize other instruments through which consciousness can continue to exist, channeling psychic tunings different from those of earthly life. The adversaries of survival argue instead that consciousness can only exist as an effect of brain activity, to which all the possible psychic tunings must therefore be traced back. This was the state of art of psychical research on the survival topic in the period when Hart wrote his book, and in the past fifty years since then no notable steps forward have been made. Our personal psychic orientation remains however decisive for the interpretation of the known facts. Hart concluded his book by observing that, since a shared certainty could not be reached, the probabilistic interpretation of the large number of cases was in favor of survival. Skepticism to the bitter end, besides not offering any experimental evidence to confirm hypotheses like super-psi, will never accept any conclusive proof of survival, precisely because it starts from the a priori premise that the brain is the only support of consciousness.     


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