Society for Psychical Research

The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in 1882 by three dons of Trinity College, Cambridge. Sir William F. Barrett, a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, had been conducting experiments in the 1880s testing the notion of thought-transference. Barrett conceived of the idea of forming an organization of spiritualists, scientists, and scholars who would join forces in a dispassionate investigation of psychical phenomena. F.W.H. Myers, Edmund Gurney and Henry Sidgewick attended a conference in London that Barrett convened, and the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was created with Sidgewick, who had a reputation as an impartial scholar, accepting the first presidency. (including Frederic William Henry Myers) because of their interest in spiritualism.

The great American psychologist, William James, met Gurney in England in 1882 and immediately they struck up a close friendship. Later James also became a close friend of Myers. In 1884, Barrett toured the United States and succeeded in arousing the interest of American scholars in forming a similar society, which was established in 1885, and in which William James took an active role. The American Society for Psychical Research constituted the first organized effort for experimental psychological research in the United States. For a period of many years, before the ascendancy of the German experimental approach of Wilhelm Wundt, psychology in the United States was equated with the efforts of psychical research. 

The Society set up six working committees, each with a specific domain for exploration: 

  1. An examination of the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart from any generally recognized mode of perception.
  2. The study of hypnotism, and the forms of so-called mesmeric trance, with its alleged insensibility to pain; clairvoyance and other allied phenomena.
  3. A critical revision of Reichenbach’s researches with certain organizations called “sensitive,” and an inquiry whether such organizations possess any power of perception beyond a highly exalted sensibility of the recognized sensory organs.
  4. A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony, regarding apparitions at the moment of death, or otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be haunted.
  5. An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly called spiritualistic; with an attempt to discover their causes and general laws.
  6. The collection and collation of existing materials bearing on the history of these subjects. 

The Society is run by a President and a Council of twenty people. The organisation is divided between London and Cambridge, the London headquarters were initially at 14 Deans Yard.

Famous supporters of the society have included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Carl Jung, J.B. Rhine and Arthur Conan Doyle (who was shamefully duped on at least one occasion by tricksters).

The Society was especially active in the thirty years after it was founded, gaining fame for its debunking of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society in 1884.

Most initial members were spiritualists but there was a core of ‘professional’ investigators – the Sidgwick Group, headed by Henry Sidgwick, a formation pre-dating the SPR by eight years. The Society was wracked by internal strife, a large part of the membership (the Spiritists) leaving as early as 1887 in opposition to the approach taken by the so-called intellectuals. 

The nonprofit society located in New York City exists “to advance the understanding of phenomena alleged to be paranormal: telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and related occurrences that are not at present thought to be explicable in terms of physical, psychological and biological theories.” In the years following World War II, the society’s concern stayed focused on the need to integrate subjects such as paranormal phenomena with a wide range of behavioral and physical sciences. This has demanded major revisions of theoretical constructs. In addition to laboratories and offices, the ASPR is home to a unique library and archives. The resources include over 10,000 volumes, over 300 periodicals, and publications in over 14 languages. Rare books, case reports, letters and manuscripts, with some material dating back to the 18th century enhances the collection.

The ASPR has an active research department and houses a large library for the members use. Membership includes the ASPR Newsletter and The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, which are issued quarterly; information services and access to the research library and archives. In addition, the society provides special events including lectures, symposia and meetings held at the headquarters around the country. There are no special requirements for membership. The society welcomes members of the general public, as well as professionals, active researchers, and students. Membership does not imply acceptance of any particular phenomena.