An American History of Psychic Science
Published by: Stanford University Press
336 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503612778
- Published: August 2020
Séances, clairvoyance, and telepathy captivated public imagination in the United States from the 1850s well into the twentieth century. Though skeptics dismissed these experiences as delusions, a new kind of investigator emerged to seek the science behind such phenomena. With new technologies like the telegraph collapsing the boundaries of time and space, an explanation seemed within reach. As Americans took up psychical experiments in their homes, the boundaries of the mind began to waver. Common Phantoms brings these experiments back to life while modeling a new approach to the history of psychology and the mind sciences.
Drawing on previously untapped archives of participant-reported data, Alicia Puglionesi recounts how an eclectic group of investigators tried to capture the most elusive dimensions of human consciousness. A vast though flawed experiment in democratic science, psychical research gave participants valuable tools with which to study their experiences on their own terms. Academic psychology would ultimately disown this effort as both a scientific failure and a remnant of magical thinking, but its challenge to the limits of science, the mind, and the soul still reverberates today.
Provides an overview of the book's contents. Broadly, the book tracks the séances, deathbed communions, flashes of clairvoyance, and telepathic experiments that bound together the lives of ordinary Americans from the 1860s well into the twentieth century. Or rather, it follows Americans as they chased these strange phenomena across boundaries of gender, race, and mental illness. Psychical research, a field of study that emerged specifically to make sense of experiences that defied explanation, relied on a far-flung network of participants to collect its "wild facts." Most were not trained scientists, but all believed that a scientific approach was the best way to discover the true nature of the mind and, perhaps, the soul. This book tells the story of their failure to produce an orthodox science and explores the often neglected relational phenomena that they did successfully generate.
The American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) looked to the iconic field sciences of the nineteenth century for both methods and metaphors, organizational strategies, and epistemological foundations. This chapter considers the influence of meteorology and astronomy on psychical research. All three sciences faced a similar challenge: how to identify and fix fleeting phenomena encountered only in their indirect emanations. They all grappled with the problem of the "personal equation," a certain degree of inevitable perceptual variability among observers. By self-consciously adopting meteorology and astronomy as models, ASPR leaders not only asserted the feasibility of capturing the invisible, they also sought to counter the materialist orthodoxy of the lab. William James, especially, saw individual mental events as inextricable from the context in which they occurred—a context impossible to reproduce under artificially controlled conditions. It was no more realistic to study the mind in a laboratory than to study a tornado in a test tube.
The scientific study of dreams offers a window into nineteenth-century views about the unconscious and the nature of the mind. Competing models of mind proposed by psychologists and psychical researchers had serious implications for human relations, politics, and commerce. New communication channels like the telegraph facilitated the spread of ideas and impressions with unprecedented speed. Psychical research suggested that ideas could spread of their own accord, along mysterious wavelengths that eluded human control. This would badly undermine the notion of intellectual property, not to mention the "marketplace of ideas" where rational consumers deliberate over their commitments. Radical utopians saw a path to progress and uplift, while conservatives saw a volatile threat to the social order. Though some dismissed thought-transference and telepathy as preposterous, the strength of the anecdotal tradition around such events led serious psychologists and philosophers to speculate on their meaning.
Psychical researchers did not merely imitate the techniques of objectivity emerging in academic psychology, they helped to articulate new experimental practices for accessing the unconscious mind. This chapter explores the influence of psychical research on the development of drawing tasks as a psychometric and clinical tool. While psychical researchers used drawing to test the permeability of the mind, it was embraced in mainstream psychology as a way to bypass the patient's subjectivity and access the brain's inner workings. The widespread use of drawing in psychometrics, neuropsychology, and psychotherapy takes on a new significance when we understand its roots in psychical research: an experiment meant to join two minds in communion became a routine tool for examining solitary brains.
This chapter focuses on the role of intimacy in the psychical research career of Mary Craig Sinclair and her husband, the novelist Upton Sinclair. Mary Craig Sinclair's story encapsulates issues of gender, witnessing, and subjectivity. She began with studies of a stage medium, Count Ostoja, which reversed the Gothic script of Svengali-like psychic invasion by placing Sinclair in the position of superior mental power. After this scandalous episode, Sinclair retreated to the home and to the dyad of the married couple, where she began a long-running experiment as a recipient of her husband's telepathic messages. Returning to the normative gender dynamic that her initial research had disrupted, she was able to win the acceptance of leading psychical researchers and psychologists.
Psychical research was constantly negotiating the boundaries of sanity—sometimes in a communal and democratic way, sometimes in a clinical and authoritarian way. To pursue the real into a wilderness where perceptions could deceive, it had to standardize its sources within a certain range of reliability. The concept of neurasthenia allowed investigators to distinguish between subjects with compromised mental faculties and those with physiological troubles that did not negate their ability to testify. However, this differentiation had no fixed or clearly articulated criteria. Widespread anxiety over neurasthenia was chipping away at the very notion of mental normalcy, and radical experiments in Spiritualism, psychical research, and parapsychology further blurred the "vague boundary" between the well and the sick, scientists and subjects.
Histories of psychology have long framed psychical research as a necessary failure, a last gasp of magical thinking that had to be purified out in order for the mind sciences to become truly scientific. The book's conclusion reevaluates the failure narrative, arguing that psychical research gave participants valuable tools with which to probe their experiences on their own terms. In its successes as well as its struggles for legitimacy, psychical research illustrates the contextual nature of science and the permeability of the self. James and his many correspondents tried to stabilize a normative understanding of what it means to be an experiencer, an observer, and a citizen. At the same time, their intimate exposures transgressed the boundaries of the individual and called into question the unity of reality itself.
"A fresh perspective on the goals and failures, friendships and rivalries, methods and dreams of those who investigated the interconnected powers of the human mind." ~Pamela Klassen, University of Toronto, author of The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary's Journey on Indigenous Land
"Common Phantoms is sophisticated, engaging, and at times moving. This important book complements recent studies on psychical research but also breaks new ground on topics such as gender, mental illness, empiricism, and race." ~Christopher White, Vassar College, author of Other Worlds: Spirituality and the Search for Invisible Dimensions
"Common Phantoms offers an insightful, entertaining look at America's haunted history and Americans' hunger to understand the invisible forces that shape their lives. Alicia Puglionesi's artful examination of psychic science—its investigators and experiments, its skeptics and true believers—provides a fascinating view of the empirical study of spiritual pursuits." ~Peter Manseau, Smithsonian Curator of American Religious History and author of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost