The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was the first major organization for Scientific research into the paranormal, founded in London in 1882. The SPR arose in part in response to popular interest in Spiritualism, and in part from a desire to bring science and religion together with Scientific validation of Spiritualist phenomena. Early research topics included hypnosis and multiple personality, Extrasensory Perception (ESP), Poltergeists, apparitions and Mediumship.
The SPR had its origins in the interest in Spiritualist phenomena of Frederic W.H. Myers, Henry Sidgwick and Edmund Gurney, all fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1873, Myers became intrigued after attending a Séance conducted by the medium C. Williams, who purportedly materialized the huge and hairy hand of the spirit control John King. Sidgwick was skeptical but agreed to participate in investigations. Myers then organized an informal group of upper-crust individuals whose members included Gurney, Arthur Balfour and his sister Eleanor (see Balfour Family) and others.
Eleanor Balfour married Sidgwick in 1876. The group became known as the “Sidgwick group.” Myers, probably the most enthusiastic member about Mediumship, was usually the first to identify a Medium and initiate an investigation. Often, however, the investigations exposed fraud.
Meanwhile, serious research was being conducted by other societies, including the London Dialectical Society, formed in the late 1860s, and various Spiritualist organizations. Sir William Barrett advocated forming a new society in 1882. The Sidgwick group then joined with various Spiritualists to form the Society for Psychical Research. Sidgwick was elected the first president.
Six research committees were established to pursue thought-transference (later renamed telepathy by Myers); mesmerism, hypnotism, Clairvoyance and related phenomena; “sensitives”; Apparitions and Hauntings; physical phenomena associated with Spiritualistic mediums; and the collection and collation of data on all these subjects.
The Sidgwicks attracted eminent scientists and scholars to the SPR, among them Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, William James, and later Sigmund Freud, C.G. JUNG and others. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also joined. In 1885, the SPR helped found the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) in Boston.
The SPR’s investigations of Spiritualism, which failed to validate survival after death and exposed many fraudulent mediums, contributed to the decline of interest in physical mediumship in England. By 1887, many spiritualist members felt the SPR was not serving spiritualism well and departed.
The SPR’s attention turned to other phenomena suggestive of survival, such as apparitions and, after reports of Leonora Piper began to arrive from Boston, mental mediumship. By 1900, the SPR had produced 11,000 pages of reports and articles, not counting more substantial works such as Phantasms of the Living (1886), a massive study of apparitions by Gurney, Myers and Podmore, and Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death (1903), a comprehensive examination of evidence for survival after death by Myers.
By 1910, the key male members of the Sidgwick group were dead, and the Sidgwick era came to an end. However, after death they reportedly communicated through various mediums, providing some of the best evidence for survival in the Cross Correspondences.
Unlike the ASPR, whose staff historically has been involved in research, the SPR has always left research to its members. In the 1940s, these members, like U.S. parapsychologists, began to devote more attention to laboratory experiments, though to a lesser degree.
SPR members today are more active than U.S. parapsychologists in conducting field investigations, such as of Poltergeists and Apparitions.
The SPR defines its current spheres of interest as
• the reality and nature of all forms of paranormal action, including PK, poltergeist phenomena, teleportation and human Levitation.
• altered states of consciousness in connection with hypnotic trance, dreaming, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and sensory deprivation, as well as the paranormal effects that appear to be associated with them.
• phenomena associated with psychic sensitivity or mediumship, such as automatic writing, alleged spirit communication and physical manifestations.
• evidence suggesting survival after death and evidence suggesting Reincarnation.
• other relevant phenomena that appear, prima facie, to contravene accepted Scientific principles.
• social and psychological aspects of such phenomena, within and across cultural boundaries.
• development of new conceptual models and new ways of thinking concerning the application of accepted Scientific theories to the findings of psychical research. Of particular interest is the subject of time.
Research articles are published in the SPR’s Journal and Proceedings, while informal articles have since 1995 appeared in a glossy-covered magazine called Paranormal Review. The SPR maintains a library, although its older books and archives have been moved to Trinity College, Cambridge.
- Douglas, Alfred. Extrasensory Powers: A Century of Psychical Research. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1976.
- Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
- Haynes, Renee. The Society for Psychical Research: 1882–1982, A History. London: Macdonald & Co., 1982.
- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.