Society for Psychical Research (1882-)
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in 1882 by a group of leading thinkers. The six initial areas of study were Thought-Transference, Mesmerism, Mediumship, Reichenbach Phenomena (Also known as Odic Force), Apparitions and Haunted Houses, and Séances. The stated aim of the society was 'to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated.' A Literary Committee was also established to study historical accounts of these phenomena.
Early members included psychologist Edmund Gurney, poet, classicist and philologist Frederic W.H. Myers (who coined the term 'telepathy'), philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick, physicist William Fletcher Barret and journalist Edmund Dawson Rogers.
Initially the SPR focussed on investigating, exposing, and reproducing fake psychic effects. Inspired by the scientific method, the SPR created a methodological and administrative system for the investigation of paranormal phenomena, and founded a journal, the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research which is published quarterly, and supplemented with occasional Proceedings. The Literary Committee of the society published Phantasams of the Living in 1886, one of the seminal works in the analysis of paranormal events.
In a series of publications at about this time the SPR revealed the fraudulent nature of many so-called mediums, and also organised fake séance's; where members would give sittings under an assumed name, and then illustrate afterwards to the sitters how they had been deceived and how various effects had been produced. This approach alienated some Spiritualist members of the Society, and after the exposure of the medium William Hope as a fraud, Society member Arthur Conan Doyle lead a mass resignation of eighty four members.
The SPR began to interpret the phenomena of mediumship in terms of psychokinesis and telepathy, rather than adhering to the Spiritualist belief that these effects were caused by the communication with the spirits of the deceased.
Over the years, several notable members of the Society for Psychical Research have expressed the opinion that there is no evidence for paranormal activity. Member Simeon Edmunds' 1966 book Spiritualism: A Critical Survey concluded that the majority of mediums investigated proved to be fraudulent. After 50 years of investigation, Tony Cornell concluded that almost all paranormal happenings can be explained by fraud, misidentification, pranks or subconscious products of the human mind. Cornell concluded that only twenty percent of the eight hundred cases he investigated were at all difficult to explain, and that only a handful were thoroughly inexplicable. Eric Dingwall resigned his membership and concluded 'After sixty years' experience and personal acquaintance with most of the leading parapsychologists of that period I do not think I could name half a dozen whom I would call objective students who honestly wished to discover the truth.' In 2001 Dr Susan Blackmore wrote an essay entitled 'Why I have given up', where she outlined her disillusionment with the field of psychical research. She concluded 'The recent resurgence of funding for parapsychology means there are several new labs and many new researchers at work. If psi does exist then one day one of them will find a way to demonstrate it and a theory to explain it. If that happens I shall be back like a shot, but until then, happily, I have given up.'
The Society continues undeterred. It is run by a president and a Council of twenty members and members of the public are eligible for membership. It has a headquarters in Kensington, and Cambridge University Library holds its extensive archives.
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