The major attempt to synthesize the great mass of data which had been gathered by the SPR was undertaken by Frederick Myers and published in 1903 after his death in a work called The Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. Myers was widely read in all the fields of knowledge of his day. His work is a testimony to his wide-reaching and poetical mind and his deep interest in the work of the psychoanalysts. He was, in fact, the first writer to introduce the works of Freud to the British public, in 1893.
His book is still regarded by many as the most important single work in the history of psychical research. Even those who do not accept his hypothesis of the survival of the soul are indebted to his explorations of the unconscious and subliminal regions of the personality.
In 1882, after several years of inquiry and discussion, Myers took the lead among a small band of explorers (including the Sidgwicks and Shadworth Hodgson, Edmund Gurney, and Frank Podmore) who founded the Society for Psychical Research. His proficiency in the neo-hermeneutic jargon evolved by the society excited the admiration of all who frequented the psychical meetings in Westminster town hall. He contributed greatly to the coherence of the society by steering a mid-course between extremes (the extreme scepticism on the one hand, and the enthusiastic spiritualists on the other), and by sifting and revising the cumbrous mass of Proceedings, the chief concrete results being the two volumes of Phantasms of the Living (1886).
Myers maintained that the human personality was composed of two active coherent streams of thoughts and feelings. Those lying above the ordinary threshold of consciousness were considered supraliminal while those that remain submerged beneath consciousness are subliminal. The evidence for the existence of this subliminal self derives from such phenomena as automatic writing, multiple personalities, dreams, and hypnosis. These phenomena all expose deeper layers of the personality that normally remain unseen. In many cases the deeper layers seem autonomous and independent of the supraliminal self. For example, certain memories are uncovered through hypnosis and dreams which are normally inaccessible to the conscious mind. Or in the case of certain people of genius, complete works of art will emerge from dreams. Automatic writers can sometimes maintain two conversations at once, each unaware of the other one.
Myers examined all of these phenomena carefully and felt that they were part of a continuum ranging from unusual personality manifestations to telepathic communications, traveling clairvoyance, possession by spirits, and actual survival of the subliminal layers of personality after the death of the body. He felt each experience in this spectrum was integrally related to the other states of being. This insight was his deepest theoretical penetration into the roots of consciousness.
Myers began his analysis by looking at the ways in which the personality was known to disintegrate. Insistent ideas, obsessing thoughts and forgotten terrors lead up to hysterical neuroses in which the subliminal mind takes over certain body functions from the supraliminal. Gradually these maladies merge with cases of multiple personalities. He noted the subliminal personalities often represented an improvement over the normal conscious self, and suggested that:
As the hysteric stands in relation to ordinary men, so do we ordinary men stand in relation to a not impossible ideal of sanity and integration.
Thus from the disintegrated personality which reveals some of the negative aspects of the subliminal self, Myers moved naturally to look at people of genius, within whom, according to Myers, “some rivulet is drawn into supraliminal life from the undercurrent stream.” He discussed mathematical prodigies and musicians whose works spring fully formed into their consciousness. Of particular interest was Robert Louis Stevenson who deliberately used his dream life in order to experiment with different dramatizations of his stories.
Not mentioned by Myers, but certainly applicable here, would be the incredible inventions which entered the minds of Thomas Edison (himself a spiritualist) and Nicola Tesla, whose genius led him to develop alternating current and many modern electrical appliances. Myers did cite the poet Wordsworth as being particularly sensitive to this aspect of the creative process, which he described in “The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind:”
That awful power rose from the mind’s abyss,
Like an unfathomed vapor that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say
“I recognize thy glory;” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode.
In addition to people of genius, Myers included saintly men and women whose lives have absorbed “strength and grace from an accessible and inexhaustible source.”
From neurosis, genius and sainthood Myers moved to a state of being all individuals experience — sleep, which he describes as the abeyance of the supraliminal life and the liberation of the subliminal. The powers of visualization, for instance, are heightened during the hypnogogic state as one passes into sleep and in the hypnopompic state as the dream lingers into waking consciousness. Myers also discerned the heightened powers of memory and reason that occur in some dreams, and further cases of clairvoyance and telepathy in dreams. And he cited cases of what seem to be “psychical invasions” in dreams by spirits of both living and departed persons. He concluded by suggesting that sleep is every person’s gate to the “spiritual world.”
Hypnosis was described as the experimental exploration of the sleep phase of human personality. The unusual phenomena that occur in hypnosis were ascribed to the power of the subliminal self that is appealed to in such states. The subliminal self appears to enjoy greater control over the body than the supraliminal. Myers also pointed out the relationship of hypnosis to other phenomena such as faith healing, the miraculous cures at Lourdes, and the use of magical charms. He emphasized the experimental work done in telepathic hypnotic induction at a distance as well as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition observed in the hypnotized subject.
From hypnosis Myers moved to visual and auditory hallucinations psychical researchers have labelled sensory automatisms. When hearing a sound or seeing a color or form carries with it an association of images from another sense, this process is within the brain and is termed entencephalic. The stages leading from such percepts to ordinary vision include entoptic impressions due to stimuli from the optic nerve or eye and after-images which are formed in the retina. Stages leading further inward from entencephalic vision include memory images, dreams, images of the imagination and hallucinations. Many hallucinations cited were shown to contain information that was later verified. Other hallucinations clearly seemed to hold positive benefits for the personality and were not associated in any way with disease. Crystal gazing is a possible positive use of the mind’s ability to hallucinate. Other hallucinations include the phantasms of the living and the dead which we have already discussed.
From sensory automatisms Myers moved to motor automatisms — including automatic writing and speaking in tongues. Most of these phenomena can be attributed to the subliminal mind within the automatist’s own brain. Other cases lead one to suspect telepathy and possible communication from deceased spirits. There are cases of automatic writing, for example, in which the handwriting of a deceased person is alleged. A further development of this would be possession by another personality other than the subliminal self. However, it is very difficult to distinguish cases of spirit possession from cases of multiple personality. The personal identity of such a spirit must be clearly distinguished by its memory and its character. Yet this is a phenomena common to all religious traditions that has also been observed at least once, Myers felt, by SPR researchers. He noted that such possession did not appear to have an injurious effect on the medium.
It is on the basis of this continuum of experiences that Myers asserted the subliminal self is able to operate free from the brain in ways that modify both space and time as they appear to the supraliminal self. Just as the subliminal self is able to control physiological functions of the brain and body, as best exemplified through hypnotic experiments, so is it able to exert force on other physical objects accounting for levitations, materializations, spirit rapping, etc.